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The X-Files: Season One (Topps) #8 – Beyond the Sea (Review)

We’ve recently finished our reviews of the nine seasons of The X-Files. Along the way, we tried to do tie-ins and crossovers and spin-offs. However, some of those materials weren’t available at the right time. So this week will be spent finishing Topps’ line of “Season One” comics, published during the fifth season in the lead up to The X-Files: Fight the Future.

Beyond the Sea is more than just the best episode of the first season.

Beyond the Sea is one of the best episodes that the show ever produced. Airing half-way through the first season of The X-Files, Beyond the Sea demonstrated exactly what the show was capable of doing at that point in its run. It was a television masterpiece, and remains one of the very best episodes of an extended nine-season run. More than Ice, more than E.B.E., more than Darkness Falls, Beyond the Sea is the unqualified success story of the show’s first season.

Sea change...

Sea change…

This makes the decision to adapt it as part of the Season One line a relatively risky endeavour. The last two episodes adapted as part of the series – Space and Fire – are unlikely to rank highly on any fan’s assessment of the show’s first year. This was not a bad strategy. If the comic book adaptations were good, like the adaptation of Space had been, then it was a success story for everybody involved. If the comic book adaptations were not great, as was the case with Fire, then it seemed unlikely that anybody would care too much.

Adapting the season’s strongest episode was a bold creative decision. It seemed highly unlikely that writer Roy Thomas and artist Sean Scofield could compete with the episode written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by David Nutter. The best case scenario for an adaptation of Beyond the Sea would be to serve as a reminder of just how wonderful the television episode had been, rather than a comic book that was memorable in its own right. It was very much a situation where the best possible outcome was not messing it up.

Haunting visit...

Haunting visit…

The Season One line of comics makes sense from a business perspective for all involved. Topps were still selling a lot of X-Files comics, and so wanted another regular series that they could sell to fans. At the same time, Ten Thirteen were wary about ceding creative control of these characters and this franchise to a comic book publisher. As a result, adaptations of stories that had already been produced by Ten Thirteen and were already part of the X-Files canon would help to save a lot of potential disagreements back and forth.

However, it is harder to justify the Season One comics from a creative perspective. These stories had already been told. Some had been told poorly, like Space. Some had been told well, like Beyond the Sea. However, it was clear that Ten Thirteen and Topps were not interested in offering a revisionist history of the show’s first season; they were not interested in “fixing” the past. Writer Roy Thomas sticks tightly the scripts he is given, for better or for worse. There are no continuity tweaks to help ease the first season into line with what followed.

Filing it away for later...

Filing it away for later…

This is apparent even in Beyond the Sea. During William Scully’s funeral, the staging reflects the episode as it aired. The Scully family appears as it did during those early days of the show. Melissa would not be introduced until One Breath, so she does not appear at the funeral. (Although Emily would retroactively suggest she had disappeared and been travelling during that period of the show’s run.) Bill would not be introduced until Gethsemane, so the only other male figure who appears at the funeral has two children.

This refusal to tinker with the past makes certain amount of sense, demonstrating commendable artistic integrity. George Lucas was tinkering with his original Star Wars trilogy at around the same time that these comics were published, and part of his tinkering would involve smoothing over continuity. His revision of the original film would add a scene with Jabba the Hutt to create tighter continuity with Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi. Later revisions would add Hayden Christensen to The Return of the Jedi to create continuity with the prequels.

All at sea...

All at sea…

The Season One comis seem to accept the first season as it was, refusing to amend the original stories. However, this does raise the question of what the point of all this is to be. What is the point of going back to these stories and recreating them in comic books if they are to be entirely faithful? To be fair, Season One predated the explosion of television home media that came with DVDs, meaning that the comics did not feel quite as redundant in 1998 as they do in 2016, but there is still a big question mark hanging over the whole process.

While Fox had yet to release a complete VHS collection of the first season, the company had released selected episodes. By and large, those episodes lined up with the episodes chosen for the Season One comics. Six of the nine Season One comics were available on VHS, meaning the comics were far from the only way for fans to catch up with classic X-Files stories. (Space, Fire and Shadows are the exceptions.) It is hard to imagine anybody reaching for Roy Thomas and Sean Scofield’s version of Beyond the Sea as the definitive version, no matter how good it might be.

Hair-raising...

Hair-raising…

Perhaps Season One is most satisfying as a collection of art books; artful reimaginings of old episodes that stick faithfully to the text while filtering the visuals through a unique artistic sensibility. The stories themselves migth vary in quality, but John Van Fleet’s work on The Pilot, Ice and Fire remains striking. The X-Files was always a largely visual show when it came to narrative, relying on its unique visual style to distinguish it from competition. Seeing those visuals translated to another medium is an interesting experiment, even if the results are not always satisfying.

With Beyond the Sea, it is very hard to imagine a comic book adaptation surpassing the original interpretation of the script. David Nutter’s direction is pitch-perfect, and the script is elevated by two stellar performances from Gillian Anderson and Brad Dourif. Beyond the Sea is a story very much cemented in the way that Nutter told it, without any real reason to offer an abstract reimagining in the way that, say, John Van Fleet’s art reconceptualises the finished footage. A more abstract style would lose the clarity that Nutter brought and obscure the performances.

Shadowplay...

Shadowplay…

So it makes sense for Beyond the Sea to be told in a more photorealistic style than something like Space or Fire. Artist Sean Scofield manages to capture the visual tone of the episode perfectly. There are panels in Beyond the Sea that immediately and effectively evoke the actors’ performances, particular Brad Dourif’s more physical style. With a few still images, Scofield manages to capture a shorthand of Dourif’s delivery. Reading the comic serves as something of a memory prompt that immediately conjures up the episode’s memorable central guest performance.

At the same time, Scofield also remains faithful to Nutter’s direction. There are several points in the adaptation where Scofield adopts am impressionistic style to capture violence or horror, recalling the work that artist David McKean was doing on Vertigo comics in the late earlies and early nineties. McKean was a huge influence on mature comics in the nineties; he contributed to several Vertigo-themed projects, from the covers to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum to collaborations with Gaiman on Black Orchid and Hellblazer.

Howling at the moon...

Howling at the moon…

McKean’s artwork can occasionally feel like a collage, incorporating drawings with photographs and digital work. There points at which Beyond the Sea feels a little like that, alternating from spot-on likenesses of the characters caught mid-pose to more haunting and abstract shots depicting the action. It is an approach that is very much suited to David Nutter’s direction, a very stylised and heightened approach to storytelling. Although Topps never got a chance to produce a comic based upon the second season, it is interesting to imagine Scofield’s version of 3.

As Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard demonstrated during their run on the primary comic book title, The X-Files lends itself to this decidedly “Vertigo” aesthetic. Part of what made Vancouver so appealing when compared to Los Angeles was the sense of mood and atmosphere, the clouds overhead and the darkness in the frame. Although Ten Thirteen and Topps were not entirely comfortable with a stylised approach to the show’s world, it is worth noting that the modern X-Files comics published at IDW hark back to these more atmospheric approaches to the material.

Long con...

Long con…

The Season One adaptation of Beyond the Sea does an excellent job recreating a lot of what made the episode so great, skilfully evoking the direction and performances that elevated an already superb script. There is little new to be added to the story, little unique insight to be offered with a twist on the tale. However, if the point of Season One is nothing more than adaptation and recreation, then Beyond the Sea passes with flying colours.

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