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Re-open the X-Files with Monsters of the Week

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Re-open the X-Files with Monsters of the Week

Post by jade1013 on Fri 5 Oct - 13:40

Re-open the X-Files with Monsters of the Week

Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff
Fri Oct 5, 2018 10:00am

In 1993, Fox debuted a strange new television show called The X-Files. Little did anyone suspect that the series would become one of the network’s biggest hits—and change the landscape of television in the process.

Now, on the occasion of the show’s 25th anniversary, TV critics Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff unpack exactly what made this haunting show so groundbreaking. Witty and insightful reviews of every episode of the series, revised and updated from the authors’ popular A.V. Club recaps, leave no mystery unsolved and no monster unexplained. This crucial collection even includes exclusive interviews with some of the stars and screenwriters, as well as an original foreword by X-Files creator and showrunner Chris Carter. This complete critical companion is the book about The X-Files, the definitive guide whether you’re a lifelong viewer wanting to relive memories of watching the show when it first aired or a new fan uncovering the conspiracy for the first time.

Monsters of the Week is available October 16th from Abrams Books. Check out an excerpt below, focused on the series’ pilot episode.

Things That Go Bump

In which Mulder meets Scully

Season 1 / Episode 1
Written by Chris Carter
Directed by Robert Mandel

Zack: I’ve seen The X-Files “Pilot” half a dozen times or more now, but it didn’t occur to me until this latest viewing how little I understand about its actual plot.

There are disappearances; there are strange happenings in the woods; there are these little bumps on people’s skin; and at one point, there’s a weird, inhuman corpse in a coffin. I know there’s a story connecting all these incidents, but every time I watch the episode, I give up keeping track of anything by the fifteen-minute mark. Not because the plot is especially complicated, but because it doesn’t seem all that necessary.

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While the show’s improvisational approach to its mythology would create coherency issues in later seasons, the loose collection of UFO-related apocrypha and horror tropes on display in this episode gel just fine without ever needing to spell out all the details. First episodes often struggle to set a consistent tone, bogged down by exposition and the rules of the show’s world. Instead, The X-Files nails it right out of the gate.

A large part of that success is due to Chris Carter’s deft hand at establishing his leading characters. We first meet Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as she is offered a new assignment to the X-Files, a department of the FBI dedicated to investigating unusual or unexplainable phenomena. Her objective is nominally to observe, but her superiors clearly intend for Scully (who we learn over the course of the episode believes unwaveringly in logic and scientific consensus) to discredit the work of her new partner, Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). The two start off as potential enemies—with Scully finding Mulder deep in the FBI basement, hunched over his work like some kind of well­groomed troll—but the chemistry between them is there from the start. Mulder’s disarming directness clearly catches Scully off guard, as does his obsession with the paranormal. Their early dynamic mirrors the ideal audience relationship with the show: initial skepticism transforming into attraction and fascination.

The episode works, too, because of that aforementioned alien lore. I love how much the script is a hodgepodge of abduction tropes, best evidenced by the way Mulder and Scully lose a few minutes during a car ride. That scene establishes the universe of The X-Files: This is a reality in which nothing is entirely trustworthy, not even the passage of time. The convoluted narrative adds to this sense of instability—and yet, instead of making for a disjointed, confusing hour, the result feels strangely coherent. Its incidents are organized more strongly by theme than by concrete detail, a tactic that would soon become a hallmark of the series.

The other reason this episode works is David Duchovny. Gillian Anderson’s Scully would become one of the greatest heroines in television history, and the actress does excellent work in “Pilot,” but her role here is largely relegated to audience surrogate. She achieves a crucial balancing act, and helps ground the craziness, but it’s Duchovny who makes the biggest initial impression. At times, Mulder seems like the only character on the show with a sense of humor, and his jokes (which are often endearingly lame) and wild enthusiasm for his work make his outlandish ideas that much easier to swallow. His giddiness over every fresh discovery in the first half of the hour is charming, and his story about his sister’s abduction (a core piece of the show’s mythology) is well delivered.

Todd: I wouldn’t call this episode a tremendous example of the TV pilot form, but in its sturdy, functional construction, it transcends many of the issues that should drag it down. When you reflect on how big the show would eventually become, in both popularity and budget, it is a real trip to see such an unassuming first entry, with most of its big special effects sequences achieved by what seems like some giant klieg lights behind trees and leaves blown around with a fan. The hour suggests more than it specifies, which proves key to its success.

I went back, as I often do, to read some contemporaneous reviews of “Pilot” from TV critics, and what struck me was how many of them insisted that UFOs were “played out” as the subject matter for a TV series. Even the positive reviews—and there were many —were worried about The X-Files becoming just another UFO series.

This concern, of course, seems like nonsense now. The X-Files isn’t just another UFO series. It’s the UFO series, and its treatment of alien conspiracies, government ­secret-­keeping, and what might be lurking in American shadows became so influential that essentially any show airing in its aftermath that tries to play in the realm of “eerie mysteries” has to deal with its legacy. But in September 1993, The X-Files was just another show, gasping for air in yet another overcrowded fall season.

So, what exactly did audiences respond to here? The show ­wasn’t a massive hit from the start, but it grabbed a small, loyal viewership that stuck with it through the typical first season stumbles that lay in the weeks ahead. It’s not a huge leap to suggest that “Pilot”—with its hints of vast mystery lurking in the woods; of aliens toying with our very reality; of, yes, even a little sex —put just enough gas in the tank to keep the show quietly running until it was ready to explode into a phenomenon in later years.

Having a rock-solid pilot wasn’t as important for longevity in the early ’90s as it is now because audiences had fewer viewing options back then, but a strong start sure helped. I don’t know about you, but when Mulder dances in the rain after experiencing missing time, or when the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis, playing a mysterious figure with some sort of connection to the alien conspiracy) files away the latest bit of evidence in a government warehouse, or when Scully discovers Billy Miles’s muddy feet, I am in. The power here is all in suggestion and shadow, and if there’s any lesson The X-Files learned from its pilot, it was this one.

Zack: Yes, that dancing­in­the­rain shot is one of my favorites. The scene late in the episode, in which someone torches Mulder’s and Scully’s hotel rooms and burns all the evidence Mulder’s was so excited about, hooks the viewer, and establishes the one­step­forward­one­step­back model that would drive so much of the series mythology. That approach might get tiresome eventually, but it works shockingly well here because there’s so little context. Things had been progressing nicely, and then everything hits a wall.

Speaking of when the show debuted, I think one of the other elements that distinguished it immediately from its contemporaries was its commitment to being legitimately scary. “Pilot” is short on monsters, but it has atmosphere in spades, which would keep the season afloat even in its weakest entries . The entire episode is shot through with a perpetual unease, which is fitting for a series so invested in undermining perceived truths. By the time Mulder and Scully are blundering through the woods by themselves, it’s not hard to believe that anything could happen.

While it would take a little while for the show’s sense of humor and the impressive flexibility of its premise to solidify, the horror was there, right from the beginning, even if it was only atmospheric. “Pilot” instills a terrific sense of dread—which, in combination with a pair of likable heroes, was more than enough to make me a fan for life.

Todd: Dread is really what you want from TV horror anyway. It’s hard for TV to effectively execute horror, because it can’t truly offer the kind of catharsis that marks the end of a great horror tale. Horror is driven by fear of death or something worse than death, but a television protagonist can’t die or suffer too horribly, because we need to check in with them again next week. But television shows can spin dread almost effortlessly when they tune in to the right frequencies, and The X-Files’ earliest hours remind me, yes, of Twin Peaks, its most obvious forebearer . These early episodes also make me think of shows that would follow the mold of The X-Files, series like Lost, which would figure out how to bottle that dread almost as well.

But there’s nothing quite like the way this pilot creates an entire world that exists just on the edges of our own. It’s clear that the show’s creator, Chris Carter, doesn’t yet understand how the aliens function, or what they want, or why they’re abducting certain people. But he knows they’re here, and that’s almost more important than anything else.

The X-Files’ pilot is an extended hand, both to Scully and to the viewer, an invitation to leave behind the highway and step into the woods, where reality becomes patchy and the rules bend and twist like trees in the wind.

1: “If succeeding chapters can keep the pace, the well-produced entry could be this season’s UFO highflier,” wrote Tony Scott of Variety, in a review of “Pilot” that was both very positive and slightly concerned about the show having room to expand in future episodes.

2: Yes, it would deal with all manner of other monsters—just look at the title of this book!—but it was known, first and foremost, as “the show about aliens.

3: When Scully runs half naked into Mulder’s hotel room, it should feel more exploitative than it does, but the moment works, perhaps because the two actors have already built such firm chemistry.

4: Hello, “Space” (S1E9)!

5: So much of this pilot feels like Chris Carter throwing pebbles at David Lynch’s bedroom window to try to get him to come say “hi.”

Excerpted from Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to The X-Files, copyright © 2018 by Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff.

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Re: Re-open the X-Files with Monsters of the Week

Post by Duchovny on Sun 7 Oct - 11:31


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Re: Re-open the X-Files with Monsters of the Week

Post by jade1013 on Thu 11 Oct - 12:50

Mulder's happy ending, 'Humbug' origins and more secrets we learned from The X-Files' critical companion

Contributed by Christian Long
Oct 10, 2018

The new book Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to The X-Files, delves into the long history, deep lore, and behind the scenes developments of one of the most popular cult series of all time. 

Written by Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff, the two meticulously dissect the entire run of The X-Files episode-by-episode, as well as the feature films and revival series, alternating between a back-and-forth dialogue and joint synopsis. 

Throughout the book are breakout passages where the two share their conversations with creator Chris Carter, the former writing staff, as well as the cast and crew to help round out their critical insights, and give some surprising insight to the world of The X-Files. Here are a few of those surprising revelations before Monsters of the Week drops on October 16. 

The Mulder/Scully dynamic was immediate

At its core, it was the shared charisma between the X-Files' two lead actors that drove the show, and Carter credits David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who didn't learn these characters so much as they "just stepped right into" them. 

"They just understood these roles immediately," Carter explains in the book. "There's sexual tension. There's a kind of built-in romantic tension. There's mutual affection, agree to disagree. These people were always at odds with each other. It provided the argument, and the conflict, and the tension, and the... I'll call it the entertainment value that became the show."  

Among all the vast alien conspiracies, cover-ups, and revolving door of weekly monsters, the Mulder/Scully dynamic was at its heart. A believer and a skeptic, respectively, their on-screen relationship served as the audience's gateway to their world.  

An Oscar-winner helped inform the first ever 'Monster of the week' episode

At first, Carter's vision was going to be an 'all aliens, all the time' approach. It didn't take long before he and his writing staff decided to explore other phenomena outside of the overarching extraterrestrial mythology. 

That first endeavor came early on in Season 1 with "Squeeze," which was about a sewer-dwelling monster that ate human livers. In doing so, it pushed the limits of how scary the X-Files could be. To get around network censors, Carter says he got some advice from Oscar-winning set designer Rick Carter, who told him "if you really want to scare people, do it by not showing what's scary instead of showing them what's scary." This way, the audience was left to fill-in-the-blanks by conjuring up their own worst fears, which the X-Files creator "took to heart." 

Not to mention that episodes like "Squeeze" were so good that they'd become cornerstones in the never-ending debate between X-Files fans: Team Aliens or Team MotW. 

Mitch Pileggi booked the role of Agent Skinner because he was in a bad mood

FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner was something of an adversary-turned-ally. He first appeared late in Season 1, and was critical of Mulder and his whole aliens hooey. That all started to change over the course of the series, which turned Skinner into a staunch protector of the work Mulder and Scully were doing. 

But it was Skinner's no-nonsense attitude that made him a fan favorite, which Pileggi says resulted from his impatience with the lengthy audition process.

"i was actually being kind of obstinant and kind of a jerk," Pileggi explained. "I was like, 'You've seen me twice, you don't need to see me again, you could hire me or whatever.'"

Pileggi only went back for a third audition after being talked into it by his agent. It turned out, his bad attitude was something Carter was looking for when he wrote the character, so he booked the gig. 

The infamous "Humbug" almost didn't make it to air, but ushered in a new class episodes

Near the end of the second season, The X-Files veered into new territory: humor. While previous episodes like "Squeeze" proved the show could not only be atmospheric, but downright scary, "Humbug" proved it could be funny, too. 

The script was written by Darin Morgan, his first for the series, who would later add his unique voice to episodes like "War of the Coprophages" and "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." And it almost never saw the light of day.

"'Humbug' came out of left field," Carter said, adding "it was something that the network and studio were terrified of." They felt that the episode's self-referential humor would alienate the show's growing fanbase. Instead, it proved to endear itself to the audience, who welcomed the more lighthearted tone that still felt at home in the larger X-Files canon. 

Morgan, though a member of the writer's room, tended to work in isolation. Throughout his contributions to the series, managed to subvert, and even poke fun of, the show's tropes, while never stooping to condescension.  

Vince Gilligan was hired on the strength of his freelance submission 

Between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Vince Gilligan has become one of the most prominent voices in television. One of his earliest gigs writing for episodic TV was on The X-Files, a job he landed after his freelance submission for the monster of the week installment "Soft Light," which starred Tony Shalhoub.  

"His episode, which did not go untouched, was nonetheless extraordinarily good for somebody who wasn't in the writer's room and didn't know where all the trip wires were," said fellow X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz. 

Gilligan would be asked to join the writer's room for Season 3, and ended up contributing some of the series most beloved episodes, including "Unusual Suspects" and "Memento Mori," just to name a few.  

Of course, it was Gilligan's season six episode "Drive" which starred a barely known actor named Bryan Cranston, whose performance as a sympathetic racist blew away the crew. That performance would stick in Gilligan's mind, eventually leading to Cranston being cast as the nefarious Walter White in the writer's wildly successful series Breaking Bad

The writers wanted to go back 'Home' for the spin-off series Millennium

Easily one of the most memorable monster-of-the-week episodes, "Home" followed Mulder and Scully into rural Pennsylvania, where they met the Peacock family. A reclusive group who "raised their own stock," it proved to be deeply unsettling. So much so that it was pulled from syndication for years after it first aired. 

X-Files alum Glen Morgan and James Wong wanted to bring the Peacock family back for Millennium, the spin-off series that focused on Lance Henricksen's Frank Black, but the network was not open to the idea. At all. 

After pitching it to then-Fox Studio head Peter Lock, he replied simply "Never. The Peacocks are never going to be on the air again," adding "the reason we have a V-chip is because of your show!" 

"Home," which first aired in 1996, was later aired as a rerun on Halloween in 1999, where it was advertised in TV Guide as "an episode so controversial it’s been banned from television for three years."

Christ Carter originally planned to give Mulder a happy ending

After seven seasons as Fox Mulder, Duchovny had left the show at the end of the seventh season when his character was abducted by aliens. While Duchovny would return in a limited capacity in the series, as well as 2008's feature film I Want To Believe and the revival series, it changed the dynamic of the show considerably. 

Part of writing Mulder out of the show involved the resolution of his quest to find out what happened to his sister, Samantha, which drove his obsession with paranormal phenomena — aliens in particular. Though it was revealed that Samantha had died long ago, Chris Carter was going to give Mulder a relatively happier ending at first. 

Not anticipating the show's success, Carter had a five-year plan, which would end with Mulder finding Samantha. Writer Frank Spotnitz recalled telling Carter that they needed to resolve the storyline before the Mulder-less eighth season.

"It felt like the more honest and unexpected ending to that storyline — that she was dead and had been dead for a long time. It felt like that would be more resonant for people who lost loved ones for extended periods of time. You're not going to find them alive 20 years on. So that was — we knew that was a deeply unexpected and probably unpopular choice, but felt more honest." 

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Re: Re-open the X-Files with Monsters of the Week

Post by jade1013 on Fri 12 Oct - 9:45

Read an excerpt from Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff’s X-Files book—with special guest Vince Gilligan

The A.V. Club
Yesterday 9:13am

Illustration: Patrick Leger (Abrams Press)

On October 16, Abrams Press will release Monsters Of The Week: The Complete Critical Companion To The X-Files. Written by A.V. Club contributor Zack Handlen and former A.V. Club TV editor Todd VanDerWerff, the book adapts and updates the duo’s popular TV Club Classic recaps, supplementing them with cast and writer interviews, illustrations from Patrick Leger, and a new foreword by X-Files creator Chris Carter. Read on for Zack’s take on season five’s “Bad Blood,” followed by commentary from the episode’s writer, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s Vince Gilligan. Monsters Of The Week can be ordered here.

Illustration: Patrick Leger (Abrams Press)

“Bad Blood”
Season 5 / Episode 12
Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Cliff Bole

Getting Our Stories Straight

Illustration: Patrick Leger (Abrams Press)

In which Scully says po-tay-to, and Mulder says po-tah-to

Four and a half seasons into The X-Files, the characters of Mulder and Scully are pretty static and predictable. With each new episode, we know Mulder will believe everything he hears and have a crazy theory that explains all of it; we know that Scully will cling to rationality and common sense in the face of all evidence; we know that Mulder will almost certainly be proved right; and we know that Scully will put up with pretty much anything. One of the strengths of a long-running series is the way the audience’s familiarity allows the writers’ room to play with our assumptions. What must it be like for Mulder to have to put up with a partner who never agrees with him? And what must it be like for Scully, working with a guy who seems to believe in everything?

“Bad Blood” is one of my favorite X-Files episodes. It’s goofy in the best way possible, offering a welcome respite from some of the heavier subject matter of the season. Like many of the series’ strongest comedic entries, “Bad Blood” is a genial self-parody, lovingly pointing out our heroes’ flaws in ways that only serve to make them more human. The humor derives from how Mulder and Scully see themselves and each other, and how both of their versions of the truth work to reinforce their ideas of who they really are. It doesn’t hurt that their latest investigation reveals that some monsters are just as invested in self-image as the rest of us.

After learning about a series of cattle exsanguinations that escalated to the murder of a tourist, Mulder and Scully head to Cheney, a small Texas town. There they meet Sheriff Hartwell (Luke Wilson, at his Luke Wilson-est!), Mulder tries to prove his wild theory about vampires (which is correct), and Scully does autopsies, firm in her belief that they’re dealing with a killer who’s read Dracula one too many times (this is also correct). Mulder is attacked, Scully arrives just in time to save him, and then Mulder chases his assailant—a teenage pizza delivery boy—into the woods, where he stakes him in the chest. This leads to a horrifying moment for both our heroes (and the audience) when Scully removes the kid’s fake vampire teeth.

It’s one of the best cold opens in the show’s history, one that plays on our expectations and our automatic assumption that Mulder ultimately knows what he’s doing. While in medias res beginnings don’t always work, the surprises this one holds—from the sudden twist (those plastic fangs!) to Mulder’s “Oh sh—,”— it’s clear that we’re in for something different from the normal hunt for monsters and ghouls.

It all turns out OK, of course: the kid, Ronnie, really is a vampire, and when the local coroner removes Mulder’s stake, he pops back to life. He’s part of a community of bloodsuckers (a community that includes Sheriff Hartwell), and when Mulder and Scully return to Cheney to investigate the disappearance of his “corpse,” that community pulls together to protect one of its own. Ronnie may be an idiot, the sheriff explains to Scully, but he’s their idiot, and the episode ends with the vampires driving their RVs off into the night, leaving behind a pair of dazed, possibly wiser, and undeniably relieved FBI agents.

It’s not the most dynamic of plots, and Mulder and Scully are even more irrelevant to the action than usual. But the idea that all this happens because a kid vampire breaks the rules of his kind is a creative premise. Throughout the series, Mulder and Scully spend much of their time hunting creatures that are essentially anomalies in the social order, viruses in the system, and purveyors of bizarre deaths. They typically aren’t “pleasant people who pay their taxes on time,” so it’s nice to see ones that are, and do.

Like “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” (S3E20), “Bad Blood” is a Rashomon episode, in which multiple characters explain their version of the same events. Unlike Rashomon, however, Mulder and Scully’s accounts don’t differ much on facts—the differences are in the details, and “Bad Blood” gets a lot of laughs out of exaggerating how far each character will go to make themselves look good. In Scully’s version, Mulder is an endless trial, while Scully is the long-suffering grown-up forced to put up with his foolishness, even as she makes eye contact with the dreamy local lawman. In Mulder’s version, Scully is dismissive and close-minded, ignoring his insight while she flirts with the bucktoothed idiot sheriff.

While it would’ve been possible to make this episode as brutal and conceptually terrifying as Rashomon really is (if there’s no such thing as objective truth, how does anything mean anything?), “Bad Blood” keeps things light. What comes across most clearly is the sense of how long-term relationships settle into routine overtime. Like any couple, Mulder and Scully have formed narratives of how they fit with each other, and those narratives affect how they see the rest of the world, which can be healthy—we need the continuity—but can also be limiting. In Mulder’s mind he is the enlightened and noble seeker of truth (and tired of being doubted); in Scully’s she is the ever-patient (ever put-upon) heroine, logical and competent. Mulder and Scully might’ve put together the case faster if they weren’t so busy editing events in their head to fit how they want to see themselves.

Mulder and Scully aren’t the only ones trying to make themselves look good. Ronnie puts in vampire fangs and menaces cows and tourists, clinging to horror movie clichés about what it means to be a vampire because he thinks it makes him look cool. The kicker isn’t that he really is a vampire; it’s that the whole town is made of creatures just like him, bloodsuckers smart enough to know that the only way they can survive in the modern world is by making sure the world doesn’t see them as a threat. The locals who keep Mulder from killing Ronnie in the end are arguably the clearest thinkers in the whole episode—they’ve figured out the only story that keeps them alive, and, occasional idiots like Ronnie aside, they’re doing a great job telling it.

You could go the despair route with this. If we’re all our own main characters in our stories, then on some level, we’re never going to see eye to eye on anything. But maybe that’s not so bad in the end. I don’t argue that “Bad Blood” is trying to make some profound existential statement, but I do think there’s something to be said for the pleasure we get in seeing how those separate stories collide. That’s the real joy of art: the attempt to communicate your own, specific, unique, never-to-be-repeated view of the world to others. And maybe that’s the most we can hope for in real-life relationships: that we agree on the basics but take pleasure in noting the discrepancies. That’s how I see it, anyway.

He Said, She Said

When asked what made Mulder and Scully such compelling characters to write for, Vince Gilligan says he was interested primarily in their dynamic: “To me, it was the tennis match that occurred between them. These were two really smart characters who had their own view[s] of the world and their own various areas of expertise but they were both whip‑smart and both respected and even loved each other… There was always a deep respect and affection between them and they were both just really interesting to write for in the sense that on the best days and in the best episodes, there was a real argument going on between them. Mulder would have his point of view about what was going on and it would be. . . an otherworldly explanation. . . and Scully would have her explanation, which was much more grounded in reality.

Illustration: Patrick Leger (Abrams Press)

“Keeping that tension, that romantic tension—that tension of argument, so to speak—going was one of the hardest parts about the job, in that you wanted them in a perfect world to both have equally compelling arguments. . . . You wanted that tennis match between two excellent tennis players, where the ball gets lobbed across the net and then it gets returned beautifully and it’s always in play, back and forth, back and forth, your head is going left and right and left and right watching this ball get knocked back and forth—this argument gets kicked back and forth, and you’re impressed with it at every turn. That was easier said than done; we [the writers] had a real hard time doing that in practice, keeping that argument going, because a lot of the time the plot at hand in any given episode was so out there that there really was only Mulder’s explanation.

“Of course, when you’re watching as a viewer, the whole thing is weighted toward Mulder being right, which is why some of my favorite episodes were ones where Scully, at least in the short term or in some sense, turned out to be right. Those were the most successful to me. But that’s what was always great about writing for them: you loved both of them. . . . As a writer, sometimes when you’re really tuned in to your characters, you’re listening to them talk and then you’re writing it down. You’re listening to the conversation in your head and then you’re just transcribing it. Those moments late at night on the Fox lot back in the mid-’90s where I was listening to Mulder and Scully talk and then typing down what they said on my computer were wonderful moments.”

The A.V. Club

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Re: Re-open the X-Files with Monsters of the Week

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