Sunday, August 30, 2015

X-Files Lite, Part II: Season Seven

Season Seven found The X-Files Ship taking on water. The general consensus was that this was the venerable warhorse's final lap. The long, difficult hours were taking their toll and both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson wanted out. 

David Duchovny was due to leave at the end of the season* and was suing all and sundry for residuals from X-Files reruns, claiming that Fox cheated him by running the show on its cable subsidiary instead of auctioning the series off to the highest bidder (there was a lot of this going on at the time). 

His lawyer included Chris Carter in the suit, claiming the producer took millions in hush money to cheat the star. This turned out to be a typical lawyer move (Duchovny and Carter patched things up and remain good friends- neighbors, even- and Carter even hired Duchovny's lawyers in his own protracted war with Fox), but didn't make for a pleasant atmosphere on-set (or, God help us, online). 

And if Carter and Fox were indeed conspiring, you probably wouldn't have seen the kind of open warfare that broke out between them after Fox unceremoniously cancelled Ten Thirteen's new series Harsh Realm after only three episodes.

According to Bill "Cancer Man" Davis, things were never very happy around the X-Files lot due to Duchovny and Anderson's open warfare. The tension between the two stars was so bad that it became a story unto itself. Money was an issue here as well; Anderson complained that the disparity between her and Duchovny's incomes was sexist and unfair, especially given the fact that she'd become such a major draw for the series. 

Duchovny took to the press to mock her concerns, going so far to protest that her character won more fights than his did (!). With tension now growing between Duchovny and Anderson and Duchovny and Carter (which Carter denied at the time but later acknowledged) and perhaps also between Anderson and her employer as well (though for different reasons), suffice it to say that the atmosphere made everyone's already-challenging jobs more so.

Despite Carter's obligatory mantra in interviews of "getting back to telling good, scary stories," Season Seven would see no such thing. There'd be the same 'wild mood swing' philosophy that we saw in Season Six, only more so. 

Whereas Six front-loaded its screwball comedies at the beginning of the season, Seven sprinkled them throughout the season, created a kind of lurching, stop-start momentum. But unlike Season Six, there'd be few fan-favorites in this batch of boffo-yuksters.

But knowing what we know now, perhaps the showrunner was seeking to lighten the mood onset, and divert the attention of his restless stars by constantly throwing theatrical curve balls, giving them new things to do with their characters, keeping them amused, anything to keep the peace.

And where Six folded the Mytharc into the zany, wacky comedies like 'Dreamland I+II' and 'The Unnatural', Seven seemed to dispense with the Mythology almost entirely. 'The Sixth Extinction' gave way to 'Amor Fati', which used elements of the Mythology but seemed to alienate many fans (no pun intended) with its fantasy storytelling and religious iconography. 

'Sein Und Zeit'/'Closure' resolved the Samantha storyline by reaching back to stories like 'Oubliette' and 'Paper Hearts' for inspiration instead of 'Patient X' or 'Redux'. 'En Ami' is included on the Mythology boxset but is a standard conspiracy narrative with only incidental Myth elements.

With many episodes this season, you get the distinct impression that money was a serious problem (the season ended with Mulder and Scully being interrogated by a hostile accountant), which is why the stories seem so shrunken and claustrophobic. The trains, planes and secret lairs of the Vancouver years weren't even a memory- they were obliterated

These stories all took place in the smallest confines imaginable, the mundane workaday world of Southern California suburbia; fast food restaurants, high schools, banks, copy shops and so on. When the series went widescreen again in Season Eight, it all seemed strange, unfamiliar, disorienting.

Season Seven continued to experiment with storytelling, testing the limits of the series' elasticity. But many fans felt this elastic was worn and cracked and didn't resume its original form after poorly-received episodes like 'First Person Shooter' and 'Fight Club'. 

Entertainment Weekly-- long an X-Files booster-- would later declare Season Seven to be the weakest of the series. Fan forums, which had been growing critical over the past three years, became positively gaseous this year.

All that said, there are some excellent episodes on offer here in this writer's opinion. 'Sein Und Zeit'/'Closure', as controversial as they are, rank up there with the very finest episodes that the series ever produced. The 'Biogenesis'/'Sixth Extinction' had its hooks in me for a very long time, with its subtext of writing as magic(k). The folks behind the camera finally worked out how to wrest some atmosphere out of Los Angeles' sterile skies, and created a powerful visual thruline that gave even weak stories a little extra kick. 

Horror-oriented X-Fans got a rash of solid MOTWs; 'Orison', 'Hungry', 'Theef', 'Rush', 'Brand X' and 'Theef', all of which were solidly crafted and beautifully rendered. The Mythology, such as it was- 'Sixth Extinction', 'Amor Fati', 'Sein Un Zeit', 'Closure', 'En Ami', 'Requiem'- may have been chopped to the bone, but more than made up for that in the quality department.

The X-Files never rested on its laurels, never stopped trying to push at the limits of the television drama format. I appreciate that when I watch other shows-- even good ones-- that seem like they were written on a template. 

But at some point, innovation fatigue sets in and experimentation becomes cliche. 

Season Seven was about a series finding the frontiers of its own possibilities and at the end of it all, realizing it was time to go back to basics and start from scratch.


NOTE: Readers should be aware that Raj and I are both hardcore Myth/conspiracy X-Files guys, so that's where our personal bias lies. The episodes I compiled for our Mythology guide are my essential X-Files, and are the episodes I watch most when I watch the series. There are very few episodes I actually disliked in the entire series (I can count them on my fingers) and most of these episodes I enjoyed for at least their initial viewings. 

There are very few TV shows that I am able rewatch episodes of, no matter how much I may have enjoyed the initial viewing. I've lost count of how many times I've rewatched X-Files episodes, even the bad ones. Finally, all of the evaluations here are X-Files episodes in comparison to other X-Files episodes, so bear that in mind as well.

Check out Raj's blog at Amid Night Suns. He also writes XF fanfic too!

7ABX03 The Sixth Extinction (Carter)

Raj: For me this episode is another barn-stormer.  It’s an exciting, high-stakes thriller, with both the Washington and Ivory Coast parallel narratives being equally suspenseful.  I found Skinner’s uneasy alliance with DOD operative Michael Kritschgau in an attempt to save Mulder’s life particularly powerful.  With Mulder bed-ridden and close to insanity it’s Skinner who has to carry the risk-taking heroics of the Washington narrative.  

Also, now that Kritschgau is no longer played as a completely expositional character his presence here feels far more realistic.  Michael Ensign as the psychotic Dr Barnes continues to be menacing and utterly engaging in this episode.  In fact, the entire supporting cast seems to be bringing their best to the table.

Chris: The X-Files found an interesting way to deal with the cost restrictions imposed on it by the unilateral move to Los Angeles; go for broke in the storytelling. For inspiration, the writers reach back to a then-forgotten sci-fi classic, Quatermass and the Pit, and tie the themes of alien intervention (resurfacing in the culture thanks to the success of Stargate) in with the general Ten Thirteen theme of apocalyptic anxiety with the approach of the coming millennium (and remote viewing, both on loan from the last season of Millennium). 

There seems to have been a storyline that was developing but got thrown off course- the resurrection of the dead prophesied in the Bible to be the feeder source for the alien's shock troops for the final colonization. Or perhaps this was a metaphoric foreshadowing of the "supersoldiers" or alien replicants who emerge as the human host body dies. 

Either way the incredibly negative atmosphere around The X-Files' set was only compounded by the lawsuit and seemed to put a crimp in a storyline that seemed like was meant to replace the Colonization arc.
7ABX04 The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati  (Duchovny/Carter)

Raj: As much as I love anything mystically-oriented, for me this is a completely unnecessary coda to the previous two episodes that were simply stunning.  Duchovny’s writing just feels portentous and far too on-the-nose for any kind of subtlety.  While the Cigarette Smoking Man attempts to exploit Mulder in a dangerous experiment we follow the agent’s journey through a strange wish-fulfilment dreamscape.  It’s oddly messianic but without the nuance that would sell such a premise.  We know Mulder is an archetypal hero with mythic traits but none of us actually thought he was Jesus, did we?  Having said all that, in the right mood this episode is still kind of fun – especially the dream-within-a-dream sequences where Mulder builds a sandcastle Godship on the beach with an eidolon of his unborn child.

Chris: As I wrote before, this was one of my favorite episodes for a long time. But Time seems to have been its enemy. I don't have the same regard for it I once did, and it must be said that this was very poorly received by many fans when it aired (though Duchovny's fans loved it, certainly). 

In hindsight I think it would have worked better had there been more effort made in selling the dream sequences as reality, since they seem to go wobbly a bit too soon. And knowing now that the model for all of this wasn't Last Temptation of Christ, but in fact the thematically-identical dream sequence in an old episode of The Invaders, a knockoff that was never cited or acknowledged-- well, that spoils the fun for me a bit.

What is perhaps apparent in hindsight is that Duchovny was trying to derail a storyline he wasn't interested in playing (the alien apocalypse storyline) and redirect the narrative from Scully's major revelation (discovering the spaceship was huge for her) back onto Mulder, where he believed the focus of the show belonged. Because as fans have noted over the years, 'Biogenesis' and 'The Sixth Extinction' seem to be going in one direction and 'Amor Fati' takes the story down an entirely different side road. 

And of course, fans would holler that this storyline seemed to go MIA without explanation should ponder exactly why it popped right back up again in the ninth season…

NOTE: From what I'm hearing about Season 10, my suspicions that the Godship may have been of a different race of alien than the Colonists may in fact be true. See Existence and Providence for further information.

7ABX01 Hungry (Gilligan)

Raj: This is another comedy episode, but one that works rather well in my opinion.  Rob Roberts is an apparently mild-mannered regular guy working at a burger joint, but he hides a terrible secret.  He is in fact a monster, some kind of humanoid shark with an unstoppable appetite for human brain tissue.  Unusually, we follow Rob’s story, with Mulder and Scully’s investigations constituting the very pared down B-story.  But it works so well because Chad E. Donella plays Rob with such amicability and sweetness.  There are flashes of genuine darkness in his character aside from his monstrous compulsions, but for the most part we see clearly that Rob doesn’t really want to hurt anyone.  This ‘nice-guy monster’ conceit might have failed miserably in lesser hands, but here I found myself invested enough in Rob’s plight and the larger story to be genuinely affected by the inevitably tragic conclusion.  

Chris: This is an interesting episode because director Kim Manners hated the script and told writer Gilligan as much (which the writer didn't appreciate). But the final product ended up being a highlight of the season. What's also interesting is that Duchovny and Anderson were not available for a full schedule of shooting so their stand-ins were used extensively throughout the episode. Duchovny's photo double even plays a small role, as an unfortunate private detective.

This is a wonderful episode that corrects a lot of the mistakes made in the sixth season, even if it may seem a bit too relaxed at times. But it did show that the new crew found a visual vocabulary to make the tedious, overly-familiar scenery and atmosphere of Southern California glisten with its own kind of mystery.

7ABX05 Millennium (Gilligan/Spotnitz)

Raj: For me this episode is a failure.  It works neither as a continuation of Millennium’s own potent mythology nor as a particularly strong X Files standalone.  Really it feels like a completely squandered opportunity to bring the character of criminal profiler Frank Black into official XF canon.  Its central conceit of ex-Millennium Group members becoming zombie ‘Horsemen’ to usher in the Apocalypse feels like lazy writing.  It doesn’t connect to the show Millennium in any discernible way aside from the inclusion of Lance Henriksen’s Frank Black, and his character is given no story-arc whatsoever in this episode.  All we are told is that he’s engaged in a custody battle for his daughter and has checked himself into a psychiatric hospital in an attempt to ‘get better’.  Henriksen is still great as Frank Black, especially considering how little he was given to work with in this episode.  It’s definitely not a Millennium story though, and at best it’s a very lukewarm X-File.

Chris: There are really two episodes in one here. One that begins as a fascinating horror/mystery with religious overtones and the other one that ends up with two guys shooting at zombies in a basement. There are a lot of great moments here but I think everyone thought the climax was beneath the show's dignity, most of all Lance Henriksen, who was openly critical of the episode.

It's also difficult to wrap up another series' mythology on your show, and here again we see that zombie theme (introduced in 'Sixth Extinction') re-emerge, a theme that would get a serious rethink by season's end. On the plus side, Henriksen is very good as is guest star Holmes Osbourne. And of course for the 'shippers, it ends with their deepest wishes being granted.

(Millennium fans are recommended to check out the MM graphic novel from IDW- the writer has a far better grasp of the series mythology than he does of The X-Files)

Note: Millennium would be paid tribute to throughout this season in another way...

7ABX06 Rush (Amann)

Raj: One of the better standalone episodes of the seventh season, Rush is about a group of high-schoolers who are gifted with incredible speed after entering a mysterious subterranean chamber.  I’m sure that Josh Trank, the writer-director of the 2012 sleeper-hit Chronicle, was a studious fan of Rush – seeing as how elements of that movie are lifted directly from this episode.  The execution of the super-speed sequences are impressive and clever, as is the revelation that the newly empowered teens are displaying numerous micro-tears in their musculature from moving so fast in bodies not designed to handle such speed.  It’s the little details like this that I appreciate in fantastical storytelling, grounding the events in some kind of reality and making suspension of disbelief that much easier.  It’s what The X Files used to do so well. 

Chris: The X-Files hadn't done teen angst for a while, so they don't quite get the cadences right (the kidtalk seems more 80s than 00s). It seems kind of out of place at this stage in the game, like it's something the show had outgrown. That being said this is a pretty taut thriller, and makes good use of the underused Chuck Burks. 

There's a tremendous amount of visual imagination on display here, so much so that some of the riffs would be recycled for the season finale. Unspoken but implied for those who do their homework is that the source of the power on display here is alien, both by its reuse in 'Requiem' and by Carter and Spotnitz's maxim that all episodes are mythology episodes since human beings are part-alien (a fact made explicit at the beginning of this season).

 (Note: This is very much the kind of story Supernatural would rip off so often it will make your head spin) 

7ABX02 The Goldberg Variation (Bell)

Raj: I’m back and forth on this story.  I find it rather enjoyable and annoying in equal measure.  It’s another comedy episode, about the connections between a preternaturally lucky man, Chicago mobsters, and a very sick young boy.  The story is slight and sweet, but miles apart from the dark storytelling that the show was once famed for.  It’s not a bad episode, per se, it just doesn’t feel like The X Files.  It feels more like a generic cop-show-with-a-twist idea, an episode of Bones or Castle or something similar.  I can imagine Mulder and Scully being substituted here by two attractive local police-officers and a will-they-wont-they brewing romance, and the narrative would feel exactly the same.

Chris: Another attempt at Twilight Zone storytelling that falls flat. There are some interesting ideas here but the rendering derails them at every turn (for instance, the cartoonish Mafiosi) I don't know who was running the show that week but this is the kind of soft-focus fantasy that X-Files was meant to do away with. A young Shia LaBoeuf appears as a cliched sick neighbor boy, adding to the tired Amazing Stories ambiance of it all. 

We were a world away from 'The Pine Bluff Variant'.

7ABX07 Orison (Johannessen)

Raj:This episode is a sequel to the second season’s 'Irresistible'.  We see the return of Donnie Pfaster, a death fetishist (network-code for necrophiliac) who kidnapped Scully five years earlier.  Although this sequel takes Pfaster’s ambiguous monstrousness far more literally than its excellent predecessor, there’s no denying this episode has a grim kind of power.  This is in no small part due to Nick Chinlund’s soft-spoken turn as Pfaster, who exudes flesh-crawling menace as a predatory deviant with an unconsummated lust for Scully.  The last act, with Scully escaping her confinement and executing Pfaster in cold blood, is well-helmed and extremely chilling.  Scott Wilson also turns in a genuinely unsettling performance as the mysterious Reverend Orison who initially breaks Donnie Pfaster out of prison.  Glory, Amen. 

Chris: I actually much prefer this episode to 'Irresistible'. The writers (be aware that writers' credits on TV shows often have nothing to do with who actually writes a script; this was largely written by Carter and crew) here give Donnie's evil a lot more room to breathe and the Reverend Orison's magic and the recurring synchronicity of the old R+B hit give much more of an X-Files jolt than its predecessor, which by Carter's admission was more a dry-run for Millennium. Outstanding direction by Rob Bowman, and a truly memorable and intense climax. Just a bigger, badder and bolder take on the character. 

Magical realism seemed to be the overarching theme for this season, a theme that didn't always produce dramatic dividends. But here it most certainly did.

7ABX08 The Amazing Maleeni (Gilligan/Shiban/Spotnitz)

Raj:Again, this episode feels a lot like 'The Goldberg Variation' in its cop-show-with-a-twist idea.  It’s not a terrible episode, but it doesn’t feel like The X Files.   Remove Mulder and Scully, and it could be an episode from any generic crime show. The script is convoluted and yet so slight, with nothing really at stake, that it was hard for me to get invested.  While the themes were ostensibly concerned with the nature of misdirection and performance, the episode itself felt like a kind of awkward performance – a very network-television vibe.  It’s amusing and clever in places, but ultimately rings hollow to me.  If anything the episode is a good analogy for how the show had changed after season five and the relocation to Los Angeles.  The X Files used to be genuinely dark, concerned with real magick and its consequences.  But it had become a lighter show about stage magic – where there are no real consequences, and where the trickery involved has become the main attraction.  The emotional violence and resonance that used to typify the show significantly withered in the Hollywood glare of the sixth and seventh seasons.  

Chris: While the guest star turns by Ricky Jay and Jonathan Levit give this episode a nice air of authenticity, it's undone by the cheats, the screenwriter-magic put in place of actual magic tricks. There's so much here that goes unexplained (which is fine for the paranormal, a downright ripoff when you're talking stage magic) that it all feels airy and insubstantial. 

It's a shame because there probably was a really satisfying episode here but what you're left with is a story one that's merely diverting, thanks mostly to some fine performances. But it also suffers from following so close from the very, very similar 'Goldberg Variation', so much that the two begin to bleed together in the memory.

7ABX09 Signs and Wonders (Bell)

Raj: Give Me That Old-Time Religion, huh?  This episode reminds me of that famous gospel song dating back to the nineteenth century.  I’m not too sure about the story’s implied celestial politics – the twist that Reverend Mackey, of a more inclusive and tolerant church than Enoch O’Conner’s, is revealed as the episode’s truly satanic villain – but as a slice of deep-fried Southern Gothic it works surprisingly well.  Priests as villains always freak me out, regardless of their politics, because there is no need whatsoever for me to suspend my disbelief.  The final scene where the relocated Reverend Mackey is revealed as some kind of demonic entity – where a snake emerges from his throat to eat a mouse – is definitely a memorable image.

Chris: The problem with the overabundance of comedy and novelty episodes in the X-Files Lite years is that as it strove to keep the show's leads engaged, it gives the flow of the seasons a choppy, disjointed feel, a violent lurching from one extreme to another. And since so few of the comedy eps are actually funny this season, that becomes a serious liability for the show, both in the ratings and among the online fan community (who were up in arms this particular year). 

To go from candy-fluff like 'Amazing Maleeni' to a dark bit of Grand Guignol like 'Signs and Wonders' is at the very least, disorienting. It implies the writing staff seems uncertain in which exact direction to go. 

By itself, 'Signs' is an old-school horror episode, with the prerequisite hellfire and brimstone religious overtones. It's perfectly serviceable, but for Scully to make a dismissive crack about flying saucers after spending an entire episode studying one leads the viewer to wonder if this weren't a leftover from the previous season thrown into the schedule to fill up space at a time when the networks don't expect large viewerships. At the very least it makes one wonder if this episode's writers are actually watching the series they are writing for (and not for the first time, either).

But Michael Childers is excellent as the hellfire-preaching Enoch O'Connor and Millennium vet Tracy Middendorf is perfectly fine. I love how the episode subverts the usual Hollywood narrative and points the finger back at a Rockefeller church as the center of satanic evil.

7ABX10 Sein Und Zeit (Carter/Spotnitz)

Raj: Damn, this stunning two-parter is undoubtedly the best thing about the seventh season. It’s an incredible piece of work from ideas to themes to execution.  In a show that had by this point lost most of its sense of authenticity, Sein Und Zeit kicks us in the stomach, grabs us by the heart and doesn’t let go.  It doesn’t rely on familiar XF tropes, it plunges valiantly into a world of heart-breaking grief, lost children and spiritual entities composed of starlight.  Mulder is forced to reconsider his sister’s disappearance and the abduction narrative he had built up over decades.  Not only is the script dark and disturbing, it’s also incredibly tender and nuanced.  And the acting, from both the leads and the supporting cast, is on-point and completely beguiling.  Of particular note is an absolutely haunting performance by Kim Darby as jailed mother Kathy Lee Tencate.  In an episode filled with such strangeness and risk-taking, this is as real and dangerous as the seventh season has ever felt.  

7ABX11 Closure (Carter/Spotnitz)

Raj: The conclusion to the two-parter is also a genuine work of art, with a heart-rending performance from Anthony Heald as police psychic Harold Piller.  With the capture of serial child-killer Ed Truelove, and with help from Piller, Mulder and Scully are led to an Air Force Base that might hold the answers to Samantha Mulder’s true fate.  The scene where Mulder reads Scully excerpts from his sister’s diary is gut-punching and exquisitely acted, as is the final scene where Harold Piller is unable to accept Mulder’s confirmation that his own missing son is also dead, but in a better place. It’s powerful, soul-wrenching stuff.

Chris: I have a major problem with 'Sein Und Zeit' and 'Closure'. It's a very serious problem, one that impacts on my enjoyment of Season Seven as a whole. 

And that is that they are so great, so impactful, so revelatory, so cathartic that they make the rest of the season seem stale in comparison. I don't believe Kim Darby plays Kathy Lee Tencate, I believe she is Hecate, witch-oracle of the dead. Anthony Heald's performance is so brilliant I immediately forget all the other TV shows and movies I've seen him in. He is no longer Anthony Heald from Boston Public and Silence of the Lambs- he is Harold Piller. 

There are no two ways about it.

It took me a long time before I could watch these episodes without being cut up into shreds. They retain their power some 15 or so years later. I can't for the life of me understand some of the criticism 'Closure' got, well at least not until I look at where it's coming from. There's really nothing in the sixth season that equals this two-parter for me, though Biogenesis certainly has its own impact (any episode with Jealous Scully is a favorite of mine). 

This is the series that gave us 'Duane Barry' and 'Paper Hearts'. How refreshing to see it again.

7ABX12  X-Cops (Gilligan)

Raj: This is a novelty-comedy narrative presented as an episode of the hit television show Cops.  This idea is the literal embodiment of the cop-show-with-a-twist atmosphere that had come to permeate much of the seventh season.  It’s clearly influenced by The Blair Witch Project from the previous year, and is innovative in as much as it anticipated the slew of found-footage and horror mockumentaries that were to come.  'X-Cops' is fairly engaging for what it is.  Mulder and Scully’s investigations into a ‘monster’ terrorising downtown Los Angeles are hampered by the shooting of a Cops episode, and in this meta-context the story is actually quite a bit of fun. Although I have to say that I found the broad caricatures of the gay couple Steve and Edy a little insulting. It felt a bit too much like we were supposed to laugh at them rather than with them, but maybe that’s just me.

Chris: This is an interesting idea that doesn't quite seem to gel. As with Season Six, the imperative seemed to be to come up with novel ideas, not necessarily coherent stories. And while I guess you have to do this as a comedy it probably would have done well to see more horror sprinkled in for leavening. It's the same principle as salt bringing out sugar. The "monster" here loses any sense of menace because it becomes a laughline almost immediately. And with some of Gilligan's concepts it really doesn't have much internal logic either.

But all of that seems to be besides the point at this stage in the show's development. For the fans the producers were trying to reach, having Mulder and Scully on Cops was enough and the rest was gravy. I just expected a little more from a writer like Vince Gilligan.

7ABX13 First-Person Shooter (Gibson/Maddox)

Raj: I’m sorry, Gods of X, but this episode is just fucking atrocious.  Mulder gets sucked into a video game and Scully has to go in to retrieve him.  Yeah, I know.  I have no idea what went wrong here, but along with Fight Club this has to be one of the worst episodes of The X Files I’ve ever seen.  It’s lewd, boring, childish and spectacularly stupid.  It says nothing and means nothing.  I like to pretend it doesn’t exist, and have nothing else to say about it.

Chris: Have you read any of the X-Files comics, whether from the 90s or the recent series? I'm not going to make a value judgement as to their quality but they are a perfect example of writers doing Mulder and Scully without understanding the characters' personalities or grasping their unique voices. The same holds true for 'First Person Shooter', which seems almost like a MAD magazine parody of The X-Files rather than an inhouse self-parody. Gibson and Maddox just don't get it (which is probably why Kill Switch was so heavily rewritten).

 It's a bad episode as far as X-Files episodes go, but also somehow seems to sync with its time, just at the dawn of the dotcom/tech bubble burst. Entourage fans take note…

7ABX14 Theef (Gilligan/Shiban/Spotnitz)

Raj: While I don’t think this episode concerning Appalachian hexcraft is particularly inventive, in comparison to the season’s cop-show-with-a-twist vibe I mentioned earlier Theef is a solid back-to-basics X-File.  It’s well directed by Kim Manners and fairly well-paced.  We’ve seen these kinds of stories on The X Files many times before, we know most of their story-beats off by heart, but it’s a welcome bit of darkness in a season mostly bereft of the intoxicating demon-poetry that gave the show its legs in the first place. The finale with a vulnerable, magically-blinded Scully is particularly creepy.

Chris: 'Theef' is an episode that works as well as can be expected but would probably have worked better in the eighth season, when Carter and Spotnitz had reasserted a more consistent tone over the storytelling. Following the unapologetically dumbass 'First Person Shooter', it gives the viewer a bit of whiplash with its pitch-black tone. 

In keeping with the Millennium reunion vibe that ran throughout all four seasons of the LAX-Files, we see 'Dead Letters' vet James Morrison as the bewildered doctor.

There are some interesting twists here- Appalachian folk magic is unexplored territory for the show and Pamela Gordon's turn as a witch store proprietor is delightful, adding a lovely dose of authenticity to the proceedings, reminiscent of the bewildered astrologer in 'Syzygy'.

7ABX15 En Ami (Davis)

Raj: This is a solid low-key thriller that actually takes a lot of risks and poses a lot of questions if you’re paying attention.  It’s a kind of more real-world accompaniment to the fourth season’s Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, and serves to further explore the complex psychology of the show’s iconic villain.  The entire episode is a kind of dance or strange flirtation between Scully and CSM, where he attempts to symbolically seduce her with a potential extra-terrestrial cure for all human disease.  An interesting and engaging episode, with a well-crafted atmosphere of uneasiness.

Chris: Rob Bowman's swan song on The X-Files is a solid conspiracy thriller that gives us a sense of how much William B. Davis loved his character. It's also a far superior showcase than 'Musings'. But there's also an appropriate strange sense of finality, a darkness lurking at the edges in every frame, a palpable sense that things were coming to an end. Mulder and the Smoking Man would disappear at the end of this season and Bowman wouldn't return to the X-Files universe until the notorious Lone Gunman pilot.

7ABX16 Chimera (Amann)

Raj: Again, like the previously mentioned Theef, this episode harkens back to a darker, more vicious X Files.  While Scully’s lonely stakeout is still played for laughs, Mulder’s investigations into a series of brutal Raven-linked murders is compelling, especially in comparison to the overall lighter tone of the season.  The underworld entity responsible for the killings works as a frightening creation, and is genuinely menacing.  But the episode suffers somewhat from having to find a reason to separate Mulder and Scully for its duration. And perhaps it’s just me but something seems to be missing in Duchovny’s performance here.  Perhaps the actor was just so eager to leave the show, but Mulder feels somewhat lifeless to me in this episode.

Chris: Wow, yet another Millennium alumni! I really like this episode, it's very much 'Arcadia' redone dark. A taut, terrific script that takes the same ideas but shrinks them down to size and makes the horror more intimate, more personal. And just like so many X-Files episodes we see the usual themes of mysterious paternity and things not being what they seem and so on and so forth. 

Michelle Joyner (from a previous 1013 mysterious paternity story) is terrific and the rest of the cast is as well, not something I'm inclined to say all that often about The LAX-Files. Duchovny's laidback playing serves the material and his producing skills were in evidence here as well; it was he who suggested the Scully stakeout scene in order to give Gillian Anderson time to work on her directorial debut.

7ABX17 All Things (Anderson)

Raj:  While I accept that this episode might be a touch too New Age and soft-focus for some palettes, I truly love 'All Things'. Penned and directed by Gillian Anderson, it delves into the complex relationship between Scully and an old flame.  The narrative complicates Scully’s character in interesting ways whilst remaining true to her core.  And due to a charismatic performance from Nicholas Survoy as Daniel Waterston I can totally buy that he and Scully were once very intimate lovers.  Strong support is given by Stacy Haiduk as Daniel’s grieving daughter Maggie.  Also rather compelling is Colleen Flynn as Colleen Azar, a former physicist turned crop-circle researcher.  While the character is painted in broad New Age strokes the actress invests her with an earnestness and intelligence that rings true.  And that’s the highest compliment I can give 'All Things'.  It’s a slow-burn character study that feels earnest and refreshing, but also intelligent and poignant.  For me this episode doesn’t feel cynical, and as such it stirred a little bit of wonder in me.

Chris: Yeah, 'all things'. Well, I guess you can say it's beautiful to look at. Slow motion and Buddhist temples and Stonehenge and synchronicity, all set to a moody Moby soundtrack. But this one got a right kicking on the Internet.  It has its charms, kind of like "What if The X-Files were a Lifetime Network series?" And the 'shippers loved the teaser, for obvious reasons.

But yeah, they just don't write 'em like that anymore. Know what I mean?

7ABX19 Brand X (Walker/Maeda)

Raj: This episode is notable for a stand-out performance from Tobin Bell as Daryl Weaver, a chain-smoking psychopath.  I find the character of Weaver almost hypnotically watchable in this episode.  Bell would later go on to achieve cult-fame as the ingenious Jigsaw in the Saw movie-franchise.  The story itself isn’t particularly creative, aside from a genuinely terrifying premise, but it’s Bell’s performance as Daryl Weaver that makes the episode work for me.  But Mulder being infected by the tobacco-beetles, and them hatching their eggs in his lung tissue, is far too serious an injury for the character to sustain in what is otherwise a throwaway standalone.  Scully saves him, of course, inoculating him with massive doses of nicotine.  By the episode’s end Mulder seems fine, with little more than a sore throat despite his trauma.  I can forgive this kind of thing when it serves a grand mythology-storyline, but in a standalone it just feels like lazy writing.  If you’re going to keep hospitalising your lead characters, have it mean something more than just an inconsequential brush with killer cigarettes. 

Chris: Tobin Bell takes what is a rather conventional conspiracy-type script and makes it sparkle with his delightfully-menacing performance. It had special resonance for me, knowing quite a few Darryl Weavers growing up in the suburbs of Boston. Quite a few. 

And what's that I see- yet another Millennium holdover? So many appear (and will appear) it seems like an editorial comment on Carter's behalf. Not a particularly memorable X-file but a welcome relief from the novelties. Obvious nods to the Russell Crowe film The Insider are not your imagination. Solid if unspectacular episode that may have been better served in Season Eight

7ABX18 Hollywood A.D. (Duchovny)

Raj: You know, as someone with an unrepentantly Gothic sensibility I adored the documentarian sci-fi and horror that The X Files let me cut my teeth on.  So, to have to sit through stuff like this makes my inner Goth sigh a little in desperation.  This episode is fun, I guess, in the right frame of mind.  But it isn’t good, let alone great.  You could make the argument that it is in fact terrible.  It’s full of meta-winks and nods to things outside of the X Files universe, as with the stunt-casting of Gary Shandling and Tea Leoni as B-Movie versions of Mulder and Scully.  It’s very Los Angeles, perhaps more so than all of season six.  For the most part the seventh season’s failures felt simply bland and generic, rather than the aggressively self-aware parody that occupied most of the sixth season.  But Hollywood A.D. goes all out in trying to divorce Mulder and Scully from any notion of grounded reality.  In this episode they kind of wander around through a bunch of scenes that make no real logical sense.  At this point not only is The X Files a victim of its own success, but Duchovny decides to write an entire self-indulgent script about that very fact. When I enjoy this episode I enjoy it in a very defeated, heart-broken way.  Dr Chuck Burks is in it though.  Chuck’s cool.  

Chris: This claims to be a satire of Hollywood but feels more like Duchovny satirizing what he thinks The X-Files will become without him. 

So much of his fake movie lifts riffs from 'The Sixth Extinction' storyline and 'Millennium' that a fair assessment can be reasonably made. The conflict between Micah Hoffman and Cardinal O'Fallon feels like a placeholder for Duchovny's own conflicts with his boss, since Hoffman looks and acts like an idealized version of Duchovny himself (who, lest we forget, was writing himself to be the new Christ at the start of this season). Having Chuck Burks replay his scene from 'Biogenesis' pretty much seals the deal, connection-wise.

Spotting the connections is fun because this story doesn't make a nickel's worth of sense. But all of that doesn't make much never-mind since unlike many of the other comedies this season, 'Hollywood AD' is actually very funny. 

Wayne Federman takes his performance right up to the edge but never steps over. Shandling and Leoni feel a bit indulgent but seeing Skinner in a bubblebath more than makes up (if you watch The X-Files carefully, you'll notice all the very subtle hints that Skinner is gay).        

7ABX20 Fight Club (Carter)

Raj:  This episode shares double-billing with First-Person Shooter in being my least favourite X-File.  I definitely hate this episode a little less, but Fight Club is still garbage in my opinion.  I hate to say that about my beloved TXF, but it is what it is, man.  It’s yet another ‘comedy’ episode, but I have to say that virtually none of the jokes land.  As a result the entire episode feels horribly awkward and indulgent.  I mean, what the hell is this episode about, besides pointless doppelgangers?  I know that this is some kind of oblique continuation of the show’s meta-critique that began in season six, especially considering Fight Club’s bizarre teaser.  I don’t know what Carter is trying to say here, but I’m sure he’s saying something.  Still, there’s no real theme here, no emotional resonance that would make all the meta-hijinks and turgid run-arounds feel worthwhile.  Worst of all, this episode is simply boring.  If I sound scathing it’s because The X Files is very dear to my heart.  It may be flawed at times, but almost never bores me.

Chris: I've often wondered what the hell Carter was thinking when he wrote this clunker, since it was so wildly out of phase with the unalloyed masterpieces he dropped this season. I know he's saying something, something so occulted and arcane that we can't parse it, yet compelling enough that he'd throw away an episode as the season wound up (and as many people assumed the series was winding down) to say it. Two FBI agents at each others throats? An aging performer constantly asking for bags of money and thinking he's destined for the big time? Volatile pairs that spread unhappiness and disharmony amongst those around them? And so on and so forth...?

Whatever could he be referring to here? I guess we'll never know. Weird, wild, wacky stuff.

7ABX21 Je Souhaite (Gilligan)

Raj:  Yes, it’s another comedy episode.  Yes, nothing that happens is of any real or lasting consequence. So you might be surprised to learn that I kind of love this episode.  I’m not suggesting that it’s good, only that for some reason it works for me on almost every level.  It’s more like a whimsical Twilight Zone story than an X-File, yet I find it has massive re-watch value for me.  Despite myself, I find Will Sasso and Kevin Weisman hilarious as the Stokes brothers.  And Scully’s excitement over getting to autopsy an invisible Anson Stokes will melt even a cynic’s heart, surely?  The last act is a lot of fun too, where the genie’s intentional misinterpretation of Mulder’s wish for world peace results in him becoming the only human being left on Earth.  Not only is the scene funny, it’s also kind of epic and haunting.  In some oblique way the episode and that scene in particular seem to fit with the elegiac season finale that was to follow.  I don’t know, maybe I just love genies.

Chris: I love Vince Gilligan as a writer but he kind of reminds me of Paul McCartney, in that he didn't always observe the gravitas of the occasion with his writing. 'Sunshine Days' is likewise a fun, well-crafted romp, but does it really suit the occasion of the penultimate episode of the series?

Similarly, Will Sasso was one of my favorite performers on MAD-TV but seeing here takes me right out of the X-Files Universe. Paula Sorge's performance is fine, but left me wondering the whole time if they tried and failed to cast Janeane Garafalo in the role. 

As with many of these novelty episodes the story is clever and well-rendered but I never feel a burning need to rewatch it. Like much of the season, the episode is very much of its time and very remains there. This would be an excellent episode in a season with only a couple comedy episodes, it's just a fine episode in a season with eight of them.

7ABX22 Requiem (Carter)

Raj: I still really enjoy this season finale, even though I’m aware of all its flaws.  The narrative feels like a retrospective more than a forward-thinking story in its own right, and David Duchovny seems rather disinterested in the whole thing – seeing as how his lead-actor status was finally at an end.  But nevertheless, there are things to like in this episode.  The threat of the cloaked alien ship that is slowly rebuilding itself feels sinister and stylish, and harkens back indirectly to season one’s Fallen Angel.  Also, Laurie Holden and Nick Lea are on fine form here as Marita Covarrubias and Alex Krycek.  The script is nowhere near as tight or as interesting as it should have been for what was potentially the last ever episode of The X Files, but considering the stress and behind-the-scenes hostility that Chris Carter had to endure it’s no wonder his writing-juices weren’t flowing as freely as they once did.  What happened to The X Files in the sixth and seventh seasons is unfortunate, but perhaps what’s really surprising is how the show managed to burn with such multidimensional power for so long – way longer and with far greater finesse than anyone could have imagined.  But TXF was indeed offered an eighth season.  With Duchovny out of the picture, temporarily at least, Carter and the writing staff threw down the gauntlet in terms of reinvigorating the series mythology.  With the introduction of Robert Patrick as the world-weary John Doggett the eighth season got back to the business of creating blistering, intelligent sci-fi and horror thrillers.  Gone was the self-parody of season six, and the cop-show-with-a-twist atmosphere of season seven.  In its place rose a cinematic phoenix of genre storytelling – sexy, dangerous and lucid once again.  The Truth is Out There. 

Chris:  With the show's male lead out the door, can it be a coincidence that the comedy and novelty storylines --by now an established X-Files tradition--were set to leave with him? Is it coincidence that the next season had as many alien colonization episodes as the two that proceeded it combined? Perhaps Duchovny's lack of enthusiasm for the material is indicated by his somewhat lowkey performance here (Duchovny's performances throughout the LAX-Files would become an evergreen source of debate for fans).  

'Requiem' revisits the set and setting of the series pilot as if rebooting the series, creating a new pilot for a new era. But it would be the sensibility of the second season, not the first, that the series would revisit in the eighth season, with Mulder's abduction playing as an extended remix of Scully's abduction, all the more so given Scully's pregnancy.

But the show would also eschew the Robert Ludlum/Ian Fleming trappings it took on in the fourth season to return to a more basic (and intimate) narrative of abductions and conspiracies taking place just beneath the attention of the world at large. 

The conspiracy got so huge in the middle of the series that it seemed impossible to imagine the world not noticing. Here, the people signing off on the investigations do so only with great reluctance, since they all believe this business about aliens is crazytalk. Hell, even the new X-Files investigator refuses to believe it. That kind of disbelief gave the stories more gravitas, since they felt like they took place in a world you recognize. 

The genius of The X-Files is that, with the exception of the third season, every season finale could exist as a series finale. Requiem was no different. With the start of the following season a new imperative would be followed; a deliberate and delineated campaign to jettison the excesses of X-Files Light and return the series to its roots; sci-fi, conspiracy, horror and the paranormal.

Yet the envelope continued to expand- after clearing the decks of some solid but unexceptional MOTWs, the series shed its episodic format and finished the season as a serial, a clear harbinger of the genre serials that would follow in its wake.

NOTE: Marita and Krycek were supposed to form the backbone of a new conspiracy in the eighth season but Laurie Holden was unavailable. Too bad- would have been cool to see The Syndicate: The Next Generation.

*Perhaps if Millennium hadn't flamed out in the ratings in its second season Ten Thirteen may have rolled the dice and called the star on his bluff -- as some within Ten Thirteen were lobbying for--in order to keep the series in Vancouver with a casting arrangement similar to the eighth season. Fox weren't having it- to them The X-Files was The Mulder and Scully Show, period.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

X-Files Lite, Part 1: Season Six

After a magical, mind-bending, superlative, nearly-perfect roller-coaster ride of a fifth season, The X-Files didn't undergo an evolution when it moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles, it underwent a revolution

Something seemed to get lost in the move; that white-hot, white-knuckle intensity that made the show appointment TV. What was once intense, cathartic and gripping very often became relaxed, whimsical, frivolous and self-reflective. What was once a weekly mini-feature film-- and often one with the suggestive power of a documentary at that-- all of a sudden became television

Well-conceived, well-written, well-produced television, but television nonetheless. 

Visionary genius producer Bob Goodwin- who referenced Caravaggio as his model for the look of the show-- was replaced with Michael Watkins, who didn't have much of a track record yet seemed bent on making The X-Files look more the other dramas on television (if not more like television commercials), not something that stood apart. Whether or not the network was involved in all of this I can't say. 

But the sixth season seemed to reflect an effort to move The X-Files into the network television mainstream, an effort that produced mixed results.

There were other radical changes- from the third through the fifth seasons, the show had increasingly become Scully's story, the journey of her evolution from skeptic to reluctant believer. But for the first several episodes of the sixth season Scully would practically recede into the background, playing a very clear second fiddle to Mulder, who drove the narratives. 

Through many other episodes in the six season, it was clear that this was now Mulder's show, not Mulder and Scully's.

What's more, after a somewhat obligatory followup to the feature film ('The Beginning') and a riveting yet unmistakably Mulder-centric conspiracy-thriller ('Drive'), there'd be a solid bloc of novelty episodes so broad and atypical that one had to wonder if The X-Files staff hadn't been abducted by aliens and replaced with the writing staff from the old Batman TV show. 

Given that execs Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz had promised a season filled with hardcore sci-fi just months before, serious questions must be raised as to who was calling the shots behind the scenes, or what pressure what being brought to bear.

There's no question as to who forced the move to Los Angeles.† David Duchovny's contract called for five full seasons with a renegotiation at the end of that period. And his agent cited a clause stating he'd be obligated to appear in only a limited amount of episodes (similar to his arrangement in the eighth season) if the show didn't leave its very successful home in Vancouver. 

That hundreds of people would lose their jobs (jobs that they treasured, mind you), a proven winning formula would be tossed away with no guarantee it could be replicated in California, and that the expressed wishes of senior staff and cast would be ignored all seemed to be irrelevant.

Luckily for him, Duchovny had a new boss at Fox who was no friend of Ten Thirteen Productions, so stakes were pulled, bags were packed and very painful goodbyes were said.


But there's an old showbiz saying, don't mess around with a successful formula. That saying is based in some hard-learned home truths.

One thing was for sure; Fox failed to take into account costs would absolutely skyrocket in Los Angeles (per episode costs ballooned 200-300%), hobbling the show's ability to maintain the cinematic flavor that made it so unique. Vince Gilligan noted that producers would also have to contend with LA's notorious traffic problems and other logistical nightmares, leaving less time to create.

The new crew fumbled to recreate the magical Pacific Northwest's atmosphere in Kardishistan, using smoke machines and water trucks (to "wet down" LA's parched streets) but wouldn't really hit on a new visual language for the long-since overfilmed LA environments until Season Seven (for example, they developed rigs to wave branches over the actors in order to block out LA's tedious sunshine).

In many important ways, The X-Files would never recover the mystique it once had. It almost instantly lost its "cool" factor during the sixth season (X-Files was that rare mainstream hit that also had cool cache to burn), and it would never again enjoy the status of press darling or awards magnet it had when it shot in Vancouver. 

The X-Files feature film was a hit but not the blockbuster the studio hoped for (Goodwin predicted as much, citing the then recent example of the Power Rangers feature and arguing that viewers weren't motivated to go out and pay for something they're used to getting for free).

The series would continue to be successful (it was the top Fox drama as late as the eighth season) but the move and the heavy emphasis on comedy drove away a lot of the kinds of taste-making fans who generate the buzz a show needs to separate itself from the pack. 


With the show now a mainstream hit the writers could no longer pile on the mystery and the enigma-- many fans who came aboard solely for the Mulder-Scully romance had no interest in the 70s conspiracy or sci-fi films that informed The X-Files, and not much more in the paranormal. 

Starting with 'Redux' (the Season Five opener) and continuing until the series finale, there was a clear and unyielding directive from Fox to explain the complex and dense Mythology, in excruciating detail. 

This order didn't seem to do much for the softcore fans (who didn't care about the storyline in the first place) and tried the patience of the hardcore fans, who resented having to sit through exposition-heavy narratives that had none of the wild abandon of Mytharc stormers like 'Nisei'/'731' or 'Zero Sum'.

Faced with the dilemma of a bifurcated audience with radically different expectations of the series, backbreaking production costs in Los Angeles, the logistical difficulty of flying down Mytharc cast members from Canada and other, more unspoken pressures, executive producers Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter decided to abandon their previously announced plans for the sixth season and unexpectedly ended the Syndicate phase of the Mythology with a midseason two-parter. 

The two parter in question--'Two Fathers'/'One Son'-- was extremely well-crafted but as cowriter Spotnitz admitted it lacked the dramatic impact that the Mytharc once boasted, especially in comparison to the unambiguous masterpieces rolled out in succession the season before. No, this was a necessity. But the producers wouldn't be able to launch a replacement mythology until the eighth season.  

There would be a conscious, deliberate and clearly articulated attempt to bring the series back to its hardcore roots in the eighth season when Robert Patrick stepped in as the new series lead for the first half of the season. But despite the many obvious moves to recapture the mood and energy of the early seasons, too much would have changed behind the camera and in the world outside to get all of that lightning back in the bottleº. 


For reasons never made clear (or even addressed), Carter ordered a slate of comedy episodes to open the first half of the sixth season, in direct contradiction to his original strategy to follow on the themes introduced in the feature film. That his new boss came to Fox from Comedy Central (and made no secret of his dislike of Carter) surely didn't discourage this new directive. 

But given the inclinations of the show's male lead, the fact that these comedy episodes so clearly front-lined his character and given that his own episodes seemed to highlight the influence he had over the show's new tone (and significantly also satirize the Mythology) it's not a leap to guess who may have been lobbying for the new direction. 

Knowing the power that stars on hit series can wield, it's distinctly possible that Carter didn't come to this volte face alone. But there may also have been other mitigating factors, as well.*


Despite the many handicaps imposed on the show, there'd be a lot of excellent work done on 'The LAX-Files', a lot of envelope-pushing, a lot of experimental storytelling that continues to influence TV makers today. This was a show that refused to rest on its laurels. 

Carter was constantly challenging his staff to find new ways of telling stories. And if the experiments weren't always successful there was never the lapse into a relentlessly formulaic routine other long-running shows suffered from. 

When The X-Files failed in Season Six and Seven-- which it most certainly did on occasion-- it did so because its ambitions got the better of it, not because it was going through the motions.

Much more so than in previous years, the first two years of the LAX-Files would vary wildly in quality. The sixth and seventh seasons would produce some of the series' absolute worst episodes ('Rain King', 'Fight Club', 'Goldberg Variation'), but also some of its very finest. The Mythology may gone through some wrenching and inexplicable upheavals, but that also led to some of its most revelatory episodes such as 'Biogenesis' and 'Sein Und Zeit'.

The sixth season would produce a lot of fan-favorite episodes, such as 'Triangle', 'How the Ghosts Stole Christmas', 'Milagro' and 'Arcadia'. It would also produce three of Vince Gilligan's very best episodes: 'Drive', 'Tithonus' and 'Monday'. But despite efforts to expand the palette, the standard MOTWs seemed mostly rote and formulaic, retelling stories that had essentially already been told.  

There were other major changes that greatly impacted the flavor of the show. The naturalistic photography of John Bartley and Joel Ransom was tossed aside in favor of the decidedly non-naturalistic, Rococo lighting of Bill Roe.  Location shooting seemed to suffer and increased soundstage shooting very much gave the show a more claustrophobic feel. 

Yes, by and large what you got was expensive-looking television.

There were more subtle changes as well. Composer Mark Snow grew tired of the dark electronic soundtracks that had given the show such an edge in its early seasons (Carter had a major influence on the show's music in the early seasons, feeding Snow a diet of CDs to draw upon for ideas and themes) and began writing more baroque and romantic, piano-based pieces for the show. The effect was a softer, more melodramatic tone that lacked the early season's musical bite. 

That being said, Snow also wrote a number of memorable themes that could wield the scope and power of a Jerry Goldsmith or Bernard Hermann score. However, the gestalt had noticably shifted; more painterly, not quite so postpunk or industrial.

The do-or-die level of commitment the show enjoyed in Vancouver was hard to replicate, especially among LA's pool of TV character actors. Vancouver actors positively melted into their roles, which is why Ten Thirteen could cast the same actor 5 or 6 or even seven times in totally different roles. 

No one on the show would ever admit it, but the show was hurt by the loss of the top-rate Canadian acting talent, who simply couldn't be replaced in Los Angeles, at least on a weekly show's budget.

In Los Angeles, the first thing you'd notice in nearly every episode was an actor from another American television show, which could only take you out of the narrative. And while you had some impressive guest star turns, very few of the second-line character actors were of the same caliber as their Canadian counterparts. 

And Carter's longstanding rule not to cast well-known actors was broken, often in the worst possible ways (see Jackson, Victoria).

Gillian Anderson's performance changed considerably in Los Angeles; her portrayal of Scully became harder, colder, angrier. Years of smoking had deepened her voice, an effect probably exacerbated by the dry Los Angeles air.   

The LA wardrobe artists also seemed confused as to how FBI agents actually dressed, putting Scully in man-tailored pantsuits or tight jeans and various styles of Rodeo Drive leather jackets. And of course the makeup artists worked their Hollywood black magic and began stripping Gillian Anderson of her incandescent femininity. Again, it all looked like television, not reality. 

Make no mistake- this was television. The wild, wooly Parallax View energy of the first five seasons was gone for good (at least until the eighth season). What would replace it?


Further, for reasons too complex to explore here the Mulder-Scully chemistry didn't burn the way it did in Vancouver. That's a tangled and thorny issue all its own, but I'll just point out that the unresolved sexual tension now longer had the same spark it once had. 

Granted, seven years is a very long time to tease an audience but all of this would ultimately lead to a more explicit exploration of the couple's relationship in the seventh season. 

This breaking of tension would ultimately become somewhat anticlimactic. Duchovny and Anderson simply didn't have the same romantic energy within a romantic relationship that they had without. 
As a result, ratings would begin to soften, then inexorably decline, losing viewers by the millions by the time Duchovny left as a full-time cast member.

It simply wasn't the same show anymore and in many important ways, would never be so again. Debates began to rage on the Internet with old-school fans labeling the LAX-Files as "X-Files Lite." 


But it must be said that the 'Shippers (Mulder-Scully relationship fans, many of whom fantasize that Duchovny and Anderson were secretly in love, despite all evidence to the contrary, and continue to do so) and others who began watching when the show became a mainstream hit loved the comedy and novelty in Seasons Six and Seven.

They didn't care if the Mythology was put to the back burner (even though these episodes contained the lion's share of the Mulder-Scully relationship drama). In fact, a lot of them preferred it that way.

Many of the fans who focus on the Mulder-Scully romance-- who later gravitated towards (non-paranormal) dramedies like Bones and Castle instead of hard-hitting dramas or grim sci-fi -- often cite Season Six as their favorite, since it often threatened to morph into a bigger-budget version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; comedic, romantic, unthreatening, uncomplicated escapism. 

Such was the dilemma of The X-Files-- it combined so many ideas and themes that it inevitably attracted a varied, even conflicted audience. 

But such an audience can't exist as a community and X-Files boards and forums became very nasty and unpleasant places, as the various factions fought their corners. When the smoke cleared it was a much smaller and more bitter fandom than the one that rose up when the show was still a cult hit.  That it seems to have recovered is a testament to the enduring power of the series and the stories it told.


So here we were, with "X-Files Lite." Again, a favorite with the fanbase drawn to the celebrity magazine aspects of the show became in the 90s, not so much so with the original viewers or the fans who gravitated to sci-fi, horror and the paranormal. One influential Ten Thirteen pundit went so far as declare Season Six was when the show "jumped the shark."

I wouldn't say that myself. There are a lot of great episodes this season despite the show's famous 'elasticity' pulled beyond the breaking point at times. In many ways The X-Files mirrored the carefree, "at the beach" mood on the late 90s in much the same way that it did in the grim early 90s. 

But Season Six would be the first year the show would be shut out of the major categories in the big award ceremonies and cover stories would become more infrequent. If a certain core constituency was happy with the show's direction throughout much of the season, many outside that core would be considerably less impressed...


And without any further ado, I pass the baton to our man Raj Sisodia of Amid Night Suns, who will give us his capsule reviews of the episodes of Season Six...

6ABX01 The Beginning (Carter)
Raj: The season six premiere starts at a limping pace.  It tries to maintain a serious high-stakes atmosphere, but just comes off as turgid and flat.  The episode doesn’t feel very connected in theme or content to the feature film or the fifth season finale ‘The End’, despite the inclusion of telepath/child prodigy Gibson Praise.  

The character of Gibson is wonderful and brilliantly realised, but sadly the character is rather wasted here. The relocation of the entire show to Los Angeles can be immediately felt in this episode, and it loses the grim, overcast atmosphere the show worked so hard to maintain up until this point.  And in terms of scriptwriting nothing here feels particularly suspenseful or urgent.
Chris: See endnotes.
6ABX02 Drive (Gilligan)
Raj: The second episode of the season is about a man forced to drive west or his head will explode from internal pressure, and the surface narrative is actually pretty interesting and thrilling.  But I also tend to see this episode as kind of a joke with David Duchovny himself as the punchline.  

I may be wrong but I think the character of Patrick Crump, played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston, is intended as a partial analogue for Duchovny.  The episode almost plays as an elaborate in-joke about Duchovny’s desire to relocate the entire X Files show to Los Angeles – to head west for all intents and purposes because he couldn’t take ‘the pressure’ of working in Vancouver.  And I think a significant ‘tell’ about this meta-critique is the Faux-Fox News Broadcast at the beginning of the episode.  Who’s the Fake Fox being implied here, speeding as fast as he can towards Tinsletown? 

Chris: Interesting interpretation, I never thought of that.

6ABX03 Triangle (Carter)
Raj: In this episode Mulder goes hunting for a legendary ghost-ship somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle and ends up lost in time.  Simultaneously the X-Files writing staff’s meta-critique of Duchovny himself seems to continue.  While the episode is very well-made and funny in parts, it’s not that funny.  And we’ve seen cute and ‘quirky’ episodes of television exactly like this before.  “Let’s put the entire cast in a different time! As similar but different characters! Neat!”  But the XF writers, or at least Chris Carter himself, are far too canny for just that.  

Triangle feels like another elaborate in-joke to me;  This seems reflected in the almost cartoonish Boy’s Own war-hero fantasies that Mulder gets to act out aboard the ship.  This is not the X-Files we’ve come to know and love.  This episode is the gateway drug for what’s in store for the once-documentarian sci-fi thriller series.  The writers tell us, in not so many words, that we’re not in Kansas anymore (or Vancouver).  Duchovny has bought his ticket and has rode the vortex/whirlwind all the way to Oz, as evidenced by Mulder’s ruined boat the Lady Garland, and Skinner’s Toto reference at the episode’s end.   
Chris: Triangle is an amazing technical achievement and proof of Carter's directorial genius. Also, hardcore comic nerds will notice the uncanny similarity of Triangle to an old issue of The Shadow...
6ABX04/6ABX05 Dreamland part I + II (Gilligan/Shiban/Spotnitz)
Raj: This is where the LAX-Files begins in earnest, and we enter a weird TVLand version of The X Files.  The pseudo-documentarian style of the Vancouver years is replaced, literally, by glib Hollywood patter and self-aware parody. But again I tend to view this two-parter as the writing staff (most likely with secret notes from Chris Carter) throwing down the gauntlet and saying, “Ok, you really wanna do this? Then let’s do it big, Mr Duchovny.”  

Due to a malfunctioning reverse-engineered military UFO the Mulder we know and love accidentally switches bodies with comically shady MIB Morris Fletcher, due to a tear in the fabric of space-time.  Or, more pointedly, Duchovny overwhelms Mulder and begins shaping the continuum of the show itself. 

Chris: The Morris Fletcher part was originally written for Garry Shandling but cast for Michael McKean at the last minute. A fortuitous casting- McKean brought the subtle cadences of the Christopher Guest mockumentaries to a part that could have been an abomination in a lesser actor's hands.
6ABX05 How the Ghosts Stole Christmas (Carter)
Raj: Not to labour the point concerning the meta-critique running through the first half of the sixth season, but again this seems like another slice of TVLand sitcom-drama, where the narrative is more concerned with the conceits of storytelling than spinning a good yarn.  These early episodes all feel very meta-textual and self-knowing.  Also, some comedy stunt-casting for major roles occurs in this episode, which would become a trend in season six.  

The episode is notable for the scene in which Maurice the Ghost has a speech in which he dresses down Mulder, reducing him to a cliché; a deviant ‘para-mastabatory’ fantasist.  One wonders if this is how the writers thought Duchovny himself came to see the character of Mulder over the years. 

6ABX06 Terms of Endearment (Amann)
Raj: We are still over the rainbow with this one, without even a hint of genuine grit, darkness or edge.  The reigning king of horror-comedy B-Movies, Bruce Campbell, is a demon who seeks to father a human child, perhaps echoed in the fact that Duchovny was an actor who just wanted to reshape The X-Files into a ‘normal’ show.  “You didn’t think the X Files was fun before? Well it’s fun now, with a capital F.  Look at all the kooky!” But Bruce Campbell’s presence does elevate the whole thing somehow, it must be said.

6ABX07 The Rain King (Bell)
Raj: This episode is filled with more Wizard of Oz references, continuing the theme hinted at in Triangle, with the character of Daryl Mootz – a cocky Elvis-like shyster who claims to make it rain – intended as at least a partial Duchovny analogue.  But as the episode reveals, the true Rain King of the story is Holman Hardt (or Whole-man Heart), an unassuming and hardworking weatherman whose unrequited love is reflected in the sky.  Weirdly enough, the character of Holman acts quite nicely as an analogue for the XF writing staff; a humble counterpoint to the ego-driven actions of Mootz.  Again, I might be way off but it really does feel to me like a weird comment on the LAX Files versus the Vancouver Years.
Chris: Fans hated this episode; it was at this point that you started to see a lot people on the Internet turn against the show. Victoria Jackson's performance didn't help.

6ABX10 S.R.819 (Shiban)
Raj: This is the first real episode of the season apart from Drive that has any real danger or bite to it, and as such it feels like old-school X-Files.  Skinner is infected with evil nanotechnology and turned into a virtual slave by an unseen puppet-master, who is eventually revealed to be none other than Alex Krycek.  It feels like John Shiban wanted to tell a tale of paranoid sci-fi horror without any of the glib self-parody that had marred the season up till this point.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Carter heavily rewrote this episode, or else made it really pop in some way.  Good stuff.
Chris: Shiban's original idea was to have Mulder poisoned but was over-ruled with the argument made that the audience wouldn't buy that Mulder would be killed off but they might buy Skinner getting killed off given the show's brutal track record of dispatching supporting characters.

6ABX10 Tithonus (Gilligan)
Raj: Again, another pitch-black slice of old school XF, with a crime-scene photographer trying to catch up with the Reaper, who he evaded a long-time ago and was thus cursed with immortality.  This episode is pretty damn dark and is played very straight, perhaps more so because this is a particularly Duchovny-lite episode.  It’s really a meaty back and forth between Gillian Anderson and Geoffry Lewis as Alfred Fellig, who both rise to the occasion admirably.  I love it.  
Chris: The second time the producers paired Anderson with a new leading man (the first being Christmas Carol). And interestingly enough, the show got back on a more traditional format from here on in. Was some message being sent (and received)?

6ABX11 Two Fathers (Carter/Spotnitz)
Raj: This is the beginning of the first real mythology two-parter in the awkwardly kooky sixth season.  We could perhaps class the 'Dreamland' two-parter as mythology except for the fact that there is almost no mythmaking and zero character development.  But Two Fathers unleashes some back to basics XF mythic storytelling.  And yet the move to Los Angeles can still be felt here, reducing the cinematic scope of the show somewhat, replacing initiatory action with conspiratorial conversation.  Because of this the quality dipped somewhat, but compared to the rest of the season this is still solid sci-fi.  Plus, it features the welcome return of the luminous Veronica Cartwright as X-Files oracle Cassandra Spender.

6ABX12 One Son (Carter/Spotnitz)
Raj: The second half of the mythology two-parter has a powerful sense of urgency as the syndicate toy with the idea of forcing the alien colonists to abandon the timetable and begin colonization immediately.  This forces all the key characters in the show, both heroes and villains, into last-ditch acts of exciting desperation.  So much happens in this episode that it must be viewed as a definite watershed for the show.  Mulder and Scully manage to stall colonization but faceless rebels burn the highest-ranking members of the Syndicate to death. CSM manages to escape but the mythology is never quite as dense or as potent after 'One Son'.
6ABX14 Agua Mala (Amann)
Raj: This episode is pitched somewhere between a comedy and a trapped-with-a-killer mystery, but it doesn’t really work as either.  Mulder and Scully find themselves stuck in a Florida apartment complex during a hurricane, with a monster in their midst.  However, I didn’t find the broad Hispanic caricatures of the pregnant couple amusing, nor the depiction of the twitchy anti-government gun enthusiast.  The episode does raise a few smiles and has a few well-crafted action scenes but for me personally the whole thing is lacking in suspense, or the sense of fun and vitality that would make suspense unnecessary.  And the denouement after Mulder is attacked by the monster feels somewhat abrupt and ham-fisted. 
Chris: I'll add the dumb Southern cops and the twitchy tweaker to the parade of unfunny stereotypes in this forgettable MOTW. None of it is helped by Darren McGavin chomping on the scenery, either...

6ABX15  Monday (Gilligan)
Raj: Ok, here’s the deal.  I actually truly love this story.  Unlike the previous episode its comedy and suspense elements both work together to create a very satisfying tale, all anchored by a very sympathetic and haunting performance from Carrie Hamilton as Pam; the girlfriend of the psychotic bomber that repeatedly causes the deaths of Mulder, Scully and various other customers during a botched bank robbery.  Pam is the only one who recognizes she is stuck in a mobius loop, and we witness the various lengths she goes to in order to convince Mulder of what is really happening.  One of my favourites of the season. 

6ABX13 Arcadia (Arkin)
Raj: In this episode Mulder and Scully go undercover and play at being a happily married couple, while an evil thought-form created to keep everyone in line wreaks havoc in this supposedly idyllic Eden-like community. Although the stress and awkwardness of their cover is meant to inspire playful bickering between Mulder and Scully, it doesn’t really come across like that.  It plays more like Mulder running around half-cocked and doing his best to really irritate Scully for most of the episode’s duration, and for no discernible reason.  

Because of this Mulder feels more like Duchovny in this episode than the character he is supposed to be playing.  Again, this all feels like a continuation of the meta-critique of the show that seemed to occupy the early episodes of the season, as well as a broader comment on the nature of Hollywood and show business itself.  
Chris: I'd say Mulder seems more like Hank Moody than Mulder in this ep. I enjoyed this one, though.
6ABX16 Alpha (Bell)
Raj: I’m glad that this is one of the few episodes that is played straight, but for me it is one of the weaker non-comedy episodes of season six.  While I enjoyed the subplot concerning canine specialist Karin Berquist and her attraction to Mulder, I found it to be the only thread that provides genuine emotional resonance.  The main thrust of the narrative feels rather empty to me, without any real tension.  I usually enjoy XF stories about shapeshifters, but this one seemed lacking in both literal and emotional clarity.  But it is noteworthy for the fact that Mulder gets his replacement ‘I Want to Believe’ poster from Berquist just before her death, the original of which we saw destroyed in his office fire at the end of season five. 
Chris: Note that Andrew "Garak" Robinson plays a very Loren Coleman-like cryptozoologist in this episode.

6ABX17 Trevor (Guttridge/Hawryliw)
Raj: This is another variation on a classic XF tragedy theme – ‘flawed individual acquires bizarre powers’.  As with similar episodes we get to see the flawed individual’s personal issues and anxieties through the lens of their newfound powers.  In this case a twitchy, dangerous convict is granted the ability to move through solid objects after being caught in a freak tornado.  But because the story revolves around something simple and resonant like fatherhood and the responsibility that comes with it the story manages to be far edgier and also more emotionally satisfying than the previous episode.  The tragic fatherhood story-arc is later echoed somewhat in the season eight episode ‘Salvage’.
Chris: I have to cite this episode not so much for the rather typical MOTW script but for the outstanding Rob Bowman direction. Gorgeous stuff.

6ABX18 Milagro (Shiban/Spotnitz/Carter)
Raj: This is one of my favourite episodes of the season.  I have a deep fondness for stories about writers and this is no exception.  The whole thing is anchored by John Hawkes’ performance that manages somehow to be menacing, vulnerable and otherworldly all at the same time.  His portrayal as Philip Padgett – a chain-smoking author whose imaginings become reality – is flawless.  

He unsettles us deeply, and yet we still want to like him because Hawkes infuses the character with a kind of beguiling vulnerability.  For instance his sentient imagination is murderous and he describes his previous novels as ‘all failures’, but he is also preternaturally perceptive.  He is aware of the tensions, affection and love shared between Mulder and Scully, having insights into their characters of which they themselves are only half-cognizant.  

Chris: Hawkes is one of many Millennium alums we saw in The LAX-Files.

6ABX20 The Unnatural (Duchovny)
Raj: Man, this episode is so bizarre and indulgent.  I’ve seen it countless times and I’m still not sure what it’s trying to say, if anything.  This is an episode penned by Duchovny during a season in which the difficult leading star was getting exactly what he wanted, apparently to the lament of the writing staff – if the meta-critique in earlier episodes is anything to go by.  

The Unnatural is messy and overly self-reflexive, and the narrative’s supposedly sweet heart – an alien becomes human because of his love of baseball and newfound sense of brotherhood – just feels like urbane, intellectual Duchovny taking a steaming dump on the show and laughing.  Maybe I’m wrong, but none of the story feels earnest – especially in the guileless way it should to carry a conceit this whimsical. Forced reshoots of certain scenes also add to the bizarreness.

6ABX19 Three of a Kind (Gilligan/Shiban)
Raj: This is basically a far less interesting re-tread of season five’s Unusual Suspects.  But whereas the former episode was sweet and guileless, Three of a Kind just feels like a cynical exercise papered over with a ton of wackiness and broad humour.  In fact it’s pretty unfunny and kind of awkward.  As much as I love the Gunmen, they’re wasted here.  The best bit of the episode is Gillian Anderson as a drugged-up Scully, flirting delightedly with a bunch of defense contractor douchebags.

6ABX21 Field Trip (Gilligan/Shiban/Spotnitz)
Raj: I usually enjoy stories where characters are hallucinating and the line between reality and imagination becomes blurred.  And I enjoy this episode too, but it doesn’t feel very real to me.  A lot of the episode feels oddly staged and artificial, which I guess is the point considering the central conceit of a carnivorous psychotropic fungus, but it creates a very weird rhythm for the episode.  

I think the writers meta-critique of the show and of Duchovny himself is subtly continued here.  Mulder and Scully have become trapped in a false reality.  Mulder dies, once again, without truly dying. The show we think we’re watching is not really the show we’re watching.  In this false reality everything is too easy, nothing feels nuanced – as when Scully is disturbed to find characters quickly agreeing with her own dubious theories.  Mulder finally realises they’ve experienced a false awakening when he tells Scully how they’ve appeared to escape the hallucinogenic underground fungus but are completely unmarked after several hours covered in digestive enzymes.  

Yet later when they finally do ostensibly awaken from the hallucination they are shown to have very little scarring from the enzymes.  Is this a goof, or are Mulder and Scully still in the ground?  Are they still buried in a false reality?  Since the beginning of the sixth season this seems to be exactly what the writers are hinting at.  Mulder ‘dies’ in this episode, and when he is therefore ‘reborn’ in the following episode, the season finale, he is much closer to the Mulder we know and love, as is the atmosphere and tone of the story.

6ABX14 Biogenesis (Carter/Spotnitz)
Raj: This season finale is a brilliant piece of old-school X-Files, but told on an even grander canvas.  Mysterious artifacts inscribed with ancient writings send Mulder and Scully on a quest that might just lead to answers concerning the origin of human life itself.  Not only is this episode exciting as hell, it also boasts a brilliantly crafted, intelligent and multi-layered script.  The events depicted feel like a natural and frightening culmination of Mulder and Scully’s quest thus far.  

With a creepy stand-out performance from Michael Ensign as the sinister Dr Barnes, Biogenesis ends the lukewarm and rejigged X-Files on an extremely surprising high-point.  Even the closing scene with Scully and the beached Godship on the West African coast is an iconic and indelible image.  Not only is the episode a great bit of X-Files in a season clogged with failures, it’s a superior work of science fiction in its own right.

Chris: The "Navajo" writing in these episodes was no such thing- it was taking from the symbols allegedly emblazoned on the Kecksburg, Pennsylvania UFO of the 1960s 


† Duchovny would claim that he wanted to return to LA to be with his new wife Tea Leoni, but perhaps in the future other, thornier reasons will bubble to the surface one day, reasons having to do with the interpersonal chemistries that made the Vancouver-era X-Files so compelling. So incredibly compelling that the series would in many ways cruise along on the momentum of that emotional energy when in fact it had dissipated quite noticeably in Los Angeles.

º To be sure, there be some truly outstanding work done that eighth year (the Mytharc was the most coherent and cathartic it had been since Season Two and Duchovny and Patrick displayed a surprising, 80s action movie kind of chemistry of their own), but nothing could ever equal the impact that the first five seasons of The X-Files had on the television landscape.

*The Mystery of the Missing Mythology is one of the enduring enigmas of the sixth season, but as exhibit C we should examine 'The Beginning', an episode that many see as one of the lesser entries in the canon. The late Kim Manners did say that the directorial staff could never replicate the visual language of the Syndicate in Los Angeles, that the mystique that seemed to come so naturally in Vancouver was lost. I'm tempted to speculate that that the producers felt the same about much more than the Syndicate here.

The Beginning isn't one of Carter's most scintillating screenplays but there isn't anything particularly wrong with it either. What does seem wrong is the blaring sun, the boring prefabricated architecture of the LA suburbs, and the jarringly unsubtle performances put on by the supporting cast, who do everything but make funny faces for the camera compared to the wonderfully deadpan performances we were used to from Carter's stock company in Canada. 

It's like a novice symphony taking on a masterwork- the untrained ear may not notice but the expert can tell that all the nuance has been lost. Art is a process of emphasis, of intuitively feeling out which notes and rests to punctuate and delineate. It's a game of subtle gestures, a parasensory way of knowing that can't really be taught. 

A new FBI disciplinary board was assembled for the LA series, and unlike the wonderfully oily OPC staff we saw in Vancouver, were never seen again. It's almost certain this dismissal was a critique of their performances by Ten Thirteen staff, given Carter's stated preference for underplaying. This is no small thing since Mulder and Scully were on probation for the first half of this season- you'd think OPC hearings would be a must-have. But it was not to be. AD Kersh was left to shoulder the burden of FBI antagonism, a role that would be considerably fleshed out in the eighth and ninth seasons.