Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Ultimate Science Fiction Fan's Heresy: The X-Files: The Complete Series Does Not Hold Up!

The Good: Some brilliant writing, Interesting characters, Some great acting, Some nice DVD bonuses
The Bad: Wildly inconsistent, "Mythology" is not well-conceived, Starts rocky and degenerates quickly
The Basics: While generally better than most stuff on television, The X-Files holds up poorly as an overall series making it a tough sell for drama fans.

As those who read my reviews might well know, I grew up on science fiction and fantasy. I grew up with a heavy diet of Star Trek: The Next Generation (reviewed here!) when it was in its first run and I had a voracious appetite for science fiction. I was into The X-Files for years and I even put up with their shenanigans of releasing the DVDs as $100 boxed sets before later releasing the same boxed sets cheaper, slimmer and without the bonus features before releasing select episode arcs in pathetic mini-sets. Now, The X-Files has released the definitive collection with The X-Files - The Complete Collector's Edition, which includes all fifty-nine previously released discs, plus the first The X-Files film and a bonus disc compiling the materials unique to the four "Mythology" boxed sets. This is the definitive boxed set for fans of The X-Files.

As a fan of the series, I am about to commit the ultimate blasphemy. Rewatching the sixty-one disc set, I'm forced to admit that The X-Files is simply not as good as I remember it. Indeed, I find I now prefer the quirky menace and intrigue of Joss Whedon's Angel to the much more expansive and convoluted The X-Files by Chris Carter. Rewatching the entire series, The X-Files is the model of meteoric success for a strange show and its pop-culture death when it fell . . . hard. And ultimately, the problem is the way it all comes together, or fails to.

Allow me to explain.

Deep in the bowels of the FBI is a room with unsolved cases, known as X-files. These cases are unexplained, usually paranormal in nature and have become the life's work of FBI Agent Fox Mulder. Mulder is a geek who is digging into cases that involve extraterrestrial contact, government-manufactured organisms and mutations unlike anything that has been exposed to the general populace. Unfortunately for Mulder, his digging into the unexplained has led him to get too close to secrets a small cabal of government agents would like kept.

Agent Dana Scully, a medical doctor recruited by the FBI, is assigned to the X-files to keep an eye on Mulder and debunk his work. Mulder and Scully hit it off and begin to explore the world through a lens of trying to explain the unexplainable. In that pursuit, Scully is exposed to organisms with DNA that does not conform to the known base pairs, mutations that illustrate corporate or government corruption and ultimately an invincible army whose nature and goals seem highly suspect.

The pair is kept on a long leash by Assistant Director Walter Skinner, who is monitored by a mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man, who works for the secret syndicate that seems to control the world from the shadows. After years of working together, when Scully has opened up to the probabilities that otherworldly forces are at work on Earth, Mulder is abducted by one of the competing extraterrestrial groups and Scully is paired with the straightlaced John Doggett and the adventures go even more awry.

The X-Files suffers deeply because its success was not guaranteed. Conceived by Chris Carter, the nine seasons of the series began being shot in Vancouver and by the second season, the show was the ONLY thing to watch on Friday nights (so much so that no other show on Fox could hold the timeslot beside it and the network went through a plethora of shows there). Because its success was not guaranteed, the first season is largely a collection of bottle episodes; standalone adventures investigating the truth behind things that go bump in the night. The season climaxes with the first hard evidence of extraterrestrials to truly shake Scully's skepticism.

The show then becomes loosely serialized with multiple-episode arcs exploring the extraterrestrial mythology and the various forces working on Earth with the knowledge (and often aid) of the secret government that works behind the U.S. (and other world) government(s). The larger story of the X-files that Mulder and Scully investigate soon becomes a mystery that has to do with the government utilizing alien technology, employing alien bounty hunters and sometimes getting involved in conflicts between various extraterrestrial races as their wars are carried to Earth.

The problem, then, is that Chris Carter and his staff clearly had no idea what they were getting into when they began the series. Instead of mapping out who the players were, what their goals were, who their enemies were, how the government was involved and having a clear idea from the outset, the show flounders horribly. A good contrast to this is Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Joss Whedon and his staff clearly knew where they wanted to take the show. In the second season, Whedon and his team plant threads that are paid off in seasons three, four, five, six, and seven. Whedon didn't know if he was going to get his seven seasons, but he mapped the ideas out as if he would get it and he planned ahead. Innocuous comments like Principal Snyder referencing the Mayor in the second season (the Mayor becomes the big bad of season three) illustrates a clear sense that Whedon had ambitions and was ready to develop the show to its fullest potential, if given the opportunity.

Not so with Chris Carter's The X-Files. Carter starts the series without knowing the backstory. Nowhere is this more clear than with Mulder's backstory. Mulder is an investigator into the paranormal because he witnessed his sister, Samantha, being abducted when they were both children. In the course of the series, what actually happened to Samantha is revealed, but it does not add up. In short, if one watches the five or six episodes that focus on trying to find the truth about Samantha, the early episodes do not lead to the final one and the final one makes no sense given the facts presented in the prior episodes. Similarly, major players in the alien/supersoldier conspiracies are radically altered as the series goes on. So, for example, the alien bounty hunters, shapechangers who work for the highest bidder, who are introduced in "Colony" bear no resemblance (outside employing actor Brian Thompson) to who they are in the latter seasons when they suddenly become a rebel army.

The result is, when watching the series it seems sloppy and slapped together somewhat haphazardly. Individual episodes and the early-mid seasons might still be phenomenal, but as a series, it holds up as something strangely average and often underachieving. It never seems as good as a whole as some of its parts were originally.

What binds (most) of the series, because it fails to be cohesive on the plot front, are the characters. In traditional science fiction form, those who are killed do not necessarily stay dead, but in traditional serialized drama form, the best elements come in the form of the characters who evolve as the story progresses. The principle characters throughout the nine years of the series can be whittled down to:

FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder - A loner and something of a geek, he is incredibly smart and talented and is ridiculed by his peers for wanting to investigate the paranormal X-files. Called "spooky" behind his back, he is brooding and methodical but believes in forces that are currently unexplained. He lost his sister at a young age to what appeared to be extraterrestrials and has been obsessed with finding her since. He is often willing to put himself in danger in pursuit of the truth and soon becomes fiercely loyal to Scully, risking his life and his job to find the truth and protect her,

FBI Special Agent Dana Scully - A medical doctor and one who has not traditionally believed in the unexplained, she uses a strong scientific methodology to explain all she sees and experiences. A woman of deep faith (she's a Christian from a military family) she slowly opens up to the extraordinary not by losing her viewpoint but rather by applying it to the world she experiences. She is loyal to Mulder, Skinner and the FBI, but she soon works to present reality as opposed to debunking Mulder, which often puts her on the same hit list from the syndicate that Mulder is on,

FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner - The face of the FBI, his experiences with the extraordinary soon compels him to make the leash Mulder and Scully are on as long as possible. Despite protecting the interests of the FBI, Skinner works to keep the X-files project on-line and focused, though he is often manipulated by the Cigarette-Smoking Man or his associates,

The Cigarette-Smoking Man - The face of the secret government conspiracy, he is a man who possesses the answers to all of the cases Mulder and Scully are investigating, though he usually only pops up to attempt to thwart them. It soon becomes clear that he is part of an old order that may have made a deal they cannot all live with . . .,

The Lone Gunmen - A trio of technical wizards and conspiracy theorists who are even more eccentric than Mulder, they publish an underground newspaper called "The Lone Gunmen." Almost never seen separately, the trio assists Mulder and Scully in gaining access where they are not supposed to be,

and FBI Special Agent John Doggett - When Mulder is abducted by aliens, Doggett takes his place in the basement office. He lost his son and is searching for him, often using the resources of the FBI and the X-files to work on his search. His associates seem to be at the very heart of an emerging threat; supersoldiers who cannot be killed by any ordinary means.

The characters are wonderfully portrayed by actors who had been neglected or were fairly new to the scene when the show began. Doggett revitalized the career of Robert Patrick, previously best known as the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The show made the non-Hollywood faces of Mitch Pileggi (Skinner) and William B. Davis (The Cigarette-Smoking Man) famous and recognizable.

But because so much of the show is focused on Mulder and Scully, it largely rests on the shoulders of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson to sell the reality of the show and for the most part, it is the success of their acting that makes the show worth watching. David Duchovny instantly establishes Mulder as a man who in some ways seems like he deserves to be buried in the basement of the FBI building. Duchovny does not, in the strictest sense (at the beginning of the series) have the Hollywood good looks or the swagger. He plays Mulder as a strangely secure sunflowerseed-eating loser whose life is devoted to things that make the stranger elements walking around Star Trek conventions look reasonable. Duchovny does this by committing his body language and bearing to the role, making both the intelligence and crazy devotion of Mulder seem real and in reasonable balance to one another.

But it is Gillian Anderson who ultimately does much of the heaviest lifting on The X-Files. As Scully, Anderson plays a skeptic ruled by hard reason exploring a world where reason points to the extraordinary. In my latest run through the series discs, what once frustrated me about Scully now becomes one of the best parts of the series; how long Scully refuses to believe all that is around her. This works in large part because of Anderson's performances. Gillian Anderson makes Scully a woman of faith and reason and of deep humanity. She performs some of the series' most touching and human moments when Scully is diagnosed with cancer and when Anderson loses members of her family (usually tangential to Mulder's search for the truth). It is Anderson who makes the show into a drama as opposed to a simple and convoluted science fiction piece.

As a whole, The X-Files still holds strong as a better-than-average science fiction series. But as an entire series, it is less of a strong drama; its duds are bigger than some lesser shows I've watched lately, even though its successes vastly outstrip some of the best episodes of better received shows. The result is a shaky series that averages out to . . . well, average.

On DVD, the series - and the movie - are the original pressings of the series, so these discs have commentary tracks on selected episodes, a slew of featurettes, including the original featurettes that were created for the VHS versions of the show, and all of the bonuses from the latest anthology collections. These features are often insightful and enjoyable (unlike some commentary tracks that degenerate into simply watching the shows). Anyone who had been holding out on buying The X-Files on DVD will find this to be definitive and worthwhile set.

Though, fans who moved on when the series was finished will likely find that the parts are greater than the sum.

For more information on exactly what this series entails, please check out my reviews on the individual seasons at:
Season One
Season Two
Season Three
Season Four
Season Five
Season Six
Season Seven
Season Eight
Season Nine
The X-Files: Fight The Future Movie


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. >>>In the course of the series, what actually happened to Samantha is revealed, but it does not add up. In short, if one watches the five or six episodes that focus on trying to find the truth about Samantha, the early episodes do not lead to the final one and the final one makes no sense given the facts presented in the prior episodes.<<<

    It makes a lot of sense and is actually pretty straightforward. Samantha was still abducted by aliens, she was still experimented on, resulting in all the clones we saw. Various characters saying Samantha was still alive was never proof of anything, especially with all her duplicates walking around. The reason Cassandra and Jeffrey Spender didn't remember living with Samantha is the same reason Jeffrey didn't even recognize his own father in The End - their memories were tampered with, just as Samantha's had been. When Mulder is reading her diary, he learns she didn't even clearly remember him. "I think I had a brother..."

    I can see disliking the idea of her being taken by walk-ins, but it doesn't contradict anything else in the mythology.

    >>>So, for example, the alien bounty hunters, shapechangers who work for the highest bidder, who are introduced in "Colony" bear no resemblance (outside employing actor Brian Thompson) to who they are in the latter seasons when they suddenly become a rebel army. <<<

    That's because they are rival groups. The alien bounty hunters are infected by the black oil and work for the colonists. The faceless rebels are not infected and thus are at war with the colonists.

    Nothing personal, but your criticisms are a prime example of how poorly The X-Files' mythology is analyzed by its critics.

  2. Actually, you've left out a LOT of key information, most importantly the idea that Samantha was abducted by a serial childkiller. So, we're meant to believe the government employed a childkiller to abduct children for government officials working on the conspiracy in order to protect the future by creating alien/human hybrids?! C'mon! And the moment the disfigured alien rebels appear, the less the show made sense.

    Thanks for reading! And thanks for the comment.