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The X-Files – Little Green Men (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

“We wanted to believe,” Mulder’s opening monologue explains. In a way, The X-Files works best as a profound meditation on faith. Not just Scully’s traditional religious faith, but Mulder’s belief that the world must make sense – even a crazy conspiratorial sort of sense. While Scully is a practising Roman Catholic, Mulder’s officer poster proclaims “I want to believe.” It’s a show about faith in humanity. A show about two people with unshakeable faith in each other.

“Trust no one,” a dying Deep Throat advised Scully in The Erlenmeyer Flask, words impossible to live by. Unsurprisingly, while treated as a mantra and motto for the show, the agents seem to freely ignore that last warning. Mulder and Scully trust each other. Mulder trusts the Lone Gunmen, and Senator Matheson, along with just about everything he reads or is told that reinforces his faith. It’s telling that – despite his cynicism about the government and her religious faith – the show casts Scully (rather than Mulder) in the role of skeptic.

His darkest hour...

His darkest hour…

Little Green Men is effectively a second pilot for the show. While set in the new status quo established during the closing scene of The Erlenmeyer Flask, the episode is very much structured as a “jumping on” point for those who might want to start watching the series. After all, the first season had been a cult hit, but hadn’t quite set the world on fire. Offering an introduction to those attracted by the growing buzz surrounding the show over the summer hiatus makes sense.

And so Little Green Men is built around Mulder’s crisis of faith and his attempts to vindicate that faith, offering a thoughtful examination of a man who wants to believe. While Little Green Men doesn’t offer any large steps forward in the show’s mythology or story arcs, it is a moving and introspective piece.

Samantha gets carried away...

Samantha gets carried away…

Along with – appropriately enough – the gap between the eighth and ninth seasons, the break between the first and second seasons of The X-Files is the only season break that doesn’t feature a carried over story point. Even the last episode of the fifth season and the first episode of the sixth season feel like two chapters of a single story – albeit a single story bridged by a theatrical film release.

This makes a great deal of sense. After all, The X-Files was not assured a second season. It had hardly set the ratings on fire during its first season. Although Fox had confirmed that it had wanted a second season by the time that The Erlenmeyer Flask was broadcast, the episode had been produced when it seemed quite possible that The X-Files might be a “one-season wonder”, one of those shows that burnt brightly for a single year before being brutally banished in the annals of televisual history.

A broken record...

A broken record…

The ratings in that first season had not been great. The first season of The X-Files had not even ranked in the top 100 televised shows of the season. But, as The Truth is Out There contends, there were mitigating factors:

The X-Files finished the 1993-94 season ranked 113 out of 132 primetime series broadcast in terms of the number of homes tuning in; however, that ignores the fact that the show aired Friday — a night when fewer people in general, and younger viewers in particular, are apt to be home watching television – that it routine surpassed ratings for the show preceding it.

While this is undoubtedly a factor in the show’s survival, it was unlikely to be the most important one. One suspects that The X-Files was very lucky to air on Fox.

It's off the charts...

It’s off the charts…

The Fox network had been launched in 1985. By the time that The Pilot aired, the network was less than a decade old. It was still seen as a young upstart. January 1993 had been the first time that Fox had been able to produce a full seven nights of television broadcasting, and marked a throttling up of the network. With the announcement that it had purchased the right to all NFL games in 1994, Fox would pave the way for its ascent to challenge the “big three” established networks. By 2008, it would even manage to top the ratings across all networks.

The X-Files was arguably a show in the right place in the right time. It seems unlikely that CBS, ABC or NBC would have allowed a show like The X-Files to get a second season. Indeed, given how Fox would go on to treat the various Chris Carter shows in later years, it seems unlikely that a more successful Fox would have tolerated a slow burner like The X-Files. The show rose with the Fox network itself during the 1994 season, climbing almost fifty places in the ratings for its second season.

An artist's depiction...

An artist’s depiction…

So pitching Little Green Men as something of a second pilot for The X-Files makes sense, given that the show was both generating buzz and coming off a first season that had not been widely watched. Little Green Men opens with a monologue from Mulder contextualising the show; it features a flashback to the abduction of Samantha Mulder, the defining moment in Mulder’s life; it starts with Mulder on the cusp of disillusionment, but ends with Mulder’s quest affirmed.

There are a number of interesting aspects of Little Green Men. Perhaps the most fascinating detail about the production of the episode is that it was written by James Wong and Glen Morgan. Morgan and Wong had produced some of the best episodes of the first season – including Ice and Beyond the Sea – but the choice to assign them to write the second season premiere seems a little surreal. After all, one would imagine this would be the task best assigned to the show’s creator and executive producer, Chris Carter?

No smoke...

No smoke…

Carter had, after all, scripted by The Pilot and The Erlenmeyer Flask, bookending the first season. In fact, Little Green Men would be the only season premiere or finalé that doesn’t have Carter’s name on the script – even if Carter would occasionally collaborate with other writers. The decision to assign Morgan and Wong to the script is a demonstration of incredible faith in the duo, particularly since the pair are working off their own premise. It’s no surprise that the pair were trusted to run Millennium when Carter’s attention moved away from the spin-off.

The fact that the script sounds like a Chris Carter script is particularly remarkable. Morgan and Wong seem to be writing Little Green Men in the “voice” of Chris Carter. It’s a very philosophical episode, and it devotes considerable space to the sort of existential ruminations that (for better or worse) define Carter’s scripts for the show. Little Green Men opens with a monologue from Mulder decrying real-world injustice. However, that is just the most obvious example.

Take two...

Take two…

Even Scully gets in on the act of naval-gazing, considering a corpse on the slab before her. “What this man imagined,” she ponders to her students, “his dreams, who he loved, saw, heard, remembered… what he feared… somehow it’s… all locked inside this small mass of tissue and fluid.” Sure, a concerned student might awkwardly describe it as “spooky”, in a nod to Mulder, but it seems more specific to Carter than to Mulder. Chris Carter’s Scully is just prone to existential musings.

The new character of Senator Richard Matheson – named for the famous science-fiction writer and beautifully portrayed by veteran character actor Raymond J. Barry – reflects on the philosophical beauty of sending out messages into the void. “Four and a half billion years from now, when the sun exhausts its fuel and swells to engulf the earth, this expression will still be out there, traveling four and a half billion years.” It is quite a moving observation, and one that feels in keeping with Carter’s writing style.

Seeing the light...

Seeing the light…

Of course, the actual story for Little Green Men belongs almost exclusively to Morgan and Wong. As they reveal in X-Files Confidential, the story actually originated outside The X-Files, and Mulder’s arc was crafted to echo one of their stronger stories from the first season:

Glen Morgan explains that Little Green Men began life as a feature he and Jim Wong were attempting to write. “But we liked the idea so much,” he explains, “that we decided to do it for Mulder. The other thing is that I was irked that the government had shut down the SETI project and I wanted to address that. Most important, I was on the set first season once when Duchovny was talking about the episode Beyond the Sea [which focused on the Scully character] and he said, ‘That was a pretty good episode. When are you going to write one like that for me?’ Well, I liked him, he deserved it, and I thought that’s what Little Green Men was trying to be.”

Given that Beyond the Sea was an absolutely beautiful piece work and remains a highlight of the entire show, doing “Beyond the Sea but for Mulder” is not a bad idea for an episode.

Visitors...

Visitors…

Little Green Men doesn’t quite manage that, although it comes close. (Vince Gilligan’s superlative Paper Hearts is arguably a much stronger candidate for “Beyond the Sea but for Mulder”, right down to its shameless riffing on a Thomas Harris novel.) Part of this is down to the fact that Morgan and Wong – as a creative duo – tend to write better for Scully than they do for Mulder.

There’s no shame in that. Watching The X-Files, there’s a sense that certain writers just play better with one half of the leading duo than they do with the other. That’s not to suggest that Morgan and Wong can’t write a good Mulder episode – Little Green Men is pretty great, and The Field Where I Died is flawed but beautiful. Rather, Morgan and Wong are more likely to write a phenomenal Scully episode than to produce a great Mulder episode.

How could he be so blind?

How could he be so blind?

Mulder’s character arc in Little Green Men feels a little under-developed. The story suggests that Mulder is going through a crisis of faith, that he has been beaten down and broken; that his beliefs have been shattered. He talks to Scully about the need to hold some tangible proof in his hands, suggesting that perhaps his own “little green men” are no different from George Ellery Hale’s imaginary elf.

However, Little Green Men doesn’t quite hammer that point home. Watching the episode, it seems like Mulder is more fatigued and exhausted than truly broken. He’s worn down, but the faith remains. When talking with Senator Matheson, he is apologetic, but he doesn’t hesitate to investigate the strange signal. He talks about the bitterness of how the government has stripped away the tools that sustain belief, but there’s never a real sense that Mulder has stopped believing himself, despite his dialogue with Scully.

Shadow play...

Shadow play…

As such, the climax doesn’t carry quite as much weight as it might. It’s nice that Mulder gets to actually see a blurry alien, but – as Scully points out – this doesn’t put Mulder any closer to his goal. Given that Mulder doesn’t get to hold on to anything but a blank tape, the only thing that Mulder could gain from the trip is the restoration of his faith. The problem is that his faith never seems completely gone. It’s more like a top-up than a full-blown resurrection.

(Oddly enough, the show would revisit this during the fifth season. There, Carter had Mulder actually lose his faith in aliens. Developed over a run of episodes, it felt a lot more substantial than his doubts in Little Green Men. Of course, one of the biggest problems with Mulder’s character arc in the fifth season is that the character really should be well past the point of plausible deniability, despite what Carter suggests. While Mulder’s loss of faith in aliens seemed rushed in Little Green Men, it is more plausible as a character development at this point in the show.)

Follow the dotted line...

Follow the dotted line…

Speaking of the redemption of Mulder’s faith, it is interesting that Little Green Men features the first actual appearance of aliens on the show. The first season had generated considerable drama around the smallest traces of contact with creatures from another world. As Carter explained in the DVD notes, this represents a crossing of the Rubicon for the show:

The showing of an alien was something I had resisted or wanted to resist doing until later in the show, but this seemed a good time to do it, the writers did a very nice job of keeping several different tensions going here.

What is interesting is how much of a non-event the appearance of the alien actually is. Indeed, the appearance of the alien in Little Green Men seems positively grounded when compared to other alien-relating antics later on in the show. (It even seems low-key when compared to events later in the second season.)

Hear him out...

Hear him out…

Still, the fact that Mulder’s disillusionment never feels as complete as it might is a relatively minor flaw in a great start to the second season. Morgan and Wong manage to craft Little Green Men as both an insightful character piece and a broader commentary on the themes of The X-Files. Although the details of the event differ with those established in Conduit, the abduction of Samantha is an iconic moment for the show.

Director David Nutter does a wonderful job capturing the horror and strangeness of sequence, demonstrating the wonderful visual style of The X-Files. While much is made (and deservedly so) of the show’s fantastic writing staff, The X-Files also had a wonderful pool of directorial talent. Rob Bowman, David Nutter and Kim Manners were among the best directors working on television in the nineties. While Kim Manners passed away a few years ago, Bowman and Nutter remain powerful creative forces in modern television.

Scully has the FBI's students at her feet...

Scully has the FBI’s students at her feet…

As well as the wonderfully eerie abduction and visitation sequences, it’s notable that Nutter actually manages to make Vancouver look like Puerto Rico. It’s a testament to the quality of the production that the most obvious giveaway that the show hasn’t left Canada is the fact that Scully keeps her trench coat on. (Although that was most likely to conceal Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy rather than a production slip-up.) It’s much more convincing than “Vancouver as Turkey” in E.B.E.

Morgan and Wong’s script keeps a tight focus on Mulder, and Little Green Men does make for an interesting glimpse of how firmly Mulder’s faith is founded on the loss of his sister. It’s telling how many subsequent episodes are rooted in this version of events. One wonders how much Mulder’s belief in aliens is grounded in the hope that Samantha could still be alive and relatively unharmed if taken by aliens – something unlikely if she were abducted by anything human. (Paper Hearts plays with this idea.)

Hear no evil...

Hear no evil…

The sequence of Mulder reaching for his father’s gun is an inspired touch – suggesting that there’s some measure of guilt to Mulder’s memory of events. If he had reached the gun quicker or been able to use it better, his sister may not have been taken. It emphasises the responsibility that Mulder feels for the loss, and underscores the sense that Mulder isn’t so much looking for aliens as for absolution. (This is something that Colony and End Game explore quite well, building off this sequence.)

One of the nicer details is the way that the Watergate hearings play almost as background noise; Mulder isn’t watching them actively, he’s just waiting for The Magician. One wonders how many young people were influenced by passive exposure to Watergate, rather than direct engagement – treating the scandal as background radiation that eroded the public’s trust in government over time rather than as one massive frontal assault.

Freeze...

Freeze…

Even outside of its focus on Mulder, Little Green Men is fascinating in its exploration of the central themes of The X-Files. For a show about aliens, Little Green Men is almost completely divorced from the show’s central mythology. The fact that it involves a government kill squad feels almost incidental. Of course, the show had yet to really settle on the idea of a long-form story arc that would fit everything together – the alien episodes of the first season are only broadly connected.

Still, the contemplative Little Green Men is very different from the paranoid thrillers of the first season. Instead, it seems quite pensive, reflecting on how the public’s enthusiasm and excitement about the unknown were eventually worn down by cynicism and emptiness of contemporary politics. The opening monologue cites the Voyager space probes as relics of that enthusiasm, launched in the late seventies. However, the episode juxtaposes all the possibilities teased by those missions against another defining moment of the seventies.

"Mulder's log..."

“Mulder’s log…”

It’s no coincidence that Mulder and Samantha were watching that Watergate hearings, the bitter disillusionment of an entire generation playing out as background noise. Nor is the choice of Mulder’s meeting place a surprise. The Watergate Hotel may have been at the root of one of the greatest political controversies of our time, but it proudly remains standing, charging extortionate rates for parking.

Mulder’s opening monologue is the lament of a generation disillusioned by a government that has scrapped the space-age idealism of Kennedy’s new frontier. Mankind no longer reaches for the heavens; we’ve grown to accept mundane realities. The episode’s opening scenes both feature reels of tape recordings, the difference in context effectively underscoring the gap between that lost idealism and the cynical modern world. Separated by the opening credits, the beacon enthusiastically inviting aliens to Earth is replaced with wiretaps of sleazy crooks talking about strip clubs.

"Scully, I think I've found the Sopranos half a decade early..."

“Scully, I think I’ve found the Sopranos half a decade early…”

“I wanted to believe but the tools have been taken away,” Mulder tells us. “The X-Files have been shut down. They closed our eyes. Our voices have been silenced… our ears now deaf to the realms of extreme possibilities.” In a way, it feels like Wong and Morgan are tapping into the same vein of nineties disillusionment that Chris Carter tried to explore in Space, one of the most troubled episodes of the first season.

In a way, it seems framed almost as a defense of The X-Files as a television show – and one more romantic than many of the contemporaneous reviews praising the show’s gritty cynicism and skepticism. With the actual X-Files closed by the FBI, and with The X-Files facing the prospect of cancellation, Mulder finds himself forced out of the show. It’s telling that Mulder’s reassignment – surveillance – finds him consuming large quantities of media. The X-Files themselves are, after all, stories. Mulder has just been forced to substitute one type of story for another.

Senator...

Friends in high places…

“They’ve got me on electronic surveillance,” Mulder explains. “White-bread cases, bank fraud, insurance fraud, health care swindles.” In short, the kind of things that fall more within the perview of the FBI – something a lot more plausible than travelling the globe (okay, the protectorates of the United States) looking for aliens.  It’s dull, monotonous and empty. It’s the sort of work that real FBI agents do, but it’s also completely unromantic.

Mulder needs the romance and excitement of the X-Files in his life. While they may document all sorts of horrors, those horrors suggest the existence of something more significant than the mundane realities of listening to tape reels. Far from a show about exploring the seedier corners of the American experience, Morgan and Wong seem to suggest that The X-Files is blissful escapism. After all, no matter how corrupt the government might be, it’s still less depressing than listening to two creeps talking at length about strippers.

Picture this...

Picture this…

(The most depressing aspect of the episode has nothing to do with blue beret kill squads, and more to do with the fact that the goons are having the same conversation at the end of the episode as they were at the start. In that time, Mulder has been to Puerto Rico, seen aliens and evaded death squads. He has lost his faith and redeemed it. The episode ends with Mulder in a very different place than he was at the start. They’re still talking about strippers.)

Little Green Men may not quite succeed as “Beyond the Sea, but for Mulder”, but that’s a pretty lofty goal. It succeeds as a season premiere and as a second pilot, bringing the new audience up to speed and instantly reminding returning viewers why they fell in love with the show.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of The X-Files:

 

6 Responses

  1. Glad to read you’re back to doing these episode reviewsツ
    This was another great episode too.

    • Thanks Heather, they seem to be doing quite well. I’ve actually had them written since about June, but originally had them scheduled for November. Some traffic from the wonderful X-Files Files convinced me to try to keep up with the podcast. (The podcast is very worth a listen.)

  2. I have fond memories of the premier of this episode on Sky, not long (if I remember correctly) after the finale of the first season on BBC2. For better or worse (mostly worse), this was the defining of my teenage self. The second pilot/reaffirmation aspect occurred to me too, but was unnecessary in my case – they’d already hooked me!

    • Yep. The UK broadcast of The X-Files is quite brilliant, and may be worth a post to itself, or a footnote at least. Sky always had the show before the BBC, from the first season, but the BBC aired it a few months behind. However, the BBC views were staggered carefully so the season finalé aired right around the next season premiere on Sky. Anazasi aired on BBC on 27th February 1996, and The Blessing Way aired on Sky on 5th March 1996. Fox also released a VHS of Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip in the UK a little while before the third season premiered, rather cunningly.

  3. Great Review, Just heard your reviews mentioned on Today’s Xfiles Xfile podcast. Going to love reading all of these reviews.

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