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.
Piper Maru and Apocrypha continue a pretty clear thematic throughline for the show’s third season mythology episodes.
As with The Blessing Way/Paper Clip and Nisei/731, Piper Maru and Apocrypha tell a story about how we relate to the past. In particular, in keeping with the rest of the third season mythology, it is a show about the legacy of the Second World War. The X-Files is a show that is sceptical of the decisions made by the American government towards the end of the Second World War, particularly as those decisions shaped and moulded the present. In many ways, The X-Files is a show about history and legacy, trauma and consequence.
Piper Maru and Apocrypha are less direct about this connection than the earlier mythology episodes. They aren’t about the war criminals given safe habour after the Second World War in return for scientific knowledge or tactical advantages. Instead, Piper Maru and Apocrypha are shows about dredging up the past and confronting the consequences of past actions. These two episodes are not only steeped in American popular history, but also in the show’s internal continuity. The majority of what happens here is driven by events we’ve seen in the show.
At the same time, Piper Maru and Apocrypha represent an attempt to boldly expand and push the mythos forward in the same way that Colony and End Game did at this point in the second season. The result is an intriguing two-parter that feels a little muddled and messy, an example of the show stumbling slightly as it tries to grow outwards. Although the mythology is still working a lot more efficiently than it would in later seasons, there is a sense of clutter beginning to filter in.
The third season has really reinforced the idea that The X-Files is not really a single show, but a number of different television shows that exist in parallel. These shows occasionally line up, but can sometimes be difficult to reconcile or tie together. Darin Morgan wrote a different version of Mulder and Scully occupying a different world than Howard Gordon; Howard Gordon wrote a different show than James Wong and Glen Morgan; they wrote a slightly different version than Vince Gilligan; he wrote a different version than Chris Carter.
The show’s mythology existed a show unto itself. Sure, it shared writers with the rest of the show and there were occasional points of intersection or overlap. The rest of the show would occasionally homage or reference it – or even just play with the iconography or themes. However, by this point in the show’s run, the mythology had been very clearly and concretely walled off from the rest of The X-Files. The series acknowledged as much in the gap between Paper Clip and D.P.O.
Towards the end of the second season, it seemed that the show had settled into the idea that the mythology was going to be something that it wanted to run with. As a result, intersectional episodes like Tooms or F. Emasculata or Soft Light or even Young at Heart and Ghost in the Machine became a lot rarer. There were episodes where mythology stuff happened, and there were episodes where regular stuff happened. Mr. X was a lot less likely to chat to Mulder about insane computers or reverse-aging than Deep Throat had been.
Piper Maru and Apocrypha stress this divide. It seems quite clear that The X-Files has reached the point where mythology plot points only really get developed and explored in episodes that are devoted to the mythology. Watching Piper Maru and Apocrypha, it seems like Mulder and Scully haven’t really thought about anything that happened in The Blessing Way or Paper Clip or Nisei or 731 outside of those episodes.
It seems as if the characters were as good at compartmentalising as the show. Scully doesn’t deal with the grief over the death of Melissa while chatting with a fatalistic psychic in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. Mulder doesn’t mourn the loss of his father while confronting his father figure in Grotesque. Those are character and plot points reserved for mythology episodes, and the show became a lot quick to compartmentalise that stuff.
So Piper Maru and Apocrypha hang on contrivances that seem quite ridiculous when considered in the context of the seventeen or eighteen non-mythology episodes of the season. It just so happens that an alien organism begins a journey home just as Scully finds out that the investigation into her sister’s death has been suspended and Mulder follows breadcrumbs from Nisei that lead him directly to the man who killed his father in Anasazi.
The way in which all of these plot points coincide during an incident involving a major extraterrestrial seems more than a little ridiculous. The X-Files gets a lot of (quite deserved) credit for popularising serialised narratives in prime-time television, but it was also quite clumsy; this was something relatively new. Shows like E.R. and Chicago Hope and St. Elsewhere had maintained character arcs and developments across multiple episodes, but constructing a show around a centralised narrative was something that was not widely done.
And while The X-Files worked very hard to get that to work, there was still a sense that the mythology was still one show nested inside another. It was a very important show; this was the thread that opened and closed seasons, and which popped up around sweeps and became the subject of the first movie. However, by this stage in the show’s evolution, it was its own distinct beast. It was so distinct that Fox has been able to release separate DVD box sets of the mythology episodes as standalone sets – as if surgically extracting it from the framework of The X-Files.
There is a very credible argument that The X-Files mythology plays a great deal better in that context – as something of an extended miniseries that is just one facet of The X-Files itself. Sure, it’s still as convoluted and messy and contrived as ever, but it also feels less at odds with the episodes surrounding it. Surprisingly for a show produced before the advent of DVD made it easy to own large volumes of media, the first couple of years of The X-Files mythology lend themselves to binge watching. Episodes like Piper Maru and Apocrypha actually benefit from it.
Piper Maru and Apocrypha play much better watched directly after The Blessing Way, Paper Clip, Nisei and 731 than they do coming after Revelations, War of the Coprophages, Syzygy or Grotesque. The plot of Piper Maru and Apocrypha is very much a reaction to the events of those earlier mythology episodes, and it makes more sense if the viewer isn’t wondering why none of this came up in the space between these shows.
So it makes sense that the issue of Melissa Scully’s murder in The Blessing Way should come up at the same time Mulder would find a lead on the recovery mission in Nisei, just as a radioactive body-stealing alien embarks on a journey around the world to find a way home. These are dangling plot threads that The X-Files has decided to separate out from its standalone monsters of the week. This is the time to deal with them.
While The X-Files is very much a show of its own time and place, it is difficult to imagine Piper Maru and Apocrypha airing in the mid-nineties. The show draws on plot points from episodes that aired months early and have not been mentioned or explored in the time since. Piper Maru takes subplots from the season’s earlier mythology episodes and runs with them, offering little by the way of recap for viewers who may have missed those particular episodes, who may not fully remember the details of shows that aired in the previous calendar year.
It seemed like the space-craft recovered in Nisei had been forgotten by the time that 731 was broadcast. Similarly, Melissa Scully’s death was just one thread woven through The Blessing Way and Paper Clip. It was symbolically important, but it did not carry the same weight or focus as the revelations concerning the Mulder family or the use of Axis war criminals to further American political ends. Are casual viewers meant to remember Luis Cardinal when he turns around and faces Skinner, before he pulls the trigger?
The show never stops to explain any this beyond the most basic of information, and the show seems written on the assumption that the audience remembers all these details perfectly. It is something that feels a little excessive for a nineties prime-time network drama airing twenty-four episodes over more than half of the year. In contrast, it plays a lot better on DVD, where the viewer’s memory of these past events are fresher and more vivid. In that respect, Piper Maru and Apocrypha – perhaps more than any other mythology arc – can be said to have improved with age.
In a way, this fixation on existing continuity plays into the themes of the third season. The third season’s mythology episodes are particularly concerned with the relationship between past and present. To this point, Mulder and Scully have been dealing with the legacy of decisions made by the previous generation; here, they are confronting the consequences of more recent actions. As suggested by Deep Throat in The Blessing Way, Piper Maru and Apocrypha seem like meditations on the relationship that exists between truth and justice and vengeance.
Piper Maru is positively packed with characters dredging up the past. Skinner is personally reviewing the records of the investigation into the murder of Melissa Scully. Secrets are traded under the cover of a “salvage” company, evoking images of repurposing the past for the future. Even the jet found at the bottom of the ocean provides proof that the past is still a living organism, rather than dead and buried as we might like.
“We bury our dead alive, don’t we?” Johansen asks Scully, rhetorically. “We hear them everyday, they talk to us, they haunt us, they beg us for meaning. Conscience… it’s just the voices of the dead… trying to save us from our own damnation.” In a way, this is an effective articulation of some core themes of The X-Files, the idea that the past haunts the present like a ghost – and that the only way to exorcise that ghost is to expose the truth and face up to past horrors and atrocities.
The third season of The X-Files is particularly fascinated with the consequences of truth, suggesting that truth and justice are inexorably linked and co-dependent. Each is incomplete without the other. In the earlier mythology episodes, carefully-kept government secrets allowed war criminals to escape justice. Here, Mulder and Scully set off in pursuit of the truth about the murder of their family members. The episode invites us to wonder whether these attempts at retribution are really justice or simply vengeance.
On the commentary for Apocrypha, Carter acknowledges this theme:
This is the scene where the whole idea that really informed the episode, which was that we bury the dead alive, in other words they speak to us and they create what we consider to be conscience comes back and is sounded again by Scully and understood now by Mulder through Scully’s feelings about her dead sister and what it means to her that it’s not enough that someone has punished, someone dies, that these kinds of acts of justice, that you can never replace these people.
These are very big ideas, and while the execution might be a little clumsy, Carter tries to connect the personal questions confronting Mulder and Scully to their larger pursuit of truth and justice.
While Piper Maru and Apocrypha don’t deal with the legacy of the Second World War in the same way that Paper Clip or Nisei did, the show remains fixated on how that conflict defined and shaped the American consciousness into the second half of the twenty-first century. The third season was broadcast around the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the conflict. Here, the spectre of the Second World War looms large, with that iconic opening scene of the pilot trapped inside his fighter jet, still alive after half a century.
Piper Maru deals with the atomic bomb – perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Second World War, as far as the public is concerned. Matters like “Operation: Paper Clip” are buried and easily overlooked, not secret so much as downplayed. They can be glossed over in textbooks and documentaries and feature films. In contrast, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a moment that changed the world; it cannot be separated from the Second World War.
In Piper Maru, it is suggested that the in question was looking for a lost nuclear warhead. “That P-51 Mustang was part of an escort for a B-20 carrying an atomic bomb, just like the one we dropped on Hiroshima,” Scully tells Mulder. “Only this one never reached its target.” Although this is just a cover story and perhaps has little plot relevance to the alien wandering around the planet, it establishes the thematic connection clearly enough – it would appear that the past is never completely lost.
Relating the story to Scully, Johansen suggests that the madness and death that claimed the crew of the submarine was a direct result of the taint of the nuclear bomb. “We’d all joined thinking we’d come home heroes,” he tells Scully. The implication is that the nuclear bomb made that impossible. “The madness we planned to unleash on the Japanese…we ended up setting it loose on ourselves.” There is a sense that this is all some reckoning for the horrors unleashed when the atomic bomb was detonated.
(Indeed, the black oil itself is heavily linked with radiation. It uses radiation as a weapon. The nation most aggressively pursuing the organism is France, which rather aggressively pursued its own development of the atomic bomb during the Cold War period and has the third biggest nuclear stockpile in the world, with a number of infamous tests in the Pacific. While the analysis in Apocrypha confirms that the oil is the same petrol used in any other Mustang plane, Mulder notes that the oil itself “has been altered by exposure to radiation.”)
Even decades later, the dropping of the bomb remains controversial. The motivations and justifications for deploying a weapon of that scale against a predominantly civilian population have been discussed and debated at length, with the arguments emotionally charged on both sides. The decision has been critically analysed and evaluated and questioned over the decades, with no satisfactory answer found.
The atomic bomb was particularly controversial in 1995, in no small part due to the significance of the anniversary. The Smithsonian had to back away from a planned exhibit exploring the morality of the decision in 1995, for fear of offending veterans. The United States sent an official diplomatic envoy to Hiroshima’s annual memorial ceremony for the first time in 2010, while the Japanese government allegedly described the possibility of Obama apologising for the bombing as a “non-starter.”
As with Nisei and 731, Piper Maru and Apocrypha seem to suggest that this international conspiracy is nowhere near as organised and omniscient as it seemed in the first or second season. For all that the Well-Manicured Man claims to represent an international consortium, the show has repeatedly suggested that quite a few of the countries are in it for themselves. In Nisei and 731, Ishimaru was planning on stealing the research he had done for the American government and delivering it to the Japanese.
Here, the French are revealed to running covert intelligence operations on American and Chinese soil. There is something darkly humourous in the way that the conspiracy members are so incredulous and indignant that the French managed to pull off something like this. “How could they have gotten information about that location?” the Well-Manicured Man wonders. “Somebody better damn now find out how the French even knew how to look for it,” another member of the group complains later in the show.
Relations between France and the United States had often been strained in the later years of the twentieth century. France and the United States were allies against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but there was always a palpable sense of unease between them. This unease came to the fore in the early years of the twentieth century during the War on Terror, but which many commentators have argued was present decades earlier; possible defined by DeGaulle’s attitudes and foreign policy in the wake of the Second World War.
There is an argument to be made that this sometimes fraught relationship was an inevitable result of a global power in decline passing a global power in ascent. The Vietnam War – itself a cornerstone of The X-Files – is perhaps the most obvious point of intersection. The Vietnam War was a result of the collapse of France’s colonial hold over Indochina, and became a vitally important moment in the history and development of American foreign policy.
The episodes touch on this idea quite overtly. Piper Maru features Mulder visiting Hong Kong, which was also in a state of transition from colonial rule. The Convention between the United Kingdom and China, Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory was due to expire in July 1997, a little over a year after the events of Piper Maru. At that point, ownership and control of Hong Kong would revert from the British to the Chinese. This transition would mark end of an era, the most significant colonial holding in East Asia ceded by a major European power.
In a journal leaked to the press, Prince Charles would describe the handover as “the end of Empire.” In its coverage of the event, The Guardian suggested that Prince Charles had finally “shut down the empire that once encompassed a quarter of the globe.” It is hard to look at the sequences of Piper Maru set in Hong Kong without that sense of historical context. Colonisation and colonialism are recurring themes for The X-Files, so the decision to have Mulder confront Krycek in Hong Kong feels appropriate.
And yet, despite all these interesting elements, Piper Maru still feels rather muddled. There’s a sense that the show torn between consolidating an existing mythology – as Nisei and 731 did – or introducing new elements and pushing the story onwards – as Colony and End Game did at this point in the second season. The result is something of a muddle, an episode struggling to reconcile those two impulses. The introduction of the black oil is yet another game-changer, but Mulder and Scully seem to be trying to take stock.
It is no surprise that Piper Maru and Apocrypha are a mess. In Trust No One, writer Frank Spotnitz recalls that the story was drawn from all manner of loose ends and hazily-defined images:
Story editor Frank Spotnitz was assigned the idea by Chris Carter based on some images he had conceived of and wanted t o connect within the episode. “He just knew he wanted a guy in the cockpit of a World War II plane banging against the glass,” explains Spotnitz, who at first struggled with writing the script. “He didn’t know how he got there, was this guy alive or dead, was it an illusion. Then he wanted a flash back to World War II aboard a submarine. I was stuck on that story for weeks. I had no idea how I was going to connect those, or when that image was going to come.”
It feels like Piper Maru was constructed out of a shopping list, rather than anything organic or logical. This can work very well – D.P.O. was inspired by Carter hearing James’ Ring the Bell – but may not be the best approach to the show’s central mythology.
Helping create the sense that the two-parter was stitched together from a collection of different sources rather than flowing or growing organically, Spotnitz has explained that part of the script was written in response to on-line fans:
I think The X-Files was the first series to have a deep relationship with its fans via the Internet. While we were writing the show, I’d frequently check out the newsgroups, and then the message boards, to see how fans were responding to the stories. Especially with the mythology episodes, it was incredibly useful to see what ideas were landing and which weren’t. In one instance, a fan’s question about the aftermath of Melissa Scully’s death inspired a two-part episode (Piper Maru & Apocrypha). The interesting thing is that the fan base evolves. I suspect of the people who are talking about and following The X-Files online now weren’t online when the show was first broadcast.
There’s a sense that Piper Maru and Apocrypha lack the same sense of purpose that guided the show’s other mythology episodes. There are great ideas here, but it is very hard to mesh them together into a single cohesive whole.
Still, there is a lot to like here. It is easy to see why the writers kept returning to Krycek, even while they struggled over what to do with him. Nicholas Lea is a disarmingly charming performer – the little giggle as he notices the woman at the urinal is adorable. More than that, Krycek provides a very effective foil to Mulder. It is nice to have a character who is candid about his own mercenary nature, who doesn’t mask his actions behind any attempt at selfless justification.
(Of course, it also raises a host of the issues that Paper Clip brushed aside. If Krycek is selling information from the tape in Anasazi, then why haven’t Mulder and Scully ever talked to Albert Hosteen about the specifics of what was on those tapes? After all, anything Krycek knows from that tape should be easy for Mulder to access. The Blessing Way and Paper Clip brushed those issues aside, reducing the tape to a macguffin. Here, it is barely even that. However, referencing it again reawakens all those questions.)
The confrontation between Mulder and Krycek raises questions about the relationship between truth and justice. Would Mulder really kill Krycek to avenge his father? Can Mulder’s pursuit for truth ever be as objective as he would like it to be? Does Mulder find himself trapped within a cycle of violence and retribution, from which objectivity is all but impossible? The X-Files suggests that truth is frequently bent or distorted or warped, and that it is very easy to get lost while searching for it.
As with a lot of the great early mythology stuff, Piper Maru and Apocrypha cleverly twins Mulder and Scully, suggesting shared experiences and unique perspectives. Scully had a near-death experience in Ascension and a rebirth in One Breath; Mulder had his own resurrection in Anasazi and The Blessing Way. Scully lost her father William in Beyond the Sea; Mulder lost his father William in Anasazi. 731 has Mulder and Scully ending up in identical train cars; how they got there and what they see remains unique.
Fittingly, Piper Maru and Apocrypha have Mulder and Scully confronting the two people who murdered Melissa Scully. In Piper Maru, Mulder confronts Krycek in Hong Kong. In Apocrypha, Scully comes face-to-face with Luis Cardinal. Both Mulder and Scully are forced to confront the emptiness of vengeance, the fact that simple retribution – an eye for an eye – is ultimately unsatisfactory. It’s a nice big thematic point, even if the episodes around it are a mess.
Piper Maru is directed by Rob Bowman, who does his usual stunning work on the show. The episode moves fast enough that none of the clutter becomes distracting. There is always a sense of where particular scene is heading. Although packed with some memorable imagery, Piper Maru cannot compete with the train sequences from Nisei or 731 or the mine investigations in Paper Clip. Neverthless, Bowman holds it all together.
Bowman is to credit for the show’s memorable closing shot – that wonderful sequence of Nicholas Lea walking directly into the camera. As Bowman explains in The X-Files Confidential, this was largely improvised during the shooting of the episode:
You always have to be ready to fix something that’s not right. They are walking along and David says, ‘You feel better?’ Nick [Lea] says, ‘Like a new man,’ and they walk past the camera, an d that’s the end of the episode. I don’t think so. What am I going to do? I jump on the camera and, of course, we’re behind schedule and everybody is looking at me like, ‘Rob, we don’t have time for you to fix this.’ But we did it again, and I remembered a moment in a film I had seen that was the same kind of long walking shot and I thought, ‘Well, this is really going on too long. There has to be something going on here.’ I told Nick to plant his face right in the camera. Nick will jump in front of a truck if he thinks it will make a scene better. So he walked right up to the camera; he shot his head forward into the camera and I came off the camera after rehearsal and said, ‘Now we have an ending’, and then it was matter of asking Mat Beck if we could make h is eyes go with the moving camera, filled with that black oil stuff that represented the alien presence. All of a sudden we went from, ‘Oh sh!t, we can’t end the episode this way’ to one of my favourite endings ever.
It is worth noting that this isn’t the first time that Bowman has used that effective “walk into the camera” shot. He used with the death squad at the beginning of 731, who ended the teaser marching right out at the audience.
It is a very bold and provocative shot – one that could easily seem absurd or ridiculous. However, Bowman makes it work, mining the horror movie iconography of it all. It creates the sense that whatever evil is lurking on screen is ready to march right out of the television and towards the audience. The screen is not a barrier that can keep you safe. As the black gunk swirls in Krycek’s eyes, it is almost as though he can see out into the people watching at home.
Infected by some strange alien object, used as a puppet by an organism that does not conform to the laws of physics or reality as we understand them, it is almost as if Krycek’s perception as been broadened. Has he become aware of his nature as a fictional character, one manipulated by an invisible force into playing a part in some epic drama? Bowman is a director who doesn’t lean towards passive observance. His sequences are frequently designed in such a way as to make the audience wonder if the show is watching them.
Piper Maru is a muddle, but it is a very watchable and enjoyable muddle. The show’s mythology is perhaps creaking a little bit, but it is still alluring and compelling. After this two-parter, the show’s conspiracy plot line tends to get a little more uneven, but it already seems to be straining slightly under the pressure.
- 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: | apocrypha, black oil, colonialism, conspiracy, france, Hong Kong, justice, krycek, luis cardinel, Movie, mytharc, piper maru, possession, ratboy, revenge, review, the x-files, Truth, x-files