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).
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?
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…