What the X-Files taught me about series

Hey, Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who engage in this American holiday.

I’m not really big on the holidays (as in Thanksgiving-Christmas), as some of you know, but I do enjoy the bit of time off I can take to catch up on my chillaxin’.

So I took yesterday off and basically freebased over half of Season 1 of the X-Files. I’m up to episode 15 (there are 24). It’s been years since I’ve watched the series, and though the costumes, hairstyles (and shut up, but I’m trying to bring back Mulder’s look), cars, and technology are dated (season 1 premiered in 1993), the writing and characters remain strong. Not every episode, mind you. There were some episodes that just didn’t work (like this one; sorry Chris Carter. Just. . .no.), but for the most part, it remains a strong show with episodes that still creep me out.

source (re-sized here)

Basically, if you want to write a series — any series — and keep it going for a long time, use the X-Files as a potential model. Not in terms of what actually the show is about, but rather how its infrastructure is put together.

Continue on for my ode to the X-Files. . .

That’s good writing, people. Even when it’s two decades past, the plotlines are strong, the characters still grab you, and you’re not only interested in the story, but in the subplots the characters have to deal with. Twenty years later, and the chemistry on the show between Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) still works. The dialogue is still pretty good, and the investigative techniques work within the rubric in which the writers placed them.

What I really enjoy is how the overarching themes interacted with the ongoing subplots brought by the characters (again, not all episodes worked).

One overarching theme: The Truth Is Out There (and weird stuff exists). Two, the flipside of that: The government is trying to cover it up. Three, subplots: Mulder’s obsessive need to find his sister, who he’s convinced was abducted by aliens when they were kids. That’s one of the primary things that drives him in his quest for “The Truth”. The other thing that drives him is his issue with authority. Funny, since he works for the FBI. But perhaps he feels that maybe being on the inside will allow him to uncover more than if he didn’t work in the Bureau. And, as the seasons wind on, another thing that drives him is his attachment and loyalty to Scully and probably some guilt because of all the things he’s gotten her into over the years and his volatility. Tied up with those two overarching themes are how each episode plays into it and also pushes the subplots along. Weaving all those threads together as effectively as The X-Files did over 10 years is, I think, a testament to the writing core.

Scully’s subplots include her by-the-book approach, which invariably clashes with Mulder’s, but makes the partnership work that much better. She keeps him grounded, and handles a lot of the bureaucratic BS. He pushes her to explore things outside her rigid control-freak boxes of inquiry. He’s never judgmental of her, and never assumes she can’t do something because she’s a woman and their verbal sparring and humor make some of the best moments of the series. Perhaps Mulder finds in Scully aspects of a sister he lost. He draws her out in ways she may not have expected in her life, given her wound-tight background and scientific rigidity. She deals with wondering if her father ever managed to get over the fact that he was disappointed when she decided not to use her medical degree as a doctor, but went into the FBI instead. Her father dies in season 1, so that’s some baggage she has to carry. Was he proud of her after all? Did she live up to his expectations? That’s part of why she’s so driven to be the best, to dot every i, to cross every t. The root of her perfectionist streak, I think, lies in the relationship she had with her father. And Scully can be FIERCE. She takes knocks on the head, gets bashed around, shoots at people, and gets in the faces of high-ranking officials to stand up for what she perceives is right, and to go to bat for Mulder when she thinks he deserves it.

Both characters are thus loners and misfits in different ways. Both have “complicated” relationships within their family dynamics (and things got a little freaky by seasons 7-9 with Mulder’s situation). Both are accomplished in their fields, both are also confident in their abilities without feeling the need for egotism. Which is why their chemistry is so intriguing and why it works so well. They’re similar in core ways, but different enough that they provide a nice balance to each other. This is the stuff of great investigative teams. A partnership that works like this has the potential to carry a series through as many episodes and years as the show did. And that fact that they almost never agree on anything, though it doesn’t get in the way of a great partnership, just adds fuel to the plotlines.

So, it seems to me, the ingredients of a great and long-lasting series hinges, first, on 1-2 overarching themes that will serve as a driving background force. Sometimes, in some episodes, elements of the overarching themes will really stick out (like the UFO episodes) and in others, not so much (like the episode with the serial killer Toombs).

Second, you need strong subplots that you attach to your main characters. You don’t necessarily need to hammer the subplots every episode. You can drop hints in some episodes, or really bring them out in others. You want a balance that keeps people coming back.

Third, you need effective primary and secondary characters and characters that people like. If they’re bad guy characters, make them interesting enough that people want to know what’s going to happen with them. X-Files introduced secondary characters (the “deep throat” aspect that ties into the overarching themes) that you weren’t sure whether to trust or hate or what, but that was good because they were always interesting and added information to ongoing investigations. Another thing to do is re-visit some of the creeps and freaks from older episodes. That, too, is a good technique for staying power. An audience will think, “Oh, YEAH! THAT guy! From that episode a couple seasons ago!” And add a recurring bad guy figure, to increase the anxiety levels of viewers. “Oh, HELL, no! Krycek again! WTF is UP with this guy?”

There you go. Some different kind of food for thought over T-Day. Happy reading, happy writing. And remember.


Cheers, y’all!

[NOTE: Thanks to alert reader Subbie, I have removed references to Scully’s lack of siblings (which was incorrect…DURRRRRRRRRR). Thanks for the correction!]

2 thoughts on “What the X-Files taught me about series

  1. One of my many harmless mental disorders: I can never remember which on is Scully and which one is Mulder. If you tell me right now, I will forget by the time I get to the end of the sentence. I will forget a hundred more times.

    One of the complaints a lot of people had about this show was the sense that they were not working toward a resolution of the mystery. Obviously, a mystery with no resolution is problematic. Your thoughts?

  2. Hi, Eric! Thanks for coming by. Scully is the woman. Mulder’s the dude. Here. A handy mnemonic device just for you: Mulder starts with “m” and so does “man.” 😀

    I’d argue that yes, they WERE trying to resolve something. Mulder was, at least. He wanted desperately to prove that there was alien life out there because that would lend credence to his suspicions that his sister was abducted by aliens. It would put that to rest, in a sense. If, however, he proved it definitively, then there would be no reason to continue the series as a quest for “the truth” because Mulder would already have found it.

    However, the government was working at cross-purposes, to keep the info secret, and also to keep Mulder and Scully close so they could keep an eye on them. In season 1, a gov’t official rails at one of Mulder’s contacts and demands to know why he wouldn’t let them fire him. The guy responds that this way, they can keep an eye on him. Then he quotes that line, “keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” But you don’t know whether he honestly believes Mulder’s the enemy or if he’s just saying that to bolster his reasoning to the other gov’t official.

    So that’s the crux of the theme. Keep the proof just out of reach, so Mulder’s driving force remains intact. And Scully’s, as well. I think her character gets caught up as much in trying to prove to Mulder that his crazy flights of fancy can be explained scientifically as she is in hoping some day he finds his sister, so he can lead a “normal” life. So she stays in the investigations with him not only because she kind of likes the guy, but because she wants to disprove him and thus shore up her sense of order in the world, which is predicated on her rigid approach.

    And it’s not really a mystery series in the classic sense. It was spec fic/paranormal, with a dash of Cold War-era mystery/thriller. “X-Files” had a noir flavor to it, and noir isn’t always resolved neatly. Which is why it lends itself so well to pulp fiction. You can keep a series going as long as the mystery isn’t completely solved. Sure, solve some parts of it. Like in “X-Files” season 1’s episode called “Eve,” in which the existence of a 1950s-era American eugenics program plays out in their current time (early 1990s) through 2 of the products who aren’t quite right. The mystery is solved insofar as Mulder and Scully realize that the 2 little clone girls they’re dealing with are ultimately responsible for the deaths of their respective fathers and that they’re sociopathic murderers. They link the two to the eugenics program (mystery solved there), and the 2 girls are placed in the institution where an adult clone from the same program is held. The episode ends with another one of the adult clones showing up to spring ’em. She had escaped, and that fact was brought up earlier in the episode. So we know who this newcomer is before the clone girls alert us to the fact.

    So the mystery of the murders was solved — the sociopathic clone children committed them. But like pulp fiction (and some noir), the possibility that the clone children could commit more murders is left open, since we’re not entirely sure that they get sprung from the institution. We assume they will be, but we don’t know.

    Have you ever watched those shows on SyFy like “Ghost Hunters?” They’re trying to prove the same thing, that there is paranormal activity and that it exists outside the bounds of human and scientific understanding, but that there wasn’t anything wrong with thinking that way. Do they ever prove that there’s paranormal activity? Hell, no. Not definitively. But they see, hear, and experience enough suspicious stuff that they keep going to different locales in search of more of the same, and maybe this week will be the week that they prove the existence of ghosts or demons or whatever it is they’re tracking. It’s not? But there was creepy stuff that happened? Oh, well, let’s tune in next week!

    And I think the “X-Files” functions, in many ways, like a comic book series. I don’t know if that’s what Chris Carter intended, but it seems to me that each discrete episode of the X-Files was like a comic book episode. I follow a few different comic book series. The same super-villains are recycled many times (or their evil accomplices), overarching themes remain consistent, and characters you thought were dead come back. Plus, the main characters always have some driving force that if completely solved or dealt with would then bring an end to the story. This is the nature of a comic book, and if you go in expecting that everything’s going to be tied up and resolved by the end of one issue, you will always be disappointed.

    Is what you bring up a valid criticism of “X-Files”? I suppose, depending on the approach a critique is taking. I never expected resolution, because I saw it as a comic book/pulp fiction series with para-noirish (wooo! Invented that! Paranoir!) overtones. I went into it, even in 1993, not expecting resolution. After all, it deals with paranormal and unexplained phenomena. How could that possibly be resolved/solved? It plays on the very human notion that we’re not alone, that there are other things out there that can’t be explained. And it taps into another side of that — the idea of religious belief, or “faith.” People believe in deities, but has anybody actually ever seen one? “X-Files” took that topic on, as well, which was kind of subversive, if you think about it — placing religious belief (i.e. “faith”) in a category of paranormal/unexplained. Mulder, too, had his “faith.” It just happened to be an unshakable belief in extraterrestrial phenomena. So the show also explored the nature of “belief” and the pros and cons inherent in it.

    So in ultimate answer to your question, I personally did not see that as a problem, though I will admit that after about the 7th season, it started feeling a little old and maybe when David Duchovny started backing away from the show (Seasons 8 and 9), was when they should have shut it down. Easy enough to do — just shut down the X-Files, which leaves viewers with a very realistic sense of closure, but can still leave open the possibility that the X-Files will remain in their cabinets and perhaps somebody else will be assigned to investigate. In other words, like comic books, it never completely dies, but there’s a good sense of closure with regard to Mulder and Scully’s role in them.

    And blah blah blah! Long-winded, aren’t I? Thanks again for coming by. Hope you’re well.

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