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The X-Files – Tempus Fugit (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.

Conspiracy lives in the gaps.

Conspiracy theories grow in the gaps of history. They multiple and divide in the absences on the historical record. They entangle and dissemble in the lacunas of memory. In many ways, conspiracy theories represent an attempt to impose order upon a chaotic universe, to know the unknowable. They grow from doubts and questions, holes and voids. Every ellipsis, every redacted line points towards infinite possibilities. Every “no comment” is but conformation of the worst possible outcome.

The truth is up there...

The truth is up there…

Tempus Fugit opens with a nine-minute gap before a plane crash that claims over one hundred lives. Max closes with another nine-minute gap that sees the ever-elusive proof slip through Mulder’s fingers once again. However, Tempus Fugit and Max are not truly “conspiracy” episodes. Characters like the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the Well-Manicured Man, Alex Krycek and Marita Covarrubias are all absent. Even the sinister functions of shadowy government officials are outsourced to “Cummins Aerospace”, a government contractor never mentioned on the show before or since.

Instead, Tempus Fugit and Max are focused on the little people trying to assemble what they can from these gaps. Mike Millar is an honest and hard-working member of the National Transportation and Safety Board trying to piece together a crashed aeroplane. Max Fenig is trying to piece together some meaning for all his suffering. Mulder and Scully are trying to piece together the truth. Even the aliens themselves seem to be searching. Tempus Fugit and Max are populated with characters trying desperately to make sense of the gaps.

Fly by night...

Fly by night…

According to Kim Manners’ audio commentary for Max, the two-part episode actually evolved from an idea pitched to Chris Carter by David Gauthier, the show’s physical effects expert:

This entire story actually came to Chris Carter’s attention from our special effects man, Dave Gauthier, who thought it would be cool to build a mock – up of an airplane and abduct a passenger out of it in mid – air. And this whole story idea for Tempus Fugit and Max evolved over many months of David Gauthier and his special effects team actually built this mock – up that you’re going to see in this episode. It had 400 gallons of hydraulic fluid in it. It was about ten feet off the ground. I think it held 80 passengers. It would roll 22 degrees to the left, 22 degrees to the right, and it jumped up and down about four feet. And we were in it for days doing the abduction sequence, camera operators wearing helmets, extras never complaining. Interesting way these episodes evolved when your special effects man has an idea, a little toy he wants to build, and suddenly here comes a two-part episode of the X-Files.

That flight compartment is certainly the star of the show, providing some impressively cinematic set pieces across the two-part episode. However, Tempus Fugit and Max aired in a very different context.

Air crash investigations...

Air crash investigations…

Tempus Fugit and Max aired in the middle of March, 1997. They were broadcast less than a year after the crash of TWA Flight 800 into the Atlantic Ocean, only twelve minutes after taking off from J.F.K. International Airport in New York. Tempus Fugit consciously evokes the crash in a number of ways. For audiences watching on initial broadcast, the footage of the reassembled plane in the hangar would evoke memories of news coverage of attempts to determine the cause of the crash.

However, the similarities extend beyond stock plane crash imagery. Most obviously, Tempus Fugit places an emphasis on underwater recovery. One of the reasons that the investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800 took so long was because so much of the evidence was under water. 1600 man-hours were spent underwater to recover bodies and wreckage of TWA Flight 800. The cliffhanger bridging Tempus Fugit and Max features Mulder discovering an alien body in the middle of an underwater debris field.

A key detail...

A key detail…

Unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories soon sprang up around the crash of TWA Flight 800. It seems inevitable in this day and age; after all, similar conspiracy theories surround the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 or the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The rumours and conspiracy theories surrounding TWA Flight 800 were spurred by a number of different factors. Most notably, the FBI’s decision to open a criminal investigation in parallel to recovery efforts.

These conspiracy theories took root almost immediately. These theories and rumours focused on two possibilities. Compiling his own report, Commander William S. Donaldson claimed that the crash was a result of a terrorist attack and that the attack was subsequently covered up for political reasons with Bill Clinton’s reelection looming. In contrast, Pierre Salinger – President Kennedy’s press secretary – infamously verified that TWA Flight 800 had been accidentally shot down by the United States military. Salinger was quoting internet postings.

A walk among the wreckage...

A walk among the wreckage…

This is not the first time that The X-Files has engaged with the real-world conspiracy culture of the nineties. The fourth season has been particularly interested in “real-world conspiracies.” Militia groups and cults have popped up quite frequently this year – in episodes as diverse as The Field Where I Died, Tunguska and Unrequited. In fact, Unrequited was based around the real-life conspiracy theory that the United States government knowingly abandoned prisoners of war at the end of the Vietnam War.

This is a very risky proposition for The X-Files. It is very easy for such moves to seem crass and tasteless. After all, The X-Files exists in a world where a secret cabal of old men rule the world from a gentlemen’s club in New York, all in service of their alien overlords. By definition, The X-Files exists in a world where these sorts of conspiracy theories are inevitably true. According to the narrative rules of The X-Files, conspiracy theory is not just a smart world view, it is the sanest possible perspective.

Mechanical fault, plane and simple...

Mechanical fault, plane and simple…

As such, applying that perspective to real-life events and real-life tragedies can seem cynical or glib. There is a moment early in Tempus Fugit where the episode seems to concede the point. Mulder arrives at the National Transportation and Safety Board briefing, only to start positing crazy conspiracy theories. “Agent Mulder, is this an official F.B.I. position?” Mike Millar asks. “Because what you’re suggesting trivializes this tragedy… and casts these fine people and the work they have to do in a light that I think you would be well-advised to avoid.”

Tempus Fugit is quite careful in its treatment of Mike Millar. He is a very grounded authority figure who serves as a potential obstacle to Mulder. He is clearly not interested in crazy theories about little green men. In these sorts of stories, this sort of authority figure inevitably turns out to be corrupt or inept. In fact, Mulder seems borderline contemptuous of Millar. In fact, for most of Tempus Fugit, Mulder treats Millar to the sort of sarcastic back-talk that he used to give Skinner in the early episodes of the second season.

... to the Max!

… to the Max!

“What happened here?” Millar asks at one point, a perfectly logical question under the circumstances. Rather than offering a straight answer, Mulder replies, “You’re the experts. Why don’t you bring your team down here and work it out?” Millar replies, quite reasonably, “They’ve got their hands full.” Mulder cannot resist the urge for a cheap shot. “Yeah, coming up with all that inconclusive evidence.” For most of its runtime, Tempus Fugit seems to be building to a point where Millar betrays Mulder, either because he is evil or simply ignorant.

However, the two-parter is ultimately sympathetic to Millar. He starts out cynical and dismissive, but he is eventually more receptive. When he experiences unaccountable phenomenon, he admits it. When he finds evidence that he cannot explain, he presents it to Mulder and Scully and is willing to listen to their feedback. It is a bit much to argue that Millar is the true hero of Tempus Fugit and Max, but he is very much a professional trying to do his job to the best of his ability. He is not a patsy or a stooge, or an agent of the conspiracy.

Shady agents...

Shady agents…

Then again, Tempus Fugit and Max is not your average mythology two-parter. It might look like a big spectacular mythology multi-parter in the style of AnasaziThe Blessing Way and Paper Clip or Nisei and 731 or Piper Maru and Apocrypha; ultimately, it is something very different. As with the other fourth season mythology episodes, there is no real sense of progression here. Much of the fourth season mythology is dedicated to running in place, as if the writing staff are now desperately trying to adjust their plans and schedules to fit an extended run of The X-Files.

The earlier fourth season mythology episodes struggled with that lack of progression. Tunguska and Terma felt like a pointless diversion, a clear attempt to stall the mythology to make room for The X-Files: Fight the Future. Memento Mori was an episode that was never planned, becoming so heavy that it seemed to warp the rest of the season around it. In contrast, Tempus Fugit and Max figure out the art in telling a conspiracy story that ultimately doesn’t matter; the two-parter embraces the lightness and hollowness of it all.

Lights in the sky...

Lights in the sky…

Tempus Fugit and Max are not about colonisation or vaccination or resistance. They do not wade into the big plot points associated with the show’s central story arc. The big players are mostly absent; even Skinner only turns up for a brief scene at the start of Max. Nothing that happens in Tempus Fugit or Max ultimately has any long-term affect on how the mythology plays out, except that Agent Pendrell will no longer be making awkward passes at Scully. However, that is the entire point of the two-parter; that for all its scale, the conspiracy is a sad and personal story.

And so Tempus Fugit and Max focus on the big ideas of the mythology without worrying about any twists or plots or developments. Appropriately enough for an episode that brings back Max Fenig, Tempus Fugit and Max could easily be a first season mythology episode. Fallen Angel and E.B.E. have a tangential impact on the show’s central mythology at best; instead, they use the big themes that would become inexorably linked to the show’s central narrative to tell what are ultimately character-driven stories.

"Nobody calls me Evil Tom Selleck and is allowed to live!"

“Nobody calls me Evil Tom Selleck and is allowed to live!”

Indeed, it could be argued that Tempus Fugit and Max exist as an attempt by The X-Files to engage with the show’s history. The fourth season suggests a renewed interest in the legacy of the first season. Mulder mentions Scully’s graduate thesis in Synchrony for the first time since The Pilot. Section Chief Scott Blevins appears in Gethsemane for the first time since Conduit. Max appears here for the first time since Fallen Angel. Even in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, the villain sits in a room by himself listening to recordings of dialogue from The Pilot.

Tempus Fugit and Max represent a return to the first season’s approach to the mythology. Episodes like The Erlenmeyer Flask, Duane Barry, Ascension, Colony, End Game and Anasazi helped to galvanise the idea of the mythology as a single narrative. As such, Tempus Fugit and Max feel like a break from this story-driven approach to mythology two-parters. They don’t push the conspiracy narrative much further on. Instead, like Fallen Angel and E.B.E., they use the backdrop of the mythology to tell a much more intimate tale.

Lost time...

Lost time…

It makes sense, then, for Tempus Fugit and Max to wrestle with big ideas about conspiracy theories and purpose. Confronted with a truly horrific and almost incomprehensible accident, Mulder immediately turns to the idea of conspiracy to account for a crash that killed over one hundred people. In those first season episodes, The X-Files suggested that conspiracy theories were a way to process horrific information; a way to make some semblance of order out of chaos.

In Tempus Fugit, Mulder’s belief in conspiracy allows him to avoid facing the death of Max Fenig. Even as he and Scully walk through the wreckage, he seems genuinely convinced that Max has survived. After all, what good are aliens if they can’t save you from a crashing plane? Mulder suggests that the story of the crash is one of a botched alien abduction. “And when Max is returned, he’s going to tell us exactly the same story unless someone gets to him first,” he warns Scully, just before she confirms the recovery of Max’s body. Little green men could not save him.

Happy birthday to you...

Happy birthday to you…

It has been suggested that conspiracy theories exist as a way to give meaning to meaningless events. Asked to explain the popularity of conspiracy theories, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky suggested:

There are number of factors, but probably one of the most important ones in this instance is that, paradoxically, it gives people a sense of control. People hate randomness, they dread the sort of random occurrences that can destroy their lives, so as a mechanism against that dread, it turns out that it’s much easier to believe in a conspiracy. Then you have someone to blame, it’s not just randomness.

After all, the only thing more terrifying than the idea that the world is run by a secret cabal is the idea that world is careening completely out of control – driven by factors beyond the provenance of man.

"He'll never find me up here..."

“He’ll never find me up here…”

In his essay on JFK in Now Playing at the Valencia, Stephen Hunter makes a similar argument to explain for the popularity of conspiracy theories concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy:

In this case, and so many others, the conspiracy theory gives the event meaning that it would otherwise lack. The phenomenon is familiar from the culture of JFK assassination buffs, who cannot abide the squalid possibility that a grim little nobody with stained teeth and rancid breath reached out to twist the shape of history. If that were true, the news is very bad: it means there is nothingness in the universe and that random winds wreck lives and nations on no principle save whimsy.

Given the alternative, it makes sense that so many believe in conspiracy theories. Studies suggest that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe other unrelated theories; conspiracy as a philosophy.

"What's a nice alien like you doing in a dive like this?"

“What’s a nice alien like you doing in a dive like this?”

And, so, we create conspiracies where we can. We look for holes and gaps in the historical record, so that we can craft an alternative narrative of events. It is no coincidence that Tempus Fugit and Max feature two instances of lost time that amount to eighteen minutes in total. As with so many aspects of The X-Files, this can be traced back to the seventies. The tapes so crucial in incriminating Richard Milhouse Nixon during the Watergate scandal infamously featured a mysterious eighteen-minute gap.

The eighteen minute gap has been the source of much speculation, with the press widely dismissing the suggestion that these sections were accidentally erased. Nobody knows what was discussed, as Nixon took the secret with him to the grave. There have been many possibilities suggested. Maybe Alexander Haig wiped the tapes. In Nixon, Oliver Stone suggests that the missing section of conversation has to do with the Bay of Pigs. The gap is goldmine to conspiracy theorists. Indeed, the gaps have been cited as a perfect example of “fortuitous data” for conspiracy buffs.

"This never happens on the Discovery Channel. ... Maybe on the History Channel."

“This never happens on the Discovery Channel.

Maybe on the History Channel.”

These gaps allow people like Mulder and Max to construct their own narratives about horrific events. “Missing time” has haunted The X-Files since Mulder and Scully first worked together in The Pilot. In Tempus Fugit and Max, the first nine-minute gap becomes all the evidence he needs to support a theory about aliens and the government causing the crash. “Someone has got to figure out what happened in those nine minutes,” Mulder tells Scully. “Somehow, we’ve got to get them back.” After all, this accident is much less satisfying if it is actually an accident.

Tempus Fugit and Max feature quite a few of these absences and gaps. When Mulder finally manages to get ahold of the “smoking gun” in Max, Scully orders him not to open it. Mulder could look inside the bag, but it would expose him to potentially fatal radiation. Mulder is holding the proof in his hands, but he cannot look at it. He cannot know what it is beyond the fact that it is the missing piece of the puzzle. The closest he can come to examining the device is staring at an outline on an x-ray machine. Mulder knows the shape of the truth, but he has to fill in the details himself.

Bits and pieces...

Bits and pieces…

In essence, Mulder is doing the same thing as Millar. Examining the wreckage, Millar tries to reverse engineer the disaster. “Recovery and identification of the deceased victims of Flight 549 is at seventy-six percent,” Millar boasts towards the end of Max. Not bad considering the fact that his team are working with scattered body parts and separated human remains. All Millar has is wreckage and remains, and he is tasked with making sense of it all. Confronting the senselessness of it all must seem impossible.

Tempus Fugit and Max are frequently overlooked in assessments of the show’s mythology. This makes sense. Neither episode offers even the illusion of advancement or progression. Then again, that is the point. Tempus Fugit and Max are episodes that are more reflexive and introspective than their scale might suggest; they demonstrate that there is a way to build a massive two-parter around the stalling mythology. In fact, Tempus Fugit and Max combine to form what might just be the strongest mythology two-parter this side of the eighth season.

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

2 Responses

  1. This episode and “Max” reminded me how narrow-minded Mulder’s quest can be. He thinks it’s all about finding the smoking gun. Scully knows that to prove his theory Mulder has to actually convince people of it, otherwise all these people have died in vain. Scully cares about justice, Mulder only cares about “the truth.”

    • That’s an interesting idea; I think Scully has a wider focus and a better mind for consequences. She would never have gotten on the crowded plane with the alien technology, but it seems like Mulder didn’t even give it a second thought.

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