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Frank Spotnitz - eternal bridesmaid?


Guest ModernDayMoriarty

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Guest ModernDayMoriarty

Sometimes, I really feel for Frank Spotnitz.

That may strike some people as rather odd, as I've not always been a champion of his. To first clarify my position on him, I think he is a good writer of straight up action, but his writing burns a little too hot and cold for me.

Fond of quirky humour, unusual images and a more gory brand of horror than Chris Carter, he unfortunately proved to be a man who could create wonderful segments of television, only to then produce something utterly cringeworthy or simply badly realised in the same episode.

But if I have problems with him, why do I feel sorry for him?

Well, for all that I find most of his solo episodes rather lacking, I feel he was really onto something in the latter seasons of the show. He seems to have been stepping up his influence over the show in S8 and 9. In fact, he seems to have been the main driving force behind S9, from what other writers have said, along with the fact he co-writes pretty much all the mythlogy on S9.

Many people have criticised S9, but I for one consider it one of the most consistently good series of the show. The writing team was settling in with some strong additions (Steven Maeda was working out just fine and David Amann seemed to be finding his feet, also). Add in that Vince Gilligan and even John Shiban were starting to turn in great episodes again and things were looking up.

Spotnitz always seemed to have a great love for Millennium and I think the decision not to helm Millennium is either a bitter regret (if he passed on it, which he may have done, if he thought the show's poor ratings meant imminent cancellation) and/or frustration (because he clearly loved the show and he may have been passed over for showrunner at the expense of Morgan and Wong, as reports are conflicted on how that came about).

So in Seasons 8 and 9, the X-Files starts to slowly mutate into a kind of hybrid show, straddling the old focus, but now incorporating Millennium's world of demons, angels and greater powers of Good and Evil into the mix. And Spotnitz seems to have worked himself to the bone trying to get it to work.

His work on Doggett's character is very strong, even in some of his weaker S8 episodes. And in 'Daemonicus', though some of the images are famously ill-advised, he still manages to keep the idea of Doggett's connection to Evil alive.

Gilligan mentions that the well regarded 'John Doe' was only made possible through Spotnitz's suggestion of the Mexico connection, and David Amann admits that 'Hellbound' (an excellent Reyes episode) came about primarily because Spotnitz wanted to give her character something to work with and develop her.

He did a similar thing with Doggett towards the end of S8, showing Mulder and Scully passing him the torch in 'Alone', satisfied that he was the right man for the job. The character of Leyla Harrison is supposed to represent the fan's reaction, showing that Spotnitz hoped they would come around due to the quality of the work.

The comments of Gilligan and Amann are very telling, as these are the kinds of clips that are usually wheeled out to talk up a showrunner. I'm almost positive that if he could have done, Spotnitz would have gone on with the X-Files. They were doing good work and I think the writers were convinced they were on the right track.

Steven Maeda for example writes two episodes about not giving up, about there being life even when it seems death is certain. That suggests to me that he was desperate for the show to go on, that there was still life in the show and they just needed a bit more time to nail it down.

And you can sympathise with Spotnitz, because he had worked on the show since the latter half of Season 2. In such a long running show, the head writer almost always steps back and the number 2 guy gets his chance to have a go in the big chair.

But whilst he was lucky enough to be on a big show, one of the biggest, the fact is that Chris Carter remained committed to the show all the way until S9 (when I think he clearly had lost most of his enthusiasm). But rather than step back, he chose to end the show.

Now... I think that would place Spotnitz in a very awkward position. I think he clearly wanted to go on, but he's obviously very friendly with Carter and Carter has a very well documented ego. Carter may not have wanted (or been unable) to consider the X-Files existing without him. (The state Millennium was in when he returned in S3 probably didn't help).

And it was his show and his call, you could say. I think the falling ratings and adverse press and fan reactions would have made up his mind that it wasn't worth the aggro of trying to talk Carter down though. I think it's an awful shame, but I also think that if they had continued, someone would have had to come in to regulate Spotnitz's ideas.

Because whilst he produces many great images and ideas, he also produces howlers like the 'People flying into the magnetic rock and exploding' nonsense. And who could forget (though they wish they could) the ridiculously drawn out projectile vomiting in 'Daemonicus'...

He needed a more exacting eye like David Amann, who was quickly going from strength to strength after some wobbly episode in his first two seasons (6 and 7).

But then again, Amann seemed to be fighting demons of his own (of self confidence it seems, as a low output of episodes usually denotes a lack of belief in your own abilties). Contrast that with Morgan and Wong and Chris Carter who reguarly piled on the episodes. Carter still has some of the best stats in terms of episodes written by a showrunner on a season for season basis.

When you are unsure of the material or how you fit in though, you write less. Morgan and Wong for example, felt uncomfortable with Millennium in S1, writing only 3 episodes which is very lax for them, before leaving. When they returned as showrunners however, they produced a veritable tidal wave of episodes.

Similarly Chip Johanessen produces only 3 episodes in S2, which he had strong reservations about. He also wrote just 1 X-File, admitting that he and the show just didn't mesh. But when he recommitted to Millennium and gets a working partnership going with Ken Horton, he was off to the races.

I think ultimately that X-Files was a victim of running out of time and goodwill, just as Millennium did in its third season. X-Files S9 and Millennium S3 were great IMO and featured strong writing teams who were giving it their all to turn around their ailing shows' fortunes.

But as Chris Carter mused when talking about Harsh Realm's early cancellation, TV is a difficult beast these days. Networks want smash hits and they want them from the word go. Any sign of weakness and you're done, regardless of quality.

And I think it was a bitter pill to swallow for the writers of S9. Vince Gilligan seems like one of the most affable, nicest guys ever in his interviews and commentaries, but even with his self effacing style, he seems rather hurt that the show was pilloried by fans.

He seems especially despondant that Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish didn't get a fair shake of the dice by fans (especially as Gish had little more than 1 season to establish herself). It's typical of Gilligan not to give himself much credit, but I think he was a little sore that the writers had been... well written off, also.

But I digress. The upshot is that I think with just a little more imagination and patience by fans and networks, the X-Files could have 'risen again'. The myth that shows have a natural lifespan doesn't wash with me. As long as you have a good writing team, keep working hard to find the best new actors, the best new stories, you can run and run and run.

And look at TV today and you tell me that we wouldn't be better off with the X-Files and Millennium still around. Hell, we're still here talking about them, aren't we?!

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Guest ModernDayMoriarty

Hello there, fellow old time poster!

Whilst I do indeed like anything Holmes related, I confess to thinking that a Guy Ritchie Holmes film is a bad idea. I think I'll hole up with my DVD sets of 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' instead and have a Christmas Marathon.

And it's nice to be back. I remember when it was all fields...

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Guest Laurent.

I never thought that much about how Spotnitz manages to produce some of the best and worst of The X-Files.. but it is so true. Unfortunately, this also applies to almost all X-Files writers (the exceptions being Gilligan and Darin Morgan: constantly strong, although on different level of consistency/production rhythm).

Anyway, I think that the best proofs of Spotnitz dedication to the franchises (XF and MM) are how his first production (Night Stalker) ended up being some kind of hybrid between the two, and also that he managed to find the time between his projects to write some comics to dwelve back into their world.

With all that said, I'm pretty sure that Spotnitz would be the first in line to write a series of X-Files movies. I just think that they should add another member to the writing team, someone like Gilligan who seems to have a better of understanding of what feels real and serious and what does not.

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Guest ModernDayMoriarty

The thing about Gilligan, is that he liked to pen more quirky and comedic episodes whenever he could. The problem was that he was far too good at horror and suspense to allow him to do that too much. His interviews often mention that he had to beg and nag Chris Carter to be allowed to do them.

I also think that whilst Gilligan is undoubtedly a great writer, he doesn't have the kind of forceful personality to helm a show with much hope of success. There is a certain arrogance and 'alpha' mentality that is required to make these things work, and Gilligan has shown through his identfying with underdog characters and his painfully self effacing commentaries, that he's just too nice for that!

The studio bosses would probably him alive, whereas they seem to have cowered in terror from Chris Carter (or simply been made to feel like he knew better than they did). Carter got Millennium a third season after the world had essentially ended, so we know he had the mental steel to take 'em all on.

I would also make the argument that you shouldn't judge people on their early output too harshly. Hardly anyone gets it right first time. Vince Gilligan's first episode was the alrightish 'Soft Light'. It was pretty decent, sabotaged mainly by some poor special effects on the dark matter's way of killing people, but it was nowhere near as good as his later season episodes.

David Amann also produced two pretty underwhelming episodes in S6, but slowly got better as time went on. Some writers like Chip Johanessen and Vince Gilligan needed a bit of a run up before they could start hitting the target every time. Morgan and Wong started well with 'Squeeze', but followed it up with the rather lacklustre 'Shadows'.

I think Steven Maeda and David Amann were finding their feet very nicely and it's a shame the season had to end before they could really get going. Likewise, I think Spotnitz had a clear intention to try and make the show live on in a new form with his episodes 'Alone' and 'Daemonicus', directing them himself to make sure he gave himself the best chance at turning things around.

But some poor decisions in 'Daemonicus', the fact that he writes no further solo episodes and the tangle he find himself in writing about Super Soldiers when it seems clear he'd rather focus on Doggett and Reyes' connection to forces of Good and Evil, all proved too much, sadly.

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