Friday, January 22, 2016

The X-Files - Writers Roundup (Part 3)

John Gilnitz

In this feature, I will place a focus on the various writers that contributed to The X-Files throughout its nine seasons. In this part, we will take a look at both the individual contributions and collective collaborations between the three writers who made up the John Gilnitz trio.

Vince Gilligan

By all accounts, Vince Gilligan was the star and the sweetheart of The X-Files' writing team. I'd be hard-pressed to pick a "best" writer, but Gilligan is a strong contender for the title (although he'd have to beat out Carter/Spotnitz and Morgan & Wong). Logging a respectable 30 total writing credits, he was the most successful writer at balancing serious episodes against the off-format comedies that became increasingly popular later in the series. Making an unceremonious entrance near the tail end of the second season, Gilligan wowed us all with the episode Pusher in season 3, before coming into his own as a force to be reckoned with in the fourth season. He was the consummate fan-turned-professional, writing in sly references to classic episodes such as Squeeze in Soft Light, and Anasazi in Pusher. He even found a way to put Mulder and Scully on a date (to much fan approval) before they ever got together!

Following the tense Unruhe and the grim (but fantastic) Paper Hearts, Gilligan detoured into comedy with Small Potatoes, no doubt following in the footsteps of Darin Morgan, who guest starred in the episode as a shape-shifting mutant. In season 5, Gilligan wrote the first full episode centered around The Lone Gunmen (Unusual Suspects), as well as another fan-favorite comedy episode, Bad Blood. He also wrote a sequel to Pusher with Tim Minear (Kitsunegari), and a hard-to-categorize psychological thriller about grasshopper pod people (Folie a Deux) that further cemented Gilligan's reputation as a shipper who understood Mulder and Scully's dependence on each other.

Likely diverting his appetite for humor into his collaborations with Shiban and Spotnitz, Gilligan's solo credits in the sixth season include a life-or-death Drive across the California desert with guest star Bryan Cranston, and Tithonus, a melancholy portrait of a man who has lost his ability to die. Season 7 saw Gilligan trying out a few experiments, with an episode cleverly depicted from the monster's perspective (Hungry), and a brilliant (if not spectacular) crossover with COPS (X-COPS). He also directed his first episode, Je Souhaite, in which Mulder encounters a genie who grants him three wishes.

With new blood injected into the series in the wake of David Duchovny's absence and Robert Patrick's arrival in the eighth season, Gilligan brought us another of his finest tales of the macabre - Roadrunners, which strands Scully in a remote village at the mercy of a messianic cult of slug-worshippers - before heading off to focus his attentions on The Lone Gunmen spin-off series. He returned in the ninth season with another whopper of a serious episode, John Doe, before closing out the series on an emotional note, with his second directorial credit, the all-too-saccharine Sunshine Days.

Credits (excluding collaborations with Shiban and/or Spotnitz):
 Season 2: Soft Light
 Season 3: Pusher
 Season 4: Unruhe, Paper Hearts, Small Potatoes
 Season 5: Unusual Suspects, Kitsunegari*, Bad Blood, Folie a Deux
 Season 6: Drive, Tithonus
 Season 7: Hungry, X-COPS, Je Souhaite
 Season 8: Roadrunners
 Season 9: John Doe, Sunshine Days

* with Tim Minear

My Ranking (from best to worst):
Paper Hearts, Pusher, Roadrunners, Unruhe, Tithonus,
John Doe, Bad Blood, Unusual Suspects, Soft Light,
Drive, Kitsunegari, Folie a Deux, Hungry,
Small Potatoes, X-COPS, Je Souhaite, Sunshine Days

John Shiban

I feel like John Shiban is the underdog of the John Gilnitz trio. He earned fewer credits than either Vince Gilligan or Frank Spotnitz, but still more than either Howard Gordon or Morgan & Wong. On the other hand, he didn't write as many truly standout episodes. But, while his credits include a few stinkers, the same could be said of most if not all of the other regular writers on the series (including no less than Chris Carter himself), and they also include a few underrated gems as well.

Shiban arrived on the scene in the third season, but didn't make a very good first impression. Prone to some pretty out-there premises, the quadriplegic who kills by astral projection in The Walk was perhaps a little too weird, and unfortunately overacted. Teso dos Bichos wasn't any better, earning a rather notorious reputation for resolving its central theme of a vengeful jaguar spirit with something even more ridiculous.

Opinions vary, but I believe Shiban's episodes in the fourth season are an improvement. I actually enjoy El Mundo Gira, which is fun in spite of having the tone of a tongue-in-cheek Mexican soap opera. Elegy is not a perfect episode, but it does a good job of toeing the line of what a typical X-Files episode should feel like, while admirably mixing in some mythology elements critical to Scully's condition at that point in the series.

With his efforts divided among the John Gilnitz collaborative episodes, Shiban's solo credits in the fifth and sixth seasons represent his best work in terms of constructing gritty conspiracy thrillers. The Pine Bluff Variant, which contains only minor supernatural elements, has almost the feel of a mob movie, and S.R. 819 carries on the tradition of doing the occasional Skinner-centric episode, with one that runs to the core of the character's central dilemma.

I imagine that in most fan's opinions, Shiban's eighth season credit, Badlaa, represents a misstep - a return to the ridiculous premises that marred his earlier episodes. But there's a courage and a dedication present that earns my respect, even in spite of the beyond-the-pale subject matter. And as far as season 9 is concerned, I consider it more of his best work. Underneath - Shiban's first directing credit - is a straightforward X-File, but stronger than Elegy, and makes competent use of the three lead characters. And, written with David Amann, Release provides a powerful sense of closure to Doggett's (and, by extension, Reyes') journey before turning the series finale back over to Mulder and Scully.

Credits (excluding collaborations with Gilligan and/or Spotnitz):
 Season 3: The Walk, Teso dos Bichos
 Season 4: El Mundo Gira, Elegy
 Season 5: The Pine Bluff Variant
 Season 6: S.R. 819
 Season 8: Badlaa
 Season 9: Underneath, Release*

* Story credit with David Amann; Teleplay by David Amann

My Ranking (from best to worst):
Release, S.R. 819, Underneath, El Mundo Gira,
The Pine Bluff Variant, Badlaa, Elegy,
The Walk, Teso dos Bichos

Frank Spotnitz

As I mentioned yesterday, Frank Spotnitz came on to the series writing the second part of Colony/End Game, before becoming Chris Carter's right hand man in developing the mythology. His other solo mythology credit is for the second part of Nisei/731, and he wrote Zero Sum in season 4 with Howard Gordon. Spotnitz' first freak-of-the-week credit, on the other hand, was for the penultimate episode of season 2, Our Town, which is a very solid episode about suburban cannibals. His next freak-of-the-week credit is for season 5's Detour, which mixes in a little humor (and suffers as a result, in my opinion), as was the style in that season.

It's not until the eighth season that Spotnitz really came into his own as a standalone writer, responsible for the fantastic episode Via Negativa, as well as the not-so-hot The Gift, which suffers from trying to force-fit an absentee Mulder into the story. But he also wrote the claustrophobic Medusa, and another penultimate episode - the sweetly nostalgic Alone, at a period when the series was finalizing the transition from Mulder and Scully over to Doggett - as well as the middle-of-the-road Daemonicus in the ninth season. Altogether, it's not a bad showing for someone whose primary role was in helping to steer the mythology.

Credits (excluding collaborations with Carter, Gilligan, and/or Shiban):
 Season 2: End Game, Our Town
 Season 3: 731
 Season 4: Zero Sum*
 Season 5: Detour
 Season 8: Via Negativa, The Gift, Medusa, Alone
 Season 9: Daemonicus

* with Howard Gordon

My Ranking (from best to worst):
731, End Game, Via Negativa, Zero Sum, Our Town
Alone, Detour, Medusa, Daemonicus, The Gift

John Gilnitz (Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz)

At last, we come to John Gilnitz! I don't know how these three came together, or what made them decide to stick together (aside from the relative success of their collaborative efforts, and perhaps the ease of dividing the usual workload three ways), but their first episode together was a sparkling success. While I wouldn't call it one of my top favorite episodes, Leonard Betts is really an all-around good episode. It has a great concept (a man made of cancer), a sense of fun which penetrates the series' most enjoyable episodes - but without going too far over the line into comedy or self-parody - and just enough good old-fashioned gross-out. Plus, it ends with one of the most heartbreaking "oh shit!" moments in all of television history.

The trio joined together once again, with assistance from Chris Carter, to expand on Leonard Betts' eleventh hour revelation, in the devastatingly funereal mythology episode Memento Mori. They carried this thread of grief over into their next joint effort, season 5's mythology two-parter Christmas Carol/Emily. Looking back, it is at this point that I remark with wonder that the John Gilnitz name ever became associated with comedy! In the second half of the fifth season, Shiban & Spotnitz (without Gilligan) collaborated on Travelers, a flashback episode that examines the genesis of The X-Files division decades before the era of "Spooky" Mulder. The pair also adapted a story by Billy Brown & Dan Angel into the second episode that explicitly confronts Scully's Catholic faith, All Souls.

John Gilnitz - in various incarnations - was very busy in the sixth season. Dreamland is when they must have dedicated themselves fully to comedy, turning what should have been a mythology two-parter about infiltrating Area 51 into an arguably humorous romp guest starring Michael McKean as a Man in Black. Without Spotnitz, Gilligan and Shiban joined forces for Monday, one of the season's highlights, as well as Three of a Kind, the second Lone Gunmen-centered episode, which was little more than a rehash of the first. They also adapted a story by Spotnitz which became the mind-bending Field Trip, surpassed in this season only by Milagro, written by Chris Carter based on a story by Shiban and Spotnitz.

Season 7 saw Gilligan and Spotnitz working together to provide closure to Carter's then-recently canceled companion series, Millennium, while the full trio got back together for one goofy episode (The Amazing Maleeni, a murder mystery involving stage magicians), and one straightforward X-File (Theef, about a mountain man using a much older magic to try and avenge a sorrowful fate). Gilnitz' last credit for the series comes at the end of season 9, following the cancellation of their spinoff series centered around The Lone Gunmen. I can't judge Jump The Shark as a coda to that series, as I haven't seen it, but I don't think it works very well as an episode of The X-Files, and the fate it has in store for its main characters is far from charitable.

 Season 4: Leonard Betts, Memento Mori*
 Season 5: Christmas Carol/Emily, Travelers†, All Souls†**
 Season 6: Dreamland/II, Monday††, Milagro†***, Three of a Kind††, Field Trip
 Season 7: Millennium†††, The Amazing Maleeni, Theef
 Season 9: Jump The Shark

* with Chris Carter
** Story by Billy Brown & Dan Angel
*** Story credit; Teleplay by Chris Carter
† Written by Shiban & Spotnitz (no Gilligan)
†† Written by Gilligan & Shiban (no Spotnitz)
††† Written by Gilligan & Spotnitz (no Shiban)
‡ Teleplay by Gilligan & Shiban; Story by Spotnitz

My Ranking (from best to worst):
Milagro, Field Trip, Memento Mori, Monday, Millennium, Leonard Betts,
Theef, Travelers, Christmas Carol/Emily, Three of a Kind,
Dreamland/II, The Amazing Maleeni, Jump The Shark, All Souls

Stay tuned for Part 4, in which we examine the cast/crew and freelancers whose scripts helped to fill out the series!

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