23 December 2016

The X-Mass (1955)

THE X-MASS (1955)

‘IT CAME FROM THE SKIES – TO SAVE OUR WORLD!’

It starts with a voiceover – male, of course, American, a voice precision-honed by decades of whisky and cigarettes. Solemn, faintly awestruck, its speaks over a still image of a star.
‘Imagine, if you will, a chance encounter. A meeting between a so-called “cosmic ray”, originating from some far-distant star, and a cell of the human body.’
The visuals are changing now, a montage of photographs of stars and the night sky.
‘The X-ray is invisible, silent, intangible. It has passed through the universe for aeons to reach us. It would slide through your skin without giving you the slightest sensation. Yet when it touches this one cell, this microscopic cog in one human machine, it makes a change. A shift, a mutation into something new and unknown.’
The stars fade into images of cells under a microscope.
‘Let us further suppose that this cell is a germ cell, the cradle and crucible of human life. A seed from which a new life might grow. This cell has not yet been awakened – should not have been for many years. Yet now it is touched by the hand of the cosmos.’
More and more cells become visible.
‘See how it begins to multiply and grow, into a shape which that inhuman hand has helped to create. This mass of cells may come to form a life – a life that is itself, perhaps, no longer altogether human.’
* * *
We are in the home of the Elvey family, in Santa Mira, California. The living-room is decorated for Christmas, and a clock and calendar tell us that it is 10 p.m. on December 24th. The Elveys’ twenty-year-old daughter, Virginia, is pleading tearfully with her fianc√© George – who, it seems, plans to leave her.
Their conversation is awkward and oblique, but if we are sufficiently attuned to the embarrassments and evasions of the times we will understand that Virginia has discovered that she is pregnant, and that George knows all too well that the baby is not his.
‘Please, George,’ Virginia insists, her face streaked with tears. ‘There’s no-one else. There’s never been anybody else!’ But George won’t be played for a fool. Resisting Virginia’s last-minute attempts to cling to him, he pushes her onto the sofa and leaves. As soon as he’s gone, her parents rush in, demanding to know what’s going on.
As she tells them, though, their faces harden. They are a respectable couple, pillars of their community – Mr Elvey a prominent businessman and city councillor as well as George’s employer, Mrs Elvey the chairwoman of the local bridge club – and they have no room in their family, their lives or their house for a daughter of poor judgement and worse morals.
Before long we see Virginia wandering the streets, disconsolate, eventually arriving at the door of her bohemian schoolfriend Josie and her eccentric menagerie of animals. It’s clear that Virginia is reluctant to turn to Josie, who wears polo-neck sweaters, spends time with unsuitable men and reads inadvisable books – who is, in short, exactly the kind of woman Virginia’s parents fear she has become – but in Virginia’s current state Josie’s the only person who she’s sure will take her in.
* * *
Time passes, represented in the traditional way with pages flying from a calendar. We hear a baby’s cry. Virginia’s son has been born.
In Josie’s basement flat, the baby lies in a crib next to Josie’s well-fed cats. Virginia is singing to him. There is a commotion at the door, and her father arrives with George. It is the first time she has seen either of them since December 24th. She goes to talk to them, leaving the baby with the three cats.
Mr Elvey has come to make Virginia an offer. He and Mrs Elvey are willing to welcome their daughter back, and he has persuaded George, against his better judgement, to reinstate his offer of marriage – but the baby must go. ‘Oh, but you can’t mean that, father. He’s your grandson,’ Virginia reminds him. ‘I’ve called him Alexander, after grandfather. Oh, do come in and meet him.’ But Mr Elvey is implacable: the child must be put up for adoption.
Josie intervenes at this point, coolly observing that Mr Elvey is taking more of an interest in his daughter’s living arrangements now he has announced his candidacy for mayor of Santa Mira. An ugly scene follows as Mr Elvey determines to take the child by force if necessary, and he and George force their way past Josie and Virginia into the living room.
There is no baby there – just an empty crib and four plump cats.
Mr Elvey demands to know where the child has been hidden, but Virginia is as confused as he is. Eventually he leaves, vowing to return, and a frantic Virginia hurries back to look for baby Alexander – only to find him lying in the crib as before, gurgling happily at the three cats Josie actually owns.
* * *
Years pass now, the escalation acknowledged in a montage of shots of juxtaposed seasons, and we find Virginia living in a house on the edge of town, kissing her new husband Frank Eckers hello as he returns from work as Professor of Poetry at UC Santa Mira. Outside, two Labrador dogs bound across the yard, playing riotously together.
Frank has brought home some colleagues for dinner: Dr Casper, a biologist, Dr Millicker, a physicist, and Dr Beltzer, a chemist. As they are greeting Virginia, the dogs in the yard race for the kitchen door and inside – but only one dog enters, accompanied by ten-year-old Xander Elvey. Dr Millicker obverves the transition, and is astounded and disturbed.
(Xander arrives in the kitchen fully clothed, of course: any idea that such a state of affairs is not utterly to be expected would be as alien to this feature presentation as allowing Virginia to stay living with Josie rather than normalising her as definitely heterosexual. Whatever uncanny metamorphic powers the cosmic rays that spawned Xander have granted the cells of his body, they evidently extend to the fabrics he wears and the contents of his pockets.)
‘Hey, Ma!’ Xander cries. ‘Rover showed me a new rabbit-hole he’s found. He wanted to chase the rabbits, but I wouldn’t let him. I went inside and Ma, there are baby rabbits! Gee, it was neat.’
‘That’s great, honey,’ Virginia replies, unfazed.
Dr Millicker insists on quizzing the boy. Virginia is uncomfortable, but Frank points out in an aside to her that his position at work is precarious, partly because of Mayor Elvey’s campaign against certain elements in the town who, according to him, are more than likely sleeper agents for communist Russia. Frank needs the support of Millicker and his other colleagues, which was why he brought them home in the first place.
Meanwhile, Xander has guilelessly demonstrated his abilities for them until all three astounded scientists are convinced no trickery is involved. Frank explains to them that the boy is a sport of nature, and has no father.
Jovial Dr Casper is intrigued. ‘Then I don’t understand why he’s a boy at all,’ he frowns. ‘We know that each cell in the human body has twenty-six chromosomes, of which two determine the person’s sex. A child with an X and a Y chromosome is a male, a child with two X chromosomes is a female. That’s just how nature made us. Now you tell me this boy has no father, yet your wife must herself have two X chromosomes. Which makes me wonder – where did this boy’s Y chromosome come from? It’s incredible enough to imagine a child born without a father, but all biological science tells us that that child should not be a boy, but a girl.’
‘But Dr Casper, I can be a girl,’ Xander replies – and we see that he has indeed transformed himself into a girl, a pretty one with pigtails and a fetching lacy dress.
Dr Millicker is more perturbed than ever by this new transformation, and speculates aloud as to whether Xander is human at all. ‘Yet what if some thing… some unknown, alien mass… gained the ability to mimic humanity, as predators camouflage themselves to creep up on their prey unnoticed? How could we tell that it was not human at all, but an infiltrator intent on subverting our society for its own sinister purposes?’ He denounces Frank and his household as communist spies and saboteurs, and storms out.
Xander wants to know what communists are. ‘Ah kiddo, there aren’t any real communists,’ Frank sighs. ‘Not in America. Your granddad wants to scare people so they’ll keep on electing him, that’s all. It’s just our bad luck he’s decided they should be scared of people like us.’
* * *
Soon afterwards, though, with the connivance of Mayor Elvey, Dr Millicker has Frank dismissed from his position at the university, and Xander insists on probing further into the tensions in the town.  Soon his mother and stepfather have told him all about US-Soviet relations, the Cold War and the Bomb. The boy is appalled by the idea that the world might be plunged into a destructive war at any moment over a question of ideology.
‘Say, though,’ he muses. ‘I bet someone like me could do something about that. If someone could look like all the generals, the scientists, even the President… well, they could find out where all the Bombs are kept, and learn all the secrets of how to stop them working. If neither side had Bombs they could use, and all the new ones they built stopped working too… why, they couldn’t ever go to war at all.’
Dr Millicker is at work on a less peaceful project, however. Correctly deducing that Xander owes his existence to cosmic X-rays, he has hastily invented a machine which can end that existence, by bombarding the subject with a barrage of man-made X-rays. (The logic of this is opaque at best – after all, there would be just as much reason to suppose that the child would thrive on them. But ‘X-rays created this monster, and X-rays will destroy it!’ is all the explanation we’re likely to get.)
Shortly afterwards, on a Christmas shopping trip into town, Virginia loses sight of Xander. By now she is used to his ways, and looks for him among the town’s animal population, before she notices a commotion in front of the town hall. A stranger, a grown man, is denouncing the Mayor and his campaign of fear against the peace-loving people of Santa Mira – in much the same terms as Frank and Virginia used when giving Xander his crash course in politics. The man pauses to wink at Virginia, and she – and we – realise that this man is Xander himself.
‘You’re so busy fearing one another,’ he insists to the townsfolk, ‘– your neighbours, the Russians, invaders from outer space – that you never see that the real enemy is yourselves. Your hatred, your suspicion, your closed minds and your fearful hearts. You can free yourselves from all of these fears.’
Dr Millicker, though, has other ideas. He arrives in the town square with the X-ray beam weapon mounted on a military truck (by this point he has, somehow, enlisted the aid of the United States armed forces against this small boy) and turns it on the impromptu orator. Being an X-ray weapon, it is of course formed in the shape of an X, the diagonal cross picked out in light bulbs which pulse brightly as the X-rays are emitted.
The speaker writhes in pain and his form begins to shimmer and change – reverting first to a terrified ten-year-old boy, and then to a Labrador which tries to escape through the crowd, but is cut off by the soldiers. Virginia struggles to fight her way through the crowd to her son, but Dr Millicker has turned the beam on him once more. He begins to grow, losing human form entirely and eventually becoming a giant, amorphous, pulsating blob which Millicker calls ‘the X-Mass’. Virginia tries again to reach him, but is held back by her ex George, still unmarried and still her father’s loyal henchman, who insists that she will only endanger herself. ‘I still care about you, Virginia,’ he insists creepily.
In the background, the attentive cinemagoer may see a second Labrador fleeing the square.
* * *
The rest of the third act follows a predictable trajectory, with Millicker and the military pursuing the unspeaking, glowing blob through the evacuated town. The Mayor is cornered by the X-Mass, but rather than flow over and smother him it turns back and risks another assault by the X-ray beams. Only Virginia, who has succeeded in escaping the evacuation, witnesses the Mass taking refuge in a shopping  mall, whose schmaltzy Christmas decorations are quickly augmented by electrified wire and landmines.
Virginia tries to reach Xander, but can’t get past the electric fences. She’s there when, called in by the President at Dr Millicker’s urging, USAF planes arrive overhead and drop an ominous payload on the mall.
From the distant vantage point where Millicker and the soldiers are observing the town, we see the Bomb fall, the mushroom cloud rise… and then immediately reverse itself, collapsing back into nothing. The mall is destroyed along with its monstrous occupant – but Virginia, cowering just around the corner across the square, survives.
* * *
Virginia returns through the miraculously fallout-free city to her empty house, where she finds a note waiting for her.
Ma,
They wanted to see me dead, so I gave them what they wanted. I broke off a part of me, and sent it to the mall to die. The rest of me’s left town along with everybody else.
I can’t come back, though – not even for you, not even a bit of me. If they catch me, men like Dr Millicker will study me, and maybe find a way to kill me better next time. A way I can’t come back from.
I’m going away – maybe to Washington, maybe Moscow. Maybe both. You remember my plan, to save the world from the Bomb? Well, it’ll work a whole lot better if I can be lots of people at once. I didn’t know I could do that before, but I can. I can break myself up into lots of bits – maybe lots of people, maybe lots of tiny bits that can get in people’s heads and change the way they think.
If everyone who could launch the Bomb isn’t themselves at all, but me… well then, the Bomb will never fall again.
I love you, Ma. I hope I can save you – and everyone else.
The note is signed, of course, with an X. (An initial? A kiss? A statement of anonymity? Or perhaps simply a cross, to show that Xander has graded the work of the human race and found it disappointing.)
* * *
The final shots are of crowds on a city street – not Santa Mira, though. Maybe New York, maybe Los Angeles, maybe neither. Somewhere anonymous, where hundreds of ordinary people are going about their daily business. The camera lingers on their faces.
The  voiceover artist is back from his whisky and cigarette break:
‘And so a new era in mankind’s history begins. One where any face you see could belong to this new being that walks among us. Your neighbour, your teacher, your doctor, your President – any one of them could belong to this great collective, this new movement of humanity towards a greater goal. Moved by a spirit that, while perhaps inhuman, still has the interests of humanity at heart.
‘The spirit… of the X-Mass.’
Roll credits.
* * *
(The 1958 sequel, Night of the X-Mass, is disappointing. The less said about the 2008 remake, X-Mass: Presence, the better.)

24 January 2016

End of Days

It's taken me a while to get my thoughts about the announcement of the new Doctor Who showrunner in order. (NB: This is just what I reckon, yeah? If you're an old-school internet pedant, you may want to imagine this prefaced by a gigantic 48-point flashing ‘IMHO’.)

I can quite see why the BBC have appointed Chris Chibnall to take over from Steven Moffat. He’s an experienced showrunner, with a wide-ranging record that includes the widely respected Broadchurch, the less widely-respected Camelot and... well, seasons 1 and 2 of Torchwood, which built up a dedicated international fanbase and climbed the ladder of channel popularity from BBC3 to BBC1. He has history with Doctor Who, having written four stories including a two-parter, and lots of Torchwood episodes set, at least in theory, in the Doctor Who universe.

The fact that the episodes of Doctor Who he’s written took five years to clamber up from profoundly bad (42) to largely-just-about-competent (The Power of Three), and that seasons 1 and 2 of Torchwood were, from an artistic if not a commercial point of view, a horrific mess, is only going to be an issue for a handful of discriminating fans, and is unlikely to affect the vast demographic that is the series’ core audience. From an industry perspective, Chibnall is self-evidently a safe pair of hands to keep the series steady for a few years until the next one comes along.

As a discriminating fan, though, I feel I have legitimate concerns about what the series from 2018 onwards is going to look like. When they took over as showrunners, both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat had considerable credit in the goodwill bank. RTD was a massively respected TV dramatist who wanted to bring back Doctor Who – in itself a remarkable boost for the series’ status – and had two respected children’s fantasy series (Dark Season and Century Falls), a complex and clever adult fantasy (The Second Coming), a series about a Doctor Who fan that was an absolute masterclass in character and plotting (Queer as Folk), and a startlingly bleak Doctor Who novel (Damaged Goods) all under his belt. Moffat also had a successful young adult series (Press Gang) and an adult fantasy series (Jekyll) on his CV, as well as a number of sitcoms including the excellent Coupling, and had written some of the very best episodes of the series since RTD revived it. Both had impressed us all with what they could do before they started in the job, and both excited me hugely with their visionary perspectives on what Doctor Who should be like.

In Chibnall’s case, there are certainly some viewers who appreciate his past work -- fans of Torchwood and Broadchurch in particular. Good luck to them: I genuinely hope they enjoy what’s coming as much as they assume they will. I suspect even they, though, would struggle to find a clear vision for Doctor Who in Chibnall's past episodes, in the way that Davies clearly believes it should be emotionally literate, people-driven melodrama and Moffat cerebral, child-focussed science-fiction horror. 

More than this, though, both RTD's and Moffat's work – and here we’re getting into 72-point ‘IMHO’ territory – suffers a distinct drop in quality once they become regular showrunners, responsible for commissioning, editing and bringing to fruition 14 episodes a year, based in wildly differing settings each requiring its own prop, set and costume design and distinctive location work, with all the necessary liaising with directors, casting consultants and BBC controllers -- quite apart from continuing to write their own scripts, and devise and impose an overall narrative schema across the season and the future direction of the show as a whole. Nobody in the TV industry has experience in doing this except Davies and Moffat themselves, because no other series makes the same demands on its writers and producers as Doctor Who.

This takes an understandable toll on the showrunners' scripts. Davies had had years to think about how he’d bring back Doctor Who, and it worked gloriously in 2005: he had one year to think about how he’d follow it up with a second series, and in 2006 it shows. None of his later series approach the crystalline perfection of the Eccleston series, and by the time he leaves they’re rapidly approaching incoherence.

Moffat's scripts, too – though still having much to commend them – take a minor nosedive once the realities of commissioning and production properly set in. A few stories during his early years as showrunner (The Eleventh Hour, A Christmas Carol) are on a par with his scripts for RTD like The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances or The Girl in the Fireplace, but most suffer by comparison. It’s only with The Day of the Doctor and the 2014 and 2015 Capaldi seasons – when he’s been in the position longer than Davies and got his second wind – that we see a true return to form. 

(I quite understand, of course, why he’d want to leave, but I’d personally like to have seen several years more of his witty, clever and cheerily terrifying version of Doctor Who before that happened. We’re getting one more year, of course -- even if it is, inexplicably, 2017 -- and let’s hope it’s a thoroughly spectacular one.)

Of course, RTD and Moffat are such outstanding writers that a small trailing-off isn’t really an issue: from 2006 to 2013 they still, for the most part, turned out great scripts. With Chibnall, though, a drop in quality from his previous standard is an alarming prospect.

I think we can expect a few good things from the Chibnall showrunnerate, even so – they just won’t have much to do with his own scripts or the series' overall narrative direction. For instance, I don’t need to have actually watched Broadchurch (to be clear I haven’t, and have no interest in doing so) to see that casting is one of its major strengths. Since Chibnall will clearly be casting the 13th, and quite likely the 14th, Doctors, that’s reassuring. I suspect he'll be disinclined to take the more radical kind of casting decision Moffat has been slyly preparing the way for in his Capaldi stories, but we can probably assume that whichever 30-to-50-year-old white men he casts in the part will be pretty good at acting. His seasons of Torchwood also saw some interesting commissioning choices in the script department: PJ Hammond, Noel Clarke and Catherine Tregenna were all names that would have been unlikely to crop up (at that time, and in that capacity) in mainstream Doctor Who, and all created unusual episodes with distinct and interesting features. The best thing Chibnall brings to Doctor Who may well be his address book. 

So -- amused though I was when a well-known author of my acquaintance responded to the news on Facebook with a picture of the Hindenburg crashing into the Titanic -- this isn't an unmitigated disaster. Even the worst eras of Doctor Who (NB If in doubt refer back to the opening disclaimer) have produced individual stories of substantial interest – The Androids of Tara, for instance, or Revelation of the Daleks  – and I’m sure that, from 2019 or so, The Black Archive will be covering selected stories of the Chibnall era with keen enthusiasm. It's the overall arc story, and the several scripts a year written by the showrunner to further it, which I worry may be turgid, incoherent and banal, and occasionally startlingly offensive.

I’m prepared to be proved wrong. But then I'm prepared to be proved wrong on all kinds of issues, from the demise of Elvis to the non-existence of fairies.

And as for the Controller of BBC1’s idea that we don’t need any Doctor Who in 2016 because we’ve got some football and the Olympics… well, don’t get me started. It may make perfect sense from an industry perspective, but it’s naive in the extreme to expect viewers to agree.

Which rather brings us back to where we started.