The Great X-Files Rewatch: Season One, Part One
So I’m about halfway through the first season of The X-Files right now. (If my academic work were finished I would probably be done with the whole series at this point. Right now I’m basically on an episode reward system and plodding slowly through.) Though something like seventeen years has passed since the first season of this show (1993, people) it’s only been around five or six years since I’ve seen it. At that time, the show was in pretty regular rotation on SciFi and TNT, and I watched all the time. (Specifically, I think that episodes aired at 5 and 6pm on weekdays, and that I watched them when I got home from work. Foolproof way to get me hooked on a show is to air it in syndication at such a convenient evening hour.)
Still, the first thing that struck me on this rewatch was the passage of time. Why? Notably because Season One is pre-internet. Not only are Mulder and Scully carrying and trading around like, manila file folders with all their research and evidence in them, but the research and evidence is compiled via microform readers! You know those things? They’re teeny-teeny photos of old texts (like newspapers) which you thread into this thing, and it magnifies the image, and you turn a knob to turn pages and scan through the information that way. I have only done this once in my life; I found it fussy and headache-inducing. I imagine people who were in grad school as recently as 10 years ago used to do this almost every day. Anyway, Mulder and Scully are microform experts; they rock the archival research. They also record witness interviews on cassette tape. They still communicate via cell phone, but the phones are preciously large. Not quite reaching Zack Morris brick phone proportions, but …
The other extra-special blast from the past occurs in the second-ever episode, "Deep Throat." Mulder and Scully drove many rental cars of many makes and models over the years, but in this episode, they drive the same car I drove throughout college: a tan Cutlass Ciera.
Look at 'em go!
Click ahead for more about Scully's clothes, Duchovny's acting, and that blasted myth-arc.
So, what can I say about the specific episodes I’ve watched so far? Well, they’ve varied pretty widely. The first four episodes—the pilot, “Deep Throat,” “Squeeze,” and “Conduit” are all solid-to-great episodes. The fifth, “The Jersey Devil,” begins a run of pretty lame ones. “Space”? Put me to sleep. “Shadows”? Plays out like a Lifetime movie. The worst by far is “Fire.” A large number of British characters, all of whom have horrendous accents (and one who actually says “Top of the morning to you!”) and dress like the Headmaster at Eton. And the “Mulder’s college ex comes back to stir things up” thing? Ick. So hacky. That’s even before taking into consideration the half dozen bad puns that are made about investigating an arson case with an ex, re: “old flames” and “rekindling” things and whatnot. ALSO! How come with five other perfectly functional adults in the room, everyone hangs back and lets Mulder, the guy with the fire phobia, fight the big fire at the end? They want to write the hero story, OK. But that’s bad TV right there. Wouldn’t the kids’ dad have been like, ‘Mr. Mulder, do you need me to step in here? I don’t want to be rude, but they’re my kids, I’d prefer not to lose them. I fear that you are hesitating a bit too long while you wrestle with your demons.’
One good one that falls amid the chaff is “Ice”—a very underrated episode. Lots of now-famous guest stars (Xander Berkeley, Felicity Huffman and the guy who played Bania on Seinfeld) doing sort of a sci-fi Hitchcock story in the Arctic Circle. The last episode I watched has the season back on its upswing—“Beyond the Sea.” I…I may have cried at this one. It’s so good! Serial killers and psychic phenomena are a potent combination for me—it’s why I can’t stop watching reruns of Medium on Lifetime—and this episode carries both off beautifully. Mulder and Scully have a great, hefty conflict over their beliefs, and then he gets injured and steps narratively aside so that Scully can catch the bad guy-an amazingly creepy Brad Dourif-all while she’s falling apart over the recent death of her father!
“Beyond the Sea” really impressed upon me how crucial Gillian Anderson was to the success of the show. At the time, everybody raved about Duchovny, but honestly, her performance as Scully leveled out much sooner than Duchovny’s did. What I mean is that—despite the fact that she was basically a child when this show began—Anderson’s performance as Scully was almost immediately pitch perfect. As early as the second episode, she’s got this great presence, this attitude of, “I may be 5 foot 2 but dammit I’m an FBI agent and I’ll blow your brains out and DO WHAT I SAY”—but with vulnerability! There was a lot of sensitivity underneath those massive shoulder pads. Like my summary above suggests, “Beyond the Sea” shows both those sides of the character to best effect.
As for Duchovny, it took longer for them to figure out what his character was supposed to be. Right now he’s still playing “obsessed nerd,” although eventually he will figure out how to integrate the Duchovny wit and swagger into Mulder’s basic lameness. If I remember rightly, he plays this with verve right up through season four and his Golden Globe win, and then he cashes out. (He stays around for another three seasons, but he’s getting movie roles, so he just doesn’t seem to care as much.)
Other things: at this point, the extras are still EXTRA CANADIAN.
For now, the show is compelling and mostly awesome. The only problem is that in most of these episodes, the narrative goes to great lengths to make sure that Mulder sees mysterious alien-like things and Scully doesn’t, because she is conveniently somewhere else. Sometimes she’s just conveniently not looking in the right direction. The show was facing the obstacle of how you pair a believer with a non-believer for any protracted period of time without the non-believer turning into a believer. How many times can Scully witness unexplained phenomena and still not believe in it? (Also, how many times does Mulder ultimately ask Scully that question? Damn, it sounds familiar. Maybe I should keep count.)
What the Internets call the “myth-arc” is being established here: Mulder’s sister’s abduction and Mulder’s belief that the government is suppressing knowledge of aliens. It does it so well right now that I’m tempted to follow it closely—catalog what we know about Smoking Man, and take down names, and make charts and timelines and stuff. I totally don’t blame all the people who actually did that stuff back in the 90s. Unfortunately, from my vantage point here in oh-ten, I know that the “myth-arc” is destined to spin wildly out of control and end on a resounding note of “too little too late.” (The literary term for this is bathos. I may or may not have had this term defined for me with The X-Files as its illustration.)