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The X-Files – Colony (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.

Colony is another second season game changer. As with other episodes in the second season, there’s a sense that the production team are really getting to grips with what works with the show – laying groundwork and defining a template that they can work with into the show’s third season. While the Duane Barry and Ascension two-parter had been an act of desperation to work around Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, Colony and End Game is a two-parter that the show embraced entirely of its own volition.

These two two-part episodes really set the template for the show going forward. There’s a sense that Chris Carter and his team were really defining what a season of The X-Files should look like, giving them a blueprint that they might build on in the years ahead. From the second season through to the sixth, the show would stick quite rigidly to the idea of two big two-parters in the middle of the season, quite apart from any multi-part stories bridging the seasons.

Lights in the sky...

Lights in the sky…

These two parters were typically broadcast as part of the “sweeps”, and inevitably focused on the show’s alien conspiracy mythology. Even the more stand-alone two-parters like A Christmas Carol and Emily or Dreamland Part I and Dreamland Part II still build off the series’ central mythology. Given those were the points at which the show got the highest exposure, and the point where the show worked hardest to draw in an audience, it’s no surprise that the mythology arc rose to such prominence.

Duane Barry and Ascension undoubtedly set a precedent, but those episodes were prompted by factors outside the control of the creative team. However, Colony and End Game really solidified that precedent into a guiding principle for the show. This two-parter comes to codify and cement a lot of the things that the show’s mythology comes to take for granted. For better and worse.

Quite pointed...

Quite pointed…

So, aliens definitely exist. To be fair, that’s not a radical revelation. Something was causing trouble in Fallen Angel. There’s little room for ambiguity in E.B.E. Scully discovered an alien fetus in The Erlenmeyer Flask. Mulder caught a glimpse of aliens in Little Green Men. Show show gave us a clearer look at them in Duane Barry. There was not doubt coming into Colony that aliens existed in the world of The X-Files.

And yet, at the same time, this feels like a crossing of a Rubicon. This is the point where Redux becomes a little bit ridiculous as a concept. Scully might have been taken by the government, the aliens that haunted Duane Barry might have been post-hypnotic suggestion, the craft in Deep Throat might have been a top-of-the-line military prototype. However, Brian Thompson plays a serial-killing shape-shifter who transforms people into puddles of green goo and hijacks a nuclear sub. This is the point where it becomes impossible to rationalise Mulder’s beliefs.

Skepticism is melting away...

Skepticism is melting away…

This isn’t a bad thing by any measure. After all, The X-Files would have been an insanely frustrating television show had it tried to sit on the fence and maintain plausible deniability for much longer. Colony sees the series deciding to embrace the idea of a vast and complex alien mythology. It doesn’t gently wade into that concept of mythology. With Colony, it throws itself in almost completely. There’s no wavering here, no hedging. If anything, it would have been better if the later seasons had shown the same willingness to commit as Colony does.

Not only is there a shape-shifting alien, he’s a shape-shifting alien bounty hunter. Not only is this bounty hunter stalking the Earth, he is stalking the Earth looking for aliens that are hiding among us. Not only are there aliens walking among us, there are aliens working in our abortion clinics. The series essentially throws out the template of the traditional “grey” alien here, in favour of something a lot more different and a lot more unique. It’s a decision that makes it feel like The X-Files is no longer simply exploring familiar UFO mythology, but creating its own.

A stone cold killer...

A stone cold killer…

The oddly specific description of the bad guy as an “alien bounty hunter” rather than a more generic “soldier” or “assassin” conjures up imagines of a sprawling and vast mythology. The idea that this creature might simply be a gun-for-hire feels rather surreal – his function in the plot could largely be filled by a government operative, if the show were willing to lose the submarine. At the very least, his role would suggest a “cleaner” for some alien force. The term “bounty hunter” broadens the universe out dynamically.

Of course, Carter and his production team draw from a wide-range of influences in crafting Colony. As much as Brian Thompson is playing an “alien bounty hunter”, his character is very clearly designed to evoke another relentless killing machine. Thompson had a memorable role providing Schwarzenegger’s wardrobe in The Terminator. The bounty hunter’s preference for leather jackets seems to evoke the film. His ability to change form while relentlessly pursuing his prey calls to mind Robert Patrick’s shape-shifting Terminator from Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

The alien bounty hunter is an idea that Chris Carter credits to star David Duchovny, who earned a “story by” credit on the episode. As Carter explains in the Threads of Mythology documentary:

What’s nice about having a person like David Duchovny to work with is that he’s smart – he’s got good ideas. The idea from Colony/End Game came out of David Duchovny saying “wouldn’t it be great if we had like an alien bounty hunter?” David was very instrumental in shaping the mythology.

This marks the first of Duchovny’s behind-the-scenes credits on the show. He would also contribute the story to Anasazi at the end of the second season and Avatar in the third. He would eventually write (and direct) his own episodes in the later seasons, The Unnatural and Hollywood A.D. Gillian Anderson would follow suit with all things.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

As such, this represents a pretty significant development for the show. This is the point at which it becomes absolutely clear – if it hadn’t been before – that Duchovny (and Anderson) would be a driving force the show, rather than simply the face of it. For Duchovny, this was part of defining what he wanted from The X-Files:

I wanted to be more involved in the life and back story of my character, so from the 2nd Season, I started offering ideas for certain episodes to Chris Carter. What interested me was not stories about monsters or aliens, but rather the psychology of the characters.

It is worth noting that Duchovny’s first two story credits were on episodes that extensively expanded Mulder’s back story and history – Colony and Anasazi. That said, his third story credit was on Avatar, a Skinner-centric episode. The Unnatural featured a cast mostly outside of the core X-Files ensemble, while Hollywood A.D. wasn’t particularly Mulder-centric.

Making quite a splash...

Making quite a splash…

For Duchovny, part of the appeal of an episode like Colony was that it afforded him the opportunity to develop, making it possible for Duchovny to pitch further episodes and later to write his own scripts:

“I didn’t have the surety, the confidence in my mind that I could write a teleplay,” Duchovny said. “Writers and directors like to keep scriptwriting a very arcane enterprise so that dilettantes won’t try to get involved and realize that it is actually just lightning and luck. If you have talent you can do it. Other than that, you can take all the McKee screenwriting courses that you want, but you’re still not going to write a decent screenplay. I was 34, 35, and I thought, ‘I’m never going to get it. I have decent ideas and I’ll just pitch them to the writers.’ It took me to the sixth year of the show to actually sit down and write one of my ideas. Being on The X-Files gave me a great advantage in knowing that I could pick that up really quickly. That’s when I got focused on it. It was really a matter of realizing that I could do it.”

The first eight episodes of the second season had solidified the idea that both Mulder and Scully were essential to the show, and that The X-Files was more about these two characters being together than about the cases they investigate. Colony reinforces this idea by suggesting that it isn’t just Mulder and Scully that are essential, but Duchovny and Anderson.

"Are you Sarah Connor?"

“Are you Sarah Connor?”

Colony and End Game develop the X-Files mythos in a number of different ways. They turn the show into a piece of blockbuster television, which is something the show’s cinematic style had clearly been building towards, but that’s an observation more appropriate in the context of End Game, which is an hour of television powered by broad archetypes and stunning spectacle. However, it also radically expanded the show’s mythology arc, providing a clear direction for the show’s alien story arcs.

These big conspiracy shows became associated with the “sweeps” on American television, where the networks pulled out all the stops to attract as many viewers as possible. This meant that the episodes were seen to be important, but that they also consciously featured a bigger budget and larger scale than many of the other shows in a given season. The submarine in End Game and the train in Nisei are enough to mark them as iconic episodes, with the conspiracy serving as icing on top.

Scully really steps in it this time...

Scully really steps in it this time…

This would become something of a feedback loop. The conspiracy was used to give the “sweeps” episodes a bit more weight, but the fact that they aired during “sweeps” gave the conspiracy a bit more heft. It got to the point that – during the sixth season – the show’s mythology arc was itself a major selling point for “sweeps” week, with press releases and announcements promising resolutions in Two Fathers and One Son.

Up until this point, The X-Files has been rather haphazard when it came to secret government plots and alien conspiracies. While characters like Deep Throat and the Cigarette Smoking Man were recurring, there was a sense that these adventures and encounters were offering glimpses at the different facets of some large and indistinct object. There was no sense of clear purpose or logical progression from one story to another.

Mulder on ice...

Mulder on ice…

What Mulder and Scully encountered in Fallen Angel and E.B.E. did not lead directly to The Erlenmeyer Flask. What progression there was existed within Mulder and Scully’s character arcs, rather than larger plot arcs. Little Green Men builds off Mulder’s loss of the X-files in The Erlenmeyer Flask, rather than anything to do with “Purity Control” or alien embryos. When Scully was abducted in Ascension, it was to deprive Mulder of an ally, rather than to serve a clear alien agenda.

Here, however, there are clear hints that aliens are not only among us, but that they have a clear goal and purpose. “Your plans will not succeed,” the bounty hunter advises one of his victims, a statement that presupposes the aliens have a plan. Colony presupposes that the aliens have a plan. It sets the mythology arc into forward motion. Despite the scale of the event, Scully’s abduction could have been left a mystery, a production necessity – certainly the second season doesn’t seem too interested in exploring it, although the show does engage with it in the third.

Cigarette-Smoking Dad...

Cigarette-Smoking Dad…

By assuring the viewers that there is a plan, the series also sets an objective for itself. The show now has a clear goal and purpose – the existence of a plan suggests that Mulder and Scully must work to uncover, and even stop, that plan. Colony is the episode that creates the expectations that will hound The X-Files through to its final episode. It’s the show that suggests “the truth” is not an abstract concept, but a proper noun that sums up an objective truth about what these visitors might want.

It’s very hard to get around the fact that The X-Files never follows through on this set-up, that it never manages to properly pay-off this “plan.” The X-Files bungles the landing so badly that the show has been retroactively tainted – creating a sense of disappointment that is almost expected with genre shows, if Lost and Battlestar Galactica are anything to go by. In hindsight, it’s hard not see the mythology of The X-Files as something of an elaborate shell-game that outstays its welcome.

This continuity stuff is locked up tight...

This continuity stuff is locked up tight…

On the other hand, it is a shell game that is quite compelling for the first few years, and Colony and End Game offer an effective demonstration of how the show managed to keep the routine going for so long. Colony is an exceptional first part, raising all manner of questions. End Game cleverly side steps most of the plot resolutions you’d expect in a two-part story, but compensates with incredible momentum and scale so the audience doesn’t feel too disappointed. It’s a trick the show does with considerable frequency.

Still, Colony provides a wealth of interesting ideas. The most obvious is alluded to in the title of the episode. These aren’t the traditional alien invaders from outer space. These aren’t little green men hoping to destroy our cities and harvest our resources. The aliens in The X-Files are embarking on a mission of colonisation, but a very post-colonial mission of colonisation. After all, this isn’t an attempt at occupation so much as an infiltration.

A window of opportunity...

A window of opportunity…

Aliens are all around us. They aren’t merely working with the government, they are operating freely within society. In The Erlenmeyer Flask and in Colony, there’s the implication that these aliens have successfully and skilfully infiltrated mankind. Here, the aliens work in abortion clinics as doctors, and the alien bounty hunter is able to pass as a Russian pilot rescued from the ice. One of the creatures is skilfully able to infiltrate society that she can pass as Mulder’s sister.

Samantha even seems reluctant to use the world ‘alien’ to describe them, as if it is an awkward fit. “They’re only visitors here… what people would call ‘aliens’,” she tells Mulder. The bounty hunter is the ultimate expression of this – foreshadowing fears about terrorism years before the events of 9/11. Worried about Scully, Samantha advises Mulder, “She may not be able to recognize him. He has the ability to disguise himself.” She adds, “As anyone.”

Don't sweat the landing...

Don’t sweat the landing…

As Linda Badley observes in The Rebirth of the Clinic, this is a very unique form of alien colonisation and infestation:

As Deep Throat replies to Mulder’s ‘They’re here, aren’t they?’ in the second episode, ‘They have been here for a very long time.’ We are alienated from within our own systems. ‘We’ are not ourselves. The X-Files follows on the 1980s postfuturist science-fiction film, which has turned away from themes of space exploration and alien invasion. This shift occurred for reasons that go beyond Watergate and proliferating conspiracy theories. As Vivian Sobchack has commented on our postmodern condition of electronic space, today’s world is subject not to invasion but ‘pervasion’ – a condition of kinetic accommodation and dispersal associated with the experience and representations of television, video games, and computer terminals.

Immune systems are information systems, adds Donna Harawya in Simians. Biological space is pervaded and negotiated through exchanges of genetic data; biochemically, we are in a constant state of alienation from our ‘selves.’ The bipolar oppositions of self and other and the militaristic and colonial metaphors of body invasion and exploration that inform much of our popular immune system discourse have become obsolete.

One of the most terrifying things about the aliens in The X-Files is that their alien nature allows them to fit so easily into our society.

Mother have mercy!

Mother have mercy!

Indeed, Colony even frames the aliens as a take on Adam and Eve – “two original visitors” (one male and one female) working hard to build a future for their species in a new world order. Given how the divine and the alien overlap in The X-Files, this is not a coincidence. However, Colony is full of wry twists on this familiar and archetypal set up. The two colonists reproduce asexually, and are thus able to legitimately spawn an entire culture from their own DNA. They also work at abortion clinics, a rather wry twist from Chris Carter.

Even the aliens’ idea of colonisation feels strange and alien to everything we understand about the word. For one thing, their community is not concentrated in a small geographic region. Instead, these creatures are more effective dispersed. “The community, by necessity, is dispersed. There are clones identical to my parents living in virtually every part of the country,” Samantha explains to Mulder in End Game.

Messy work...

Messy work…

Similarly, their colonisation plans, at least as espoused by Samantha, seem rather different from colonisation as we understand it. “It’s their belief that our stewardship of the planet is being forsaken, and that by default, they’ll someday become the natural heirs,” Samantha admits in End Game. Of course, this statement is thrown into doubt by revelations in later episodes – revelations which fit quite well with the revelations in Colony and End Game, even twisting them rather brilliantly after the fact.

The end goal of these would-be colonists is at once a horrific distillation of colonial attitudes and a bizarre twist on them. Colonialism sees the repression of one culture by another, but these aliens want nothing as straightforward. Instead of seeking to dominate mankind, they seek to appropriate from it and remold it in their own image. Asked why the aliens were working at abortion clinics, Samantha explains, “Access to fetal tissue. Though the biologies are incompatible, they finally found a way to combine human DNA with alien DNA.”

Sole witness...

Sole witness…

The aliens seek to exploit human DNA in order to replace humanity. They seek to appropriate certain human traits and blend them into their own culture, while positioning themselves as the “natural heirs” to humanity. It’s a rather fascinating metaphor for colonial cultural appropriation and exploitation, albeit one pushes the process to an abstract level. It’s an approach that dwells on the philosophical horrors of colonialism. It’s a form of colonialism that isn’t explicitly oppressive or destructive, but still based around appropriation and exploitation.

Colony also makes for an absolutely fascinating character study of Mulder. The episode is very much about Mulder’s relationship to his family and to his quest, themes that come to the fore in End Game. However, it’s also an interesting exploration of Mulder’s contradictory nature. As with a lot of the mythology episodes, Colony actively questions Mulder’s cynicism and paranoia, asking whether Mulder is capable of living by the mantra of “trust no one”, while still working to justify his faith.

I would totally watch a "Dog: The Bounty Hunter" type spin-off with this guy...

I would totally watch a “Dog: The Bounty Hunter” type spin-off with this guy…

The bounty hunter actually does a much better job fooling Mulder than he does fooling Scully. Mulder accepts everything put in front of him without question. “I mean, whatever happened to ‘trust no one’, Mulder?” Scully asks at one point. “Oh, I changed it to ‘trust everyone’,” Mulder sarcastically replies. “I didn’t tell you?” For all Mulder’s cynicism, he’s the one who doesn’t question the leads or the manipulations. When Scully raises concerns about the bounty hunter, Mulder replies, “I think you’re being overly paranoid about him, Scully.” Irony!

Also central to the Colony and End Game two-parter is the idea of the lives destroyed in Mulder’s quest. “You’ll pursue a case at the expense of everything, to the point of insanity, and expect me to follow you,” Scully insists. “There has to be somewhere to draw the line.” Mulder tries to shrug it off. “Those are the risks we take. You either accept them or you don’t. We all draw our own lines.” However, the irony is that Mulder’s dogged pursuit of the truth draws the lines for everybody else as well.

"Get the point...?"

“Get the point…?”

Scully has already suffered for Mulder’s quest. She was abducted in Ascension as a way of punishing her partner. She is kidnapped and beaten in End Game as a direct result of Mulder’s decisions. She will, of course, suffer more as the series goes on. Here, an FBI agent is murdered while following up a lead for Mulder. Mulder isn’t able to protect the aliens. He isn’t able to protect Samantha.

The climax of End Game has Mulder trying to branch out on his own to protect Scully. “I won’t let you jeopardize your life and your career for reasons purely personal to me,” he insists. “You were right, Scully… you said a line has to be drawn somewhere. I’m drawing it for you here.” However, Mulder’s decision leads to Skinner getting brutally beaten in an attempt to protect an agent under his command. Mr. X won’t fare particularly well in the long term.

The doctor is in...

The doctor is in…

Mulder’s cause is one that has a staggering amount of collateral damage. As Michelle Bush reflects in Myth-X:

One of the big questions that The X-Files myth continually asks is whether the various victimisations caused by Mulder’s quest are justified. In illustration, Agent Weiss becomes yet another victim to Mulder’s quest. Scully, who is after all Mulder’s touchstone, often voices this concern and the answer is central to the spirit of this myth. On the surface Mulder’s quest appears righteous, however, the results of his quest would suggest otherwise.

One of the wonderful things about Colony as the episode that jump-starts the mythology is how it bakes so many of these core themes into a two-parter. It establishes them as important to the show.

Gunning for the conspiracy...

Gunning for the conspiracy…

The script does come with a few examples of Carter’s over-wrought dialogue. “I have lived with a fragile faith built on the ether of vague memories from an experience that I can neither prove nor explain,” Mulder tells us in the opening voice-over, an absurdly pretentious meditation on faith and hope. The episode’s structure also feels a little unnecessary, as if Carter couldn’t resist the urge to throw in some structural references to Frankenstein when it became clear the story would end with Mulder in the Arctic. Still, these are minor problems.

Colony is an episode that expands what The X-Files can be, pushing outwards and onward – marking a great deal of territory for later exploration. It’s a beautifully-constructed cliffhanger thriller, and a reminder of just why the mythology caught on as well as it did. It sets a precedent for the show to follow in the years ahead.

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

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