Supernatural Souvenirs of Simpler Times

As with any blockbuster media success, X-Files tie-ins were thick on the ground (and to an extent remain so to this day), and I don’t intend to cover all of them here. But two books have always stood out to me from the morass of official and unofficial episode guides, interview books, and other paraphernalia. These are the two chunky hardcover volumes of Jane Goldman’s The X-Files Book of the Unexplained, which came out in 1995-1996. The basic concept of these books is that Goldman uses X-Files episodes as jumping-off points for discussions of the real scientific, pseudoscientific, paranormal and esoteric inspirations for the episodes.

Volume One, which came out in 1995, is largely tied to season 1, both in terms of the subject matter of the chapters and the brief episode guide included at the end of the book. This is actually helpful because, what with the first season being fairly scattershot as it tried out a range of ideas, this means a diverse bunch of subjects is available for Goldman to work with, with chapters ranging from well-grounded subject matter like genetic modification and artificial intelligence to more tenuous material like werewolves, reincarnation, faith healing and telepathy. Naturally, there’s a healthy coverage of UFO subjects too.

Though Goldman does mention a few incidents where, if you dig deeper, it turns out there’s really not much of a factual basis to them, by and large she actually does a good job of providing a range of interesting anecdotes and cases, maintaining a suitable level of scepticism where it’s called for whilst avoiding the sort of aggressively dismissive attitude that you often get with this sort of material.

Given her warm words for James Randi, it’s evident that Goldman has a lot of time for the sceptical perspective, but she also has a sound idea of the limits of scientific inquiry, and how phenomena which happen rarely and can’t easily be recaptured under controlled conditions are extremely difficult to study, and where strange events have occurred where a clear explanation genuinely has not been arrived at and so asserting any particular explanation would be arrogant and, in itself, unscientific. At the same time, her capacity to pick out interesting subjects to discuss suggests a genuine interest in and enjoyment of the subject, even if she concludes that a lot of it is probably bunk.

In other words, Goldman has the capacity to act in both a Mulderian and a Scullyesque capacity, which makes her a good choice for writing this book, and she does so very entertainingly. Though she only really addresses the X-Files episodes that inspire the individual chapters briefly, by way of starting her discussion of a subject, she’s got a good way of teasing out what we loved about the early series (and is able to extract a confession from Chris Carter that Space was a terrible episode), and is able to cultivate a similarly enjoyable look at a lot of the subjects in question.

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 11: Hey, We’re Gone Again!

After coming back from the dead with a hit-and-miss tenth season which managed to eke out some really good episodes despite every episode that Chris Carter wrote stinking to high heaven (a big problem with that accounts for 3 of the 6 episodes in the season), The X-Files shambled back into the grave with its eleventh season. This second revival go-around was green-lit on the basis of season 10 not doing too shabby in the ratings by 2016 standards (the bar for viewership having lowered in the intervening years due to the decline in ratings across TV in general), and to date it is the last we’ve seen of the core narrative of the franchise, though naturally spin-off projects continue to percolate through various stages of rumoured pre-production.

Things did not start out well. When the initial slate of writers for the season were announced in mid-2017, it was noted that all of them were men. This was also the case for the 2016 season, but that was explicitly a get-the-old-band-back-together project, with James Wong, Glen Morgan, and Darin Morgan – all of whom were beloved writers from the early seasons of the show – coming into write the non-Carter episodes (and also direct). Of course, it wasn’t a good thing that so few episodes of the original run were written by women, and no woman was ever really a “regular” on the writing team – but that’s the history they had, so it made sense that it was reflected in a season focused on bringing the old regulars back.

The announced slate of writers for season 11, however, also included men who hadn’t had writers’ credits on the show before – so it was clear that for this new season, still shorter than the 20-odd episode original seasons but substantially longer than the 6-episode season 10, there was a willingness to bring new voices to the table. That not one of those new voices were women was a bit much – it was self-evidently wrong that the writers’ room was so male-dominated even back in the 1990s, for this to still be the case in the late 2010s was outright absurd.

Embarrassingly, Gillian Anderson herself elected to highlight the issue, and also pointed out that barely any episodes of the show had been directed by women. One of those episodes was Anderson’s own all things, back in season 7, the other was season 9‘s John Doe, directed by Michelle MacLaren – that’s it. On the writing side of things, you needed to go all the way back to all things to find a script written by a woman, and all the way back to season 5‘s Schizogeny to find one written by a woman not named “Gillian Anderson”. On the original run of the show the writer’s team had actually become more male-dominated as the show progressed, with more and more episodes turned out by the core writing team, less episodes being contributed by authors new to the series, and more or less none of those new writers being women.

Subsequent to Anderson’s intervention, there was a course correction. (Face-saving comments may have floated around about including more women having always been the plan – but if that were the case, why leave ’em out of the original announcement?) In fact, two episodes of season 11 were written by women, and a different two episodes were directed by women, meaning that some 40% of the entire season involved either a woman’s direction or a woman’s script – a healthier proportion, by that metric, than the show had ever enjoyed.

But did this yield a better season? Yes – in part because some of those women turn out to be damn good at this whole X-Files thing, in part because the man who represents the biggest problem on the X-Files writing team – Chris Carter – wrote less than a third of it, not half…

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 10: Hey, We’re Back!

Confusingly, The X-Files has two season 10s and season 11s. The X-Files Season 10 and The X-Files Season 11 were limited-run comic book series which ran from 2013 to early 2016, with Chris Carter’s blessing, in the wake of his plan for a 2012 movie focusing on the mytharc’s alien invasion to follow up I Want To Believe fell through. In classic Carter style, he decided to retcon both comic book series out of canon entirely and produce two new seasons of the TV show – revival seasons which saw Mulder and Scully return to the small screen, drove away audiences in droves, and eventually saw the series end again with Gillian Anderson firmly ruling out ever returning.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: for this article, I’m just going to look at season 10 – the canonical, televisual season 10, not the comic book one, and the first of the revival seasons. This was set up as a fairly short “event series”, just six episodes, each of which was written and directed by an old hand from the series – along with Chris Carter himself, handling mytharc duties and also contributing a mystery-of-the-week episode, the season would see the return to the show of James Wong, Glen Morgan, and Darin Morgan, three of the most acclaimed writers from the early series who had astonishingly not contributed to the show since as far back as season 4.

Carter has justifiably come under fire for not including women as writers and directors in the revival season (or, for that matter, the original series), but for the purposes of a super-brief reunion season which was all about getting the old band back together, this feels more excusable here than it was for season 11. If you only have a very limited set of episodes, and you’re deliberately trying to bring back old regulars, and none of the old regulars were women due to your sexism the first time around, it’s evident that you are going to end up with this situation. It’s less excusable for season 11, which had more episodes and was less about getting back together with old pals.

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 9.5: Hey, Here’s That Second Movie Nobody Asked For

It’s years since Mulder and Scully went underground to hide from the conspiracy of alien super-soldiers which had infiltrated the government, turned the FBI against them, and attempted to have Mulder tried and executed by a military tribunal. Whilst Mulder stays out of sight, Scully has left the FBI altogether and has taken up a job at a Catholic paediatric hospital. Suddenly, the FBI call on the duo to return to action, offering to drop all the charges against Mulder, despite the fact that those charges were brought by the military and the FBI probably doesn’t have standing to do that, because mumblemumblemumble; Mulder and Scully are mistrustful, but don’t think there is any danger that this is some sort of trap set by the super-soldiers, because mumblemumblemumble.

Suitable retcons applied to allow our favourite paranormal investigators to return to action, Mulder and Scully find themselves heading to a frigid, snowbound West Virginia and tasked with acting as consultants to Special Agents Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peel) and Mosley Drummy (Xzibit), who are trying to track down missing FBI agent Monica Bannan (Xantha Radley), one of a string of women who have disappeared in the region. Whitney wants Mulder’s input specifically because of his role in various cases involving psychics, because Father Joe Crissman (Billy Connolly) is claiming to have visions relating to the case, and certainly seems to have managed the FBI to a piece of curious evidence – namely, a severed human arm, clearly not matching Bannan but possibly belonging to one of her abductors.

Scully has her reservations about Mulder launching himself back into the murky territory of paranormal serial killer investigations, and is ambivalent about her own relationship to it; she’s also facing a number of challenges to her faith. For one thing, the Catholic authorities at the hospital she works at strongly disapprove of her intention to use stem cell therapy to treat a critically ill child; for another, Father Joe is a convicted pedophile, and it offends Scully’s sensibilities to think that God would choose such a wretch to work through. But does Father Joe have a deeper connection to the case which might explain why he, of all people, is having these visions? Can any of the victims be saved? And just what are the being taken for?

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 9: Hey, Did You Know the Show’s Ending?

OK, here we are. Having covered the beginning of the show, its creative peak, a season hampered by the need to keep the mytharc static for the movie, the movie itself, two awkward post-movie seasons, and a season which started out trying to convince us that John Doggett was a lead character only to reassure us by the end that he really wasn’t – plus touching on two spinoff shows, one glum and one comedic – we’ve now come to the end of the original run of The X-Files. In the show’s run from 1993 to 2002, it had gone from some obscure cult thing to a massive pop culture juggernaut to a show which, honestly, at the time I was somewhat surprised to learn was still running.

I think it’s fair to say that whilst early X-Files at its best managed to catch lightning in a bottle, said lightning had long since escaped, in part because of goofy creative decisions, in part because first David Duchovny and then Gillian Anderson were just really goddamn tired of it, and in part because the audience were also goddamn tired of it. A loyal following continued to watch – ratings stayed over 10 million viewers an episode right through to season 8 – but discontent had grown over time, especially if you were someone who was actually emotionally invested in the show rather than just having it on because it happened to be on.

Season 8 was challenging enough, what with Duchovny leaving the show but then not really leaving the show. This time around, Duchovny really had left the show, only as we’ll see he hadn’t quite left the show, and Gillian Anderson also didn’t want to be on it full-time any more. A deal was reached whereby Scully’s role in the show would be dialled back and Agent Monica Reyes – a character planted in the previous season just in case this eventuality rose – would step up to be one of the lead X-Files Division agents.

However, whereas Doggett had the first half of season 8 more or less to himself without Mulder upstaging him, Reyes was in the awkward position of being a character to replace a different character who hadn’t actually gone away. In fact, Scully’s closely involved in the investigation more often than not in this season, in a half-in half-out situation even more awkward than Mulder’s. There’s also the small issue that, what with David Duchovny walking again, the show had to deal with the fact that they’d ended season 8 with Mulder and Scully back together and all apparently being right with the world, except that Mulder had been fired from the FBI.

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Why I Won’t Be Fully Chronicling The Lone Gunmen

The Lone Gunmen is the other, less talked-about X-Files spin-off series. Whereas Millennium was originally not supposed to be set in the same universe as The X-Files, but crossed over with it as time went by until eventually it had a backdoor season finale as an X-Files episode, The Lone Gunmen was presented as being part of the same world from the start. As is obvious from the title, the concept of the show was that it would follow the exploits of the Lone Gunmen – Byers (Bruce Harwood), Frohike (Tom Braidwood), and Langly (Dean Haglund), a trio of dorky hackers who put out the underground newspaper The Lone Gunmen airing their various conspiracy theories to the general public.

Having been invented by Glen Morgan and James Wong (who, perhaps, would have made better showrunners for The X-Files than Chris Carter himself, given that they delivered the best episodes of the early seasons), the Gunmen had become beloved features of the show over time, their role largely to be Mulder’s (and, as she warmed to them over time, Scully’s) dorky little friends who sometimes helped out with a bit of info or technical expertise our main agents didn’t have access to.

So popular were they, they ended up getting a couple of Vince Gilligan-penned episodes focused specifically on them, with the story of how they met up with Mulder reprised in Unusual Suspects and Scully getting drawn into one of their investigations in Three of a Kind. With these episodes effectively acting as backdoor pilots, the TV show was cooked up by the four men who by this point made up the core X-Files writing team – Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan, and John Shiban – as a lighter, more comedic show than The X-Files (much as Millennium was a darker and more miserable one), with more of an emphasis on corruption in high places and less on UFOs and paranormal stuff.

The sole season of the show aired in parallel with X-Files season 8. It was a ratings flop, losing around 10 million viewers over the course of its run, a good chunk of whom didn’t bother to stick around after watching the first episode or two, and to be honest you can’t blame ’em.

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 8: Hey, Did You Know David Duchovny’s (Sort of) Gone?

After a rather muddled sixth season (which itself followed an utter disaster of a movie whose existence had thrown the fifth season out of whack), The X-Files actually offered up a reasonably decent seventh season (if you ignore the utterly risible resolution of the “what happened to Mulder’s sister?” plot) which culminated in Mulder being abducted by aliens and Scully becoming pregnant. This allowed the mytharc to come back to life with two brand new mysteries – “Where’s Mulder?” and “How is babby formed?” – and also deal with the fact that David Duchovny, having become comprehensively tired of the series and wanting to explore other projects, forcing the show to adapt to a brand new Mulder-less format.

OK, so here’s the thing: Duchovny’s departure didn’t stick. Rather than entirely leaving the series, he was cajoled (perhaps with the aid of Fox driving a dump truck full of cash up to his front door) into sticking around on a guest star basis. In fact, he appears in about half the season, with small appearances depicting his peril in the initial two-part mytharc episodes and then returning to main cast duties in the second half of the season, which coincided with the most dense run of mytharc episodes the series had seen to date. Whilst season 6 and 7 had been light on the mytharc, season 8 is almost wholly consumed by mytharc in its second half, making up for lost time.

Speaking of stuff that almost wholly consumes the show, this season also saw a significant shift on the writing side. I’ve recounted how over time the show’s pool of writers tended to contract, until most of the writing was done by a four-man (emphasis on “man”) team of Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan, and John Shiban, with occasional outside scripts filling out the rest.

Here, John Shiban and Vince Gilligan’s contributions are significantly contracted. Gilligan and, to a lesser extent, Shiban were concurrently working on the Lone Gunmen spin-off series, but then again so were Carter and Spotnitz. For whatever reason, for this season and season 9 (which followed the cancellation of The Lone Gunmen and therefore didn’t have that distraction as an excuse for this), the core X-Files writing team was effectively trimmed back to just Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, with Gilligan and Shiban’s writing contributions not amounting to much more than anyone else outside the inner circle.

To quantify this, a statistic: in both this season and season 9, over half the episodes of the season have their script credited to Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, or both of them. And of those, only a couple of episodes in season 9 involve Carter or Spotnitz collaborating with others – William had a script by Chris Carter distilling a story concept he’d worked on with Duchonvy and Spotnitz, and Jump the Shark was the last episode credited to the trio of Gilligan, Shiban, and Spotnitz – the last time either Gilligan or Shiban would be given a script credit alongside Spotnitz or Carter. One may worry that this would have the effect of making the pool of ideas and writing talent available to the show even shallower, and narrowing its vision to the Carter-Spotnitz duo’s personal take. Let’s see, shall we?

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 7: Hey, Did You Know David Duchovny’s (Sort of) Leaving?

Season 6 of The X-Files was, as I recounted in the previous part of this article series, was a season of two halves – starting out as a big goofy mess, but somewhat pulling itself together by the end. Season 7 would find the production team having adapted fully to the relocation to Los Angeles, but also dealing with the fact that David Duchovny was feeling increasingly restless and clearly wasn’t going to be sticking around forever.

This was particularly the case because Duchovny had decided to seriously upset the applecart by suing Fox – the television network, not his own character. See, Duchovny’s contract with Fox included a cut of various royalties, including the proceeds from book deals, reruns and the like. Duchovny felt that, rather than seeking the best and most competitive deal for those rights, Fox had instead just sold them to their affiliates at an unfairly low price. (Note, for instance, how the show switched to Sky – a Fox-owned company – rather than the BBC after season 5, putting an end to my watching of the show because my family didn’t have or want satellite TV in our house and I no longer cared enough about the show to seek out other means of watching it.) By doing that, Duchovny and anyone else whose compensation included royalties on those would end up underpaid.

The lawsuit would also undermine Duchovny’s working relationship with other individuals on the show; most notably, though Chris Carter was not a full-blown co-defendant on the case, Duchovny’s suit did allege that Carter had been paid hush money to keep the arrangement quiet (presumably so as to not damage any contract negotiations which might have been impacted by the knowledge that the rights were going to be handed off for cheap). Fox settled with Duchovny, but it was clear that some bridges were burned there.

This was not the only situation the creative team had to face. Chris Carter’s own contract was up by the end of the season, raising the possibility that the show might get renewed but he might not be onboard. Perhaps as insurance against that policy, the circle of writers was somewhat widened for this season; it has the least Chris Carter script credits of any of the pre-revival seasons, and less Frank Spotnitz scripts than any season since season 3 (Spotnitz would be conspicuously absent from the revival seasons); as we’ll see, this is a trend that’s very much reversed in season 8.

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 6: Hey, Did You Know We’re Filming In Los Angeles Now?

Previously in my rewatch of The X-Files, we took in the series’ shaky first season, enjoyed its peak in seasons 2-4, and watched as season 5 spent ages running around in circles so as to not upstage the movie. We are now firmly into the place where my “rewatch” has become a simple “watch”; I didn’t get around to watching the movie when it was first released, and when the show was dropped by the BBC and picked up by Sky in the UK I couldn’t watch season 6 onwards, because we didn’t have satellite TV. (I could have got DVD sets, but I was never motivated to until I picked up the Blu-Ray set of the whole season that started me on this retrospective in the first place.)

Season 6 represents a big shift in the show, and not just because the show is liberated from the need to cater to the movie – the renewal of the show for more seasons by Fox having scuppered the “we’ll do five seasons on TV and then tell the rest of the story through movies” plan. See, David Duchovny had become increasingly tired of the whole X-Files thing – he’d eventually leave at the end of season 7 after declining to renew his contact – and one of the things which was making him sick of the whole deal was the fact that for its first five seasons the show was being filmed up in Vancouver, whereas his wife Téa Leoni (who’d give birth to their first child whilst season 6 was still airing) was working in Los Angeles.

Duchovny decided that if the show was that desperate to keep him on, they may as well make it easier for him, and suggested moving production to Los Angeles; Chris Carter was reluctant, but with Gillian Anderson and Kim Manners (one of the regular episode directors) supporting the move it became a done deal. Gone were the rainy, overcast Vancouver pine forests standing in for a range of US locations; more episodes included bright, sunlit scenery and desert landscape. It was a notable aesthetic shift, though not a wholly inappropriate one; LA’s much nearer Area 51, after all – but I’m getting ahead of myself there.

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 5.5: Hey, Here’s That Movie We Had Coming Out

Following the end of season 5 of the TV show, the X-Files have been shut down and the FBI has Mulder and Scully working conventional cases (with an apparent intention of then splitting them up for good). When a building containing a FEMA branch office is blown up in Dallas, with Mulder and Scully on the scene, in the aftermath our duo become aware of serious discrepancies in the official story. After Mulder is contacted by Dr. Alvin Kurzweil (Martin Landau), an eccentric conspiracy theorist (and possibly a distributor of child abuse images, or maybe someone who the government uses accusations of such as a means of discrediting), the pair become convinced that the bombing was an attempt to cover evidence of something much stranger. Chasing up this lead will take them on an intercontinental journey that will lead them into the heart of Antarctica – and the centre of the mystery of the black oil.

The X-Files: Fight the Future needed to do something flashy to justify being a full-blown, big-budget movie rather than just another episode of the TV show, and as part of this process the script by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz steers directly into ground which, in their pursuit of a blockbuster spectacle, they fail to treat with the sensitivity that they otherwise managed to in the show.

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