Tuesday, December 15, 2015

THE X FILES: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox/Ten Thirteen Productions 1993-2002) Fox Home Video

In 1947, a United States Air Force surveillance balloon crash landed on a farm house near Roswell, New Mexico, almost immediately prompting conspiracy theorists of their day to suggest the earth had been visited by an extraterrestrial spaceship. We are still living in the aftermath and shadow of these ‘speculations’; mankind’s fervent need to believe in the existence of life – other than our own – inhabiting the outer limits of our solar system, spawning myths, legends and an entire cottage industry devoted to the chase/race to unearth definitive proof that ‘they’ are already here. Are they? Personally, I remain contented in not knowing. But in 1993, director/writer, Chris Carter introduced television audiences to an utterly addictive, often terrifying and very paranoiac drug of choice for conspiracy theorists and alien abduction aficionados alike. With its bizarre blend of horror, sci-fi and comedy, borrowing elemental tidbits from urban mythology and ancient folklore – occasionally, not above pilfering from the classics of John Carpenter for ‘inspiration’, The X-Files (1993-2002) would go on to captivate, enthrall and seismically shift the focus of mainstream television programming to its increasing predilection for supernatural oddities. The X-Files has spun off innumerable imitators since; virtually none achieving its’ level of intellectual depth and creativity. In hindsight, Chris Carter’s aspirations for this series remain more intriguingly high-minded. On a relatively miniscule budget, and with little to zero faith invested in him by the networks for a passable first season, much less the mega-hit The X-Files would instantaneously become, the show’s trump card was its singularly compelling, if sparsely populated central cast, front-lined by virtual unknowns, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. The X-Files would make both actors a household name and add formidable cache to their future career choices.
In one of those Hollywood ironies, Chris Carter did not think much of David Duchovny’s audition, later suggesting to his casting director, Melanie Greene, Duchovny lacked any ‘particular intelligence’ to satisfy the requirements of the part. Even after being goaded into accepting him by Green, Carter openly chided Duchovny with ‘please…try and imagine yourself as an FBI agent for future episodes’.  Oh, how wrong one artist can be about another. Duchovny’s laid-back congenial nature was exactly what the part required; in hindsight, a perfect counterpoint to the more direct, no-nonsense, and, ever so slightly more rigid, Dana Scully. Intermittently, each star would take turns becoming implacable martyrs in their disparate devotions to myth and science. Interchangeably, both fictional characters would have their faiths tested and shaken; always building their resolve and expanding their mindset. From the outset, Gillian Anderson won Carter’s approval. But Mitch Pileggi, eventually cast in the reoccurring role of Walter Skinner, first endured numerous rejections while auditioning for other parts. Pileggi would later muse his initial inability to ‘impress’ Carter for any of these cameos was kismet; the parts exclusive to single episodes, while the role of Walter Skinner would not only endure the run of the show, but infrequently become the focus of various episodes.
It has been thirteen years since The X-Files went off the air – a lifetime in TV history. And yet, its impact on pop culture has remained unabated and as insidiously ‘with us’ as the black ooze first infecting the franchise during its third season, and thereafter becoming a pivotal plot point in many episodes to follow. Concurrently, Chris Carter toggled the show’s narrative threads between those devoted to a series of FBI investigations into the unexplainable – usually bordering on the horrific (parasitic amoebas, human mutants with murderous predispositions, unearthed biological contagions, and, deviant forms of artificial intelligence) and episodes aimed to expose an on-going government conspiracy to conceal the truth about extra-terrestrial life, already come to colonize the earth. The cohesiveness in the franchise was therefore centralized on the growing chemistry between Special Agents Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Anderson); the latter, an agnostic medical professional who increasingly comes to suspect Mulder’s theories on otherworldly lifeforms is not so much science fiction as it is science fact.
Brilliantly scripted, intensely researched, and moodily photographed to illicit maximum shock, while revealing relatively little, The X-Files formula for success relied heavily on nearly every sci-fi and horror cliché from antiquity, tweaked, reshaped and finally reconstituted into an eclectic tapestry of mishaps, chiefly hampered by Mulder’s driven and obsessive need to uncover whatever became of his sister, Samantha (Megan Leitch) presumably taken from their family home via an alien abduction when Mulder was just a boy. Early on, the network sincerely hoped Carter would stir in a romantic entanglement to whip up the obvious spark of chemistry between Mulder and Scully. However, wisely deducing such an entanglement would do more to undo, rather than heighten, the more subliminal frictions, Carter kept his agents on a taut platonic understanding; an almost brotherly/sisterly regard steadily blossoming, though never to be consummated.  I suspect, at some point the level of mutual respect Mulder and Scully shared as intellectual equals became far more tantalizing and integral to the franchise than the ‘will they or won’t they?’ circumstances of their ‘relationship’.
The first seven seasons of The X-Files were shot in British Columbia, taking full advantage of its perpetually damp and rainy rural exoticism; its small towns and urban city centers convincingly substituting for a myriad of locations throughout the U.S. and even, around the world. But then, the decision was made to move the venue to Los Angeles; decidedly the first death knell for the series, as it changed the visual style completely; the other misfire, the departure of Duchovny, who, after seven years, had tired of his reoccurring role, leaving Gillian Anderson to carry the load as ‘the believer’; acquiring a new partner, John Doggett (Robert Patrick). Alas, the symbiosis between Scully and Doggett never gelled, and neither did the increasingly tepid storylines, chronically devoted to discovering what had become of Mulder. Interestingly, the series had not suffered from the somewhat prolonged ‘loss’ of Scully at the beginning of Season Two; taken hostage by alien abductee, Duane Barry (Steve Railsback) and ‘traded’ in a subsequent exchange; just one way Carter and his team of brilliant writers managed to maneuver around, conceal and accommodate Gillian Anderson’s real life pregnancy.
Suspending Scully in a coma for a few more episodes, then re-introducing her behind billowy lab coats, large desks, decidedly healthy potted plants, etc., and, only photographing her from the chest up near the tail end of her nine months, proved mostly successful at masking the obvious, although Anderson’s facial features are visibly bloated throughout a good deal of Season Two. To offset Anderson’s disappearance, Carter beefed up the involvement of Mitch Pileggi’s FBI Assistant Deputy Director, Walter Skinner, and the reoccurring threat to Mulder’s investigations, a rogue element in the government fronted by the very guarded ‘Smoking Man’ (William B. Davis). Carter would also introduce audiences to a new and reoccurring arch nemesis; Nicholas Lea’s Alex Kryceck; at first, built into a sort of naïve field agent reassigned to Mulder, but steadily proved to be working for the Smoking Man, and later, becoming a double agent for the Russians, only to suffer the fate of the black ooze.  Season Two also became noteworthy for establishing the two-part mid-season cliffhanger; episodes ‘Colony’ and ‘End Game’ piggy-backing off of each other to advance the ‘alien abduction/government conspiracy’ milieu.
During the first few years, The X Files was equally noted for its’ superb cameos; Doug Hutchison’s mutant serial killer, Victor Eugene Tooms – who extracts victims’ livers with his bare hands to survive a period of prolonged hibernation – one of the early standouts. Season One’s, ‘Squeeze’ first introduced the character of Tooms, cited as the episode that ‘sold’ audiences on The X Files. It had a troubled incubation, thanks to creative differences on the set – its director, Harry Longstreet, eventually replaced by Michael Katleman, who would go on to direct only one more episode; the bone-chilling, ‘Shadows’ – featuring a never seen psychokinetic spirit, avenging the murder of CEO Howard Graves, while keeping vigilant watch over his secretary, Lauren Kyte as her guardian angel. Other notable cameos were filled by character actors, David Sanderson (as a delusional paranoiac), Tony Shaloub (a defrocked medical practitioner), Timothy Carhart (a bizarre flesh-stripping sexual sadist), and, Luke Wilson (a town sheriff investigating a bizarre series of vampire murders).  By Season Six, The X Files had developed a reputation as one of the most consistently produced and compelling ‘must see’ anthology franchises ever made for television, thanks mostly to Chris Carter’s enduring vision, and persistent high standards: multi-episode directors, Rob Bowman and Kim Manners maintaining a visual continuity (along with others) to leave audiences gasping and tuning in for more. 
Now, some thirteen years after its last episode aired, one can acknowledge The X Files as a bona fide achievement in TV history. If, as is often the case, the finale to the franchise left much to be desired; the journey to this penultimate letdown was well worth our time.  Make no mistake – ‘the truth is (still) out there’. However, in 1993, The X-Files bore no earthly resemblance to virtually every other series it rivaled then. In truth, it had very few predecessors as worthy. Over the decades, others tried to do anthology-styled science fiction; the most enduring counterpoint, undeniably, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-64). Yet, mainstream networks were quite unwilling to take a gamble on primetime sci-fi, ever since Shadow Chasers; a fairly expensive hour long fictional ‘ghost hunter’ series, produced for ABC in 1985 that, regrettably, sank like a stone in the Nielsen Ratings and was quietly taken off the air after only one season. With its focus on alien life forms and autopsies, unexplained phenomena of every shape and size, and, a cavalcade of human and subhuman freaks, The X Files promised to be yet another very expensive series. Indeed, in later years it would evolve into just that, boasting an impressive array of special effects. Curiously, the more technologically sophisticated these became, the less popular the series proved with audiences.
Chris Carter’s initial pitch to Fox executives was almost immediately shot down. Undaunted, Carter reworked the concept and pitched it again only a few weeks later – a ballsy move to say the least. This time, he was met with open skepticism, although the powers that be nevertheless green-lit a pilot. Determined to add a kernel of verisimilitude to this debut, Carter consulted NYPD Blue producer, Daniel Sackheim; the pair drawing stylistic inventiveness from The Thin Blue Line (1988) and the British TV series, Prime Suspect. Carter also retained tidbits of comedy to counterbalance the series’ unsettling momentum; a holdover from his days as a director/writer for Disney Inc.  Sometime after The X-Files became a hit, Carter would confess his real muse for the series had been Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), a one season wonder about the unexplained that, today, has developed a cult following. Carter also appreciated the ominous and pervading darkness David Lynch had achieved in his all too brief series, Twin Peaks (1990-91). As The X-Files would outlast virtually all of these predecessors by eight years and transcend its own cult status to become one of the most widely watched and acclaimed series on TV, it was inevitable Carter and his cohorts would begin to draw more heavily on other source materials to concoct each episode. In retrospect, the more transparent insights derive from political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President's Men (1976), suspense and horror classics (everything from Hitchcock’s Rope - 1948, to Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist -1982, and Carpenter’s ‘82 remake of The Thing).
At the end of Season Five, The X-Files did the unthinkable; making the successful leap from TV to full-fledged Hollywood blockbuster with The X-Files: Fight The Future (1998); also, directed by series’ regular, Rob Bowman. The peculiarity of this classy big-screen sci-fi adventure was it appealed to both enthusiasts and neophytes alike; Bowman and Carter somehow managing to weave into their narrative, threads to linked up to plot points developed at the end of Season Five and eventually carry them over into Season Six. Even so, these could ostensibly be considered inconsequential or, at the very least, undisruptive to the overall viewing enjoyment of someone who had never seen a single X-Files episode. It was all very good, right until the end of Season Seven, when David Duchovny suddenly elected to sue 2oth Century- Fox, claiming they had undersold the rights to the series to their own affiliates, thereby costing him huge sums of money.
The old adage ‘never biting the hand that feeds you’ seems to succinctly apply here; Fox’s attorneys eventually settling out of court for a reported $20 million. Fox held firm to the prospect they would not renew either Chris Carter or Duchovny’s contracts should The X-Files return for an eighth season – a ludicrous notion. Thus, as time wore on, somewhat cooler heads prevailed, with Fox renegotiating the terms of each player’s contracts. Duchovny only half complied, electing to appear in just twelve of the planned twenty-four episodes; Carter quickly figuring out a way to ease Mulder from the series while introducing a new set of characters to buttress Gillian Anderson’s scientific inquisitor. A series is usually in trouble when one of its perceived ‘stars’ bows out; The X-Files being no exception to this rule. Despite auditioning some heavy hitters to fill Mulder’s shoes, the introduction of Special Agent John Doggett (a part briefly considered for either Lou Diamond Phillips or Bruce Campbell – but eventually going to Robert Patrick) did not go over well with the diehard viewership. Carter did his best to shore up the damage, elevating Mitch Pileggi’s involvement to co-star status and also casting Annabeth Gish as Agent Monica Reyes – a possible ‘replacement’ for Gillian Anderson, whose Dana Scully was left in imminent peril at the end of Season Eight. By Season Nine, The X-Files had fallen out of the Top 25 in the Nielsen’s. If anyone was still watching, Carter’s commitment to the franchise remained impressively high; the narratives tautly scripted and the storylines as compelling as ever. Alas, The X-Files had incurred too many changes along the way. These had severely altered the show’s DNA; the last two seasons possessing a radically different flavor that seemed to betray everything gone before it.
As of the writing of this review, The X-Files is set to return to the small screen for a mini-series event; this, after the disastrous second feature film: The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) failed to wrap up dangling plot points left unresolved when the series went off the air in 1998. Initially, Chris Carter had planned the second film to immediately follow the TV show’s swan song. Alas, six years of delays forced Carter to abandon his original plan to conclude the arc of mythology about alien colonization, as it was thought no one would remember what had occurred at the end of Season Nine, ten years earlier. So, instead, the movie became a standalone horror story, more attuned to the ‘monster-themed’ episodes for which the series was equally and justly as famous.  Alas, audience response to this ‘departure’ did not warrant any subsequent installments to be commissioned – either theatrically, or on TV. Time, however, does strange things. It also heals old wounds and very often – at least, in Hollywood – makes for some very strange bedfellows a second time around. As it stands, Fox has commissioned a six part miniseries to debut in 2016 with virtually all of the principles returning to reprise their roles. Will it be a hit? Well, ‘the truth’ remains to be seen. Despite a decade’s time lapse, changing cultural mores and tastes, as well as the natural aging process taking its toll on all the alumni, the resurrection of The X-Files may indeed prove a winner. Trust no one who says otherwise.  Carter and Ten Thirteen Productions undoubtedly have a few handsome tricks and more than a few good scares up their sleeves.
The X-Files was one of the first TV shows to make the leap to DVD back in 1997; Fox Home Video falling all over itself to hurry up three past seasons to disc format, even as Season Four was airing then ‘new’ episodes. The original 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the first three seasons was preserved on DVD; with subsequent seasons adopting the more contemporarily friendly 1.75:1 aspect ratio, anticipating the flat screen/widescreen home-viewing revolution. We are now some years beyond that evolution; Fox Home Video going back to ‘reinvent’ the wheel – just a bit, and with Chris Carter’s complicity, retro-fitting the first three seasons to conform to the 1.75:1 aspect ratio. To their credit, no one who did not watch The X-Files on its first time around, either airing on the Fox Network, or having owned the tired old DVD releases, would ever know these episodes were not shot with that ‘now’ standard ratio in mind. The studio has taken the utmost care in re-formatting the image to conform. There are no undue ‘chopped off’ heads or instances where the new aspect ratio looks forced.  So, good news here!
Better still, Fox has gone back to the drawing board to create some fairly stellar hi-def transfers. With minor caveats, the transfer quality across the board is uniformly excellent. I will discuss the caveats in a moment. First off, the pluses: beginning with superb color reproduction, pitch-perfect flesh tones and very solid contrast levels. The X-Files is an exceptionally dark series, and the richness and depth of the night sequences (of which there are many) is reproduced with a remarkable amount of fine detail evident with razor-sharp clarity to boot. Very impressive! The old DVDs were pathetically weak in all regards, particularly marred by severe edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. For the most part, these digital anomalies have been eradicated. Remember…I said ‘mostly’. Now, for the caveats.
I am perplexed and, frankly, troubled, by the momentary lapses in this otherwise pristine image quality that inexplicably surface, not from episode to episode, but from shot to shot.  Many establishing shots, as well as a goodly number of SFX shots, presumably photographed by a second unit, look as though they were lensed using a digital source rather than film-based elements; suffering from a lot of edge effects, a residual softness, loss of color density and general image distortion, with intense chroma bleeding. I could almost overlook these oversights, especially since the series is not known for extensive ‘establishing shots’. But it’s the queer ‘on again/off again’ sporadic cropping up of all of the aforementioned shortcomings – from shot to shot within the body of single episodes – that really has me stumped. Take Season Two’s Duane Barry episode as a prime example. When Mulder is called in to negotiate a hostage crisis he meets Agent Lucy Kazdin (CCH Pounder) to discuss the terms. Nearly every reverse shot of Kazdin is sourced from something ‘other’ than film-based materials. We toggle from razor-sharp close-ups of Mulder, to extremely soft and muddied cutaways of Pounder with a barrage of edge effects and chroma-bleeding factored in. It’s odd to say the least, and inexcusable to say the most…unless, of course, no other source materials exist from which to cull and piece together this episode. The aforementioned anomaly is by no means exclusive to this one episode and/or season, but a chronic condition that intermittently plagues all episodes in this set.
The audio on all episodes has been remastered to 5.1 DTS with a noticeable improvement in virtually all regards: clean, crisp-sounding dialogue, married to aggressive bass tonality; Mark Snow’s memorable theme sounding more eerily unsettling than ever before. Extras are jam-packed throughout; many episodes including an in-depth audio commentary from Carter and occasionally other collaborators. We also get Carter discussing each season in brief, a litany of deleted scenes, lots of press and promotional junkets, promos, etc. to whet the appetite. It should be pointed out NONE of these are new to collectors of the old DVDs but directly ported over. The quality of these extras remains in 720i, so don’t look for perfection and you won’t be disappointed.  Bottom line: The X-Files is X-ceptional entertainment. X does indeed mark the spot for a ‘spooky’ good time. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Season One 4
Season Two 4.5
Season Three 4.5
Season Four 4.5
Season Five 3.5
Season Six 3
Season Seven 2.5
Season Eight 2
Season Nine 1

VIDEO/AUDIO
Overall quality – 3.5
EXTRAS

5+

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