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The X-Files – Shadows (Review)

Shadows feels a tad generic, but that’s by design. Written by the duo of Glenn Morgan and James Wong, Shadows was apparently intended to appease the network by offering something in the mold of a traditional ghost story – indeed, The Entity is often cited as an influence on the episode. Shadows runs off a rather conventional premise – a woman is haunted by a strange force capable of manipulating and moving objects, out to avenge some grave wrong.

In many respects, following The Jersey Devil, it almost seems like the first season of The X-Files is trying to knock off various items on a paranormal checklist. UFOs? Got ’em. A popular cryptozoology monster? Yep. Ghosts or poltergeists? We got a story here. The result is hardly inspiring. The X-Files tends to work a bit better when it’s venturing off the beaten track, taking something that isn’t mainstream and running with it.

Author John Kenneth Muir argued that watching The X-Files was like “watching a movie every week.” If that’s the case, Shadows feels more like a movie of the week.

The pen is mightier than the sword!

The pen is mightier than the sword!

There is something very traditional and safe about Shadows, as author Jane Goldman notes in her Book of the Unexplained:

Shadows is The X-Files take on the classic camp-fire ghost-story format: a chain of weird events, followed by the revelation of a restless soul with a motive, making everything slip tenebrously into place.

According to co-writer Glen Morgan, who has reservations about the episode, its birth was utilitarian. ‘The Network was saying: we want Mulder and Scully to help people and we want a ghost story. We took it upon ourselves to do this topic to get them off our back, which is a bad way to go about it.’

Television, like film, is a pragmatic medium, and it’s understandable that balances need to be struck. It’s also perfectly reasonable to argue that Shadows is a small price to pay for some of the stronger episodes the duo would offer later in the season – Ice, Beyond the Sea and Tombs among others.

Through the looking glasses...

Through the looking glasses…

The writers have been quite candid about how Shadows is pretty much a perfect illustration of the type of horse-trading necessary in the first season of a new television show, to placate the network and allow the writers more room to work:

All episodes are not written for what Morgan refers to as “the modern crowd,” nor are they sparked by a story that intrigues him and Wong. “Shadows,” a ghost story, came about at the request of a network executive who wanted to see a poltergeist tale. Morgan doesn’t regard the result with much fondness. “It was a little too ordinary. You’ve seen it before,” Morgan says. Wong notes that their original idea, once they agreed to write the episode, was a bit more shocking than what ended up on screen. “We started thinking about a masseuse in one of those sleazy places,” he confesses, but by the time the script was shot, their haunted masseuse had become a secretary.

Rewatching the show now, Shadows feels like the audience is being forced to eat its vegetables first, so that the plate is clear for the desert that will arrive shortly. It doesn’t make the episode any easier to sit through, but it does offer a practical lesson in delayed gratification.

Floating in a most peculiar way...

Floating in a most peculiar way…

And, to be candid about it, Shadows isn’t the worst episode of the first season. It’s probably a bit more consistent than The Jersey Devil, for example – and it’s miles ahead of Space. The biggest problem with the episode is that it all feels rather generic and predictable. It’s easy enough to see where the plot is going, because we’ve all seen this story before. It’s not only a case that we know Scully’s theory about Graves (heh) being alive is false (because this is The X-Files, not Law & Order), but also because we know he’s a ghost looking out for her.

The episode even avoids a fairly obvious twist by suggesting that there is no ghost and Lauren Kyle is just telekinetic – a popular line of thought in the para-science of poltergeists. Thus, the ghost isn’t Graves at all, but Lauren’s subconscious. It’s an entirely predictable plot twist, but it invites the question of whether an obvious twist is more interesting than a simple straight-laced delivery. At the very least, it would have given the script more to work with, and it would have felt more in-depth than the rough sketch of the case that we got.

Gimme the bat!

Gimme the bat!

To be fair, the straight-arrow nature of the plot is kind of appealing, in a way. Everything here follows a traditional ghost story pattern, dealing with grand themes like love and death and guilt and revenge. There’s even a convenient spooky old man hanging around the graveyard to provide Mulder and Scully with vital exposition about the departed. No need for any of that trawling through records or dragging in other guest stars to piece together the story of what happened.

Another nice touch is a pre-CSI enhancement sequence where Mulder and Scully are able to “enhance” a photo from a few grainy pixels to a fully detailed face. While there’s nothing as absurd as rotating it, it’s still a scene which seem hilarious in retrospect, demonstrating that CSI did not invent magic image-enhancing technology. If anything, that magic technology is the most unbelievable element of the entire episode.

Light 'em up!

Light ’em up!

Also quite fun is the wonderful deadpan look that Dr. Ellen Bledsoe gives the duo when they’re pursuing the inevitable “Howard Graves is alive” red herring. The X-Files is crammed with officials trying to cover-up or distract from their misdeeds and oversights, but Bledsoe’s deadpan sarcasm is probably the best portrayal of administrative stubbornness the show has done so far. It’s much more realistic and palpable than the whole “New Jersey law enforcement covers up the Jersey Devil” plot point from the previous episode.

After all, Mulder and Scully have just shown up and insisted that Bledsoe is almost criminally incompetent – that she has somehow messed up a case where she probably filled out all of the paper work and did exactly what was necessary. After all, the pair stop just short of asking if she was sure that the body she autopsied was dead. I’d be pretty miffed too. Of course, it helps that Bledsoe gets to be entirely correct, and is actually vindicated by the show’s paranormal twists, making her the rare official who proves Mulder and Scully wrong.

All the evidence that's fit to print...

All the evidence that’s fit to print…

Similarly, the haunting scenes are effective enough, even if they are far too familiar to be completely effective. The bath filling up with blood is a nice effect, and it provides director Michael Lange the opportunity to make a full-colour homage to Psycho. Similarly, the scene where Lauren is attacked in her home is suitably effective – channeling all manner of possession and haunting movies. The image of Mulder bursting into the house as one assassin is dangling in the air feels like it was lifted from a much better episode.

And though the plotting and supporting cast don’t benefit too much, Shadows feels stronger than it should be by virtue of the writers working on it. Morgan and Wong are two of the strongest writers to work on The X-Files, and it’s telling that they are one of the handful of writers and producers to enjoy great success following their departure. (Howard Gordon and Vince Gilligan are two other writers who remain powerhouses in the world of American scripted television following time on The X-Files.)

The morgue you know...

The morgue you know…

Morgan and Wong might be the writers with the strongest grip on Scully as a character, and it’s obvious from their first season scripts. Squeeze is the story of Scully deciding to throw her lot in with Mulder. Ice is about Scully’s ability to trust Mulder even at his most paranoid. Beyond the Sea anchors the character. Even Tombs finds Scully playing mediator in the on-going game of “Mulder vs. the World.”

Shadows is hardly a Scully-centric episode, but it does a lot to deal with the narrative laws of The X-Files. By and large, with an odd exception here or there, Scully is going to be wrong. It’s like gravity, it’s inescapable. If Scully could be right even half the time, The X-Files would be a different show. So Scully has to be wrong, which creates a problem that the show has to figure out how to handle. After all, Scully’s persistent refusal to accept the narrative rules of The X-Files can make her look foolish or even blind.

Down the drain...

Down the drain…

Morgan and Wong give Scully a rather tenuous theory – what if Graves faked his death? The script has a great deal of fun arguing that her theory is just as absurd as the notion of a poltergeist. “Do you know how difficult it is to fake your own death?” Mulder mockingly asks. “Only one man has pulled it off, Elvis.” At the same time, the show allows Scully to follow her own lines of inquiry, rather than treating her input as arbitrary scepticism.

More than that, though, Morgan and Wong write Scully well. Gillian Anderson is a stronger performer than David Duchovny, but she arguably gets less opportunity to showcase her range – often treated as the stoic or the logical one to Mulder’s wacky and fun conspiracy nut. Morgan and Wong write a version of Scully that is witty and also capable of being fun. She’s not around simply to bring Mulder down to Earth, and she’s not entirely joyless. Scully makes allusions to Poltergeist (“they’re here!”) and playfully – but affectionately – mocks some of Mulder’s crackpot theories. She’s beginning to get into the spirit of The X-Files, and that’s important for her character.

Angling for an X-File...

Angling for an X-File…

Morgan and Wong also make a point to mirror Mulder and Scully in the agents seeking a consultation. The writing duo would include another mirror to Mulder and Scully in Ice as they offered us a paranoid married couple designed to offer a counterpoint to our leads. Here, the agents investigating the case are a tall man and a shorter woman, clearly intended to evoke the partnership between Mulder and Scully.

However, a lot of Shadows is just rather bland. It feels fairly generic and familiar, and oddly disappointing as a result.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:

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