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The X-Files – Travelers (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.

For all that the fifth season of The X-Files is building towards a major summer movie release, the production team seem surprisingly relaxed about it.

The fifth season is as experimental and as loose as the show ever got. Patient X and The Red and the Black suggested that Chris Carter didn’t even feel beholden to the continuity of The X-Files: Fight the Future, introducing new characters and concepts to the mythology that could not possibly be inserted into the film at this late stage. Similarly, the show was willing to play around with special guest writers like Stephen King and William Gibson, film an entire episode in black and white, focus on relatively minor characters, and reveal two separate secret histories of the X-files.

What do you call a baby Fox?

What do you call a baby Fox?

Of course, some of these innovations were driven by necessity or large goals. Patient X and The Red and the Black represent the beginning of the end for this stage of the mythology. Stories like Unusual Suspects and Travelers focus on characters other than Mulder or Scully because David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were otherwise engaged. Nevertheless, there is a very relaxed vibe to the fifth season, as if the show is taking an extended moment to enjoy the peak of its popularity. As well it should.

Travelers is an episode that is far from essential in many respects. It is clunky in places, indulgent in others. It feels like the production teams are just happy to root through the old costuming wardrobe and prop departments, delighted to compose over-written monologues and stock characters. Travelers is light and fun, with its indulgence and its relative lack of substance making it more enjoyable than it would otherwise be.

He'll (Garret Dilla)hunt you down...

He’ll (Garret Dilla)hunt you down…

Travelers is credited to the writing team of John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz. The two writers had a fairly impressive volume of output on the show, both as individual writers and in collaboration. Together, they are two thirds of the prolific “John Gilnitz” team with Vince Gilligan. For whatever reason, Gilligan did not contribute heavily to Travelers. Perhaps because Gilligan had covered a lot of the ground individually in the fifth season, writing his own “secret origins of The X-Files” episode in Unusual Suspects and his own “insect person must feed!” plot in Folie a Deux.

Gilligan’s absence from the script offers a solid indication of what he brings to the trio. Travelers has the nice thematic continuity and momentum of Spotnitz’s mythology episodes, while Shiban’s taste for classic horror is reflected in the monster of the week. However, Travelers doesn’t feel anywhere near as wry or self-aware as Gilligan’s work. It lacks the playful introspection of Unusual Suspects or Folie a Deux, playing itself entirely straight. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that Travelers occasionally takes itself a little too seriously for its own good.

Fallout warning...

Fallout warning…

The bulk of the script unfold in the fifties, with Agent Arthur Dales investigating a suspected communist on a killing spree. However, these sequences are narrated by an older version of Arthur Dales who is relating the story to a young Fox Mulder. It is a little convoluted, but go with it. This is an excuse for Spotnitz and Shiban to write hardboiled narration to be delivered by Darren McGavin. In theory, this is a great idea; everybody likes nostalgic throwbacks, and Travelers was broadcast half a year after L.A. Confidential had revitalised interest in fifties noir.

In practice, it works less well. It feels like Spotnitz and Shiban are writing from half-faded memory of hard-boiled dialogue. It doesn’t help that McGavin never seems particularly into it. “When your partner dies, a piece of you dies with him,” Dale explains at one point. “I’d been threatened by Mr. Cohn, but I couldn’t leave it alone… not while Michel’s killer was still out there… not if I wanted to live with myself.” There is no passion or zest to the line or its delivery. It is very straightforward expository narration.

Chasing his man over hill and Dales...

Chasing his man over hill and Dales…

There is an impressive lack of subtlety to the writing. At one point, Arthur Dales sits in a car outside the home of a man he believed to have hung himself in his cell. “I sat there for over an hour trying to find my courage in a bottle,” Dale recalls. “And then, and then I saw someone I shouldn’t – I couldn’t – have seen. Now it was my life that would be turned upside down.” Not only is it incredibly cliché, but the episode is sure to include a shot of Dale drinking as he narrates the world “bottle”, to be sure that the audience understands exactly what he is saying.

There is also some especially clumsy writing around the end of the episode, when Dale speculates about why “Mulder” was Edward Skur’s last word. The reason is quite simple, in terms of plotting; it drags Mulder into the story, and thus provide a framing device. In terms of plotting, however, it leads Dales to speculate that Bill Mulder was the man who released Edward Skur into the world to let him live out his life. It’s a flimsy connection, but the episode seems to suggest it makes sense – giving the closing shot to the image of Bill Mulder releasing Edward Skur.

Where there's a Will...

Where there’s a Will…

This feels like something that Shiban and Spotnitz have not entirely though through. Travelers ends with Bill Mulder releasing a serial killer into the world. Skur has no control over his hunger, murdering his beloved wife before the final confrontation. The opening sequence suggests that Skur has continued “feeding” in the years since his release. All those deaths are on the conscience of Bill Mulder, so it seems weird that Travelers seems to endorse the release of Skur as “the right thing to do”; as some small atonement for Bill Mulder’s complicity in horrific acts.

Granted, it is not as if allowing the government to continue conducting illegal and immoral experiments upon Skur was the right thing to do. However, it seems like Travelers accepts no middle ground. The story sets up a scenario whereby there is no happy ending to had, which is perfectly reasonable – The X-Files is a damn cynical show. At the same time, the script undercuts this bleakness by deciding that there is a happy ending; the happy ending is the ending where only anonymous characters die.

The legend of Arthur...

The legend of Arthur…

To be fair, Fox Mulder seems just as concerned at the end of the episode. “Why would anyone do that?” he asks Dales. “Why let a killer go free?” Dales tries to explain, “In the hope that by letting him live, the truth of the crimes that were committed against him and the others might someday… be exposed.” Given that almost forty years had passed since Bill Mulder released Edward Skur, it seems like his plan wasn’t really all that successful; despite the optimism suggested by the episode’s closing shots. After all, even Mulder ultimately never fully exposes those crimes.

Nevertheless, there is something fun about revisiting the fifties. The production values on Travelers are impressive. The costume and set design help to establish a world markedly different to that normally occupied by the show. The bright washed out colour palette of the daytime flashback scenes provide a nice contrast to the usually drab and dark atmosphere of The X-Files. Travelers might be as radical a break from the norm as The Post-Modern Prometheus, but it is still something new and different. Although, perhaps “new” is not quite the word.

Commie smasher...

Commie smasher…

In a way, Travelers demonstrates just how in tune The X-Files is with the nineties zeitgeist. The late nineties saw a resurgence of interest in the fifties, perhaps foreshadowing the fascination with the sixties during the early years of the twenty-first century. Discussing the success of L.A. Confidential, David Ansen speculated on the possible links between the nineties and fifties:

Why are we in this somber mood? Crime is down, Wall Street is up and saturated fats have replaced communism on our worry list. But, of course, it was during an age of peace and prosperity that film noir got its start. During the Depression and war years, Hollywood had diverted a besieged nation with escapist entertainments and patriotic cheer. But with victory, our storytellers let down their psychic guard, and what poured out was dark and troubling fantasies of a dangerous, corrupt new world where the lines between good and evil got crossed. The streets were rain-slicked, fogbound, menacing; the heroes deracinated and weary; the women ambiguous, sexy and treacherous.

There are obvious parallels to made. Both the fifties and nineties were decades of (relative) prosperity and security. They both followed extended periods of global conflict and uncertainty. In the fifties, the United States had just declared itself as a superpower with its victory in the Second World War and the development of the atomic bomb. In the nineties, United States had vanquished the Soviet Union to become the only superpower.

Dark matters...

Dark matters…

As such, the comparison feels perfectly apt. Travelers does a good job transposing all those nineties anxieties back to the fifties, presenting the United States as a country desperately looking for an enemy against which it might define itself. It is no coincidence that Arthur Dales stumbles across the same atrocities that haunt Mulder and Scully across the run of The X-Files: exploitation and experimentation, cover-ups and lies, oppression and manipulation. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the third season, The X-Files had made it clear that the conspiracy at the heart of The X-Files could be traced back to the end of the Second World War. Episodes like Paper Clip, Nisei, 731, Piper Maru and Apocrypha had all suggested that Mulder and Scully were simply investigating the consequences of compromises that had been made as the dust settled. It is worth conceding that Travelers remains quite divorced from the continuity of the show’s big conspiracy; the creature stitched inside Edward Skur never appears again and colonisation is never mentioned.

No such number... No such zone...

No such number…
No such zone…

However, Travelers does trade in a lot of the recurring imagery and themes of the larger arc. Investigating one of Skur’s victims, Dales and Michel are shocked to discover that the man was a Nazi – as signposted by the German music playing in his house when they arrive. “I got six ounces of German shrapnel in my can and this Kraut got to shake hands with the president?” Michel wonders. Dales discovers that Skur has been the victim of “xenotransplantation”, a horrific Nazi medical procedure.

More than that, Travelers remains quite true to the bigger themes of The X-Files. There is a sense of moral compromise and corruption at work here, as men are turned (or willingly turn themselves) into monsters. When Bill Mulder reveals that the other subjects of the experiment are dead, Dales wonders whether they were murdered. Mulder denies the accusation, “They couldn’t live with what they’d become – what they’d been turned into – and Skur’s the last.” Skur himself confesses, “My wife is dead. I’m dead, too, inside.” It is more literal for Skur than it is for most conspirators.

Dead (inside) to rights...

Dead (inside) to rights…

Although Travelers does not explicitly tie into the show’s central mythology in the same way as Patient X or The Red and the Black, the episode suggests that the motivations driving the conspiracy are always the same. At one point, Dales is called into a meeting with J. Edgar Hoover. “If we are to defeat the enemy, we must use their tools,” Hoover warns. “We must go further. We must do those things which even our enemies would be ashamed to do.” Bill Mulder denies that Edward Skur is a communist. “Skur’s not a communist. He’s a patriot. All of these men are patriots.”

Like the mythology itself, Travelers is the story of great and powerful men who do terrible things in the name of the greater good. They are men who turn themselves into monsters, using the justification of loyalty to ideology or country. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is absent from Travelers, but his presence is keenly felt. The rhetoric employed by J. Edgar Hoover and Bill Mulder is similar to the philosophy of the Cigarette-Smoking Man espoused in episodes like One Breath or F. Emasculata.

"So, I get my own comic book spin-off, right?"

“So, I get my own comic book spin-off, right?”

Interestingly, Travelers was broadcast less than a year after the cancellation of Dark Skies. Set in the sixties, Dark Skies was a clear attempt to cash-in on the hunger for alien conspiracy narratives created by the success of The X-Files. One of the more distinctive features of Dark Skies was the decision to use the series to create an alternate history of the United States. Creators Brent V. Friedman and Bryce Zabel ambitious pitched a five-season show to the executives at ABC, one that would chart a secret history spanning forty years – from 1961 to 2001.

The plan never came to fruition. With disappointing ratings, the show was cancelled after only a single season. The defining image of Dark Skies in the popular imagination is of a conspiracy thriller set against the backdrop of the sixties. It is interesting to wonder whether Friedman and Zabel’s idea was a little too far ahead of its time – whether the show might have enjoyed greater success were it pitched a decade or two later. It was not always elegant, but it was intriguing and interesting. It was a unique twist on the themes that The X-Files had pushed to the front of the national consciousness.

It is very weird to see a Scully-less autopsy...

It is very weird to see a Scully-less autopsy…

Of course, Dark Skies and The X-Files hit on an interesting aspect of nineties conspiracy thrillers – the development of an explicitly alternate history. The X-Files played with this in a number of ways – most notably in scripts like Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and Travelers. Steve F. Anderson suggested a reason for the increased popularity of such narratives in the context of the eighties and nineties:

According to Anne Friedber, “the proliferation of time-travel narratives in the 1980s seems symptomatic of anxiety about time and the loss of history”, and Fredric Jameson diagnoses the prevalence of these narratives as the incapacity to imagine the future, arguing that they are “no doubt the symptom of social and historical impotence, of the blocking of possibilities that leaves little option but the imaginary.” The fabrication of unreal histories thus functions as both a substitute for the real past and an expression of the impulse to recover the power of history for the future. In either case, the past is invested with a redemptive or even healing capacity. In a reimagined or reremembered past, wrongs may be righted; tragedies that still resonate and haunt us in the present may be pacified.

It is often surprising that films and television have not seized on the idea of alternate history as readily as other media. Alternate histories have long been a staple of science-fiction literature, with classic books like The Man in the High Castle or The Iron Dream. In video games, Red Alert was a massive hit during the nineties – imagining a world where the Cold War became quite heated.

A blood bath...

A blood bath…

In film and television, alternate histories are decidedly rarer. Historically, such productions tend to offer the thin end of the wedge. The X-Files obviously unfolds in an alternate world, but it is aesthetically indistinguishable from the world as its viewers know it. After all, The X-Files is not immediately an alternate history of the United States; it requires some thought to label it as such. That said, film and television have become gradually more adventurous over time – but generally in genres described as “pulpy” or adaptations of work from other media.

In 2009, Zack Snyder would adapt Watchmen using the setting of Moore’s alternate world. In 2015, Frank Spotnitz would adapt The Man in the High Castle as a pilot for Amazon. X-Men: First Class offered an alternate account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. X-Men: Origins – Wolverine offered a novel account of Three Mile Island. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been gradually (and cautiously) expanding into its own alternate history with films like Captain America: The First Avenger and Ant-Man.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I appear to have wandered into se7en by mistake..."

“Oh, I’m sorry. I appear to have wandered into se7en by mistake…”

Still, the idea of alternate history really came bubbling to the fore during the nineties. In Reenactment, Fantasy and the Paranoia of History, Marita Sturken argued that these paranoid conspiracy narratives were a form of wish fulfillment, a way of displacing anxiety or blame for past horrors:

Popular culture in the 1990s was increasingly preoccupied with rewriting history through narratives of UFOs and aliens, figures that have served since the beginning of the Cold War as cultural displacements of the nation’s fear, fantasies, and imagined enemies. Thus, television shows like the X-Files and Dark Skies have rewritten the events of the late 20th century through the conspiracy narrative of a government cover-up of the existence of UFOs and aliens on earth. While narratives of paranoia are often culturally disruptive and can be seen as powerfully evoking the alienation of everyday life and the terror of citizenship, it is also possible to see them as providing a particular form of comfort. The smoke-filled dark rooms in the X-Files, JFK, and Nixon may depict the dark forces that are supposedly governing our country, but they also indicate that there is a design behind the confusion of history—that there are people who are orchestrating the daily oppression. If the apparent chaos is being organized by people with power in dark rooms, instead of being inherent in the system, then we can still believe that the system works. For this reason, I believe that conspiracy theories proliferate today precisely because they offer us a means both to vent our frustrations and to feel good about the system in which we live. Oliver Stone’s version of history provides public catharsis because of his capacity to enact his fantasies of the dark forces at work while affirming the coherence to the American system.

There is, after all, some comfort to be had in the idea that all of the truly horrible abuses of power served some higher purpose – no matter how ominous that might be. If these horrors were driven by aliens or extraterrestrials, they can at least be blamed on some external factor.

Careful, you don't want to en-Skur his wraith...

Careful, you don’t want to en-Skur his wraith…

The X-Files has a litany of horrors that it would like to blame on a conspiracy involving aliens – the deals struck with war criminals at the end of the Second World War, radiation experiments, wire-tapping, surveillance. In the case of Travelers, the horrors of the House Unamerican Activities Committee are pushed to the fore. Largely driven by Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, those infamous hearings to determine the influence of communist sympathisers within the United States essentially devolved into highly-publicised witch-hunts.

McCarthy and Cohn stirred up an incredible amount of fear. They suggested that everybody could be a communist – that the enemy had cleverly and subtly infiltrated every facet of American life. It is no wonder that the spectacle inspired science-fiction and horror films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “Roy Cohn, chief counsel at the McCarthy hearings, warns communist mind control can strike anywhere at any time,” a news announcer warns concerned viewers in Travelers, perfectly encapsulating the panic.

All Bills must be paid...

All Bills must be paid…

It is interesting to note that monster in Travelers kills in a fashion that cannot help but evoke the House Unamerican Activities Committee. “Skur killed this man the way he did all the others,” Dales tells Mulder at the start of the episode. “All the soft tissue, internal organs, ligature – all were removed… without tearing the skin.” Is that not what Joseph McCarthy did? The hearings tended to hollow out people, applying horrific pressure to turn friends against one another and remove any hint of dissent or divergence.

It was quite possible for the House Unamerican Activities Committee to destroy a person without tearing the skin. They could blacklist individuals, effectively cutting them off from their livelihoods. McCarthy would use that horrific threat to get people to say what he wanted them to say; to force them to give up names so that the persecution could continue. “How much damage was done cannot be calculated,” Collier’s magazine mused in August 1954. It seems like that is still the case six decades later.

"I appear to be stuck in this (door) framing sequence."

“I appear to be stuck in this (door) framing sequence.”

When Dales tries to convince Cohn that he is not interested in politics, Cohn replies, “Everything is political, Agent Dales.” This was also true of the public campaign to oust alleged communist sympathisers. In 2012, the son of the late William Wilkerson – who had used The Hollywood Reporter to trumpet the witch-hunts – apologised for his father’s conduct, and acknowledged that there was a more base form of politics at play:

After World War II, the spread of communism began gobbling up Eastern Europe. This presented Wilkerson with a formidable opportunity. In his maniacal quest to annihilate the studio owners, he realized that the most effective retaliation was to destroy their talent. In the wake of this emerging hysteria surrounding communism, the easiest way to crush the studio owners was to simply call their actors, writers and directors communists. Unfortunately, they would become the collateral damage of history. Apart from being charged with contempt, for refusing to name names, none of these individuals committed any crimes.

This was one of the most tragic chapters in twentieth-century American history, not least because of publicity and frenzy around it. Other horrific events occurred in the shadows or on the fringes, but the activities of the House Unamerican Activities Committee were lauded and celebrated in the media, held up as a triumph of American ideals and values.

They really sucked the life out of him...

They really sucked the life out of him…

Arthur Dales is actually named for one such victim of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Howard Dimsdale was a celebrated writer who was blacklisted, and found it difficult to work. After a decade-and-a-half writing feature films, Dimsdale found himself mostly consigned to writing for television. He used the name Arthur Dales as a pseudonym. Dimsdale taught writing at the American Film Institute, counting Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban among his admirers. Dimsdale committed suicide in September 1991, a year after Travelers is set.

Dimsdale made quite an impression on Spotnitz and Shiban. Arthur Dales is obviously a significant character in the mythos of The X-Files, and so giving him that name is a significant shout-out. He is an obvious forerunner to the character of Mulder, as evidenced by the casting of Darren McGavin in the role. McGavin had played the lead role in the classic series of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a major influence on Chris Carter in creating The X-Files, and so it makes sense to cast him as a predecessor of Agent Mulder.

"Dammit. Another Chris Carter protagonist with daddy issues?"

“Dammit. Another Chris Carter protagonist with daddy issues?”

In fact, the production team had originally approached McGavin to play the role of Bill Mulder back in Colony and End Game, but the actor had declined. It is interesting that Millennium had managed to secure McGavin for the role of Henry Black in Midnight of the Century earlier in this production season. However it worked out, it seems appropriate that Darren McGavin should play both a forerunner to Fox Mulder and a father to Frank Black. Chris Carter’s heroes owe a lot to McGavin.

Of course, this is not the only reference to Howard Dimsdale in the X-Files canon. Frank Spotnitz would make a point to include references to the writer in both feature films. The name Howard Dimsdale works itself into both The X-Files: Fight the Future and The X-Files: I Want to Believe as an easter egg, the name of a journalist responsible for some vital news coverage. Even beyond that, a character named Dimsdale even appears in Diagnosis: Jimmy on The Lone Gunmen.

"Booth of us could be in real trouble here..."

“Booth of us could be in real trouble here…”

Howard Dimsdale is not the only connection that exists between Travelers and Fight the Future. Certain thematic elements from the film have tended to bleed into the fifth season; the flirtation between Mulder and Scully in episodes like Detour and The Post-Modern Prometheus very clearly reflects the film’s focus on a possibly romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully. Travelers is a bit more oblique in how it references Fight the Future – it points towards a very clear thematic influence on the development of the movie.

Quite simply, both Travelers and Fight the Future feature fairly gigantic references to the movie Alien. It is surprising that it has taken the show so long to draw so overtly from that classic science-fiction horror, given how rooted The X-Files is in the pop culture of the seventies – driven by events like Watergate and Vietnam, informed by television shows like Kolchak, referencing conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View or All the President’s Men. The X-Files is a show largely informed and coloured by the seventies.

Sucks to be him right now...

Sucks to be him right now…

The series has not been show about referencing classic seventies horror. The Calusari owes an obvious debt to The Omen and The Exorcist. Avatar rather conspicuously draws on the imagery of Don’t Look Now. Many of the writers and producers working on The X-Files would have been at a very formative age when these movies were released, and it makes sense that they should be sizable influences on the output. Arguably, the decision to give the alien bounty hunters toxic blood in Colony and End Game could be read as a subtle nod to Alien.

Fight the Future is much less subtle in its homage. Using the budget of a major Hollywood motion picture, Carter and his team are able to create a much more menacing extraterrestrial which bares more than a passing resemblance to H.R. Giger’s distinctive xenomorph design. Fight the Future would reveal that the black oil operated quite similar to the “facehugger” from the Alien mythos. The black oil was not an organism that enslaved human beings. It was an agent that used human bodies as means of reproduction.

"Destiny is calling. Will you accept the charge?"

“Destiny is calling. Will you accept the charge?”

Of course, this decision contributed to the sense that the mythology was already unwieldy or convoluted. As with the bees, there was a very simple (and thematically fascinating) idea that quickly became over-complicated. Much like the show had to figure out why bees were delivering both smallpox and black oil, it also had to figure out how its aliens could be shape-shifting bounty hunters and little grey men and infectious black oil and also like that alien from Alien. It could all be explained, but the explanation would be convoluted and contrived – and confusing.

However confusing this change to the alien’s life-cycle might have been, it did give Fight the Future some memorable visuals. While staying with a lower age rating, Fight the Future evoked Alien with its imagery of aliens gestating inside human beings and “bursting” from those bodies in a grotesque parody of birth. The only detail really missing from the extended homage to Alien in Fight the Future is the facehugger itself. It seems like Spotnitz and Shiban noted this absence, writing such a creature into Travelers.

Feeling locked out of his own show...

Feeling locked out of his own show…

The creature in Travelers doesn’t operate exactly like a facehugger – in that it doesn’t actually hug faces. However, there are some conspicuous design similarities. We don’t see too much of the creature, but – during the autopsy scene – it looks and moves in a way that evokes the facehugger. The idea (and image) of an alien creature nestled in somebody’s body cavity provides another point of comparison. Of course, Travelers provides another similarity: the creature’s horrific oral fixation.

The alien from Alien is an infamously sexualised movie monster – as reflected in everything from its phallic head to its fascination with penetrating victims with either its miniature protruding jaw or its pointy tale. The creature reproduces through what is essentially a sexual assault – the facehugger latches itself to the victim and forcibly implants its eggs in their body through the mouth. Entire books have been written about the gender politics of the Alien films, of which the monster itself is a significant part.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

Gerard Loughlin offers a fairly efficient summary of this reading of Alien in Alien Sex:

First appearing as a face-hugging, mucous-dripping and bony-fingered creature, in Ridley Scott’s Alien, it jumps from a plant-like pod onto the face of its victim, rendering him insensible while secretly laying its seed within his chest, through his mouth: patient of an alien oral-rape. Only later will the growing alien child suddenly and terribly rip through the chest of its host-mother, killing the latter in the very moment of birth. That this alien biology – so carefully and explicitly rendered in the film – represents a male-identified fear of penetration, gestation and birth, is a commonplace of commentary on the film, not least because the rape victim is a man. For Amy Taubin, the film plays on ‘anxieties set loose by a decade of feminist and gay activism’, embodying the ‘return of repressed infantile fears and confusions about where babies come from and the anatomical differences between the sexes.’

Even today, there is a potency to Alien that is hard to equal.

"Oh boy. This is going to drive my premiums up."

“Oh boy. This is going to drive my premiums up.”

Although constrained by the limits of network television and summer blockbusters, The X-Files does nod towards these reproductive horrors. One of the recurring themes of The X-Files is the way that women’s bodies are exploited by powerful male figures, with Scully’s abduction leaving her sterile. The fourth and fifth season play with the idea of perverse motherhood in episodes as diverse as Home, Leonard Betts, Small Potatoes, The Post-Modern Prometheus, Christmas Carol and Emily.

Fight the Future culminates in Scully being used as a mother-host for one of these creatures. However, it is notable that Scully is the only female victim of this new gestating alien. Fight the Future is populated with primarily male figures – male fire fighters and a young boy – who are exploited in this manner. There is something quite perverse about an alien organism that effective impregnates four men, a young boy, and a sterile woman. The film develops these reproductive horror themes.

Shining some light on the matter...

Shining some light on the matter…

Travelers offers something quite similar. Gillian Anderson is completely absent from the episode; as with Unusual Suspects, Mulder puts in a relatively small appearance. As a result, the cast of Travelers is predominantly male. The only major female characters to feature are the wife of Edward Skur and the FBI clerk Dorothy Bahnsen. The major roles in the narrative are all played by male characters; this makes sense, given that the bulk of Travelers unfolds within the fifties.

At the same time, there are decidedly uncomfortable sexual undertones to Edward Skur’s violent impulses. In all three cases where we see Skur attack his victims, he forces them to the ground and positions himself over them. His eyes roll back in his head and his mouth opens wide as his attacks reach a climax. We only see the entity inside Skur feed once, but it is telling that the creature does not bite or claw at its victim. Instead, the episode offers us a variation on the invasive oral attack associated with the facehugger.

Rib-tickler...

Rib-tickler…

In a way, this piece of body horror raises a number of uncomfortable questions about the issue of queer identification in The X-Files. The show had a very active and very engaged LGBTQ fanbase, but it didn’t have the best track record when it came to presenting gay characters. Outside of playfully teasing the possibility of Krycek hooking up with just about every male member of the recurring cast, the most prominently gay characters in the show’s entire run are a stereotypical gay couple in X-Cops.

This is not the only example. Gender Bender infamously argued that a killer who could change gender was more likely to exist than a bisexual individual. The fifth season of the show is quite fond of prison rape jokes, popping up in episodes like Unusual Suspects and Bad Blood. While the show was quite progressive in its portrayal of issues of gender – realising that it could sexualise Mulder and Skinner as much as (if not more) Scully – it did not have the best record when it came to queer representation. And that is before we even get to The X-Files: I Want to Believe.

From the mouths of monsters...

From the mouths of monsters…

To be fair, The X-Files is a product of network television in the nineties. Those were different times. The show did not take it upon itself to be a standard-bearer in the same way that (for example) the Star Trek franchise did. However, these issues do become a talking point when the show decides to play male sexual assault as a body horror set piece. It is impossible to look at the scenes of Edward Skur feeding in Travelers – even outside the context of the reference to Alien – as anything other than a man-on-man sexual assault.

That said, perhaps Travelers does feature the most prominent gay character in the entire run of the series. Travelers does not feature an appearance from Joseph McCarthy himself, but it does feature a fairly significant guest role for Roy Cohn. Cohn died of AIDS in 1986, despite his vehement insistence that he was only suffering from liver cancer. It is pretty openly accepted that Cohn was gay, despite his own protestations that he was never “gay-inclined.”

Cohn man...

Cohn man…

By the early nineties, Cohn had become a fairly important and symbolic figure for the gay community. Angrily denying his homosexuality and actively persecuting other homosexuals, Cohn became a stand-in for deeply closeted and self-hating individuals. He was a central character in Tony Kuschner’s Angels in America, which premiered in 1991 and moved to Broadway in 1993. He was portrayed as one extreme of the gay experience in Ron Vawter’s one-man show Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, which opened in August 1992.

Roy Cohn did not just persecute alleged communists. Although the “red scare” of the fifties is widely known and publicised, Cohn was an active participant in the so-called “lavender scare.” McCarthy alleged that homosexuals were a threat to national security, and that they were particularly susceptible to blackmail. In March 1950, conservative columnist George Sokolsky accused the State Department of harbouring homosexuals. In April 1953, President Eisenhower signed an executive order to fire all gay and lesbian employees of the federal government.

Part(ner) of the problem...

Part(ner) of the problem…

Roy Cohn’s enthusiastic participation in this process made him a controversial figure, particularly among the LGBTQ community he had prosecuted so aggressively. Discussing his decision to include Cohn in Angels in America in conversation with Robert Vorlick, Tony Kushner reflected:

I think the play has become – and I didn’t intend this when I started writing it – a play about the extent of a community’s embrace. I think what you’re saying is interesting, that one side of that question is whether or not it’s possible to feel any kind of kinship or solidarity with someone like Roy Cohn, who was one of the most hateful men that ever lived, a tremendously evil man. I’m a little worried that in the process of figuring that out I’ve overdone it and he’s maybe too sympathetic a character.

Kushner would articulate his concerns further, quoted by Michael Cadden in Strange Angel:

AIDS is what finally outed Roy Cohn. The ironies surrounding his death engendered a great deal of homophobic commentary, and among gay men and lesbians considerable introspection. How broad, how embracing was our sense of community? Did it encompass an implacable foe like Roy? Was he one of us?

There is a sense that Cohn was both a part of the community and a vicious opponent of it. He was both persecutor and victim. This inherent contradiction is reflected in the anonymous patch left for Roy Cohn on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, identifying him as “bully, coward, victim.”

Eye see...

Eye see…

Although Travelers never alludes to Cohn’s sexuality in any meaningful way, it is hard to separate the historical character from all the symbolism attached to him. In a way, Cohn is just a reflection of Edward Skur. He is a victim of his own misguided patriotism, as much a victim as a perpetrator. This arguably the grand arc of the conspiracy as a whole – the idea of mankind as both victims and perpetrators. Episodes like Patient X and The Red and the Black have made it explicit that the conspirators are not the masters of their own fate, despite their abuse of power.

At this point in The X-Files, the narrative of the mythology is increasingly about a bunch of powerful men who sought to elevate themselves by selling mankind out to a deadly foe. “Survival is the ultimate ideology,” the Well-Manicured Man assures Mulder in Fight the Future. However, the conspirators ultimately made themselves victims. They were forced to give up their family members as a show of faith. As the situation escalated out of their control, their complicity only brought them a quick death than the rest of mankind.

Drinking it all in...

Drinking it all in…

This is the story of Edward Skur, and it is arguably the story of Roy Cohn. It is also the story of Bill Mulder, a man who would make himself complicit in truly horrific acts that would destroy his family and haunt his son. Travelers might not tie into the finer detail of the vast government conspiracy, but it does play with the themes. It is a story of victims and perpetrators; and how sometimes the two are one and the same thing. The script might be quite clunky and awkward in places, but it does have the right idea.

It is interesting that the fifth season of The X-Files includes two separate adventures set 1990. In a way, Unusual Suspects and Travelers offer two different accounts of the origins of Mulder’s work on the X-files. Unusual Suspects is rather cynical and sly in its implication that Mulder was driven insane by a paranoia toxin just before his life was turned upside down. Travelers is decidedly more sincere and stoic. This is a version of Mulder who stumbles into a weird conspiracy dating back decades, and finds himself caught up in a mystery that involved his father.

A ring of truth to it...

A ring of truth to it…

There is another link between Unusual Suspects and Travelers. Both episodes feature Mulder wearing a wedding ring. Despite the fact that there has never been any confirmation that Mulder was married, David Duchovny thought it was a clever continuity touch to include it in both fifth season flashback stories:

“That was just me, you know, fooling around,” admits Duchovny, who clearly enjoyed the resulting Internet frenzy. “I had recently gotten married, and I wanted to wear it. The director was really nervous. ‘You have to call [Chris] to see if the wedding ring is okay.’ I didn’t, until [after the scene was shot]. When I did call, Chris goes, ‘What!?’ I said, ‘No, it’s good. It’s so Mulder to never have mentioned that he was married.’ And he says, ‘Well, that creates a problem. If we ever do a show that takes place seven years ago, you’ll have to be married.’ I said, ‘Do you really have a lot of shows in your head that are going to take place seven years ago?'”

It is a playful and cheeky touch from the lead actor, and one that invites a lot of internet speculation. Was Mulder actually married? With the introduction of the polarising Diana Fowley just around the corner, it could be argued to work as foreshadowing. Either way, it is a little touch that adds a lot of mystery to a character we thought we knew.

Travelers is not one of the stronger episodes of the season. It is too awkward and messy to stand with the best of what is a very strong season. However, it is intriguing and interesting in its own way. It is packed with interesting ideas and memorably imagery. It might not be the best flashback episode of the fifth season, or the best insect person episode of the fifth season, but it does sweep the non-Gilligan categories for those two awards.

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

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