X-Files mythology, TenThirteen Interviews Database, and more

11X08: Familiar

The X-Files Season 11 / Event Series 2 : Introduction 11X01: My Struggle III 11X02: This 11X03: Plus One 11X04: The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat 11X05: Ghouli 11X06: Kitten 11X07: Rm9sbG93zxjz

When this season was announced, one of the aspects I was most interested in was to see how episodes both written and directed by newcomers to The X-Files would turn out. Certainly my main expectation from this revival was closure with the mythology and characters, but Carter expanded the revival to cover stand-alone episodes as well, and with more quantity of episodes this season comes experimentation and open slots for new blood. Kitten was extremely derivative of the past and lacked stamina; Followers was all concept and not enough content; Familiar is the first one to truly get it right. It is written by Benjamin Van Allen (writer’s assistant/staff writer in the two revival episodes in the first solo script of his career!), and is directed by Holly Dale (veteran TV director, newcomer to The X-Files).

Release the Hounds of Hell!

The story is not something we have never seen before. Small town witchcraft where those calling it get more than what they can handle, couples cursing each other because of extra-marital affairs: see the landmark 2X14: Die Hand die Verletzt and 7X16: Chimera. The little boy in yellow parka and the scary clown figure inevitably bring Stephen King’s It to mind. The use of whatever is familiar to the victims to attract them or scare them is reminiscent of the changing monster of 7X12: X-Cops, but here it is in fact derived from a real belief: the familiar spirit of Medieval European folklore, reminiscent of the succubus (3X21: Avatar). The originality of the episode is not in the paranormal phenomenon itself.

However, the story is approached as a true mystery with enough twists and turns throughout as to what is happening and why that the result is gripping and fresh. We get to care for the drama happening to the people we meet here, be it due to the horror of children dying, due to some good acting, or to some tight editing. We feel for the raw wrath that leads to an innocent person getting accused because of his past and hunted like a witch by a mob, in a scene that is reminiscent of classics like Frankenstein or 3X13: Syzygy or 5X06: Post-Modern Prometheus. It is true that Mulder & Scully are more spectators and their investigation does not prevent any murder — actually, Scully’s involvement inadvertantly results in an additional murder, but such are the complexities and perils of law enforcement — and this is not something we haven’t seen in several episodes. The only odd passage would be them not attempting to do anything while Mrs Strong spontaneously combusts at the end.

Another aspect that the episode gets right is Mulder and Scully’s interaction: the intense intellectual exchanges between them, throwing theories at each other to see what sticks, seeing them grinding their gears while the events are unfolding around them. Mulder being Mulder with his encyclopedic knowledge of all things paranormal and his knack for literally tasting the evidence;
Scully taking the role of the one looking for a grounded explanation, using medical vocabulary and actually performing an autopsy. It is really a mystery why it took us fourteen episodes in this revival to get scenes like these.

The other trademark element that is present here as well is the Vancouver atmosphere. The forests are utlized better here than in Kitten, and there is rain and mud in several scenes. It helps that the shooting was advanced enough by this time, November, that they could make use of the rainy weather that defined the early seasons of the show — in contrast to the light due to the shooting during summer months in season 10 and the early part of season 11. Mark Snow’s music is noticeable this time, in horror mode, and includes that damned catchy Mr Chukleteeth theme song. The incredible design of Mr Chuckleteeth and the Teletubbies lookalikes all contribute to the overall spookiness. Incredibly enough, it is also the first episode of season 11 to feature the normal tagline, “The Truth Is Out There“!

The fact that all the elements work is a tribute to Holly Dale’s directing, I really wish she would have been involved in this revival from earlier on.

MOTW vs Mythology

Thus we have here a stand-alone episode that could have been pulled straight from season 2. And that is almost true too in the way Mulder and Scully interact. While it is wonderful to have Mulder and Scully arguing their case to each other again, there is no denying that 25 (26?) years have passed since these characters met and they cannot be behaving in exactly the same way. Phrases like “as we’ve discussed before, people don’t just spontaneously combust” are interesting, since they both acknowledge a precedent, yet omit the fact that at one point Scully was the one opening up to Mulder’s theories and proposing spontaneous human combustion to interpret a murder (a memorable dialogue in 6X17: Trevor)! Can Scully still say “it doesn’t mean that witchcraft has any basis in reality” after all she’s seen? (e.g. 7X14: Theef) While Scully mentions it’s always difficult to autopsy a child, it’s a lost opportunity not to make the connection of the name of the second child victim, Emily, with her own child (5X05 Christmas Carol / 5X07: Emily).

Of course, that kind of radical shift from mythology episode to stand-alone episode and lack of experience accumulation are encoded in the series’ DNA since the beginning. Even so, season 7 was notable and enjoyable for its progressive convergence of worldviews of the two central characters, which could be felt not only in the mythology episodes but in the stand-alones too. It is evident the revival is not attempting such ambitious character development and prefers to return to the roots of the series. Mulder as the archetype of the believer, Scully as the archetype of the skeptic, in a formula that could be repeated in any number of reboots for future generations. Perhaps this schizophrenia is even more noticeable now given the short amount of episodes and our impatience at approaching an end that might be very final. Indeed, one’s enjoyment of episodes such as this one is colored by one’s expectations: more and more of “Golden Age” type of episodes; or advancement of character and plot towards a long-awaited conclusion? While this site’s focus on the mythology definitely tells you my preferences, there are few things to nitpick here. Familiar does not tackle a big current societal concern, it does not cover completely original ground for The X-Files, but — finally! — it works.

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