The X-Files, by any reckoning one of the most iconic shows of the 1990s and by most reckonings–well, mine at least–one of the best. For all-too-obvious reasons, the '90s have become a source for golden-hued reflection before their time. Remember in Dazed And Confused when Marissa Ribisi speculates that the '80s will be "radical" because the '70s obviously suck? It's a bit like that in reverse. The decade we're in now, by any measure I can think of, obviously does suck making the recent past look all the better. But it wasn't all Hanson singles and Rachel 'dos. The X-Files tapped into a rich vein of paranoia and pre-millennium tension.
There's a particular kind of American madness rooted in the conspiracy theories surrounding the JFK assassination and Watergate. It's a sense that everything we know is wrong and everything we're told is a lie. The government never has your interests in mind, there's a hidden agenda behind everything, and the game is rigged to benefit the privileged few at the expense of the many. Sometimes, often even, the madness is justified.
There's another sort of American madness rooted in UFO lore. Its year zero is 1947, the year of the Roswell something or other. Some say it was a flying saucer crash. Others a weather balloon. Its branches include abduction lore, Area 51, and the men in black who keep it all quiet.
X-Files creator Chris Carter was hardly the first to weave these two strands together. Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is just one of many obvious sources. But from the beginning of The X-Files he wove them so tightly that the association became permanent. Government opacity and the possibility of visitors from another planet were no longer separate narratives, with the exploitation and victimization of ordinary people like you and me serving as a key component in that narrative. "Trust No One" was more than just a catchy tagline for the show.
But it's not all death and dread. "The Truth Is Out There," the credits claimed (almost) every week. And Mulder worked beneath a sign reading "I Want To Believe." Because believing, after all, gave everything he'd been through, beginning with the unexplained disappearance of his sister, some sort of meaning. And, in my opinion, that search for a higher meaning in the face of apparent meaningless was just as much as key to the show's success as the aliens and the flukemen.
And, of course, there's also the relationship between Mulder and Scully their contentious, respectful, and erotically ambiguous partnership–had its appeal as well. For some it was the primary appeal, creating a virtually new breed of viewer called "shipper" whose primary investment was in the romantic possibilities of that pairing. And the show provided them with plenty of hints and suggestions to fuel their discussion, an approach subsequent shows would take to heart.
I plan to cover two or three episodes per post, usually two. This week, however, I'm just taking on one since I have some throat-clearing to do and I'm guessing you don't want to be on this page all day.
Before we dig into this week's slate, here's a brief history of my own fandom, similar to the one I provided way back when we were talking about Twin Peaks. I missed the first season of the show because I was studying abroad during my junior year of college. (Go University of Lancaster.) By the end of the second season I was hooked and spent the summer after the second season finale catching up with the show via Fox's generous repeat schedule. That I was living with my parents and had nothing else to do, apart from a short-term job as manual labor converting a Hook's drug store into a Revco while waiting to go to grad school probably didn't hurt. But for whatever reason it was that summer that The X-Files really grabbed my imagination. My fandom would only grow more intense during the following year, providing a much-needed distraction from a grad school stint that wasn't the intellectual utopia I'd imagined going in. Embarrassing moment at the time: When one of my grad school colleague saw my using an X-Files trading card as a bookmark.
Yeah, I said trading card. I had a little folder of press clippings, too. That obsessiveness pretty much ended with grad school, but I kept watching religiously, at least for a while. Like a lot of fans, the episodes produced after the show moved production to L.A. in the sixth season, the first after the pretty good spin-off movie X-Files: Fight The Future, left me a little cold. By season seven I was watching only sporadically. I think the only episode I watched in the last year was the series finale, which did little to restore my faith.
But I'm ready to believe again, and the show's first few episodes have done a lot to remind me why I started watching.
"The following story is inspired by actual documented accounts," a title card helpfully informs us as the pilot opens. Uh-huh. Just like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre right? I don't think The X-Files ever again tried to pass itself off as true-to-life but it never hurt the show to seem close to true to life. Carter liked to say that it took place within the "realm of extreme possibility" and there's real, if occasionally implausible, science behind most of the episode.
The first scene let's us know what kind of forces we're up against. A woman stumbled through the woods where she's met with a blinding light from above. From it emerges the figure of a man, or something shaped like a man. The next day, she's dead and left with mysterious marks on her body. Whatever's up there doesn't have humanity's best well being in mind and has no qualms about using us for its own ends.
Enter Dana Scully, an earnest young FBI agent who finds herself assigned to shadow Fox Mulder, an "Oxford-educated psychologist" whose skill at profiling has allowed the Bureau to look the other way as he pursues his pet passion: reports of the supernatural known as "x-files." His days of getting a free pass, however, seem to have reached their end. As Scully receives her assignment, a silent man smoking a cigarette looks on.
From there we follow Scully as she meets Mulder for the first time. While much of the pleasure of the show comes from watching the chemistry between the two leads develop over the seasons, it's interesting to see how much of it is already in place here. Mulder instantly takes to Scully, enthusiastically sharing the details of the case with her. Taken aback by his enthusiasm for what her scientific impulses tell her his bullshit, Scully counters his assertions. And on this foundation a series was built.
The rest of the episode now looks a bit like X-Files-by-numbers, but it kind of makes sense that a pilot would try to set a template. (And the episodes from this first season are nothing if not template-adhering.) So here we have an unexplained occurrence somewhere in the American hinterlands, an investigation with some twists and turns, and a conclusion that more or less confirms Mulder's suspicions but leaves him little in the way of hard evidence and entertains just enough doubt that Scully's skepticism continues to make sense.
The character development happens largely in the margins of the plot. Mulder has earned the nickname "Spooky" but he doesn't really seem all that spooky. David Duchovny plays him as one of the cool guys, quick with a quip and dismissive of authority. It'll take a while before we see the depths of the loneliness that drive him. Scully begins as something of a cipher, her personality largely on loan from Jodie Foster in Silence Of The Lambs. But already there's a vulnerability to her portrayal. The underwear shot may seem a bit gratuitous–and maybe a rebuttal to the Fox execs who protested that Gillian Anderson didn't have enough sex appeal for the lead slot–but it leads to the nice moment when she asks Mulder to look at what turns out to be a pair of mosquito bites. The trust is there already.
One further note about Silence Of The Lambs: Scully isn't the only element on loan. Carter also nicked, and made good use of, that film's emphasis on the forensic elements of investigation and the fact that crime and other sorts of drama isn't confined to New York and L.A. Apart from the stock establishing shots, the show is filmed entirely in Vancouver (for now), but it's a Vancouver utilized for stories set in Ohio and Utah and Iowa and other places that rarely get their stories told. It's a choice that allows the show's paranoia to seem nationwide, not just concentrated in a couple of places. The weirdness is everywhere.
And it's getting worse. The episode ends with a tip of the hat to Raiders Of The Lost Ark as our cigarette smoking man, which is all we'll know him as for a while, deposits the evidence in a gargantuan warehouse presumably also filled with suppressed information about Well, we'll find out in time. Sort of
- Oh man, I wouldn't have thought that 15 years could make me nostalgic, but Scully's laptop alone are a reminder that time has passed. I'm sure it won't be the last piece of '90s tech I'll comment on.