I felt downright slothful only having to watch one piddling little movie for this writeup instead of the 10-12 episodes I’ve been packing in every three days lately. With my viewing of “The X-Files: Fight the Future,” I’m officially well past the halfway point of this odyssey. The brief respite from all-”X-Files,” all-the-time has allowed me some leisure to reflect on the experience thus far.
The good thing about steeping myself in five seasons of sci-fi television in five weeks? I actually feel like I get what’s going on. Absorbing the plot quickly without long hiatuses (and taking advantage of the surprisingly thorough Wikipedia entries for things like The Syndicate, Black Oil, and Colonists) helps the pieces of the puzzle come together more coherently. As much as I love “The X-Files,” in the back of my mind, I always assumed that Chris Carter didn’t really have much of a master plan. This time out, I’m surprised by how deliberate the myth feels. I notice the writers planting seeds and dropping hints in ways I didn’t before.
I’ve also really enjoyed indulging my Mulder and Scully shipper tendencies in all their silly, giggly glory. Since my deadlines don’t give me time to savor any individual episode, and I’m trying to watch with my critical viewer cap on, I didn’t expect to feel swept up by the drama of the show. I should have known better. I’m a nerd, and I get a powerful case of the flutters every time I see meaningful glance or an emotionally loaded moment pass between the leads. I’ve loved abandoning myself occasionally, gasping when Mulder and Scully have a tiff or hissing when Agent Diana Fowley comes on screen.
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Both on camera and behind the scenes, Season 5 of “The X-Files" represents a transitional period for the show. It was the final season filmed in Vancouver and it comes in on the short side, with only 20 episodes. They shortened the production run in order to facilitate filming “Fight the Future.” They even titled the last episode “The End.” It includes a literal purging by fire of the X-Files themselves. That event helps to set up the first “X-Files” film and also provides a turning point for the plot and the characters. Before that happens, the season presents a kind of topsy-turvy vision of who Mulder and Scully are and how they relate to each other.
Although a number of important myth-related truths are revealed in Season 5, it all has a tone of narrative otherness. In episode after episode, it’s hard to tell what really happened or whose explanation to believe. Elements of fantasy and faith intertwine with Mulder and Scully’s evolving worldviews to create an atmosphere where the characters tend not to act like themselves and the truth gets buried behind layers of uncertainty.
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After the excitement and revelation in Season 3, season 4 of “The X-Files” felt like a meditation on suffering and mortality. Scully got diagnosed with cancer, Max Fenig died without achieving his goals, and we learned that the Cigarette Smoking Man is a lonely and frustrated novelist. The season ran the bummer gamut from Scully getting angry because she doesn’t have a desk and has let her ambitions fade in “Never Again” to Mulder faking his death in “Gethsemane.” I finished it feeling emotionally wrung out, so the gentler, more contemplative tone at the beginning of Season 5 came as a relief.
“Redux” and “Redux II” wrap up the mystery of Mulder’s apparent suicide, provide a cure for Scully’s cancer, and introduce the theme that most of the episodes in the first half of Season 5 explore. The trials and benefits of family, both the one we are born to and the ones we create, lie at the core of both the myth and non-myth episodes. In particular, Scully’s difficult relationship with her mother and brother drives the story arc.
“Redux” relates the events of “Gethsemane” as they actually occurred. It shows Scully deciding to risk her reputation to protect Mulder after he killed the Department of Defense guy who had him under surveillance. Mulder takes advantage of his presumed state of deadness and the DOD guy’s security pass to break into a research facility. While Scully gives her “Gethsemane” testimony to the FBI and prepares to name Skinner as the bureau mole, Mulder finds himself in the same Pentagon basement where we’ve seen CSM stash evidence on a number of occasions.
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I recall fans feeling a little underwhelmed with the first “X-Files” movie. Many said it felt like one very long episode and not the blow-the-doors-off, revelation-filled extravaganza they hoped for. I agreed at the time, but I no longer draw the same conclusion as to why it turned out that way. Watching “The X-Files” in a super compressed way the last few weeks has made me appreciate how inherently cinematic the show tends to be. Important plot events almost invariably occur over carefully paced two to three episode arcs that unfold the story in controlled and frequently elegant ways. “The X-Files” tends to owe more to the movies than to average primetime drama.
I noticed over the past few weeks that I’d written phrases like “great combo” and “fabulous one-two punch” over and over again. The stories that Chris Carter wanted to tell simply would not fit into one 42-minute chunk of TV. Arcs like the one that unfolds in season 4 through “Memento Mori,” “Tempus Fugit,” “Max,” “Zero Sum,” “Demons,” and “Gethsemane,” provide great richness of character and plot. After a few seasons of that standard of storytelling, I’m not surprised that “Fight the Future” felt a touch anticlimactic. It’s hard to blame X-phile audiences for wanting all the impact of a whole season of television in one sitting, but it’s also not hard to see why they didn’t happen.
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Season 4 of “The X-Files” employees a cool motif of pausing in the current of the narrative to provide bittersweet glimpses of the agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder might have become. It’s easy to forget that before they got swept up in their mysterious search for the truth, both Scully and Mulder were go-getters with stellar educations and bright futures. In between the important revelations about the story, this season shows us Scully the talented doctor and Mulder the promising profiler and super agent. It puts the sacrifices they’ve both made into a more personal perspective. These character’s aren’t just zealots, they’re people. Before the little green men got the better of them, they had hopes, dreams, and a future they didn’t need to fight.
Criminals in Season 4 tend toward the serial and the phenomena tend toward the medical, giving the leads opportunities to stretch their neglected career muscles. Although we’ve already seen Scully perform numerous autopsies, she hasn’t had many chances to rock out with her doc out, as it were, with live patients. This season, she can draw upon her expertise to offer explanations or skepticism, and not just her innate faith in science.
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Season 3 contains enough myth and mystery to choke a chupacabra, but it still has opportunities for less cerebral entertainment. In addition to probably my single favorite episode of “The X-Files” ever, you can indulge in rich Guests Who Later Got Big spotting with the extra bonus of some Guests Who Were Already Pretty Big. High profile guests appeared more frequently in later seasons, but in season 3 we get R. Lee Ermey (best known as the drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket”) playing a reverend in “Revelations.” A bit later, you might recognize prolific actor Kurtwood Smith, who played everyone from bad guy Clarence Boddicker in “RoboCop” to Eric Forman’s dad on “That ’70s Show,” as an F.B.I. agent with a dark secret in “Grotesque.”
You’ll find the most notable Guests Who Later Got Big in the form of an apparently un-aged Giovanni Ribisi and a placid Jack Black. They appear as a slacker who kills by controlling electricity and his best friend in “D.P.O.” Later, look for Jewel Staite, the actress who played Kaylee on Firefly, as the kidnapped girl in “Oubliette,” Tyler Labine, a.k.a. Sock from Reaper, in “Quagmire” and “War of the Coprophages,” and both
B.D. Wong and Lucy Liu in “Hell Money.” However, by far my favorite
GWLGB of the season was a nearly unrecognizable Ryan Reynolds as
uber-jock Jay ‘Boom’ DeBoom in “Syzygy.” Seriously, I couldn’t believe
how much hotter he’s gotten since 1996.
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Until Season 3, for all his manly bravado and brave intensity, Fox Mulder retained something childlike about him. He had the clear-eyed purpose and moral clarity of someone who thought he knew something about monsters, about where they lived and what they wanted. Even at his lowest points, when his faith ebbed and he didn’t feel strong enough to search, his worldview remained remarkably consistent. Through most of Season 2, the truth seems fairly cut and dried: Extraterrestrial beings exist. They’ve visited us, but the government covers it up while tinkering with the alien technology and DNA. There be dragons, and Sir Foxalot was on a quest to slay them and save Princess Samantha.
In Season 3, Mulder learns that the real world rarely offers such simple truths.
For sheer X-Files-myth density, you just about can’t beat “The Blessing Way,” “Paper Clip,” “Nisei,” and “731,” so you might want to strap on your spelunking helmet before we get started. It gets dark and labyrinthine down there where “The X-Files” storyline grows up and starts getting good and complex.
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Keeping the bits and pieces of "The X-Files" conspiracy straight can be little like doing a 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzle in your head. Mainlining it for the last two weeks, I’ve come to a richer appreciation of the one-offs and side stories. The second season excels in that regard. The monster of the week episodes provide a welcome respite from the sometimes exhausting drama of the mythology. For the sort of person – me apparently – who relishes stories about slimy parasite-men, serial killers, nauseating infections and rural towns with big, bloody secrets, this run of "The X-Files" offers a buffet of shiver-inducing delights in the vein of the best of "The Twilight Zone," or "Kolchak: The Night Stalker."
The gruesome things that can happen to you in pastoral settings provide a major theme of some of the best episodes of Season 2. In "Red Museum," we learn that somebody injected the alien DNA from "the Erlenmeyer Flask" into the children of just such a small town. "Die Hand Die Verletzt" portrays a happy little community of Satan worshippers who get punished by their dark lord when they don’t show adequate devotion. Finally, in "Our Town," we meet ritualistic poultry processors who eat more people than chicken and who keep their victims’ heads in a cabinet.
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When a principal actor on a show without great ratings gets pregnant at the end of the first season, it could spell disaster, particularly if there is no logical way to write the pregnancy into the plot. In Season 2 of “The X-Files,” Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy not only failed to do the show in, it provided the impetus for arguably its most influential plot arc. Season 2 also features a veritable all-star lineup of monster-of-the-week eps and the unexpected reappearance of Mulder’s sister Samantha, all of which I’ll talk about next time, but the meat of the season is the brilliant way it works around Anderson’s maternity leave.
A temporary reassignment or vacation would have gotten Scully off screen for a few episodes, but it wouldn’t carry the far-reaching emotional and plot implications of the choice creator Chris Carter made instead: Having her abducted. This event made it clear that the emotional bond between Mulder and Scully went way deeper than that of colleagues and friends. Between the cancer it later caused and the repercussions of the reproductive tampering that occurred, the abduction meant the show would never lack for material.
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When you think "The X-Files," you think of a cocktail of little green men, a couple of vampires and the occasional shape-shifter or telekinetic. So imagine my surprise to discover that the real buzzword of the first season isn’t UFO, but DNA.
For both myth and non-myth episodes alike, by the time I reached the second half of season 1, it seemed 10 minutes didn’t pass without somebody saying something about chromosomes or mutations. Even the season finale "The Erlenmeyer Flask," the classic episode featuring an itty-bitty alien in a big cryogenic storage tank, is more about gene splicing than close encounters.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. "The X-Files" debuted just a couple of months after "Jurassic Park," and watching it again, I remembered the genome madness that consumed the culture back then. Michael Crichton made turning amber into dinosaurs seem not just possible, but almost probable. It made sense that both the audience and Dr. Dana Scully considered genetic mutation a reasonable explanation for the human oddities Agent Mulder was always digging up.
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