Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Geeks That Time Forgot: The Lone Gunmen

The renewal of Chuck has given many geeks reason to rejoice. But Chuck was not the first television which featured a geek in the lead role. It was not even the first action/adventure show to feature a geek in the lead. Before there was Chuck, even before Timothy McGee and Abby Sciuto on NCIS, there were three geeks who fought threats to national safety and world peace. They worked for no government agency, although they did assist a couple of FBI agents on several occasions. And eventually they would be the stars of their own, sadly short lived show. They were John Fitzgerald Byers, Melvin Frohike, and Richard "Ringo" Langly. Collectively they were known as The Lone Gunmen.

The Lone Gunmen were created by Glen Morgan and James Wong for the X-Files episode "E.B.E." In the episode Mulder requires assistance from what he describes to Scully as a government watchdog group. That group happens to be three men. Of the three only John Fitzgerald Byers (Bruce Harwood) appears normal. Not only is he apparently the only one who combs his hair, but he also wears a suit. In further episodes of The X-Files it was revealed that he was born the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated and was named in honour of the late president. Prior to his involvement with The Lone Gunmen, Byers was a public affairs officer with the Federal Communications Commission. Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood), the oldest of the three, had been a Sixties radical and an acclaimed tango dancer in Miami (as hard as that is to believe...). As trim and neat as Byers tended to be, Frohike tended to be scruffy (combat boots, leather vests, et. al.). His expertise within the group was photography, electronic surveillance, and engineering. Of The Lone Gunmen Richard Langly (Dean Haglund) looked the most like a geek--he had long hair like Garth from Wayne's World, wore t-shirts, and jeans. He was a huge fan of The Ramones and also played Dungeons and Dragons. Unlike Byers and Frohike, Langly apparently did not have a honest living. He operated his own bootleg cable company, Langly Vision. He was the group's expert with regards to computers and a master hacker. Together Byers, Frohike, and Langly published a magazine centred on various conspiracy theories, variously called The Lone Gunman or The Magic Bullet.

The Lone Gunmen were based on three men that Glen Morgan had seen at a UFO convention selling pamphlets on various conspiracy theories, shortly before starting work on The X-Files. Even the way the men's clothing provided inspiration for The Lone Gunmen. Byers, Frohike, and Langly were meant to appear only once. The trio proved extremely popular with fans and, in fact, it was the fans who gave them the collective name of "The Lone Gunmen (the name is not used on The X-Files until much later)." They proved popular enough that their images would soon appear on t-shirts and posters. The Lone Gunmen not only appeared in more episodes of The X-Files, but played an increasingly large role in the episodes in which they did appear.

In fact, eventually the story of how The Lone Gunmen joined forces would be told in the fifth season X-Files episode "Unusual Suspects." Using a framing device in which the three men are questioned by Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) of the Baltimore Police (this may have been one of the first cross network crossovers), it is told how while at an electronics exposition Byers, Frohike, and Langly uncovered a government plot to test a gas which causes fear and paranoia on a civilian populace. Towards the end of the episode it is revealed that it was the mysterious figure known only as "X (Steven Williams)" who gave the group their name. In reference to the assassination of John F. Kennedy assassination (about which the three men endlessly theorise), he told Byers, "I heard that it was a lone gunman." "The Unusual Suspects" proved so popular that there would be another episode focusing mostly on The Lone Gunmen.

The sixth season episode "Three of a Kind" followed Byers, Frohike, and Langly as they uncovered a government plot to use a brainwashing drug for assassinations. It was actually very early in the run of The X-Files that a spin off series featuring The Lone Gunmen had been suggested. "Three of a Kind" cemented this idea. Writers Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban told The X-Files creator Chris Carter that they wanted to do a Lone Gunmen series. The three men then pitched the idea to the Fox Network, with the idea that the new series would focus on conspiracies like The X-Files, but it would centre primarily on technological crime.

The Lone Gunmen debuted on March 4, 2001. The series added two new characters who would assist Byers, Frohike, and Langly. Jimmy Bond (Stephen Snedden) was a rather clueless, if somewhat clueless young man who proved his worth to The Lone Gunmen through his boundless enthusiasm and the sort of the optimism the three had in their youth. Yves Adele Harlow (Zuleikha Robinson) was a beautiful thief and hacker who sometimes assisted The Lone Gunmen, but was also sometimes their rival as well. The series also featured characters from time to time from The X-Files. Kimmy the Geek (Jim Fyfe) was the identical twin of Jimmy the Geek (also played by Jim Fyfe), who had assisted The Lone Gunmen from time to time on The X-Files. Majestic-12 operative Morris Fletcher (Michael McKean), FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), and Fox Mulder all appeared on episodes of the show.

Today the series' first episode and pilot provides for chilling viewing. The pilot involved a plot by a clandestine agency to divert a commercial Boeing 727 from Boston to New York with the purpose of crashing the jet into the World Trade Centre by remote control. Following episodes would feature plots involving a water powered car, a genetically engineered monkey, a TV children's TV show host accused of espionage, and a secret government agency that could be the granddaddy of all conspiracies. Sadly, although the series received good reviews, The Lone Gunmen lasted only thirteen episodes. Like so many genre shows before it, Fox had placed in in a Friday night death slot when most of its viewers would not have been at home.

Despite its cancellation, The Lone Gunmen would have a final episode of sorts. The ninth season X-Files episode "Jump the Shark" resolved a story arc began on The Lone Gunmen and provided closure to its series. Not only did the episode centre on Byers, Frohike, and Langly, but its opening credits were even a combination of X-Files and The Lone Gunmen opening. In the episode The Lone Gunmen uncover a plot to commit acts of bio-terrorism using living beings as carriers and a virus so deadly it could conceivably spread throughout the world. In the climax of the episode John Fitzgerald Byers, Melvin Frohike, and Richard Langly cornered the bio-terrorist and the virus's human carrier in the corridor of a government building. Before the bio-terrorist has completely released the virus, the Lone Gunmen tripped a fire alarm which causes emergency doors to seal off the corridor. This effectively contained the virus, but also sentenced the Lone Gunmen to death. Byers, Frohike, and Langly then sacrificed their lives to save the world. Having died heroes' deaths, Assistant Director Skinner then has it arranged so they can be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. Of course, given their death scene was meant to an homage to Spock's death in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Spock returned from the dead, it seems possible that Byers, Frohike, and Langly could still be out there fighting the good fight. The "ghosts" of the Lone Gunmen would appear to Mulder in The X-Files series finale "The Truth."

The Lone Gunmen would prove to be highly influential characters. Similar, technologically adept geeks would appear on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The Trio of would be supervillains Warren Mears, Andrew Wells, and Jonathan Levinson), Supernatural (ghost chasers Ed Zeddmore and Harry Spangler), and Invasion (Dave the blog journalist). Indeed, without The Lone Gunmen we might not have Timothy McGee and Abby Sciuto on NCIS or even Chuck. Although not well known to the public at large, The Lone Gunmen could well be as popular with X-Files fans as Mulder and Scully themselves. Certainly they have their place in television history as possibly the first geeks to be leads in their own action-adventure TV series and an important part of The X-Files mythos.

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