Yesterday, I finally finished watching all nine seasons of The X-Files, both movies, and even the short run of The Lone Gunmen spin-off series on DVD. Having a decade of hindsight from when the show was originally aired helped me better appreciate the final two or three seasons. These are the dreaded seasons, when the production company moved from nicely misty Vancouver to inappropriately sunny California, struggled with a largely missing David Duchovny, and attempted the very risky plan of introducing two new lead characters. I had been among those who stopped watching it on-the-air, but this time, I stuck with it.
It’s easy to find fault, to whine about how the bandage was removed waaaaay too slowly in terms of replacing Mulder and Scully with Doggett and Reyes. (I actually would have preferred Doggett and Leyla Harrison, the mildly ditzy transfer from the FBI Accounting Department who appears in the episodes “Alone” and “Scary Monsters.” Despite being a bit cartoonish, she was given more of a past and a sharper characterization than poor Monica Reyes was.) Instead of lamenting what went wrong, though, I’d prefer to tease out what Chris Carter and the show’s other creators did right and see if any of those lessons can apply to my own occult detective series, Vera Van Slyke: Help for the Haunted.
Lesson #1: Aim for a cohesive cosmos, a unified ‘verse. It can include a variety of monsters, but find a way to explain what all those monsters are doing on one planet.
The X-Files is probably best remembered for its long and winding arc episodes involving alien invasion and government conspiracy. Without this foundation, the show would have featured only stand-alone, monster-of-the-week episodes, which likely would have ruined things quickly — as it did when Carl Kolchak moved from made-for-TV movies to a weekly series.
Having Mulder and Scully exist in semi-cohesive fictional universe — one with semi-consistent physics — worked better than having them live in a world where monsters born in ancient Egyptian, eastern European, Lovecraftian, Maori, Christian, indigenous American, and other cosmoses all fight for dominance against Frankensteins of the cyber age. In fact, The X-Files did well at inventing brand new monsters, be they fluke-men or squeeze-y guys.
Lesson #2: Give your occult detective a past — preferably, a haunting past.
The X-Files specialized in detectives haunted by their pasts. Mulder had his abducted sister. Doggett had is murdered son. More subtle was Scully’s drift from her Catholic faith. These personal histories explain motivation, of course, but there’s also something central to human experience here. We never live solely in the now. Instead, we regularly juggle the past, the present, and future — often poorly. Characters who do the same, therefore, become relatable and interesting. I bet this partly explains why Reyes never seemed to take root.
Lesson #3: Recurring characters are cool.
There’s a particular pleasure that comes from the recurring characters in The X-Files. Of course, the stand-out here is the cigarette-smoking man, Mulder’s Moriarty. But Alex Krycek, the Lone Gunmen, even Scully’s mother also add to that feeling of a cohesive cosmos noted above (and it’s great that the actors who played these characters returned for the full nine years). Some of my favorite episodes are when a character returns, be it Max Fenig or Donald Pfaster. One day — uhm, yeah, one day — I’ll compile a list of X-Files Double Features, which pairs episodes that work nicely together, and most of them will be based on characters who resurface.
Now, I’ve never been one for following strict rules when writing fiction. I worry they can stifle creativity instead of encouraging it. Still, as I develop and enlarge my Vera Van Slyke series, I’m finding the three rules listed above are helping a lot.
I have Chris Carter and the parade of great writers who contributed to The X-Files to thank for that.