Going back to revisit THE X-FILES is, right from the start, much stranger than I imagined it would be. Because of time, mostly, and its nastiest corollary, age. The first and most striking thing is that the Mulder and Scully are babies now.
At the time, they weren’t babies. They were grown-ups. Fox Mulder was the grown-up, in fact, I most wanted to become. I saw myself in every aspect of this character: his single-minded devotion to his quest, his emotional remoteness, his social manipulativeness, his air of entitlement, his weirdly selective compassion for wounded females, his aloof sense of humor, his occasional rages, his Gen X-y inability to act professionally in any situation, his utter lack of regard for authority (or, really, anyone else’s ideas about anything), his two-plus-two-equals-four-hundred leaps, his commitment to his own absolute righteousness. I resonated, too, with the way he needed Scully. I wanted to need someone like that.
And, honestly, it all still holds. In most ways, I still am that guy. The only difference is that now I’m forty, and Fox Mulder is, this time around, a baby. A GODDAM BABY. I didn’t remember Dana Scully as being an innocent naif, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on her first day of work at her awesome new job that any 26 year old would be thrilled to have. I didn’t remember her as being subtly desperate to impress everyone, and thus so utterly confounded by Mulder’s refusal to ever be impressed by anything that wasn’t something he himself said. To me, Scully was just an adult, an unflappable professional, who never needed or even desired the validation of her wackadoo partner. Who just wanted, in stark contrast to Mulder, to do a really good job at her job. (To be fair to Young Me, I hadn’t had very many jobs when I started watching the show in 1994. I’d worked for my dad at a nuts and bolts warehouse, where there was an absolute dearth of global conspiracies to unravel, and then for a summer at OfficeMax, where was in fact fired for flagrantly disobeying an order to stay late and sweep because WE THE PEOPLE HAVE RIGHTS AND LET NO MAN TRAMPLE ON EVERY INDIVIDUAL’S GOD-GIVEN PRIVILEGE TO BE FREE, FREE, FREE BY 9:00 PM ON A THURSDAY NIGHT!
Seriously, screw that guy Carl.
Carl and his little weird mustache.
So I’m doing this exercise in Recappery for two reasons, and I promise that navel-gazing is not one of them, no matter how much of that goes on here. The first is because I am, in theory, blogging about the search for the mythic America in a modern context, and no one has ever explored this concept better than THE X-FILES. No one has gotten closer to the heart of what I’m clumsily trying to get at in my own books, even if Mulder and Scully never traveled to a parallel universe. The mythic America of THE X-FILES – the show’s own version of the Back Roads – were, literally, just actual back roads. That’s where all the mysteries lurked: right under all our collective noses, behind every barbed wire fence and down every half-obscured trail. The second reason I’m doing this is navel-gazing, because I break all my promises. So: let’s start from the beginning. EPISODE ONE: PILOT Written by Chris Carter Directed by Robert Mandel THIS IS THE ONE WHERE: Mulder and Scully, two adorable babies, meet for the first time and go to a small town on official FBI business, hoping to get to the bottom of ALIENS, probably because the FBI knows that aliens won’t see babies as much of a threat. Scully is assigned to work with Mulder by a panel of grave old men, apparently because they think he’s going to embarrass the Bureau with his obsessive work on the “X-files,” FBI case files that deal with unexplained phenomena. So why not just re-assign him? Clearly something else is going on, and as far as any paranormal enthusiast watching the show is concerned, that thing is EVIL, because Scully uses the word “debunk” at one point and the government guys kind of smile. Yup, their smiles say: that. Mulder fails to take Scully seriously, but she’s charmed by him anyway. They go off to investigate some weird deaths that Mulder feels is related to alien abduction. Scully smiles at him almost every time he isn’t looking at her. THE SECRETY SPOILERY STUFF: Turns out a comatose man, Billy Miles, is being controlled by aliens (probably, but with the collusion of some of the town’s elders) to kill a group of his old high school friends because they were abucted and experimented on as teens, and those experiments “failed.” Creeeepy. THE GOOD, THE BAD: So here’s the other way time has worn away at this show: TV was just different in 1992. By modern standards, the pilot for the X-FILES has a stunningly low-rent feel: unslick, unflashy, unassuming. It has the safe, stately, sturdy feel of a high-end employee training video. But that’s how TV was back then, and we didn’t notice because our cavemen brains were too stupid to know any better. But here’s the sneaky, brilliant flip side of this: there are moments where you kind of just feel like a voyeur, and this was doubly so back when no one knew David Duchovny or Gillian Anderson from a pair of sexy, sexy holes in the wall. It seems that Chris Carter was consciously experimenting with naturalism on a network TV show in a way that was nothing short of revolutionary for its time. NYPD Blue tends to get a lot of the credit for pushing those boundaries on TV, but the X-FILES premiered the same exact month. Of course, NYPD Blue premiered to huge numbers because of butts, whereas the only people were watching the X-FILES back then were the UFO buffs who thought it was going to be a non-fiction show like SIGHTINGS. (Side note: I specifically didn’t watch the X-FILES when it premiered because I knew it was going to be a fictional take on SIGHTINGS. Only the real stuff for me! Why in the world would I bother watching a damn made-up show that clearly isn’t going to get me any closer to the Truth! Stop insulting my intelligence, Fox, and just give me an extra hour of SIGHTINGS every Friday night.) The genius behind this naturalistic presentation is that it forces the viewer to take the subject matter seriously. Listen, I get down with all kinds of crazy stuff, but I’m not unaware that the general public views these topics as being a little outlandish. Absolutely no one at Fox would have argued if Carter had decided to create a straight-up sci-fi show with a campy tone and cornball dialogue.
Look, just a couple years earlier, I was watching John Wesley Shipp’s THE FLASH and eating that shit up because, and I can’t emphasize this point enough, we were all too stupid to know any better. But Carter instead decided to make the bizarro stuff really pop by presenting it in a thoroughly real-world docudrama format, even going so far as to tag the first episode with the somewhat misleading opening text, “Inspired by real life events.” Mulder and Scully argue with completely believable passion about the veracity of the paranormal, planting their stakes in the ground. And if this presents a somewhat reductive view of the whole “believer/skeptic, rational/irrational” binary that really only exists in the minds of people on the far sides of that spectrum, it’s okay: the show will complicate things later on with Scully’s religious beliefs and Mulder’s bracing nihilism. For now, we just need to be glad that Carter made the decision to give us a show about the paranormal that’s so, so much better than it needed to be. (Side note, on the topic of naturalism: my wife thought the town in this episode was too clean, but that’s probably just because it’s been awhile since we’ve been to Canada). It’s disorienting to go back now and see the humble beginnings of this show that became such a defining part of my own personal life, and also that emerged into the baroque pop culture animal it later became. So many moments seem freighted in a way that was never intended: the first glimpse of Cigarette-Smoking Man, hiding behind the door during Scully’s first meeting; Mulder and Scully’s first handshake; Scully’s first look at an X-Ray showing Something That Shouldn’t Be There; Mulder’s first nonsensical intuitive leap; the first time Scully barges into Mulder’s motel room in her underwear in the middle of the night asking him to look at her mosquito bites.
There’s a chemistry between the two leads right from the start, but chemistry is one of those oversold concepts, usually more the product of good acting and writing than some indefinable spark. Here, I think it’s literally just the playful, budding relationship between two young actors who are just really, really glad to be working. So let’s backtrack for a second, because it’s all about these characters, right? Here comes Dana Scully, eager as a beaver, dressed to impress (I don’t pay much attention to fashion, but let’s assume it was a giant beige smock), and here’s Mulder, basically being a giant flippant dick to her, because he’s already way too comfortable in his job, and he knows he’s the shit no matter how many people call him Spooky, and he also knows how likely he is to lose his job literally any day, and for all these reasons he’s entirely at ease with treating his new partner like an annoying kid sister. It’s fun to watch her chafe against this, but it’s also fun – and so, so crucial, to catch all her secret smiles, because the entire show is predicated on the idea that these two characters complement one another on the deepest of spiritual levels. (I swear on a stack of UFO Bibles that I’ll get to the whole issue of gender stereotype subversion in a future post!) If there’s one major off-note in this episode, it’s in Duchovny’s weirdly charismatic performance. His quietly confident, famously deadpan delivery is still in its nascent form here. Even though the bad one-liners are just where they should be, Duchovny’s playing his character as a kind of eccentric loon, gleeful in a way that we will literally never again see on this show. It almost feels like it’s a sign of just how little he expected the series to get picked up: he’s kind of just screwing around. He’s also already eating sunflower seeds, but it seems to be just an acting crutch here, because an oral fixation is shorthand for devil-may-care badassery. They’re basically leaning really hard on the idea of Mulder as a mad-as-a-hatter grin-monster – but fortunately it won’t be too long before the show figures out that the actor they hired just ain’t that guy. In so many ways, it’s clear that the writers still didn’t know where they wanted any of this to go. Scully is legit freaked out on her first case, first because of airplane turbulence (because she’s a baby and everything in the world is new to her), and then because of the mosquito bites that Mulder explains are just mosquito bites, put your clothes back on and act like a professional, dammit. Later she argues vehemently about rationality and science, but then has an epiphany when she realizes that he’s maybe right.
They literally dance on someone’s grave, laughing about how crazy it all is, and you actually get the sense that Mulder has COMPLETELY CONVINCED HER. Because pilot episodes, I guess, need to follow the rhythms of feature films: she needs to have a soup-to-nuts down-the-rabbit-hole character arc, even if everyone involved knows she’s going to retreat back to her entrenched position for Episode Two, because syndication. But hey, let’s all pretend for a moment that none of us have any idea where this show is going. All we know at this point is that it’s getting two things very, very right: its no-blinking tone, and the fact that it’s giving us two wonderfully likable Virgils to guide our way through all the crazy. AND THE WEIRD: For a paranormal buff, seeing topics like alien abduction, missing time, sudden nosebleeds and unexplained implants getting the grown-up dramatic treatment is really thrilling, in the same way it’s thrilling to see your favorite book adapted into a big-screen movie. What’s even better is that they nail the feel of these topics from a sci-fi/genre perspective. UFOs – unfathomable technical marvels piloted by uncaring alien intelligences – can be absolutely terrifying if done right. At the risk of sounding like an old coot: these guys back then understood that less is more. Taking their cue from the Cinemaxy B-movies I grew up with during the 70’s and 80’s, the show gets under your skin in the cold open by showing you a girl running in a forest and all she’s running from is LIGHT. But it’s light that’s coming from behind a hill. Also synthesizer music. She’s running from light and cheesy, pulsating synthesizer music and it’s creepy as hell, and then she’s in a guy’s arms and they’re evaporating or something, and that’s literally all you know. I don’t think a single word is spoken during the entire cold open. This is our introduction to the entire show, and it’s as abstruse as a Cold War-era German Expressionist film. MVNPC: This is a show built on the reliable backs of a tremendous pantheon of struggling Canadian actors, most of whom invariably look eerily like a more famous American actor. My wife refers to these characters as the show’s NPCs. So to honor them, I’m awarding a MVNPC for every episode. This time around, it goes to none other than Wheelchair Girl, who is still, in 1993, keeping alive television’s last hints of the Mid-Atlantic accent, pretending perhaps that she’s a faded starlet from the Golden Age of Hollywood who lost her legs in a benzedrine-fueled car crash on the 101 and now can only take roles as wheelchair-bound crazy people, and just frigging using all that when its time to flip out and take down some orderlies. RANDOM THOUGHTS: – Mulder gets really riled up during his intimate late-night motel chat with Scully in a way that should, by all rights, freak the shit out of her. But she holds her ground, because he amuses her. – Is it weird that the show is scarier to me now than it ever, ever was when I was nineteen? I guess an appreciation for how terrifying cryptic late-night phone calls are is something that only comes with age and experience. – We don’t know where the show is going from here, but the promise is huge. Will the show tackle all manner of paranormal phenomena with the same gravitas and respect that it treats alien abduction stuff? Holy crap…will it treat werewolves like this? Are we going to get werewolves??? (Spoiler: sort of!) – I think we can safely identify the scene where the coffin rolls down the hill as the exact moment when this episode – and thus the entire series – really hits its narrative stride. Also, extra points for never explaining why there’s a frigging dead orangutan in the coffin. Bravo, Chris Carter, for understanding that the world is a better place for your willingness to take this mystery with you to your grave. Til next time!