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The X-Files – Fire (Review)

Well, Fire is probably Chris Carter’s strongest script since The Pilot. I suppose we should be grateful for that, at least.

All fired up...

All fired up…

To be fair, the problems with Fire aren’t half as severe as the problems with The Jersey Devil and Space, but it’s hard not to get the sense that Carter is the weakest member of his own writing team. Carter comes in for a considerable amount criticism, but I think it’s worth stressing just how well he runs and produces this first season of The X-Files. Yes, it’s not the show’s strongest season – but it’s also far from the worst. There’s a confidence present even in these early episodes, and it’s clear that the show has potential from the outset.

Carter would make quite a few serious mistakes as showrunner as the show went on. His unwillingness to structure the conspiracy, to provide neat answers to the series’ sprawling mythology arc, and even his later character decisions involving Mulder and Scully would all cause problems in the final years of the show’s existence. However, for the first five (maybe six) years, Carter was one of the best showrunners in the business, and The X-Files was very lucky to have him on board.

A dirty business...

A dirty business…

This is all to stop me feeling too guilty when I point out that Carter was an excellent showrunner, but a pretty lousy writer. Working with a good idea, with the weight of the show’s mythology behind him, and a straight line to the show’s themes and paranoia, Carter could do very good work. I am a huge fan of the two-part fifth season opener Redux, despite the fact that most of his weaknesses are on full display there. The ideas can carry his stylistic limitations, if they are strong enough.

The ideas in Fire are – quite frankly – not strong enough to compensate for Carter’s weaknesses in storytelling. Watching the episode, you can see the faint outline of a more interesting story. As Scully’s narration helpfully explains that our arsonist’s destructive behaviour “compensates for his social inadequacies or maladjustment”, and we watch L’ively use his powers for little more than parlour tricks to impress children and women, it seems like the episode is about to hit on the character’s patheticness.

Pillow talk...

Pillow talk…

L’ively almost seems like a loser who discovered an incredible gift and is trying to figure out how to use it to finally make himself feel important. In a way, L’ively almost feels like a prototypical version of Vince Gilligan’s Robert Modell from Pusher, the little man who wished that he were big. There is an interesting character hook there, but Carter simply isn’t interested in exploring it.

Instead, L’ively comes across as a rather banal bad guy, despite the skills of a young Mark Sheppard in the role. Indeed, the character is so shallow that he’s even prone to evil monologuing. “Bloody little cur,” he threatens a little dog at one point. “I’ll skin you alive.” When the dog uncovers a hand in the flower bed, he explains to it, “See? I’m the caretaker now.” When the family’s driver takes a turn for the worse, L’ively deadpans, “Maybe it’s the cough syrup.” (Having picked up the syrup himself from town.)

Cecil be demented?

Cecil be demented?

These are textbook Carter dialogue problems. Carter needs to convey various pieces of information to the audience – L’ively murdered the groundskeeper and took his place; L’ively poisoned the driver – but does so in the most awkward and heavy-handed manner possible. The poisoning could have been suggested by leaving the director to capture a meaningful glance, and the presence of the hand in the flowerbed would have been enough to make it clear L’ively is not who he claims to be. Carter just over-writes these sequences, while under-writing L’ively.

By the way, Cecil L’ively joins the pantheon of clumsy Carter names. It’s not quite as terrible as “Marcus Aurelius Belt” from Space, but it’s still pretty terrible. The character’s mysterious back story is more frustrating than intriguing. I’m a big fan of ambiguity – indeed, the very next episode handles ambiguity with a great deal of skill. However, L’ively is so hazily defined that simply dropping “ritual sacrifice by a satanic cult in 1963 in the Toddingham Woods outside Bath, England” into his back story without any context feels lazy.

Breath...

Breath…

Then again, the biggest problems with Fire have little to L’ively, even if he’s a fairly obvious flaw in a troubled episode. Fire is a Mulder-heavy episode, but it feels very generic. Indeed, it’s a textbook example of classic episode “character development”, where a show will suddenly introduce a character trait or former associate, only for the character or trait to never be mentioned again.

It’s an approach to television quite popular in the era before serialisation, and its use here betrays the fact that The X-Files is still trying to figure out how it intends to work. Lead characters seemed to have old friends who would crawl out of the woodwork and swiftly disappear at the end of the episode – frequently killed to generate emotional investment or simply put on a bus to nowhere. Similarly, our lead would develop a strange obsession or deal with a dark secret, which had never been mentioned before and would never be hinted at again.

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

Fire has both an important guest character and a new character trait, neither of which had been alluded to before Fire and none of which were mentioned afterwards. To be fair, we’re still at the stage in the first season where the show hasn’t firmly committed to serialisation. Deep Throat has popped up a couple of times, but there’s no real sense that the government conspiracy is anything beyond a bunch of nebulous evil stuff involving aliens and creepy science.

So Fire feels like a left-over from an earlier era of television. To be fair, it’s still something you’ll see on the more modern episodic television shows – on the CSI franchise, for example. It just feels out of place here. David Duchovny himself has admitted frustration with the episodic approach that Fire adopts, and the fact that the episode is focused around Mulder but contributes absolutely nothing to the character.

The name's Mulder. Fox Mulder.

The name’s Mulder. Fox Mulder.

In Fire, we discover that Mulder has a fear of fire. He’s surprisingly candid about it, telling Scully, “There’s something else I haven’t told you about myself, Scully. I hate fire. Hate it. Scared to death of it.” It’s convenient that he just happens to be afraid of fire while investigating a serial arsonist, and it feels like a trite way to generate some dramatic tension – as if Carter is aware that L’ively isn’t interesting enough to anchor an episode.

While we get a nice little two-sentence explanation for his fear, it doesn’t give us any real insight into Mulder as a character, or how his mind works. There’s nothing here that feels like it adds anything to Mulder, and it feels like a plot element inserted to give the episode a little extra weight. Naturally, after it provides some nice high stakes at the climax of Fire, Mulder’s phobia is never mentioned again.

Smoking can be deadly...

Smoking can be deadly…

Similarly, the episode introduces us to one of Mulder’s ex-girlfriends, Phoebe Green. This causes several problems. The most immediate is the fact that it forces Carter to write “cute” relationship dialogue, while also providing exposition. So we get dialogue intended to define the relationship between the pair while providing the audience with back story. “Oh, come on, don’t tell me you left your sense of humor in Oxford ten years ago?” she teases. Mulder replies, “No, actually. It’s one of the few things you didn’t drive a stake through.”

We’re told that Phoebe broke Mulder’s heart, but we see no real evidence of this. It isn’t Amanda Pays’ fault, as she’s saddled with some abysmal dialogue. That said, Pays and Duchovny don’t really have the chemistry to suggest that Phoebe was anything approaching the love of Mulder’s life – and even sordid references to “a certain youthful indiscretion atop Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tombstone on a misty night in Windlesham” (stay classy, Mulder) can’t make it seem like any of this is worth caring about.

The ex-files?

The ex-files?

More than that, though, it seems a little overly cynical. The first season has already constructed an incredibly tragic narrative for Mulder. He was a talented young agent who suddenly remembered a trauma from his childhood. Trying to find his lost sister, he found himself exiled to the basement, locked with filing cabinets stuffed with cases which are unlikely to ever be solved. He has become the butt of jokes, and the world’s attitude towards him has left Mulder a bitter and cynical man who has difficulty relating to others.

Quite simply, adding a broken heart on top of this feels a little contrived. It does a disservice to the work that writers like Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa have been doing with Mulder over the past few episodes. Suggesting that a broken heart is part of what led Mulder to lock himself away from the world feels a little too trite and cliché, a little obvious. It undermines the picture of Mulder that the show has been sketching over the past half-season.

Magic fingers...

Magic fingers…

(Again, it’s informative to contrast Carter’s handling of Mulder here with Morgan and Wong’s use of Scully in Beyond the Sea. Much like Gordon and Gansa’s Fallen Angel offered a superior handling of many of the themes of Carter’s Space, Beyond the Sea is a much better example of character development than anything here. In Beyond the Sea, Wong and Morgan build off already established characterisation and relationships, delving into familiar facets of Scully in much greater depth, rather than inventing convenient character attributes to suit their script.)

That said, there are faint hints that Carter knows what he is doing. Carter is already acutely aware of the strong chemistry between Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny. The show has already teased hints of attraction and affection between the couple, making it clear that there is some element of love between the duo. At the same time, Carter is shrewd enough to keep it as a tease – there’s very little concrete in these early episodes, much like there would be little concrete for the first six years of the show.

Burning up airtime...

Burning up airtime…

So Carter’s decision to introduce Mulder’s ex-girlfriend allows him to play with the relationship between Mulder and Scully – already more than just a professional partnership, even if not yet intimate. There’s something clumsy in how Carter deals with the scenario, making Scully’s jealousy quite obvious. “Oh, I was merely extending her a professional courtesy,” Mulder assures Scully, prompting his partner to inquire, “Oh, is that what you were extending?” When Mulder describes a Sherlock Holmes quote as a “private joke”, Scully asks, “How private?”

The show would play with the dynamic between Mulder and Scully for the first half of its run, and Carter was extremely savvy in his manipulation of fandom – knowing that “will Mulder and Scully ever hook up?” was just as important as “what’s this alien stuff about anyway?” In fact, I’d argue that the relationship between Mulder and Scully was much more important than any conspiracy stuff to a large volume of casual viewers, the people giving the show the sky-high ratings.

All he needs is the air that he breaths...

All he needs is the air that he breaths…

There’s a reason X-Files: Fight the Future plays that hand almost as heavily as it leans on the shows mythology arc, with the scene in the hallway serving as one of the most memorable images from the entire feature film. Again, it’s very easy to downplay Carter’s skill and craft, but it’s clear that he had a very good idea of how to build a cult television show. He just had less skill with the nuts and bolts of television script writing, unfortunately.

Fire is a fairly bland episode, albeit stronger than Carter’s last two episodes. Still, it seems like Carter might just be the weakest writer on his own show.

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

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