Revisiting the X-Files, Part 1: The First Step Into the Shadows

So, we’re dealing with an iconic 1990s TV series here, in the pilot episode of which (Pilot) we have a young woman showing up dead on the outskirts of a small woodland town in the Pacific Northwest of the US. Thanks to parallels with a number of deaths elsewhere, the FBI become involved, represented in part by a handsome agent who reveals slightly eccentric habits and even more eccentric beliefs. The death turns out to be part of a web of local intrigue that belies the bucolic charm of the town, and there’s frequent hints than higher powers are involved in all this.

This is not, despite all of the above, Twin Peaks; instead we’re dealing with the start of The X-Files, lovingly crafted by Chris Carter, though he’s letting his Peaks fan flag fly here. The first episode sets the formula for most of the series’ “mythology” episodes: Mulder and Scully zoot about uncovering evidence of creepy alien activity, Mulder buys into the supernatural interpretation of events, Scully resists it but increasingly finds herself coming around to Mulder’s point of view step by baby step, they discover some incontrovertible evidence that something outright fuckabooie is going on but the sinister government conspiracy as represented by the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) manages to destroy the evidence yet again.

That’s a formula we’ll see repeated over and over during the run of the series, with incremental bits of additional motifs and recurring thingamuffins creeping in here and there to give the impression that we’re getting somewhere, but a quarter-century later and we all know goddamn well that it isn’t really going anywhere impressive – and with Gillian Anderson comprehensively fed up of the whole thing and no longer willing to come back after the mytharc episodes in 2018’s season 11 bombed, it looks like short of a full reboot we’ve had all the X-Files we’re ever going to get. (Conveniently, nice blu-ray sets of the TV episodes are widely available at a reasonable price, and the HD-remastered episodes are available on iTunes and other platforms at that.)

In some respects, knowing that the overarching plot is a bit of a bridge to nowhere makes it substantially easier to rewatch the series now; it liberates you from the burden of actually investing too deeply in the mythology episodes, allowing you to enjoy the characterisation and scenery-chewing and the pleasant visuals on offer. If Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny don’t do it for you, then at least there’s usually some fascinating scenery shots to deal with and a plethora of guest actors whose performances you can enjoy. Personally, Gillian Anderson has done it for me for about as long as I’ve been physiologically aware that certain people can do it for me.

On top of that, between them the mythology episodes only count for 71 of the series’ 220 episodes (counting the two movies as special episodes) – about a third, and on top of that the proportion goes up over the course of the show’s original run. The rest are the celebrated mystery-of-the-week episodes which served to remind us that there’s more to Mulder and Scully’s world than is dreamed of by their philosophy or accounted for by the Cigarette Smoking Man’s conspiracies, and indeed for many viewers (including myself) constituted the actual red meat of the series, the sheer range of possibilities when it came to what our favourite FBI duo might encounter being so much broader. Precisely because they didn’t limit themselves to the alien mythology of the show (instead adopting a cosmological outlook that the world is impossibly weird and more or less anything may be possible under the right circumstances), the mystery-of-the-week episodes end up being more mysterious, unpredictable, and scary than the mythology episodes, which end up becoming increasingly predictable due to the accumulating baggage weighing the mythology down.

Of course, one of the first things we remember about The X-Files when we think of it is the whole Mulder/Scully relationship, which tends to be recalled as a drawn-out will-they-won’t-they smouldering tension sort of thing. However, on review I think we might have all been a bit naive there. Within the first episode we have Scully rushing to Mulder’s motel room and stripping down to her underwear, and now, granted, there’s plot-related reasons for that but let’s not pretend that the whole extremely gradual will-they-won’t-they chemistry was actually all that gradual, at least to begin with. In fact, it’s arguably easiest to interpret the duo as banging frequently from the get-go, the coyness around their relationship being less to do with them not actually having banged yet and more about the fact that the sheer passionate intensity of their banging would have been way too much for US network television at the time. (The atmosphere of the scene immediately following the underwear moment is decidedly postcoital in my view.)

Regardless of what you think about its pacing and where it eventually went, you have to hand it to the Mulder/Scully romance: it really is one of the better-engineered setups for a romance in popular television, particularly of its vintage. I think part of the reason it works is that rather than having a designated protagonist that the audience is supposed to identify with and a designated love interest whose individual personhood is secondary to their status as a prize for the protagonist, both Mulder and Scully are protagonists in their own right, both in the show in general and in respect of the relationship. This already puts it streets ahead of legions of other onscreen romances, and the mutual respect between the two lives up to that.

On top of that, whether you identify with Mulder or Scully, there’s a narrative here which in each case caters to a particular fantasy. Let’s say you’re Mulder: you’re beavering away in the basement on this cool hobby of yours when Gillian fuckin’ Anderson walks in. There’s some initial prickliness when you suspect she’s here to make light of your interests, but you actually find that sharing your passions with her gives you a new appreciation of them and eventually she ends up conceding the importance of your hobby and getting in on it herself. Crucially, she’s someone you can emotionally open up to and will take you seriously when you do so, but she’s also willing to challenge you and keep you on your toes, which of course gives you an opportunity to explain your ideas to her, which you enjoy doing not least because you like the cut and thrust of debate when she points out holes in your theory. For many – especially a certain brand of geek boy (perhaps a fake one who was 11 when this stuff debuted), that’s an amazing proposition.

Welcome to Mulder’s man-cave, Scully.

Now let’s turn that around and identify with Scully instead for a moment. You like to think you’re basically a rational person, but there’s clearly something you’re looking for in life above and beyond merely meeting material needs – hence you joining the FBI in the first place. (Scully got a medical degree and was expected to become a regular doctor before she took that sideways step.) In the course of work you end up working alongside David fuckin’ Duchovny. He seems a bit mumbly and snarky, and initially it seems like he’s got this tendency to mansplain, but rather than getting pissy when you raise questions he engages with your points and respects your skills and expertise. In the course of working with him you come to realise the legitimacy of his work, and also realise that both of you are essentially after the same thing, you just have different perspectives on it, and the two perspectives together enrich the search. Your interactions also cause him to open up emotionally and softens his initially-prickly exterior. Again, there’s swathes of people that this would appeal to.

You can extend this to their relationship with outsiders. In Squeeze, the first episode which really shows what their FBI peers really think of the X-Files Division, the show nicely frames it as a sort of “nerds/outsiders vs. popular normies” sort of deal in the way that Mulder and Scully’s FBI peers sneer at them. As well as probably increasing the show’s appeal among audience members who empathise with all that, this sets up a nice bit where Scully yet again demonstrates that she actually is far more willing to hear out Mulder’s theories than others, her peers are dickish about it, and Mulder needles them for it. When the duo are talking about it afterwards Scully asks if Mulder’s being “territorial” with her, and he admits that he was a bit, but only because she’d shown willingness to go along with him on the journey to the truth even if she didn’t agree with his vision of what the destination was, and – crucially – that he’d be entirely fine with it if she decided she needed to transfer out for the sake of her career. Having been given that clear opportunity to leave if she wants, Scully stays because ultimately, the hunt for the truth is what’s important to her. It’s an early instance of their “us against the world” thing, but what’s nice about it is that it’s founded on a basic assumption that each of them is their own person and it’s important that Scully have the freedom to choose to go down the rabbithole rather than being dragged down there kicking and screaming.

(That said, I do wonder whether the real FBI is nearly as parochial and snooty about offbeat interests as it’s depicted here. I reckon you probably need to be a bit of a true crime nerd to land a job there, and my suspicion is that there aren’t that many true crime nerds who aren’t also nerds of some other stripe.)

One of the interesting things about Mulder and Scully’s relationship is that, rather than being aggressively male-coded and female-coded, in a lot of respects you could flip Mulder and/or Scully’s genders and their characterisation still works just fine. In terms of their academic backgrounds Scully is the one with the STEM training whilst Mulder went for psychology; lazier, more unthinkingly sexist writers would have flipped those. More than that, I could totally imagine Dude-Scully getting all Dick Dawkins’ on Mulder’s beliefs, or Fem-Mulder being given the “looks nerdy until she takes her glasses off and let her hair down” treatment. I don’t think either of things would have been improvements, mind, but equally I think it’s a notable thing about the way they are written. Both the major points of contrast and the common ground between them is framed in a way which very much isn’t rooted in traditional assumptions about gender roles in relationships, at least at the start, and that’s pretty good going for a show from this era.

They’d drop the ball eventually, of course – with extensive childbirth-and-pregnancy plots in particular – but when a show runs as long as The X-Files does, sooner or later most of its balls will get dropped, and it remains impressive to me that they actually managed to pick up the ball here to begin with.

They show their first signs of fumbling it in The Jersey Devil, which clumsily uses a feral human mother’s protectiveness of her children to make some sort of comment about Scully’s breeding intentions. As the fifth episode of the season, it’s notable both for being the first episode to have a clearly non-paranormal basis for its events and for being the first to be flat-out kind of bad; as well as the annoying insistence that childbirth is an essential feature of being a woman and you’re incomplete without babies, it also separates Mulder and Scully for much of the episode, and whilst getting some insight into them individually does help make them feel realler, at the same time it exposes just how much you lose when you split up the double act. Combine this with some decidedly bland direction and a rather lightweight tone compared to the preceding four episodes – and the general mass of what’s yet to come in the show – and the episode feels less like authentic X-Files and more like a daytime soap opera’s gentle X-Files spoof.

Another instance of dropping the ball is the pyrokinesis-themed tripefest Fire, in which amidst horribly executed dialogue, absurdly overegged British accents, and a cartoonish American media-informed understanding of the Northern Ireland conflict we meet an old flame of Mulder’s from his days at Oxford and Scully acts all jealous, putting paid to the idea that there was ever anything subtle about the will they/won’t they tension in the series – or, for that matter, that The X-Files was at all immune to the sort of simplistic “women be jealous of men’s romantic histories” nonsense that plagues so much media.

It’s an entire episode revolving around how David Duchovny is so studly that random women from his old student days engineer complex mind games in order to get him vulnerable to their wiles, because a decade later they’re still craving a tall glass of Duchovny, combined with a whole bunch of generic creeping and some of the least subtle or interesting treatments of the paranormal the series has ever offered, and then offered up with a side order of Mulder being sad because his fire phobia makes him unable to be badass and allows a smirking jerk to look like a big-time hero instead of him – but hey, at least Scully is willing to tend to him when everyone else is fawning over that mean ol’ jock. It’s kind of risible when you take it apart.

When PUA “peacocking” goes too far.

Another cliche about The X-Files is how Scully’s scepticism eventually hit the point where it stopped being a logical position based on the evidence she had encountered and instead became an aggravating tendency to stick her head in the sand, despite what she had witnessed and what the evidence indicated – in other words, the series hit the point where, once you applied Occam’s Razor to what Mulder and Scully had discovered, the balance of evidence was actually in favour of the supernatural because any natural explanation for what they’d encountered would be absurdly convoluted, if not impossible, and as such Scully went from being the voice of rationality to becoming an irrational denialist.

Again, in the early series this is much less the case – if, indeed, it ever was (we’ll see). In Deep Throat, the second episode, Scully is very dismissive about Mulder’s theory, but she has every reason to do so because Mulder’s theory is completely baseless – he has no actual hard evidence of extraterrestrial involvement in what’s going on at all, and comes up with his theory based on grainy second-hand copies of amateur photos of UFOs.

(A little aside about Deep Throat, by the way: when the titular informant pops up in the episode I could have sworn he was played by John Noble, who of course played a much more prominent role in J.J. Abrams’ X-Files-alike Fringe. It isn’t him – it’s Jerry Hardin, but the resemblance is uncanny.)

Here we see an important role played by Scully’s objections: by pointing out the deficiencies of the evidence she and Mulder have gathered, she reminds Mulder (and the viewer) of what they’d need to actually prove what’s going on and solve the case, which is a different standard of evidence than that required to merely come up with a close guess as to what the truth is. Reminding the viewer that the duo can’t just go to their superiors or the media or whoever and blow the conspiracy wide open with the evidence they have to hand remains important and useful even once Scully believes in the conspiracy.

This, in fact, is probably why Chris Carter waited as long as he did to soften Scully’s sceptical stance: if she just gave in and accepted Mulder’s worldview, she would lose her capacity to ask the questions which need to be answered to keep the viewers up to speed, and it’d be that much harder to draw that crucial line in the reader’s mind between what Mulder and Scully know and what they can prove.

Perhaps the most important episode in this season is Squeeze. Sure, the preceding two episodes introduced to the X-Files mythology arc – but it’s Squeeze which was the first mystery-of-the-week episode, and set the pattern for those that followed. It’s basically a mashup of a serial killer story and a vampire story, with our stretchy, squeezey, liver-eating, 30-year-hibernation-cycle-enjoying antagonist Eugene Tooms being a very unusual sort of vampire when it gets down to it.

To a certain extent it shows the influence of Silence of the Lambs (we are not told whether Tooms enjoyed fava beans and chianti with his victims’ livers), but it would be unsurprising if it were the case, but the episode is undeniably influential in its own right, both when it came to future mystery-of-the-week episodes of the series (in fact, it’s one of the few of those to get a fully-fledged sequel, Tooms) and to an extent which reached beyond The X-Files itself. (I’m 99% sure that the weird activity/dormancy cycle of the Creeper in the Jeepers Creepers series is inspired by Tooms’ life cycle, for instance.)

On the whole, the episode takes a dark, grimy style of horror and puts it into a mainstream network television context not used to such darkness, and pulls it off amazingly. There’s actually only one really prominent effects shot showing Tooms’ capabilities – a shot down a chimney as he does a grim sort of Santa Claus act – and once again, it ends up being pretty effective. The whole Tooms situation is so delightfully bizarre that it really quickly establishes that the X-Files universe is a much stranger and less predictable place than you might think if you only watched the mythology episodes (note: you don’t want to only watch the mythology episodes), and it’s notable that once again, Scully actually admits the truth of what’s going on by the end.

It’s also deliciously horrifying. Consider Tooms plucking Scully’s necklace from about her neck, his weird little collection of souvenirs, his disgusting nest, and most of all, the way at the end of the episode he just calmly licks shreds of newspaper and tosses them into the corner of his cell to build his new nest. Doug Hutchison certainly has a way of projecting creepiness, though given that he married a 16-year-old when he himself was 50 maybe that’s just his way.

(To avert the inevitable complaints: no, I have nothing against age gap relationships. I have plenty against age gap relationships where one of the participants is that young, and was presumably younger when the relationship was kindled. A 36 year old marrying a 70 year old has lived more than long enough to not just become an adult, but also to establish themselves in the world – or at least earn a certain level of wisdom and insight from their struggles to do so if they haven’t – and surely knows what they’re getting into. A 26 year old marrying a 60 year old may be taking a bit of a risk, but people in their mid-20s taking risks is to be applauded. A 16 year old marrying a 50 year old is getting into a really serious commitment which they almost certainly don’t have the level of life experience necessary to really commit to, in a relationship with a generational power differential which is substantial, and is doing so more or less as soon as they can marry. What’s the big rush, why not wait a bit? Apparently one of the motivations was Courtney Stodden – the wife in question – being a devout Christian sort who therefore presumably wanted to wait for marriage, but yeah.)

Overall, between the tinges of horror in the first two episodes and the sheer nightmare of Squeeze, it’s clear that The X-Files is at its strongest when it embraces a big dose of horror into its sci-fi/drama amalgam, though it seems to have taken Chris Carter and team a while to come around to that; it’s not until the eighth episode of the season, Ice, that they go full-bore horror again. It’s the inevitable The Thing riff that every science fiction show seems destined to do at some point, but the show at least lampshades this by setting it in a polar research base, and does about as good a job as John Carpenter himself did in terms of illustrating the destructive effects of paranoia. (In fact, the characters end up coming out of the situation somewhat better than the protagonists of The Thing did in part because Mulder and Scully have a genuine friendship and trust each other – something the gang in The Thing lacked, and it’s a rare example of a story being resolved through the power of friendship which isn’t cringeworthy.)

Ice is also notable as another early episode where Scully isn’t going full-bore sceptic: there is no reason for her to, the tangible physical evidence underpinning what’s going on is so unambiguous that she’s ready to accept it. This is useful because it means that the episode can play somewhat on a different tension between Mulder and Scully; Mulder wants to take some of the alien samples intact back to the US to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life and to use as the basis for research so that defences against the creatures can be properly formulated, whilst Scully considers the chances of infecting a more populated area unacceptable and believes that all the samples should be destroyed. This basic conflict between blue skies research and the immediate safety needs of the community is far more nuanced than the simplistic “does you BELEEV or does you NOT BELEEV???” angle that science fiction and paranormal shows often default to, and it’s nice that at least a few episodes of The X-Files even this early managed to get past that believer/nonbeliever dichotomy to examine other ideas.

In fact, making little tributes to science fiction classics is something of a habit of this season; another successful one is Eve, which manages to build interestingly on the ideas of The Boys From Brazil by moving away from the Hitler angle and contemplating what happens when a eugenic cloning experiment goes multi-generational. (That said, some of its aspects are a bit dodgy; whilst psychosis can have a genetic component, the portrayal of psychotic behaviour is strictly along the lines of cheesy Hollywood horror stories as opposed to actual psychosis – and as such implies that evil itself has a genetic component – a concept which perhaps links us back to Joseph Mengele after all.)

Not all of these little tributes are quite so successful. Space seems intended as an X-Files riff on The Quatermass Experiment, complete with an astronaut who came back from space with an extraterrestrial passenger (in this case, a space ghost – no word on whether it’s the coast-to-coast kind). You wouldn’t think Chris Carter and his team would bungle such a concept, but somehow they manage it with an overly dry script which takes entirely too long to kick into high gear, is prone to a lot of padding, and seems to have been designed as an episode which can be completed on a shoestring budget, relying heavily on NASA stock footage to fill time and running what’s supposed to be a NASA control centre out of what’s clearly a generic soundstage. (There’s also a risibly bad “spacewalk” sequence with some ghost special effects reminiscent of David Lynch’s special effects as deployed in INLAND EMPIRE or season 3 of Twin Peaks… specifically, those which are intended to be deliberately bad for aesthetic effect, though I don’t think this was meant to be deliberately bad here.) Mulder’s hero-worship of the possessed astronaut adds a little spice, but few other cast members seem able to muster the same enthusiasm for the material.

Mash this button when “Space” comes on.

The tendency for direct riffs on science fiction classics even extends to the mythology itself – Fallen Angel teases us with a lot of sound and fury and stilted B-movie dialogue related to the response to a UFO crash but, as is so often typical of the mythology episodes, it doesn’t end up signifying all that much – the main fun of the episode involves the alien intruder stalking about invisibly, much like the star of Predator. OK, the character of Max Fenig – played by Scott Bellis – as a representative of the flakier, more woo-infected end of UFOlogy and conspiracy theory is fun, and sets up later appearances from the character, though he’s a bit of a dry run prototype for the much more entertaining Lone Gunmen and, once they’re introduced, a bit redundant as a result.

If Squeeze is the first mystery-of-the-week episode, another pattern for the series was established by Conduit, which you could call the first “quasi-mythology” episode – an episode which, at least at first, seems to be tied into the whole UFOs/alien abduction/Mulder’s abducted sister/black oil/cigarette smoking man/extraterrestrial colonisation shebang, but in effect just represents the series spinning its wheels a bit without really adding anything to the mythology (to the point where nothing new or interesting is learned here at all and the episode is usually skipped over when people are enumerating those which actually contributed to the mytharc). Whilst this can be annoying in some respects, at this stage in the show it at least offers the writers – and thus, the audience – a chance to explore Mulder and Scully’s motivations in relation to the series’ mythology without having major new revelations cropping up to distract from that exploration.

One scene which really stood out for me in Conduit was the bit where Mulder and Scully drop in with the local sheriff to ask about this young woman who’s vanished under mysterious circumstances, and he shows no sign of being worried; he doesn’t just brush off Mulder’s unorthodox theory, he more or less admits the possibility that the missing Ruby has been murdered or being kept captive or otherwise brutalised by some ne’er-do-well, and seems to take the stance that women who behave as promiscuously as her more or less deserve that when it happens to them. Scully doesn’t seem as shocked as she perhaps should be here, though perhaps this is an artifact of the show being some 25 years old; these days, it feels to me like we take missing person situations much more seriously. You don’t need to dig too deep into true crime subjects to learn just how often a lackadaisical attitude from the police has enabled serial killers and others to get away with their shit for extended periods of time.

Another “first” for the series is Shadows, a mystery-of-the-week episode where they point is less to give us a really creepy monster to spook us or to give us some further insight into Mulder and Scully themselves, but which instead acts as a nice little character study of a one-off character who in certain respects is the actual protagonist of the story, with Mulder and Scully being supporting characters who act as the lens through which we explore the main character’s story. In this case, it’s Lauren Kyte (Lisa Waltz), a secretary mourning for her deceased boss who might be haunted by his ghost – or she may have incredibly powerful telekinetic powers which happen to manifest using the idea of his spiritual presence as a sort of guiding aesthetic.

It’s Waltz here who gets the lion’s share of the emoting and the strong scenes and the character development, with Mulder and Scully simply taking us along with them in a visit to her world. Maybe it’s a bit of a filler episode from the perspective of the overall arc of the series, but in terms of offering up a delicious bit of paranormal-tinged storytelling – a self-contained mini TV movie which happens to have some comfortingly familiar friends as part-investigators, part-Greek chorus – it’s rather nice, at least for the first half hour or so; for its last ten minutes the story spins its wheels a little, having already gotten to the point and done what it needs to do but finding itself not quite filling the episode’s running time, and it needs to pad itself out with a terrorist-busting exercise which Anderson and Duchovny don’t quite sound like they’re invested in it – though it least culminates in a reasonably interesting climactic manifestation.

If you want psychological depth to the series, though, perhaps your best treat is Beyond the Sea. This is the first episode in which Mulder and Scully’s believer/sceptic polarity gets out-and-out flipped, and in which Scully is undeniably the lead character whilst Mulder is sidelined for a good chunk of the episode. It kicks off with Scully being bereaved – her father (played by Don Davis of Twin Peaks fame, in another “wholesome military dad” role) dies of a heart attack early in the episode, and just before Scully gets the news over the phone she has a brief vision of him sat in her front room attempting to mouth a message to her, though it could just be a fragment of a dream rather than anything else.

“Sit around, look like I’m saying something profound, keep it dreamlike? OK, sure, Lynch had us doing this shit all the time.”

From there, we go into much darker territory, with the X-Files team pulled into the case of Luther Boggs (Brad Dourif) – a death row prisoner put away by Mulder earlier in his career, who claims to have psychically-gleaned information to share about a recent kidnapping. Mulder is convinced that it’s bullshit – an act intended to give Boggs just a little more of a reprieve before his scheduled execution – but Scully comes to believe that Boggs might well be channelling the dead – including her father.

As well as giving Scully some much-needed extra spotlight (and Anderson a chance to stretch her acting chops more than she has so far all season), the episode also takes its slower, more careful pace as an opportunity to go more Lynchian than the series has so far. I don’t mean Lynchian here in the sense of the rather forced quirkiness-for-the-sake-of-it of the likes of Wild Palms and other material which tries in a rather forced way to ape Lynch’s eccentricities; I mean Lynchian in the sense of the sheer unfettered evil which Lynch hints at in the darkest moments of his material, and which is the real underpinning of his work which the quirkiness is typically meant to provide a moment of relief from, rather than being the end in itself. In the more-artistic-than-usual direction, in the ambient soundtrack, in the grimness of it all, there’s an absolute reek of Lynch’s influence. Casting Major Briggs as Scully’s daddy is only the tip of the iceberg.

In addition, I think it’s the first episode in the series where it’s entirely possible that absolutely nothing paranormal or unusual has happened at all, and it’s particularly interesting that they chose such an episode to be the one which undermines Scully’s scepticism the most this season. Perhaps the it’s very nuts-and-bolts nature of some of the more blatant manifestations in the season which prompts Scully to look at things in a scientific and materialistic light – whereas, precisely because what happens here is so ephemeral and intangible, it sets her mind on ephemeral and intangible things, rather than anything which can be measured and quantified, and when she turns her mind to such things she finds that there is a scope for faith there where there isn’t when she’s dealing with something much more directly measurable and testable – Scully’s God is, in effect, the “God of the gaps”.

If you wanted evidence that the show was very much made for geeks by geeks, you need look no further than Ghost In the Machine. Sure, it’s a computers-and-networks paranoia episode giving an early 1990s update to rogue AI stories like Colossus: the Forbin Project or Demon Seed (the death of the AI is even a low-budget take on the death of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey), but whilst some parts of it are extraordinarily cheesy in the way that 1990s cyber-thrillers often are, at the same time a lot of the stuff you see onscreen actually is much more true to early 1990s computing – and speculation about computing’s future – than is typical for this sort of fare. You see DOS menus where DOS menus are to be expected, for instance, some of the “smart home” ideas which were just blue sky R&D here has finally started rolling out on a consumer level, and the idea of an adaptive network being crucial to machine learning isn’t too much off-base.

Perhaps the only truly flawed assumption the episode indulges in is that you’d even need to invent AI to implement the “smart building” stuff which the COS system here is supposed to manage, when in fact you can implement an awful lot of “smart” functions without an actual self-aware mind capable of creative thought and experiencing qualia behind it. The episode’s still quite interesting, not least because it’s the first episode where Deep Throat actually gives the agents any sort of serious help, slipping them information when they’ve otherwise been stonewalled. (Back in the day this would have been taken as evidence that this was an important mythology episode, rather than another mystery-of-the-week; one of the major differences of rewatching the series after the fact is that you know not to get too invested in that sort of thing.)

Visually, the series by and large looks great. All the original footage shot for it was done at a sufficiently nice cinematographic standard that upscaling to 1080p HD looks great, and it was originally shot in widescreen and then hacked down to 4:3 aspect ratio for broadcast (since this would have been at the time that TV companies would have started filming things in expectation of the coming widescreen boom). The first noticeable bit of CGI we get is in Deep Throat, and that’s used in a way which clearly respected the limitations of the technology at the time and, therefore, still looks pretty effective today. The only real dips in quality I noticed was where they resort to stock footage here and there, where naturally the limitations of the stock footage is rather evident. On the whole, then, the series avoided the problems that some contemporaries like Babylon 5 have suffered when it comes to DVD or Blu-Ray releases.

One thing which stood out to me is that when they enter Tooms’ lair in Squeeze, they don’t seem to bother photographing the place; nor do they develop the habit of carrying a camera with them at all times later on. Now, obviously it’s the early 1990s and cameraphones are not a thing yet, let alone being as ubiquitous as they are today. However, decent compact cameras did exist, and given the trouble Mulder and Scully routinely have when it comes to convincing people of things they’ve seen, you’d have thought that they’d start making a point of at the very least carrying a cheap disposable wherever they go.

A notable thing about this season is that several of its weakest episodes – The Jersey DevilSpaceFire – were penned by Chris Carter himself, and indeed the most panned episodes of the recent revival were also Chris Carter pieces. Whilst the obvious assumption is that a television program’s showrunner and creator is going to have a better handle than anyone on what makes it tick, The X-Files may well be the example of an idea where it took one person to cook up the initial concept, but other hands to truly make it shine – like how Star Trek: The Next Generation picks up once Gene Roddenberry is out of the picture, or how Dungeons & Dragons needed Gary Gygax to take Dave Arneson’s weird, disorganised, fragmentary concept for a game and actually turn it into a game someone other than Dave Arneson could hope to run.

In particular, after doing a decent job of establishing the Mulder/Scully dynamic in the first two episodes of the season, Carter spends much of the rest of the season goofing it. Both The Jersey Devil and Fire are episodes where Mulder and Scully spend an extended amount of time apart and much of the focus is on Mulder, to the point where it starts feeling like he’s the main protagonist and Scully is merely the Watson to his Holmes, whereas other writers do a better job of keeping the two balanced. (To be fair to Carter, he does sometimes do a better job himself; at least in Space Scully is allowed to be more on the money than Mulder is when it comes to Colonel Belt’s motivations, Mulder having been blinded by hero-worship.)

Particularly shonky results happen when Carter plays script doctor – take, for instance, Young At Heart, which originated as a script from Scott Kaufer (an old buddy of Carter’s) before Carter revised it. It’s a weird thing, sharing Carter’s tendency to treat Mulder as the main character and Scully as his assistant and exacerbating it with a weird disconnection between how Mulder and Scully have been played so far; it almost feels like an episode of some lesser crime TV show given an X-Files spin, with Mulder and Scully alternating between reasonable approximations of their usual selves and empty, exposition-spouting cyphers. It’s almost like Kaufer wrote it for some other show before scraping the serial numbers off and mailing it to Carter.

Carter only really gets the hang of writing mystery-of-the-week episodes towards the end of the season with Darkness Falls. Admittedly, the core idea has some parallels with that of Ice when it comes to microscopic life unleashed from a long imprisonment, and admittedly in some parts it’s really annoyingly heavy-handed and condescendingly didactic; despite basically agreeing with the anti-deforestation angle, I still found it really annoyingly presented. Still, the episode does make really excellent use of the gorgeous British Columbia scenery that the early seasons of the X-Files enjoyed the benefits of (along with the generous British Columbia tax breaks for filmmakers), and the actual special effects denoting the presence of the hideous aphids are simple but effective. Perhaps most importantly, Carter doesn’t pull his punches and isn’t afraid to get grim – in the climactic scenes of the episode he comes this close to killing off Mulder and Scully, and even momentarily makes you believe they might actually die here (even though you know damn well they won’t).

Carter’s greatest accomplishment this season is the finale episode, The Erlenmeyer Flask, which is far and away the best mytharc episode this season. Beginning with a fast-paced car chase, it reverts at the beginning to a slower, gentler pace, before it spirals into a vertigo-inducing plunge into increasing weirdness and paranoia, with alien-human hybrids, dark biotechnological programs unfolding in anonymous private self-storage garages, elite assassins working for deep state dark projects and all that good shit mashed up into a delicious conspiracy theory stew. It more or less wraps up with the same “Scully takes extreme measures in order to get the Conspiracy to release the imprisoned Mulder” angle that the original Deep Throat did, though given the circumstances I am willing to forgive this as a deliberate parallel as opposed to a mere lack of ideas.

Possibly the most striking image of the entire season.

Capping the episode off with the assassination of Deep Throat – who prior to this had been presented as a crucially important recurring character – was a ballsy way of establishing that the X-Files would take no prisoners; a failure to show similar grit in terms of shaking up the show’s status quo is arguably one of the greater weaknesses of subsequent seasons.

As far as the other writers go, Glen Morgan and James Wong rapidly establish themselves as star players on the writing team, with their best episodes like SqueezeIce and Beyond the Sea ranking among the best in the season and even their B-material like Shadows still being pretty decent. They’re also responsible for what is, to me, the best mythology episode of the season – EBE, a morass of paranoia which makes Chris Carter’s attempts at UFO conspiracy lore seem positively naive. As well as introducing us to the Lone Gunmen, Mulder’s slacker conspiracy theorist buddies who despite (or perhaps because of) their personal shortcomings manage to be some of the best supporting characters in the series, and giving a much darker spin to Deep Throat than the show had depicted to date, EBE also adds a really nice spin to Scully’s scepticism.

Specifically, when Scully is fully ready to admit that there’s something conspiratorial going on when confronted with clear evidence of it – she’s just as willing to go paranoid as Mulder is, and in fact as a sceptic she makes a better paranoid than Mulder does as a believer. Believers like Mulder have an odd sort of credulousness to them, as seen in cases like that of Paul Bennewitz; they’re paranoid of official sources, but are willing to fall hook, line, and sinker for someone telling them a story which confirms their beliefs. Sceptics and pessimists, on the other hand, are willing to question everyone once it’s clear that a game of deception is being played – and so Scully is willing to raise questions about the honesty of Deep Throat that Mulder has so far not even contemplated.

Morgan and Wong’s star player status is cemented by the fact that Squeeze had the rare honour of getting a sequel – almost unheard-of for mystery-of-the-week episodes. Tooms lacks the punch of Squeeze because we already basically know what is going on, and there’s some failures of characterisation here and there; in particular, it seems weird that any psychiatrist would talk to someone as unfailingly, ceaselessly creepy as Tooms for any extended period of time and say “Oh, sure, this person is definitely ready to rejoin society”.

That said, Morgan and Wong are able to make it work by adding in a bit of extra spice. For one thing, they make sure to have Mulder menaced in his home by Tooms this time around, which is a refreshing change from the “Scully gets targeted because she’s the woman” dynamic the series would sometimes blunder into. Sure, Tooms doesn’t try to kill Mulder – but the episode at least strongly implies that Tooms takes the gambit he does because he’s learned that directly attacking the cops won’t fly.

In addition, Tooms is in some respects promoted to being a mytharc episode – not that Tooms himself ever has much to do with the wider mythology, but this is the episode which introduces Mitch Pileggi as Assistant Director Walter Skinner – Mulder and Scully’s FBI superior, who we are introduced to in the company of the Cigarette Smoking Man and apparently involved in the general push to get the X-Files shut down if a suitable pretext can be found. Previously, Mulder and Scully had been depicted in this season as reporting to a rather ill-defined set of superiors and the chain of command above them was far from clear; later episodes would use Skinner more regularly in order to clarify all that, thereby helping give a sense of the FBI as an actually structured institution rather than just a vague backdrop, and Skinner would have his own plot arc as he goes from being a more hostile sceptic to a reluctant supporter of the X-Files mission.

Other hired guns would have less salubrious records; Larry and Paul Barber’s Gender Bender would be the only episode they’d ever write for the series, and it’s a confused mess, with a central “gender-switching monster” gimmick which has dated extremely poorly (what with the transphobia and the gay panic and all) mashed up really awkwardly with the idea of an isolationist religious sect actually being a group of alien settlers, their Amish-like religious practices designed to help keep them separate from the main run of humanity. The latter concept is an interesting idea in itself, but is distracted from too much by the cheap titillation of the former concept.

Meanwhile, the Garth Marenghi Award for Cheesiest Writers goes to Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon. Despite being capable of more subtle work like Conduit, the duo tend to use their efforts more for B-movie-tastic efforts like Ghost In the Machine or Lazarus, in which the resuscitation via defibrillator of a shot FBI agent in the close presence of the dead body of a bank robber shot in the same incident causes the spirits of the bank robber to end up in the FBI agent’s body.

It’s impossible to take the rest of the episode seriously after the absurd into, in which the bank robber’s corpse is seen jerking in the background as the team of medics pump electricity into the stricken Agent Willis. Whilst it’s a good visual to establish to the audience what is going on, the medical team is surrounding Willis in a circle, which means that the robber’s corpse is surely in the field of vision of some of them – and the body is bucking so hard that it’d surely grab your attention if it was thrashing around in the background. The end result is an absurdity worthy of Darkplace itself, and the rest of the episode is similarly cheesy.

Gansa and Gordon evidently didn’t think their first go-around of the “dead person cohabiting in a living person’s body” idea hit the spot either, because they use the exact same premise all over again in Born Again late in the season. To give them credit, it’s got an undeniably strong opening; a police officer coming off-duty finds a young child sitting forlornly in a nearby alleyway, and brings her into the station. She leaves the child with a detective colleague to interview her in order to work out who she is and how to contact her parents. The child is alone with the room with the detective (a situation unthinkable in this day and age and surprisingly shocking to see in this context), and then after mere seconds the detective is launched bodily through the window, to fall to his death in the street below.

After a strong beginning, however, the episode descends into utter nonsense, with the reincarnation plot tied in with a psychokinesis angle to give some mechanism by which the episode’s Creepy Little Girl (yes, it resorts to that trope) can murder a bunch of burly corrupt cops.

I suspect it’s Gansa who tends to steer the Gansa-Gordon episodes into cheesetown; Howard Gordon’s mostly-solo script Miracle Man (it had some bits fleshed out by Chris Carter, apparently) is one of the seasons most low-key and thoughtful episodes. I particularly like the way it interweaves blatant phenomena which turn out to be entirely conventional and (mostly) more subtle phenomena which don’t get such a clear-cut explanation – as well as the ambiguity as to whether Scott Bairstow’s faith healer caught in the middle of a crisis of faith is really channelling the power of God or simply exercising a strange, instinctive manipulation of people’s electrical fields. (The most potent manifestation Bairstow’s character manages, after all, comes in the midst of a thunderstorm.)

Overall, Gordon very effectively manages to create the impression of something genuinely precious and interesting being rendered tawdry and ridiculous by the tacky gaudiness of American-style tent ministries – a carny practice which, despite offering many a connection to the divine, seems to me destined only to ruin any sense of the sacred and transcendent instead of evoking it.

Marilyn Osborn’s sole contribution to the season – and to the entire series – is Shapes. This is basically a werewolf story, played straight according to the classic werewolf tropes; it’s part of a spate of stories from the 1990s where, rather than actually accurately depicting Native American lore concerning skin-walkers and other such figures, people just lazily transposed European-style werewolf lore to a Native American context; Tony Zarrindast’s Werewolf, subject of one of the best Mike Nelson-era Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, is another example of this sort of thing, as is half of the Werewolf: the Apocalypse game line. (Of course, The X-Files would get much, much more appropriative later on in its run, with great swathes of Navajo culture being riffed on to serve the alien mytharc.)

At the same time, aside from this one folklore point it’s a more nuanced and authentic depiction of Native American culture – and the tensions between reservation residents and neighbouring land owners – than you’d typically get on TV at the time. It’s also nice to see Michael Horse of Twin Peaks fame in action again; having been a sheriff’s deputy and pal of Dale Cooper’s, he’s gotten a promotion, a name change (though he’s still basically playing Hawk from Twin Peaks) and a transfer to be in charge of law enforcement on this Montana reservation. It’d be a stronger episode if it didn’t lazily apply the label of “manitou” to its monster-of-the-week – an offensive misrepresentation of an actual religious concept, and come on Marilyn, “skin-walker” fits the bill much, much better. Aside from this, it’s a competently executed, rather predictable mystery-of-the-week story which manages to deliver a few good scares even though you basically know what’s coming – the X-Files equivalent of comfort eating.

Chris Ruppenthal also gets his only solo X-Files writing credit here with Roland. (He’d also write the first draft of the second season episode 3, but the final episode was the subject of extensive rewrites by Glen Morgan and James Wong.) This is yet another “dead person acts from beyond the grave via an unlikely vessel” episode in a season already overstuffed with them, with a side order of somewhat patronising treatment of people with learning disabilities; Željko Ivanek’s performance as Roland himself is basically a less heavy-handed version of the whole Rain Man thing.

So that, then, is the first season of The X-Files, for better or worse. You’d think that for subsequent seasons, Chris Carter and his team would have learned the lessons of their missteps and have a better knack for focusing the series in the SF-horror borderland it works best in. And you’d think, particularly with some of the cleanup operations they witness in The Erlenmeyer Flask, that Mulder and Scully would turn carrying cameras and taking photos of everything freaky they witness into part of their standard operating procedure. But that, friends, is an article for another day.

4 thoughts on “Revisiting the X-Files, Part 1: The First Step Into the Shadows

  1. luisdantas

    Obviously a tangent, but your comment on Gygax and Arneson caught my attention. I am not well informed about the exact nature of the creative tension between the two, but what little I know implies that Arneson had by far the best artistic merit among them.
    Do you elaborate on that situation somewhere (presumably in some R&R post)?

    Like

    1. See my Playing At the World review for a deep dive – https://refereeingandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/playing-at-the-world-winning-at-history/ – but the short version is that whilst Arneson might have had some wild ideas, he was miserably bad at communicating them in written form, and it took someone like Gygax to actually organise D&D and turn it into a game others could play without packing an Arneson clone into every copy to run the game for you.

      Like

  2. Ronan Wills

    Last year I made an attempt to watch the X-Files for the first time. I caught little bits and pieces of it when it was airing on TV (I think mostly the later seasons), but I was younger than you at the time and it was mostly 2 spooky 4 me. The episode about the legless guy kept me up for weeks.

    Coming at it fresh, I bounced off it pretty hard. A lot of it really hasn’t aged well, and I found it hard to take seriously. I remember an early episode about Neanderthals being particularly goofy.

    That said, there were parts that drew me in, including the very first episode. I think less special-effects driven episodes have probably aged better, so I’ve been thinking of giving it another shot, and maybe this time jumping around between whatever the fans consider the top-tier material (I assume there are recommended watch lists doing the rounds) instead of just trying to watch all of it in order.

    (By the way, I think something’s gone wonky with the comments on this blog; I was trying to comment by logging into twitter and kept getting a “Please fill out the required fields (name, email)” error)

    Like

    1. Tech issues will likely be at WordPress’s end. If you’ve got something like AdBlock running it could be that it’s messing with the necessary bits to talk to Twitter.

      The Neanderthal episode, if it’s the one I’m thinking of (The Jersey Devil), is easily one of the worst bits of season 1. It’s a particular shame that they wasted such a fun bit of folklore on such a limp story.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s