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The X-Files – Triangle (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

There are a lot of reasons to celebrate Triangle.

The episode gets a lot of attention for its wonderful use of long tracking shots. According to Chris Carter’s commentary, there are only twenty-four individual shots stitched together to produce the forty-five-minute episode. Considering the amount of split-screen action at the climax, that is not a lot. Triangle is an artistic tour de force for writer and director Chris Carter. The success that both Birdman and True Detective enjoyed in 2014 due to their extended takes suggests that Carter was significantly ahead of the curve.

Dragging up the past...

Dragging up the past…

There are other aspects to note. Triangle also ushers in a new mood and tone for the sixth season of The X-Files. The show had moved to Los Angeles, and would struggle with how to retain its identity in the new (and bright) surroundings of California. The Beginning and Drive had both answered the question in their own way, but Triangle ushers in a whole new approach to storytelling. Triangle is the first of a series of light and breezy episodes in the early stretch of the sixth season where The X-Files almost turns into a paranormal sitcom.

However, there is one other reason to celebrate Triangle. It is an extended forty-five minute pun on the word “ship.”

Cigarette-Smoking Nazi...

Cigarette-Smoking Nazi…

The X-Files invented the verb “to ship” as it relates to fictional characters. The verb can trace its etymology to the word “relationship” and effectively denotes an interest in seeing a (most often romantic) relationship between two characters. Originally, members of the on-line newsgroup used the term “relationshipper” to identify these fans. The term “shipper” itself was already in use by halfway through the third season. The X-Files always had a very active on-line fanbase, so it makes sense that they would help to define fandom into the twenty-first century.

To be fair, The X-Files cannot claim to have invented the idea of pairing off the two lead characters in a popular syndicated genre show; fans had been “slashing” Kirk and Spock since the earliest days of Star Trek, with This Side of Paradise and Amok Time only encouraging that approach. Nevertheless, the idea that Mulder and Scully might end up in a romantic relationship quickly became a prism for debate about The X-Files. It was impossible to avoid. The writing staff actively encouraged it with scripts like War of the Coprophages and Syzygy.

Everything is ship-shape...

Everything is ship-shape…

Although the term originated on-line, it did not necessarily stay there. “Shippers” came from all walks of life and with all sorts of commitment to the show. Both die-hards and casual fans could “ship” Mulder and Scully. While you might not be able to casually drop the verb “to ship” in real-life conversation without eliciting a raised eyebrow in response, even the most casual television viewer had an opinion on whether Mulder and Scully should hook up. There were magazine covers dedicated to it, articles written about it, interviews framed around it.

Only the most stubborn fan would argue that “shipping” was not part of the national conversation about The X-Files. The show consciously began to play into it. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz structured The X-Files: Fight the Future as a love story about Mulder’s journey to the end of the world to save Scully. The biggest moment in that film is not the gigantic alien space ship, but the almost!kiss in the hallway. The fifth season had consciously and repeatedly teased the idea of Mulder and Scully hooking up, whether in Detour or The Post-Modern Prometheus.

"West. We need to go... wait, wrong episode. But we should probably still head west.

“West. We need to go… wait, wrong episode. But we should probably still head west.”

So while conversations about Triangle might focus on the number of long takes employed by Chris Carter or the wacky time travel comedy with Nazis, the heart of the episode was always about Mulder and Scully. Everything else is just a distraction. On the broadest possible level, Triangle is the story about Mulder investigating one “ship” only to find himself on another. This is the episode where Mulder says “I love you” to Scully, even if she responds with something approaching a sigh. (Because, let’s face it, who’d want to deal with that right now?)

Triangle was a pretty big deal at the time. It arguably received more publicity than the entire third season of Millennium. There were print advertisements and press packs, interviews and screeners. “Those who have seen the episode,” Alex Strachan noted in a piece for the Vancouver Sun, “are describing it as everything from an incoherent, self-indulgent mess to a tour de force that will guarantee writing and directing Emmy nominations for its creator.” It is telling that the advertisements put the emphasis on both ships involved.

Tough shoot.

Tough shoot.

It was quite clear to anybody who had been paying attention to the past few seasons of The X-Files that there was really no question about Mulder and Scully getting together. It was all but inevitable at this point, with The X-Files wringing as much suspense as possible for the set-up. The question of how Mulder and Scully got together would arguably become one of the biggest threads that The X-Files would have to resolve before the show concluded. It was just as important to any sense of closure as the fate of Samantha Mulder or the mysteries of the conspiracy.

It is no coincidence that the Mulder and Scully romance comes to the fore at what is a fairly controversial stretch of The X-Files. The sixth season of The X-Files is divisive among fans, many of whom were skeptical about the lighter mood and style of the early sixth season episodes. Many of those episodes would emphasise a possible Mulder and Scully romance, whether via body swap in Dreamland, a shared Christmas in How the Ghosts Stole Christmas or by proxy in The Rain King. This string of episodes a nightmare for any “no-romo” in the audience.

You can't see it, but they're totally making out...

You can’t see it, but they’re totally making out…

This is a conflict that frequently breaks out in fandoms for genre shows with “shipping” elements. In Chlark versus Chlois, Cory Barker noted interesting results from studies that explored attitudes towards “shipping” among certain fanbases:

One of the fascinating results of both projects is how often questions of genre percolate in these online discourses. Namely, in these cases, both X-Files and Doctor Who fans against shipping were found to be disinterested and dismissive of romance all together, because it disrupted the series’ science fiction conventions and turned them toward soap opera tendencies. Therefore, ships served as “feminine” threats to The X-Files’ and Doctor Who’s perceived primary narrative and generic concerns.

It is, of course, too much to suggest that certain types of fandom are explicitly masculine or feminine, there are general trends that can be observed. There are undoubtedly a significant number of male “shippers” and female “no-romos”, but it is hard to deny that there is a gender element to such discourses.

Double your Scully?

Double your Scully?

After all, science fiction fandom is generally assumed to be white, male and heterosexual by default. Even if that perception is slowly changing (and arguably feeding into conflicts like Gamergate or Rapid Puppies), it definitely existed in the nineties. As Sarah N. Gatson noted in an editorial for Transformative Works and Cultures:

Not to speak about race, gender, class, sexuality—or being pressured not to speak—in a fandom space ends up creating the image of a “generic” or “normalized” fan. Such a fan identity is not free of race, class, gender, or sexuality but rather is assumed to be the default. The default fanboy has a presumed race, class, and sexuality: white, middle-class, male, heterosexual.

The X-Files was an oddity at the time. It was a major genre television show where a significant proportion of the dialogue was driven by female fans. Paula Vitaris and Sarah Stegall were among the most prolific and respected contemporary reviewers. Two of the three most prolific posters on the newsgroup were women.

The last dance...

The last dance…

In that respect, the conflict between “shippers” and “no-romos” over the direction of The X-Files could be seen as the conflict between a much more traditional science fiction fanbase and those interested in a (for the time) novel approach to genre television. It is perhaps surprising that the “shippers” won out. Their victory could arguably be seen as an early victory for progressive forces in what might be considered the “pop culture wars”, a demonstration that the rules and expectations for genre entertainment were shifting. The X-Files was not simply traditional science fiction.

It cannot be stressed how influential The X-Files was in opening up fandom for cult genre shows. Although the fanbase for the original Star Trek had been predominantly female – lead by figures like Bjo Trimble and Sue Sackett – the nineties spin-offs had a more conventionally masculine on-line fanbase. The X-Files paved the way for the largely female “SuperWhoLock” fandom of the twenty-first century. Steven Moffat’s work seems to owe a lot to Chris Carter, and Supernatural is quite heavily indebted to the show.

"So, are the fans going to call us Mully or Sculder?"

“So, are the fans going to call us Mully or Sculder?”

An example of this gender divide in X-Files fandom can arguably seen in debates over Triangle. There is a strange focus in fandom about whether Triangle could be said to have “really” happened, as much as any episode of The X-Files could be said to have “really” happened. Tom Kessenich demonstrates this dichotomy in eXaminations:

The great debate regarding Triangle seems to have drifted from the ramifications of the great declaration at the end to whether or not the entire episode was a dream or just portions were. Given all the Wizard of Oz references and even Chris Carter’s own words saying he was intrigued by the idea that this was part of Mulder’s subconscious at work, I think it’s fair to say much of what we saw was indeed a dream.

The material implications of Triangle for the future of the show (the fact that Mulder quite clearly does love Scully) are brushed aside to talk about more “important” and traditional genre concerns like whether or not Mulder “really” traveled in time or “really” went to another dimension or simply had a weird dream.

All at sea...

All at sea…

It is an approach that interrogates Triangle as a very traditional piece of science-fiction television, suggesting that The X-Files is obligated to impose “rules” on its scripts that must be followed. It feels like Carter is rather cheekily having his cake and eating it too. He knows that the “shippers” in the audience will appreciate the kiss and the declaration of love, while the “no-romos” will get caught up in circular arguments about how much of the show “really” happened and how the kiss cannot possibly count because it wasn’t the “real” Scully.

It is an argument that misses the point. Triangle makes it clear that Mulder does have an attraction to Scully. Whether 1939!Scully actually exists, or is a figment of his imagination, his decision to kiss her before throwing himself overboard is an act of emotional honesty from Mulder. Just as his declaration of love for Scully in the final scene is an act of emotional honesty. Regardless of the “reality” of Mulder’s adventure, the story has a lasting impact – because it shapes the way that the characters interact from here on out.

"We really need to stop having our secret conspiracy meetings in the halls of the FBI. This is just awkward."

“We really need to stop having our secret conspiracy meetings in the halls of the FBI. This is just awkward.”

Of course, the development of a romance between Mulder and Scully would cause severe problems for the show. The “will they?/won’t they?” dynamic of the seventh season got a little tired, particularly when the resolution is “they did, possibly repeatedly and for an extended period, but we just didn’t tell you.” More than that, the decision to link Mulder and Scully so profoundly makes it next to impossible for the show to continue with only one or other of the leads. This would become a fairly significant problem relatively soon.

As if to tweak even more noses, Triangle rather cleverly slips a kiss between Scully and Skinner into the episode. That would seem to be an element that exists in the “real” world, and cleverly throws yet another “ship” into the episode. After all, the show had hinted at an attraction between Skinner and Scully for quite some time. Mitch Pileggi joked that “Skinner always had a huge crush on Scully. That’s why he was always pissed off with Mulder all the time, because he was jealous.”

Yeah. I can see it.

Yeah. I can see it.

The show would occasionally tease the possibility of Skinner’s attraction to Scully over the course of the show, but it never really developed. After all, The X-Files was clearly committed to its own particular “ship.” That said, there is an argument that Scully and Skinner would actually work quite well together. As Scully admitted in Never Again, she seems to have some pretty severe daddy issues; Skinner’s “tough love dad” would seem to be a much more comfortable fit for Scully than the “deadbeat dad” that Mulder would become in the final seasons of the show.

Of course, even the slightest tease of a romantic relationship between Scully and Skinner turns the title of Triangle into something of a loose pun on the part of writer and director Chris Carter. With that final piece in place, Triangle becomes a story trapped between three very different ships. There is obviously the Queen Anne itself, but there is also the “ship” between Mulder and Scully and the “ship” between Scully and Skinner. It all adds up to make Triangle a very playful piece of television.

Watching the past...

Watching the past…

After all, one of the most impressive pieces of Triangle is the sequence where Scully runs through the FBI looking for the macguffin. It is a completely unnecessary sequence. It is never entirely clear why Scully needs that piece of information, beyond the fact that there needs to be a reason for her to run around the building. The script could very easily just have another character give her that information, or cut to her giving that information to the Lone Gunmen. Instead, Triangle turns it into a high energy run-around through the FBI building.

It is a great sequence – and an episode highlight – for a number of reasons, none of which are plot-based. The idea of Scully running through the FBI building avoiding conspirators and slipping around unseen plays into the core themes of The X-Files – the idea that everybody is out to get our heroes, even in ordinary (and supposedly safe) places. More than that, it is easier for the audience to get excited by the sequence because of our familiarity with the sets; the audience is more familiar with the geography of the FBI headquarters than with the Queen Anne.

"Wait, you wanna do another take?"

“Wait, you wanna do another take?”

The skill with which the production team (repeatedly) changes the sets while Scully is in the lift provides one of the highlights of the episode. While the audience suspects that the Queen Anne sequences are filmed on a real boat – and the geography reflects that – the viewer also knows that the FBI sequences are filmed on standing sets. So a large part of the joy of that sequence comes from the knowledge that the production team are manipulating standing sets “live.” It is a sequence that works so well precisely because of the artifice of the set-up.

Carter cleverly plays into the audience’s familiarity with television viewing. In a way, the fact that the FBI sequences are shot on standing sets makes them more impressive than the sequences on board the Queen Anne. We don’t know the layout and design of the Queen Anne, so the audience is not aware of all the constraints imposed on camera movement through the ship. Scully’s adventures in the FBI building are a massive wink at the audience, an example of Triangle‘s playful nature.

"Must have taken a wrong turn at Albequerque..."

“Must have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque…”

Making it look so spontaneous and fun is quite a trick. Triangle is a skilfully and meticulous crafted episode. Chris Carter really pushed himself as a director over the course of The X-Files. He took advantage of the opportunities presented by the show to try a number of experimental episodes. The Post-Modern Prometheus, Triangle and Improbable are all very bold and confident pieces of television that take advantage of the loose format of The X-Files. The X-Files was a show that really could be anything from one week to the next. Psychological thriller, brutal horror, broad comedy.

Triangle is structured as a series of long takes – extended sequences where the camera never cuts away. Given the skill and technique required to realise a shot like that, there are any number of famous examples from classic films – from Robert Altman’s The Player to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas to Joe Wright’s Atonement. There are examples of films structured around long takes, whether as a single long take or as a series of similar shots. In the case of Triangle, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is an obvious influence.

Ain't no party like a Nazi Party...

Ain’t no party like a Nazi Party…

Rope was adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play. The film was shot as a series of ten ten-minute takes, and subsequently edited together to create the impression of a single uninterrupted take. The ten-minute limit was a technical constraint, imposed by the cameras used to record the action. Roger Ebert described Rope as “one of the most interesting experiments ever attempted by a major director working with big box-office names.” He was certainly correct. Although not considered among Hitchcock’s finest film, Rope has been subject to some revaluation.

Triangle is structured in a way that is broadly similar. Although Carter relaxes a bit towards the climax of the episode, the bulk of Triangle unfolds as a series of extended takes. One of the advantages of working in television is that Carter does not have to disguise his cuts. Triangle would never have aired without act breaks that could accommodate commercial breaks, so they provide Carter with a handy (and logical) place to cut the episode. As such, the ten-minute take structure is arguably more suited to television than to film. At least with that limitation in place.

Mulder was actually able to pick up fan reviews on that thing as well...

Mulder was actually able to pick up fan reviews on that thing as well…

According to The End and the Beginning, Carter had a very clear motivation for filming Triangle in this way:

“To save film,” corrects Carter, eyes glinting mischievously.

He adds: “Last season, while filming The Red and the Black, I hit the dubious mark of shooting more film doing  an episode than any director had ever done before on The X-Files – except one, Kim Manners. So everybody decided to get together and present me with a funny – looking second – place trophy.

“It was at that point that I had an idea. I asked, ‘How much does one of our big film magazines hold?’ Someone told  me that each one holds about twelve minutes worth. Then I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could just use one magazine, do one shot, for each of the show’s four acts?’ Everybody laughed, ‘Ha ha ha!’ But then I realized this is a chance to do what Hitchcock did in Rope, which was to film continuous action, or at least try to make it look like that.

“And then I thought I’ve always wanted to do a Devil’s Triangle episode. And now that we’d moved down to Los  Angeles, I had the perfect place to do it. So all these things fell together and became Triangle.”

The result is a boldly experimental piece of television. It is amazing that Carter missed out an Emmy nomination.

"Don't worry. I saw this in a film."

“Don’t worry. I saw this in a film.”

The fact that Carter did not receive an Emmy nomination for what would obviously have been an awards-friendly episode indicates that The X-Files was entering its decline. The show was loosening its grip on the pop culture conversation. The show dropped from six Prime-Time Emmy nominations during the fifth season to only two such nominations during the fifth season. And those two nominations were legacy nominations for Gillian Anderson and Veronica Cartwright, who had also received nominations the previous year.

During the fifth season, Carter had received writing and directing nominations for his work on The Post-Modern Prometheus. While Carter’s direction of that episode was experimental and adventurous, it does seem surreal to suggest that it was a greater technical accomplishment than Triangle. It seems more likely that The X-Files had simply lost its position at the height of the zietgeist. All things must come to an end; the sixth season represents the beginning of the end of The X-Files, the point at which the show begins to fade away.

Engines of destiny...

Engines of destiny…

Carter himself remains incredibly proud of his work on Triangle. Interviewed a decade after the show went off the air, he still cited it as one of his favourite instalments:

One of the episodes I’m most proud of in terms of taking a risk would be the episode called Triangle, which took place on the Queen Mary. 24 edits in the hour of television, so big, long takes. We would do one take before lunch. You just don’t do that in television production.

The fact that Carter could convince Fox to let him take all of these risks indicates just how much power he had at this point in the run. It is a testament to Carter as producer as much as Carter as a director.

Blood on the dance floor...

Blood on the dance floor…

It is worth pausing to discuss long takes in general. They are a powerful artistic tool. The amount of skill taken to execute even a simple long take is impressive. It demands a lot from the actors, and a lot from the production staff. A single screw-up means that everything has to be set back to zero, so that the crew can start again. That means adjusting lights, tweaking props, tinkering with sets, fixing cameras. Every action – whether by an actor or by a member of the team or even by the camera – adds another risk and layer of complexity to the shot.

Attempting a long shot on film is a risky proposition, but at least there are safety nets. If a film takes longer to produce than planned, there are obvious repercussions and implications – but it can still be finished. Television works on a much tighter schedule. On television, there is a very tight release schedule. Running over schedule on a television show jeopardises an entire season. A twenty-odd episode weekly television show needs to be turning out a new episode once every six or seven working days in order to maintain the pace. Long takes add more risk to that.

Floating ideas...

Floating ideas…

It is tempting to look at long takes as a tool that add a sense of realism to the finished product. After all, long takes suggest that there is less room for special effects or manipulation. That is not always true – after all, the first shot of Birdman is a special effects shot – but it is something that the audience takes for granted. It is akin to a magician showing the audience that his sleeves are empty. Doing something as a long take general signals that there is less “trickery” required to get it to work; that the director is removing the handicap of being able to fix it in an edit.

After all, the long take seems naturalistic in theory. Actors deliver their lines in sequence to one another, with a minimum amount of interruption or intercutting. There are none of the usual tricks reserved for shooting television or film. Filming a sequence in one take means that you cannot use stand-ins or edit together footage from different iterations of the same scene. In a way, it provides a sense of internal continuity that cannot help but evoke the theatre. It is “almost live.”

"Oh, don't mind me. I'm on a cigarette break."

“Oh, don’t mind me. I’m on a cigarette break.”

Gillian Anderson described the experience in similar terms in an interview packaged as part of the electronic press pack for the episode:

It’s interesting. It’s challenging to get used to the new rhythm. I’m realising how comfortable and connected I am to the rhythm that we’re used to – that you know when to give and when not to give, and you know when the cuts are going to take place and when they’re going to be on somebody else. One would hope that you would have enough energy to act all the time, but your body just kinda knows. To get used to the fact that during these shots you’re on all the time, you really get to see how good of an actor – or not – that you really are.

It is a very reasonable way to approach a long take, particularly from the perspective of the actor involved. It means changing the way that the actor does things so that their approach is more in line with theatre than film.

A spent Spender...

A spent Spender…

At the same time, it is overly simplistic to suggest that long takes are designed to evoke “realism” or “naturalism.” While some long takes are undoubtedly framed and constructed to evoke theatre, that is an overly narrow definition of the technique. After all, long takes in film and television allow the camera (and the audience) to cover a much large geographical area than theatre performance would. Restricting a sequence to a single take does not necessarily mean confining it to a single location. Again, the work of Scorsese and Wright is informative here.

It is also perhaps a little simplistic to suggest that the long take is intended to make a sequence feel more real. The long take can often be conspicuous or attention-drawing in a way that more conventional editing would not be. In particular, a large part of the thrill of the long take is the sheer technical skill required to realise it. Many of the most iconic long takes invite the audience to wonder “how did they do that?” a question that draws attention to the artifice of the form. It draws the attention of the audience away from the drama and onto the take itself as a piece of art.

After all, an extended take tends to emphasise the differences between the camera and a human eye. In Cinema in the Digital Age, Nicholas Rombes argues that it is impossible for the human eye to be as objective as the camera lens during these extended sequences:

Perhaps the urge to break up or interrupt real-time long takes is rooted in our own experience of consciousness and perception, which rhythmically ‘interrupts’ the flow of our own processing of reality. For while it may be true that such a thing as a ninety-minute film exists with no cuts, it is also true that no human being could ever truly experience the event, as the very act of blinking serves as a momentary cut or edit: we lose multiple frames each time we blink. There is no long take for the viewer, only fragments of a long take uninterrupted by the act of blinking, just as sleeping interrupts or pauses our conscious absorption and processing of real-time reality. ‘Pure perception,’ Henri Bergson wrote, ‘in fact, however rapid we suppose it to be, occupies a certain depth of duration, so that our successive perceptions are never real moments of things … but are moments of our consciousness.’ Extremely long takes made possible by HD remind us that, as humans, we can never approximate or replicate the camera eye, which does not blink, but rather captures a steady stream of information. Paradoxically, long takes are techniques we can never truly experience as long takes.

Discussing Birdman, Scott Kaufman observes that the film’s single take structure distances the audience from an objective vantage point. He argues that by the time Riggan Thompson is being followed by an avatar of his iconic screen role, “it has become nearly impossible to determine what relation the image on the screen bears to reality.”

Piecing it together...

Piecing it together…

Triangle has something of a similar effect. The longer the camera runs, the less connected the show feels to reality. Mulder finds himself in a world inhabited by cartoon Nazis. Scully finds herself trapped in a caper inside the FBI headquarters. By the time characters have started crossing split screens at the climax, Triangle is completely and utterly disengaged from anything approaching reality. As with The Post-Modern Prometheus, the episode draws attention to its own artifice and abstraction. The unreality of it all is precisely the point.

Carter’s script for Triangle is very effective. It is very much written with broad strokes, in a manner that makes it highly accessible. In particular, it is structured in such a way that the characters are all introduced and developed in the real world in such a way that their alternate selves make a great deal of sense. Every character that Mulder encounters in 1939 crosses pathes with Scully in the present day. Triangle does not assume any familiarity on the part of the viewer, with Carter’s script very clearly and very careful telling the audience all they need to know.

There's probably somebody who ships it.

There’s probably somebody who ships it.

Some of these mirror images are very effective and revealing. 1939!Skinner is effectively a good Nazi, a man forced by circumstances to collaborate with horrific individuals. Any long-term fans will recognise the similarities from the moment this version of the character first appears, but Triangle is careful to give 1998!Skinner a similar character arc. “My hands are tied,” he advises 1998!Scully. He cannot even allow himself to acknowledge her dilemma. “I don’t even what to hear it.” This is essentially a microcosm of Skinner’s character arc, distilled with ruthless efficiency.

Similarly, 1939!Spender is revealed to be a mouthpiece for 1939!Cigarette-Smoking Man, charged with getting vital information from Mulder. This would appear to be a universal constant. Answering the phone in the basement, 1998!Scully discovers that 1998!Cigarette-Smoking Man is counting on 1998!Spender to get vital information from her. As if to underscore the similarities, both 1998!Scully and 1939!Scully describe their version of Spender as a “weasel.” It just happens that 1939!Spender actually wears a Gestapo uniform.

A Nazi by any other name...

A Nazi by any other name…

The revelation that 1939!Cigarette-Smoking Man is a literal Nazi should surprise nobody who has been watching the show. Glen Morgan and James Wong had made the connection explicit in The Field Where I Died, but the show has been quite explicit about the horrors of the conspiracy since the very beginning. The climax of Anasazi had the Cigarette-Smoking Man burning out a boxcar packed with the emaciated skeletons of past attrocities, while The Blessing Way and Paper Clip revealed that the character actively collaborated with actual Nazis.

Perhaps the character who is hardest to get a read on is that of Assistant Director Kersh. Kersh is still a relatively new character at this point in the show. He had a non-speaking appearance at the end of The Beginning and a supporting role in Drive. As such, it feels perhaps a little early for the show to be making big pronouncements about his character. Rather tellingly, it is quite difficult to connect 1998!Kersh back to 1939!Kersh based on the information in Triangle. There is a sense this is a problem created by the setting. Unlike Spender, Kersh can’t really be a Nazi.

On a crash Kersh...

On a crash Kersh…

There are broad strokes that might connect the two iterations of the character. Both 1939!Kersh and 1998!Kersh are authority figures who hold power that might seem minor in the grand scheme of things, but ultimately has a major impact on Mulder’s life. Certainly, 1939!Kersh seems just as difficult to work with as 1998!Kersh. However, there is a sense that we really don’t know enough about Kersh at this point in the show to properly process an alternate version of the character.

That said, perhaps Triangle got lucky. It is possible to read the portrayal of 1939!Kersh as foreshadowing the character arc of Assistant Director Alvin Kersh. He is initially very hostile to Mulder and Scully, serving as an antagonistic superior. However, Nothing Important Happened Today II and The Truth would eventually suggest that Kersh was a more nuanced and sympathetic character. As with the engine room staff who serve under him in Triangle, Kersh just happens to join the fight a little late.

"Heil's well that ends well..."

“Heil’s well that ends well…”

At the same time, Carter makes sure that the script to Triangle stays true to the larger themes of The X-Files. It is a very loose and fun episode, which restricts the opportunity for introspection and analysis. However, it is interesting to see Mulder thrown back in time to the Second World War, given the repeated suggestion on The X-Files that modern American history really began with that conflict. Episodes like The Blessing Way, Paper Clip, Nisei, 731, Piper Maru and Apocrypha all suggest that the conspiracy is a legacy of the Second World War.

There is something quite nice about Mulder’s initial response to arriving on the Queen Anne. “There’s no war going on,” Mulder tries to advise the crew. “The world is at peace.” In a way, Triangle touches on the ideas that Carter wrote into the script of Apocrypha; the idea that conscience is the voice of the dead, that the nineties are haunted by the ghosts of earlier generations. In Triangle, Mulder finds himself on what 1998!Scully describes as “a ghost ship” – dealing with a potential weapon of mass destruction that will have unimaginable consequences for world history.

Don't fight it.

Don’t fight it.

Although Triangle glosses over it in the race towards a resolution, Mulder effectively finds himself in a familiar situation here. His search leads directly to the death of innocent people, as 1939!Cigarette-Smoking Man executes passengers to get to Mulder. “How many lives are you willing to sacrifice?” demands 1939!Spender, a question that the mythology has broached time and time again. As with the plot for colonisation at the heart of the mythology, Mulder finds himself making all manner of tough choices about the end of the world.

Mulder effectively asks 1939!Scully to doom the Queen Anne (and everybody on board) in order to spare the world the development of “Thor’s Hammer.” Rather pointedly, it is a weapon that Mulder is unwilling to trust to either the Nazi or the American governments. Triangle moves a little bit too fast to dwell on the fact that Mulder effectively sentences a boat full of innocent people (and some Nazis) to their deaths, which feels like a rather odd conclusion to a fun run-around adventure. Perhaps it is best not to dwell on these sorts of plot points.

Captain, my captain...

Captain, my captain…

Just as it is probably best not to dwell on the weird detail that the Lone Gunmen apparently gave Mulder the only copy of their satellite image of the Queen Anne. “He was in a hurry,” Langly states, apologetically. That would seem to be a very strange way for the Lone Gunmen to operate. Surely they could just have printed him a copy? After all, he had to charter a boat for his little adventure, right? Again, it is probably best not to contemplate the finer points of Triangle too heavily.

Triangle is very clearly an episode designed to serve as a light run around. After years of using the Nazis as background details in the conspiracy, it is great fun to see cartoon Nazis employed by the show. Triangle plays like an affectionate riff on Indiana Jones, right down to 1939!Skinner inexplicably quipping “God bless America” after shooting a Nazi goon in the back. Trying to impose something resembling logic upon Triangle is to miss the entire point of the exercise.

Executing their plan...

Executing their plan…

Carter makes this quite explicit. Triangle is populated with references and nods towards The Wizard of Oz. This is most obvious in the suggestion that Mulder went to an alternate world populated by doppelgangers of people he knows from his everyday life. However, it should also be noted that the German translation of “the truth is out there” in the opening credits conspicuously adds the word “somewhere.” Mulder was travelling on the “Lady Garland” when he was swept overboard. When Mulder points out Skinner was there, Skinner replies, “Me and my dog Toto.”

Triangle marks a point of transition for the sixth season. It begins a run of light episodes in the first half of the year, the first time that The X-Files has done so many goofy episodes so close together. Triangle would be immediately followed by Dreamland, the show’s first two-part comedy episode. While the change in mood reflected the move from gloomy Vancouver to sunny Los Angeles, it still felt like a weird choice. The sixth season was flowing directly out from Fight the Future, and so it seemed odd to transition from that big classic X-Files story to a run of eccentric episodes.

"Quick! To the Lone-Gunsmen-mobil!

“Quick! To the Lone-Gunsmen-mobil!

In a retrospective interview towards the end of the show’s nine-year run, Carter suggested that the change of pace was a conscious decision on the part of the production team:

“It began as a show where we attempted to scare the pants off of people each week, and it’s always been that,” maintains Carter. “But as the show has evolved, there were seasons – for example, season 6, after the movie – where we decided to lighten it up, where we got away from being scary because it felt natural [to do so]. The show became almost comedic with the things we attempted with episodes like Triangle.”

It is always a good idea to stretch and develop the show, but it is a rather strange choice to move so clearly and so confidently away from an approach that had made The X-Files one of the most-watched shows in the United States.

"Wait, Mulder imagined me as a good what?!"

“Wait, Mulder imagined me as a good what?!”

The sixth season was a turbulent time for The X-Files. Pressures were building behind the scenes; the crew had just moved from one country to another. The string of light-hearted episodes running through the first half of the sixth season was massively controversial among fans. Many felt that The X-Files was wandering away from what had made it so popular and iconic in the first place. By the time that the season hits The Rain King, it seems perfectly understandable that some fans would have difficulty recognising the show with which they fell in love.

Triangle is a very clear transition point, particularly in hindsight. Somebody introduced to The X-Files through Triangle might think that the show is essentially a quirky sitcom about a crazy FBI agent and his level-headed partner. “What happened to me?” Mulder wonders in the final scene. “You did something incredibly stupid,” Scully explains. “What did I do?” Mulder asks. “You went looking for a ship, Mulder,” Scully states. “In the Bermuda Triangle.” Cue canned laughter. “That’s our Mulder!” Frohike somehow doesn’t interject.

"And you were there, and you were there... and you guys actually weren't there."

“And you were there, and you were there… and you guys actually weren’t there.”

One need look no further than the character of Skinner to see how radically The X-Files has shifted. Skinner was introduced as a conflicted and ambiguous authority figure in Tooms. He spent a significant portion of the run aloof and mysterious, even with character-centric episodes like Avatar and Zero Sum. Even in comedy episodes like Small Potatoes and Bad Blood, Skinner was presented as something of a straight man – he was the character who corrected Eddie Van Blundht’s typos or described a morgue attendant as “gnawed.”

In contrast, the final scene of Triangle turns Skinner into the lovable and quirky uncle. He shows up with flowers to Mulder’s hospital room – displaying either a sentimentality or a sense of humour that he has never shown to Mulder before. “Mulder, will you settle down?” Scully asks. “It’s an order.” Using two words that don’t really fit together very well, Skinner quips, “Not that he takes orders…” The episode stops short of having everybody laugh and closing on a freeze-frame as applause sounds.

"The internet's not gonna like this."

“The internet’s not gonna like this.”

When he is leaving, Skinner jokes, “Get some rest, Mulder, ’cause when you get out of here I’m going to kick your butt but good.” It is weird that Skinner has transitioned from the distant hard-to-please father figure to the rough-but-well-meaning uncle. It is certainly character development, but it does suggest that some of the fundamental assumptions underpinning The X-Files are about to change. For better or worse, Triangle could be seen as the real start of the sixth season, setting the mood for what is to come.

For all the technically impressive aspects of Triangle, for all the hype and publicity around it, it is the lightness of touch that suggests Triangle is a sign of things to come. Certain fans might react to Mulder’s declaration of love in the same manner as Scully – a silly smile and a shaking of the head. However, it serves as a clear statement of intent for the show going forward. As with Scully’s “lightbulb” speech in The Rain King, it is a moment designed to prepare fans for what is to come in a way that is disarming and light-hearted.

Partners in crime... fighting.

Partners in crime… fighting.

When it comes to the essence of The X-Files, the sixth season suggests that the romance between Mulder and Scully will outlive the conspiracy. It is very much a refocusing of the show. However, it is a refocusing that is clearly built around the idea of a dysfunctional romance (with time travel! and body-swapping! and ghosts! and weather manipulation!) as much as aliens and government conspiracies. The extent to which this works will vary from viewer to viewer, but it does at least demonstrate that The X-Files is still capable of changing and evolving.

Triangle demonstrates that The X-Files might be entering its sixth year, but it still has energy and ambition to spare.

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

2 Responses

  1. Kersh’s secretary as the blond performer singing ‘Jeepers Creepers’ in the ship’s ballroom!!! Darren, I live for your reviews. They’re just spectacular in every way. 🙂

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