Underground Reading: Gift of Death by Edward S. Aarons
The Cinematic Black Hole: Mirrormask

Rediscovering the X-Files: Season 1

On American network television, there's a phenomenon known as the "Friday night death slot." People with lives have fun on Friday nights; they hang out with friends or go on dates or rent movies or whatever, and Friday-night television has a tiny audience as a result. Networks tend to move their long-shots into the death slot, where they limp along to die quiet, ignominious deaths; the Friday night death slot has taken many a good show with it.

One of the few great exceptions to the rule: The X-Files.

Jared and I recently bought the first season on DVD. It's his first real experience with the X-Files. I, however, was a fan of the show pretty much from the beginning. I have no idea how I found the X-Files, but I suspect it was something I latched onto in a desperate bid to fill the gaping hole left by Joel's departure from the Satellite of Love.

Most of these episodes I haven't seen since 1993/4, and Jared hasn't seen ever. Generally, this means I can bulldoze through my 13-year-old inner fangirl with the Caterpillar of Academic Detachment (erm, Caterpillar the tractor, not the prepupated bug) and be reasonably analytical about the show. That said, the two of us do spend a fair amount of time yelling at Mulder to just kiss her, already.

Turns out, the show holds up pretty well. The less said about the clothing the better, but otherwise I find I still really like it. And Jared - well, he pronounced it "good."

The X-Files hasn't hit its stride yet this season; the quality of the writing is hit-or-miss, with some really excellent episodes sandwiched between many forgettable, dull, or even outright bad ones. The first few episodes are especially weak: the strong pilot is followed by four or five episodes where either Mulder or Scully comes across as stupid or hateful. This smooths out towards the middle of the season, however, as the writers and actors become more comfortable with the characters and story-arcs.

(My favorite instance of bad writing comes from "Eve," where a character exposits that a powdered substance is "foxglove, from the digitalis plant." The powdered substance was, incidentally, correctly identified as digitalis, a foxglove extract, earlier in the same episode. That's just carelessness.)

I watched the X-Files with my mom back in the show's early days, and she remembers it fondly. She particularly loved Scully, who dressed like an actual professional in her sensible, wholly unsexy power-suits. But there's more to love: Scully's a smart character. The writers occaisonally forget that, but Gillian Anderson plays her with total commitment, managing to convey a combination of intelligence and skepticism that never reads as cynicism or contempt. Plus, she has the most extraordinarily subtle, withering arched eyebrow in the history of television.

And the regular recipient of that arched brow? Fox Mulder, of course. Mulder, in this first season, is totally nuts. Utterly, completely, batshit insane. He has, as Jared has pointed out time and time again, no sense of self-preservation whatsoever. He cheerfully trots into top-secret government facillities on the off-chance that he'll find some evidence of alien life (he will, but Scully won't see it) or more grist for his "it's all a huge conspiracy!" mill (he does, but it's all destroyed before he can do anything about it). He sticks his bare hands into all manner of mysterious goo. He loses all rational ability the moment someone mentions his sister. And he's remarkably unconvinced by Scully's one paranormal experience (in "Beyond the Sea").

And he has the worst nickname of all time. (Really? "Spooky"? Really?)

Mulder wouldn't work without the gravitas David Duchovney lends him; like Anderson, he's fully committed to his character and (first few episodes aside), plays him with as much grace and dignity as a conspiracy-freak, sister-obsessed, alien-hunting lunatic can be played.

I recall that the series strengthens considerably in its second season, and I look forward to revisiting it. But the first season has, for all its patchy writing, horrendous clothes, and terrible special effects, a lot to recommend it. There are several good episodes, at least one classic ("Beyond the Sea,") and some extraordinarily powerful performances from Anderson and Duchovney.

Here's a quick episode run-down: (Spoilers)

Pilot: pretty good. Shows a lot of potential.

Deep Throat, Squeeze, Conduit, The Jersey Devil: These are probably the weakest of the episodes this season. In each one, either Mulder or Scully is totally hateful, and regularly stupid.

Shadows: I really liked this one; the story had a couple of interesting twists.

Ghost in the Machine: Pretty derivative. Also, it introduces the "an old friend/coworker asks Scully/Mulder for a hand, is skeptical about the X-Files, and eventually dies horribly" plot, which the show subsequently beats to death.

Ice, Space: Both feel like placeholder episodes; they're interesting, but not particularly compelling.

Fallen Angel: Another episode that has Mulder gallavanting around a top-secret government facility. Nerdy, doomed character Max makes it a better than average episode.

Eve: This would have been a lot creepier if it had been better written. And if Mulder and Scully hadn't been totally useless.

Fire: Ooo, it's Badger from Firefly! And some terrifying ex-girlfriend of Mulder's. At least she doesn't die horribly.

Beyond the Sea: So far, the one really superb episode from this season. Though one wonders how Scully's dad could possibly have been disappointed in her. Brad Douriff plays his serial killer character with the same creepy tics and mannerisms as his Grima Wormtongue.

Gender Bender: Scary not-Amish-we-promise aliens. And a cave.

Lazarus: This time, it's Scully's ex who's terrifying. And possessed. And who dies horribly.

Young at Heart: Actually, not a bad episode. Though the guest actors indulge in some serious scenery chewing. Wouldn't you, if you were playing a man with a salamander hand?

E.B.E.: Yay, the Lone Gunmen. I never warmed to these characters the first time through, so I'm interested to see how I feel now. So far: still cold.

Miracle Man: Predictable mystery. Mulder thinks he sees his sister.

Shapes: Another predictable mystery. The first Indian mysticism episode of, I recall, many to come.

Darkness Falls, Tooms, Born Again, Roland, The Erlenmeyer Flask: Haven't seen these yet, though I recall finding Roland disquieting.