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The X-Files – Season 6 (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.

The sixth season of The X-Files is notable for many different reasons. It was the first season after the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future. It was the first season following the move to Los Angeles. It saw the “end” (at least nominally) of the show’s conspiracy mythology in the massive Two Fathers and One Son two-parter. It was the first season to begin closer to the end of the show’s nine-year run than to the beginning. It was also the first season to open past the hundred-episode mark.

That last landmark is important, because it marks the point at which The X-Files could effectively be sold into syndication. One hundred episodes meant that a network could air the show five nights a week for twenty weeks, filling up almost half a year’s worth of broadcasting slots. Reaching the one hundred episode mark meant that a show was a bona fides success, and that anything else was really just gravy on top. The bulk of the work had been done. The X-Files would be a rare prime-time drama to pass two hundred episodes.

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Of course, times have changed. By 2011, the number of episodes required for a syndication deal had slipped from one hundred to a mere eighty-eight, with the goal being four seasons of twenty-two episodes. (This trend happened while The X-Files was on the air, with the show dropping from twenty-four or twenty-five episodes in a season at the start of its run to twenty-two or twenty towards the end.) Even then, streaming has changed the media landscape, making it more possible than ever to syndicate show with shorter runs, like Community.

So syndication beckoned for The X-Files. In fact, syndication would pose no shortage of trouble for the show in the years ahead. During the seventh season, David Duchovny would file a lawsuit against Fox alleging that the company’s syndication policy had cost him financially. After the show went off the air, Carter would find himself embroiled in a similar lawsuit over syndication rights, delaying production of The X-Files: I Want to Believe. There are worse ways to argue that The X-Files was a victim of its own success than to look at the syndication of the show.

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Nevertheless, it was clear that The X-Files had accomplished everything that it could ever want by the start of the sixth season. Chris Carter had his five seasons and a movie. Fox had a show they could syndicate. David Duchovny had forced the production to move to Los Angeles so that he could spend time with his family. Although nobody knew it at the time, the fifth season secured the highest rankings that a season of The X-Files would enjoy in the Nielsen Ratings. So going into the sixth season of The X-Files, there was only one question hanging in the air.

What now?

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Six years is a long time in the life of anything, let alone a television show. Television is a very dynamic and cut-throat medium; with many show lucky to last a single season, let alone five. In six years, the entire medium can change dramatically. With its weekly schedules and its tight production deadlines, television is a medium that seems to be in a constant state of evolution and growth. With each pilot season, ideas tend to get thrown at the wall. The good ideas stick, the bad ideas sink.

The sixth season of The X-Files was broadcast against the backdrop of one such transition. The highest rated episode of the season was The Rain King, an episode that benefited from the fact that it followed directly after the launch of Eddie Murphy’s sitcom The P.J.’s on Fox that same evening. However, something much more important was happening elsewhere. The same night that The Rain King was broadcast, HBO aired the pilot of The Sopranos. After 10th January 1999, television would never be the same again.

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As if in acknowledgement of the changed status quo, no later episode of The X-Files would rate higher than The Rain King had. Although this was not HBO’s first attempt at a prestigious prime-time drama (most viewers forget Oz), it was a game-changer. The Sopranos ushered in what has been described as “the Golden Age of Television.” The Sopranos would become a cornerstone of HBO’s broadcasting empire, proving cable could be home to dramas more prestigious than those on network prime-time – The Wire, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones.

This wasn’t the only revolution taking place in prime-time television as the nineties drew to a close. Reality television was getting ready to make its play. September 1999 would see the launch of the original Big Brother in the Netherlands two months before the launch of the seventh season. Within a year, there would be copies in the US and UK markets. The same year, Popstars would launch in New Zealand. Pop Stars would provide the basis of American Idol, the show that would become a cornerstone of Fox’s success in the first decade of the new millennium.

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When The X-Files first appeared in September 1993, it had been a scrappy young show on a scrappy young network. The series had been lucky to make it to a second season. Had Fox been a more successful network with higher expectations, it seems likely that The X-Files might have met the same fate as some of Chris Carters’ subsequent projects. By the time the show’s sixth season had rolled around, it was a grand old man of television. It could no longer claim to by young and dynamic in the way that it had been.

There was a very clear sense that The X-Files could never end. Carter has talked at length about how his ideal version of The X-Files would have ran for five seasons before spawning a movie franchise, so the fact that Fox signed everybody for a sixth and seventh season suggests that those plans were lost to history. The show’s possible immortality became a recurring motif in the sixth season, creating a sense that the writers hoped (or feared) that the series could run forever.

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Chris Carter’s Milagro featured a literal death of the author, offered up as a sacrifice so that the characters might live on. Vince Gilligan’s Tithonus literalised a tease from Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose to heavily imply that Scully was now immortal. In Field Trip, both Mulder and Scully separately rejected any attempt to end their journey. It seemed like the two characters are destined to do this forever, with no ending in sight and no resolution possible. Even Three of a Kind declined to resolve Byers’ story that began with Unusual Suspects, opting to spin the wheels.

A lot of the sixth season is spent grappling with ideas of time and mortality, as if the show is literalising its own existential anxieties. Whereas the first five seasons of the show only featured a single time travel episode in Synchrony, the sixth season feature no less than three time travel plots – Triangle, Dreamland II, Monday. Triangle suggested that the cast of The X-Files were a temporal constant, existing in both 1939 and 1998 simultaneously. How the Ghosts Stole Christmas had Mulder and Scully discovering their own decaying bodies.

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It was repeatedly suggested that Mulder and Scully might be destined to do this forever. Drive was a story about the need to maintain momentum to stay alive. Dreamland I opened with Scully wondering if the pair were to destined to spend eternity trapped in the same car, only for Dreamland II to conveniently reset so as to end with the pair back trapped in the same car. Monday trapped the characters living the same day over and over again. There is a sense that all of this symbolism was hitting at big questions about the nature of the show.

There was a sense of frustration to all of this. It seemed like Mulder and Scully could never quite escape the demands of an episodic television show. Dreamland II suggested that any attempt to push Mulder and Scully out of their comfort zone would be “reset” by the closing credits. How the Ghosts Stole Christmas saw Mulder and Scully unable to escape the same set. Monday returned to that sense of repetition, only with time instead of space. In Field Trip, it seemed like Mulder and Scully were almost aware of their nature as television characters.

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The year contained more than its fair share of false endings. Two Fathers and One Son promised to finally close out the mythology that had been running through the show since The Pilot, only to kill off a few minor characters. Biogenesis suggested that the most significant impact of that two-parter was that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was sitting at the head of the table when it came to plotting colonisation. Field Trip teased Mulder and Scully with an ending to their adventures, only to dismiss it as a hallucination.

It seemed like The X-Files was working through its own anxieties around its success. The show had already continued past any number of acceptable end points. The show had climbed to incredible heights and done everything that anybody could expect of it. What more was there to do? What was left to be said or done? The X-Files continued on because it was a massively profitable franchise for Fox, but what could the production team hope to accomplish that they had not already completed?

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The X-Files had always been a playful and postmodern television show, but it seemed like the sixth season really wove that self-awareness into the very fabric of the show. Not only did the series explore its own mortality (or its perceived immortality), but it also explicitly acknowledged the change behind the scenes that had taken the show from Vancouver to Los Angeles. Rather than trying to downplay the transition, the production team rather shrewdly decided to embrace the chance brought by the move.

The opening shot of The Beginning focuses on the sun before panning down to a desert, demonstrating just how much things have changed in the break between seasons. The climax to Drive has Mulder arriving in California. The show became noticeably brighter, with episodes like The Rain King and Arcadia looking hyper-saturated compared to the more sombre shading of the first five years. However, the changes to the show were more than just superficial. The series became lighter in tone as well.

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There was a run at the start of the season where a long chain of lighter comedy episodes ran almost back to back. Triangle, Dreamland I, Dreamland II, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas and The Rain King helped to set the tone for the year ahead. Two of these episodes were written and directed by Chris Carter, suggesting this might be the new tone of the show. Two of these episodes also comprised the show’s first two-part comedy episode. It is easy to see why some of the fans were uneasy.

While the ratio balanced out a bit in the second half of the season, the return of Mulder and Scully to the basement did little to assure fans that there was serious business afoot. Following on from the changes (or reset) of One Son, episodes like Agua Mala and Arcadia offered a rather more goofy version of the show than most fans expected. It is easy to see why the sixth season was labelled by some online commentators as “X-Files Lite”, and why there was such a strong pushback in the seventh and eighth seasons.

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With the benefit of hindsight, this change in tone seems a lot less catastrophic. Variety and experimentation are never bad things. If The X-Files had been afraid of taking creative gambles, the show would never have produced Humbug or Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Not all (or even most) of the lighter episodes are classics, but Triangle and How the Ghosts Stole Christmas are fascinating formal experiments that demonstrate an interest in thinking outside of the show’s box. After five seasons, it would be more worrying if the show didn’t want to experiment.

It was also probably a nice experience for the production team. Doing the same show for six years can be exhausting; shaking things up helps to keep things fresh. Even “binging” the show – or watching in reruns – the tone and mood of the sixth season episodes feels like a bit of fresh air after one hundred episodes that so firmly established a house style. It is understandable why fans watching the show on a week-to-week basis might be frustrated, but it is an approach that largely helps to keep the show feeling spry and limber.

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Hindsight also offers reassurance that was not possible at the time. The X-Files might have morphed into a paranormal romantic comedy for a few episodes, but it is not like the change really struck. The seventh and (particularly) the eighth seasons represent a transition back to a more traditional mode for The X-Files. These lighter episodes seem almost like a freak occurrence, at least when it comes to proximity and intensity. There is no other stretch of the show that puts so many lighter episodes so close together.

Even allowing for all that, there is still a sense that characterising the entire season as “X-Files Lite” does the production team a disservice. The sixth season contains any number of atmospheric mood pieces – Terms of Endearment, Tithonus and Milagro are as heavy as anything from the first five seasons. The only real difference is that the sixth season contains fewer classic “X-Files” than any other season, with only Alpha and Trevor fitting the traditional mold. Then again, Alpha is one of the weakest episodes of the season.

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Still, there is a sense that all these off-format episodes were an opportunity for the show to prove that it still had some energy and verve left in it, that it was not quite as staid and dusty as a sixth season might suggest. It is telling that there is never really any anxiety about Mulder and Scully’s reassignment. The show never has Mulder and Scully worried about getting back on the X-files. Mulder seemed much more anxious about his reassignment in the second season than he does here.

The show seems to recognise that the pull back to the status quo will eventually take care of all that, and so never seems too bothered by the fact that Mulder’s life work has been destroyed and that the Cigarette-Smoking Man has control of his office. When the show needs Mulder involved in traditional X-files stuff, he can simply go through Spender’s trash (Terms of Endearment) or pop by Skinner’s office to catch up on stuff (S.R. 819). The first half of the season feels almost like a vacation.

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It also allows the show to shift the focus a little bit. Coming off the back of Fight the Future, it was clear that The X-Files was more interested in the relationship between Mulder and Scully than any other on-going concern. In fact, it seemed like the conspiracy existed solely so that bee could disrupt the hallway kiss and so that Mulder could travel around the world to rescue Scully. Appropriately enough, the first half of the sixth season is more interested in the fact that Mulder and Scully are still partnered together than the fact they have been taken off the X-files.

So the sixth season relentlessly teases the idea of Mulder and Scully as a couple. In the first half of the season, the two find themselves wandering into paranormal events in a relaxed and almost social capacity. Dreamland I finds the two driving to Area 51 together in their downtime; How the Ghosts Stole Christmas has the two spending Christmas Eve together in a haunted house; The Rain King has the duo playing matchmaker in a small Kansas town. These are not just two professional colleagues. These are two people who like to hang out together.

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The sixth season misses the boat here, as it relentlessly teases a possible romance between the duo. In Triangle, Mulder kisses a version of Scully and declares his love for the real deal. In The Rain King, Scully talks about that moment when you realise that a friend is more than a friend. In fact, The Rain King makes this sense that the two are looking for one another implicit in the fact that they find themselves dancing in rhythm – albeit not dancing together. By the time that Mulder and Scully play house in Arcadia, it feels like teasing for the sake of teasing.

If there ever was a moment to bring Mulder and Scully together, the sixth season was that moment. In fact, The Rain King was that moment. After all, it is a romantic comedy about Mulder and Scully playing matchmaker. It was the most-watched show of the season. The first half of the season seemed to be building towards it. Fight the Future had made it clear that The X-Files was as much about Mulder and Scully as about the crazy stuff they investigate. However, when it comes down to the line, the show wusses out.

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This is not a surprise. When the movie conspired to have Mulder and Scully kiss in the hallway in Fight the Future, it also wussed out. Whenever the possibility of closure is suggested, the show balks. Just look at Two Fathers and One Son, the resolution of the show’s mythology that resolves very little. In fact, The X-Files would not confirm the existence of a romantic and sexual relationship between Mulder and Scully until Mulder was no longer a regular. There is a sense that The X-Files is a show very much afraid of change.

In a very real sense, this ties back into the recurring anxieties of the season. As much as shows like Dreamland II, Monday and Field Trip might suggest that the show was trapped by its own status quo, the fact remains that the show chose to be trapped by its own status quo. The sixth season might argue that the show has become almost routine, but it has become routine because the writers are comfortable with it. There are points in the sixth season where new storytelling possibilities and opportunities present themselves, but the show balks.

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To be fair, there is no shortage of technical experimentation and playfulness in the writing. Chris Carter’s work on Triangle and How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is among the most ambitious the show ever got from a technical perspective. The decision to focus on comedy as much as horror in the first half of the season was very much a gamble, particularly coming off the back of Fight the Future. However, when it came to decisions about the plotting of the show and the characters inhabiting the world, there was a clear conservatism at work.

The reluctance to commit to the implied romance between Mulder and Scully is the most obvious example, but there are plenty of others. When the show needed an episode light on Mulder and Scully in the first half of the season, it built S.R. 819 around the familiar characters of Skinner and Krycek. In contrast, Jeffrey Spender remained so under-developed that his defining scene from the sixth season was shredding a piece of paper in Terms of Endearment. As a result, he feels woefully undefined when he’s pushed into the spotlight in Two Fathers and One Son.

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For all that it enjoyed a reputation for killing off its characters, The X-Files was increasingly sentimental when it came to its expansive guest cast. Characters like the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Krycek and Fowley are all still bouncing around by the time that Biogenesis arrives, despite the sense that the show might have been smarter to clear house. Even Jeffrey Spender would eventually be resurrected following his murder at the hands of the Cigarette-Smoking Man at the climax of One Son.

This, more than anything else, suggested the age of The X-Files. The show was increasingly unsettled by the idea of change or reinvention. It was a show that had grown comfortable and familiar, one that was reluctant to let go of elements that had served it well and to embrace change in their stead. The tone of the show might have shifted slightly with the move to Los Angeles, but The X-Files was still the same show underneath it all. Nothing much had changed, and the show seemed to like it that way.

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There is a certain logic to this approach. The elements to which The X-Files now clung had helped to make it one of the most popular shows on nineties television. Given how much of the popularity of The X-Files hinged on the unresolved sexual tension between Mulder and Scully, it was understandable that the show would be reluctant to actually resolve it. Moonlighting cast a pretty long shadow when it came to the treatment of these sorts of relationships on prime-time, with an obvious fear that changing the status quo might hurt (or even doom) the show.

Similarly, the reason that the Cigarette-Smoking Man refused to remain dead over the course of the nine seasons (and why he is returning for the revival despite the fact that the audience watched the skin burn off his face) is because he was one of the defining villains of the nineties. As contrived as his resurrections might have been, it would have been impossible to imagine the show without him. Just as it seemed impossible to imagine the show without Mulder or Scully.

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As much as this approach might be logical or understandable in the context of this particular season, it also posed all manner of risks for the show in the longer term. Change is inevitable, and trying to resist change is often a futile effort. As much as the sixth season suggested that the production team could not imagine a version of The X-Files that was radically different from what came before, the seventh season would make such a radically different version of The X-Files a necessity.

The production team might not have wanted to imagine a version of The X-Files without Mulder and Scully, but production realities would force their hand. Within a year, The X-Files would face the most dramatic change of its nine-year run, and the sixth season offers an indication of how woefully under-prepared the series was for that experience. In many ways, the sixth season is a reliable indicator of the shape of things to come. The show’s fear about falling into a repetitive routine belies a much deeper fear of material change.

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The X-Files had become a veteran television show, one that had outlasted many of its contemporaries. Although the sixth season feels playful and adventurous in style and tone, these elements serve to conceal a very real and deep-seated fear of change. That is not an issue in this run of episodes, where The X-Files is still riding the crest of the wave it spent four years building. However, change is coming.

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

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

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4 Responses

  1. I had not thought about that before, but you’re right about “Rain King.” The show changed so much beginning with Triangle that Rain King really became the culmination. It was the perfect story vehicle for bringing Mulder and Scully romantically together. And to think Two Fathers/One Son was the episode(s) being built up.

    • Yep. It does seem like just a little bit of a misfire.

      However, given the latest reports about the reboot, I’m not sure the writing team could have handled Mulder and Scully as a romantic couple.

      • Oh, I completely agree. It’s just interesting to view the first half of season 6 this way and I think you’re right.
        As for the reboot we’ll have the Morgans and Wong writing half the episodes and Spotnitz is not involved. I think that’s the main reason behind it. As has been pointed out here, there’s a big difference between “Quagmire” and “Detour” or “Never Again” and “Milagro.”

      • And I think Carter is not a fan of actually writing couples together. There’s a weird obsession of chaste love.
        (See: Millennium, Harsh Realm. Both shows built around romantic couples, but structured in such a way as to keep them apart. Even in the first season of Millennium, it frequently seems like Frank and Catherine can’t be in the house for more than five minutes together; it was actually Carter’s idea to kill Catherine off.)

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