Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Saturday Review: X-Files, Season 1

First of all, to those of you asking why I'm "reviewing" a series that is now 20 years old (yes, you read that right) here's the thing: I had money last year, and like any good American, I splurged some. Including buying the complete series of the X-Files. (Amazon had it on sale, okay, so don't judge me.) As I started to watch it I was curious to see whether it would hold up, being 20 years old, or whether it would, like many cherished things from my childhood, fall flat. And by "childhood" I mean college years, because let's face it, most of us aren't really adults those first few years in college. And by "fall flat," I mean turn out to be much, much more horrible than I ever realized it was, like Flash Gordon, which, let's face it, could not be saved even by the combined powers of Queen, Brian Blessed, and a future James Bond.

The X-Files did not have a catchy theme tune by a popular, possibly even god-like, rock band. If it features a role starring a future James Bond, it was not in Season 1. And nowhere did anyone even begin to approach the levels of scenery consumption that Brian Blessed achieves solely by walking on set. It was, however, just as good as I remembered it being.

Some things do not hold up, of course. It was a product of the 90s, and the first on-screen appearance by a boxy-nosed car was a little jarring, mostly because I associate those with a much earlier and more primitive era. (The 80s.) In certain respects you have to regard the X-Files as something of a period piece, harkening back to a time when women still wore shoulder pads to rival NFL linebackers and you could use a portable phone to bludgeon someone to death. Any scene featuring a computer is almost comedic.

There are also certain actors whose immediate presence automatically screams early 90s - such as Amanda Pays, who I had a huge crush on ever since her roles in The Flash and Max Headroom, both of which I would also buy if Amazon put them sufficiently on sale because I am weak like that, as well as some who are still around, like Mark Sheppard of BSG and Supernatural fame. (Who has also freakishly not aged in the intervening 20 years. Made me wonder whether his role as Crowley is really an act.)

That said, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that everything I loved about the early years of the X-Files still held up. Although there is a distinct low-budget quality to the first half of Season 1, probably due to concerns about whether the series would survive past mid-season, it's clear that Fox knew they had a hit on their hands and started shoveling more money toward the show in the second half. Starting with the death of Scully's father, there's a decided upswing in the effects and the locations that is rather noticeable. Yet this change in resources doesn't mean that the first half of the season is, from a story standpoint, weaker than the first. Indeed, the first half of Season 1 features one of the more memorable villains from X-Files lore.

I was also surprised to see that many episodes I thought were in the first season are, instead, in the second season, with the exception of one of my all-time favorite episodes, "Darkness Falls," which still managed to creep me out some. Indeed, many of what would become staples of the later seasons were conspicuously absent here: there is no black oil, Skinner is only introduced late in the season, and the Cigarette Smoking Man is less adversary and more just nameless face of the conspiracy.

There is obvious chemistry between Mulder and Scully from the start, and it was interesting to watch as their roles of believer and skeptic solidified some. I can see why I kept watching the show, and why I still maintain that the show was often strongest when it wasn't dealing with its core mythos of aliens and UFOs and abductions. Most of the stand-out episodes of the first season are the ones that have nothing at all to do with extra-terrestrials.

That said, the first season did manage to set the stage for things to come. The conspiracy hinted at in the first episode was slowly expanded on, and a sense of menace imbued to the key players.  There is the appearance of the "establishment" trying to shut down the X-Files (which of course they manage to do by the end of the season, as would happen a couple of times throughout the series run).  There were the supporting players like the Lone Gunmen, who remind the audience that as far out there as Fox Mulder might seem, he wasn't the craziest one out there.

There were also things that, if memory serves, got lost a little bit in later seasons. Certainly when aliens became more the focus there was less "weirdness of the week," but almost all long-running shows with similar themes have to eventually outgrow that if they are to survive (see Supernatural, for instance). And I think there was less made of the fact that Fox was, in fact, quite the brilliant agent at the FBI who chose to dedicate his career to weirdness, and as such respected for his talents if mocked for his beliefs.

All in all, I enjoyed re-watching the first season, and am looking forward to watching Season 2 now, which has some more of the episodes and themes I more clearly remember (like the one with the submarine and the fluke man). Although parts of Season 1 did feel dated, I did mange to recapture the things that got me hooked on the X-Files way back in my freshman year of college, and that alone was worth the cost.