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The X-Files – All Souls (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.

There are a lot of aspects of The X-Files that mark it as an artifact of the nineties.

It is easy to point to all the visual cues and indicators – the mobile phones, the suits, the cars. The political elements are all in play as well – the unquestioned assumption that the United States is the global superpower, the indulgence in a paranoia that exists in sharp contrast to the material prosperity surrounding it. There are even any number of pop cultural references buried within episodes themselves – from Byers and Frohike joking about Bill Clinton’s haircut in Fearful Symmetry to Scully quoting Babe in Home.

Angels in America...

Angels in America…

However, perhaps the most obvious indicator of the nineties is the way that The X-Files seems to fetishise absolute and unquestioning faith. Through episodes like Miracle Man, RevelationsAll Souls and Signs and Wonders, there is the recurring sense that giving oneself over absolutely and completely to religious faith is a sign of strength and certainty. At times, it seems like the writers are almost envious of those who have unwavering conviction in their beliefs amid the wry cynicism of the nineties.

The X-Files finds something romantic in such pure and uncompromised faith. After all, Gethsemane had proved that even Mulder has his doubts. This fixation on unquestioning religious belief made a great deal of sense against the backdrop of nineties disillusionment, but it a lot more uncomfortable when examined in hindsight through the prism of the early twenty-first century.

Scully has seen the light...

Scully has seen the light…

There is something appealing about devote faith, particularly to those who are less sure in their belief. In a world where everything is examined and doubted, it is reassuring to look at other people who seem to know the score. To those people unable to discern a pattern in human behaviour or the workings of the rule, even sharing the presence of somebody with that sort of innate understanding is intoxicating and daunting. To harbour those beliefs with so much certainty; to commit so wholeheartedly without needing proof. It takes a confidence that is hard to find.

From the outside, it appears like strength. It is strength of will, strength of character. It almost seems like the person has the ability to bend the world to their understanding of it. It is all the more appealing because it is so uncompromising. Even though there is no rational way that the believer can claim to know, they somehow seem to know. Real belief is rare, but it is powerful. It is akin to true love – a facet of a person which really anchors them in something greater than themselves. It is easy to see why The X-Files feels so enamoured with that devotion.

She hasn't a prayer...

She hasn’t a prayer…

However, it is also terrifying. That level of commitment can drive people to do great and terrible things. Some people find the strength in their faith to rebuild lives and to build communities; others find justification to inflict pain and suffering upon those who think differently. Absolute belief can quickly transition to outright fanaticism. It doesn’t matter what the specific doctrines of that faith might be, there are always people who will transform it into something reprehensible and inhuman. That sort of faith can help a person transcend; but it can also lead them to descend.

This has always been the case, historically speaking. Atrocities have always been justified on faith in belief systems and ideologies. Sometimes those ideologies are explicitly religious; sometimes they are only implicitly so. History is littered with examples of horrific and brutal actions justified by rhetoric appealing fanatically to a higher ideal. It has been argued that the twenty-first century only really began on 11 September 2001, with the new millennium coloured by a mass murder framed by the perpetrators in explicitly religious terms.

"So this is a Scully-heavy one, right?"

“So this is a Scully-heavy one, right?”

The X-Files was a show firmly set in the lacuna between the end of the Cold War and the horrors of 9/11. It was quite far removed from these sorts of conflicts; at least as far as the United States were concerned. During the nineties, religion played a significant role in horrific conflicts in Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and Chechnya. However, those conflicts were far from American shores. The United States was confronting its own existential crisis, wondering about its place in a world where it was the only major superpower.

In that context, it is easy to see why The X-Files would feel such romance about faith; why the show would latch on so firmly to the idea that complete devotion to a religious ideal is a good thing – that the faithful are lucky to enjoy such certainty, while the unbelievers can only look on with envy. This is the context of All Souls. This explains a lot about the episode, which climaxes with Scully’s decision to let a disabled young woman surrender herself to certain death based on little more than faith.

"I wish it would rain down..."

“I wish it would rain down…”

It is a disturbing image, even as the script of All Souls tries to hedge its own bets in a number of ways. After all, Scully’s sin is – at worst – a sin of omission. She fails to stop Roberta Dyer from surrendering herself to her fate. Similarly, All Souls works really hard to assure the viewers that these girls live very unpleasant lives. Roberta Dyer is locked in a basement so her abusive foster father can collect her welfare checks; Paula Koklos is locked away in an institution. Another of the quadruplets is revealed to be homeless and destitute.

There is a rather unfortunate subtext to this recurring idea. It seems like All Souls presents each of the four young quadruplets as incapable of living fulfilling and meaningful lives on Earth. The episode seems to imply that these women are better off taken to some other realm, removed from the mortal coil. It is a deeply unpleasant suggestion, particularly when dealing with young women struggling with physical and mental disabilities. The show seems to consider it some relief or release when disabled Dara Kernof is “saved.”

Holding on forever...

Holding on forever…

Even ignoring the somewhat tasteless implication of that imagery, All Souls makes a conscious effort to downplay Scully’s potential complicity in the death of a young woman. In confession, at the end of the episode, Scully is assured, “You believed you were releasing her soul to heaven.” As Roberta Dyer slips from her fingers, Scully is confronted with a vision of her dead daughter. “Mommy, let me go,” Emily begs. “Mommy please let me go.” Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban take the show back to the troubling subtext of Emily.

The question of why bad things happen to good people – to good children – has troubled a lot of faithful individuals over a long time. Roberta Dyer was a young woman who is very likely suffering from physical and mental impediments, if her sisters are any indication. All Souls seems to champion and endorse the sort of faith that would allow a woman like Roberta Dyer to surrender her own life in a manner that seems quite clearly horrific and disturbing. All Souls seems to praise Scully for having the conviction to allow that, even through her self-doubt.

A wing and a prayer...

A wing and a prayer…

Tellingly, the devil presents himself as a very affable representative of Social Services. Aaron Starkey is presented as a pretty reasonable and affable guy, particularly when he is introduced opposite Father Gregory. Starkey appears to want what is best for Paula Koklos, while Father Gregory just wants to take her into his care. When Starkey points out that the adoption has not been signed off and still needs his approval, Father Gregory curtly insists, “Give it to me here then and we’ll be on our way.”

The scene is rather consciously set up so that the audience should be wary of Father Gregory and sympathetic to Starkey. Certainly, Starkey seems to have the girl’s best interests at heart. “I can’t, at least not yet,” Starkey states, avoiding the sort of obstructive-for-the-sake-of-obstructive dialogue associated with government bureaucrats. He seems mindful of Father Gregory’s situation. “I’ve just been assigned to Paula, so I’ll need time to familiarize myself with her case…” It is hardly an unreasonable position.

More like anti-social services... amirite?

More like anti-social services… amirite?

It is Father Gregory who is presented as unreasonable. “Look, I’ve already been through all this,” he insists. “I’m here to take the girl home.” It is a sequence clearly intended to frame Father Gregory as a character with an unsettling (and ambiguous) interest in getting a disturbed young woman taken into his care, with little regard for the proper processes. The audience’s unease with Father Gregory is cemented when we first glimpse the crucifix hanging upside down from his rear view mirror – an image associated with the demonic in popular culture.

Of course, Father Gregory is ultimately vindicated. Scully explains the inverted cross to Mulder, offering the accurate meaning of that powerful religious symbol – it is a sign of heightened (rather than inverted) religious devotion. Father Gregory’s absolute faith is not as scary as it might initially appear. Indeed, he was so desperate to get Paula Koklos back to his church to protect her from the forces of darkness – which are apparently represented by Aaron Starkey. The climax suggests that devil!Starkey cannot set foot inside the church himself, and so needs Scully to do it for him.

Father Gregory is well and truly smoked...

Father Gregory is well and truly smoked…

This portrayal of religious belief on The X-Files is interesting. It has been argued that this approach to the issue of faith is perhaps the most explicitly conservative recurring aspect of the entire series:

Perhaps the clearest conservative themes in The X-Files emerged in connection with religion. Scully’s Catholicism was the focus of several episodes, and she was depicted as a woman of sincere faith, if not a consistent churchgoer. Two episodes show Scully in the confessional, once after saving a boy who is a stigmatic from a man who was in league with the devil, and again after helping to thwart the devil from taking the souls of four teenage girls, whom Scully comes to believe had been sired by an angel. It’s doubtful a leftist show would ever feature the devil as a real character. It’s even less likely it would depict him occupying the professions he did when he appeared on The X-Files: a high school biology teacher (Die Hand Die Verletzt), a social worker (All Souls), and a liberal Protestant minister who advocates tolerance and opposes fundamentalism (Signs and Wonders).

The association between tempered rationalism and satanic forces is not unique to All Souls. It is something of a motif on The X-Files, which is so attracted to absolute religious belief that anything opposed to that must be inherently evil.

"It's still not as bad as that time Mulder released a paedophile..."

“It’s still not as bad as that time Mulder released a paedophile…”

This is not the only recurring motif that comes into play over the course of All Souls. The episode continues the fifth season’s fascination with the troubled relationship between parents and children. That strained dynamic has been at play in episodes as diverse as The Post-Modern Prometheus, Christmas Carol, Emily, Schizogeny, Chinga, Patient X, The Red and the Black, Travelers and Mind’s Eye. These abandoned angelic children are just one more example of paranormal children in a season that is fascinated with horror stories anchored in the parent-child dynamic.

Over the course of All Souls, Scully is confronted with the possibility that these quadruplets might be the offspring of a union between mankind and the angels – that these four young women might contain a spark of divinity in their mortal forms. “Their offspring are the Nephilim,” Father Mccue explains to Scully. “The Fallen Ones. They have the souls of angels but they weren’t meant to be. They’re deformed, tormented.” The angels exist as hybrids trapped between heaven and earth.

'fess up!

‘fess up!

As Amy M. Donaldson argues in We Want to Believe, these plot elements play into the broader thematic concerns of The X-Files as a whole:

They are called “fallen ones” because they are no longer angles, as the children of angels should be, but are fallen to earth, imitating their fathers, who have fallen from their high position in God’s service. The X-Files also provides an analogy for this with the human-alien hybrids – such as Scully’s daughter Emily, who parallels the girls in All Souls. The hybrids are created from a mixture of DNA from aliens (beings from “the heavens”) and ova from human women. It appears that at least some among the aliens consider such a mixture to be an abomination. The alien DNA is referred to as “purity”, so to mix human material with alien is a pollution, a watering down of the original or ideal. The fact that hybrids like Emily are sickly and cannot easily survive, and that the girls in All Souls are born deformed, symbolises the sinfulness of their fathers, and the human sinfulness that these fallen angels helped to breed on earth.

After all, hybridisation is a recurring element of the show’s central mythology – an idea that can be traced back to the research in Colony and End Game or even to the label of “purity” in The Erlenmeyer Flask.

Burning love...

Burning love…

Chris Carter has repeatedly suggested that there is some divinity associated with the aliens of The X-Files. This is perhaps most obvious in Red Museum, where these alien “walk-ins” are worshipped by a local cult. However, the show is also fond of identifying crashed space craft as “fallen angels” and speculated that the aliens might be building an ark back in Fearful Symmetry. Although the show’s central mythology is quite fond of positioning Mulder as a stand-in for Jesus Christ, Talitha Cumi featured an alien character who could compete for the title.

All Souls follows on from Patient X and The Red and the Black, episodes suggesting that Cassandra Spender was the first successful alien-human hybrid. Much like the four women featured in All Souls, Cassandra was presented as sickly and infirm. She was unable to return to the abduction site without assistance. Patient X had reaffirmed the links between the alien colonists and divine forces. Mulder’s opening monologue compared these extraterrestrial beings to the gods worshipped by ancient mankind.

Wading in...

Wading in…

All Souls also plays into the theme of motherhood that has been playing out across the fifth season for Dana Katherine Scully. The show has been emphasising this aspect of Scully since the third and fourth seasons – with Revelations or Home serving as something of a focal point. As Elyce Rae Helford reflects in Scully Hits the Glass Ceiling:

In season five, this divinely maternal inflection increasingly defines Scully’s characterisation. As she becomes an icon of reactive maternal sorrow, Mulder acts as the father-protector who comes and goes, performing the covert and dangerous actions. In Emily, as Scully is nursing her daughter, it is Mulder who finds the physical evidence behind Emily’s gestation, birth and origins; he sees the canisters containing Scully’s other “children” and steals a vial of Scully’s ova. Scully, in the meantime, gives, loves, and loses. In All Souls, Scully is again designated to protect “special” children – disabled female quadruplets allegedly fathered by angels. (Like the girls, she has beatific visions, including one of her angelic, dead daughter.) Season six opens as a misty-eyed Scully nurtures the alien-human hybrid chess prodigy Gibson Praise, a victim of torturous tests. She has become the Divine Mother “special” children instinctively seek out.

It is a rather unfortunate shift in how the show defines Scully, one that has been particularly pronounced since Christmas Carol and Emily earlier in the season. It seems like Scully’s big character is to be something of a “failed” yet “special” mother to children she tries to protect and fails. This approach to Scully’s character arguably culminates in William in the final season.

Divine handiwork...

Divine handiwork…

It is an approach that makes Scully a lot less interesting and nuanced. It suggests that the writers are quite willing to reduce her to a collection of stock essentialist female roles if the plot demands it. In the early years of the show, Scully was a character who defied a lot of stereotypical gender roles; she played a rational and disciplined scientist in opposition to a more emotional and intuitive partner. However, Scully’s characterisation becomes a lot more problematic from around the fifth season onwards.

Christmas Carol and Emily had foreshadowed the difficulties that would face Scully in the ninth season of the show, where it seemed like the character was constantly crying and shouting about the safety of her child rather than actually protecting that child. The End presents Scully as jealous of Diana Fowley for reasons that seem more anchored in an attraction to Mulder than anything more rational. The X-Files: Fight the Future essentially reduces Scully to the role of “damsel in distress” for the big climax.

"I am angel. Hear me roar."

“I am angel. Hear me roar.”

It does not help matters that All Souls is horribly written. There are some fundamental flaws in the episode’s core ideas, but the script seems clumsy and awkward. This is undoubtedly down to the fact that the script was heavily rewritten and revised by producers Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban from the original draft submitted by Billy Brown and Dan Angel. As Resist or Serve explains:

“They had this story about Mulder and Scully and angels, but it never quite worked the way it was originally  conceived,” says co – producer John Shiban. “So (co-executive producer) Frank Spotnitz and I were given the task of rewriting it.  And so we decided to bring in the Emily element.”

All Souls is not helped by the decision to tie it back into one of the season’s less-satisfying adventures. Emilyn was a rather cynical and transparent script that introduced Scully’s daughter so that it could immediately kill her off for emotional impact. It was an awful creative decision, one that felt lazy and cheap. Returning to that idea was always going to be a risky proposition.

"The power of the Federal Bureau of Investigation compels you!"

“The power of the Federal Bureau of Investigation compels you!”

After all, the loss of a child is a harrowing experience. There are no words that can properly describe that level of grief and sorrow. To reduce that loss down to a single forty-five minute episode feels crass, particularly when you introduce a new child specifically so you can kill them off. All Souls decides to revisit that rather awkward creative decision. It works hard to vindicate and justify the end of Emily. It is designed to tie off Scully’s big narrative arc in an episode that will help her move past that trauma and that pain.

Of course, it should be concede that Scully’s trauma and pain has not really been acknowledged or explored to this point. The issue of Emily has never really come up, even when Scully was dealing with another very special young girl in Chinga. So it seems a bit cheap for All Souls to raise the issue once again just so it can claim to close the book on it. All Souls falls back on cliché when it comes to trying to explain the death of a child, by suggesting that sometimes such a death is not a bad thing.

"Hey, Scully, can I get a look-in?"

“Hey, Scully, can I get a look-in?”

The episode suggests that perhaps survivors can draw some peace from the idea that maybe a divine will was at work. This is lazy and horrible writing, trite and insincere. The death of a child is always harrowing and terrible. There is no way to teach a parent that maybe it was the best possible outcome, and certainly not using bright lights and choir music. All Souls feels incredibly calculated and exploitative, as if it had been scientifically calibrated so as to tug on the heart strings of the audience.

However, there are even bigger problems with the script. Quite simply, it is not very good. All Souls offers a framing device that sees Scully attending confession and explaining the case to a listening priest. It is not a bad idea in theory, but it comes across rather clumsy in execution. Travelers had demonstrated that Shiban and Spotnitz are not the strongest writers when it comes to narration or exposition. At certain points, it feels like Scully is simply summarising the events of the episode for the viewers who have nodded off at the back of the room.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

This framing device was a last-minute addition to the script. According to Resist or Serve, material was actually trimmed to make room for it:

The only trouble, adds Shiban, was that the writers found themselves far from the end when they viewed the initial  edit of the episode. “After we came out of the cutting room,” he says, “we decided there were aspects of Scully’s journey that  just were not coming through.”

The remedy for that, Shiban and Spotnitz decided, was to place Scully in a church confession, then interpolate her anguished dialogue with the action of the story. Screen time for this additional footage – seven script pages worth  – had to be  carved out, scene by scene and line from line, from the rest of the episode. It was a painful and expensive task, but deemed  essential by all concerned.

It is a device that slows down and hinders the storytelling. It add the nice detail that All Souls features four different priests – a nice mirror to the quadruplets and the four faces of the angel – but it offers little else of consequence.

"Wandering outside in this weather will be the death of you..."

“Wandering outside in this weather will be the death of you…”

Instead, the framing device leads to Scully telling the audience what they should already know in the most ham-fisted manner possible. When Misses Kernof remarks that he husband could not comprehend “how God, in His mercy could let this happen to [their] Dara”, we cut to Scully explicitly spelling the subtext of that line. “Misses Kernof was talking about her husband, but she might as well have been talking about me.” Tell me, what is this subtlety or nuance of which you speak?

There is a lot of this, with Scully frequently pausing the action to let the audience know that an already heavily thematic line was not just specific to the case at hand, but had resonated with her. Once Father Gregory has made his own statement about the importance of faith, we cut back to Scully spelling out just how that affected her as a character. “I wouldn’t admit it to him, but – as we stood there – I felt as if Father Gregory were speaking directly to me, in a language only I could understand.”

What an eye sore...

What an eye sore…

To be fair, there are parts of All Souls that work quite well. The episode is the only episode of The X-Files directed by Allen Coulter. Coulter had directed three very distinctive episodes of the second season of Millennium, but he would go on to enjoy greater success working with HBO. He directed twelve episodes of The Sopranos; he earned two Emmy nominations for his work directing the episodes, and his work included The Test Dream – a rather visually distinctive instalment. He also worked on shows like Rome and Boardwalk Empire.

Coulter does good work with the material here. He gives All Souls a rather atmospheric and ethereal quality, adding a nice sense of religious horror to everything unfolding. The teaser is directed very well, with the wonderful shot of Father McCue that consciously evokes The Exorcist and the closing shot that draws a telephone pole into the shot as a makeshift crucifix. Even the shots of the angel are effective and unsettling. The figure is given visual approximations of wings and halos, but in a way that does not look camp or absurd.

"I need an old priest and a young priest. And a superfluous priest for the framing sequence."

“I need an old priest and a young priest. And a superfluous priest for the framing sequence.”

It is interesting to note just how “millenniumistic” the script for All Souls actually is. The episode feels like it might work better on Millennium than it did on The X-Files. It seems like the apocalyptic and eschatological vibes of Millennium‘s second season would work very well in a script about the illegitimate offspring of divine forces. As much as All Souls is carefully constructed to mirror Scully’s experiences, it feels like All Souls would work a lot better if it were handed over to Frank Black and Lara Means.

At one point, Father Gregory gets a nice monologue about forces that operate beyond the jurisdiction of mankind. “Two girls are dead,” he warns Mulder and Scully. “Not by the hand of Man. Unless you accept the truth of God’s teachings that there is a struggle between good and evil for all souls and that we are losing that struggle, you’re but fools rushing in. You put your own lives in danger as well as the lives of the Messengers.” It seems like the kind of statement that Sammael might have made in Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions.

"I sense an Emmy tape coming on..."

“I sense an Emmy tape coming on…”

This marks an interesting point in the evolution of The X-Files and Millennium. In many ways, Millennium launched as series spun out from some of the broader themes of The X-Files. Millennium inherited a lot from The X-Files. Its serial killer narratives derived from episodes like Irresistible or Grotesque. It’s heavy-handed meditations on the nature of good and evil, complete with religious undertones, where rooted in shows like The Calusari and Revelations. Many early episodes of Millennium felt like they could have easily been reworked for The X-Files.

However, All Souls is really the first time that it has seemed like a an episode of The X-Files might have worked better on Millennium than it did on this show. It marks a very clear evolution in Millennium, demonstrating how skilfully and how carefully Chris Carter’s other television series has worked to define its storytelling and its mood. While it is easy to find overlap between The X-Files and Millennium, both shows have moved to the point where there are clearly defined boundaries. An episode like All Souls emphasises these distinct borders.

Pouring it on...

Pouring it on…

All Souls is a disappointing mess of an episode, one that feels more than a little clumsy and over-wrought – but also just an ill-fit for the series in question.

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2 Responses

  1. The episodes you frequently cite as those rewarding a more fundamentalist religious view (Revelations, All Souls, Signs & Wonders) were all written by “second tier” or freelance writers.While “The Field Where I Died” was a Morgan & Wong script and took a decidedly opposite view that these beliefs are dangerous. It comes across a little less heavy handed when applied to the mythology but seeds of this were planted in Morgan & Wong’s season 1 “E.B.E.” and even Carter’s Redux trilogy demonstrated the dangers of self-serving belief systems.

    • Fair point.

      In my defense, as much autonomy as Carter gave the writers (and I think it’s a lot more than people give him credit for), the show was still his. He had final say in what did and didn’t make it to screen – from greenlighting stories to the final edit. Carter gave an interview early in the fourth season around the launch of Millennium where he stated he was tired of essentially re-writing every script in the season.

      (I quote it… somewhere. I suspect in one of the reviews of a more… derided episode, explaining why television shows tend to keep along writers who aren’t always great, but who can churn out work very quickly. I’ll see if I can dig it up.)

      Carter himself wove particularly over religious analogies into his final scripts for both The X-Files and Millennium.

      Revelations was quite heavily re-written by the core writing staff; much like Kim Newton’s other third season script, Quagmire was significantly re-written by Darin Morgan. The story for All Souls came from outsiders, but Carter bought the pitch and Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban ended up writing it. Signs and Wonders was written by Jeffrey Bell, who might not have been part of the “dream team” X-Files writing staff line-up, but who hung around for three years.

      That is a very valid point about the mythology, actually. The mythology could be seen as a parable about the dangers of unquestioning faith in a higher ideal or authority, whether human or divine – the aliens are presented as religious figures repeatedly, particularly towards the end of the show but also as early as the second season. Then again, the cynical betrayal of the American people by the conspirators could be seen to represent a breach of faith. But it is perhaps more nuanced than the standalone episodes would suggest.

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