The episodes collected on the second X-Files Mythology collection (subtitled Black Oil) reveal a series in transition. It’s clear during the set’s third season offerings (from “Nisei” through “Talitha Cumi”) that the show is reaching an apex of sorts, moving quickly from cult phenomenon through to mainstream acceptance. There’s an unabashed confidence to these episodes, though it comes with something of a price as the thrill and surprise of season two mythology stories like “Colony” and “End Game” are replaced by a nagging suspicion that the writers are starting to tread water (a fear I feel they ultimately address and overcome by allowing the mythology to spiral inward, making it more reflective and internal in the seasons to follow).
Thus, I’d offer that “Talitha Cumi”—the season three finale that introduces the alien healer character Jeremiah Smith (Roy Thinnes)—is the last of the old-school X-Files. It’s an overall mindblower of an episode (possessing one of my favorite X-Files scenes where the Cigarette Smoking Man and his minions silently navigate their way among drone-like Social Security employees) that effectively halts the show’s devil-may-care forward momentum with a ho-hum cliffhanger that pales in comparison with the two prior season enders, though in retrospect I think it foreshadows the quite significant changes to come.
This evolution becomes more evident when one views the extended chase sequence that opens the season four premiere “Herrenvolk,” an intensely physical action scene that feels simultaneously like a time-marker. I think the schizophrenic tone is representative of certain behind-the-scenes anxieties, specifically the departure of director of photography John S. Bartley, who doused the early seasons of The X-Files in deliciously garish Technicolor shadings. The work of his initial replacement Ron Stannett pales in comparison: he handles the daylight scenes well, but too often mistakes underlighting as an effective representation of darkness. Three episodes in and Stannett was replaced by Jon Joffin, who took the fourth season to its midpoint before ceding photographic duties to Joel Ransom, who finished out the show’s five Vancouver-based years.
Since the fourth season episodes are the ones most represented on the Black Oil mythology set, I think it’s important to recognize the progression of pictorial personalities as it gives a sense of the whiplash underscoring this transitionary part of the X-Files mytharc. It’s my belief that The X-Files was the work that redefined narrative television’s visual possibilities (jumping off from Twin Peaks’ avant-garde inspirations of a few years prior), which makes the fourth season’s tri-partite photography roster an interesting point of study. Where Stannett’s “Herrenvolk” imagery is rather tentative and flat, Joffin’s work in “Tunguska” and “Terma” seems a throwback to Bartley-era primary coloring with the welcome addition of some moments of handheld realism. Ransom, then, is the great mediator who leads The X-Files out of its visual wilderness by the fourth season ender “Gethsemane” (his images—like nightmares and dreams intertwining—tantalize and threaten with the extremes of possibility), paving the way for the fifth-season two-parter “Redux” and “Redux II,” the first episodes to be shot in 1.78 widescreen and the stories that effectively set The X-Files back on its inwardly-spiraling track.
All episodes in The X-Files Mythology: Black Oil are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratios, the two exceptions being "Redux" and "Redux II," which are showcased in 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers. The visual quality significantly improves as the episodes progress and it's a great pleasure to witness the widescreen transition at set's end-The X-Files certainly lends itself to the format. Three Dolby surround tracks (in English, Spanish, and French) ably represent the show's immersive soundscapes, always highlighted by Mark Snow's estimable scoring.
Three audio commentaries lead off the Black Oil set's extras: director/producer R.W. Goodwin on "Talitha Cumi," Rob Bowman on "Memento Mori," and Kim Manners on "Max." As per the previous Mythology set, Goodwin tends toward narrating onscreen action while commentary newcomers Bowman and Manners are more engaging, though, in the final analysis, none of these yakkers are particularly memorable. Also included is the second part of Chris Carter's "Threads of the Mythology" documentary, which attempts to clarify the timeline of the mytharc and provide behind-the-scenes insights. Much as I love the show, I find Carter and his staff rather shallow talkers-their interviews almost always feel constrained by the puffish nature inherent to most home video extras. Yet perhaps that's somewhat intentional, as Carter has always been one to keep an air of mystery about him while maintaining the deceptively superficial appearance of a surf-wear clad company man. Indeed, his most insightful statement was one made on the old X-Files laserdiscs where he admitted, "I'm a bit of a treacherous character myself." It remains my hope that, someday, Carter will allow a more passionate interviewer to probe beyond the mystique surrounding him and his work. They're certainly subjects worth further study.
If anyone can explain why Mulder is eating Scully's hand in "Redux II," please e-mail this freaked out X-Phile at the address below.