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The X-Files – Patient X (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.

This should not work.

There are lots of reasons why Patient X and The Red and the Black should simply implode under their own weight. Most obviously, they are scripts that are rather blatantly just piling more and more back story and convolution onto a framework that is already overloaded and over-stretched. They are introducing new characters at a late stage of the game. They rely on contrivance and sketchy character development. They seem to exist at odds with the script for The X-Files: Fight the Future, which had been written and shot, but was awaiting release.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

However, despite all this, Patient X and The Red and the Black work very well together. They are the strongest story-driven mythology two-parter since Nisei and 731 at the start of the third season. There is an energy and drive to Patient X and The Red and the Black that has been largely absent from the show’s big blockbuster two-parters since Herrenvolk at the start of the fourth season. After a year-and-a-half treading water as the release date of the movie draws ever closer, it is nice to see Chris Carter cut completely loose.

Patient X and The Red and the Black form a story which doesn’t seem at all worried about what any of this means for the summer realise of Fight the Future. Parts of it become quite difficult to reconcile with the film as released. However, the two-parter is all the stronger for it.

Fog of war...

Fog of war…

It is worth acknowledging some of the (many) reasons why the two-parter simply should not work. On paper, the decision to expand the show’s mythology at this late stage of the game seems reckless at best and foolhardy at worst; Carter could easily appear to be playing a top-heavy game of Jenga. Five years in and preparing for the big summer movie, the mythology should be contracting rather than expanding. There is a pretty significant milestone that has already been written and filmed, future continuity to be established and acknowledged.

After all, most of the elements added to the mythology in Patient X and The Red and the Black have next to nothing to do with Fight the Future. The vaccine is important, as is the fact of Well-Manicured Man’s resistance to colonisation and the return of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. However, several significant new threads introduced in Patient X and The Red and the Black – Cassandra Spender, Jeffrey Spender, the rebels – don’t actually make it into Fight the Future in any way. Instead, they become quite important in the context of the sixth season.

Thinking inside the box...

Thinking inside the box…

However, the awkwardness of the fit that it creates between Fight the Future and the two surrounding seasons is part of the appeal of Patient X and The Red and the Black. The reason that Jeffrey Spender doesn’t appear in Fight the Future is simply because Carter had not conceived of the character when the production crew wrote and shot the film. However, Carter refused to let that constrain him. Patient X and The Red and the Black refuse to accept that the decision to film Fight the Future before the fifth season served to fence the mythology in.

After all, Carter never seemed particularly fond of hemming in the mythology. That is not the way that Chris Carter has historically run The X-Files. Carter might have always had a rough idea about where he wanted to take the mythology, but it always seemed that the individual elements were improvised on the fly. Nisei and 731 happened because Frank Spotnitz likes trains. Memento Mori happened because a Darin Morgan script fell through and the production team desperately needed to get an episode ready for production.

Ship shape...

Ship shape…

In too many cases, the fourth and fifth season mythology episodes feel suffocated by a reluctance to truly shake things up. Tunguska and Terma invent a Russian conspiracy. Tempus Fugit and Max are character pieces. The caution made sense in hindsight. Fox was never going to allow The X-Files to end when it was this popular, and so the mythology episodes fourth and fifth seasons feel like they are marking time in some cases – afraid to truly shake things up or start resolving things. They offer diversions and tangents instead of linear progression.

There is something quite refreshing about how Patient X just runs with all these huge mythology plot points, throwing them into the blender mere months before Fight the Future is released and almost a year after most of them could have been worked into Fight the Future. It is an audacious move, and one that deserves a great deal of respect. At the point where it would have been easiest and safest to just reinforce the status quo, Carter throws a gigantic curve ball, one that risks making Fight the Future feel largely redundant.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

The rebels aliens are introduced in Patient X, building off hints and suggestions that the conspiracy at the heart of The X-Files is not as monolithic as it might seem. The rebels are not mentioned at all in Fight the Future, suggesting that they were a late addition to the show’s mythology – perhaps an example of Carter embracing the freedom that he recognised while writing Redux. However, the rebels feel like an organic development of ideas suggested in Colony, End Game, Talitha Cumi and Herrenvolk – the idea that colonisation is divisive and not a unified movement.

The rebels become an important part of the show’s semi-resolution to the mythology in Two Fathers and One Son. In fact, Patient X and The Red and the Black arguably push the show closer to that semi-resolution than Fight the Future does. Carter himself acknowledges it as a pretty important step for the show in his commentary on The Red and the Black. “The faceless alien. This is the addition to the mythology that would go on to change, really redirect the whole plotline of the mythology up to this point, the addition of these characters.”

Face(less) of the enemy...

Face(less) of the enemy…

The rebels represent a very clear and very strong step forward for a mythology that has largely been treading water since Talitha Cumi. The rebels are – after all – a much clearer and more substantial addition to the show than swarms of bees. This sense of momentum is reinforced by the fact that Patient X builds upon the major revelations in Talitha Cumi. Talitha Cumi explicitly revealed that the aliens were seeking to colonise Earth, teasing the audience that “the date is set.” Patient X provides the next logical revelation; it gives the audience a rough version of that date.

When the Well-Manicured Man suggests that plans for colonisation have been accelerated, one of the group responds, “We’re fifteen years away!” Patient X aired in very early March 1998. Broadcast in 2002, The Truth would finally confirm the last substantial detail of the mythology – confirming “the date” to be in May 2012. However, Patient X had already given a rough time-scale that remained in line with that date. For all that Patient X and The Red and the Black sit uncomfortably with Fight the Future, they provide a clear sense of forward movement for the mythology.

Stitched up...

Stitched up…

It also helps that Cassandra Spender and Jeffrey Spender are fascinating characters in their own rights. In fact, it is hard to believe that the show got this far without recurring characters filling these particular niches in the ensemble. Cassandra Spender is a multiple abductee; in a way, she is quite similar to Duane Barry or Max Fenig. However, Cassandra serves as perhaps the quintessential alien abductee – the ultimate victim of all this plotting and conspiring, scheming and manipulating.

That was what was so refreshing about Tempus Fugit and Max late in the fourth season – a two-parter that made a conscious effort to stress how innocent lives were torn asunder by the very real consequences of this abstract scheming. The Spender family tightens the focus of the conspiracy right back down from a sprawling intergalactic colonisation epic to something more relatable and more personal. There is a reason that all of this comes to a head a two-parter titled Two Fathers and One Son.

No such thing as bad publicity...

No such thing as bad publicity…

As the show’s mythology grew more and more epic, there was a tendency to drift away from the more personal and more intimate costs of all of these manoeuvrings and plotting. Even as Patient X and The Red and the Black complicates the cosmology, it brings the heart of the conspiracy back to what made it so compelling in the first place – broken families, mothers and children paying for the sins of their fathers. Patient X and The Red and the Black are clearly intended to mirror Colony and End Game in a number of ways, not least of which is mirroring the Spender family with the Mulder family.

This makes Jeffrey Spender a mirror to Fox Mulder, another shadowy counterpart to our lead character like Alex Krycek. Mulder, Krycek and Spender are all sons of the Cigarette-Smoking Man – some figuratively, some literally. Indeed, as director Kim Manners notes of Spender on the commentary to Patient X, “Eventually find out that he and Mulder in fact are half-brothers as the Smoking Man is also Mulder’s father.” If Krycek is a version of Mulder untethered by morality, then Spender is a version of Mulder without passion or drive.

Marita, you gotta see her...

Marita, you gotta see her…

Spender is, in essence, a version of Mulder who is unwilling to accept the truth of what happened to his family because it is simply easier to look the other way. He remarks to Scully that he doesn’t want to develop “a reputation” based on his mother’s claims – “Spooky Spender” is a lot more catchy and alliterative than “Spooky Mulder.”  Instead, Spender suppresses what happened to him because it makes his life and his career easier. Spender is a version of Mulder who would be able to put aside his memory of what happened to Samantha because he realised what it would do to his life and career.

It makes sense to introduce the character of Spender in Patient X and The Red and the Black, as Mulder is enduring his own dark night of the soul. Spender rationalises his own experiences in the same way that Mulder comes to dismiss his own earlier beliefs. Both Spender and this episode’s version of Mulder seem to reject anything but the most banal and mundane forms of evil. Mulder dismisses his earlier hypnotic recollection of Samantha’s abduction in the same way that Spender brushes his own experiences aside.

Aliens among us...

Aliens among us…

“She told me that story so many times that I believed it,” Spender confesses to Scully about his own hypnosis tape. “Absolutely. It became a kind of truth and it was really just a substitute.” The fantasy became a convenient substitute for a much less spectacular or sensationalist reality, “For the fact that my dad had left his family and it drove my mom insane. Only, I was eleven years old and I didn’t know it.” Spender is something of a cautionary tale, a demonstration of just how important Mulder’s faith and empathy are, and how they are better than the alternative.

As presented in Patient X and The Red and the Black, Spender is a pretty sympathetic character – for all his frustration with Mulder and Scully. He has an understandable desire to protect himself and his mother from damage that might be done by what he sees as her method of coping with the trauma of abandonment. Spender’s subsequent appearances between The Red and the Black and Two Fathers tend to play up the character’s function as a roadblock for Mulder and Scully, downplaying a lot of his more understandable (if not sympathetic) traits.

Dead to the world...

Dead to the world…

Of course, Spender is also a character who works quite well in the context of where the show was in its fifth season. The casting of the character generated all sort of fevered speculation from fans, to the point where Resist or Serve acknowledged these rumours directly:

Chris Owens heard all the rumors: That he was the replacement for David Duchovny; that he was the threatened replacement for David Duchovny; that he would appear in eight episodes next season; that David Duchovny would appear in eight episodes next season; that his casting was a sure sign that the show would remain in Vancouver; that his casting was a diabolically misleading sign that the show would be leaving Vancouver.

Patient X and The Red and the Black is quite clever in how it chooses to handle Spender. It very clearly signposts the character as important, and positions him so that he could be seen as potential replacement for Duchovny.

Hey, it looks good on him!

Hey, it looks good on him!

Most pointedly, Spender interacts more with Scully than with Mulder – despite the fact that he is consciously set up as a counterpart for Mulder. His introduction to Scully foreshadows the introduction of Doggett during the show’s eighth season – Scully has found herself transitioned into the role of believer, with a new male agent playing the role of sceptic. Spender addresses Scully in a way that makes it clear that he is younger and more inexperienced than she is – suggesting her assignment to the X-files straight out of the Academy.

“I’d like to build a reputation here, not be given one,” Spender tells Scully at one point. “I think I understand,” she responds, suggesting that she was were Spender currently is. Patient X and The Red and the Black seem to suggest that Spender is due on an arc that would mirror that of Scully – he is a skeptic who is being drawn into something much larger and more bizarre than he ever thought possible. It is a wonderful example of Chris Carter setting up a clever red herring – it is easy to see how fans at the time might have expected to see Spender appear as a new series regular replacing Duchovny.

Room service sucks at the Hotel Russian Syndicate. You can (Kry)cek out any time you want, but you can never leave...

Room service sucks at the Hotel Russian Syndicate. You can (Kry)cek out any time you want, but you can never leave…

The Red and the Black even teases the idea that the original Mulder and Scully dynamic might have run its course. When Mulder complains about having heard enough abduction stories for one life-time, Scully jokingly replies, “Well… I guess I’m done here. You seem to have invalidated your own work. Have a nice life.” It is a cute little gag, but one which perhaps underscores the sense that time really has passed since The Pilot, all those years ago. Times change and so – it seems – do Mulder and Scully.

Of course, it also underscores another potential reason why Patient X and The Red and the Black should not work anywhere near as well as they do. Quite simply, the show never quite convinces the audience that it has reversed (or even distorted) the traditional believer/skeptic dynamic between Mulder and Scully. The idea that Mulder had lost faith while Scully had found hers had been suggested in Redux II, but was never properly seeded through the fifth season. Patient X marks the first time this has really come up, and it is two-thirds of the way through the season.

Putting his neck on the line...

Putting his neck on the line…

On his commentary on The Red and the Black, writer and director Chris Carter cites this reversal as one of the most important aspects of this two-part mythology episode:

“It’s the second of a two part series beginning with Patient X, and a big event in the X Files mythology in that we take Agent Mulder’s belief which the series was based on and turn it on its head. Agent Mulder becomes a sceptic, Agent Scully becomes the believer in the course of these two episodes, which was a big deal for us. All leading towards the movie and ultimately towards the end of the series. Everything that came from these episodes actually turned the series on its head for a time and allowed us to go forward with many new elements, some of which we’re seeing here and we’ll see more in this episode.”

There is something quite fascinating about these sorts of dramatic reversals, but the show has not worked as hard as it needs to in order to sell the idea.

"Yes, even my pistol is stylish. Why do you ask?"

“Goodness, I’ll never get my shoes clean now…”

To be fair, there have been points where the show has gingerly broached the topic. The Post-Modern Prometheus made reference to Mulder’s new-found scepticism in dialogue, but not in a way that meaningfully impacted the plot. Chinga cast Scully into the role of “paranormal expert” as she investigated a murderous doll in a quiet New England community, but the show never embraced the fun of playing Scully-as-Mulder as well as it might. Detour, Schizogeny, Kill Switch and Bad Blood all played as they would in any other season.

The biggest problem is that there is a certain arbitrariness to this reversal. It turns out that Mulder’s new-found skepticism applies only to aliens and not to invisible tree men or murderous foliage, while Scully’s open-mindedness stretches as far as little green men and not to sentient computers or vampires. It all feels very convenient, almost as if The X-Files is brushing up against the limits of its approach to serialisation. The show wants to pretty dramatically upset audience expectations in a very self-contained manner.

Jeffrey, who lives as far away from home as possible...

Jeffrey, who lives as far away from home as possible…

The show is unwilling to do a complete reversal of the Mulder and Scully dynamic, so tries to affect a change that will only apply to the mythology episodes so the standalones can continue on as if nothing has been impacted. This reluctance is understandable – the dynamic between Mulder and Scully is a huge part of the show’s success, so trying not to tamper with it makes a great deal of sense. At the same time, it limits the effectiveness of an emotional arc like the one that the show is attempting with Patient X and The Red and the Black.

Patient X seems to acknowledge this; the episode makes a point to introduce Mulder very publicly (and very bitterly) renounce his earlier beliefs in a rather spectacular fashion. It isn’t the most subtle bit of character work that the show has ever done, with Duchovny playing Mulder as a child who has found himself traded in detention as he listens to all the stories of people who still hold the faith he recently renounced. Similarly, the conclusion to Mulder’s loss of faith feels a little arbitrary. What does he see in The Red and the Black that he has not already seen in End Game?

That's very U.N.-democratic...

That’s very U.N.-democratic…

More than that, it feels a bit cheap that Patient X and The Red and the Black are the first time that the show has really broached this transformation in a meaningful way, only to end the two-parter by teasing a return to the status quo. On the commentary for The Red and the Black, Chris Carter describes Mulder’s renewed faith as a twist placed on top of another twist. “This is the twist within a twist. Mulder the new sceptic now drawn in as Mulder the new believer or possibly so. So a twist on a twist.”

However, the two twists have the effect of taking Mulder back to almost where he started. That might be “a twist on a twist”, but also presents the illusion of a straight line. Mulder has not spent enough time off the road to Damascus for the audience to feel the proper impact of his return. Had the fifth season been structured to emphasise “Mulder the new sceptic”, it might work better. Instead, the return of “Mulder the new believer” feels like the return of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The show has not had time to properly mourn or miss either.

Oiling the wheels...

Oiling the wheels…

At the same time, it works a lot better than it really should. A lot of this is down to the work by Anderson and Duchovny, both of whom are very experienced at selling high emotional stakes. Despite the sense of scale around the two-parter, Patient X and The Red and the Black work best when focused on the two characters at the core of the episode. Duchovny makes Mulder’s new-found cynicism seem so brilliantly bitter and hateful that it is hard not to pity the man; there is an anger and resentment to his conversion that is heartbreaking.

Anderson works just as well playing a version of Scully who seems on the edge of a conversion, a character who might finally be able to see the truth that she had never before acknowledged. There is something quite poetic in the way that Patient X and The Red and the Black allows Scully to see the alien ship while Mulder misses it – a nice reversal of the set-up in Paper Clip. As Robert Shearman quips in Wanting to Believe, “It almost seems you have to believe in the first place before you see any evidence!”

Putting it all on the line...

Putting it all on the line…

At the heart of it all is the wonderful hypnosis sequence from The Red and the Black, a sequence which underscores just how lucky the show is to have its two leads. The sequence is beautifully shot and edited, but it is really sold by Anderson’s performance. As Chris Carter explained on the commentary to The Red and the Black, the scene was drawn from his own witnessing of a similar session:

I actually went to Harvard and sat with the now-deceased Dr John Mack who was the man who had done the original work, scientific investigation into the existence of extraterrestrials that the X-Files was really kind of based on. I had been allowed to go to his place of work and sit in on a regression hypnosis which is how I ended up writing this sequence. I actually got to sit next to someone who claimed they’d been abducted by aliens like Scully is here, and feel the power of that memory recalled by Dr Mack who had hypnotized this person I was sitting next to. It was an amazing experience for me to first of all be allowed to do it, because it was very personal for the person, and the person who allowed me to do it was extraordinary, and then to sit there and actually witness this. And I still admit to being a sceptic but the power of sitting next to someone who goes through their abduction again, the pain of it, just like Scully had done there, was freaky for me.

There is something quite touching about the idea that Scully has been genuinely and profoundly transformed by everything she has seen over the past five years. A willingness to consider her options and to question her assumptions is at the heart of the scientific method, and it is a more sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of the character than the simplistic “sceptical Scully” approach to the lead.

Reach out and touch faith...

Reach out and touch faith…

Patient X and The Red and the Black are fantastic additions to a mythology that has been stalling for almost two years at this point. Despite the fact that there are many reasons why this two-parter should collapse under its own weight, the show manages to produce two of the strongest mythology episodes it ever aired. But enough about how Patient X and The Red and the Black manage to subvert and avoid the many potential problems with a two-parter like this. Instead of talking about why they simply aren’t bad, let’s talk about why they are actually brilliant…

TO BE CONTINUED…

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

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4 Responses

  1. Mulder’s skepticism here makes a lot more sense immediately following “Redux II.” That episode ended with his emotional support structure fully dismantled and him having no outlet for his feelings about Samantha’s abduction. His belief that Samantha was abducted by aliens had allowed him to cope. When it is revealed that was not true, that she was actually taken as part of a project his father worked on in collaboration with nazis, etc., he replaces that with a new rigid theory of the universe. Really the problem is he is far too uncompromising in these theories. Up until now, when Mulder wants the “truth” he really just wants validation, something to prove he is right. On Skyland Mountain, and later in the hospital, Scully challenges him on this and Mulder does begin to be more objective. He orders x-rays and finds the implants of the burn victims. He goes with Scully to see Dr. Weber. The show is now moving toward what I believe was its original end game. To force Mulder and Scully’s views to overlap. This was finally done in “The End” and “The Beginning” with Scully’s revelation that “alien” biology is activated dormant human biology or “all of us are [alien].” This matches up nicely with Deep Throat’s, “THEY’VE been here for a long long time.” You really don’t get any new ideas in the mythology between “The Beginning” and “DeadAlive” and by that point the show had gone on far longer than originally planned.
    The show really wanted to let Scully believe as early as here. You talk a lot about “status quo” in season 6 and that’s definitely the case as there seemed to be a fear of removing the believer/skeptic dynamic but the idea is sprinkled through out the rest of season 5 (“Folie A Deux”) 6 (“Dreamland” “Field Trip”) and most of 7, until they finally let her in “Within.” So Scully’s journey is to believe but Mulder’s is not not to believe but rather to be skeptical or objective.
    This is all interesting given stories of the direction of the mythology in the revival.

    • No spoilers!

      (Actually, I haven’t been following spoilers. Has that much leaked abou the revival? I know there’s set photos and the split and episode titles and credits… I didn’t realise that too many script details had leaked beyond basic set-up stuff.)

      • I have been trying to avoid them as well. I’m not sure it would do you much good even if you read every spoiler given how the show, and Carter in particular, love to be as ambiguous as possible. The one comment I heard was along with the news of the “split” as you put it and really should come as no surprise (belief/skeptic alien/government debate)
        I am more intrigued in how they will attempt to fit the show’s themes and dynamics in the world of 2015.

      • To be fair, I think that the show got really lucky with the way that it tied nineties faithlessness into mistrust of authority, which means it can come back on that hook rather than the spiritual and religious themes. Which I think dated less well.

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