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The X-Files – Season 3 (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.

The second season of The X-Files was quite experimental in nature. Not all of that experimentation was intentional or planned, but the second season worked quite hard to demonstrate what the show could do. Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy forced the show to plot a relatively long-form arc, with Scully getting abducted and the X-files remaining closed for the first six episodes of the season. In essence, Anderson’s absence forced the show to embrace serialisation.

Other second-season experiments seemed more relaxed. The show discovered that big two-part mythology episodes did well during sweeps. Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug proved that the series could do comedy. David Nutter, Rob Bowman and Kim Manners became the show’s go-to directors. The show’s alien conspiracy arc became a recurring thread rather than a subset of the monsters of the week. There was a lot learnt during that second season.

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The third season of The X-Files feels a lot more relaxed, and a lot more comfortable. The third season seems to be largely about reinforcing the lessons learned during the second season. The third season gives more work to writers, directors and actors who made an impression during the second season. It works hard to solidify the concept of The X-Files. It seems like Chris Carter and his collaborators have finally figured out exactly what The X-Files should be, and are delivering it consistently.

The result is one of the most impressive seasons of television produced in the nineties, beginning a hot streak for the show. Chris Carter and Ten Thirteen would manage to produce three consistently fantastic seasons of television between September 1995 and May 1998. The third season of The X-Files really gets that ball rolling in a very profound and meaningful sense.

xfiles-josechungsfromouterspace5The third season of The X-Files capitalises on the lessons learned during the production of the second season. It avoids the high-concept science-fiction that powered episodes like Fearful Symmetry or Død Kälm or Soft Light. It allows Darin Morgan complete freedom to tell his stories the way that he wants to tell them. The show forges ahead with a mythology that exists clearly distinct from the other stand-alone episodes that populate the season.

The second season ended with Anasazi, an episode that felt funereal. It was a show that seemed to bid farewell to The X-Files, ending with the Cigarette-Smoking Man burning Mulder alive in a buried boxcar. It feels appropriate. The third season is risen from the ashes. It is a different show from the show it had been during its first two years. It has learned a lot from those forty-nine episodes, but now it has to become something a bit different.

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The third season incorporates the best of those first forty-nine episodes, while treating this as a new beginning. The third season feels like something of a fresh start. The Blessing Way is essentially an extended resurrection sequence, the story of how Mulder returns to the land of the loving with a clearer sense of purpose and a new understanding of how the universe works. It may be a little clumsy and awkward, but it underscores the idea that the end of the second season is a death and the start of the third is a rebirth.

It is no wonder that the third season ends with something of a generic cliffhanger. There is no game-changer here, nothing hinting at a massive shift in the status quo in the coming year. This makes a great deal of sense. Anasazi seems to say “we’re done messing around, stuff is gonna get real.” In contrast, Talitha Cumi seems to say “we’ve done a pretty great job this year, and we’re hoping to do a pretty great job next year.”

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In essence, the third season of The X-Files hits the sweet spot – there is a sense that the show has finally become what it always wanted to be. There is no need for another massive change or upset at the end of the year. The third season opens with massive change, and closes with the promise that things are not going to be that different when viewers come back in September. It is amazing how far that rebirth between the second and third seasons took the show.

This is most obvious in the show’s central conspiracy arc. The first two seasons did not really have a strong sense of continuity between the mythology episodes, except where necessary. Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy meant that Scully had to be abducted in Ascension and then returned in One Breath, for example. However, there was no firm link between Fallen Angel and E.B.E. or Duane Barry and Colony. The Cigarette-Smoking Man and Deep Throat wandered into and out of episodes at random.

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The third season builds off Colony and End Game to give the show’s mythology a much stronger sense of purpose. There’s a clear linking theme threaded through the third season mythology episodes, and a very strong sense of continuity. There is more substance to the people occupying this ethereal shadow world than there was in the first two season, with the Cigarette-Smoking Man seeming particularly human.

D.P.O. makes it clear that there is a firm boundary between these episodes and the show’s more episodic monster-of-the-week stories. While there is still the occasional exception – like Avatar – it seems like the characters and plot points from conspiracy episodes are frozen in amber between their allocated space on the broadcast schedule. It is a much firmer delineation than existed in earlier seasons, suggesting that the mythology forms something of a spine running through the show.

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However, despite these new boundaries, the third season does have a very clear sense of identity and purpose. The twenty-four episodes comprising the third season fit together quite comfortably, with themes echoing both into and out of the show’s mythology episodes. There is a sense that the writing team was on all the same page when it came to The X-Files, even if they approached their scripts in different ways.

Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” mercilessly spoofs the show’s central conspiracy plot line, but it feels like a companion piece to Nisei and 731, which hinted that aliens are convenient bogeymen for shady government activity. Hell Money touches on some of the ideas associated with the mythology – even featuring James Wong as an anonymous cigarette-smoking bad guy. Oubliette touches on the same themes about history and violence echoing through Paper Clip and Nisei. There is remarkable consistency here.

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Even in terms of the standard monster-of-the-week stories, there is a sense that the team have figured out how to tell those stories relatively well. The monster of the week episodes in the third season are remarkably consistent and well-constructed, building off solid examples from past seasons. The stand-alone episodes of the third season maintain a higher average quality than any run of episodes before that point.

Episodes like 2shy and Oubliette and Grotesque are all building on episodes from the previous two years. In some cases, it is very easy to draw a line of evolution from earlier episodes. These stories are executed in a way that makes it clear the production team has learned what works and what doesn’t work. Episodes like Fresh Bones or Tooms or Our Town are no longer exceptional examples of the form, they are now the expected level of quality.

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In any discussion about the best season of The X-Files, the third is bound to be mentioned. It is a staggeringly confident production. There is a sign that the team have done their experimental phase, and are now just ready to produce good television. The third season is packed full of worthy “introduction” episodes that are ideal to help fans recruit new viewers. Shows like D.P.O. or Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Pusher or Quagmire are great examples of the show simply doing what it always does, just exceptionally well.

It is perhaps a bit disingenuous to describe the third season as completely by-the-book. After all, Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” and Hell Money are both interesting and ambitious experiments in form. However, the third season has a lot more “typical” episodes of The X-Files than the second season or the fourth season. It is a season of television that is comprised mostly of the kind of stories that people think about when they think of The X-Files.

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Whether that was a conscious choice on the part of Carter and the production team, or just something that happened organically, this is the primary strength of the third season. The third season is perfectly positioned. It is exactly what The X-Files needs at this moment of its existence. This is the moment where The X-Files primes itself to go supernova. One need only look at the success that came on the launch of the show’s fourth season in late 1996.

With the launch of the fourth season, The X-Files would move to Sunday nights, reach its highest audience ever and launch a de facto spin-off. The show would become the twelfth highest rated show of the year, a dramatic increase from fifty-fifth position in its third season. (Itself a dramatic improvement from the one-hundred-and-fifth position in its first year.) Fox would take note this  phenomenal success; a theatrical movie would be planned.

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Although all of these things happened early in the fourth season, the third season made them possible. The first and second seasons of The X-Files had found a cult audience and wormed their way into the national consciousness. However, the third season was the point at which you could assure curious audiences that the show was worth watching. The X-Files was rocking its “mini-movie of the week” format, and you could feel pretty confident that you weren’t going to get a mess like Fearful Symmetry or Død Kälm.

It is important not to over-state the case. There are inevitably stinkers to be found in the third season of The X-Files. The twenty-odd episode model of prime-time network television makes episodes like Teso Dos Bichos inevitable. It is impossible to maintain a level of uniform excellence across that volume of material over that period of time. However, it is telling that the failures in the third season are much less embarrassing than the failures from the first two seasons.

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The Blessing Way and Teso Dos Bichos may not be great (or even good) episodes of television, but they are infinitely preferable to episodes like Space or Excelsis Dei. There are quite a few points where the third season falls short of excellence, but even its more awkward episodes are generally interesting in concept. There is a lot of interesting stuff going in Avatar or Wetwired, to pick two late season examples.

There is a sense that The X-Files has hit equilibrium, that it has found its balance. The show’s quality has stabilised significantly. There are still occasional shifts in quality, but those exceptional cases can now be written off as statistical outliers. The production team on The X-Files has done an astounding job finding the show’s sweet spot. Indeed, it is telling that the show is stable enough to withstand Carter splitting his attention between both Millennium and The X-Files: Fight the Future during the fourth and fifth seasons.

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Of course, the third season is the last time that it feels like everything is entirely under control on The X-Files. The third season seems like the last point at which Chris Carter’s original plan for the show is truly viable. After this point, as the show explodes into a national phenomenon, things become a lot harder to handle. Carter has admitted that he originally plotted the show for five seasons. The structuring of the third season seems to reflect this – it is very symmetrical, folding over on itself at the half-way point.

However, this was the point where it became clear that the plan was not viable. Barring a completely horrific disaster, Fox would not let The X-Files die after two more seasons. Similarly, Carter’s attention would begin to wander from the show as he launched other television projects and devoted attention to the feature film. It became quite clear that Carter’s original vision for the show would have to be tweaked and adjusted and updated.

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Indeed, you can see Millennium forging itself into existence during the second and third seasons of The X-Files. Episodes like Irresistible and 2shy and Grotesque and even The Calusari and Revelations all seem to point towards the development of Chris Carter’s second television show for Fox. Carter had considered casting Lance Henriksen in Pusher to get a feel for working with him. By the time that the third season of The X-Files wrapped production, Millennium was well on its way in front of the camera.

Meanwhile, the fact that Fox was planning to milk The X-Files for all that it was worth meant that the show had to enter a bit of a holding pattern. The show’s mythology moves in a relatively clear direction during the third season. The mythology episodes all seem to have a sense of momentum, and each has something worthwhile to contribute. However, the mythology would often feel like it was stalling during the fourth and fifth seasons, as if trying to stretch the idea on for longer than intended.

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The third season contains a pretty solid run on mythology episodes. The Blessing Way feels bloated and clumsy, but Paper Clip teases the audience with enough revelations to keep them engaged for the rest of the year. Nisei and 731 rank among the best mythology episodes that show every produced, balancing questions and possible explanations. Piper Maru and Apocrypha might not be quite as elegant, but they still have a clearer sense of purpose than some later conspiracy episodes.

At this point in the show’s run, it seems reasonable to expect the show’s mythology to have a satisfying conclusion. It still feels like the show is dealing in good faith. Talitha Cumi explicitly confirms that alien colonisation is coming, tying together threads developed since Colony and End Game towards the end of the second season. While there are some fault lines that might be discerned by those who know where the show is going, it feels like The X-Files has everything under control.

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The third season seems like the point at which The X-Files is most firmly in control of itself. There are great episodes (and great seasons) ahead, but none of the following seasons feel as tight and as focused and as controlled as the third season. From here on out, it seems like every season of The X-Files is dominated or overwhelmed by some behind-the-scenes concern; it feels like the show is forced to write around outside factors.

The fourth season was produced as Carter tried to launch Millennium. The fifth was waiting for the feature film to be released. The sixth saw production move to Los Angeles, in order to satisfy various members of the cast and crew – even if it meant bidding farewell to others. The seventh threw Carter into conflict with Duchovny over money. The eighth would try to reinvent the show while still haunted by its past. The ninth was written around an absent actor and faced the departure of Gillian Anderson before it was cancelled.

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Looking at the show’s occasionally turbulent production history, it seems like the third season was the only season of The X-Files where everything was perfectly under control. Both Duchovny and Anderson were fully available and engaged, and the show was still Chris Carter’s primary interest. It is no wonder that everything turned out so well, and the show felt so comfortable in its own skin. The third season of The X-Files is perhaps the platonic ideal of X-Files television seasons.

Which is enough to mark it as one of the best seasons of television ever produced.

You might be interested in our reviews of other seasons of The X-Files:

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

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