#211: Did The X-Files Miss a Trick?

x-files

I know, I know, it looks like I’ve forgotten my brief for this blog, but I haven’t.  This is something I’ve been mulling for a little while, and I wanted to raise it here to see whether it’s been worth my time.

You probably know of The X-Files.  It was pretty big.  If you don’t, well, to bring you up to speed I’m just gonna steal a synopsis from IMDb.  This’ll do:

Two FBI agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully work in an unassigned detail of the bureau called the X-Files investigating cases dealing with unexplained paranormal phenomena. Mulder, a true believer, and Scully, a skeptic, perceive their cases from stand points of science and the paranormal.

Close enough.  Essentially, it started out as a mystery-of-the week show where there was some inexplicable phenomenon that needed explaining — bigfoot, aliens, a man who stretches — and, in later seasons, added an overall arc of There’s A Big Conspiracy Which Is Being Covered Up.  Each week, without fail, believer Mulder and scientific skeptic Scully would go out to investigate something spooky and each week, without fail, it’d turn out to have some supernatural or weird explanation: bigfoot was real, aliens are real, the stretchy man is real, it really is a vampire, there really are parasites in people making them go crazy and kill each other.  And, crucially, Mulder was always right to believe and Scully was always wrong to have doubts.

I was about 11 when it started, and even I figured out after three episodes that it was always going to be the entirely non-scientific explanation that proved to be the answer.  Not that science got much of a look in: Scully would occasionally don a labcoat (inspiring, no doubt, a great many unrequited crushes that continue in the scientific community to this day) and look through a microscope at something with a slightly perplexed expression and say “But, Mulder, this doesn’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before,” — that we, incidentally, not meaning just the two of them but in fact encapsulating the collective knowledge of the entire human race to that point in history — and Mulder would look wise and go “WoooOOooOOOOooOOO!!” while wiggling his fingers in the air (okay, I’m simplifying).

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“Bloody hell, why do I even bother…?”

But this always happened.  Always.  And if the 11 year-old me was able to figure it out — and I was an idiot as a child, something I’ve barely managed to correct despite now being what by consensus is called an ‘adult’ — then other people must have got wise to it, too, and I think that’s a huge shame, because we may have missed out on one of the most brilliant television shows ever had they taken just a slightly different route.

Oh, yeah, you know where I’m going: what if, just every so often, there had been a rational explanation to that week’s mystery.  The show covered aliens, vampires, prophetic dreams, psychic powers, spot-on predictions of the future, invisible men, genies, and all other sorts of hoo-ha, and it wold have been amazing for just one episode in seven to explain it away with rationality and/or intelligent scientific explanation and be proved right in doing so.  And you know where this kind of thing has been happening for years?  Three words: impossible crime fiction.

I very much doubt that I’m the first person to think this — see above re: me being an idiot — but I’m not about to start searching the interwebs for like-minded people when there’s washing up to do and I probably have a bunch of you around who I already know to be intelligent and so far more rewarding to discuss this with.  It could easily be played both ways: evidence that seems to make it rational is shown to be false or misinterpreted — therefore, X-file; ‘obvious’ trick show to be miraculous — X-file; something impossible shown to have real-world workings — in your face, Fox, and what the hell kind of a name is Fox anyway?

See, it wouldn’t even need to have interrupted the overall conspiracy aspect of the show — not every single week fed into that overall arc, bigfoot wasn’t in league with the aliens (though I would have liked to see that…) — and it would have added an element of suspense to what at times really needed some intrigue.  I seem to remember one episode where Mulder kills a girl believing her to be a vampire, and it’s like “OooOOooOO, was she really a vampire?” — well of course she bloody was, this is like season 5 and you’re not going to start messing with the formula now.  But what if she hadn’t been, or what if there was at least the chance that she wasn’t?  How much better would it have made it, how much more scope would that have provided for the character and his unshakable beliefs that just got more and more shored up week after week of being paid to find exactly what he was looking for?

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“Scully, no arguments — you lost the bet, you’re paying for lunch.”

Now, too, there’s that element of subverting the expectations of an impossible crime.  When you read a Norman Berrow or Hake Talbot or Christianna Brand impossible crime novel you know there’s going to be a rational explanation and so you can filter out all attempts to invoke the supernatural.  But imagine if a solid 20% of John Dickson Carr’s impossibilities ended with Gideon Fell going “Yup, legit ghost — walked through the wall, shot this dude, walked out again; took the gun with itself because, well, ghost rules”.  And if you didn’t know that was gonna happen — goddamn, that’d be amazing!

Except it wouldn’t, you’d be furious, and rightly so because Brand, Boucher, Carr, Penny, Sayers, Talbot, and their peers didn’t establish a universe where that was a viable option.  And if they did, such a revelation coming at the end of 400 pages would be massively annoying anyway.  But The X-Files did have this universe, did have the possibility of rationality alongside outright ghostly hand-waving, and 45 minutes to be hoodwinked doesn’t feel like such a waste of your time and effort.  It strieks me as such a missed opportunity that they never exploited this.  Well, I’m assuming they never exploited that fact: after about 4 or 5 series of the same thing week after week I stopped watching, and was only compelled to start thinking about it again when someone said recently that it had been revived in an attempt to recapture some glory for the decaying corpse of television.

So, whaddaya think?  Am I miles off and this is an awful idea?  Did seasons 6 through 17 feature exactly what I say above?  Lay it on me…

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34 thoughts on “#211: Did The X-Files Miss a Trick?

  1. I only got into it fairly late, in the season that led to the first movie, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. I saw the recent miniseries and thought it was pretty poor on the whole, though I always liked the leads. I thought the second movie, which is basically a procedural with little or no SF / supernatural element, was very poor.

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  2. Never really got into series myself, but your idea about mixing the supernatural with actual impossible crimes sounds exactly like the short stories from William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder. You never knew, going into a story, what to expect. Some of them were genuine tales of the supernatural, while others were elaborate fakes (i.e. impossible crimes).

    You might also want to take a listen at an old radio-play, “Death at Storm House,” from a program called The Sealed Book. I only gave it a shot on account of one of the writers, Robert Arthur, which (unfortunately) failed to impress me, but might work for you – as it keeps you guessing until the end whether the solution going to be an earthly one or not.

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    • I was just about to make a comment about ‘Carnacki the Ghostfinder’ but TomCat beat me to it. If you like weird fiction/ghost stories, these are well worth a read, primarily because of the tension that exists of whether the case will be a fake or not. The impossible crime angles aren’t amazing, but Hodgson can create a great atmosphere, and whether the tale turns out to be a ‘real’ ghost or a fake, they are always worth reading.

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      • Oh, and ‘Too Many Ghosts’ by Paul Gallico also fits the bill. A debunker goes to investigate a series of impossible goings on at a country house, and starts to wonder if there are really ghosts behind it…
        It’s a great read, and works well as a mystery and a ghost story. I won’t tell you what it turns out to be at the end, as that is half the fun.

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        • The mysteries of Too Many Ghosts are good, but I strugggled with Gallico’s writing and characters (and by ‘characters’ I mean ‘the creepy, horny guy who everyone is convinced is an absolute charming genius, and all the women who are falling over themselves to get to the front of the line to fuck him’).

          Did you ever read the Jacques Futrelle story where his wife wrote the first half as a series of ghostly happenings that couldn’t possibly be explained away, and then he wrote the second half with his genius detective coming in to give everything a rational explanation? Good fun, that.

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        • Yes, I did read that one, in an impossible crime anthology whose name escapes me.
          I know what you mean about the protagonist in ‘Too Many a Ghosts.’ If being charitable, you could say it’s a parody of Peter Wimsey. But more likely, just bad writing.

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        • Calling your hero Alexander Hero positively drowns in parody, but actually I think Gallico was worried we wouldn’t notice otherwise…

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    • Well, it’s nice to know that at least one other person in history had this idea. Did not know about the Carnacki stories, so thanks for that — I’ll add them to my metaphorical TBB pile and check ’em out.

      Need to track down some Robert Arthur, too. Ugh, damn these bills and the needs for food…

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  3. Funny, I tried rewatching the X-Files recently. I saw several episodes back in the 90’s, when the general consensus was that this is a ground-breaking show, and since I was still a kid back then I trusted other peoples opinion.

    So, now, decades later I wanted to make up my own mind. I wanted to determine: Is this show really that great? It must be, it’s a classic, right? I’m afraid to admit, that I was bored throughout most of the episodes I watched. I stopped after Season 3, cause I realised it just wasn’t worth my time.

    To me even the better episodes like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” or “Pusher” ended up as a mild disappointments. Some promising ideas, but also some surprisingly shoddy writing.

    There was, for example, this prison episode featuring J. T. Walsh, where a dead inmate was exacting revenge on the people who mistreated him. Characters kept dying in mysterious ways, and I was waiting for some mind-blowing twist, or at least for some rational explanation for the killings, but there was none. Ultimately it was just a ghost story. It would have been much more exciting had it been an impossible mystery.

    Incidentally I happen to be a huge fan of that other Chris Carter produced show: Millennium. To me a much more interesting and smarter series.

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  4. And maybe once in a while, Ellery Queen could have discovered that the little green man was NOT a circus midget in disguise . . . I think people like their genre shows, and they would scream bloody murder if what they had come to expect had taken a sudden turn. I, however, would have traded the whole “‘black gunk” arc for some whodunits with Mulder and Scully. That would have been fun!

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    • No, but if it had started out as genre-bending, I mean. Not suddenly introduced Gideon Fell in series 12. That would be as weird as Ellery actually stumbling onto an alien conspiracy where they had to return the alien head so that Cate Blanchett could…explode? Is that what happened? Wait, have I lost my train of thought again?

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  5. Although I won’t mention the title for the sake of people who haven’t yet read it, there’s a well-known volume of John Dickson Carr where the answer is first that the supernatural trappings were all a trick — and then at the very end of the book, they weren’t. Being a hard-headed rationalist, I don’t enjoy stories like this, but I know they have their adherents.
    I suspect that had X-Files done the story where it turned out not to be aliens or ghosts, but someone faking the effects for a nefarious purpose, it would have angered their audience greatly, and the producers knew it. The viewers WANTED to believe it was ghosts or aliens. There is a programme where the function of the protagonist is to discover who’s faking the supernatural effects for criminal purposes — Jonathan Creek. Creek had much worse ratings than X-Files, I’m sure. Actual rational thought is difficult and frequently not entertaining. 😉

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  6. there’s an episode in season seven that has to do with magicians… and I think it’s the only example in the series of the supernatural being explained with – well duh! – magic tricks. the title is The Amazing Maleeni.
    I’m a big fan of the series (mostly, of the first 5 seasons): i find it well plotted and well directed.

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  7. I just thought of another example of detective stories mixing the supernatural with impossible crimes:
    Edward D. Hoch’s Simon Ark stories. Simon Ark is an immortal Coptic priest who solves all kinds of impossible mysteries.

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  8. “The X Files” was inspired by “Kolchak: the Night Stalker,” one of my favorite shows I watched as a teen. I understood what Chris Carter and his writing team were trying to replicate both in the overall mood for the series and individual episode’s storytelling. It was never intended that any of the episodes be grounded in reality. AS Noah a has already implied above it would have defeated the entire purpose of the show, IMO, which is the belief that extraordinary events and beings can coexist in “normal” life.

    There is one episode in the early years I think fits the bill of a rationally explained mystery. It’s the one set at the carnival with the performers and freaks being murdered. “Humbug” — season 2, episode 20. It may have a slight fantastic twist to it, but it’s all based on a biological anomaly/birth defect that still occurs. That’s hands down my favorite episode and it was, in fact, the very first one I ever saw of the series. I only liked the episodes that were in homage to “Kolchak” and dealt with supernatural and mythic lore and legends coming to life. I lost interest in the series when it turned totally sci-fi with the black oil virus, the men in black, the cigarette man, and all the conspiracy theory BS.

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    • I had no idea there was a direct motivation behind all this — and there I was putting it down to pre-millennial angst, and the general distrust of shadowy governmental organisations hanging over from the 1970s. Appreciate you letting me know, John, and I’ll put Kolchak on the list of things I should get round to…

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      • Omigosh! You never watched The Night Stalker? It’s a lot of fun, although it is very much a “monster of the week” formula. Darren McGavin is a charmer!

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  9. Myself And my wife are both huge fans of X-Files, and have thought about this idea many times. I have often spent time thinking about solutions for different episodes. There are some brilliant setups that would make very original impossible crimes!

    However I feel the fact that its never fully explained, or the information is lost , or that you are left hanging is a great and important part of the X-Files series. This both plot wise but for the fact that it continues in exploring the main idea of the show which is truth, or how one can know the truth about anything. It may help to call this series, particularly the early episodes, a ‘monster of the week’ rather than mystery. In a way the mystery element is the active frame work for which to explore the main idea of a monster/conspiracy.

    Unfortunately the new mini series was a real shambles, with only one good episode in it.

    A final note to add. Shortly after we got married, my wife and I would trawl charity and second hand shops on the weekends (naturally) and always search for X-Files DVDs. We managed to collect almost half of the colossal series discs, then one day we didn’t find anymore, and never have after that. Something at work higher than the government?…

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  10. I remember re-watching the first few seasons a while back and being surprised at just how much they did explain with science, or something other than ‘it’s aliens’. [spoiler]When Mulder thinks he sees Aliens in season 3 it later turns out to just be deformed people from a government experiment. A UFO turns out to be a secret air force plane.[/spoiler] Even the standalone monster episodes usually have some scientific explanation behind why they are a monster.

    It was actually quite rare where they didn’t offer some kind of ‘rational’ explanation.

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    • Now that’s interesting, because that runs directly against my memory — sure, bigfoot turned out to be real, and Eugene Toombs really could stretch himself super-thin, but I really don’t remember this kind of thing being the minority. Damn, I might have to track this down and watch it again just to revive my decaying brain!

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  11. I am a huge fan of the X-Files, and would have loved it if, say, 10% of the time it was an ‘impossible crime’ whodunit or some naturally-occurring scientific explanation. Kind of makes me wonder if there is any fanfic along those lines…

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