“Dreamland II” (season 6, episode 5; originally aired 12/6/1998)
In which Mulder and Michael McKean have still swapped bodies…
Wouldn’t you like to take another life for a spin, if only for a little while? Yeah, sure, most people are content to be themselves, and most people wouldn’t want to utterly change everything about themselves. But one of the chief appeals of fiction is that we get to take turns vicariously living through other people or animals or space aliens. We’re seeing the world through their eyes, and that’s a great thrill, even after several millennia of developing these techniques. There’s nothing quite like immersion, like getting so deep into a character’s head that you know everything about them and can more or less think like them. But that’s still a far cry from taking over someone else’s life and living it as your own. We all carry a little curiosity around about what it would be like to be someone else. Body-swap stories just push that to its limit (and usually involve parents and kids learning how hard it is to be each other, for some reason).
Beyond that, I have basically nothing to add to what Zack said about the first “Dreamland” last week. “Dreamland II” is a fairly unnecessary hour of television, and there’s no reason this logy two-parter couldn’t have become a much tighter one-hour episode. The best gags were all last week, the revelations made over the course of the two hours are minor, and the whole thing is basically an excuse to let Michael McKean and David Duchovny fuck around for a couple of episodes. Now, granted, there are worse reasons to make television, and both McKean and Duchovny are in fine form. But at some point, there needs to be something more if you’re going to spend this much time on novelty. Last week, the sheer fun of seeing these two actors goofing off was enough to carry an hour with some weak plotting. This week, the novelty’s worn thin.
This is not to say “Dreamland II” is without its pleasures. It’s fun to see the Fletcher marriage get repaired by this strange happening, and it’s poignant to think that neither Fletcher will remember what’s just happened. (Nora Dunn’s work as Mrs. Fletcher seemed a little thankless last week—just a way to show Mulder a life as a family man has its own kinds of terrors—but she does good work this week, as a woman driven to the end of her rope by an uncaring husband, then brought back once he realizes what a fool he’s been.) There are some solid comedy moments, particularly when Fletcher is hanging out around Mulder’s apartment. (I’ve always been partial to “Where does this guy sleep?” when he—and we—realize that no one has ever seen Mulder’s bedroom.) And it’s fun to see Mulder’s worst fears get confirmed, when he’s tossed into that holding cell that’s seemingly miles below the Earth. This guy always sees his evidence disappear into some warehouse somewhere; now, he is the evidence disappearing.
Yet there’s a fairly significant problem with “Dreamland,” and that’s that the episodes don’t tell us anything. I don’t just mean that they don’t tell us anything about the mythology, because that’s pretty much par for the course at this point in the show’s run. I mean that they don’t really tell us anything about the characters or about the show’s version of the United States government or about the culture built up around this version of the shadow military or… anything. The emotional climax hinges on the Fletcher marriage, and while it’s fine as these things go, it’s also an emotional climax predicated on getting us to really care about two people we’ve only just met and haven’t seen share significant scenes together before this point. The storytelling structure is designed so that we won’t lose anything in the course of having all of this reversed, and the more we realize that so much of this is just there to do weak gags about, say, elderly Native American women talking like hotshot fighter pilots, the more it starts to seem like weak sauce.
There’s perhaps no storytelling structure I hate more than the up-and-back, the storyline where we go on a journey, then end up right back where we started, with no changes in the status quo or no new knowledge about the world of the story. Television thrives on the up-and-back, to be honest, and most shows can’t exist without doing one or two episodes per season that take the characters on a journey they learn nothing from. The best shows—including this one, occasionally—turn that into a part of the joke. People think they learn things, but really, they’re just as clueless as they were at the start. “Dreamland,” however, forces a bunch of emotional resolutions and tries to get us to care about them, then immediately creates a scenario in which those scenes didn’t exist, so they can’t matter. There’s a way to make this poignant, but the episode doesn’t really bother. Scully finds the two coins fused together again in a desk drawer, and that’s that.
To make things even more disappointing, this episode is basically a much clumsier version of “Small Potatoes,” one of the best episodes the series ever did. Putting another man in the place of our hero to point out how strange it is that a guy who looks like this lives the way he does was done much better in that episode, as was the sense that this new guy would use his newfound status to try to hit on Scully. (Scully, seemingly aware something’s amiss this time, is having none of it. Okay, very little of it. That’s the difference between a show that had no interest in “shipping” and a show that was actively playing to that section of its audience.) The one interesting idea here is that Fletcher-as-Mulder would try to suck up to Kersh and make Mulder’s career that much better, but the episode doesn’t do very much with the idea at all. It’s just the usual puncturing of the Mulder-as-hero bubble, but it feels a little empty.
I’m perhaps being unduly harsh on this episode, since I very much enjoyed part one and found this episode at least fun to watch. But it’s hard not to think about it critically and not realize how little there is to hang onto in the whole two-parter. There’s a lot of rich comedic and dramatic potential in having Fox Mulder swap lives with a man who works in the one place he wants information about—only to realize that man has as little idea of what’s going on as he does. And I so often enjoy when the show takes the piss out of Mulder that I suspect that could have been a lot of fun, too (especially seeing him as Kersh’s toady). Yet the episode works so hard to make sure that none of this ultimately matters that it’s hard to care. It even gets the central idea of the body swap story—realizing your old life wasn’t so bad—mostly wrong because it gets so caught up in everything else. “Dreamland” isn’t a bad two-parter, but it’s a tremendously disappointing one, particularly in its climax. It’s not hard to wish this episode would swap with “Small Potatoes.” That one might have been fun to see again.
At least we got the mirror scene. That one was fun.
- It’s worth saying that Michael McKean is great fun as Morris Fletcher and as Fox Mulder. He’s giving one of the great X-Files guest turns in an underwritten role. His narration that opens this episode promises something the story can never deliver on.
- I would pay to see an entire series of Mulder and the figher pilot-in-Hopi woman driving around and investigating strange events.
- Another problem with these episodes: They don’t really give Scully anything to do. Sure, she gets to be the one to realize that the crazy story Fletcher called her about in the last episode was true, but otherwise, she’s relegated to the sidelines. That’s rarely fun.
- I will reiterate my desire for a spinoff series set behind the scenes in the Syndicate, in which we see all the work-a-day stiffs who don’t realize what they’re doing but wonder just why they have to live in the middle of nowhere and take care of all of these bees.
- Oh, your one revelation in these episodes: The military has no idea where the alien spacecraft are coming from. It just signs the papers when one is delivered.
“…Thirteen Years Later” (season 3, episode 5; originally aired 10/30/1998)
In which Frank Black stars in Scream…
From brief perusing of fan boards and other sites, I had come to learn one thing about this episode: It was supposed to be awful, one of the worst of the series, if not the worst. And just from reading descriptions of the episode, I could see why that would be the case. The episode strands Frank Black in a low-budget, TV version of Scream, then forces a cameo from the band Kiss at the end. Considering how poorly TV does with ripoffs of then-popular movies and with guest star cameos, there was every reason for me to suspect this one would be as awful as its reputation. Add onto this the fact that the third season has seemed directionless so far and that Klea Scott’s Agent Hollis still seems uninteresting, despite a whole episode dedicated to making us love her last week, and you’ve got a recipe for a major mess.
So I was surprised to find that I rather enjoyed “…Thirteen Years Later.” Yes, it’s sloppy. Yes, the cameo from KISS makes no sense. But the episode slowly deflates the show’s pomposity, and that’s always a good thing.
What I’m coming to realize about a lot of Millennium fans is that the show’s dark and dreary nature was what drew many of them to the series in the first season. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. We all watch TV for different reasons and get different things from the shows we love. So when a blatantly comedic episode like this one—and one that’s aping slasher movies, no less—comes along, those fans were always a little leery. In the case of one of the two Darin Morgan scripts, they were usually more amenable to what the show was doing, because Morgan was always smart about wedding his goofier conceits to something that could actually be an episode of the show he was writing for. This episode carries no confusion about what it’s trying to accomplish. This is simply a goofy riff on slasher movies that simultaneously makes fun of the show we’re watching for being so moody, dark, and pretentious. And if you really like the moody, dark, and pretentious, well, it’s not fun to be told what you’re watching is no good.
Here’s the thing, though: I generally think Millennium could use a sense of humor. That’s one of the key things separating the series from The X-Files, and it’s one of the key things keeping it from being as good as it could be. I’m not saying that the show needs to turn into a laugh-a-minute story about two goofballs solving the craziest crimes in the world. I’m not even saying that Frank Black needs to be someone different or more punctuated with levity. But the series’ tone in its first and third seasons (at least so far) is so unrelentingly grim—need I remind you of the wolf attracted to the scent of tears?—that it becomes unintentionally hilarious too often. I’m all for a show making a strong choice and committing to it, but everybody in every episode of this series in those two seasons has seemed like they live inside of a child’s diorama of misery. It’s a show about murder, yes, but not everybody within its world would constantly be struck by the dull sense that evil was all-pervasive and coming to suck humanity down into the bowels of Hell.
“…Thirteen Years Later” does something interesting in that it more or less lets Frank operate as Frank usually does, but it lets everybody around him operate as if he’s the crazy person. The central conceit of the episode is that a bunch of B-movie makers are creating a film based around some murders Frank solved 13 years ago, and it seems that one of them has lost it and started bumping off the members of the cast and crew. It comes out that he’s imitating old horror movies, and, thus, Hollis’ knowledge of horror films becomes the key to the case, as does Frank’s realization that the only way to make any sense of this is to treat it as if he and the others are stuck inside of a slasher movie. That brings everything right up to the edge of being Screamwithout actually being Scream, but the montage where Frank watches the movies with Hollis and diagnoses all of the killers is so fun that I don’t really care.
Michael Perry wrote the script for this one, and it’s not especially funny, but it has funny moments. (In particular, every time Frank says, “Or I’ll go insane… for the third time in my life,” it’s a hoot.) What I primarily like is the prevailing attitude that in encountering these Hollywood folks, Frank is encountering people he doesn’t really understand. Every time the episode goes in for showbiz or small town satire, it falls apart, because the satire of both elements is broad and over-obvious. But every time it starts to satirize Frank himself, by having the actor playing him in the movie do his own version of the Frank Black voice or by having everybody involved write off his concerns that murder is no “fun,” it comes to life. Lance Henriksen gets in on the fun by giving a dour performance he perfectly punctuates with the laugh lines he’s given, all without breaking the dourness. It’s a tough act to pull off, but he does a fine job.
The episode also makes me like Hollis quite a bit more. The idea that she’s a horror film freak who likes to read Borges while bathing is almost certainly going to disappear as soon as next week’s episode rolls around, but she feels more like an actual character here than someone who gets to follow Frank around so he has somebody to talk to. The conclusion with her hiding from the killer—who turns out to be the lead actor, who can (conveniently) impersonate anyone—is occasionally suspenseful in a way the show rarely is. It’s obvious she’s not going to die, but the whole sequence is fairly clever and makes good use of the geography of the adjoining hotel rooms, at least until the cheat of the killer being able to impersonate anyone, which should have been established earlier to make any sense whatsoever.
Don’t get me wrong. This episode has many, many flaws. The fact that it turns into a Kiss concert in the last act is a little disconcerting—even if Frank’s flashes featuring Kiss indicated that, yes, this episode was going to end with the Kiss concert the characters kept talking about. The satire, as mentioned, is fairly weak, and the actual plotting of the mystery doesn’t make much sense. The show tries to play this off as copying a slasher movie, where the plotting usually just turns into a maniac killing a bunch of people, but it seems unusually bitter about this, and that keeps the show from truly aping the genre it wishes to imitate.
But in the end, I can’t help but being impressed this episode comes as close as it does to what it wants to pull off. It’s very blatantly set up as a Halloween goof at the start, by having Frank tell a bunch of FBI trainees about the case that tested his sanity, and by the end, we realize it’s just the killer, impersonating Frank, talking to a bunch of fellow mental-hospital patients. The show has always posited that Frank isn’t so far from the people he pursues, and though this episode makes that point a too explicitly, it’s easier to take when it’s laced with dark humor. The rumor I’ve read on the fan boards has it that Fox insisted the producers of this show do an episode starring Kiss, and the show was too low-rated to refuse. From that insistence, Perry and director Thomas J. Wright spun a tale that isn’t great but does so many things half-well that I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on the other half. In the end, “…Thirteen Years Later” works because it stares into the unrelenting darkness and has the temerity to laugh.
- I would bet anything that the guy in the lecture “Frank” is giving (the bald one whose notepad the camera keeps panning up from) is Michael Cerveris, which makes this the first known example of Fox promoting Fringe by stuffing the Observer into an innocuous place on one of its other programs.
- I didn’t like much of the Hollywood satire, but I did like the aging British thespian who’s bitter about having to play the “Madman Maniac” in the film. The bit where he’s skulking around the rock concert in a little black mask, scowling, is very funny.
- I have no idea if the fan theory about the show makes any sense (the more I think about it, the more I suspect it’s not the case), but I like to imagine that Kiss came to Fox and demanded to star on one of its shows. “Simpsons!” they said. “Well,” said Fox, “we’ve got this struggling, ultra-grim serial-killer show.” “Sold!” said Kiss.
Two weeks from now: We are taking next weekend off for the holiday, so on July 14, Zack will celebrate an entirely different holiday with “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas,” then pledge “Skull And Bones.”