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The X-Files – Mind’s Eye (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.

Likely as a result of the peculiar factors around its production, the fifth season of The X-Files is a rather strange cocktail.

There are only twenty episodes in the season. Seven of those are mythology episodes – Redux I, Redux II, Christmas Carol, Emily, Patient X, The Red and the Black, The End. The rest of the season devotes considerable space to experimentation and adventurous storytelling. Episodes like Unusual Suspects and Travelers take the focus off Mulder and Scully. Shows like The Post-Modern Prometheus and Bad Blood are experimental in their storytelling. Episodes like Chinga and The Pine Bluff Variant focus almost exclusively on one or other of the leading duo.

Locked out...

Locked out…

Even the remainder are not what might be described as typical “monster of the week” stories. Both Detour and Folie a Deux focus on the relationship between Mulder and Scully as much as the monster at the heart of the story. Kill Switch is an episode written by a special guest writing team, one that defines itself by how odd it feels. All Souls is a meditation on Scully’s faith. The fifth season doesn’t really have a lot of room left for the classic episodic no-frills-attached “monster of the week” stories.

Which is part of what makes Mind’s Eye so fascinating. In any other season, Mind’s Eye would stand as a pretty solid example of the form – a pretty solid “this is what The X-Files does” episode of television like Pusher or Leonard Betts before it. However, the fifth season is so strange and weird in structure and form that Mind’s Eye stands out all the more. The best of the season’s straight-down-the-middle standalone stories, Mind’s Eye throws the rest of the season into contrast. It demonstrates just how odd the fifth season actually is.

A bloody disaster...

A bloody disaster…

Mind’s Eye is the only X-Files episode credited exclusively to Tim Minear. The writer had joined the staff at the start of the fifth season, and had worked with Vince Gilligan on the interesting (if not exceptional) sequel episode Kitsunegari. However, Minear had not really had a chance to define himself and to find his voice. Mind’s Eye is the only script in the season on which Minear does not share credit, and the last script before he would depart the show in pursuit of other opportunities, enjoying a long and productive career in television.

Minear is perhaps the most obvious example of a great writer slipping through the X-Files‘ grasp. He had worked on a variety of action adventure shows before joining the writing staff – scripting episodes of Zorro and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. However, his biggest break came almost immediately after departing The X-Files at the end of the fifth season. He was signed to work on Angel, Joss Whedon’s spin-off from the successful Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. This would begin a long and productive partnership with Joss Whedon.

Daddy's home.

Daddy’s home.

Minear contributed scripts to the first four seasons of Angel, establishing himself as a reliable and intriguing writer in his own right. He moved with with Whedon over to Firefly, writing four of the show’s fourteen episodes. Minear’s career includes a number of these cult hits, as he ended up producing and scripting on short-lived shows like Bryan Fuller’s Wonderfalls and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. Although Minear’s work always tended to draw considerable critical acclaim, he found more mainstream success producing and scripting for American Horror Story.

It seems a shame that Minear was only on The X-Files for a single season. It is interesting to wonder what might have happened had Minear stayed on the show and continued his creative development under producers like Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz. In a way, Minear’s departure underscores an important fact about The X-Files going forward. The show’s writing team had largely solidified at the end of the fourth season. For many fans and critics, the writing room across that third and fourth seasons of The X-Files represents the absolute pinnacle of the show’s creative team.

Way to be a dick, Mulder.

Way to be a dick, Mulder.

The addition of Vince Gilligan and John Shiban to the roster during the third season, and the departure of writers like Darin Morgan, Howard Gordon, James Wong and Glen Morgan over the course of the third and fourth season, really marked the last truly seismic shift in the writing staff on The X-Files. The series would keep taking on (and releasing) writers for the remainder of its nine season run, but none of them would carry as much weight or make as big a splash in shaping and defining the show.

Writers like David Amann, Jeffrey Bell and Steven Maeda would arrive after the fifth season and work on multiple seasons of the show. Some of their contributions would be massively underrated and overlooked in discussions of the series. However, it is telling that nobody seems too bothered about the possibility of those three writers returning for the revival, while writers like Vince Gilligan, Howard Gordon, Glen Morgan and Darin Morgan generate considerable buzz.

The initial outline was quite different.

The initial outline was quite different.

As such, Tim Minear feels like perhaps the biggest missed opportunity when it comes to the development of the writing staff on The X-Files, and this is indicative of something of a larger trend. The X-Files is no longer a scrappy young show aggressively snapping at the heals of contemporary television. It is no longer the provocative outsider that it was in its first couple of seasons. The X-Files is now part of the television establishment. It has become a relatively “old” shows go. The X-Files passed the important 100-episode mark with Unusual Suspects early in the fifth season.

Most television shows are lucky to produce five seasons before being cancelled or bundled into syndication. However, The X-Files is just past the half-way point of a mammoth run. The fifth season is – by any measure – the peak of the show’s popularity. However, there is a sense that the show might have lost some momentum or some urgency. It is hard to stay hungry when you are on top of the world. It is perhaps too much to describe it as fatigue, but there is a sense of complacency creeping into the show, reflected in a number of production realities unfolding at this point.

Cleaning up around here...

Cleaning up around here…

With the fifth and the sixth (and the seventh) seasons, it feels like The X-Files has really stopped pushing itself as hard as it once did. The show stops taking on young writers with the raw talent of Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan. The series moves to Los Angeles, sacrificing a lot of the character that Vancouver brings for the convenience and comfort of California. The show is still capable of producing brilliant episodes and of reminding viewers why they fell in love with the show, but there is an increasing sense that the show has let itself relax a little bit too much.

Allowing a writer like Tim Minear to slip through the writers’ room is just one small indication of this. It is, perhaps, a sign of things to come. In hindsight, it seems like the production staff were foolish to let Minear leave. Under Chris Carter’s supervision, The X-Files had allowed writers like Glen Morgan, James Wong, Howard Gordon, John Shiban, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban to develop into show runners in their own right. Tim Minear is arguably the only new X-Files writer after the third season who can make a similar claim; and he had to develop his skill elsewhere.

A clever pupil...

A clever pupil…

Even ignoring the benefit of hindsight, it feels like letting Tim Minear leave was even a bad idea at the time. Mind’s Eye is a superlative script. In many respects, it is a very traditional and standard episode, with Mulder and Scully investigating a paranormal mystery that takes them into the world of a guest character. However, the execution is fantastic. Lili Taylor’s performance as Marty Glenn earned her an Emmy nomination, and deservedly so. However, Taylor’s performance is building off a very smart and very well-written script.

There is a lean efficiency to the mechanics of Mind’s Eye. There are no superfluous characters. Everything has its place. Character motivations are clearly set-up, to the point where it is possible for the viewer to solve the episode’s central mysteries just as quickly as Mulder does. The characters themselves feel fully-formed and developed. Marty Glenn is a fascinating creation, but Minear’s script also manages to develop Detective Pennock beyond on a stock stereotype and demonstrates a keen understanding of Mulder as character.

Mulder detects a note of sarcasm...

Mulder detects a note of sarcasm…

As with a lot of X-Files episodes, Mind’s Eye originated as a very different pitch. After all, Minear’s pitch for Kitsunegari was radically different than the finished episode. According to Resist or Serve, Tim Minear had originally tried to develop a story around the phenomenon of “remote viewing”:

“Supposedly,” says Minear, with a  wry smile, “some remote viewers have ‘gone’ to Mars.”

Minear adds: “It seemed to me that it would be a good topic. But then I thought: It might be a good idea for a short  story, but how do you make the whole  thing work visually? Then, as it usually happens when you have these unworkable ideas,  the best thing is to stop concentrating on it and make the thing about a specific person instead. That’s when, for some reason, I  hit upon the idea of the remote viewer  being blind”

It is interesting that the show took five seasons to develop a story around remote viewing – and that the story ended up adopting such an unconventional approach to the material. It seems like the sort of idea that would fit quite comfortably with the show’s themes about power and surveillance.

Her motives are suspect...

Her motives are suspect…

A year before Mind’s Eye was broadcast, John Rozum had written Remote Control for the tie-in comic book – a three-part arc exploring the phenomenon of “remote viewing.” A few months after the broadcast of Mind’s Eye, Millennium would open its third season with The Innocents – an episode in which Frank Black and his new female partner investigate the mysterious murder of “remote viewers.” It is telling that The Innocents marks a point where Millennium was accused of trying to transform itself into a blatant copy of The X-Files. “Remote viewing” is a very X-Files idea.

However, Mind’s Eye eschews the obvious conspiracy theory angle in favour of a much more intimate and personal story. In a way, Mind’s Eye seems to hark back to third season episode Oubliette. It is a story centred around a young woman who is trying to piece her life back together when she starts receiving horrific visions tied back to her original trauma. In Oubliette, Lucy Butler was haunted by visions of a young girl living through the same abuse she had suffered years earlier. In Mind’s Eye, Marty Glenn experiences the trauma from the perspective of the perpetrator.

A Taylor made role...

A Taylor made role…

According to interviews, Tim Minear had originally conceived the part of Marty Glenn for actress Lili Taylor before her agent expressed an interest in getting the young actress on the show. It was a rather fortuitous development:

I do remember that what was interesting was when we were working on Mind’s Eye I had thought of Lili Taylor as the character. So I was just using her as a template in my head as I was writing the episode. Then her manager called us up saying “Lili wanted to do TV. Do you think there would be anything on The X-Files that would be right for her ?” And we said we were writing it right now. So I knew we were going to have her while we were writing it, which was unique and wonderful and she got nominated for an Emmy from that.

Taylor is perfectly cast in the role, bringing a lot of personality to what could easily be a stock victim or a forgettable guest character. Instead, Taylor fashions Marty into one of the more memorable one-shot characters of the season.

An arresting twist...

An arresting twist…

Taylor herself was apparently not a fan of the show before guest starring in Mind’s Eye, but quickly discovered first-hand just how popular it was:

You recently guest starred on the X-Files. How was it?

It was really fun, like an independent film: They have 2 million bucks [per episode] and eight days of shooting, so it wasn’t what I expected, like an easy couple of days. It was very challenging.

Were you a fan of the show?

No, I’d never seen it before. I don’t have a TV.

[gasp]

The amazing thing was that the next day, I was recognized on the street in a way I hadn’t been before…

It is interesting just how much exposure a single guest appearance could bring.

The hard cell...

The hard cell…

In fact, Taylor is occasionally asked about the experience in more recent interviews, speaking fondly of her time on the show:

“I went to a blind institute and did a crash course, and then just put a blindfold on and just went blind in my apartment for about 24 hours,” she remembers. It was very worth it for the actress, a self-described X-phile. “I loved the tone of that show. I loved what it was doing, and I loved Duchovny,” with whom she later starred in the movie The Secret. “I thought he was great.”

It really is a phenomenal performance, and stands out in what is a very accomplished filmography for the veteran character actor.

Getting even with dad...

Getting even with dad…

As brought to life by Taylor, Marty Glenn is a fascinating character. She is a person with a disability, but not defined by her disability. Indeed, one of the shrewder tricks of the episode is the structure of the teaser. We see Marty coming and going in her daily life; she walks to her apartment, she turns on the television, she sits down to enjoy a cigarette. When she is haunted by a vision of the murder, she is able to get a taxi to the scene of the crime. It isn’t until the end of the teaser that the audience realises Marty Glenn is blind.

On the one hand, this is a simple structural choice. It is a great sting leading into the credits and the episode. We have already had episodes about characters haunted by visions of death and suffering – Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, Oubliette, Unruhe – so the added twist of having a blind woman see these visions makes Mind’s Eye unique. More than that, though, it makes a point to emphasise Marty’s independence. The audience is introduced to Marty through a day in her life before we are informed of her disability. Mind’s Eye literally puts the character before the impairment.

Out-Foxed...

Out-Foxed…

Cleverly, the misleading details of the teaser subsequently become revealing character traits in light of the revelation. The fact that Marty owns (and turns on) the television in the teaser is a very effective red herring that plays against the assumption she is blind. However, when the audience discovers that Marty is blind, the television serves as an example of how Marty refuses to be defined by her disability – much like Scully argues that her refusal to accept government handouts implies that she might be able to see, while Mulder understands that is just who Marty is.

Indeed, Mind’s Eye quite cleverly steers itself between the clichés of the saintly disabled person and the psychologically broken disabled person – two relatively common media trope when it comes to portraying people living with these conditions. Just because Marty is blind does not make her a good person, and it does not mean that everything about her is dictated by that condition. Detective Pennock describes Marty as “a real piece of work”, but the episode never implies that her life choices have been shaped or defined by her blindness.

Taking a hard line...

Taking a hard line…

Marty Glenn is not a nice person; but she is not a nice person in the same way that Lucy Butler or Clyde Bruckman are not nice people. She is cynical and jaded, disconnected from the world around her. After all, the episode implies that she has been seeing through her father’s eyes for years. She lived through his prison sentence. At the same time, Mind’s Eye suggests that Marty is nowhere near as cynical as she lets on. She does make an honest attempt to save at least one of the victims, and is careful to incapacitate Detective Pennock without fatally wounding him.

It does make the conclusion of the episode somewhat confusing. Marty manipulated her father into a position where she could kill him, rather than arranging for him to be sent to prison. However, it seems quite likely that the murder would be covered under self-defense. He was a convicted murderer who had already killed several people since his parole, and he had entered her apartment with the intent of killing her – even if she left the door open. Sure, Marty manipulated him, but it still seems like something that would be tough to prosecute.

A triggering trauma...

A triggering trauma…

It is entirely possible that Marty had been tried and convicted of assaulting Detective Pennock. After all, assaulting a police officer is a pretty big deal. At the same time, it seems strange that Mulder would be required to submit a plea for leniency in this case. Even Detective Pennock claims not to be a monster in conversation an earlier conversation with Mulder. It does seem a little bit like the climax of Mind’s Eye is structured for the maximum emotional impact, with little regard for the sorts of issues that apply in this case.

This is not the episode’s only plot contrivance. It seems strange that it takes the investigators so long to identify the culprit – and his relationship – to Marty based on his signature stab. You imagine that sort of thing goes into a database, given that the stab even comes up during Detective Pennock’s slide-show pitch at the start of the hour. Of course, the audience don’t have the information before Mulder brings it up, but it seems like something somebody really should have caught at some point – even if they had a primary suspect.

A (con)vexing investigation...

A (con)vexing investigation…

These are ultimately minor issues with the episode. Tim Minear’s script is quite clever and sharp in place. There is something deliberately clever about the basic set-up of the episode, which has local law enforcement explicitly inviting Mulder into the case hoping that he can prove some crazy inexplicable stuff is happening – a wary subversion of all those episodes where local law enforcement seem to actively resent Mulder’s unorthodox ways. It is a very clever play on X-Files formula.

Mind’s Eye then cleverly twists around – subverting its own subversion. Despite that fact that has been invited to work on the case, and despite the fact that Detective Pennock is hoping for some weird pseudo-science, Mulder still winds up alienating Detective Pennock by finding a completely different paranormal phenomenon at the root of the episode’s mystery. Minear manages to construct an episode that plays slightly with expectations while remaining true to the heart and spirit of The X-Files.

"All the other law enforcement guys I talked to recommended you highly."

“All the other local law enforcement guys I talked to recommended you highly.”

In particular, Minear writes a very convincing version of Mulder here. One of the more striking aspects of Mulder is his empathy; empathy that stands in stark contrast to his practiced cynicism or wry sarcasm. Mulder works best when he is presented as a character sympathetic to victims. His relationship with Marty Glenn recalls his interactions with Lucy Butler, as Mulder is sharp enough to recognise a victim where everybody else sees a suspect. He does not allow himself to be blinded by the fact that Marty Glenn and Lucy Butler do not conform to society’s expectations of victimhood.

In fact, Mind’s Eye goes out of its way to emphasise that Mulder does not treat Marty as a victim because of her blindness. “I like you, Marty,” Mulder tells her. “I admire you. And I don’t want to see you confess to crimes you didn’t commit.” Marty immediately assumes that this empathy is rooted in pity for a young disabled woman. “You just feel sorry for me.” Mulder dismisses her suggestion. “No, I don’t,” Mulder assures her. “Not the way you think I do.” Mulder does not see Marty as a victim because she was born blind, he sees her as a victim because of the life she has experienced.

"Don't worry, Mulder. I'm sure the fanbase will eventually forgive you for Excelsis Dei."

“Don’t worry, Mulder. I’m sure the fanbase will eventually forgive you for Excelsis Dei.”

After all, it is Mulder who ultimately figures out Marty’s plan, because he is the only person who actually listens to what she is saying. The episode very cleverly gives the audience (and Mulder) all they need to know when Marty off-handedly mentions, “I never wanted to spend my life in a place like this. I had no choice.” Once the audience (and Mulder) realise that Marty lived her father’s prison sentence, her end game becomes clear. She is covering for her father because she doesn’t want him to be caught. She doesn’t want to live the horror of his prison sentence again.

Mind’s Eye manages to tap into some fairly effective themes of The X-Files. As in episodes like Oubliette and Aubrey, this is an episode about a young woman forced to relive past trauma over and over again. Marty witnesses her father murdering people in the same way that he murdered her mother; the same brutal action that led to her blindness and left her growing up without any parents. The cycle repeats time and time again. Marty is haunted by the visions of her father’s brutality, playing into the idea that the sins of the father are ultimately visited upon the children.

Caught red-handed...

Caught red-handed…

That makes the closing irony all the more effective. For all that Marty’s prison sentence requires a certain suspension of disbelief, it brings her arc a full circle. She is now living the experience that she saw through her father’s eyes. She spent her life trapped in prison with a father she never knew, and now she finds herself sentenced to prison for trying to break the cycle. It is not exactly subtle or nuanced, but it fits quite comfortably with the bigger ideas of The X-Files. After all, Mulder is trapped within his own prison; a prison made by his own father.

More than that, Mind’s Eye fits quite comfortably within the larger recurring themes of the fifth season. The fifth season of The X-Files seems particularly interested in horror involving the relationships between parents and children – whether the pseudo-gothic horror of Schizogeny or the loss of Scully’s daughter in Emily that is revisited in All Souls or Mulder’s daddy issues in Travelers or the reproductive horror of The Post-Modern Prometheus. Marty Glenn continues the trend, a young woman left scarred by an act of brutality committed by her father.

More like terror-vision... amirite?

More like terror-vision… amirite?

Mind’s Eye is a superlative stand-alone episode, and one of the stronger instalments of a fairly strong season.

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

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