I’ve been watching old episodes of The X-Files of late for the first time, it was a show that I was just too young for during its original airing and haven’t gotten around to in the years since it went off the air, and one of the things I’ve been contemplating while doing so is the role that mythology plays in the series and in TV series as a whole. The X-Files is pretty much the poster child for shows that collapsed underneath the weight of their overarching stories after the creators failed to plot out any kind of end game and fumbled their way to an ending. Other mythology heavy shows have been lambasted for their perceived lackluster endings, Lost and Battlestar Galactica most recently, but those shows have more than a few defenders, me among them. The X-Files on the other hand is a show that seemed to be perceived as a failure in its time and has been unable to win fans over the years since it went off the air. Knowing all this it would seem only reasonable that someone going into the series for the first time would view the more mythology centered episodes as empty affairs, hours packed with a bunch of vague hints at a story that doesn’t really exist and will only prove unfulfilling in the end.
So far I’m finding that’s just not the case, the mythology episodes are among the best of the early hours the show has put together and are consistently engrossing much in the same way I imagine they were when they first aired. I’ve watched roughly 40 episodes at this point, and I’m still very pleased whenever an episode promises to reveal just a little bit more about the shadowy conspiracy that’s ruling over all of humanity. Why is that the case though? The main complaint that fans disappointed with the endings of shows like Lost or The X-Files seem have is that the ultimate shallowness of the mythology invalidated the entirety of the show because the mythology now rings hollow when revisiting earlier episodes. What that argument fails to account for is that many shows with mythologies are eminently watchable because they’re good on an episode-by-episode basis. Lost was always an engaging watch because it was able to so deftly weave done-in-one character stories with the larger mysteries of the island. The early episodes of The X-Files succeed for similar reasons. Even when the show’s plunging down the mythology hole, at least in these early episodes, the stories it’s telling are still wrapped up in more discrete tales about Mulder, Scully, and the immediate case they’re working on. The mythology makes the episode feel grander and more important while the actual nuts and bolts of the storytelling propel the episode itself along. The mythology is the icing to the competent storytelling’s cake so to speak.
I think it’s more than that though, plenty of shows have tried to incorporate huge mythologies right out of the gate and failed to elicit anything but exasperation from fans because they’ve learned the wrong lessons from shows like The X-Files or Lost which deployed their mythology more effectively. One of the best examples of this is a show that’s hugely influenced by The X-Files, Fringe. What’s so interesting about Fringe is that it started out with a mythology that was mostly uninvolving, but when the writers realized that their insistence on something called “The Pattern” simply wasn’t interesting they were smart enough to reveal what it was, and simply move on, allowing themselves to create a new mythology that was better catered to the show’s themes, tone, and characters. The problem with “The Pattern” was that it existed merely as a device that claimed that all the random monsters of the week the viewers were being presented with were somehow connected. It didn’t speak to anything other than the viewer, it said little about the concerns of the show and its mention rarely made any particular monster or freak bit of science seem more important. It was a mythology for the sake of the audience member who constantly needs to feel like what they’re viewing is meaningful to the series as a whole rather than simply being an effective hour of television.
The mythology that replaced The Pattern though was a complex story of a father who had lost his son and stolen another from a parallel universe, precipitating a war. It was a story that brought up huge thematic concerns for the show and allowed the writers to run rampant with stories about parents and children, relationships, and the effects of modern and futuristic science on the ways we perceive humanity. In other words the mythology became explicitly about what the show was getting at thematically in its best episodes and as such allowed the series to blossom into a truly great sci-fi series. Lost managed the same feat from the get go, its mythology was nicely matched to the state of the characters; they were lost in their personal lives and the outward manifestation of that dislocation was the characters being trapped on a wholly alien and unpredictable island. The X-Files also nails this combination of mission statement and mythology in its early episodes. My favorite installments of the series inevitably feature stories where Mulder and Scully investigate occurrences that elude perfect understanding. The forces they bump up against become so unknowable that while the viewer and the agents understand them to some degree they’re ultimately left with the feeling that they’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s going on. It’s that exact feeling that the mythology episodes mine so well, because the shadowy conspiracy and its motives are ill understood in the early going of the show it makes their assaults on Mulder and Scully that much more terrifying. They’re an unknown, malicious force in the exact way that the best one off antagonists are in the series.
Of course, the inherent problem with this is that as the series moves on that conspiracy needs to become better defined and understandable to the viewer. We demand answers, and we also demand that those answers be every bit as thrilling as the questions. It’s a demand that’s nearly impossible to fulfill specifically because what makes the questions, and those early mythology episodes so thrilling is that we just don’t know what is going on. The charm of The X-Files is in brushing up against the unknown and finding that it’s just as terrifying and alien as we always suspected it would be. Is it any surprise then that a concrete ending would never be able to measure up to those feelings? I haven’t been let down by the show yet, but it’s still early on for me. I’m still in the dark, terrified by the shadows and the possibilities of what might be lurking in them, and that’s the way I like it.