I don’t know about you guys, but the six-episode revival of The X-Files has let me feeling a little out of sorts. I was elated to have Mulder and Scully back and there were some definite amazing moments in the Season 10 run. But that’s the thing: I felt that only moments were amazing. Because on the whole, I felt that the season could have done with some massive, massive editing.
A few fellow X-Philes and I have been comforting ourselves by returning to some of our favorite episodes throughout the show’s initial nine year run; I thought to do the same in this feature by sharing Darren’s review of Season 3’s hilarious episode, “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” which features one of my favorite X-Files moment ever: the Mulder yelp.
In many ways The X-Files doesn’t feel like a single show with one cohesive identity. After all, television shows grow and change over time, to the point where it is hard to stick on an episode of the eighth season and insist that it is the same show that it was in the first season. However, more than that, The X-Files feels like a bunch of different voices all tied together, the work of several different creators who each have their own slightly different perspective on how the show works.
The X-Files as written by Howard Gordon is not the same as The X-Files as written by Darin Morgan. Although indebted to a few of his predecessors, The X-Files as written by Vince Gilligan is not the same as The X-Files as written by Glen Morgan and James Wong. Different writers have different strengths, and different perspectives. Watching the show, there is a sense that these are different writers filtering their own perspectives through The X-Files.
Writing at The A.V. Club, Todd VanDerWerff explained that The X-Files (and specifically Darin Morgan’s work on The X-Files) was what taught him to check the “written by” credit on a given episode of television:
“When I was an X-Files obsessed teenager, Morgan was the guy who taught me to check out who was writing which episode, just as soon as I realized that my two favorite episodes of the series so far – Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ (which I am going to write a novel about, I warn you) – were both written by him.”
One wonders how many other viewers had a similar experience watching The X-Files, given the number of unique and distinctive voices coming from the writers’ room on the massively popular television show.
Naturally, it is impossible to offer any evidence to back this up, any statistics to substantiate the claim, but it is supported by anecdotal evidence. Although Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” casts doubt on the worth of such evidence. Still, an entire generation of television fans came of age watching The X-Files, a show that spun off quite a few influential and successful film and television writers. It is perhaps optimistic, but not unreasonable, to wonder whether it may have impacted the way that some of the audience watched television.
Of course, it is nuts to suggest that The X-Files was the first show to give rise to distinctive voices on the writing staff. Looking at the “written by” credit is generally a reliable way to gauge quality, even on classic television shows. After all, one could almost feel The Sopranos percolating in the back of David Chase’s head as he wrote for The Rockford Files, particularly with episodes like Just a Coupla Guys, The Jersey Bounce and The Dog and Pony Show. However, The X-Files was pretty unique in how it actively encouraged these unique voices to make the show their own.
The early years of the twenty-first century have seen the development of what might be described as the “TV auteur” theory, the idea of the showrunner as the creative voice responsible for every detail of a successful television show:
“Much has been made in recent years of the TV show producer as a creative force on par with the great directors of cinema. The Sopranos’ David Chase, The Wire’s David Simon and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan – all of them have acquired acolytes in the media, in the viewing audience and the chattering classes. Weiner has managed to position himself as the King of the Auteurs – he’d like you to think that no syllable uttered on Mad Men, no suit, no dress, no ashtray, appears on-screen that he has not approved and deemed authentic.”
This notion has been reinforced by the tendency to talk about showrunners as singular and defining creative forces in television criticism, but also through the tendency to analyse and explore the work of showrunners in styles similar to that of cinematic auteurs. Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution comes to mind.
It is not an unproblematic view of of the art of creating television, in that it tends to diminish the contributions of other parties to the process. And the approach comes with its own potential problems, as Martin himself will concede. However, there remains an argument that this is a fairly useful critical tool, and there are certain cases where it seems reasonable to apply it. The concept is not unique to the twenty-first century. David E. Kelley’s writing staff would joke they were largely redundant; Aaron Sorkin wrote eighty-seven of the first ninety episodes of The West Wing.
In light of all of this, it is interesting to note that Chris Carter was not that kind of television producer. He undoubtedly had a great deal of vision, and The X-Files was a product of that vision, but he was not afraid to allow others to contribute their own visions. He was happy to step away from his shows for a little while, leaving them in the hands of other writers. The second season of Millennium was overseen by Glen Morgan and James Wong, The Lone Gunmen was run by Vince Gilligan, Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban.
Carter seemed to trust his writers to find their own unique voices and develop their own unique styles – demonstrating a remarkable amount of trust in his staff. Howard Gordon has talked about the atmosphere on the shows, and how Carter encouraged and developed his writers: