The X-Files Returns :: March 28th 2015
Television used to work differently. It’s not that the internet has changed everything (though it has). It’s that in the last 15+ years there has been a shift of talent away from film to the small screen. Maybe shift is the wrong word, as it’s not like movies are now awful and all the good creatives (actors, directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, editors) are now working exclusively in TV. It’s more like a democratisation, whereby the spread of talent is more evenly spaced. This is resultant from the fact that it’s harder to create original projects via the Hollywood studio system now than at any point in history; there are also myriad new outlets available that relate to greater home viewing technology, e.g. Netflix, big flat-screen TVs, better streaming, not to mention illegal downloads and so on. Studios want financially driven certainties, and the monetary gap between tent-pole summer bankers (remakes, sequels, comic book franchises) and the smaller films that the big ones allow to be made is now a vast chasm. There’s not much middle ground, few $50-80m movies. It’s either $100-150m (and more) or $30-40m. There are zeitgeist-led exceptions, like 50 Shades of Grey (cost: $40m, box office $558m – who is watching this dreck I have no idea), but the difference is this: you can spend $30-40m on a 10-episode big drama for AMC, or HBO, or Showtime, and get creative control over everything from the writers’ room to the final edit. So who wouldn’t want to do that when the other option is to make your drama into a two-hour movie at a studio where the marketing department have creative input (read: interference from people who have never written a movie) and their script notes make you want to jump out of a window.
It’s a no-brainer and we think we have David Chase to thank for it, because received wisdom has The Sopranos as the ground zero for the start of movie-to-TV slide. And when it comes to adult drama on cable, that’s spot on. The Sopranos changed everything. But if you look further, beyond cult TV and its few million subscribers, and search for wider cultural influence that far outweighs the eyeballs that have ever laid eyes on Boardwalk Empire or Mad Men, you must begin and end with The X-Files. It was not a cult show, just because it was science-fiction, any more than Star Trek and its tens of millions of fans is a cult show. It was watched, hugely, massively watched, on Fox (which every American household has) by 15 million viewers weekly, often topping 20 million between seasons 4-6 (only in the final season did the viewing figures drop a bit and even then they pushed over 9 million). These are figures that not even today’s biggest cable shows – Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead – can dream of. The ‘mythology’ episodes tapped into that very peculiar American mindset of worry, paranoia, suspicion and distrust of the government, which had been growing exponentially since Watergate. It also existed in a pre-9/11 universe – when Americans thought their biggest threats would be domestic; it’s a show with no idea what was coming in relation to global political extremism but it wasn’t such a stretch to create a world that bluntly told its audience how much the authorities were hiding. It never mentioned a sitting president, nor did it make specific reference to politicians, or Congress/the Senate: this was the point; all of the people really controlling American life were faceless bureaucrats (NSA, CIA, FBI et al.) who nobody voted for. In our post-Snowden era, where drones do the work of pilots and the internet and phone companies record and examine our data and behaviours, so much of it seems chillingly prescient. It always cleverly exploited the disconnect between larger issues of privacy, secrecy, government control and interference, tapping into a somewhat libertarian angle, and the simplicity of relationships, out-there individuals, and communities and their dark secrets. As many episodes as there were about the bigger mythology of what’s being hidden from the populace by shadowy government syndicates and, more commonly, the military, there were far more stand-alone stories about the strangeness of small town life. It trod a steady line between the ridiculous and the plausible, and it was funny, exciting, terrifying, gripping, daft, outlandish and believable, and was propelled, as the best shows are, by great writing, sparkling ideas, innovative creativity and electric chemistry.
It’s important to try and quantify some of the influence it has had in terms of the current TV landscape. So what do we have to go on? Let’s start with the obvious. There would be no Breaking Bad without it. Showrunner Vince Gilligan learned his trade writing and producing X-Files episodes; his season 6 episode Drive cast Bryan Cranston as the lead guest and the rest is history. Researching this article has made me realise just how many of my most cherished episodes were his; they must get him back in the summer at least as a consultant, Better Call Saul is just going to have to cope. Then there’s Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa; they’re responsible for 24 and Homeland (talk about paranoid and preposterous, with a lead equal parts brilliantly intuitive Scully and haunted/slightly unhinged Mulder). Writing duo James Wong and Glen Morgan left in season 2 and created the wonderfully trashy Final Destination series; they now write/produce American Horror Story. Michelle MacLaren produced the final two seasons and now works on The Walking Dead, having won Emmys for her work on Breaking Bad. There’s many more… from David Greenwalt (Buffy, Angel, Grimm) to Rob Bowman (Castle), the tentacles of this show reach every corner of TV. Some of the guest writers are a pretty impressive roster: Stephen King, William Gibson, Tim Minear (American Horror Story), Jeffrey Bell (Angel, Alias, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), Chip Johannessen (Dexter, Homeland), John Shiban (Breaking Bad), Steven Maeda (CSI: Miami, Lost).
One of my favourite influences is nicely called The Scully Effect. This details, essentially, how Gillian Anderson encouraged generations of teenage girls to go into science careers. She did this not just because she played a doctor, but because she wasn’t a bimbo. That in itself caused consternation at the network, who wanted to replace her with a Pamela Anderson type (imagine that for a second would you). Chris Carter, the show’s creator, head writer and showrunner, refused, saying simply that this woman had to be believable as a medical doctor and that he had found a gem in this unknown 24-year-old. He dug in and fought for her, and everyone knows what a remarkable actress she has become. She had to be the centre of exposition, every week, reining in her crackpot but brilliant partner, and when she got pregnant one season in Fox fancied this as their chance to get rid of her, but no, Carter wouldn’t have it, so she was written around and prevailed, becoming surely one of the most iconic characters in TV history (though it took her years to get the same pay as Duchovny). Their relationship, off-screen and on, well, that’s a complex issue.
I think part of the magic of the show was their slightly distant relationship in real life. That on-screen crackle, that annoyance at each other’s viewpoints mixed with very obvious sexual attraction, seems to derive from it. They are very different people, and when the show was being made were at very different points in both their working and personal lives. In addition, working a 14+ hour day, 5 or 6 days a week, in beautiful but chilly and rainy Vancouver, doesn’t incline you to go out boozing with your co-worker. They got on, as they sat in the eye of a weird storm together for nearly a decade, but spent time enough together on set. Ironically, the two actors are very close now (and flirt with each other via Twitter, causing the internet to implode into its own event horizon), which makes me wonder about what effect that will have on-screen when the show returns. The X-Files, it is no coincidence, lost all impetus and good sense when Mulder and Scully became a couple (of sorts, they had an alien baby or something, it’s stupid and complicated). I find it best to try and pretend that large swathes of seasons 8 and 9 and the second movie didn’t happen. Having said that, they’re going to have to deal with all of this in the upcoming miniseries, 6-episode revisit/reboot/continuation, whatever you want to call it, which has me feeling a bit cautious. You can tell by now, this show means a lot to me.
I remember seeing a trailer for it on BBC2 – it was, as I have now found out, September 1994. I was 17 and my friends and I had discovered the joys of nightclubs and boyfriends. University beckoned and life was changing dramatically around me. The show had premiered in the US a year earlier, and on Sky in January. This comes back to the pre-internet era, which nobody under 25 even remembers I’m sure. You had to wait, for months upon months, to watch your favourite American shows. I started going online in the mid 90s, I would go to the Manchester branch of Cyberia (the first ever internet café) opposite the Central Library and try not to spoil episodes during my endless visits to rudimentary newsgroups, message boards and websites, or fansites as they were called then (ironically, the founder of Cyberia, Eva Pascoe, is one of my clients now, talk about full circle). I remember waiting a good 10 minutes to load tiny pixelated 30-second trailers for the next episode and gleefully perusing obsessive-beyond-words ‘shipper’ sites (like this one, last updated in about 1998). Shipping, a sub-genre of fan-fiction (which was invented by Star Trek fans in the 60s), where fans write relationships (cf. porn!) between characters/actors/pop stars, was invented by the X-Files. The first shippers were Mulder/Scully devotees and they pounced upon every glance, smile, brush of the arm, bit of chaste flirtation, and if you were very lucky, the odd hug (blogs like this and this make me feel positively normal). It was precisely the lack of on-screen physical contact that caused the tension to thrive at the pace it did. This was purposeful, and when the characters actually got together, once the initial thrill was over (they played it so well, mind you), it deflated the relationship like a Roswell weather balloon. The meta-joke of it all had been explored smartly in the otherwise terrible garbage monster episode Arcadia (season 6), where they posed as a married couple. So, anyway, yes, I saw a trailer – a tall, thin man, with a cigarette in his hand, walking toward the camera, in what turned out to be a Pentagon warehouse with boxes of evidence of all things piled high on either side Raiders of the Lost Ark style: the fruits of the government/military’s labour, working hard to hide their secrets from you. I was intrigued and watched the pilot; instantly, I was hooked. I think I watched the first two seasons on the BBC before getting exasperated with the time delay.
I had a friend called Ellen Singer; we met when I was 11 and she was 15. My first day at secondary school I think gran had taken me and she spotted this, frankly, Jewish-looking girl outside the gates. Not a lot of Jews at Manchester High School For Girls. She asked this girl, essentially, to keep an eye on me and make sure I was ok (thus beginning my tendency to basically have no friends of exactly my own age). She became responsible for my love of both Queen and Star Trek. I would go to her house on Parkhill Drive in Whitefield and hang out with her and Steven, her super geeky nuclear physicist brother. Through them I learned everything there was to know about Trek, X-Men (she was a comic collector), Dungeons and Dragons, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Terry Pratchett and very basic computer games. I used to go round every Sunday night and we’d get Chinese food and watch the new episode of the X-Files on Sky. This went on for years, but we grew up and drifted apart, sadly. Her parents were Conservatives, her father was the Mayor of Bury actually, and as I became more politically aware I realised how different we were ideologically, though it was my departure to university that caused the drift. I still retain great affection for her, however, and her role in my life, and we exchanged some messages when my mother passed.
So after a few years of watching the X-Files at her place, I yet again was driven to realise my need to get hold of episodes faster. I was active online and, I can’t at all remember how, got a penpal. This guy, let’s call him Mike (because that was his name), lived in Iowa and was about twice my age. He was very smart indeed, well-read, liberal, and a porn fan who had his creepy moments. Largely, we had brilliant email interactions, and I learned a huge amount about American politics from him. He worked in a community college in the AV department and had access to dubbing equipment. So the next X-Files era began – he would tape each episode, dub and convert it from the American system of NTSC to the UK system of PAL, sling four episodes on a VHS tape each month and mail it to me in Manchester. In exchange (before you think it, no I didn’t do anything weird for him in return) I would tape him stuff from British TV that he liked, sitcoms and music shows, and I’d find and send over bootlegs (he was a big Beatles/Clapton fan). After the X-Files was over, incidentally, he did the same thing with Buffy. For years we exchanged VHS tapes, in a pre-WeTransfer universe. It was so exciting, to get hold of American TV only a few weeks after they had seen it, and surely before anyone else in the UK who wasn’t similarly enterprising. Even Sky didn’t show the X-Files until 3-4 months after the episodes were on in America. How different the landscape is now, as the internet allows me to watch everything, from Modern Family to the Daily Show, as early as the morning after US broadcast.
There was great excitement in our house when the thud of the tape on the hallway mat took place. I would usually watch the episodes at my gran’s, at the weekend, first, then bring them home for mum and I to watch together. She loved the show, truly. We would howl with laughter at both the funny bits and the scary ones; we had episodes we talked about for years. Like season 3’s Teso Dos Bichos; a very average episode about possessed animal spirits (Scully is attacked by a feral cat, not even kidding) enlivened only by a scene where a mass of rats comes out of a toilet bowl. As a lifelong phobic of both rats and mice my mother would squeal and hide behind her hands at the sight of any ‘Mickey’, as she’d call them, on TV. The idea of rats coming out of a loo when you opened the lid made her jump in the air. I feel the same way about spiders, which remained thankfully absent from any episodes, though season 3’s brilliantly weird and funny War of the Coprophages (fancy word for shit-eaters) makes me squirm to this day even if I think about its thousands of cockroach cast members. We had a particular grim affection for season 5’s remarkable Home – an episode so fucked up and horrifying that it was banned from Fox as soon as it aired and has never been shown on American broadcast TV since (it’s all about multi-generational incest, as soundtracked by Johnny Mathis, and features an inbred woman, who gives birth to her sons’ children, with no arms/legs living on a piece of wood with wheels nailed to the bottom under a bed). How it even made it onto TV I have no idea but it’s still one of my favourites. You can’t watch it late at night. It’s much scarier than The Calusari, the disturbing season 2 tale of a possessed blank-eyed Omen-like child, which still stands as the only episode to be rated 18. My mother would have been so thrilled and excited to watch new episodes, so I expect a raft of mixed feelings when they appear.
Seasons 8 and 9, the final one, had what I consider to be a few nailed-on genius stories. First, season 8’s Redrum, where Joe Morton (now having tremendous fun chewing the scenery as Olivia’s dad on Scandal, surely the best trash on TV) plays out a murder he may/may not have committed, in reverse, travelling backwards through time. The rest of that season… I can barely watch such ropey old guff, where Mulder was dead for three months before he wasn’t. Like I said, I pretend none of the mythology was happening. The stand-alone stories could still be great though. Season 9’s Daemonicus wasn’t bad at all, a big horror episode with a creepy turn by James Remar (the guest stars were always so well cast). John Doe was a creditable, gritty Breaking-Bad-style story (yes, written by Vince Gilligan and directed by Michelle MacLaren) where Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick did a great job given that nobody wanted anyone but Mulder) wakes up with amnesia in a Mexican jail. I don’t even know how to tell you about season 9’s Improbable – this one is about murder and numerology and is super clever and Burt Reynolds (and his weird plastic face), pretty much, plays God. It’s insane and brilliant. Jump The Shark (har-har-meta-joke-or-what) was great because John Gilnitz wrote it and anything with Michael McKean is awesome. John Gilnitz, you should know, is a portmanteau of a writing trio who came up with some of the best episodes: John Shiban, Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz (who knows his stuff on Chris Carter’s level and needs to be part of this new version).
Season 7 is full of gems. There’s Je Souhaite – a genie grants three wishes, it’s very funny and clever and a bit twisted (more Gilligan). Hollywood A.D. – it’s all over the place, huge fun; written/directed by Duchovny, it’s about the Catholic Church, zombies, the counter-culture, the forged gospels of Mary Magdalene, the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of Lazarus, and Tea Leoni (Duchovny’s then-wife) and Garry Shandling play fictionalised versions of Mulder and Scully. It is exactly as bonkers as it sounds. All Things – Gillian Anderson writes/directs and it’s a beautiful, spiritual, very human, oddly moving and Buddhist-influenced meditation on what’s worth fighting for. Signs and Wonders – takes on born-again evangelicals, speaking in tongues and snakes, very creepy. The Amazing Maleeni (more John Gilnitz) – it’s all about magic, sleight of hand, and is worth watching just for real-life magician Ricky Jay’s majestic title character turn. The Goldberg Variation – clever, cause and effect story about the so-called luckiest man in the world. Millennium – a crossover with the other show, this one’s about government conspiracy and Biblical resurrection, and Lance Henriksen is always so watchable.
Season 6 has some superb stories – from Field Trip, where Mulder and Scully get high, accidentally (it’s super trippy) to The Unnatural (gorgeous Duchovny written/directed story about aliens and baseball, with one of the greatest ever Mulder/Scully scenes at the end). It also has Monday, a remarkable gimmick episode where time is jammed (think ST: TNG’s Cause and Effect) and they keep dying in a bank heist over and over. I watched it with mum many times. It has a sad extra dimension now as Carrie Hamilton, daughter of the legendary Carol Burnett, who solves the stuck-in-a-moment story, passed away from the same cancers as my mother, aged only 38, three years after filming. It’ll be hard to watch the next time I put it on. Rain King – super odd, quirky, heartfelt love story about a man who can control the weather (try not to let it be ruined by the guest star Victoria Jackson, now a total nutjob fundamentalist). Terms of Endearment – Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell plays a nice demon who just wants to be a normal dad. Milagro – another quality guest star, John Hawkes, plays a writer who gets obsessed with Scully, this one has some excellent Mulder-in-jealous-mode moments. How The Ghosts Stole Christmas – Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner play a murder-suicide ghost couple trying to get Mulder and Scully to turn on each other. Dreamland – hokey but tremendously fun body-swap comedy double episode where Mulder ends up working at Area 51 and Michael McKean’s Man In Black behaves entirely inappropriately with Scully. Drive – that’s the one without which there would be no Breaking Bad, it’s like the movie Speed with extra exploding brains and secret US Army tests on human subjects; and finally, Triangle – a Wizard Of Oz dream where Mulder goes back to WWII, meets Nazis on an ocean liner and kisses Scully (who isn’t herself), before she punches him in the face. It’s ridiculous, ambitious and brilliantly cinematic, worth watching for the editing and cinematography alone.
I could go on and on back through the seasons but I think that’s enough. There are plenty of places online where you can find breathless praise dished out to the first five years, I just wanted to speak up for the good stuff in the later series. This show is everything to me. You can’t go back and fix things, and trying to better the past is a fool’s errand, so this new version has to be careful. It occupies an affectionate, nostalgic place in people’s minds. I suppose, if it’s great, I’ll be thrilled. If it's not, it won’t affect the love I already have for it. The participants, be they actors or writers/producers who’ve gone on to have successful careers, owe it a debt of gratitude. So it needs to be done right, if we’re going back there again. It has to add something, not detract, and that’s a very difficult task to take on. I hope it all comes together and provides a fitting finale – until the next time in another 15 years, with the pensioner duo uncovering truths and fighting crime, albeit very slowly. Every episode, good or bad, stands as part of TV history. I take heart from the news that Darin Morgan, who wrote three of the best episodes (Humbug, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, Jose Chung’s from Outer Space), is on board, as are James Wong and Glen Morgan (yes, Darin’s brother), who popped back to turn in the nightmare-inducing Home, and penned the terrifying occult ritual episode Die Hand Die Verletzt (season 2), along with season 1 classics like Beyond The Sea, Squeeze, Ice and season 4’s Never Again.
There are many ways to go for these six episodes, and Duchovny has intimated that the first and last will handle and address the larger issues (their part-alien baby!) while the others will do stand-alone stories (which I always preferred). Chris Carter, showrunner overlord, however, has hinted he’s going to tell six stories. But the truth is nobody knows yet, and frankly, you might say six stories isn’t enough to do a great deal of anything. A lot of fans, going by Twitter, want to do a tall alien/government conspiracy tale but I think that’s quicksand. There isn’t enough time to get it going again; the problem with that is that the first movie was a great time to wrap it all up, because I was gripped (and it all made sense) up to that point. But the show was so successful that the natural stopping point never happened and from then on it just became more convoluted and a big mess, culminating in, as previously discussed, the incredibly bad super soldiers/Scully’s alien baby/Mulder’s death-not-death storyline. I hope they acknowledge that but they have to focus on just telling great stories, and must not get trapped in trying to add yet more confusing layers to an already ill-advised set of plot lines/holes. The small number of episodes could work in its favour: it’s not as big a financial commitment as it could be, therefore the pressure is down a little and it lets you tell, but not over-tell, a story or three. A third movie would have been the opposite, eliciting huge pressure (the second one, I say a little kindly, was partially so bad because of the writer’s strike and the rush to film an unfinished draft it caused).
So, quite clearly, there’s a lot yet to be worked out. If you do an analogy with Bowie’s The Next Day: you’ve been away for a very long time, you’re not going to blow it, and detract from your legacy, with crap. The idea itself, a TV show coming back to TV after two movies, is unprecedented as it is. You have to get it right. You need the right players and should take as much time as you can. And the people waiting trust you. But, in this case (unlike The Next Day) now everyone knows it’s coming so you can’t fuck it up. It’s not going to be on cable (that would have been perfect, True Detective-style) so it’ll be a bit watered down for some people, given how much more adult and sophisticated the TV audience’s reduced attention span is now. But if the network just let the creatives at its heart get on with it, it could be everything we want. My level of optimism is climbing by the day. Now all that’s left is to watch every episode before it starts. Come and get me when it’s ready.