The X Files: S5, Fight The Future & S6

Posted: April 27, 2013 in Critical Hit
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Prior to starting my watch-through of The X Files, my abiding assumption about Mulder and Scully’s relationship, given its status as the UST-OTP to end all UST-OTPs, was that their romance would be highlighted from minute one. I thought this because, by and large, it’s just what happens in procedural shows where the main character has a regular associate or partner of the opposite sex: sure, there are a handful of platonic exceptions, like Pete and Myka of Warehouse 13 and Lisbon and Jane of The Mentalist (for the first four seasons, anyway), but otherwise, the default setting is to comment, loudly and often, on the protagonists’ Secret Attraction. Whether it’s Booth and Brennan (Bones), Castle and Beckett (Castle), House and Cuddy (House), or Olivia and Peter (Fringe), the audience is never left in any doubt as to the presence of a love that dare not speak its name.

And so, not unreasonably, I’d assumed that at least part of the reason for this was the legacy of The X Files – and to a certain extent, that’s true: Mulder and Scully’s relationship casts such a long shadow that every subsequent TV partnership has been forced to address its specter. But the thing is, for the first four seasons, there’s not so much as a whisper of romance between them. Don’t get me wrong – their relationship is devoted, intense, exclusive and loyal, with neither one forming any other significant secondary attachments outside it, and you can certainly infer their attraction as subtext. But as I’ve said before, before S5, it’s only subtext: there are no lingering glances, meaningful conversations, awkward moments or obviously-engineered setups designed to force them together or highlight their romance, and nor do any other characters make a habit of commenting on their relationship. It’s all very refreshing, such that, somewhat ironically, it actually serves as a more genuine basis for their eventual romance than if the attraction had been earmarked the whole way through.

But in S5, Mulder starts to flirt with Scully – subtly, to be sure, but the change in his behaviour is nonetheless evident. He loves her, and yet makes no demands of her. Instead, he simply contents himself with indulging a slightly more intimate sense of humour than previously, and otherwise continues to treat her as normal. In S6, however, the writers have begun to shiptease in earnest, with other characters commenting on their attraction and mistaking them for a couple, and the advent of episodes whose premises force them together in quasi-romantic situations. The first movie, Fight the Future, bridges these two seasons admirably – not only because of the almost-kiss that (arguably) serves to intensify their relationship, but because it brings the primary alien plotline to a dramatic head.

But even once the shipteasing begins, there’s still a degree of subtlety to their relationship that’s unheard of in subsequent shows. Partly, this has to do with the quality of the acting – both Anderson and Duchovny turn in very wry, reserved performances – but mostly, it’s down to how understated the cinematography is. I’ve always known that the romances in other shows are heavily underlined and emphasised, but without being able to compare the default to a different approach, I hadn’t quite realised how pervasive the problem was, and how much it annoyed me: not just on the grounds of being narratively redundant, but because it treats the audience as inattentive and oblivious.

With regard to plot and execution, I’m still enjoying the show. S5 is an incredibly strong season, and S6, while slightly woolier on the main plot – understandable, given that Fight the Future had already provided something of a catharsis for the big themes – is still consistently strong when it comes individual episodes and characterisation. Which leads me to wonder if I’ll ever really tire of the show, even if the quality starts to drop (which experience would suggest it inevitably will). Because as far as I can tell, the three things that most bother me when applied to successive TV seasons – inconsistency, retconning and escalation – aren’t present in The X Files; or at least, aren’t present yet. By which I mean: the characterisation is still solid and internally consistent, there hasn’t been any obvious retconning of previously established information in order to allow for later plots (Chris Carter might be a pantser rather than a plotter, but he still respects his own established canon), and because the premise has always been one of world-altering conspiracies that extend to the highest levels of power, there’s no real scope for the plot to suddenly escalate beyond its original, local parameters (as has happened, for instance, with the death of Brennan’s mother in Bones, the death of Beckett’s mother in Castle, and the advent of the Potentials in Buffy).

All in all, then, The X Files is still proving to be one of the most consistently enjoyable TV shows I’ve ever seen. The steady development of Mulder and Scully’s relationship has been done respectfully over the course of many seasons, and yet has remained subtle rather than being constantly underlined and unnecessarily foregrounded. The monster-of-the-week episodes are still strong, and if the main alien plot is starting to run out of steam, that’s hardly surprising after six seasons and a movie. There’s even been a notable decrease in racefail episodes, which is definitely a plus. And frankly, even if things do start to go downhill from this point on, the show has won enough of my goodwill that I’ll be willing to tolerate a lot before losing patience with it. So: onward to S7!

  1. As before, I find it interesting to hear the thoughts of someone watching the show all the way through for the first time. My personal experience is that I started watching after seeing FIght the Future in theaters. Later, I bought and watched the entire series on DVD.

    I still find it odd that you think the series,is consistent and not ret-conned at all. I thought season 5 was the last season that could apply to (and there are certainly cases even there where I think ret-conning was starting to take place, albeit minor examples). With season 6, there were a huge number of inconsistencies and plot holes introduced. At the time they were released, Two Fathers/One Son were heavily promoted as “explaining everything” regarding the conspiracy. When I saw them the first time, they didn’t bother me that much because I had only started watching the show and therefore wasn’t really expecting them to make sense. When I saw them in sequence after having watched the show from the beginning, I found Two Fathers/One Son ridiculously confusing.

    [SPOILER ALERT: There has been enough time though since I watched season 6, so I have forgotten the details, but I had issues revolving around Cassandra Spender suddenly turning out to be an alien human hybrid and no real explanation as to why that meant an acceleration of the conspiracies plans. In addition to, given that the whole alien human hybrid thing was supposed to be a ruse anyways, why did they bother actually finishing one…? Then there are larger issues involving the nature of the conspiracy itself that just never made a whole lot of sense to me…]

    Then there are episodes like Closure, which is really problematic for reasons that extend beyond the myth arc, but it highlights how much Carter was making things up as he went along. Retconning doesn’t even begin to describe what went wrong there, plot wise. And that’s before we get into the problems with season 8… To say nothing of the awfulness of season 9…

    But in any case, I look forward to your opinion on future seasons.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I take your point about Carter making it up, but for me, I think there’s two main reasons why I view the show (so far, at least) as consistent. One, the whole thematic impetus is of mysteries and loose ends and a quest for evidence – lots of episodes lack a cathartic ending, at least as far as Mulder and Scully’s knowledge is concerned, and with the main plot, there have always been unanswered questions. So while, if I sat down and thought about it, I’d probably find lots of discontinuities, they’ve never actually jolted me out of the narrative, because the whole point of the show is that there’s a lot of strange things going on that can’t always be properly explained. (Then again, it might just be that because I’m watching it for the first time, it’s harder to see the stuff that’s gone unexplained; on a second viewing, I might well have more problems with it.) And two – and perhaps more pertinently – whatever they’ve changed about the main plot, they’ve never retconned the *characterisation*. Throughout the current watchthrough, for instance, I’ve been mentally comparing The X Files with Bones, a show I used to love, but which I’ve had to stop watching due to the hideous dogpiled retconning of, in particular, Brennan’s personality, but also Booth’s. It’s impossible to reconcile the information you’re given about Booth and Brennan’s personal histories in the early seasons with everything you find out about them later, because it’s blatantly contradictory, and that really annoys me, because it undermines their personalities. Whereas Mulder and Scully, however little sense the main plot might make on closer inspection, are always just Mulder and Scully: their personal history never undergo sudden changes, and even in the weirder episodes, their reactions to things are always genuine, never forced. It’s only in S7 that I’ve started to feel the consistency slipping, and for such a long-lived show, that’s pretty incredible. But as you say, S8 and S9 are meant to be pretty bad, so that may well change soon!

      • Fair enough. I can certainly make the case for that myself. I think I mentioned this earlier, but one of my favorite episodes is E.B.E. I also agree with the consistency of the characters (up to season 7 at least… Season 8 does a bit of retconning character wise.)

        • fozmeadows says:

          I think my favourite episode so far is Bad Blood – when they go for a comic episode, the result is genuinely hilarious!

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