Thursday, March 3, 2016

You’re Only as Old as You Feel: The X-Files Season One, 23 Years Later

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in "Ice" from The X-Files' first season.

I was four years old when Chris Carter’s iconic science fiction television series, The X-Files, premiered on Fox in September of 1993 and thirteen by the time it ended. Although I’m retrospectively marvelling at my mother’s parenting, I remember actually watching some of the show during its original run. I came to it well steeped in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel but, while vampires with tortured souls were my jam as a pre-teen, X-Files was still too much for me. I found it creepy and I was far too young to appreciate David Duchovny’s weird, unexpected sex appeal. The launch of the show’s much anticipated tenth season this year got me thinking that it was high time I revisited the series as a horror-loving, cynical adult with a soft spot for blue-eyed men. But how does its first season hold up after more than two decades?

Costumes: Sometimes certain aesthetic decisions firmly root a show in its era, giving the work a shelf life, after which it becomes dated and almost unwatchable. Prettier shows are like this: Beverly Hills, 90210, Gossip Girl, The O.C., shows that often set trends more than they tell stories. Mercifully, The X-Files was never one of these. In fact, part of the show’s continuing charm is its capability for being deliberately unpretty. Details like Mulder’s drab suits and bad ties, a range of unimpressive cars rented by the Bureau, and Mulder and Scully traipsing through the forests of Vancouver in polar fleece and sneakers contribute to an aesthetic that screams “normcore” fifteen years before the term is even coined. A casting anecdote I found online really drives this point home: allegedly, the network wanted Scully to be a leggy, busty, blonde bombshell that would serve as Mulder’s love interest. Chris Carter put his foot down and insisted on (the admittedly still gorgeous) Gillian Anderson. She was clever, capable, and real; Anderson reminded him of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs and, he felt, would make a great platonic partner for Duchovny’s Mulder. As far as I’m concerned, this decision in favour of content over glamour is what made the show then and keeps it relevant today.

I won’t pretend it isn’t obvious that the series is still set in the early 90s. It’s abundantly obvious, but today even the 90s touches in terms of fashion, décor, and Mulder’s “smart guy” wire-frame glasses have seen a subtle resurgency rendering them appealing and relatable. At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t really matter what Mulder and Scully are wearing because they’re field agents and were never intended to be style icons anyway.

Acting: I’d heard it said that the chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson was the glue that kept the series together, but I never really understood it until my re-watching experiment. Other shows (Elementary, Bones, Castle) have tried to recreate Carter’s magic but can’t hold a candle to Mulder and Scully. Duchovny and Anderson don’t insult their viewers by hitting them over the head with sexual tension. Their characters aren’t dating and aren’t interested in dating – and yet there’s something just below the surface, manifesting only in sustained eye contact, restrained and infrequent allusions to a vague mutual fondness, and the fact that Mulder is always, always touching Scully and Anderson seldom reacts, brilliantly demonstrating that less really is more. Furthermore, the inversion of the stale (and frankly offensive) hitherto gender convention of an irrational female believer paired with a shrewd male skeptic works and Duchnovy’s intensity coupled with Anderson’s earnest confidence sells it. Whether the story they’re telling is interpersonal or extra-terrestrial, Anderson and Duchovny nail their performances… for the most part. Admittedly, there are a few moments in the series’ first few episodes where Duchovny lacks conviction, presumably not yet realizing the cultural magnitude of the project he’s working on (another casting anecdote supports this, stating that Duchnovy didn’t expect the show to last). These occasional moments might have been a letdown in 1993, but by 2016 they register as hilarious in hindsight, sporadic endearing glimpses of a young actor who has no idea what kind of decades-long journey this show will take him on.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, rocking their parkas, in "Darkness Falls"

Writing: As suggested by Shakespeare, Austen, and most of M*A*S*H, good writing is timeless. I was pleasantly surprised at how well The X-Files’ stories hold up after decades of the spoofing and abuse that’s reserved for only our most sacred of cultural references. The show’s “mythology,” as dedicated fans have come to refer to its overarching plotlines (particularly, in season one, Mulder’s search for his abducted sister and the government’s alien cover-ups) is engaging without being all consuming. Other separate plot lines emerge and take center stage for a while without feeling like filler, such as the recurring appearance of Doug Hutchison’s liver-eating alien, Eugene Tooms – a character nearly as creepy and weird as the actor portraying him. Falling in line with Chris Carter’s professed desire to develop a show similar to The Twilight Zone, even the standalone horror stories are frequently riveting. In particular “Ice,” “Fire,” and “Darkness Falls” are still powerful, well-written one-offs both in terms of general spookiness and character development.

That’s not to say the first season is perfect. “Gender Bender,” about a renegade, pseudo-Amish shapeshifter that seduces victims with a touch, kills them with sex, and hails from a colony of bee people aliens that disappear without an explanation is silly and misguided. Contrasting restrained and pious farm life with the sexually charged metropolitan club scene is charming in its own way but the effect is totally destroyed by Mulder crawling around a giant subterranean beehive and poking at corpses in royal jelly. “Gender Bender” might at least register as amusing but “Space,” the most costly episode of the entire season, is so dry, confusing, and tasteless (part of the episode includes absorbing the 1986 Challenger disaster into its alien ghost story) that I actually gave up and turned it off.

Verdict: After careful consideration, I can attest that The X-Files is still a television force to be reckoned with. The themes of conspiracy and questioning are as relevant to a 2016 audience who is skeptical of everything from microwaves to government as they must have been to the 1993 audience that made the show a cult hit. While I can concede that the special effects are looking a little worse for wear, Carter was smart to employ them sparingly. His choice to “tell and not show” not only made The X-Files that much scarier in its day but also allowed the show to endure for decades despite the substantial technological leaps since. At the heart of it all, bold writing and the once-in-a-lifetime chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson is what made The X-Files great and kept fans waiting fourteen long years for a revival. It should come as no surprise that like Anderson herself, those qualities don’t seem to have aged a day.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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