THE X-FILES’ 20th Anniversary: ALIAS and FRINGE Boss Jeff Pinkner Talks About Its Influence on His Work - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

THE X-FILES’ 20th Anniversary: ALIAS and FRINGE Boss Jeff Pinkner Talks About Its Influence on His Work

September 13, 2013 by  

In honor of the 20th anniversary of THE X-FILES, I spoke with some of the television writers who have mentioned to me that they have been influenced by THE X-FILES to dig deeper into why this show resonated with them.

Next up? Former ALIAS and FRINGE showrunner Jeff Pinkner…

When did you start watching THE X-FILES?
Jeff Pinkner: I started watching it probably six or seven episodes into the first run. I was aware of it because a close friend from college called me and told me I had to start watching this show. And so I did. And of course, at the time, there was no outlet for catching up on episodes that you have missed. So it wasn’t until years later that I saw the first few episodes.

I specifically remember seeing in the first run the episode I believe was called “Ice,” where they were in the Arctic research station and realizing this show had become an obsession of mine.

And then of course, like everybody, I saw three out of four. Back in those days, if you didn’t see it live, you didn’t see it for a long time or you caught it in reruns. There were holes for me for years that I finally went back on and ultimately caught up on. I’ve never seen half of season 5, but I saw pretty much everything they did in the first five or six years.

Were you writing when the show started?
JP: I had just started.

Was it crossing your mind that this might be the kind of show you’d want to write for in the future, or were you watching it in a purely enjoyment-based manner?
JP: Probably subconsciously it was something I wanted to do, but it wasn’t something I set out to do. I had always wanted to write the kind of things I enjoyed, but at that point, it wasn’t like, “Ooh, maybe I’ll get to write for X-FILES.” It was well beyond me; that kind of ambition was well beyond me at that point. The storytelling I thought was spectacular. And they were definitely the kind of stories that appealed to me.

What stood out the most to you at the time?
JP: So many things, and so many things which sadly are probably very obvious about the show. I love that I at the time, interestingly, was less into the mythology episodes and more into what we would now refer to as the standalone episodes.

I loved several things: I loved that the mysteries weren’t resolved. And that each one was in its own way a short story that didn’t have to get resolved, that explored different themes. I loved one week it would be really scary, and one week it would be really funny, and the next week it would just be suspenseful. That there was no template they had to satisfy, they had the guts to try different things. And clearly over time the range expanded, but it was obvious from the beginning.

I loved the relationship between Mulder and Scully. I love how archetypical and simply the characters were defined; though they were deeply layered, they were so clearly the skeptic and the believer. The architecture of the show I recognized back then was just brilliant. You can hang so much on that architecture and then deepen it and then it can become self-reflective, which of course it did. The things about the show that didn’t try to be subtle became the things that became so much fun.

Absolutely. What do you think is the legacy of THE X-FILES now?
JP: Oh my God, there are so many [things]. Well, interestingly, I think they coined the term mythology. [Laughs] The idea that there’s an ongoing, overarching story arc, which in many ways we all feel is so relevant and important to television storytelling now. I think they made the world safe for long-form serialized storytelling…and interestingly, that was probably an aspect of the show that was less important initially and became more important as the show went on, but is still ultimately remembered as an important aspect of the show. But probably in the final analysis of the overarching mystery, the aliens was not that important to the enjoyment of the show, but that’s how it’s remembered. It has changed people’s perspective of television and what’s necessary, dramatic storytelling.

Interestingly, for me, one of the things that made the show work, and work so well, was it really had deep themes and universal themes that they explored over time. One of them being sort of desperate loneliness and the need for human beings to try and connect and the things that stand in the way of people connecting. Whether it’s government conspiracies or just universal fears, and the idea that as much as humans want to connect, we’re all, ultimately, alone. Which is harrowing, but I think what drove so much of the storytelling. And it also had intellectual themes, primarily among them, the theme of the unknown.

And I think, for me, the lesson there is, if the show is about something at its core, you can have the wide bandwidth to tell a bunch of different stories, because the underpinning is the same. Whether or not the audience recognizes it is less important, but the storytellers recognizing that, and making sure they’re being thorough. Because it allows you to tell really enjoyable, hopefully, narratives, but they’re all connected on some level. And for me, that was a huge lesson.

With both ALIAS and FRINGE, you guys did have to craft mythology arcs without knowing when the series was going to end. Since X-FILES was in a similar position, did you learn any lessons from what they did?
JP: And I think, without mischaracterizing them, a lot more of their mythology was made up as they went along.

Yes, they’ve been open about that.
JP: And I think that’s partly why it became almost impossible to parse by the end. [Laughs] Because I think it was less important to them initially. And I think on ALIAS, LOST, FRINGE, to a degree, we knew exactly where we were going. Or we knew what it was about, even if we never knew all of the details. To know all the details that early would take the fun out of the creative process for the writers. But as J.J. [Abrams] would say, if you know there are signposts ahead, even if it’s a foggy day, if you can kind of see the signpost and as you get closer, you recognize it. As long as you know where you’re going, you don’t have to know how you’re going to get there. You don’t have to know all the details. But if you know what you’re moving towards, you can remain, hopefully, more or less consistent. And that was a lesson from THE X-FILES.

And another massively important lesson from THE X-FILES, which, you know, some people — many shows are linked to [big-name writers] these days, and shows I’ve worked on have. But what was amazing about THE X-FILES is there were spectacular writers, very gifted writers, who were allowed — and I’m sure Chris Carter oversaw everything with some degree of an iron-fist — but the different writers were allowed to explore things that really appealed to them, and that mattered to them. And it was still under the appropriate umbrella of what X-FILES did. And so Darin Morgan’s episodes felt different than Vince Gilligan’s episodes. They didn’t all feel like Chris Carter episodes that just happened to have Darin Morgan’s name on them. And I think that that’s wonderful and very important. I think the point of putting together a staff of talented writers is to let them write in the style and stories that matter to them. And there are still strands of THE X-FILES narrative.

And you actually had Darin consulting on FRINGE in the early part of season 1…
JP: Darin is a wonderful, wonderful man.

What lessons was he able to impart on your team as you were trying to create a sci-fi show for Fox?
JP: I think what was wonderful about Darin was he never showed up and said, “I’m Darin Morgan, and we did this on X-FILES, let me tell you.” Darin sort of famously, and anecdotally, suffers more than any writer I’ve ever met in figuring out how to tell any individual story. He never works from a [mindset of], “Oh this worked, let’s do it again.” He is constantly reinventing the wheel, which makes life really hard for him, but makes him a really entertaining storyteller, because everything is new for him. But he suffers for his art…it’s rarely good enough for him. What was great is he has such an active internal imagination and he’s really smart, and as I said earlier, the idea that stories are about something beyond just the narrative is something that he breathes.

Early on in FRINGE’s run, the series was compared to THE X-FILES by both fans and the media. Was that something you guys embraced initially or something you tried to shrug off?
JP: It is a totally two-sided sword. To be mentioned in the same breath as X-FILES was unbelievably flattering, but other times, to be mentioned in the same breath as X-FILES was sort of diminishing. “This show reminds me of X-FILES,” based on the tone, that is either the most wonderful thing someone could say or the most damning thing somebody could say.

Was there ever pressure from Fox to make the series more or less like X-FILES?
JP: No. Not at all. Fox, I’d think, was — there was no pressure from Fox, vis-a-vis THE X-FILES, specifically.

In many ways, X-FILES was probably the most…and I know I’ll say this, and you’ll write this, and then 10 people will tell me I’m wrong — there’s STAR TREK and there’s X-FILES, but STAR TREK at the time it was on didn’t have the cultural impact that X-FILES did at the time it was on. So, I would suggest that X-FILES was probably the most relevant science-fiction show on television during the time it was on. Maybe TWILIGHT ZONE, but I wasn’t watching it in its first run, so I can’t say. X-FILES was a cultural moment and a zeitgeist-y, relevant show like no science fiction show has been since then in its first run.

And in the wake of X-FILES, Fox got a reputation, fair or unfair, of being a network that wasn’t very supportive of science-fiction shows; the Joss [Whedon] shows didn’t last as long as the fans would have liked, etc. I think Fox felt it was very important on some level to have a science-fiction show that “worked” and stayed on the network. So there was a ton of support for the show. Some was because of what the show specifically was, because Fox personally liked it, and was unbelievably supportive, all the way up to [Fox Chairman] Kevin Reilly. And they felt beyond the specifics of the show, it was important to show faith in a “science-fiction” show. But there was never pressure to “bring us another X-FILES” or “make it less like X-FILES.” There was never pressure of any kind specifically related to X-FILES.

That’s good. You hear horror stories of networks trying to repeat successes, to the detriment of the new shows…
JP: And that’s never worked, ever!

Nope. But it tends to be a pattern.
JP: All television shows that work, all movies that work, all bands that work, all books that work…[you hear,] “Oh, it’s the new Beatles!” Or, “They’re the new Bob Dylan!” No they’re not. Bruce Springsteen was originally the new Bob Dylan. Which is both unfair and limiting, and also expecting things that are impossible.

Absolutely. Your team did include a couple of X-FILES Easter eggs into the season 2 premiere of FRINGE. Was that the idea of the writers or was that suggested externally?
JP: That was an episode that J.J. and Akiva [Goldsman] wrote. There are still Easter eggs on FRINGE that nobody has ever picked up. [Laughs] And oftentimes, those Easter eggs were to other notable science-fiction writers or stories or television shows or movies…they ran the gamut. But THE X-FILES ones were overt and fun, I thought.

Indeed. Because there was also a comment thrown in to suggest that FRINGE and THE X-FILES co-existed in the same universe.
JP: Yes. Of course. You mean specifically that [the Fringe division] used to be the X division?

JP: Yeah. Yes, we arrogantly set our show in the same universe. [Laughs]

And I know you and I spoke about that when you guys put that in. As someone who clearly has loved both shows, it was nice to think that maybe one day Walter might run into Mulder and Scully and completely baffle them.
JP: Yes! And obviously there are several references in the show to David Bowie, both because it’s quite possible he’s an alien and because of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and all of our own private obsessions.

That’s the fun thing about having your own show — you can do things like that!
JP: Yeah, we give shout-outs to all the people we love!

Absolutely. Did you have a favorite character on X-FILES?
JP: Mulder, just because he was so fucked up.

Favorite episode?
JP: I would say either “Clyde Bruckman” because it was deeply disturbing and beautiful and human or “Home” just because it was so out there.

I think that episode is allowed to rerun now, but it’s insane how much “Home” got to people.
JP: I think at some point they made it just for Halloween [reruns].

“Small Potatoes” was a fun episode, too. It was so self-reflective about the show, which I thought was charming and awesome.

Absolutely. Did you have a favorite monster?
JP: I did. Who was the cancer [man]?

Cigarette-Smoking Man?
JP: No.

Oh, Leonard Betts?
JP: Yes!

He was incredibly creepy.
JP: And the payoff of that episode was just brilliant. And I think part of the reason I love him so much is it’s so deeply disturbing. And then such a natural extension of all of our fears — it’s body horror.

One of my favorite movies as a kid — because back in the day we had VHS and a couple of movies on tape we would just watch over and over and over again — my friends and I must have watched THE BROOD, the Cronenberg film, that way. And I never quite understood it and I just knew it was deeply horrifying. I don’t know how familiar you are with the film, but the wife in the movie, she gave birth to kids where there was no gestation cord, there was no navel, they were just these horrible creatures that came out of her belly. And Leonard Betts lives in the same space since his whole body was made of cancer.

And the payoff of that episode was so brilliant and was such an awesome lesson in taking a standalone episode and then by the end, making it entirely about your main character. It was shockingly smart.

I’m going to have to find this movie now. But you’re right, “Leonard Betts” was a great episode and character. I know you mentioned you liked Mulder and Scully’s relationship together, but did you actively root for them to be together?
JP: No. I never thought they should be together.

Fascinating. It’s interesting, because I remember very early on in FRINGE’s run, when the topic of Peter and Olivia being potentially romantically linked in the future was brought up, some fans felt very strongly that they shouldn’t be together, too, but obviously that mindset did drastically change as the series continued on.
JP: I think that the danger of being compared to something that existed before is “guilty by association.” We never set out to design the Peter and Olivia relationship based on the Mulder and Scully relationship.

One of the things we believed would allow the Peter and Olivia relationship to work even after they got together was this dormant secret that he was from another universe. Because even once they got together — and the challenge of long-form storytelling is once your characters get together, to make sure all of the conflict isn’t resolved — so we knew there was this conflict coming. And whether or not we played the balance perfectly is arguable and there were certainly mistakes we made, and the rhythm of our storytelling, there are things we are really proud of that we did, but the conflict in the Mulder and Scully storytelling was never about will they or won’t they.

The theme of FRINGE was what does it mean to be human? And being human is very much about connection, and these were very much characters on the fringe of society who felt like they didn’t belong, and finding each other, and finding Walter, and making a family, we always knew was what the show was going to be about. And the theme of X-FILES, or probably one of the themes was, we’re all alone. And so the idea of them getting together is a refraction of that theme. It was one of the things in the show…it’s challenging. It’s challenging when the ultimate theme of the show and the drive to get two characters together can be at odds.


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2 Responses to “THE X-FILES’ 20th Anniversary: ALIAS and FRINGE Boss Jeff Pinkner Talks About Its Influence on His Work”

  1. Donna on September 13th, 2013 10:02 pm

    The Season 2 Fringe episode “Night of Desirable Objects” was filmed at the same Vancouver area house that X-Files’ “Home” was filmed at, I think.

  2. Zepp on September 14th, 2013 12:00 am

    Excellent, this interview with JPinkner, Marisa, thank you. Very interesting when Pinkner says he liked the “unsolved mysteries” of the X-Files because it was part of the unknown (in other words) and their comparisons with Fringe, beyond these, also comparisons of the central themes or lemmas “we alone, “the X-Files, and” what it means to be human “side of Fringe, from the perspective of the Pinkner, that, to me, was really bright and very enlightening for me, thanks again.