About 10 years has elapsed since the last time I saw an X-Files episode. While I would not say that I watched it religiously during high school, it was certainly a favorite. Who but Chris Carter was doing anything interesting on TV during the 1990s? It was somewhat amazing to me that Fox — the same network that had killed Profit and would later kill Firefly — could have such a winner on its hands and not screw it up. A. & I recently grabbed the DVDs of the first season to watch some X-Files — partly out of nostalgia and partly out of a sense of “we seem to have run out of TV series DVDs to watch”. Some comments, notes, remarks, and thoughts about the first season:1
- The Pilot. Where the fun begins, eh? It is interesting to watch this first, pilot episode after such a long break from the series. Carter & co. do such an excellent job with the set up in this first hour. We are immediately given the central premise and in such an easily digestible way that we expect a great deal of story back-fill to follow — should enough people “get” the show as to warrant continuation. We get a David Duchovny trying on Fox Mulder’s skin, making him a little geekier and a little less melancholy than the character we accept as the series develops. We get a proto-Dana Scully out of Gillian Anderson: a bit more bristle but just about the right amount of confrontational empathy. We also get the conspiracy theory hints dropped; the Cancer Man is in our introductory scene and also files away our evil little metal device… A strong start to the series.
- Deep Throat. The “in case you missed the pilot” episode… Replace Cancer Man with Deep Throat, re-inject the government conspiracy and alien abduction-slash-alien technology themes, and we’re off and running. We still have Duchovny playing a little more on the geeky elements of Mulder’s character but you can see the melancholy emerging a bit more; it is a bit of a satire unto itself but the levity seems to be necessary to keep us from taking things too seriously. At the same time, we also get a little more emotionally involved. The stakes seem higher. Perhaps it’s the well-played repetition of the alien and conspiracy themes. Perhaps it’s the weird cross-section of side characters Carter gives us as part of the back-drop. Perhaps it’s the more plausible way that Dana Scully handles her pistol.
- Squeeze. Our first “off-topic” episode. We back off from the central plots and themes, we back off from the aliens and instead toy around with bizarre murdering monster-ific mutants in (where else?) Baltimore. Duchovy and Anderson are starting to really hit their respective strides as Mulder and Scully, to really nail down their characters. A part of you wishes that the stretchy mutant villain has a tie-in with the central alien plot themes but there is another part of you that recognizes how important it is to deviate from that. We need some breadth of subject matter in addition to the depth of that central mythos; it will give the show some stamina. Plus it lets us see our Special Agents in some “more curious” scenarios. Things become a bit more unpredictable.
- Conduit. Back to the central alien theme; Duchovny nails Mulder and brings out the combination of quirk and moroseness that is this character’s hallmark. On the DVD series’ first disc, this is by far the best episode thus far. It has nuanced variations on the character archetypes that will become part of the show’s signature but more so than that, this episode has a wonderful rhythm and balance. We keep swinging nicely between the conventional and the fantastic; as if the field report narration wasn’t enough, it becomes apparent in this episode that Scully rules the narrative: bikers have crazy stories and a burned-off ear isn’t “evidence” of UFO shit but you’ll be damned if you don’t witness some creepy and not-quite-explicable shit of your own…
- The Jersey Devil. An apparently Neanderthal “wild man” comes out of the Pine Barrens to terrorize Atlantic City, NJ. It’s a bit jarring to go from “Conduit” to this episode though. “Conduit” is in the central narrative arc; “Conduit” is structurally sound and establishes Scully as our narrator; “Conduit” is emotional. “The Jersey Devil” seems to discard some of this. It’s played a bit flat. Scully-as-narrator seems almost discarded; but we do get some fair characterization with respect to Scully trying to “have a life” and a bit more Mulder’s obsessive tendencies.
- Shadows. A decent rebound off of “The Jersey Devil”; we still don’t get back to the central narrative but we do get Scully-as-narrator back in substantive effect. We don’t mind that there are no aliens because the story is strong on its own. Poltergeists versus terrorists? Hell yes.
- Ghost in the Machine. Not exactly brushing against the paranormal. Which maybe explains why our principals are involved only at the behest of some estranged colleague of Mulder’s. Narrative structure (viz. Scully) returns rather strongly here, more so than in “Shadows”. But ten or so years after this episode was produced, this one feels oddly dated. It isn’t the DOD involvement (that shit never goes out of style); it’s the modems and the huge honkin’ CRTs and the impossibly sophisticated AI apparatus. At least their AI “death” scene gives the appropriate propers to Kubrick and HAL9000.
- Ice. Core subject matter but not the core story line; all done with ice cores. I find myself missing the Scully field report here but I suppose it would not work in the overall narrative structure of this particular episode. Über-hostile ammonia breathing space worms infecting an arctic ice crew and then Mulder and Scully get on the case. Probably the best-paced episode yet; certainly the most suspenseful.
- Space. I cannot tell if this is supposed to be part of the core story line or not. The central mythos is certainly implied every time space comes up and the suggestion of extraterrestrial life comes into play. But this episode’s near disasters with the space shuttle? The space ghosts? They just feel a bit silly and tangential.
- Fallen Angels. The central mythos that whose connection to the previous episode was tenuous is back in full effect here. A downed alien space ship in Wisconsin and some government cover-up yield a suspenseful, action-driven episode. There isn’t much character exposition here but if nothing else it seems like a restorative good-faith gesture after Ep. 9. Duchovny gives us a most excellent Mulder here.
- Eve. The Litchfield experiments! The evil “Eves” (clones #7 through 10 of some defunct eugenics experiment) run amok, terrorizing their families. An average episode over all; it wears its period assumptions about genetics on its sleeve but doesn’t feel terribly dated. The strongest thing this episode has going for it is that it jerks you (the viewer) around a bit, toying with your assumptions about where the story will go.
- Fire. A psychic firebug!2 We get some great dramatic tension here; it plays out with a lot of suspense and honors the right tropes of its flame-based horror predecessors. Also, the episode has some nice exposition on Mulder and more than a few light moments, the levity of which seem very much on purpose.
- Beyond the Sea. Some great ambiguity here in the “psychic or fraud?”3 department. Excellent exposition on Scully’s character; that works well for me.
- Gender Bender. The Amish-esque Kindred are all … “gender-bending” murderers? Alien cultists? Mutants? This ambiguous episode gives no real exposition and grants no closure.
- Lazarus. Naturally, your expectations must run a bit high with such a loaded title. Some perp that Scully takes down mindswaps his way into her fallen partner at time of their concurrent deaths. There is some serious beyond the grave shit going on here and the writers have a little fun with the plot twists of putting some “mind” into someone else’s body; the bit about the soda-loving criminal mind in the diabetic cop’s body. The episode never really hits its stride though and the most we get out of it is some background info on Scully.
- Young at Heart. Some doctor finds a Fountain of Youth gene with regenerative properties by reversing some disease’s function and adding a splash of salamander genes? It makes for a weird episode. But the writers give us a little more of Mulder; there is no way that you’re not invested in his character by now.
- E.B.E. Nice to get back to the core plot after six off-topic episodes. Here we get some Iraqi pilot that shoots down a UFO and US (allegedly) recovers the body. This particular episode is probably the best-paced episode of the entire first season and strikes the perfect balance of tension, release, and levity. The focus isn’t really on Mulder and Scully though; the focus here is much more on the series’ milieu and rounding off some of the setting’s corners that we have just sort of had to deal with for seventeen episodes now. Also: the Lone Gunman are introduced (bonus!).
- Miracle Man. An X-Files take on faith healers. Good: well-played signature sense of humor. Good: adds a uniquely creepy twist to the whole idea of faith healing. Good: really drives home the ambiguity with respect to “was it real or not?”; there is a distinctly Phildickian feel to this episode. Bad: for as much as it fits the series profile, it seems a bit off its game coming hot off the heels of of “E.B.E.”. Also: we find out that Scully is was raised Catholic.
- Shapes. This makes our first werewolf/lycanthropy tropes for the X-Files series; frankly, I’m surprised it took nineteen episodes to get here. During this episode, we discover that Mulder and Scully are working the alleged “oldest” and “first” X-File; but whereas “Miracle Man” played up the ambiguity and implicit invisibility of the boy’s “power” for dramatic tension &c., this one is a bit too visible; the werewolf bit comes off campy and 50’s drive-in movie instead of high-class ambiguously real sci-fi. Also: the “Native American” bit seems to hurt rather than help here.
- Darkness Falls. When it comes to the monster-of-the-week episodes, those off-topic mysteries that Mulder and Scully work, they can be really hit-or-miss. The monster-of-the-week mystery in this episode however, is one that I particularly enjoyed and though was quite strong. Instead of playing on the old mystery/horror movie tropes, it works through some kind of semi-plausible ecological freakshow; it is well-paced, stressful, has great tension, and it very fitting for a horror-based episode. Also: was that Deadwood‘s Silas Adams?
- Tooms. We get some added closure here for the season’s third episode (“Squeeze”); but whereas that one was a bit awkward (what with the show still finding its feet), this one comes off much stronger in both acting and attitude. That said, I feel as if the writers returned us to this scene not to wrap up Tooms’ story but to give Duchovny and Anderson a chance to reinsert their characters in a way that is consistent with the eighteen episodes between these two. There is some nice on-screen additions to our understanding of the Mulder/Scully dynamic in here though. We also get introduced to Skinner, the Cancer Man is back, and we get hints at the season closure (with an “out” if it the series isn’t successful). Also: was that “Spiros” from The Wire?
- Born Again. What’s with all the beyond-the-grave shit in season one? Here we have a ghostly “revenge from beyond the grave!” mantle worn by some little girl in Buffalo, NY. It isn’t so much that this is a bad episode so much as it just is not as compelling as it could be; especially so since we know that we are nearing the season finale and it has been about four episodes since our last alien encounter. The other half of that, too, is that now that the series’ writers have found their collective voice, this episode comes off simply as “adequate”; had it been episode five, it would have been awesome. Other things that we take away from this episode: Mulder’s field-journal-as-narration does not work on the same level as Scully’s (they don’t feel right with respect to narrative and voice); it’s good to see more continuity between episodes (e.g., the cop that mentions the cousin in Baltimore that knew Mulder/Scully because of the Tooms case); but as long as we are talking about continuity — where is the mention of the X-Files closure and all that foreshadowing?
- Roland. Two “life after death” episodes in a row? One is wrapped up with reincarnation but this one is psychic power projected from a semi-dead brain flash frozen in liquid nitrogen? And sending those psychic commands to a semi-retarded twin brother? Weird and creepy and well-played; even if the plot is a little flaccid.
- The Erlenmeyer Flask. Trust no one. If “E.B.E.” was the best-paced episode of the first season, then this one is the definitive X-Files episode; whether you qualify that statement with “so far” or “of Season One” or however, there is no denying that it is incredibly strong. This is a great closing note for Season One and the major milestone for the core mythos and central storyline. This brisk episode is dramatic and tense and has a nearly perfect symmetry with the pilot episode (both visually and with respect to characters). We have closure on the season plus we get the X-Files equivalent of the moneyshot: a hands-on experience with a supposed alien fetus.
Even 15 years old, these episodes are still great. There’s some serious suspension of disbelief that needs to happen here (who but Mulder could get shot in the stomach and arrested by the military and spend time in a CDC quarantine (twice!) all in the same year?) but it’s great to let your imagination run wile right alongside the series’ writers. Sure the background music and pantsuits all come off as a bit dated but whatever; you’ve got to love this stuff.
Looking forward to Season Two.
- The intro and the reviews of the first three episodes first appeared on this site on Feb. 9, 2008; the reviews of episodes four through eight appeared here on Feb. 23, 2008. Midway through this process, I changed my mind and decided to do one big post with all of the reviews instead of breaking them. The courteous thing to do seemed to be to re-publish those reviews here. [↩]
- Is that Firefly‘s Badger? [↩]
- Serial killer Doc Cochran? [↩]
About Rob FrieselSoftware engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →
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