Thursday, 9 April 2015

A Tale Of Two Towns

"This does not look good for our heroine."

With the Twin Peaks resurrection seemingly only days away from complete collapse, it seems a good time to talk about a show that's put a truly impressive amount of effort into running its play-book: Fortitude.

(Spoilers below the fold)

Since show creator Simon Donald has already made his love of Lynch's series well known, I don't expect any points for noticing what's going on here. Even without Donald's comments, though, the link could hardly be more obvious. The similarities resonate on every level, right down to the naming the show after its location. You can look at the characters, whether it be the unconventional investigator (Morton, an American like Cooper despite belonging to the London Met), the out-of-their-depth low-level police types (Ingrid and Petra, each of which are equal parts Lucy and Deputy Andy), or the Native character called upon to apply their culture's spiritual knowledge to situations white people are finding beyond them (admittedly that last one is part of a larger and shabby trend). The shady hotel owner who wanted to build a community is now a shady community leader who wants to build a hotel. And everyone, everywhere is busy shagging people they're not supposed to, in the same hyper-condensed soap opera approach Lynch and Frost made use of even as they lampooned it with Invitation To Love.

Then you've got the cinematography. I don't recognise a great deal of Lynch in Sam Miller's direction, but one obvious link is the lingering feasting on the surrounding wilderness. In Twin Peaks it was the whispering pine forests of the Pacific Northwest. In Fortitude it's the howling snowfields of the Arctic Circle. But either way, it's a constant reminder of how isolated our characters are. How narrowly the chaos is held back. How barely civilisation holds on.

Indeed, the choice of the Arctic as a location provides other advantages.  For a start, the constant evocation of coldness and gradual movement (in the form of the glacier just outside town) helps justify the show's slow pace. This allows it to amble along much as Twin Peaks did despite existing in an era where narratives are generally far faster than those of the early '90s.  The conceit isn't entirely successful - Fliss gave up in frustration after just two episodes - but it's an inventive approach. If nothing else, it allows the narrative to be slowed via focus on traveling between destinations. Showing the links between locations has fallen out of fashion nowadays, an obvious casualty in the struggle for maximum compression. But in the Arctic Circle, no journey is a simple formality.  Every trip could be the one where something goes wrong and you freeze to death, or get eaten by bears.

Ah yes, the bears. So different from the owls that haunted Twin Peaks, and yet the role they play is not entirely dissimilar.  What most profoundly links the two shows is the interruption of people's lives by preternatural events. In each case the question of whether the preternatural is genuinely supernatural is left open, precisely because the actual how of BOB or the strange condition striking down Fortitude's residents matters less than the difficulties the characters face in dealing with it. It's a brave refusal, actually, paring back the metaphor to its bare (mammoth) bones. Refusing to let the genre bury the lede. In both cases, it was possible to not realise you were watching something pitched beyond the norm until you were several episodes in. Even if geek culture tends to aggressively overstate how much it's looked down on by the general public, sneaking in your supernatural elements after weeks of playing it just about straight is still a risky move, even when your model is slow accumulation rather than a full-on From Dusk 'Til Dawn handbrake turn.

 In fact, I was left wondering for longer than I perhaps I should have as to whether Fortitude would ultimately take the plunge, mainly because of the presence of the polar bears. The bears in this show, I thought, could essentially fulfil the same narrative function as did BOB in Twin Peaks, a non-human force of destruction that periodically provides tragic and fatal interruptions of everyday life.

You'll notice I say "everyday life". Not "normal life". In both shows great energy is expended into crafting a pageant of misfits and oddballs (with both words having different interpretations in the two shows), aimed at demonstrating that normal life doesn't exist. We're too individual, and stretched too taut, for normality for be applied as a useful concept. We all live our unique lives, crowded with crises and confusion, But we do at least settle into rough, hazily-defined routines, right up until something truly unprecedented arrives and it's all we can do to not let ourselves be dashed against the rocks.  How much does it really matter whether our loved ones fall prey to bears or a demon? Every sudden, unforeseeable, unprecedented event that threatens to submerge us is, within our own experience, supernatural in every way that matters. Looked at this way, neither show was hiding its genre, but quietly announcing that the dividing line between the genres is a false and unhelpful one.

As I say, the aim here is to bury the lede, which is generally seen as a bad idea.  Here though, the approach is virtuous, since the lede is something we focus far too much on.  I'm as guilty of this as anyone (check out my series of posts on the first season of True Detective), but for many of us when we encounter a story that's clearly not operating according to real-world rules (which is of course every story ever, in fact, but that's a topic for another day), that immediately becomes what's most important about the show.  Who would accept a Doctor Who two-parter without aliens these days? Why did Supernatural focused on entirely human threats precisely twice in its first eight seasons? Because once a show has such elements, we demand that they be used.

But both Twin Peaks and Fortitude push back against this. Neither seems enamoured with the idea that the supernatural has some kind of precedence over "real-world" events. By convention we're trained to care more about the murder of Charlie Stoddart, partially because it drives the show - at least for the first five episodes - but also because of how brutal and bizarre it is. But to DCI Morton its simply a murder, and his investigation of it is no more interesting or important or urgent than figuring out who killed Pettigrew. Similarly, Agent Cooper sees dealing with BOB as no more or less important than nailing Leo Johnson or Jacques Renault.

The supernatural intrudes, dripping into civilisation, but it is not allowed to take over.  The effects upon those around us are what matters, not the cause, except insofar as the cause must be identified so it can be neutralised.

But this balancing act can only be maintained for so long. Ultimately Twin Peaks slid into a risible melange of alien abductions, super-powered cheerleaders and doorknob prisons. The reasons for that are well-known and perhaps unique, but the general trend is still of concern. Mystery fatigue is no less real a problem than monster fatigue. Sooner or later weirdness is one more aspect of a show that needs to be constantly ramped up to keep the audience involved. Fortitude has been laying the groundwork for this moment rather better than its ancestor managed, and I think it's mainly done this by taking notes from the X-Files. Like Fortitude, Chris Carter's great success learned much from Twin Peaks, but dialled back on the charm and whimsy in favour of a more coherent tone than Lynch's famously bipolar approach can offer. Fortitude is repeating the trick, to the point where the flavour of various distinct X-Files episodes can be detected. Theories as to what was happening in the show abounded. What was buried in the ice? Alien parasites, as in "Ice"? Prehistoric killer insects, as in "Darkness Falls"? A sentient virus, as in various episodes and the first movie? The X-Files was never happier than when it involved people unearthing discoveries that then turned round and bit them. Narrative convention alone suggests no-one should be able to come across a frozen mammoth carcass and there not be unintended, terrible consequences.  It's Chekov's pachyderm.

This, at last, is where the two towns diverge. Though both shows involve themselves with how precarious a construct civilisation is, they take different positions on why and how the bedrock is so unstable. BOB is a clear metaphor for the evil that exists within us, something that's been with us every step of the way for two million years. In contrast, the infection from beneath the glacier is about the dangers that surround us as a species, the land-mines that lay in the unknown just waiting to be stepped on. BOB is the internal, the mammoth's curse the external. That's why so much time is spent in Fortitude on the idea of the infected trying to get themselves - or pieces of themselves - inside us. It's the danger of the wilderness breaking through into what we've fooled ourselves into thinking is an impenetrable fortress of civilisation. It's the bear that one day walks into town whilst you're walking your children to school, rather than the respectable lawyer who one day turns out to have been physically and sexually abusing his teenage daughter. This isn't to say Twin Peaks didn't consider the external, and it certainly isn't to say Fortitude doesn't consider the internal (most unpleasantly realised in the final minutes of Pettigrew's life). It's a question of focus rather than exclusion.

As I say, though, whether the danger comes from within or from without, sooner or later it must build to a point where it becomes an entity in itself, no longer haunting the edges of the narrative (and our lives, and our towns) and manifests itself fully.  You need to offer an answer even if for weeks your audience didn't even realise what the question should be. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to learn that the narrative really was cribbing from "Ice" and "Darkness Falls" all along, with a scattering of "F.Emasculata" and "Brand X" in there too. The show has blossomed - if that's the right word - from the woozy, strobe-lit slow-motion evil of the Red Room to the quick-cutting claustrophobic lurking-in-darkness scares of Mulder's sinister world.

We now know precisely what the slow-burn trudge of Fortitude's first stretch of ten episodes really was. It wasn't stalling, or a fake-out, or an unwillingness to commit.

It was the larval stage.

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