Revisiting The X-Files: Chris Carter’s Commitment Issues

When it came time for Chris Carter to write “The Truth,” what was then the X-Files series finale, he must have felt two competing forces in himself. He must have felt compelled to give viewers a finale that revealed the truth, one episode that laid everything out in the open, the entire byzantine architecture of the mythology he had constructed over the years. He also needed to satisfy his own desire, both creative and financial, to keep the finale open-ended in a way that allowed for future story potential. The result was a finale that spent all of its time rehashing the past, while once again opting to kick the can of the alien colonization down the road—way down the road.

I remember the media campaign for the finale promising that the episode will answer every question. The problem is that most questions about the alien conspiracy had been answered for years, namely in “Fight the Future” and “Two Fathers/One Son.” So most of Mulder’s trial in the first hour of “The Truth” is a recap of things we already knew, a clip show. Sure, these answers had never been presented all at once in a sequence of exposition scenes. But were viewers—or even fans—really craving this? Isn’t that what fan pages are for, to research all the details if you are so inclined?

We did learn a few new facts about the mythology, but they are minor details that aren’t that important, nor do they add much to the over-arcing story. For example, Scully tells us that the government learned of Colonization plans from the salvaged “data banks” of the Roswell UFO. Embarrassingly, some information revealed in the trial is simply inaccurate. Spender testifies that the Samantha clone was “part of the cloning experiment done by the conspiracy. She herself died in 1987” by the hands of Smoking Man. The Samantha clone was the product of renegade aliens, not the Syndicate. And the real Samantha disappeared without a trace in 1979, taken by God or some other mystical force, not the Smoking Man.

All of this to say, how could Carter have ended his series differently?

The problem lies in Carter’s approach to writing the mythology, which I characterize as a failure to commit. For all his strengths, one major flaw is his fear of clarity and endings. It is one thing to pepper viewers with intriguing questions and creepy doubts, but eventually there has to be clear answers and closure to some storylines. In the three worst examples, listed below, Carter failed to provide this, in part because he must have been worried that he might not be able to continue the story once he goes on record with those answers. Clarity can be intimidating because once you definitively depict a truth about a plot line or character, this becomes a millstone that you must carry forward. The problem is that when you give into this fear and avoid clarity, you undercut the dramatic impact of your stories.

In contrast, consider how Mathew Wiener of Mad Men describes his approach to writing. He says that each season when planning stories, he always “goes for broke” every season: never hold off on a good story idea for some future season, because that may never come; put it on screen now, and figure out how to top it or add to it next year.

Carter does not follow this approach, and here are three examples that prove The X-Files would have been better if he had:

Mulder and Scully’s Romance:

Their explicit flirtation was strung along from the start of Season 6 with an endless series of teases that got to be pretty annoying by Season 8. Their first kiss—and I believe it was their actual first kiss as characters—did not happen until the very end of Season 8. But even with that, we don’t see them as a couple until the very end of Season 9; and their domesticity is blink-and-you-will-miss-it subtle in the second movie.

Mr. Carter, why not go for broke and fully explore their blossoming romance? Why must it happen off screen? If you are going to put them together, why not use all the narrative tools at your disposal to fold their romance into the dramatic themes of family, faith, love and loss that you have so expertly woven into the tapestry of this show from the beginning? This could have been one of the great TV romances, and we would have known such a richer, more interesting Mulder and Scully than we saw at the end of Season 9.

If your answer is: We can’t show that level of detail about their romance because it would have changed the dynamic of the show—you would be right! Then either don’t put them together, or decide that you want to change the dynamic of the show and go for broke, make it work! But don’t try to have it both ways.

By the way, Gillian Anderson agrees with the idea that the dynamic of the show cannot be sustained with Mulder and Scully as active lovers. In a recent interview during the filming of episode 5 of the new season she said: “Part of what is enticing about the duo is the fact that they are against each other [Laughs.] at the same time they are for each other. It’s just too domestic a scenario to have it being that they live in the same house, and they go home every night to the same house while they’re doing The X-Files during the day. It leaves a much more intriguing and interesting dynamic to have us still maybe be in love and have that spark going, that question mark.”

William’s Origins:

William is the major element of the mythology that closed out the series. It was an incoherent mess from beginning to end. Despite being repeatedly told ad nausea that he is a “miracle child,” we still have no verified truth about how Scully came to be pregnant by him, or why he was so special. After two seasons of speculation, the series finally seemed to land on the explanation that William is a kind of Alien Jesus, a savior who will bring about colonization. But Carter never committed to this explanation. Forget whether or not the Alien Jesus idea is inspired or silly, it is the writer’s job—especially in sci-fi—to make us accept outlandish ideas. I could get behind William as a human-alien baby growing up to lead Colonization as both a mythic and epic story—but the writers have to sell me on it. Carter never tried. In fact, he seemed so eager to get Scully’s baby out of the picture. When William was supposedly cured of his miracle-ness and then given up for adoption in late Season 9, we were still being told that colonization will only happen because of William, and now that the aliens no longer have access to him colonization has been stopped. Yet, three episodes later in “The Truth” we are told that colonization is absolutely going to happen on December 22, 2012, and William is not mentioned at all in relation to this.

Which brings us to…

Alien Colonization of Earth:

Hey, I get If the end game of your mythology is that every human will gestate an alien in their belly and then be ripped open by said alien, and this is how the human race will go extinct and be supplanted on Earth by aliens… it is hard to actually depict this battle on screen without altering your TV show into Independence Day (Remember the gag in “Fight the Future” when Mulder is in an alley behind a bar and pees on an Independence Day poster?).

But if that is where you have set up your mythology to go, you eventually have to go there. You don’t have to have the UFOs blowing up the White House. Maybe colonization is halted, as it was by the rebels for a brief period in Season 6. Maybe Mulder has a sit down with an alien and convinces them to call it off. Or maybe the screen fades to black just before the world ends. Or maybe you do have UFOs blow up the White House. Eventually you have to decide. As a story, by stacking more and more elements and pushing the payoff further away, the mythology falls apart under its own weight, as we saw in Season 8 and 9.

Carter has recently admitted that he wrote a third X-Files film script just so he could know how the mythology plays out. He has also said that the story in that script is too big for TV, and could only be realized as a big budget blockbuster. That may never happen, even if the new season gets good ratings for FOX. The lure of a future film franchise—which must have seemed like such a sure thing after the success of “Fight the Future”—has exacerbated Carter’s commitment issues. He should have used Season 8 and 9 to end the mythology, but he assumed he would get more movies. He should have used the second movie to end it, but he assumed he would get more movies. Now that the show is being resurrected again, Carter probably should have used these 6 episodes to end the mythology, but all indications are that he hasn’t. And now he is dropping hints to 20th Century Fox that the next film script is ready for filming. I hope it happens, but I’m prepared for the reality that the X-Files may never get a proper finale.

 

For the last time… Implications for Season 10:

On the first two commitment issues, Carter has apparently landed on a firm resolution. Mulder and Scully are no longer a couple, and they are still mourning the loss of their son. While this part of their past isn’t ignored in the new episodes, it is not teased out in new directions with some tantalizing climax kicked down the road.

But with the mythology, not so much. Carter has admitted that the last episode of Season 10 is a mythology show and a big cliffhanger. Concerning, since there is no guarantee there will be a Season 11. When Anderson was asked whether Season 10 is the end of the X-Files, she said this: “From what I hear it’s a good beginning [Laughs.], which I guess in the end can be an equally good ending. You know, if the question mark is so big…”

We may be forced to agree. In the end, a question mark may not be the best way to end this series, but it will likely be the only way Carter will end it.

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