Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Arguably The Best Season Of The X-Files: The Complete Third Season Is A Perfect Season On DVD!

The Good: Great acting, Plots, Character development, DVD bonus features, Absence of real duds
The Bad: Nothing serious (could always use more commentary tracks!)
The Basics: With twenty-four episodes, The X-Files - The Complete Third Season raises the bar on science fiction television with great cases!

Long before it turned into something unpalatable and messy, The X-Files was a truly great television show. Before there's the pile-on about the first part of that sentence, let me explain: I LOVE serialized television. Serialized television works great for DVD because episode to episode, disc to disc there is continuity that is followed and a single story that keeps progressing. There are shows that do long arcs well, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the HBO series Carnivale (reviewed here!) which is arguably a stronger show when viewed continuously, as opposed to watching individual episodes. The reason those shows work so well is that the writers and producers had a vision, not just a vague idea. Chris Carter and the writing staff of The X-Files had a great, nebulous idea, but did not have a vision as to where they were going with it.

As a result, The X-Files, when viewed collectively, is an astonishingly erratic body of works. Episode to episode and season to season, there is a lot of up and down as far as the quality and because of some of the twists in the later seasons, there is contradictory information that guts the series for the loyal viewers. But in the third season, The X-Files had little or nothing to contradict. As a result, it rockets up to a status few television series' ever achieve: a perfect season. On DVD, The X-Files - The Complete Third Season is a perfect season of television and what that means to me is not that every episode it perfect, but rather the episodes are all above average with some truly great hours of television and no real duds in the group. This third season of The X-Files certainly qualifies!

Opening with the apparent death of Mulder at the hands of forces of the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Scully and A.D. Walter Skinner work to protect the digital tape that Mulder apparently died for. Returned to health by his Navajo allies, Mulder and Scully track down the digital tape, encounter Krycek and begin to learn the secret history of the United States following World War II. The pair discovers what the Nazis kept from the Neuremburg Trials were up to for the U.S. government, as well as their Japanese counterparts and in the process, they begin to piece together what happened to Scully during her abduction.

Working together, Scully and Mulder encounter a human lightning rod, an actual psychic (though he can only see how people die), a vindictive death row inmate who returns from the grave to exact revenge upon those who did him wrong in life, a man-creature who feeds on human fat, and a wounded soldier who has discovered how to astrally project himself to harm members of the military to put him in the conditions that resulted in him becoming a quadriplegic. As well, the pair hunts down a kidnaper whose current victim becomes tied to one of his past abductees, a serial killer who is knocking off people who exhibit stigmata, a serial killer obsessed with gargoyles, and one who can push his will upon others, thus masking his murders as suicides. The agents investigate attacks by cockroaches and enter a cosmic g-spot, come across dog spirits, the Loch Ness Monster (sort of), a Chinese organ procurement ring, and a vengeful female spirit.

As well, season three includes the finest hour of television The X-Files produced, ironically, a comedy episode. After a string of comedic episodes of The X-Files spawned following the success of the first comedic episode at the peak of the second season (reviewed here!), season three produced comedies with "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," "War Of The Coprophages" and right before the end of the season, "Quagmire." Before "Quagmire," though, comes the self-referential episode "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space,'" a brilliant and repeatedly hilarious episode wherein a staged alien abduction is interrupted by an appearance of a real U.F.O., which abducts everyone and Scully, Mulder and novelist Jose Chung try to piece together what actually happened. It's funny, fresh and the best episode The X-Files did, despite having brilliant episodes later on, this one remains uncontradicted by any subsequent episodes and brilliant in its own right.

In addition to the bottle episodes, the framework for the alien conspiracy is laid over the course of seven of the episodes scattered through the third season. In those episodes, Mulder learns his father was part of the shadowy conspiracy linked to the presence of extraterrestrials on Earth, Scully inadvertently sacrifices a member of her family and Skinner becomes a clear ally in the agents' attempts to find the truth. Scully and Mulder discover a secret warehouse of medical records of abductees (including Samantha Mulder and Scully's own records!), unearth a secret network of trains carrying alien/human hybrids across the country, and in the course of tracking down Krycek discover the Black Oil, an extraterrestrial whose U.F.O. has been recovered after fifty years and now has the means to leave, thanks to the Cigarette-Smoking Man. It culminates in the discovery of a man who claims to know the plan behind the alien/human conspiracy, one that puts Mulder and Scully in even more danger!

The X-Files in its third season hit a stride that few television shows ever reached, captivating the imagination of its viewers by presenting smart, well-written episodes that alternated well between formulaic bottle episodes and longer, serialized plot that compel the audience to tune in with a functioning brain! In its third season, the show abandons Scully's reports and the usual voice-overs for whatever the agents are typing on their computers (it happens, but not as frequently in this season) and focuses instead on keeping the characters moving forward and the plots fresh.

It can be argued that by the time the third season came up, there were essentially three types of episodes in the series: "Mythology" episodes (ones charting the overall plot involving alien abductions, alien presences on Earth and the role the U.S. government had in collaborating with them), bottle episodes where the creature of the week was known from the beginning and bottle episodes where Mulder and Scully's investigation developed to expose a creature of the week. "The Complete Third Season" largely follows that, with Mulder and Scully having a few more elements that are consistent between episodes (for example, Scully gets a dog!). As well, there are recurring characters, like Skinner who finally falls firmly into the "ally" camp. Mulder and Scully are manipulated and threatened by the Well-Manicured Man, Krycek and the Cigarette-Smoking Man, so pop up at crucial moments with key pieces of information.

The X-Files is not known for a ton of character development, but in the third season, episodes develop more frequently as a result of the characters and their efforts, as opposed to simple encounters with "freaks of the week." So, for example, Scully begins to assert herself when the murder investigation involving her family member is closed due to lack of evidence and she begins to express her faith to Mulder more freely. Mulder, for his part, is returned to life in the season premiere with the understanding that he has truths that only he can uncover and he sets to finding them out as eagerly as we have ever seen him do so, despite learning of his father's connection to the shadow conspiracy!

The special effects in the third season are decent, even by today's standards and The X-Files illustrates well what can be done on a television budget. Episodes like "2Shy" and "Grotesque" invest a lot in make-up and set dressings to sell their plots and they work out wonderfully as a result. Similarly, this season of The X-Files has a wonderful number of appearances by great character actors in decent roles. Character actors seldom get enough credit, but this season, performers like Peter Boyle, Thomas Kopache, Jewel Staite, Kurtwood Smith, Stephen McHattie, and Charles Nelson Reilly get their due with juicy roles that help make The X-Files a vibrant and impressive series.

This is not to say that the lead actors are slouching their way through their performances! Gillian Anderson explodes with moments of impressive growth as an actress as her character takes on the role of leader, survivor and skeptic sidekick. Anderson illustrates an amazing sense of comic timing with one-liners and a stronger physical presence in action scenes. Indeed, her performance with a gun and her lungs as the climax of "Apocrypha" ought to alone have insured her getting nominated for awards this season!

David Duchovny, similarly, manages to play Mulder with a geekish quality that he makes work. He has the ability to play with both conviction and doubt, never coming across as a know-it-all even when his extraordinary views and theories turn out to be the truth!

On DVD, the third season of The X-Files looks and sounds great. There are commentary tracks on "Apocrypha" and "'Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" which offer some interesting thoughts from the creators of the show looking back as they do from several seasons later. As well, the original "A Conversation With Chris Carter" features from the video tapes are included on this DVD. There is a documentary as well as deleted scenes that are presented with branching so they can be put back into the episode where they belong, which I think is the best use of this medium!

All in all, The X-Files - The Complete Third Season is possibly the best investment for casual viewers of The X-Files. Die-hard fans, of course, will want The X-Files - The Complete Series (reviewed here!), but if one had to pick a single season to get for someone to show how great this show can be, this is it!

For a better idea of what this boxed set entails, please check out my reviews of individual episodes of some of the episodes at:
The Blessing Way / Paper Clip
Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose / War Of The Coprophages
Nisei / 731
Piper Maru / Apocrypha
Pusher / Jose Chung's "From Outer Space"
Wetwired / Talitha Cumi


For other television season reviews, please visit my index page here for an organized listing!

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