The founder’s mutation
The scientist Max Delbrück never wrote for television—he was a Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist who laid the foundations for the modern discipline of molecular biology—but he understood how it worked. In an interview with the oral history project at CalTech, he famously said:
If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you [can] nail it down…I called it the “Principle of Limited Sloppiness.”
Which, when you think about it, is also the recipe for constructing a good genre series. When the pilot first airs, you almost never know what the show is going to be about. (This is not to be confused with its premise, which is something else entirely.) All you can really do is explore possibilities, set up story elements, pair up characters, and throw out ideas, most of which turn out to be dead ends, but some of which theoretically lead to useful adaptations. If it’s too random or sloppy, the show will die before it evolves into something more interesting, but it’s only by “embarking on pathways randomly presented,” as Gregory Bateson said, that you have any hope of finding something new. And the mark of a great showrunner is the ability to create the conditions under which this limited sloppiness can gradually pay off, while minimizing the consequences of any mistakes, of which there are bound to be plenty. As Dana Scully once observed: “There are hits and there are misses…and then there are misses.”
As I once wrote at greater length for Salon: “What strikes me now about the first season of The X-Files is how relentlessly it kept reinventing itself, and how willing it seemed to try anything that worked…As time goes on, the show’s formal incoherence starts to look like its greatest asset.” I thought of these words again last night while watching the show’s return, in an episode aptly titled “My Struggle,” which comes more than thirteen years after the conclusion of its original run. I went in with modest hopes—a level of anticipation that would have been very different if a mediocre second movie hadn’t adjusted my expectations downward—and I agree with most critics that the result is undeniably messy, particularly for a show that had well over a decade to think about how its next phase might look. Characters are introduced and never fully developed; entire scenes seem to lead nowhere; much of it feels rushed, as if large chunks of story had been cut at the last minute; and promising ideas, like the implication that Mulder’s brand of paranoid speculation feeds all too neatly into the conspiracies of right-wing nuts like Glenn Beck, are raised without really being addressed. It doesn’t have the clarity and suspense of the best episodes of the show’s classic mythology, like “Piper Maru/Apocrypha,” and much of it feels like it’s simply laying the groundwork for “Founder’s Mutation,” which airs tonight. As a fan, I enjoyed watching the old band get back together, but I have a hunch that a wider audience was left wondering why it was supposed to care.
Yet this kind of sloppiness was so integral to the original show’s success that we had no reason to expect anything else. Series creator Chris Carter, who wrote and directed the premiere, was never a particularly strong storyteller in his own right, and staff writers and freelancers like Glen Morgan, James Wong, Darin Morgan, and Vince Gilligan were generally responsible for the show’s most memorable moments. But that’s notable and revealing in itself. Carter’s genius, which shouldn’t be underestimated, lay both in conceiving of the show’s premise—which was an unparalleled engine for generating stories—and in managing the whole complicated machine in a way that allowed for its inherent sloppiness to catalyze the work of others. Its first season was a string of increasingly wild one-off experiments that resulted in many of its most useful formulas and ideas, as well as a bunch of episodes that went nowhere and were quickly forgotten. Keeping the whole enterprise moving while scattering seeds that would bear fruit for later writers was what Carter did best, and it worked great when he had twenty or more episodes in which to refine the results. But it doesn’t really work with six. There isn’t enough time. And while I don’t blame Carter for falling back on a tone and approach that worked so well when the show, against all odds, had time to develop it, I do question whether it makes sense in such a limited window. (It’s also instructive to note that the show’s single most significant mutation, in the form of the tonal expansion of Darin Morgan’s “Humbug,” didn’t occur until late in the second season.)
But I wouldn’t necessarily have it any other way, especially because I’ve come to realize that the sloppiness of The X-Files had repercussions in my life far beyond that of the show itself: it’s the primary reason that the original series has influenced my own career as a writer more than just about any other work of art. I’ve published three novels that can best be understood as a veiled love letter to what the show accomplished, as well as another book’s worth of short science fiction that tries to recapture the same magic. Even my fondness for female protagonists can be traced back to Scully. (Just as the Scully effect encouraged a generation of young women to pursue careers in medicine, science, and law enforcement, her example caused me to think intuitively about science fiction and suspense through a woman’s eyes.) And if the series had been tidier, or more reliable, it wouldn’t have seized my imagination to the same extent: a more consistent show would have allowed me to settle for what it had to offer, rather than seeing what I could do with the tools it provided. A “perfect” show tends to close off possibilities beyond what its creator envisioned; a show of limited sloppiness provides its writers and fans with the material for unlimited dreams. In the same interview that I quoted above, Delbrück noted: “I have said…that science is a haven for freaks, that people go into science because they are misfits, and that it is a sheltered place where they can spin their own yarn and have recognition, be tolerated and happy, and have approval for it.” That’s what The X-Files was for me. And it still is—despite, or because of, all its hits and misses.