“Before the exploration of space, of the moon and the planets, man hailed that the heavens were the home and province of powerful gods who controlled not just the vast firmament, but the earthly fate of man himself and that the pantheon of powerful, warring deities, was the cause and reason for the human condition, for the past and the future, and for which great monuments would be created on earth as in heaven. But in time man replaced these gods with new gods and new religions that provided no more certain or greater answers than those worshipped by his Greek or Roman or Egyptian ancestors. And while we’ve chosen now our monolithic and benevolent gods and found our certainties in science, believers all, we wait for a sign, a revelation. Our eyes turn skyward ready to accept the truly incredible to find our destiny written in the stars.”
There is a war in heaven, echoing a reverberating across the mortal plane. The idea of a “war in heaven” has echoed through the work of Chris Carter, both on The X-Files and on Millennium. In many ways, Patient X and The Red and the Black are as much sequels to Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions as they are spiritual successors to Colony and End Game. They are the quintessential Chris Carter mythology episodes, stories about lives torn asunder by the work of almost mythical forces beyond human comprehension.
Indeed, those looking to trace Patient X and The Red and the Black back to Carter’s work on Millennium need look no further than the rebels themselves. The wonderfully haunting design of the creatures harks back to the victims of the Frenchman in The Pilot. Reinforcing the sense that Patient X and The Red and the Black is loaded with Carter’s iconography, both Patient X and The Red and the Black feature shots of people burning alive, recalling some of Frank Black’s most haunting visions in The Pilot.
Patient X and The Red and the Black represent a collection of Chris Carter’s big themes and ideas, condensed down into a relatively tight ninety-minute adventure. At the heart of the story is the idea of the alien as divine – an idea that had been bubbling through the show since its earliest days, but hinted at most heavily during the second season. Red Museum positioned the show’s visitors as spiritual “walk-ins” who might help mankind ascend to another level; Fearful Symmetry had them constructing an ark.
Patient X and The Red and the Black return to the idea of “the war in heaven”, a concept best articulated in Colony and End Game – but which also rippled through Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions. There are forces that operate beyond the limits of human knowledge, fighting conflicts on a scale that our minds cannot process. In Paradise Lost, Milton speculated that any such conflict would be beyond human comprehension, even as its effects echoed across the mortal plane.
The two-parter is quite explicit about this. When the United Nations arrives at the scene of a mass-murder in Kazakhstan, Marita Covarrubias demands to know what is going on. “Tell them it’s all going to hell,” Krycek informs her. Later on, in conversation with Mulder, Krycek describes the situation in terms that are explicitly religious, “Kazakhstan, Skyland Mountain, the site in Pennsylvania. They’re all alien lighthouses where the colonization will begin, but where now a battle’s being waged. A struggle for heaven and earth.”
Indeed, even the conspirators talk about colonisation (“the project”) in apocalyptic terms. Their discussions suggest that colonisation will serve as some sort of reckoning, some sort of divine judgment – an occasion where divine forces will lay waste to the planet, sparing only a select few. “In the final phases before it begins, there will most likely be assemblies,” the Well-Manicured Man suggests. “We’re years away from that,” another observes. The leader of the group replies, “If we’re to believe their timetable.”
This apocalyptic atmosphere would be reinforced in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati at the start of the seventh season. There, Mulder is granted a glimpse of alien colonisation; it is presented akin to the end of the world. There is fire and brimstone, destruction on an epic scale. That three-parter really reinforces the religious undertones of the show’s complex mythology, but those undertones are quite clearly present here as well. The religious symbolism ebbs and flows through the mythology, never quite disappearing.
There is a sense that mankind is completely and utterly powerless in the face of everything that is coming. Patient X and The Red and the Black make it explicitly clear that the conspirators are not equal partners with the beings that have made their way to Earth. For all their conspiring and plotting in dark rooms, these powerful men are ultimately impotent against the aliens approaching. The X-Files has made much of the power of the American government. Now, that power is rendered completely inert.
Rejecting any prospect of rebellion against the aliens, one member of the group insists, “We must survive first. Survival means collaboration.” It renders explicit something that has been implicit since Talitha Cumi. It provides a nice bridge to the haunting teaser to One Son, which features a young Cigarette-Smoking Man laying an American flag at the feet of these aliens as a gesture of surrender and collaboration. In Apocrypha, the alien ships were revealed to resemble the Eye of Providence, which sits atop the Great Pyramid on the dollar bill. “One Nation under God.”
Of course, these are not the only religious undertones associated with the aliens in Patient X and The Red and the Black. Mulder’s opening monologue explicitly links these aliens to gods worshiped by mankind in decades past. In a video statement, Cassandra explicitly identifies herself as “an apostle” to them. “They’ve told me that I am an apostle, here to spread the word of a dawning of a new age of supernatural enlightenment,” she boasts to a conference of UFO enthusiasts. (And a somewhat cynical Mulder.)
It feels like Carter is rather consciously playing with the idea of “the alien messiah”, the classic science-fiction archetype that presents a divine figure in a science-fiction context. As Hugh Ruppersberg observed when defining the trope in The Alien Messiah:
The alien messiah has been such a pervasive figure in science fiction films of the last twenty years as to mark some sort of cultural phenomenon. Its modern origins extend at least back to the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, where an alien visitor warns the inhabitants of Earth to eschew war and violence or suffer destruction. This film followed by seven years the explosion of the first atomic bomb and appeared during the early days of 1950s Cold War nuclear paranoia. It reflected a general public concern over the same historical circumstances that have influenced more recent science fiction films: the fear that civilization has run amok and is about to destroy itself, the individual’s consequent despair and sense of unimportance, the inability to find coherent meaning in the modern world.
Ruppersberg identified the “alien messiah” archetype as a recurring motif in several contemporary movies – most notably big science-fiction blockbusters like E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
This attitude is very clearly on display during the talk Mulder attends at the start of Patient X, in which the aliens are openly discussed as divine figures. Discussing Cassandra’s alien encounters, one commentator informs the audience, “In my conversations with her, she believes this business – the abductions and the experiments – are due to their plans for us, and that we are not simply breeding cows for them, as some have suggested – but subjects, much like we think of our relationship with God.”
In The Red and the Black, Spender reveals to Scully that his mother was a member of a religious cult, “A UFO cult who believed they were going to be carried to immortality in some kind of flying motherwheel.” This idea is hardly radical. Aliens have been linked with theology quite frequently throughout history – from Chariots of the Gods to Heaven’s Gate. In many respects, The X-Files is a show about faith in the nineties. As such it makes sense to tie in questions of faith and religion into the over-arching mythology around alien visitors from outer space.
Writing in The Guardian in May 1995, Tom Hodgkinson observed:
Jung was one of the first to make the connection between the UFO and the spirit. He posited the idea that the circular symbol in the sky went back into medieval times, when it was seen as the eye of God, but also as an image of our soul.
The thinker and writer Terence Mackenna sees the UFO as “the ultimate visible condensation of the soul, as a kind of dimension-roving lens shaped vehicle.” He even goes so far as to compare UFO obsession with the appearance of Christ. “The leaders of Roman society may have been caught off guard by the appearance of Christ, but they had no one to blame but themselves since millions of people in the ancient world were expectantly awaiting some kind of messiah. So today, science and government poo-poo the idea of world contact with the UFOs, while the contact cults grow ever larger and more insistent that contact is about to occur.”
It would arguably be more surprising if Carter had not tied the show’s alien mythology back into religious iconography.
Indeed, even Mulder’s new-found skepticism is portrayed as religious disillusionment – a conversion to atheism. In denouncing Scully’s description of her encounter to Skinner, he seems to write them off as religious delusions. “The imagery is startling, but not atypical: bright lights, weightlessness, stolen memory, lost time expressed as a close encounter, an abduction, religious rapture as a kind of dark night of the soul,” he explains. “Described and then interpreted into a linear narrative, a gestalt impression of a subjective, nonlinear experience.”
At the conference at the start of Patient X, Mulder criticises the belief in the paranormal in much the same way that athiests criticise religious belief. Explicitly religious. “And if you tell them a really big lie, like there are aliens from outer space, much more than a small one, they will believe in it. And if you suggest to them these aliens are doing bad things to them, the… the power of the suggestion will be to make certain people believe that certain psychopathologies and neuroses that they’re suffering from can now be attributed to that.”
Asked if he is denouncing any belief in extraterrestrials, Mulder replies, “No. I just question mindless belief.” He argues that UFOs and aliens are in effect the opiate of the masses. “The conspiracy is not to hide the existence of extraterrestrials,” he insists. “It’s to make people believe in it so completely that they question nothing.” In many respects, it seems like Mulder has come to agree with Richard Dawkins’ blistering criticism of the show. As with Gethsemane, there is a sense that Carter is working the show through the objections raised during his appearance at the World Skeptics’ Congress.
There is, after all, a very cruel edge to this two-parter. As much as Mulder’s skepticism is ultimately rejected, it turns out that Cassandra’s hope and idealism are even more deeply misguided. The most harrowing scenes in Patient X and The Red and the Black trade on the ascension iconography of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as travelers journey hopefully to those “lighthouses” for a chance to encounter “the divine” and to be lifted up. However, these gods are not caring and compassionate; the faithful are burnt alive for their beliefs.
As such, Carter’s presentation of the aliens as divine could be read as a rather cynical subversion of the classic “alien messiah” trope. In discussing the increasing prevalence of the trope, Ruppersberg was highly critical – arguing that the trend was largely reactionary in nature:
The alien messiah’s frequent presence in recent science fiction films propels us toward certain conclusions. The first is that contemporary movie audiences and film writers suffer from a terminal sense of inadequacy and insecurity and a parallel fatalistic certainty that the problems of our contemporary world are insurmountable, incapable of solution. The second is that these films suggest that the only satisfactory way of addressing the world’s problems is imaginative appeal to super-human agencies, that is, highly advanced aliens eager to do good, or the deities of traditional religion. Humanity itself is impotent, incompetent. The third is that science fiction films of the 1970s and 1980s serve the same function as the biblical epics of the 1950s and 1960s. What exactly is the difference between King of Kings and Close Encounters, between The Robe and E.T.? Except for details of setting and character, there is no difference. The earlier films were more honest, or perhaps less subtle, in their illumination of religious doctrine. If these latter ones are not so open, at least they are better films. Paradoxically, they invoke the messiah, that overtly or covertly religious personage who renders irrelevant the technological marvels that all the special effects highlight and which science fiction itself in some sense is supposed to concern. Ultimately, they reflect reactionary, defeatist attitudes in their makers and their audiences. If they do not reject science and technology, they at least ignore it. If they regard the future with hope and wonder, they simultaneously discourage the hope that humankind will be more capable in the future of handling the problems that confront it today. Entertaining as they are, these films are escapist fantasies grounded in the patterns of the past instead of the possibilities of the future.
With Patient X and The Red and the Black, Carter manages to have the best of both worlds – he gets to work in his religious iconography while playing with (and subverting) a lot of the expectations associated with that imagery.
The aliens in the world of The X-Files are divine, but they are not New Testament deities bringing knowledge and enlightenment to a lost people; instead, they are rather Old Testament in style. After all, what is “colonisation” but a modern reimagining of the Great Flood? These visitors from the sky have anointed their “chosen people” – those who have sworn to honour and obey without question – and will purge the rest of mankind from the face of the Earth so that the planet can be rebuilt in their own image.
It is a decidedly grim twist on a classic science-fiction trope, one harrowing and horrifying – and decidedly provocative. The later seasons of The X-Files would come to trade quite heavily on religious symbolism and iconography. After all, The Sixth Extinction would have Mulder literally crucified and Requiem would give Scully a miraculous pregnancy that would lead to a messiah figure. Even in the fifth season, Christmas Carol and Emily have already done “Scully-as-Virgin-Mary” mythology work.
However, Patient X and The Red and the Black manages to use that iconography in an interesting and thought-provoking manner. Instead of clumsily grafting religious imagery on to the mythology to help create a sense of familiarity or recognisability, the two-parter instead uses the idea of divinity to make the show’s extraterrestrials seem all the more alien and unknowable. Maybe the colonists are comparable to gods; and that serves to make them even more strange and even more unsettling.
After all, the version of God presented in the Old Testament is simply terrifying to behold – an entity that is willing to drown an entire planet, save for the faithful; a being that is willing to wipe entire cities off the face of the earth for causing insult; a force that would murder every first-born son for the crimes of the head of their nation. There is a sense that we repeat these stories so often that we lose the sense of horror that they should impart. Perhaps that is the face of the divine embodied by the “colonists” in The X-Files.
At the very least, these aliens are unknowable. In most narratives like this, the viewer would expect the rebels to be the good guys. After all, The X-Files is a show very firmly rooted in the cinema and culture of the seventies. If the massacre at Skyland Mountain conjures up images of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, than the very mention of the word “rebels” cannot help but evoke Star Wars. However, if the scenes at Skyland Mountain brutally subvert the ascension at the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, then the use of the rebels is equally uncomfortable.
The rebels are not motivated by mankind’s best interests. Like Sammael in Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, the rebels are engaged in their own war with another power. Earth is nothing more than a battleground in an epic conflict. The colonists might want to wipe out mankind, but the rebels seem quite comfortable at torching entire mountains full of innocent people to deny their adversaries a tactical advantage. My enemy’s enemy is terrifying. The Well-Manicured Man argues that an alliance is possible, but it never seems like the rebels are that interested in talking.
Indeed, Carter’s interviews suggest that the rebels would probably have been quite unsympathetic to humanity, even if the Well-Manicured Man could offer them their crashed pilot and a vaccine. Asked about the objectives of the rebels in an on-line chat, Carter responded, “They want to control Earth and its resources for themselves.” So they are most definitely not the good guys, even if they share an enemy with mankind. As Mulder notes in One Son, the mythology is the story of “a conspiracy of men who thought they could sleep with the enemy. Only to awaken another enemy.”
Of course, the rebels also happen to be the surprise ingredient that ultimately helps to resolve this chapter of the mythology. Although they fit quite comfortably with the broad themes of the mythology, they do feel like something of a late addition – an outside force disturbing a fragile equilibrium both inside and outside the narrative. An idea developed by Carter after the production of The X-Files: Fight the Future, the rebels still managed to force their way into the show before the release of the film.
In doing so, they force the narrative to break out of the stalling tactics that have marred much of the fourth and fifth seasons. The rebels arrive and up-end the story that the conspirators have been telling themselves for decades – that there was no chance of resistance, that surrender was the only option. The rebels shatter the delicate status quo that has existed since mankind’s capitulation, by refusing to conform to the colonists’ attempts to impose hegemony over the cosmos. All of a sudden, everything is in flux; chaos reigns.
The rebels also destabilise the narrative of The X-Files. Ever since the feature film was greenlit, the show has been quite careful to keep the mythology relatively stable. Since Talitha Cumi, the show has been reluctant to tease viewers with major revelations or twists. Instead, the mythology has expanded on tangents and fringes. The addition of the rebels forces the mythology to move clearly and decisively forward in a way that it hasn’t since the end of the third season. The rebels seem to not only destabilise the conspiracy at the heart of the show, but the narrative of the show itself.
The ambivalence around these alien factions allows Carter to have his cake and eat it. Paradoxically, Patient X and The Red and the Black manages to suggest two core ideas that should be at odds with one another. On the one hand, Mulder’s lack of faith is presented as a great personal loss to him; on the other hand, the aliens are revealed to be as horrific as they are divine. It seems hard to reconcile the two extremes. Mulder’s lack of faith makes him a shadow of the man he used to be, and it is great that he regains that faith; however, the abductees have their faith exploited to lead them to a grotesque death.
It seems like Carter is suggesting that faith and belief are intrinsically worthwhile, but within limits. Faith can be simultaneously awe-inspiring and terrifying; in fact, it can be terrifying precisely because it is so awe-inspiring. Mulder finds strength in his faith, but it is important not to believe too blindly. Mulder’s journey through self-doubt enriches and develops his faith, inviting him to question and evaluate. It seems like The X-Files is mindful of the risks posed by completely unquestioning and blind faith, and is trying to incorporate that into its worldview.
This marks something of a departure for the show. In the past, it has often seemed like The X-Files romanticised blind faith and fanaticism. In the context of the nineties, it seemed like The X-Files wanted to believe so badly that it would believe wholeheartedly. There are points in the run where the show almost seems to romanticise blind fanaticism, as if the show was so cynical and disillusioned that it desperately wanted to believe in something with the level of confidence and certainty known only to zealots. (Look at Revelations, All Souls, Signs and Wonders.)
It seems like the show has been slightly more cautious about that since the fourth season, perhaps motivated by the publicity afforded to the Waco Siege and Timothy McVeigh in the mid-nineties. That culture of fanaticism hangs over this stretch of The X-Files, with Carter answering questions about it in the lead-up to the release of Fight the Future. That influence is felt even here. In his commentary on The Red and the Black, he describes the Cigarette-Smoking Man living “Kaczynski-like” in the wilderness. In the script, he notes, “Ted Kazcynski might be right at home here.”
Indeed, it seems like Patient X and The Red and the Black firmly rejects an reading of The X-Files that would support organised religion. After all, The X-Files is a show that is simultaneously about faith and belief – but which is also incredibly paranoid about institutionalised power structures. The X-Files is a show that exists at an uneasy crossroads, recognising the need to believe and acknowledging the desirability of questioning authority. These competing desires can be hard to reconcile – as evidenced by Mulder’s repeated motto of “trust no one” as he actually seems to trust everyone.
The solution proposed by Patient X and The Red and the Black is a spirituality that is deeply humanist in nature. “The truth I’ve been searching for?” Mulder asks Scully at one point, causing many a shipper’s heart to skip a beat. “The truth is in you.” Of course, he is referring to chip in her neck, but he also seems to outlining what will become a core part of The X-Files going forward. After all, that simple line of dialogue seems to echo through the rest of the run, informing even the final shot of The Truth.
Positioned half-way through the run of the show, the fifth season stands as a point of transition; it is a point from which the show’s beginning is still visible but the end is also in sight. One of the more interesting aspects of of the fifth season is the way that it seems to foreshadow a lot of the developments that will become more concrete and firm over the rest of the run of the show. Patient X and The Red and the Black mark the beginning of the end for this stage of the show’s mythology – feeding in Two Fathers and One Son – but they also tease a glimpse at what is to come.
After all, Christmas Carol and Emily seem to foreshadow the bulk of Scully’s character arc in the final seasons of the show – emphasising just how much the show will come to lean on the idea of “Scully-as-mother.” (There are elements of that to be found in the scripts for The Post-Modern Prometheus and Chinga as well. Not to mention All Souls.) On top of articulating the humanist philosophy that will underpin The Truth, both Patient X and The Red and the Black get considerable mileage out of the idea of “Scully-as-believer.”
There is an impressive scope and scale to Patient X and The Red and the Black, which is perhaps the largest that the mythology has ever been. There is a war waging in heaven and earth, with the episode stretching from Kazakhstan to Russia to the United States. If the phone call sequence from Anasazi helped to open up the world of The X-Files, Patient X and The Red and the Black take full advantage of it. There is so much going on that even the Russian conspiracy from Tunguska and Terma is reduced to a footnote in a crowded episode.
There is something quite mythic in the structure of Patient X and The Red and the Black. Writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz are very clever in how they build the two-parter, with lots of clever structuring and mirroring – an attention to detail that is apparent even in the transition from the fire at the end of Patient X to the snow and ice at the start of The Red and the Black. Krycek begins as a tortured and ends as the tortured. Covarrubias attempts to exploit Dmitri only to end up exploited herself.
Most interestingly, the two-parter plays into one of the big themes of The X-Files‘ central mythology – the idea that trying to impose rational order upon a chaotic universe is all but impossible, there are limits to what can be controlled. Herrenvolk suggested that the real objective behind colonisation was “hegemony.” However, episodes like Nisei, 731, Tunguska and Terma all suggested that human and national self-interest would make even the imposition of order necessary to manage a global conspiracy all but impossible. Conspiracies fracture and splinter as they divide and multiply.
Here, the schisms become clear. Even the American (or Western) conspiracy is not a single unified front. Krycek betrays his Russian masters; Covarrubias betrays the conspiracy; Covarrubias betrays Krycek. The Well-Manicured Man is conspiring against his fellow conspirators; the group itself is divided on their course of action and direction. Even the aliens are no longer a simple monolithic entity; there are rebels and colonists, each with their own interests and motivations. There is no hegemony; no order, only chaos.
On the subject of core themes, the show returns to its recurring visual motif of the eye. The state of Covarrubias’ health is determined by lifting her eyelid and checking on her eye. The rebels are identified by the fact that their eyes (and other orifices) have been sealed shut. Dmitri has his one eyelids stitched together, in one of the show’s most harrowing visuals. Even the observatory from which the conspirators supervise work on a vaccine is shot so as to resemble a great eye peering down. For a series about belief and faith, it makes sense that it should return time and again to that image.
However, Patient X and The Red and the Black never loses sight of the heart of the mythology. For all the epic scale around it, Patient X and The Red and the Black still focuses on the exploitation of the weak by the strong. The title of Patient X seems to allude to Dmitri, the Kazakhstani teenager victimised for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, it could apply to Cassandra Spender; a woman who has tried to fashion the horrors inflicted upon her into some sort of redemptive and optimistic narrative.
Indeed, Cassandra’s account of her experience ties the two-parter back to the feminist underpinnings of the mythology, as she describes the exploitation of her body for the interests of powerful men. “I have been through the terror and the tests more times than I can count. I have had an unborn fetus taken from me.” It is worth noting that it is Marita Covarrubias who ends up serving as the guinea pig for the vaccine developed by the Russians. Despite the fact that Krycek kidnaps Dmitri for that purpose, it is Covarrubias who winds up on the operating table.
This is not a surprise; Mulder’s informants tend to come to unfortunate ends. Deep Throat died in the street in The Erlenmeyer Flask after he tried to do the right thing. Mr. X was murdered in Mulder’s apartment building in Herrenvolk, taking the time to write one last piece of information before he passed on. However, Covarrubias discovers that her collaboration with the conspirators does not exclude her from the systematic abuse committed by those conspirators. She becomes the latest in a long line of female victims of the conspiracy.
In fact, Patient X and The Red and the Black makes a point to emphasise the bitter irony at work here. In Patient X, Covarrubias briefs the conspirators in person at their New York headquarters. As director Kim Manners notes on his commentary, there is something very interesting about that short scene:
This, I think, is the first time we had a woman in the syndicate room and I wanted to make Laurie – Marita Covarrubias, her character – I wanted to make her as strong as these men, these images of these men that were in control of almost everything the government was doing at the time, and it was kind of interesting.
Up until this point, the New York office has been solely the home of rich elderly white men. Although it was introduced more than a year after the death of Deep Throat, Mr. X never set foot in the office. The way that Patient X positions Covarrubias in the office (and the way that Manners shoots her) underscores this.
Of course, Patient X and The Red and the Black is not only interested in the way that the conspiracy of powerful men tends to victimise women. The two-parter is fascinated with victimhood in general. Not only do Dmitri and the rebels have their eyes seal shut; their mouths are also sealed over. They cannot speak, they cannot talk. They are victims rendered incapable of expressing their suffering to the world. In fact, one suspects that – even if they could express themselves – their suffering would fall on deaf ears.
Patient X and The Red and the Black form one of the most interesting and compelling mythology two-parters in the entire nine-year run of The X-Files, a story that seems to have excited and engaged Carter. It is one of the rare occasions where Carter’s writing for the mythology feels perfectly balanced – profound and philosophical, without feeling over-wrought or melodramatic. Patient X and The Red and the Black are loaded with Carter’s favourite themes and ideas, but move quickly (and confidently) enough that the writing never becomes heavy-handed.
It is an absolutely beautiful piece of work, a highlight of the season and of the entire run. It serves to demonstrate that The X-Files does not need a theatrical belief to be cinematic in scale.
You might be interested in our other reviews of the fifth season of The X-Files:
- Redux I
- Redux II
- Unusual Suspects
- X-tra: (Topps) #34 – Skybuster
- The Post-Modern Prometheus
- Christmas Carol
- X-tra: (Topps) #35-36 – N.D.E.
- Kill Switch
- Bad Blood
- Patient X
- The Red and the Black
- X-tra: (Topps) #38 – Cam Rahn Bay
- Mind’s Eye
Filed under: The X-Files Tagged: | aliens, chris carter, colonisation, colonists, conspiracy, hegemony, mulder, mythology, patient x, rebels, scully, the red and the black, the war in heaven, the x-files, war in heaven