When it’s on: Sunday, 6 May (10.45 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
A couple of years ago, I landed the Complete Collector’s Edition of The X Files as a Christmas present. 61 discs, nine series plus one movie – the box listed the number of viewing hours that were locked therein, and it was a bewilderingly high figure. What a treat, but all that time later and I’m stuck somewhere in the middle of the third season. Every now and then, I return to it, try to remember where I left off and carry on from there, yet it never lasts beyond a disc or two before the case is left on the shelf once more to gather dust.
Why? It isn’t as though I don’t like the show; even on a lowest common denominator basis, the frequent sight of Gillian Anderson looking ravishing and terrified is just about enough to sustain me. The issue, I think, is repetition. Perhaps this was less obvious in the decade when The X Files could be consumed in weekly chunks, but on box-set the show’s signature narrative repeats itself in an almost ridiculous loop – something happens and Mulder (David Duchovny) comes up with a bizarre, ‘science fiction’ reason for it that his FBI partner, Scully (Anderson) refuses to believe. He turns out to be absolutely right, yet by the next case Scully has reset her personality to that of the earthbound cynic, ready to have her beliefs challenged all over again.
Of course, the biggest joy of The X Files back in its original heyday was its impact on the early internet, upon which it became a big talking point and via which the concept of discussion groups across the globe found an early expression. This is taken utterly for granted these days, but it was really something back in the mid-nineties, where every clue and plot development (both of which came in an interminably slow drip) was chewed over endlessly by the fans and helped secure the show a hardcore following. It tapped successfully into the decade’s conspiracy theories and fears that those in power aren’t telling us about many of the bad and weird things happening in the world. Amongst these, the thoughts and research relating to Area 51, the Roswell incident, and so on, fuelled popular imagination and remained the thesis of The X Files throughout its run. Mulder and Scully became the two sides of all our personalities – we want to believe in UFOs, alien abductions, etc, but we need to see it first.
The show’s popularity led to The X Files Movie, which slotted in between the fifth and sixth seasons. Its bigger budget and wider palette let the crew open the story on a much larger scale, with the intention that long-term fans would be rewarded and newcomers sucked in to the X-verse. The use of the same cast and crew ensured continuity with the show – the film is, in reality, an extended episode, only with higher production values and millions of dollars behind it.
It was a big hit, yet it remains a frustrating watch because it promised answers to all those questions posed in the show and didn’t deliver. The sight of extra terrestrials held in storage had already been done in the series. The chilling concept of select men at the highest points in the power chain discussing secrets was nothing new. Incredibly, everyone seems to know that Mulder poses a threat to said secrets remaining clandestine, but they don’t do enough to stop him. Considering the billions the film shows being spent on researching aliens by shady government departments, rubbing out a ‘problem’ like Mulder ought to be one of their first bits of business, yet their efforts to eliminate him are half-hearted at best and, once this becomes clear, the tension falls through the floor because despite being placed in perilous situations often enough, he’s obviously never going to come to any real harm.
This might be a nit-picking point, but supporting characters are dropped randomly and often throughout the film, hinting at the world of the X Files being a dangerous, life-threatening place. The over-arching mainstays from the series – Mulder, Scully, their FBI boss Skinner and the baddie, known as the Cigarette Smoking Man because he, er, smokes cigarettes (and ain’t it a sign of the times that someone can be identified as a villain through his never-ending supplies of Marlboro Red*?) – are constant, which ultimately makes the film a bit of a cop-out that takes no real risks.
The X Files: **
*I thought I’d check that point about the Cigarette Smoking Man and his preferred brand. What I didn’t realise was that he’s not providing product placement for Marlboro, but in fact chugs on Morleys, a fictional brand made up for the movies and they’ve appeared in many films and TV shows – the Morley Wiki page tells us just how often these fags have popped up on the screen.