Me watching the episode “Young at Heart”.
Not long ago I started rewatching The X-Files for some reason. It was just a whim and I didn’t think I’d stick to it for long, but yesterday I finished the first season. Here are some thoughts about it, and then I’ll talk about the episodes in more detail.
First, I have become spoiled by modern TV. Twenty-four episodes in a season is ridiculous. You could have easily made this into a 13-episode season and lost nothing, in fact, you would gain an incredible season of TV. I started to run out of steam around the last third, especially when I hit three clunkers in a row.
This is especially frustrating because the show hits the ground running. From moment one things are moving, and the characters immediately find their footing. We don’t even waste a lot of time pulling Scully into it because although she’s a skeptic, she is also a professional, and is there to work with Mulder.
Mulder starts out totally on-target. The disappearance of his sister, which is mentioned in the fourth episode, helps establish him as not a complete kook, but instead a man on a mission, and this helps. But even without that, the idea of a brilliant FBI agent who discovers there’s a trove of unsolved weird-ass cases in the basement and wants to investigate those — who can argue with that premise? It also helps that Mulder seldom introduces a paranormal hypothesis to the exclusion of a mundane one, but as another possibility. (And, it should be mentioned, that it of course helps Mulder’s character that the show is on his side.)
Scully does pretty well, too, though not as well as she could. Although she is miles ahead of many other female characters in genre TV, she’s still got a ways to go. Despite an episode devoted to her (one!), she has little life outside of being Mulder’s partner and foil. Although intelligent, she exists almost solely to be wrong, since the show insists on there always being an supernatural explanation. She’s imperiled often, though she is usually shown to be quite capable of handling herself in those situations.
What I like most is their relationship, which is strictly platonic and professional. They become friends, sure, but as adults, not as teenagers with carbonated hormones. I’ve discovered that this is a dynamic I really like in TV. I think it’s worked well in Elementary, Sleepy Hollow, Doctor Who (with Donna), and so forth. I’ve never worked in a place where all the employees were dating each other, and I’m not sure I’d want to. The two leads have a great dynamic with each other, and it becomes believable that they would come to trust and rely on one another.
The show wisely jumps between UFO stories (most of which are in service of the conspiracy arc) and “Monster of the Week” stories, although I know this will later hamper the narrative. Still, at this point, when the conspiracy is still very ethereal and distant, it works that they only brush up against it somewhat. That said, the idea that the conspiracy starts strong and only eventually nosedives is flat out wrong, as we will see.
One thing that helped me get through the season was Kumail Nanjiani’s podcast, The X-Files Files in which he and a guest go through the episodes and talk about them. It’s a fun show, though a little maddening to me, since I was actually there and have a working memory of the early 90s, so the things they get wrong bug me, but still, it’s a good source of commentary on the episodes. They don’t cover them all, and if I continue this into the second season I’m pretty sure I’ll start skipping episodes as well.
Okay, so here’s a rundown of the first season.
Pilot – A great introduction to the series. As I said, the characters and their relationship are locked down almost right away, and the mystery they encounter is sufficiently creepy and bewildering. There’s the gratuitous Scully in her undies scene, but otherwise everything is spot on, down to the Cigarette Smoking Man hiding the evidence at the end. This is just a first-rate episode.
Deep Throat – This one carries on the momentum of the first episode, and serves to raise the stakes almost immediately. “They’ve been here for a long time, Mr. Mulder,” says the titular Deep Throat at the end, after Mulder has, for the first time of many, had evidence in his hands, only for it to be taken away. Also there’s a wee little begoateed Seth Green in this one!
Squeeze – And then suddenly the show changes gears, to take us away from UFOs and aliens, instead giving us “only” a stretchy mutant immortal guy who eats livers and hibernates in a cocoon. This could have gone south so easily, but Tooms is such a creepy, compelling weirdo that you are ready to buy into whatever they want to tell you that makes him more unsettling.
Conduit – This is one I remember liking a lot, and I still found it spooky and neat, even though the X-Files Files (XFF) and Shaenon Garrity’s Monster of the Week comic kind of ripped it apart. What they criticize is what I like about it, that there isn’t a pat narrative here, and you really feel like you’re just seeing the edges of a larger story. It hit a lot of right notes for me, and I still dig it.
Jersey Devil – Aaaaaand, thud. Holy cow this episode is terrible. Mulder is completely nuts here, we conflate a feral person with an actual prehistoric one, and none of it works at all. It’s a strong contender for Worst of the Season.
Shadows – Another weak episode. It’s actually not too bad, dealing with ghosts and such, but by the end of the season the “revenge from beyond the grave” will play out at least four more times and although this may be the best of the bunch, it’s not a great bunch.
Ghost in the Machine – This is one that gets upvoted by folks a lot (even XFF liked it) but man, it is dumb, dumb, dumb. It’s not just dumb because of the outdated technological mumbo jumbo, it’s just bad completely all around. However, there is this exchange:
WILCZEK: Well, not your average phone freak, that’s for sure. But there’s plenty of kooks out there. Data travelers, Electro wizards, techno anarchists. Anything’s possible.
which is solid gold. I still fancy myself something of an electro wizard.
Ice – We follow a trio of weak episodes with one of the strongest episodes in the entire series. It’s an homage to “The Thing”, but it does a good job of taking it down its own path. Especially notable here is how well it shows the progression in the relationship between Mulder and Scully, who at one point have guns drawn on each other and have to test their trust.
Space – I was really looking forward to this one because I had not seen it the first time around an it has a reputation as being one of the hands-down worst episodes of the series. It was…honestly, it was boring, but not as terrible as I was imagining, especially with “Jersey Devil” and “Ghost in the Machine” so recently before it. I think part of the hate for it is the reliance on the “face on Mars” for the creature, which, even by 1992, was pretty lame stuff. Unlike other bad episodes, I didn’t find it to be aggressively irritating, just kind of dull and dumb.
Fallen Angel – This is a really interesting episode. It’s a story that will be repeated even in this season — Mulder has to race to get alien evidence before the government can cover it up — but it adds an element that makes it rise above the usual, and that’s Max Fenig. Max is a UFO researcher of the non-handsome-and-somewhat-respectable kind, the kind you just call a kook and move on. Unlike some characters we’ll meet later, though, Max isn’t played for laughs, he’s a sympathetic, nuanced character, and he has a deep influence on Mulder as well.
Eve – Oh yes, now this is a classic. Twin murders on opposite sides of the country, same method, same time, and both victims have daughters who are…twins? The girls playing the twins are fantastic, and the actress playing Eve does some great scenery chewing. As XFF points out, it’s easy to see this episode was written by a non-regular, because some weird, off-key stuff happens (like when Mulder and Scully walk into a secret government project without any problems). Still, it’s a good, creepy episode with some great moments in it.
Fire – Oy, this one goes wrong in so many ways. Amanda Pays guest stars as an old flame (nyuk nyuk) of Mulder’s. We find out Mulder has a fear of fire, unlike anyone else. The bad guy has weird, dumb, contradictory motivations. None of it works. Best forgotten, like Mulder’s fire-phobia. Guest stars Mark Sheppard, who you may remember from everything.
Beyond the Sea – Not just one of the best X-Files episodes, but a damn good hour of TV, period. When you have Brad Dourif as a guest star you just shut up, point the camera at him, and let him Brad Dourif as much as he wants. Scully gets an expansion on her character here, and it works, despite her belief system still mostly just running counter to Mulder’s (who, for some reason here, absolutely refuses to accept anything paranormal is happening). It’s a big step forward for her character, and it shows what she could be adding to the show if it would let her be right every now and then. Honestly, the only thing not working here is Mulder, so it may even work better if watched in isolation than as part of the series.
Gender Bender – And now you’re in for a rough patch, starting with this thing. Faux-Amish possible aliens that exude overpowering pheromones and can change gender at will. That’s about the same amount of nonsense that we piled on Tooms, but it doesn’t work here because none of them have much of any personality, either solo or as a group. In addition, for an episode about sex, it has this weird scolding tone and doesn’t seem to understand that there are people in the world who aren’t heterosexual. Just bizarrely half-baked, this one.
Lazarus – The second “revenge from the grave” episode. In this one two men, a good guy and a bad guy, “die” at the same time, but the good guy is revived…only is it really him? You’ll find it hard to care. Entire episode could have been avoided with one simple trick.
Young at Heart – And then, the third RFTG episode. In this one, a nemesis of Mulder’s, thought dead, it turns out isn’t dead and is looking for revenge and has a salamander arm and oh god this one was so damn boring and dumb. I hated this episode, and this is the point where I just hit a wall in the season. This might not be the worst episode of the season, but my will was sapped and it was the low point in my re-watching.
E.B.E. – It stands for “Extraterrestrial Biological Entity” or something, usually abbreviated “ET”. This is the first appearance of The Lone Gunmen, fan-favorite characters who, unlike most of their brethren, were not brought back repeatedly and aggressively until you never wanted to see them again (though I never watched their spin-off show, but that doesn’t distinguish me from anyone else on Earth). I was pumped for this one, as it’s held in high regard, but it was disappointing. It’s the first, major conspiracy arc story and it pretty much sums up the entire conspiracy arc. Deep Throat lies to Mulder, then possibly lies about lying, and when he’s confronted with it, has some bullshit reason why he did it. There is little to no explanation of why a truck is even carrying such an important thing across the country instead of an airplane. The whole thing seems to be not so much something actually going on in the world that Mulder stumbles into, but an orchestrated series of events specifically arranged for him, but which has no purpose. The tone for the conspiracy is set here, and it will continue soon.
Miracle Man – I wasn’t expecting much out of this one, but it turned out to not be too bad. Of course, following on the previous four, I might have just lowered the expectations bar enough.
Shapes – Werewolves and Native Americans are a recipe for a really unfortunate episode, but it’s actually not too bad. It seemed to my pasty white self that the Native Americans were treated fairly well here (though how come ethnic characters always have to have dealings with their appropriately ethnic monsters? Why not Native Americans becoming vampires or mummies or something?)
Darkness Falls – Drink every time they say “monkey wrencher”! No, I really like this one because it changes the dynamic. Instead of a prolonged “weird stuff is going on” phase, Mulder and Scully know right away that something bad and dangerous is happening, and it involves these weird bugs. No fights about whether the bugs are bad — that’s established right away. At that point it’s just a matter of trying to survive. And they nearly fail. Though there was one phrase, other than “monkey wrencher” that nagged at me throughout this episode, and that was: “BUILD. A. FIRE.”
Tooms – Tooms returns, and it might be a little too soon, though the series hasn’t yet gone to the “genetic freak who eats some weird body part” well too many times yet. Still, the episode is fun because you know what he is, and you know what he’s going to do, and you are just waiting for him to squeeze into action. He gets a pretty horrible send-off as well.
Born Again – RFTG number four here, as a murdered cop is reincarnated into a little girl’s body. At this point they’re just running out the clock.
Roland – Could it be? Yes, it’s RFTG number five. Dead scientist (but they saved his brain!) remotely controls his mentally handicapped twin brother to murder jet propulsion techs. Monster of the Week snarked on the character of Roland, but I thought the actor did a pretty good job with the role, making Roland sympathetic and personable without being cloying. Okay, fine, without being too cloying.
The Erlenmeyer Flask – We dive straight into the conspiracy pool here and find it to be just as shallow as we’ll eventually admit. Again, as in “E.B.E.” we see a conspiracy that can’t figure out what the hell it’s even hiding from who. They have an alien fetus looking thing (which Deep Throat can get Scully access to and she can take out of Warehouse 13 or wherever with no problem at all) that they use for some kind of experimentation but then murder anyone who gets results from the experimentation and then at the end Cigarette Smoking Man shoves the fetus in his secret stash which, yeah, nice callback to the first episode, but don’t you want that back at the other secret conspiracy place? It’s a lot of noise and flash but no substance, other than this fantastic exchange, which deserved better:
Scully: [Scully is refusing to follow a vague lead with Mulder] Who is this Deep Throat character? I mean, we don’t know anything about him. What his name is, what he does…
Mulder: He’s in a delicate position. He has access to information and indiscretion could expose him.
Scully: You don’t know that this isn’t just a game with him. He’s toying with you. Rationing out the facts.
Mulder: You think he does it because he gets off on it?
Scully: No. I think he does it because you do.
That’s a great line, but it thuds in this episode because of all the other nonsense surrounding it. And that’s the conspiracy arc in a nutshell: a series of individually interesting ideas wadded together artlessly with a bunch of dumb plotting.
Season One ends with Deep Throat killed and the X-Files department shut down. If the series had ended here, that would have been something of a disappointment. But it didn’t, it was allowed several more seasons to become a crushing disappointment.
According to Wikipedia, the DVD release of the complete first season features Chris Carter doing commentary on 12 of the episodes: “Pilot”, “Deep Throat”, “Squeeze”, “Conduit”, “Ice”, “Fallen Angel”, “Eve”, “Beyond The Sea”, “E.B.E”, “Darkness Falls”, “Tooms”, and “The Erlenmeyer Flask”. I have little desire to hear Chris Carter talk about much of anything, but as a guide to which episodes in the first season are worth watching, I can’t argue with that list (I might add “Ghost in the Machine” as a shout out to my fellow data travelers.)
I’ll probably continue into Season Two, maybe not as enthusiastically and certainly not hitting every single one. I’ll probably, for the most part, follow along with The X-Files Files, skipping whichever ones they skip. After all, you got Flukeman coming up and I gotta see me some Flukeman.