The X-Files and the Monsters of That Week: Fire

by thethreepennyguignol

With a show as diverse in its storytelling as The X-Files, it would be a shame to only focus on its best moments. As much as I love the show, even the most die-hard of fans will admit that it’s far from perfect. For every excellent Monster of the Week, there is a dud, a flop, or one that just plain doesn’t work. Just as Beyond the Sea helped us understand what makes a truly great Monster of the Week episode, it’s only fair that we also look at another season one episode to investigate the exact opposite. 

Season one of The X-Files is, frankly, more entertaining than it deserves to be, though most of the credit for this lies at the basement door of Mulder and Scully, a duo that became iconic in no time at all. It has some absolute stinkers that escape the wrath of this article mainly due to the chemistry of the two paranormal investigators. But Fire, a limp Monster of the Week written by series creator, Chris Carter, doesn’t even have that.

On paper, Fire is a great concept: the story of a sexual sadist and murderer whose passion and desire manifest, quite literally, into pyromancy. If the episode has one thing going for it, it’s that the fire effects are quite spectacular. In an era where fire stunts are rarer than ever, mainly due to the invention of CGI fire (which is rubbish but keeps stunt performers safe, those sensible cry-babies) the setpieces in this episode feel visceral and unpredictable. That’s all Fire has going for it. Now, lets get to the dregs.

There is a supposed erotic component to Fire that never manifests into anything interesting or even adjacent to sensual. The X-Files is not a sexy show; I realize that both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are hot, and Skinner certainly is a big, bald, and beautiful man, but when the show tried to be sexy it felt like a bucket of cold water right on the privates. This is the first of thankfully few episodes that tries to suggest Mulder and Scully have a romantic infatuation with each other by introducing a character to come between them.

Enter Phoebe Green, an old Oxford pal of Mulder’s, who is also implied to be his ex. Phoebe is a psychopath who also happens to be a detective for the Metropolitan police. It’s through her that Mulder and Scully are brought on to the case as a vaguely royal British family are getting death threats from a man who can make people spontaneously combust. Scully takes an immediate disliking to her; we are supposed to believe it’s because she is hot for Mulder, but Phoebe introduced herself with a car bomb prank, so Scully’s reaction to this nutcase is completely reasonable. 

Phoebe is an awful character. She’s clumsily conceived and very bad at her job. She wants Mulder’s expertise, not because he’s on the X-Files, but because he is (and here I shall prepare you for an appropriate “all of a sudden”) deathly afraid of fire. So, in order to protect a royal family from a pyromaniac, Phoebe enlists the help of a guy that would curl up into a ball (not a criticism, most people would) before jumping into a burning building. Then we have the late revelation that Phoebe is having an affair with the royal husband. I’m starting to think that Phoebe and the killer are partners. Which might have actually been interesting, huh?

So, why is Phoebe such a dud? I have a few theories. The first is that Chris Carter was too concerned with making her a complication instead of a character. It’s a bad fit having her as a sort of femme fatale when her supposed role in the plot makes this choice nonsensical. But the true answer lies with Mulder. It’s a running joke that Mulder is a lonely man with no bed (until Dreamland) to share with anyone. He watches porn in his office, sticks phallic pencils into the ceiling, and generally defines the basement-dwelling loser. If we look at Phoebe through this lens, that’s right, the porn lens, she makes a bit more sense. She acts like she’s supposed to be in Basic Instinct, bragging about being bent over Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s grave. It’s hilarious, because for all The X-Files strengths, it was never good at erotic thriller.

Mulder sucks in Fire – he’s weak and easily manipulated, and doesn’t really do any investigation. Mostly, he and Phoebe are waiting around for the killer to turn up. Unsurprisingly, Scully is the ray of light in this steaming pile, as she is to my life in general – while Mulder and Phoebe are mooning over each other, waiting for the killer, Scully actually does some investigating. She’s the episode’s greatest strength yet she also highlights its weaknesses al the more. The fact that Scully’s workman-like role is the highlight of Fire shows how awful this episode truly is.

The X-Files is a superb show, but for every Beyond the Sea, there is a Fire, when the show is too nervous to rely on the brilliant chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson and needs to stir up some cliche romantic tenstion in the process. Tune in next week as we take a look at my pick for the best Monster of the Week in season two.

By Kevin Boyle

(header image via Rebloggy)