By Richard Preece, Rat Tail Productions
I accidentally discovered these articles during one of my long investigations of wading through X-Philes fan sites. I found Mr. Preece's point of view to be reasonable and refreshing, although I am aware that his opinions might raise the hackles of some X-Philes. It's surprising to consider that something so central to the core of the X-Files, could be criticized by some X-Philes. The Mythology episodes are another part of the mosaic that helps to enhance this show.
DISCLAIMER: Every effort was made to reach Mr. Preece before publication of this article, but to no avail. The intent of re-printing this article is to continue dialogue as well as to save it for posterity. No copyright infringement is intended, if Mr. Preece discovers the Lexicon and would like to contact us, he is more than welcome to do so.
This argument is a form of follow up to a previous rant of mine entitled 'X-Files lite rocks', while that discussion defended the more humorous episodes of the show, here I hope to defend the mythology episodes - the episodes which provide the show with its basis and arguably its most involving and interesting storylines.
Despite my high esteem of these episodes, numerous fans seem to be enormously critical of them and in this discussion I would like to respond to that criticism. Perhaps the most frequent and vitriolic of these criticisms is the argument that the mythology is full of plot holes - so much so that it appears that the writers invent it as they go along. Personally, I find that precisely the opposite is true. What constantly amazes me about the mythology episodes is not how little continuity they have but how coherent and intricate they remain even under close scrutiny.
If we go back to the last episode of Season One 'The Erlenmeyer Flask' which I consider to be the first 'true' mythology episode and examine some elements from this landmark episode we can begin to see how well ordered the mythology has been from the beginning and dismiss the critics who claimed that Chris Carter had been making up the mythology as he went along.
'The Erlenmeyer Flask' provided the perfect introduction to what would become televisions' most complicated and intriguing storyline. The episode introduced us to the idea that the government had in its possession extraterrestrial genetic material and was using it in a series of experiments in an attempt to create an alien/human hybrid. Years later the significance of this is revealed to us when we learn that the Syndicate had co-operated with extraterrestrials in attempting to create '...a population of alien hybrids who would hide in plain sight, cloned from human ova and alien bio-material, so there would be a cloned race immune to the effects of the black oil when the return to the planet began.' (The hidden track: X-Files the Movie)
Editor's note: The full transcript of that quote can be found at the Lexicon's Mythology Timeline Introduction.
The above quotation shows us that the hybridisation storyline that was introduced in 'The Erlenmeyer Flask' was still a central part of the mythology several years later. The episode also introduced the physiology of the main extraterrestrial species in the show. Dr. Secare (The hybrid in the episode) bled a toxic green fluid which later would reappear in a purer and hence more lethal form in 'Colony' and 'End Game'. He also had a far greater degree of resilience to injury than humans, being able to survive a vicious beating with truncheons before being shot with a stun gun with no apparent ill effect and later being able to evade arrest after being shot with a handgun. He also had the ability to breathe underwater, had phenomenal strength and his cancer disappeared after he was treated with the extraterrestrial genes.
The appearance of an extraterrestrial Bounty Hunter in the season two episodes 'Colony' and 'End Game' showed us that the majority of these abilities were shared by the extraterrestrial race that we were introduced to in those episodes (technically we were introduced to them in earlier episodes but it was not until season six that we learned that the greys and the shapeshifters were the same race). The Bounty Hunter of 'Colony and End Game' was impervious to bullet wounds ,although it was not until 'Talitha Cumi' that we discovered that the healing ability of the shapeshifters could be used to heal others, a fact which the Cigarette Smoking Man later linked In 'En Ami' to the microchips that were implanted into abductees necks and caused the spontaneous remission of Cancer. The Bounty Hunter was also able to fling Mulder around like a rag-doll and could apparently breathe underwater or was at least able to evade a search team after plummeting into a treacherous river. Interestingly Dr. Secare was shot in the base of the skull in 'The Erlenmeyer Flask' and in 'End Game' it was revealed that this was the aliens' one vulnerable spot.
The episodes also showed us for the first time that the Syndicate were a separate entity from the government although they infiltrated every branch of it. In earlier episodes, for instance 'Fallen Angel' and 'Little Green Men', we saw that they had influence over sections of the military, yet in 'End Game' we were shown for the first time that they were not part of a general military conspiracy as X was able to inform Mulder that a fleet had been sent to intercept and destroy the Bounty Hunter's Craft, despite the fact that we know that the Syndicate were working in collaboration with the aliens. This suggestion of a separate military agenda perhaps following 'Security Council Resolution 1013', (see 'EBE' and 'Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man') was used again in 'Tempus Fugit' and 'Max' when an extraterrestrial craft was intercepted and destroyed by a military plane.
'Colony' and 'End Game' also introduced the idea that the retrovirus present in extraterrestrial blood could be retarded by cooling. This idea was brought up again in 'Tunguska' and 'Terma' wherein we saw a form of the 'Black Cancer' which behaved markedly different from the version that we saw in 'Piper Maru' and 'Apocrypha'. Presumably this difference existed because the substance was retarded by the cold climate of Siberia and was therefore unable to mature into the conscious entity that we saw in 'Piper Maru'. The Movie also supports this theory with the form of 'Black Cancer' which we saw there being unable to develop into a new extraterrestrial entity if it was kept in cold conditions. 'The Beginning' further supported the idea that heat accelerated the gestation of the alien being.
The 'Black Cancer' itself is a perfect example of the show being criticised for lack of continuity when in reality the majority of the 'errors' were actually part of an incredibly complex storyline. The most obvious of the criticisms was that the 'Black Cancer' exhibited completely different modes of behaviour in different episodes, a fact that was viewed by many as being representative of inconsistent plotting. While both the movie, 'Colony' and 'Endgame' explain the differences between the 'Piper Maru' "Black Cancer" and the 'Tunguska' version as being due to the differences in climate, what about the differences in behaviour between the movie version and the other versions? Those who paid close attention to the movie (always a necessity with 'The X-Files' elaborate plots) realised that there was in reality no error. The movie never disputed the existence of the 'Piper Maru' alien, indeed it emphasised the fact that the Syndicate believed that it was the 'Piper Maru' form of alien that they were dealing with '...We believed the virus would simply control us, that mass infection would make us a slave race.' (Well Manicured Man: X-Files The Movie)
A similar situation existed with The X-Files Computer Game, when it was revealed that the 'Black Cancer' could be forced to evacuate its host by piercing the base of the host's neck with a 'switchpick'. Some complained that the writers were confusing the shapeshifters with the 'Black Cancer'. At the time it was believed to be only the shapeshifters who could be dispatched with a wound from a 'switchpick' to the base of the neck while it was believed that the only way to combat the 'Black Cancer' was through the use of a vaccine.
However, as hindsight has shown us these apparent plot oversights were part of a larger storyline with 'The Beginning' proving definitively that the greys evolved from the 'Black Cancer' and 'The Unnatural' showing us that the shapeshifters were merely the greys in a human form.
Crucially, this revelation that the 'switchpick' could be used to force the 'Black Cancer' to evacuate its host did not damage the integrity of the mythology by downplaying the importance of the vaccine which the Syndicate had been working on since 1973, as the use of a 'switchpick' left the host dead.
It could be suggested that the events depicted from the movie onwards were a late attempt to try and tie together the various alien species into a coherent whole, however the facts are contradictory to this theory. The X-Files Computer Game may have been released at the same time as the movie but it was in production several years beforehand. Furthermore, 'Nisei' and 'Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man' both showed a grey alien as bleeding green blood (although the events of 'Musings' were intentionally largely apocryphal) and both episodes showed the executioners wearing gasmasks, leading us to believe that we were dealing with the same substance as bled by the Bounty Hunter.
The complex nature of the plotline that I have just attempted to explain supports the argument that 'The X-Files' is without a doubt one of the most intelligent shows on television today and as such it takes a certain delight in its own convoluted and confusing nature and purposefully taxes the intellect of its audience. We can see further evidence of this in the fact that the mythology is littered with apparent discrepancies that later turn out to be crucial parts of an evolving plotline. Take for instance Bill Mulder's involvement with 'the Project'. It seemed far-fetched to say the least that Mulder stumbles upon a Global Conspiracy that had his father as one of its key protagonists. Years later, this unbelievable plot element was explained in 'Travelers' when it was revealed that Mulder began investigating The X-Files precisely because of his father's involvement.
'The X-Files' is also one of the few shows that actually plays with our perception of truth. We are very rarely given the truth on a plate as it were. Instead we are presented with numerous shadowy and nefarious characters who have their own agenda. It is a very rare moment when we know that a piece of information that we have been given is irrefutably true.
'...we often say things and learn that they're lies later on because we're dealing with so many treacherous characters and I guess I'm a sort of treacherous character in that way too - I'm constantly pulling the rug out from underneath the viewers.' (Interview with Chris Carter featured on the UK edition of The X-Files Movie videotape).
The perfect example of this is the resolution of the Samantha storyline in 'Closure', which has been widely attacked for its undermining of the mythology. Some fans argue that the revelation that Samantha perished at the age of 14 after being turned into starlight contradicted the mythology in several ways. To me this criticism was certainly unwarranted. It's the conclusion which would be reached if everything in the show was taken at face value. X Philes have been congratulated for years on their intelligence, so perhaps it's about time that they actually used their brains to unravel the mythology. Critics of the resolution of the 'Samantha arc' point to 'End Game', 'The Blessing Way' and 'Patient X' as evidence that Samantha survived beyond the age of 14. There is no reason to believe that the sequence in 'The Blessing Way' during which Mulder's father revealed Samantha was still alive was anything more than a dream and the other episodes only actually revealed was that somebody who was believed to be Samantha Mulder who was alive. We've known since 'Colony' that Samantha Mulder was cloned; we also know that the abduction of the families of the Syndicate was a vital part of their bargain with the Colonists. Therefore would it be too much to suggest that the Cigarette Smoking Man learned of the disappearance of Samantha and engineered a plot where a Clone was passed off as a real girl to both the Syndicate (See the Well Manicured Man's revelation concerning Samantha in the footage removed from the movie, when he had no reason to lie) and the Aliens?
In response to this it could be argued that the only continuity in 'The 'X-Files' is that which is brought by the viewers who desperately attempt to work around what little and often conflicting information we are given to attempt to try and construct an congruous plotline. Obviously if I believed that this was the case I would not waste my time defending the mythology of the show. It is one thing to defend the laziness of writers who expect viewers to create elaborate excuses for their mistakes and quite another to defend writers who have created an interesting and unified story but credit their audience with enough intelligence to not have to give all of the answers, to allow them to read between the lines as it were. Why do I believe 'The X-Files' belongs to the latter category? The answer is quite simply that the scenario that I have concerning the 'Samantha Clone' is not pure conjecture. Several years of back-story support the theory and although the idea is not explicitly referred to in any episode, it is certainly suggested.
Consider for instance the Cigarette Smoking Man's conversation with Scully in 'Closure', when asked why he kept the truth that Samantha Mulder was in all probability dead he replies 'There was so much to protect before. It's all gone now.' This certainly insinuates that to reveal the truth about Samantha would have damaged his Project; therefore he covered up the facts. Later in the conversation Scully asks why he let Mulder believe that Samantha was alive for years, to which he replies 'Out of kindness, Agent Scully. Allow him his ignorance. It's what gives him hope.' This reason obviously sounds hollow to our ears and purposefully so. At no point in the conversation does the Cigarette Smoking Man reveal that he knows for certain that Samantha is dead. Therefore the intriguing suggestion is made that he has in actuality been using Mulder in an attempt to find the real Samantha for many years - a suggestion which is borne out by the complex relationship that we know he has with the Mulder family.
Although it probably seems like it thus far into the argument, I am certainly not trying to argue that the mythology is perfect and that no mistakes exist. Of course some errors creep in every now and again. The problem that has irked me the most was actually one of the criticisms that I had defended the show against in the first version of this rant. After the importance of the 'switchpick' was revealed in 'Talitha Cumi' and it was suggested that this was the only way to kill the shapeshifters, some fans argued that this was in contradiction to 'End Game' when the Samantha Clone told Mulder that the Bounty Hunter could be dispatched by a gunshot to the base of the neck. In arguing this, most fans ignored 'Samantha's' exact instructions however when she informed Mulder that he needed to pierce the base of the Bounty Hunter's skull 'I'm fairly sure it'll work...he's got powers I've never seen before.' Therefore it could be suggested that 'Samantha' only knew how to kill the hybrids (which 'The Erlenmeyer Flask' revealed could be killed by a gunshot to the base of the neck) or lesser aliens without the power of the Bounty Hunters. Unfortunately 'Without' disproved this theory as a Bounty Hunter was killed without the use of a 'switchpick'. Perhaps in time this error, too, will be explained but it would be foolish to suggest that the mythology is flawless.
Rather, my point is that although errors exist there are not as many of those errors as people tend to think there are and that despite those errors, the mythology is still largely coherent and compelling. If we consider for one moment that the show has been in existence for eight years, has the most complicated ongoing plot of perhaps any television series ever and unlike other shows has no 'Series Bible' (a list of facts and events that have occurred on the show), then the coherence that the mythology actually has is quite astounding. X Philes have a reputation for both their intelligence and their attention to detail and rightfully so, but there is a fine line between close scrutiny and pedantry. I'm not for one minute advocating laziness in storytelling but let's be honest that's not what the writers of our favourite show have been doing. Occasional errors will exist in any show no matter what, but perhaps rather than criticising the show for its occasional 'slip-ups' we should instead congratulate it for maintaining an intelligent, complex and mostly coherent backstory, despite its minor flaws for the last eight years.
So far this discussion is over 2500 words long and I have barely scratched the surface of the mythology. This is intentional and shows how complicated and involving those particular episodes are. This rant is not intended to be an in-depth analysis of the mythology itself, although it is obviously necessary to venture into the subject matter in some depth. Therefore I am treating the relatively isolated aspect of the mythology that I have focused on (for those not paying attention the main alien species of the show) as representative of the entire mythology, simply because the point of this discussion is not to explore the entire mythology of the show. Therefore I have used the examination of the alien race as an example of the coherence of the show.
Although continuity and coherence are one of the major gripes that fans have with the show it is certainly not the only aspect to be considered when defending the mythology episodes. A plotline could be watertight and still fail to have any point. This certainly cannot be said of 'The X-Files', yet it is often the mythology episodes that are attacked with the greatest amount of vitriol. Why is this the case? I would argue that one of the main reasons for this is simply that our expectations are so much higher for the mythology episodes. Generally we can expect two mythology double episodes a season in addition to the start and concluding episodes of every series, and the fact is that we know that they are special episodes. Often rumours of the latest plot twists have been circulating the Internet for months in advance and they are undeniably the greatest hyped episodes. Therefore they are also the ones most likely to disappoint, simply because expectations are sky high. A mythology episode can be criticised far more than an inferior 'Monster of the Week' (MOTW) episode simply because people were not expecting anything as extraordinary from the MOTW episode, it is sadly an inevitable consequence of the mythology episodes being more high profile than their brethren.
Let's try and put this in perspective. If a MOTW episode is poor then everyone expresses their view of how abysmal the episode was and moves on. You get very few people still violently complaining about such episodes weeks or even moths later. OK, they might toss it into an argument when criticising aspects which make bad episodes but the focus will rarely be on such episodes themselves and the fact remains that MOTW episodes very rarely generate as much debate as the mythology episodes. This is partially because the mythology episodes are also the ones which tend to disrupt elements of the show which we care the most about. The effect of this can be seen by the amount of criticism on the newsgroups about events which had not even occurred at the time the complaints appeared. Remember the suggestions that giving Scully cancer would be the death of the show? Or the proposed boycott of season nine before season eight had even begun simply because Mulder would in all likelihood be absent? Or the idea that Scully having a child would turn the show into a soap opera? It is easy to criticise these responses but the truth is that the only reason people react like that is because they care about the show. Everybody has their own notion of what 'The X-Files' is and what will work.
The show is a highly personal one and one that is prepared to take risks that no other show on mainstream television would even consider. The old adage that you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time has never been more appropriate. Therefore it goes without saying that if the mythology endangers aspects of the show which people hold dear then they are going to criticise the mythology as a whole without seeing how events play out.
Another problem that the mythology faces is the criticism that it is alienating for new viewers. Unfortunately 'The X-Files' really is in a no win situation here. If it attempts to summarise the mythology as 'Two Fathers' and 'One Son' did after the movie, then it risks alienating older fans without necessarily being beneficial to newer viewers. The major problem with 'Two Fathers' and 'One Son' is that far more was promised than could ever actually be delivered. I am sure that we all remember the excitement that surrounded the episodes that promised to uncover the conspiracy and reveal the truth about the Cigarette Smoking Man. At the time the episodes were billed as the key to the mythology - the episodes that would reveal once and for all the answers to the questions that we had been asking for the past six years. What we actually got was a piece of exposition which did little more than summarise the main points of the Conspiracy for new viewers. Very little was revealed that long term fans of the show had not inferred from the previous mythology episodes. Indeed the major problem that I had with 'Two Fathers' and less so with 'One Son' was that it felt like we were being spoon-fed.
What we can accept within the confines of a fictional TV series through the use of suggestion and insinuation is rendered ridiculous when it is spelled out for us. I (and I imagine many other fans) physically cringed at the Cigarette Smoking Man's first speech in 'Two Fathers' 'It happened simply, like this. We had a perfect conspiracy with an alien race. Aliens who were coming to reclaim this planet and to destroy all human life. Our job was to secretly prepare the way for their invasion.' Now of course this had been implied for a number of years but to have it explained so brazenly not only destroys any suspension of disbelief but is also insulting to the intelligence of the long term viewers who have been trying to put the pieces of the mythology together. The irony here is apparent, we complain about being left in the dark and perhaps because we become accustomed to the perplexing nature of the mythology we also complain when we are told too much.
Furthermore, the 'Two Fathers' and 'One Son' episodes could only serve as a brief introduction to the mythology of the show; it gives new fans a certain level of understanding but certainly does not address all of the issues of the mythology from the past few years. Therefore these episodes have an uncomfortable status; they alienate the older fans by retreading old ground and alienate the new fans by only revealing a tiny part of the mythology which is still enough to confuse them. 'The X-Files' is an extremely complicated show and an introduction to its elaborate plotlines simultaneously reveals too little to allow the new viewer to understand the mythology and too much so that the new viewer is confused by an intricate plot involving extraterrestrial colonisation, a series of hybridisation experiments, the plot to create a vaccine against the extraterrestrial, the work of a group of government insiders which dates back 50 years and the rebellion by a group of faceless alien entities. If the newer viewers are unable to comprehend the mythology of the show then do these episodes have any point for anyone other than a die-hard fan of the series? I would argue that they do.
Even if newer fans are unable to fully understand the mythology (and let's face it, even those of us who have been watching from the very beginning cannot piece every aspect of the mythology together) then I would argue that they are given enough in the "Previously on the X-Files" sequences and the exposition that is contained in the episodes themselves to appreciate the mythology episodes on their own terms. I believe that a situation exists with the mythology episodes which is similar to that which the movie faced. Like the movie, the mythology episodes will be appreciated much more by those who understand what has gone before; however those who have little previous knowledge of the show will still be able to appreciate the episodes at some level. This is largely as the show has become so popular that almost everybody has a basic familiarity with it whether they have even watched an episode or not. Most people know that the show deals with two FBI agents named Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (although quite how Mulder's absence and the introduction of Doggett will affect this remains to be seen) and their search for the truth about extraterrestrial life and the government's attempts to cover up that truth. Now, I appreciate that this is a very basic description of the premise of the mythology episodes but it is hopefully enough for newcomers to be entertained by the mythology episodes without being completely and utterly bewildered.
The mythology episodes are also those which tend to contain the most drama and explore the relationships between the lead characters the most. Crucially also, have the best production values and special effects meaning that the episodes can be enjoyed on a purely superficial level. Therefore while not being able to fully appreciate the episodes, the newer viewers will hopefully not be prevented from simply being entertained by the mythology episodes and hopefully will have their interest piqued enough to attempt to delve into the earlier episodes in an attempt to understand exactly what is going on so that they can then rewatch the newer episodes with a greater appreciation. Even if this is not the case, then viewers can still be entertained without necessarily understanding the mythology.
'The X-Files' has never simply been a show about monsters or aliens; at least as important as these aspects is the interaction of the main characters. Whatever other comments can be made about the mythology episodes it is undeniable that they are the episodes which reveal the most about the characters onscreen. It would be difficult to envisage a way in which a MOTW episode could have as deep an emotional impact upon Mulder or Scully as the situations which they face routinely in the mythology episodes. This is largely because the mythology contain the issues which Mulder and Scully are most concerned with:
The abduction of Mulder's sister, his father's involvement with a consortium of men who collaborated with extraterrestrial colonists, his father's death, the death of both his and Scully's allies and friends, Scully's abduction, her barrenness, the death of her sister, the cancer her abductees gave, her the chip in her neck, the revelation that she had a daughter who later died (Emily) and Mulder's abduction as well as the fact that extraterrestrial colonisation would mean either enslavement or death for the human population. All of these events ensure that Mulder and Scully have a highly personal involvement with the mythology which is largely absent from MOTW episodes.
Whether or not we realise the significance of these events to an ongoing plotline, we realise their significance to Mulder and Scully and therefore we recognise the drama that the mythology infuses the show with. Even if we view 'The X-Files' as being simply a character drama, it is still undeniable that the mythology is important as it provides the motivations for the character's actions, influences their relationships and shows us new sides of them.
Although I am putting forward the view that the mythology is important whether or not viewers can make sense of its complex storyline, I certainly am not condemning its convoluted nature or trying to excuse it. For me, as for many other Philes, the appeal of the mythology lies not only in the drama that it provides but in the very fact that it is so elaborate and confusing. The challenge of attempting to unravel the mythology so that it can be explained and understood is an end in itself. I appreciate the fact that the writers of 'The X-Files' do not simply give us 'eye candy' and in this age where the lowest common denominator is often pandered to it is refreshing to have a show which actually encourages us to use our brains to makes sense of it. For me one of the rewards of being a fan of the show since the beginning is the appreciation that it gives me of a storyline that began eight years ago. For me at least, it is the mythology episodes which reward us the most for our time invested in the show and our effort in searching for connections throughout the years.
It is this reward for our faith and continued interest in such an enthralling television show which makes the mythology truly special for me. To be able to watch an episode and understand it on so many more levels than a casual viewer who is still able to appreciate the episode for what it offers him/her, simply because we have taken the effort to try and understand what has gone before makes 'The X-Files' a truly unique and unparalleled television series.