Interview with Author John Kenneth MuirJanuary 23, 2016
With twenty five reference books to his credit, author John Kenneth Muir’s latest release is called THE X-FILES FAQ, which explores the 1990’s series that aired on Fox for nine seasons. Recently, we had a chance to talk to John about the new book, the legacy of creator Chris Carter and what his thoughts were on the six part X-Files ‘event’ series.
Were you always interested in writing and how did you move into the world of literary critic?
Well, I began my career as a literary critic, I think it was when I was five years old. My parents had the knowledge or foresight to sit me down in front of a British science fiction series called Space: 1999 and the episode I watched was called ‘Dragon’s Domain’ and it was about the people in the year 1999 encountering this horrible tentacle monster that would suck people into its mouth and spit out steaming bones. I was five years old and this just sort of struck me, the idea of these people of the future, because then of course 1999 was the distance future as this was 1975, I thought the people of the distant future and all of their technology but they’re encountering a monster. It was like science fiction meets horror, high tech meets gothic, it just obsessed me and it started the next decade I guess, in the eighties, I read all of these things about shows that I love like The Outer Limits, Star Trek, Twilight Zone and no one had written a book about Space: 1999 and I thought one of these days I’m going to write a book about this show and the values it had as this sort of gothic show. So I went to college, I studied in film, I had a concentration of film studies and so I kind of learned the language of film through that and then I thought, but what if I could analyze Space: 1999 through film studies techniques and boom, I had my first book. By 1994 I guess I was twenty five, I had a contract for my first book about Space: 1999 using my film study background and I been doing it now for twenty years about other topics I love.
Your newest book is called THE X-FILES FAQ. When you do research for a book like that, did you have to go back and re-watch the whole series and if so, did you find some things you missed in earlier viewings?
I always try and go back and fully explore when I do a book like this, like every episode of the series and there were over two hundred. I did go back and watch every single one, when I was writing in the book I didn’t include my review of every single episode because it would be too big so I tried to group episodes, like this is they’re comment on religion and faith, this is they’re comment on aliens, this is they’re comment on Americana, things like that. I always try and refresh my memory, I mean I’ve watched The X-Files many times but memory is a funny thing. You might remember something a certain way and it’s not really that way when you back and watch it, then you make a terrible mistake in your book so I don’t want that to happen to me. I did find things that I don’t think I fully appreciated or seen before when I watched The X-Files this time. I think I had a greater appreciation this time for the myth arc and how it all fit together and the pieces of it and also the fact that, about in season six, they really resolve all the long standing issues and then send the myth arc in a new direction and I don’t know if I appreciated that when I watched it on the air and you know some people complain, it just keeps going and going. Well, if you watch the myth arc the whole way through it has a finale of sorts in the sixth season and then it sends it in a different direction so yeah, I did find new things.
Now of course, we have the new X-Files six part event series coming up. How do you think that’s going to resonate with old fans and do you think it will bring in a whole new crop of fans?
I do think it will bring in a whole new crop of fans and the reason I think so is because I teach communications to undergraduates at a Community College here in North Carolina and when I introduce myself on the first day, I tell them what I’ve written about, my career and why I’m teaching communications. I can bring up a lot of different things and they don’t all resonate with all these different folks but when I say The X-Files its crazy. Every seventeen, eighteen year old that’s in that classroom, every time, this is my third or fourth semester at this point, they all raise their hands, they all know The X-Files. So I ask them, where are you watching The X-Files because when I was growing up course, we had local syndication and reruns for things like Star Trek. Today that really isn’t a factor as they’ve binge watched the whole series on Netflix and by doing that they might have a different view of the show then say, older folk like myself do. When I watched the show originally you had to wait a week, or sometimes longer than that to see a story line come to fruition now, you can binge watch one after the other after the other so I think the new generation is primed.
I think that the older generation is ready too and I think that generation has been with The X-Files, through the nine years of the series, through the two feature films, they’re ready for the next chapter. You know there is the old saying, you can’t go home again, I think there is going to be some people who probably just don’t like it because it’s new. I think you’re going to have a schism of people who are just into The X-Files for nostalgia, in the older crowd and they’re going to say well yeah, it’s not as good as it was but I would ask those people to be open minded because it probably will, you have the same creative personal involved.
Speaking of creative personal, how would you describe Chris Carter’s contribution to television?
Chris Carter to me, in terms of what he’s created, he’s the Rod Serling or Gene Roddenberry, whatever comparison you want to use, for the 1990’s. He gave us the phenomenon of the 1990’s as far as science fiction and horror are concerned. I mean I write in my book, Horror Films of the 1990’s, why did horror films do so badly before Scream in the 1990’s? It’s because every Friday night you were getting a great little horror movie for free on The X-Files. It did werewolves, it did vampires, it did all this stuff so I think Chris Carter sort of gave us The Twilight Zone or the Star Trek of the nineties so I weigh his contribution very heavily. We were very peaceful and prosperous in the 1990’s and the Chris Carter shows have what I call anticipatory anxiety, like something bad is coming. Then boom, in 2001 we had 9/11, then we had the Iraq war, we had Hurricane Katrina, two recessions so I credit Chris Carter with capturing the zeitgeist of the nineties, sort of being prophetic about where we were headed as a country. Also, it’s undeniable, you look at the writing room of The X-Files, you have Vince Gillian, the creator of Breaking Bad, you had Frank Spotnitz, who is now working on Man in the High Castle, you have Howard Gorman, who was the showrunner on 24 and created Homeland. Chris Carter put together this great room of talent and now that talent is giving us the TV we love, the directors of The X-Files are now directing episodes of Game of Thrones, so Chris Carter basically had a hand in giving us the next generation of writers and directors for television.
As a horror fan, one of my all-time favorite television shows was Millennium. Do you think it was just too dark and misunderstood to be on TV and do you think it would have had a better chance if it had come out today?
That’s a great question. You’re asking somebody who absolutely loves Millennium, I think Millennium is pure genius. It’s this great artistic work, with symbols like Frank’s yellow house and the imagery of the yellow house, it’s a brilliant show and Lance Henricksen is fantastic in the show. I do think it may have been too dark and complex, those are the things I love about it but maybe the general audience in 1996 wasn’t ready for that and we weren’t yet to the stage where shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Dexter, and we weren’t ready to accept that darkness or to go there. So if Millennium were created today, if you were to do a six episode run of Millennium today I do think it would meet with more popularity. It inspired so many shows like The Behaviorist, Medium, Criminal Minds or Profiler. Millennium was again this incredibly creative show that so many other shows took elements from but none of them were able to get that whole thing. You know, in Millennium we had Frank, his family, his family life, the conspiracy with the Millennium group and we had the serial killers, we had all these elements which no other series since has managed to fuse together.
When Hannibal arrived on the television scene, I was excited both for the horror elements and the fact that if this could get on TV then maybe Millennium could come back as well. But with Hannibal being cancelled, as brilliant as it was, was that yet another sign that people just will not embrace that kind of dark subject matter?
I agree with you , Hannibal was genius as well. I think it was a beautifully done show, the artistry, the gore in that show wasn’t gore, it was like art. The characters and arcs were amazing and I loved Hannibal, so sad when it was cancelled and I agree with you, when I started watching it I thought, this is the closest thing to Millennium we’ve gotten since Millennium. I am still hopeful, I’m hoping that The X-Files revival will be successful and you know, all Fox has to say is we’re going to do a two hour movie reviving Millennium, you don’t even have to devote six hours on your schedule, all they need to do is give us a ninety minute TV movie to start and see how that does. That shouldn’t be that difficult a commitment, I’d love to see that or honestly, I’d love to see HBO pick it up because I think Lance Henriksen would easily commit to six sort of Millennium specials a year.
When The X-Files was finished they put out two movies, Fight the Future in 1998 and I Want to Believe in 2008. What kind of impact do you think they had on people’s perceptions of the franchise as a whole?
It’s very interesting. The 1998 film was considered a hit at the box office, it was a big myth arc movie with aliens and I really liked it, I thought it was good, I’m just amazed when I watch how you go from season five of the series to the movie and then right into season six, how it all flawlessly fits together. I’m one of those people who feels about I Want to Believe that it was kind of like Millennium, a brilliant and intimate little thriller and it wasn’t at all apparently what audiences wanted. At that point in 2008 there wasn’t a lot of budget going into The X-Files so they made a smaller film that to me, played a lot like the early episodes of Millennium or The X-Files. It’s very grim, it’s very dark, it asks these questions about humanity, the film obsesses on the idea of redemption, who is redemption and forgiveness for? I mean, there’s a pedophile priest in the film as well so it raises some really controversial issues about faith and forgiveness…and it came out the week after the Dark Knight. So, not that many people found it and the people who found it, it didn’t give them what they wanted. I understand people not liking the film, it had a child molester as one of the central characters and it challenged people on issues that were pretty close to their faith so I give the film major kudos for doing that but obviously only a few people liked it.
Going back to the book THE X-FILES FAQ, was being a fan of the show a positive thing in terms of putting the book together or did it make it that much harder for you, for example, in terms of content and length?
I have a rule when I write a book. Never write a book about someone or something that I’m not a fan of, that I don’t feel enthusiastic about or feel passion for. When I had finished my previous FAQ book about the horror film, obviously I feel passionate about the horror film, but the publisher said well, do you want to do one about Seinfeld and I like the show very much but I’m not a fan where I know every single episode, I said I’m not the right person, I would have to learn it all and it’s huge as well, nine seasons. So I said I’d love to do The X-Files and he said great, let’s do that instead so I feel being a fan or admirer of something is important if you’re going to devote six months or a year of your life to that subject, so I’ll never write about something I don’t feel passionate about.
So what projects do you have coming up next?
Well right now, after The X-Files, I’m going to be launching a sort of e-magazines where I look at a single topic. I’m going to try and do one once a month, I also blog every day but I’ll do a topic like, disaster movies of the 1970’s, so it’s not quite a book but not just a magazine, sort of something in between. I want to do things that publishers may not want to get behind but would be interesting to write about. No one is offering me a contract to write about Land of the Lost or Monster Squad but I think it might be pretty cool to have a reference about that so I’m going to do it and see what happens. I may only last two or three issues and no one will buy them. I’m going to put them up on Amazon so you can get them on Kindle on put it on your iPad so I want to really try it and see how it plays out, what happens because I’ll say this about the publishing world, it gets harder and harder, The X-Files was a gift, I love The X-Files and it was great to do this book but it’s getting much harder to get the projects that I want to do off the ground, it has to be huge. But I’m at the point where I don’t want to write a book about something I don’t want to write about so I’m going to be an entrepreneur and try and start this sort of e-zine and see if anybody reads it.
I want to thank John for taking the time to talk with us.
John’s blog: http://reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.com
Facebook: John Kenneth Muir