The following contains spoilers for Alien: Covenant and the first four hours of Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return.
Recall a moment from Alien: Covenant, which hit theaters last Friday. David (Michael Fassbender), the scheming synthetic geneticist, has just revealed to Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) that he had a hand in designing the creatures that have been murdering his crew. David then leads the curious Oram into a chamber where a familiar Xenomorph egg waits, a Facehugger nestled inside waiting to strike. David calmly asks Oram to have a look, and as Oram peers into the slimy opening, the spidery creature within leaps out and seals his fate. Just as everyone in the audience knew it would.
Now recall another image, this one from midway through Sunday’s premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return. Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard), a high school principal, has just learned that his wife somehow framed him for murder, or caused him to commit murder against his will. As he freaks out in his jail cell, the camera moves away from him, past an empty neighboring cell, until we see a dirt-smeared homeless man two cells down. He sits motionless and wide-eyed for a moment, then vanishes, his blackened face floating upwards like smoke. In the nearly three hours of Twin Peaks that have followed it so far, this moment is not elaborated on or addressed again. It is quite possible that it never will be.
The dual returns of Twin Peaks and the Alien franchise were easily the two biggest pop culture events of the past week, and they represent radically different attempts to add on to their respective universes. Both continuations have emerged in an age when the proverbial water cooler is digital and instantaneous. Reactions to and discussions of films and episodes of television happen immediately, often even before the credits roll. Fandom is no longer something you experience only in cramped convention centers or in basements lit by the glow of a boxy old TV. Fandom is a global beast that never sleeps, craving a constant flow of theory, explanation and continuation.
The creators of both Alien: Covenant and Twin Peaks are well aware of the world they’re sending their stories into. But while one embraces shining a light on the mysteries of its universe, the other seems to be resisting that impulse. Both approaches are valid, but in this instance one is definitely proving so far to be more rewarding than the other.
The advantage of the global and instant nature of fandom now is the opportunity for quick and easy immersion in the things you like. If you just discovered and fell in love with Alien for the first time and now you want to learn everything there is to know about that franchise in the span of one glorious week, you’re in luck. It’s all just a Google search away: More movies, comic books, video games, wiki entries, discussion threads and even fan fiction. All democratized and at your fingertips. That’s both convenient and a lot of fun.
The side effect of this democratization is a feeling that, when it comes to certain franchises and fictional worlds, there is no such thing as too much information. When you can go from watching Star Wars to reading thousands of words of technical specifications on Star Wars spaceships in mere moments, it’s easy to think that there can and should be even more information available to you. This creates marketability for prequels, sequels and revivals of all stripes, as well as smaller things like recaps and expert plot breakdowns to help you through those Very Special Episodes. It also creates a demand for that ubiquitous creature we call the fan theory.
In fandom, if a story presents a mystery to you and then doesn’t solve it, you can simply solve it yourself. If your explanation is good enough, you might even get the internet on your side.
In fandom, if a story presents a mystery to you and then doesn’t solve it, you can simply solve it yourself. If your explanation is good enough, you might even get the internet on your side. The Walking Dead doesn’t explain where the zombies come from, so it must all be a dream Rick’s having while in a coma! The grandfather in The Princess Bride says “as you wish,” so he’s clearly the last Dread Pirate Roberts! The writers of Star Wars: The Force Awakens told us Snoke is a new character but offered no other details, so it’s obvious that he’s really Anakin Skywalker/Emperor Palpatine/Mace Windu/take your pick!
Hey, fan theories can be a lot of fun. So can all the new details brushed into a fictional universe by sequels, prequels and spinoffs. The problem comes when the desire to offer up as many explanations as possible starts to poison the very well from which it draws.
Which brings us back to David and his villainous genetic creations.
Before he began his meddling, the titular creatures of the Alien franchise were mysterious killers from the stars who could seemingly turn up anywhere. Their constant biological drive to kill, feed and reproduce was insatiable and ferocious. They could not be reasoned with and often couldn’t be outsmarted. They just were, and the mystery surrounding their existence made the franchise’s inherent horror all the more potent.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with exploring the origins of the Xenomorph, but the direction Covenant takes things – despite wonderful performances and incredible visuals–is infuriatingly simplistic. All of those killer aliens who seemed like they came from beyond human understanding? Turns out those are the product of a robot with villainous tendencies, years of free time and a deadly pathogen he found conveniently “mutable.” And why did he spend countless hours crafting these creatures to be perfect killers? Because the man who designed him made him just a little too self-aware, and he ultimately decided he wanted to be a creator rather than a mere servant of humanity. David is essentially a frustrated fanfiction author inserted into the very franchise he is trying to affect. He didn’t like the answers he was given, so he wrote his own in genetic code and made us look at it just as he made Oram stare into that egg.
None of this matters to the characters in Alien or Aliens, of course. The horror is still pure for them. If you’re a fan of the franchise who relishes the mystery of the title creatures, though, these prequel developments are deeply unsatisfying.
Meanwhile, Twin Peaks absolutely packed its return with new details while maintaining co-creator David Lynch’s fervent belief in leaving things unexplained. At one point in the fourth episode, an incredulous sheriff’s deputy questions the sanity of fan-favorite character The Log Lady, and mocks her apparent connection to it. The sheriff (Robert Forster) sends him home, and Deputy Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) responds to his jokes with a simple statement of fact: “She gets messages from her log.” It may as well be a direct rebuke to every fan theory and Reddit thread the new episodes are certain to inspire.
Twin Peaks has no use for such things, even as it grows its wonderful and strange world. Lynch is a creator driven as much by instinct as he is by any reliance on story logic, and that means that even the most eye-catching additions to Peaks lore may be there simply because he felt like it. One of the most famous characters in the series – the demonic killer BOB – emerged from sheer coincidence. Or maybe it was fate. It doesn’t matter much to Lynch. In the world of Twin Peaks, a woman gets messages from her log. A glass box in New York City traps spirits that sometimes turn deadly. A red-curtained room where the people move and speak in strange ways exists, and you can reach it if you walk to a pool of black oil in the woods at the right time. These are just true in this world, even if Lynch himself is sometimes mystified by them.
“Everyone wants to know what the Red Room in Twin Peaks stands for that appears again in the movie. Even I don’t know what it exactly means,” he said in 1992. “I can still remember well when I’ve had this idea but I don’t know why. From a rational point of view I can see that I used a similar pattern as the one in the attic before in Eraserhead. However, everything else was just a matter of inspiration: the red curtains, the stylized design, the dancing dwarf. Even if I wanted to I wouldn’t be able to explain their meaning because intuition is irrational. The difference between reality and imagination wasn’t ever clear to me at all. I will most likely be very surprised when I find out one day what the difference is all about.”
Twin Peaks has, as far as anyone can tell so far, resisted the modern siren song of over-explanation and linear, easily analyzed intricacy. It’s quite likely that it will always be that way, even if the show continues beyond this 18-episode revival. In its own way, this reliance on intuition and mystery for its own sake can be absolutely maddening. Longtime Peaks fans have sat white-knuckled as Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost dwell on seemingly trivial things like pie and the economics of a sawmill, waiting for the “real” story of the series to kick back in. Then when it does, we are often left scratching our heads anyway. This is not likely to change any more than the Alien series is likely to stop plans for further prequels.
So, one great franchise leans into the light, and the other leans away. Either approach is theoretically fine, but one key difference has emerged in the process: Twin Peaks is still Twin Peaks, while the original mystique of Alien feels further and further away.