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The X-Files – Revelations (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Religion, eh?

In the mid-nineties, religion was a very difficult subject to navigate on network television. The so-called “culture wars” were in full swing at the middle of the decade, with religious values serving as a particularly brutal battleground. Religion is a very thorny and contentious subject. As recently as 2012, more than 40% of polled Americans stated they would not vote for an atheist candidate in a presidential election. Pete Stark would admit to being an atheist in 2007, becoming the first self-identified atheist in the United States Congress.

Mulder's got a taste for adventure...

Mulder’s got a taste for adventure…

As a result, it is very difficult to have a meaningful and thoughtful conversation about it. “There’s a man that I work with – a friend – and usually I’m able to discuss these things with him… but not this,” Scully confesses at the end of the episode. While undoubtedly a comment on Mulder’s stubborn refusal to engage with Scully on the topic, it also feels like a commentary on the awkwardness of any public discussion about religious beliefs or values, which was prone to become highly charged and contentious.

The conventional wisdom was that you didn’t talk about religion at the dinner table. It wasn’t much easier on television. This puts Revelations in a very awkward position.

A bloody business...

A bloody business…

Religion is massively important to the American public. Even though its hold has loosened in the twenty-first century, it remains a potent force. In 2013, 78% of respondents considered religion “very important” or “fairly important” in their life. And yet, despite this, thoughtful explorations of religions were largely absent from primetime television. A 1992 report noted as much:

In general, it concluded that “religion is a rather invisible institution on fictional network television. The religious side of people’s lives are infrequently presented. Few characters have an identifiable religious affiliation and even fewer engage in prayer or devotional services.”

However, “while television may be ignoring the religious aspect of human experience in the stories that are told, it does not overtly attack or disparage religion or spirituality,” the report says.

“In the few cases where religion was emphasized, it was treated for the most part with careful reverence. However, that treatment tends to be from a rather narrow perspective … as a personal, private activity and religion is rarely central to the story line or theme of a program.”

Despite the fact that many real-world Americans defined themselves by their religion, and acknowledged it as a vitally important part of their lives, religion on television was rarely discussed in any in-depth manner.

Chalk it up to script problems...

Chalk it up to script problems…

As Stewart M. Hoover and J. Jerome Lackamp note in their discussion of the subject for The Museum of Television and Radio, where religious locations or rites are used, they were normally covered in a fairly superficial manner:

Religious places are rarely depicted, at least in use. Early programs such as The Goldbergs and Leave it to Beaver did show families attending church or synagogue as did The Simpsons in the 1990s. However, these were the exceptions. Religion is most frequently shown in connection with rites of passage, specifically in connection with births, deaths and–most frequently–weddings. There have been hundreds of weddings shown on daytime serials alone.

There is some indication that this is changing in the twenty-first century, but religion remains a very thorny and controversial issue. It is easy to understand why networks would be reluctant to wade into the topic.

Quite a heated discussion...

Quite a heated discussion…

As such, it seems a miracle that Revelations exists at all. The X-Files had broached the topic of religion before. In the first season, the episode Miracle Man had rather clumsily toyed with the idea. During the second season, scripts like Red Museum and Fearful Symmetry had consciously tried to connect the show’s alien mythology with more spiritual subtext. None of these exampled had really clicked, often feeling awkward or clumsy in their attempts to tackle a sensitive subject.

The religious-themed stories that had come closest to working were those centred around Scully – specifically those written by James Wong and Glen Morgan. Beyond the Sea teased the idea of Scully’s belief in an afterlife, and the hope that her father might want to speak to her from there. One Breath featured Scully trapped between our world and a world beyond, possibly visited by an angel. It’s worth noting that this angel was perhaps the most benign paranormal phenomenon to appear in the show up to this point.

We need to talk about Kevin...

We need to talk about Kevin…

So, with that in mind, Scully’s faith seemed like the obvious way to approach the thorny issue of religion. Again, there’s a sense that Mulder and Scully have really grown over the past two years. In Oubliette, Mulder rejected the idea that his character could be reduced down to a single formative trauma with Samantha’s abduction. Here, the show rejects the idea that Scully’s position is simply “the skeptic”, suggesting her character is much more complex than that.

Not for nothing, the episode opens with a reverend preaching the same old “science-versus-religion” clichés that became one of the most shallow and bitter conflicts in the so-called “culture wars.” He warns his congregation against the perils of believing science, offering the story of a young girl whose faith was shaken by the suggestion that “high winds and strong ocean currents had been responsible” for the parting of the Red Sea, rather than the will of God. (Because, people on both sides of the aisle will protest, these two possibilities are mutually exclusive.)

Trashing it out...

Trashing it out…

“Most people today tend to vest themselves in science and cynicism,” the preacher lectures. “They expect proof for all that they see, but miracles are wonders by nature. They need no rationale, no justification. You must witness the miracles of the Lord without question.” In a wonderfully theatrical display, the reverend whips the crowd into a frenzy by faking stigmata. It’s a very charged scene, one surprisingly powerful. It also feels quite cutting – the sermon is the sort of rhetoric that led to conflicts between science and religion that are not constructive for public discourse.

There are advocates among the scientific and religious communities that will argue that religious faith and scientific study are mutually exclusive. This is a rather extreme position to take, and Scully provides an effective counter-example. Scully is a character who believes in a rational scientific world, but whose religious faith forms an essential part of her identity. She is a critical thinker, an expert in her field, but one who can still acknowledge her belief.

Circular logic...

Circular logic…

In this respect, Revelations can be seen as a spiritual successor to shows like Beyond the Sea and One Breath, stories by Glen Morgan and James Wong that had largely inverted the Mulder and Scully dynamic by portraying Scully as a character with religious inclinations and treating Mulder as a skeptic in matters of organised religion. Revelations isn’t quite as strong as those earlier scripts, but it does develop those ideas a little further.

Religion becomes an interesting little quirk in the relationship between Mulder and Scully, to the point where their otherwise rigid positions become flexible. It’s a sign of how far the show has developed these characters that this reversal can seem organic and logical. Mulder is not simply “the believer”, just as Scully is not simply “the skeptic.” As with real people, Mulder and Scully are complex and multifaceted individuals who exist with their own individual belief systems and internal logic.

The light...

The light…

It is worth pausing to note Mulder’s scepticism on the matter of religious faith. After all, Mulder believes in aliens. The show has repeatedly framed Mulder’s faith as religious. The last scene of Conduit features Mulder in a church, trying to make sense of what happened. The Sixth Extinction posits Mulder as a sort of Jesus Christ figure. This is to say nothing of the shows that mingle the spiritual and extraterrestrial like Red Museum and Closure.

Here, Mulder is overtly skeptical and dismissive – even when it is not particular conducive to the case at hand. When Owen Jarvis insists that “God” tasked him with protecting Kevin from the evils of the world, Mulder responds with a derisive chuckle. “That’s quite a long distance call, isn’t it?” Mulder asks, sarcastically. Mulder is very clearly determined to dismiss any possible religious angle to the case in question.

Not somebody you want to cross...

Not somebody you want to cross…

Scully explicitly acknowledges this inconsistency in Mulder’s belief structure. “How is it that you’re able to go out on a limb whenever you see a light in the sky, but you’re unwilling to accept the possibility of a miracle?” she protests. Ignoring the fact that real people have these sorts of complicated and conflicted belief systems, Mulder’s skepticism around organised religion makes a great deal of sense, given what the show has established about Mulder as a character.

Mulder is a believer, but he is also very cynical when it comes to institutions. He is convinced that the government has been systemically lying to its citizens for decades, conducting illegal experiments and conspiring to cover-up alien conspiracies. At least some of that is rooted in his conflicts with his father, and some of that in the fact that his sister was taken and there was nothing that the institutions could do to protect her.

'fess up...

‘fess up…

Over the course of the series, Mulder clashes repeatedly with authority figures, even those who are trying to help him. It is – quite simply – amazing that Skinner doesn’t fire him, given the nonsense that he pulls. Mulder is quite fond of dramatically holding institutions to account, refusing to compromise or cooperates; even when it might help his case. In Tooms, he won’t lie through omission to keep Tooms in custody. In Terma, he makes his feelings on an official hearing quite clear.

In contrast, Mulder has a sympathy and empathy for victims. Mulder can come across as a difficult person to work with. He can occasionally be awkward in his interactions with Scully. After all, he puts Scully in a position where she feels that she cannot discuss her faith with him. However, Mulder works very well with victims. He strikes up a rapport with Lucy Householder in Oubliette and with Roland Fuller in Roland. He seems to feel an emotional connection with those who are lost or marginalised or victimised.

It really makes the blood boil...

It really makes the blood boil…

So it makes sense that Mulder would have issues with organised religion. He makes passing reference towards the possibility that “a very disgruntled altar boy” committed the murder at the start of the hour, acknowledging the sex abuse scandal that would have been breaking in the mid-nineties. He seems to resent the authority that religious fanatics use to excuse their conduct. “These people are simply fanatics behaving fanatically using religion as a justification. They give bona fide paranoiacs like myself a bad name.”

What is interesting about Revelations is the way that it really pushes to the fore a recurring theme in episodes of The X-Files dealing with faith. Over the course of The X-Files, it is suggested that faith is ultimately useless unless it is absolute and unquestioning; that anything else is simply cynical and opportunistic. The episode initially presents Owen Jarvis as a terrifying fanatic, but the show ultimately becomes sympathetic towards him. His fanaticism may be unsettling; but he is correct.

Book 'im, Dana.

Book ‘im, Dana.

Jarvis is dismissive of Scully’s seemingly relaxed attitude towards faith. “Mass on Christmas, fish on Friday,” he offers, disdainfully. “You think that makes you a good Christian. Just because you don’t understand the sacrifice, because you’re unwilling, don’t think for a moment that you set the rules for me. I don’t question His word. Whatever He asks of me, I’ll do.” That is a frighteningly fanatical mindset, making the Revelation‘s endorsing of his position unsettling.

Indeed, the episode ends with Scully attending confession, as if she has taken Jarvis’ warnings to heart – as if she is unsettled by her own relaxed sense of faith. When the priest asks her what concerns her, she replies – in the closing line of the episode – that she is “afraid that God is speaking… but that no one’s listening.” It’s a very hardline sentiment on which to wrap up the episode, one that seems implicitly critical of Scully’s more casual form of worship.

Branching out into the area of religion...

Branching out into the area of religion…

The X-Files seems to adopt this position quite frequently – suggesting that absolute religious faith is the only faith worth having, and anything else is just an illusion. In Die Hand Die Verletzt, members of a satanic cult are murdered for allowing their faith to grow more relaxed. In All Souls, the Devil doesn’t appear as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, but as a moderate and secular social services staff member. In Signs and Wonders, the evil force is not the devote and extreme religious organisation, but the more moderate and relaxed counterpart.

This is a philosophy and outlook that feels quite uncomfortable in this post-9/11 world, for understandable reasons. In the twenty-first century, religious fanaticism has become more closely linked with the extremism of groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and al Qaeda. However, while this absolutist position feels uncomfortable in retrospect, perhaps it accurately reflects the extended existential crisis of the nineties. During that decade, it seemed like people didn’t just want to believe, they wanted something they could believe in absolutely.

When R. Lee Ermy did Space: Above and Beyond, they did promise they'd make it up to him...

When R. Lee Ermey did Space: Above and Beyond, they did promise they’d make it up to him…

Of course, there are problems. For one thing, Revelations does broach the topic of religion, but it doesn’t actually do that much with it. It is certainly more provocative and more engaged that most contemporary prime-time dramas, but it also feels like it’s trying not to be too specific or too precise. In Trust No One, Chris Carter acknowledged that the show was effectively dancing between rain drops:

“It dealt with faith, not religion with a capital ‘R’ or Catholicism with a capital ‘C’,” said Chris Carter about the episode . “To me, the idea of faith is really the backbone of the entire series — faith in your own beliefs, ideas about the truth, and so it has religious overtones always. It is a more sensitive area on television because you run the risk of pissing certain people off, but I think we handled it in such a way as to make it about miracle belief, or lack of belief — and we set it against the paranormal, which is ‘Why can Mulder believe in things that go bump in the night, and when Scully believes in a miracle he shuts her down ?’ I think it was one thing juxtaposed with the other that gave the episode its interest.”

The show never feels like it really probes Scully’s faith as deeply as it might. It does a nice job setting up future developments, but it doesn’t jump into the topic. The closing scene effectively has Scully concede that it is something she cannot talk about – and it seems as though she is speaking for the producers as well as herself. There’s a sense that the show is walking on eggshells a little bit, being generic when being specific might be more interesting.

Taking the matter in hand...

Taking the matter in hand…

There is a slight problem in that The X-Files is already a show about faith and religion, albeit in a much more indirect manner. Mulder’s pursuit of the proof of extraterrestrial life is a spiritual adventure, after all. As Richard W. Santana and Gregory Erickson note in Religion and Popular Culture, The X-Files deals very well with big ideas like this in an abstract way:

As contemporary debates over abortion and stem-cell research reveal, the argument over what constitutes a human being often runs into a stalemate when constructed within traditional religious or theological framework. Television drama allows viewers to discuss central topics within their religious experience that are rarely brought into question. … Few Christians, for example, are willing or encouraged to publicly question what it means to ‘believe’, but within the context of The X-Files this becomes a central debate. Because these theological and philosophical issues exist in a fantasy setting, viewers are often destabilised from their core beliefs and may be surprised to find the positions that they are taking, a space of confusion that can be the beginning of speculative thought.

In many ways, it feels like The X-Files is much more comfortable addressing these topics in the relative safety of conspiracy theory narratives and faith in extraterrestrials. These abstract issues of faith can be handled in a much more provocative and aggressive manner than overtly religious concepts like Christianity or Jesus Christ.

Our father...

Our father…

Writing about Alien Invasion in Fear Itself, authors Philip Lamy and Devon Kinne make an explicit connection between the sort of millennial narrative in Revelations and the larger alien conspiracy narrative associated with The X-Files:

Through cultural change and adaptation, the sacred and the secular become redefined and rearranged, and thus the distinctions between them become blurred. This process appears to be the case in American culture today, where elements from that classical apocalyptic tradition merge with modern and secular forms producing a strange array of ‘postmodern’ millennial phenomena. Michael Barkun has used the term ‘improvisational millennialism’ more recently to define millenarian movements, like ufology, that draw meaning from a variety of cultural realms or historical eras. Many of the new religious movements in ufology represent just such intermediate and improvisational forms – where the Antichrist is replaced by sinister “Grey” aliens, and the second coming brings extraterrestrials in space-ships rather than the messiah leading his heavenly crusaders.

The problem is that the use of specifically religious iconography comes with all sorts of assorted problems. Because Revelations deals with religious concepts familiar to most viewers, it has to be a lot more careful in how it handles them. Aliens and conspiracies and shadow governments give the show a lot more freedom.

Man of the Millennium...

Man of the Millennium…

There are other problems with Revelations. The script was quite troubled, as Paul Rabwin notes in The X-Files Confidential:

“A show with script problems. It’s difficult to sell the concept of religious magic and people appearing in two places at one time. It was a very emotional show, because it got into an important area of Scully’s background, buy trying to pull off the mystical parts was problematic. The script went through several rewrites and was still being worked on until the time of production. We figure, ‘Nutter is a strong guy; he’ll bring that in okay.’ It did come off very well, but there were some inconsistencies and pieces in it that just didn’t seem to make sense to me. We went into a very detailed editing marathon, and we ended up with a show that just didn’t work on a number of different level s. At one point, we couldn’t sell the idea of this kid being in two places at the same time. There were some things missing that really tied together the kid and Owen, who ‘s this mystical bald – headed character – just a number of things that weren’t satisfactory about it. Some of us thought that show was DOA. We were on the operating table with that show and had it on life support.

“But I think it’s one of the better examples of what happens when all the creative forces come together. The kid had already gone home to Toronto. We flew him back to Vancouver, wrote some detailed lines for the Millennium Man. We had people writing new sequences; our second – unit crew was set up to shoot some stuff. We went back in and recut and restructured and the show started to make sense. By the time that show came out, we were in awe because it played well. It amazed us. The response on – line was, ‘Great show,’ ‘Meaningful show,’ and people just loved it. We thought it was going to be one of the dogs of the season, and it turned out to be a very popular episode.”

It is quite easy to see some of those gaps in the finished product.

An artist's depiction...

An artist’s depiction…

Revelations is one of two scripts credited to writer Kim Newton, who had joined the staff for the third season. Her other script, Quagmire, would cause more production trouble – it was hastily re-written by story editor Darin Morgan. Newton would not return to the show’s writing staff during its fourth season. It’s an effective illustration of how some writers do not seem to fit on particular shows, and the production difficulties that can arise. It underscores how lucky Carter was to assemble such a solid writing staff.

It is fair to say that Revelations works as well as it does because of director David Nutter. This would be Nutter’s last directorial contribution to The X-Files, although he would go on to direct four episodes from the first season of Millennium. Nutter was a phenomenal director, and one who helped to define the look and feel of the show. Along with Rob Bowman and Kim Manners, Nutter was a director who defined the cinematic style of The X-Files.

The faithful...

The faithful…

It is Nutter’s directorial vision that holds Revelations together when the script seems to fall apart – particularly during the last act. The confrontation between Scully and the killer in the recycle plant is atmospheric and effective – the blowing sheets of discarded newspapers and mountains of trash effective evoking a post-apocalyptic landscape. It is so effective that it hardly matters that the scene makes no sense.

Why would the killer take Kevin here, rather than just killing him outright? Surely that’s a bit of an abstract link between the “full circle” and the recycle icon? Given Kevin saves himself by hanging on to the rail at the end, is Scully really that effective? There’s a lot of handwaving that can go on to excuse or explain these, but the ending of Revelations doesn’t feel particularly organic. It seems like the last act was written in a rush, and is held together by David Nutter’s direction and Gillian Anderson’s performance.

The performance of his afterlife...

The performance of his afterlife…

That said, it is possible to see some of Millennium bleeding through into this episode – touching on themes and ideas that Carter would explore more thoroughly in the show he would launch the following year. Watching the second and third season of The X-Files, one can almost see Carter’s second series developing from various bits and pieces. A little Irresistible here, a little of The Calusari there. Sprinkle in some Revelations and add a dash of Grotesque for flavour.

Millennium would provide a much more consistent look at the religious dimension of millennial anxiety, providing the other side of the coin to The X-Files. In a way, Revelations feels like something of a dry run – giving Carter a sense of what he can get away with while writing religious-themed drama for network television. It’s not too hard to imagine this story transposed to the first (or early second) season of Millennium. Indeed, barring the character development for Scully, it may feel more at home there.

(Blood)packin' 'em in...

(Blood)packin’ ’em in…

Revelations is also notable for featuring a guest performance from actor Michael Berryman. Berryman is one of a long line of distinctive and iconic character actors to appear in The X-Files, with the casting in the first three seasons of the show leaning for cult performers like Steve Railsback, Ken Foree, J.T. Walsh, Peter Boyle, John Neville or Walter Gotell. In a way, the guest actors in those first three years demonstrate a certain amount of Carter’s pop culture cache – he wasn’t aiming for marquee names, but actors who demonstrated his cult bona fides.

Berryman was (and perhaps is) best known for his work in horror – particularly his work in The Hills Have Eyes. As such, casting Berryman as a good guy – let alone a heroic figure who sacrifices his life to save a child – represents a very clear casting against type. Berryman himself described it as “the role that changed [his] image in Hollywood.” It is a great performance, and some great casting from Carter and the rest of the team. (That said, the production has some fun with audience expectations. Kevin’s horror story posits Owen Jarvis as a “mutant.”)

Blood on his hands...

Blood on his hands…

R. Lee Ermey also pops up in a small role in the teaser. Ermey had made a tremendous impression as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and had already carved out an impressive career as an actor by the mid-nineties. He had appeared in the pilot for Space: Above and Beyond in a role clearly intend to evoke his iconic role. By this point, Ermey was beginning to broaden his range as a dramatic performer, appearing in small roles in the movie se7en and Dead Man Walking.

Instead of simply being the go-to military guy for high-profile feature films, Ermey was becoming a go-to guy for forceful presence and authority. It is very ahrd to imagine Ermey ever being cast entirely against type, but he was working very hard to broaden that type. Playing a huckster preacher traded on Ermey’s powerful screen presence, while offering something just a little outside what audience had come to expect from him.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

Revelations is an episode that probably works much better than it should. It does challenge some of the conventions of network television, pushing the usually taboo subject of religion to the fore. That said, the show finds itself constrained by those same conventions – as if it can only push so far. The script is muddled, but the direction is strong. And, perhaps, Revelation is a show that works best at broaching deep and thoughtful topics, rather than exploring them.

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

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