X files and the perils of consistency

Thexfiles The new X-files movie is almost upon us, and the other day I stopped my feverish channel surfing to watch a rerun. It was amazing how bad it was. 

In it’s day, in the first couple of seasons, the X-files was mezmerizing.  It didn’t matter that it was shot in my home town, that  the production values were modest, that plot lines were improbable. There was something captivating there.  Fox Mulder was tortured, complicated and wry, qualities never before given a TV character.  And of course Scully was the quiet siren, every thinking man’s idea of a bit of alright.

But this episode was appallingly bad.  Poor Duchovny (Mulder) was pallid, Anderson (Scully) overwrought.  And the problem, I fell to thinking was that this was a late season and by this time the plot line was so fantastically complicated that what made the X-Files ineffably interesting, indefinably mysterious had been burdened and broken.  The show was over.  I had this vision of Chris Carter pinioned like Gulliver by plots lines, rendered incapable of creative freedom by the promissory notes he had issued with each passing season.

Surely, it’s time to get rid of the idea of consistency.  Plot lines, let’s think of these as sight lines, a general indication of where we are going, nothing more.  Now that we live in an era of what Henry Jenkins calls transmedia, there are necessarily many versions of the narrative in play.  Who thinks that new narrative should be found by the details of old narrative.  Let us treat every season as a variation on the theme.  We would expect to see themes that resonate, but surely the pressure of each new season should be see not the slavish consistency but the departures.

We had the happy opportunity of listening to the producers of Heroes at MIT not so long ago and it’s clear that consistency is a tyranny.  It gives power to rapid fans who define their fandom by their knowledge of the narrative.  Some of these people are not cocreators of the narratives. They are jailers, constantly vigilant for any, even unimportant inconsistency.  On the other side, the newcomers look at the detail of a narrative enterprise like Lost and think to themselves, "there’s no way I can catch up."

Consistency, surely this is a cultural relic up with which we should no longer have to put.

post script:

See Rick Liebling’s very interesting contemplation of this theme here

8 thoughts on “X files and the perils of consistency

  1. Seamus McCauley

    For my money X-Files broke the moment the viewer actually saw the aliens.

    Up to that point there was a legitimate tension and mystery between the wish to side with Mulder and believe, and the unproven strangeness of his beliefs. As soon as the aliens turned up on screen the strong possibility that he might be wrong was squandered, and it became a rather less psychologically interesting matter of conspiracy against a Mulder whose beliefs were confirmed by evidence we had all witnessed too. “I want to believe” was an article of faith on the part of the viewer. Proof denies faith. The new film has precisely the wrong title, inadvertently highlighting the show’s shark-jumping moment.

  2. Rick Liebling

    There are certain characters where the ‘variation on the theme’ concept would be a strong alternative. I’d love to see Batman in the Victorian era (Gotham by Gaslight graphic novel does this). How about James Bond in World War I?

    The best example of this that I know of is the Grendel comic created by Matt Wagner. He purposely changed the story multiple times. Not only would the story change temporally, but the person inhabiting the Grendel character would change. Wagner also used different artists to create the look and feel of the Grendel books.

    Yeah, some of them worked better than others, but Grendel lived as a concept and that allowed the freedom to stay creatively fresh.

  3. Jim

    So I buy the argument, even love it: consistency is over-rated, especially in the long term. What if we go beyond plot and TV, how can this concept let us think in a new or bigger way about brands, where consistency is everything? … Or we thought it was.

    As we pass some, (all?), ownership for our brands to our customers do they get to choose the importance of consistency? It seems a slippery slope that might have some interesting outcomes.

  4. Ray

    Part of the problem of consistency in US television is the business model. Most shows try to build up enough episodes and seasons to go into syndicated reruns where the big money for the studios is. The premise and freshness of even the best shows can’t be stretched out to 100+ needed.

    As a counter point, in the UK, a season (or what they call a series) usually lasts a mere 12 episodes with sometimes a Christmas special, instead of the US standard 22. They also retire shows after one or two series, for example the Office and Queer As Folk, well before they jump the shark and while the show’s popularity is still on the rise.

    A British show closer to your post and the X-Files, is Dr. Who, which had a decades long run and was restarted 3 years ago. Here, the main character is “re-generated” every few years, and is also given new companions (ie side kicks) who travel with the Doctor. Each new actor give the actor a different spin and characterization, which breaks up the consistency.

  5. peter spear

    i love the idea of departure as way of thinking of the value of inconsistency, valuable variation or, better yet, inconsistent constancy.

    JJ Abrams has a talk on TED.com where he explains his black box of mystery kind of approach to writing that seems to mirror this way of thinking about tomorrow, or sight lines as you say.

    if every act is directed towards the management of mystery, excitement, delight, etc. and not towards defending ones position or validating the past, then it seems like everything becomes a matter of much shorter, smaller, increments. an intimacy of expectations, which creates a kind of magic.

    isn’t there an anthropological idea of charisma that speaks to this?

  6. srp

    Two contrasting enemies of audience interest are arbitrariness and predictability. Consistency helps the former but can exacerbate the latter by closing off original strorylines.

    The problems of continuity are well-known in the comic book industry. The idea of The Marvel Universe, cooked up back in the 1960s, was extremely powerful at the time because it made the adventures of the various characters seem less arbitrary and hence more exciting. It was also good for cross-promotion of comic books, because characters from one could appear in the others. Over time, however, the complexity of the structure passed well beyond rococo and writers seeking originality had to carve out local spaces where parts of the Universe were ignored or even contradicted. There were also some company-wide efforts at creating “alternate” universes where old stories could be retold in different ways. It’s still a pretty useful thing to have, though, as in Marvel’s recent “Civil Wars” storyline that crossed all its books as the government passes a law to force all superheroes to register with the government.

    In general, I think the comics people (especially DC) are moving away from the strict consistency approach to more of a mythology approach. With mythology, different takes on the same idea coexist and the dominant ones win out because of their power with readers and later writers, rather than by editorial fiat as part of the Official Continuity.

    But within a single TV series, my personal opinion is that consistency is pretty important. Heroes actually has a huge problem with this factor. When you have a telekinetic guy who can throw lightning bolts and fly and who knows about his enemies’ powers yet still manages to get knocked out, etc. repeatedly, the whole premise of the story seems pointless. If you want to tell a story that’s more human and not about superpowers, fine, write something more naturalistic. But if the whole point of originality of your tale is that these people have superpowers, it’s stupid to deploy them inconsistently in order to set up various “emotional” or “thematic” scenes.

  7. Tim Dawes

    The Simpsons has thrived, I think, in large part due to their take on consistency – characters who are consistent but who inhabit a universe with no memory. Episode to episode, I can expect Homer to sell out his job for a jelly donut. But even though Springfield expires in a radio active flame, it will be back good as new in the next episode, ready to suffer some other fate.

    The application to brands is not so clear to me. We remember the problem Coke had with Coke Classic and New Coke in 1985-6. To fend off Pepsi, Coke formulated a tastier product only to find it roundly rejected as unAmerican and to return to the original.

    I think the consistency problem for brands needs to be thought out more completely.

  8. peter spear

    The Coke example is a good one and it reminds me of some of the equity management issues that have had to take place in beer. the strategies of Budweiser and Miller in handling both their trademark equities (anheuser-bush for bud and miller hanging over their brands in intimate fashion) is a fascinating narrative of consistency vs. valuable variation.

    an argument could be made that Budweiser has been working hard to transfer consistent values to the growing light beer market for decades, while Miller has been fanning out it’s value across brands. i don’t know the numbers, but it’s an interesting game of find the brand value and identify which has a better purchase on tomorrow.

Comments are closed.