Monday, August 24, 2015

Rating The X-Files

I'm having the hardest time figuring out how to rate episodes of The X-Files. I avoided rating them at first, because I'm not generally a fan of rating things. In fact, when I started this blog, I tried using a rating system, but I quickly gave it up. I find that discussing things (in this case, movies) is a lot more interesting than assigning numbers, and tastes can be so subjective anyway. Certainly, whether you like something or not is meaningful - and there are degrees to which you can like or dislike a thing - but when you start ranking things up against other things, it gets messy. "How can this and that have the same ranking, I don't like them equally!" And, "wait, what's the difference between a 6 and a 7?"

But, nevertheless, I find myself compelled to rank episodes of The X-Files, because I want to pick out the ones that are really worth watching against those that can affordably be skipped (which isn't necessarily the same thing as saying they're bad). And, to be realistic, a binary selection of "bang or pass" just isn't sufficient, because then with those on-the-fence episodes you risk either being too inclusive, or not inclusive enough. So I settled on a nice four-star rating system which I then applied to the first season (using a really neat alien emoji character I found online). Four-star episodes are the essential ones, while one-star episodes are skippable, with a two-star buffer in between, for the not great episodes that are good enough to not be immediately skippable (two stars), and the good episodes that aren't quite good enough to be worth going neck-and-neck with the episodes that mark the highlights of the series (three stars).

This system satisfied me for a little while, but having to rate the episodes in season 2 brought up an issue that's been niggling at the back of my mind. The problem with a single-scale rating system for episodes of The X-Files is that there are two very different kinds of episodes on The X-Files - mythology episodes, and monster-of-the-week episodes. And, while your opinion may vary, I feel like even mediocre mythology episodes are more essential (if not necessarily as good) as even some of the better monster-of-the-week episodes. And, after all, the main impetus for me to rate these episodes in the first place has to do with which episodes are "essential viewing" as much as which of the episodes are just really good. Which means, if you want to follow the mythology, you'll want to catch more than just the best episodes.

But, rather than just rate the "essential-ness" of the episodes from a mythology standpoint, I also want to point out which of the episodes I think are the best - which may include really good monster-of-the-week episodes, as well as indicating which among the essential mythology episodes are the best. Complicating that, I think, is the fact that a lot of my all-time favorite X-Files episodes are what I consider to be some of the most essential mythology episodes, so it becomes hard for me to separate quality from mythology importance in my mind. I thought about just splitting the mythology episodes and the monster-of-the-week episodes up and rating them separately - but rather than just rate the quality of the mythology episodes, I want to have some indication of how essential they are to the overarching mythology of the show. Plus, there are a lot of cases where the mythology episodes and the monster-of-the-week episodes overlap, especially when we take into account monster-of-the-week episodes that have incidental mythology content.

So I think that a dual-scale rating system, instead of rating mythology quality and monster-of-the-week quality independently, would have to juggle general episode quality versus the importance (or prevalence) of mythology content included in the episode (if any). I realize that there is also an official designation of which X-Files episodes in the series are canonically considered to be "mythology episodes", but as I've said, I don't want my mythology rating to be so much an "off/on" switch as a scale (even if only three point) that differentiates the major mythology episodes from the episodes that feature only incidental mythology content (and may not be official mythology episodes), and those that feature none at all. Also, there may be some mythology episodes that feel more essential than others, that is independent of the actual episode quality.

I think that maybe the key episode that was causing my previous system to fall apart was Duane Barry. As part of the Duane Barry/Ascension two-parter, and especially if you include One Breath - which is not directly connected to the previous two episodes, but finishes the story thread left open at their conclusion - it is, by all considerations, an essential episode of The X-Files. I suppose you could skip it and go straight to Ascension if you're just watching the highlights (or programming a best episodes countdown, for example), but it doesn't make a lot of sense when Ascension picks up on Duane Barry's cliffhanger. Plus, Duane Barry introduces you to this character that features prominently in Ascension, and it's an episode that features considerable (and memorable) content on the theme of alien abductions. So I do consider it to be essential viewing, and yet the quality of the episode (and the mythology content) is surpassed by the following two episodes in its story thread - which, therefore, I think deserve to have even higher ratings. But how can you have a rating higher than "essential"? So, you can see my quandary.

I think that, for the time being, and until or unless I come up with anything better in the future, I will use the following dual-scale rating system. I will retain the four-star alien head ratings, which refers solely to the overall quality of the episode, and simply add a mythology rating, denoted by this really awesome (and perfect!) cigarette symbol I found on the same site as the alien emoji. Two cigarettes denotes episodes with heavy mythology content (making them pretty much essential viewing for mythology watch-throughs). One cigarette indicates light or incidental mythology content (including monster-of-the-week episodes that feature conspiracy plots that involve, say, the Smoking Man, or feature Mulder's informant in some significant capacity, for example). No cigarettes means it's your standard issue monster-of-the-week episode.

Thus, you can go through and decide for yourself whether you want to catch only the really good episodes (regardless of mythology content), or whether you want to follow the mythology (regardless of how good the episodes are), or - what I would personally recommend - both: the mythology, and the top-notch monster-of-the-week episodes. And, if you're like me, and live for the mythology, you can average the alien and cigarette ratings, to determine whether that two-alien but two-cigarette rated episode looks more appealing than that three-alien monster-of-the-week episode without any cigs. I guess now I'll just have to see how well this system works as I make my way through season 3.

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