Thursday, January 03, 2013
X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: Series Primer
“If there is one thing that gives the series a broad, universal appeal, it’s that we are all afraid of the same things.”
Chris Carter, in Starlog #221: “X-aminations” by James Swallow. (December 1995, page 31.)
It’s virtually impossible for me to believe that Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993 – 2002) premiered two decades ago this coming September. I still possess vivid memories of watching the first season episodes on Fox TV (Channel 35) in Richmond, Virginia.
My girlfriend (now wife) and I were engaged in 1993 and lived together for the first time during that span in an apartment we rented in Henrico County, while I commuted downtown every day to a job at the Supreme Court of Virginia.
I also remember that the fall TV season of 1993 -- at least as described by the press -- was shaping up to be a genre slugfest on Sunday nights between Steven Spielberg’s Sea Quest DSV (1993 – 1995) and ABC’s romantic superhero-lite adventure, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993 – 1996).
Nobody in their right mind would have or could have predicted back in September 1993 that a series about the paranormal -- airing on upstart Fox -- would out-live both of the aforementioned high-profile genre programs, and garner much more popularity and critical success than either.
In fact, as I’ve written before, when most people remember TV in the 1990s, they think, at least in my experience, of two specific series: Seinfeld and The X-Files.
I’ll be using this year on the blog -- The X-Files twentieth anniversary -- to remember the latter series, which remains very much a benchmark for television horror.
Many series since The X-Files have built upon its considerable successes, but few (if any) have surpassed the program or achieved the same level of wide cultural popularity.
To me, The X-Files is indeed the Star Trek of the 1990s, and therefore one of the most important titles in the history of the genre, on a par with The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, certainly.
Like Star Trek before it, The X-Files boasts a rabid and large fan base, has made the transition to the big screen, and seen its storytelling translated to the venues of comic-books, video games, and novels. Catchphrases from the series, (like “the truth is out there,” “Trust No One,” and “I want to believe”) have become part of our shared pop culture landscape as well. The X-Files also generated spin-offs (including Millennium and The Lone Gunmen) and literally dozens of (some quite worthy) imitators, from The Burning Zone to Prey to Strange World to the more recent Fringe.
As you likely recall with clarity, The X-Files is the continuing story of two F.B.I. agents of vastly different qualifications and temperaments, but a common ground in the quality of curiosity.
On one hand is the believer: Oxford-educated psychologist Fox Mulder (David Duchovny).
On the other is Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), a medical doctor and devout Catholic who demands that all of Mulder’s “beliefs” about alleged paranormal events achieve a high-threshold in terms of scientific accuracy and empirical evidence.
Working out of the F.B.I. Building’s basement in Washington D.C., Scully and Mulder -- utilizing their vastly different “seeing” lenses of skepticism and belief -- investigate during the course of the series alien abduction (“Pilot,” “Duane Barry”), demonology (“The Calusari,” “Die Hand der Verletz”), local legends (“The Jersey Devil”), weird genetic mutants (“Squeeze,” “The Host,” “Teliko,” “2Shy”), prehistoric or ancient monsters (“Ice,” “Darkness Falls,” “Detour”), global conspiracies (“Erlenmeyer Flask,” “The Red and the Black”), serial killers (“Irresistible,” “Unruhe,” “Paper Hearts”) and even vampires (“3,” “Bad Blood.”)
They also explore cases involving astral projection (“The Walk,”) reincarnation (“Lazarus,” “The Field Where I Died”), telepathy (“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Pusher”), and psychic surgery (“Milagro.”)
Yet this thumbnail description of the premise and characters hardly does The X-Files justice.
Historically-speaking, there have been other TV series about the paranormal (One Step Beyond [1959 – 1961], The Sixth Sense [1972 – 1973] and Beyond Reality [1991 – 1993] to name just three), so the subject matter isn’t necessarily the thing that makes The X-Files so special. That isn’t the key to the series’ continuing popularity.
Contrarily, The X-Files’ intelligent writing -- which assumed that audiences could keep up and pay attention -- was both cutting edge (focused often on the details of forensic pathology), and emotionally resonant.
Similarly, stars Duchovny and Anderson developed a scintillating chemistry and rapport over time that made every new adventure a delight. Scully and Mulder were partners…but also, in a way, competitors. They were dancers circling each other and in some sense attempting to gain the higher ground in terms of their curiosity and world view. The Mulder/Scully back-and-forth repartee elevated each story of the paranormal or supernatural on The X-Files to a new level, one where it was the human condition itself – and our assumptions about it -- that was up for debate.
As creator Chris Carter once noted of his two protagonists: “They [Mulder and Scully] are equal parts of my desire to believe in something and my inability to believe in something. My skepticism and my faith…I want, like a lot of people do, to have the experience of witnessing a paranormal phenomenon. At the same time, I want not to accept it, but to question it.” (David Bischoff; Omni, December 1994, page 44).
In the points-of-view of characters Scully and Mulder then, the audience essentially gets one “whole” person: a complete but conflicted world-view. It’s no surprise that the characters complete one another, because they form, essentially, a well-rounded, curious outlook on life. This creative writing structure -- with Mulder and Scully each voicing one half of a “universal” personality -- plays an important role in the series’ ultimate success.
I would be remiss if I did not also mention the series’ photography, production design and overall look. The series regularly makes use of film grammar to visually create tension, forge suspense, and develop an often trance-like mood or atmosphere.
There is a certain kind of shot, for instance, that I associate irrevocably with The X-Files. It involves a low-perched camera, near floor level, untethered and on the prowl. The camera moves forward through unknown terrain (a high tech office, a Victorian home, or anywhere else) and constantly probes for something new -- something unseen or undetected -- in regular, daily life.
The low-perched camera, moving forward into undiscovered countries thus mimics the series’ thematic material, which concerns the exploration of “extreme possibilities.”
The X-Files also arrived, historically, at the beginning of an era when television was moving away from standalone dramas to serials and “arcs.”
What this means is that Mulder and Scully could not simply walk away from a case they were investigating and forget all about it. They didn’t begin their next story with no memory of what had happened before.
On the contrary, many cases caused repercussions for the characters that would last for seasons, or even for the duration of the series. For instance, Mulder underwent a many-seasons-long search for his missing sister, Samantha, whom he believed had been abducted by aliens. Scully was apparently abducted by aliens in the second season, grappled with terminal cancer in the fourth season, and struggled with problems of infertility in the later years.
The cases were connected in other ways too, by a thread that X-Files fans have come to understand as “The Mytharc.” These tales were of a global Syndicate or Conspiracy prepping for an alien colonization of Earth. But like the Hydra, this conspiracy of men had many heads, or many facets, and for years Mulder and Scully nibbled around the edges of the master-plan, able to discern only pieces of the larger puzzle.
Again, in the age of Dexter, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and other serials, The X-Files’ achievement of sustained, always-developing story lines may not seem like a big deal. But The X-Files remains a critical “bridge” series between the standalone era and the more heavily serialized era.
By 1994, critics had begun to detect that The X-Files was something special. Writing for Omni in December of 1994 (pages 43 – 50), David Bischoff noted that “The direction is atmospheric, the scripts are tight, the dialogue is crisp, the tone uneasy and grim….How can anyone not love this show?”
In The New Leader, James Wolcott called The X-Files “as scary as The Twilight Zone and much sexier…What’s erotic about the show is its slow progression from reverie to revelation, stopping just short of rapture. It wants to swoon, but swooning would mean shutting its eyes, and there’s so much to see.” (April 18, 1994, pages 98, - 100).
In 1999, TV Guide’s Matt Roush accurately noted that “Many weeks…The X-Files is as good as any movie,” and indeed, the horror genre suffered something of an identity crisis in the 1990s while attempting to compete with Chris Carter’s sterling creation. Why go out to see an untested commodity (like a new film), when The X-Files promised quality “scares” week-in and week-out?
Going forward into 2013, I’ll be writing at least one X-Files episode review a week, and attempting to do this classic Chris Carter series justice. I’ll be picking my favorite episodes, but also trying to pull from the various sub-genres this spectacular horror series explores.
These categories do feature many cross-overs and are (in no particular order):
Trust No One
This category includes episodes in which the U.S. Government (and sometimes private corporations) conduct secret experiments on citizens for nefarious purposes.. Some of these stories directly involve the Myth-Arc, but others do not.
Examples: “Eve,” “Ghost in the Machine,” “Blood,” “Sleepless,” “Red Museum,” “F. Emasculata,” “Soft Light,” “Wetwired,” “The Pine Bluff Variant,” “Drive,” and “Dreamland.”
Freaks of Nature
In these stories, mutants and monsters feed on and otherwise exploit the human populace. Some of the freaks of nature are inbred and deformed (“Home”), whereas others are genetic mutations and possibly a strange dark alley (or dead end…) of human evolution. Often the freaks are caused by human irresponsibility (“The Host”), but other times they are merely trying to fulfill a biological need (“2Shy,” “Teliko.”) In one instance, “Hungry,” the freak of the week’s point of view is explored rather fully and found to be pitiable.
Examples: “Squeeze,” “Tooms,” “The Jersey Devil,” “The Host,” “Humbug,” “D.P.O.,” “2Shy,” “Teliko,” “Home,” “Small Potatoes,” “Leonard Betts,” “Detour.”
Xenophobia (or Foreign Fears)
In these stories, ancient ethnic legends are seen to have a basis in fact. This particular X-Files story-type plays on the idea that Western-based “science” does not see the whole picture when it comes to life (and death) on the planet. In these tales, ethnic legends and curses from around the globe inevitably prove true, even though they operate outside our concepts of reality and even sense.
Examples: “Teso Dos Bichos,” “Kaddish,” “Hell Money,” “El Mundo Gira,” “Badlaa.”
From the Dawn of Time
These X-Files episodes concern life-forms from prehistory. Unfortunately, they re-assert themselves in the present because of climactic changes or man’s encroachment on long-standing territory. These life-forms are millions of years old and exhibit qualities inimical to human survival. Sometimes, they exist in remote locations (a volcano, or the Arctic, for example), and sometimes they are just around the corner, in the Appalachians.
Examples: “Ice,” “Darkness Falls,” “Firewalker,” “Quagmire,” “Field Trip,” “Agua Mala,” “Detour.”
Extra-terrestrial life is at the center of many X-Files stories, though ultimately not validated empirically within the continuity (for the most part). There is some heavy overlap between aliens and the Mytharc stories since the latter involve the colonization of Earth and the restoration of an alien virus (the black oil) that was the planet’s original inhabitant.
Examples: “Pilot,” “Space,” “E.B.E.,” “Genderbender,” “Little Green Men,” “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” “Colony,” “End Game,” “Talitha Cumi,” “Herrenvolk,” “War of the Coprophages,” “Travelers,” “The Beginning,” “The Unnatural,” “Biogenesis.”
These stories explore aspects of Christian mythology and ask questions about it. Is God real? Is the Devil? Why can Mulder so readily believe in aliens, monsters, and time loops but not in Scripture? Conversely, why does Scully permit herself faith in Christian lore, but not the paranormal? Where is her precious science when it comes to the Bible? This kind of story, involving Christian mythology also exposes the protagonists’ inability to see outside their own world-view.
Examples: “Miracle Man,” “Die Hand der Verletzt,” “Revelations,” “All Souls,” “Terms of Endearment.”
The Serial Killer
This style of X-Files tale was minimized late in the program’s run to accommodate the format on Millennium (1996 – 1999). Originally, however, serial killers appeared quite frequently on The X-Files to represent the “evil within” humanity.
Examples: “Irresistible,” “Grotesque,” “Unruhe,” “Paper Hearts.”
From astral projection to clairvoyance, from soul migration to astrology (the effect of heavenly bodies on human bodies), The X-Files obsessed on psychic phenomena throughout its nine year run.
Examples: “Fire,” “Beyond the Sea,” “Shadows,” “Born Again,” “Lazarus,” “Young at Heart,” “Roland,” “The List,” “The Walk,” “Excelsius Dei,” “Aubrey,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Oubliette,” “Syzygy,” “Pusher,” “The Field Where I Died,” “Elegy,” “Kitsunegari,” “Mind’s Eye,” “Trevor,” “Milagro,” “Via Negativa.”
In these stories, The X-Files charts the U.S. government’s association with aliens, and secret plans for impending alien colonization. Mulder’s family history and association with the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), as well as Scully’s abduction fit into this subset of narrative.
This brand of story features a large recurring/supporting cast, including Agent Krycek (Nicholas Lea), The Well-Manicured Man, Agent Spender, and Cassandrea Spender (Veronica Cartwright). There is heavy overlap between this story type and the “Aliens” sub-type.
Examples: “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” “Duane Barry,” “Ascension,” “Colony,” “End Game,” “Anasazi,” “The Blessing Way,” “Paper Clip,” “Piper Maru,” “Apocrypha,” “Terma,” “Tunguska,” “Tempus Fugit,” “Max,” “731,” “Nisei,” “Redux,” “Redux II,” “The End,” “Two Fathers, One Son.”
The Horror Standards/Tropes
Horror television features a set of standard stories or tropes that are hauled out again and again. The X-Files demonstrates real wit and innovation dealing with stories and characters that have appeared on Night Gallery, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and Tales from The Crypt, among others.
These standards include stories about vampires, werewolves, ghosts, crazy computers, succubi, cannibalism, science run amok, time loops, evil dolls, and zombies.
Examples: “Shapes,” “The Ghost in the Machine,” “3,” “Dod Kalm,” “Our Town,” “Avatar,” “Never Again,” “Post-Modern Prometheus,” “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” “Bad Blood,” “Kill Switch,” “Chinga,” “Monday,” “Millennium.”
As I blog about The X-Files this year, I’ll be selecting stories from each sub-set for retrospectives, and also posting a giant Mytharc post/survey at one point, likely late in the year when I’ve re-watched all the episodes and have something new (and hopefully intriguing…) to offer on the subject.
I hope you’ll join me in remembering The X-Files this year. The truth is out there.
We begin the survey soon with the first episode: “Pilot” (September 10, 1993).