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The X-Files – Scary Monsters (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Scary Monsters is the episode that was in production when The X-Files was cancelled.

Due to the fact that news broke to the public at roughly the same time that it broke to the production team and that the ninth season was fond of shuffling episodes up and down the broadcast order, Scary Monsters aired almost three months after the cancellation was announced to the public. However, the production team were informed while they were working on the episode. Given the low ratings and muted reaction to the ninth season, the cancellation seemed inevitable. Nevertheless, it was quite a blow.

Doggett's burning down the house.

Doggett’s burning down the house.

That is perhaps the most notable fact about Scary Monsters, which is a disappointingly bland episode of television. As with Underneath before it, this is not an embarrassing episode by any measure. It just lacks any real energy or verve. Watching Scary Monsters, there is a sense that the production team were going through the motions, that the reserve of energy that drove the show through its finest seasons had been depleted. The show was running on empty, the production team’s imaginations all but empty.

It feels like the show should have something smart or ironic to say about a kid who can conjure monsters from his own limited imagination. Sadly, it is just a rote monster of the week.

"Now I know how Mulder felt during the season eight credits..."

“Now I know how Mulder felt during the season eight credits…”

The ninth season of The X-Files seemed doomed from the outset. There was a significant drop in the audience figures between the eighth season finalé in Existence and the ninth season premiere in Nothing Important Happened Today I. (There was also a drop from Malcolm in the Middle.) It is impossible to be sure about what caused that massive departure of viewers. Certainly, there are any number of possibilities that could account for the sharp ratings decline over the break between the end of the eighth season and the start of the ninth.

Had audiences simply grown tired of the show? Did fans think that the closing shot of Mulder and Scully in Existence was the right place to leave the characters? Were viewers disinterested in The X-Files without Mulder? Did Fox fail to promote the show? Were people simple tired of conspiracies and paranoia in the wake of 9/11? Was some combination of the above? It is impossible to know. While there are any number of good reasons to stop watching The X-Files after nine seasons, there was no singular all-purpose reason.

This is going to eat Monica up inside...

This is going to eat Monica up inside…

This is not to let the production team off the hook. Those fans who did return for the ninth season were treated to the sharpest drop in quality in the history of the show. Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II lived up to their titles, representing the weakest season-opener in the history of the show. Shows like Dæmonicus and Lord of the Flies certainly did not help to foster the sense that the production team knew what they were doing.

While the show might have been able to count on its mythology episodes to buoy a weaker season in past years, the ninth season mythology proved to be just as unfocused and misguided as the stand-alone episodes. Trust No 1, Provenance and Providence might seem like timely examinations of the post-9/11 political climate, but they simply did not work as drama. The mythology had been irrational and illogical before, but it had never been quite as dull as it was during the ninth season.

"But it's okay! Chris promised we'd be in the movie!"

“But it’s okay! Chris promised we’d be in the movie!”

The decision to end the show came by mutual consent between Chris Carter and Fox. According to Chris Carter, he made the decision over the Christmas break:

It was mine. I thought about it over the Christmas vacation. We had premiered the show in its ninth season in November and we were up against all kinds of stiff competition. We were counter-programmed very effectively – including our season premiere, which was against Saving Private Ryan – and so our numbers were down. They were respectable numbers and we were still head to head with the competition, but they weren’t the numbers that we had been getting in year eight.

After six episodes of the show, the ratings had levelled off at a respectable level but they had not come up. I felt that some of the audience had left and I didn’t know where they had gone because I thought we were doing good work and I thought that the addition of Annabeth [Gish, Agent Reyes] and Robert [Patrick, Agent Doggett] to the show was a good and effective one. But I didn’t want to see any analysis that they were somehow responsible for the lower ratings, so I decided that I would rather call it a day than see someone trash the show, trash them and trash me when I thought we were still doing excellent work. We’ve really created a new franchise and I thought it was time to go out strong and to look forward to the series of The X-Files movies.

There is a sense that Carter is engaging in some mythologising there, given some of the extreme fan and media reaction to the ninth season show. It seemed like a lot of viewers had become quite hostile towards it.

"Not the CGI bugs!"

“Not the CGI bugs!”

The final seasons of The X-Files serve as something of a precursor to the modern television experience. Backlash has become part of the internet experience, with angry fans seizing upon the opportunity to make their voices heard. It is almost disappointing when the final season of a beloved show doesn’t generate some intense on-line response in the same way that Lost and Battlestar Galactica did. Often, it can feel like shows no longer need to wait until their final seasons to generate those responses; look at Doctor Who or Game of Thrones.

The show’s fandom has mellowed since then. Most modern X-Files fans will acknowledge the show’s final seasons as a curiousity, maybe even acknowledging that the eighth season was quite ahead of its time and surprisingly well-structured. It is amazing what a few years of cooling off can do. This is not unique to X-Files fandom. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films have allowed Star Trek fandom to take time off from burning effigies of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga and admit Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise maybe weren’t the worst things ever.

Under lockdown...

Under lockdown…

There is a lot of debate about what brings out these impulses in contemporary on-line fandom. Darren Franich argues that it is very much about the sense of ownership and entitlement that long-form narratives foster:

Because the weird truth about modern fandom is that it tends to be based specifically on what doesn’t exist – the aspirational, and vaguely narcissistic, idea that the thing itself is less important than the fan’s perspective of the thing. That’s true of central fan notions like ‘shipping and fanfiction – literally imprinting an entirely new story onto the story that actually happens on the show – but it’s also true about our relationship with a serialized narrative that is still in progress. Lost is just the most extreme example of a show that conjured up its fandom based on the promise that everything would pay off eventually – more often than not, when you talked about Lost you were talking about where Lost was going and what your theories were about Lost, which is another way of talking about vapor. But the same was true of The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica, two incredible shows with less-than-incredible series finales. George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” isn’t constructed around a mystery-mythology like those other books, but it’s the new go-to running example for a series that needs to “stick the landing” in its conclusion; not coincidentally, it’s also a great example of how terrible fans can be.

Perhaps that is why fans took Mulder’s absence (and Doggett’s arrival) so personally, in spite of the fact that David Duchovny simply did not want to be around any longer. (Which, after seven years, is perfectly reasonable.)

More than Gillian Anderson's had to chew on so far this season...

More than Gillian Anderson’s had to chew on so far this season…

Still, there was a sense that The X-Files had become a victim of its own fanbase. After all, Underneath received some fairly vicious skewering in the fan press as anonymous sources came out to label the episode an unmitigated disaster when it was simply very bland. With all of that going on in the background, it seems like bringing back the character of Leyla Harrison was not the smartest idea that the production team had during the ninth season. It was not the dumbest, but that’s faint praise; the ninth season is frequently spectacularly ill-judged television.

Leyla Harrison had been introduced in Alone as a stand-in for X-Files fandom. In fact, writer Frank Spotnitz had even named her in honour of a big fan who had passed away before the episode went into production. It was a very sweet sentiment. Leyla Harrison was a fairly generic character, but she didn’t need a lot of depth. She existed as an affectionate nod towards obsessive X-Files fandom, an accountant who dreamed of having exciting adventures alongside Mulder and Scully. Sure, she got stuck with Doggett, but she didn’t seem too upset about it.

Sleep tight...

Sleep tight…

The production team really needed to be careful with Leyla Harrison. Most obviously, the character was named for a deceased fan, so there was a certain amount of care required in writing for her. If the homage was not played right, Leyla Harrison would feel offensive and insulting. More than that, positioning Leyla Harrison as a stand-in for the show’s (very energetic) fanbase meant having to tread very carefully. Internet fandoms can often seem like sleeping dragons; seemingly innocuous choices can set them off. Just ask Steven Moffat.

To be fair to Scary Monsters, the production was troubled even before word of cancellation filtered down. In the book LAX-Files, writer Tom Schnauz described the writing process behind Scary Monsters as “basically panic.” Writer Vince Gilligan joked about the possibility of making the kid the villain and ripping off the iconic Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life… right before desperation forced the writers to make the kid the villain and rip off the iconic Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life.

... and don't let the bed bugs bite...

… and don’t let the bed bugs bite…

All of this is to say that Scary Monsters was written in a rush, without a lot of planning and thought. So, it is possible to see how the production team missed what they were doing with the character of Leyla Harrison. While Harrison accepted Doggett in Alone, she spends most of Scary Monsters complaining about the fact that she got stuck with the substitute X-Files team. She approaches Scully before approaching the agents actually assigned to the X-files unit. She goads Doggett into investigating the case by observing “if Agent Mulder were here, he’d keep going.”

Harrison then proceeds to spend the rest of the episode complaining about how ineffective Doggett and Reyes are as an investigative team. When she points out the (admittedly spurious) similarities between this case and D.P.O., she adds, “Agent Mulder wasted no time closing that case. I just try to think like him. What would Agents Mulder and Scully do if they were in this situation?” While Harrison was fixated on Mulder and Scully in Alone, she seems to hone in on Mulder here; her boyfriend even complains about how obsessed she is with Mulder.

"Cat's in the cradle..."

“Cat’s in the cradle…”

Alone presented Leyla Harrison as awkward and geeky, but also intelligent and resourceful. Scary Monsters makes a point to infantalise her. Doggett and Reyes talk to Harrison as if addressing a small child or a dim-witted puppy. “Why didn’t you tell us you’d already gone to Agent Scully?” Reyes firmly asks at one point. Harrison timidly mumbles, “I didn’t know that’s who you were going to call her.” Doggett makes a point to make eye-contact in the rearview mirror. “That’s not the point, Leyla. You misled us.” Doggett then literally turns the car around.

(To be fair, there is also a sense that Scary Monsters is talking to its audience as if they were children. The dialogue in the script is woeful, with both Doggett and Reyes demonstrating a tendency to literally state facts that should be obvious to any member of the audience who is actually paying attention to the script. After a particularly awkward encounter with the young boy in question in which the child’s answers were obviously prompted, Doggett and Reyes decide to hang around. Reyes bluntly states, “That little boy only said what his father wanted him to say.”)

A cut above...

A cut above…

In many ways, it feels like Scary Monsters is rather aggressively tweaking the nose of its own fandom. It is holding up Leyla Harrison as an example of the worst excesses of fan culture. Harrison is absolutely obsessed with Mulder and Scully, but openly hostile to Doggett and Reyes. Despite describing herself as a fan of the X-files (or The X-Files), she spends most of her time working the case complaining about how Doggett and Reyes simply are not as good as Mulder and Scully were.

This is perhaps an accurate representation of certain vocal sections of fandom, but it feels very passive-aggressive. It also feels like a rather unfortunate use of a character who was named in honour of a deceased fan. Scary Monsters runs the risk of retroactively tainting the warm affection that made Alone so much fun. If this is what the show thinks of its fandom, things are about to get very hostile indeed. It does not bode well for a show that is hoping to end on a high note.

Drawn from imagination...

Drawn from imagination…

In interviews around the end of the ninth season, Frank Spotnitz rejected this reading of Leyla Harrison in Scary Monsters:

“Before Sunshine Days aired I was distressed to read on the Internet that a lot of people were saying, ‘Oh, this is going to be them dissing the fans, and telling us that we were idiots.’ It’s such a misreading of us and how we feel about our fans. We love our fans, we’re so grateful for our fans – we think they’re so smart and attentive,” he reaffirms. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We would never do that. There was also a misreading of the ending of Scary Monsters. ‘What are you trying to say, people are stupid for watching our show?’” he quotes. Determined to set the record straight, he adds, “You’ve got to be crazy to think that or do that if you’re in our line of work. I think that there’s a lot of wasted energy in some quarters talking about things like that.”

It is very hard to read the episode any other way, particularly in the larger context of the ninth season and the show’s relationship to its fandom.

An episode which features Doggett punchin' clean through a guy should not be this dull...

An episode which features Doggett punchin’ clean through a guy should not be this dull…

Then again, perhaps Hanlon’s Razor applies. “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” The ninth season of The X-Files was not the most carefully and meticulously cultivated season of television ever produced. Mistakes were most definitely made by the production team over the course of the season. Given the pressure under which Scary Monsters was written, it is entirely possible that the writers intended for Leyla Harrison’s appearance in Scary Monsters to be an affectionate tip of the hat to fandom without any ill will.

After all, it would seem that the show actually agrees with Harrison’s assessment of Doggett and Reyes. Harrison is not a lone voice in the wilderness. Scary Monsters is not the only time that Mulder’s name has come up, despite Duchovny’s absence. When Harrison suggests that Mulder would easily have solved the case, it feels like the show holds the character in similar regard. Trust No 1 and Providence elevated Mulder to the status of messiah; his survival is the only thing that will protect mankind from the colonists.

Here's Tommy...

Here’s Tommy…

Harrison might be fixated on Mulder, but so is the ninth season around her. Duchovny would only reprise the role in The Truth, but his stunt butt appears in Nothing Important Happened Today I before any of the credited leads. Doggett and Reyes seem like bland placeholders, with the show frequently marginalising them so that it can reassure fans that Mulder and Scully are still (and always will be) essential to the show. As with Dæmonicus and Lord of the Flies, Scary Monsters gives Scully an inessential subplot to remind viewers that Gillian Anderson is still on contract.

Even Scully is reduced to a satellite character, caught in orbit between Mulder and William. The colonists’ prophecy says nothing about Scully, which leads to a recurring ninth season of theme of characters trying to attack Mulder or William through Scully. It is a waste of Gillian Anderson, which is all the more frustrating given that this is supposed to be her final season. The production team should be trying to build a character arc for Scully akin to the one they built for Mulder during the eighth season. Instead, Scully is rendered tangential.

A lighter season...

A lighter season…

Still, Scully gets more play than Doggett or Reyes. The ninth season provides ample opportunity to develop both characters, but frequently fumbles the ball. Nothing Important Happened Today II reveals that John Doggett’s military unit were part of “super soldier” trials, but his old colleague is only using Doggett to get to Scully. Dæmonicus has Reyes encountering a possible case of satanic ritual murder, but is more interested in what Scully will be doing during the ninth season. Providence puts Doggett in a coma while Scully looks for William.

That is the case within Scary Monsters, which should really be a case about what makes Doggett and Reyes unique. Doggett is a character who has lost a son; the case presented in Scary Monsters should resonate with him on some level. To be fair, Robert Patrick gives an emotional performance, but Scary Monsters never really broaches the issue of how Doggett must feel about possibly killing an eight-year-old kid. The situation is tense, but that has got to be a lot of pressure to put on Doggett. Sadly, the script would rather spend time making Mulder and Scully comparisons.

Kids these days...

Kids these days…

(Even the resolution to the threat feels like something of a back-handed compliment to the character of Doggett. Doggett is essentially able to save the day because he has no imagination. Given that Scary Monsters just had its primary guest star spend an inordinate amount of time complaining that Doggett was inherently inferior than Mulder, it seems rather unfortunate to allow Doggett to triumph because he lacks any imagination. As with a lot of Scary Monsters, it feels somewhat mean-spirited.)

Then again, it does not seem like Scary Monsters intentionally slighted or belittled Doggett as a character. It does not seem like the omission was a conscious creative decision. Instead, it seems like the possibilities never occurred to the writing staff, that nobody on staff actually paused to think about what makes Doggett different from Mulder and how that might possible affect the way that case plays out. In many ways, Scary Monsters plays like a stunningly generic episode of The X-Files.

Father knows best...

Father knows best…

It is a shame, because there are some interesting ideas here. The teaser to Scary Monsters finds a kid facing a monster under his bed, perhaps the most primal of fears. Given that the last time The X-Files put a monster under the bed it produced Home, that is certainly an effective place to start an episode. The teaser ends with a shot of a father locking his son in a room with a monster, as his son pleads desperately for help. That should be the key to an effective X-Files episodes.

Instead, the result is pretty banal. The twists are entirely familiar to anybody with an understanding of The X-Files or the larger horror genre as a whole. It turns out that the kid is the monster, in a nod towards that classic enfant terrible school of horror. More than that, the monsters running around the episode are entirely imaginary, the product of a child’s imagination run wild. Scary Monsters never explains whether Tommy is simply disconnected or genuinely malevolent.

This is pretty messed up...

This is pretty messed up…

On paper, these ingredients should add up to an effective X-Files episode. Certainly, it is quite easy to imagine a version of the show that works much better than the broadcast cut. The problem is that the episode takes these fairly stock ingredients and never really does anything with them. The episode is never entirely clear on the relationship between Tommy and his father, or why Tommy killed his own mother, or what the deal is with the mirrors. While ambiguity can be a good thing, Scary Monsters doesn’t even offer any tantalising hints.

Similarly, the idea of a story where a child’s imagination is the monster should be more interesting than Scary Monsters. Given all the self-aware commentary that Leyla Harrison offers, imaginary monsters should provide interesting fodder for an episode. Certainly, X-Cops did something very compelling with a monster that seemed to be composed of fear. Unfortunately, Scary Monsters decides that the most horrifying monster a child can imagine is a fairly unimpressive CGI bug.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

Still, Scary Monsters does connect back to that recurring theme of reality and illusion. The ninth season repeatedly suggests that reality is a fragile thing, prone to invasion or displacement. Tommy is a child unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, but whose fantasy proceeds to bleed into reality. As with Audrey Pauley, there is a sense that the show is making a nod towards the nascent “Tommy Westphall hypothesis”, with Tom Schnauz even going so far as to explicitly name the child “Tommy.”

Indeed, the closing gag about finding a way to stifle Tommy’s imagination feels like something of a nod to that iconic theory. This is another child named Tommy with an over-active imagination whose mind will now house an impressive volume of television. Once again, the ninth season skirts around the edges of self-awareness, suggesting that the reality in which Doggett and Reyes find themselves is fragile and prone to shatter at the slightest provocation.

More like terror-vision... amirite?

More like terror-vision… amirite?

There are some other interesting aspects of Scary Monsters. Although it aired in April 2002, the episode has a very nice winter feeling to it. Doggett and Scully make a journey to “some mountain-top in Pennsylvania in the middle of nowhere”, where everything is covered with pine trees and snow. Given that The X-Files has spent the bulk of its final four seasons filming in sunny California, the setting makes for a delightful change of pace. It feels like Vancouver all over again.

Kim Manners does good work with the setting. The icicles on the trees and the gently-falling snow suggest an episode quite far apart from the sun-drenched stylings of something like John Doe or the bright technicolour of Improbable. Given that the eponymous creatures in Scary Monsters are all created by the imagination of a small child, it seems entirely appropriate that Doggett and Reyes have wandered into a snowglobe to confront them. The ninth season has a very cartoony aesthetic, and the setting of Scary Monsters certainly feels of a piece with that.

Snow escape...

Snow escape…

Sadly, the setting is the most distinctive aspect of Scary Monsters. With the clock ticking down towards the show’s cancellation, a bland episode is almost more disheartening than a spectacularly terrible one. Of course, that is probably easy to say at this point.

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