Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The X-files on their 20th Anniversary

Today is September 10, 2013 and the 20th anniversary of The X-files. I’m writing this is in the middle of a busy work afternoon because I feel like I should write some sort of paean to the series that kick-started my habit of “appointment viewing” as well as my devotion to all the things good about the small screen.

The show didn’t make its way to the Philippines until months later, if I recall correctly. The honest truth is I didn’t know how I stumbled upon this show. I most likely heard about it from reading the Entertainment section of the newspaper. (It certainly wasn’t promoted very well around these parts, that’s for sure.) Cable TV and the Internet were still in its infancy, and quite possibly the most hi-tech gadget of the period was a brick-sized mobile phone. I was certain I was still in high school when the show premiered in the Philippines, but it was during my early college years when it reached the height of my fandom. All I remember was hearing about it, being very intrigued, and parked in front of an old TV set in our kitchen on the night it premiered. It was aired on a Friday night over a government channel with a muddy reception. So when I tuned, it was half white snow half black and white, with sporadic TV crackle amidst the dialogue. But there was no mistaking the fact that I was watching the most popular sci-fi drama in the US at the time. As a typical teenager, I would normally gravitate towards the good-looking male leads in the TV shows I watched. But for some reason, on The X-files, I fell in love with Scully’s character. And in turn, because I was a teenager, I wanted her to fall in love with Mulder’s character.

Borderline obsessive character shipping aside, I tuned in every episode for the crazy plotline of the week. It could be the ongoing saga of government conspiracies, or the monster-of-the-week episodes, or whatever weird supernatural phenomena they decided to tackle. For a series that boxed itself in a genre, the content at their disposal was ENDLESS. And regardless of how disparate it may seem, they all felt organic to the show. The fact that the exposition was tied down at the very beginning (Mulder as the irrational one who believed his sister was abducted by aliens and believed in government shadow conspiracies teamed up with Scully as the rational doctor whose sole job was to find the science underneath all the crazy and rein her partner in) helped to structure the series and gave it a tonal foundation that is unmatched today. The fact that the two leads’ personalities and backstories were very different helped give the stories a yin-yang quality. Compared to today’s standards, you’d be hard-pressed to find a show that had a similar distinct tonal center, and one that only needed very few characters to achieve it. (The closest I could think of was “Breaking Bad” and I like to think that Vince Gilligan got a lot of help from his experience on “The X-files”.)

Another way that the show distinguished itself was through its production values. Even though I squinted through the poor reception in our kitchen for half of the episodes I saw in my lifetime, I could make out the production design and the cinematography that gave the show such a wonderful atmospheric quality. Though it was mostly set in Vancouver (for the first half anyway), the production team deserved a ton of praise for working off a limited geography and giving the show a feel that was both metropolitan, small-towny, and alien all at the same time. Looking at the sheer scope and breadth of the series’ technological achievements, it was no wonder that so many of its well-known and well-praised alumni were folks who worked behind the scenes – writers, producers, directors, designers, all. Again, it is hard to find another current TV show whose behind-the-camera talent were just as revered and adored as the ones in front of it. The fact that fans of the show were also fans of the show’s crew meant that “The X-files” as a whole was its own universe.

The show ran for nine seasons, and I admit I tuned out by the time Scully left the series. The channel they showed it on likewise gave it up as well and I remember being unable to watch the series finale until a long while later, somewhere on the Interweb. But for the first few years of the show, I was obsessed with it. I was the only one in my family who was, and they knew better than to try to watch another TV show while I was watching. There was one time when a friend called while the show was on. She was my best friend, so I took the call in the living room, out of eyesight of the TV set. The conversation went on for about an hour, and I completely missed the episode that night. However, while I was on the phone, I could also hear some faint shrieking and gasping that was coming from the kitchen. I knew the TV was on, but for all I knew, my older sisters had hijacked it and changed the channel to something else. Imagine my surprise when I finished my phone call and returned to kitchen to see my two sisters excitedly gabbing about “The X-files” episode they had just seen. It was the much-celebrated “Tooms” episode, and they had been frightened and fascinated at the same time. I was silently cursing myself for missing out on the sequel to one of my favorite monster-of-the-week episodes, but I was happy that my sisters finally understood my obsession for the show. Or they did at the time. They never did watch the show again with me. Oh well.

Apart from the two “Bile-man” episodes, there were a number that I recall being hugely entertained by. I particularly loved those episodes that played up the duality of its characters, with extra humor. I remember loving “Small Potatoes”, “Arcadia”, “Jersey Devil”, “Ice” – a lot of early episodes, for sure. I didn’t think the Philippine broadcast aired the episodes in order, and I didn’t understand the “hiatus” concept yet, so I became a little antsy when they kept re-airing previous episodes (though I didn’t complain). But I loved seeing Mulder and Scully try to explain the phenomena they were investigating, and usually the explanations were a little ridiculous or out-there. But you had two actors who could sell anything, including mounds of sexual tension. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them play off each other.

The show was also notable for featuring some of the most iconic lineups of supporting players – who didn’t have to have names! Apart from fan favorites Skinner and The Lone Gunmen, you had the Cigarette Smoking Man, Alex Krycek (Mulder’s “Murdoc”, as I called him). The rogues’ gallery of villains on this show is fantastic, with most of them as likable and anticipated as they come. I remember lighting up whenever Krycek would show up, and yet, true to his villainy status, I cheered a bit when he was killed by Skinner.

My love for the show after the first season had me devouring all and any news I could get my hands on. That Rolling Stone cover that launched a thousand sighs? I begged a friend of mine from the States to buy an issue for me, and I still have it, in my childhood bedroom back home, covered in plastic. Reports about Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy leading to a storyline twist had me anticipating the “Duane Barry/Ascension” episodes like a kid on candy. They did not disappoint, although the next Scully-less episode made me miss her terribly. At the time, I didn’t realize why I was so invested in her character. I must have thought she was expendable, especially after reading reports where the Fox executives didn’t even approve of her casting at the start. And that certainly, the X-files was a Mulder thing, and that if Scully got taken off the show, it would still go on.

But there’s the irony. She WASN’T expendable. In fact, the show hinged on the chemistry and professionalism of these two actors. And the reality was Duchovny left the show first, and it still went on. It was only when Anderson also left that the show took a bit of a dive. Looking back on my Scully love, I must have gravitated towards the fact that she was an intelligent, confident, and FUNNY woman. She was the lead on a TV show that was not afraid to write strong female characters. She held her own against an admittedly charismatic co-star, and racked even more awards and recognition than he did. Hers was the only character who developed progressively over the course of the series – from skeptic to believer. Ok, maybe not a full-fledged believer. But she was able to rationalize Mulder’s beliefs in a way that only he can accept. She took the X-files to a place that is beyond tolerance, and fought for truth that is out there just as valiantly as Mulder did.

I still see re-runs of “The X-files” on TV, and I try to stop and watch each time when I can. The series’ timelessness is absolute. The fashion is pretty generic “FBI agent in a suit” (although Scully would probably disagree that her power suits date her in early 90s Hillary mold). In a world dependent on technology and social media, we still believe in an X-files world where the characters don’t rely on Google so much, or where they don’t automatically reach for their mobile each time the other is in trouble. We don’t miss the technology that is out there in here. The banter remains funny and current. And the story’s conspiracy mythology is still alive and kicking in the real world. I firmly believe that “The X-files” will still be a hit if it debuted today.

Twenty years later, the show is no longer running but its legs still do. Vince Gilligan is in the midst of his extended goodbye letter to “Breaking Bad” fans and it is epic. James Wong writes for the multi-acclaimed “American Horror Story” series (which I still refuse to watch because I don’t want to have nightmares). Gansa and Gordon continue to produce “Homeland” and deliver great results (I only have the awards to go by as I don’t have Showtime and thus don’t watch it). I still see David Nutter’s name in the credits, most recently on “Game of Thrones”. John Shiban has tested the BBC audience with his involvement with “Torchwood”. And Rob Bowman, God bless him, directs my guilty pleasure show, “Castle”. And the list goes on and on. We know that both David and Gillian are enjoying their small screen successes, though Gillian’s post-X-files career is mostly set in the UK.

And while their fans have grown up, they are multiplying by sharing their love of the show to their kids, or simply to others. When I was watching the show, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it because I didn’t think anyone my age watched it. Turns out I was wrong. As soon as news about the show’s 20th anniversary started appearing, some of my friends’ FB updates started lighting up. And I was certain most of the online chatter did, as well. Their anniversary was gloriously celebrated in the house that Star Trek/Star Wars built along the shores of San Diego. So apropos that they ended up communing with the hard core fans in Comic Con. And if you’ve never been a Scully fan before, well you’ll love her for saying this: "I've never done them before and I'm doing them for a year -- it's the 20th anniversary of when the series started -- and I thought, 'Just for a year, if it fits into my schedule, I'll show up and meet the fans." Oh Anderson, you are just AWESOME. Now that I'm older, I'm no longer dying to see physical manifestations of Mulder and Scully's love for each other. However, that exchange at the Comic Con panel was a HOOT. I have no doubt in my mind that Mulder and Scully should have slept with each other ages ago. But I love that David and Gillian continue to have fun with their characters even twenty years later. It never gets old. Kudos to Chris Carter for conceiving this whole universe, for sticking to his guns on hiring Gillian, and on stubbornly refusing to defuse the sexual tension until many seasons later. And doing it off-camera, too.

When the 1998 movie came out, I entered a local newspaper contest that awarded premiere tickets to the winner who wrote the best essay in answer to “Why I love “The X-files””. I won the contest and I took my sister to see it. I no longer remember what I wrote to “why I love “The X-files””. All I know is I still love it and feel it. The fans thank you, Gillian and David. And Chris. And everyone who was connected to the show. And everyone who connected to the show. It may have been twenty years but it’s hasn’t gotten old at all. And we know the truth is still out there somewhere.