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The X-Files – S.R. 819 (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.

And we’re back on familiar ground.

The first half of sixth season of The X-Files is perhaps the weirdest that the show ever really became. It seemed like the series transformed into a goofy workplace romantic comedy, as Mulder and Scully worked at boring desk jobs during the day before investigating paranormal activity together in their spare time. It was utterly unlike anything that the show had done before or anything that it would do after. It is very strange to see so many oddities packed together so tightly.

He survived by the Skin(ner) of his teeth...

He survived by the Skin(ner) of his teeth…

Triangle, Dreamland I, Dreamland II, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas and The Rain King have enough surreal content to sustain two or three seasons of The X-Files. Broadcasting them almost back-to-back left some fans a little shell-shocked. At the time, it must have seemed like The X-Files had become a completely different television show than it had been only five or six months earlier. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that those episodes were just a very strange blip in the larger context of the series.

S.R. 819 is the episode that marks the clear return to the classic “tried and tested” model of The X-Files. It has everything from ambiguous conspiracies to body horror to car park confrontations. It is very much business as usual. Which is both the best and worst thing about it.

Do the Mathes, son...

Do the Mathes, son…

One of the most enduring criticisms of the first stretch of the sixth season is the sense that taking Mulder and Scully off the X-files had no real impact on the show. The series still told stories about paranormal events and strange occurences, with Mulder and Scully wandering into strange situations just like they would at any other point in the show’s run. The series faced a similar problem at the start of the second season, where it seemed like Mulder had to keep stumbling to strange events.

To be fair, this makes a certain amount of sense. Nobody tuning into The X-Files wanted to see a version of Drive where Mulder and Scully continue investigating large fertiliser deliveries for forty-five minutes. Investigating the paranormal and government conspiracies is essential to the show’s identity. It cannot transform itself into Criminal Minds if Mulder finds himself transferred back to Behavioural Sciences or Bones if Scully finds herself assigned to forensics. The show is what it is, and it cannot really change.

David Duchovny's getting bored again...

David Duchovny’s getting bored again…

The biggest change wrought by the decision to move Mulder and Scully away from the X-files at the start of the sixth season was to refocus the series on the relationship between Mulder and Scully. Instead of being a show about how Mulder and Scully investigate weird phenomena because it’s their job, The X-Files became a show about how Mulder and Scully investigate weird phenomena because it’s what they like to do together. The decision to move Mulder and Scully away from the X-files changed the emphasis and tone of the show, but not so much the content.

After all, there has been very little focus on the X-files themselves in this stretch of the season. Mulder does not seem to be actively fighting for his old office; he is not constantly moaning about reassignment. Compared to the closure of the X-files in the second season, Mulder seems relatively upbeat. He seems to accept it, perhaps accepting that he will find his way back to the X-files eventually and that he might as well enjoy the adventure while he can. It seems like The X-Files is not really treating Mulder and Scully’s removal from the X-files as a big deal.

"No shirtless Skinner scene for you!"

“No shirtless Skinner scene for you!”

S.R. 819 reinforces this feeling that not very much has materially changed. There is a significant chunk of dialogue that acknowledges the new status quo, but none of it feels essential. S.R. 819. Spender and Fowley are entirely absent from the episode. Assistant Director Kersh is acknowledged in dialogue, but he doesn’t actually appear. Although Mulder and Scully were transferred out of Skinner’s administrative purview in The Beginning, this is still a story that leans rather heavily on the relationship between the three characters.

In fact, Mulder suggests that this is all about the X-files, which is interesting. This is the first time since The Beginning that it feels like Mulder has really seemed protective of his basement office. However, he talks about it as if his return to the basement (and to Skinner’s supervision) is practically a fait accompli. Speculating on why somebody would poison Skinner, Mulder proposes, “To scare you. See what you’d do. Who you’d turn to.” Skinner points out the narcissism inherent in that. “Oh. This is about you.” Mulder responds, “Or about the X-files.”

Blood work.

Blood work.

Of course, this is something of a logical leap. Skinner calls him on it. “You are so paranoid, Mulder,” he observes “You’re not even on the X-files anymore.” However, Scully seems to buy into this almost completely. She reflects, “I know. But you are. You still supervise them.” This seems a little odd. Mulder and Scully both know that the X-files are already controlled by the conspirators because Spender and Fowley are very much in the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s pocket. Trying to control Skinner through poisoning seems a little bit like overkill.

It ultimately turns out that Skinner was targeted for other reasons, but the assumptions underlying that conversation suggest that the status quo of the series has not changed dramatic since the last time that Mulder and Scully had to fight to save Skinner – back in Avatar, during the third season. The plot requires a rather odd sequence where Mulder invites himself into Skinner’s office as a friend rather than as a subordinate (“I just… I thought I’d poke my head in and say hey”), but once it gets past that it is very traditional.

A rich dramatic vein...

A rich dramatic vein…

Despite the rather dramatic changes to the status quo at the start of the sixth season, S.R. 819 might easily have aired as an episode of the third or fourth seasons of the show. If the episode had to be broadcast later in the season – after the status quo reset of Two Fathers and One Son – there would only be a couple of revisions required to make the script fit perfectly. That seems rather strange. As with Terms of Endearment, there is something very traditional about the whole thing.

The decision to reassign Mulder and Scully to Assistant Director Kerch has meant that Skinner has been a very tangential figure in this season’s episodes. Despite the fact that he has been a recurring character for almost five years, Skinner occurs just as often as Kersh in the twelve episodes between The Beginning and One Son. So it feels like a strange decision to focus an episode like S.R. 819 on a character who has been consciously marginalised by the larger arc of the year. Surely this time could be better spent developing Jeffrey Spender, for example?

"No, sir. I don't think 'Skin-man and Foxy' is a good team name."

“No, sir. I don’t think ‘Skin-man and Foxy’ is a good team name.”

Interestingly, Skinner was chosen as the focal point of S.R. 819 for a very specific reason. According to The End and the Beginning, it was felt that Skinner was a character who could be put in legitimate jeopardy:

Shiban first pitched the story with Mulder as the poison victim. “But then Frank said to me: ‘We can’t do that. The  audience will  never think we’re gonna kill Mulder. They’ll know he’s going to be all right.’

“Then he suggested we do it with Skinner, which solved that problem perfectly. Because there’s always a possibility  that we’ll kill a secondary character. We’ve done it before, haven’t we?”

That is a great example of Frank Spotnitz being a very savvy executive producer. After all, David Duchovny’s contract re-negotiations had been newspaper headlines; he was in the opening credits. He was safe.

"Tell them I didn't mean it when I said I thought it was time for contract renegotiation..."

“Tell them I didn’t mean it when I said I thought it was time for contract renegotiation…”

The script even cheekily acknowledges this set-up. The teaser plays coy with the identity of the patient. The dialogue is structured so as to avoid explicitly identifying Skinner. In fact, it is designed to mislead the audience into thinking that the victim might be Mulder. “Get on the phone to the FBI,” Doctor Cabrera instructs. “There’s an Agent Scully that should be notified.” She adds, “This man is an FBI agent.” She avoids providing a name or a rank for as long as possible, before the victim is revealed to the audience.

However, the decision to focus on Skinner brings other issues to the fore. While Mitch Pileggi might not have the same iron-clad contract as David Duchovny, and he might not be assured of a place on the show through to the end of the seventh season, he was still pretty much a regular on the series. He received an “also starring” credit on the show, suggesting that the production team considered him part of the family. He would get bumped up to the opening credits in the ninth season, suggesting that he was a constant for the show.

"There's an app for that."

“There’s an app for that.”

The X-Files did have a habit of killing off supporting characters, but it was never as extensive as Shiban makes it sound. Characters like Bill Mulder, Robert Patrick Modell, and Scott Blevins arguably count as recurring characters killed off by the show, but there are very few long-term and frequently recurring characters to bite the bullet. Deep Throat, Melissa Scully, Mr. X, Agent Pendrell and the Well-Manicured Man are the only ones that come to mind. And none had been around anywhere near as long or as frequently as Skinner.

It hardly seems like The X-Files could be considered a “blood-thirsty” show by any reasonable standard. In fact, from the fourth season onwards it seemed like the series was straining itself to keep its large cast alive. The Cigarette-Smoking Man had already survived his own death scene in Redux II. Jeffrey Spender would endure something similar in One Son. Chris Carter had active fought Glenn Morgan and James Wong when they proposed killing off Frohike in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.

"The wrong Assistant Director (almost) died!"

“The wrong Assistant Director (almost) died!”

One of the big conflicts of the sixth season of The X-Files is the sense that the series is increasingly stuck in its ways and reluctant to embrace true or meaningful change. This is reflected in the recurring sense that Mulder and Scully might find themselves stuck in a perpetual romantic no-man’s-land, unable to move meaningfully forward without finding themselves pulled back to the status quo. This sense of comfort and familiarity also plays into the strange dissonance between the removal of Mulder and Scully from the X-files and the sense that nothing has changed.

S.R. 819 reinforces this sense of familiarity when it reveals the culprit behind Skinner’s poisoning. It turns out that Krycek is the man with his finger on the (literal) button. It seems like the show really likes having Nicholas Lea around even as it can’t figure out what to do with the slimy villain. In The End, Krycek was reduced to playing chauffeur for the Well-Manicured Man. Given the death of the Well-Manicured Man in The X-Files: Fight the Future, it seems like Krycek has found alternate employment.

"Turn out I chose a really good day to call in sick as the Well-Manicured man's chaffuer..."

“Turn out I chose a really good day to call in sick as the Well-Manicured man’s chauffeur…”

S.R. 819 is decidedly ambiguous on how all this ties back into the larger conspiracy. The connection to Tunisia evokes the closing scene of Fight the Future, where it seemed like Strughold was building a new headquarters for the conspirators. At the same time, it seems weird that S.R. 819 is the only time that Tunisian officials involve themselves in the show’s conspiracy. If this is one big conspiracy, one would imagine that the Cigarette-Smoking Man would be pushing those official documents through from the side of the United States.

The episode is rather vague on the details of what exactly is happening and how it relates back to the overarching conspiracy narrative. These details ultimately feel like set-dressing. The real attraction of S.R. 819 is constructing an episode around Skinner and Krycek that gives them both something to do at a point in the show where they feel largely redundant. It seems strange that the show could not hold back on their appearances until Two Fathers and One Son, where the show would find a way to fit them in with a great deal more comfort.

"Wait... wait... the Cancer Man can't even be bothered to show up for this?"

“Wait… wait… the Cancer Man can’t even be bothered to show up for this?”

So while S.R. 819 attempts to generate some suspense by putting Walter Skinner in danger, those attempts are ultimately counterproductive. The very act of focusing a story around Skinner reaffirms his importance to the show; it feels more like an attempt to keep the character active in the audience’s mind than an excuse to kill him off. Seeing Walter Skinner in mortal danger is strangely reassuring. S.R. 819 affirms that Skinner is and always will be part of the world of The X-Files.

Even the themes and ideas at the heart of S.R. 819 feel very rote and familiar. It feels like Skinner has found himself stuck looping through the same character arc over and over again, the conflicted ally to Mulder and Scully. In his opening monologue, Skinner even implies that S.R. 819 is some sort of divine retribution for the compromises that he made – for the fact that he allowed himself to sit on the fence for as long as he did. As with Zero Sum, there is a sense that Skinner’s attempts to compromise only serve to implicate him further.

In the blood...

In the blood…

“This was the course I chose,” Skinner reflects. “Trying to find the delicate balance of interests that can never exist. Choosing by not choosing. Defending a center which cannot hold. So death chose for me.” As with Zero Sum, there is a sense that S.R. 819 articulates the moral philosophy of The X-Files. Walter Skinner’s compromised pragmatism is contrasted with Fox Mulder’s moral certainty. The X-Files presents a world where compromise is just another word for complicity or collaboration.

Mulder’s refusal to even engage with evil and corruption is repeatedly validated; Skinner’s willingness to deal the devil is frequently punished. Facing death, Skinner is reflective. “Your quest… it should have been mine,” Skinner confesses to Scully. “If I die now, I die in vain. I have nothing to show for myself.” He continues, “I can see now that… I always played it safe. I wouldn’t take sides. Wouldn’t let you and Mulder… pull me in.” When Scully points out that he has been a pretty reliable ally, he responds, “Not the kind of ally that I could have been.”

Passion of the Krycek...

Passion of the Krycek…

This is a pretty compelling arc, but it does feel a little over-familiar at this point. Skinner has been waltzing through this same character arc since early in the second season. Skinner has often struggled with his obligations to the government and his sense of fundamental decency; he always eventually chooses to help Mulder and Scully, but he aways winds up back making the tough choice. It seems a little absurd that the character keeps bouncing back to that sort conflict after dealing with the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Paper Clip or taking a bullet in Piper Maru.

It seems hard to accept Skinner as anything other than a complete and trusted ally at this point, given all that he has done to help Mulder and Scully in the past. Nevertheless, the show clearly wants a more ambiguous relationship between Skinner and the two leads, so it keeps trying to reset that original dynamic. In Zero Sum, the show tried to set Mulder against Skinner. In The Beginning, the show assigned Mulder and Scully to Assistant Director Kersh in an explicit attempt to recapture that early and fraught relationship between Skinner and his subordinates.

A hair's breadth away...

A hair’s breadth away…

S.R. 819 ends with Skinner compromised once again. The character is forced to tell Mulder and Scully to back away from their case, much to Mulder’s suspicion. It feels very much like the show has been to this well a few times by now. There is a sense that Skinner is a character trapping running in circles. He only gets so far before the production team decide that they liked the original dynamic and decided to reset him back to factory settings. It is not an entirely satisfactory model of character development.

This is arguably the same logic that has stunted Scully’s growth and development over the course of the show, with the show unsure how to move her beyond the classic “skeptic” mode. It wasn’t until Mulder left that the series felt comfortable allowing Scully to really believe. The “believer-skeptic” model of The X-Files was such an essential part of the show’s dynamic that the production team were understandably reluctant to jeopardise it. While the relationship between Skinner and the lead characters is nowhere near as iconic, the same inertia is in effect.

It's an inside job...

It’s an inside job…

The X-Files gets a lot of credit for the work it did popularising serialised narratives in mainstream prime-time television. The mythology arc really demonstrated that you could get large audiences to tune in and follow a story across weeks or months or years. The fact that the show couldn’t quite stick the landing doesn’t really matter. The fact that Chris Carter and his team were willing to make the effort – and managed to turn it into a selling point of the show – proved that The X-Files was an adventurous piece of nineties television.

However, the show constantly brushes up against the limitations of its own storytelling. The mythology was increasingly bloated, as the show seemed reluctant to tie off loose ends or streamline its central story. Mulder and Scully could only ever get so far before the status quo came into play. Skinner could only advance so much further before the show had to knock him right back again. The X-Files was still well ahead of its time in the mid-nineties. The problem is that the show is now in its sixth season, facing the end of the decade.

Strap yourself in...

Strap yourself in…

It is very hard to stay ahead of the curve. Eventually, the herd catches up. Successful shows that push the envelope rarely keep pushing it for an extended period of time. The longer those shows run, the more likely it is that they will themselves be overtaken by younger and more aggressive shows. As the new millennium loomed, it seemed that the sixth season of The X-Files is the point at which the series was beginning to show its age. It was no longer as novel as it had been; network television had the luxury of six years in which to study and emulate the show.

The model of character development on display in The X-Files was not quite as refined as the kind of work being done on shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or The Sopranos. Mulder and Scully have undoubtedly come a long way in the five years since The Pilot, but the show still kept a relatively firm wall separating the mythology episodes from the stand-alone stories. There were lots of in-jokes and continuity references between episodes, but a lot of the larger character arcs had to be intuited around the broadcast show rather than through them.

Amping up...

Amping up…

Still, S.R. 819 is a very functional and efficient piece of television. It is notable for the appearance of Senator Matheson. The character last appeared in Nisei during the third season. As played by veteran character actor Raymond J. Barry, Matheson was a relatively important part of the show’s early continuity. As a United States Senator, early episodes suggested that Matheson was the connection who could protect and insulate Mulder from the sinister schemes of the conspiracy.

Of course, as the conspiracy expanded over the course of the show, Matheson seemed like a much less credible connection. Given the sort of influence suggested by episodes like Anasazi, it seemed rather strange that a single elected official could hope to keep Mulder safe from those who might be undermined by his work. By that stage, the show had already begun developing alternate justifications for why the Cigarette-Smoking Man didn’t simply have Mulder shot and killed. Senator Matheson felt largely redundant by that point in the show.

Dealing in darkness...

Dealing in darkness…

Bringing Matheson back into play for S.R. 819 is an interesting choice. It is always a good idea to have Raymond J. Barry on the show, and it is a shame that the series could not turn him into a more frequently recurring guest star. John Shiban’s script uses Matheson quite cleverly. Matheson is clearly intended as a foil to Skinner. The character is present as another ally to Mulder who has found himself trapped in a pragmatic and unsustainable position in the face of overwhelming pressure and horror.

S.R. 819 is fascinated by the idea of what a good ally looks like. In his first conversation with Mulder, Matheson argues that he is adopting a pragmatic position for the greatest possible good. “My intention is to save lives, Fox,” Matheson assures his old friend. “But I can’t save his.” Matheson is willing to write off Walter Skinner as a casualty of a war; Skinner is an individual life that must be sacrificed so that the greater good can be accomplished. This is precisely the sort of deal that Skinner made for Scully in Memento Mori and which Mulder rejected in Redux II.

"Doesn't anybody but me have a bed on this show?"

“Doesn’t anybody but me have a bed on this show?”

Much like Skinner, Matheson finds himself confronted with the reality that compromise with these forces just taints a person. Late in the episode, Mulder confronts Matheson quite bluntly about his involvement in the scheme. “If you pursue this, Fox, they will kill you,” Matheson advises his old friend, more of a plea than a threat. “Not before I expose you and your role in this,” Mulder responds. Matheson seems horrified that Mulder might see him as complicit in all this. “My role? I am a victim here. Don’t you understand that? I’m fighting for my life.”

In many respects, S.R. 819 juxtaposes Skinner and Matheson. Both are allies to Mulder’s pursuit of the truth. Both made their first appearances quite close together and so exist as relics of a particular moment in the history of The X-Files; Skinner debuted at the end of the first season, Matheson at the start of the second. Both are officials who find themselves in the path of a shadow conspiracy. Neither is strong enough to stand up to the force that is barreling down towards them.

"Kersh never has to put up with this crap..."

“Kersh never has to put up with this crap…”

At the same time, it is hard to figure out what the big difference is between Matheson and Skinner. Matheson allows himself to be bullied into submission by only the threat of violence; Skinner only submits to Krycek once it is clear that Krycek could kill him by pressing a button. It seems like Skinner is perhaps a man of stronger moral integrity than Matheson, but it seems only a matter of degree. After all, there was an implied threat in forcing Matheson to watch the brutal death of Orgel.

Of course, this draws attention to the biggest structural issue with S.R. 819 as a piece of television. The episode has a terribly weak ending. Skinner is dying on the table, but Krycek choose not to let him die. Instead, Krycek plans to use his power over Skinner to bend him to his will – much like the Cigarette-Smoking Man used the promise of a cure for Scully in Zero Sum. Mulder and Scully accomplish very little in this episode, and we learn nothing of the conspiracy or the characters in the show’s forty-five minute runtime.

What's up, Doc?

What’s up, Doc?

It isn’t even as if Krycek’s power over Skinner is a vitally important plot thread that needed to be set up so that the mythology could push itself forward. Although both Krycek and Skinner remain recurring players in the grand scheme of the mythology, they do not really interact with one another for over two years. By the time that the two characters come face-to-face in DeadAlive, it seems like Krycek’s leverage over Skinner is just background between the two characters. As such, S.R. 819 ultimately feels rather light and unsubstantial.

There is a sense that John Shiban is trying to construct something of a spiritual successor to The Pine Bluff Variant, writing another script about a sinister conspiracy that exists tangential (at best) relative to the show’s central over-arching mythology. As with The Pine Bluff Variant, S.R. 819 offers a conspiracy that is (at least outwardly) unrelated to aliens and colonisation. It is not too difficult to imagine the nanobots somehow fitting into the grand scheme, but S.R. 819 never makes too big a deal of it.

"There's a lot of iron in the blood..."

“There’s a lot of iron in the blood…”

At the same time, the nanites feel like an element at home in The X-Files. Over the course of S.R. 819, Skinner finds his whole body turning against him. This idea of infection and corruption is a recurring motif in The X-Files, from the way that the alien colonists have infiltrated the United States government and the plot to use smallpox against the country’s citizens to the mechanics of the black oil and the fixation on “purity control.” Episodes like Teliko and El Mundo Gira even awkwardly used infection as a metaphor for cross-cultural contamination.

It could be argued that a lot of these elements are just metaphorical meditations on HIV and AIDS, an illness that horrifically turns a body’s own defences against it. That is in essence the show’s central mythology, as those entrusted to protect mankind begin to conspire against it. With HIV and AIDS on the popular consciousness during the nineties, it was hard to escape the shadow cast by the illness, even if The X-Files generally avoided explicitly mentioning it by name. These concerns play across the run of the show.

He answered the call...

He answered the call…

S.R. 819 is pretty explicit in its metaphor. Skinner’s own blood turns against him as a result of what initially seemed like an innocent contact. As he struggling to breath, parts of his skin turn blue. The end of the episode makes it clear that Skinner’s condition is not something that can be “cured.” The nanites are in his blood, and will remain in his blood. This is a condition with which Skinner will have to live. The use of the nanites in S.R. 819 fits quite comfortably with the larger thematic concerns of The X-Files.

However, while The Pine Bluff Variant worked because it felt so disconnected from the larger mythology, it seems like S.R. 819 flies a little too close to the sun. It uses the trappings of the mythology to provide the story with a sense of weight, but offers very little in return. It feels like S.R. 819 is buoyed by the inclusion of Krycek and the return of Matheson, but that it uses those elements as an excuse to avoid telling a story that might work on its own terms. If S.R. 819 were forced to find an ending other than the Krycek reveal, it might be a stronger episode.

Skinner could fight the conspiracy until he is blue in the face...

Skinner could fight the conspiracy until he is blue in the face…

Still, director Daniel Sackheim does good work here. Sackheim worked primarily as a producer on the show, with his directing credits scattered across the run. Sackheim’s last directorial credit was on Kitsunegari from around this point in the fifth season; before that, his last credit was The Host from the second season. S.R. 819 has a decidedly grimy and claustrophobic atmosphere to it, perhaps more than any other episode to this point in the season. In light of the move to Los Angeles, S.R. 819 relies heavily on interior locations – notably car parks – to provide a sense of mood.

With the re-release of The X-Files in high definition, it is easier than ever to appreciate the level of craft that went into the show. In particular, the make-up department did a fantastic job with Skinner’s make-up over the episode. It really holds up, even under a much higher resolution than originally intended. Credit is due to make-up supervisor Cherri Medcalf, along with special make-up artists John Vulich and Brian Wade, for their work in putting it all together. It is a very disturbing affliction, even if the audience suspects that Skinner will make it through the episode.

"C'mon, this is more fun than it would be with Scully, right?"

“C’mon, this is more fun than it would be with Scully, right?”

S.R. 819 is quite impressive from other technical perspectives. It was nominated for two Emmy awards. Heather MacDougall received a nomination for editing on the episode, while Mark Snow received a nomination for the soundtrack. The soundtrack to S.R. 819 is notable for the way that Snow actually weaves the theme of the series into the orchestral score. As Mulder chases down leads, one can hear the iconic and familiar rhythms of the show’s theme music. It makes S.R. 819 feel almost cinematic.

However, on a basic level, S.R. 819 is not a great episode. In many respects, it is a very average episode. It is an episode that begins to push The X-Files back towards the classic template after several episodes of off-format experimentation, snapping back the elastic band that had been teased in Dreamland II. On those terms, it works well enough. S.R. 819 promises a much more traditional X-Files episode, and it certainly delivers. It is a functional piece of television, even if it is not exceptional. There is a sense that The X-Files is relaxing back into its original shape.

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