Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Truth Is Somewhere (X Files, Delta Green)

'One of those rare horror-genre gems produced for television,' wrote Adam Scott Glancy in a 1994 review for Unspeakable Oath. 'So far the first twelve [X Files] episodes rate nine out of ten phobias for solid horror/science-fiction genre entertainment.''

It's been a while.

Recently I was paid for an acting gig with iTunes cards, and used them to buy X-Files seasons 1 through 5. I tend to do that with stuff I want to see but don't care if I lose, which is always a risk when dealing with the Cloud. I pride myself on having a good memory, but I have to admit I'd forgotten most if not all the episode plots. Something about aliens? Maybe? And there were monsters, sometimes? Lone Gunmen? Someone who smoked a lot?

No, it was a total blank. This, mind you, after spending damn near every week plugged in practically at the electrical socket, waiting like a slavering fanboy for the least tidbit. That was back in 1994, and without wishing to be unkind to anyone here who may be counting their grey hairs, 1994 was over 20 years ago. If I'd had a kid back then, it would be on its way to college.

Hopefully I'd resist the temptation to call it Fox or Dana.

Looking back on it now, that first season was remarkably weak. Not awful - very good, really - but low budget, creaking along, with plots as shaky as an Ed Wood set. Inevitably they fell into a pattern: strange things happen, Mulder proposes something utterly absurd, Scully throws dirt on the whole thing, Mulder is proved right in every detail, madness ensues. Often there are plot holes you could drive a truck through, even if you accept Mulder's version without question.

None of that mattered at the time, and while it kinda matters now, that's only because time has passed. I'm less accepting of wild-eyed bullshit, and I've seen much better television since, so my standards have risen. Yet even with that firmly in mind I find I'm still in love with those early seasons, particularly from season 2 onwards.

That's when things begin to ratchet up, when Mulder's first informant Deep Throat is gunned down, the Cancer Man becomes more of a visible threat, and Mr X becomes Mulder's contact with the murky world of government conspiracies. Steven Williams plays Mr X, and he's such a badass in that role. He really makes it work.

It's also when I begin recognizing supporting cast. I don't know who was hiring back in 1994-5, but they picked some very decent talent. I knew Jack Black was in one of the early episodes, and he of course goes on to fame and fortune. But he's not the only one to hit the radar. Bradley Whitford, before West Wing, Jewel Staite, before Firefly, Titus Welliver, before Deadwood and Lost, Joe Spano, just after Hill Street Blues and before NCIS. Season 2 in particular is an exercise in 'spot the soon-to-be famous.'

If you really don't know what I'm talking about - which is always possible, though perhaps not forgivable - X Files was a supernatural/science-fiction genre show back in the 1990s, starring David Duchovny as FBI Agent Fox Mulder, and Gillian Anderson as his long-suffering partner Agent Dana Scully. The two are tasked with investigating X Files, cases involving paranormal phenomena. This can range from lake monsters to strange parasites from beyond history, irradiated fluke men and little grey men from outer space.

As you can imagine this does not sit well with their superiors, and Agent Scully is initially assigned to the X Files to debunk them, presumably because nobody's thought to fire Agent Mulder. Which is where the first of those peculiar plot holes appears; we're dealing with a massive conspiracy involving corruption at the highest levels, run by men who think nothing of murdering their enemies, their friends, the mailman; men who carry out mass experiments on unwitting human test subjects every other week without losing sleep over the death count. Yet those same men have some psychological block that prevents them from getting Mulder fired, even when he presents them with opportunities to do so with cause. It's papered over with tissue-thin excuses, but it's a problem nonetheless.

Looking back on it, I suspect it survived that initial year not because it was brilliant - good, yes, occasionally genius - but because it was unique. It was 1994. Nobody was doing horror on the small screen in 1994.

Hell, there weren't that many people making horror for the big screen either, come to think.

Tales from the Crypt is the closest thing it had to competition, and Tales was hosted by a scary Muppet. A bunch of carefree optimists tried to make a TV show out of Vampire the Masquerade, but that was in 1996, two years after X Files began, and it withered on the vine. Buffy doesn't start pounding dildos into pale Californians until 1997, and if I'd known what pegging was back then I'd have had a lot more fun watching that hot mess. Ultraviolet's 1998, and British. Touched By An Angel, maybe, but you could hardly call that horror.

It helps that Duchovny and Anderson, both talented actors, work well together. Anderson in particular is a lot of fun to watch; she's clearly got more on the ball than Duchovny. Yet Duchovny has one great talent: he's a natural doofus, and the show eventually starts playing to that, giving him more comedic or parody moments. I can't think of many television shows, genre or otherwise, that would be happy making its lead actor look like an idiot, and to be clear it's not like this happens every week, but when it does, it's a delight. Small Potatoes from Season 4 is a personal favorite.

Yet by the fifth season I find its appeal starting to wear on me. Though there are several moments when I can't wait for a show to finish, the episode Post-Modern Prometheus is the first one I couldn't force myself to finish. Yes, I know it won an Emmy. Chris Carter can thank his lucky stars I wasn't on the awards committee, way back when.

It starts to crumble under the weight of its own mythology at that point. There's just no way to make this all make sense, and it doesn't help that so much of it contradicts itself. One of the long-running secrets of the series is what happened to Fox Mulder's sister all those years ago; was she abducted by aliens, murdered by a serial killer, something else? But there are only so many times she can turn up as a clone, as a child worker clone, as an abductee, as a possible ghost, as a murder victim, before I start to lose interest.

You can butcher a turkey once, cook it once, eat it, make stock from its bones and skin, but when all that's done, you can't bring the turkey back again and eat it a second time. Not if you want to enjoy the experience.

Oddly enough I feel the same way about X Files as I do Delta Green, the RPG originally developed by Pagan Publishing many moons ago.

It first showed its warty head back in 1993, as part of the Unspeakable Oath magazine, but it doesn't really get its chance to strut its stuff until 1997. So it technically predates the X Files, though in practical terms it owes much of its format and initial appeal to that show.

Delta Green, as it was then, had a lot of promise, and I love its take on conspiracy theories, modern horror, cryptozoology, government cover-ups, little Grey Men. I played that game to death back in the day. I still have all the books.

Yet I look back on it now, and it's a mess.

A fun mess, but there's no skeleton here holding it together. The basic premise is solid, but the mythology soon crushes the whole thing under its ponderous weight. You could pick up a sourcebook and literally have no idea what you were getting, because the series didn't seem to be planned in any coherent way.

If you liked the Fate, for example, its New York occult menace based loosely on Club 57 and the exploits of Andy Warhol, there wasn't a Fate book you could get. You could get Count Down and Eyes Only, both of which have Fate-related material, but they also have a ton of other stuff you might not want. If you want to know more about tradecraft, intelligence agencies and the art of being a spy, that's in there too, but again it's scattered over most of the books with no real rhyme or reason as to which goes where.

The lethality level varies considerably. Some scenarios might as well have a footnote saying 'allow for 40 minutes downtime as everyone makes new characters right about now.' Others seem positively gentle in comparison. It reminds me of some of the X Files first season episodes, Darkness Falls in particular, where the writers find themselves in a situation where, logically, Mulder and Scully die. So they do, but not really. Delta Green isn't quite so kind.

There's some absolutely brilliant writing here, but looking back on it I have to ask myself how likely it is that the players are ever going to find this information, or find it useful. With the benefit of hindsight it seems to me now that it was written for the Keeper to read and be entertained by, but not necessarily use at the table.

One thing I admire about the Gumshoe clue system, apart from simplicity of design, is that it forces the designer to consider whether or not what's going on the page is useful. If it's a Clue, it has a purpose, and there's a definitive chain of events that lead from this Clue to the next Scene, where there are more Clues. From here, the players piece together the narrative, and decide what to do next.

I didn't back the Delta Green Kickstarter so I don't know what the new stuff's like. I almost regret that, but money's tight. One thing I hope and pray for is that, whatever it is, there's a plan. That someone has their eye on the long term, not a scattershot put-it-all-in-the-pot approach.

Anyway, it's been a day, and I'm exhausted.

Talk soon!

10 comments:

  1. The thing that put me off DG in the end was when they started populating the world with conspiracies, and so we got a Russian version of DG, a British version of DG, and so on, each with their own ties to other conspiracies and each other.

    With this density of secret societies and conspiracies it started to feel parodic, like Paranoia, except it wasn't supposed to be funny.

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    1. Yes! Absolutely! There was the Canadian version as well, Division X I think it was called, that seemed heavily influenced by the works of Michael Slade, complete with psycho serial killer. It was all fun stuff, but there never seemed to be any guiding force behind it, and as you say, after a while it began to feel more like a parody than a horror game.

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    2. I wrote a thing about this: http://www.delta-green.com/2014/09/three-lenses-for-delta-green/

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  2. Ah, memories. I think you've articulated something that I've long felt, but never actually expressed in so many words. Delta Green was always fascinating to read -- long, thought-out depictions of cults and secret societies and clandestine intelligence agencies, laced through with history and paranoia. It was great world-building, and usually a lot of fun to read.

    But it was never terribly clear what to *do* with all of it. Like, huzzah, there is a cult, and... then what? (Targets of Opportunity, the third big book, had this problem most heavily -- in one case the most reasonable solution to a situation would've been to nuke it from orbit).

    So even as I've read almost all the DG books, I hardly ever found myself using them. I might bring in one of the cults, but then they just sort of hung around, all the deep backstory off-screen and fundamentally irrelevant.

    Compare to the material put out by Pelgrane or Cubicle 7, which is just as well written and fun to read, but also very much *useful*. I've run scads of Pelgrane modules over the years and rarely been disappointed.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. _in one case the most reasonable solution to a situation would've been to nuke it from orbit_

      "How do you nuke it from orbit?" seems like the clearest and most direct scenario hook possible.

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  3. _Nobody was doing horror on the small screen in 1994._

    Some anti-Canadian bias right there. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Are_You_Afraid_of_the_Dark%3F

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    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eerie,_Indiana

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    2. The 1990s was a very Horror-y time for tv.

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