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The X-Files – Herrenvolk (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

After Talitha Cumi, Herrenvolk cannot help but seem like a little bit of a disappointment.

Towards the end of the episode, the Alien Bounty Hunter hunts down Jeremiah Smith. Mulder begs for mercy, but the Bounty Hunter will hear nothing of it. “He shows you pieces, but tells you nothing of the whole,” the Bounty Hunter remarks to Mulder. It feels like that sentiment encapsulates Herrenvolk in a nutshell. Mulder goes on the run with Jeremiah Smith and sees a collection of vague but compelling things that may or may not tie into colonisation.

"Now you're thinking, 'I hope that's shepherd's pie in my knickers!'"

“Now you’re thinking, ‘I hope that’s shepherd’s pie in my knickers!'”

Like a lot of the mythology in the fourth and fifth seasons, it feels like a holding pattern. Talitha Cumi was surprisingly candid in its revelations. The aliens were plotting to colonise Earth in collaboration with the human conspirators. The date had been set, the plot was in motion. That was a pretty big bombshell, confirmed in unequivocal terms. It was arguably the clearest and most transparent that the conspiracy arc would ever be. There was a clear goal, a deadline, and a sense of purpose.

Almost immediately, Herrenvolk works to muddy the water. It stalls, it procrastinates, it delays, it evades. It is a plot structured around a collection of ominous conspiracy buzz words (DNA, smallpox, colonies, clones) without a clear purpose or objective.

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

To be fair, the production of Herrenvolk was apparently a painful process for all involved. Chris Carter’s attention was now split between The X-Files and Millennium, and cinematographer John Bartley had stepped aside. This left quite a gap:

The first signs that all was not well were the enormous problems Herrenvolk suffered at the hands of cinematographer Bartley’s replacement, Ron Stannet, whom sources close to the production say was fired mid-way through the season premiere’s shoot for “lighting the show like a soap opera.” John Joffin eventually took over, but so much time had been lost that Carter ran out of script revision time, leaving Herrenvolk a confusing follow-up to the excellent Talitha Cumi.

Both absences are keenly felt. Carter’s divided attention probably contributes to the loss of focus in the fourth season, and the show develops a very different look under John Joffin and Ron Stannet than John Bartley. The show is lighter than it has been before.

"I can almost make out a shape of a plot..."

“I can almost make out a shape of a plot…”

However, there were other changes happening behind the scenes – other unforeseen developments and plans were percolating in the background. The fourth season was the point at which a feature film adaptation of the series became inevitable. Carter had always been open to spinning the show off into a series of films after a five-season run on television, but towards the start of the fourth season it was clear that Fox wanted a movie in theatres at the same time that the show was on the air.

Mark Snow confirmed plans for recording the movie score in October 1996. According to Jody Duncan’s The Making of The X-Files Movie, Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz worked out the treatment for what would become The X-Files: Fight the Future in Hawaii over Christmas 1996. Even if the deal had not been fully thrashed out, it was quite clear that The X-Files was not going to run for five years before spinning off into a film franchise. As such, the fourth season marks a point where everything is stalled.

Back of the neck!

Back of the neck!

Alien colonisation might have a schedule, but The X-Files had just lost its own. As a result, a lot of the mythological developments in these seasons can be seen as attempts to stall. Tangents becomes more frequent, diversions become the norm. The sense of actual material progression slips away. The focus that defined the third season mythology is gone. It isn’t until the eighth season that the show produces another consistent clear season-long mythological throughline.

This isn’t to diminish all the mythology episodes coming up. There are some great episodes that tie into the mythology over the fourth and fifth seasons of the show. However, they generally feel like narrative cul de sacs, exploring and expanding the fringes of the show’s central story arc rather than fleshing out the centre. Scully gets a major arc in the fourth season, and Mulder gets his own in the fifth. However, these feel somewhat divorced from the heart of the conspiracy story arc.

"Not the bees!"

“Not the bees!”

Herrenvolk is quite candid about all this. It is very much the typical second part of a conspiracy episode. There is a lot of movement, and a conscious effort to avoid elaborating too heavily on what came in the first part. Mulder spends most of the episode being led around by Jeremiah Smith. Smith shows him some interesting visuals and eerie sequences, but the there is a sense that Mulder is still a blind man groping at an elephant.

At one point, trying to protect himself from swarms of bees, Mulder douses himself in gasoline. “Somebody lead me,” he instructs. “I can’t see anything.” It is a fairly effective metaphor for the rest of the episode. Mulder is seeing all manner of interesting images, even as Jeremiah Smith steadfastly refuses to explain in simple English what is going on. Even his response to Mulder’s direct questions frequently dance around the issue.

"I was so concerned about Agent Mulder's safety that I was up all night styling my goatee!"

“I was so concerned about Agent Mulder’s safety that I was up all night styling my goatee!”

The Blessing Way and Paper Clip ultimately ended up with Mulder and Scully back where they started, but there was some sense of movement. Bill Mulder was dead. Melissa Scully was dead. We got to meet the larger conspiracy, beyond the Cigarette-Smoking Man. We knew for certain that Skinner would support Mulder and Scully. In contrast, it is hard to say that Herrenvolk advances any of the plotlines. Instead, it consciously avoids any substantial change to the status quo.

The most substantial change is arguably the murder of Mulder’s informant. Mr. X was a great character, and it is a shame to see the character killed off so casually. He doesn’t even get a particularly memorable scene this episode. He chats briefly with Scully before he is ambushed and killed by an assassin in Mulder’s apartment building. However, there is a sense that the departure of Mr. X was not a conscious decision to advance the plot. Instead, it was a production reality dictated by Steven Williams’ lead role on L.A. Heat.

Creepy kids are creepy...

Creepy kids are creepy…

After all, when the show decided to kill off Deep Throat, fans had to wait a whole summer before meeting Mr. X. Even then, the character only appeared as a disembodied voice in the second episode of the season, and didn’t appear in the flesh until the fourth episode of the year. He was also clearly and substantially different from Deep Throat. In contrast, no sooner is Mr. X killed off than we are introduced to a potential replacement in Marita Covarrubias.

Covarrubias picks up a lot of the slack of the informant role quite quickly. She has settled into the role by Teliko, the third episode of the season. There is little to delineate Covarrubias from her predecessors in her early appearances. It would not take too much work to re-write her scenes in Teliko or Tunguska for Mr. X. There’s no clear break with the character directly before her. Mr. X’s scenes in Sleepless and (in particular) One Breath differentiate him from Deep Throat. It takes a while (two thirds of the season) for Covarrubias to reach that point.

Fighting the past...

Fighting the past…

The episode even pulls back on the looming death of Teena Mulder, carried over from Talitha Cumi. The final scene of the episode features the Cigarette-Smoking Man convincing the Alien Bounty Hunter to miraculously heal Teena Mulder. “Everything dies,” the Bounty Hunter had informed Mulder. In Paper Clip, Albert Hosteen had proposed something similar – implying that the death of Melissa Scully was a symbolic gesture that gave the story around it weight; made sure that it didn’t feel meaningless.

Herrenvolk rejects this. Just as Mr. X is immediately replaced upon his death, the Cigarette-Smoking Man seeks to artificially extend the life of Teena Mulder. The conversation between the Cigarette-Smoking Man and the Bounty Hunter seems almost self-aware, as if the two are discussing the distortion of the show’s five-year plan. “I need to know the reasons why this should be,” the Bounty Hunter states. “So that the work may continue,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man repeats. “So that the project may proceed unabated.”

"Don't worry. We can trust her."

“Don’t worry. We can trust her.”

The entire sequence could be read as a commentary on the extension of the show’s mythology arc, the fact that Carter’s original plan would have to be distorted for the franchise to endure. The inevitable end of the show would not proceed as planned. Not everything would die as it was meant to. It seems like a rather wry bit of self-commentary, much like the Bounty Hunter’s criticisms of the way that Jeremiah Smith was leading Mulder on without providing any answers.

There is something quite cynical about the sleight of hand here. The plot splits Mulder and Scully early on, allowing Mulder to see the more inexplicable stuff while keeping Scully more grounded and looking at smallpox vaccination records. Indeed, fandom has even coined the term “Scully ditching” to refer to the process by which Mulder will completely (and often casually) abandon his partner to pursue something of particular interest to him.

"Sure. Fine. Whatever."

“Sure. Fine. Whatever.”

Here, Mulder leaves Scully with the (presumed dead) Bounty Hunter while he embarks on a trip with Jeremiah Smith. The episode explicitly references Mulder’s abandoning of Scully. “Stay out of his way, Scully, he doesn’t want to hurt you,” Mulder warns Scully about the Bounty Hunter as he pursues Smith. Later on, when Mulder asks where Scully is, she rather pointedly replies, “I’m right where you left me, Mulder. I’m sitting here in my car.” When he asks why, she answers, “Because you wouldn’t answer your phone and because I didn’t know what else to do.”

That said, there are a number of interesting aspects of Herrenvolk. For example, the episode goes to a great deal of trouble to provide the sort of nuts-and-bolts cliffhanger resolution that was lacking from The Blessing Way. Both Anasazi and Talitha Cumi end with Mulder in great peril. Anasazi ended with Mulder almost burnt alive inside a railway car, while Talitha Cumi saw our hero facing down the implacable Alien Bounty Hunter.

Life support...

Life support…

While The Blessing Way opted to avoid explaining exactly how Mulder got out of the box car, Herrenvolk devotes most of its first act to explaining how Mulder and Smith evade the Bounty Hunter. In a way, it feels like Carter is arguing at how mundane that sort of resolution is. Mulder and Smith essentially get away from the Bounty Hunter by running away really fast. Is that sort of generic resolution any more satisfying than having Albert Hosteen find Mulder buried under a pile of rocks?

Also notable is how Herrenvolk defines the process of colonisation. The title applies to Hitler’s plans for an Aryan master race that would rule the planet, ruthlessly eliminating diversity or difference in favour of a monolithic society of blonde hair and blue eyes. It is no coincidence that the young boy in Herrenvolk is blonde. When Mulder refers to “colonisation” as the larger plan, Smith corrects him. “Hegemony, Mister Mulder. A new origin of species.”

Ex-Mr. X...

Ex-Mr. X…

This provides a nice thematic intersection between the show’s mythology and the stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes. The X-Files was worked quite hard to distinguish them from each other, but Herrenvolk suggests that the show’s underlying themes are common to both. Many of the stand-alone episodes of The X-Files seem to mourn the passing of the eccentric spaces in America, the unique little towns with their unique little secrets; they are wary of encroaching globalisation that forces the monsters to retreat back into ever-shrinking shadows.

It is a recurring theme throughout the show – the story of how there is less room for the unknown in the world than there used to be. It came up in Humbug and even 2shy, but will also be reiterated in Home. Here, we see that this homogenisation is also part of the larger conspiracy. The dystopia awaiting mankind is not a world where humanity has been crushed under the heel of an alien oppressor, but a world where everybody looks, thinks and feels the same. It is a world where there is no room for the quirky or the eccentric.

It's okay, honey...

It’s okay, honey…

This is something that has been implicit since Mulder and Scully discovered the clones in Colony, but is rendered explicit here. Imagine a world populated by copies of copies of copies, a world with no disagreement or divergence. A world where everybody agrees on everything because everybody is truly the same. It is a harrowing and nightmarish version of the future, one which plays quite well to the paranoia at the heart of The X-Files.

Appropriately enough, Herrenvolk also plays with the recurring idea of humanity and alienation – the suggestion that perhaps human beings are just as alien as creatures from outer space. The X-Files has emphasised the fact that the white European settlers were themselves colonists in America; it will later imply that these extraterrestrial organisms may have as legitimate a claim on Earth as mankind does.

A bit of a fix...

A bit of a fix…

It is worth noting that Herrenvolk‘s discussion of DNA and the graphics used to illustrate the point are actually used as a teaching aid in Indiana University, something of which Carter is justifiably proud. As Anne Simon explains in The Real Science Behind The X-Files, this attention to detail took quite a few scientists by surprise:

A few weeks after Herrenvolk aired, a friend who teaches at Indiana University (who did not know about my connection with the X-Files) was giving a guest seminar at my university. During dinner that night, he told me about how had used an X-Files episode to teach his class about immunohistochemical staining. He said that he also decided to show the class how the amino acid sequence displayed on Pendrell’s computer screen couldn’t possibly be the sequence of the protein that it was supposed to be – having little faith that the show would go through the effort of using a real sequence. My friend demonstrated to his students how to enter the amino acid sequence into the computer and search the protein sequence database. To his astonishment, the protein sequence was exactly what the episode said it was. My friend said both he and his class were speechless.

It is a nice reminder of just how much care and attention went into the production of the show. It would be quite easy to just flub the science, especially given how the show plays with the paranormal, but it speaks to a high level of professionalism in producing the show.

Not quite dead to the world...

Not quite dead to the world…

Herrenvolk further conflates the ideas of “alien” and “human.” Calling a meeting with senior agents, Scully shows them an image. “With all due respect, Agent Scully,” a senior agent explains, “it looks like something from the Hubble telescope.” Scully replies, “Actually, it’s an image created by what’s called a confocal microscope.” We don’t need to look outwards or upwards to find something alien. The X-Files suggests that we can find something alien just by looking inwards.

That said, perhaps the most significant contribution that Herrenvolk makes to the mythology is the addition of the bees. The bees are perhaps one of the most polarising additions to the mythology; it could be argued they represent the point at which this conspiracy starts to become a little top-heavy. The addition of the black oil to the larger mythology in Piper Maru and Apocrypha is clever enough to offset any sense that things are getting too convoluted. While a nice image, the bees feel like a more obvious distraction.

It's the Mulder road movie that you never knew you wanted!

It’s the Mulder road movie that you never knew you wanted!

While the bees appear a couple of times over the course of the series – culminating in an appearance in Fight the Future – they were also phased out quite promptly. Given that Fight the Future was produced at the end of the fourth season, the bees were only a focal point of the mythology for a single year. (Although the film was released at the end of the fifth, the bees did not play a major part in the fifth season.) Asked about the possibility of bringing the bees back after the movie, Carter candidly replied, “I think people are tired of bees now.”

The bees serve as an effective example of how convoluted and obtuse the mythology could become. On paper, the bees are actually a clever idea. They are thematically rich, visually interesting, and they serve a fairly organic and logical purpose. Given what we know about colonisation, it is unlikely to involve massive armies and gigantic space craft. It is not going to look like Independence Day. Instead, it seems more likely to involved infiltration and infection.

The truth stings.

The truth stings.

The bees work quite comfortably within this paradigm. Bees are something the people see every day, they seem to be everywhere. If you wanted to distribute something, the bees would be a great way to do it. However, it seems like The X-Files is never entirely sure about what the bees are going to distribute. Herrenvolk suggests that the bees are going to carry a modified smallpox virus, used to wipe out significant portions of mankind so that colonisation can begin on a large scale. Certainly the teaser suggests as much.

The problem is that this gets a little muddled in their later appearances, as if The X-Files is trying to keep fans off-balance. In Fight the Future, it turns out that they are carrying the black oil as a means to infect and convert the population. This is also clever, but it does make things rather more complicated and confusing in the grand scheme of things. Are these all the same bees, or they two different types of bees serving two different purposes? How is this managed and controlled? Is the plan to convert and infect all mankind, or to wipe them out?

"So, you guys are cool about me being a regular on L.A. Heat, right?"

“So, you guys are cool about me being a regular on L.A. Heat, right?”

To be fair to the show, the mythology can still be stitched together in a way that makes sense. There are entire websites and books dedicated to demonstrating that the whole conspiracy storyline makes sense from beginning to end. (Indeed, some argue that even the science behind the bees makes sense, with the smallpox virus serving as “a vector for the delivery of alien DNA.”) However, there is a point where linking it all up stops being a fun activity for the viewer. When you start adding qualifiers like “… but then the other bees…”, things feel a little too convoluted.

When this plotline builds to so critical a mass that you spend most of The Truth delivering exposition in a courtroom to prove that it all ties together, perhaps things have gotten a little out of hand. Similarly, when it reaches the point that the over-arching conspiracy is better described in a bonus track on the movie soundtrack rather than within the movie itself, maybe it’s time to pull back. The bees are an example of this. They are a very simple and logical idea that is very cool, but one that the show tweaks and complicates and adjusts.

A hive mind...

A hive mind…

It is a shame, because the bees are a really great image. They fit quite comfortably with the larger conspiracy and the broader themes of the show. Much like the black oil is a literal representation of corruption and infestation, the bees convey quite a lot through implication and imagery. These are creatures that live in literal colonies, suggesting the nature of the attempted colonisation and infestation of Earth. They are a reminder that the natural world can be just as alien and dangerous as anything lurking in the void of space.

The bees are also a delightfully mundane threat to our heroes. Unlike clones or shape-shifting aliens, they exist in the real world; they are something that people encounter on a regular basis. They are so familiar that they often go unnoticed. Turning them into the tool of a sinister conspiracy to exterminate mankind is a very clever twist. It takes something that is mundane and quite routine, only to make it terrifying; one of the best approaches to horror.

His sister's keeper...

His sister’s keeper…

There is also a sense that Carter was ripping from the headlines. After all, the third season’s focus on the legacy of the Second World War came on the fiftieth anniversary of the conflict’s end. Here, Carter is touching on various stories about bees that were quite popular in the mid-nineties, including the arrival and rapid expansion of the Africanised Honey Bee in North America:

According to S. Thoenes, in the Tucson, Arizona area in 1994, only 15 percent of the trapped swarms were Africanized.  By 1997 almost 90 percent were this kind of bee. Latest information from Tucson, Arizona, the area most affected by wild honey bee migration, is that several separate pest control companies in Western states are regularly monitoring traps and destroying feral nests of Africanized honey bees.

Having escaped captivity in South American during the fifties, it had taken the African Honey Bee forty years to migrate to the United States. However, once they arrived, they became a potent colonising force. They would infiltrate and usurp the hives of European Honey Bees, often by killing and replacing the queen. As such, they make a nice metaphor for alien colonisation.

A pox on the conspiracy!

A pox on the conspiracy!

The media portrayed these invading insects as “killer bees”, and so it makes sense for The X-Files to take the idea to its logical extreme. However, as Jan Delasara notes in PopLit, PopCult and The X-Files, the choice to use honey bees (rather than a more vicious insect) is intriguing:

In the promotional video clips Inside The X-Files, which were also aired in ’98, Carter describes the bees as a colonising force with a correlation to the mythology being developed on the show – the idea that aliens are taking over the globe. According to him, the bees may eventually be used in a surprising way. Actually, using bees as an agency of supernatural horror is a surprise in itself; somehow the bee image lacks the viciousness and potency of the image of, say, the wasps in The Shining. Although no one enjoys a bee sting, and some few allergic victims do die of anaphylactic shock, bees traditionally represent a positive and productive force of nature.

In a way, the use of bees seems to tie the show’s mythology back to Chris Carter’s interest in ecology and green politics, evidenced in scripts like Darkness Falls, The Host or F. Emasculata. Carter was quite fond of the idea of nature striking back at an arrogant mankind, and the use of bees in this plot reflects that; it is as if the life-force of the planet has turned against mankind.

Poling highly...

Poling highly…

After all, the other big media story about bees during the nineties was the idea that colonies were collapsing and populations were falling. “Colony collapse disorder” is now a relatively well-known phenomenon, affecting the bee colonies around the world. Although there are lots of causes, one of the more prevalent causes in the nineties also involved infestation and infection:

The 1980s saw two periods of large die-offs due to Varroa and tracheal mites: The first Varroa mite infestation was reported in 1987; tracheal mites were first detected in 1984. Varroa mites are also said to have eliminated most feral bee colonies in the mid-1990s. Varroa parasitism affects both worker bees and male larvae and can affect the ability of the queen to reproduce. It is associated with viral pathogens and if left untreated can cause colony mortalities usually within six months to two years after the initial infestation.

Once again, the use of bees provides a nice metaphorical and thematic connection back to the larger mythology arc. The idea of infiltration and infestation recur throughout The X-Files. Indeed, it often feels like the conspiracy works better as a collection of recurring themes than as single coherent plot thread.

The show's DNA...

The show’s DNA…

It is also possible that Carter is drawing on the oft-repeated observation about just how dependent the world is on the work done by the bees. “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live,” the oft-cited wisdom suggests. The fact that is frequently attributed to Albert Einstein only lends it credence. This musing has a nice ring to it, even if it seems to trace its roots to a questionable quotation in The Irish Beekeeper. The quote circulated heavily in 1994, just as people began to take notice of the declining bee population.

While the particulars of the claim are subject to debate, it is a nice reminder of just how important bees are to the larger ecosystem. So turning the bees into a weapon to be harnessed against humanity is a powerful and effective image. It suggests nature is out of balance, perhaps indicating that mankind is so fragile and delicate that it might be destroyed by something as simple as a pollinating insect.

Crash landing...

Crash landing…

The bees also provide on the show’s more memorable and effective cold opens, which seems to contain a collection of common horror tropes. There is a remote location, a bunch of creepy identical blonde kids who seem quite disaffected by random brutality, and killer insects. It’s a delightfully atmospheric piece of work, even if one wonders why nobody noticed a repairman had been missing for twenty-four hours.

It’s also a little weird to see the production office not only using Vancouver to stand in for Canada itself, but also how hard the episode works to sell that. It seems to think that the audience won’t buy that this is Canada unless we get to see the van license plates and unless the repairman is the most Canadian character in the history of the medium. “A bee just stung me, ay?” he remarks. He reacts with stereotypical friendliness to the amassing creepy kids. “Don’t you all just take the cake?” It’s surprising that they didn’t just use a Mountie. It would have been about as subtle.

(That said, there is something delightfully uncanny about a sinister government plot brewing in Canada. Popular culture has a tendency to portray Canada as unimpeachably wholesome, so the occasional subversion is quite effective – like the implication early in the run of Uncanny X-Men that Canadian “Department K” had fashioned Wolverine into an unstoppable killing machine and state-sponsored weapon. It is also quite weird to see Canada standing in for itself, given how common it is for productions set in the United States to film in Canada.)

Herrenvolk is an episode where the strains of the long-form mythology episode become quite evident, and where it feels like somebody has pulled the brakes on an over-arching plot. It seems like a conscious attempt to force the show into a holding pattern, which would become one of the aspects of the mythology frequently criticised and roundly mocked – the sense that the show was running around in circles, misdirecting and distracting its audience to create the impression of forward momentum.

Herrenvolk is not a complete disaster, but it does feel like a misstep, pushing the show in what would become a dangerous direction.

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

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