Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Chris Carter's The X-Files: Season One

"Do you believe the voice?" "I want to believe." -Mulder under hypnotic regression concerning his missing sister, The X-Files, Season One, Episode 4, Conduit.

"The Truth Is Out There." "Trust No One." "Deny Everything."

Season One of The X-Files [1993-1994] is a season finding its own identity, offering some wonderful, refreshing and original moments specific to The X-Files mythology, while populated with tributes to a host of classic science fiction stories and visual homages along the way. Still, Chris Carter and company execute with grander ambitions applied and make the first inaugural season a reasonably steady and twisted scheme as we take a brief look back and offer some relections on that introductory launch.

Pilot: C+. William B. Davis is introduced as the marvelously seditious The Cigarette Smoking Man.

Deep Throat: B-. Jerry Hardin guests as Deep Throat following his clandestine vibe in films like The Firm [1993] or The Falcon & The Snowman [1985]. These mythology-based episodes are by far and away my personal favorites.

Hardin commented in Starlog Magazine #211, "It's the mystery of the stories that makes the show successful. The writing is also quite good. Often in episodic TV, you're faced with trying to hide what is really not very good writing. But that's not true of The X-Files." Hardin is brilliant in his Season One role.

Squeeze: B. The single best freak of the week story of Season One. Doug Hutchison [Space Above And Beyond, The Green Mile, Lost, 24] guests.

Conduit: C. A story touching on Mulder's missing sister ends on a powerful note touching on the essence of the series. Elements of Fire In The Sky [1993], Close Encounters Of The Third Kind [1977] and Poltergeist [1982] certainly creep into the visual appeal of some of the entry's more stimulating moments. Additionally, it's another outstanding close to The X-Files. It lends further evidence that the series would take those final minutes and make each ending one of its great strengths. Those endings would become something of a trademark.

The Jersey Devil: C-. The not-so neanderthal-like missing link with guest Jill Teed [Battlestar Galactica, Stargate SG-1].

Shadows: C. A poltergeist acts as bodyguard guesting Lorena Gale [1958-2009; Battlestar Galactica, Stargate SG-1].

Ghost In The Machine: C-. The concept of artificial Intelligence as a villain is brought to life with an homage to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]. Writer Howard Gordon, who co-penned with Alex Gansa, called the entry "one of my biggest disappointments." David Duchovny dubbed the title "too pedestrian" for The X-Files.

Ice: C+. The entry is a very obvious tribute to The Thing. The Hidden was good too. We've all seen John Carpenter's The Thing. This is certainly a solid standalone with it's own X-Files stamp, but it's awfully true to the source material drawing also from novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.. Writer Glen Morgan suggested the story was also inspired by an article in Science News regarding the unearthing of something thousands of years old in Greenland. Still, the bottom line is, no matter how you sell or slice this one if it looks and feels like The Thing right down to the quarantines and Arctic dog then rest assured it's The Thing [we think]. Ice is a fairly big fan favorite from the first season, but the lack of originality and overall sense of familiarity made for a merely satisfactory X-Files story.  On a grander scale Morgan and Wong take the theme of Trust No One and amplify that on a microcosmic level.

Space: D. A bit of a muddled mess mixing martian concepts with faulty engineering and discussions of the Challenger and O-rings. It just feels awkward and never quite comes together. It's too bad this one is such a dog because the Martian chronicle seemed like a good idea, but there could have been a better plan executing the story, which is just plain weird, but boring. This is easily the glaringly worst entry of the first season. With some degree of explanation, Chris Carter, who penned the episode, admitted to feeling rushed, perhaps distracted, in getting this one off the ground. Space was coming together the same week the Pilot was launched on television. There was a good deal of chaos and Space clearly suffered as a result. Ironically, Space was intended to be an inexpensive installment for Season One, but as a result of the NASA mission control set became the most expensive and ultimately the biggest disaster for the first season.

Fallen Angel: B-. This was a nice rebound with guest genre actor Marshall Bell [Millennium's The Judge, Starship Troopers, Total Recall]. NICAP is the pre-cursor to The Lone Gunmen. When the FBI discounts Mulder's report his response to them is one of exasperation with two terrific lines. "How can I disprove lies that are stamped with an official seal?" He continues, "No one. No government agency has jurisdiction over the truth." Fallen Angel treads the myth arc waters and delivers another satisfying conclusion to The X-Files.

Eve: B-. The genetic cloning of evil via The Litchfield Project on eugenics experimentation, an early hint of things to come on another popular X-Files myth arc. Actress Harriet Sansom Harris [Frasier, Six Feet Under] guests. On the whole, Eve is a another great example of the child actor making or breaking a particular episode. The stories that rely heavily on the child actor to deliver a performance certainly role the dice to a degree. A steady directorial hand and even a reasonably good performance can sell the story, but much hinges on that child's work. Space:1999, Year One, Ep10, Alpha Child, was a great instance of a story that succeeds largely due to the work of the child actor and some great casting. Eve, too, succeeds remarkably well thanks to the work of two locally cast twin girls from Vancouver, British Columbia. Chris Carter relied on local talent in the form of the Krievens twins, Erika and Sabrina, who deliver terrifically Omen-like work. Needless to say, Eve's success is the result not only of the principals, Harris and the employment of the Krievins twins.

Fire: C+. Guests include Mark Sheppard [the new Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, 24, Doctor Who], as the firestarter and Amanda Pays [The Flash, Max Headroom] as an old flame to Fox Mulder. Carter hoped to retain Pays as a recurring character, but the chemistry "didn't work as it might." Carter's observation was accurate, Pays simply didn't pay off and remains the least successful element of the episode. The chemistry was clearly developing between Mulder and Scully.

Beyond The Sea: B+. The late, great Don Davis [Stargate SG-1] guested as Scully's late father. Brad Dourif [One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Dune, Deadwood and too many to list] turns in another typically oddball, but viciously engaging performance. Beyond The Sea clearly riffs on Silence Of The Lambs [1991] and the Clarice Starling/ Hannibal Lecter dynamic, but does so with impressive execution, to use a word.

Gender Bender: B-. Male/female transformations and murder mystery is complemented with riffs on Witness [1985] through an Amish-like sect dubbed The Kindred. The episode would mark director Rob Bowman's debut on the series following his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation [13 episodes]. Bowman [Reign of Fire, The X-Files: Fight The Future] would handle a remarkable 33 episodes for The X-Files and the Pilot of The Lone Gunmen.

Lazarus: C+. The biblically-suggestive, body transference episode with guest Callum Keith Rennie [the new Battlestar Galactica; also with David Duchovny in Californication]. Rennie would appear one more time in Season Two, Ep15, Fresh Bones and The X-Files: I Want To Believe [2008].

Young At Heart: B-. Mulder questions his actions regarding an escaped murderer. Should he have pulled the trigger? There are indeed echoes of Millennium, Season One, Ep14, The Thin White Line, an episode that takes these ideas even further and addresses them more effectively, but with a much different outcome. Throw in a killer complete with a salamander hand and, damn it, you've got my attention. Aspects of entries like this one and Lazarus capture the pulse of where Carter would go with his Millennium series. It's also worth noting that Mark Snow's scores are simply a generous thrill a minute to boot.

E.B.E.: B. Extra-Terrestrial Biological Entity features Deep Throat and the first Lone Gunmen appearance. There's plenty here to make this a solid entry and here's the Lone Gunmen to prove it.

Bruce Harwood, who played Byers, "actually attributes wardrobe to part of the Gunmen's appeal, because they look so incongruous together," says Brian Lowry in The Truth Is Out There: The Official Guide To The X-Files. Hardwood believes, "That's why they work... visually." Hardin's Deep Throat character is fleshed out with new shades of grey in E.B.E.. The Deep Throat character felt some secrets "should remain secret." Yet, he also egged on Mulder and Scully indicating they were getting closer to the truth. Hardin admitted in Starlog Magazine #211, that his character's "ambivalence made him human and not just a speaker of exposition." The other aspect of the episode's conclusion that is endlessly fascinating to me personally about The X-Files was the willingness of writers and creators to take you down this disorienting rabbit hole. There's a sense of smoke and mirrors in the release of information. It's always one step forward two steps back as Mulder and Scully reach various points in their Season One journey. The promise of the E.B.E. is never revealed. Carter and others would admit it is the idea of something unknown being scarier than the physical reveal itself that works best on The X-Files. Season One's chapters are indeed a fairly well-crafted tease of things to come. This exceptional scene demonstrates the growth of both Duchovny and Anderson in their respective roles opposite one another. Anderson's twist on the famous line "The truth is out there, but so are lies," speaks volumes about her character as the respectful, cautious antidote to Mulder's relentless believer.

Miracle Man: C. A morality play with Christ-like symbolism in this overture of good versus evil. One of the finest penned moments by Howard Gordon and Chris Carter are expressed in word by Fox Mulder following persistent sightings throughout the episode of his sister. "I think people are looking hard for miracles, so hard that they make themselves see what they want to see."

Shapes: C-. Donnelly Rhodes [Battlestar Galactica] guests. This is essentially a werewolf story and once again the final ten minutes are excellent. This is a great example of a weak episode still offering an exciting conclusion. It's also a prime example of the strong use of light and shadow throughout the series.

Darkness Falls: B-. This is an easy one to enjoy with its terrific sense of dread, mood, minimal effects and use of location combined with a typically strong X-Files ending. These self-contained, monster-on-the-loose tales deliver some terrific standalones over the course of the series.

Tooms: B-. Doug Hutchison returns. Apart from an appearance from the Cigarette Smoking Man [William B. Davis' first speaking part] the entry features the first Mitch Pileggi as Walter Skinner appearance. Tooms is graced with a surprisingly unoriginal ending to a good entry. Tooms offers what so many film sequels offer - an often good return to some of the original's strengths [Squeeze], but there's the inevitable loss of originality with the resulting familiarity of the character. Mulder's dogged pursuit of Tooms makes for the most amusing aspect of the entry. The series is generating some terrific characters and Davis is to the The X-Files what Scorpius was to Farscape – a sensational villain. You simply can't imagine The X-Files without Davis' work. With Young At Heart and now Tooms, it's clear Mulder is not above exacting physical violence as a resolution despite his character's cerebral ways. In the final moments, Mulder notes a chrysalis hanging from a tree limb and muses, "A change for us- it's coming," hinting of things to come for The X-Files.

Born Again: C+. The episode lacks the complexity of an entry like Eve and doesn't quite meet expectations. Even writer Howard Gordon noted the episode to be "a little too cop show-y," to Lowry in his book analyzing Season One and Two.

Roland: B-. Roland largely succeeds on the performance of guest Zeljko Ivanek [True Blood, Damages] who is tremendous in the entry. A fairly complex idea is handled very effectively when science fiction this outlandish could have been easily mishandled and quite laughable. Once again the creators deliver an unexpected, solid, non-myth arc installment.

The Erlenmeyer Flask: B+ Season One ends with the myth arc. The season ends with a strong script by Chris Carter. You're willing to look past the not-entirely convincing alien effects thanks to a compelling story that grips you from beginning to end. "Cut out the Obi-Wan Kenobi crap." The season ends where it began with the shadowy figure, a representation of the devil himself, that is the Cigarette Smoking Man entering and exiting a top secret Pentagon facility with the alien fetus. The loss of Jerry Hardin's Deep Throat is a monumental moment in the finale underscoring that "everyone is expendable," said Carter [except Mulder and Scully of course]. Hardin's role throughout Season One was a real highlight and his stunning death comes as one of those great TV moments that ranks alongside other key television losses in science fiction from Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan [Farscape] to Dr. Janet Fraiser [Stargate SG-1]. The dying words of Deep Throat, "Trust No One," becomes a popular refrain right along with "The Truth Is Out There" defining The X-Files' mystique.

Renew The X-Files immediately! Ultimately those whispered words by a dying Deep Throat were far more profound than they appeared merely on their surface. It was the layers of meaning within The X-Files that offered is much to chew on. Could Deep Throat be trusted? We're not sure at this point. And if you can't trust anyone, then who do you trust? That does present a problem of nefarious, epic proportions for our two steadfast investigators.

This final act by Deep Throat does much to cement the need of Mulder and Scully to trust one another and rely on each other. As viewers, we were secure in that very specific relationship. We had faith in that bond. Scully admitted she trusts only Mulder and the same is true for Mulder, but how does one get to the truth if you can't trust anyone else. Therein lies the great conceit of The X-Files' two principals and the importance of their dynamic. The rest of The X-Files framework is built around these two anchors. They are at the core of this enigmatic series. The series is built on an oxymoron, the truth is out there, but to find it you can't trust anyone. That is a problem. It's a terrific puzzle and these key components drive the series with such complexity and fascination through a myriad of mysteries, the series ultimately painted itself into a corner by the end. Like Lost, but better, The X-Files presented a journey through which an eventual, satisfying conclusion would prove elusive to many. The Season One episode Lazarus articulated that intangible air of mystery. Scully finds the wrist watch of her deceased former partner has literally ceased to function at the exact time of his death. She ask Mulder, "What does it mean?" He counters succinctly, capturing the essence of the show's intellectual nature, "It means whatever you want it to mean." Viewers were constantly required to think for themselves about the possibilities.

Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan meets john Carpenter's The Thing. The twisted beauty of The X-Files lies in the nature of its relationships. In John Carpenter's The Thing [1982], men were isolated, stranded in the Antarctic in a research station and with an alien lifeform capable of assuming human identities on the loose no one knew who could be trusted. Distrust was at the essence of that great film.

The reimagined TV Series Battlestar Galactica [2004] tapped into the zeitgeist of the 21st Century and terrorism, but once again, men an women were confined to Battlestars and isolated in space. Distrust was the operative word.

In the 1990s, The X-Files tapped into this issue of "Trust No One" and literally every character introduced left the viewer wondering if they were potentially an enemy agent, an alien lifeform or something else entirely. Distrust riddled the show in its every crack and crevice, only it was the trust and understanding, not to mention chemistry, between Mulder and Scully that was at the heart of its amazing run.

Perhaps Season One is imperfect, but warts and all, it is my belief this was a solid launching point for a considerably different idea for television. Carter has good reason to be pleased with Season One in the DVD Documentary, The Truth About Season One, and to reflect upon it with fondness and with contextual confidence. "I'll say that we did everything right the first season and that we made all the right decisions and I'll say that only because it was the foundation for which the rest of the show was built." Unlike the arrival of Millennium Season One, which benefitted from the well-oiled machine of a beast that Carter's The X-Files would become, we were fortunate The X-Files was given that everso rare chance to succeed in network televison. Can you imagine a world without The X-Files and Millennium? Without Season One, neither would exist and that's the truth.

Coming Soon: A closer look at my favorite entry from Season One.

Special Agent Dana Scully Abduction Totals To Date: 1 [Lazarus].

Special Agent Fox Mulder Abduction Totals To Date: 1 [The Erlenmeyer Flask]

Season One Characters: David Duchovny [looks like Canadian singer Corey Hart; plays Fox Mulder]/ Gillian Anderson [Dana Scully]/ William B. Davis [Cigarette Smoking Man]/ Jerry Hardin [Deep Throat] Mitch Pileggi [Walter Skinner], Bruce Harwood [John Fitzgerald Byers], Tom Braidwood [Melvin Frohike], Dean Haglund [Richard Langly].

Episodes featuring traces Of The Mythology Arc: Pilot/ Deep Throat/ Ghost In The Machine/ Fallen Angel/ Eve/ Young At Heart/ E.B.E./ Tooms/ The Erlenmeyer Flask [9 episodes total].


J.D. said...

Nice assessment of this season. For many shows, the first season is usually the one where the writers, etc. work out all the kinks, est. the show's mythology, etc. and I think THE X-FILES does that very well with a good mix of mythology episodes and stand-alone ones. I love all the mythology ones and I love how they ratchet up the tension as Mulder and Scully gradually begin to uncover a deeper, darker conspiracy.

Of the stand-alones, the two with Tooms are excellent but for me I love the mood and atmosphere of "Darkness Falls." It's one I enjoy watching many times.

le0pard13 said...

Great summary to a season on television that was simply seminal, SFF. Few had ever had the impact of this show by Chris Carter. Whether or not later season were better overall takes nothing away from what this program brought with its first. Way to go!

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thank you both for stopping.

I kind of took the Millennium Season One approach with this entry. It was so big and actually the season is so dense with information it was overwhelming. I suppose that's a testament to the writing in general.

All in all, I liked some of the first season, but wasn't moved to get too in-depth with it so I opted for an overview approach, which is a little different for me.

J.D. - I really love the mood and feel of Darkness Falls myself. That one is really, really good as far as the feel of a good horror episode. I agree.

Anyway, just one close look ahead at one episode of Season One.