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The X-Files – Season 5 (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.

The fifth season of The X-Files represents the height of the show’s popularity.

Bookended by the production and release of the motion picture, the fifth season also earned the highest overall Neilsen ratings of any of the show’s nine seasons. The X-Files was a cultural force to be reckoned with, and had come a long way from its origins as little-seen cult television show. In the late nineties, it seemed like it wasn’t just aliens conspiring to colonise the planet; Chris Carter and his team were doing a pretty good job of it themselves. The fifth season has all the swagger and confidence of a show enjoying the view as it stands on top of the world.

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The fifth season might not be able to match the third season for consistency from episode to episode. The fifth season might also struggle to match the breathless ambition of the fourth season’s best (and wildest) episodes. However, it is a highly enjoyable season of television on its own terms. The season feels a little more relaxed and organised than the fourth season, and more confident in itself than the third. The fifth season even makes better use of its own internal themes and motifs than any of the previous seasons, with most of the staff seemingly on the same page.

Oddly enough, this thematic consistency does not translate into clear or fully-formed arcs. Unlike the second season of Millennium, it seems like the fifth season of The X-Files has no real idea of where it is going or how it wants to get there. This is slight problem when the fifth season needs to build to a feature film that was shot in the gap between the fourth and fifth seasons. The X-Files gets a lot of credit for popularising serialised storytelling on prime-time television, but the fifth season demonstrates just how sloppy the show could sometimes be in that regard.

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Still, this is a minor problem. With only twenty episodes, the fifth season is the shortest season of The X-Files produced at this point in the show’s history. The ninth season would run the same length, but there is an argument to be made that it is technically the shorter season; The Truth was written and broadcast as a single feature-length episode rather than two individual episodes. However, production necessities required a lot of innovation and experimentation in the fifth season, leading to a very playful and very off-format season of television.

While it is probably very difficult to argue that the fifth season of The X-Files was the show’s best run of episodes, it is a highly enjoyable collection of shows that brings together a lot of what was so much fun about The X-Files. The last season to be filmed in Vancouver, and the season that moves us closer to the end of the series than the beginning. Although certain segments of fandom would argue that it is the last truly great season of The X-Files, that feels unduly harsh to both the sixth and eighth seasons. Nevertheless, it is thrilling to watch a show so thoroughly enjoying its moment in the sun.

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From a plotting perspective, the fifth season is a mess. This is somewhat ironic, given that it is only one of two seasons where the production team actually knew where they needed to end up. The fifth season needed to lead into The X-Files: Fight the Future, a script that Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz had written over the Christmas break during the fourth season and which Rob Bowman had filmed in the summer hiatus between the fourth and fifth seasons. Before a frame of Redux I (or Unusual Suspects) was filmed, the show knew where it had to go.

The mythology of The X-Files is both the series’ greatest draw and its Achilles heel. Carter had a tendency to add and tweak elements as he went along, as they served the individual story. There might have been a rough outline of a master plan of the show’s central storyline, but it was never so detailed that Carter couldn’t spice things up by adding killer bees or Diana Fowley or a clumsy homage to Alien. In the early seasons, this improvisational atmosphere gave the show energy and verve. Alien bounty hunters! Clones! Green blood! Stilettos! Mind-controlling oil!

However, it meant that the show was not very good at hitting its mark; at being where it needed to be at a particular point. By the start of the fifth season, the mythology was already so sprawling that the show seemed to tremble under its weight. The fact that Fight the Future had been written and filmed might have served as a rallying call; Carter knew where the series finalé needed to end, and what the season needed to set up. Instead of improvising based on what came before, the show could improvise towards what it knew to be coming.

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Unfortunately, the fifth season doesn’t work like that. Instead of streamlining the mythology towards Fight the Future, the show expands and elaborates around the plot details of Fight the Future. The late-season mythology episodes start throwing around big and bold concepts with reckless abandon. Patient X and The Red and the Black introduce the concept of alien rebels and the Spender family, while The End introduces Gibson Praise and Diana Fowley. These characters and concepts are vitally important going forward, but have nothing to do with the film.

Still, these concepts are quite interesting and intriguing of themselves. The rebels provide a sense of scale to the mythology, demonstrating that the alien colonists cannot impose hegemony upon their own species, despite Jeremiah Smith’s warning in Herrenvolk. The rebels suggest that colonisation and the conspiracy are doomed attempts to impose order on a chaotic universe that cannot succeed. If the conspirators cannot quell dissent in their own ranks any easier than the colonists can.

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Similarly, Spender is another analogue for Mulder at a point where the show seems unsure about what to do with Krycek. If Mulder is a child of privilege who renounced that privilege to toil in obscurity for the greater good, Spender is the child who exploits and leverages that privilege with no thought or concern as to the moral cost of his advantage. Spender is a “good son”, one willing to forgive his father his trespasses and one desperately yearning for approval. Although the sixth season never develops Spender as well as it might, he remains an interesting character.

As messy as the plotting of the mythology might get around the release of Fight the Future, there is at least a palpable sense of momentum in Patient X and The Red and the Black that had largely been missing since Talitha Cumi closed out the third season of the show. With episodes like Patient X and The Red and the Black building firmly towards an attempt to close off the mythology that would culminate in Two Fathers and One Son in the sixth season, Fight the Future felt largely redundant before it was even released. From a mythology standpoint.

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However, that is only half the story. As much as Fight the Future might claim to be a mythology episode, it is as much a romance between Mulder and Scully. This makes sense, given that Mulder and Scully were cultural icons in their own right. In many respects, Mulder and Scully were a power couple for the nineties; two co-dependent dysfunctional young professionals who never needed to articulate their affection. The plot of Fight the Future is inherently romantic in structure, threatening to break them up and sending Mulder to the ends of the earth for Scully.

The fifth season builds quite steadily to that point, weaving the idea of a Mulder and Scully romance slyly through the episodes. This is most overt in Detour or The Post-Modern Prometheus, where Mulder and Scully share a motel room or a dance. There are strong hints of flirtation in scripts like Schizogeny and of romantic jealousy in scripts like Kill Switch or Bad Blood. In Folie a Deux, Mulder describes Scully as his “one in five billion.” It’s no coincidence that The End seems more interested in the Mulder-Scully-Fowley triangle than Gibson Praise himself.

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With this emphasis on Mulder and Scully, there is a wonderful irony to the structure of the fifth season. Due to the production of Fight the Future and commitments to other projects, the fifth season often seemed to struggle to write Mulder and Scully into the same episode. Flashback stories in Unusual Suspects and Travelers featured Mulder without Scully. Vacation episodes like Christmas Carol and Chinga focused on Scully separate from Mulder. Given the relative brevity of the season, this was quite noticeable.

Even when David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were both available, the show seemed to make a point to separate them. Redux I and Redux II found Mulder infiltrating the basement of the Pentagon and weighing two deals with the devil as Scully lay in her hospital bed. Emily saw Mulder chasing down conspiracies as Scully confronted the death of her child alone. Patient X and The Red and the Black seemed to emphasise how Mulder and Scully would always be on the opposite sides of the believer/skeptic divide.

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Although apparently unintentional, it is a nice character arc that does pay off towards the end of the season and into the film. The Pine Bluff Variant has Mulder infiltrate a terrorist group alone, emphasising his isolation from Scully. Folie a Deux has Mulder committed to an institution while Scully struggles about whether she can take a leap of faith with him. It feels like a logical and organic precursor to the idea of splitting the two up in Fight the Future. Oddly enough, this coincidental character arc flows smoother than the surrounding mythology.

That is not to suggest that the character work in the fifth season is entirely smooth. Redux I and Redux II teases the idea of reversing the orientations of Mulder and Scully; that Mulder might learn to doubt as Scully learns to believe. To be fair, this does mark a gradual change in Scully’s character that sets up her character arc in the eighth season. However, Mulder’s character arc across the fifth season is decidedly less fluid. In a way, it is a direct result of the firm divide that exists between the mythology and the stand-alone episodes.

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It seems that Mulder might doubt the existence of extraterrestrials, but he invisible immortal conquistadors and killer trees are both legitimate homicide suspects. The show only fleetingly nods towards Mulder’s new-found skepticism in scripts like The Post-Modern Prometheus, but the arc doesn’t feel entirely organic or logical. The ending of The Red and the Black suggests that Mulder is on the way to finding his faith again, but he is as cynical as ever at the start of Folie a Deux – and then as eager and excited as ever by the time The End kicks into play. There is whiplash at work here.

Scully’s character arc hits similar bumps, as the season tries to shoehorn the character into very stock and familiar roles. Building off threads firmly established over the course of the fourth season, the fifth season tries very hard to present Scully as a maternal figure. Christmas Carol and Emily offers a riff on the show’s “Mulder-as-Christ” imagery by presenting the audience with “Scully-as-Mary”, discovering on Christmas that she had a miracle child who is fated to die. This is directly after The Post-Modern Prometheus suggested that rape could be excused if it led to children.

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This portrayal is deeply problematic, not least because the first few seasons rarely suggested that Scully wanted to be a mother. The Jersey Devil had Scully remarking on how she could never see herself raising children, while Conduit suggested that Mulder was more sympathetic and compassionate to child victims than Scully. The presentation of Scully’s character changed dramatically in episodes like Revelations and Home, suggesting that Scully really wanted to become a mother. The show never suggests that Mulder harbours similar ambitions about becoming a father.

It is awkward and clumsy writing, particularly when tied into other recurring issues with the way that show approaches Scully. There is something rather awkward about the way that the show strained to avoid confirming that Scully had sex in Never Again while revealing that she could have a miracle baby through non-sexual reproduction in Christmas Carol and Emily. The show stops just short of calling Emily a virgin birth, but the treatment of Scully’s gender and sexuality feels decidedly uncomfortable – she is presented as a maternal figure without sexual agency.

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It doesn’t help matters that The End drags Scully into an awkward romantic triangle with Mulder and Fowley. It is another plot which seems to emphasise Scully’s sexlessness – it is heavily implied in The End (and confirmed later on) that Mulder and Fowley are both sexually active with one another, while the show would remain coy about any implied sexual activity between Mulder and Scully up until the point where she had his child. As such, Scully’s jealousy in The End feels uncomfortable – everybody has sex except Scully, who is too busy mothering Gibson.

Still, these are issues that only really become clear when the season is examined as a whole. On an episode-to-episode basis, it works remarkably well. Due to all the external production constraints, the fifth season has a weird and experimental atmosphere to it. Due to the relatively short order, more than a third of the season is given over to mythology episodes. Due to the limited availability of the leads, there are a lot of episodes focusing on guest characters or a single lead rather than the iconic duo. There are also experimental episodes like The Post-Modern Prometheus or Bad Blood.

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Looking at the fifth season as a whole, there are very few conventional “monster of the week” stories to be found. Even those episodes can feel special or unique – Kitsunegari is a very rare sequel to a classic episode, for example, and plays as a wry critique of sequel structure. Out of the full season, only Detour, SchizogenyKill Switch, Mind’s Eye and Folie a Deux could be considered “monster of the week” stories in the conventional sense. That is well under a third of the season, when these sorts of stories typically make up half of a twenty-odd episode season.

In a way, this helps the episodes to seem a bit more unique and special. It makes it easier to appreciate them when they arrive. Detour, Kill Switch and Mind’s Eye are all superb examples of the form. They have interesting ideas and do great character work. Folie a Deux transcends its “monster of the week” set-up to provide a nice counterpoint to Bad Blood. Sure, Schizogeny is not a great episode of television, but it is far from the disaster that most fans make it out to be. It doesn’t even rank with the weakest episodes of the season, let alone the weakest episodes of the entire series.

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Then again, the move from Vancouver to Los Angeles meant that the show would struggle to capture that vibe even with a longer run and without the same production constraints. Vancouver provided The X-Files with a wonderful sense of atmosphere and space. The shadows and the rain lent themselves to a modern-day horror anthology series. There was a sense that Vancouver could look like just about anywhere in America on the darkest (and rainest) day of the year, which would seem to be the perfect time for Mulder and Scully to come to visit.

The later seasons would have difficulty matching that mood and tone. In a way, the fifth season is the last time that the should could consistently and effortlessly strike those notes. The sixth season would skew more towards light-hearted comedy than horror, but the seventh and eighth seasons would work out how to tell scary stories within the constraints of a Los Angeles production. However, it would never be quite the same again. There was an intangible quality that the show could never quite replace.

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It is no wonder that the production team would opt to leave Millennium in Vancouver as they moved down to Los Angeles. It makes sense that Chris Carter would return to Vancouver to produce both The X-Files: I Want to Believe and the six-episode wrap-up miniseries. Vancouver was a massive part of The X-Files, and leaving Vancouver meant leaving that part of The X-Files behind. The fifth season serves as a beautiful celebration of Vancouver, a reminder of just how comfortable the show had become in these surroundings.

You can’t go home again, despite your best efforts. The fifth season is the pinnacle of The X-Files‘ popularity. It is the moment at which the show had reached its zenith. With the move to Los Angeles, the production team would have to re-learn how to make the show work. With the release of the movie, The X-Files had no real target to build towards. Tensions were building behind the scenes, as David Duchovny seemed to find himself frequently (and publicly) in conflict with the production team around him.

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Despite all the pressure on and around it, the fifth season seems surprisingly relaxed. It is largely free of the chaos surrounding the fourth season – likely because Fight the Future was filmed before the season began and because Carter had handed the reins of Millennium over to Glen Morgan and James Wong. The show seemed rather comfortable in its own skin, with Carter having the time to direct two of the show’s twenty episodes on top of his writing and producing duties.

More than that, Carter also had the opportunity to bring in outside writers to work on the series. While it is always great to bring in writers with the pop cultural cache of Stephen King or William Gibson, the process is inevitably very involved on the production side. It takes a lot of hard work to shepherd a script to the screen, particularly when that script is coming from people who are not necessarily familiar with standard television production processes. It requires a great deal of time and care to get those scripts in front of the camera.

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The fifth season seemed to allow Carter a lot more freedom and space than he had enjoyed the previous year. It is hard to imagine Carter having the time or energy to shape something as experimental or playful as The Post-Modern Prometheus with all his obligations during the fourth season of The X-Files. However, the show even manages to take advantage of awkward production realities. The absence of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson allows the writers to do off-format episodes like Unusual Suspects or Travelers.

While contrasting the relaxed atmosphere of the fifth season with the more tense and driven mood of the fourth season, it should be noted that both seasons engage with the show’s history in very different ways. The fourth season excavates the first season of the show, bringing back characters like Scott Blevins or Max Fenig so as to tidy them away. The fifth season instead creates history, setting stories and characters in lacunas of X-Files continuity. The fifth season creates key historical figures like Arthur Dales or Diana Fowley in the shadows of X-Files history.

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In a way, this reflects a change in attitude towards the show. Chris Carter argued that he realised the mythology was limitless as he was writing Redux at the start of the fifth season. As such, it feels appropriate that the fifth season should treat the past as more than just characters or references that already exist. The past is as limitless as the writers’ imagination. The fifth season suggests no less than three (possibly interrelated) origin stories for Mulder’s work on the X-files, suggesting that there is always more story to be told.

After all, that is precisely how Chris Carter wrote around the stark cliffhanger left in Gethsemane. The opening scenes of Redux I revealed that there was a secret history leading up to that cliffhanger, a story unfolding between the scenes that led to the end of the fourth season. Mulder is effectively saved by the expansion and extension of history, by the fact that the history of The X-Files can be as deep and as limitless as the writer needs it to be at any given moment. There is always more story to be told.

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Although this does not bode well for a mythology already straining under the weight of too many plot developments, it does suggest a sense of optimism and enthusiasm as the show pushes through its fifth season. It is an enthusiasm and energy that is infectious, with the fifth season feeling adventurous and playful. This is what it feels like to sit on top of the world. If Gethsemane celebrated the show’s popularity by demonstrating Mulder’s invincibility, the fifth season revels in that invulnerability. However, there is a cost.

The fifth season is the point at which The X-Files ceases to be a show building momentum. This is the peak of the bell curve. The carriage has reached the top of the roller coaster. The view is spectacular. While there are some great episodes (and even seasons) ahead, the ride is about to get a lot more turbulent. So let’s enjoy this while we can.

You might be interested in our reviews of other seasons of The X-Files:

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

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4 Responses

  1. I think you’re absolutely right when you say the season works on an episode by episode basis. But when viewed, like we view modern television, as the season as a whole, it is clearly missing some oversight.
    I would argue, and I think you have as well, that at least seasons 5-7 were spinning their wheels, not just in the mythology but also in the romance story. This leads to all the uncomfortable desexualization of Scully. For as much as you and others have pointed to the show as an example of the “female gaze” this may have been targeted more toward the audience, leaving the actual female protagonist out of it.
    There is also irony in that the writers who helped keep the first 4 seasons more coherent, were busy developing one of the more modern (by 2015 standards) seasons of its time.

    • Yep.

      I really respect the freedom that Carter gave his writers to do what they wanted; I think that’s why the X-Files writers’ room had such a major influence on modern television, because of that freedom to grow and develop. But I think there is a price to that and that price became obvious in the fifth season. You can’t do a proper season-long arc in that style. (The eighth season does a much better job, I’d argue, but I suspect that the fact so many “a-list” writers were running The Lone Gunmen made it a little easier.)

      There is definitely a double-standard when it comes to Scully. I think there’s a way to read Milagro as Carter’s rather mean-spirited take on Never Again, to provide an example.

      Regarding the relationship, I fear you’re actually skipping ahead a little. For me, the Mulder and Scully relationship becomes an albatross around the show’s neck quite early in the sixth season when it becomes clear with The Rain King that the production team aren’t actually going to go anywhere with it. (Arguably reflecting the problems with the mythology – even the “ending” in the middle of the sixth season is not really an ending.) But we’ll start talking about that next week and through July. 🙂

      • The freedom of Carter’s writer’s room seems to be an all or nothing deal, however. As you’ve pointed out before, writers like Jeffrey Bell were routinely heavily re-written by Carter or one of his “trusted” writer/producers, i.e., Morgan&Wong in years 1-2, Darin Morgan in 3, Howard Gordon in 4 and Spotnitz/Gilligan 5-9. Again, getting ahead of myself, you would have liked to have seen someone like Steven Maeda get a little more freedom. I have been somewhat following along with your reviews but in my own “rewatch” I’m only mid-season 4. Having just finished “Never Again” it’s hard to see how they get to “Fight the Future” so fast. I have always thought of the “Redux” triology as a turning point for Mulder and the relationship, but we’ll see how well that holds up when I make it there.

      • I don’t think they ever deal with Never Again. They just position it in the broadcast order so the audience can write off Scully’s behaviour as “acting out” due to cancer, which means it can be brushed aside when the cancer becomes a focus boxed when her cancer is resolved. I can understand why Carter would do that, but I can also understand why Morgan was so frustrated by it. (The same is true of the conflicts over Musings.)

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