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The X-Files: Season One (Topps) #6 – Space (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

If the jump to Ice suggested that the Season One line would only be covering the “highlights” of the first season of The X-Files, then the decision to immediately follow with an adaptation of Space puts paid to that theory.

Ice is generally regarded as one of the strongest stories of the first season. It is moody and atmospheric, tense and claustrophobic. It shines a light on the characterisation of Mulder and Scully, while also offering a particularly memorable (and unsettling) monster of the week. In contrast, Space is generally regarded as one of the weakest stories of the first season. It is clumsy and muddled, slow and dreary. The episode’s direction is bland and the special effects are woeful. On paper, it is probably the least likely choice for a Season One adaptation.

Face the future...

Face the future…

However, Space ultimately lends itself to a comic book adaptation. The story finds itself well-suited by the transition from live action footage to comic book page. there are a number of different reasons for this, but the truth is that the story is simply better suited to this format. That applies to the technical limitations imposed on film, but also to the storytelling conventions associated with comic books as opposed to live action television. It is a startling result, and arguably the biggest success of the entire Season One line.

Although it is a qualified accomplishment at best, Space is the first Season One comic that manages to surpass its source material.

Is there life on Mars?

Is there life on Mars?

To understand how the comic adaptation of Space works better than the original episode, it is worth reflecting on the problems with the episode as broadcast. The most obvious – and most superficial – issue with Space is the fact that the first season of The X-Files was never going to have the budget to properly realise all the requisite effects. There are any number of really embarrassing moments in Space where the show’s special effects budget brushes up against its own limitations.

These moments are unfortunately the biggest moments of the episode. The first season of The X-Files was a cult hit at best, a show designed to follow the more promising and more anticipated The Adventures of Brisco County Junior. It would never be able to realise a convincing space walk, let alone an attack on a car by a giant representation of the “face” on Mars or any of the other big moments that the script demanded. However, the quality of the special effects is not merely an aesthetic matter.

Mulder and Scully meet their arch-enemy: government bureaucracy...

Mulder and Scully meet their arch-enemy: government bureaucracy…

It is one thing for the special effects in Space to look cheap; that is not the biggest problem with the episode. The special effects in Space are limiting. They could only be realised in very specific ways, limiting the choices available for the direction of those sequences. The special effects in Space look cheap, but they also muddled the narrative. The sequences relying on special effects are rendered unclear and confusing, because the production team is not able to realise the special effects in a way that makes it entirely clear what is going on.

The comic book adaptation can fix this. After all, there are no budget limitations on comic book special effects. If a good writer is teamed with a good artist, almost anything is possible. Writer Roy Thomas and artist Val Mayerik are not restricted in how they can portray the weird entity in work over the course of the comic. As such, it becomes a lot clearer that the weird spectre haunting NASA is not a psychic projection of the face on Mars or a weird hallucination, but some sort of “entity” that happens to share the same features as that iconic shape.

Face off...

Face off…

To be fair, the exposition in Space always made it clear that Colonel Marcus Aurelius Belt had unwittingly brought an invited guest back to mission to control, but the comic book adaptation of Space is able to convey a clearer sense of what exactly the entity is and how it works. It is a lot clearer what is actually happening on a panel-to-panel basis. A lot of the Season One adaptations can feel redundant or unnecessary as they add little of value to the source material, but Space actually clears up a lot of the less successful elements of the episode in question.

Another weakness of the television episode was the direction of William Graham. Graham was an industry veteran who had been working since the mid-fifties. He was a reliable and trustworthy director, but one with a conservative style that did not gel with the more energetic and dynamic aesthetic of the show. The X-Files was a young show that was clearly written for a younger audience. It is telling that the directors who did stick around after the first season – like David Nutter or Rob Bowman – were those willing to be more adventurous and playful.

Space man...

Space man…

Graham’s direction of Space is rather workmanlike. It is clean and steady. There are lots of scenes of talking heads that are shot in a rather straightforward manner, which tends to render the exposition a bit clunky and stilted. Most of Space is confined to NASA’s mission control centre, which means that Space could easily become bland or boring. There is very little distinctive or atmospheric about the episode, particularly when compared to the shows around it. Both Ice before it and Fallen Angel after it have a greater sense of tension and mood.

Given that Thomas tends to adapt the source script with a minimum amount of tinkering or embellishment, Space really feels like a visual reinterpretation of the source material. Artist Val Mayerik is given a lot of freedom to realise his own version of the episode. Without having to worry about a shooting schedule or a budget, Mayerik is able to build on the episode as it was shot to provide a much richer sense of mood and anxiety. He is not curtailed in the way that Graham would have been while originally shooting.

"Wow, you guys really back light stuff here, huh?"

“Wow, you guys really back light stuff here, huh?”

Mayerik also has the advantage of having a greater familiarity with how The X-Files works best. It was a young show when Graham worked on it, and the series hadn’t really defined its visual style as firmly as it would in the years ahead. David Nutter’s first directorial credit was only an episode before Space, and Rob Bowman would not direct an episode until Gender Bender five episodes after Graham. As such, Mayerik is able to frame his comic book adaptation of Space in such a way that it actually feels more like an episode of the show than the source material.

Mayerik does some really superb work with the material. In particular, Mayerik and Thomas make a point to include a shot of a ticking countdown clock on almost every page. It is a creative decision that helps to enhance (and to remind the audience of) the tension underscoring the adventure. A ticking clock always creates a sense of suspense and anxiety, and the decision to turn the clock into a visual motif is a smart touch. It helps to reinforce the tension as various characters talk about issues like delays and like time. The episode didn’t feature the clocks quite as skilfully.

Don't sweat it...

Don’t sweat it…

So the comic book adaptation of Space simply looks a lot better than the episode. It is a lot easier to see what is going on, but it is also a lot more atmospheric and moody. However, there is another reason why the comic book adaptation works a lot better than the televised episode. Quite frankly, Chris Carter’s script feels more at home within the traditionally pulpy stylings of the horror comic book than it does within the more modern and trendy aesthetic of a prime-time television show.

In its first few years, The X-Files was generally quite cautious of high-concept science-fiction ideas. Most notably, it took the show four years to do a proper time-travel story in Synchrony. Part of the reason that The X-Files managed to find such a wide audience was the show’s ability to play all of these outlandish ideas in a relatively straight manner. The X-Files was far more Silence of the Lambs as it was Star Trek. In that context, the idea of the face of Mars possessing an astronaut and undermining the entire space programme seemed a little absurd.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

More than that, the implication that this evil entity had been responsible for the decline and collapse of NASA seemed a little trite. The Challenger Disaster was a real-life tragedy that claimed seven lives; for a show that took itself so seriously and earnestly on the value of the space programme, it seemed in poor taste for The X-Files to suggest that the disaster might have been caused by a former astronaut who had been possessed by an entity from outer space intending to keep mankind in their place.

Due to their origins as pulp entertainment, and due to the difficulty in earning mainstream prestige and attention, comic books feel more suited to these sorts of strange internal logical leaps. In fact, the outline of Space feels much closer to the mood and tone of John Rozum’s work on the monthly X-Files comic book than any other episode of the first season. It feels like something like The Face of Extinction or Cam Rahn Bay. As such, it is easier to run with some of Space‘s more outlandish concepts in a comic book than it is on television.

"Sorry, did I mention I was talking about the Truth?"

“Sorry, did I mention I was talking about the Truth?”

Of course, Space is far from perfect. There is still a sense that Mulder and Scully really don’t do too much over the course of the episode, and that Carter is really just using the show as a mouthpiece to celebrate the American space programme. There are extended sequences of exposition and narration that eat into the momentum of the story. As with the other Season One scripts, no real concession is made to how odd this early instalment can seem in light of all the subsequent developments and elaborations.

Still, it is the first time that a Season One comic has been better than the episode that inspired it. This might be damning with faint praise, but it does at least suggest some potential for the comic book line.

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