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The X-Files – Biogenesis (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.

‘When Alexan­der saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to con­quer.’ Ben­e­fits of a clas­si­cal education.

– Hans Gruber, Die Hard

In hindsight, “ending” the mythology with a two-parter in the middle of the season was always a risky proposition.

Airing Two Fathers and One Son during February Sweeps was a logical decision. Ending the mythology that had been running through the show for five-and-a-half seasons was certain to grab the attention of casual viewers, reeling them in to boast up ratings. The X-Files had always aired mythology two-parters during Sweeps, putting them forward as examples of the best that the series could do and cementing the show’s claim to be “blockbuster television.” Choosing to wrap up the mythology during February Sweeps was just an extension of that approach.

Look what just washed up...

Look what just washed up…

And it worked. Two Fathers earned the second highest Nielsen score of the sixth season, landing just behind The Rain King. Two Fathers was the last time that The X-Files would rate so highly. As such, the decision to “close off” the mythology in the middle of the season was a very shrewd decision. However, it did raise questions about what the show would do at the very end of season. After all, The X-Files liked to bookend its seasons with mythology episodes, counting on a mythology cliffhanger to carry viewers across the long gap between seasons.

How do you tell a mythology story when you’ve just worked so hard to tidy it all away?

Behind the curtain...

Behind the curtain…

This question hangs over the three-parter that bridges the sixth and seventh seasons of the show. Biogenesis, The Sixth Extinction and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati are very strange mythology episodes. They lack the strong sense of urgency that drove a lot of the season-bridging stories. The idea of putting Mulder in a psychiatric institution is shocking, but it is hard to rank it beside closing the X-files, burning Mulder alive in a box car full of alien bodies, revealing the existence of colonisation, Mulder committing suicide, or closing and burning the X-files.

There is no real narrative drive at work across these three episodes. There is no sense that Biogenesis is answering any big questions looming over the show, and there is no impression that The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati is setting an agenda for the seventh season to come. There is a rather anti-climactic feeling to this big three-parter, as if the production team felt obligated to tell a story related to the conspiracy mythology without any real idea of where that story might be heading.

"Guess who's back..."

“Guess who’s back…”

It is a very interesting challenge, and perhaps one that feeds into the broader existential concerns of the sixth season. Frank Spotnitz acknowledged as much when discussing the trilogy in The Official Guide:

“Since the episodes Two Fathers and One Son, the mythology of the show had really been reinvented,” says executive producer Frank Spotnitz. “We’ve destroyed all the stuff about Mulder’s father, the project, and the Syndicate. All the things that  had sustained us for six years were suddenly gone. We had no crutches. From that point on, every time we sat down to write a mythology show, we knew it was going to be a completely different challenge.”

This isn’t entirely true. After all, The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati contains quite a lot of talk about the identity of Mulder’s father and even reunites the character with a surrogate father in the form of Deep Throat.

"Sorry, Scully, I'm practising my Charles Xavier impression..."

“Sorry, Scully, I’m practising my Charles Xavier impression…”

There is a sense that the show is working through its own spiritual and philosophical crisis. The sixth season of The X-Files is a show contemplating its own future and potential immortality. Much of the sixth season has been spent wondering whether the characters and the narrative have become trapped by the show’s success. Is it possible to truly change a massively successful show six years into its run? Does the status quo exert a force like gravity that will always pull the show back to its familiar shape?

Mulder and Scully were replaced on the X-files by Spender and Fowley in The Beginning, but it was only a matter of time before the show snapped back into shape. With One Son, Spender had apparently been murdered and Fowley was missing, so Mulder and Scully could return to the basement as if nothing had happened. Field Trip suggested that a definitive ending to the show was nothing but a fantasy at this stage of things, while Monday wondered if the characters were stuck in a time loop repeating over and over and over again.

"We've got ideas for years! Idea #17: Mulder learns guitar."

“See, Scully? They’ve got ideas for years! Right here, ‘Idea #17: Mulder learns guitar’.”

Biogenesis faces the same sort of issues. Much had been made of the fact that Two Fathers and One Son were the end of the mythology, to the point where the two-parter was advertised as “full disclosure” and heavily promoted by Fox’ publicity department. So how do you craft a mythology story after the end of the mythology? Where can the story possibly go? The fourth and fifth seasons had seen the mythology spinning its wheels, but now Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz had taken it well and truly off the road.

Scully broaches this issue in Biogenesis itself. She confesses, “I mean, this endless pursuit of the truth, Mulder it just… it doesn’t make any sense to me now.” When Mulder is struck by a headache in the middle of Scully’s dialogue, he claims not to have heard a word of what she said. “Well, maybe you didn’t want to hear it,” she reflects, sadly. Mulder responds, “No… I couldn’t hear it.” It is an interestingly self-aware conversation, inviting the viewer to wonder whether the production were unable or unwilling to let the mythology go completely.

Piecing it together...

Piecing it together…

It is a very effective and very sad little scene, one that seems to suggest that the mythology is such a fundamental part of the show that it could never die while the show was on the air, even when it was already largely finished. “Mulder,” Scully states. “Look, after all you’ve done, after all you’ve uncovered – a conspiracy of men doing human experiments, men who are all now dead – you exposed their secrets. I mean, you’ve won. What more could you possibly hope to do or to find?” It is a big question; perhaps the biggest question of this entire three-parter.

Mulder does provide an answer to Scully’s challenge. “My sister,” he replies. It is a nice acknowledgement of the biggest dangling thread that was not addressed or acknowledged in Two Fathers and One Son. However, it is telling that Samantha is largely ignored by this three-parter. She appears in a single scene of The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, but is given the same narrative weight as Deep Throat. Biogenesis acknowledges that there is one story thread left to explore in the mythology, and then proceeds to head in a completely different direction.

Let's see what has washed up...

Let’s see what has washed up…

Biogenesis might be the sixth season finalé, but the themes of the sixth season bubble through the three-parter into the seventh season. David Duchovny wrote the “Last Temptation of Mulder” sequences in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, and they also play into the larger questions of the sixth season from his own perspective. Watching a boy build the same sand castle over and over again is just another expression of the anxieties that informed Scully’s speech at the start of Dreamland I or the time loop in Monday or the false endings in Field Trip.

There is a clear sense of anxiousness to all this, an obvious trepidation. The mythology of The X-Files was such a major part of the show’s identity and such a vital ingredient of its success that ending it was always going to be a risky proposition. So does the show leave the mythology dead and move on? Does it try to find something new and compelling to weave into its identity? Or does the “rubber band” from Dreamland II snap back into place? Does the show reach for the comfortable and the familiar?

Not heavy-handed at all, nope.

Not heavy-handed at all, nope.

Watching Biogenesis, it is hard not to get the sense that the production team caught between the two impulses. Discussing the season-bridging three-parter in contemporary interviews, writer and producer Frank Spotnitz was eager describe it as “a new chapter” for the show:

“We really opened up a new chapter in the mythology with Biogenesis, and that will be the final chapter of the series,” confirms Spotnitz. “The effects of discovery and what has happened to Mulder will drive all of the mythology episodes into the series finale. You can expect to see all the major characters involved in the resolution of the series, and we’ll deal very directly with Mulder’s sister and with the relationship between Mulder and Scully.”

In hindsight, this seems not to have been the case. The three-parter would undoubtedly colour and inform the themes of later episodes like This Is Not Happening or Provenance and Providence, but it certainly didn’t set the agenda for the rest of the show.

These themes finally come to a head...

These themes finally come to a head…

Even the themes of the three-parter are not unique or novel. It is the first time that the show has devoted a big blockbuster multi-episode story to these ideas, but there is precious little in the three-parter that has not been articulated in earlier episodes. Biogenesis and The Sixth Extinction advance the idea that life began beyond earth. This was pretty much explicitly stated by the Well-Manicured Man in The X-Files: Fight the Future, in which he identified the black oil as “the original inhabitant of this planet.”

Similarly, Biogenesis and The Sixth Extinction stress that the aliens at the heart of the mythology might actually be divine in nature. Although this is the first time that The X-Files has made the statement so forcefully, the series has been circling the idea for quite some time. Most obviously, Mulder’s belief in extraterrestrials has been established as almost religious in nature, but cults worshipping the aliens in Red Museum and suggestions that they were building an ark in Fearful Symmetry reinforce the connection. Not to mention Mulder’s opening monologue from Patient X.

Monkey business...

Monkey business…

Indeed, Biogenesis offers another example of the mythology’s tendency to leap-frog itself – to alternate themes between instalments. Towards the end of the fifth season, the late-season two-parter – Patient X and The Red and the Black – arguably did more to foreshadow Two Fathers and One Son than the episodes that bridged the fifth and sixth seasons. In particular, the fifth season finalé – The End – felt curiously disconnected from the larger swings taking place in the mythology.

There were reasons for this, of course. The decision to shoot Fight the Future between the fourth and fifth seasons before releasing it between the fifth and sixths seasons meant that the fifth season mythology effectively “overtook” the film. As a result, the pacing of the mythology took a hit. Gibson Praise felt like a tangent when he was introduced in the final episode of the fifth season, a character not material to either the upcoming feature film or the looming end of the mythology.

What a waste...

What a waste…

In some respects, Biogenesis owes more to The End than it does to Two Fathers and One Son. The idea that Gibson Praise is somehow both part alien and “more human than human” plays into what happens to Mulder in Biogenesis. Mulder exhibits many of the same behaviours and powers as Gibson, with Biogenesis developing and exploring themes that had been suggested (and promptly cast aside) by the fifth season finalé. The idea that “alien” and “human” are not binary opposites is a recurring motif in the mythology, but it is stressed in The End and Biogenesis.

It isn’t just the themes that feel familiar. The guest cast in the three-parter only serves to emphasise how little the events of Two Fathers and One Son actually impacted the mythology. Sure, some minor characters were killed off at the climax of the two-parter, but a lot linger on. The Cigarette-Smoking Man, Krycek and Fowley are still major players in this game. They all carry baggage that predates Two Fathers and One Son, putting paid to the idea that the two-parter was designed to declutter the board in any meaningful way.

Something's fishy, Fowley...

Something’s fishy, Fowley…

When we first encounter the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Biogenesis, he is sitting in on a meeting that appears to be about the looming threat of colonisation. An anonymous official is droning on about “final preparations for mass destruction on a scale that can only be imagined.” He continues, “There appears to be nothing we can do to prevent it. It becomes a question of managing the crisis. Otherwise, we are facing annihilation ourselves.” It seems like Two Fathers and One Son did very little to stop the threat of colonisation, even if it is not the focus here.

In The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, the Cigarette-Smoking Man talks about “the Syndicate” as if it is an on-going concern. The three-parter never confirms whether the group is still working with the colonists after the interference of the rebels in One Son, but it seems like plans are still proceeding according to schedule. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is still fixated on the idea of becoming a “hybrid” so that he might survive what is coming, and Mulder is presented as the key to mankind’s survival.

As with all of Krycek's allegiences, his choice int eh format wars was unpredictable...

As with all of Krycek’s allegiences, his choice int eh format wars was unpredictable…

It is clear that the events of Two Fathers and One Son have done little to impact the day-to-day running of what is left of the conspirators. Krycek is still doing the organisation’s dirty work and is still blackmailing Skinner, using the leverage of the nanites from S.R. 819. Fowley is still a mole for the Cigarette-Smoking Man, and still a source of romantic tension between Mulder and Scully. There is little sense of how all those bodies burnt alive at El Rico Airforce Base has changed any of these characters.

More than that, the three-parter works very hard to bring back characters from earlier three-part mythology episodes. The character of Albert Hosteen makes his first reappearance since Paper Clip when he turns up almost dead in Biogenesis. The three-parter offers very little reason or justification for his appearance. There is an obvious connection between the engravings and the Native American culture, but giving Hosteen’s subplot feels like a distraction. He has cancer and promptly dies, but not before visiting Scully as a ghost.

"You can call me Al."

“You can call me Al.”

Similarly, The Sixth Extinction brings back the character of Michael Kritschgau after his last appearance in Redux II. It is always good to see John Finn, but the character featured in The Sixth Extinction has no material resemblance to the character who appeared in Gethsemane more than two years earlier. In Gethsemane, Kritschgau approached Mulder. “I have a son who’s very sick,” he explained. Apparently Kritschgau’s son had served in the Gulf War and had contracted an illness as a result.

His introductory scene in The Sixth Extinction offers a rather different account of the events that bridged the fourth and fifth seasons of the show. When Walter Skinner tracks down Kritchgau on behalf of Mulder in The Sixth Extinction, Kritschgau explains, “You know, I had a job… with a government pension coming and two years ago, Fox Mulder asked me to do him a favour: blow the whistle on Uncle Sam’s UFO propaganda mill. And all it got me was this swanky address.”

Mulder's acting cagey...

Mulder’s acting cagey…

However, Kritschgau’s characterisation does not even seem consistent within this three-parter, let alone across the entirety of his appearances. His scenes in The Sixth Extinction present Kritschgau as a cynical and bitter old man. He rather quickly transitions into a fanatical true believer whose faith rivals that of Mulder. There is a very heavy disconnect between the scene that introduces Kritschgau and the sequences where he works with Mulder. It seems like the role might easily have been allocated to a new character.

The three-parter does not only carry over guest stars from the old mythology. In many respects, Biogenesis feels like a remix of many classic mythology themes and sequences. It mixes and matches all sorts of classic mythology ideas into a fresh salad. There are very few new ideas here, but the way that the three-parter chooses to combine them feels relatively fresh and exciting. After six years, it seems likely that Carter has at least touched upon everything that he would want to do with the mythology. It is hard to begrudge some light sampling.

"Nice three parter. Needs MORE religious imagery."

“Nice three parter. Needs MORE religious imagery.”

Biogenesis borrows quite heavily from Anasazi. As with Anasazi, Biogenesis introduces a minor character whose sole plot function is to provide Mulder and Scully with the macguffin that gets the plot moving. Doctor Merkmallen fulfills a similar plot function to the Thinker, and is disposed of just as quickly. Not only does Biogenesis explicitly reference the ancient aliens theory first articulated in Anasazi, The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati has Scully receive a book about the “entire Native American Indian culture” which vanished “without a trace.”

Biogenesis builds to the idea of Mulder being committed to a psychiatric ward to anyone that might listen to him. This harks to back to the attempts to push Mulder over the edge by tainting his drinking water in Anasazi. More than that, it also seems to some of the production team’s plans for the fourth season. In interviews about his work on the season, Glen Morgan suggested that the plan had been to end the fourth season by having “Scully put Mulder away for his own good” and thus separating Mulder and Scully.

"Look, Scully, I accept that my porn addiction needs treatment, but this is too much..."

“Look, Scully, I accept that my porn addiction needs treatment, but this is too much…”

Similarly, the three-parter bridging the sixth and seventh seasons of the show owes quite a lot to the three-parter bridging the fourth and fifth seasons of the show. Biogenesis suggests that Doctor Sandoz and Doctor Merkmallen have been discredited in the same way that Mulder was discredited in Gethsemane. The Sixth Extinction finds Scully’s beliefs challenged in the same way that Mulder’s beliefs were challenged in Redux I. Both The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati and Redux II offer Mulder the chance to lay down his burdens.

This isn’t all bad. There is a reason that these plot elements worked so well in the first place. More than that, there is some fun to be had in throwing them all together with reckless abandon. Most obviously, the three-parter offers a refreshing reversal of the “Mulder in action”/“Scully in hospital” dynamic of mythology episodes like Memento MoriZero Sum, Redux I, Redux II and Emily. It is nice to see Mulder hospitalised as Scully goes adventuring around the world to protect and save her partner.

Engrave danger!

Engrave danger!

More than that, the slow and deliberate pacing of this three-parter makes the use of familiar elements a lot less galling than it might otherwise be. Fans have seen all of these elements before, but never articulated in this particular style. For all the problems with the three-parter, the show has never produced anything quite like Biogenesis, The Sixth Extinction and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. To use these three episodes to bridge the sixth and seventh seasons of the show is a very strange decision. They don’t have the momentum that typically drives cliffhangers.

To be fair, there is a sense that the lack of narrative drive is somewhat intentional. There are any number of strange creative choices spanning these three episodes. The cliffhangers are very pointed shifted away from the moments of maximum tension. At the end of Biogenesis, Mulder is placed in a psychiatric hospital. That would be a harrowing closing image. Instead, the episode closes on the shot of a crashed alien ship on a beach in the Ivory Coast. While it is a lovely composition, it is hardly novel or compelling. The show has featured countless crashed alien ships before.

Shore thing...

Shore thing…

Each of the three parts of the story are bookended by shots on the beach, lending the three-parter a strange and almost poetic quality. Biogenesis opens with the alien artifact washing up and closes with the discovery of the ship. The Sixth Extinction opens with Scully working on the same beach and closes with the disappearance of the ship. The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati opens with Mulder sitting on a beach watching a child and closes with Mulder opting to build a sandcastle model of the alien ship with the boy.

These decisions to cut to the beach mean that none of the episodes in the trilogy ever build to the point of maximum tension before cutting away. Even the murder of Doctor Barnes by an undead zombie at the climax of The Sixth Extinction feels more like an effort to declutter the narrative than to advance the story. Certainly, nobody even acknowledges the character by the time the narrative reaches The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. The result is a mythology story arc that is strangely lacking the momentum that defines so many of the best mythology adventures.

Talk about a holey book...

Talk about a holey book…

Perhaps this is the point. It seems like the show is treating Two Fathers and One Son as an excuse to get away from colonisation narratives, even if the mid-season two-parter went to great pains to avoid resolving anything of material value. Instead, the three-parter bridging the sixth and seventh season is more philosophical and abstract in tone than a lot of the earlier mythology stories. Although Carter wove religion into the fabric of the show’s mythology, it really comes into play here. The title of Biogenesis foregrounds it long before the alien artifact tears through a bible.

The word “colonisation” is never actually uttered in these three episodes, even if it appears to be the subject of discussion in a background meeting during Biogenesis and informs a lot of the events of The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. Instead, the three-parter deals with broader existential threats to mankind. Scully’s voiceover narrations makes reference not to alien invasion or colonisation, but to “the sixth extinction that scientists warn is already in progress.” It seems a lot less like a threat that can be stopped by racing to an airplane hangar.

"Yes, I am a completely new character. Why do you ask?"

“Yes, I am a completely new character. Why do you ask?”

“Are we born only to die?” Scully ponders at one point in Biogenesis. “To be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth before giving way to our generations? If there is a beginning, must there be an end? We burn like fires in our time only to be extinguished. To surrender to the elements’ eternal reclaim. Matter and gas… will this all end one day? Life no longer passing to life, the Earth left barren like the stars above, like the cosmos. Will the hand that lit the flame let it burn down? Let it burn out? Could we, too, become extinct?”

It is very easy to mock Carter’s tendency towards big philosophical monologues. There are certainly points in the series where his writing gets the better of him. At the same time, there is something brilliantly confident about this style – something that clearly sets The X-Files apart from most of its contemporaries. The X-Files is a show that is utterly unafraid of being dismissed as “pretentious.” It is a show that can drop in-jokes about Dostoevsky and Nabokov alongside allusions to Cher and Alex Trebek.

"Wait, Fowley's still involved in all this?"

“Wait, Fowley’s still involved in all this?”

This confidence does leave the show open to criticism. One of the consequences of being utterly unafraid of being labelled “pretentious” is that you will occasionally actually be “pretentious.” However, it also meant that The X-Files could aspire towards (and occasionally hit) a level of profundity of which many of its contemporaries (and successors) would not dare to dream. It is easy to mock the purple prose of scripts like Memento Mori or Redux I, but there are points where The X-Files feels as literate and poetic as any network drama could claim to be.

Biogenesis suggests that the faceless aliens and the black oil might be lost to history. In their place, larger questions loom. “Or if this fire of life living inside us is meant to go on, who decides?” Scully contemplates. “Who tends the flames? Can he reignite the spark even as it grows cold and weak?” Scully is not looking for alien bounty hunters or clones or killer bees. She is not posing questions that can be answered by reference to an alien bodies or crashed space craft.

Mulder probably should try too hard to make the mytholgoy make sense at this point.

Mulder probably shouldn’t try so hard to make the mythology make sense at this point.

The questions facing Scully are more personal and profound than the details of a plot against the world by a cabal of powerful white men. “But for all our knowledge, what no one can say for certain, is what or who ignited that original spark,” she ponders. “Is there a plan, a purpose or a reason to our existence? Will we pass, as those before us, into oblivion, into the sixth extinction that scientists warn is already in progress? Or will the mystery be revealed through a sign, a symbol, a revelation?” The question is explicitly religious.

When dealing with questions of God and religion and ancient astronauts, there is obviously less tension than there would be dealing with a ticking clock counting down to alien invasion. The bulk of the mythology in the first six seasons was structured as a race against time – even within standalone adventures like Fallen Angel or E.B.E. Mulder and Scully were fighting to uncover the truth before it disappeared forever or even before something bad happened. With Biogenesis, the questions become a lot more abstract and philosophical.

Details remain sketchy.

Details remain sketchy.

These are all very big questions, but they don’t lend themselves to high-stakes drama. “Will Scully find God on an alien ship?” is by its nature a less compelling question than “will Mulder catch that train?” or “what crashed that airplane?” The narrative of the three-parter bridging the sixth and seventh season feels more meditative and relaxed than most of the show’s conspiracy plot threads. There is less momentum driving the plot, and so the plot holes become harder and harder to brush aside.

It is a fascinating narrative experiment, and one that makes the three-parter more interesting than it might otherwise be. At the same time, it is easy to see why this is the first and last time that these ideas are so central to the conspiracy narrative. This isn’t the first or last time these ideas would be broached, but it is the only time they would receive so much attention. For all that Frank Spotnitz might describe the three-parter as “a new chapter” in the mythology, it feels like more of an ellipsis sitting between One Son and Requiem.

"I knew the only reason I survived was because the writers forgot that I existed."

“I knew the only reason I survived was because the writers forgot that I existed.”

In a way, that makes it the perfect note on which to end the sixth season, offering neither an ending nor a beginning. Biogenesis offers a mythology story that is hardly new, but is not quite old. Instead, it feels like an existential meditation on what always was and always will be – a commentary on ideas that were always bubbling away in the background, but never brought into focus before.

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