Saturday, January 23, 2016

The X-Files - Writers Roundup (Part 4)

Barrel Scrapers

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 cast and crew who contributed episodes, as well as the many freelancers whose scripts helped to fill out the series.

David Duchovny

There are probably a lot of fans who would take exception to me calling David Duchovny a "small fry", but strictly in terms of his writing contributions to the show, he only ever racked up a small handful of credits, and many of those were for comparatively small contributions anyway. His first four credits, in the second and third seasons, were for story ideas in three mythology episodes written by Chris Carter (all of which involve scenes with Mulder's family), and one Skinner-centric episode written by Howard Gordon - Avatar.

Duchovny's first directorial credit came in season 6, with the fan-favored The Unnatural. I personally didn't like it much, but in all honesty, I can't fault Duchovny's directing or storywriting abilities - I just didn't appreciate the more light-hearted tone of the episode, especially considering its tenuous but undeniable links to the series' mythology. The humorous tone of his second directing experiment, season 7's Hollywood A.D., similarly marred that episode, but to a lesser extent (it is a pretty funny spoof of Fight The Future).

In that same season, Duchovny earned a full-on writing credit alongside Chris Carter for the mythology episode Amor Fati, which concluded an epic three-parter with a sequence in which Mulder experiences something akin to The Last Temptation of Christ. This is actually the second example of Duchovny stretching his academic muscles, as he suggested themes from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov to spice up the conversation between the Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith in Talitha Cumi.

Duchovny's final writing credit on the show is for another episode he directed, which was written primarily by Chris Carter, with assistance also from Frank Spotnitz. The episode, William, is the series' final mythology episode prior to the series finale, and wraps up the oft-times frustrating storyline surrounding the titular character, via a compelling mystery that toys mischievously with the audience's expectations and lucid awareness of Mulder's absent presence on the show in its final season.

 Season 2: Colony*, Anasazi*
 Season 3: Avatar**, Talitha Cumi*
 Season 6: The Unnatural
 Season 7: Amor Fati***, Hollywood A.D.
 Season 9: William

* Story credit with Chris Carter; Teleplay by Chris Carter
** Story credit with Howard Gordon; Teleplay by Howard Gordon
*** with Chris Carter
† Story credit with Carter/Spotnitz; Teleplay by Chris Carter

Other Cast & Crew

Season 7 was a time for experimentation. In addition to David Duchovny's second directing effort, Gillian Anderson also had an opportunity to write and direct her own episode, all things. It is a fairly competent product, but suffers from an uncharacteristic tone. It feels more like a romantic drama, and has Scully embracing new age spirituality, much in conflict with her established character. On the other hand, the episode that William B. Davis wrote (but did not direct), En Ami, feels tailor-made for The X-Files, and is one of the highlights of the seventh season. In it, the Smoking Man constructs a plot to get closer to Scully by dangling the cure for cancer in front of her face.

On the crew front, we have two excellent and underrated episodes from the earlier seasons. Special effects guru Mat Beck is responsible for writing the penultimate episode of season 3, Wetwired, which is a fantastically paranoid thriller featuring one of X's last appearances. And the penultimate episode of season 4 was written by R.W. Goodwin, who directed the series' season premiere and finale episodes up until the production moved to L.A. Titled Demons, it addresses Mulder's memories of his sister's abduction via a murder mystery involving short-term amnesia.

 Season 3: Wetwired (Mat Beck)
 Season 4: Demons (R.W. Goodwin)
 Season 7: En Ami (William B. Davis), all things (Gillian Anderson)

Combined Ranking (from best to worst):
Anasazi, Colony, Demons, Wetwired, En Ami, Talitha Cumi, Amor Fati,
Avatar, William, Hollywood A.D., The Unnatural, all things

Small Fries

Starting in the sixth season, after the first movie and following the move to L.A., there were a few writers who came on to the show and managed to rack up more than just one or two credits, but not enough to ever join the big leagues. The most prolific of these was David Amann, who earned a respectable seven credits. For the most part, he was responsible for writing somewhat retro episodes - more or less straightforward freak-of-the-weeks at a time when the series' main writers were stretching out and experimenting with format (to more and less effective results). Terms of Endearment stars an understated Bruce Campbell caught up in a twist on the typical antichrist plot, and Agua Mala effectively conjures the atmosphere of a raging Florida hurricane from which a deadly sea creature emerges.

In season 7, Amann wrote two more solid-but-not-stellar freak-of-the-week episodes, one serving as a drug metaphor about a group of teens who learn how to move at the speed of light (Rush), and another that gives form to the green-eyed monster that is jealousy in a not-so-ideal suburban neighborhood (Chimera). Amann's only writing credit for season 8, Invocation, is a pretty good rehash of themes similar to those in Gilligan's Paper Hearts, but reoriented for Agent Doggett's son instead of Mulder's sister. In the ninth season, Amann wrote Hellbound, an episode with potential, but marred by its convoluted conclusion. However, he also wrote Release with some help from John Shiban, which revisits the subject of Doggett's son, and is one of the standout episodes of the ninth season.

The next biggest small fry is Jeffrey Bell, who earned five writing credits. He, too, arrived in the sixth season, splitting his efforts between a traditional freak-of-the-week episode (the fan-panned Alpha), and a more original romantic comedy (The Rain King), which panders shamelessly to the shipper demographic. In the seventh season, he again struck out in two separate directions, with one oddball episode about the determinism of lucky coincidences (The Goldberg Variation), and one of the better straightforward freak-of-the-week episodes of the season, about a snake-handling church in Tennessee (Signs & Wonders). Bell's last credit was for Salvage in the eighth season, which, despite some cool effects, is not one of the better episodes of the season.

Steven Maeda & Greg Walker both came onto the scene in the seventh season, for a collaboration on Brand X, a conspiracy thriller about the tobacco industry that I rate as one of the better episodes of the season. Walker went on to write two episodes in the eighth season - the not-so-great Surekill, which fumbled its clever premise, and Empedocles, a decent episode that was the first to directly address Agent Doggett's trauma regarding his son. Maeda also wrote two episodes in the eighth season - the decent but somewhat overrated Redrum (co-written with Daniel Arkin), and Vienen, which puts Mulder and Doggett together on a standalone case that features the series' final brush-in with the Black Oil. Maeda continued on to write two more solid episodes in the ninth season, ably restructuring the traditional format around the show's new leads, Doggett and Reyes. 4-D examines a creepy killer who can manipulate spacetime, and Audrey Pauley treats Reyes to a Twilight Zone-like near-death experience.

Credits (David Amann):
 Season 6: Terms of Endearment, Agua Mala
 Season 7: Rush, Chimera
 Season 8: Invocation
 Season 9: Hellbound, Release*

* with story ideas by John Shiban

Credits (Jeffrey Bell):
 Season 6: The Rain King, Alpha
 Season 7: The Goldberg Variation, Signs & Wonders
 Season 8: Salvage

Credits (Steven Maeda):
 Season 7: Brand X*
 Season 8: Redrum**, Vienen
 Season 9: 4-D, Audrey Pauley

* with Greg Walker
** with Daniel Arkin

Credits (Greg Walker):
 Season 7: Brand X*
 Season 8: Surekill, Empedocles

* with Steven Maeda

Combined Ranking (from best to worst):
Release, Signs & Wonders, 4-D, Brand X, Empedocles,
Audrey Pauley, Vienen, Invocation, Terms of Endearment,
Agua Mala, Rush, Hellbound, Alpha, Redrum, Chimera,
Surekill, Salvage, The Rain King, The Goldberg Variation


Finally, we come down to the various names that litter the series, none of which earned more than one or two credits. It would be tempting to write these individuals off as insignificant next to the contributions of the bigwigs, but you might be surprised by what you find - especially considering how I feel about the direction the series took in its later years. Sometimes it seemed to me that while the veteran writers were busy twisting around the format that they had become bored with (to greater and lesser results), it took the newbie writers who were just passing through to remember the formula that made the show a success in the first place, and keep it (just barely, at times) from completely losing sight of its roots. Regardless, these are the people who padded out the series, giving Mulder and Scully (and later Doggett and Reyes) new and weird cases to investigate week after week, from the first season to the last.

Two-fers: In the category of those who earned not just one, but two writing credits, we have nine names (technically ten, but two of them worked together). Chris Ruppenthal wrote a very decent episode in the first season (Roland), followed by one of the most-panned episodes in the entire series (in spite of Morgan & Wong's contributions to the script), season 2's 3. (As we'll see, this pattern of one good episode and one bad will be fairly common). Paul Brown wrote the fantastic mythology episode Ascension, followed by the very forgettable Excelsis Dei, both in the second season. Also in that season, Sara B. Cooper wrote one episode I didn't like all that much (Aubrey), and one that was considerably better (The Calusari, which leads to a Romanian exorcism).

Moving into the third season, Jeffrey Vlaming pumped out two good scripts - 2Shy (featuring a fat-sucking vampire), and Hell Money (one of the better "ethnic" episodes, featuring a Chinatown organ auction). In the same season, Kim Newton gave us our first exploration of Scully's faith (for better or worse) in Revelations, and the fantastic Quagmire (which was probably helped along by Darin Morgan's uncredited contributions). In the fifth season, Tim Minear joined forces with Vince Gilligan to write Kitsunegari, a fairly decent sequel to Pusher, and then by himself wrote Mind's Eye, a captivating episode in its own right.

Still in the fifth season, sci-fi authors William Gibson & Tom Maddox gave us the thrilling cyberpunk episode Kill Switch, although their followup episode in season 7, First Person Shooter, was a notorious disappointment. Daniel Arkin provided us with Arcadia in the lighthearted season 6, in which Mulder and Scully go undercover as a married couple. He then worked with Steven Maeda to bring us season 8's Redrum, which I've mentioned above. Finally, in the ninth season, Thomas Schnauz - who had written for The Lone Gunmen spinoff series - gave us the head-shakingly ridiculous Lord of the Flies, and the slightly less odious Scary Monsters (in spite of its bad special effects).

Credits (Two-fers):
 Season 1: Roland (Chris Ruppenthal)
 Season 2: Ascension (Paul Brown), 3 (Chris Ruppenthal*), Excelsis Dei (Paul Brown),
                 Aubrey (Sara B. Cooper), The Calusari (Sara B. Cooper)
 Season 3: 2Shy (Jeffrey Vlaming), Revelations (Kim Newton),
                 Hell Money (Jeffrey Vlaming), Quagmire (Kim Newton)
 Season 5: Kitsunegari (Tim Minear**), Kill Switch (Gibson & Maddox),
                 Mind's Eye (Tim Minear)
 Season 6: Arcadia (Daniel Arkin)
 Season 7: First Person Shooter (Gibson & Maddox)
 Season 8: Redrum (Daniel Arkin***)
 Season 9: Lord of the Flies (Thomas Schnauz), Scary Monsters (Thomas Schnauz)

* with Glen Morgan & James Wong
** with Vince Gilligan
*** with Steven Maeda

My Ranking (from best to worst):
Ascension, Quagmire, Kill Switch, Hell Money, Mind's Eye, Kitsunegari,
Roland, 2Shy, The Calusari, Redrum, Revelations, 3, Arcadia,
Scary Monsters, Excelsis Dei, Aubrey, First Person Shooter, Lord of the Flies

One-offs: We're really scraping the bottom of the barrel now! And quite a few of the following episodes were written by team pairs, splitting the work of one episode across two people. But surprisingly few of them I'd rate among the all-time worst episodes in the series. At least for me, a truly bad episode of The X-Files is not simply one that adheres too strictly to formula, but one that tries to innovate too much, and ends up being something entirely other than The X-Files - and the big-name writers were mostly responsible for those (Chris Carter among them).

Our largest collection of one-offs comes not surprisingly in the first season. Chris Brancato and Kenneth Biller are responsible for what is likely the best one - Eve, about twin girls involved in genetic experimentation. Young At Heart, which revisits Mulder's first case with the FBI, is also decent, written by Scott Kaufer with Chris Carter. Gender Bender, written by Paul and Larry Barber (I have no idea if they're related) doesn't quite come together in the end, but features a creepy atmosphere, as well as Nicholas Lea's first appearance on the show, before he was cast as Alex Krycek. Meanwhile, Marilyn Osborn's Shapes struggles to put a new spin on the werewolf legend, using Native American lore.

In the second season, Steve De Jarnatt wrote Fearful Symmetry, about alien abductions of animals at a zoo. Fans often criticize it, but I thought it was pretty good. Charles Grant Craig's Oubliette in season 3, on the other hand, gets generally favorable reviews, but I really didn't like it. Season 4's one-offs include the gross-out episode Sanguinarium, written by Valerie & Vivian Mayhew, which ties witchcraft to modern medicine, and the time travel paradox of Synchrony, written by David Greenwalt (who worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff series Angel) with Howard Gordon.

For season 5, Jessica Scott & Mike Wollaeger wrote Schizogeny, another one of those straightforward freak-of-the-weeks (about killer trees) that I seem to have liked better than most. Then there's Chinga, about a living doll, which was famously co-written by Stephen King with Chris Carter, but is mediocre in spite of that fact. Billy Brown & Dan Angel came up with the story for All Souls, the second episode focusing on Scully's dedication to the Catholic faith, which was then written up by John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz. In season 6, Jim Guttridge & Ken Hawryliw wrote Trevor, a solid episode about a man who can walk through walls. And Chip Johannessen, who was displaced following the cancellation of Millennium, wrote Orison, a sequel to Irresistible featuring death fetishist Donnie Pfaster, in season 7.

Credits (One-offs):
 Season 1: Eve (Chris Brancato, Kenneth Biller), Gender Bender (Paul & Larry Barber),
                 Young At Heart (Scott Kaufer*), Shapes (Marilyn Osborn)
 Season 2: Fearful Symmetry (Steve De Jarnatt)
 Season 3: Oubliette (Charles Grant Craig)
 Season 4: Sanguinarium (Valerie & Vivian Mayhew), Synchrony (David Greenwalt**)
 Season 5: Schizogeny (Jessica Scott & Mike Wollaeger), Chinga (Stephen King*),
                 All Souls (Billy Brown & Dan Angel***)
 Season 6: Trevor (Jim Guttridge & Ken Hawryliw)
 Season 7: Orison (Chip Johannessen)

* with Chris Carter
** with Howard Gordon
*** Story credit; Teleplay by John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz

My Ranking (from best to worst):
Synchrony, Eve, Orison, Young At Heart, Trevor, Schizogeny, Gender Bender,
Fearful Symmetry, Chinga, Sanguinarium, Shapes, All Souls, Oubliette

Thanks for tuning in!

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