Tuesday, 24 October 2017

October Nightmares III #24: The X-Files (1993 - 2002, 2016 - ) - Don't Stop Believin'


The Nineties were a great time to grow up. I know everyone always says that the decade they spent their formative years in was 'the best decade' and the snot nose brats which came after don't know what they've missed. My granddad says that about the Forties - with zero acknowledgement of the Nazis' experiments with Easy-Bake Ovens.

For all the bad (mullets, mom jeans, flannel shirts, flowery upholstery, dial-up internet, early movie CGI, crap metal songs, and Y2K theories) I actually enjoyed the Nineties and see it as something of a swan song for the Western world. Now the inevitable decline's well and truly kicked in, people are running scared, and technology dominates our lives. The Nineties were great as the zeitgeist felt generally easy-going, culture was somewhere between a lesser continuation of the Eighties and the emerging anarchy of deliberate trash like South Park and Beavis and Butt-Head; the economy was prospering, and technology was at a sweet spot of being useful but still shit enough to prevent it from taking over every aspect of life and culture.

Only in such a decade could a show like The X-Files come to fruition. Think about it: people were generally comfortable enough back then that there was genuine appeal in the idea of government conspiracies, alien abductions, the New World Order, tyrannical technology, and global extinction.

In 2017 our leaders are generally pretty open with their ill-intent, and are just incompetent enough that there's more chance of them accidentally leaking the nuclear launch codes on Twitter than there is of them pulling off some elaborate enslavement scheme. We also face the threat of global extinction on a daily basis from the likes of North Korea, terrorism, global warming, famine, rogue tech, and super-bugs. If you ask me, and alien invasion would probably spice things up: like when a bored married couple buy a strap-on.

The X-Files follows FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), a man so desperate to believe you could probably convince him to eat a shit sandwich if you told him you found it on Mars, and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), the sceptical foil to Mulder's naivety. Scully will continue to disbelieve in extraterrestrial and supernatural phenomena, even after witnessing said events fifty fucking times. Fox, being the type of guy to offer to show you his crystal skull collection if you pretend to be his sister, is understandably locked in the FBI's basement (probably alongside Sloth from The Goonies).

Scully's initially just there to babysit him as they work through the 'X-Files' unsolved cases of alleged paranormal or alien influence which no one else think are worth investigating; presumably the rest of the FBI are wiretapping the houses of people who like Ivan Drago and introducing violent hip hop to the black community as a form of social cleansing.

If this sounds somewhere between Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Supernatural, that's because it is: Kolchak, as pioneer of the format, heavily influenced The X-Files which in turn heavily influenced Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For its time The X-Files' mixture of serialised storytelling - featuring plenty of monster-of-the-week episodes - and a slowly evolving mythology with ongoing storylines (such as Scully's alien induced cancer, and Mulder lifelong search for his missing sister), was fairly groundbreaking and quickly established the show as cornerstone of Nineties pop culture. 

To be honest I don't really know what I can say on The X-Files that some jock reviewer and his six figure reader hit-count blog haven't already said. The show, like a real alien kept in Area 51, has been thoroughly dissected - both academically and satirically. It was one of my very first introductions to horror and sci-fi, though. Sorry John Carpenter, I lied: it was Chris Carter who stole my cherry.

I remember sitting with my dad whenever my mum was out and being introduced to such abominations as the fat-consuming serial killer, the man-parasite Fluke Man (see above), the Greys; man-eating fungi, Cronenbergian parasites, killer-cockroaches, mind-controlling spree killers; √úbermenscher (read: trash monster), murderous genetically engineered little girls, a man made entirely out of cancer cells; a carbon-copy of Leatherface's family, and a organ-munching serial killer who can fit into extremely tiny spaces. More than a few times my mum came back and found me looking traumatised - she probably thought my dad was touching me.

What was great about The X-Files' mixture of police procedural, horror, religion, sci-fi, folklore, and New Age mysticism is that the show could be about literally anything from week to week. Some people prefer the monster-of-the-week episodes for their wicked creativity and variety, whereas others prefer the mythology episodes with their convoluted alien colonisation plots, sinister G-Men, and far out concepts such as rich white guys secretly ruling the planets. I tend to find with these sort of things you've got to be one or the other, there can be no nancy-boy Vince Cable Liberal Democrat middle ground here.

The mythology episodes are good because they tap into the American mindset of constant paranoia - riffing on conspiracy theories like JFK's assassination and Roswell - and they heavily feature the chain-smoking spook Cancer Man (William B. Davis). A man who hides in the shadows, isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, and has a face like he's just won third prize in an arse-face contest.

But the story just generally went through the same motions of increasingly elaborate alien plots which were never really expounded on, but could be thwarted by a dullard with a government issue haircut and a hard-on for the truth, and his disbelieving partner who put the 'I had a thing for Gillian Anderson growing up' into soft-science. At least the monster-of-the-week episodes offered up new slices of Weird America and weirder monsters each week. These episodes tended to be the most artistic such as post-modern takes on Frankenstein, and a humorous deconstruction of the vampire myth which played with perspective. Yeah, there were a ton of naff ones too - but when you're writing twenty-odd episodes a year for 9 years (and two movies) there's bound to be a lot of shit amongst the lovely corn.

Still, even at their best, the monster-of-the-week episodes offered only endless variations on the same themes. Themes like Mulder and Scully running afoul of the authorities and their hard bastard boss Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi). Mulder and Scully arguing about belief vs empiricism. And Mulder and Scully never fucking for some reason.  

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