This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.
What is interesting about the third season of The X-Files is the way that everything seemed to click into place. After two years of figuring out how various parts of the show worked, the series was in a place where it worked like a finely-honed machine. The conspiracy episodes hit all the right boxes. The second season had demonstrated the show could do experimental or even humourous episodes. Even the standard “monster of the week” shows were delivered with more confidence and style.
While D.P.O. may not be the strongest episode of the third season, it is an example of how comfortable the show has become. It is an episode that move incredibly well, where the vast majority of the pieces click, and one which is fondly remembered by the fan base. There’s a very serious argument to be made that writer Howard Gordon was the best author of “monster of the week” scripts working on the show at this point, and D.P.O. demonstrates how well he crafts these sorts of stories.
D.P.O. also benefits from any number of elements that make it seem memorable, even if it is “business as usual” after a massive three-part conspiracy epic. The opening sequence – featuring Ring the Bells by James – is one of the first times the show has so successfully integrated music into its action, something that would become a memorable part of later shows and even Millennium. The guest cast features Giovanni Ribisi and Jack Black. The episode also perfectly captures teen angst in an insightful manner.
The show was apparently drawn from an index card labelled “lightning boy”, which had been on Chris Carter’s white board since the first season. It’s very hard to imagine the show pulling off something like D.P.O. during its first season. While it might have worked towards the end of the second season, the start of the third season seems the perfect place for it.
Howard Gordon tends to be somewhat underrated among the pool of talented X-Files writers. To some extent, this was a matter of degree – the writing staff was absolutely phenomenal, and simply being consistent and very good was not quite enough to emerge at the head of the pack. Howard Gordon worked on the first four seasons, and his work tended to be overshadowed by writers like Glen Morgan and James Wong, Darin Morgan or Vince Gilligan.
However, Gordon was quite reliable. He was the writer tasked with returning the show to its original format with Firewalker in the middle of the second season. There is a very credible argument to be made that he wrote the best “monster of the week” story of the late second season with Fresh Bones. Glen Morgan and James Wong wrote the best “monster of the week” stories of the first season, but the second season saw them leaning more towards the mythology and experimentation. Howard Gordon filled the gap.
D.P.O. moves with incredible amount of confidence. It may not do anything particularly innovative or brilliant, but it does everything that it needs to do, and it does it very well. Positioned as the first “monster of the week” episode of the year, D.P.O. sets the baseline quality for standalone episodes of the third season. While it doesn’t quite hit the same highs that later scripts like Pusher or Quagmire or Gordon’s own Grotesque might, it is constructed effectively and efficiently. It sets the mood for the year ahead.
Of course, Gordon is in the same position that he found himself with Firewalker. The writer is crafting a standalone “business as usual” story that follows off some absolutely massive events in the series’ larger mythology. As with Firewalker, this is the “Mulder and Scully go back to work” episode, transitioning the show back from the seismic scale of massive government conspiracies and possible alien encounters to something a lot more intimate and personal.
Gordon himself has expressed some small sense of frustration with this, suggesting in Trust No One that D.P.O. may not be the best way to follow something like Paper Clip:
After you’ve had an unbelievable meal, where you’ve been dealing with the death of Scully’s sister and the death of Mulder’s father — huge, huge issues — and the next week you find yourself in a video arcade in Oklahoma, it was sort of set up some way for disappointment.
This is an understandable concern, and certainly applies to Firewalker, the second-season episode that carried the burden of being the first episode with the “Mulder and Scully investigate weird stuff together” set up since Roland.
Gordon’s script to Firewalker relegated Scully’s character arc to subtext, as she watched another young woman come to harm as she supported another brilliant and socially awkward man in his search for knowledge. Barring a line or two of dialogue, there was no acknowledgement that Scully had been abducted and had a near-death experience. There was no sense that Scully was processing (or had processed) the trauma before throwing herself back into the X-Files.
D.P.O. works a bit better for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that Paper Clip itself does the heavy-lifting, with Mulder and Scully deciding to get back into their work in the final scene of that episode. “I need something to put my back up against,” Scully insisted to Mulder as the episode came to a close. This spared D.P.O. having to explain how Mulder and Scully would be back doing their usual work despite the massive losses they had suffered and all they had uncovered.
As with Firewalker, there is a throwaway reference to the events of the earlier mythology episodes. However, it is a lot more explicit and it is dealt with a bit more effectively. “Look, after everything that we’ve just been through, after all that we’ve just seen, I hope you’re not thinking this has anything to do with government conspiracies or UFOs,” Scully remarks to Mulder early in the episode. It feels like an attempt to draw a line under Paper Clip.
This is The X-Files very firmly and very carefully delineating and separating the “conspiracy” shows from the “monster of the week” shows. In a way, this is the point where that distinction really comes into force. In earlier seasons, the government conspiracy and the monster shows tended to be a bit elastic. Deep Throat played a big part in Ghost in the Machine, while William B. Davis made his second appearance in Young at Heart. Mr. X got more to do in Soft Light than in any of the second season’s conspiracy episodes.
In a way, this feels like a side effect of the decision to push ahead with the mythology as a long-form story rather than simply a recurring element. The third season humanised the conspiracy, casting light on its members and its objectives. The season suggested that the government conspiracy has a very clear and sinister objective that it was moving towards, and that it was more than simply a recurring foil for Mulder and Scully. It was a story of itself, rather than simply a story element for the show to use as suits.
It seems like firmly tying that story off from the standard episodic adventures was part of that decision. There is a very clear difference in the way that the second season approaches the mythology characters like the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Deep Throat. For the first two years, the Cigarette-Smoking Man was an all-purpose bogeyman. He could appear in episodes cynical about the government – like F. Emasculata – that had no direct tie to the alien mythology.
However, later seasons would divorce the mythology characters from standalone adventure. When Mulder discovered more shady government plotting unrelated to alien colonisation in The Pine Bluff Variant during the fifth season, none of the usual suspects made an appearance. Instead, Mulder dealt with a completely different sinister government operator who never appeared again outside of that episode. One might suspect that there were now entirely different government conspiracies working.
Again, this is an example of the third season really deciding the form that The X-Files would take. It had clearly been decided that the show wanted to keep episodic stories separate from the larger mythology, despite the occasional mingling that had been allowed in the first two seasons. The third season established this boundary between “monster of the week” and “conspiracy” so well that the occasional subversion – as with the ending of Leonard Betts – was an absolutely massive surprise.
It is worth noting that D.P.O. transitions rather well from Paper Clip because it is very clearly a small and intimate story. One of the problems with Firewalker was that it felt like Gordon was trying to thematically mirror Scully’s experiences with those of Jessie O’Neil – but the episode never really acknowledged them. It also transitioned from the small-scale personal drama of One Breath into a much larger adventure inside a volcano. There was a sense that Firewalker might be foolhardily trying to compete with the mythology for scale.
In contrast, D.P.O. is a rather small episode, and it takes a great deal of pride in how small it is. It is the story of a teenager who has a crush on his teacher, and who uses enormous power for minor amusement. Contrasting the epic scale of a massive government conspiracy reaching back half-a-century with the everyday concerns of an angry and bitter teenager works very well. Paper Clip had seen Mulder and Scully touring the shadows of American history. D.P.O. brings everything down to a much more personal level.
Still, there are some faint traces of the show’s mythology that echo through. Nothing in D.P.O. is as overt as the mirroring of Scully and Jessie in Firewalker, but there are a few scattered elements that nod towards the larger themes of the previous three-part story. Darin Oswald is a young man without a father, and whose mother seems oblivious to what is going on around him, finding himself swept up in something much more powerful than himself. It’s not a perfect mirror of Mulder’s experiences in Paper Clip, but it’s there.
Perhaps the most iconic moment in D.P.O. has Darin wandering into a field late at night and raging at the heavens, as lightning strikes down around him. As shot by Kim Manners, it is a beautiful sequence. However, the imagery of Darin bathed in white light from the heavens evokes the show’s standard abduction imagery. In the midst of all this, Darin shouts up at the sky, directing his words at some unseen force. “I’m right here. Come and get me! Come on man! I’m waiting. Come on, man, talk to me! Come on!”
It seems like Darin is trying to talk to God, as if trying to draw the attention of some all-powerful and all-knowing force that refuses to acknowledge him. It seems like a pretty effective mirror to Mulder’s own experiences, and a nice summary of the show as a whole. Mulder’s search for “the Truth” could be seen as a spiritual or religious quest, an attempt to find some larger cosmic understanding. Darin’s painful lament echoes those ideas, only on a much smaller scale. Darin is also looking for some meaning and purpose.
D.P.O. is a story that had literally been on the cards for quite a while. It had been an idea kicked around the officer for quite some time, and the writing staff had never quite figured out how to make it work. Gordon deserves a great deal of credit for figuring out an angle on “lightning boy” that works well enough to sustain forty-five minutes of television, anchoring that awesome power in teenage emotional volatility and insecurity.
The key was to avoid the sorts of superhero comic book clichés that “lightning boy” evokes, as Gordon told Cinefantastique:
Gordon explained the writers wanted to avoid the image the term “Lightning Boy” kindled “of a guy with lightning bolts coming out of his fingertips. I finally figured it out. My take had lightning as a metaphor for adolescent hormones .The lightning represented that unbridled part of all of us. Darren could control it — but not really. He could harness it and tap into it, and occasionally redirect it. But even it overwhelmed him in the end.”
The result is one of the more satisfying approaches towards such a high concept. Although the show would eventually do a more super hero comic book powers twist on this sort of story with Rush in the seventh season.
In many respects, Darin Peter Oswald is anchored in the teen angst of the nineties. As Gordon explained to X-Files Confidential:
“This was an idea floating around the office for some time,” Howard Gordon explains. “There was literally an index card that said ‘Lightning Boy’, but not one had come up with a way to crack the story. I wanted to use the idea of lightning as a metaphor for the collision of boredom and hormonal anxiety. That’s what it felt like, and lightning seemed like the perfect analog for that kind of thing. The idea was Beavis and Butthead electrified. That was really the germ of the idea. It was a way to investigate with a tragic and comic lens what it’s like to be numb from television and video games, and it dealt with illiteracy and sing le parenthood and everything else.”
The result is Darin Peter Oswald, a teenage boy with awesome power; simultaneously the most terrifying and sympathetic of monsters.
Of course, D.P.O. is not innovative in this regard. Genre fiction is packed with stories of teenagers granted unlimited power, and using that power to do horrific things. This is often a way of expressing an anxiety about youth culture and attitudes. In 1961, Bill Mumy appeared on The Twilight Zone as an all-powerful child in It’s a Good Life. Even Star Trek got in on the act. The original show offered Charlie X in 1966, with Star Trek: The Next Generation offering Imaginary Friend and True Q in the nineties.
However, D.P.O. is a bit more sympathetic towards Darin Oswald than these stories traditionally are. While the climax of D.P.O. has the adults (justifiably) terrified of Darin’s power, the show is quite interested in what makes Darin Oswald tick. We get a sense of his crappy home life, discover that he can’t imagine a life outside this small town, and acknowledge the sorts of limitations that exist. It genuinely seems that a high score on Virtua Fighter is the best that Darin could ever hope to accomplish, and that is sad.
In this respect, D.P.O. feels like a product of the mid-nineties. Around this time, television producers had begun to take notice of teenagers as an audience that could be spoken to, rather than simply about. As Marc Oxoby writes in The 1990s, the decade saw a huge upswing in interest in catering towards teenage audiences:
There was a unprecedented rise in the amount of media actively directed towards teens. Of course, MTV had established itself as extremely popular among that demographic, proving that teens accounted for a substantial amount of media consumption. Consequently, the 1990s saw an increase in the number of radio stations that were geared at a teen demographic. Additionally, a great deal of television programming targeted that audience, as well. The early nineties saw shows like Beverly Hills 90210, and these set a precedent for Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the like, in the latter half of the decade. These shows, in depicting young people frequently dealing with the same kinds of problems their teen audience faced, in in a somewhat less melodramatic way, tapped into an important psychological dimension of the audience. These shows were about the teens, and less often about the teens’ interaction with their parents.
Teenagers found themselves being part of the conversation. Perhaps because they had money to spend than ever before, they were deemed an audience worth pursuing and targeting – cynically described as “corporate America’s $150 billion dream.”
This acknowledgement of the teen audience inevitably prompted some backlash. Wheeler Winston Dixon included the “relentlessly teen-driven” focus of contemporary films as the third item in Twenty-Five Reasons Why It’s All Over, published in The End of Cinema as We Know it: American Film in the Nineties. The content of shows and the amount of television being watched by younger audiences become a source of controversy.
Of course, there is more than a whiff of moral panic around this. If anything, the number of children watching excessive amounts of television actively decreased from 1991. However, logic and facts seldom contribute to these sorts of debates, and the idea of teenagers watching television became such a hot-button topic that the government eventually legislating for v-chips in 1996, allowing restriction of inappropriate content.
Unsurprisingly, D.P.O. really resonated with these younger viewers. Gordon boasted of this response to Cinefantastique:
Teenagers, not surprisingly, took Gordon’s message to heart. The mail he received in response to D.P.O. let him know that “most of the people who loved this episode or really dug it were kids. It’s one of the favourites of that segment of our audience.”
It is nice that the show was resonating with these fans.
After all, The X-Files had a wonderfully active teenage fan base. In a way, this is demonstrated by the resurgence of interest in the show a decade after it went off the air. Re-watches like Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff’s work for The A.V. Club or Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files seem to speak to a group of fans who grew up watching (and heavily influenced) by the show and have now found themselves assessing its cultural and historical impact.
For many young people, The X-Files was a show that shaped and informed their television viewing. Running through the nineties, it was a fantastic gateway drug to well-constructed and thought-provoking television. It was one of the best examples of wider industry trends the eventually led towards shows like The Sopranos. It shaped the way that a lot of television fans looked at the medium, and came at the right point in the lives of a lot of fans.
D.P.O. feels like a show that does a decent job of connecting with those fans. It’s an episode that doesn’t feel like it condescends too much. While Darin Oswald is something of a stereotypical teenager with a god complex and a crush on his hot teacher, the script gives his live enough context and Giovanni Ribisi gives him enough humanity that it never feels like it is pandering. Darin’s listlessness and his feelings of inadequacy do capture a lot of the teenage experience – the melodrama and the angst, the senselessness of it all.
D.P.O. is absurd, but also contains moments of real tragedy. Darin’s inability to see beyond what is right in front of him is almost heartbreaking. Zero actually seems to care about his friend, but Darin is unwilling to let him help. Zero is the character who comes closest to proposing an “everybody wins” ending to the show. “I’m thinking we should go somewhere,” he proposes, “get out of this hole. Maybe check out Las Vegas. You could do some serious damage some place like that.” Darin won’t listen.
It’s a surprisingly sweet scene that resonates very well. The X-Files is a show about these quirky small parts of America, and D.P.O. suggests that these sorts of environments can be suffocating or overwhelming. Part of growing up means being willing to leave some of that behind – to accept that what was once your home will not always be your home. It’s Darin’s refusal to even consider leaving Connerville that ultimately dooms him.
The death of Zero is also surprisingly moving, if only because he seems to genuinely care about Darin. He covers for Darin to Mulder and Scully. He repeatedly advises Darin against calling attention to himself. He is smart enough to see that leaving town would be a good idea, but he won’t leave without Darin. So Darin’s decision to murder him – in a fit of paranoia and anxiety – is wonderfully bleak. It’s the sort of stupid lashing-out that teenagers do, but amplified through Darin’s power.
It is short-sighted and pointless, like all sorts of teenage feuds and disagreements. It’s a simple misunderstanding that takes on an epic scale. It’s the kind of heated falling-out that teenagers have, where facts and reality have no bearing. Normally, teenagers heal these rifts over time. However, Darin’s power means that he doesn’t just shun Zero – he murders him. That is something that cannot be undone. It’s a beautiful reminder that for all his power, Darin Oswald is just a teenage boy.
The small-town setting of D.P.O. provides a nice contrast to the larger-than-life scale of Paper Clip. It also provides an effective contrast. Darin thinks that his teenage problems are the most important things in the world, but they are really tiny. D.P.O. allows The X-Files to hit on some of the show’s favourite recurring themes concerning these eccentric spaces that exist in the American landscape. Sheriff Teller reacts with incredible hostility to Mulder and Scully’s intrusion into his small town.
Much is made of how Mulder and Scully are effectively outsiders who lack any real context for their observations about life in Connerville. Sheriff Teller thoroughly humiliates Scully for her lack of knowledge about the town. “I don’t understand,” she states. He replies, jerkishly, “That’s as clear as glass.” When he explains that there’s a local lightning observatory, she admits, “I didn’t know that either.” Teller smugly responds, “That’s because you didn’t do your homework, did you?”
The X-Files frequently has Mulder and Scully venturing into small towns with their own unique folklore and monsters, perhaps a sign of civilisation encroaching upon previously isolated communities. Normally, the show suggests that the conflict is between Mulder and Scully and the monsters inhabiting these strange and ethereal places. In D.P.O., the conflict is made more explicit between Mulder and Scully and the local authorities in charge of policing these spaces.
It is a nice touch that Gordon’s script has Mulder deduce the unnatural aspect of these lightning strikes using victim profiling. “Well, then this local lightening is a lot more predictable than Teller realizes,” he tells Scully. “It seems to have a definite preference for the type of person it strikes.” He clarifies, “Look at the files, look at all the other victims, they’re all male age 17 to 21, just like Jack Hammond.” It’s a very nice character detail, harking back to Mulder’s past as a profiler.
D.P.O. is directed by Kim Manners, who was dealing with a personal tragedy at the time. A close friend (and the son of that friend) passed away in an accident during the filming of D.P.O., but the director refused to be replaced. He brought the script to screen, and he did so very well. D.P.O. is a delightfully atmospheric piece of work, and a demonstration of why Manners quickly became the show’s go-to guy, along with Rob Bowman.
In many respects, this is Manners’ first “standard” episode of The X-Files. Manners had been landed with the two heavily comedic episodes of the second season – Glen Morgan and James Wong’s Die Hand Die Verletzt and Darin Morgan’s Humbug. On paper, D.P.O. is a much more “normal” show – it is one of the most archetypal X-Files stories, the kind of show that people think about when they think of The X-Files.
Manners does great work. He perfectly captures the sense of heightened teenage melodrama to all this, making everything feel decidedly larger-than-life, despite the intimate scale of it all. There are lots of Dutch angles and low shots, and disorientated camera shots. There are a number of absolutely beautiful compositions here, from the initial freak-out in the video game arcade through to the death of Zero, where quarters arc from his body like blood splatter. It’s artistic, and it satisfies Broadcast Standards and Practices!
The opening sequence features James’ Ring the Bells. That song was apparently what inspired Chris Carter to suggest a “lightning boy” episode in the first place:
Sometimes I’ll suggest something, that will become a story. Last year we did an episode called D.P.O. about a kid who could control lightning. That’s something I wanted to do for a long time. Because there was a James song that I’d heard, this is how that story came about. There was a James song that’s got — in fact it’s right in the beginning of the show — it always felt to me like the song was a heart attack. That it was what a heart attack must feel like. And so I thought, that would be interesting if a heart attack is actually an electrical malfunction, it means you could actually use the song too … trigger heart attacks actually, actually use the electricity to do it.
The song (taken from a live Greenpeace charity album rather than the original album) works very well in context, feeling both really creepy and a little cool and wry.
This was the first time that the show had really done anything like this. It very much paved the way, demonstrating that The X-Files was not afraid to incorporate memorable and distinctive songs into episodes in meaningful and substantial ways. It was something that Glen Morgan and James Wong would really use when they returned to the show during the fourth season, with Wonderful Wonderful by Johnny Mathis in Home and Doesn’t Somebody Want to be Wanted? by The Partridge Family in Never Again.
(Then, having proven that the idea could work in practice, they would take it even further during their show-running stint on Millennium during its second season. Little Demon by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins featured heavily in The Curse of Frank Black, a minimalist episode. A Horse With No Name played against a key scene in Owls. The music of Patti Smith also featured heavily in Anamnesis and The Time is Now. The second season closed with In The Year 2525, fitting almost perfectly.)
D.P.O. is also notable for featuring an appearance of The Jerry Springer Show. Although the series had originally launched as a reasonably serious talk show in 1991, by October 1995 it had assumed its most iconic form – what has been described as a televised “freak show.” The show was massively popular and successful, one of the great television success stories of the nineties. In 1998, a V.H.S. tape of out takes from the show sold half-a-million copies.
Chris Carter would engage more directly with The Jerry Springer Show with Post-Modern Prometheus during the fifth season, but it does provide an interesting thematic overlap with The X-Files, playing almost as a companion piece. Assessing the impact of the show more than two decades after it broke out, A.V. Club writer Todd VanDerWerff suggested that the show’s central question was often, “Can you believe these people exist?”
Although much of The Jerry Springer Show would be exposed as fake in the late nineties — shocking, I know — the show traded on the exoticness of its guests. It claimed to be taking some of the odder aspects of America and parading them on-screen for the delight and delectation of a hungry audience. The fact that these people existed made it seem particularly mean-spirited and aggressive, but it does seem to mirror a lot of what made The X-Files so fascinating.
The show was fascinated by the idea of exploring and exposing the quirky and eccentric facets of the American experience. Mulder and Scully tended to venture into strange place with their own unique monsters and stories, exposing those monsters and pushing back the shadows that had hid them so long. The Jerry Springer Show did something similar. Springer would parade weird and odd guests in front of his audience, for their amusement. (Of course, the fact The X-Files is fiction means it isn’t malicious.)
D.P.O. is also notable for its great guest cast. The show’s third season features a cavalcade of future stars. Ryan Reynolds pops up in Syzygy, Lucy Liu turns up in Hell Money and eagle-eyed viewers will spot Michael Bublé in Apocrypha and Piper Maru. Here, recognisable performers Giovanni Ribisi and Jack Black have the two most prominent guest roles, and really flesh Darin and Zero out into fully-formed characters. (They made quite an impact. Ribisi’s Contraband co-star Ben Foster remembers him from the show.)
D.P.O. kicks off the third season’s “monster of the week” episodes on a high note, demonstrating how confident The X-Files is on its feet at this point in the run.
- The Blessing Way
- Paper Clip
- Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
- The List
- The Walk
- X-tra: (Topps) The Pit
- War of the Coprophages
- Piper Maru
- Teso Dos Bichos
- Hell Money
- Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”
- X-tra: (Topps) #14 – Falling
- Talitha Cumi
Filed under: The X-Files | Tagged: conspiracy, d.p.o., darin peter oswald, dpo, Giovanni Ribisi, Howard Gordon, jack black, james, kim manners, lightning boy, monster of the week, music, small town, teenagers, the jerry springer show, x-files |