[17 July 2008]
Although this X-Files collection bears the vague subtitle Revelations, anyone who’s been keeping up with the show lately knows exactly what it’s supposed to be: a “Greatest Hits” package designed to generate some buzz (or at least some revenue) for the upcoming X-Files movie, which hits US theaters 25 July. Now that the TV show has been off the air for over six years, it’s interesting to take a look back and see more clearly its moments of genius and its failures.
On the one hand, The X-Files was always more sophisticated than just delivering cheap shocks from things that go bump in the night. Its alien invasions and supernatural boogeymen were only metaphors for our suspicion that the world isn’t as stable or rational as we’d like to believe. It was this existential dread that The X-Files exploited with ruthless precision, and that made it one of television’s few genuinely disturbing, subversive dramas.
But the show may have captured a zeitgeist that has now long since passed. British comic-book author Warren Ellis once noted that when society is obsessed with alien abductions or shadowy government conspiracies, it’s a sign that we don’t have anything more immediate to be afraid of. Sure enough, The X-Files found its success during the ‘90s, an era of relative peace and prosperity just after the collapse of the Soviet Union but before 9/11.
Today, it’s hard to stay awake at night worrying about aliens and vampires when we’re dealing with a flatlining economy and terrorist threats. And while The X-Files depicted the American government as ruthless and secretly malevolent, eight years of the Bush administration have revealed it to be incompetent and blatantly corrupt.
While its brand of vague, amorphous paranoia has fallen out of fashion and the conspiracy/alien invasion plotline was eventually buried under the weight of its own convoluted mythology, The X-Files: Revelationsdoes remind us of how great the show was at its peak. The set includes eight episodes, which run the gamut from thrillers to cerebral science-fiction to dark comedy.
The first episode is the Pilot from 1993, and while the plot is fairly generic (abductions in a small town, alien implants confiscated by the government, etc.) what’s striking is how quickly the Mulder-Scully dynamic was established as the real heart of the show. On the surface the two bicker constantly (Scully: “What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.” Mulder: “That’s why they put the ‘I’ in FBI.”), but it’s clear they share a mutual respect and trust that would be their only constant in their search for the truth.
The episode only contains one jarringly false moment: Scully notices two marks on her body that are similar to the scars found on abduction victims, and she shows up at Mulder’s motel room so he can inspect her half-naked body (they turn out to just be mosquito bites). It’s obvious that this scene was the result of a studio executive who wanted some sexual heat between Mulder and Scully as soon as possible, but it feels wrong for a relationship that would be defined by an eroticism that was more intellectual than physical.
Most of the episodes in this collection aren’t simply about investigating the paranormal, but how Mulder and Scully’s personal beliefs are challenged by what they find. In “Beyond the Sea”, Scully confronts a death-row inmate who claims to be able to speak to the dead, and she finds that her skepticism is overwhelmed by her need to talk to her recently deceased father. And while the conspiracy elements of “Memento Mori” involve alien-human hybrids and stolen ova, the real tension in the episode comes from Scully’s private terror when she’s diagnosed with brain cancer, as well as Mulder’s denial when he realizes there’s nothing he can do to save her.
But the real masterpiece of this set is “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, by legendary writer Darin Morgan (check out a more in-depth profile of Morgan here). Mulder and Scully hunt down a serial killer that’s targeting psychics, and they’re aided in their investigation by Bruckman (Peter Boyle, in an Emmy-winning performance), a cranky old man with the ability to see how people are going to die. The episode works brilliantly as a thriller, but it’s also a mind-bending meditation on the debate of free versus pre-determinism. Bruckman wonders which is worse: believing the future is already written and that nothing we do matters, or that life and death are determined by billions of random events every day and that to obsess over them would drive us insane? Both scenarios terrify him, and while Mulder envies Bruckman’s gift, it’s Scully who comes to realize what a burden it is.
“The Host” is a straight-forward, effective horror story featuring a fish monster called the Flukeman, and like many of The X-Files’ creepiest episodes, it’s inspired by an urban legend (in this case, the fear that creatures can enter a home by crawling through the toilet). “Post-Modern Prometheus” is a bizarre parody of Frankenstein filmed in black-and-white, and while the episode is a fan favorite, I’ve always felt it’s trying too hard to be quirky.
Instead, I think “Bad Blood” is the best comedy episode in this collection (and likely the best comedy the show ever made). Mulder and Scully both narrate their own interpretations of a recent case involving vampires in a small town: in Scully’s version of the events Mulder is a hyperactive jackass who pushes her around, while in Mulder’s version Scully is a whiny bitch who shoots down all of his theories. Like the couple in a good screwball comedy, their love for each other is hidden by the fact that they often can’t stand each other. Mulder is annoyed that Scully refuses to believe in the paranormal and that she desires a life outside of the X-Files (she flirts with the town’s sheriff, played by Luke Wilson, whom Mulder sees as a buck-toothed yokel), while Scully is frustrated with Mulder’s total obsession with his job. Both are so preoccupied with each other that neither one notices the town’s dark secret lying in plain slight.
It’s telling that this collection doesn’t contain a single episode from the final three years of The X-Files, and even its most recent episode, “Milagro”, is a decent but forgettable story about a writer who becomes obsessed with Scully. More importantly, “Milagro” is the only episode in this set that was created after the release of the first X-Files movie, which tried to turn the series into a summer blockbuster by plugging Mulder and Scully into a generic action flick, complete with big budget set-pieces and Scully playing the role of a damsel in distress. It didn’t work: the movie wasn’t much of a hit and it signaled the end of the show’s golden age.
Ten years later, Mulder and Scully are returning to the big screen to face their greatest mystery yet: whether or not they’re still relevant in a world that’s changed quite a bit since they’ve been away. And while I’m excited to see David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson back in action (Anderson in particular was gypped of a film career – no surprise given how few great parts for women there are in Hollywood), it’s hard to forget how tired the TV show felt by the time it crawled across the finish line. Let’s hope that the new movie remembers that Mulder and Scully’s pursuit of the truth is about more than just chasing demonic killers through the darkness: it’s about why we fear the dark to begin with.
Unfortunately, the presentation of The X-Files: Revelations does little to dispel the notion that it’s a cheap cash-in for the movie. The DVD’s menus look like they were created in five minutes in Adobe, the episodes lack scene selections, and the extras are pretty lame. Series creator Chris Carter and writer Frank Spotnitz provide brief introductions to each of the episodes, but there’s little new information here. Also included: a cheesy promo for the other X-FilesDVD collections, a teaser for the new movie that’s been available online for a while (and isn’t even the most recent one), and a 26-minute Q & A session at a comic-book convention. While it’s nice to see the cast and crew interacting with fans, their desire to keep the plot of the movie a secret means there’s not a whole lot of meat here.