Monday, April 9, 2007

Alias and The X-Files: The Advent of Disney Happy Paint

During these bleak months of March and April, when most of my favorite TV shows are on hiatus, I often turn to my extensive DVD collection to provide me with some much-needed entertainment. My roommate Melissa and I have gone through the entire fourth and fifth seasons of Alias in the last three weeks, and when she’s not around, I busy myself with X-Files: Mythology DVDs and logic puzzles. (Yes, I lead a very exciting life.) For years, I have noted the connection between these two series. The X-Files was such a groundbreaking piece of television that it influenced not only the science fiction genre, but the entire TV community.

If you watch a show with a “man of science/man of faith” dynamic, thank The X-Files.

If you use the word “shipper,” thank the X-Files fandom.

Perhaps never more so is this influence obvious than in the work of J.J. Abrams, particularly Alias. Now, I love J.J., and I love Alias, but after the second season finale, it seemed that almost every episode—and especially every major plot arc—was reminiscent of a much-beloved X-File. On the audio commentary track of season three’s “Full Disclosure,” producers discuss the influence of “shows that start with letters at the end of the alphabet.” They claim that, while they are fans of that unnamed show, they found that toward the end of the series, it became obvious that the writers really didn’t know where they were going, and swore up and down that Alias was different.

In the end, Alias was not different. The fourth and fifth seasons are more wandering than a chicken with its head cut off, and the finale is an unsatisfying end to a five-year journey. Rather than beating a very-dead horse (check out Mae’s blog about the disappointment of “All the Time in the World”) by berating Alias, I’m going to discuss the striking similarities between my two favorite spy-fi shows, and explore how the tone of the shows allowed them to be separate entities.

For its first five seasons, The X-Files was shot in Vancouver, Canada. Vancouver is a bleak, rainy city—not pretty. Throw in a couple of smoke-filled rooms, and you’ve got yourself the perfect location for a show about government conspiracies and back-door deals with aliens. Much of the show’s action took place in Mulder’s office, located in the basement of the FBI Building. The agents primarily wore suits, and both lived in comfortable, but rather dull apartments.

Alias, meanwhile, benefited from Jabrams’s comic book approach to storytelling. The sets were exaggerated, from Sydney’s swanky bachelorette pad to the “Apple Store” offices of APO. And while the sets were awesome, they had nothing on the costumes. Missionwear was extensive, colorful, and sexy. And when Sydney was stuck at an APO desk, she wore tailored outfits that were always far more flattering than anything in Dana Scully’s closet. The whole series (shot on the Disney lot, by the way) was just absolutely swathed in color, making it all the more thrilling to watch.

(Part of this discrepancy, I think, is budgeting. Thanks to the success of The X-Files, networks were more apt to fund high-concept shows to the hilt, allowing producers to build beautifully elaborate sets and costumes.)

Due in part to the color (but more so related to the writing), Alias had a much brighter tone than The X-Files ever did.

For most of the series, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were the only cast members in The X-Files’s opening credits, only adapted in seasons eight and nine, when Duchovny’s exit caused a cast shake-up. Even so, the most actors ever to be featured in the credits was five, in the series finale. The show was entirely about those two people. They were two lonely individuals who had only their work and each other—every fight was a Mulder and Scully Against Everyone Else type deal. Alias survived on a virtual revolving door of leading and supporting characters, totaling seventeen over five seasons. While Mulder and Scully single-handedly took on everyone from the rebel aliens to Jeffrey Spender, Sydney Bristow had a veritable army of support staff. If Mulder and Scully had had a Jack Bristow-like character, the show probably would’ve needed at most six seasons.

The CIA of the Bristow era was quite powerful. With unlimited resources and contacts, the team always proved to be a force in the field. APO was no match for any terrorists, all of whom pretty much ended up crumbling in the shadow of the American government. All but one of the bad guys ended up dead, and our heroes got happy endings or heroic deaths. It was a little more difficult for Mulder and Scully, who, as I mentioned, were pretty much doing everything themselves. And they weren’t just dealing with misguided aunties with fantasies of world domination over a zombie slave race. They were dealing with extra-biological entities, who had superior technology, intuition, and, oh yeah, most of them could shape-shift. And some of them worked for the government.

Even though this ultimately resulted in the romantic coupling of Mulder and Scully, producers seemed to enter into it almost reluctantly. When the show ended, we still didn’t know when they first hooked up or if/how they conceived Baby William. They were just suddenly in love. While living in desert exile with Gibson Praise, Mulder sent Scully emails with “Dearest Dana” as the subject line, and I felt so awkward listening to her do the voiceover of his super-mushy words. The man rarely called her Dana, let alone say stuff like “I’m lonely, Dana, uncertain of my ability to live like this.” Alias was committed to Sydney and Vaughn from day one—October 1, 2001. Sydney had a real life away from her work, a life that included Vaughn. They were allowed to be sweet together, to say things like “Yes, I’ll break into the Vatican with you,” because Alias and the CIA didn’t force them to have tough exteriors and non-fraternization complexes.

While Alias’s finale might have been disappointing, The X-Files ended with the most depressing message of futility ever to be found on the airwaves. Where last we left our heroes, they were awaiting the arrival of the 2012 apocalypse and biding time by eluding the feds. And they gave up their precious miracle son William for adoption.

Overall, Alias was just a happier place to be. Jabrams gave me more fluff in any random Sydney/Vaughn scene that Chris Carter gave me in an entire series of The X-Files. Which is probably why I wasn’t watching The X-Files for the romance. Watching The X-Files for the Mulder/Scully relationship would be like watching Ally McBeal to learn about the legal profession.

So, basically, I would argue that Alias blatantly stole from The X-Files and then put a fresh coat of Disney Happy Paint on it.

Some Alias characters are reminiscent of X-Files characters, while others seem to be virtual facsimiles of TXF counterparts. Dixon in his Joint Task Force Director days is Skinner-like, and Marshall’s tech skills make him like a Lone Gunman-in-training, only without the paranoia.

Sloane, however, is basically the Cigarette-Smoking Man, except less anonymous. Both were rogue agents who had come up at their respective agencies with the fathers of our heroes. They infiltrated the government repeatedly, but were really pursuing their own devious agendas of world domination and immortality. The only difference between the two, really, was that Sydney Bristow, much as I love her, trusted Sloane over and over again, only to kick herself when he (gasp!) was actually evil again. Mulder and Scully never trusted ol’ C.G.B. Spender.

Throughout the series, Sydney Bristow seemed to incorrectly translate “Trust No One” into “Trust Everyone” on a daily basis. Whether it was Sloane, a Covenant cellmate, her mom, or Lauren Reed, Sydney was far too trust-happy for a CIA spy.

Vaughn, meanwhile, was far less quick to trust, as was Mulder. They both made big mistakes only once—Vaughn with Lauren Reed, Mulder with Diana Fowley. Lauren is a direct descendant of Diana, as a new member of the task force who steals Vaughn’s heart and makes Sydney jealous. (Diana’s involvement in the X-Files, however frustrating, had quite a glorious payoff for the MSR.) The reveals of their duplicity (Lauren a Covenant higher-up, Diana in cahoots with the Smoking Man) were some of the most gratifying television moments ever. (Read more about me loving to hate these beyotches here.)

One ever-present figure on Alias was Julian Sark, a free agent with loose ties to every bad guy on the globe. He is strikingly reminiscent of Alex Krycek, who pandered to the Syndicate just as often as he followed his own agenda. (He also ended up saving Scully and an in-vitro William in “Essence.”) These guys have strong rivalries with our heroes, but we love the episodes where they all have to work together to stop the real bad guys. You know what they say about enemies of enemies...

Okay, so you’ve got these big organizations threatening the lives of innocent people across the globe. Sometimes they want to use you to test the black oil vaccine, so that they can survive the alien apocalypse; other times, they want to use a big red ball to turn you into a zombie...we still don’t really get that one. (However, note again the difference in color here. The X-Files used the black oil, while Alias used a big red ball.)

Then you’ve got your devoted public servant with a very open mind. Both Mulder and Sydney Bristow grew up under less-than-ideal circumstances. Mulder’s sister Samantha was abducted while he was sitting right there in the room, and Sydney lost her mother to a tragic car accident. Their fathers were largely absent, and both of their mothers were having affairs with the aforementioned criminal masterminds. For Mulder, this led to the revelation that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was actually his father. Sydney fretted for a while about the possibility of Sloane as her father, but a test later proved Jack’s paternity.

The Disney Happy Paint makes the evil guy not your daddy.

Disney Happy Paint, however, can’t save you from the horror that is a doubling procedure. The X-Files introduced shape-shifting aliens early in the series, most notably with the Alien Bounty Hunter. After him, though, it seemed like just about all the aliens could do it. The melty face ones could do it. Anyway, Alias’s version of this was a little more concrete, because it was like this technology that would turn one person into another. It was not instantaneous, and it was permanent. Over the course of the series, it happened to Ethan Hawke, Francie, Irina Derevko, Renee’s father, and, finally, Sydney herself. (For a project which Sydney supposedly exploded in “Double Agent,” they sure used this science a whole hell of a lot more times.) Such use of the helix protocol always caused so much mayhem. Which is which? How do I tell? I THOUGHT I KILLED YOU!

It got very old, in both cases. On The X-Files, they all pretty much went like this: Shape-shifter Becomes Mulder. Shape-shifter Fools Scully. Real Mulder Must Find Scully Before It’s Too Late! Showdown Between Shape-shifter and Real Mulder Results in Shape-shifter Getting Poked in the Neck. It was a cool concept in season four or five, but by the time it got around to season seven, I was so tired of those damn melty-faced shape-shifters I could've kill someone.

And Alias’s doubling procedure ended up being an excuse toward the end of the series. Lena Olin basically told everybody she wasn’t coming back to the show, so season four began with the revelation that Jack had killed her. When she agreed to return for two episodes at the end of the same season, the producers were so excited to bring her back that they went back to the old standard and just said that it was actually her double that had been killed. What a freakin’ cop-out.

Eventually, our heroines get pregnant. This is rather remarkable in both cases, because both Sydney and Scully had their eggs taken from them by the bad guys. (Well, Sydney only had half of them taken. The Disney Happy Paint leaves you with a fifty-fifty shot of conceiving, I guess.) On The X-Files, the pregnancy was written in because the show didn’t really have anywhere else to go, and they thought the show might be ending anyhow. (Can you imagine how pissed I would have been if “Requiem” had been the series finale? With him shooting up into space like that? Oh, Chris Carter, you’d better be glad it didn’t finish that way. I’d have had your head.) On Alias, it was because it would’ve been whoa hard to work around Jennifer Garner’s real-life pregnancy. Sydney Bristow’s normal jobs aren’t really conducive to costumes that would hide a baby bump. So Sydney got pregnant, and her unborn baby often participated in operations.

Anyway, these babies were special. William could move mobiles with his mind, Isabelle could put together the Indicator puzzle. Somehow, the bad guys (aliens/Prophet Five) know that these babies were different, and infiltrated the OB-GYNs. Scully’s Doctor Parenti ended up with his face in a jar, while Sydney ran into Dr. Lynn when Prophet Five held her captive on a barge. Despite these pressures, and the fact that the bad guys were literally right around the corner, both babies were born healthy. Disney Happy Paint at least allowed Sydney Bristow a little privacy; the supersoldiers actually witnessed Baby William’s birth on The X-Files.

Okay, so the babies are okay, but they have lonely mommies. Because, in addition to the babies, the bad guys want the daddies. On The X-Files, Mulder was gone for most of Scully’s pregnancy (dead) and most of William’s life in Washington (hiding in the desert with Gibson Praise), only stopping by for a couple months leading up to the birth. He went into hiding right after kissing Scully and seemingly admitting to being William’s father. Vaughn, meanwhile, was gunned down and presumed dead shortly after Sydney found out she was pregnant, but really he was faking it.

So Dad’s in hiding, Mom’s trying to balance finding the truth/destroying Prophet Five with motherhood. While one cracks under the pressure of keeping her child safe, the other becomes even more dedicated to her cause, before the entire happy Spy Family is reunited in the finale. Thanks, Disney Happy Paint, for not making Sydney Bristow give up Isabelle for adoption.

Actually, thanks, Disney Happy Paint, for everything you did for Alias. I’m not sure I could have handled the darkness of The X-Files for another five seasons. While I appreciate the X-Files mythology so much—and am still compelled by the DVDs years later—the show really scares and depresses me. The unending doom and gloom at times overwhelmed the story, while Alias offered sweet reprieves from the Rambaldi chaos at least once a week, even when Sydney and Vaughn were not together. And while the Rambaldi story was probably not as compelling as the aliens/conspiracy story, those happy moments made me an Alias addict.

Are you desperate for more of my discussion on supersoldiers? Check back in the coming days for my take on which Lost character might just be one!

2 Responses to “Alias and The X-Files: The Advent of Disney Happy Paint”

Anonymous said...

Holy crap. That was very spoiler-ific -- I got into the X-Files around season 4(ish - after the movie) and then stopped watching when they killed off Mulder, so I'm working through the series now; I'm also watching the last couple of Alias episodes right now -- but so worth it! I have to say I agree... I like the Disney Happy Paint as well. I wish there would have been more between Scully and Mulder.

Mae Vaughan said...

Eeep, sorry you got spoiled! We, uh, tend to work on a "if it's already aired, it's fair game for discussion without warning" policy around here -- mainly because the thought of spoiling latecomers to these shows never crossed our minds :-\

Alias was fabulous, non? I had great beef with the mythology wrap-up and I'd still like to have words with JAbrams over it all, but in the end it was basically perfection in the world of Syd/Vaughn 'shipperdom.

And don't worry about Mulder/Scully. I have a feeling Chris Carter has finally come around to the romance between them, so we have movies ahead of us to get what we wanted to see back then!

Welcome to our blog, BTW! Hope to see you around again!