In 1993, Fox debuted a strange new television show called The X-Files. Little did anyone suspect that the series would become one of the network’s biggest hits—and change the landscape of television in the process. Now, on the occasion of the show’s 25th anniversary, TV critics Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff unpack exactly what made this haunting show so groundbreaking. Witty and insightful reviews of every episode of the series, revised and updated from the authors’ popular A.V. Club recaps, leave no mystery unsolved and no monster unexplained. This crucial collection even includes exclusive interviews with some of the stars and screenwriters, as well as an original foreword by X-Files creator and showrunner Chris Carter. This complete critical companion is the book about The X-Files, the definitive guide whether you’re a lifelong viewer wanting to relive memories of watching the show when it first aired or a new fan uncovering the conspiracy for the first time.
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About the Author
Zack Handlen is a freelance writer whose work regularly appears online at the A.V. Club. He has also written for io9, Inverse, and the Toast and is the author of If You Like Monty Python . . . He lives in Portland, Maine. Todd VanDerWerff is the critic-at-large for Vox and the first TV editor of the A.V. Club. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Grantland. He lives in Los Angeles. Described by Time magazine as a “televisionary,” Chris Carter created one of the most successful television franchises of all time with his award-winning The X-Files. The show has run eleven seasons on Fox, is seen in over 60 countries, and has spawned two films and several comic book and video game adaptations. The impact of Carter’s series is such that Time named him one of “The 25 Most Influential People in America” in 1997. Carter also created the shows Millennium, Harsh Realm, and The Lone Gunmen.
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THINGS THAT GO BUMP
In which Mulder meets Scully.
ZACK: I've seen The X-Files "Pilot" half a dozen times or more now, but it didn't occur to me until this latest viewing how little I understand about its actual plot.
There are disappearances; there are strange happenings in the woods; there are these little bumps on people's skin; and at one point, there's a weird, inhuman corpse in a coffin. I know there's a story connecting all these incidents, but every time I watch the episode, I give up keeping track of anything by the fifteen-minute mark. Not because the plot is especially complicated, but because it doesn't seem all that necessary.
While the show's improvisational approach to its mythology would create coherency issues in later seasons, the loose collection of UFO-related apocrypha and horror tropes on display in this episode gel just fine without ever needing to spell out all the details. First episodes often struggle to set a consistent tone, bogged down by exposition and the rules of the show's world. Instead, The X-Files nails it right out of the gate.
A large part of that success is due to Carter's deft hand at establishing his leading characters. We first meet Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as she is offered a new assignment to the X-Files, a department of the FBI dedicated to investigating unusual or unexplainable phenomena. Her objective is nominally to observe, but her superiors clearly intend for Scully (who we learn over the course of the episode believes unwaveringly in logic and scientific consensus) to discredit the work of her new partner, Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). The two start off as potential enemies — with Scully finding Mulder deep in the FBI basement, hunched over his work like some kind of well-groomed troll — but the chemistry between them is there from the start. Mulder's disarming directness clearly catches Scully off guard, as does his obsession with the paranormal. Their early dynamic mirrors the ideal audience relationship with the show: initial skepticism transforming into attraction and fascination.
The episode works, too, because of that aforementioned alien lore. I love how much the script is a hodgepodge of abduction tropes, best evidenced by the way Mulder and Scully lose a few minutes during a car ride. That scene establishes the universe of The X-Files: This is a reality in which nothing is entirely trustworthy, not even the passage of time. The convoluted narrative adds to this sense of instability — and yet, instead of making for a disjointed, confusing hour, the result feels strangely coherent. Its incidents are organized more strongly by theme than by concrete detail, a tactic that would soon become a hallmark of the series.
The other reason this episode works is David Duchovny. Gillian Anderson's Scully would become one of the greatest heroines in television history, and the actress does excellent work in "Pilot" (S1E1), but her role here is largely relegated to audience surrogate. She achieves a crucial balancing act, and helps ground the craziness, but it's Duchovny who makes the biggest initial impression. At times, Mulder seems like the only character on the show with a sense of humor, and his jokes (which are often endearingly lame) and wild enthusiasm for his work make his outlandish ideas that much easier to swallow. His giddiness over every fresh discovery in the first half of the hour is charming, and his story about his sister's abduction (a core piece of show's mythology) is well delivered.
TODD: I wouldn't call this episode a tremendous example of "Pilot" (S1E1) form, but in its sturdy, functional construction, it transcends many of the issues that should drag it down. When you reflect on how big the show would eventually become, in both popularity and budget, it is a real trip see such an unassuming first entry, with most of its big special effects sequences achieved by what seems like some giant klieg lights behind trees and leaves blown around with a fan. The hour suggests more than it specifies, which proves key to its success.
I went back, as I often do, to read some contemporaneous reviews of "Pilot" (S1E1) from TV critics, and what struck me was how many of them insisted that UFOs were "played out" as the subject matter for a TV series. Even the positive reviews — and there were many — were worried about The X-Files becoming just another UFO series.
This concern, of course, seems like nonsense now. The X-Files isn't just another UFO series. It's the UFO series, and its treatment of alien conspiracies, government secret-keeping, and what might be lurking in American shadows became so influential that essentially any show airing in its aftermath that tries to play in the realm of "eerie mysteries" has to deal with its legacy. But in September 1993, The X-Files was just another show, gasping for air in yet another overcrowded fall season.
So, what exactly did audiences respond to here? The show wasn't a massive hit from the start, but it grabbed a small, loyal viewership that stuck with it through the typical first season stumbles that lay in the weeks ahead. It's not a huge leap to suggest that this pilot — with its hints of vast mystery lurking in the woods; of aliens toying with our very reality; of, yes, even a little sex — put just enough gas in the tank to keep the show quietly running until it was ready to explode into a phenomenon in later years.
Having a rock-solid pilot wasn't as important for longevity in the early '90s as it is now because audiences had fewer viewing options back then, but a strong start sure helped. I don't know about you, but when Mulder dances in the rain after experiencing missing time, or when the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis, playing a mysterious figure with some sort of connection to the alien conspiracy) files away the latest bit of evidence in a government warehouse, or when Scully discovers Billy Miles's muddy feet, I am in. The power here is all in suggestion and shadow, and if there's any lesson The X-Files learned from its pilot, it was this one.
ZACK: Yes, that dancing-in-the-rain shot is one of my favorites. And in terms of hooking the viewer, the scene late in the episode, in which someone torches Mulder and Scully's hotel rooms and burns all the evidence Mulder was so excited about, establishes the one-step-forward-one-step-back model that would drive so much of the series mythology. That approach might get tiresome eventually, but it works shockingly well here because there's so little context. Things had been progressing nicely, and then everything hits a wall.
Speaking of when the show debuted, I think one of the other elements that distinguished it immediately from its contemporaries was its commitment to being legitimately scary. "Pilot" (S1E1) is short on monsters, but it has atmosphere in spades, which would keep the season afloat even in its weakest entries. The entire episode is shot through with a perpetual unease, which is fitting for a series so invested in undermining perceived truths. By the time Mulder and Scully are blundering through the woods by themselves, it's not hard to believe that anything could happen.
While it would take a little while for the show's sense of humor and the impressive flexibility of its premise to solidify, the horror was there, right from the beginning, even if it was only atmospheric. "Pilot" (S1E1) instills a terrific sense of dread — which, in combination with a pair of likeable heroes, was more than enough to make me a fan for life.
TODD: Dread is really what you want from TV horror anyway. It's hard for TV to effectively execute horror, because it can't truly offer the kind of catharsis that marks the end of a great horror tale. Horror is driven by fear of death or something worse than death, but a television protagonist can't die or suffer too horribly, because we need to check in with them again next week. But television shows can spin dread almost effortlessly when they tune in to the right frequencies, and The X-Files' earliest hours remind me, yes, of Twin Peaks, its most obvious forebearer. These early episodes also make me think of shows that would follow the mold of The X-Files, series like Lost, which would figure out how to bottle that dread almost as well.
But there's nothing quite like the way this pilot creates an entire world that exists just on the edges of our own. It's clear that the show's creator, Chris Carter, doesn't yet understand how the aliens function, or what they want, or why they're abducting certain people. But he knows they're here, and that's almost more important than anything else.
The X-Files' pilot is an extended hand, both to Scully and to the viewer, an invitation to leave behind the highway and step into the woods, where reality becomes patchy and the rules bend and twist like trees in the wind.
PARANOIA IN AMERICAN TELEVISION
In which a massive conspiracy takes shape.
"Deep Throat" follows that oldest rule in the TV playbook: Make sure Episode Two is largely a retread of the pilot. Sure, it does a few things differently, and its introduction of the titular source nods toward the way the series' ensemble of characters will expand with time. But for the most part, this is another story of anti-government paranoia, strange military experiments, and a little town in the middle of nowhere bedeviled by bright lights in the sky.
The most noteworthy element of the episode — especially in our post-9/11 era — is its laser focus on American military treating its personnel as expendable, all in the name of perfecting aircraft built with alien technology. This is not to say that the "military treats its soldiers as cannon fodder" theme has completely disappeared from film and TV in recent years, but it's nevertheless surprising to see that this episode directly insinuates that the military is up to no good. Scully might balk at aliens, but she seems to find secret military experiments plausible. And tellingly, so does everyone else Mulder talks to.
This episode distills the fundamental dynamic of the show, wherein Scully believes the government is not above the law and Mulder knows all too well that the opposite is true. The American government, in the world of The X-Files, is a monstrous entity that doesn't have the best interests of its people at heart. And yet it employs honorable agents like Mulder and Scully. Expand any organization enough, and it will start to make explicit its own contradictions.
The episode also opens more windows into the alien conspiracy. Even this early in its run, The X-Files must suggest a massive, multinational conspiracy on its small budget, which means it must rely on suggestions. When it comes to creating a whole world with a wink and a nudge, Jerry Hardin (who steps into the shoes of Deep Throat) is just the guy. The character appears in only two scenes here, but he doesn't need any more screen time than that to let Mulder know that "they" — including Deep Throat himself — are always watching. The X-Files is built out of repurposed 1970s conspiracy-thriller parts, so it's only fitting that Mulder's first major source would be named after perhaps the most famous informant of all time.
It would have been easy for "Deep Throat" to feel perfunctory, like the show going over ground it had already covered just a week before. In some scenes, particularly the one in which Mulder interrogates a couple of local stoners (including a young Seth Green), there's a distinct sense of déjà vu. But this episode also beautifully reintroduces the show in a single, instantly iconic image: Mulder standing beneath a beam of light issuing from a UFO. Just showing a UFO in such detail is more than you might expect the series to indulge in this early on, but the choice pays instant dividends. This is a series about obsession and near-religious fixation. The fact that Mulder spies his quarry (albeit a military-created version of his quarry) this early on, then has the very memory of it ripped away from him, has a mythic potency. Because we see the UFO, it doesn't feel cheap. Because Mulder doesn't, the series drives home its central, essential conflict: Even when he finds a piece of the truth, it will be taken from him.
Beyond that concern, "Deep Throat" offers a buffet of classic X-Files tropes. There's Mulder racing off into the middle of nowhere to chase a UFO and leaving Scully behind to pick up the pieces. There's Scully using whatever advantage she can garner to rescue her missing partner. There's a spirited argument about whether the phenomenon the two observed has a paranormal or scientific explanation, in which you find yourself hoping both could be right. And there's a Scully field report to close it all out.
Really, the only thing that "Deep Throat" has going against it is how obvious it already is that this series can't live and die on UFOs alone. Even here it's possible to feel how repetitive the series could become, should it simply keep hitting the "strange lights dancing in the sky" button over and over again. Fortunately for us, there are far stranger mysteries hidden within the X-Files. And fortunately for the show itself, the very next episode would take the series from one that might have attracted a faithful cult audience to one that would, in time, dominate pop culture like few had before it. — TVDW
HERE BE MONSTERS
In which The X-Files finds a new format.
Eugene Tooms (Doug Hutchison) is not a likable villain. He's barely even a man. Hutchison gives a sullen, off-putting performance, and during the character's one scene of dialogue (a polygraph test), he's borderline catatonic, muttering each response with the awkward intensity of a creature who can barely form sentences. Yet it's hard not to have a certain fondness for the character, or at least for what he represents. "Squeeze" is an episode of firsts, and among other things, Tooms is the show's first Monster of the Week (or MOTW), representing the start of a venerable tradition that would expand the world of The X-Files considerably.
The first two episodes of the first season introduced some of the ideas that would power the mythology through to the end of the show's run. Alien abduction, UFO sightings, government conspiracies, and secrets hidden from plain view made for thrilling, unexpected television. But given that The X-Files aired in an era when few series were completely serialized, it needed more diverse subject matter in order to sustain weekly episodes.
The genius of the "X-Files" as a premise lies in its infinite potential. Centering the show around a department of the FBI devoted exclusively to investigating strange or inexplicable cases means The X-Files can encompass any number of urban legends, can cross between science fiction, fantasy, and outright horror with ease. This flexibility allowed writers to devote multiple episodes each season to stand-alone stories, making sure that entries focused on the show's ongoing mythology stayed fresh.
"Squeeze" is also Glen Morgan and James Wong's first script for The X-Files. The pair would go on to be important voices in the show's earliest years, and their work in this episode helped to establish what would become the format for MOTW entries. While the structure of these stories at times would warp and reflect back on itself, the fundamental core would remain more or less unchanged: There's a monster; Mulder and Scully chase the monster; people die; the monster is caught or killed; and the status quo is restored ... or is it?
It's a formula that has appeared in genre novels and movies for decades or more. What makes it such a good fit for The X-Files is its versatility and the way the idea dovetails with the paranoia and suspicion at the heart of the show's premise. "Squeeze" suggests a world where not even locked doors are proof against horrible death, where malevolent beings with incredible power hide just below the surface of normal life, waiting to pounce. Aliens were bad enough. Tooms has literally been living and killing for over a century before someone finally takes him down.
None of these observations speak directly to the quality of the episode itself, but there's a reason "Squeeze" works so well as an introduction to the MOTW concept. In addition to Tooms, the entry also provides excellent characterization of Scully and Mulder, strengthening their partnership and giving us a clearer sense of just how much Mulder's work has put him at odds with his peers. It's one thing to be told he's been ostracized. It's another to see that alienation acted out, as Mulder's colleagues dismiss his theories out of hand.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Monsters of the Week"
Copyright © 2018 Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff.
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