Thursday, January 21, 2016

The X-Files - Writers Roundup (Part 2)


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 the writers primarily responsible for steering the show's mythology.

Being the creator and mastermind behind The X-Files, Chris Carter was the rock around which everyone else orbited, from the pilot to the series finale (both of which Carter wrote). Firmly dedicated to his creation, having one hand in the mythology and the other in the freak-of-the-week episodes, he earned the most writing credits on the show by far - the closest contender being Frank Spotnitz, who was brought on to assist Carter in steering the mythology season in and season out. To make his contributions to the show more easy to analyze, I will therefore split this section into three groups - Chris Carter's mythology episodes, his freak-of-the-week credits, and episodes credited to the Carter/Spotnitz duo.

Chris Carter (Mythology)

I will refrain from getting into a lengthy discussion about the merits of the mythology versus the freak-of-the-week episodes here, because I've covered all of that before. Suffice to say, the mythology is the backbone of The X-Files - it is the story that the series was created to tell. And it is, by and large, Chris Carter's story. Most of his solo mythology credits can be found in the season premieres and finales, which were (for the most part) the highest stakes episodes, that revealed the most, and pushed the mythology forward.

Beginning in the first season, we can conceive of the pilot episode and its followup Deep Throat as a precursor to later two-part premieres. The first episode builds the skeleton of the series, and the second introduces us to the show's first significant side character. The next pivotal advancement occurs in the exciting series finale, The Erlenmeyer Flask, about which I've made much of elsewhere.

Handing the second season premiere off to Morgan & Wong, Chris Carter's first directorial credit comes with the straightforward but tense mythology episode Duane Barry, which kicks off the first major arc in the series' mythology, which was precipitated by actress Gillian Anderson's unexpected pregnancy. The mid-season episode Red Museum is less thrilling in comparison, but actually accomplishes a unique blend of the freak-of-the-week and mythology formats, rarely duplicated in just this sort of way. With input from David Duchovny, Colony introduces the Alien Bounty Hunter and starts a two-parter that offers the first false lead on Mulder's sister.

Duchovny also offers input on the second season finale, Anasazi, which is continued in the two-part third season premiere, The Blessing Way/Paper Clip. I lovingly refer to this three-parter as "the merchandise trilogy", and consider it the peak of the entire series' mythology. However, the next season finale/premiere pair, Talitha Cumi/Herrenvolk, is a bit underwhelming in comparison, and I consider Memento Mori to be as much John Gilnitz' as Carter's.

Gethsemane/Redux/Redux II is another seminal season-spanning three-parter, while the season 5 finale, The End, and its post-film followup, The Beginning, pale in comparison (are you seeing a pattern here?). Carter had more help than usual in the next three-parter, writing only The Sixth Extinction alone, and Amor Fati with David Duchovony, and (probably for unrelated reasons), it's not as good as those that came before it. Carter's next solo mythology credit is for Requiem, which was written as a potential series finale. When the series returned for an eighth season, Carter wrote the two part premiere, Within/Without, and the two-part finale, Essence/Existence, as well as the next and final season's double-length finale, The Truth.

Myth Credits (excluding Carter/Spotnitz):
 Season 1: Pilot, Deep Throat, The Erlenmeyer Flask
 Season 2: Duane Barry, Red Museum, Colony*, Anasazi*
 Season 3: The Blessing Way/Paper Clip, Talitha Cumi*
 Season 4: Herrenvolk, Memento Mori**, Gethsemane
 Season 5: Redux/Redux II, The End
 Season 6: The Beginning
 Season 7: The Sixth Extinction/Amor Fati***, Requiem
 Season 8: Within/Without, Essence/Existence
 Season 9: The Truth

* with story ideas from David Duchovny
** with John Gilnitz
*** with David Duchovny

My Ranking (from best to worst):
Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip, Gethsemane/Redux/Redux II,
The Erlenmeyer Flask, Pilot, Duane Barry, Colony, Memento Mori,
Deep Throat, Talitha Cumi/Herrenvolk, The Truth, Red Museum,
The Sixth Extinction/Amor Fati, The Beginning, Requiem,
The End, Essence/Existence, Within/Without

Chris Carter (Freak-of-the-Week)

Chris Carter's freak-of-the-week credits are much less straightforward to analyze. Early on, he proved to be better at telling the mythology stories (expectedly), but I'll maintain that I liked his serious episodes (even the frequently panned ones) better than the goofy and self-conscious scripts he later preferred. Of his first season credits, Fire and Darkness Falls are probably the best, while Young At Heart (which he wrote with Scott Kaufer) is also pretty good. Miracle Man (a joint effort with Howard Gordon) is iffy at best, and much has been made of the low quality of The Jersey Devil and (especially) Space, although I'll still defend them as being at least watchable.

In the second season, Carter put out less, but much better freak-of-the-week episodes. F. Emasculata (also written with Howard Gordon) is one of my all-time favorites, but Irresistible - in which you can see a kernel of the idea that would later become Carter's moderately successful companion series, Millennium - is also very good. Even The Host is enjoyable (if, like F. Emasculata, thoroughly gross), and features one of the series' all-time most memorable freaks - the Flukeman, up there with Morgan & Wong's Eugene Victor Tooms.

Carter's freak-of-the-week credits shrank in the third and fourth seasons. These episodes are not as popular, either. However, two of them - Carter's second directorial credit, The List, and Unrequited, another episode written with Howard Gordon - I personally count as two of the most underrated episodes in the series. The third, on the other hand - Syzygy - is Carter's first comedic episode, and really is pretty dreadful.

In the fifth season, Carter wowed audiences with his flashiest directorial experiment to date - the black and white Post-Modern Prometheus. Personally, I felt that it was too goofy, though. He also co-wrote Chinga with Stephen King in that season, and I must say, the comedy in that episode is the most effective Carter ever produced. He followed up Prometheus with another directorial experiment in the sixth season, the long-shot Triangle, which I again felt was too goofy, although I probably like it better than Prometheus. His other directorial experiment, How The Ghosts Stole Christmas, is better than both of those by far, however. And whatever extent to which Carter contributed to Milagro, along with two thirds of John Gilnitz, is to his credit, as that is one of my favorite episodes of the whole series.

In the seventh season, Carter dropped to new lows, with the universally abhorred Fight Club. He tried his hand at another classic freak-of-the-week episode with season 8's Patience, but, despite rising to the challenge of being the first one to write the new Doggett/Scully partnership (or perhaps because of it), it's only a mediocre episode. His last freak-of-the-week credit for the series, which he also directed - season 9's Improbable - was another wacky mess, solidifying my opinion that what he did best was write the mythology.

Freak Credits:
 Season 1: The Jersey Devil, Space, Fire, Young At Heart*,
                 Miracle Man**, Darkness Falls
 Season 2: The Host, Irresistible, F. Emasculata**
 Season 3: The List, Syzygy
 Season 4: Unrequited**
 Season 5: The Post-Modern Prometheus, Chinga***
 Season 6: Triangle, How The Ghosts Stole Christmas, Milagro
 Season 7: Fight Club
 Season 8: Patience
 Season 9: Improbable

* with Scott Kaufer
** with Howard Gordon
*** with Stephen King
† Story by John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz

My Ranking (from best to worst):
F. Emasculata, Milagro, Irresistible, How The Ghosts Stole Christmas, The List, Unrequited, The Host, Fire, Darkness Falls, Chinga, Young At Heart, The Jersey Devil, Patience, Miracle Man, Space, Triangle, Syzygy, The Post-Modern Prometheus, Improbable, Fight Club

Chris Carter & Frank Spotnitz

Frank Spotnitz came on to the show in the second season to write End Game, but his first joint credit with Chris Carter was for the third season episode Nisei (along with Howard Gordon; Spotnitz also completed that two-parter solo, writing 731 alone). From there, he became Carter's regular writing partner for the majority of the series' mid-season "sweeps week" mythology two-parters. The pair were responsible for season 3's Piper Maru/Apocrypha, which introduced the Black Oil, and which reappeared in the following season's Tunguska/Terma. Tempus Fugit/Max, which brought back a character from Howard Gordon (and writing partner Alex Gansa)'s season 1 episode Fallen Angel was theirs, as was the fifth season's Patient X/The Red and the Black, which pushed Mulder back into believer mode following the events of the hoax trilogy.

For once, Spotnitz assisted Carter on the season 6 finale, Biogenesis, and the pair were responsible for Two Fathers/One Son, which wrapped up the Syndicate mythology thread, and season 7's Sein und Zeit/Closure, which did the same for Samantha. Spotnitz earned a number of solo credits in the eighth season, but his partnership with Carter was responsible for all four episodes spanning Per Manum, This is Not Happening/Deadalive, and Three Words. The two were also responsible for the entirety of the mythology episodes in the ninth season (with input from David Duchovny, who directed, on William), except for the series finale, which was credited to Carter alone.

 Season 3: Nisei*, Piper Maru/Apocrypha
 Season 4: Tunguska/Terma, Tempus Fugit/Max
 Season 5: Patient X/The Red and the Black
 Season 6: Two Fathers/One Son, Biogenesis
 Season 7: Sein und Zeit/Closure
 Season 8: Per Manum, This is Not Happening/Deadalive, Three Words
 Season 9: Nothing Important Happened Today/II, Trust No 1,
                 Provenance/Providence, William**

* with Howard Gordon
** Story credit with David Duchovny; Teleplay by Chris Carter

My Ranking (from best to worst):
Nisei, Patient X/The Red and the Black, Piper Maru/Apocrypha, Tempus Fugit/Max, Tunguska/Terma, Two Fathers/One Son, Biogenesis, Three Words, Per Manum, Sein und Zeit/Closure, This is Not Happening/Deadalive, William, Provenance/Providence, Nothing Important Happened Today/II, Trust No 1

Stay tuned for Part 3, in which we explore the three prongs that make up John Gilnitz!

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