X-Files (Non-)Retrospective

XFiles3.JPGWow, two months to the day. Honestly, I’m sorry for the long absence. I love this thing and never intend to be away for so long, but life pulls you in weird directions and blogging, alas, takes a back seat.

I’m still in Japan, but I just quit the awful English teaching gig I was doing. I’ve also given myself a hard deadline of April 15th to finish this dissertation draft. So I don’t have more free time now, exactly, but I have much more unstructured time. Which means, naturally, that I’m doing this instead of that other stuff I should be doing.

One recent fun (as opposed to chaotic) thing was our focused viewing of the original X-Files, which we started about two years ago, stopped for about a year and a half, and finally finished yesterday. Yesterday was an important X-Files milestone for us in another sense, in that we watched the final episode of season 9, then the 2008 movie (meh), and then the first two episodes of the new series. With all of this stuff fresh in our minds, unfortunately, the problems with the newer offerings were especially apparent, and I’m personally not super eager to watch the remainder of season 10 (though of course I will, because as we’ve established by now, I’m an idiot).

Importantly, I never really watched the X-Files during its original run. I caught the odd episode now and again, but I was eleven when it started airing and twenty when it stopped, and those years were too batshit insane (in my membrane) for me to focus on a (relatively) mature show like the X-Files to the extent it really requires. So viewing it now in its entirety for the first time, and as a (relatively) mature adult, I can appreciate the complexities that a younger me would have hated. In particular, I really like–in fact, prefer–the conspiracy stuff, which from casual conversation seems to be what most longtime fans of the show dislike the most. I hate the goofy, non-canon, joke episodes (like the one where Gary Shandling and Tea Leoni star as Mulder and Scully in a film version of the latter’s experiences. Why the shit, Chris Carter. Why the shit.).

What bugs me about the conspiracy stuff, though, is how the writers of the show themselves sometimes seem to forget the details. Several times in the series we get rehashings of the major storylines, which are always slightly different, and characters often act as if they haven’t experienced the things we know they have just so that they can keep up the pretense of skepticism (which I absolutely hate). But more on that in a minute.

A related thing that will probably piss off diehard fans is that my favorite seasons are 8 and 9, from which the hero Mulder is largely absent. If you don’t know/remember, at the end of season 7, Mulder is abducted by aliens. Most of season 8 is about the search for him, headed by agent John Doggett, played by Robert Patrick, whom the FBI assigns as Scully’s new partner. And let me just get this out of the way: Doggett is a much, much more compelling character than Mulder. Again, as a sort of recent fan of the show, I don’t know what the general opinion on this is and can’t be bothered to Google it, but I suspect that this opinion might border on treason among true X-Files believers. But Doggett’s the best. Season 9’s episode “Release,” where we finally learn what happened to Doggett’s dead son Luke, is crazy intense, dark and sad, and maybe my favorite episode of the whole show. (Notably, this episode feels more like Chris Carter’s other canceled series, Millennium, than typical X-Files fare.)

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Sorry, I couldn’t hear you because I was drowning in the fathomless blue depths of Robert Patrick’s eyes.

Anyway, they finally do find Mulder, but then in season 9 he goes into hiding and is mostly gone from the show again. During this period Scully slowly backs away from the X-Files, moving into a teaching role at Quantico, and it seems like Doggett and his new partner Monica Reyes are set to take up the paranormal investigation torch.

But the climactic two-part series finale, which answers all the questions about the alien invasion fairly definitively, is effectively retconned in the first episode of the 2016 reboot (restart?). In that episode an obnoxious conservative pundit convinces Mulder that the alien invasion stuff was all a scam, that the government is responsible for a horrible conspiracy and aliens are real, but the aliens… weren’t the ones doing… bad stuff… to people? Is that right? That’s what it seemed like to me, but… no? Because in the very next damned episode the alien stuff is front and center again, and even the Smoking Man, the original run’s major villain (who clearly died at the end of season 9) is back again.

This is the really annoying thing about Carter et al’s writing, which started to appear in the first run around the time of the 1998 movie and only worsened over time. The writers simply seem unable to keep the convoluted details of their own narrative straight, and instead of consistent storytelling they resort to abrupt retcons that add no depth to the story and serve only to confuse matters. It’s possible to retroactively insert story details in an organic way, and if they were able to do this I wouldn’t mind: but they aren’t. The Smoking Man died: in the last episode of season 9 we saw him take a missile to the face, and a shitty CGI skull actually burned up on-screen to make it super clear how dead he was. Maybe alien technology brought him back or something, but if so, why does he still have to smoke through his stoma? Inconsistent! More importantly, why the hell would they undermine the entire mythos of the original season with a half-baked plot gimmick in the first episode of the new show, only to apparently retcon that episode in the very next episode? Even the Lone Gunmen, the goofy but lovable computer hackers and longtime friends of Mulder and Scully who were killed off in season 9, are apparently not dead.

Changing important plot details robs the whole story of any sense of significance, you guys. There’s no reason to get invested in the narrative if any part of it could change at any moment. Favorite character died? No reason to have any emotional response whatsover, because s/he’ll probably be back again in two episodes. What’s the point?

Some of my questions will likely be answered when I watch the remainder of season 10, but it all points to larger problems with long-running shows like this and plots that grow artificially complex as a way of maintaining a certain tone. When characters randomly start forgetting their own alien abductions and impregnations–Scully had an alien baby inside her not once, but twice, but remains skeptical?!–things have gotten out of hand.

The device of skepticism itself is the very worst part of all of this (as I’ve ranted about several times before). Characters will witness something absolutely irrefutable in one episode, and then a little later adamantly deny the existence of any and all paranormal phenomena. Even Doggett, my favorite, fights a vampire, cuts a sentient parasite out of Scully’s neck, and has his dreams invaded by a vengeful mystic dream-killer a la Freddy Krueger (to name just a few cases), but insists again and again that he is a skeptic and that he doesn’t believe in mumbo-jumbo like aliens. Skepticism prides itself on rationality, but this use implies a misunderstanding of what rationality actually is. To be rational is to draw conclusions based on experience and logic: when you experience something directly, then close your eyes and cover your ears and scream about how it isn’t real, that is precisely the opposite of rational. In the X-Files this gets especially tiring when it’s used as justification for characters acting stupidly and essentially prolonging the conspiracy they’re supposedly trying to oust.

Anyway, I’m sure we’ll watch the rest of it soon. In the meantime, what do all of you think about the new X-Files? Have you watched it yet? If so, did you enjoy it? And come on, be honest: Doggett’s way better than Mulder, right? Riiiiiight?

Retro Review: The X-Files (1998)

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I mean, since the ’90s, and the days when aliens were the central pop-culture obsession (soon to be replaced by zombies), and The X-Files was a Sunday-night mainstay. At least, it was on the handful of occasions when I watched it, I think. I don’t know, that was, like, twenty-something years ago (numbers is bad for my head) and the details are hazy, what with all the Hooties and Blowfishes and Alanis Morisettes and Pogs and stuff.

(Do you want to know a sad truth? When working on this post I actually spent time, like, real, precious seconds, debating whether I should include a hyphen in X Files or not. I do it because I love you, whoever you are. Call me.)

But I did see the film! Which I kind of remember enjoying, but also I remember not understanding it. Because The X-Files film is definitely a major part of the overarching plot (it falls in between seasons five and six) and, while you can sort of enjoy it without knowing the mythos, it’s difficult to appreciate it to the fullest. At the time the film came out I was just shy of sixteen, and what with all the Pogs and other crazy cool stuff I was up to (I was super cool and immensely popular, maybe) I didn’t have time or brain-space for a complicated show with a multi-season conspiracy theory that required consistent viewing and note-taking and was probably followed by an oral exam where nuns would hit you with rulers every time you got an answer wrong. I watched a few of the standalone episodes, which I kind of remember thinking were okay, but I just never got into it. Anyway, the film, which this post is actually about, definitely benefits from some familiarity with the series.

Now, twenty-something years after the series’ debut, I have Netflix and a penchant for time-wasting, the perfect storm for marathon viewing of ’90s TV scifi. The lady friend and I have been working our way through the series for some time, and we finally watched the film tonight. And you know something? It was great! But only after twenty years, Netflix, and several weeks of consistent, studious viewing of the show.

As you undoubtedly know, the whole premise of the X-Files is that these two FBI agents, Mulder and Scully, are working on these cold-cases dubbed X-Files by the unimaginative feds (they actually explain this in one episode: they were originally filed under “U” for “unsolved,” until the clerk ran out of space, and just moved them down to the empty “X” drawer). The cases in the X Files range from alien-related shenanigans to ghostly apparitions to mutant monsters, though the main narrative arc deals with a slow, decades-spanning alien invasion. Mulder, who believes everything, and Scully, who believes nothing (which is the LEAST BELIEVABLE PART OF THE SHOW), parade around the US trying to solve these paranormal cases and gradually piecing together the super-complicated conspiracy that’s been hiding the alien colonization and even subjecting unsuspecting humans to infection and mutation by the alien invaders.

Season 5 of the show ends with the X Files themselves–i.e., the actual paper files–being torched by the Smoking Man, arguably the series’ main antagonist, the thought being that this will put an end to those meddling kids and their, ah, meddling. The film picks up soon after this, with Mulder and Scully assigned to a bomb threat in Dallas, only GUESS WHAT, it’s actually part of an elaborate government coverup! Mulder learns that the bomb was intended to destroy evidence of the experiments being conducted on humans with alien DNA. With that discovery he’s off on a merry chase, with people dying and explosions and alien-human hybrids and bees!

It’s actually quite difficult to summarize the film in a meaningful way, because so much depends on prior knowledge of the show. For instance, there’s an old British guy who gives Mulder an important bit of information and a vaccine which he needs to save Scully, who’s been infected with an alien virus. After he hands the stuff off to Mulder, he gets in his car, which promptly explodes. This wouldn’t be so significant to someone not invested in the show, but longtime viewers would know that this British guy was a major antagonist for several seasons, and that the vaccine he gives Mulder is a cure for the black oil, the gross sometimes-liquid sometimes-wormy sludge that is actually, like, the sentient DNA of the bad aliens? Something like that. Also, there are several groups of aliens. Anyway, the black oil was a major thing for like the past four years of the show, so this tradeoff is hugely significant.

Sorry, I had to stop for a second there because I suddenly sprouted a pair of thick-rimmed black plastic-framed glasses with a big piece of tape on the nose, and also a pocket protector and an AD&D rulebook. Like, they just appeared, as if summoned from a terrifying otherworld. Hmm.

But this enforced nerdiness is kind of the point. The worst thing, and the best thing, about the X-Files (both the show and the film) is that it requires, and rewards, serious investment. If you care at all about the larger narrative, then the film is extremely satisfying. There’s an almost-kiss, a villain dies (after an act of redemption), Mulder’s previously flagging belief in the reality of the alien invasion is restored, and Scully–thank all that is holy–finally sees irrefutable proof of extraterrestrials in the form of a preposterously gigantic spaceship. Without some idea of how major these moments are in the series’ canon, The X-Files is sort of just another alien movie, albeit a smart one (and in one scene there’s a lingering shot of an Independence Day movie poster that seems to acknowledge this). If you’re into the series, though, it’s a major payoff.

It’s just a drag that to get the full effect, you have to pay out so much up front, in the form of hundreds of hours of the show.

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