The X-Files: Preserving One of TV’s Biggest Procedurals

Recently The X-Files has been remastered in HD and with the potential of 4k, which involved ingesting and preserving hundreds of hours of footage, changing aspect ratios, and more. A fascinating peek into the technical aspects is here, but I want to focus on why The X-Files of all the network procedurals.

Sure, genre classification is a crutch and The X-Files is many other things including sci-fi, horror, buddy cop drama, and thriller. So why is it a procedural when Twin Peaks or Buffy (influence and beneficiary, respectively) aren’t? The overall structure of many episodes is case-of-the-week, its formula(s) follows certain patterns, and it regularly involves three of the biggest procedural signifiers: government agencies, questioning witness, and autopsies.

None of this is to malign; plenty of TV sins can be committed within and in the name of formula; network procedurals may be among the worst offenders, but ‘procedural’ is not inherently a dirty word, especially around here. A procedural can span genres from classics starring legends (Murder, She Wrote) to sci-fi/fantasy (iZombie) to homage-laden tropefests (Psych) to experiments ahead of their time (Century City), and I love plenty of these shows. Still, not many will be getting this sort of restoration treatment, at least unless it becomes more cost-effective. The West Wing was one of the last great ‘complicated shot’ network shows to be shot on film, and likely it will remastered in the near future. But it’s hard to think of another procedural which would be worth this sort of intensive restoration/preservation process, now or in 20 years. Why The X-Files? The restoration doesn’t seem to expect to even make back the money invested, so why the hassle?

While some procedurals have changed the trajectory of what’s greenlit and how characters’ lives interact with the narrative (CSI), some have managed to adapt existing / famous properties while loosely following a procedural format (Elementary), and others manage to operate within a procedural framework while breaking molds and providing important social commentary and multi-episode arcs (Person of Interest) – for the most part the story, acting, or editing is the crucial thing for procedurals pre- but especially post- X-Files. As budgets and timelines get tighter, procedurals by nature are more factory produced. Shooting digital helps both speed and bottom line, allowing for fancier tech, funkier prosthetics, and bigger names, but crucially rarely lending itself to a filmic look. When CSI made the switch from film to digital, they were easier able to do more wild and CGI-heavy shots (for example, a crash zoom from the ceiling down into a corpse’s blood vessels) and had to adjust the fake blood they were using because it looked too pink, but for the most part not much changed about their shooting style or ‘look.’

Meanwhile, other shows pushed towards looks seen on big screens: Since the 1990s, series like Twin Peaks, The X-FilesThe Sopranos, and Mad Men have pushed television production to become increasingly cinematic.

Of those listed shows only The X-Files is 1. a procedural 2. shooting 20+ episodes per season. It also attracted some top TV directing talent, from David Nutter to Daniel Sackheim, (though it must be noted it was overwhelmingly a white dude’s club).

Perhaps partly to compete with the cable shows rising during its emergence, The X-Files made a choice to lean into its film aesthetic, and as a result it looks freaking gorgeous. Not only does it open many scenes on high-contrast moving shot (in days when many procedural shows used broadly lit wide frames before moving into more standard shot-reverse-shot; think Diagnoses Murder, Law and Order, the charming Early Edition), but it also uses dutch tilts, fisheye lenses, and other techniques to make the horror pop.

Screengrabs don’t begin to do it justice, so pull up 01.07 “The Ghost in the Machine” and watch the shot from 15:00  – it begins in a dark room with one lighting setup, moves to follow Scully towards a different room, then lets her flip a switch to silhouette her in this classic, noir-ish pose. No dialogue, no voiceover, nobody waiting to jump at her from the shadows, just a beautifully lit shot and movement ending in a painting.

Does this inherently make it ‘better’ show than JAG or NCIS: Los Angeles? No. (Is it a better show than those? I’m firmly on the side of Yes, and the comments section is open.) But the complexity and lighting of these shots, the fact they were captured on film, and the fact they did groundbreaking special effects (from the good of “Squeeze” to the . . . much-less-good in the great “Ice”) does make it a better candidate for 4k remastering; probably the best procedural candidate of the bunch.

Whatever the reason, it’s certainly good to see things like the classic stretch below preserved and immortalised.

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  1. […] wrote recently about The X-Files being restored, and why some procedural (or ‘procedural adjacent’) shows are more equal than others. […]



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