Saturday, February 03, 2007

The X-Flaws

People always mention that The X-Files went off the boil during the last few years of its nine season run. For me the flaws that ultimately fractured the series were evident much earlier.

Sure, during the latter years when it lost the plot so seriously and deliriously, the show was like some lumbering mythical beast, whose body is too large and brain too small to recognize that, mortally wounded, the time has come to lie down and die. Viewing it took on a whole new morbid fascination; like running your tongue around the edge of a sore tooth, or worse, slowing to gaze at the twisted flesh-and-metal carnage of a multi-car pile-up.

Really the wheels came off the wagon early in the third season – the third episode of the third season to be more accurate – even before The X-Files properly painted itself into a corner and then started digging a deep hole. From that moment on, the series went from “must see!” to “must we?” Before the niggling doubts grew into a throbbing dull ache that eventually felt like my tolerance was being stretched far beyond breaking point, The X-Files was good, dumb fun.

Back when it premiered in 1993, most TV pundits predicted the show would be a goner. Though the show was not a particularly high ratings grabber from the outset, what it had going for it was timing. Suddenly it seemed every boob desperate for attention had taken a ticket and waited in line to tell the world of their alien abduction experiences.

Apparently aliens, out looking for a good time, had decided it was worth travelling the vast emptiness of space to find some unsuspecting citizen and stick a probe up their ass without politely asking first. Which meant The X-Files could count on a loyal core audience of yahoos, whose family tree was in all likelihood a stump, sitting on a soft cushion in front the television to watch.

Of course it wasn’t just aliens abductions. Episodes mixed and matched between ET activity and paranormal events, mutations and monsters created either by natural unnatural phenomenon or as by-products of laboratory creations gone awry.

For the show this was a good thing. Because what else the early nineties had to offer was its place as the last decade of the last century of the millennium, clearly an open invitation for every loon to come tumbling out of the woodwork, waving their arms and rolling their eyes and screaming that it was the last decade of the last century of the millennium, everything imaginable was out to get us and the end of the world was quite possibly nigh.

All this rabid foaming at the mouth from even the most run of the mill whack-job helped elevate the series from a marginal genre show to the lofty status of cultural phenomenon. Wading through the column inches that suddenly spewed out as the show hit our shores, any potential viewer had to decide whether The X-Files was either:

Riding the wave of the cultural zeitgeist by taping into the national psyche to rationalize the palpable fear, growing in the collective unconscious, of being unable to come to terms with the lack of control and understanding we are facing in these modern times.


An opportunity to lie back on the couch for a 50-minute hour and see the show as an allegorical extension of modern day mistrust of officialdom in whatever form you want it to take.

But if you decided to ignore all the hyperbole it soon became clear that the true answer was in fact:

Deliriously dumb fun.

Given the subject matter there was a gleeful stupidity in the way the lead roles were largely underplayed to the point of narcolepsy, while the ill-lit pseudo-documentary style, with its slyly paced supers identifying times and locations, helped heighten the more outrageous sequences. Especially since FBI Special Agents Mulder and Scully constantly found themselves nosing their way through a whole welter of weirdness. Whether it was genetic anomalies and gender benders, Amish ETs and prehistoric wood mites, most of which proved to be either inherently homicidal in nature or just downright pissed off.

They could easily have left it at that and the show would have been a riot. But at the time of the show’s inception recent national surveys indicated many Americans seriously questioned the legitimacy of institutions like the CIA and FBI. In The State of Disunion conducted by Gallop for the University of Virginia, at least twenty per cent of the Americans polled believed Washington’s elite to be involved in a conspiracy against the best interests of the people. Not only were the aliens out to get everyone, so too was the government.

The conspiracy angle lurked in the shadows from the onset. Throughout the first year, whenever evidence of the strange goings on remained remarkably intact, government agents would soon barrel in to get their grubby hands on it so obviously this was an avenue to pursue. Come the season finale it was out in the open with the revelations of alien viruses being introduced to human test subjects, Mulder’s inside man, Deep Throat, taking a bullet and the agents’ reassignments following the enforced closure of the X-Files department.

That was more than enough material to make an entertaining series. In fact along with the aliens, anomalies and conspiracy sneaks there was a fourth element: the motivations of FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder. With fewer expressions than Cesare the somnambulist in Weine’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Mulder was driven by a desire not just to prove the existence of extra-terrestrial life but also discover the fate of his older sister, apparently abducted when they were both children.

Weaving all these threads together, how could it fail? Obviously quite spectacularly.

After The X-Files’ debut everyone pointed out its debt to the cheesy 1974 spook-fest Kolchak: the Night Stalker. There were also elements of Department S and Strange Report, although with the mismatched partnership the show was more like Dempsey and Makepeace spliced with Scooby Doo, Where are You? (Which made Millennium, The X-Files’ eventual twisted sister show – which seemed to exist solely to annoy the network’s Stands & Practises flunkies – Scooby Doo, I Spit on Your Grave!)

What The X-Files did have in common with The Night Stalker and the ITC shows was a classic 1970s TV drama sensibility. Which soon became its primary flaw.

The stand-alone, monster-of-the-week stories could get away with keeping the unexplained unexplained, rather than striving for a pat conclusion each time. Mulder’s obsession and the conspiracy, which would soon introduce alien clones; the black oil; human/alien hybrids; smallpox- carrying bees; “The Project” and “The Purpose” in the run up to “Colonization”; and the Syndicate, who loitered around a fashionable Manhattan apartment whose rent was so exorbitant they couldn’t afford enough chairs to go round; would need to lead towards a resolution.

This shouldn’t have been a problem. Although it appeared in The X-Files’ wake, Buffy the Vampire Slayer illustrated that series-long story arcs could be successfully threaded through monster-of-the-week episodes. Which was something The X-Files failed to do.

Only a few episodes managed to bring the two threads together. Red Museum reintroduced the agent who killed Deep Throat even if it put a bullet in him before the episode’s end. The fourth year's Leonard Betts started the ball rolling on Scully’s brush with cancer. Apart from these, the show divided into stand-alone and conspiracy episodes. Schizophrenic in nature, the gulf between the two sides widened even further as the conspiracy story tended toward po-faced solemnity and the singular episodes broadened into comedy and outright farce.

Worse there was no logical progression to these growing “mythology” story threads, which were thrown against the screen with no sense of rhyme or reason giving a sense that the writers had simply got bored with what they had been working on and simply come up with a better idea.

Two things to deal with in storytelling are a willing suspension of disbelief and internal logic. The audience exercises the first, accepting the environment presented to them and the actions that take place therein. The creators exercise the second, establishing the environment and creating the set of ground rules. Together they act as a pact between the two sides.

In terms of storytelling, the creators of The X-Files broke the pact. For me it came with third episode of the third season.

The second season had ended on a cliffhanger with the conspiracy thread episode Anasazi that continued into the third season with The Blessing Way and Paper Clip. The three episodes introduced the Government’s MJ documents brought to light; Mulder’s father implicated in the plot before his assassination; alien/human hybrids; Scully discovering a computer chip in her neck; the introduction of The Syndicate; the murder of Scully’s sister; the abandoned West Virginia coal mine with its tunnels filled with medical files and tissue samples of everyone born after 1954.

In total it was a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. And then in the very next episode, D.P.O., Mulder and Scully happily trot off to investigate the case of a spotty adolescent sociopath who turns out to be a lightning conduit.

How do you figure that?


At 1:56 am, Blogger Ian said...

I stuck with The X Files long after everyone was saying it had lost its edge.

Then came that story about how "the fairies" had actually taken Mulder's sister away.

That episode went way beyond the phrase 'insulting your audience'.

I have had the last three series on DVD for several years now. Somehow I just can't work up any enthusiasm to unwrap the cellophane on them.

At 4:36 pm, Blogger wcdixon said...

"In total it was a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. And then in the very next episode, D.P.O., Mulder and Scully happily trot off to investigate the case of a spotty adolescent sociopath who turns out to be a lightning conduit.

How do you figure that?"

I was a bit of an X Phile, and read several explanations of this anomoly, including Carter saying they'd designed two time lines for the for the one-off monster o' week stories, and one for the conspiracy theory stories. And the two weren't taking place simultaneously (thus explaining your example above)


I never quite bought that either, but still stuck with the show until near end of Season 6 I think...far longer than it deserved. But I still got a lot of good dumb fun out of it.

At 5:11 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I stuck with The X-Files for a couple more seasons, then watched the odd episodes here and there. Unless it was one of the conspiracy/"mythology" episodes because they just annoyed me.


The niggling doubts started during the second year. After the whole Scully abduction came Firewalker - which was just a heated up version of the first season's Ice. The two parter which introduced the alien bounty hunter and the Samantha Mulder clones was followed by a case involving alien-abducted zoo animals.

I just sat there and scratched my head.

Of all the bizarre things that series has tried to make us believe, Carter's explanation just takes the buscuit.


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