Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to The X-Files – Zack Handlen & Emily Todd VanDerWerff

Illustrations – Patrick Leger

The first X-Files episode I clearly remember watching was Squeeze. I was wedged into a beanbag on the floor of a darkened lounge room. Behind me was an open door leading to the kitchen which, like the rest of the house, was dark and Eugene Tooms creeped me out enough that several times he had me looking over my shoulder. My love of the weird and the wonderful and all things spooky began that night and I’ve been an X-Phile ever since, collecting episodes on VHS and then DVD and an assortment of books and memorabilia.

As soon as I saw Monsters of the Week I knew I had to have it. I loved the picture of Mulder and Scully on the cover and the title called to me. I suspected immediately that reading this book would lead to an overwhelming urge to binge watch the entire series (again!) but the reason why I need to surprised me. I’d expected to binge read this book and then slowly reread it as I rewatched each episode but in my rush to get my hands on this book I somehow missed the critical part of the subtitle.

There was always going to be some disagreement between myself and the authors; you can’t be this invested in a series for so long and not have strong opinions about it. While the writers shredded some episodes that I count amongst my favourites, most of their comments were a fair balance of the good, the bad and the creepy. However, sometimes the criticism was so critical that it had me wondering at times if this pair even liked The X-Files. My stubborn has kicked in so my upcoming binge will now be about confirming to myself that the episodes I always loved are still worthy of my adoration.

I adored Patrick Leger’s cover artwork and the illustrations accompanying each section of the book. There are several of these that I’d love to have framed. I do appreciate how much time and effort has gone into this book. Besides watching or rewatching 11 series of TV and two movies between them, Zack Handlen and Emily Todd VanDerWerff have tackled all of the monsters and mythology in a fair amount of detail; ranging from half a page to over three pages of commentary per episode. The authors also really like footnotes; most pages have several, ranging from really interesting extra information to seemingly random.

As a huge fan I wanted this read to feel as passionate about the series as I am and it was to a point. There were some quotes I loved:

Mulder’s defining trait is his willingness to charge headlong into danger if he thinks he will find the answers he seeks, and Scully’s defining trait is her willingness to ultimately trust her partner, even when she doesn’t believe him.

The X-Files is a cop show, yes, but it’s also one in which you could wake up in a safe, standard reality, then turn the wrong corner and end up becoming a thing that goes bump in the night. No one is safe, and any given door could lead to madness.

this isn’t a show about aliens as much as it is about our need to believe in something, lest the night become too dark and terrifying. There’s so much darkness in the night sky, but there are also so many stars. And maybe one of them is looking back at us.

If Deep Throat was a cheat code to the quest for the truth, X is a walkthrough written by somebody who doesn’t want to share his secrets, doesn’t like you, and might not even be playing the same game.

While I loved most of their take on the first few seasons I found the book became a bit of a slog to get through towards the end as it became more focused on the negative when discussing the later seasons:

The mythology episodes would come to feel more and more poorly motivated, and eventually, you’d start to wonder how Mulder could believe in any of this bullshit.

you won’t just be wondering why you decided to watch this episode; you’ll be wondering why you decided to watch a show that could produce an episode this bad at all.

Other people die, but those deaths don’t have any weight, and the point the episode tries to make is too unwelcome and backward to really care about.

Like nearly everything else in the episode, there’s no real joke here, just a joke-shaped hole where comedy could have theoretically existed.

The X-Files has been reheating its leftovers for several seasons now

The X-Files is frantically trying to find a new reason to justify its own existence as it circles the drain.

But then I’d find sentences like these and know they understood after all:

we wouldn’t still be talking about the series if it didn’t hit more than it missed.

“The Sixth Extinction,” parts one and two, are ridiculous television, but dammit, they’re our ridiculous television.

I acknowledge that had I written this book most reviewers would be commenting on how annoying it was to keep reading, “This is one of my favourite episodes!” almost every time they turned the page. It was a really nice trip down memory lane and it reminded me of so many episodes that shocked, horrified, intrigued and amazed me. I’d forgotten or maybe never realised that the Lone Gunmen made their appearance before Skinner did. I did keep waiting for the commentary about how each time Mulder pulls his gun on someone he loses it but sadly it never happened.

I had some objections when criticisms were made based on what is or isn’t acceptable today without consideration for the time that the majority of this series was made, when we thought computers were going to do some really scary things once the clock stuck midnight at the end of 1999. In particular the embarrassment the writers supposedly felt by being two white men critiquing a TV show written predominantly by white men irked me. By focusing so much on the gender, racial and cultural inequalities of the show they missed the obvious; Scully, being such a strong lead, inspired so many women to study and go on to work in STEM.

If you’re not already a fan you probably won’t pick this book up anyway but if you are just beginning your journey to find the truth out there I’d definitely recommend watching each episode prior to reading the commentary about them to avoid spoilers.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Abrams Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

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 Emily 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.