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The X-Files – Red Museum (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.

While Firewalker is a solid episode ill-served by its position in the schedule and its similarity to an early episode of the show, Red Museum is just a mess.

The production issues with Red Museum are infamous. It was intended as the first part of a crossover between The X-Files and Picket Fences, both airing on Friday nights. The idea was that fans could tune into The X-Files on Fox for the first part of the story, and then move over to CBS after the credits rolled to pick up the case on Picket Fences. It was an ambitious effort – too ambitious. Although showrunners Chris Carter and David E. Kelley agreed on the idea, CBS vetoed it. It resulted in two orphaned hours of television, Red Museum and Away in the Manger.

Well, not quite. The result is something of a malformed two-parter composed of two individual malformed episodes.

He likes to watch...

He likes to watch…

In many respects, The X-Files and Picket Fences could be seen as cousins. Both shows are clear descendants of Twin Peaks. In Members Only: Cult TV from Margins to Mainstream, writers Sergio Angelini and Miles Booy argue that the two shows inherited different aspects of Twin Peaks:

Twin Peaks was dense, allusive and complexly plotted, but it did not last. More sustained success was met by those shows which adapted its themes and innovations into more conventional series. Thus, FBI agents specialising in weird cases was the premise of The X-Files, and quirky community policing became the basis of Picket Fences.

However, it is interesting to compare and contrast the reception of both shows.

A bloody business...

A bloody business…

Picket Fences aired on CBS, one of the “big three” networks. In contrast, The X-Files aired on Fox – which was still a relatively young upstart in the early-to-mid nineties. Both aired on Friday evenings, something of a television deadzone. Neither series exactly set the ratings on fire. Picket Fences, airing on a major network, performed slightly better in its earlier seasons. In late 1994, it occasionally skirted the edge of the top forty television shows in the Nielsen ratings. However, The X-Files was hovering in the fifties or sixties.

However, the responses to the two shows were radically different. Picket Fences was created and produced by David E. Kelley, a prolific industry veteran who has enjoyed varying degrees of success with hit shows like Ally McBeal, The Practice, Chicago Hope, Boston Legal and Boston Public among others. Picket Fences is just one jewel in his crown. Picket Fences had a lot more prestige than The X-Files. It won thirteen Primetime Emmy Awards over its four seasons, as compared to the fourteen won by The X-Files over nine years. Picket Fences tended to take home more of the “top drawer” prizes.

The naked truth...

The naked truth…

In contrast, The X-Files was a much more “cult” success. Its fan community was much louder and more vocal, and – at the height of its success – The X-Files did manage to ensnare a larger audience than Picket Fences might have hoped. It’s commercial success eventually eclipsed that of Picket Fences, even if it never quite gained the same amount of awards buzz or prestige. It’s telling that only a single season of Picket Fences has been released on DVD, while The X-Files has seen multiple releases and a rather involved high definition remaster.

This is something of a mixed blessing. While Picket Fences is just one in a series of prestigious and respected television shows produced by David E. Kelley, The X-Files will always be the large monolithic accomplishment that towers over (and overshadows) the rest of Chris Carter’s work – whether directly related or not. David E. Kelley enjoyed fairly consistent success across multiple series from the launch of Picket Fences in 1992 through to the end of Boston Legal in 2008. In contrast, Chris Carter has never quite managed to build a name for himself outside The X-Files.

Musings of the Red Museum...

Musings of the Red Museum…

Both producers approached their shows differently. David E. Kelley was very much in control of his shows. Writing in Television’s Second Golden Age, Robert J. Thompson observed:

Kelley not only created and executive-produced Picket Fences, but he wrote or cowrote nearly every episode in its first three seasons. An output almost unheard of in series television, where the show’s creator usually only writes three or four episodes per year, Picket Fences truly revealed the stamp of a single artist. “In Hitchcock movies, the land of the master is seen in ever picture,” Steve Bell, the head of Twentieth Television’s network production department, said, “and this series is about as close as you can come in this collaborative medium to one guy’s vision.”

Kelley himself once mused that “the ideal time for writing a script is four days”, although he could write a script in two in a pinch. On his shows, Kelley worked prolifically.

Out for the count...

Out for the count…

Of course, this meant that his writers’ room went largely unused for a show producing twenty-odd episodes in a season. New York Magazine reflected:

What amazes the executive producer in him most about fellow producers like John Falsey and Joshua Brand (Nothern Exposure on CBS, I’ll Fly Away on NBC and the forthcoming Going to Extremes on ABC) is how they manage to keep the quality level high while delegating so much script responsibility: “I don’t know how to manage a writing staff. I haven’t developed the knack.”

As one anonymous writer on the Picket Fences staff wryly observed to 100 Things to Love and Hate About TV, Kelley was so prolific that “having a writing staff was a needless expense for the network.”

When not in Rome...

When not in Rome…

In contrast Carter seemed more trusting of his writers. Howard Gordon has described how a sense of “positive competition” on the staff inspired individual writers to write better. Vince Gilligan has credited Carter with giving his staff a great deal of freedom and responsibility:

This is my only TV experience but I gotta say, it’s been great for me because when Chris Carter gives us work, he lets us take on as much responsibility in the day-to-day show making process as we can handle. He lets us cast our own shows, he obviously lets us write them and come up with them. He lets us audition actors, he lets us give notes to the directors, sit on the set, sit in on the music scoring, sit in on the dubbing… its like going back to film school but they are paying us to be there.

Carter let Glen Morgan and James Wong write important episodes of the second season – including Little Green Men and One Breath. He would also trust members of his staff to run the spin-offs, as Morgan and Wong did on Millennium and Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz did on The Lone Gunmen. Carter’s writing room was massively influential on the evolution of television.

Advanced mathematics...

Advanced mathematics…

However, while their career trajectories and style of management might have been radically different, Kelley and Carter where both among the best producers working in the industry during the nineties, with an instinctive understanding of how the medium worked. The were very good at “selling” their shows. Both creators seemed to understand the elements that helped build a hit primetime show in the nineties.

Carter and the writers on The X-Files had worked hard to engage with the show’s cult fandom, and to craft the show in such a way that it could grow fans – most notably through encouraging “shipping” of various characters, particularly Mulder and Scully. Indeed, Carter has remarked that the show’s shift to character-driven storytelling was driven by a letter received from a fan in the first season.

Not-so-funny money...

Not-so-funny money…

Both writers were also keen to expand their viewership. Both Kelley and Carter were fond of crossovers – tying various television shows together, allowing them to overlap and encouraging the audiences from each show to discover the other. David E. Kelley had successfully crossed over two of his own shows – Chicago Hope and Picket Fences – in a move that grew the audiences of both shows.

Carter would encourage a number of crossovers among his own series, but wasn’t opposed to crossing over with outside shows. In the fourth season, the week before the show achieved its highest audience with Leonard Betts, Mulder and Scully visited Springfield in The Springfield Files. Detective John Muntz from Homocide: Life on the Street, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and virtually every other show ever, popped up in The Unusual Suspects.

A light in the dark...

A light in the dark…

Bumping into one another by chance in the Fox car park, David E. Kelley and Chris Carter came up with an inspired idea: why not cross over The X-Files with Picket Fences? The idea was simple. A story would begin in The X-Files and conclude in Picket Fences. Both writers loved the idea and worked hard on it, but – as Robert Goodwin tells X-Files Confidential – the idea was scuppered at the last possible minute:

“I spent days on the phone with a producer of Picket Fences ,” says Robert Goodwin. “We spent days organizing our schedules. Then at the very last minute, of course, we found out that no one had told CBS, and they said, ‘Forget it. We’re having enough trouble on Friday nights without publicizing The X-Files .’ It’s too bad.”

The fact that CBS ultimately vetoed the crossover is hugely ironic. For one thing, virtually all references to Picket Fences were removed from Red Museum, but Away in the Manger retained quite a few shout-outs to the events of Red Museum. David E. Kelley retained most of the crossover script he had initially written, but he simply substituted another FBI agent played by Sam Anderson into the role he had written for Mulder while the episode rather heavily alluded to the events depicted in this episode. So the crossover actually happened, just further removed.

You okay there, son?

You okay there, son?

However, an even bigger irony lay in store. The following season, CBS would greenlight the show American Gothic and position it in the slot that had been held by Picket Fences. As John Kenneth Muir astutely points out in Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999, this reads almost like a conscious attempt to court viewers addicted to The X-Files:

CBS probably green-lighted the series in the first place because it hoped that it would have an X-Files-style hit on its hands. After all, 1995 was the first year of the X-Files “clones”, a multiplication which resulted in the production of off-kilter conspiracy and paranormal series such as Strange Luck on Fox, Nowhere Man on the new UPN and, yes, even American Gothic on CBS. To help create a supernatural viewing block, CBS even moved its hit Picket Fences from its 10:00 pm Friday perch and put American Gothic there. That way, viewers could begin the night with Strange Luck on Fox at 8:00, continue with The X-Files at 9:00, and then hop channels to CBS for American Gothic at 10:00 pm.

So while Picket Fences was not allowed to try to court viewers from The X-Files, the show was ultimately moved out of its slot so CBS could try to do exactly that the following season. Given that the altered schedule saw Picket Fences competing directly against The X-Files and undoubtedly contributed to its twenty-five percent ratings drop in its final season, this seems bitterly ironic. Then again, David E. Kelley had moved on from the show at that point.

You've been framed... without your consent...

You’ve been framed… without your consent…

Red Museum is, then, an orphaned first part of a television crossover. It is a script that had to be altered and revised at the last minute, and the show seems almost stitched together. The episode moves all over the place, rarely settling on any individual idea long enough to fully develop it, and resolves itself all-too-hastily. It’s very hard to explain wheat Red Museum is about per se, because the episode is very clearly trying to be about quite a few different things.

It works best as an exploration of the changes taking root in small-town America during the nineties, as everything began to get a little more globalised. There’s a sense that these small quiet parts of America found themselves facing extinction – the world was changing very rapidly, and the romantic notion of small isolated rural communities was being gradually eroded. It’s a theme that The X-Files would return to time and again, in episodes as diverse as Gender BenderBlood and Home.

The meat of the matter...

The meat of the matter…

The Wisconsin community featured in Red Museum finds itself facing a number of distinct challenges. Over the course of Red Museum, Mulder and Scully force the tightly-knit community to face any number of uncomfortable realities. They find themselves confronting racism among the local teenagers, uncovering a conspiracy run by the local doctor and catch a voyeur creeping to the homes of local families and watching them at their most intimate moments. Nobody ever says “that couldn’t happen here”, but you imagine they’re thinking it quite loudly.

“Jerry Larson was a pillar in this community,” the local sheriff remarks of the community’s doctor. “He was the last of the country doctors.” Of course, despite the place that he seems to hold in the local community, he’s revealed to be part of a sinister and predatory conspiracy exploiting the local children for some very sinister purpose. Children are popular victims in stories like this, reflecting the loss of innocence facing such an idealised community.

He's talking to the man in the mirror...

He’s talking to the man in the mirror…

Evil and corruption takes root everywhere. At one point, Mulder discovers that Thomas has been watching local families from inside their crawlspaces, revealing the insidious reach of such depravity. “Looks like somebody’s private little movie studio,” Mulder reflects when he finds a collection of video tapes filmed from behind a bathroom mirror. Perhaps because it is the seedy reflection of the “everybody knows everybody” nostalgic small town ideal, voyeurism often works quite well as a hook to these “loss of innocence” stories.

Peeling back the layers on the case, the agents discover that the evil in this small community isn’t exclusively coming from outside. The peeping tom, rather literally named “Thomas”, is the child-abductor. He claims to be responding to the experiments conducted by Jerry Larson, but Red Museum goes out of its way to clarify that Thomas himself is a pedophile. “That’s quite a video library you’ve compiled for yourself,” Mulder remarks during the interrogation. “I especially like the ones with the little boys.”

Kid-napping...

Kid-napping…

The episode also plays with the conflict between the Church of the Red Museum and the local community. In many respects, this feels like Carter is playing with issues surrounding immigration in the nineties – particularly the growth of the Indian population in New Jersey during the decade; exploring the class of cultures that might exist between religious vegetarians and the country’s thriving beef business. (After all, beef production accounts for the largest single segment of American agriculture.)

It’s telling that Carter dresses the Church of the Red Museum in turbans, designed to evoke Asian religions, and that the local teenagers use the ethnic slur “diaperhead” to refer to the largely white members of the religious order. Indeed, Red Museum touches on a conflict that really develop in the early years of the twenty-first century between Hindu Americans and the food culture – particularly the fast food culture – of contemporary America. More recently, some Hindu residents of Edison, New Jersey, sued a local restaurant for mistakenly serving them beef.

Where's the beef?

Where’s the beef?

Aside from the suggestions of Hindu culture clashes, the Church of the Red Museum feels very much like a cult, with their rather small number, their isolation from wider society, and their unique religious practices. Cults are, after all, a feature of the American cultural landscape that developed in the wake of the Second World War, and so fall well within the comfort zone of The X-Files. Events like the Waco siege pushed cults to the forefront of the American consciousness in the nineties.

(There is also a sense that Carter is having a bit of fun with the concept of The X-Files itself as a “cult” show. There is something fascinating about how the religious rites of the Church of the Red Museum consist of sitting around a computer screen, typing divine prophecy – not unlike the show’s rabid internet fanbase. Carter’s work on The X-Files has always been keenly self-aware, and this could be another example of the show playfully teasing its more ardent fans. After all, the fourth Lone Gunman referenced in One Breath was recruited from X-Files fandom. “The Thinker” was named for message board user “Duh Thinker.”)

Body of proof...

Body of proof…

Still, what little we see of the Red Museum is fascinating. Their belief in a “New Age of Aquarius” firmly roots them in the seventies new age movement, while the extraterrestrial element of their beliefs evokes more nineties spiritual movements, most infamously Heaven’s Gate. The exploration of faith in the nineties is one of the recurring themes of The X-Files, and the Church of the Red Museum ties together quite a few different aspects of the show, drawing an explicit connection between the show’s alien mythology and religious faith.

When Scully inquires about the cult’s beliefs, Mulder explains, “Well, it’s kind of a new age religion based on an old idea. That if you lose hope or despair and want to leave this mortal coil, you become open and vulnerable.” It is a belief system about how faith in anything is fundamentally better than faith in nothing. It would seem that The X-Files would agree, as even Mulder’s pursuit of little green men is better than complete cynicism and detachment.

They haven't a prayer...

They haven’t a prayer…

Although quite simply a happy coincidence, it is worth noting that the doctrine of the Church of the Red Museum seems to foreshadow the development of the show’s alien mythology, as Michelle Bush notes in Myth-X:

The Walk-Ins either refer to themselves as The Lord (our first real indication that the divine is alien) or to their lord and master, which may indicate that they are akin to angels instead. They speak of the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius in terms that is echoed almost verbatim by Cassandra Spender in the fifth season episode Patient X. In metaphysical circles the Age of Aquarius is typically considered to be the beginning of a new age that will be guided by Peace and Love; much like the Mayan notion of the transformation to happen on December 12, 2012. The Walk-Ins make reference to this new age starting in the eighteenth year after the beginning of the new kingdom. It is an interesting number given that the events in Red Museum happen in 1994; eighteen years later would be 2012, the designated year for colonisation to begin. If Mulder only listens to what the Red Museum members are saying he might have discovered the date he places so much importance on in the series finale The Truth many years earlier.

Even the concept of the “walk-ins” themselves seem to foreshadow the “black oil” introduced in the third season – a hostile entity that does invade and control a host organism.

Peeping Thomas...

Peeping Thomas…

Of course, it is unlikely that this foreshadowing was entirely planned in advance, particularly given the show’s difficulties with plotting ahead more than a season at a time. The similarities between the space-age theology advanced in Red Museum and the development of the show’s own cosmology is most likely down to the fact that both stem from Carter’s interest in new age belief systems.

Indeed, the mythology elements that happen to bleed into the Church of the Red Museum are much more interesting than the show’s more obvious connection the larger mythology arc. This is the episode where the “Crew-Cut Man” meets his end. The “Crew-Cut Man” is the sinister individual responsible for the death of Deep Throat in The Erlenmeyer Flask, so you’d imagine this would be a pretty big deal. Unfortunately, it is not.

Crew-Cutting him out of the deal...

Crew-Cutting him out of the deal…

There are many reasons why this does not work. The most obvious is that the Crew-Cut Man isn’t really a character in his own right. If Mulder didn’t point out that he was the man who killed Deep Throat, most audience members probably would not have noticed. After all, if the Crew-Cut Man had never appeared after the end of The Erlenmeyer Flask, would anybody have missed him? One of the features of an impossibly vast evil conspiracy is that the guys who commit these sorts of operations are generally anonymous. The Crew-Cut man is one in a set of hundreds.

Red Museum doesn’t exactly help matters either. The Crew-Cut Man isn’t a factor until the second-half of the episode. Even then, we barely get to spend any time with him. Who is this man? What is he about? Who does he work for? He’s a random faceless goon, who just happened to be another random faceless goon in an earlier story. There’s also a sense that Mulder and Scully’s climactic encounter with the man who killed Deep Throat – after the plot identifies him as the man who killed Deep Throat – should more than just “oh, it’s the man who killed Deep Throat.”

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

This problem is compounded by the fact that this is the first time that Scully has confronted the conspiracy since her return to duty. The climax of Red Museum tries to touch on this with the suspense around Scully’s arrest of the man, but it’s far too brief to make a meaningful impression. For all intents and purposes, it seems like the mythology elements of Red Museum were inserted to plug the gap left by the cancelled cross-over, rather than because they added anything to the story.

With all this going on, Red Museum is somewhat overcrowded. So other potentially interesting elements get a little drowned out. For example, the episode’s concern about the safety of the town’s beef reflects contemporary concerns about meat production. The previous year, the fast food chain Jack in the Box had witnessed an outbreak of e. coliRed Museum was produced in 1994, just as the “Mad Cow” scare was taking hold in Europe.

BBQ...

BBQ…

While the issue around the use of hormones in the production of beef is slightly different, it is very much related to these food safety issues. The use of steroids and other chemical enhancements in the production of beef remains highly controversial, and it’s no surprise that one of the immediate countermeasures taken by the European Union during the “Mad Cow” crisis was to ban the import of meat containing artificial hormones. The two beef-related crises are so closely interconnected that either could be described as part of the “beef war” of the nineties.

There’s enough here to sustain an entire episode by itself, and it seems like the show itself agrees. The show returned to a few of these concepts later in the season. In many respects, Our Town plays like a streamlined version of Red Museum, tackling just a few of the episode’s big ideas and themes in a more engaging and in-depth manner. Our Town is, perhaps, a lot less ambitious than Red Museum, but it is also a lot more successful.

Just in briefcase...

Just in briefcase…

The episode even finds room for some vaccination-related conspiracy theories when it is revealed that the experiments on local children were camouflaged as “vitamin shots.” The notion of doctors lying to patients as part of a sinister government conspiracy is one of the cornerstones of many modern conspiracy theories – rooted in countless genuine abuses of medical ethics. The idea that government-sponsored medical personnel may be injecting people with mysterious and sinister cocktails likely has its basis in the infamous Tuskagee experiments.

At the same time, these rumours and gossip about vaccinations are among the more harmful conspiracies that go around. They are the conspiracies with the most obvious physical harm. Children who do not receive proper medical care may die due to easily-preventable ailments. Being unable to consent to these vaccinations themselves, those children have no say in the matter of vaccination. Instead, they relying on their parents to act in their best interests.

The whole thing collapses...

The whole thing collapses…

With vaccination conspiracy theories – more than almost any other anti-government conspiracy theory – there is a genuine risk of physical harm to another person based on misinformation or misapprehension. As such, there’s a little extra onus that comes with exploring that side of conspiracy culture. At the very least, the issue deserves more than an off-hand inclusion in an episode packed with lots of other conspiracy-related imagery. (Then again, this is perhaps an example of how the paranoia and fear that drove The X-Files has become a lot less appealing and engaging in the years since.)

Red Museum is a mess of an episode, but one with all manner of great ideas. In fact, it has far too many great ideas crammed into its relatively short run time. The result is an episode that feels far too scatter-shot for its own good, never settling on a single idea or concept long enough to properly develop it.

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

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7 Responses

  1. I apologize that I haven’t been commenting much, but I’m thoroughly enjoying these reviews. It’s clear how much thought and research you’ve put into them, which is paying off in spades. I’m also learning things about the defining show of my teenage years that I didn’t know before, for instance that The Thinker was based on a real person.

    I agree that, in hindsight, Crew Cut Man is not well served in this episode. Which is a shame, because I remember feeling a chill go down my spine when I recognized him during my initial viewing. He wasn’t quite as charismatic as, say, Quiet Willy, but he had a definite badass aura to him that could have been exploited further.

    • Thanks for the kind words. No worries about lack of the comments. The reviews should always be here, so if you ever feel the need to add something, it’s never too late.

      I feel ashamed that I had to check who Quiet Willy was. My favourite conspiracy goon was/is Stephen McHattie’s Red-Haired Man, the assassin-on-a-train with Mulder from Nisei/731, if only because he’s given a bit more personality and development. The show typically focused on the upper crust of the conspiracy, the movers and shakers like the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Deep Throat, the Well-Manicured Man or even the First Elder, so I liked it when you got a bit of time with people like Krycek or Red-Haired Man on the ground level.

      I think if the show had been around a few years later, it might have tried something like Musings for a Cigarette-Smoking Man, but with a lower-tier character. Sort of like, what do the Crew-Cut Man and Quiet Willy and the Red-Haired Man do after work? (The Royal Colonial Insurance Bowling League meeting on Thursday nights in a dingy Washington suburb. As a tie-in comic, it practically writes itself!) Do they ever have the full picture? Are they genuinely patriotic, or simply mercenary? Do they have families who think they are milkmen or accountants or something, or do they live lonely lives?

  2. I feel like I should point out that this episode is actually placed in Wisconsin, not in New Jersey, though the info on New Jersey and possible connections there are certainly interesting. I’m actually curious where you got the impression that it was NJ and not WI.

    I only mention it because it’ll likely alter some of your review. Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving them, but that struck me as a glaring omission which, yes, has plenty to do with hailing from Wisconsin.

    Keep up the good work, otherwise.

    • Good spot. Corrected! No idea why I thought it was New Jersey. After all, Picket Fences takes place in Wisconsin. Facepalm of embarrassment. Mea culpa.

      Although I did keep up the reference to the culture clashes in New Jersey, because they still seem quite similar to the broad beats of the story. Culture clash between local community and outsiders who are vegetarians – and I think the design of the costumes worn by the members of Church of the Red Museum seems intended to evoke those Eastern religions.

  3. There actually a cult like the one were portraying, major similarities to the Rajneesh movement, in the 1980s a small community in Wasco County, Oregon was briefly submerged with followers of the spiritual teacher Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh,

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajneeshpuram

    They wore bright colors and were vegeterians, the leadership was actually behind attack of bio-terrorism too

  4. I thought this was a great episode precisely for the reasons you deem it terrible. Nothing is resolved, we remain in the dark, and the sudden intrusion of the conspiracy and conspiracy elements into what seems like a MOTW episode, is shocking and intrusive in an almost philosophical way. Also it is hinted that Thomas is not actually a paedophile but a guy documenting the children and then who willingly becomes a patsy to draw the scent off others.

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