THE X FILES: BLACK OIL - FOUR-DISC MYTHOLOGY COLLECTION (1995-1997)
"Nisei," "731," "Piper Maru," "Apocrypha," "Talitha Cumi," "Herrenvolk," "Tunguska," "Terma," "Memento Mori," "Tempus Fugit," "Max," "Zero-Sum," "Gethsemane," "Redux," "Redux II"
THE X FILES: COLONIZATION - FOUR-DISC MYTHOLOGY COLLECTION (1998-2000)
"Patient X," "The Red and the Black," "The End," "The Beginning," "S.R. 819," "Two Fathers, One Son," "Biogenesis," "The Sixth Extinction," "The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati," "Sein Und Zeit," "Closure," "En Ami," "Requiem," "Within," "Without"
THE X FILES: SUPER SOLDIERS - FOUR-DISC MYTHOLOGY COLLECTION (2001-2002)
"Par Manum," "This is Not Happening," "Deadalive," "Three Words," "Vienen," "Essence," "Existence," "Nothing Important Happened Today," "Trust No 1," "Provenance," "Providence," "William," "The Truth"
Image A Sound A Extras B
by Walter Chaw Even if you're curious, you're probably not curious enough to wade through the sixteen DVDs that constitute "The X Files"' "mythology" (a.k.a. "Oh, no, not another one of these episodes"), compiled by creator Chris Carter in a quartet of four-disc collections that chronologically recap the ostensible "Truth" in the series' "The Truth is Out There" tagline. After the first set, "Abduction", comes "Black Oil", then "Colonization", then "Super Soldiers", the four of them parceling out the vital information that our government's struck a deal with aliens to turn us into human-alien hybrids; that most of the universe has been colonized by a virus that moves around in (or as) a black, oily substance; that some people are transformed by said alien entity into super-beings; and that there are other aliens out there hoping to prevent the spread of this contagion in the universe. That's it. Oh yeah, Scully and Mulder kiss--and it's dreamy. Happy?
I discuss in some detail the general direction of the series in my review of the "Abduction" package, coming to the conclusion that "The X Files"--part soap opera, part lugubrious thriller, all mordant geek passion play--is surprisingly dated now (which could be testament to its influence) and self-important to the point of self-parody, and that whatever the show's virtues (a few nifty standalone genre episodes), they aren't represented in what's easily the most Ourobosian DVD project of 2005. The trouble really began in Season Three, the point at which success worked its alchemical stuff on "The X Files" by increasing its budget--giving it permission, as it were, to go ahead and mire a nice anthology series in a long-term story arc. ("Mythology" is too grand a term, but the term nonetheless.) Imagine if "The Twilight Zone" had devoted a half-dozen episodes per season to a talky conspiracy story. That's right, it would suck mightily. And so it does here.
In saying that it "sucks," though, I acknowledge that I don't know how I would have supported what is essentially an insupportable storyline, either. Make Fox a vampire? Make Scully a pod? The problem of how one progresses in an anthology series with contiguous characters (like TV's underestimated "Friday the 13th" serial, for instance) is a difficult one to solve, as any such endeavour is seemingly doomed to devolve into relational histrionics of the sort that should be the exclusive domain of the few people gifted enough to carry them off with seriousness and, even more unusually, artistry. Alas, and obviously, the stable assembled to hack out dialogue for "The X Files"' mythology is nothing like the writers assembled for such benchmarks as "Six Feet Under" or "Deadwood". (Just mentioning those series in the same breath speaks only to the acknowledged influence of "The X Files" in reviving the possibility of serious-minded PM genre series as opposed to any actual validity in the comparison.) For the most part, the mythology storylines in the "The X Files" are wordy without profit and emotionally constricted to the point of bathos--the very boob-tube equivalent of one of those eye-popping stress dolls, squeezed with great consternation and panic.
I do wonder whether one way out of the mythology without running out of scenarios in which our heroes find themselves is to follow the example of Stephen King's guest-scripted episode "Chinga," which provided an outsider's perspective on the Mulder/Scully relationship--doing more, as I've mentioned before, to flesh out and humanize Fox than whole seasons' worth of exposition had accomplished. That problem of monumentalization afflicts the new Star Wars trilogy, too: what with Scully and Mulder trading off the "skeptic" dunce cap without any substantive deviation in their characters, there's no audience surrogate after a while--no Han Solo. By the end of the mythology, Scully believes and Mulder's a skeptic. And so what now? It's a dramatic and syllogistic dead end. New characters introduced throughout the twelve discs of "Black Oil, "Colonization," and the abortive "Super Soldiers" (like Robert Patrick's agent John Doggett, the genre connection ironic given the liquid terminator's struggle against mutant super-big-bads) tend to fall along the same skeptic/believer divide, depending on the mistaken impression that causing some characters to be chimeras of the two character types (e.g., Mimi Rogers's Agent Diana Fowley) is a fresh, nuanced conceit instead of a schizophrenic, strained one. You don't make grey in a black-and-white world by crafting, as with Nicholas Rea's Alex Krycek (who is afflicted with every thread of every mythology in turn), devout acolytes to both black and white. We're not talking shades, we're talking marbles in a bag.
But is the solution to continue with anthology stories, or to invite guest writers and directors (à la "Friday the 13th" asking David Cronenberg to guest-direct an episode, or Tarantino taking "CSI" for a spin) to give their own interpretations of the characters within the genre forum? Think of new writers and artists taking over an established comic book title--a series of one-shots, like the Grant Morrison/Dave McKean Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum, with the potential to provide unique insights into the essential natures of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. The relative success, and haphazard quality, of the original "Outer Limits" and "Twilight Zone" series, after all, had something to do with the variety of writers and directors asked to conform themselves to a certain format. It's possible, however, that Carter (like George Lucas, for instance) has a creative ego that prevents him from letting his psychic children be dissected by other fingers.
Hang the show's failure on the idea that Mulder and Scully were less interesting as themselves than as Chang & Eng avatars of Carter's own educated skepticism sharing headspace with his fervent fanboy faith. I have the suspicion, unfortunately, that for Carter, Mulder and Scully are literal conduits of doubt and surety, creativity, and objectivity--thus, as the series became increasingly masturbatory ("internalized," defenders might correct), so, too, did Carter reflexively withdraw into increasingly convoluted rationalizations and neuroses. The tragedy of this read is that there are never shades of grey--that the shadow taking the form of the amorphous black oil (the invader from without) is never embraced, as it were, as a product of the self, allowing "The X Files" to become juvenilia of the most embarrassing, most vulnerable kind. It's eventually painfully clear that its many grandiose gestures towards subtlety and complexity are in fact smoke-and-mirrors attempts to distract from an essential lack of subtlety and complexity. Carter's ambition to tell his story through this Blakeian idea of myth born in the chest of man at war, eternally, with an ironclad Miltonic right reason is laudable. That he's incapable of following through to maturity has something to do with Carter either not being mature, or, more likely, being too afraid at the moment of crisis to take the path to a higher place. It renders the apologies (not the least of which these four box sets) that much harder to take.
Of the three compilations up for examination, "Black Oil" is the best of the lot. Beginning with Season 3's "Nisei" (detailing Scully's cancer (Jungians, take note of Carter's early attempts to integrate the one character in the other through decomposition and consumption--hamstrung, natch, by Carter's arrested quailing at actual physical contact)) and running through what most fans of the series believe to be the strongest creative period of the series: between the time cancellation was imminent and the release of the feature-film spin-off. The cost of a certain improvisational brio would come calling once the series dragged on for too long (see "Lost" halfway through its first season) and the promise of answers became first uncomfortable, then urgent, and finally insurmountable. "The X Files" is a victim of its own longevity, a lie grown so shaggy with age that it's just bloat propped up by more lies.
Director Rob Bowman records a commentary for the celebrated melodrama of "Memento Mori" (the titles of the episodes usually say almost everything there needs to be said), contributing a few tidbits of minor interest while spending most of the time a companionable rambler. Better is R. W. Goodwin's track for "Talitha Cumi," which, while infinitely more interested in "how" as opposed to "why" (and why not? Too often a director's opinion of what his work is about isn't a hell of a lot more interesting than my own), at least doesn't waste too much time narrating the action. Kim Manners does the deed on his "Max" in what will become the familiar Manners commentary style: one or two interesting slips (this episode, for instance, was written around a desire to build a plane set) followed by long, unbroken silences. On the "Colonization" set, Manners opens his yakker for "Patient X" by saying he insisted on pushing a really expensive camera through a fire--then doesn't say anything else for an eternity. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise.
Rather than break up the four-part "Threads of Mythology" documentary, as Carter has (seeding them in his four box sets as the world's most specific fishing tackle), let's finish up the commentaries. In addition to the Manners yak-track initiating the set (we end here with Season Eight's introduction to Agent Doggett, "Without"), Carter chimes in on "Red and Black" with a chatty, amiable commentary that includes the fascinating anecdote that Gillian Anderson once scolded him for checking his watch during a particularly difficult, sick-bed monologue. He tells it with warmth, but it's not a warm story. Manners returns on "Two Fathers," Frank Spotnitz does play-by-play on "One Son," and Bowman walks along the middle line on "Closure." The best commentary of the six in this set belongs to "Within," pairing Manners with actor Patrick, who draws out the taciturn Manners. The two demonstrate a nice bonhomie that brings a certain sense of ease and humor to a series that many fans had long since deserted.
With Carter writing all but one of the fourteen episodes contained in the last of the mythology sets, "Super Soldiers", you could speculate that he'd taken a new interest in his saga, wanting to bring his baby home in a warm receiving blanket and bassinet--but I prefer the contrary read that Carter wanted to control the descent so that there might be some survivors in the inevitable crash. (To no avail, alas.) Only two commentaries this go-round, with director Rod Hardy on "Vienen" and (vulnerable, dull) Spotnitz again on "Deadalive"--the episode wherein Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) is turned into a robot controlled by Krycek and a legion of pain-inducing nanobots while it's revealed, somewhat nonsensically, that super soldiers are born from cocoons. I do wish that some sort of ironic commentary were embedded in Lucy Lawless's cameo at the start of season nine (in "Nothing Important Happened Today") as a bionic superwoman whose name sounds like "Mc-Man"; I also wish that Scully's It's Alive! super-spawn had claws and flew. The aforementioned documentary (whose four segments take around two hours to watch consecutively) is interesting mainly for the fact that the talking heads admit early on that they didn't know what they were getting at and how as the show went along they were forced to parse a semblance of sense from all the crazy shit they were dropping out there willy-nilly in the early-going. Fans of the series will have fun with it--non-fans will never have gotten this far. The Truth is that they kind of made it up as they went along; and that with the requisite exceptions, they weren't fooling anyone.
Image quality across the board reflects the show's cachet as the Tiffany line in Fox's TV library. Individual episodes sport brilliant video transfers that improve as the mythology progresses, of course, but are never shoddy besides, and though it's not noted anywhere on the packaging, the series switches from fullscreen to 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen for the two episodes ("Redux" and "Redux II") that close out "Black Oil", never to return. While it still looks like television in that ineffable over-sharp, slightly over-lit way (a funny thing to say considering the literal darkness of the series, but Vancouver isn't the best place for supernatural murk; ditto L.A.), it looks like expensive television. The accompanying Dolby Surround audio demonstrates good separation and atmospherics. Sets are housed in cardboard slipcovers, each containing two thinpaks that hold two discs apiece. Would that a few pennies invested in this prestige project had been given over to a fourth season of "Arrested Development". Originally published: February 13, 2006.