Howdy guys, it’s been a while, right?
My apologies to anyone who has been enjoying this blog for the extended radio silence – I realise it’s been exactly one month since I posted anything. What a month it’s been!
If Alias, in its opening two introductory episodes, flirted with the idea that the show is a post-Cold War espionage thriller attempting to understand and resolve the consequences of the 20th century’s longest-running and defining ideological conflict, then Parity absolutely goes for broke and seals the deal with a loving kiss.
The third episode, the first not penned directly by series creator J.J. Abrams, cements and solidifies existing, introductory concepts and brings in key new ones which will help frame Alias as a show with a sense of unique, genre identity. In many respects, Alex Kurtzman-Counter (as he was named originally, before losing the Counter) and Roberto Orci’s script is one of the most crucial in Alias’ first season. It is the first episode which directly picks up from the cliffhanger established in the previous episode. It introduces one of the most interesting (and underused) characters the show ever gave us. And, most importantly, it truly kickstarts the mythology Alias would embrace, grapple with, struggle with, and never truly satisfy its audience with over the next five years. Parity is a key, early touchstone for Abrams’ series.
WILLIAM: I know the truth can only come from my father, a man I’ve only seen in my visions, but who I already know I hate…
How do you end The X-Files? This is a question fans have been asking themselves for quarter of a century, ever since Chris Carter’s show premiered in 1993 on the FOX network and helped define popular culture across the entire decade. ‘My Struggle IV’ proves, without any shadow of a doubt, that the truth is you don’t. The X-Files is a phenomenon that will never truly come to a close.
Season 11 of The X-Files has been overshadowed, to some degree, by Gillian Anderson’s announcement last October—with several months of shooting left to go—that this was her final go around playing FBI agent Dana Scully, the role she will be immortalised for, as much as David Duchovny will never truly escape her partner, FBI maverick Fox Mulder. Anderson stayed with the original series longer than Duchovny—who jumped ship as a forefront character at the end of the seventh season—so it’s difficult to truly blame her for deciding, after twenty-five years living the part even in the long period she didn’t play her, that Anderson wanted an end for Scully. The revival series, which arrived in 2016 on the trail of a nostalgic comeback tour for various TV shows which were iconic in the days before streaming and cable changed the paradigm of television, was one millions of fans hoped would provide some sense of closure.
The end of the original series, Season 9’s ‘The Truth’, came as a disappointment to many fans at the time. Contextualising a mythology many had (falsely) claimed made no sense, and reintroducing the long-absent Mulder, made what fans hoped was a climactic thrill ride for the alien mythology more like a clip show, with an ending that reflected the ‘Pilot’ but left Mulder & Scully in nebulous waters; were they fugitives? Were they out of the FBI? Were the X-Files shut down? What about Agents Doggett & Reyes, who had taken over the department and failed conceptually to replace the dynamic duo we had followed for seven seasons together? Were the aliens still about to invade? So many questions were left unanswered, far more indeed than ‘My Struggle IV’ has left unanswered – and this latest attempt at a finale is, in all honesty, no real *finale* at all.
MULDER: I’ve always wondered how this was gonna end.
Originally the eighth episode in the ten hour run of The X-Files’ eleventh and almost certainly last season, ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ was switched around with last weeks ‘Familiar’ and you can understand the decision. Karen Nielsen’s script has an undulating sense of finality about it, as if Agents Mulder & Scully know the end of their journey is in sight.
We have, of course, been here before, more than once. Season Five cheekily concluded with ‘The End’, ’Requiem’ at the end of Season Seven was mooted as being the final episode to segue into a cinematic franchise for the show, before eventually Season Nine’s ‘The Truth’ brought back an absent David Duchovny and proved to be a hugely divisive (even to this day) mixed bag of a *series* finale. That was back in the age when a series, certainly in American television, concluded without any real chance of reprisal. British TV has long had a tradition of ending a show and then reviving the property years down the line, but American TV didn’t tend to do it until the advent of streaming services and the full embrace of digital TiVo changed the paradigm of how we digested television. The X-Files itself is proof that while nothing lasts forever, where beloved properties are concerned, we should, to borrow another phrase, never say never again.
Nonetheless, Season Eleven does, at this stage, appear to be the final curtain. ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ therefore, should that be the case, will go down in X-Files history as the last ever standalone episode. I’ve discussed the importance of the standalone story versus the ongoing mythology in previous pieces—indeed in last week’s ‘Familiar’ I touched on the subject—but to fans the difference has more sharply moved into focus with the revival series. Arguably, many felt we simply didn’t have enough episodes where Mulder & Scully investigated strange goings on across the American landscape, and episodes such as ‘Plus One’, ‘Familiar’ and here ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ have worked hard to remedy that. ‘Familiar’ goes the furthest to position itself akin to a historical episode of the original run of the series, but ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ stands out as a stranger brew than anything else the entire revival run over both seasons has yet given us.
MULDER: Mass hysteria. Salem. McCarthyism. What happened to the precious presumption of innocence? Which is rooted in a very democratic ideal.
There is something familiar and unfamiliar about ‘Familiar’, one of the last truly stand-alone ‘monster of the week’ tales The X-Files will likely ever do.
Anyone who has followed Chris Carter’s series from its inception will be aware that his show was divided between the ‘standalones’ and the ‘mythology’ episodes. At the time, back in the 90’s, fans lived for the mythology, the ongoing story of Fox Mulder & Dana Scully against the conspiracy to cover up the existence of alien life, and far darker deeds beyond. Time and distance however, for many, have seen the standalone tales grow in currency; in a world now built on the kind of serialised storytelling The X-Files flirted with, while still keeping to a model ripe for syndication, fans have craved from the revival season a truly stand-alone story. One where Mulder & Scully arrive in a small town, investigate some weird deaths, and find themselves embroiled in the strange and spooky. It’s taken almost two revival seasons, but ‘Familiar’ gets us there.
Oddly enough now, however, what once was considered a standard, typical X-File, has become essentially the aberration. If you look at how experimental both revival seasons have been, from comedy episodes or Hitchcockian espionage homages, down to episodes like last week’s ‘Followers’ which pushed the envelope the furthest the show has gone in a long time, ‘Familiar’ stands out because it’s now *unfamiliar*. Benjamin Van Allen’s story is almost a throwback, a relic of the original series The X-Files was built on, and were it not for certain fairly indirect but potent allegorical references to modern-day political Americana, you could position ‘Familiar’ in one of the early seasons of the show. It might sit quite well nearby ‘Die Hand Die Verletzt’, perhaps its most intrinsic bedfellow. For that reason, alone, it feels uniquely old-fashioned.
MULDER: We need to be better teachers.
The X-Files has always been interested in technology, right from the word go, and ‘Rm9sbg93zxjz’ (which we will henceforth refer to as its translation, ‘Followers’) feels like the ultimate, final (if this is to be the last season) encapsulation of our pervasive anxiety around surrendering our world to artificial intelligence. More than any other X-File that concerns AI, it serves as a potent cautionary tale.
Much has been made about how the second revival season of Chris Carter’s seminal series owes a debt to Charlie Brooker’s modern science-fiction anthology show Black Mirror. ‘Followers’, honestly, could have been an episode of Brooker’s series, a show which absolutely owes a debt to the stylistics and conceptual ideas put in place over the last quarter-century by The X-Files.
Carter’s show has, in many ways, come full circle in many aspects across Season 11, and ‘Followers’ truly embraces and explores our combination of social media, applications which track our movements and allow us quick and easy access to everything from dining to transport to home appliances, and the accursed addiction to the ‘black mirrors’ of our ‘smart’ technology. It suggests, as many cautionary tales about modern technology do, that this obsession may be far from a good thing.
SCULLY: I should have had the courage to stand by you, but I thought I was being strong because it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done: to let go, and to know that I was going to miss your whole life.
When plans for the latest season of The X-Files were announced, quite a number of fans were surprised to be informed by FOX head honcho Dana Walden that Season 11 would feature only two episodes concerning the ‘mytharc’, Chris Carter’s long-running, labryinthian mythology which has coursed through the series over the last twenty-five years. ‘Ghouli’ proves that statement was never entirely accurate, and continues what was already established in ‘This’ – the mythology is being weaved in more with stealth than grandiosity.
Ostensibly, of course, ‘Ghouli’ is a monster story – two teenage girls try and kill each other, each believing the other to be a tentacled beast from some kind of Lovecraftian nether realm. It recalls Season 5’s ‘Folie a Deux’, which memorably dealt with the literal idea of an unspeakable ‘thing’ hiding in plain sight, with a dash of Season 3’s cosmically apocalyptic black comedy ‘Syzygy’ (just without the laughs). Before the episode, a neat level of viral marketing presented the fictional ghouli.net discovered by Agents Mulder & Scully in the episode as a real site fans could click on, reading the fictional urban legend recounting of people seeing or encountering the mysterious Ghouli. Everything about the episode, on the face of it, points to a classic monster of the week.
If not for a character named Jackson van de Kamp, who very swiftly establishes himself as the raison d’être for James Wong’s entire piece. Look away now—no seriously, don’t say I didn’t warn you—but Jackson is, of course, Mulder & Scully’s long-lost biological son William (or Scully’s for certain, at least). William was born at the end of Season 8 having been coveted by alien super-soldiers and later bonkers cultists for being some kind of supreme alien/human hybrid being, indeed prophecies exist about how he may either save humanity or lead the aliens to their complete destruction (in Season 9, so we try and forget about all that). Nevertheless, William is important with a capital I. He was crucial to the last two seasons of the original series. He played a key, off-screen role in Season 10. And he is central to everything about ‘Ghouli’.
“It’s not me! It’s the world! The world has gone mad!”
There have been several back and forth opinions regarding the latest season of TheX-Files as to whether or not the show has too often tried to layer its fantastical stories with too much overt American political commentary. ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ will definitively put that argument to bed – not only is Season 11 now almost certainly going to be the final run of this iconic show, Darin Morgan’s comedic entry is a pointed response to the Trump, Fake News, Post-Truth era. It is also, as you may expect from the man, a minor work of brilliance.
Darin Morgan’s comedy episodes have become their own sub-genre within The X-Files since very early on in the second and third seasons, delivering gems such as ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’ or ‘Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space”, episodes which took the essential concept of Chris Carter’s series–two FBI agents investigate the paranormal–and inverted it into a comedic romp filled with one-liners, flashback gags and histrionic, heightened levels of reality. Some have argued The X-Files was so successful precisely because each writer brought a different canonical sensibility to the series – Carter’s arch grasp of symbolic theme, Glen Morgan & James Wong’s fusion of pulp and thriller stylistics, or Vince Gilligan’s blue-collar horror tales, but Darin Morgan’s stand out the most for being almost non-canonical, a pocket universe of wry, format-breaking, ‘meta’ stories which shine an alternative light on The X-Files and prove, without a shadow of a doubt, it has a remarkable elasticity of tone.
SCULLY: “This is a mass phenomenon!”
MULDER: “Which is why you and I are gonna jump on I-95 south this morning and get back to our bread & butter…”
Bread and butter indeed. There is a strong argument brewing that ‘Plus One’, the third episode of The X-Files’ eleventh season, is the purest example of a ‘classic’ X-File since the year 2000.
I’ve discussed previously how we need to start thinking of the first nine seasons of The X-Files the way we do 1960’s Star Trek, as the ‘classic’ series of the show. The revival seasons have proven The X-Files, in order to adapt to an evolving and changing television landscape, has found for better or worse (and fandom are strictly divided as to the answer) the need to reinvent itself, to some degree. Season 10 was filled with episodes which reconceived the series’ legendary ‘mytharc’, indulged in the nostalgia of the show’s comedy episodes, and fused both ‘monster of the week’ stories with character journeys for Mulder and Dana Scully, alongside a bizarre experimental piece from creator Chris Carter. Not one of those episodes, truly, felt like the ‘classic’ series.
‘Plus One’ is the first episode since the show returned to buck that trend. Season premiere ‘My Struggle III’ bravely took the mythology to controversial new places and ‘This’, Glen Morgan’s follow up, pitched Mulder & Scully in the middle of a breakneck Hitchcockian conspiracy thriller with shades of that same mytharc. ‘This’ had plenty of touches to please any ‘classic series’ fan but equally engaged in action stylistics and storytelling choices which kept it firmly in the realm of ‘revival series’. You can see why Carter would have wanted to write ‘Plus One’, because for the first time in years he has the space, breathing room and position to create a true ‘monster of the week’ tale, even if that term can sometimes be used too broadly. ‘Plus One’ doesn’t have a Tooms or a Pusher or even a Rob Roberts. Yet at the same time it’s the most standalone piece The X-Files has given us in a long time.
As the much-anticipated eleventh and almost certainly final season of The X-Files kicks off 2018, a remarkable fan theory has begun to arise in certain social media groups from the first two episodes: that The X-Files has slipped into an alternate universe. On the face of it, the notion sounds as crazy as the kind of cases Agent Fox Mulder has in his basement office, but could some nugget of possibility ripple beneath this theory?
A major factor backing up the assertion was confirmed in season premiere ‘My Struggle III’ (thoughts on which are espoused here in depth), in the fact Agent Dana Scully imagined the previous Season 10 finale ‘My Struggle II’ in her mind’s eye, a remarkable twist eradicating the events of an entire episode only sold to the audience by virtue of Scully having been gifted of it thanks to a vision from her long-lost son William. The catastrophic, world-ending, apocalyptic events of the Season 10 finale ended up simply as information for Scully to understand, a warning perhaps of knowledge to help she & Mulder prevent the release of the deadly Spartan Virus that wipes out humanity. So the theory goes, however, Scully’s vision wasn’t just a prophetic warning of terrible events to come, but rather an entire alternate reality she, and we, have experienced since The X-Files returned to our screens.
The main reason this theory interests me is because of the underpinning factors about The X-Files‘ return which is giving the idea significant ballast for some fans; principally how some fans would love nothing more than to see Season 10 essentially erased from canon. There is a growing feeling amongst a fraction of The X-Files fandom that a chance could have arisen to handily ignore some of the missteps considered to have arisen during the six-part revival season, principally the significant changes to established series mythology and problems & inconsistencies about the portrayal of Mulder & Scully. The theory to my mind seems less about having a cogent, satisfying narrative reason for two timelines being in play and rather looking for an excuse to pretend certain original creative choices in 2015 didn’t happen.