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The X-Files – The Sixth Extinction (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

The fate of individual human beings may not now be connected in a deep way with the rest of the universe, but the matter out of which each of us is made is intimately tied to processes that occurred immense intervals of time and enormous distances in space away from us. Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.

– Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection

Sea of blood...

Sea of blood…

Humans have always looked to the sky in wonder, in search of gods. It is no coincidence that “the heavens” refers to both a spiritual afterlife and to the stars that hover above us. In the earliest days of civilisation, mankind worshipped the sun as the giver of life. Although they knew that it provided light and warmth, those earliest people had no idea just how right they were. Even millennia later, The X-Files is a show about how people can still look up to the stars with wonder and awe, in pursuit of a deeper meaning or spiritual fulfilment.

The X-Files has always been a highly spiritual television show. Mulder’s pursuit of the truth and hope of a reunion with his sister has generally been cast as something of a religious crusade. Scully’s Catholicism has become one of the character’s defining attributes, and the show has wrung a lot of drama from the conflict between the character’s religious faith and her trust in rational science. Mulder has already been dead and resurrected twice over the course of the show, at the end of the second and fourth seasons.

He needs to screen his guests better...

He needs to screen his guests better…

By the start of the seventh season, there have been any number of episodes built around religious themes and iconography. Die Hand Die Verletzt used a satanic parent-teacher association as a vehicle for commentary on contemporary religion. Irresistible cast Donnie Pfaster as a demon in human form. Revelations found Scully protecting a young child suffering with stigmata. Christmas Carol and Emily cast Scully in the role of the Virgin Mary. All Souls found Scully competing against Satan to find four children of the heavenly host.

Even the mythology had played with all manner of religious themes and ideas by this point in the run. Red Museum offered viewers a glimpse of a cult worshipping these “walk-ins.” Fearful Symmetry suggested that the aliens were building their own version of the ark. Talitha Cumi introduced the character of Jeremiah Smith as an alien messiah who was presented in a manner that evoked Jesus of Nazareth. Memento Mori had even compared the Cigarette-Smoking Man to Lucifer.

Machete don't leave her partner in a psychiatric ward to go adventuring around the world...

Machete don’t leave her partner in a psychiatric ward to go adventuring around the world…

At the same time, Biogenesis and The Sixth Extinction represent a very strong shift in the show. This is a three-episode arc built around the idea of aliens as divine and positioning Mulder as a bridge between the human and the divine. In The Sixth Extinction, Scully works near an alien craft that both quotes the Quran and makes reference to the building blocks of DNA. While there, she witness a plague of locusts, a boiling sea and a sea of blood. Mulder doesn’t die and isn’t resurrected, but he is laid out in the shape of a crucifix with a crown on his head.

The religious subtext of the mythology is suddenly be rendered as supratext. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz have argued that Two Fathers and One Son changed the show and the mythology. The religious imagery certainly becomes more overt. Requiem offers Scully her own miraculous conception, while Existence plays out its own version of the birth of Christ starring the cast of The X-Files. Ghosts and spirits become a vital part of the show, with Mulder encountering the ghost of Samantha in Closure and being visited by a lot of ghosts of the cast in The Truth.

"Mulder, I swear I'm not thinking about that time you tried to punch me, or that time you let a paedophile go or that time you imagined you shot me..."

“Mulder, I swear I’m not thinking about that time you tried to punch me, or that time you let a paedophile go or that time you imagined you shot me…”

This could be seen as part of a larger trend in Carter’s writing. Carter has talked about how he become increasingly spiritual over the course of writing The X-Files, perhaps explaining why the themes became more pronounced as the show progressed. Shortly before writing Biogenesis and The Sixth Extinction, Carter had written Seven and One as his last script for the third season of Millennium. It was an episode that explicitly grounded the moral philosophy of Millennium in religious and spiritual terms. Carter would do something similar when it came time to end The X-Files.

The three-parter bridging the sixth and seventh seasons is essentially about trying to reconcile religious faith with scientific belief. It is an absolutely fascinating idea, and an example of how skilfully The X-Files managed to tap into the spiritual and existential crises of the nineties. Biogenesis and The Sixth Extinction are stories about trying to make sense of the universe rather than simply a conspiracy theory. The nineties often felt like a decade of spiritual listlessness, where cynicism and apathy could feel smothering.

"We're not letting him out until he agrees to sign for the eighth season..."

“We’re not letting him out until he agrees to sign for the eighth season…”

In interviews about the seventh season, Chris Carter argued that this was intended to serve as a recurring motif across the year before they got distracted and waylaid:

“I actually thought this was going to be the year of Scully’s science,” admitted Carter. “That in doing that, there would be many spiritual concerns. Scully’s dilemma is: how do you reconcile faith in God and faith in science? That’s always an interesting question for the writers. I think we’re dealing with that on some levels; we’re actually telling six mythology episodes this season – in those that are dealing not just with Scully’s faith, but with Mulder’s faith as well. It has become somewhat spiritual, but I think what’s more interesting is that we set out to do one thing and then found ourselves being more interested in something else.”

In many ways, this sets a tone for the seventh season. The seventh season lacks a thematic throughline in the way that the third, fifth and sixth seasons had consistent thematic ideas. The seventh season feels chaotic and random.

Sleeping uneasy...

Sleeping uneasy…

In fact, the strongest connection between The Sixth Extinction and Requiem has very little to do with the big religious themes and ideas. Both The Sixth Extinction and Requiem suggest that Mulder has himself become an X-file, that his character arc can only be complete once he has become part of the work he pursued so enthusiastically and energetically. That was the great irony of Scully’s abduction in Ascension and a key point of Field Trip. Maybe Mulder doesn’t just want proof of the unknown, maybe he wants to experience it first-hand.

The X-Files has repeatedly suggested that proof tends to follow faith. Over the course of the series, it seems like a character can only actually see an alien ship if they genuinely believe in it. This is why Mulder could see alien ships in episodes like Deep Throat and Paper Clip while Scully remained oblivious. When their believer/skeptic dynamic was temporarily reversed in The Red and the Black, Scully eventually got to see an alien ship. By the time that the two had reset in The X-Files: Fight the Future, Mulder got to see an alien ship while Scully was passed out.

Kritschgau to go...

Kritschgau to go…

“You don’t want to believe,” Mulder tells Kritschgau at one point. “You’re not looking hard enough.” Mulder might be speaking for the show itself. As his poster implies, you have to want to believe. In a way, this explains why Biogenesis closes with Scully finding a half-visible crashed ship on the Ivory Coast. Scully is beginning to believe, and so that belief is rewarded with a ship half-buried in the sand. According to this internal logic, the only proper way to resolve Mulder’s character arc would be to allow him to experience the paranormal first hand.

In Requiem, this first-hand experience takes the form of an alien abduction. In The Sixth Extinction, this first-hand experience takes the form of Mulder transforming into an alien-human hybrid. The Sixth Extinction has Kritschgau draw attention to this fact that Mulder has become the very thing that he has chased for so long. “Now he’s the proof,” Kritschgau insists. “He’s the X-file.” In the world of The X-Files, it seems that this is how faith is rewarded. When Skinner accuses Kritschgau of going too far, he responds, “How far should it go? How far would Mulder go?”

Only magnifying the problem...

Only magnifying the problem…

Biogenesis and The Sixth Extinction are interesting mythology episodes in the way that they consciously place Scully at the centre of the narrative and push Mulder to the edge. The first two episodes of the three-part story invert the traditional “Mulder in action”/“Scully in peril” dynamic that defines too many of the mythology episodes following the fourth season, with Mulder lying in a hospital bed as Scully goes adventuring and researching around the world. Given the themes of the episode, it makes sense to focus on Scully rather than Mulder.

Scully has spent the show’s run dealing with the questions that are now coming to the fore. It feels right that Scully should take centre-stage. “What is this discovery I’ve made?” she ponders in a letter to Mulder at the start of The Sixth Extinction. “How can I reconcile what I see with what I know? I feel this was meant not for me to find but for you to make sense of. To make the connections which can’t be ignored; connections which, for me, deny all logic and reason.”

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

It is worth noting that there is a long and distinguished history to the idea of gods as aliens, dating back even beyond the high-profile work of Erich von Däniken. In Scientific Mythologies, James A. Herrick points to eighteenth century artist James Ilive as one of the first to combine conventional religious beliefs with astronomy:

Ilive’s religious imagination did not limit itself to a single planet, and by projecting the question of human origins into space, he helped to invent the Myth of Alien Gnosis. Numerous inhabited planets – the “Celestial Mansions” mentioned in the Bible – became the homes of ascended spirit beings who had achieved significant progress toward redemption. A vast network of inhabited planets formed a cosmic ladder of spiritual ascent. With great spiritual advancement, a spirit being might even be rewarded with dominion over an entire planet. Still, for those of us just starting our journey, “that Globe we now inhabit” is hell, and we are fallen angels held “in Prison.”

The connection between the alien and the divine (and the corresponding overlap between science-fiction and religion) has become a pop culture staple. It could be argued that Scientology has really demonstrated that, trying to turn Battlefield Earth into a sci-fi blockbuster.

Washed away...

Washed away…

The Sixth Extinction is very consciously tying its idea of religion into broader scientific theories and speculation. There are points when this is just hogwash; the whole idea of Mulder becoming “more human than human” and using parts of his brain that are normally inactive is an example of the infamous “humans only use ten percent of their brains” pseudo-science that gets repeated far too often. At the same time, the idea that life on Earth originated from outer space is an extreme possibility that attracted a lot of attention in the nineties.

It suggests that life might have been carried to Earth on a rock or an asteroid that could have come from somewhere as close as Mars or perhaps much further afield. The theory saw something of a resurgence in the nineties, prompted by the announcement in 1996 that scientists had discovered evidence of Martian bacteria on the asteroid ALH84001. That announcement had already inspired Tunguska and Terma. In a nice acknowledgement of that inspiration, the experiments conducted on Mulder in Terma are suggested to play a role in what happens to him here.

Lighting the way...

Lighting the way…

The theory is known as “panspermia”, and can trace its roots back to the writings of Ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras:

All things have existed from the beginning. But originally they existed in infinitesimally small fragments of themselves, endless in number and inextricably combined. All things existed in this mass, but in a confused and indistinguishable form. There were the seeds (spermata) or miniatures of wheat and flesh and gold in the primitive mixture; but these parts, of like nature with their wholes, had to be eliminated from the complex mass before they could receive a definite name and character.

While modern “panspermia” theory differs significantly from Anaxagoras’ original idea, the philosopher does hit on another recurring idea of The X-Files.

"Wow, this feels a little weird..."

“Wow, this feels a little weird…”

There any number of less spectacular ways in which the heavens played a vital role in human evolution. The size and locations of Jupiter and the asteroid belt relative to Earth played a vital role in ensuring that enough asteroids arrived to carry important materials and minerals to Earth, but not so much as to render the planet uninhabitable. More than that, every single atom on this planet and in ourselves originated millions upon millions of miles away in a radically different form, transformed and transmuted into ourselves and the world as we understand it.

One of the big recurring themes of The X-Files is the sense of isolation and alienation that exists in modern living. As such, the show tends to stress the importance of connections or understanding. It is telling that Gibson Praise and Fox Mulder demonstrate that they are “more human than human” by reaching out and touching the minds of other people. The X-Files suggests that any meaningful evolution must be one that brings people closer together rather than further apart.

"No headlock this time, Skinman!"

“No headlock this time, Skinman!”

In Biogenesis, Mulder speculates that everybody on the planet is an alien. “It would mean that our progenitors were alien, that our genesis was alien, that we’re here because of them; that they put us here,” he boasts. It is an idea that explicitly makes the colonists divine in nature. Scully’s immediate reaction is to reject Mulder’s theory. “Mulder, that is science fiction,” she insists. “It doesn’t hold a drop of water.” It is an idea that the show has skirted with over the past six season, but which is finally clearly articulated.

To Mulder, this idea is the key to everything. “You’re wrong,” he tells Scully. “It holds everything. Don’t you see? All the mysteries of science everything we can’t understand or won’t explain, every human behaviorism – cosmology, psychology, everything in the X-files – it all owes to them. It’s from them.” It seems like the show has finally circled back to the idea of Gibson Praise being the answer to “everything in the X-files” as suggested by The End. He is the answer because he proves everything is alien. He proves everything is an X-file.

Research and rescue...

Research and rescue…

The three-parter bridging the sixth and seventh seasons suggests that perhaps there are no such things as aliens. Or perhaps we are all aliens, in as much as the word has any application. The X-Files is traditionally a very white television show, to the point where Mr. X and Alvin Kersh (and maybe Albert Hosteen) stand out as the only major non-white characters. As such, the decision in Biogenesis to feature a diverse cast and a wide range of locations feels like more than simply an aesthetic choice.

The alien craft that sets in motion the events of the three-parter is found on the shoreline of the Ivory Coast, and Scully spends most of The Sixth Extinction on the coast of West Africa. At the same time, Albert Hosteen returns to the show. While Mulder took part in the healing ritual at the heart of The Blessing Way, Scully has to settle for witnessing it first-hand. The Navajo language that was so vital to Anasazi is brought up once again, while engravings on the craft tie together “passages from the Christian Bible, from pagan religions, from Ancient Sumeria.”

Je suis Finn...

Je suis Finn…

As Paul A. Cantor reflects in Gilligan Unbound, the show has made a point to suggest that the majority of United States citizens are aliens in their own way:

But as the presence of the Navajo and other Indian tribes in The X-Files repeatedly reminds us, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants are not the true native Americans. The people who now take pride in being Americans are descended from immigrants who gained their title to the country only by displacing the original inhabitants. The Anasazi trilogy, and the general importance of Native Americans in The X-Files, works to deconstruct the simple alien-native binary. The Navajo are among the original natives of the American continent, and yet they and their language now appear profoundly alien to the people who regard themselves as mainstream Americans. … Later episodes (especially Biogenesis) have developed the alien-Native American connection further along increasingly bizarre lines, as we learn that the deepest secrets of the aliens themselves seem to be encrypted in Navajo. In fact, the ultimate revelation of The X-Files seems to be that what we now call the aliens were in fact the original inhabitants of the planet Earth, or at least the ones who seeded life on it. There could be no more complete inversion of the alien-native binary. Ultimately The X-Files pursues the theme “We have met the aliens and they are us.”

There is something oddly optimistic in all this. If we are all truly alien, then surely nothing is actually alien. If we are all different from one another, then perhaps those differences cease to matter.

Bloody bad news...

Bloody bad news…

Scully’s opening monologue from Biogenesis suggests some deeper tether that ties humanity together. “From cave paintings to the bible to Columbus and Apollo 11, we have been a tireless force upon the earth and off cataloguing the natural world as it unfolds to us,” she narrates. “Rising to a world population of over five billion people all descended from that original single cell, that first spark of life.” The colour of a person’s skin is ultimately immaterial, just as the location of their birth is irrelevant.

In a way, Biogenesis seems to hark back to the work done by Morgan and Wong. The teaser to And If They Lay Us Down to Rest…, the penultimate episode of Space: Above and Beyond, featured Shane Vansen reflecting on how there was a moment when everything in the universe was unified. “One day (before there were days), everything (before there was anything) – you, me, the sun and all the stars we can and cannot see – were together in a size smaller than this point of light.”

No Barnes good...

No Barnes good…

In fact, Morgan and Wong would revisit sentiment a year later, when writing the second season premiere of Millennium. In The Beginning and the End, Frank Black presents the reverse idea. He suggests that all life is ultimately heading towards the same fate and that every atom in the solar system will eventually be consumed by the sun itself. Reflecting on the asteroid belt, Frank observes, “Like most lives, they wait for a moment, the moment, when it will be sent on its journey back toward the yellow sun.”

For Carter, this link between scientific fact and spiritual epiphany provides a bridge between the two opposed ideas. Biogenesis and The Sixth Extinction seem to suggest that it is possible to reconcile religious belief with the scientific method. Although Carter tends to couch his spirituality in Christian iconography, it is largely driven by humanistic ideals. The spiritualism that bleeds into the final scenes of The Truth is anchored in the idea that a profound and meaningful connection between two people is a fundamentally religious experience.

Hacking away at it...

Hacking away at it…

It is a rather heart-warming expression of religion and spirituality. In The End and the Beginning, Carter suggests that this is a way of harmonising Mulder and Scully:

“That would mean,” says Carter, smiling, “that there would be a scientific basis to the search for extraterrestrials.  Which plays perfectly into both Scully’s scientific bias and Mulder’s willingness to believe in the supernatural. Which means that Mulder’s and Scully’s belief systems will finally begin to come together – which is where we’re going to go in Season Seven.”

Perhaps distracted by everything else happening around it, the thread is not developed across the season, but it is there.

Gotta have faith...

Gotta have faith…

Of course, the idea that life on earth is literally alien is absurd. The ideas at the heart of the season-bridging three-parter are ultimately allegorical – plot points and story beats that are metaphorical representations of core ideas. The image of a thing is not always the thing itself. Doctor Barnes seems to have that revelation while examining the wreckage of the alien craft, implicitly understanding that signs and symbols are not necessarily the objects that they represent.

“It is the Word of God,” Amina Ngebe reflects of the writing on the ship. “You’re wrong,” Doctor Barnes insists. “There is no God. What’s out there on the water… is only what we call ‘God’… what we call ‘creation’, the spark that ignited the fire that cooked the old primordial soup… made animate from inanimate… made us.” The colonists are just a representation of an idea rather than the idea itself. Barnes’ revelation that the ship is but a metaphor would seem to allow him to glimpse beyond the fourth wall. It is no surprise that the revelation drives him mad.

In spite of its mainstream success and incredible ratings, The X-Files was a surprisingly postmodern show. The relationship between an image of an object and the object itself is obviously a pressing issue for a prime-time television show. When Chuck Burks refers to a “magic square”, he might as well be referring to the television around him – particularly when he discusses the square’s use as “a way of trapping and storing potential power to the person whose name or numerical correlative exercises that power.”

Rather tellingly, it is the image of the engravings that affects Mulder in Biogenesis. Mulder does not have to actually touch the artifact to trigger his transformation; his headaches are not even triggered by his proximity to the rubbing. His reaction to the picture is based on the picture itself. He only experiences those psychic flashes after staring at the picture for so long, and the rubbing only causes him harm when it is opened in front of him. There is absolutely no scientific explanation that could account for Mulder’s reaction. It can’t be radiation or infection.

Mulder’s reaction is not triggered by the paper itself, but by the image captured by the paper – the power “trapped” and “stored” in the paper. The word “magic” is repeated quite frequently across the three-parter. Scully describes the world as seen from space as “a magician’s trick on a darkened stage.” Doctor Merkmallen tells Doctor Barnes, “I was hoping they’d match the piece that you’ve found so that you might see for yourself its magic.” It is unfortunate to have a rare African guest star jump so quickly to so irrational an explanation, but it is an apt description.

In a way, this is what magic claims to be. It is the use of words and symbols to change the world. It is also quite similar to what artists do. Writers, sculptors and actors use metaphors and abstractions to alter the world around them. A clever piece of art has the unique ability to change the way that a person sees the world. Of course, as with Doctor Barnes’ concept of “God”, a piece of art is often processed and perceived as a representation of a thing rather than the thing itself.

The writer Alan Moore has made similar arguments about his own understanding of the relationship between magic and art:

There is some confusion as to what magic actually is. I think this can be cleared up if you just look at the very earliest descriptions of magic. Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as “the art”.  I believe this is completely literal.  I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic.  Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness.  The very language about magic seems to be talking as much about writing or art as it is about supernatural events.  A grimmoir for example, the book of spells is simply a fancy way of saying grammar.  Indeed, to cast a spell, is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people’s consciousness.   And I believe that this is why an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world that you are likely to see to a Shaman.

In all of magic there is an incredibly large linguistic component.  The Bardic tradition of magic would place a bard as being much higher and more fearsome than a magician.  A magician might curse you.  That might make your hands lay funny or you might have a child born with a club foot.  If a Bard were to place not a curse upon you, but a satire, then that could destroy you.  If it was a clever satire, it might not just destroy you in the eyes of your associates; it would destroy you in the eyes of your family.  It would destroy you in your own eyes.  And if it was a finely worded and clever satire that might survive and be remembered for decades, even centuries.  Then years after you were dead people still might be reading it and laughing at you and your wretchedness and your absurdity.  Writers and people who had command of words were respected and feared as people who manipulated magic.

Given how fascinated the sixth season had been exploring the ideas and implications of The X-Files as a television show, this feels like a logical way to close out the sixth season and welcome the seventh.

This fascination with the connection between art and magic, image and power, feels very much in line with where The X-Files was at this point in time. Field Trip seemed to have Mulder and Scully skirt awareness of their existence within a television show; Monday had the characters caught repeating the same actions over and over again; How the Ghosts Stole Christmas featured the characters trapped on the same set; Dreamland II ended with Mulder and Scully exploiting the fact that The X-Files would always bounce back into shape.

Biogenesis and The Sixth Extinction simply apply this sense of self-awareness to the mythology. Biogenesis features Mulder and Scully essentially debating where the story could possibly go after the events of Two Fathers and One Son, as if the characters are aware of the existence of a television show around them. Tying all of that back into ideas about “magic” and the power of images and symbols feels very reflexive. The X-Files has always been aware of its nature as a television show, but now that awareness stretches even to the season-bridging mythology stories.

The Sixth Extinction avoids a lot of the problems that plague the second instalments of X-Files mythology episodes. The Blessing Way and Redux I are among the weakest episodes of their respective seasons because they tend to kill the momentum from a powerful cliffhanger before the story heads to its actual climax in the third episode. The Sixth Extinction doesn’t suffer that same storytelling lull. A lot of that is down to the structuring of the three-episode arc.

The three-parter bridging the sixth and seventh seasons is rather looser than earlier three-part stories. There is less of a sense of momentum or rush to what is unfolding than there would have been at the end of the second or fourth seasons. Paradoxically, The Sixth Extinction benefits from this weirder pacing. The pacing of this three-parter is relaxed enough that having a second episode that doesn’t build to a climax is not enough to kill the momentum of the entire story.

The weird introspective elements of the three-parter are allocated to the third part, rather than the second. The soul-searching that weighed down The Blessing Way and Redux I is not given to The Sixth Extinction. Instead of profound monologues, The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati decides to engage in more abstract metaphors and allegories. In contrast, The Sixth Extinction introduces (and resolves) enough characters and concepts in its own right that it never feels like it is marking time between Biogenesis and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.

The Blessing Way and Redux I were among the weakest episodes of their respective seasons. While there are other factors at play, The Sixth Extinction is far from the worst episode of its own season. As with the episodes around it, The Sixth Extinction is a very odd piece of television. However, it commits to that oddness in a manner that is endearing and almost exiting. It doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t all come together, but it is trying to say something profound and insightful.

There are worse ways to start a season.

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