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The X-Files – Redux I (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Redux I hits on the same problem that haunted The Blessing Way. It is very hard to structure a three-parter that bridges two seasons of television. The biggest problem is the second episode, which has the unfortunate position of having to serve as a season premiere while carrying the baggage from the last season finalé and remaining unable to resolve anything. So the episode inevitably becomes an exercise in spinning wheels as the show saves all of its potential resolutions for the third episode.

A particular cynical commentator might suggest that Redux I plays as Chris Carter’s twisted take on Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is famous for his sequences of characters walking through corridors while trading witty banter – a very nice way of keeping physical movement in the midst of largely dialogue-driven plots. This would become a defining feature of The West Wing, the show that Sorkin would launch in September 1999. Redux I seems to prefigure the style, albeit with a twist. There is lots of walking through corridors as characters talk to themselves in monologue.

"Wow, and I though my filing system was bad..."

“Wow, and I thought my filing system was bad…”

Redux I plays as a collection of voice-over monologues transposed over sequences of Mulder wandering through corridors in the Pentagon. One immediately wonders how the Department of Defence could have staged such a complex and convincing hoax against the American people when they cannot find one lost FBI agent inside the Pentagon. The drab setting makes for a shockingly dull episode; the majesty of the Yukon Mountains is lost, replaced by long sequences of grey walls and red doors.

Redux I has more than a few interesting ideas, but its structure is a mess. Sitting between Gethsemane and Redux II, the episode has no clear sense of purpose or momentum; no drive or ambition or excitement.

Don't worry, it could still make sense...

Don’t worry, it could still make sense…

It could be argued that the quality of a mythology episode is best gauged by how long it takes the audience to start poking holes in the plot. The X-Files was never plotted in a particularly tight manner; anybody willing to look close enough at a given episode will inevitably find some logic to question or some transition to criticism. However, the strength of the mythology has always been its sense of momentum. If the episodes work right, the audience is so caught up in what is happening that they do not question the logic too deeply.

For example, Gethsemane hinges on some pretty crazy logic. Michael Kritschgau effectively shows up and tells Mulder that everything he believes to be true is in fact a well-orchestrated lie by the powers that be. This is a pretty ballsy reveal for The X-Files, something that throws the entire continuity into chaos. It potentially unravels everything that the audience took to be true, and undermines everything that the viewer takes for granted about the world of the show. It was all smoke and mirrors, masking the most banal forms of evil.

Old-school abduction...

Old-school abduction…

Of course, this logic does not really hold up. As Kritschgau sits opposite Mulder and tells him that this is all a plot to justify defence budgets, there are any number of counter-arguments that Mulder and Scully could make. While they may not know that the Alien Bounty Hunter is alien in origin, the fact that he can change his face and dissolves into a pile of toxic green sludge suggests that this whole secret plot to rule the world might have more to it than the number of zeroes appearing in the Defence Department budget. Colony and End Game alone undermine Kritschgau.

More than that, the show has moved past the point where it can really expect the audience to be fooled by any of this. We have sat in on conversations that categorically prove some of Mulder’s assertions. Mulder might not have listened to the conversation between Jeremiah Smith and the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Talitha Cumi, but the audience did. Unless agents of the conspiracy as high as the Well-Manicured Man or the Cigarette-Smoking Man are always “in character” or well-placed patsies, then the story does not ring true.

They've got his number...

They’ve got his number…

However, Gethsemane allows the audience to gloss over these fairly sizable plot holes. It has some big questions that are worth asking, engaging critically with the framework of the show in a way that excuses some obvious continuity problems. Building to the rather intimate climax of Mulder’s suicide, it suggests that the story is one more deeply rooted in personal faith than objective truth. It also moves quickly enough that these issues are somewhat obscured. The visuals are impressive, the stakes are dramatic, the momentum powerful.

In contrast, Redux I lacks the same sense of intimacy or energy. The episode slows down considerably, allowing the audience’s scepticism to kick into gear. Instead, the show indulges in Chris Carter’s purplest prose, as Mulder and Scully go on and on and on about the emotional consequences of their pursuit of the truth. “Let the truth be known though the heavens fall,” Mulder monologues. “The web of lies entangling us can now be connected back to the very institution which brought us together.”

Mulder's looking into it...

Mulder’s looking into it…

If the Redux trilogy is about threatening Mulder with hard reality in contrast to romantic fantasy, the flowery language does not help. These three episodes are supposed to be Mulder’s long dark midnight of the soul, but he narrates them like a high-school poet. Redux I suffers a lot from this. It is perhaps the most indulgent that Carter’s prose has been since The Blessing Way. While Scully’s letters to Mulder were full of such stilted language in Memento Mori, that was offset against the parts of the episode that Carter did not write.

Instead, Redux I is layered with monologues upon monologues. Mulder monologues about his exploration of the Pentagon. Scully monologues about Mulder’s exploration of the Pentagon. Scully monologues to the FBI about Mulder’s pursuit of the truth. It seems like the characters on The X-Files are not talking to each other so much as talking at each other. No wonder they cannot find the truth, everybody is too busy practising their own internal filibuster.

Alien bodies...

Alien bodies…

Of course, Redux I and Redux II inherit their own problems. If the mythology of the fourth season stalled as the show tried to figure out how it would cope with a run longer than five season, the mythology of the fifth season is stuck in something of a circle. The X-Files: Fight the Future was filmed between the seasons. There is now a piece of X-Files continuity that is set in stone. The fifth season cannot contradict, oppose, or undermine Fight the Future. That film needs to be as valid when audiences see after The End as it was when it was filmed before Redux.

This is not the way that show’s storytelling works. Chris Carter has a pretty great vision, but he is not a very structured storyteller. The mythology of The X-Files seemed to expand in fits and starts, moving in arbitrary directions at random interviews. It was never too late for Piper Maru to introduce the black oil or for Herrenvolk to introduce the bees. The plotting on The X-Files was relaxed and casual, to the point where the show could decide to script something like Memento Mori at extremely short notice. On a more structured show, that would cause chaos.

You shall NOT pass... er, actually, go ahead.

You shall NOT pass… er, actually, go ahead.

This lack of structure brought freedom to The X-Files, but it also caused its own share of problems. Quite simply, The X-Files was not a show that could set a continuity marker twelve months down the road and then trust itself to hit that marker with a minimum of fuss. That would require a much tighter approach to long-form storytelling than The X-Files enjoyed. So a lot of the plotting and structuring of the fifth season feels somewhat arbitrary and random, lacking the sort of energy and enthusiasm that drove the third season’s mythology episodes.

So when Redux needs Mulder to stop believing in aliens, he does so. There is no real exploration or nuance to that. It doesn’t feel like a well-developed character arc. The show never seems to find it weird that Mulder can believe in invisible immortal assassins guiding the fountain of youth or killer trees driven by psychic energy, but aliens are suddenly implausible and impossible. This feels like something that Mulder believes because the script needs him to believe it, rather than because it makes sense for the character to believe it at this point in time.

Yeah, I ship Skinner and Scully.  Wanna make something of it?

Yeah, I ship Skinner and Scully. Wanna make something of it?

After all, it seems that Demons exists as something of a pre-emptive excuse for the haphazard nature of Mulder’s conversion. In the penultimate episode of the fourth season, Mulder undergoes a risky neurological procedure. Scully’s closing monologue warns that it has damaged his memory and sense of self. As such, it seems clear that the show is writing itself a convenient excuse for this shift in characterisation – a shift that doesn’t feel organic or well-explained.

In a way, the character shift in Redux effectively demonstrates one of the biggest problems with long-form storytelling on The X-Files. The show has attracted a great deal of attention for embracing narrative serialisation on prime-time television, but it often felt clumsy and awkward. Quite simply, The X-Files never really felt like it was one show at the peak of its run. It never felt that everybody on the show was to writing the same version of the same characters dealing with the same history in the same way.

Liquid gold...

Liquid gold…

It could be argued that The X-Files felt like several different shows nestled within each other. The most obvious division was between the show’s mythology and its standalone episodes. This perhaps explains why Mulder’s new-found scepticism applies only to aliens; the show’s central mythology is practically a different television show, and its version of Mulder is practically a different character. However, The X-Files was more than simply two different shows nestling together under the same banner.

In many ways, all of the major writers on The X-Files were writing their own version of the show. Darin Morgan’s episodes are completely different from those written by Howard Gordon; Glen Morgan and James Wong’s episodes are completely different from those written by Chris Carter. Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban and Vince Gilligan might frequently collaborate, but they each have their own unique quirks. Badlaa could never be a Vince Gilligan episode, and Paper Hearts could never be a John Shiban episode.

Baby farming...

Baby farming…

This freedom of expression and variation in tone was one of the strengths of The X-Files as a television show. Using the same basic ingredients – one believer, one sceptic, the paranormal, government conspiracies – the writers were given a great deal of freedom to tell the stories that they wanted to tell. While the serialised mythology plot line does deserve a lot of attention, it was not the only guiding force behind the appeal and success of The X-Files as a piece of television. The show was diverse and flexible in a way that allowed its writers to play to their strengths.

This diversity and this flexibility inevitably come at a cost. The Redux trilogy demonstrates this cost. It would be possible for the show to pull off something as ambitious as this three-part story, but it would require a much tighter reign on the writing staff. It would mean sacrificing that diversity and flexibility; the writing staff were no longer playing with their own slightly tweaked versions of the characters that they could tailor slightly to their plots, they were dealing with rigidly-defined characters who had clearly marked arc during the season.

"Personally, I think Nixon is underrated..."

“Personally, I think Nixon is underrated…”

To pick a rather obvious example, the commitment necessary to make something like Redux work would require losing the playful familiarity of the “believer” and “skeptic” dichotomy. After all, by the end of Redux II, Mulder doubts the existence of aliens and Scully has witnessed something of a revival in her own religious faith. This is nothing as overt as an inversion of the traditional dynamic, just an example of the show would need to be more nuanced in its treatment of the duo. It is hard to reconcile with the year’s standalones like Detour or Bad Blood.

However, while Redux does showcase some of the structural weaknesses of the show’s central conspiracy plotline, the three-parter does serve as something of a showcase for the series’ major cinematic influences. This feels appropriate, given that The X-Files is preparing for its own trip to the big screen. Oliver Stone casts a considerable shadow over Redux, which makes a great deal of sense – both Stone and Carter were two of the strongest creative voices of the conspiratorial nineties.

And shippers hearts skip a beat...

And shippers hearts skip a beat…

Carter has acknowledged his appreciation of Stone as a film-maker. “I think Oliver Stone is a great movie maker, whether or not you agree with his politics,” Carter conceded before the start of the fourth season. Towards the end of the fifth season, David Duchovny would admit to talking to Oliver Stone about taking part in Any Given Sunday. As such, it seems unlikely the strong visual similarities between Redux and Stone’s own filmography are a coincidence; they play more like homage.

Early in Redux I, there is a scene where Kritschgau monologues his own cynical history of the Cold War against montages of archive footage. This mirrors a similar sequence in JFK, as Donald Sutherland’s mysterious “Mr. X” narrates his own account of American history with similar editing. When the Cigarette-Smoking Man conspires with the First Elder, they meet at a race course. Horse racing is a favoured motif for Stone, who features similar conspiratorial meetings in two of his three “presidential films”JFK and Nixon.

Flash of genius...

Flash of genius…

Stone is not the only obvious cinematic influence on the Redux trilogy. The climax of Redux II is structured so as to recall the iconic montage at the end of The Godfather. Representing a similar effort to “clean house”, the sequence cuts together a number of high-profile coordinated assassinations designed to solidify power. The seventies were a defining influence on The X-Files, and that is often reflected in the show’s references and homages. Two Fathers would include another key sequence that feels like it is designed to recall that classic feature film.

While the plot of Redux might not be up to much, and there is only so much tension that the episode can wring from grey corridors and hospitals, there are some elements that do work really well. For all that the Pentagon feels like drab corridors with terrible security, Redux has a host of memorable imagery. The imagery is not as frequent or as effective as it needs to be, robbed of its power by exposition and monologues, but Redux has moments of transcendental beauty.

Are you, or have you ever been, a Millennium guest star?

Are you, or have you ever been, a Millennium guest star?

The industrial scale of the conspiracy is haunting and uncomfortable; warehouses full of files, alien bodies and pregnant women. Tying back into the idea that the Redux trilogy takes the show back to its roots, it feels appropriate to see Mulder walking through a location similar to the storage room from that iconic scene at the end of The Pilot. With the return of Section Chief Scott Blemins, there is a sense that the show is celebrating a half-decade on the air by looking backwards. Five years is a long time.

Redux also arguably has the best resolution to a season-spanning cliffhanger on The X-Files. Admittedly, some of the logic used to explain Mulder’s faked suicide is hazy at best. It seems that the surveillance camera in his roof was placed really awkwardly. How exactly does Mulder trace it to that particular apartment? Is Scott Ostelhoff now watching Mulder full time, or did he just happen to pull that duty shift after he got the “murder everyone associated with the alien body” brief? Both Redux I and Redux II gloss over the fact that Mulder shotgunned a guy in the face.

Celling the audience on these developments...

Celling the audience on these developments…

However, despite this fuzziness, there is a sense of fair play to the revelation. After all, Gethsemane did linger lovingly on Ostelhoff’s miniature shotgun, the same weapon that is used to destroy his own face. When dealing with an unlikely death cliffhanger, “it’s somebody else’s body!” is always a stock solution. Using Ostelhoff as the “somebody else” in Redux – instead of the obvious red herring Kitshgau – is a nice twist, one that feels reasonable in the context of the two-parter and has the benefit of keeping John Finn around.

There is something quite clever about the reveal in Redux that the scenes in Gethsemane were tightly edited and occasionally taken out of context. Redux offers us several sequences which play out between the scenes of Gethsemane – Mulder getting the phone call from Kitschgau and killing Ostelhoff, Mulder visiting Scully before she identifies the body, the full context of Scully’s testimony. Not only is it in keeping with how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his way out of the death of Sherlock Holmes, it suggests the solution to story problems is always more story.

Can you imagine how hard these are to sort?

Can you imagine how hard these are to sort?

In a way, this reflects the epiphany that Chris Carter had while writing the episodes. The show’s mytholgoy had stalled in the fourth season, as Carter faced the idea of a movie and a run that would continue past five years. As such, this caused problems for long-term planning. Asked about stretching these ideas out, Carter points to Redux as the moment he realised that he could effectively stretch out the conspiracy forever:

“I’m always asked this question,” he says. “To be truthful, I knew I had certain ideas, but I never knew that I would have to stretch them out quite so long. I had some big ideas, and I was always surprised at how they evolved. At one point – it was during the making and writing of Redux and Redux II – I said to Frank Spotnitz that these stories start to tell themselves. We’d laid such good groundwork that at the point there were these interesting things that happened as a result of choices that were made way back when. I think the best things is not plan too carefully, so that you can find your way to where you’re going rather than to say, ‘I’m going over there, and let’s see how I can best get there.’”

Indeed, Carter has identified Redux as a turning point repeatedly. It seems like, for better or worse, the moment that Carter realised that the conspiracy could just keep expanding and expanding. While the fourth season mythology seemed to stall for time, the fifth season seems to add a whole host of new developments in episodes like Patient X and The Red and the Black. They don’t entirely fit with Fight the Future, heaping on the mythology.

Which horse would you bet on?

Which horse would you bet on?

There is a sense that Redux acknowledges this. Analysing the chimera cells in his laboratory, Vitagliano notices that they are developing and growing. This process represents “the beginning of a life form. Growing into what, I don’t know.” He could just as easily be talking about the show. If Chris Carter originally had a five-year plan for the show, The X-Files has already moved beyond it. Agreeing to produce and sixth season (and more) for Fox, it seems like The X-Files has taken on a life of its own. It is changing, becoming something unpredictable.

So there is something appropriate about the way that Redux wraps up Gethsemane. Gethsemane was a very self-reflective episode, one that felt like a story about stories; it seemed like Mulder and Scully were engaging critically with various criticisms of The X-Files as a television show. In some respects, Gethsemane looked like narrative of The X-Files was getting ready to implode; Mulder commits suicide, Scully is terminal, everything that Mulder has done is one giant lie, the show’s treatment of Scully as a character has sometimes been questionable.

"This is not what I meant when I said I wanted to leave my body to science..."

“This is not what I meant when I said I wanted to leave my body to science…”

Redux quite simply and quite effectively defuses all of these potential problems by simply adding more story. After all, the key to resolving the cliffhanger at the end of Gethsemane is simply revealing more of the story around the clips we’ve seen. Gethsemane suggests that the narrative of The X-Files is fundamentally damaged and distorted, but Redux responds by simply building a better narrative around those damaged elements. As long as the show can keep adding narrative elements into its back story and history, it can keep going in perpetuity.

There is an argument to be had about whether this approach ultimately works for The X-Files. Certainly, there are points where The X-Files decides to keep elements and plot threads running well past their sell-by date. Had The X-Files wrapped everything up firmly and neatly earlier in the run, it seems likely that the show would be remembered more fondly in mainstream consciousness. However, in the context of a show struggling with the idea that it has to keep going longer than intended, Redux feels like a very clever resolution to Gethsemane.

"I turned it upside down and tapped it and everything."

“I turned it upside down and tapped it and everything.”

Still, despite these potentially redeeming features, Redux I feels like it spends a lot time walking in circles. Through grey corridors.

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

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2 Responses

  1. I think of the Redux story as a conclusion to an arc begun in 731 and maybe even Paper Clip. After Colony/End Game I believe there was a conscious decision on the part of the writers to create a viewpoint that was believable for Scully (at least, as you point out, in the mythology episodes). Scully’s line at the end of 731 summarizes this, “Don’t you see Mulder you’re doing their work for them – you’re chasing aliens that aren’t there, helping them create a story to cover the shameful truth.” Redux is essentially a 3 part exploration of this single line and at the end, she turns out to have been right, if only in part. The x-files as it was originally conceived when Blevins assigned Scully, and especially in season 1, was a disinformation machine. In this world, aliens are real, just not the kind Mulder started out believing in and their purpose was not at all what Mulder could have at first expected. The introduction of the black oil essentially re-contextualizes the aliens in the show into something Scully can understand – a virus. When Albert Hosteen tells Mulder the story about the Anasazi disappearing in “Anasazi” Mulder’s response is still, “You think they were abducted?” Even after Erlenmeyer Flask and Colony/EndGame he still had a very narrow understanding of what’s really going on, framed by his simplistic belief in little green men. These episodes are about dismantling that belief so that it can be rebuilt with Scully’s theories as a foundation, which comes in The Red and the Black.

    I also really appreciate your discussion of the way different writers handle the characters. Rewatching the show now, this is even more obvious. The nuanced change in belief systems in Redux was largely limited to the mythology episodes or, more specifically, those written by Carter. (Post Modern Prometheus addresses this somewhat). Bad Blood is a fan favorite but I agree with you, in context, it doesn’t hold up. I also find it interesting how Frank Spotnitz came along just as Morgan & Wong were leaving and how his characterization, particularly of Mulder, is so different than Morgan & Wong’s.

    The debate over having it all planned in advance versus letting the stories tell themselves is one I never understood. I think people would like to know that they aren’t being led blindly but that’s how storytelling works. The writers of Lost admitted to as much and so has Vince Gilligan with Breaking Bad, neither had much more than a general idea how they wanted their shows to end. I think the difference is probably just fatigue. Breaking Bad did 62 episodes. Lost did 121. X-files did 202 with 2 movies! It would be interesting to think what x-files would have looked like with 5 or 6 12-15 episode seasons.

    • Funny you should mention the shorter seasons.

      I think that you do get a bit of filler with the massive season orders, but I also think that there are lots of seasons where trimming the show down to thirteen episodes (particularly with the proviso that about a quarter to a third of those need to be mythology-based) would cut a lot of great television. I think we’d lose something cutting down the third and fifth (and even sixth) seasons to thirteen episodes.

      It’s also interesting that you should note the similarities between the Redux three-parted and the third season. I always saw it as riffing on Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, if only for the diner sequence in Redux II which feels very much like a conscious shout-out.

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