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The X-Files – Ascension (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.

Ascension is effectively a giant chase sequence and an epilogue to the first six episodes of the second season. While lacking the tight focus of Duane Barry, Ascension moves fast enough and provides enough plot momentum that it feels like a satisfactory conclusion. For an episode that was essentially written to deal with a cast member’s unexpected pregnancy, it’s a pretty fantastic piece of television.

Keep watching the skiis... er, skies!

Keep watching the skiis… er, skies!

Ascension plays better as a series of moments than as an episode in its own right. It features any number of memorable scenes and sequences, many of which exist to disguise the fact that the episode is a list of housekeeping requirements for the series. One can practically see the production staff checking off all the necessary objectives as they run through the script. Write Gillian Anderson out for a little while? Check. Reopen the X-Files? Check. Reveal Krycek is a bad guy? Check. Bring Skinner even more on-side? Check.

And, yet, despite this functional approach, Ascension works very well. There isn’t a lot of nuance or sophistication to it, but it gets the job done with an impressive amount of style. Not one element is kept around longer than strictly necessary. Duane Barry is killed off after a brief and cryptic conversation with Mulder. Krycek is revealed as a mole shortly thereafter. Skinner reopens the X-Files almost immediately. It’s very effective and logical “a to b to c” plotting, with a very minimum of superfluous elements.

An unhappy mug...

An unhappy mug…

That’s not to suggest that Ascension isn’t memorable. The episode is packed with memorable imagery, to the point that it’s surprising that Michael Lange didn’t become a more regular director on the show. Having directed Young at Heart and Miracle Man for the first season, two rather thankless assignments, he only directed one more episode for the show – Unrequited during the fourth season. While none of the other three episodes stand out from a visual perspective, it’s surprising that Ascension didn’t earn him another slot in the second or third seasons.

Most obviously, there’s the famous tram stunt sequence, where David Duchovny insisted on doing as much as possible. Even today, it’s a wonderfully impressive physical stunt – ranking with the train dive from Nisei as the most impressive action sequence that the show ever produced. It’s a delightfully tense set piece, and one that feels like something from a cinematic thriller. Indeed, it feels like it could have come from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Then again, that isn’t too surprising, as The X-Files tends to wear its seventies influences on its sleeves.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

The X-Files is a show steeped in post-Vietnam cynicism and post-Watergate paranoia. Even the alien abduction presented in Ascension borrows quite heavily from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The aliens that abducted Duane Barry – glimpsed more thoroughly here than that aliens in Little Green Men – appear like (and were played by) children. Like Roy Neary, Duane Barry is compelled to meet his abductors at the top of a mountain, even without knowing exactly where that mountain is – at least at first.

It is almost disappointing how quickly The X-Files shuffles Krycek out of the picture. Krycek is an interesting character – even if he isn’t the most consistently characterised supporting player in the show’s ensemble. Whether playing the young and inexperienced hotshot swept up in Mulder’s mythology or the cynical double-agent out to undermine the X-Files, Krycek has a fascinating dynamic with Mulder that is distinct enough from Scully that it could support a few more episodes.

Red right handprint...

Red right handprint…

This is one of the more frustrating aspects of the first seven seasons of The X-Files. While the show is capable of enduring shifts in the status quo, it is rather uninterested in shifting focus away from its two nominal leads. Even when the X-Files themselves do not exist and the partners are separated, The X-Files is very much a show about Mulder and Scully. The X-Files is very uncomfortable with letting other characters occupy the narrative space reserved for Mulder and Scully.

So Krycek is not allowed to be “Mulder’s new partner” for too long. He is revealed as a mole by the end of his first episode, assuring viewers he can’t replace Scully. He is vanished by the end of the third episode featuring him. Similarly, the sixth season is willing to take Mulder and Scully off the X-Files, but it’s never too deeply interested in what Agents Fowley and Spender are doing on the X-Files – despite the narrative possibilities that exist by forcing the pair into a situation they are completely unequipped to handle.

All fired up...

All fired up…

These decisions make a great deal of sense in context. After all, one of the central appeals of The X-Files is seeing Mulder and Scully interacting. However, they perhaps sabotaged the show in the long term. When David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson eventually decided to depart the show, the producers were left with a show that had never even contemplated the possibility that The X-Files could be focused on anything other than Mulder and Scully. One wonders if five episodes focused around Mulder and Krycek in the second season might have paved the way for Doggett.

It’s also fun how the show insists on unresolved sexual tension between its two leads, no matter the circumstance – no wonder X-Files fandom coined the acronym “UST” to describe the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. Much like Sleepless, Duane Barry and Ascension are steeped in suggestions of tension between Mulder and Krycek. It’s quite clear the writers are aware of this dimension to the relationship – Chris Carter’s Duane Barry introduces Krycek watching Mulder swimming in his tiny red speedos.

Mudler's really holding back there...

Mudler’s really holding back there…

Here, however, Mulder realises Krycek’s betrayal on noticing cigarettes in the car ashtray. Apparently this is one of the most common ways to determine whether a partner (particularly a male partner, apparently) is engaged in an illicit affair. It’s hardly the most bullet-proof case for Krycek’s guilt or complicity in a conspiracy to abduct an FBI agent, but it does represent a personal and intimate betrayal of Mulder. It says a lot that the standard of proof for Krycek’s guilt is akin to that of a cheating spouse.

There is something quite beautiful about Krycek’s betrayal. Krycek is really the only possible suspect for the majority of the hurdles facing Mulder during Ascension. He is with the skytram operator when things go wrong. He is with Duane Barry shortly before the suspect dies. While Krycek might make a convincing liar, and Mulder makes a suitable patsy, it’s interesting that Mulder is taken in so quickly. After all, Skinner might suspect that Mulder’s treatment of Barry was a factor in his death, but Mulder knows better.

"So... small talk, eh?"

“So… small talk, eh?”

And yet, despite all that, Mulder misses Krycek’s complicity until the last possible minute – until it is too late. “Why are you so paranoid, Mulder?” an agent asks in Skinner’s office. “Oh, I don’t know,” Mulder sarcastically replies. “Maybe it’s because I find it hard to trust anybody.” This is despite the fact that Mulder’s trust of Deep Throat made the deception in E.B.E. possible and Mulder implicitly trusts Scully and Krycek.

Ascencion draws attention to this. Mulder walks straight from the meeting to Krycek and asks a favour. “Alex? Alex, can I borrow your car keys?” It’s a beautiful irony about Mulder as a character and The X-Files as a show. As much as the show might talk a good game when it comes to paranoia and cynicism, it’s quite clear that Mulder is a romantic who desperately wants to trust. After all, what is trust but faith in another person? And what is faith but belief? Mulder wants to believe, and he does more often than he is willing to admit.

Three amigos...

Three amigos…

The episode also does a nice job underscoring Mulder’s isolation. Despite his highly-placed friends, Mulder is powerless to recover Scully. The script reveals that Mulder isn’t protected by Senator Matheson as he might think. The only reason that the conspiracy hasn’t ordered his execution is that Mulder’s death would do more to advance his own cause than his life. There’s a rather bleak view of Mulder’s quest – he’s so powerless that his death means more than his life.

The episode’s fantastic closing scene underscores this. Mulder stares up at the skies, as one imagines that he has done countless times before. The skies have always represented hope to Mulder – hope that Samantha is still alive out there somewhere, that meaning might be found somewhere amid all those burning balls of gas. Here, however, the sky is empty. It is black. There are no stars to light the way. Infinite hope and possibilities give way to almost infinite despair. Mulder is trapped down here, alone.

Blood work...

Blood work…

Of course, Ascension is all about Mulder, even if the episode is built around Scully’s abduction. It’s an episode centred around Mulder’s reaction to Scully’s disappearance – his anger and his sadness. It’s not an episode that allows Scully a great deal of agency. She has no lines outside the opening scene, where the bulk of her dialogue relates to Mulder – offering exposition or calling for help. Although she appears, she is only glimpsed briefly in Duane Barry’s trunk or abducted and experimented upon.

This is entirely understandable. Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy limited her availability for the first few episodes of the season, and so Ascension would always have to be a “Scully-lite” story. That said, it is a bit disappointing have Scully reduced to a plot point in Gillian Anderson’s absence, used as emotional leverage on Mulder. After all, Sleepless suggested that the conspiracy had abducted Scully as a way to punish Mulder – rendering Scully a victim by her mere proximity to Mulder rather than on her own merits.

Butting in...

Butting in…

Mulder concedes as much during an argument in Skinner’s office. Asked to ponder why the government might have wanted Scully abducted, Mulder suggests, “Because Agent Scully got too close to whatever it is they’re trying to deny. Because she had hard and damning evidence, that metallic implant in her possession. Or because her termination would prevent further involvement with me and my work.”

The episode leans very heavily towards that last possibility, as Scully hasn’t been doing too much work independent of Mulder so far this season, and the government tends to just steal things back when it wants to recover them. Coupled with Krycek’s warning that Mulder and Scully won’t be broken up by mere bureaucratic red tape, the implication is clear. Scully’s entire abduction is all about Mulder.

Shattered expectations...

Shattered hopes…

While rife with storytelling potential for the show, it remains an unfortunate way of writing Scully out of the show, particularly when practical considerations have kept her in the background of the season to date. It means that Scully serves as a plot point for the show’s big second-season arc and there’s no opportunity for a Scully-centric story until almost half-way through the year. The show runs into a bit of trouble when Scully comes back, because it’s not quite capable of dealing with her experiences.

(It’s telling that the closest the second season comes to engaging with Scully’s experiences from Scully’s perspective is in Irresistible, an episode that deals with Scully’s abduction through allegory and metaphor. Outside of that, it seems everything goes back to “business as usual” remarkably quickly, with no real attempt to process the experience. It is the third season before the show starts incorporating Scully’s abduction into her character arc. That said, the stretch of the second season following Scully’s return does feature a string of stories about victimised women.)

"Quick! To the bookshelf!"

“Quick! To the bookshelf!”

Ascension is an episode that exists to really run through a number of essential narrative functions for the second season. There’s not too much in the way of nuance or revelation here. It is a very linear script running through a bunch of storytelling objects and featuring some nice moments along the way. While this might not be the deepest possible storytelling approach, there’s nothing wrong with it, especially when done well. And Ascension does it very well indeed.

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

4 Responses

  1. “The script reveals that Mulder isn’t protected by Senator Matheson as he might think. The only reason that the conspiracy hasn’t ordered his execution is that Mulder’s death would do more to advance his own cause than his life. There’s a rather bleak view of Mulder’s quest – he’s so powerless that his death means more than his life.”

    It’s funny but that’s probably the part of X-Files that required the most suspension of disbelief from me. Let’s face it, if a UFOlogist died today even in suspicious circumstances, no one would ever take it as proof that he was onto something except other UFOlogists who already had “the faith.” Even if there were people around him like Skinner and Scully who’d seen enough to react that way… everyone else would just tune them out the moment they started talking about little green men.

    • Yep, it’s a rather glaring plot contrivance that Carter and the team have to work quite hard to justify. It’s necessary for the plot to move forward, so it’s easy to forgive, but it’s a bit of a loophole in the whole mythology. Why doesn’t the conspiracy just kill him? Or plant drugs on him? Or sabotage his car?

      And the show tends to over-explain this. In series one, it’s implied to be because of friends in high places, like Senator Matheson. In season two and three, it is suggested that Bill Mulder’s proximity to the conspiracy involves him by blood. In seasons four and five, it’s implied that Mulder’s blood ties run even deeper, although the show pulls back on that last one in the sixth season. It is over-explained somewhat.

      The X-Files was quite fond of making these sorts of leaps in logic, where the plot requires them. There are quite a few others. For example, why or how is Scully returned? The series implies that she may have been rescued rather than returned (despite the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s boasts about returning her, the government doesn’t appear to be finished with her bloodwork in One Breath, and Scully suggests being rescued in The Blessing Way), but I don’t think it ever really explicitly answered one way or the other.

      (Even the cliffhanger to Anasazi is an example. How did Mulder physically get out of the box car? Was there a tunnel? Was it aliens? It doesn’t matter. The plot needs him out, so he gets out. And he doesn’t even get burnt.)

      The show tends either over-explain or under-explain these logical leaps, trying too hard to justify something unrealistic that is necessary for the mechanics of the show or simply brushing past it and hoping that the audience will go with it. I actually – and this is probably largely influenced by how little I like the rationalisations for the syndicate’s refusal to kill Mulder – tend to prefer the latter.

      • They could explain it pretty simply, too, by saying “they don’t kill him because they don’t have to” – UFO kook, even if he has all the evidence needed for a jury, who’s going to sit around long enough to hear it? Maybe too bleak even for the X-Files, I know.

      • Yep. Remember “The Truth”? That was painful just getting the edited highlights. Imagine sitting through that trial.

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