TV Zone: The X-Files

I’ve recently introduced a new feature on this blog…consisting of longer and more researched pieces on favourite books, movies and TV shows written by me and the co-geeks amongst my acquaintance.  At some point, I hope to create a separate section for these pieces, under the headings Movie Zone, TV Zone, Book Zone etc. But, er, I haven’t done that yet.

So far I’ve written about Outland and The Watchmen, enthused over The Bloody Red Baron, and drafted a short essay on one of my fave SF classics, Orwell’s 1984.  But this is going to be the first guest contribution to the Zones; and it is written by my former screenwriting student, a screenwriter and comic book reviewer of considerable flair.  His name is Stuart Angell McGregor, we all call him Angell, and this is what he has to say about the cult SF show The X-Files:

THE FLASHLIGHT DEPARTMENT (A boy’s own adventure within The X-Files)

from the fair hand of Stuart Angell McGregor

PART ONE – BATTERIES AND BULBS

I was 13, and had snuck lively into mother’s bedroom, when it happened.  Her TV, colour and heavy with channels, has always been far better than my own, with its constant teeth-buzzing hum, the two working channels and strange air of instant destruction about it.  Late night television was a refuge back then, a secret place with secret adult wonders, nudity and swearing, with liberal dashes of saucy violence. More valuable to a newly minted teen than gold. That night’s fresh wonder seemed different, a tall man and compact woman, be-suited and frantic with guns drawn, hunting for lost twins in a dark truck-stop parking lot.  I was hooked, drawn instantly to a world of twisting story, little genetic freaks with super powers, and shadowy government intrigue.  The tall man was Mulder, the fire-haired woman Scully, and this was my induction into The X-Files.

The show premiered in the States a year earlier, and had grown two-headed and strange from the bloated corpse of old mystery favourite Kolchak the Night Stalker, thanks to the fervent mind of Chris Carter, a Californian with the surf and spray of Big Sur salting in his veins, and memories of Watergate, the backward dealings of Tricky Dicky Nixon marked indelibly upon his formative years.

The addiction, for me, came thick and fast. This was new, a stand-out, and drew me back week after week to the secret confines of that after-dark bedroom.  I recorded the show over old home movies, and showed my allegiance by wearing X-Files t-shirts with pride. But only at home. The street was a different matter, my tees worn as they were beneath thick jumpers of geeky shame.  I fell hard in love with those two agents of American weirdness, the rabid believer and the scientific sceptic. It was great to learn just how backward and beautiful the world could be, and, to be honest, it was a relief to discover that there were things out there stranger than me, in the heady flurry of my early teenage years.

I wanted desperately to live in that world, to hunt down bizarre things that defied explanation, to be a high-flyng Fed with his own roguish approach to solving cases that no-one else would teach. But, at 13, where could I go, and what could I possibly do? I decided I was too young and fragile for such frantic field work (I did, also, have to be back home and ready for bed by a modest 9), not quite cut out for a life of constant danger and narrow brushes with extraterrestrial induced death.  No, there were more important things ahead for me, a position of such importance that Mulder, Scully and even the chrome-domed, brick shithouse-built superman A.D. Walter Skinner, would crumble pathetically and weep without my aid.  I would become the head, the number one man, the top dog of the Flashlight Department.

‘I mean,’ I thought to myself as I set about crafting my own winning ID badge from an old passport photo, a bag of crusty felt tips and liberal abuse of the school’s laminator, ‘they would be lost without those bloody flashlights, amount of dark and ominous tunnels that lot wander down.’  I would form part of the integral backbone of the FBI. Stuck in a dank hole?  Whip out the handy dandy flashlight my team had provided and find your way to freedom. Stretchy man-beast slavering at your heels and trying to scarf down your liver? A few hard smacks with a torch from my boys will put that freak down for good.

Yeah…The Flashlight Department. That was totally the way to go.

My completed badge wasn’t so much winning; having looked for the entire world to have been crafted by a gibbering monkey in the final spastic throes of a grand mal seizure…using only his teeth…but it was unique if nothing else. I wore it with as much pride as I could muster, but my desire to hand out replacement bulbs and fresh batteries soon drew its last breath, and turned quietly from rabid geekdom into a simple, but loving, appreciation of the show.

With little more than a muted whimper, the Flashlight Department was closed down.

You there! Writer guy! Come out with your hands up!!

You there! Writer guy! Come out with your hands up!!

PART TWO – DO YOU THINK I’M SPOOKY?

The X-Files broke a year later, with avid fans in over forty-two countries naming their dogs, rats, goldfish, children after those two daring agents, and urging them to answer the call for romance and resolution that were so deftly avoided on the show itself.  This was a programme that, as I was all too well aware, inspired something deeper, and sometimes darker, in its fan base, and gave that hardcore yet another reason to distrust their shaky governments and turn their wan and hopeful eyes skyward.

The first season reeked of a show finding its feet, and episodes such as ‘Fire’ and ‘Space’ fall flat when compared to later triumphs, but it had enough going for it to warrant the second season starting with a massive 42% jump in the Nielson ratings. The X-Files was an infection, and had spread virus-like throughout our culture, across the new frontiers of the internet, and the front pages of newspapers and magazines across the world.

The second season was savage, with more of a focus on the backward adventures of murdering America than the quaint abductees of the first. The Greys returned, of course, in ‘Little Green Men’ and the ‘Duane Barry/Ascension’ two-parter, but for the most part the screen was daubed unmistakably in the blood of cannibals, demons, and other twisted broken souls.

’3′ remains a stand-out, a dark and overtly sexualised tale of a Scully-free Mulder’s encounter with beautiful vampires living the fanged life in LA.

‘Blood’ and ‘Humbug’, the first story credits for one of the show’s most consistently inventive writers, Darin Morgan, were equally as evocative. The former a grim examination of the horrors of mind control, the latter a wonderful mystery set amongst a community of retired circus freaks and sideshow attractions.

This blood hungry season segued easily into a confident third; The X-Files was no longer a show unwilling or afraid to take overt risks.  Two episodes showed this aplomb, both coming once more from the special mind of Morgan, brother of the show runner/writer/producer Glen Morgan, and the dabbling actor brought on previously to play the shit-dwelling albino flukeman of ‘The Host’.

‘Clyde Bruckman’s Finale Repose’ featured Young Frankenstein’s Monster himself, the late Peter Boyle, as the titular Bruckman, a humble and down-at-heel insurance salesman blessed, or blighted, with the ability to look deep into a person’s future and predict with stunning accuracy the way that they will die.  The episode sings not only for its laudable acting, sharp writing, and honest sentimentality, but also for its focus on comedy, arguably one of the show’s first episodes to yet give chuckles any credence (‘Humbug’ being more odd than laugh out loud funny). Here we see the Uri Gellar analogue The Stupendous Yappi ponce wonderfully around a crime scene, and learn that Mulder will die an amazingly filthy death thanks to the marvels of auto-erotic asphyxiation. Or so says Bruckman, whose record, let’s be honest, is pretty damn solid so far.  Such lightness of touch and sweetness of spirit earned Morgan an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series, and the episode itself a none too shabby 10th place in TV Guide’s countdown of the Greatest Ever TV Episodes.

‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ runs further with the comedic ball, employing a Rashomon-like approach to tell a tale of alien abduction and possibly rape from several highly skewed perspectives. This one has everything, from Harryhausen-esque monsters to aliens smoking fags and weeping.  There were even cameos from greying Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, and the steroidal muscle-bound man mountain cum politician, Jessie ‘The Body’ Ventura (who, as anyone who has ever seen Predator can attest, is a ‘goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus’) as ominous men in black.  Chung is wonderfully mocking, flashing a hairy and uncaring arse to the usualy stuffy conventions of the series, and giggling with impish glee as it does so.

The real meat and potatoes of the infamous ‘mytharc’ episodes – those that served to further the story of the shadowy Syndicate and their attempts to prosper in the face of impending alien invasion – were served lavishly for the first time in season three.  With oodles of black space oil, shape shifting alien bounty hunters, and naughty men in dark rooms.  The X-Files was going from strength to strength to strength, with more people tuning in now than ever before. It was a world rapt, the word conspiracy on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Season four stood up well to the mighty third, with more twisted tales kicking the often laborious mytharc episodes hard and firm in the teeth. Inbred baby killers murdered and merrily humped one another to the languid strains of Johnny Mathis in ‘Home’, while surgeons steeped in icky black magic sliced and diced for jollies and lumbering golems slapped some serious Hasidic bum in ‘Sanguinarium’ and ‘Kaddish’ respectively.

By far my favourite at the time though was ‘The Field Where I Died’, a touching exploration of past lives, notable for a wrought turn from Space: Above and Beyond’s (hands up who remembers that one) pouty sad-face Kristen Cloke.  David Duchovny infuses the normally laconic Fox Mulder with real emotional weight here, and though Gillian Anderson has little more to do than turn Scully’s patented sceptic-o-meter way past 11, and practice her disapproving looks, the episode works well, remaining for me one of the most effective pieces of the show’s entire run.

However, as good as season four could be, it ended badly with ‘Gethsemane’, a mindless and uninteresting wet fart of a thing, that hung Mulder’s apparent suicide in front of the viewers like a limp brown carrot.  Dangle all you want, Mr Carter, no donkey’s going to be nibbling on that monstrosity.

If ‘Gethsemane’ proved anything, it was that The X-Files was never quite infallible.  The finest and most enduring television shows have always been about ideas, pondering strange and imaginative ‘what ifs’. Much like Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek, Kirk maliciously laughing his arse off as he watches the Enterprise’s computer sputter and fizz in an attempt to define love,  The X-Files would sing gloriously when wrapping a

'All Things', Season 7

story around a simple but imaginative idea.  As such, the standalone episodes, cut free from the laboured mythology of the show, were where Mulder and Scully soared.  Indeed, it was the irascible rise of the mytharc that would ultimately pummel with such ferocity the final nails into the series’ coffin.

PART THREE – FONZIE’S SPEEDOS

A lot of things happened in 1977.

The press-studs and safety pins of the punk movement pogoed across a unsuspecting world,  a tiny film called Star Wars opened to some acclaim, and James Earl Ray, the pale-eyed assassin of Martin Luther King, spent three days with both freedom and sun on his skin after escaping from his Tennessee prison, soon to be captured once more.

What failed to set the world on fire, however, was the daring jump that King of Cool Arthur ‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli made over a confused shark while water skiing.

Think about that for a second.

The Fonz had come, through TV wonder Happy Days, to epitomise everything that was winning about 50s cool.  He was a handsome, anti-authoritarian rebel and loyal friend to both hipster and nerd alike.  The man was dripping in sex and awesome haircuts, yet to cram this man-god into garish Speedos (along with trademark leather bomber) and have him turn aquatic tricks over a rubber shark? This was all part of the strange ‘Hollywood’ three-parter, the bastard chlid of the fevered minds that broke Happy Days.  You could virtually hear the hearts of a million teeny boppers shatter.

20 years later, radio personality Jon Hein would coin the term ‘jump the shark’, a nod to that mess of a stunt that went against everything that made Happy Days what it was. and an umbrella term that would come to signify, simply, that point at which a once popular show had taken a sharp right turn off the straight and narrow, and out into the bounding unknown of babbling inanity.  The point at which, when nobody was looking, popular culture would eat itself.

It’s not quite fair to point to the fifth season as the moment where The X-Files bravely leapt across that gaping Great White of TV, but look at the face too closely, and you can clearly see the worrying cracks of decline.  There are some wonderful moments to be sure: Carter’s own ‘The Post-Modern Prometheus’, a stylish black and whilte chronicle of a Frankenstein’s Monster-like creature (The Great Mutato) obsessed with Cher and Jerry Springer, is both funny and touching, while ‘Chinga’ and ‘Killswitch’ prove to be strong efforts from King of Horror Stephen King, and Cyberpunk guru William Gibson (actually Gibson’s second dalliance with the show.)

However, much of the season is mired in ongoing mytharc concerns, with more abductions, double crosses, and requisite strangeness galore.  These are solid episodes, well crafted and performed, but they do little to attract new blood, even proving somewhat unforgiving to the faithful who, thanks to abductions and space adventures of their own, may have missed an episode or two. No, stumble along the way for even a moment and you are picked off, The X-Files demanding an unwavering amount of loyalty.

‘Fight the Future’, the feature film that bridges seasons five and six followed, but never quite proved itself the jumping on point for new viewers that the creators had hoped for. Nor did it offer the long sought after resolution that fans clamoured for. It looked great, Mulder and Scully upgraded to natty suits, and the sheen on A.D. Skinner’s head showing extra sparkly polish (see above), but in the end it did little but add an extra layer of murk to the show’s muddy mythological waters.

Season six comes sweeping in like a cool breeze, refreshing and welcome.  To say that The X-Files here reaches the top of its game would be to do such hard work a disservice.  To say it actually dances merrily to the top of its game while whistling Dixie is kind of closer to the mark.

Those mytharc outings are general eschewed here for confident and experimental standalones.  ‘Drive’ is a fabulous Speed-flavoured dash across America to stop Brian Cranston’s head from exploding into sticky bits, ‘Triangle’ is a kooky Nazi time-warp drama, while the two-part ‘Dreamland’ is a fantastically funny look inside Area 51 and the faltering private lives of those pesky men in black (and features a randy turn from David St. Hubbins himself, Michael McKean).  The list goes on too, with ‘How the Ghosts Stole Christmas’, and Duchovny’s (on writing, directing and acting duties) own ‘The Unnatural’ among the very best episodes ever produced.

But for all these positives, and indeed there are many, The X-Files basically kills itself halfway through the season, with the ‘Two Fathers/One Son’ double bill bringing a swift and unsatisfactory end to the ongoing deeper arcs of the show. The members of the deadly Syndicate, that mystery shrouded agency that spearheaded the coming alien apocalypse and confounded Mulder and Scully at each fresh turn, are all unceremoniously offed by scrappy alien rebels from Uranus…or somewhere.  One cannot help but watch and wonder how this happened.  Had Carter and Co. simply become bored with a thread that would seemingly never end? Or were they, as some have suggested, making up this shit as they went along?

The X-Files labours from this point on, and becomes an aimless thing with little sense of actual direction, stumbling painfully across our screens sucking its thumb and hoping that someone with more sense will be along soon to tuck it lovingly into bed.  As such, season seven, the media-poking joy of ‘X-Cops’ and ‘Hollywood AD’ aside, doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.  There’s a sense of grouding ties being cut desperately.  The disappearance of Samantha Mulder, Fox’s long lost sister, is resolved in a frankly puzzling mid-season attempt at fan service.  Always thought she was abducted by those little green men? Well, more fool you.  No, she was rescued from a scummy painful fate by spiritual creatures who released her soul into starlight.

Yes, she became a star.

There’s no denying that Mulder’s brief reunion with his sister’s peaceful soul (set to the magical strains of Moby’s ‘My Weakness’) is emotionally affecting, but there’s also no doubt that there’s little justice in such a long running story arc, and such an important motivational factor for a main character, being resolved in such a ham-fisted slipshod manner.

The show was, by this point, heading ever closer to a final end point, with contractual disputes with Duchovny, and many a faltering storyline, seemingly spelling out a sticky end.  Major plot threads continued to be tied off (though the bows weren’t always pretty or neat), and recurring characters, such as grizzled nemesis The Cigarette Smoking Man, were written out or summarily dropped.  ‘Requiem’, the season finale that returned the agents to the lush Oregon woods from their very first case together, was supposed to act as show finale too, with Agent Mulder finally being taken by the beings he had so determinedly chased for seven years.  He was gone.  Scully was alone, and The X-Files were over.

But behind the scenes, the Fox network (never one to let a dead thing stay that way) were offering Carter incentives to bring the show back and keep it running.

Mulder remains missing as season eight wheezes its way to a start, and though Anderson’s Scully carries the focus well there’s something sad and almost pitiful at work in his absence.  The show’s dynamic is reversed as she is paired with Robert Patrick’s John Doggett, she now the believer, and he, every inch the no-nonsense G-Man, the sceptic.  Though her newfound openness makes sense in the greater context of the things she has both seen and experienced, it all sounds so wrong coming out of her mouth.

‘Oh Agent Doggett! It’s obvious that these people were eaten by a scabby old bat monster. Why are you so closed to such a possibility?’

It’s rather unsettling, and somewhat akin to having your mum compliment you on the shapely curve of your arse.

Doggett himself is a worthwhile character, played with a hardness and compassion by Patrick.  He comes to form a quick bond with Scully, caring more than he lets on (see how devastated he seems upon seeing Scully happily comfort the new returned Mulder in ‘Deadalive’), and is actually more open to the influx of super-soldiers and weirdness than the show gives him credit for.

His presence in these later seasons does little to allay a bothersome problem I’ve always had with Mulder’s character. Namely, that for all his suave intelligence and adventuring bravado, he can often come across as eminently unlikeable.  He has a grand and unenviable ability to lapse into moments of petulance and pomposity so severe that one feels simply compelled to punch his mouth shut.  The antagonistic relationship he shares with Agent Doggett, for no good reason, proves how he can be a bloated know-it-all just as easily as he can be an admirable voice of dissension within a corrupt and harmful government system.

So, it’s John Doggett who proves to be the one to watch in those last two bumbling seasons, with Scully sidelined with her miracle baby, William, and Mulder’s relevance slowly dwindling.  It was Dogget’s brief tenure on The X-Files, along with Annabeth Gish’s Monica Reyes, that thankfully threatened to reignite the dull spark of  a show that had long since lost its way.

But that further reinvigoration and promise was scuppered by the show’s ultimate cancellation in 2002.  It ends well enough, with a feature-length finale that finally sees Mulder and Scully escape to some kind of freedom together, but there’s little here in the way of resolution.  The carrot still dangles.

EPILOGUE

I don’t tend to watch TV now, or certainly not as fervently as I once did The X-Files.  The land of terrestrial television is full of easy missteps, the great and the good of modern programming often lost in the late night wastelands of their channels, with few around to watch, except the wide-eyed and sleepless, and the devoted hardcore.

Massive boxsets now bring us the whole thing, from bounding start to whimpering finish, in one go.  So I’m currently revisiting The X-Files, over 200 episodes of savage strangeness and conspiracy, and for the most part it’s a joy.  There’s brightness in the best episodes that few other shows have been able to match since, an enthusiasm and candour that’s all too rare.  I know that as I move on and make my way through we’ll eventually fall out of love again, that caring will turn to bitterness and disappointment, but that doesn’t matter. Right now, the show and I have a flush on our cheeks and a spring in our step.

You know, maybe I’ll head down to the cellar and dig around for my old mess of an ID.  I mean, the amount of tunnels those two go down…someone needs to be in charge of the flaslight, right?

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