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.
On original broadcast, Syzygy and War of the Coprophages were separated by three weeks, airing either end of January.
That probably helps to make Syzygy seem like less of a disappointing retread on initial broadcast, but it doesn’t help on modern binge re-watches. Even allowing for the three weeks between the episodes, Syzygy was always going to suffer in comparison its direct predecessor. If War of the Coprophages was Darin Morgan affectionately mimicking Chris Carter’s style, then Syzygy feels like Carter’s attempt to write a script in a voice quite close to that of Darin Morgan.
Structurally, the third season is constructed quite cleverly – and Syzygy is a massive part of that. The third season seems to fold in on itself, which means it makes sense for Syzygy to serve as a fun house mirror War of the Coprophages from a purely structural perspective. The problem is that this decision adds a lot to the third season of the whole while undermining Syzygy itself. It feels like an unsatisfactory decision.
However, even divorced from context, Syzygy is still a mess of an episode. Carter would go on to provide some of the show’s most comedic hours in later seasons, and Syzygy marks a starting point of that trend. It is not an auspicious beginning.
Half-way through the third season, it is worth pausing to note the elaborate structure that Carter has designed for the year. The third season is roughly symmetrical. It opens and closes with two pairs of mythology episodes. The two mid-season two-parters are positioned so that they are equidistant from the series’ midpoint. Nisei and 731 are the third and fourth episodes before the midpoint; Piper Maru and Apocrypha are the third and fourth episodes after the midpoint.
War of the Coprophages is a Mulder-heavy comedy episode about small-town paranoia and the jealousy that Scully feels when Mulder flirts with another woman that aired directly before the midpoint of the third season. Syzygy is a Mulder-heavy comedy episode about small-town paranoia and the jealousy that Scully feels when Mulder flirts with another woman that aired directly after the midpoint of the third season. War of the Coprophages is Darin-Morgan-as-Chris-Carter. Syzygy is Chris-Carter-as-Darin-Morgan.
There is a lot of evidence to support the idea that Carter originally planned for The X-Files to run for fives seasons before spinning off into movies if it was popular enough. Hurwitz and Knowles makes this claim explicitly in The Complete X-Files, but Carter himself has alluded to it. In an interview around the first season, he claimed to have planned for “at least five seasons.” In a retrospective review after the show ended, he noted that “everyone’s shooting for five seasons.”
It is taken for granted that Carter originally planned to end the show after five seasons, and there were rumours that he planned to depart the show completely after its fifth season. “I think five years is a good length of time to do something,” Carter has been quoted as saying. After all, five twenty-something-episode seasons would produce more than 100 episodes of The X-Files and would make the show marketable in syndication. It was a nice number.
With this in mind, it is worth noting that the third season would have been the middle of this five-season show. So the decision to make the season seem roughly symmetrical makes a lot more sense in that context. It would very clearly map the space between War of the Coprophages and Syzygy as the exact midpoint of the series as a whole. Had things panned out this way, it may not have made Syzygy a much stronger episode, but it would have seemed a very clever bit of structuring.
More than that, the idea of doubling and mirroring is built into Syzygy. The title applies in a number of different contexts. Most obviously, and explicitly acknowledged by the script itself, is the astrological “syzygy.” Visiting a local astrologist, Mulder is informed, “Once every eighty-four years Mercury, Mars and Uranus come into conjunction. Only this year Uranus is in the house of Aquarius.” Terri and Margi have “a Jupiter-Uranus opposition, forming what’s called a grand square.”
It’s all vaguely new-age-y gobbledygook, and so perfectly at home within a Carter script. However, even outside of Jupiter and Uranus, the script is packed with other doubles and reflections, particularly the male-female pairing that defines the “syzygy” in Gnosticism. It is a Valentinian concept:
The term refers to the linking together of complementary qualities (“Aeons”) of to form a state of wholeness (pleroma). This is the highest level of reality. The halves of a syzygy are often referred to as male and female. The male corresponds to form and the female corresponds to substance.
Appropriately enough then, Syzygy is an episode that is very much about sex – perhaps the most obvious linking together of male and female. The local astrologer even refers to Comity as “a cosmic G-spot.” Teenage hormones drive a significant portion of the plot, and Syzygy feels like a particularly cringy sex comedy.
Most obviously, Mulder spends some private time with Detective White. At one point early in the episode, he stops by her house. “What are you doing with my cat?” she asks in a line that feels like an awkward innuendo. Mulder suggests, “I was hoping you could help me solve the mystery of the horny beast.” Stay classy, Mulder. At another point, Scully walks in on Detective White and Mulder making out in his motel room.
This being a Chris Carter script, there’s more than a slight bias towards Mulder. Both Mulder and Scully are acting out of character as a result of the planetary alignment, but only Mulder is able to realise that something is wrong. Mulder can tell that something is not right while making out with White, and Mulder seeks out the astrologist. Scully seems completely oblivious to her own unprofessional behaviour, even as she calls Mulder out on his.
More than that, though, Mulder gets a romantic hook-up and a pseudo-sex scene here. Of course, everything is kept within the acceptable threshold set by Broadcast Standards and Practices, but Mulder still gets to make out with a female guest star on the bed. Towards the end of the fifth season, Carter would introduce Diana Fowley, a female flame for Mulder who generated some jealousy and suspicion from Scully.
In contrast, under Carter’s supervision, Scully seldom got the same romantic or sexual opportunities. Indeed, Scully spent most of the show’s run quite chaste. Carter wrote an awkward failed date for Scully in The Jersey Devil, while he also vetoed a fairly tame make-out sequence in Never Again. The casualness with which Mulder could hook up with the female guest star of the week and the relative chastity imposed on Scully does seem like a bit of a double-standard from Carter.
In Syzygy, both Mulder and Scully act like jerks towards one another. However, while Mulder is able to figure out something has gone wrong and take steps to investigate, Scully is reduced to passive-aggressive and hyper-clingy girlfriend. “I didn’t expect you to ditch me,” Scully complains. While War of the Coprophages also featured a jealous and possessive version of Scully, these were not the only traits of the character on display. Syzyzgy lacks that sense of character definition.
“Syzygy” is also a term used in Jungian psychology. Again, it is typically defined by a male-female split. “The male-female syzygy is only one among the possible pairs of opposites, albeit the most important on in practice and the commonest,” Jung wrote in The Arcehtypes and the Collective Unconscious. It feels quite applicable to The X-Files, where Mulder and Scully exist as male and female counterparts, each representing an opposite set of values and ideals.
Rodney F. Hill reflects on this in The X-Files and the Impossibility of Knowing:
Mulder and Scully, together incarnating the show’s central syzygy, represent not only male and female (the most common incarnation of the yin and yang of the syzygy) but also two different approaches to seeking the truth – or two different versions of truth – at once at odds with each other and inextricably intertwined: scientific inquiry versus a belief in the paranormal (or put another way, a belief in the unknown). Generally, Mulder is the one who “wants to believe” and Scully is the cold, analytical scientist, with both characters playing against common gender stereotypes found in the media.
So Mulder and Scully are very clearly the syzygy at the centre of Syzygy.
Which means it is probably time to talk a little bit about the relationship between Mulder and Scully. The X-Files‘ fandom infamously developed the term “shipper.” The word is a shortened version of “relationshipper”, a very vocal subset of fandom that desperately wanted a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully. Although the term “shipper” originally applied in that specific context, it has broadened out to become a generic identifier for fandom subculture.
Much like “slash” was broadened out from its original context of “Kirk-slash-Spock” in Star Trek fandom and the “Mary Sue” archetype took its name from a satirical piece of fan fiction originally written for Star Trek. These terms tend to resonate across fandom. While the original “shippers” wanted a romantic union of Mulder and Scully, it has become a broader concern among properties with devoted fandoms. J.K. Rowling has had to contend with it, as has the staff on Xena: Warrior Princess.
The idea is basically that Mulder and Scully belong together – that they are perfectly constructed from one another and are just oblivious to the possibilities. Chris Carter was notoriously canny when it came to managing the show’s hardcore fans, and the series regularly teased the idea that Mulder and Scully were more than just friends. In the early second season, the two would meet clandestinely even after the X-files themselves had closed.
The show would frequently – and cheekily – play with these expectations. Sleepless treated Krycek as a romantic threat to Scully, with the show consciously framing Krycek as a cheating lover in Ascension and having him kiss Mulder in The Red and the Black. In 3, Mulder copes with the loss of Scully by having a sexual tryst with the first woman he encounters. Even more overtly, The End introduced the character of Diana Fowley as an explicitly romantic foil for Scully.
The show knew very well how to push the buttons of its audience. The kiss between Mulder and Scully in Fight the Future was as big an event as the discovery of aliens under the Arctic. Mulder and Scully went undercover as a married couple in Arcadia during the sixth season. However, the show was reluctant to commit to the idea of Mulder and Scully as a couple. Their hook-up in all things was consciously downplayed and left ambiguous, and the show spent much of the eighth season avoiding the issue of Scully’s baby daddy.
There is a reason for this ambiguity. Even among fandom, “shippers” were not unopposed. Stading against the idea of a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully were a group calling themselves the “noromos.” The term “noromo” is short for “no romance”, but may also have its roots in the early nineties slang term “no homo.” That would hardly be the most politically correct term to use, but internet fan culture is hardly the most sensitive to issues of prejudice.
The debate between “shippers” and “noromos” could become particularly heated and entrenched, with even journalistic articles on the show alluding the conflict and creators like Carter and Spotnitz using the words. In a letter to The New York Times, Elizabeth Weinbloom suggested that the pairing of Mulder and Scully was directly responsible for the ending of the show. This seems like it might be a slight overstatement, given Duchovny’s departure, Anderson’s intention to leave and the events of 9/11.
Nevertheless, it was quite clear that Carter and his writing staff found themselves navigating the issue with great care and skill. During the first season, a report in Sci-Fi Entertainment observed that “as far as the sexual tension between the two goes, everyone involved in the series seems to agree that a full-blown romance is out of the question.” Writers like Glen Morgan and James Wong came out explicitly against the possibility of a romantic pairing.
In The Truth is Out There, Carter talked a bit at length about how hard he had to fight to keep romance out of The Pilot:
“A big part of my job during the August to May scope of that pilot creation was protecting against that,” Carter contends. “I was really the lone voice saying we cannot have these people romantically involved. There cannot be real TV sexual tension here or else the show won’t work. As soon as you have them looking googly-eyed at each other, they’re not going to want to go out and chase these aliens. The relationship will supplant or subvert what’s going to make the show great, which is the pursuit of these cases.”
However, despite this, it seems like Carter went back and forth on the issue of a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully across the show’s nine-season run.
Around the time that Syzygy was produced and aired, Carter remained quite firm in his refusal to contemplate a romance. Asked by a fan if Mulder and Scully would hook up, he replied, “No romance.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, he insisted:
They do and they don’t. They want elements of it without them jumping into the sack. There are these “relationshippers” who kind of dominate the online chats. I’m a little dismayed because I don’t want to do a show about fuzzy warm Mulder and Scully. Never.
That seems like a rather strong statement from the show’s creator and executive producer, one that would seem to position Syzygy as a stern rejection of any possible romance between Mulder and Scully.
Carter seemed to see the fixation on a Mulder-Scully romance as a distraction from what The X-Files was really about. He often seemed quite frustrated by the amount of attention and gossip that it generated:
They have hugged. They’ve never kissed. They could kiss if it was the right time for it. They could never give big French kisses. People say, “Will Mulder and Scully ever go to bed?” And I say, “You really don’t want them to.” Because the minute they do, then, basically, when they’re in that motel on their assignment, you know, investigating the appearance of extraterrestrial life somewhere, and they decide they’re finally going to get it on, they’re going to lie there sort of googly eyed in the morning, and those aliens are just going to be running amok. They will become more interested in themselves than in the things that they need to be doing.
From a purely dramatic level, it is hard to disagree with Carter. “Will they or won’t they?” is a more compelling status quo than “they did or they didn’t.” After all, the romantic coupling on Moonlighting is credited with ruining the show. On Friends, Ross and Rachel got together early and then broke up, because the romantic tension was more interesting than the romantic status quo.
Towards the end of the show’s run, Carter often found him back-pedalling a bit from his earlier statements. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly during the eighth season, Carter was a bit more open to the possibility:
“These are two people who have maintained a very powerful and respectful relationship,” says Carter, “but like all relationships between men and women, sometimes feelings are expressed in a physical way. I don’t think it would be dishonest for them to have done that.”
It does sound like Carter is retroactively trying to justify a potentially controversial decision, one that he may not have always supported entirely.
Carter admitted as much in an interview given at the start of the ninth season, explaining that he was honestly opposed to the romantic relationship during the show’s early years:
“There was a term I used, I was resistant to ‘domesticating’ the show,” he explains. “I felt it was wrong. The X-Files was not a show about those kind of relationships, it was a show about ideas and about a search and a romantic quest — in the truest sense of the word.”
“It seemed to me that it would almost go against that kind of romance to have a physical relationship.”
Of course, by this point, David Duchovny had departed the show almost completely and Gillian Anderson was on the way out the door herself. How much a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully would satisfy the “shippers” in a show without Mulder and Scully was up for debate.
As with a lot of things about The X-Files, there is some ambiguity around this point. In hindsight, Carter has claimed that he always meant for Mulder and Scully to wind up romantically involved:
In the early years of the series, the relationship between Mulder and Scully was always presented as being a platonic one – nothing more. But, insists Carter, the duo was always on a path that would take them to where they ended last season. The turning point, he notes, was in The X-Files feature, which was released between seasons 5 and 6. “I think that any intense friendship leads naturally to where it was going to lead with that kiss [in the movie],” he says. “That is a part of the consummation of that kind of relationship, which I think they couldn’t deny was romantic in its intensity. I always knew it was going there. It was just [a case of] when to get there.”
It is hard to know which version of Chris Carter is being honest here – the one who claims that he was always uncomfortable with the idea of a romance, or the one who claimed he always planned to consummate that relationship.
It is interesting to speculate, even though we will likely never have the answers. Much like the debate about how much of the conspiracy was pre-planned in advance, there are no clear answers. There is contradictory information provided at various points, suggesting that even the creators themselves are uncertain about what was intended from the start and what simply developed organically.
Still, it is worth noting that the series only aggressively pursued a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully once David Duchovny had a foot out the door. The romantic nature of their relationship was heavily intimated during the second half of the seventh season, and finally confirmed in the eighth season finalé. However, the show never really depicted a relationship between Mulder and Scully. Duchovny was largely absent for the years when the duo were romantically involved.
During his heated disagreements with Carter in the seventh season, Duchovny claimed that the writers’ reluctance to develop the relationship was simply plate-spinning and stalling on their part:
I think everything is up in the air because of the movie-franchise aspect. If we truly knew that it was ending this year, next year or whenever, you could actually write toward an ending. I think you could actually disrupt the nature of Mulder and Scully’s relationship and make it sexual–make it something–and actually deal with it, in that case.
But because everybody involved in the writing and producing end of the show wants to keep it a lucrative enterprise, they want to keep it the way it is. But it’s tough to do–seven years, keeping people in exactly the same spot.
That is, perhaps, a reasonable observation. However, it seems a little simplistic.
Syzygy might be a helpful indicator here. Applying the term in its Jungian context, it suggests something perpetually unresolved; two closely linked male and female figures that are not entirely united. It evokes the anima and the animus, the female aspects of the male’s subconscious and the male aspects of the female subconscious. Given the slightly subversive gender roles ascribed to Mulder and Scully, this emphasis feels somewhat appropriate.
The X-Files trades quite heavily in Jungian imagery, and Syzygy invites viewers to make a Jungian reading of the show. In this respect, how Mulder relates to the female figures in his life is interesting, just as it is interesting how Scully relates to the male figures in her life. Most notable is the fact that Mulder’s primary relationships with female characters are unresolved. Samantha is missing. Paper Clip revealed that his mother is complicit in the keeping of dark secrets he never seems to discuss with her.
As Jan Delasara notes in PopLit, PopCult and The X-Files, the unresolved nature of these relationships fits with Jungian archetypes:
The relationship of the individual to his anima (or a female to her animus) takes place entirely on the level of the psyche and is a dynamic interaction from which selfhood is constantly being negotiated. Mulder has several potent anima figures in his life: his mother, his sister Samantha and his partner Scully. Where Scully is concerned, producer Chris Carter seems to understand that the relationship with the anima is never completed; meaning, in story terms, that it should never be romantically or sexually consummated. Now it is possible that Scully and Mulder will establish a romantic coupling of some kind – the X-Philers who call themselves ‘shippers’ certainly hope so – but that development could diminish the psychological subtext that makes the symbolic code of the series so richly layered.
So perhaps it is entirely appropriate that these issues are all resolved during the seventh season, Duchovny’s final year on The X-Files. Mulder’s mother passes away in Sein und Zeit. Samantha’s fate is revealed in Closure. Scully hooks up with him in all things.
The union between Mulder and Scully is only something that could happen at the very end of the show – or, at least, at the end of one of their arcs in the show. So perhaps that is why Syzygy felt the need to put Mulder and Scully so firmly at odds with one another. If this represents the midpoint of their character arc through a planned five-season show, then it seems a suitable point to emphasis the awkward and unresolved nature of their relationship – to stress how dysfunctional it is.
Still, even with all of this going on in the background, Syzygy is a mess. Most of the material here was done better in War of the Coprophages: a possible romantic interest for Mulder; a fit of jealousy for Scully; a town swept up in moral panic; the idea that our heroes are not as healthy and functional as they might like to believe. This is Carter’s first overt attempt at scripting a “light-hearted” episode of The X-Files. He would do much better with The Post-Modern Prometheus, Triangle and Improbable.
Even the decision to have Keystone Cops playing on every channel seems like a Morgan-esque quirk. Morgan has a deep affection for cinematic history. Humbug owes a debt to Freaks and Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose is named for the director of The General. According to Trust No One, the use of Keystone Cops was not by choice:
The script originally called for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange to be playing on every channel as Mulder and Scully played with the remote controls in their hotel rooms, but the footage proved so expensive the producer settled for clips of the Keystone Kops, which in retrospect worked better in Carter’s eyes. “As is often the case, what you’re compelled to use is better than what you (initially) wanted,” he observes, reflecting the show’s philosophy of making the most of available resources.
While it may have just been coincidence, the use of the classic black-and-white film, along with the slapstick climax, makes it feel like Carter was intentionally evoking the work of Darin Morgan. Given that Morgan won the show’s only Emmy for writing, that is a rather daunting comparison to invite.
Carter was never the strongest writer working on The X-Files. In practice, that doesn’t matter. He was – generally speaking – a great showrunner. He was also an underrated director. However, Carter’s primary skill was getting together a bunch of great writers and encouraging them to play to their own strengths. Unlike creators and showrunners like Bryan Fuller or David Chase or David E. Kelley, Carter’s voice never really felt like the strongest one in the room.
In fact, Carter seemed to encourage his writers to find their own voices. A Darin Morgan script is utterly unlike a Howard Gordon script. A Vince Gilligan script is distinct from a Glen Morgan and James Wong script. A Frank Spotnitz script is different from a John Shiban script. At times, it could even seem like there were two or three slightly different versions of The X-Files on the air at a given moment; each writer scripting a slightly different version of Mulder and Scully.
This is a great approach for a showrunner – one that requires a great deal of modesty and honesty. Writers like Vince Gilligan have spoken about the freedom they enjoyed to cast their own shows and make important production decisions. This approach is likely why so many creators developed over their time on The X-Files. One can see the seeds of Breaking Bad in Vince Gilligan’s work on The X-Files. Howard Gordon would go on to great success with 24. Glen Morgan and James Wong would create Final Destination.
Carter would find his feet writing “quirky” episodes in the fifth and sixth seasons, when it felt less like he was trying to imitate Darin Morgan and instead tried to do his own thing. There are moments here when Carter steps away from Morgan’s influence and it seems like Carter might be on to something. The teaser suggests that the cult is after “a blonde virgin”, only to reveal the two blonde virgins are the killers; it feels like a wry subversion of horror movie clichés.
After all, Carter’s more successful whimsical scripts would borrow rather heavily from classic and iconic cinema. The Post-Modern Prometheus was very clearly inspired by James Whale’s Frankenstein. Similarly, Triangle plays out like an extended and affectionate homage to The Wizard of Oz. The final of these whimsical Carter scripts, Improbable, features a snazzy musical number – something that would seem eccentric even for a Darin Morgan script.
That said, Carter’s scripting is still a little awkward. Ignoring the horrible sex jokes, Carter isn’t entirely comfortable writing dialogue for teenage characters. Margi and Terri’s refain of “hate her, hate her, wouldn’t want to date her” is cheesy enough that it almost works. On the other hand, characters spout nonsense like “you blew me off so you could snatch same shoulder-time with rude-boy.” It’s just awful dialogue, and not even in a wink-wink self-aware way.
Syzygy is a mess of an episode. It would still be a mess of an episode even if it didn’t air after War of the Coprophages. Still, it doesn’t feel like the smartest scheduling decision.
- The Blessing Way
- Paper Clip
- Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
- The List
- The Walk
- X-tra: (Topps) The Pit
- War of the Coprophages
- Piper Maru
- Teso Dos Bichos
- Hell Money
- Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”
- X-tra: (Topps) #14 – Falling
- Talitha Cumi
Filed under: The X-Files | Tagged: astrology, chemistry, chris carter, conspiracy, cover-up, Darin Morgan, jung, jungian, mulder, noromos, platonic, romance, scully, shippers, syzygy, the x-files, x-files |