Monday, February 7, 2011

Worthwhile And Out There: The Rapid Ascent Of The X-Files Begins With Season Two!

The Good: Acting, Stories, Character, Effects
The Bad: One or two shaky episodes
The Basics: Frightening and fast-paced, the second season of The X-Files begins bigger serialized arcs and puts Mulder and Scully in more intriguing danger than before!

Once upon a time, television shows that filled an hour timeslot ran for almost fifty minutes and the television season ran for an indeterminate number of episodes, but unless it was British, it had at least twenty-six episodes. This comes to mind as I review The X-Files - Season Two because it is easy to go through the twenty-five episode season with its forty-five minute episodes (including opening and closing credits) pretty fast. Perhaps it is not as easy to go through as the 22 and 24 episode, forty-one minute programs that are released on DVD of current shows, but it is still a pretty fast pace with which these episodes flow.

The first season of The X-Files (reviewed here!), I have long argued, was plagued by episodes that were far too similar to one another. Instantly three episodes come to mind wherein dead people manifest in order to right the wrongs of their lives, usually in a corporate setting. Sitting down and watching the first season of the series is - unfortunately - hampered by a strong sense of repetition and some sadly mediocre acting on many fronts. With the second season of The X-Files, many of those problems disappear as the show takes on a much more serialized storyline that puts a shadowy conspiracy government as a recurring villain and leaves Mulder on his own for much of the season.

Three months of reassignment to wiretap transcribing for Mulder and teaching forensic medicine for Scully has left Mulder strung out and lost. Scully, deeply worried about him, begins to volunteer her medical services for autopsies on his cases, if for no other reason than to help keep an eye on her ex-partner and friend. Soon, though, Mulder is reassigned a new partner, Alex Krycek, who is almost instantly found to be in league with the Cigarette Smoking Man. Realizing that the bond between Mulder and Scully is not so easily broken, the Cigarette Smoking Man arranges for Scully to be abducted, leaving Mulder in his most vulnerable position yet.

Scully's abduction, though, empowers Assistant Director Skinner to reopen the X-Files and Mulder trudges back to his basement office armed with an x-file of Scully's case. Aided as well by a new informant, Mulder begins an exhaustive search to find Scully. Scully reappears in a weakened condition and as she begins her recovery from the experiments performed upon her, the pair investigates witchcraft at a small school, a sentient black hole, a carnival freakshow, and a series of cloned scientists who may well hold the key to Mulder finding his sister!

In the second season of The X-Files, there is a stronger sense that there is one overall story being told and generally that takes the form of a secret government conspiracy working against the best interests of the American people. Bottle episodes tend to have more to do with the occult in season two, though there are classic "monsters of the week," like the flukeman in "The Host" and a carnival creature in "Humbug." There is a small collection of serial killers, including one who targets women with beautiful hair - which naturally puts Scully in his path - and one stalking a pregnant woman in "Aubrey."

The show takes some serious risks in some of the episodes that remain some of the most frightening and understated episodes of the series, most notably "Blood." "Blood" follows a killing spree involving seemingly unrelated people all of whom saw digital displays order them to kill everyone around them shortly before they went mad and did just that. The episode follows a mild-mannered postal worker who slowly is tormented by this phenomenon and desperately attempts to resist the influence of the messages as long as he can. Well before Buffy The Vampire Slayer took a similar risk with "Earshot," "Blood" put a shooter in a clocktower firing at students. I think it no less shocking or edgy just because they were college students instead of high schoolers.

Throughout the second season, though, there is a growing sense of the order of things in The X-Files mythology. As Deep Throat alluded to, there are aliens and they are here on Earth and the ravings of an apparent madman, Duane Barry, suggest that the government and the aliens are working in collusion and soon that, too, becomes evident. The second season introduces the first of two definitive alien races that become a vital part of The X-Files, the shape-shifting alien bounty hunter. Characterized in this season as terrifying mercenaries hired by the shadowy forces working in the government to keep the truth about extraterrestrials quiet, the alien bounty hunter makes an auspicious debut. Returning to the origins, it is refreshing to see characters like the alien bounty hunter before that character is completely bastardized in the later seasons to accommodate more far-fetched and contradictory plots.

That said, what made The X-Files so successful in its second season was the continued growth of the characters of Mulder and Scully. Fans seemed to desperately want the two to become romantically involved and in retrospect it is amusing considering how in the second season they take loving risks, flirt and do virtually everything shy of saying "I love you" and hopping into bed with one another. Scully, for example, has a flinch of jealousy when listening to Mulder's answering machine in "Little Green Men" when hearing another woman's voice there. Mulder runs himself ragged in his attempt to find Scully and rescue her from whatever forces have abducted her.

In fact, on DVD, perhaps the greatest weakness of The X-Files in the second season is the duration of Scully's disappearance. Mulder being exhausted searching for her comprises a single episode between her disappearance and her resurfacing. The lone episode of Scully's absence ("3") allows Mulder to make some truly poor decisions (and get laid!), but it hardly connotes a real sense of time lost while Scully is experimented upon. Unlike during the original airings of the episodes where there would have been almost two Scully-less weeks, the absence of Scully passes remarkably quickly on DVD.

That said, the series does an excellent job of working around Scully's return when she does make it back. Scully is shaken to her core and it is not like in "Firewalker" - the next episode after she is returned from her abduction - she is up and running around. Instead, Scully remains the scientist, but she is shaken and experiences a strong sense of vulnerability that reads as very real.

Those who watched and enjoyed the first season of The X-Files are rewarded for their loyalty by the return of characters like the Lone Gunmen, Assistant Director Skinner and the Cigarette Smoking Man. Introduced in season two are Krycek, the alien bounty hunter and X, who make for decent recurring villains who last long enough to establish real presence within The X-Files mythos.

Gillian Anderson enters the season bearing a maternal glow, as she was quite pregnant at the time. She has something of a support role in the early half of the season, but in the latter half of the season, she is given a more meaty role. Part of the latter performances gives Anderson a real chance to stretch her acting wings. While Scully begins the series - and the season - as a confident professional, her abduction shakes her. Anderson, then, is able to infuse a somewhat skittish quality into her performance of Scully and that works beautifully for her. He is able to play Scully as less certain, but no less resolute in her methodology and that makes for compelling television.

It is David Duchovny who explodes with ability as an actor in the second season of The X-Files. Any shakiness that pervaded his early performances in the technobabble heavy dialogue Duchovny was saddled with in the first season, is gone from his performance in the second. He plays the character as exhausted and lost, using his full ability at changing his body language to sell the viewer on his character struggles and it works.

On DVD, The X-Files - Season 2 is not exactly pumped full of bonus features, but some of them are interesting enough. There are four deleted scenes which are presented with a branching quality that allows the viewer to pop them back into the episode where they belong and that is remarkably cool, save that the deleted scene in "Sleepless" lacks sound. The original "A private conversation with Chris Carter" clips from the VHS release of twelve of the episodes is included on the bonus disc, as are the "Behind The Truth" commercials for F/X's presentation of The X-Files.

The second season of The X-Files is not a season that needs much in the way of bonus features, though, not to sell to the intended audience. Anyone who likes truly great science fiction, especially the scarier brand, will enjoy this DVD set. In fact, the only good reason not to get this boxed set is because you are considering The X-Files - The Complete Collection (reviewed here)!

For a better idea of exactly what this boxed set entails and what happens in the second season of The X-Files, please check out my reviews of individual episodes at:
Little Green Men / The Host
Sleepless / Duane Barry
Ascension / One Breath
Irresistible / Die Hand Die Verletz
Colony / End Game
Humbug / Anasazi


For other television season reviews, please visit my index page here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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