An X-Files Retrospective, Part 1

9 May

About a month or two ago Netflix added several iconic TV shows to their instant viewing service, including possibly the most influential sci-fi series of all time, Chris Carter’s The X-Files. I had been waiting for this to happen: an opportunity to watch the series, from beginning to end, every single episode. Netflix just handed me that opportunity on a silver platter.

I watched The X-Files during its prime, although I’m not entirely sure on which seasons. If I had to guess I’d say I watched a sizable portion of the fourth to sixth seasons (1996-1999), although I probably started sometime near the end of the third season because I remember being completely disinterested with the show’s first spin-off, Millennium when it was being advertised. I remember only certain details of the episodes I watched: Scully’s dog being eaten by the Loch Ness Monster, an African-American albino who had some condition that forced him to suck out the pigment of other black people to survive, the Lone Gunmen- always some of my favorite characters. What I do remember vividly is seeing the first feature film, The X-Files: Fight the Future on opening night in a packed theater brimming with anticipation. That movie was amazing and solidified myself as a fan, although not for much longer. Perhaps it was because of my age that the series didn’t stick with me then quite as much as it does now- I do recall that the theater where I saw the movie was filled with mostly middle-aged white men, and research I’ve been doing online since I started re-watching the series has informed me that The X-Files was indeed a show that skewed to a slightly older demographic.

But I was kind of a creepy kid, and was obsessed with aliens and the supernatural. My parents even tell me that as a child I declared a disbelief in God, but an ardent belief that aliens existed, if not in flying saucers that abducted unwitting victims from middle-American farmhouses, then from a galaxy far, far away. To be honest, I didn’t really get into horror until I was in high school, which I don’t think is odd. Most little kids don’t like to have the shit scared out of them, and I was no exception. I liked to be thrilled, a la Jurassic Park, but just a glimpse of the scene from The Thing where Kurt Russell checks his companions blood to see if one of them is infected, a scene I only saw because I walked into my parents’ bedroom while it was on the TV, was enough to give me nightmares for years. My mom had to take me out of movie theaters on three separate occasions: once because I saw a trailer for 1989′s Batman and flipped my shit when I saw Jack Nicholson as the Joker, another time because Ursula from The Little Mermaid was too much to handle, and finally because that old witch lady from Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was just too freaky. Guess I had a phobia of old ladies- for all you Freudians out there, feel free to analyze this childhood fear and determine if it had anything to do with my lack of a grandmother. And yet, I routinely tuned in to The X-Files, Friday after Friday, and almost always had trouble falling asleep that night. But I liked it- perhaps the ability to watch horror on a small screen in my own home dampened the terror I felt, but whatever the case may be, The X-Files was without a doubt, my favorite TV drama until 1999.

I’m not even quite sure if I kept watching after the movie. The movie was so good, so epic and so much more revealing in its mythos than any episode of the show I had seen prior, that it’s highly probable I just quit after the summer of 1998. I know I quit in 1999, mostly because a new show had gone on air in the same timeslot, called Farscape, and it felt so fresh and new in comparison that I almost forgot The X-Files existed. Which is odd, because when the second spin-off series, The Lone Gunmen, focusing entirely on the titular nerds, was released in 2001, I watched it ardently till its cancellation. By then The X-Files was beginning to recede into the subconscious of American pop culture, most likely due to the replacement of David Duchovny by Robert Patrick and the fact that the show had been on for eight years. In 2002 it had a series finale I never heard about, and two years later when LOST premiered America practically forgot the show ever existed.

And yet here I am, in 2010, with only three episodes of LOST left, seeking nostalgic comfort in the dozens of X-Files episodes available to me at the push of a button. I have decided not only to revisit the series itself, but the entire franchise. This means all nine seasons of The X-Files, all three seasons of Millennium, the single season of The Lone Gunmen, and both movies: Fight the Future and I Want to Believe. I know that seems ridiculous, especially since the latter seasons of The X-Files are less than stellar, but I want the full experience. So, first up: the very first season, which premiered on the FOX network on September 10th, 1993.

The X-Files- Season 1

Watching the very first episodes of The X-Files saga, it’s easy to notice how this is a show in its infancy, just finding its feet. People often criticize the writers of LOST for making up their story as they go along, but they should really get on Chris Carter’s case because that feeling is even more present here. Writer and executive producer James Wong even admitted in the second season that the writers don’t re-watch old episodes, and therefore it’s highly probable that continuity errors and plot holes will persist throughout the entire show. This isn’t as big a problem for The X-Files as it’s primarily an episodic procedural, with about two thirds of its episodes devoted to “monsters of the week,” and the other third to the alien colonization/abduction mytharc. Still, it’s kind of annoying when Mulder explicitly describes his sister’s abduction in season one, only to have it actually shown to the viewer in season two, with no similarities to Mulder’s original account.

What adds to the feeling of a show in its earliest stages is the lack of a proper FBI leader. Assistant Director Skinner, always a favorite character of mine as a kid, doesn’t appear until the episode “Tooms” and then not again till season two’s premiere, and before him all we ever see are a random assortment of unnamed suits who generally act to try and have Scully tarnish Mulder’s already shaky reputation. Only one makes recurring appearances: Division Chief Scott Blevins, who apparently becomes a major character later on. Still, I just couldn’t help but miss the added element that Mitch Pileggi’s Walter Skinner brought to the table.

What’s interesting is that the dynamic between Mulder and Scully is quite different here then from how it ultimately becomes- Scully is actually originally sent to debunk the X-Files and out Mulder as the “spooky” conspiracy nut that the bureau thinks he is. Their skeptic/believer conflict is even more heightened in these original episodes because Scully isn’t quite the maverick she later becomes, and wants to follow her superiors’ orders. This does make the nature of the X-Files confusing- it’s not its own division like the “Fringe Division” of Fringe, it’s just a collection of files on unexplained phenomena that Mulder uses as a reference when investigating new cases. It isn’t until the second season that you get the sense that Mulder and Scully are partners tasked solely on investigating bizarre occurrences.

If you’re interpreting the subtext the same as I am, then you assume that Scully’s order to debunk the X-Files didn’t come from Division Chief Blevins, but rather from the Syndicate, the shadowy government behind the government that is only hinted at in the first season. This aspect of the mythology was in my opinion, brilliantly handled in season one. The Cigarette Smoking Man, the show’s de-facto villain and one of its most memorable characters, is barely a presence in the first year. He generally stands in the background, smoking and stealing creepy glances at Scully when she gives her reports to the show’s stable of FBI suits. We know he’s powerful and insidious because we see him put an alien probe in a secure storage facility deep in the Pentagon, a la the ending scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but we don’t really know anything about him. He only speaks one line in the whole season, yet makes one of the biggest impressions on the viewer. It was a truly brilliant way to introduce a character, and one I’m glad for. Since the character comes to the forefront so hard in later seasons and the first movie, it’s nice to see him just being a part of the background here.

The way the alien abduction conspiracy is handled in season one is also impeccable. My favorite part of season one was how ambiguous it was about its alien mythos, and how neither the heroes nor the audience actually sees an alien until the finale, and even then it’s just a frozen fetus. It’s sort of like the first season is one big tease- I mean, from the get-go, we know this show is about aliens. It’s the premise. But because we as the audience have yet to see an alien, we share Mulder’s rabid desire to find the truth. Which is why the finale, entitled “The Erlenmeyer Flask” is such an amazing episode, one of the best of the series for sure- because it’s really more about Scully, and because she’s the one who sees an alien, not Mulder. Even though you don’t see a living Grey in flesh and blood this time ’round, you do get several more mytharc episodes than is usual. Some of them aren’t officially considered mytharc because they don’t appear on The X-Files mythology DVDs, but they do deal with aliens and it was nice to have a season that had just a few more extraterrestrial-centric stories.

Overall, the first season was pretty good and it’s easy to see how it hooked so many viewers when it premiered in 1993. The show would go on to have an even more engrossing mythos and a higher budget that allowed for cooler “monster of the week” episodes, but the simplicity of the original 24 episodes is refreshing. There’s really only one stinker of an ep- “Gender Bender,” and I wonder if the lack of budget forced the writers to craft compelling stories that couldn’t rely on special effects. Overall, the monster of the week eps in this season are of a higher quality than I think they would go on to be, and “Gender Bender” only failed because it was too ambiguous.

Ambiguity is a huge part of The X-Files’ personal form of storytelling. It’s also what I think makes it better than shows it’s influenced, namely Fringe. Don’t get me wrong- I like Fringe and think it’s a pretty good show. But I feel like in its effort to distance itself from The X-Files, it actually removed all the elements that made that show great. Fringe completely eliminates the skeptic vs. believer subplot halfway through its first season. Once Walter stops being a total lunatic and endears himself to his son and companions, they stop questioning him, or the paranormal for that matter. It’s just part of the job for Olivia Dunham, and there’s no Scully foil for her. But worse than that is the way Fringe tries to tie real-life science into its outlandish sci-fi plots. Mulder and Scully are brilliant FBI agents, and generally catch the monster/killer by the end of the episode. Generally. But sometimes, even if they’ve saved the screaming civilian girl and put down the horrible creature, they still don’t know why or how. How does Tooms’ genetic anomaly allow him to squeeze into tiny spaces, and how does eating people’s livers help him to be immortal? Tooms may get ripped to shreds in an escalator, but Mulder and Scully never figure out just how he did the things he did. And that’s because, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter.

Not only do Walter’s lengthy pseudoscience explanations of Fringe’s bizarre phenomena add an unwarranted contrivance to the show, but they often eliminate much of the horror the show produces. When you have a mad scientist who knows everything about everything and is also occasionally responsible for the very monsters you’re having him help you destroy, much of the tension is relieved. The fact that Scully and Mulder are just like you, the audience, that they don’t have a good grasp of what’s really going on, makes The X-Files all the more terrifying. In fact, it is still the only show I’ve ever seen that actually scares me to the same degree a good horror film would. Fringe grosses me out (so does The X-Files for that matter) and The Twilight Zone creeps me out, but The X-Files scares the shit out of me, and if it doesn’t do that, it leaves me feeling undeniably disturbed.

The narrative ambiguity you see in a show like this or in predecessor Twin Peaks is all but lost from today’s storytelling, with obvious exceptions like LOST. Modern audiences often feel betrayed if every single intricacy of the story isn’t explicitly explained for them, and so we rarely see a TV episode where the hero doesn’t figure it all out anymore. How often has House been clueless as to what’s ailing the sick guest star? When was the last time Jack Bauer failed to stop the terrorists from blowing up LA? How often has Sam Waterson lost a case on Law & Order? Americans not only crave routine but also clarity. A world that can’t be entirely explained via science, religion, or handsome white guys on TV playing doctors, lawyers or detectives, is a world too ambiguous for an American to bear.

Score: 8.8

Best Episode: “Beyond the Sea”

Both haunting and touching, this character-centric installment gives Scully a moment to shine, and includes one of the best guest appearances by an actor on television: Brad Dourif as Luther Lee Boggs.

Worst Episode: “Gender Bender”

A good example of how when The X-Files gets too ambiguous, it becomes downright confusing. Are these people a bunch of asexual Amish mutants, or aliens? We’ll never know, nor do I care.

Continue to Part 2

2 Responses to “An X-Files Retrospective, Part 1”

  1. Tom Stanley 09. May, 2010 at 12:45 am #

    I was on Yahoo and found your blog. Read a few of your other posts. Good work. I am looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Tom Stanley


  1. In Defense of “Across the Sea,” Part 1  | Alex Hilhorst - 12. May, 2010

    [...] them to the audience on a silver platter. But this is also America, a place where as I mentioned in my review of The X-Files' first season, television audiences do not like to be left in the [...]

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