Wednesday, February 18, 2015
I was bored so the other day I started re-watching The X-Files on Netflix. I was a big fan of the show at the time although strangely I find a lot of it hasn’t stayed with me like other shows do. I don’t remember much about the major arcs-- only stray episodes that were good--so going back and rewatching it has been interesting. It’s very, very 90s in terms of the clothes, the characters and the anti-establishment, don’t trust the man kind of thing because the government is about to get you.
I’ve heard rumblings that The X-Files is going to return to television one of these days. Now, anyone who’s been reading these columns for a while knows I’ve got a thing for things coming back; Twin Peaks, comic book characters, video game series, whatever. I’m surprisingly lukewarm about this idea though. It sort of seemed to me that after a decade on TV that The X-Files has done what it needed to do. It captured our hearts and minds at that time. Going back there…I don’t know if that makes sense to me.
Now, here is what I’m going to say about The X-Files. Rewatching the first season, I'm struck by just how brilliant Chris Carter and the whole show really was in its inception. See, I love meta-plot. And The X-Files meta-plot was immensely compelling. I remember The X-Files movie, which teased you with answers to questions that had been burning for a long time only to leave you with even more questions. And frankly, the meta-plot was the reason I started getting more into The X-Files to begin with.
But the thing is The X-Files sort of can’t ever deliver on it’s meta-plot. If it did, there’d be no more mystery. There’d be nothing left. The very premise of the show would evaporate. But then something happened. Unlike a lot of shows cut from this cloth, it did deliver on the meta-plot. You sort of found out a lot of what you wanted to know. There were aliens. And there was a government conspiracy with these aliens. There. Done.
Now, in reality, it was more complicated than that with lots of other dangling questions. But still it sort of seemed like by the last season of the show, something had been lost for this reason. You sort of got the answer. Now, here’s my thing, rewatching the first season. Yes there are threads of a meta-plot already being laid out. And yes, there are plenty of first season episodes where the writing in scholocky, they don’t have good special effects and there are some that are even just, well, bad.
But here’s what I think made the show great: the characters featured in it work for the FBI. Their methods of investigation are legitimate ones--the tools they use, the procedures they use. They are as invested in investigating the phenomenon they study from a scientific angle to debunk it as they are to prove it. So the show is kind of actually about if you were going to study these kinds of things, not just conjecture about them but actually do it, how would you go about that?
See, take the season one episode "Conduit." At the beginning of the episode, Agent Scully is pulled into an office by her superiors who suggest to her that because of Agent Mulder’s past he might be biased and projecting explanations onto cases that are not credible. Mulder and Scully than set off investigating the disappearance of a young girl under circumstances that parallels Mulder’s younger sister's disappearance during his childhood. At times, it seems like the explanation for the girl’s circumstances are mundane and you’re right there with Scully, doubting Mulder’s ideas. Maybe she ran away. Maybe she was murdered.
Every time the episode starts to take a step in this direction, however, it reverses course; you learn something startling, strange. You start to wonder, like Scully, that maybe Mulder could be right. It goes on like this, back and forth, so much so that you the viewer experience the ambivalence about putting together the pieces and not knowing what to believe. It’s confusing and disorienting. See, this was where The X-Files glowed. That in-between spot that left you feeling like you weren’t sure what to believe. Occam’s razor makes sense, but than again, maybe everything isn’t always as simple as it appeared.
So I guess I’m saying, you don’t necessarily need much meta-plot to get back there and do that. And that’s kind of what makes the show work well. If The X-Files could recapture some of this well-written suspense, then I could see it coming back with something to offer. But I think continuing the course it had landed into by the end of the show, culminating some seasons long plot, might actually be a mis-step in this case. This is a very different view than I normally purport about these kinds of things. And maybe I’m wrong, maybe seeing The X-Files take another step forward would be good. What does anyone think about what I’m saying here?