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The X-Files – Season 7 (Review)

This September, 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 seventh season of The X-Files feels like the end.

Indeed, going into the season, the production team were quite certain that it was going to be the end. Chris Carter and David Duchovny had signed two-year extensions to their initial five-year contracts that would expire at the end of the season. David Duchovny had signalled that he was unlikely to return for an eighth season. Frank Spotnitz suggested that the writing staff were approaching the seventh season like it was their last time working with these characters on this show.


Gradually, however, things changed. As the seventh season continued, it became more and more likely that it wouldn’t be the seventh season of the show. Most obviously, Fox endured one of its worst seasons on record; there was simply no show that could hope to replace The X-Files in the network’s line-up. As a result, there was a clear urge to continue the show into an eighth season. However, the production team could not commit to the possibility because David Duchovny was in the midst of an on-going lawsuit against Fox.

As a result, the entire seventh season occupies a hazily-defined realm between life and death. As the season goes on, it feels more and more like the seventh season is hedging its bets; that the production team might be happy to move on to other projects, but are not entirely ready to give up on The X-Files yet. Watching the season in hindsight feels weird; it often feels like the production team want to bring the curtain down, but are unwilling to definitively or conclusive wrap up all the threads.


If the sixth season of The X-Files fixated on the show’s immortality and timelessness, the seventh season plays as a reaction against that. The seventh season is very keenly aware that everything must end and that The X-Files‘ cultural moment might be fading. There is something mournful and morose about the seventh season, as if The X-Files is watching itself slip away into history. After all, this was the point where the show became readily available on DVD and where Duchovny was engaged in a lawsuit over syndication; The X-Files was becoming a legacy concern.

The seventh season is about death and undeath.


Seven years is a long time; it might be time to wrap up The X-Files. This theme of death and undeath plays out across the season. Most obviously, there is the slow decline of the Cigarette-Smoking Man across the season; one of the show’s most iconic characters, he perhaps embodies the slow erosion of the series. Over the course of the year, he grows progressively weaker. Scully notes as much when she encounters him in Closure. In En Ami, he embraces his own death drive and destroys a potentially world-altering piece of information that might cure him.

However, as the season goes on, the Cigarette-Smoking Man finds himself panicking in the face of his own mortality. By the time that the season reaches Requiem, the once imposing figure is confined to a wheelchair smoking cigarettes through a hole in his throat. In the final forty-five minutes of the season, his inner circle reduced to Marita and Krycek (and Nurse Greta), he makes a last desperate bid to restore the mythology to its former glory. He tries to reassert the way that things were.


The conspiracy itself seems to exist in a weird state throughout the season. Biogenesis seemed to suggest that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was still overseeing plans for colonisation, even if the show was ambiguous as to how much of the conspiracy survived. In The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, the Cigarette-Smoking Man had enough pull and resources to organise brain surgery with Mulder in a top-secret government facility. Even in Closure, the Cigarette-Smoking Man held enough power that the mention of his name could cause him to appear.

However, the mythology is never really in focus in the seventh season. A lot of the mythology is implied, taking place off-screen. Unlike the first six seasons, the audience is not present for a lot of the scheming and machinations of the conspirators; the seventh season leaves it ambiguous as to whether this is because the conspiracy is largely a spent force or simply because the show is hedging its bets for as long as possible. Certainly, the Cigarette-Smoking Man still appears to be part of an organisation dedicated to keeping secrets in En Ami.


The audience is never told what happened to Krycek between his last appearance in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati and his return in Requiem. There is a vague reference to selling secrets in Tunisia, but the show implies that an entire story has taken place off-screen. It feels like the mythology is both a spent force, but that its corpse still defines and shapes the landscape of The X-Files. Stories like Closure and En Ami are not so much traditional mythology episodes as they are stories unfolding within the lumbering cadaver of the show’s conspiracy arc.

Undeath also bubbles through the standalone stories of the season. Appropriately enough, quite a few of these stories ended up undead themselves, altered and reworked by external circumstances. Vince Gilligan originally pitched the episode Hungry as the story of a boy who was turning into a zombie without realising that he was turning into a zombie; Robbie Roberts’ taste for brains remains a nod to the original premise. The production team had approached Stephen King and George Romero about adapting Night of the Living Dead for the show.


Nevertheless, there are plenty of literal examples of the undead haunting the seventh season. Mulder fights zombies in Millennium, teaming up with Frank Black from the recently-cancelled Millennium. Mulder is horrified when zombies are adapted into an otherwise interesting case in Hollywood A.D. When his brother is killed in a freak accident, Lesley Stokes wishes to bring his brother back to life in Je Souhaite; Anson Stokes returns trapped in a state between life and death. (“I can’t feel my heart,” he observes. “I can’t feel my blood.”)

Sein und Zeit and Closure put this undeath right at the centre of the season, as the show is haunted by the spirits of young children who are trapped and ready to move along. Mulder is finally able to confront the ghost of his sister before she moves on to “a better place.” It feels very much like a sly piece of self-commentary. The X-Files has been on the air for seven seasons at this point. It might be time to let the show go. Everything dies, everything ends. There is a sense that the seventh season desperately wants to end.


There are very conscious traces of this throughout the season. In The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati and all things, Mulder and Scully find themselves wondering about the lives they might have otherwise led; it is telling that both episodes are credited to the actors responsible. David Duchovny’s script for Hollywood A.D. and Vince Gilligan’s script for Je Souhaite both feel like a conscious farewell to the show; an attempt to offer some closure to the character arcs of Mulder and Scully.

Even in scripts like Fight Club and Requiem, the characters find themselves wonder what is possibly left ahead of them. In Fight Club, Scully points out that the classic formula has become somewhat tired; in Requiem, Special Agent Chesty Short contends that the production team have pretty much accomplished everything that they wanted to do. What could the future possibly hold for The X-Files? Surely its best years are behind it? After all, The X-Files has already sat on top of the world during its middle three seasons. It is largely downhill from there.


More than that, The X-Files exists as an object into which the production team have poured years of their lives. Chris Carter, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have given seven years of their lives to the show. Others like Kim Manners, Frank Spotnitz and Vince Gilligan have given almost as much. After seven years, it is understandable that those involved might want to let it go. There is a sense that The X-Files is willing to let itself drift into the hazy twilight realm of cultural memory; to cease as an on-going concern.

After all, The X-Files is a massive syndication hit at this point in its run. David Duchovny’s lawsuit argued that The X-Files was such a big hit that Fox was effective swindling him out of millions and millions of dollars. The first season of The X-Files would be released on DVD towards the end of the seventh season, helping to usher in an era where television was no longer defined by its moment of broadcast. While fans had been forced to circulate VHS tapes of the first season among themselves, The X-Files was no packaging itself as a historical document.


The seventh season has an interesting relationship with its own history. It frequently feels like the seventh season of The X-Files has detached itself from its own continuity, and is building stories on foggy half-remembered and reinterpreted history. The version of Frank Black who appears in Millennium has little tangible connection to the character who headlined his own show for three years. The version of Donnie Pfaster who appears in Orison feels markedly different than the character who made Irresistible so haunting.

Even the show’s mythology seems malleable and flexible during the seventh season, as if the show is examining its own internal continuity through a hazy telescope. The suggestions about Samantha Mulder in Sein und Zeit owe more to Beyond the Sea and Paper Hearts than to Colony or Redux II. The revelation about Samantha’s fate in Closure explicitly contradicts statements made by characters in episodes like End Game or The Blessing Way. When Mulder talks about being “free” of Samantha’s ghost, the show seems free of its own history.


Of course, this hazy approach to the show’s internal history perhaps reflects another fixation of the seventh season. Time and again, the seventh season returns to the questions of perception and reality. This is not a surprise; The X-Files is a pretty postmodernist show, and has explored these themes in episodes as popular as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” and Bad Blood. However, the seventh season returns time and again to the question the reality and existence.

Mulder dreams an entire alternate life in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. Scully learns to pay attention to the heartbeat underpinning the world in all things. Mulder and Scully appear on “reality television” in X-Cops. A virtual killer roams free in First Person Shooter. Mulder and Scully visit 20th Century Fox in Hollywood A.D. Robbie Roberts struggles with what he really is in Hungry. Illusion and reality (along with sleight of hand and CGI) intersect in The Amazing Maleeni.


In a way, this intersection of illusion and reality ties into the development of Harsh Realm. Chris Carter had launched Harsh Realm as a possible successor to The X-Files, a show that many had hoped would eventually replace The X-Files on the network’s schedule. Set in a virtual replica of the real world, Harsh Realm suggested that the boundaries between the real world and the virtual world were not as concrete as the characters (or the audience) would like to think.

Of course Harsh Realm inevitably prompted comparisons to The Matrix. However, this just underscores a late nineties fascination with the thin line between the real and the unreal. Towards the end of the decade, on the cusp of the new millennium, popular culture was saturated with stories examining the concept of “real.” Films like The Truman Show, Dark City, eXistenz and The Thirteenth Floor all touched on these questions to varying degrees. With Harsh Realm and The X-Files, Carter was clearly in touch with the popular mood.


Then again, the seventh season of The X-Files feels quite firmly anchored to its particular cultural moment. The X-Files has always felt like a show firmly anchored in the nineties, even as the series continues to resonate beyond that. There are always markers of the show’s cultural context to be found, whether it is jokes about Bill Clinton’s haircut in Fearful Symmetry, references to the drive-by shootings on the White House in Colony or Anasazi, or even the V-chip debate that informs Wetwired.

Appropriately enough for a season that feels like it could have been the show’s last and which spans from late 1999 into the middle of 2000, the seventh season of The X-Files feels very tightly interwoven with the broader cultural moment. The Amazing Maleeni captures the transition from David Copperfield to David Blaine in the world of magic. Signs and Wonders touches on the withdrawal and isolation of conservative religious groups in the gap between the Clinton impeachment and the Bush presidency. all things plays on the Lewinsky Affair.


Of course, there are a number of fortuitous narrative choices that seem to acknowledge the changes that lie ahead in mass media. Millennium predates the post-9/11 boom in zombie cinema. Rush plays as a superhero origin story that arrived before Spider-Man or X-Men jumpstarted the twenty-first century superhero movie bubble. X-Cops seems to predict the postmodern crisis presented by the explosion of reality and television over the course of the next decade. Signs and Wonders is a lot more uncomfortable now than it was when it first aired.

In way, this feels appropriate for a season that is caught between life and death. The seventh season of The X-Files might have the final season of the show, or it might not have been. It feels appropriate that the season is packed with episodes that are at once deeply rooted in the wider cultural context of 1999 and 2000, but which also resonate with events that have happened since them. Signs and Wonders was a very different episode when it was first broadcast than it is when it is watched today, even though a single frame has not been altered.


The X-Files is both stuck in the long nineties and living beyond it. To deny that The X-Files is a cultural artifact from a different world is to undercut a lot of its context and power. However, it is just as simplistic to argue that the show is exactly the same today as it was when it was initially broadcast. The show might not have changed, but the world around it has. That changing world helps to keep the show relevant and fresh. It is possible to watch The X-Files in 2015 and see something completely different than audiences saw in 1993.

The seventh season is very consciously aware of this fact. Indeed, Requiem was written so that its context could change dramatically in the few weeks between its production and its broadcast. The actually meaning of Requiem was not firmly set until three days before it was broadcast, and the show needed to be built so that it could support any number of radically different contexts. It could have been a season finalé, a series finalé leading to a film, or a series finalé leading to a long gap.


The seventh season is built so that it feels like it would not have actually been the end, even if it was actually the end. The seventh season emphasises the idea that The X-Files is a living and dynamic text that can constantly be reworked and reinterpretted. After all, Millennium and Orison stress that the show’s own internal continuity can change and warp even while the series is on the air. If there had been no eighth or ninth season, the seventh season would not necessarily have been the end, because the show would have lived on in syndication and home media.

However, there is also a sense that the seventh season very clearly was the end, even if there were two sequences broadcast afterwards. Requiem is the last episode of The X-Files to feature Mulder and Scully as the only leads; it is the last point at which The X-Files is in its most traditional and iconic form. With David Duchovny only committing to half of the eighth season, the series would have to change and evolve in order to survive. The eighth and ninth seasons of The X-Files are a very different television show than the first seven seasons.


This is not to diminish or belittle the final two seasons. In fact, the eighth season is arguably stronger than the seventh season in many ways. However, the seventh season marks the last point at which The X-Files can be credibly described as a show starring Mulder and Scully. The eighth and ninth seasons try to fudge this by insisting that The X-Files is really a show about Mulder and Scully, but there is a very clear distinction to be made. The seventh season is the last twenty-odd episode block headlined by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

It should be noted that this is not a knee-jerk dismissal of the final two seasons; the eighth and ninth seasons are very definitely still The X-Files, they are just a different version of The X-Files. Robert Patrick does phenomenal work as John Doggett, but he cannot compete with the chemistry that exists between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. The seventh season is the last time that The X-Files successfully builds a whole season around that core chemistry; the chemistry that helped to make The X-Files such a breakout hit in the first place.


Watching the seventh season, it is quite clear just how lucky the production team were to find Anderson and Duchovny. The charisma between the two actors helps to carry some of the season’s weaker outings. Episodes like Rush, The Goldberg Variation and The Amazing Maleeni would simply collapse without the charm of Anderson and Duchovny to keep the audience on side. Even some of the season’s weaker episodes are lucky to have those two leads; whatever problems exist with First Person Shooter, Duchovny and Anderson still play well off one another.

Indeed, the seventh season seems to foreshadow the problems that will be created by splitting up Anderson and Duchovny. Due to the nature of television production, neither Anderson nor Duchovny were fully available for all twenty-two episodes of the season. The shows that separate Anderson and Duchovny can feel rushed and forced, drawing attention to just how heavily the series leans on their chemistry. Shows like Chimera and Brand X feel like they are missing something when forced to work around the limited availability of one or both performers.


After all, it is impossible to argue that The X-Files is as energetic as it once was. For all that fandom threatened to revolt in the face of “X-Files Lite”, the sixth season had a lot of energy and mojo powering it. Perhaps this energy was rooted in the move to Los Angeles. In contrast, the seventh season seems quite exhausted and fatigued in places. Stories feel familiar and trite, echoing very recent episodes. Chimera feels like a retread of Terms of Endearment and Arcadia; The Amazing Maleeni feels like the less funny younger sibling of The Goldberg Variation.

When Mulder talks about just wanting it to be over in Closure, or when Scully remarks upon the familiar formula in Fight Club, it feels like the show is acknowledging its own internal sense of fatigue. Seven years is a long time in television. It is a very good run. After all, the three successful Star Trek spin-offs each enjoyed a seven-season run before being transitioned into syndication. There is nothing wrong with feeling a little worn out after scripting more than one hundred and fifty episodes.


This is not to dismiss the seventh season as lazy or hack work. The seventh season has a weird funereal atmosphere to it, and is populated by odd episodes that feel markedly out of step with the previous six seasons. However, the weirdness never feels like desperation or anxiety. It seldom feels like the seventh season was desperately tying to sellotape an old script together so that it could be thrown in front of a camera to make a particularly tight deadline. All of the episodes (even First Person Shooter and Fight Club) feel carefully calibrated and calculated.

Instead, the seventh season has a more laid back attitude of “sure, why not?” to it. It feels like the production team are open to crazy and unconventional ideas; not because they are running out of stories, but because this might just be the last chance to do something adventurous. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson get to write and direct; William B. Davis gets to write; Vince Gilligan gets to direct; Vince Gilligan gets to crossover with Cops; the production team get to bring back Donnie Pfaster; the production team get to bring in Frank Black.


This all contributes to the generally fuzzy and hazy mood of the seventh season. X-Cops is as ambitious as the show ever got, and it might just be the last time that The X-Files well and truly pushed itself as a television series. all things might not really work, but it stands apart from anything that the show had ever attempted. Hollywood A.D. might have far too many interesting ideas and no time to develop them all, but that is more interesting than running through a familiar formula or pattern.

Facing the possibility that this might be the end of the show, the production team seemed willing to take chances and shake things up. As much as The X-Files gets credit for popularising long-form storytelling on prime-time television, the writers were notoriously afraid of damaging the status quo. After all, the show worked very well in its clearly-defined structure, so why run the risk of changing anything? Tellingly, the show’s biggest changes were all forced on the production team by outside factors; Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy and David Duchovny’s departure.


However, the seventh season embraces a more subtle form of change. Over the course of the season, Scully is allowed to become more and more open to extreme possibilities. In scripts like The Goldberg Variation or Theef, Scully is allowed to move beyond the simple “skeptic” archetype that defines her in popular culture. In Je Souhaite, Scully is allowed to take as much pride in actual proof of the paranormal as Mulder is; she is positively giddy upon discovering an invisible body. It is a nice way to wrap up Scully’s arc.

Similarly, the show begins nudging its lead characters towards a romantic relationship. After all, popular culture has been waiting for Mulder and Scully to hook up for years. Carter is keenly aware of this fact; there is a reason that The X-Files: Fight the Future is as much relationship drama as conspiracy thriller. With the possibility that the show might actually end, Carter is allowed to offer those fans some closure without writing himself into a position where he would have to actually follow through on it.


Mulder and Scully are allowed to kiss in Millennium and to spend the night together in all things. Of course, The X-Files is infuriatingly oblique about this. Fans can read as much as they want into the flirty banter between Mulder and Scully in The Goldberg Variation or The Amazing Maleeni, but the show refuses to confirm what (if anything) is happening between the duo. It is all left implied and unstated, to the point where the production team leave it ambiguous enough that it could be argued both ways. (Are Mulder and Scully together? Is this the last season?)

There is something quite frustrating about all this, as if The X-Files is trying to have its cake and eat it. The show is so used to hedging its answers and leaving things unsaid that it cannot even tell the audience when (or even if) Mulder and Scully developed from a platonic couple into a romantic relationship. Was all things the first time that the pair slept together? Maybe; maybe not. It seems the human heart (or sexual chemistry) is as much a mystery as colonisation and alien invasion.


The seventh season of The X-Files is a strange beast. It is not nearly consistent enough to rank with the show’s strongest years, but it remains interesting in its own right. The seventh season was written as a year that might or might not be the end of The X-Files. Curiously enough, it watches in much the same way.

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

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

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