I’m working my way through the first season of The X-Files right now, and one of the things that strikes me most about the early episodes of the show is how much trouble it has figuring out how the cases are going to work, and whether they’re going to seem more like science, or like magic.
Take the first-season episode “Squeeze.” If Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t four years in the future, I’d say the main creature is a straight steal from Buffy. He’s a humanoid who is really good at squeezing through small spaces, hibernates in Hellmouth-y conditions most of the time, and has emerged because (among other things), he really wants to eat Scully’s liver. He’s even got yellowish eyes, like Buffy’s vampires when they get with the crinkly faces and the biting. Other than his hibernation, there’s no real scientific design, or principal to be explored. He’s just profoundly unsettling and creepy. Of course, that’s always essentially going to be the case: this stuff isn’t real, so the faux-science is always going to have a tinge of magic to it.
But I think the show, at least what I’ve seen of it so far, is much better when it at least makes a gesture towards actual science — and actual thought experiments. Take the episode “Ice.” I don’t actually believe that worms from another age are going to mess with a bunch of chemicals in my head and cause me to go nuts on my coworkers. But the episode actually has an idea, namely, what happens to people working together in isolated, stressful conditions? What would it be like to have serious and inexplicable medical problems far away from anyone who could actually help you — which, as we know, can be a real problem? By making a gesture to actual science and actually plausible situation, the show is a lot scarier and more unsettling.