Book Review: The X-Files FAQ by John Kenneth Muir

I have been a confessed horror and science fiction TV show fan my whole life. It’s a tradition that came from being part of the Star Wars Generation that clung to Battlestar Galactica and Space:1999 to get our fixes. I loved Frankenstein and Dracula but on TV I could only find that same subject matter on Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Twilight Zone. I was a huge fan of The X-Files from 1993 through the bitter end (almost – I mean, ratings don’t lie, most of us didn’t watch that last season). The end of the show left me with a bad taste and it was only with the announcement of a new miniseries in 2016 that I started the long journey of watching the series again from beginning to end. It was fortunate that at the same time John Kenneth Muir has released an interesting guide to the series: The X-Files FAQ.

Muir writes in a comfortable but scholarly voice. This book isn’t meant to be an exhaustive X-Files list of episodes and facts. There are many of those that adorn my book shelves and are easily found as just episode documents. This book is much more of a hybrid (the irony of that based upon the subject matter of the show is not lost on me) that documents the show in a historical context and looks at the shows on a larger canvas. You can’t write about a show that started 22 years ago and not put it in perspective of what has happened since.

This isn’t a book that you would pull out when you are looking for background information on a supporting character in an episode. You wouldn’t use this to track your progress on a binge-watching weekend. This book is something you read. I know that sounds revolutionary. As a whole, this feels like each chapter is one of thirty-one lectures in an X-Files course that Mr Muir should be teaching. The structure of talking about the antecedents of the show, the creators, stars, and major characters before delving into one season per chapter and then finishing with what happened after the show ended feels organic. Within each season there is a general overview, some context is given both within popular culture and within the internal logic of the show. Then there are more in-depth looks at a few key episodes from each season.

The key to selling me on this work is in the details. After all this time, I’m looking for some fresh and interesting perspectives on the show. So I put this up against some of my own thoughts while watching the show this Summer and looked at his thoughts on a couple episodes.

“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (Season 3, October 13, 1995). This was an episode for me that represented a real pushing of the boundaries. The show had proven to be able to tell fun standalone monster-of-the-week stories. They had already delved pretty deep into their mythology. But it took Peter Boyle as Clyde Bruckman to show that the series could make you think on a philosophical level. Mulder and Scully have represented equally two sides of a very religious show about faith and science up to this point. And with Clyde Bruckman, they are both led to see that there is an alternate view. I think Muir hits a home run on this episode. He sees that when The X-Files is at its best is when even a single episode is informing the overall philosophy of our main characters – “And if all of life is predictable – if you know its end – then knowing the “why” of someone’s behavior becomes less crucial, or even necessary.” (p.116). It’s a dark episode that helped guide the show into just slightly deeper waters.

“Bad Blood” (Season 5, February 22, 1998) Something happened on the way to their first X-Files movie. This season was building the mythology and in-between there were seemingly endless guest writers and guest stars. In the weeks leading up to this episode we had Stephen King and William Gibson contributing. This episode written by Vince Gilligan is easy to just categorize as a Rashomon tribute. But Muir sees through that for the most part. By Season 5 of any show, there is a comfort level with the characters. The audience expects certain behaviors and logic from characters we have followed for a hundred hours. The episode starts as just a straightforward case of Mulder and Scully and the FBI being sued in a wrongful death suit. As Scully and Mulder take turns telling their story, we get humorous views of how each character viewed what happened. In between it’s a game for the viewer to discern the clues and figure out what really happened. The conceit is that deep down we know that there is always a truth between the versions of what each of our main characters sees.

What that episode showed me was that there is an understanding of what a real-work relationship is all about. Their stories show an annoyance with little things about each other. Exactly the way you would be after working with someone for five years. They take the little traits and blow them up. More importantly, they never insult the other’s intelligence. There is a respect that is even deeper than annoyances at little traits. It’s a hilarious episode and Muir gets that. I like how he puts the episode in context even with a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. It’s always been a key to the success of this show to be able to couch important messages in humor or horror and here is works with many laughs.

I love this show and I like this book. John Kenneth Muir has put together a nice look at the show. I can’t really feature it as a reference book and I wouldn’t ask anyone to read it who hasn’t watched the show all the way through. As a fan, it’s like attending a class that helps tie together themes and characters across a 201-episode run. Very well done – now bring on the next chapter in 2016.

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Shawn Bourdo

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