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The X-Files – Orison (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 X-Files has generally avoided sequels.

There are exceptions, of course. Eugene Victor Tooms appeared twice in the first season, bookending the show’s first year in Squeeze and Tooms. The character of Robert Patrick Modell resurfaced in Kitsunegari, two years after his debut in Pusher. In a way, the mythology could be read as a series of sequels and inter-related plots, with the show lacking the sort of truly overarching design that would identify it as a single story that had been serialised. Still, The X-Files has been reluctant to resurrect old monsters, perhaps acknowledging the law of diminishing returns.

Here's Donnie!

Here’s Donnie!

So Orison is something of an oddity. It marks the second and final appearance of Donnie Pfaster, the demonic Ted Bundy type who made such an impression in Irresistible. Much like Robert Patick Modell or Eugene Victor Tooms, Donnie Pfaster was popular enough the bringing him back made a certain amount of sense; if the show had to do a “sequel” episode, Donnie was as good a candidate as any. Meanwhile, Flukeman waits by the phone. However, the question remains: why?

What is the point of bringing back Donnie? What didn’t the show do last time that it would do this time? It’s a very basic, very fundamental question. Unfortunately, Orison does not have much of an answer.

Finger food...

Finger food…

Sequels are something of a controversial subject, particularly in the horror genre. After all, horror is a genre driven by fear; fear of the unknown is perhaps the most primal and palpable anxiety. There is something quite exciting about sitting in a darkened room, waiting for a new horror film to start; the audience might know the genre, or even a rough plot summary, but there’s something fresh and exciting about it. In contrast, sequels are very much about the opposite idea; sitting in a dark room waiting for a sequel, the audience has a pretty solid idea about what to expect.

“A good horror movie is in many ways like a good joke,” wrote Stephen King in Danse Macabre. “Revisit the punch line too many times, and it wears out.” One gets a sense of this looking at classic horror monsters like Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. Even watching the films today, the two serial killers seem infinitely more “other” and horrifying in Friday the 13th, Part II or A Nightmare on Elm Street than they do in later entries like Freddy vs. Jason. Indeed, they have become so familiar as to become the protagonists of the series by that point.

Time's up...

Time’s up…

Making only his second appearance here, Donny Pfaster is not as diminished as perpetual pop culture monsters like Mike Myers or Leatherface. However, there is a clear sense of familiarity about Pfaster in Orison; a sense that the audience (and the script) knows exactly what to expect from him. In Irresistible, Pfaster was utterly unlike any monster that audiences had yet encountered on The X-Files. Orison cannot hope to compete with that shock and discomfort, five years later.

Everything that made Pfaster so uncomfortable in Irresistible becomes a familiar calling card in Orison. The discovery of a severed finger in the freezer (mixed in with frozen vegetables) is shocking in Irresistible; the shot of a severed finger in a bag of ice (not concealed at all) feels like checking another visual cue off the “Donnie Pfaster checklist.” When Pfaster obsessed about a sex worker’s hair in Irresistible, it was weird and uncomfortable; when Pfaster shows up with buckets of hair care products and scented candles in Orison, it’s part of a routine.

"Thank goodness Flukeman never got sent to prison..."

“Thank goodness Flukeman never got sent to prison…”

Frank Spotnitz conceded as much when asked about the prospect of other sequel episodes after Orison aired:

There are characters from past episodes I would love to revisit, because I loved those characters so much. But it’s very hard to even come close to the first time, both because you’re probably already said everything fundamental about that character the first time around and because nostalgia inevitably taints your second attempt.

That is the case here. Pfaster was unlike anything The X-Files had done before; now he’s a returning attraction.

Pfaster's pastor...

Pfaster’s pastor…

The script is keenly aware of this, taking advantage of the fact that Pfaster is a known quantity. It is to the credit of writer Chip Johannessen and director Rob Bowman that Orison never basks in the creepy voyeuristic thrills associated with certain strands of serial killer horror; at the same time, it seems like the episode is simply withholding to build suspense. The episode still builds to a climax where Pfaster surprises and overpowers Scully, even creepily referring to her as “girly girl” once again; it almost feels like an expected beat. “It’s not a Pfaster episode, unless…”

To be fair, there is something subtly “off” about Pfaster as he appears in Orison. The character who appeared in Irresistible was so striking because he was so awkward and shy; the version of Pfaster in Orison seems like another character entirely. He is snarky and self-confident. “Who do you think got you out of prison?” Reverend Orison asks, interrupting Pfaster with a potential victim. Pfaster responds, bluntly, “I don’t care. I’m busy right now.” It is almost a moment of black comedy.

Yes, a surprisingly high volume of the screenshots in this review will be Donnie Pfaster looking creepy.

Yes, a surprisingly high volume of the screenshots in this review will be Donnie Pfaster looking creepy.

Later in the same scene, the Federal Marshals swarm the café where Pfaster has hidden himself. Reverend Orison reminds Pfaster that he has a car. Pfaster snappily retorts, “We aren’t going to make it to the car.” This is a much more self-confident and assertive version of Pfaster than the one who appeared in Irresistible, to the point where it is almost possible to imagine a weird off-kilter road trip comedy in which Reverend Orison and Pfaster travel the country saving lost souls and trying not to indulge Pfaster’s impulses.

It could be argued that five years in prison changed Pfaster. After all, it is a radically different environment; it makes sense that Pfaster is not the same person he was when he tentatively embarked on his serial killer career in Irresistible. At the same time, the changes don’t seem entirely organic. Discussing his “death fetish”, Mulder warns the assembled U.S. Marshals, “Been five years in here thinking about only that. I’m sure he’s worked up quite an appetite.” however, Pfaster seems to have even more impulse control than he did in Irresistible.

No, I wasn't kidding.

No, I wasn’t kidding.

Of course, the real reason for the change is likely behind the scenes. Nick Chinlund reprises the role of Donnie Pfaster, but he is working with a different writer and director. Irresistible was written by Chris Carter and directed by David Nutter; Orison is written by Chip Johannessen and directed by Rob Bowman. It is no surprise that the episodes have completely different aesthetics. Given that the character of Pfaster originated in Irresistible, it makes sense that the earlier episode would suit him better.

Bowman is one of the best directors to work on The X-Files. He is also one of the longest-serving, working on the first seven seasons of the show (and the feature film) before helping launch The Lone Gunmen. Bowman was largely responsible – along with David Nutter, Kim Manners and R.W. Goodwin – for establishing the cinematic visual style of The X-Files. Bowman is a director whose style lends itself to impressive setpieces and powerful momentum. His work on The X-Files: Fight the Future and Kill Switch plays to those strengths.

God's handy work...

God’s handy work…

Bowman is less well-suited to the grotty horror atmosphere of a serial killer episode. When it comes to classic X-Files directors, David Nutter is stronger at establishing a grim tone. After all, it was Nutter who helped to establish Donnie Pfaster so effectively in Irresistible. When Chris Carter decided to launch Millennium, it was David Nutter who was tasked with establishing the haunted and oppressive tone of the show – directing The Pilot and Gehenna. Orison is just not an episode that plays to Bowman’s strengths.

To be fair, there are moments in Orison that demonstrate Bowman’s skill set. Arguably the best shot of the episode comes at the end of the teaser, with Pfaster walking out of prison… and right towards the camera. It is a shot that Bowman has used on multiple occasions, because it works very well. Bowman used it at the end of the teaser to 731 and as the cliffhanger at the end of Piper Maru. It is a bold and provocative shot, because it puts Pfaster front-and-centre; it is almost as if the threat is ready to break through the television screen.

Walking the walk...

Walking the walk…

Similarly, the slow motion sequence where Pfaster escapes from prison is technically impressive. It is a sequence that undoubtedly took a lot of work to choreograph. Mapping out the timing and the blocking as Pfaster dodges between characters trapped in slow motion must have been painstaking. It is very much a “blockbuster” shot, a sequence that is striking and memorable. However, it also demonstrates that Bowman’s strengths don’t necessarily lie in the grim beats of a classic “serial killer” story.

Pfaster is never anywhere near as terrifying in Orison as he was in Irresistible. Bowman does not seem entirely comfortable framing stalking sequences; the sequences in which Pfaster interacts with his first victim and his next would-be victim are shot in a very matter-of-fact manner, seldom stylised. There is a valid argument to be made that this is a valid way to approach the material – Orison never feels as lurid or as exploitative as some Millennium episodes, despite the similar format. However, it does drain a lot of the tension and suspense from the script.

Music to his ears...

Music to his ears…

It doesn’t help matters that Chip Johannessen never feels entirely comfortable with the involvement of Donnie in the episode. According to The Official Guide, Johannessen’s original pitch did not feature Pfaster at all. Instead, the story centred more firmly around Reverend Robert Gailen Orison. The addition of Pfaster to the story was a last-minute change made by the production team, perhaps explaining why Orison feels like Pfaster has somehow hijacked another episode and just piggybacked his way on to the show.

There are traces of this to be found in the script. Most pointedly, Mulder seems to act as though their involvement with the case begins and ends with Reverend Orison; as far as Mulder is concerned, Pfaster’s involvement in this particular X-file is a coincidence rather than anything more substantial. Recovering Reverend Orison’s body, Mulder remarks, “This X-File is over… lying dead there in a grave he dug himself.” He doesn’t stop to note that the case seems to have resolved itself about an act too early.

God drives stick.

God drives stick.

Then again, the structuring of Orison is very surreal, particularly in the final act. Most obviously, it is very strange that nobody thinks that Pfaster might be targetting Scully. In fact, Marshal Daddo clumsily gropes around the point in his voice mail to Mulder. “Just talked to a call girl who I.D.ed Donnie Pfaster as an attacker. Claims Pfaster got real upset when she was wearing a red wig. Upset she wasn’t a redhead. This mean anything to you?” Not every Federal Marshal can be Sam Gerard, but that’s still a pretty obvious clue.

Even ignoring that late detail, the cast overlook the fact that Pfaster has targetted Scully before. Mulder doesn’t make the obvious connection between Pfaster’s unresolved issues with Scully and the fact he’s been locked in prison fantasising for five years. In fact, Pfaster even signposts his fixation on the duo by providing them with the location of Reverend Orison’s body. “You know,” Scully points out. “Donnie Pfaster placed the call to the police that led us out here. It’s almost like he’s begging us to hunt him down.”

A cut above.

A cut above.

The structure becomes even more surreal once Pfaster attacks Scully. It seems like a sequence that is almost obligatory, grafted on to the end of the episode because the show has to do a rematch. However, the confrontation feels rushed and haphazard. How does Pfaster find Scully’s apartment? Why does he leave a resourceful agent who previously slipped from his clutches unattended? Mulder happens to get the necessary information to get him into Scully’s apartment just in time to apprehend Pfaster so Scully can shoot him, but it seems oddly superfluous.

(Indeed, it is interesting to wonder if Orison would play better had Mulder arrived late to the apartment. If Scully had executed an unarmed Donnie Pfaster without Mulder as a witness, it would create a nice tension at the end of the episode. Does Mulder know? Does he suspect? What exactly does Scully make of all this? The fallout from Scully’s actions becomes a lot more interesting if Mulder is not a passive observer who stands by and watches in slow motion.)

"So, Scully, I was just thinkin' about you..."

“So, Scully, I was just thinkin’ about you…”

Johannessen’s involved in Orison is interesting. Although the writer had interviewed with Carter for a position on the X-Files writing staff in the second season, he did not join Ten Thirteen until the first season of Millennium. During that first season, Johannessen quickly established himself as a writer who understood the unique logic and contours of Millennium. More than that, Johannessen had effectively served – with Michael Duggan and Ken Horton – as day-to-day showrunner on the third (and final) season of Millennium.

In a way, it seems strange to assign Johannessen to Orison. At the start of the seventh season, the X-Files writing staff had decided to bring back the character of Frank Black to allow the forensic profiler one last hurrah; although Millennium was directed by an established veteran of the television series, it was written by three writers who had never spent an extended period of time on the show. Frank Spotnitz had written five episodes, three of this on collaboration with Carter; Vince Gilligan and John Shiban were Millennium virgins.

Reverend Orison was buried by his workload...

Reverend Orison was buried by his workload…

In hindsight, it seems that would be the script to give to Johannessen. After all, Johannessen had written for Frank Black for three full seasons; he had been in charge of the day-to-day running of the show for the final of those three seasons. Although Johannessen had no real experience with Mulder and Scully, one of the advantages of doing the crossover as an episode of The X-Files was that the script would pass through a writers’ room intimately familiar with the process of writing for Mulder and Scully.

However, Johannessen’s script for Orison has a very “millenniumistic” vibe to it. It could be considered – arguably more than Millennium itself – as a (very) belated third season episode of the cancelled show. Orison is populated with familiar Millennium themes. There is a serial killer stalking victims as our heroes try to stop him; there is a heavy (and ambiguous) religious subtext; there is some heavy-handed meditation on the existence of true evil in the world. Johannessen even gets to throw in some weird science, his own Millennium pet fascination.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

In investigating the case, Mulder discovers that Reverend Orison drilled a hole into his head in order to increase blood flow to his brain. The process is known as “trepanning”, and experienced a surge of popularity in the late nineties and towards the new millennium. Only a few months after Orison aired, the British Medical Journal denounced the practice in response to a wave of self-trepanation:

“The reason patients end up doing it themselves is because they are being told it is not a good idea. In desperation, particularly if encouraged by one of these groups that seem to be promoting it, they have a go themselves.” He says there is no evidence that there are any beneficial effects at all from trepanning, despite a range of claims.

The procedure was enjoying a resurgence in the United States as well. A month after Orison aired, ABC aired footage of a trepanning procedure; they were subsequently ordered to hand the tapes over to a criminal inquiry on the matter. At the start of the twenty-first century, trepanning was skirting so close to the edge of legitimacy that The X-Files website included a link to Trepanation Advocacy Group.

Not-so-fine dining...

Not-so-fine dining…

This is very much in keeping with Chip Johannessen’s approach to writing for Millennium. His stories tended to focus on weird pseudo-science, often with vaguely mystical underpinnings. Force Majeure engaged with the idea of “earth changes.” In Skull and Bones, it was implied that the Millennium Group was experimenting with surgical procedures on the human brain. In Bardo Thodol, an investigation was sparked by the discovery of a container of cloned human hands. Even outside of Johannessen, the third season was fascinated with weird science.

This isn’t the only aspect of Orison that makes it feel like a belated episode of Millennium. There is a pretty heavy religious theme to Orison, with a prison chaplain motivated by the voice of God to help liberate incarcerated murderers; inevitably, the chaplain is forced to kill them. The question hanging over Orison is whether the chaplain is motivated by heaven or hell; whether God is forgiving or vengeful. It is a question that plays out through Scully’s own crisis of faith.

You gotta have faith...

You gotta have faith…

When Orison insists that God is at work in the world, Mulder is dismissive. “God is a spectator, Scully,” Mulder remarks. “He just reads the box scores.” When Scully questions Mulder’s logic, Mulder responds with his own line of questions, “You think God directs that man? You think He directs him to kill?” The episode leans on that line, culminating with Scully’s cold-blooded murder of Donnie Pfaster. In the final moments, Scully wonders what was working through her. “You mean if it was God?” Mulder asks. Scully answers, “I mean… what if it wasn’t?”

Of course, all of this is anchored in the rather controversial decision to have Scully kill Donnie Pfaster. It is a moment that feels incredibly out of character for Scully, particularly given the show’s emphasis on the idea that justice must come before vengeance in stories like The Blessing Way or Apocrypha. It is a decision which comes out of nowhere, and which is never mentioned at any point in the future. Unlike Frank Black’s murder of the polaroid stalker in The Beginning and the End, this is hardly a moment than illuminates character or sets up plot.

It's a sign...

It’s a sign…

Indeed, Scully is not the only person acting slightly out of sorts. Mulder doesn’t just cover up the murder; he volunteers to do so. “The way I see it… he didn’t give you a choice,” Mulder assures Scully. “And my report will reflect that… in case you’re worried. Donnie Pfaster would’ve surely killed again if given the chance.” Given that Mulder has worked so hard to expose cover-ups and lies, his eagerness seems more than a little hypocritical. As with his inaction in One Son, it is not a moment that flatters Mulder.

At the same time, there is an interesting character conflict here. Would Mulder actually cover up a murder to protect Scully? Mulder goes on and on about the concept of truth, but is he devoted enough to the truth that he would condemn Scully? Is Mulder simply hypocritical? Is there only one singular truth that counts, and the truth about Scully’s execution of an escaped prisoner in federal custody is a truth that simply does not matter to Mulder in the grand scheme of things?

Waxing lyrical...

Waxing lyrical…

All of this gets brushed aside for a rather superficial exploration of Scully’s religious beliefs. This is well-trodden ground at this point; the show has arguably had trouble mapping out new ground for Scully’s faith since Revelations. It seems like a cliché when Reverend Orison accuses Scully of ignoring the voice of God; it is something that the show has done in earlier episodes, to greater effect. Revelations had when such scenes, with Owen Jarvis accusing Scully of being a fair-weather Catholic and Scully herself wondering if the world is simply ignoring the voice of God.

Chip Johannessen has tackled religion before. Force Majeure wondered if another Flood was due. Johannessen’s script for In Arcadia Ego imagined a modern-day nativity for a lesbian couple, a very provocative story for nineties network television. There are some interesting and bold ideas in Orison. In particular, there is quite compelling about the idea of religion as a form of mass hypnosis, “a programmed behavior prompted and manifested by suggestion in this case, a rhythmic motion of the hands producing an unconscious act in a conscious state.”

How can he look at himself?

How can he look at himself?

Even the internal logic of Orison seem very close to that of a third season episode of Millennium. The script hinges more on tone and atmosphere than plot. Lights blink on and off to tease the work of the Almighty. Both Mulder and Scully make massively out-of-character decisions because the pseudo-profound conclusion demands it. When the episode needs to foster a connection between Orison and Scully, Johannessen shoehorns a clumsy piece of back story about the day that Scully realised that true evil existed in the world.

“When I was thirteen my father was stationed in San Diego,” Scully confesses to Mulder. “I was listening to the radio to that song when my mother came in and told me that my Sunday School teacher had been killed. He had been murdered in his front yard… And that’s the first time that I ever felt that there was real evil in the world. Mulder, Reverend Orison called me ‘Scout.’ That’s the same name that my Sunday School teacher called me.” It seems weird that such a pivotal moment so thematic resonant with Chris Carter’s work never came up before.

Buried truths...

Buried truths…

After all, Chris Carter believes that evil is at work in the world. He traces that belief back to a teenage experience, the discovery that one of his brother’s friends had murdered both an Avon saleswoman and his girlfriend. Carter’s work has a very clear moral dimension, on that becomes increasingly pronounced over time. Despite existing as a show about a forensic profiler, Millennium seemed to confirm the existence of absolute evil. Carter even wrote Lamentation, an episode where a demon murders a Hannibal Lecter stand-in.

In fact, Orison makes quite a fuss about how evil Donnie Pfaster really is. “I promise you there is nothing supernatural about this man,” Scully advises the Marshals. “Donnie Pfaster is just plain evil.” Of course, the episode implies that Donnie Pfaster can be two things. “A man escaped from prison,” Scully summarises. “Not a man,” Mulder corrects. “Donnie Pfaster.” He elaborates, “Donnie Pfaster did a number on your head like I’ve never seen.” This is more than just building hype.

"It rubs the shampoo on its hair..."

“It rubs the shampoo on its hair…”

One of the more controversial implications of Orison is that Donnie Pfaster is actually literally a demon; an entity rather like Lucy Butler on Millennium. The actual mechanics of this are left somewhat hazy. At one point, Reverend Orison has Donnie tied up and facing execution; Donnie transforms into a demon creature. Asked whether he cries for his sins or for himself, Donnie responds, “No, Reverend. I cry for you. Because you cannot kill me.” The next scene reveals that Reverend Orison has been murdered and buried.

To be fair, there is little else in the episode that suggests Pfaster is literally demonic. Certainly, man-made prisons are perfectly able to hold him; a prostitute is able to outwit him by throwing candle wax in his face. Mulder is able to apprehend him, and Scully is able to execute him. However, that one scene with Reverend Orison seems to literalise Pfaster’s demonic attributes. Irresistible had suggested that Pfaster-as-demon was just a reflection of the monstrous evil lurking inside the human heart; here, he becomes something altogether more supernatural.

Shards of truth...

Shards of truth…

In a way, the implication that Pfaster is a literal demon rather than simple serial killer makes a great deal of sense in the cultural context of the late nineties and early twenty-first century. After all, as Kevin J. Wetmore argues in Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, the serial killer was very much a creature of the nineties:

Horror cinema has, perhaps more than any other genre, always acknowledged the reality of evil, as well as its personification in devils, demons, monsters and spirits. … [T]he decade before 9/11 was dominated by human monsters. The nineties was the era of the serial killer, who is evil morally but not supernaturally. The sociocultural shift under the Bush administration after the terror attacks returned supernatural horror to the forefront.

This is, of course, a generalisation. However, the new millennium would see the serial killer become less prominent. Movies like Dahmer and Bundy went straight to video. Monster enjoyed Oscar success, but could not compete with higher profile nineties films.

Let us prey...

Let us prey…

The early years of the twenty-first century even charted the decline of Hannibal Lecter. The character enjoyed considerable success with the release of Hannibal in 2001, but the movie lacked the cultural staying power of Manhunter or The Silence of the Lambs. Indeed, Red Dragon made less of a cultural impression before Hannibal Rising consigned the character to bargain basement shelves. Although Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Hannibal enjoyed considerable critical success, the show never found a large enough audience.

The serial killer still popped up occasionally in popular culture, but rarely with the same force. The serial killer pops up on popular procedurals like Criminal Minds or CSI, but the structure of those shows centres around the rhythm and logic of apprehending a psychopath rather than the horrors of truly random violence. In fact, the serial killer film A Walk Among the Tombstones was set in 1999; the closing shot pulls out of the lead character’s apartment to focus on the Twin Towers, creating a clear connection between the serial killer story and pre-9/11.

Lighting a candle...

Lighting a candle…

With all that in mind, the implication that Donnie Pfaster might not actually be a serial killer and might be a demon feels like another odd example of The X-Files unconsciously harking towards the future. Millennium featured zombies a few years before they came back into fashion; Rush hinted at the coming superhero cinema boom; even The Goldberg Variation seemed to politely nod in the direction of The Sopranos as The X-Files accepted its place as one of the grand old shows of American television.

To be fair, the inclusion of Donnie Pfaster in an episode that owes so much to Millennium makes a great deal of sense. After all, Pfaster had made his first appearance in an episode that Carter credited with inspiring the creation of Millennium. It makes sense that Pfaster’s second appearance should feel so closely related to Millennium. If Irresistible was a prelude to the “serial killer of the week” format of Millennium‘s first season, then Orison plays like a belated coda to the weird hodge-podge of Millennium‘s third season.

How could you not trust a face like that?

How could you not trust a face like that?

The decision to bring back Pfaster was consciously made by the production team as an effort to connect with the show’s roots. In an interview shortly before the episode aired, Carter explained:

“What I haven’t had a chance to do are sequels to episodes that I really liked,” he says. “Next year, if the show were to go on, I would hope that there might be a way to reinvestigate some of those cases that were left [open-ended].”

Given how many X-Files episodes end in an ambiguous or mysterious fashion, that leaves a lot of ground for sequel episodes. It is a bit suspicious that sequels were suddenly on the table after the show had been reluctant for so long.

Stronger. Better. Pfaster.

Stronger. Better. Pfaster.

There is a sense of fatigue here. After all, the seventh season of The X-Files was clearly meant to be the last. Carter had originally planned to run the show for five seasons, but Fox had convinced him to sign on for another two. At the start of the seventh season, the expectation was that this would be the last season of the show. However, the failure of Harsh Realm (along with the rest of Fox’s new line-up) meant that The X-Files would be sticking around for a while longer.

For most genre shows, seven years exists as an upper limit. There are shows that can extend successfully beyond seven seasons – like Law & Order or E.R. – but that is generally through a combination of a strong central premise and a revolving door for the cast. When a show is anchored to particular actors in particular roles, seven seasons seems to be a good run. Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager would all bow out after seven years.

Bloody business...

Bloody business…

In A Vision of the Future, Stephen Edward Poe speculated on the possible causes for this ceiling on cast-driven genre shows:

… [T]here is the obvious matter of cast fatigue, a condition that frequently afflicts cast members of long-running shows. Symptoms include real-enough physical and mental exhaustion, financial independence, and the desire not to be typecast in a particular role. There is no cure; huge increases can occasionally persuade an actor to continue for another year or two, but sooner or later total burnout occurs.

This is arguably borne out on The X-Files, given the tension with David Duchovny behind the scenes on the seventh seasons of The X-Files. Fox had already done their “persuading” at the end of the fifth season. Time was running out.

Faithless...

Faithless…

This trend has been described as a televisual “seven year itch”, which is perhaps as good a metaphor as any. Indeed, the rule of thumb could arguably be said to extend beyond genre entertainment to the realm of prestige drama. Television critic Sarene Leeds noted that Mad Men would continue its run into a seventh season, representing the point where “where series fatigue is almost a given, regardless of a flawless track record.” As great as The X-Files was, it certainly didn’t have a flawless track record as it entered its seventh season.

The return of Donnie Pfaster in Orison points towards an interesting and larger trend in the seventh season. The seventh season of The X-Files has a rather unique interaction with larger continuity of the show. Appropriately enough for a year that was positioned as a possible final season, a lot of the seventh season is spent looking backwards. More interesting than the nostalgia itself, the seventh season has a very particular way of looking back at (and incorporating) what came before.

Nothing like a spot of late-night digging. Good for the soul.

Nothing like a spot of late-night digging. Good for the soul.

The seventh season is not the only season of The X-Files with a unique relationship to continuity and history. The fourth season of the show made a conscious effort to reconnect with the first season. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man featured a scene of the eponymous conspirator playing back recordings of The Pilot. Characters returned from television limbo. Tempus Fugit and Max resurrected the character of Max Fenig from Fallen Angel, while Scott Blevins popped up for the first time in more than three years for Gethsemane.

If the fourth season was fixated on the first season of The X-Files, then the fifth season extended back even further. The fifth season offered no less than three different origin stories of The X-Files set long before The Pilot. In Unusual Suspects, Mulder was gassed by a chemical compound designed to heighten paranoia mere months before he would remember Samantha’s abduction; in Travelers, the show took us back to meet one of Mulder’s predecessors investigating a fifties conspiracy; in The End, it was revealed that Scully was not Mulder’s first partner.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

The seventh season has a much hazier grasp of history and continuity. Characters and concepts recur throughout the seventh season, but often bizarrely out of context. It seems like the show has been running so long that its internal memory has gone skewy. This is evident as early as the three-parter that bridges the sixth and seventh seasons. Two Fathers and One Son took a great deal of pride in seeming to close off the conspiracy, but the Cigarette-Smoking Man is still organising colonisation in Biogenesis and trying to make a hybrid in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.

It feels as if the seventh season exists in a strange discontinuity where characters with familiar names exist, but with radically different histories and back stories. It is hard to reconcile Millennium with any of the show bearing its name. The decision to present Donnie Pfaster as a literal demon in Orison undercuts a powerful metaphorical component of Irresistible. This is to say nothing of the contortions concerning Samantha Mulder in Sein und Zeit and Closure.

Donnie-ing a familiar mask...

Donnie-ing a familiar mask…

It feels like The X-Files has drifted away from itself; that continuity is no longer a series of carefully maintained facts, but instead a collection of details and names recalled through a hazy fog. These elements all look familiar in the right light, but they move in ways that feel unnatural or alien. As the seventh season grinds on, it feels more and more like The X-Files has allowed itself to become something strange and unknown. History is a blur; continuity is an illusion. The show is coming to an end; certainties dissolve.

Orison is very much a snapshot of a show well past its prime, producing inferior sequels to beloved episodes that completely misunderstand the original appeal of the episode in question. Orison brings back the character of Donnie Pfaster, but so radically changes everything about and around him that the entire episode is almost imperceptibly “off.” Perhaps the recurring make-out song has a point. Maybe it’s best not to look any further.

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

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