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The X-Files – Season 4 (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.

The fourth season of The X-Files is a work of chaotic genius.

While the third season of The X-Files is one of the most consistently well-made seasons of television ever produced, the fourth season is a lot more uneven. There are a lot of reasons for this. Chris Carter was busy launching Millennium. Fox had decided to press ahead with The X-Files: Fight the Future. Behind the scenes, it was chaotic. Glen Morgan and James Wong hung around for half the season before leaving to work on their own pilot, a planned script from Darin Morgan fell through, Chris Carter’s attention was divided.

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However, the fourth season represents something of a changing of the guard on the writing staff, a transition between two generations. The fourth season sees the permanent departure of writers Glen Morgan, James Wong and Howard Gordon. These were all writers who worked hard to give The X-Files its unique flavour and identity in the show’s earliest years. The X-Files would not be the same show without the input of those three writers. It is a shame to see them depart, although four years is a long time in the industry.

In contrast, the fourth season also sees younger talent rising up. It sees the first collaboration of Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz. The trio would become one of the most consistent (and productive) writing ensembles on the series. The fourth season also saw the rapid ascent of Vince Gilligan, who had only contributed one script to the third season; Gilligan’s three solo scripts for the third season are iconic and influential in their own right. These are the voices that will steer The X-Files through to the end of its nine-year run.

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As such, the fourth season feels transitional. It is a season that lacks the finely-honed efficiency that defined the third season, in favour of a more ambitious and even experimental style. The result is a season that feels wildly creative, a joyous cacophony rather than a harmonious symphony. The fourth season may not always hit the notes, but it is doing something very fresh and exciting. There is an energy and enthusiasm to the season that carries even some of the weaker episodes.

The fourth season is not consistently brilliant, but it is more than occasionally transcendental.

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Even without all the background information about the troubled production of the fourth season, it seems like the season hits a stumbling block quite early on. The mythology episodes in the first half of the season lack the momentum that characterises the best of these stories. Talitha Cumi had revealed an incredible amount of information to the audience, teasing the possibility of real answers about the show’s mythology. At the end of the third season, there was a clear sense that the stage had been set and that the show could move onwards.

However, the first mythology episodes of the fourth season seemed to squander this momentum. Herrenvolk gave us farms full of clones and hives full of bees. However, it gave no real answers or substance, instead favouring vagaries and ambiguities. Tunguska and Terma took the conspiracy abroad as Mulder chased evidence all the way to Russia. The two-parter teased the idea of a fully-formed Russian conspiracy, albeit one that never developed beyond this initial appearance. For the first time, it seemed like the mythology was stalling, consciously or otherwise.

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After all, what would viewers know after Gethsemane that they did not know before Herrenvolk? Tunguska and Terma hint a vaccination designed to resist the inevitable colonisation, but little else of substance is offered. While each of the first three seasons offered a quantum leap in the show’s central narrative, the fourth season just adds a bit detailing around the edge. It isn’t until Patient X and The Red and the Black towards the end of the fifth season that it seems the show’s central story arc finds a clear direction.

That is not to dismiss the mythology episodes of the fourth season as a whole. The most interesting stories related the conspiracy are those that use this respite to tell character-driven morality plays. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man offers a biography of a spectre haunting American history; Tempus Fugit and Max tell a sad story about pointless deaths that accrue around Mulder’s quest; Zero Sum explores the morality of compromise and bargaining with the forces of darkness.

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This is in keeping with the broader sense that the fourth season functions better as a collection of individual stories than as a collective whole. Many of the show’s more memorable and iconic stories were rushed to meet a deadline. Memento Mori was drafted at the last minute after a Darin Morgan script feel through. As such, Scully suddenly had a terminal cancer half-way through the season, despite the fact that there were episodes in various stages of production being prepared by writers were unaware of the fact that one of the leads was now dying.

With all this going on, it seems fair to suggest that the fourth season lacks the same clear thematic through line that defined the third. The third season of The X-Files was fascinated with the legacy of the Second World War, with a surprisingly consistent arc spanning the bulk of the mythology episodes and even spilling over thematically into some of the stand-alone stories. The fourth season has no such golden thread, nothing that will help identify the bulk of the season as crafted from the same material.

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It is interesting that the idea of militias and conspiracy nuts appear throughout the season. From the militant religious doomsday cult in The Field Where I Died through to the home-grown terrorists in Tunguska to the the Red Right Hand in Unrequited, it seems like the fourth season is interested in conspiracy theory as a real world phenomenon. Similarly, Tempus Fugit and Max are based around a fictionalised account of the crash of TWA Flight 800, a version of events where the conspiracy theories were true.

Perhaps this introspection reflects the increasingly high profile of The X-Files as a television institution. The show is no longer a scrappy young pup carving out a niche in a crowded market place; The X-Files has that rare mix of popularity and credibility. There were already collections of academic essays being published about the series, along with the episode guides and other materials. The X-Files could no longer claim to be a fringe outlier in the television landscape. It was part of the pop culture conversation.

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Given the popularity and prevalence of conspiracy theories in contemporary American life, it was perhaps time for The X-Files to engage with these ideas on a level that did not simply use them for story fodder. After all, these beliefs had caused real and substantial harm; at a casual glance, the nineties audience might see Fox Mulder as another Unibomber or Oklahoma City waiting to happen. Of course, Mulder lives in a world where conspiracy theory is reality; where everything seems to be true. That could become problematic.

The fourth season seems to work hard to delineate and differentiate Mulder’s philosophy from those more extreme proponents of conspiracy theory. Even within the context of The X-Files, even in a world where their views are accurate, these groups are still dangerous and misguided. The cult in The Field Where I Died tragically lose their lives at the behest of a charismatic child-abusing sociopath. The militia group in Tunguska are manipulated by the same shadowy forces they claim to resist. Only Unrequited seems to be marginally sympathetic towards its subjects.

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There’s also an interesting focus on the show’s past as it approaches the half-decade mark. After all, five years is generally the limit for most television shows; it is the point where the series passes the hundred episode mark, making it easier to sell into syndication. If a show makes it to five seasons, it has succeeded. However, The X-Files was beginning to face the prospect of running far longer than five seasons. Perhaps this motivated the renewed interest in the series’ history and past continuity.

In particular, there is renewed interest in the first season. Synchrony mentions Scully’s graduate thesis for the first time since The Pilot. Gethsemane features Scully appearing to complete the assignment she was given in The Pilot, debunking Mulder’s work. Tempus Fugit and Max bring back Max Fenig from Fallen Angel. Gethsemane features the return of Section Chief Blevins for the first time since Conduit. In Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, the eponymous villain listens back over the recordings of the events depicted in The Pilot.

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This seems to reflect a larger interest in the show’s history and past. Emboldened by the success of their monthly comic series, Topps began producing a range of Season One comics that featured adaptations of first season scripts by comic book legend Roy Thomas. The release of adaptations of The Pilot and Deep Throat served to bookend the broadcast season. The show was still a few years away from releasing entire seasons on home media, but there was a clear and conscious effort to tie The X-Files back to its origins. This cements the feeling that the fourth season represents a crossroads for the show.

The renewed focus on the end of the Cold War (or, according to Synchrony, the end of history itself) perhaps represents another clear thematic connection back to the show’s first year. Indeed, the interest in contemporary Russia bleeds through The X-Files and into Millennium, with shows like Gehenna, Tunguska, Terma, Never Again and Maranatha interested in the consequences of the collapse of the so-called “evil empire.” Even episodes like Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and Gethsemane tie the government conspiracy back to its Cold War origins more overtly than any season since the first.

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There are couple of other small ideas that bubble across the year. The idea of grotesque and distorted motherhood is articulated in Home and Leonard Betts, leading into the story of Scully’s own cancer and infertility in Memento Mori. Doubt seeps into Mulder’s certainty in episodes like The Field Where I Died, Paper Hearts and Demons. If the fourth season were structured more clearly and more effectively, those doubts and uncertainties would be positioned so that they might build towards the climax of Gethsemane. However, these doubts sit independent of each other.

Ideally, Scully’s cancer would provide some nice connective tissue to bridge the season, but the fact that it was a last-minute addition to the year means that it cannot provide a strong thematic glue. Perhaps the strongest linking theme is darkness itself; the fourth season is a surprisingly mournful and melancholy season even before Scully receives her diagnosis. Small Potatoes is the year’s only really funny episode; there are elements of comedy to Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, but these are offset by deep sense of loss and tragedy.

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So the fourth season is quite disjointed. There has always been a sense that the show was slightly different depending on who was writing that week; the awkward execution of the cancer storyline made that all the more evident. In fact, the awkward scheduling of the fourth season caused all sorts of conflicts and differences of opinion. Airing Never Again out of order radically changed the meaning and intent of the episode – much to the frustration of Glen Morgan. If continuity did not really exist in the writers’ room, how could it possibly make sense to the audience?

Every episode to air after Leonard Betts comes with an extra burden. Watching Kaddish or Small Potatoes, the audience are always wondering about Scully’s cancer diagnosis. It doesn’t matter that Kaddish came first. The fourth season is warped by the gravity of Memento Mori, an episode that distorts time and space around it. Unrequited becomes one of the very few points in the history of the show where the actual dating of the episode matters. Although filmed and broadcast after Leonard Betts, the show sets it before in order to avoid dealing with cancer.

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The X-Files has always felt more like a collective of distinct narrative voices than a single authorial voice. This is particularly true in the fourth season. Vince Gilligan’s first two scripts of the season feel like they might have been poached from the Millennium writers’ room, dark stories of human monsters with a psychological twist. After the cancellation of Space: Above and Beyond, writers Glen Morgan and James Wong returned for the first half of the season – producing four of the most controversial and confrontational episodes of The X-Files ever filmed.

Indeed, Morgan and Wong seemed to be consciously pushing the show. Home is perhaps the most disturbingly trashy episode of the season, while The Field Where I Died is a melancholy and reflective supernatural romance. Morgan and Wong even courted controversy within the production team with Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and Never Again, both of which became focal points for heated debate and discussion among the creative team and the show’s fans. In a way, these envelop-pushing episodes set the tone for the year.

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While this creative chaos leads to less consistency between episodes, it may not a bad thing. After all, the episodes produced during the fourth season may not all sit together comfortably, but they do demonstrate their own unique brilliance and ingenuity. The fourth season contains its share of bona fides classics, but it also contains a selection of noble failures; episodes that may not come together as well as they could, but try to do interesting things and touch on intriguing ideas.

For many shows, the fourth season brings a sense of stability. The cast and the production team know the characters and the material inside out; everybody has learned their job at this point the show’s life-cycle. If a show makes it to four seasons, it is generally a success. That one hundred episode syndication marker is in sight. If there is not a major creative shake-up behind the season, there is little reason for the eager experimentation of earlier years. After three full years, everybody is relatively good at what they are doing; the tendency is to let them do it.

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Due to a number of complex behind the scenes reasons, the fourth season of The X-Files is denied that sense of comfort and familiarity. The year lacks that same sense of consistency that defines the third year. It was a turbulent chapter in the life of The X-Files. It was also a creative one. There is a solid case to be made that the fourth year was the most successful season of The X-Files ever produced, that this was The X-Files finally hitting the peak of its popularity – a popularity that it would sustain until the release of Fight the Future.

The show moved from Friday to Sunday, the slot where it would remain for the rest of its run. This transition was originally opposed by Carter, but quickly paid dividends; Leonard Betts aired after Superbowl XXXI and became the highest rated X-Files episode of all-time. The show soared up the charts. Its third season had been the fifty-fifth most watched programme of the 1995-96 season; the fourth season was the twelfth most popular television show of the 1996-97 season. The X-Files would hover around the top of the rankings until the end of the sixth season.

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Of course, success is measured in more than just ratings. The X-Files continued its push to be accepted as a credible television drama, despite its genre trappings. It won its second of three Golden Globes awards for Best Television Drama. Anderson and Duchovny both took home acting trophies at the Golden Globes, the only year that either would win for their work on the show. That same year, Anderson managed to push through and win an Emmy for her work, perhaps the highest profile award that the show took home during its run.

Ratings and awards are nice prizes for a show to take home. However, the fourth season of The X-Files also benefited from a fantastic writing staff. The fourth season of The X-Files finds the show at a crossroads. Veteran writers like Glen Morgan, James Wong and Howard Gordon departed the show over the course of the year; however, they did some of their very best work. At the same time, Vince Gilligan demonstrated that he was a talent to watch after arriving quite late in the third season.

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While Darin Morgan only appeared in front of the camera, his influence on the series was keenly felt. Memento Mori was developed when he was unable to deliver a script; Small Potatoes and Gethsemane both heavily reference his work, albeit in different ways. Even allowing for that notable absence, this is still as close to an X-Files “all-stars” writing staff as anybody is ever likely to see. It is a staff packed full of experienced and successful writers and producers, some of whom would go on to shape the industry.

The fourth season of The X-Files might be uneven and unpredictable, but it is also energetic and enthusiastic. There is an incredible sense of kinetic movement to the show – a sense that this is a show that has not settled into a familiar groove, that can still surprise viewers. There are episodes uniformly accepted to be brilliant in the fourth season – like Home, Paper Hearts or Leonard Betts. There are also episodes that are hugely divisive among fandom – like Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man or Never Again.

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That sort of division and debate is a good thing. After all, a show that is consistently hitting or missing audience expectations is fairly safe and sterile; a show that can challenge and re-define those expectations is still capable or reinvention and renewal. In its fourth season, The X-Files is still capable of catching its audience off-guard. It is still able to throw a curve ball. The fact that so many fourth season episodes are still polarising and controversial decades after they originally aired stands as the highest praise.

The fourth season might not be the same unqualified triumph that the third season was, but it is a hugely ambitious and frequently successful piece of television in its own right.

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

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

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2 Responses

  1. I’ve read several of your reviews since I saw you on eatthecorn’s twitter account recently. This is awesome work. You’re right that retroactive reviews of the series tend to quibble quite a bit with the mythology. But I agreed with Carter when he recently said that the mythology over 9 years does “hold up.” I think the problem is it isn’t what he had planned or hoped for. By the start of season 3, I believe Carter had the mythology pretty well mapped out to Fight the Future. Interviews at the time do indicate he had planned the cancer narrative by the start of season 4. But I also think due to the Darin Morgan issue, he interjected it mid season when it seems clearly most suited to come as part of the Gethsemane/Redux story at the end of the season. When watching Seasons 3 and 4 and then Fight the Future, you get a strong sense of what he originally intended.
    But given this was a network television show in the 90s, Carter was never going to get the kind of well-planned resolution Vince Gilligan had the privilege of attempting in Breaking Bad. So when you say fans were disappointed in “The Truth,” that’s fair. But to call “The Truth” the resolution to the mythology, really isn’t. The “resolution” was dragged out, just as the series did, in Fight the Future, One Son, Closure, Existence, all of which “resolved” major aspects of the mythology. The whole the mythology does hold up even though it can get very confusing and, perhaps more importantly, become inconsistent thematically. Personally, seasons 3 and 4 are my favorites but later episodes like “Biogenesis” and “This is Not Happening” are still fantastic television.

    Please keep these reviews going. I am enjoying read them as they, somewhat surprisingly, present some new ideas on a show that has been off the air for over a decade.

    • Thanks for the kind words. We’ll be back in May through June with X-Files S5/S6 and Millennium S2/S3… hopefully.

      I am sympathetic to the logistical problems facing Carter, and I don’t mind some of the stuff that comes from making the mythology up on the spot. Zero Sum and Patient X/The Red and the Black are great mythology stories, despite the fact that they were clearly improvised. But I do think it’s something that does have be addressed in discussing the legacy and history of the show.

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