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The X-Files – Synchrony (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.

Time travel is one of the great science-fiction tropes.

Although magical or metaphorical time travel has long been a part of literary tradition, pseudo-scientific or pseudo-rational versions of science-fiction really took root towards the end of the nineteenth century. Although H.G. Wells blazed a trail with The Time Machine, Edward Page Mitchell actually beat him to the punch – he published the short-story The Clock That Went Backward fourteen years before Wells wrote The Time Machine. Nevertheless, time travel quickly caught on as a literary device.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

There are films, television show, novels, comics and songs all playing with the idea of moving through time. Although there is considerable debate about the feasibility of actually travelling backwards through time, time travel serves as a wonderful narrative device. It opens up all sorts of possibilities for structure and style; it provides some pretty heavy themes; it opens up a myriad of settings and possibility. It is no surprise that there have been so many variations and permutations based upon the idea of going backwards in time.

Indeed, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before The X-Files got around to telling its own time travel story. Synchrony was as inevitable as the decision to close the episode with a clumsy hint toward predetermination.

Ghosts of future self...

Ghosts of future self…

To be fair, Synchrony arrives late in the season. This is traditionally the point where The X-Files throws ideas at the fall to see what sticks – the gap between the big sweeps two-parter and the epic season finalé. The fourth season manages quite well in this stretch, avoiding anything as terrible as Fearful SymmetryDød Kälm or Teso Dos Bichos. Nevertheless, there is the faint scent of desperation off the episode; a sense that “just do a time travel episode” is an idea that might have been pitched a few times before Chris Carter signed off on Synchrony.

In a way, Synchrony harks back to the stretch of experimental and “out there” science-fiction episodes of the late second season. The potent combination of time travel and instant freeze scream “science-fiction” in the same way as the invisible animals from Fearful Symmetry, the “accelerated ageing” plot of Død Kalm or the “black-hole-as-shadow” monster from Soft Light. It is no wonder that Cinefantastique review Paula Viratis would argue that the episode’s time travel “takes away from the reality that is this show’s foundation.”

Freeze!

Freeze!

As a rule, The X-Files has worked very hard to avoid a firm classification as “science-fiction television.” As David Nutter explained to Science Fiction Television Series:

After I did The X-Files, I did a couple of SF things and people would say to me, ‘Let’s make it stranger and more weird and more crazy than The X-Files.’ I would say, ‘The secret to The X-Files was that it was a drama. It was based on real life, real people, real situations.’ It was making the world and the characters as relatable as possible. That’s what made it emotionally satisfying and succesful. Don’t just tweak the interest in their heads, get into their hearts too. As Jim Cameron once told me, ‘It’s not science fiction but science faction.’

Watching The X-Files, it is clear that the show worked very hard to maintain its dramatic credibility. In interviews, Carter would avoid attempts at labelling the series that would classify it as simply “horror” or “science-fiction.”

Jason! We've got to go back! Back to the future!

Jason! We’ve got to go back! Back to the future!

In fact, Carter attended the World’s Skeptics Congress in July 1996, shortly before the start of the fourth season. During his session, Carter stressed that the show was consciously avoiding “far out” ideas. Ironically, he included “time travel” in his argument:

To be honest I try very hard to stay away from those classic science fiction conventions because my feeling is the show is only as scary as it appears to be believable.  Now, I know that probably doesn’t sit well with this group, but I must stay away from things like time travel and science fiction conventions because it gets away from the groundedness of the show, and Agent Scully would no longer have a valid point of view.

His remarks made a certain amount of sense in context. The end of the second season had seen the show play with storytelling ideas and conventions associated with science-fiction television. The third and fourth seasons had consciously pulled back from those extremes, towards a more grounded style of storytelling.

Future tense...

Future tense…

It would be easy to suggest a cynical justification for these conscious efforts to avoid classification as a genre show. After all, science-fiction has traditionally been locked out of the more prestigious awards. At this point in the life of The X-Files, the show was aggressively competing at the Emmys. During the third season, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose had won two major Emmy awards – for guest star Peter Boyle and writer Darin Morgan. In the fourth season, Memento Mori would earn a nomination for best teleplay and help earn Gillian Anderson an Emmy award.

More than than, The X-Files would earn “Outstanding Series” nominations for its second, third, fourth and fifth seasons. Even into the sixth season, Gillian Anderson and Veronica Cartwright were still receiving high-profile nominations. In many respects, The X-Files broke out of the ghetto normally reserved for science-fiction or horror television shows. Looking at the early years of the show, it seems quite likely that the decision to avoid more outlandish science-fiction concepts may have contributed to that success.

You can set your watch to it...

You can set your watch to it…

Some of the writing staff would agree. “Part of the reason it could overcome the genre prejudice is that it attempted to not feel like a genre show,” Frank Spotnitz conceded after the show wrapped up. “It worked very hard to make the sci-fi and horror elements seem plausible.” There is nothing wrong with this approach; The X-Files offered something utterly unlike anything else on television. However, this general attitude towards science-fiction high-concepts does mean that an episode like Synchrony stands out like a sore thumb when it does arrive.

In many ways, Synchrony seems to hark forward, towards the more adventurous and outlandish episodes in later seasons. After all, The X-Files would return to time travel as a concept in the years ahead. Monday was a late instalment of the sixth season that saw Mulder and Scully living the same day over and over again. Redrum was an early eighth season episode that had a man accused of murder sent back in time and given a second chance to set things right. Both episodes embrace their time travel elements more readily than Synchrony.

"Get my hands off of me!"

“Get my hands off of me!”

There is something quite uncomfortable about Synchrony. After all, the episode follows Tempus Fugit and Max. Those two episodes playfully mocked science-fiction television conventions. When Mulder suggested there might be a government cover-up involved in plane crash, the leader of the National Transportation and Safety Board team responded with mockery. “If any of the capable men and women find… Doctor Spock’s phaser or some green alien goo, we’ll be sure to give you all the credit,” Mike Millar offers.

In fact, as Mulder offers his theory about the plane crash to Millar in Max, the episode is careful to avoid the sort of technobabble associated with Star Trek. Trying the understand these concepts, Millar inquires, “You’re saying that, that Flight 459 was in the grip of… sort of a UFO tractor beam?” Mulder seems dismissive of such jargon in general, even if it does match the facts as presented. “That’s the Hollywood term, but yes.” So it is a very awkward transition from that very grounded laughing-at-science-fiction-conventions approach to an episode about time travel.

"No bloody A, B, C, or D!"

“No bloody A, B, C, or D!”

To be fair, Synchrony wears its influences on its sleeve. It turns out that Doctor Yonechi was flying “Pan Oceanic flight 1701” – an obvious reference to the USS Enterprise. The episode even drops in some of the same quantum physics terms that are sprinkled into Star Trek dialogue. “You’ll meet a man named McGuane who’s just discovered the first evidence of tachyons – subatomic particles that can travel faster than the speed of light and go back in time – but only for a few seconds and only at a temperature of absolute zero,” older!Jason explains to Lisa.

Of course, the use of “tachyons” in relation to time travel arguably makes a great deal more sense than the way that Star Trek has traditionally used them to tie into the cloaking devices that serve to hide entire ships. At the same time, it is very weird to hear the sort of language traditionally associated with more hardcore (if not necessarily “hard”) science-fiction deployed in conversation on The X-Files by a character who is not Mulder. Synchrony sits awkwardly at the end of the fourth season.

"Time out!"

“Time out!”

Despite its willingness to talk the talk, Synchrony‘s biggest problem is that it never really commits to the potential of a time travel story. It is almost afraid to follow its ideas to their logical conclusion. In many respects, Synchrony feels safe; it feels bland. Time travel is a concept so large that it encompasses an infinite number of possibilities. Entire television shows can be built around the concept and do radically different things with it – Quantum Leap and Doctor Who share time travel as a central element, but in no other way do they resemble one another.

“Time travel” is a concept that allows for stories as diverse as Back to the Future, The Time Traveller’s Wife or Primer. It can be a narrative element that exists primarily to transition into a story that the writer wants to tell, as it frequently is in shows like Doctor Who or Quantum Leap. However, it can also become the entire point of the story, as in Groundhog Day or Source Code. Time travel opens up a wide range of storytelling possibilities, and allows writers to explore themes like memory, history and free will.

Lisa did need to learn to chill...

Lisa did need to learn to chill…

Unfortunately, Synchrony never seems to aim for anything particularly ambitious. On paper, it makes a certain amount of sense. It is a story about a man travelling back in time to prevent time travel from ever developing. In order to prevent time travel from developing, Jason Nichols is willing to ruin his own career by allowing Lucas Menand to present data that would undermine his younger self’s research. When that approach doesn’t work, Jason Nichols is willing to murder friends, lovers, and even his own younger self.

As with any time travel narrative that explicitly features the plot point about stopping events from occurring, there are significant logical gaps here. If older!Jason succeeds in changing the future, how will he come back to prevent that future from occurring in the first place? This become a slightly bigger concern when older!Jason murders younger!Jason. If younger!Jason dies at the hands of older!Jason, then older!Jason cannot exist. If older!Jason does not exist, then older!Jason cannot kill younger!Jason. It seems like a bit of a paradox.

"This is no time to argue about time, we don't have the time!"

“This is no time to argue about time, we don’t have the time!”

Of course, there are a lot of ways around these logical loopholes. It could be argued that the very act of travelling back in time allowed older!Jason to create a parallel timeline, one completely disconnected from his own reality. If so, everything that older!Jason does serves to create another alternate history. This would explain how older!Jason could exist even if he burned younger!Jason to death. History branches. So older!Jason creates an entirely different universe running on a completely different course.

This does raise all manner of interesting philosophical questions. If older!Jason continues to exist after he murders Doctor Yonechi, the first act that definitively and clearly destroys his version of the future, does that mean that his own future continues to exist as well – just as an alternate timeline? If so, does that mean that time travellers from his own timeline can still visit the past? Indeed, can they still visit a point before older!Jason branches the timeline? More than that, if all older!Jason does is create an alternate timeline rather than destroy his own, is it worthwhile?

Taking a bath on this one...

Taking a bath on this one…

This is the problem with time travel narratives that are explicitly about time travel. If you are going to tell a story like that, it needs to be a great deal tighter. Then again, the mechanics of time travel can become overly complicated. In the movie Looper, older!Joe faces this problem in conversation with his younger self. “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” It is a very logical policy.

However, Synchrony tries very much to have things both ways. While it does not worry about the mechanics of how older!Jason can still exist after murdering younger!Jason, the episode falls back on that most stock time travel twist ending – the idea that by trying to prevent something, you ultimately ensure it. older!Jason manages to murder two of the three people who make time travel possible. However, his very presence seems to provide Lisa with all the information she needs to help make the leap herself.

Mulder'd have to be pretty cold to make a pun right now... as cold... as ice.

Mulder’d have to be pretty cold to make a pun right now… as cold… as ice.

Discussing Scully’s graduate thesis, Mulder reflects on her observation that, “although multidimensionality suggests infinite outcomes in an infinite number of universes, each universe can produce only one outcome.” Mulder suggests, “I take that to mean that you were suggesting that the future can’t be altered. Which means that the elder Jason Nichols’ attempts to stop his own research will fail, and that eventually his compound, and time travel, will be discovered.” The episode cuts to Lisa, examining the chemical older!Jason brought back with him.

This would seem to reject the idea that older!Jason created an alternate universe by travelling in time. As such, it reopens all those questions about how he could continue to exist after killing his younger self. More to the point, for an episode that takes a great deal of pride in its application of “quantum theory”, Synchrony has a very different understanding of “one outcome.” By its nature, a universe where Lisa develops time travel using technology provided by older!Jason is different from a world where Lisa, Jason and Yonechi develop it together.

Watered-down time travel story...

Watered-down time travel story…

The material difference is minimal, but it feels like a lazy and obvious conclusion to an episode about a time traveller trying to prevent the development of time travel. It feels like Synchrony wants to make some profound point about fatalism and determinism – about how actions have unintended consequences and how trying to prevent things from occurring can often cause them to occur. However, the ending of Synchrony feels like a clumsy attempt at irony. “Trying to prevent things from occurring can often cause similar things to occur” is not as profound a conclusion.

If Synchrony wants that level of complexity and nuance in its pay-off, it needs to put the work in. Time travel is such a familiar device that putting it at the centre of a narrative requires a certain wit and energy lacking from Synchrony. In a way, this is the same problem that Unrequited had with its decision to open in media res. If you are going to use such a stock storytelling device in such a grand way, then you need to justify it with a very clever execution. In contrast, both Unrequited and Synchrony feel almost paint-by-numbers.

Time flies...

Time flies…

To be entirely fair, time travel is a tough subject to write. It requires a very ordered and structured approach, even if the end result appears chaotic. After all, it introduces concepts like non-linear continuity and disordered cause and effect. As David Duchovny noted in I Want to Believe, the episode was constantly being revised and clarified:

“I remember that we kept shooting makeup scenes, because obviously nobody could figure out whether the audience would understand what was going on. They would always be writing little one-page scenes where somebody would try to explain it.”

Time travel can get confusing. Perhaps the best advice is that offered by Basil Exposition in Austin Powers II: The Spy Who Shagged Me. “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself,” he advises the eponymous spy, before turning to the camera and adding, “That goes for you all, too.”

The character here are not drawn particularly well...

The character here are not drawn particularly well…

To be fair to Synchrony, there are moments where it seems like it might work. The teaser suggests that older!Jason might ironically be part of a pre-destination time travel loop – that his trip back in time might actually cause the events that he was trying to prevent. After all, it seems like younger!Jason’s attempts to stop Lucas Menand at the prompting of older!Jason only serve distract the driver of the bus, which may have been a contributing factor in the accident. However, Synchrony moves away from that suggestion with the murder of Yenochi.

Similarly, irony is the order of the day, as the dialogue is loaded with ironic twists and misunderstandings. When nobody believes younger!Jason’s story about the old man, Scully proves herself remarkably ahead of the curve. She suggests, “I think the old man in this story is going to be Jason Nichols.” Of course, she adds a punchline – “…serving twenty-five to life in a federal prison” – but she does hit upon the story’s central twist ahead of time. Similarly, when Lisa is accosted by the as-yet-unidentified old man, Mulder asks, “And you were on your way to see Jason?” Irony!

Taking a stab at changing history...

Taking a stab at changing history…

The motivations of older!Jason are actually quite interesting, if somewhat under-developed. Confronted by his younger self, older!Jason tries to explain what would inspire him to try to murder the woman that he loves. Interestingly, this is not the stock argument about time travel – that you cannot have people messing around with history. “I don’t expect you to understand,” he advises his younger self. “What she created. What you – we – helped to create. A world without history, without hope. Where anyone can know everything that will ever happen.”

older!Jason is not worried about time travel into the past. He is not concerned about some foolish time traveller accidentally living through their own version of A Sound of Thunder, undoing or re-writing human history. Instead, older!Jason seems more preoccupied about what time travel means for the future of mankind. Time travel immediately grants everybody access to every moment from the beginning of time to the end of the universe. It renders the human experience finite; everybody can know everything that ever has happened or ever will happen.

Only himself to blame...

Only himself to blame…

It is, in a very literal sense, the end of history. The future from which older!Jason escapes recalls the nightmare suggested by Francis Fukuyama upon the fall of the Berlin Wall, The End of History and the Last Man – albeit presented in a more concrete and less abstract fashion. There will come a point where everything is known, and nothing new exists. In a way, then, Synchrony can be seen as a very literal reflection of the post-Cold War anxieties that run through The X-Files, particularly in this season.

In fact, this season of Chris Carter productions is quite fascinated by the implications of the end of the Cold War. Tunguska and Terma brought Mulder and Scully face to face with a modern Russia that had developed into a twisted reflection of the United States. Never Again had Mulder and Scully dealing with the Russian mafia in Philadelphia. Over on Millennium, Maranatha had Frank Black dealing with the legacy of Chernobyl while confronting the Russian Antichrist. Synchrony grapples with the end of history proposed by Fukuyama after the Cold War.

Moving past this...

Moving past this…

After all, despite Fukuyama’s prediction that western liberal democracy would stand victorious at the end of history, there was something mournful in his final paragraph. He seemed to predict the death of enthusiasm and idealism:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.

This seems quite in line with some of the fears expressed by The X-Files during its nine-year run, elegantly capturing a lot of what made The X-Files the television show for the extended decade-long “unipolar moment.”

And now the Mister Freeze puns can begin...

Cold hands, eh?

In many ways, The X-Files seemed quite uncomfortable with the implications of “the end of history.” In fact, the show seems to have an almost romantic attraction to unquestioning faith and devotion to ideology, even to potentially harmful ideals – look at Revelations, All Souls or Signs and Wonders. The show’s occasionally excessive fixation on fanaticism is perhaps the aspect of The X-Files that feels most obviously out of place in a post-9/11 world, clearly marking The X-Files as a show rooted in the extended existential crisis of the nineties.

In a more substantive way, The X-Files is drawn to the mystical or the mysterious. One of the recurring themes of The X-Files is the idea that the forces of civilisation and globalisation are pushing the shadows further and further back. Many of the show’s monster-of-the-week episodes seem almost sympathetic to the strange creatures squeezed out of the world by mobile phone coverage and internet connections. The X-Files is a show about how there are fewer and fewer dark places left in the United States; however, it often plays this as tragedy.

Shattered history...

Shattered history…

Synchrony touches on this idea. older!Jason seems to rebel against this end of history. Appropriately enough, he literally fights the future. He rejects a world where everything is know, where there are no more mysteries to be solved, no more monsters lurking in the shadows. Synchrony seems to present older!Jason as a sympathetic antagonist, one compassionate and caring. He is not the Terminator; he is reluctant to kill Yonechi and Lisa, his first attempt to alter history is an effort to save Lucas Menand.

Still, despite all this, Synchrony does not work as well as it might. The plot feels a little contrived. It seems a bit of a coincidence that so much related to the invention of time travel is happening in this short a space of time; even though older!Jason fails to save Lucas Menand, he still has the opportunity to murder Doctor Yonechi on his first trip to Massachusetts. Similarly, it feels a little convenient that older!Jason is unable to kill Lisa the first time he meets her, but can the second. It feels like the script trying to space out its plot beats awkwardly.

"What? I'm meant to more than just disagree with you, Mulder?"

“What? I’m meant to more than just disagree with you, Mulder?”

More than that, it falls into some the problems typical of a Howard Gordon episode. It is a script that is incredibly sympathetic to Mulder, to the point where it seems to consciously sideline Scully. It is the kind of episode that plays into the idea that Scully is compulsively and pathologically wrong, but simply refuses to admit it. Synchrony even allows Mulder to rub this in her face. He gets to quote her own graduate thesis back at her, to prove how close-minded she has become. “You were a lot more open-minded when you were a youngster.”

As with Gordon’s script for Kaddish, it seems like Scully is barely trying. She isn’t making any effort to account for anything, to the point where Mulder finds himself suggesting plausible explanations for what happened. Scully seems to believe the wrong thing not because it makes more sense, but because it is the wrong thing. Scully buys into the idea that younger!Jason is behind the crime, despite the fact that there is a logical alternative. As Mulder points out, anybody else doing similar research could have been responsible – and this is before time travel becomes a theory.

Submerged in his work...

Submerged in his work…

“He’s a cryobiologist,” Scully protests when Mulder suggests that younger!Jason is not the killer. “He freezes things for a living. How many people can do that?” Mulder replies by referencing Scully’s earlier observation about competitive scholarship. “Just about anybody who’s up for that grant money could,” he offers. That really feels like a logical leap that belongs to Scully – if she accepts that younger!Jason could have committed that murder, it is plausible that somebody with the same equipment and research could also have done it.

Similarly, as Lisa tries desperately to revive Doctor Yenochi, Scully sits in the corner of the lab and whines about how it is impossible. “This isn’t going to work,” Scully states matter-of-factly. “His body temperature was eight degrees. The lowest reported body temperature ever survived by a human being was seventy.” However, Synchrony allows Mulder to have the common sense response to Scully’s cynicism and pessimism. “Well, if he’s already dead, then he’s got nothing to lose.” It feels like Scully should really be more interested in what is going on. She is a scientist.

Burning up with guilt...

Burning up with guilt…

The “deep freeze” element of the plot also feels like something of an after-thought. It is a nice visual, and it could tie quite neatly into the themes of the episode. After all, older!Jason has to be pretty cold and ruthless to murder the people he loves. As such, the deep freeze – and the fact that older!Jason has to keep injecting himself with the deep freeze – could serve as a nice visual metaphor underpinning the story. Instead, the thematic connection is never quite developed or explored.

Synchrony is a muddled and confused episode that never seems to grasp its core concept as tightly as it might. It has a wealth of interesting ideas, but they ultimately feel rather flat. Though by no means a spectacular failure on par with the show’s – or, in fact, the season’s – weakest, Synchrony lacks the energy and enthusiasm necessary to pull off a story like this.

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

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