By J. Walker
“I’m sure he was a nice guy, et cetera, et cetera. But as an admirer of this man’s work, I am in a position to perform an impromptu tribute in his honor. Namely, ramming this spike into my chest!”
—Dr. Blockhead, in “Humbug”
We’re more than a decade out from the final episode of The X-Files, and it’s still difficult to properly parse out its legacy. Certainly, it’s a well-liked and well-remembered show—it was easily voted into the TWTV Hall of Fame just this month. But even the show’s most ardent supporters (and, in fact, especially the show’s most ardent supporters) would admit that the series was deeply flawed. Its mammoth mythology may have gone on to influence how future television shows would structure their long-running plots, but it also served as a cautionary tale, since that mythology ended up collapsing under its own weight long before The X-Files limped to its conclusion. Stories would often pivot on the polar opposite worldviews of its lead characters—Fox Mulder the credulous believer, Dana Scully the hardline skeptic—but the truth would so frequently tilt in the direction of the supernatural that Scully’s disbelief eventually felt less like proper scientific rigor and more like plain stubbornness.
But what cannot be argued is the pedigree of the show’s writing staff. Over the course of nine seasons, Chris Carter assembled one of the most incredibly gifted groups of television writers to ever sit in the same room: Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa (Homeland), Tim Minear (Firefly), Jeffrey Bell (Angel), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and other notables would all write multiple episodes. That any series would sport this deep a bench is remarkable; even more so is that perhaps the best among them only wrote a handful of scripts, then departed just as quickly, leaving the series forever changed in his wake. Also remarkable: he first turned up dressed as a humanoid flukeworm.
Darin Morgan’s first gig on The X-Files was as an actor, playing the mutated antagonist of the early second-season gross-out “The Host.” His brother, Glen, was already a writer and executive producer on the show, and after Darin suffered through the agony of wearing a disgusting full-body costume for twenty hours at a time, he was offered an opportunity to write for the show. His first episode, “Blood,” only garnered him a story credit, after his brother and his writing partner, James Wong, rewrote the script. His work was good enough, though, to earn him a full-time job on the writing staff. And in his first solo effort, “Humbug,” Morgan changed everything for The X-Files.
One of the things The X-Files is best remembered for now is its amazingly elastic sense of tone: some episodes are dark, some are gross, some are scary, some are sad, and some are funny. Watching the first two seasons again in light of this, one is easily shocked at how bleak the show is in the beginning. While some flashes of humor are there—mostly in the form of deadpanned snark from Mulder and Scully—it mostly stays relentlessly dark. In the early episodes, the series seemed to be so afraid of ending up as camp that it occasionally over-corrected and felt stiff and self-serious. (A good case in point would be the atrocious first season episode “Space,” which sports a concept so laughable on its face that the show’s insistence on taking it so very seriously only makes matters worse.) As good as the show could be in the beginning, most of the time, the scripts were as lightless as the cinematography.
But “Humbug” was something different, a delirious wrench thrown into the works. The plot is boilerplate X-Files—some sort of supernatural monster is murdering the residents of a small town one at a time—but Morgan’s cast of characters finally yank the curtain back on the machinery to show that, hey, this is all pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? The small town in question, it turns out, is populated entirely by former circus sideshow performers, and they refuse to properly play along with the typical X-Files story they find themselves in. The wacky script is a long wink to the audience, working with the same rules and hitting the same beats as earlier episodes, but at the same time dragging the whole affair giggling into the light. By the time the episode ends, the air has been fully let out of the show’s balloon, and it’s discovered the ability to laugh at itself. But, critically, “Humbug” isn’t just a goof—even though he’s trading in silliness, Morgan imbues the story with real meaning. Rather than only hinging on laughs, “Humbug” has important things to say about individuality and how important it is to listen to the voices fighting against the status quo. There is a resonance, a weight to matters that keep it from just being a tossed-off comedy exercise.
After “Humbug,” Darin Morgan would only get three more credits on The X-Files, all in the third season, and all instant classics that fans still swear by today. He won an Emmy for “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” a masterful character study that deals with death and existentialism. “War of the Coprophages,” probably Morgan’s most overtly comic script, focuses on the pitfalls of common wisdom and the dangers of mass panic. His final X-Files episode, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” is one of the most astonishing teleplays ever produced, a deliberately convoluted and convolving story that holds up the very thematic foundations the series was built on and breaks them apart, one at a time.
Each of these episodes are riotously funny, but, like “Humbug,” Morgan doesn’t simply coast on jokes. Nor does he fall into the too-easy trap of overly meta humor and fourth-wall breaking. (Well, aside from occasional sly references to star David Duchovny’s triumphant appearance on Jeopardy!, and a brilliant visual gag in the cockroach-obsessed “Coprophages,” when an animated roach appears to crawl across the viewer’s television.) Though he’s clearly getting laughs, he plays things more or less straight. This is all the better for Morgan’s satiric view of the series itself, which was always merciless and razor-sharp. Recognizing the show’s habit of vindicating Mulder’s supernatural beliefs, Morgan’s episodes consistently paint the agent as a self-obsessed buffoon, a dangerous lunatic and a “ticking time bomb of insanity” only a few years away from a complete mental collapse. While Mulder always boast a quick wit, the characters in “Humbug” and “Clyde Bruckman” always get the better of him, leaving him scrambling for comebacks. And “From Outer Space” takes Mulder’s personal creed, “the truth is out there,” and spends an hour arguing that not only can Mulder never find the truth he seeks, that truth doesn’t exist. Morgan’s Mulder is a man on a endless quest that will only lead to shame, misery, and (potentially) psychosis.
Since Mulder is ostensibly the hero character, the one the audience is to most identify with, this scathing attack is startling. Morgan gets away with it, though, mostly because his episodes are so good, but also because a lot of it is very, very subtle, especially when these bursts were shuffled in with the other X-Files episodes around them. The next week, Mulder would be back in the saddle chasing ghostly serial killers, and everything would be back to normal.
After “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” toward the end of season three, Morgan left the series. He would pop up as a actor in the fourth season classic “Small Potatoes,” playing a dweeby shapeshifter who (brilliantly) takes over Mulder’s life for a brief period. But then he never wrote another X-Files script. His influence, however, would be broadly felt for the remainder of the series.
Following Morgan’s lead, the rest of the writers discovered that it was okay, once in a while, to have a good laugh at their characters. It wouldn’t always work; Chris Carter tried a “satire” called “Syzygy” in year three that was a lifeless failure, largely due to lacking the deeper thematic insights of Darin’s scripts. But by the fourth season, the writing staff—particularly Vince Gilligan, writer of “Small Potatoes” and Morgan’s spiritual successor—had fully integrated the comedy episode in the X-Files bag of tricks, and by the sixth, the humorous episodes practically outnumbered the serious ones. (There is a stretch where five out of a string of six hours could arguably be filed as “comedy” episodes, and that includes a two-parter.)
Were all of these comedy scripts as successful as Darin Morgan’s? No. As noted, Carter’s “Syzygy” failed, and he would later become fixated on churning out silly, off-format episodes for himself to direct. Toward the end of the series, once the mythology had become so ponderous and opaque that even the writers seemed bored with it, Carter could be counted upon for at least one shameless gimmick episode a year. Others found their way much easier: Gilligan’s high-concept comedy episodes are also highlights of the series, particularly the Rashomon-style “Bad Blood” and the audacious “X-Cops,” where Mulder and Scully found themselves as unwilling guest stars on COPS. But none could quite match the glorious union of humor and insight, of laughs and poetry, that Morgan did in his short stint on the show.
At the end of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” Mulder begs the titular Chung, a bestselling novelist, not to go through with his plans to publish a book based on one of Mulder and Scully’s investigations. He’s afraid that it will do a disservice to the very field of ufology, making believers look like fools. Chung refuses to back down, publishing his book and exposing Mulder’s search for truth as the fruitless quest it is. It is pointless to try to learn whether we are alone in the universe because, as Chung writes, “We are all, in our own ways, on this planet, alone.” Chung wasn’t trying to make Mulder look foolish; but he looked into the abyss at the heart of Mulder’s quest, and saw only darkness. And had to laugh at it.
And in that way, Morgan’s legacy is as complicated as the show’s. He undeniably proved that the series could be more than just a weekly spookfest and opened avenues that would lead to The X-Files evolving into the fluid form it would take in its classic years. But he also did so by tearing to shreds the very show he was writing, while leaving an impossible bar that no one else seemed able to clear. If Morgan had stuck around for another season, it’s possible the bloom may have come off the rose, that he may have turned in a comedy script that didn’t work. But after coming as close to perfection as he could have with the madcap “From Outer Space,” he left, leaving the series indelibly changed. I’m not sure of another series where a writer with such a brief tenure had this profound an impact; where, with only a few credits, a writer gave a good show the last tool it in needed in its toolbox to become great. Darin Morgan taught The X-Files how to smile.
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