6.6: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas
One of the worst things that happened to X-Files producer Chris Carter, output-wise, was witnessing the often very funny, witty contributions of his more comedically minded peers – Darin Morgan, Vince Gilligan – and deciding he’d have some of that. Because Carter’s best contributions as writer – and even, initially, as director – to the show’s early period, tended to be honed, tightly constructed mythology builders or punchy standalones. He dipped his toe in more frivolous waters with 3.13: Syzygy and failed to garner the plaudits he likely felt were due, such that he didn’t try again until the much better received 5.5: The Post-Modern Prometheus. Which brought us to Season Six, and undisciplined messes like third episode Triangle. And How the Ghosts Stole Christmas.
If you look at his earliest dual (or triple, with producer) duties affair, 2.5: Duane Barry, it’s a disciplined, controlled piece of work. A strong character piece that also contributes to the show’s mythology arc in effective and intriguing ways. Unfortunately, by Season Six, Carter’s mythology contributions were running on fumes, while his standalones were suffused with whimsy and quirk in the least laudable and most aggravating fashion. Occasionally, the planets would still align (9.13: Improbable), but his Season Six offerings are where I tend to go to when thinking of Carter the “auteur”.
How the Ghosts Stole Christmas also evidences the curse-blessing of an ardent fan base. Because makers more usually than not end up in thrall to fan opinion, and more often than not, this ends up a detriment to the show’s quality and direction. Back in Syzgy, Carter sketched the Mulder-Scully relationship on the basis that they would not become a romantic couple. And yet we all know what happened there, despite the abundant warning signs of how it was never a good idea (see Moonlighting for a prime example). Here, he’s also focussing on our FBI agents’ dynamic, and with the characteristic indelicacy of one habitually writing Mulder droning five-minute monologues to see out an episode. They’re both lonely, you see. And because Carter’s not yet at the stage of capitulating to romantic pressures, he manoeuvres them into a stand-in position for a couple of ghosts who want them to re-enact their doomed suicide pact.
But it’s also perky! Peppy! Quirky! Look at the roving camera! And try not to worry too much that it’s all a sprawl of hapless filler. Carter is frequently a tone-deaf stylist, which means he still thinks he can tell a heart-warming Christmas tale while having Mulder and Scully slipping about in their own exsanguination. He has two veteran performers in Ed Asner (interesting that Bob Newhart was asked and demurred) and Lilly Tomlin, but there’s never enough that’s endearing or engaging – or threatening – about them to make their haunted schtick stick.
Which isn’t to say Carter doesn’t have some neat ideas – the bodies of our favourite agents under the floorboards, rooms circuitously leading back on themselves, and the bricked-up doorways. But such disorientating conceits only really work in the hands of a sufficiently talented director, and Carter simply isn’t.
Like Triangle, where Mulder and Scully rush around a passenger ship to breathlessly tiresome fancy dress effect – a fan favourite, but one I never cared for – Carter thinks he can sustain his slender premise for forty minutes on goodwill alone. But the episode rarely allows Duchovny and Anderson to have the kind of fun their most playful excursions display. He offers some amusing observations at their characters; “Your only joy in life is proving him wrong” Lyda (Tomlin) tells Scully, while Maurice (Asner) quips “You’ve probably convinced yourself you’ve seen aliens”, so picking up on Mulder’s Season Five dark night of the soul.
There’s also potential in the haunted-house premise – just ask Netflix – but it’s entirely squandered for a jingly jolly. And not an especially jolly jingle at that. If How the Ghosts Stole Christmas had been more imaginative – think The Fantastic Journey’s Fun House – and less dour, it might have been memorable as other than one of the then-regular funny ones (albeit, as I said, it is less funny than “quirky”). Carter also throws in some Death Becomes Her visuals (a hole in Ed’s head). And if you’re going to riff on Dr Seuss in your title, you’d better be up to snuff.
It can be interesting when revisiting old shows or movies to note now-topical signposts or markers. These may either be laden with intent or entirely innocent and incidental. Some would label any and all such as predictive programming, but I tend to think that only sometimes applies. At others, it’s just a case of the makers living in the same wind tunnel as the rest of us.
For instance, there was no reason Carter wouldn’t buy the official line on the Spanish Flu. Most likely, even or because he’s given to immersing himself in the shallow end of the conspiracy pool, he still does. But Mulder’s scene setting “It was a time of fark, dark despair. American soldiers were dying at an ungodly rate in a war-torn Europe while at home a deadly strain of the flu virus attacked the young and old alike” makes one rather sit up now.
Of course, The X-Files was always a show for grasping low-hanging conspiracy fruit. You weren’t going to come across any real, paradigm-shaking fundamentals in it, which is why it was such an attractive limited hangout for the masses. An easily digestible and inoffensive dip into the waters of conspiracy that more than serviced the hankering of most. The irony that the show rather floundered with its main arc in Season Five, just as it pointed to Mulder having been scrupulously hoodwinked in his quest – given that it’s likely closer to what is actually going on than anything else in the show’s torturous conspiracy arc – is not lost.
I see Rob Shearman called this one – and Triangle! – playful and clever, “bursting with heart and life”. So, as we saw when I revisited 3.20: Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, we’re fairly far apart on some things X (the preceding two-parter Dreamland is one of my favourites, and he roundly slates it). Indeed, the things Shearman habitually responds to (that nu-Who over-emotional wringing) are ones that consistently turn me off.
But I do rather like Mulder and Scully exchanging presents at the end – having vowed not to get each other any – to the sound of Bing singing Merry Little Christmas. And that Mulder is watching the classic version of Scrooge (Alastair Sim). Compared to a Doctor Who Christmas episode, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is a masterpiece. But let’s face it, that’s the lowest of low bars.