Friday, January 29, 2016

To Boldly Go Where Many People Have Gone Many Times

Wow. How long must those suits have been in mothballs before this year?
I confess, I watched this week’s X-Files relaunch prepared to hate every minute of it. The original run shuddered badly after about 1997, overburdened by mythology but lacking creative direction. Especially after the December 2012 invasion “deadline” passed unheralded (which the relaunch hasn’t yet addressed), I thought that series belonged alongside other Clinton-era paranoia. I had myself primed for every possible reaction… except realizing it’s actually pretty good.

From the first episode, writer-director Chris Carter essentially upended the mythology established during the show’s original run. Pinching a trick largely pioneered by Larry Niven and Harlan Ellison, he made himself into a liar in the most glorious way. The characters remain continuous with everything they were during the 1990s, and the storytelling is of a piece. Even the visual design is consistent. It’s like a TARDIS trip to 1996.

Except, isn’t that the problem? The X-Files was always analagous to the kind of mass-media paranoia which profligates whenever a Democrat is elected President. It’s no coincidence the original series flourished during the Clinton administration, and foundered under Dubya. And we already have a track record of big-ticket paranoia failing to garner an audience. The 2010s aren’t identical to the 1990s. American culture has, I’d like to think, moved forward.

Well, the American moral and philosophical landscape certainly has. The Obergefell decision propelled society’s most basic bond-building ceremony into new and largely untested realms. After a Republican near-lock on electoral politics for two generations, Democrats have won five of the last six presidential elections, and stand poised to capture the next one too. Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s backward-looking showboating, American life looks different now than just ten years ago.

Considering how few original characters returned, Heroes Reborn is
a pretty inaccurate title. How about Premise Recycled?
But while our lives continue moving forward, commercial pop culture has moved backward. The X-Files relaunch followed hard on the heels of the (mostly failed) Heroes Reborn event series, an attempt to capture the magic of a series that debuted well, but eventually cratered. We’re eagerly awaiting Zach Snyder’s launch of the third Batman movie franchise, and remakes of Labyrinthe and The Rocky Horror Picture Show have been promised.

Some of these long backward glances have done well. Star Wars Episode VII has become the highest-grossing film ever (in unadjusted box office). But Star Trek Into Darkness crumpled so badly, current franchise overlord J.J. Abrams has promised the next entry, due this summer, will wholly ignore that movie. The newest Alien movie will write out everything added since 1986. Pop culture has gone into full retreat mode.

Admittedly, snobbish cultural hipsters like myself have always complained about the proliferation of sequels, remakes, and reboots. UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter writes that Hollywood, backed by big money demanding huge returns, has always been squeamish about the present, and roughly ten years behind the times. From its fondness for Depression-era superheroes, to its staunch decisions to keep funding Adam Sandler, Hollywood has always been averse to the present.

But this feels bigger. The X-Files was off the air longer than it was on. Alien is openly promising to retreat clear back into the Reagan years. Even Star Wars, launched in 1977, was a deliberate callback to pre-war Flash Gordon serials George Lucas watched on his family’s first black-and-white TV. It really feels like the people who package and sell us our culture cannot endure the present.

This must have seemed like a good idea on paper.
The problems with this become clear quickly. The failure of Star Trek Into Darkness probably has much to do with how retrogressive its future ethos really is: though a starship plowing into San Francisco definitely channels our post-9/11 fears, Khan reflects the fears of the Johnson Administration. Our science has progressed beyond him, but apparently our mass-market science fiction has not. And Paramount pays for that at the box office.

The present always seems scary, especially in times like these, when everything seems chaotic and unpredictable. Science fiction author William Gibson, in his novel Pattern Recognition, writes that the far future has become dangerous territory for serious authors: “We have no future because our present is too volatile.” He means science and technology here, but it applies to cultural trends equally well.

Yes, the present is frightening. But addressing these fears by retreating into the future or the past—or worse, past versions of the future—doesn’t make those fears go away. Sure, that’s what Hollywood dream factories sell, but that doesn’t mean we have to buy. We need to pay our culture producers to generate something to hope for, something to strive after, not just something to flee into.

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