So, I recently saw a complete edition release of “The X-Files” on Blu-Ray, and thought that I really, really should watch it, and the price was reasonable (in the 1 to 2 dollar per hour range), which only got better when I noticed someone’s gripe that they were actually cheaper if you bought them separately instead of in the complete edition. So, I bought all nine seasons, and watched them all. And … I didn’t like the show.
Now, my comments are this are, as stated above, totally unfair because I didn’t just watch the show, but instead watched it while doing other things, including playing “Dragon Age: Inquisition”. This means that there were a number of episodes that I was only half-paying attention to it. It’s a valid criticism to say that X-Files is an arc show and that if you don’t pay attention you’re going to miss a lot. Fair enough. It’s possible that one of the reasons, for example, that I found that the show was acting as if I should care more about what was happening to the agents than I really did was because I didn’t have in my head all of the backstory and emotional baggage that the previous episodes had indeed managed to build up if I’d only been paying attention to it.
But I don’t think this is a sufficient explanation, because typically in arc shows the problem people have with it is that they don’t know what’s going on and so get lost and frustrated. For the most part, I never felt that way. I always felt that I at least roughly knew what was going on, but typically didn’t care or was bored or annoyed by what was going on. Sure, paying more attention might have made me care more, but on the flip side the show didn’t make me want to look up and pay attention more often either, like better shows do. So there seems to be more to it than that.
For the most part, it’s my opinion that the very best episodes, for me, were the ones that were, in fact, simple joke episodes, where they made everything be ridiculous and you’re supposed to roll your eyes at what they’re doing. Any time they attempted to mix the two, however, the episodes were, in fact, utter disasters. And the “straight” episodes just weren’t as good. Now, they were dealing with paranormal things and so things that would strike us as being ridiculous, and so maybe that was just hard to pull off, so that when they embraced the madness, it all worked, but when they didn’t that ridiculousness dragged everything down. Sure, but there are a lot of shows that manage to make that work. Doctor Who is a prime example of a show that manages to embrace the insanity and how crazy that’s all going to look while still managing to build in deep emotional scenes, drama and story arcs without looking out of place. And then we also have shows like Buffy, Angel and Smallville that manage to do the same. So what is it about X-Files that makes it come up so short for me?
Well, the first thing is that I think the show takes itself too seriously. It seems to trying for these sorts of serious and dramatic scenes so much that it becomes jarring when they step out of that. All of the other shows that I’ve mentioned deliberately and consistently include humour, and the drama seems to grow organically from the characters themselves. When they get totally serious, things are bad, and if they joke when they shouldn’t, the others point it out. Arguably, Mulder could have managed to pull this off with his snark, but he definitely took the X-Files very, very seriously, and Scully was from the start set up to be a serious character. In short, in a lot of ways they were both straight persons, which made the humour seem out of place when they acted as the goofball. Sure, the snark itself worked — although it worked best when both Scully and Mulder snarked, as when only Mulder snarked, especially at Scully, it seemed more like him being a jerk and her long-suffering — but the comedy relief didn’t. And good comedy relief is necessary in good drama to relieve the tension, otherwise it becomes overwhelming.
Additionally, the show itself seems to be overly dramatic, aiming at creating massively dramatic scenes that came across as forced, so much so that we started looking for the punchline, or else felt that they were overreacting (and possibly overacting). The end of “Jump the Shark” is a prime example of this, with Scully, of all people, commenting on how much The Lone Gunmen had meant to her in an overly dramatic fashion, so much so that I was looking for it to be a fake or a hallucination on the part of the Gunmen (it wasn’t). But there were a number of other scenes where the drama was stretched and expanded so much that it was almost self-parody. This made the actual self-parody harder to detect and so it didn’t come across; I was wondering if it was a joke or if it was serious.
Also, I think they had issues with the setting. In all of the other shows, at least the principles knew what was going on, and that these things were real, while others may not have. But with Scully being the skeptic for most of the show, there was always someone directly involved who kept pointing out other reasonable explanations, that just happened to be wrong. This always, then, tied it in that this was our world and so kept the paranormal and supernatural events as odd events and not as things that were normal but that others didn’t see. This, then, kept reminding us how absurd this all was and so broke the suspension of disbelief, which then only got worse when some of the things really were ridiculous. The show encouraged us to question and assess the rationality of the explanations which then only meant that we noticed the plot holes. And there were a number of plot holes.
The result is a show that you can’t take seriously but you can’t laugh that, that is desperately trying to get you to take it seriously. That’s not a recipe for entertaining viewing.
Some more general thoughts on the show:
Gillian Anderson’s acting in the first season is really stilted and artificial, but she gets better after that … up until they make Scully an angry, tough chick when she gets pregnant and has a child in the later seasons, which really didn’t seem to fit.
The Lone Gunmen, in general, were entertaining, at least in small doses.
At one point at the end of Season 5, I was getting into the show, and starting to like it. I was even interested in the alien conspiracy, which hadn’t happened up to that point. Then the next season, quite early, started with the ridiculous concept of Mulder switching bodies with that really annoying guy — a concept that they dragged out over two episodes when the concept itself barely supported one — and then followed that with the utterly ridiculous episode with the ghosts at Christmas trying to get Mulder and Scully to shoot each other and failing … somehow, and the effect was ruined. At that point, I not only wasn’t really enjoying it anymore, but was in fact actively mocking it and even hating it. The show never recovered from that, and it took force of will for me to completely the series.
As the show went on, it did indeed become more unreasonable that Scully would still be skeptical of the paranormal after all she’d seen. They lampshaded it, but missed, in my opinion, a great way to resolve it. The big issue was that Mulder was always right with his intuitive leaps, and Scully was always wrong. What they needed to do was make it so that sometimes the right explanation really was the scientific one, which then could justify Scully taking an Occam’s Razor approach and saying that she’s sticking with the explanations that have actually happened elsewhere before jumping to the completely new explanation. If they didn’t want to do that in actual episodes because they felt it might undermine the show or Mulder, all they needed was for her to reply to that, for Mulder to ask when those explanations have ever worked, and for Scully to start listing off cases — that happened off-screen — where it did. This then would make the relationship seem less antagonistic and more sensible, leading to an explanation for why the X-Files needed to be restored by pointing out that the combination of Mulder’s intuition and Scully’s scientific approach have led to more resolutions — even if not arrests — than happened in all the years before that. Of course, then they couldn’t have argued 9 that Doggett needed to stay because he was better at it than they were (which was dumb in an of itself).
Season 8, with the departure of Mulder, didn’t work, because Doggett couldn’t capture Scully’s skepticism, and Scully couldn’t capture Mulder’s intuition. Scully may have come to believe, but unlike Mulder she had no real reason to want to believe … and many reasons to want to not believe. Thus, the whole dynamic was thrown out of whack, which went very badly. Also, making Doggett the superior in the relationship worked out really badly considering how experienced Scully was; they had to make her stupid and risk-taking just to make him into the person who did things right. Season 9 worked better but Scully’s constant presence worked against the dynamic of Reyes and Doggett, which seemed to me to work but needed more time to develop.
So, the final question: Would I watch this again? If this was 10 years ago, when I had less to watch, I probably would give it another chance. But I have too many things to watch to give this another chance, at least not for a long, long time. I’d rather watch Farscape again than watch this, which is not a good thing for X-Files. Overall, I was very disappointed in the show.