Sunday, July 27, 2008

"What is the point of all this? To destroy a man who seeks the truth or to destroy the truth so no man can seek it?": The X-Files series finale

If you ask me to name my favorite television show of all time I will, without reservation, tell you
The X-Files. It's become a somewhat rote reply to one of those questions you get asked so many times that you stop thinking about the answer. In fact, I gave this answer even though (before this weekend) I hadn't even seen the final season or even the series finale of the very show I proclaimed to love so much. However, the answer was always a safe one to give. Everyone has heard of the show, so there's no need explaining yourself or sounding like some kind of crazy person defending a show that had no audience. The show had critical acclaim and quite a large following for what would probably only be a more minor cult hit today. I mean, it was a sci-fi show that actually won Emmys! Crazy, right?

As all of my X-Files DVD sets sat languishing unopened on my shelf this summer while I revisited early seasons of Veronica Mars and Alias and started watching Angel from the beginning instead of catching up on my "favorite" show in time for the new movie to open, I decided I needed to figure it out once and for all: is this really my favorite show of all time, or am I just so boring that I never think to change my answer when asked?

When Todd reminded us of the blog-a-thon I knew the only way to truly come to a decision was to finally break down and watch season 9 from beginning to end. Although I had seen every episode from seasons 1-7 and scattered episodes from season 8, having become so disillusioned with the direction of the show and the phasing out of Mulder's character I couldn't even bring myself to watch a single episode of season 9. As I cracked the plastic on my brand new DVD set and started watching, I immediately wanted to do something, ANYTHING, else. (Let's put it this way: to avoid continuing my marathon, I watched all 7 episodes of Swingtown I had wasting away on my Tivo. In a row. And I liked them.) There are so many reasons season 9 doesn't work, but I'm not going to go into all of them here lest I bore all of you and myself in the process. (For a great analysis of at least the first part of the season, check out this entry by blogger Martha Smith.) In short, I was bored almost exclusively throughout the season until Mulder shows up in the finale.

The crux of the problem with continuing the show without David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as the main centerpieces of the action is, as everyone knows, that the reason the show always worked as well as it did and survived the impenetrable mythology throughout the years was the relationship between Mulder and Scully and the energy they brought to the screen together as a team. Fortunately, although the finale is almost nothing more than a box episode with the sole purpose of attempting to wrap up the show's crazy mytharc with a little, flimsy bow, the relationship between Mulder and Scully grounds the exercise and makes it palatable, if not necessarily believable.

The "box" portion of the episode takes up almost an entire hour and is a virtual This is Your Life for Mulder, with almost everyone who has ever been involved in the various alien conspiracies on the show turning up at some point or another to either testify at his trial (for killing a super soldier who technically cannot be killed, and don't even ask about the super soldier project because it makes no sense and in the end is never resolved). Even the people who don't turn up to testify (because they are dead) are seen via several very convenient visions by Mulder that are never explained. Yes, Mulder sees dead people. Specifically, dead Krycek, dead Lone Gunmen, and dead Mr. X. Why Mulder sees these visions is never explained, but it sure was nice to see Krycek. I love that bastard.

After Mulder is inevitably convicted and sentenced to death, Skinner, Scully, Dogget and Reyes break him out of his military holding facility and they go on the run in search of the wise old man that holds the truth, who is of course the Cigarette Smoking Man. Who is supposed to be dead. He tells of a vague prophecy where the world will end by alien hands on December 22, 2012, all while smoking out of a tracheotomy hole in his throat, which is pretty hard core. In the end, the super soldier project people kill him but Mulder and Scully escape, and the show ends with them together and on the run, holding onto each other for dear life.

Series finales are always tricky business because every viewer comes in with different expectations, so some are bound to be disappointed. Just look at the negative fervor the finale of The Sopranos caused (an ending I loved, by the way) and the positive tongue bath the ending of Six Feet Under received (an ending which I loathed). Having nothing but nostalgia working for me while watching, I didn't have specific expectations. I will say it was nice to have them attempt to line up and explain the mythology of the show into something resembling a linear arc, but remembering what they did and didn't decide to include in the mix still let me know the entire thing was always sort of a house of cards, waiting to fall at the mere sign of a breeze. It was a successful finale, but not an outstanding one. Now, having watched the finale and the 18 episodes that preceded it, I have to ask myself the big question. The next time someone asks me about my favorite show of all time, will my answer change?

To answer that definitively, I first need to analyze why I ever gave the answer to begin with, and it's this: The X-Files was totally my first. The first show I ever obsessed over. The first show that I made sure I was home to watch every week. The first show I started taping with my VCR when I knew I wouldn't be home. The first show I discussed and analyzed with my friends who were fans. The first show where I felt any notion of "shipping," however gag-worthy that may seem now. The first (and only) show I ever wrote a major paper about in graduate school. In short, it's the show that made my love for TV move from the realm of "enjoyable way to spend a few hours being lazy" to an exercise that I felt I could make a significant portion of my life. Just because didn't end up the same quality level as when it started, is that any reason to discount the impact it had on my life and shove it over for one of my other TV loves, like Freaks and Geeks, Veronica Mars or The Wire?

And the answer, as short and sweet as it may be, is no. Although I can quote more lines from Veronica Mars, or track the story throughout the seasons better on The Wire, or feel more emotion when I watch Freaks and Geeks, I can't give up the space in my heart that The X-Files has carved out. It's sort of like why The Princess Bride is still my favorite movie: no matter what else comes along, you never forget the one that changed you. I'm just glad the one that changed me was this one and not, say, Dawson's Creek. Because as much as I love Pacey, The X-Files is a far more acceptable answer to that age old question: "What is your favorite television show of all time?"


Michael said...

Like you, I was a huge fan of this show back in the the point I participated in a group of fans who met at a local bookstore to discuss the show. I endured all of season nine of the show, week by week, each week wondering why I did. I recall thinking how cruel the show was to Scully in the last year when there was the episode she thought she'd see Mulder but since the audience knew that DD wasn't coming back, it seemed like a cruel, emotional tease. Don't get me started on the fact that it's so dangerous that Mulder has to go into hiding, but Scully keeps living in the same place she has always lived, where it's apparently for any crazy person on the Eastern seaboard to find her.

And then, there was the whole undercurrent of Reyes and Doggett being hot for each other. Or more like Reyes is hot for Doggett who is hot for Scully who is missing Mulder who is hot for his porn collection. Was there something in the water?

It's easy to be tainted on the whole X-Files experience because of the bad taste it left in your mouth that was season nine. Which is why I recommend that you dust off seasons one through three and recall a show that was the little show that could, before its creators were too convinced of their own genius for their own good.

Ali said...

I was reading the last two paragraphs of your post and it's like if I had written them myself. That's exactly how I feel about this show, and the reason I keep considering it my favourite show ever, even if the last two season were so disappointing.