Learning from the masters: Darin Morgan and The X-Files
Originally this post was going to be about The Simpsons, which has obviously been a major influence on everyone’s inner life, but since my wife pointed out that I could easily do a whole week’s worth of posts on the fourth season alone, I’ll be saving it for another day. Instead, since my novelette “Kawataro” will hopefully be appearing in bookstores next week, I’ll be talking about the work of art that has influenced my published fiction more than any other. Because until The Icon Thief comes out next year, I’m really just the author of this blog and three novelettes in Analog, with a fourth to come, all of which have been deeply influenced by The X-Files.
Television is a funny thing. One’s experience of it, more than any other art form (aside perhaps from music), is usually the product of timing and proximity. If you grew up in a house like most in America, in the days before our lives were taken over by other glowing rectangles, the television was always on, and your tastes were inevitably shaped by whatever happened to be on the air when you were at an impressionable age. I’m hugely thankful that I born at a time when I could watch the best years of The Simpsons as they aired—especially now that the glut of more recent episodes is driving those episodes out of syndication, so that many younger viewers won’t have seen them at all—but I’m even more grateful for the fact that I was thirteen years old on September 10, 1993, when The X-Files premiered.
Looking back, it’s hard to say why this particular show grabbed my imagination. At first, I was a little skeptical of the premise—I couldn’t see how these two FBI agents could have a new adventure every week and then never refer to it again—but once I got past the anthology format, I found that this was the television show that I’d been waiting for my entire life. It was suspenseful, beautifully crafted, often very clever, and built on a compelling sense of mystery and paranoia. (This was also the year in which I read Foucault’s Pendulum and saw JFK. Take that year away, and I’d be a different person entirely.) My discovery of a vast online fandom played a major role, as did the world of fanfic, where I wrote my earliest stories, and which set me on the course on which I continue today, at least as far as my short fiction is concerned.
The big lesson that The X-Files taught me was the importance of formula. Formulas play a huge role in all episodic television, where the pace of production means that writers and producers need to fall back on certain basic structures. Watching a television series over the course of multiple seasons is the easiest way to get a sense of a formula’s strengths and limitations. What set The X-Files apart is how it discovered, almost by accident, a formula of extraordinary versatility and suppleness: two investigators, an atmospheric location, and an inexplicable event. (It’s so good a formula that I’ve happily appropriated it for some of my own stories.) There’s something reassuring about how each episode falls into the same rhythms, and even more so when the show pushes against its own conventions—another illustration of the power of constraints.
Which brings me to Darin Morgan (whose Wikipedia page I created years ago, although I take no responsibility for its current state). Morgan is a television writer who wrote only four episodes of The X-Files and two more of Millennium, and yet his work continues to resonate. He was the Charlie Kaufman of television, long before anyone had ever heard of Charlie Kaufman: funny, ingenious, and formally inventive, with a deeply despairing view of existence, in which the true secret is not some government conspiracy but the fact that we all die alone. And his work was most interesting—notably in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”—in its struggles against, and subtle contempt for, the show’s own limitations. Perhaps this is why Morgan fell silent for more than a decade: he needed the formula to give shape to his flights of originality, and without Mulder, Scully, and Frank Black, he was never the same. Which only demonstrates how powerful a formula can be.
(Even as I write this, though, I learn that he’s resurfaced as a writer for Tower Prep, of all things. I’m very curious about this…)