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The X-Files – Invocation (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

There is something rather strange about how the first six episodes of the eighth season approach Doggett as a character.

Despite the fact that he is one of the two leads on The X-Files, the series takes its time in getting around to him. Robert Patrick is effectively stepping into the shows of David Duchovny, but the early stretches of the eighth season seem quite unsure what to make of Special Agent John Doggett. Robert Patrick might appear in the opening credits, but there is a sense that the writing staff are not yet entirely comfortable with the character. Perhaps worried about alienating fans still grieving for Mulder, the show keeps a respectful distance from Doggett.

Good grief.

Good grief.

Within and Without introduced Doggett as the agent in charge of the hunt for Mulder. While Scully and Skinner were looking at Mulder as a potential victim, they frequently found themselves competing with Doggett’s decisions to paint Mulder as a potential suspect. Doggett was introduced in a surprisingly abrasive manner, literally (and clumsily) attempting to undermine the relationship between Mulder and Scully – perhaps a literal expression of fannish anxiety about the show’s new lead.

This is not to suggest that the show has been hostile (or even disinterested) towards Doggett. Both Patience and Roadrunners emphasise that Scully needs to learn to trust Doggett and that he really does have her best interests at heart. However, the show tends to look at Doggett as an object of curiousity. In the first six episodes of the season, the show tends to view Doggett from an outside perspective. He might play an active role in the narrative, but he is not really a viewpoint character.

Knife to see you...

Knife to see you…

The show generally approaches Doggett through the character of Scully. (In Redrum, it is Martin Wells.) Leaning heavily on Scully makes sense; the audience trusts Scully, so if she can trust Doggett then maybe they can as well. More than that, it offers a nice twist on the dynamic during the first season of the show. In The Pilot, Scully was introduced as a viewpoint character into the bizarre world of Fox Mulder. Seven years later, the audience is so accustomed to that bizarre world that she is the viewpoint character into the grounded world of John Doggett.

This decision to treat Scully as the viewpoint character gives Invocation a surreal tone. In many ways, Invocation is the show’s first real Doggett-centric story; it is the first time that the character gets to drive the central narrative instead of running in parallel, it is the first time that the show hints at a personal back story for Doggett beyond “generic law enforcement and armed forces experience.” However, it is all filtered through the lens of Dana Scully. It emphasises the fact that Doggett is a mystery, which seems strange given how straight-laced he seems.

"Luke, I was your father."

“Luke, I was your father.”

Robert Patrick really doesn’t get enough credit for his work as John Doggett. It takes a lot of courage to step into a show like The X-Files to fill the gap left by a beloved and iconic lead performer. Doggett was always going to exist in Mulder’s long shadow, but Patrick finds a way to approach the character that makes him feel like more of a valuable addition than an awkward replacement. Patrick finds his own groove in the show, figuring out what he can add to the aesthetic without intruding upon what Gillian Anderson or David Duchovny brought.

A lot of that is down to the simple fact that Robert Patrick already had an established screen persona when he took the role. When Duchovny was cast, he was mostly recognised as a supporting player on various television shows; Anderson had very little experience working with a camera before she took the role of Scully. In contrast, Patrick had been working in film for well over a decade. Film fans would recognise him from any number of films, but he already had an iconic role under his belt with his role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

"Have you seen that boy?"

“Have you seen that boy?”

This seemed to be exactly what intrigued the production team about Robert Patrick. The X-Files did not avoid comparisons to Robert Patrick’s memorable role as the T-1000; it positively invited them. In Within, Doggett is introduced pretending to be somebody other than who he is while organising a manhunt for a heroic character. In Roadrunners, he goes hunting for Scully using a headshot. In Invocation, he chases after a car on foot. In Salvage, he cracks wise about the improbability of a metallic man.

It is an interesting – and very self-aware – decision. While Mulder and Scully had been introduced to the audience without any preconceptions, Doggett comes loaded with a whole host of external baggage. Across the early episodes of the eighth season, Doggett seems to be defined primarily be what he isn’t rather than what he is; the show knows that the audience will approach him as a replacement to Fox Mulder and will recognise him as the shape-shifting robot from Terminator 2. None of which relates to Doggett as a character.

X marks the spot...

X marks the spot…

One of the more commendable aspects of the eighth season of The X-Files is the fact that it is willing to treat Doggett as an outsider for so long. Doggett doesn’t really get to drive an episode until Via Negativa, one third of the way through the year. While the show does tell us a lot about Doggett in these first six episodes, these revelations are very consciously made from the outside. While Invocation makes the nature of Doggett’s loss quite explicit, it does this in such a way that that very little comes from exposition delivered by Doggett himself.

Robert Patrick’s performance style is also interesting. Coming from a background in film, Patrick’s performance is decidedly more mannered than those of Duchovny or Anderson. As a rule, Duchovny tended to underplay his role while Anderson strove for a more naturalistic performance style; Patrick tends towards intensity. In a way, it recalls the performance that Lance Henriksen offered in the first season of Millennium, another example of a lead actor with more film than television experience.

Quality stepfather-son time...

Quality stepfather-son time…

While The X-Files might have been praised for its cinematic production values, there are subtle differences between working in film and television. This is particularly pronounced when film experience is juxtaposed against the demands of a twenty-odd episode season. On the commentary for Within, Patrick conceded that one of the biggest issues he faced in transitioning to television was the tight deadlines that left less room for rehearsal:

I remember when we started I needed more time to try to figure things out, as you mentioned earlier with the rehearsals and whatnot, and trying to block things out, and make sense of what I was doing logically, and then I think finally after a couple of episodes somebody came up to me and said – I don’t know who it was, Michelle McLaren or somebody – ‘we might have to  start going a little faster’. We might not have time for those rehearsals.

This is not a knock on Patrick as a performer, just an illustration of how his experience impacts his performance. Even within Invocation, dealing vicariously with the loss of his son, Patrick doesn’t push Doggett through the same extremes that Duchovny would with Mulder in episodes like Conduit or Paper Hearts. The intensity is there, but it is more meticulously calibrated.

Heart of black...

Heart of black…

The comparisons between Robert Patrick and Lance Henriksen are interesting. Both are recognisable character actors whose most high-profile work was in collaboration with director James Cameron. Indeed, despite their work on Millennium and The X-Files, it seems quite likely that most casual cinema-goers and television watchers would recognise Patrick as the T-1000 and Henriksen as Ash. More than that, the two actors have a similar sensibility – an intense salt of the earth centredness.

There are even a few similarities between the two characters. Although Frank Black drifted away from this characterisation during the second and third seasons of Millennium, both Frank Black and John Doggett are established as grounded family men who are respected within their professional circles. Although Robert Patrick is only two years older than David Duchovny, Doggett seems more mature than either Mulder or Scully. It turns out that seven years of not fighting monsters and thwarting alien invasions leaves time for a life.

Take a stab at solving this...

Take a stab at solving this…

In interviews, Carter himself has acknowledged the connection between the characters. Despite the fact that Doggett did not make an appearance in The X-Files: I Want to Believe (and will not appear in the revival), Carter suggested in an interview with Back to Frank Black that he might feel more at home in a future Millennium project:

Inspired by these conditions, Carter offers a hint of his imaginings for the film. “It would need to have that integrity from the original idea, but it needs to be a rethinking. I’ve had random thoughts about this and one was to use a character like Doggett [as played by Robert Patrick] and do a cross-pollination with The X-Files.” Such a move would ensure further interest from fans of The X-Files and also offer the potential to continue the story for some of that series’ popular supporting characters.

Indeed, the only real problem with crossing over John Doggett and Frank Black is that they might prove too alike; the gruff (and slightly grumpy) straight men of the shared Chris Carter universe. Although Millennium didn’t quite capitalise on it, part of the fun of teaming up Fox Mulder with Frank Black should be the contrast between two reasonably similar characters.

Playing it to the hilt...

Playing it to the hilt…

Nevertheless, Carter’s observation about the compatibility of John Doggett and Frank Black is interesting in light of Invocation. In many ways, Invocation is a surprisingly “Millenniumistic” episode of The X-Files. It touches on a whole host of themes and imagery more closely tied into the first season of Millennium than with The X-Files. It would not be too difficult to imagine a version of Invocation starring Frank Black, possibly airing towards the end of the first season – as the show’s “serial killer of the week” format gave way to more supernatural elements.

Indeed, the mood and tone of Invocation is very much in keeping with the first season of Millennium. The episode hits on many of the recurring themes of that first season. As with Wide Open and Weeds, the victims are a decidedly middle-class family; as with The Well-Worn Lock and Sacrament, the perpetrator is a patriarch who abuses a child in his care; as with Wide Open, Weeds, The Well-Worn Lock and Covenant, young children are targeted so as to render the crime truly heinous.

"You know, his pulse could be stronger..."

“You know, his pulse could be stronger…”

There is, of course, a supernatural element to Invocation that distinguishes it as an episode of The X-Files. Still, Millennium seemed more willing to broach supernatural subject matter towards the end of its first season – with episodes like Lamentation, Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions and even Maranatha. Still, the funereal tone and rather grounded nature of the horror helps Invocation to feel like a much better point of intersection between The X-Files and Millennium than the actual crossover episode.

In many ways, Invocation marks the beginning of Doggett’s character arc across the final two seasons of The X-Files. It often felt like Doggett was very much a secondary player in those final two seasons, stuck in a role supporting Mulder and Scully; this was particularly frustrating when Mulder was largely absent. As such, Doggett’s personal mythology is never quite as developed and explored as Mulder’s personal history was. Still, the juxtaposition of Doggett’s loss of Luke and Mulder’s loss of Samantha is quite informative.

This is never good.

This is never good.

In interviews, Carter made it quite clear that the disappearance (and murder) of Luke Doggett was an essential part of John Doggett’s history and backstory, acknowledging that it was a detail designed to mirror the way that the disappearance (and death) of Samantha Mulder had forged Fox Mulder:

“It certainly is something that has shaped his character. So I would say that it won’t be the replacement for the Mulder/Samantha search, but it is something that informs his approach to life and his relationship with Monica Reyes.”

Invocation doesn’t explicitly mention Luke Doggett by name; the details of the case are not confirmed until This is Not Happening. However, the inferences are clear; Invocation provides a shot of Doggett looking at the photo, while a psychic bluntly states that Doggett has lost somebody.

Going around in circles.

Going around in circles.

This is hardly the most original idea in the history of Ten Thirteen. It seems like Chris Carter has a fascination with the way that random terrible things happening to children tends to shape and mould his protagonists. Mulder is perhaps the most obvious example, with the loss of Samantha baked into the show’s backstory from The Pilot and expanded in Conduit. However, when Carter introduced the character of Emma Hollis at the start of the third season of Millennium, he gave her a similar back story in Closure.

There is something almost routine about Chris Carter deciding to give a lead character a formative traumatic experience involving the loss of a child. It is worth noting that “Closure” is the only title (aside from “pilot”) to be reused between The X-Files and Millennium; both times, it is in reference to an episode dealing with the loss of a leading character’s sister at a very young age. The frequency with which Carter employs this trope does tend to blunt its impact; neither Luke Doggett nor Melissa Hollis can hold a candle to Samantha Mulder.

"That's not a knife..." "I'm pretty sure that's a knife."

“That’s not a knife…”
“I’m pretty sure that’s a knife.”

At the same time, it seems that the writing staff were not entirely sure what they wanted to do with the trauma that would evolve into Luke Doggett at this point on the season. Reflecting on his first year in the role, Patrick seemed disappointed that he wasn’t informed of the arc ahead of time:

I also think Doggett’s going to have to deal better with the situation involving his son and the premonitions. I didn’t realize, going into the show last year, that Doggett had some sort of questionable paranormal experience relating to his son. That happened about midway through the season and it was a good thing.

That said, there are some interesting contrasts between Luke Doggett and Samantha Mulder, distinctions that inform a lot of the characterisation of Doggett. This goes beyond the obvious “Samantha’s disappearance made Mulder a believer, Luke’s disappearance made Doggett a skeptic” contrast.

"So, I've killed a parasitic brain slug and connected with a cute kid. What more could fans possibly want?"

“So, I’ve killed a parasitic brain slug and connected with a cute kid. What more could fans possibly want?”

On a purely superficial level, the trauma allows the show to develop a more nuanced and sympathetic side of their leads. Mulder was a character who could easily seem abrasive or confrontational, particularly when dealing with people in authority. However, the abduction of Samantha allowed the writers to illustrate the character’s empathy and compassion. Conduit largely works as a showcase for the tremendous protectiveness that Mulder feels towards those who have been victimised and exploited, rooted in his own experiences.

The eighth season puts Doggett in an awkward position, trying to replace a beloved character. However, his short attempted conversation with Billy at the start of Invocation does more to humanise him than anything else to this point. “You know, maybe you think bad things happened to you because you’ve been a bad boy, but I’m here to tell you, that’s not true,” he explains. “The bad guy is the one who took you away and it’s up to you and me to get the bad guy. See, ’cause as big and tough as I am, I can’t do it alone. I need your help.” Aw.

Oil's well that ends well...

Oil’s well that ends well…

More than that, Samantha’s disappearance served to tie Mulder into the larger arcs of the show – both in terms of plot and theme. Mulder believed that his sister was taken by aliens, so he chased aliens; as he eventually discovered a cynical plot by predatory powerful men to use their power to exploit the weak, Samantha became a powerful symbol of that abuse and exploitation. Samantha existed before there was a conspiracy, for all intents and purposes. Samantha remained a mystery even after the conspiracy had crumbled to dust.

The disappearance and death of Luke Doggett is at once a more mundane and more abstract trauma. Luke was not abducted by aliens, he was killed by a stranger. Doggett cannot reach a deeper understanding of his loss by chasing down aliens or exposing conspiracies. In fact, Empedocles suggests that Doggett will only be able to understand his tragic loss by facing the nature of human evil itself. This is one of Carter’s recurring themes, but one that was particularly central to Millennium.

"This? Oh, it's just my own primary school photos. I wonder why I don't smile like that anymore."

“This? Oh, it’s just my own primary school photos. I wonder why I don’t smile like that anymore.”

In some respects, Invocation feels a little bit too detached from its characters. This is particularly true of Doggett, who remains as much a mystery to the audience as he does to Scully. After all, The Pilot and Conduit were far more open about the disappearance of Samantha Mulder than Invocation is about the murder of Luke Doggett, even though the murder of Luke Doggett is a more clear-cut case. However, the episode also remains curiously detached from the Underwood family at the heart of the story.

Invocation is ethereal and haunting, but in a way that never feels quite real. The opening shot of the horses at the fairground, set to Mark Snow’s eerie reworking of “All the Pretty Horses”, does a great job of establishing tone. Indeed, the episode is structured remarkably well; as with David Amann’s script for Chimera, there is a lot of nice imagery underpinning a tale of middle-class familial strife. There is something to be said for the way that Invocation sets up the revelation of what happened to Billy Underwood in that opening shot.

ACTING!!! (All joking aside, Robert Patrick is pretty great.)

ACTING!!!
(All joking aside, Robert Patrick is pretty great.)

Invocation has something of a fairy tale quality to it, which seems entirely appropriate. Amann’s script for Chimera was populated with ravens and mirrors. Invocation features a character who initially appears to be a changeling swapped into a a suburban family, but who is eventually revealed to be the ghost of a child long dead. Although Invocation sets up Billy Underwood as one of the classic “children who came back wrong”, the script cleverly reveals him as a spirit trying to prevent his brother from suffering the same fate that befell him.

Of course, Invocation relies on any number of contrivances. It seems quite improbable that the same killer who murdered Billy Underwood would happen upon the opportunity to murder Josh Underwood. (Indeed, one wonders whether ghost!Billy would be as concerned if the child at risk weren’t his brother.) More than that, the entire plot relies on ghost!Billy being either unwilling and unable to communicate in anything but riddles; he has a very obtuse way of going about his business.

"Y'know, you could make this a little easier for us."

“Y’know, you could make this a little easier for us.”

However, these problems never feel as frustrating as they might in a more grounded episode. As with Chimera, it feels like Amann is crafting more of an allegory than a story. Invocation feels like the kind of stately old-fashioned ghost story that friends might share on a long car journey late at night. The episode’s fairy tale tone works remarkably well, tapping into the idea that these sorts of narratives provide a structure through which survivors might best process trauma.

After all, if you can impose logic and narrative upon pain, then it means that the pain can be managed and predicted; more than that, it can be concluded. Mulder did something quite similar with Samantha’s disappearance, spinning the loss of his sister and the collapse of his family into a grand narrative about the fate of the planet and the dark forces who rule from the shadows. For Mulder, conspiracy theory imposes order upon a seemingly chaotic world, providing a framework through which trauma might best be processed.

Also, people tend to be more receptive to ghost children who smile.

Also, people tend to be more receptive to ghost children who smile.

Invocation swaps out conspiracy theory for fairy tale. After all, as Anne Karpf argues in The War After, fairy tales provide a similar framework for children to understand the dangers and horrors of the wider world:

The Holocaust was our fairy tale. … How does a child cope with information about the past brutalisation of its parents? What does it do with such knowledge? How does she process it, render it halfway tolerable? Perhaps it becomes another story. You mythicise it, structure it round the rhetorical devices and narrative features of the other fables you know.

The irony, of course, is that Invocation uses this fairy tale structure to help parents cope with the brutalisation of their children. The trauma that the Underwood family inflicted was so great that the logic of fairy tales was turned upside down.

Creepy teen is creepy...

Creepy teen is creepy…

Even the basic concept of the episode is unsettling in a very fundamental and disturbing way. The central mystery concerning Billy Underwood is why the kid has not aged a day during the nine years he has been missing. “Boy should be a teenager by now, but look at him,” Sheriff Sanchez observes. “Explain to me how that can be.” The explanation is ultimately quite heartbreaking; Billy Underwood is not a teenager because he never got to be a teenager. He never got to grow up and develop.

There is something powerful in that image, in the idea that the type of damage caused by the loss of Billy Underwood never moves on. Billy looks like he has never aged a day, but it seems entirely likely that Lisa and Doug Underwood have seldom been able to think about him in any other way. Their memories of Billy remain frozen in time; he will always be a child to them, because they will never know him as anything else. It is a very primal upsetting idea. As ideal as the prospect of eternal youth might seem, it does mean never growing up.

"Aw. He's almost as good with kids as Mulder."

“Aw. He’s almost as good with kids as Mulder.”

This is by no means a novel idea. Perhaps the most iconic exploration of these themes remains the work of J.M. Barrie, focusing on Peter Pan. As Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan note in their exploration of various adaptations in Screen Adaptation, this was a themes that was perhaps more relevant and recognisable in the original context:

As has been noted, Peter Pan, in many respects, could be seen to represent not only an expression of nostalgia for childhood, but also for a brother who died at a young age in a skating accident. Certainly for many, the idea of a forever young sibling would be common, given the numerous child fatalities in the Edwardian period, those who die young and therefor will be children forever. This image of ‘lost’ children echoes both the potentially brutal short lives of the young and offers an antidote to death itself while the lost boys remain on the island.

Understandably, these themes tend to end up downplayed in later adaptations of the story, including Disney’s Peter Pan and the more recent Finding Neverland. Nevertheless, the fact that Billy Underwood has not aged a day in nine years serves to foreshadow the episode’s brutal ending and to underscore the fairy tale themes running through it.

Shining a light on it...

Shining a light on it…

It is a clever idea. It fits quite well within the context of The X-Files. In many ways, The X-Files is a show about trying to cope with trauma by narrativising it; turning all of the horror of the world into a story so that it might be easier to digest. Stories like Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” and Paper Hearts touched upon the idea that stories help to make sense of senseless events. The only real difference between Sein und Zeit and Invocation is the type of story that is told. It is a difference that tells us a lot about the distinction between Doggett and Mulder.

At the same time, this dream-like storytelling style puts a distance between the audience and the characters. Kim Greist offers a wonderful heartbreaking performance as Lisa Underwood, a mother whose world is turned upside down by the loss of her son – only to be similarly upended by his return. The script hints at marital tensions within the Underwood family, suggesting at the toll such a loss would take on a family unit. Still, there is a sense that the characters in Invocation are really just moving parts in a very well-constructed ghost story.

You know, the amount of child-related horror in this episode does make it hard to be flippant and punny.

You know, the amount of child-related horror in this episode does make it hard to be flippant and punny.

That said, Invocation does provide a nice contrast to the graphic body horror that populates a lot of the eighth season. It is in many ways an old-fashioned horror story, trading on classic horror tropes. There is a scene where the family’s dog has an immediate negative reaction to Billy’s return, to mention the later sequence of Billy creeping around the house carrying a large hunting knife. These lend Invocation a rather stately and elegant feel, in contrast to the grindhouse sensibilities of Roadrunners or Via Negativa.

Invocation is an episode that is meticulously constructed, but never quite comes alive as it needs to. There is a lot of interesting and clever stuff happening beneath the hood, but the characters feel almost as intangible as Billy Underwood turns out to be. It is a solid and intriguing episode, but not one that ranks among the season’s (or the series’) best.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Your last paragraph resumes pretty much how I felt after watching ‘Invocation’, it lacks something to make it stronger. It never explains the motivations of Billy, why he seems to hate his brother?, he wasn’t even born whe he was killed/abducted. He was controlled by Cal Jeppy in some way?…This is a “ghost” that anybody can see and touch, perhaps the script could be more specific about this matter at some point, because it tends to be somewhat confusing.

    Robert Patrick is an excellent actor totally believable in this role, but his work in the X-Files was sadly diminished by the onmipresence of Mulder/Scully. Doggett it’s a very interesting character he adds a new whole point of view to the series, too bad he’s not going to return for the relaunch, in fact I’m very curious if he gets even mentioned in the forthcoming season!

    • I suspect he’ll be mentioned, albeit only briefly. After all, they are bringing Reyes back for an episode. Although I suspect there won’t be too much dwelling on the last two seasons, because popular memory (not fan memory, mind you) seems to have all but forgotten them.

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