Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In any television series, a few (sometimes, many) episodes will be dedicated to establishing and developing the season’s arc, or the plot’s tangent. The other episodes in the season are often one- or two-part stories. As such, they suggest the types of themes, or topics, that a series of a particular type, directed toward a specific audience, may address. For example, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, directed at middle-class American teenagers and young adults, deals with themes of interest to such an audience. The series deals with unbridled ambition (“The Witch”), inappropriate adult-teen romance (“Teacher’s Pet”), the demands of duty and their conflict with personal desire (“Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”), the perils of negative peer pressure (“The Pack”), the dangers of young romance (“Angel”), the dangers of Internet dating (“I Robot, You Jane”), child abuse (“Nightmares”), the callous disregard for one who doesn’t measure up to the superficial standards of the clique (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”)--and these all in the show’s first, shorter-than-normal season!
Although the episodes of horror or fantasy series that are written with an adult audience in mind may take the “monster of the week” approach, featuring a specific type of antagonist weekly or periodically, the episodes of such shows typically don’t deal with a specific concern that their viewers share They are not, in this sense, as didactic as shows oriented toward younger viewers. Instead, the more “adult” shows may seek to unsettle their audiences by suggesting that the world may be quite different than it seems and is generally understood to be and that, beyond the ordinary and the everyday, there may exist extraordinary and mysterious persons, places, and things.
The “Squeeze” episode of The X-Files is a good example, as is the series’ use of the skeptical, empirical Dana Scully as a foil to her more open-minded, experiential partner, Fox Mulder. Although both are Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), each has his or her own investigatory methods.
Scully develops a profile of a suspect in a murder and the cannibalism that followed it (the killer ate the victim‘s liver), and, when, during a stakeout, she captures a suspect, Eugene Victor Tooms, he is subjected to a lie-detector test. Her investigatory methods are typical and routine.
Mulder, however, finds a fingerprint at the scene of a murder, and, using a computer program, matches the print to those that were found at several other murder scenes, and, during Tooms’ polygraph test, he asks several questions that makes his fellow agents doubt the validity of the test, and the suspect is released. The fingerprint that Mulder found is stretched out, which makes Mulder believe that Tooms may be a mutant who is able to elongate his body and who has a longer-than-human lifespan, sustained by his diet of human livers between his thirty-year periods of hibernation. Tooms, Mulder believes, committed not only the current murders but those in 1903, 1933, and 1963 as well.
Mulder’s investigatory methods are both routine (at times) and unusual, to say the least. He helps Scully to research Tooms. They can find neither a birth certificate nor a marriage certificate for the suspect, and the agents meet with a former detective, Frank Briggs, who tells them where Tooms resided in 1903. When Scully and Mulder visit the suspect’s apartment, they find it abandoned. However, Tooms manages to snare Scully’s necklace to add it to his collection of his murder victims’ possessions, which he keeps as souvenirs. Adopting another routine investigatory method, Mulder asks Scully to join him in another stakeout, this time of Tooms’ address, but they are instructed to abandon the surveillance.
Tooms enters Scully’s apartment through the ventilation system, but Mulder arrives in the proverbial nick of time, preventing Tooms from killing his partner, and the agents handcuff the killer. Tooms is subjected to medical tests that show that the killer has abnormal skeletal and muscular systems and an unusual metabolism. The jailed killer smiles when his guard delivers a meal, sliding the tray through the narrow slot in the prisoner’s barred door. Tooms has seen his escape route.
Scully represents the no-nonsense, realistic, down-to-earth, sensible, empirical, and skeptical adult, Mulder the open-minded, curious, even enthusiastic investigator of paranormal and supernatural phenomena who, by his own admission, wants “to believe.” The plots of the episodes play out between the extremes represented by Scully’s relative skeptical empiricism and Mulder’s relative faith and experiential approach to investigating the bizarre cases that seem to fall into his and his partner’s laps. Most adults would tend to side with Scully, seeing the world as largely understood and ordinary. The oddities, aliens, and monsters that appear, week after week, in one guise or another, on the show, however, suggest that Scully’s view may not be altogether effective in explaining some of the more mysterious experiences that he and Scully have or the stranger beings they meet. As Shakespeare’s open-minded Hamlet tells the skeptical Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth. . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, Lines 159-167).
That the world may not be what it seems frightens many adults, the same way that the monsters and villains of Buffy frighten younger audiences. Both series exemplify the uneasiness with which younger and older alike live their lives in stifled fear and trembling, looking, always over their shoulders and toward the ends of shadows, to see who--or what--is casting them.