Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What's in an X-File?

I had an epiphany recently while watching The X-Files - the kind that makes you feel stupid for not realizing it sooner.

To preface, I haven't had a whole lot of interaction with other X-Philes, but from reading reviews and comments here and there, it seems to me that there are basically three kinds of fans - the shippers, the conspiracy nuts, and the freakazoids.

The shippers' favorite episodes are those that feature any kind of intimacy (usually vague, and sometimes mildly inappropriate, given their professional relationship) between Mulder and Scully. Personally, I like Mulder and Scully as a pair, but I'm not invested in them "getting together". I think their partnership is sweet and admirable, and they are inseparable to a considerable extent, but frankly I think they make more convincing friends than lovers. Close friends, but friends nonetheless. I mean - I don't know if this makes any sense (but then again, maybe it's not so far-fetched) - but it's like, I can see them being soulmates, but not necessarily romantic partners. Their partnership transcends that kind of superficial, physically-oriented love.

As for the other two types of fans, the conspiracy nuts prefer the mythology episodes, and the freakazoids prefer the monster-of-the-week (also referred to as freak-of-the-week) episodes. By now, you should know which of the two I am. Heck, even my favorite non-mythology episodes are frequently ones that involve mythology elements (alien abductions, government conspiracy), or include mythology characters (Skinner, the Smoking Man, X). The way I see it, Chris Carter created a series - called The X-Files - in order to tell a story about government coverup of extraterrestrial contact. As such, the mythology episodes are the show's raison d'etre, and the monster-of-the-week episodes are merely filler.

But then I asked myself, what is an "X-File"? In the show, "The X-Files" is a project initiated by Mulder within the FBI, to investigate strange and unusual, unsolved and unexplained cases (we'll find out later in the series why these cases are filed under 'X' rather than 'U'). Each one of these cases is referred to as "an X-File". And what do Mulder and Scully do during those monster-of-the-week episodes? To an even greater extent than in the mythology episodes (which sometimes aren't even predicated upon the investigation of an X-File), they investigate X-Files! So it seems to me that, taken as an episodic television series, The X-Files could be considered to be all about the monster-of-the-week episodes.

Wow, right? (Or, alternatively, duh). This doesn't change my opinion of the mythology episodes versus the monster-of-the-week episodes, and I still get peeved when X-Philes say they're not a fan of the mythology episodes (at the very least, leave reviewing the mythology episodes to the mythology fans - I can't believe that there's not enough of them out there). But it does give me a newfound perspective on the relevant importance of the monster-of-the-week episodes, and the mindset of those who prefer them.


  1. That's very interesting, especially the stuff about the different types of fans. I can't help but to wonder if the way the mythology ENDS (which I can only assume is convoluted and weak, as opposed to the very strong mythology in the first several seasons) probably is what makes a lot of people favor the monster eps.

    As an armchair TV aficionado, I tend to see the show's of-the-week format as a relic of the times. Granted, there are some episodic TV shows these days that are hugely popular (NCIS, Criminal Minds, whatever kind of law/cop/detective shows are out there). But X-Files was, and is, considered one of the best shows of its era; one on the higher tier. If it was a new show today it would be on HBO or Netflix or AMC, maybe FX or TNT, but definitely not Fox or the other networks. The artisan shows today tell cohesive stories over 8-to-15 episode seasons, they don't do the episodic filler that was essential back in the era of 22+ episode network seasons. So I honestly wonder if the monster-of-the-week episodes would even exist if the X-Files were a new show today!

    Funnily enough, I think (at least some of) the new X-Files episodes will BE Monster of the Week episodes... but that's not comparable to the X-Files being a new show coming out today. It's a legacy show and the freak-a-week eps are the most popular so it'd make sense if they chose to revive that aspect even in today's different TV climate.

  2. Absolutely.

    I'm not a TV historian or anything, and my perspective may be biased by my appreciation for the show, but I think that The X-Files (and its popularity) was one of the shows that really made the serial storytelling format popular. That being said, it's also an artifact of its time, so it's bound to have a lot of episodic content.

    I was thinking about that in relation to The Walking Dead, for example, which is a highly serial drama. In all shows - and especially anime where the concept of "filler" becomes significant - I've nearly always found the episodes where "things of consequence" happen to be far more engaging and entertaining than when everything has to return back to the status quo by the end of the episode.

    That having been said, there's something to be said for a show that creates a good framing concept, within which interesting /isolated/ stories can be told. But as I said, I was thinking about it, and then I realized that there are episodes on The Walking Dead, sometimes, that can be considered sort of "one offs", if not strictly episodic. But in that case, since we're talking about such a high caliber show, it doesn't feel like "filler" so much as experimentation (especially with some of these later episodes).

    Interestingly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a heavily episodic series, (with very literal monster-of-the-week episodes), although, like The X-Files, it had recurring elements (especially related to each season's Big Bad) that would be frequently built upon within the monster-of-the-week episodes, instead of having such a stylistic split between the two, like the X-Files does. But the interesting thing is that as the show evolved through its seasons, it became more serial and less episodic, until in its final season it pretty much ditched the monster-of-the-week format and became strictly serial. I thought that was exciting.

  3. Interesting that you bring up anime 'cause I do remember a lot of arguments on, um, Anime Nation about what eps of any particular show are or aren't filler, hah. And that makes me think of Evangelion and while all the episodes at least have SIDE content of significance (even Jet Alone, I think that's the ep that Kaji hands Adam over to Gendo, plus it's the first time we're told that there IS in fact a conspiracy going on), some of the episodes that are primarily inconsequential, like when the power is out and Asuka-Shinji-Rei go on a little teambuilding adventure, these more lighthearted episodes are some of the most enjoyable because it's a break from the crushing weight of the main story. So I guess filler CAN be used for legitimate purposes at times, even though I may tout myself as being so anti-episodic.

  4. Definitely agree about the Eva filler. I always loved the synchronization episode. I think there was a pic of Shinji and Asuka brushing their teeth side-by-side on the back of the box that gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling. You get to like these characters, and so much shit happens to them in the series, it's nice to see them get to be almost normal, even just for a little bit. Probably why the "alternate reality" at the end is so satisfying.

    On the other hand, I think the quintessential example of bad filler for me is the episode of Dragon Ball Z when Bulma goes hunting for a dragon ball on Namek, and runs into Vegeta at the end. Lol. Naruto is a series that has a ton of bad filler, but then, that tends to be a problem with a lot of these long-running shows. Especially the popular ones.