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The X-Files – Rush (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.

When did The X-Files get so old?

As with a lot of the seventh season, Rush is an episode that seems consciously aware of the series’ advancing age. Whether watching Mulder’s life go by in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati or battling zombies in Millennium, the seventh season is acutely aware of the fact that any prime-time drama that has been on the air for seven years is rapidly approaching obsolescence. What was once young and fresh becomes old and tired. There is a sense that the series really wouldn’t mind the prospect of retirement, now that it’s well past the syndication mark.

"He wore sneakers... for sneaking."

“He wore sneakers… for sneaking.”

Rush emphasises the advancing years of the show, often awkwardly putting its tongue in its cheeky as it suggests that Mulder and Scully are really lumbering dinosaurs trying to navigate the fast-paced world of high school. David Amann’s script is occasionally a little too wry and self-aware for its own good; this is an episode based around a laboured pun about how “speed” is also a drug, after all. Rush often demotes Mulder and Scully to passive observes, quipping and flirting from the sidelines as the plot unfolds around them.

Rush lacks the charm and dynamism that define the show’s (and the season’s) standout hours, but it is a well-constructed and enjoyable standalone adventure on its own terms. As with Hungry, it feels like a conscious effort to get “back to basics” with the series. If the seventh season is going to fixate on the series’ status as a televisual lame duck counting down its last few episodes, this is not such a bad way to do it.

Scully'll take a run at this...

Scully’ll take a run at this…

The seventh season’s meditation on the advancing age (and possible increasing irrelevance) of The X-Files is not a bad thing. Growing old is something that happens to television shows as much as it happens to people. It is rare for a television show to remain pioneering and avant garde for the entirety of an expended run. Any television show that stays on the air long enough inevitably settles into a groove; no matter how provocative a show was in its early years, age has the effect of rendering it inoffensive.

Remember when The Simpsons was provocative and daring? Remember when George H.W. Bush used his reelection platform to take passive-aggressive swipes at the show, only for it to swipe back? Remember when Bill Cosby got up on his moral high horse about how Matt Groening and his team were eroding good old-fashioned American family values? Over the course of the nineties, The Simpsons turned itself into a cultural institution. In doing so, it lost a lot of its edge and its vitality.

Fair cop.

Fair cop.

This is a natural part of the television lifecycle. The first season of 24 was radical and exciting in a way utterly unlike anything seen on television; by the eighth season, the show had settled into familiar routine. The first season of South Park was utterly unlike anything anybody had seen before; while the show remains aggressive and dynamic as it approaches twenty years on television, it could be argued that the show has lost at least some of the edge that made it so exciting and compelling in the first place.

These things happen; there is nothing wrong with it. It is just striking when it happens to a show that prided itself on its relative youth. When The X-Files arrived on televisions in September 1993, it was pitched as an example of hip and trendy broadcasting from a network trying to define its own niche. In the six years since then, the show has aged; it has inspired imitators, launched a movie franchise, watched hipper and trendier shows develop in its wake. Looking at the television landscape around it, The X-Files must feel like Mulder and Scully at Adam’s High.

Sign of the time...

Sign of the time…

When it first appeared, The X-Files was a young show on a young network hoping to attract a young audience. By the end of the nineties, Fox was no long a young network fighting for scraps; partially off the success of The X-Files and partially through the procurement of the NFL broadcast rights, Fox had finally managed to secure its place as the oft-coveted “fourth television network.” The network was still a few years away from its first total sweeps victory, but it was no longer the punchline it had been when it launched in October 1986.

With Fox no longer young and hungry, other younger networks entered the fray. January 1995 saw the two highest profile new networks debut, with Warner Brothers launching the WB and Paramount launching the UPN within a few nights of each other. WB and UPN would not find the same success enjoyed by Fox, with both networks folding in September 1996, so that they might be amalgamated as the CW. Nevertheless, they were still aggressively competing in the late nineties.

To the sheriff, Max's betrayal was a punch in the gut. Also, the punch in the gut was a punch in the gut.

To the sheriff, Max’s betrayal was a punch in the gut. Also, the punch in the gut was a punch in the gut.

When Fox was starting out, it attempted to find a niche by aggressively targeting demographics neglected by the larger networks, mainly African-American viewers and younger audiences. WB and UPN attempted something similar, cultivating dramas consciously aimed at younger viewers:

The WB and UPN existed to put on shows that were too risky, wonky, or downright weird for the other networks; they had to take chances to survive. Back in 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was considered an oddball gamble for a network, a goofily named TV series based on a flop movie. But Buffy became the series that defined the WB. Buffy never won a best-series Emmy, but it thrilled critics and triggered a renaissance of one-hour teen dramedies. Buffy was soon joined by its evil twin, the bloated melodrama Dawson’s Creek, and then came the deluge: a bad Buffy copycat (Charmed), then a superior alternative to Dawson’s Creek (J. J. Abrams’s Felicity), a Christian variant (7th Heaven)—and then Smallville, Roswell, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Supernatural, Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill, Popular, and Everwood. (Plus a few memorable misfires like Birds of Prey and Jack & Bobby.)

To be fair, The X-Files had enjoyed a similar influence on network television during the mid-nineties, inspiring a whole slate of programming that included Dark SkiesStrange Luck and American Gothic. If The X-Files was what “hip and trendy” looked like in 1995, Buffy was “hip and trendy” for 1999.

"It's a secret." "Shut up!"

“It’s a secret.”
“Shut up!”

Even allowing for the critical attention lavished on Buffy, it seemed like late nineties genre entertainment was fascinated by high school settings. In The Changing Face of Teen Television, Mary Celeste Kearney argued that there were broader cultural factors at play:

The advertising and media industries, however, are not solely responsible for the youthful identity and tastes shared today by individuals of different ages. One of the primary reasons for this common youthful sensibility is that the life stage of adolescence has been extended well beyond the teenage years that had been its defining feature for over half of a century. Indeed, adolescence now extends into both childhood and adulthood, thus blurring the boundaries traditionally associated with these stages of life.

Mulder and Scully had seemed quite young when The X-Files was first broadcast in 1993. However, compared to the casts of contemporary genre entertainment like Buffy, Roswell or Charmed, they looked positively ancient.

Stop! It's bullet time!

Stop! It’s bullet time!

Rush has a great deal of fun with this contrast, repeatedly drawing attention to how completely out of touch Mulder and Scully are with these teenagers. Trying to breakthrough to Max, Mulder tries to bond with the kid. “I grew up in Dullsville, too, you know,” Mulder tells the young suspect. “Nothing to do but drive and park.” Tony snappily responds, “How long ago was that?” The teenage characters spend most of the episode openly mocking Mulder and Scully, as if the two are substitute teachers rather than federal agents.

Indeed, even the structure of the narrative points to Mulder and Scully’s irrelevance. Rush is one of the great examples of a “Mulder and Scully do nothing” plot, as they play little or no role in resolving the plot. The episode’s climax finds Mulder and Scully arriving late to a shootout between the three teenagers; even Sheriff Harden discovers his son’s involvement in the murder of Deputy Foster on his own terms. Mulder and Scully exist to bear witness to the plot, to explain and theorise about what is happening.

Runner runner.

Runner runner.

In fact, the final scenes of Rush emphasise how completely out of touch Mulder and Scully are. Not only do they fail to actually resolve the case, they are also completely unaffected by the central macguffin. Rush doesn’t bother to offer a perfunctory “Mulder and Scully in peril” climax, having the duo simply arrive too late at the end of the show. While the teenagers are given super speed by their visits to the mysterious cave, Mulder and Scully can discern nothing of note about the locale.

When Mulder offers his theory about what happened, Scully nitpicks. “Well, you and I were both in there and nothing happened to us,” she comments. “We’re still slowpoking around.” Mulder proposes that they might simply be too old to be affected by whatever happened. “Well, you said that teenagers differ from adults chemically and physiologically,” he states. “What if whatever is in that cave affects only them?” The episode really wants the audience to get that Mulder and Scully might simply be “too old” for this stuff.

Carrying a torch...

Carrying a torch…

There is a wry irony to Rush, with the episode often feeling self-aware. After all, there is something inherently ridiculous about trying to construct an episode of such an old and established show about hip young teenagers. As Chris Carter confessed to The Official Guide, writing a show about kids was tough:

How to do it was going to be tricky. It had been a long time since we had  dealt with teenage angst. [But] it was being done  everywhere else and we wanted to take a run at it.

The writers and the cast of The X-Files were quite far removed from the realities of modern high school. Earlier episodes had faced problems in writing teenage characters; D.P.O. managed to handle its two guest characters well, but Schizogeny felt populated by archetypes rather than characters.

Face off...

Face off…

There is something just a little “off” about the way that Rush handles its teenage characters. As much as Max might taunt the FBI agents for being out of touch, his own cultural references and dialogue feel curiously outdated. When he passes Scully in the hall, Max observes, “You must have been a Betty, back in the day.” Were kids really making Archie references in the later nineties? When Mulder proposes his insane theory, Max responds, “Man, you’re whistlin’ Dixie.” It seems weird to see a teenage character using slang that dates back to the Civil War.

When Mulder and Scully accuse him of murdering Mister Babbitt, Max’s immediate frame of reference is Stephen King. “If I wasted Babbitt, then how did I do it?” Max asks rhetorically. “Am I like Carrie or something? I used some kind of mental powers?” It seems like a rather strange reference for a teenager in the late nineties, given that both the book and the film are a product of the seventies. The kids in Rush don’t feel tethered to the late nineties, but exist quite disconnected in some memory of childhood.

A testing time...

A testing time…

(This sense of timelessness is embodied by a quick appearance from veteran actress Ann Dowd as Tony’s mother. Dressed as a waitress, Misses Reed stresses her vowels while sternly admonishing her son. This makes her sound like a character who escaped from a fifties or sixties teen panic film, falling back on clichés about how her son seems to have fallen in with the wrong crowd. “Tony, we came here to get a fresh start, get away from them bad schools… the wrong crowd,” she lectures. “You are doing so well here.”)

It could be argued that the teen characters are simply employing irony in their cultural references – making nods towards popular culture that they assume will be familiar to Mulder and Scully. It is certainly possible to read Max’s references to Archie and Carrie in that light, grounding his analogies in an outdated sense of American adolescence. However, actor Scott Cooper doesn’t deliver the lines with a hint of snark or sarcasm. Cooper plays Max entirely straight, which might be the best way to avoid the awkwardness of something like Schizogeny.

Well, Mister Babbitt made quite the impression...

Well, Mister Babbitt made quite the impression…

Even allowing for Cooper’s performance choices, Rush provides a strange moment where Mulder rather pointedly gets a more modern pop culture reference that Max tries to slip by. When Mulder ponders why Max collapsed, the teen responds, “Too much teen spirit.” Mulder quips, “You think? Smells like murder to me.” There is a sense that this is supposed be Mulder getting one over on the precocious teenager, proving that he is still “with it.” Of course, Smells Like Teen Spirit was release before The X-Files debuted. It’s hardly a particularly hip reference.

That said, Rush goes out of its way to suggest that its teenage characters are old beyond their years. Scott Cooper was twenty-nine when he was cast as Max Harden. Nicki Aycox was twenty-four when she was cast as Chastity Raines, the same age that Gillian Anderson was when she started playing Scully. Rodney Scott was the closest of the three major guest stars to his teenage years, playing a high schooler at the relatively young age of twenty-one. There is something inherently ridiculous in all this, although it is a common Hollywood trope.

"Chastity? Her name is Chastity?"

“Chastity? Her name is Chastity?”

To be fair David Amann’s script suggests that the episode is aware of this ridiculous attempt to capture youthfulness. Scully’s examinations of Max uncover “evidence of cerebral lesions from repeated concussions; arthritis in his spine and major joints. Stress fractures, numerous muscle and ligament micro-tears.” It sounds like old age. When Mulder asks what might cause this, she replies, “In a teenager? I can’t even imagine. This is the kind of thing that you’d see in someone who’s crashed race cars or played pro football for fifteen years.”

There is a sense that the episode is keenly aware of just how hard it is trying to seem young and energetic. Even the basic structure of the episode feels like a wry and cynical take on the tendency of teen television to clumsily lecture its audience on the big issues affecting them. The basic plot of Rush is structured as something of a public service announcement about the dangers of drug use, with the central plot built around a delightfully cheesy pun on the word “speed”, which is a colloquial label for methamphetamine.

Need for speed...

Need for speed…

In the late eighties, it was speculated that speed could be “the drug of the nineties.” At the same time, television shows with teenage audiences were constructing “very special episodes” that were designed to educate viewers about any number of important issues, from alcoholism to drug use to gun violence. The form arguably endured far longer than it should have, with “very special episodes” prone to didactically lecture television fans in a clumsy and ham-fisted manner rather than telling an engaging or compelling story.

Rush makes a few nods towards the form. Mulder’s big breakthrough comes when he realises that the human body is not designed to handle “speed.” Noticing Max’s damaged shoes, Mulder deduces, “Those globs we found? This is where they came from. Speed, Scully.” The episode explicitly suggests that Max has an addiction to “speed.” Reading his chart, Scully notes, “High temperature and heart rate, low blood sugar, electrolytes show acidosis. All of these symptoms are consistent with extreme exertion and withdrawal.”

Damn fuzzy standard definition.

Damn fuzzy standard definition.

David Amann’s script never labours the point; the episode never devolves into a cheesy public service announcement about the dangers of methamphetamine told through a clumsy superpower metaphor. Instead, it seems like Rush is consciously drawing attention to the somewhat outdated conventions of the “teen episode”, suggesting that The X-Files is still young and trendy enough that it can pull off irony without embarrassing itself completely. While Rush doesn’t excel, it is put together with enough skill and care that it works.

Rush plays well as part of the “back to basics” aesthetic of the season, with the early episodes of the seventh season serving as a clear reaction against the perceived excesses of “X-Files Lite.” In contemporary interviews, producer Frank Spotnitz described Rush as “the kind of episode that won us an audience in the first place.” Certainly, the basic plot of Rush is an old X-Files staple. It is basically “The X-Files as supervillain origin story” in the style of early episodes like D.P.O. or Pusher.

The cave of forgotten dreams...

The cave of forgotten dreams…

It is funny to look back on episodes like Rush in the wake of the cinematic superhero boom; many of the story’s plot beats line up comfortably with the modern comic book blockbusters. There are teenage protagonists who find themselves given great power, and who must decide how best to harness that power. Indeed, the basic plot of Rush is quite similar to Josh Trank and Max Landis’ collaboration on Chronicle, right down to the “one good/one evil” formula and the fact that the powers come from an object found in a cave.

If Millennium accidentally prefigures the twenty-first century zombie boom, then Rush seems to foreshadow the elevation of the superhero to matinee idol. Of course, comic book heroes were nothing new in 1999. The idea of teenager imbued with great power was popularised by Peter Parker, who first appeared in August 1962. By the late nineties, superheroes weren’t even confined to comics or cartoons. Films like Superman and Batman had brought the superhero to the silver screen before the turn of the millennium, with Flash even rendering super speed on the smaller screen.

Putting a dent in his reading list...

Putting a dent in his reading list…

These early efforts were limited, restricted by nascent special effects technology and the perceived lack of an eager audience. Rush was broadcast seven months before the cinematic release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, which demonstrated that audiences were eager to eat up CGI-fueled superhero spectacle. The landscape changed pretty quickly. Sam Raimi would release Spider-Man two weeks before the broadcast of The Truth. Chris Carter would suggest that some of the failure of The X-Files: I Want to Believe was down to opening the week after The Dark Knight.

Rush plays out a lot of the standard superhero tropes, with Tony effectively getting his own superhero origin story. Like Peter Parker, he stands around and allows himself to become complicit in the death of an innocent bystander – Peter had Uncle Ben, Tony has Deputy Foster. Like Peter Parker, Tony is contrasted with an antagonist who would use a similar gift for personal gain. Like Peter Parker, Tony even lives alone with an elderly female relative who is constantly worried about him.

He's super, thanks for asking.

He’s super, thanks for asking.

Of course, the comparison isn’t perfect. While Tony intervenes to stop Max from killing Sheriff Harden, it is Chastity who ultimately intervenes to kill Max. Although Tony’s arrest spurs the plot of Rush, the episode is much more interested in the character Max; Tony only gets a single interaction with his mother, while Max’s relationship with his father is a recurring plot thread. More than that, it is not as if the climax of Rush sets up the audience for the continuing adventures of Tony.

Still, the episode touches on many of the tropes of the “teenagers with superpowers” genre, evoking comparisons to many of the iconic Marvel superhero properties about young kids who find themselves assigned incredible power. (Spider-Man and the X-Men are perhaps the most obvious examples.) “I’m going to make you one of us,” Max promises Tony, making it clear that these powers serve as a distinction between the primary characters and the rest of the student population.

"No Mulder, I did not check for an 'X gene'. Whatever that is."

“No Mulder, I did not check for an ‘X gene’. Whatever that is.”

This reflects, perhaps, an interesting shift in the superhero narrative at the turn of the millennium. In their classic iterations, teenage superheroes were traditionally pseudo-tragic figures; their powers were more of an obligation than a cause for celebration. As written by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Peter Parker’s problems were often compounded (rather than alleviated) by his gifts. Under writers like Stan Lee and Chris Claremont, the same powers that allowed the X-Men to save the world led to that world to fear and hate them.

Particularly during Chris Claremont’s seventeen-year run on Uncanny X-Men, teenage superpowers became a way of coding difference. Mutants became stand-ins for just about any minority – whether racial, cultural, sexual. Teenager superheroes were perpetual outsiders, who were forced to either “pass” for normal or to live in social exile. It was an effective metaphor for issues relating to conformity and identity, particularly in the context of the seventies and eighties.

A ticking clock...

A ticking clock…

(In a way, this emphasis on the superpowered teen protagonist as “other” could be seen as a reflection of The X-Files‘ own anxiety about conformity reverberating through the mythology’s fixation on clones or the “monster of the week” stories set in suburbia. The tendency of “normal” society to reject the perceived “mutants” could be read as a cautionary tale about the imposition of rigidly defined values by the majority, perhaps also playing out in The X-Files‘ narratives about the eccentric spaces fading from the American cultural landscape.)

However, there were understandable problems with this portrayal of teenage superheroes as stand-ins for the minority experience. Most notably, the five origin X-Men created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were all very white and middle-class – a bunch of teenagers attending a Westchester boarding school. Chris Claremont and his artists (including John Byrne, John Romita Jr. and Jim Lee) would attempt to add some diversity to the portrayal of the X-Men, but the “mutants as minority” metaphor was never as simple as it might seem.

To the Max...

To the Max…

Within the context of the late nineties, the “teenage superhero as other” metaphor lent itself to broader discussions of cultural appropriation. The divide between “normal” and “other” was never quite as clear cut as the classic X-Men made it appear. After all, white teenagers had a long history of appropriating black culture as a means of asserting an identity distinct from that of their parents. As Tricia Rose contends in Black Noise:

Like generations of white teenagers before them, white teenage rap fans are listening in on black culture, fascinated by its differences, drawn in by mainstream social constructions of black culture as a forbidden narrative, as a symbol of rebellion. Kathy Ogren’s study of jazz in the 1920s shows the extensive efforts made by white entertainers and fans to imitate jazz music, dance styles, and language as well as the alarm such fascination caused on the part of state and local authority figures. Lewis Erenberg’s study of the development of the cabaret illustrates the centrality of jazz music to the fears over blackness associated with the burgeoning urban nightlife culture. There are similar and abundant cases for rock ’n’ roll as well.

Although there was a long history of cultural appropriation, it really came to the fore in the nineties. The term “wigger” entered the popular lexicon, Eminem would raise (and even address) issues of appropriation within his music, and The Offspring would score a hit with Pretty Fly For a White Guy taking none-too-subtle jabs at certain trends in cultural appropriation.

Caving to pressure...

Caving to pressure…

Indeed, when writer Grant Morrison took over New X-Men for Marvel in May 2001, the write made a conscious effort to tackle issues around the appropriation of other cultures and the classic “mutants as minorities” metaphor is it related to contemporary culture. “I’d like to see mutant kids making their own weird music, which in turn is influencing human kids,” Morrison suggested in the “Morrison Manifesto” that outlined his original plans for the book. More than ever before, it seemed like being “different” was something towards which teenagers aspired.

Rush does not overtly deal with the issues of cultural appropriation that are tied into this shift, at least not overtly. It is worth noting that the teenage characters are all white. While Tony is very much an outsider who is new to the community, Max is far from ostracised or oppressed; Mister Babbitt makes passing reference to the idea that Max receives (or expects) special treatment because of his father’s status as town sheriff. Max is very much the antithesis of the “lonely teenage outsider” comic book stereotype, to the point that he even has a beautiful girlfriend.

He totally glassed him.

He totally glassed him.

Still, Rush acknowledges that perhaps being “different” is no longer as much of a stigma as it used to be. Max and Chastity are not transformed by an accident; they do not long for a normal life. Max is not scared by his transformation, and he does not attempt to reverse it. Pointedly, the differences that set them apart from their classmates are not presented as tragedy. Instead, these powers elevate them above the other students at Adam’s High. It could be argued that this portrayal fits in the context of larger cultural trends concerning the portrayal of superpowers.

In the early years of the twenty-first century, the shared Marvel comic book universe was restructured around the Avengers franchise; during the nineties, the shared universe had largely revolved around the more popular and successful X-Men franchise. Although this conscious shift was driven by business concerns relating to franchising and film rights, it did have the consequence of imposing a clear class structure on the Marvel universe. The superheroes at the top of the hierarchy were no longer mutants “feared and hated”, but instead “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”

"This isn't at all like Dangerous Minds!"

“This isn’t at all like Dangerous Minds!”

As such, it is interesting how Rush seems to tease a lot of what would follow, perhaps demonstrating that The X-Files is not quite as old and out-of-touch as it might seem. Seven years in, it feels like the show still has some sense of the zietgeist, albeit an understanding more hazy and ethereal than it had been in earlier seasons. As much as Millennium and Rush might nod towards emerging cinematic trends, they lack the raw immediacy of something like F. Emasculata or Tempus Fugit. It seems The X-Files might glimpse the future, but it is losing its grip on the present.

Still, Rush is a solid episode that is well constructed. It is, perhaps, a little too wry and ironic in its meditations on the show’s advancing age and it does sideline Mulder and Scully just a little bit too firmly. However, the fundamentals are all in place; David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson still play well off one another, while the “monster of the week” format still provides a reliable structure upon which a script might be built. Rush is not one of the strongest episodes that the show ever produced, but it demonstrates that the series is still workable.

2 Responses

  1. I love these reviews!

    • I’m glad you enjoy. If you are interested, I did publish a book about The X-Files a few years back that might be of interest?

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