Wednesday, June 18, 1997
Discussing The X-Files on the Internet is like being English and talking about the weather – it’s so common as to be stereotypical. However, keeping banality at bay, there are some crucial things to say.
Firstly, the show is deeply manipulative, working on us in a very skilful way. This is done partly by a tight and recurring pattern for many episodes – a precredit sequence gives us an insight into someone we know to be weird, and ends in a death. Then we have a brief piece of investigation, and an autopsy (oh, Scully in her surgical scrubs). By this stage, the viewer is required to have recoiled in horror at least once – uuuuugh! – we say, as someone spontaneously combusts, instantly suppurates or loses a crucial limb.
Scully comes up with a plausible explanation, then looks in increasing disbelief as Mulder starts a speech with, ‘What if . . . ‘, in which his mad explanation is first expounded. The duo split up and Scully rings Fox, saying ‘Mulder, it’s me.’
His suggestion almost invariably proves to be correct, but at the end of the show there’s still a suggestion that this might not really be the end of the matter. Perfect postmodern balance between closure and being left deliberately unsatisfied. The pacing of the series reflects the pacing of individual episodes, as we’re giving hints and suggestions about the big story of abduction and colonisation, but never feel like we really know what’s going on.
The storylines play on our pre-millennial tension – our loss of faith in big government, big religion and big ideas is exemplified in the perfect combination of aliens and conspiracy theories.
However, other shows before and after have tried this – The Twilight Zone and Nightstalker before, Dark Skies and Millennium after. The difference is that in the X-Files, the relationship between the two leads powers the show as much as the weird stuff.
It’s become a given that the show reverses the normal power relations between the male and female leads. Before, the ditsy woman would be convinced there was something odd going on, and the big logical man would get to the bottom of things and reveal the logical explanation. Now Mulder is the passionate believer and Scully the hard-headed scientist.
This sounds great, but as has been remarked, in the value system of the show, Scully is still the weaker partner, as her explanations are shot down by a credulous but correct Mulder. The X-Files are his baby, and he gets to discover things, shoot things, storm off in huffs, and look troubled.
Scully meanwhile gets cancer, abducted, and her family members killed while she’s chasing around after the big kid Spooky. Unsurprisingly, she’s been branded a saint in some circles.
Then there’s the Moonlighting-style sexual tension element. If ever we were being manipulated it’s over this. All the hints about Chain-Smoking Man and the big colonisation plans pale beside this blatant piece of titillation. Take two attractive leads, and simmer them gently, always threatening to bring them to the boil.
So up until recently I’ve let myself be led, and enjoyed the trip, still knowing that there was something hollow at the heart of the show. The duo have been through so much, but little of it seems to have left a mark. Scully’s hair and suits are better cut, and Mulder is a bit more wisecracking, but that’s been it.
Thankfully, this is changing, with Scully’s attitude to her cancer lending her a certain grace and dignified fragility, and Mulder’s self-obsession leading (possibly) to his downfall.
The show’s always been good, but now it’s shifting from being knowingly manipulative to genuinely moving as it explores the internal lives of the two leads. The truth is in there.