X-Files: Make It Personal

I wrote a story in college (this is college fifteen years ago, not college two months ago) based on Sleeping Beauty, only my "Sleeping Beauty" was a prince and was cursed with unending sleep if he should ever pick up a sword (rather than a spindle). And I put him in a warrior-type culture; basically, here's a guy who can't relate to any of the male figures in his society, not to mention he has nothing to do all day, and he's really brassed off about it all.

And the witch, instead of being some Walt Disney hag-like take-off was young and sophisticated and rather ruthless. She was one of the first female characters I created who wasn't just me dressed up in someone else's clothes (I was about 20). Her motivation for cursing the prince was her hatred of war.

Now, even at the tender age of 20, I wasn't much of an anti-warmonger, but that didn't much matter because the character wasn't me. The problem with giving the witch this abstract reason was that it was abstract, and abstract people--Kierkegaard excepted, I suppose--are rather boring.

So, somewhere along the line, I changed her motivation. She hated war, but she hated war because it kept killing off her lovers. She wants one lover who will stick around for more than a couple of months. So, she curses the prince, and, since witches don't die and don't get old, as soon as he gets old enough, she takes him for her own. A sort of Chia Pet homegrown boyfriend!

The story really wasn't about her manufacturing a lover for herself. The story was about free will--how much the prince had or didn't have, etc. etc. But the story didn't work until the witch's motivation become something close and personal, rather than abstract and faraway. Not that it ever worked completely, since it never got published, but editors have assured me that the problem with the story is that I wrote it in present tense--and there's a whole nother can of worms!

Now . . . as Bill Cosby would say, I told you that story to tell you this one:

I'm not a huge X-Files fan. It isn't like Star Trek which I can watch any time in any weather under any conditions. I have to be in an X-Fily mood. I watch a whole bunch of episodes and that takes care of that for another year or so.

But every time I watch it, I am once again impressed by how good it is in terms of scripting and characterization and concept. I am always impressed by how complete Mulder and Scully are as characters and how truly excellent they are in their roles. David D. is great, of course, a tightly wound oddity with just a tiny bit of ham actor inside. And Gillian Anderson in this particular role is truly classic.

While watching it recently, I decided that another of the things the show got spot on was in making Mulder's quest personal. He has that backup group of conspirary theorists, the Lone Gun Men, and although I believe one of them has a personal story behind his obsession, these guys are more or less obsessed for the sake of being obsessed--the abstract motivation: The Truth is Out There. And they make fine minor characters. But for a major character, abstract motivation isn't enough. (Which may be one reason the spin-off show with the Lone Gun Men didn't fly.)

By making Mulder's obsession personal (his sister) and then giving him Scully as a sounding board, the creators of X-Files gave the show the kind of relationship and existential grit that every show since has tried to copy. In a way, Scully becomes Mulder's safety net. He can allow himself to go crazy because he knows he has this cautious voice-of-reason to hold him down.

In terms of plot, I never did get the whole "Scully was given to Mulder to discredit his work and Mulder is allowed to continue to keep him from becoming a martyr" stuff since, as far as I'm concerned, dead men tell no tales. Mulder dead would be less of a problem to the bad guys than Mulder with Scully. (I agree with Phil Farrand here that, actually, Cigarette Smoking man is Mulder's dad and came up with all that "can't make him a martyr" crap to keep Mulder alive.) But in terms of writing, the Scully-Mulder pairing is pure genius. Scully does legitimatize Mulder, but, more importantly, she makes it possible for him to have faith. Her rationalism gives him ballast. Otherwise, he would just be scary wacko guy. But, with her as his fall-back position, he becomes instead believer guy. This kind of symbiotic relationship between science and religion is, I think, one of the most insightful aspects of the show. At its best, the show explored attitudes and complexities of belief. But it did it through focusing on the personal, not the abstract.

The writerly rule seems to be: You can't sell abstract by getting abstract. You can only sell abstract by getting personal. (Unless you're Kierkegaard and then nobody will read you.)