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The X-Files – Three Words (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 no “to be continued…” explicitly linking DeadAlive to Three Words, but there doesn’t have to be.

In this final stretch of the eighth season, The X-Files adapts a somewhat serialised narrative model. Although stories like Empedocles and Vienen technically serve as “monster of the week” stories that stand alone, they feel very particular to this moment in the show’s history. Mulder’s return to the land of the living in DeadAlive does not mark a return to the status quo, despite his best efforts. Instead, it creates a highly volatile (and, by its nature, transitory) set-up that cannot be maintained over an extended period.

Howard Salt was willing to go to any lengths to return the President's copy of The X-Files film.

Howard Salt was willing to go to any lengths to return the President’s copy of The X-Files film.

This is not a sustainable status quo. This is not “business as usual.” This is not what the ninth season will look like. This is not like those other changes to the status quo that occurred at the start of the second and sixth seasons, when Mulder and Scully were taken off the X-files but continued to investigate cases that were X-files in all but name. Episodes like Blood or How the Ghosts Stole Christmas could be transitioned into a regular season order with a minimum of changes, but these episodes all feel uniquely tailored to this point in the show’s history.

As such, the end of the eighth season takes on a loosely serialised quality, and not just in the story of the new mythology or the so-called “super soldiers.” The character dynamics evolve and grow, with the individual episodes seeding character development leading the season finalé. Episodes like Three Words and Vienen make it increasingly clear that Mulder is not back in an permanent sense by first pushing him away from the X-files and then firing him from the FBI. Scully’s pregnancy is actually allowed to progress at this point in the season.

He's back!

He’s back!

This serialisation is apparent in the discrepancies between the production and broadcast order. As with extended sections of the fourth season, the final stretch of the eighth season was produced in a different order than it was broadcast. Unlike the fourth season, however, this shift does not create any dissonance as significant as the conflict between the version of Never Again that was filmed and the one that was broadcast. Despite being produced in a different order, these stories could not work in any order other than the broadcast order.

Although The X-Files frequently gets credit for pioneering and popularising (or, at the very least, re-popularising) serialised narratives on prime-time television, the final stretch of the eighth season is perhaps the serialised stretch of the entire nine-year run.

A touching reunion...

A touching reunion…

“Who says you can’t go home again?” Mulder teases at one point in Three Words, sitting at his old desk with his feet up – pretending that he never left. It is a powerful image at this point in the eighth season, with Mulder’s clear and conscious desire to return to the way things were channeling a lot of fannish anxieties about the changes made to the show during this eighth season. His departure seemed to traumatise the show, forcing The X-Files to undergo the most significant (and jarring) evolution in its history.

Can all that be undone now? Can the genie go back in the bottle? Can Mulder go “home again”? By any all accounts, Mulder was gone for less than a year. (It is best not to worry about the chronology of Scully’s pregnancy.) Nevertheless, he finds himself confronted by a world that has been dramatically altered. It makes sense that Glen Morgan would chose to title the second episode of the show’s 2016 revival Home Again. Can things really go back to the way things were when so much has changed?

Just like old times...

Just like old times…

Mulder spends so much of Three Words trying to get things to work the way that they used to. He immediately jumps into paranoid conspiracy theories about the United States Census, enlisting the Lone Gunmen to assist him in a daring high-stakes data heist from inside a top-secret government facility. Mulder is barely back on his feet, but he is already chasing the truth with all of his energy. Mulder hits the ground running, ready to segue back into the status quo as easily as he did in Firewalker or D.P.O. or Agua Mala.

The most interesting implication in Three Words is that Mulder is not so much running eagerly towards the truth as he is desperately running away from the future. While the episode firmly sets up a new colonisation conspiracy, Three Words is more interesting for what it doesn’t say. The title explicitly refers to the simple password to access the coded data, but it also refers to the unspoken promise hanging in the air. Mulder might run towards “fight the future”, but he runs away from the three words that are actually important.

Graze of glory...

Graze of glory…

Much is made of the generic nature of the threat that runs through the eighth and ninth seasons. After seventh years exploring human weakness, “super soldiers” are not strong enough to buttress a new mythology. Science-fiction is populated with homages and references to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so the super soldiers seem rather two-dimensional when compared to the multi-faceted explorations of compromise and collaboration in the original mythology. The super soldiers feel like a shallow substitute.

This becomes a problem in the ninth season, when episodes like Nothing Important Happened Today I, Nothing Important Happened Today II, Provenance and Providence suggest that the super soldiers are actually meant to become an integral and long-running part of the show’s mythology.  However, the two-dimensional nature of the super soldiers actually works quite well in the context of the eighth season, when the show needs a very simple and straight-forward conspiracy for Mulder to investigate.

"Don't worry, we'll have a much more generic cult leader next season..."

“Don’t worry, we’ll have a much more generic cult leader next season…”

The revived mythology in the second half of the eighth season is just a smokescreen; it is a distraction from the important stuff that is actually happening. It provides some dramatic stakes and some tense action on to what is primarily a character-based story about Mulder and Scully coming to accept that things have changed and it is time to move on. The password is a bit of a hint here, as it suggests Mulder’s investigation of the conspiracy is nothing more than an attempt to “fight the future”, to deny the inevitability of change.

Three Words makes it clear that Mulder is having difficulty processing everything that has happened in his absence. When Scully takes him back to his apartment, he is flippant and even cheeky. “I’m sorry,” he apologises. “I don’t mean to be cold or ungrateful. I just… I have no idea where I fit in. Right now. I just, uh… I’m having a little trouble… processing… everything.” Things are not the same as they used to be, and that poses an obvious problem to Mulder, who just wants things to go back to the way they were.

"Like my hoodie? I bought it at the same shop as Raymond Pearce. Us unstoppable killing machines have to stay together."

“Like my hoodie? I bought it at the same shop as Raymond Pearce. Us unstoppable killing machines have to stay together.”

“Fight the future” are important words in the context of The X-Files. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz chose to use the phrase as the subtitle of the franchise’s first film, The X-Files: Fight the Future. More than that, those three words represent some of the core anxieties of The X-Files. As a rule, The X-Files tends to look backwards; Mulder and Scully tend to explore and expose past wrongs and historical injustices. The show repeatedly suggested that the modern world was built upon atrocities that had been obscured and forgotten.

In that context, Mulder and Scully were fighting the future; they were attempting to expose the system of manipulations and cover-ups before it could cause even more harm. The X-Files represented an attempt to break out of a cycle of violence and abuse, a rejection of a status quo that is built upon compromise and deceit. However, Three Words turns that concept on its head, suggesting that maybe Mulder’s resistance to the future is based on something more fundamental and personal.

"Hm. A locked door. I hadn't counted on that."

“Hm. A locked door. I hadn’t counted on that.”

The iconography of Three Words suggests a “greatest hits” tour of the franchise’s history to celebrate Mulder’s return: the teaser fades out on a reference to the subtitle of the 1998 film; Mulder’s daring infiltration of government facility with the assistance of the Lone Gunmen recalls the “funky poaching” of Memento Mori; Doggett’s final confrontation with Knowle Rohrer recalls the closing scene of Deep Throat. The allure of the past is obvious. It is safe, it is familiar. In the case of The X-Files, it was successful.

As much as Mulder might want to go back to the way thing were, it is impossible. Indeed, Three Words suggests that any attempts to recapture the past are doomed to failure; they could even be fatal. The password “fight the future” turns out to be bait to lure Mulder into a trap; the affectionate recreation of his daring raid on the government facility in Memento Mori proves to be set-up for an execution; Knowle Rohrer doesn’t warn John Doggett that “they’ve been here for a long long time”, he is living proof himself.

Hitting a bit of a bump...

Hitting a bit of a bump…

Three Words suggests that nostalgia is a trap. It is a trick that will lure the show into complacency and kill it brutally. In many respects, these are the same anxieties bubbling through DeadAlive, when the show suggested that keeping Mulder on life support would create a monster. The super soldiers exist as a cautionary tale about the dangers of dramatic and uncanny change, but the eighth season suggests that growth and evolution are natural in a show that has been around as long at The X-Files.

When David Duchovny left, he changed the nature of The X-Files. It is perhaps too much suggest that he “broke” the show, but he created a gap that needed to be filled. The show reconfigured itself in Duchovny’s absence, and those changes cannot be conveniently reverted now that Duchovny had returned. Even if the genie could be put back in the bottle, it would seem to be a rather risky proposition; Duchovny was hardly the most enthusiastic leading actor, and it seemed highly unlikely he would commit to a ninth season.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

The final stretch of the eighth season uses Mulder as character through which it might ease the transition between what the show was and what it will become. Mulder’s awkward relationship with Doggett serves as a thread connecting Three Words to Empedocles and Vienen, with Mulder reacting towards Doggett as an interloper or usurper. “Agent who?” Mulder asks when Scully drops Doggett’s name into conversation. When Scully mentions Doggett helped to find him, Mulder is dismissive. “Mission accomplished,” he notes sarcastically.

“Do you want to hear something really paranoid?” Mulder asks Scully at one point. “The FBI gets its way, there’s going to be nobody down here to ask the paranoid questions. Nobody to find those faces in those photographs. Surely not this Agent Doggett.” Mulder’s criticisms of Doggett intentionally mirror fandom’s difficulties accepting Doggett as a lead character on The X-Files. Mulder accuses Doggett of killing the X-files, the same fears Doggett worked through in Via Negativa.

"And STILL I get this crap."

“And STILL I get this crap.”

Of course, the reality was a bit different. By any measure, the character of John Doggett and the actor Robert Patrick were both very successful. Deputy Director Kersh notes is happy with the numbers. “Damn impressive, John.” He could easily be talking about the show’s ratings, which had managed to arrest the massive loss of viewers during the sixth and seventh seasons, losing less viewers than television on average and with the final stretch of the season ranking comparatively better than the same stretch of the seventh season.

Indeed, the extent to which Mulder and Skinner give Doggett a hard time in Three Words seems almost comical. Mulder has always been a bit of a jerk, so his antagonism makes a great deal of sense. On the other hand, Skinner has worked with Doggett first hand in Via Negativa and The Gift. Given that Skinner took Mulder off life support while Doggett nearly got killed trying to save him, it would seem that Skinner has his priorities just a little bit screwed up. Doggett really should be past all of this.

Strapped in...

Strapped in…

When Mulder runs off into a trap, Skinner suggests that Doggett might have been consciously setting his predecessor up for a fall. “You know, I’m starting to wonder about you, too, John,” Skinner muses. “Just whose side you are working on here.” Rather than pointing out that he was never complicit in covering up for the conspirators, Doggett simply responds, “I’m starting to wonder about that myself.” It seems a little absurd, as if the show is utterly unwilling to let Mulder take responsibility for his own actions.

After all, Doggett just passed along information; it was up to Mulder to decide what to do with that information. It seems a little hypocritical for Skinner and Scully to be angry at Doggett for providing that information, when concealing it would have been disingenuous and dishonest. One of the central themes of The X-Files is that trust is an important commodity; if Doggett had decided on his own initiative not to share that information with Scully, who herself chose to share it with Mulder, he would violate that trust.

The cheek of it all!

The cheek of it all!

Of course, Mulder’s own anxieties about the changes that took place in his absence reflect the uncertainties felt by David Duchovny. In interviews about his return to the show, Duchovny complained that the series had evolved into an ensemble drama with a diffused focus:

“I think the consciousness of the show is this quest of Mulder’s and the core of the show is Mulder and Scully. When I came back at the end of this year, by necessity, by my choice of not being on the show full time, other stories and other ideas had to come center stage,” Duchovny said. “And when I came back I felt somewhat peripheral. Mulder’s story was one of three or four stories that were going on and it didn’t feel like the same show to me.”

This change in emphasis was part of the reason that Duchovny declined to appear in the ninth season. As far as Duchovny was concerned, The X-Files was the story of Mulder and Scully. Everything else was a distraction.

Shattering Mulder's expectations...

Shattering Mulder’s expectations…

Had network television been in a position in 2000/2001 where Fox would allow an eleven-episode season starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, things might have been different. If the production team had the luxury of filming a truncated season to suit Duchovny’s availability and interest, there would have been no need for these changes to the fabric of the show. Unfortunately, the production team did not have that option open to them at the time. They had to find a way to tell almost half the season’s stories without Duchovny.

While Duchovny was undoubtedly speaking for a certain segment of fans unhappy with the shift of focus away from Mulder, there is something just a little hypocritical about this position. The reason that The X-Files had to become an ensemble show was because David Duchovny did not commit to an eighth season. As a result, the dynamics on the show changed, new characters were introduced, and a new framework fell into place. The X-Files had changed to meet the evolving demands imposed upon it. It had actually evolved quite well.

"Logging into alt.tv.x-files..."

“Logging into alt.tv.x-files…”

Frank Spotnitz responded quite candidly when confronted with Duchovny’s criticisms:

He left for 11 shows, and that wasn’t our decision — it was his. And we had to keep telling stories without him, and we had to redefine what the TV series was. The series was [all about] David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s characters for seven years, and suddenly we had to find a way… to make this television show viable. And that’s what we did. We introduced Robert Patrick (Doggett), and then later, Annabeth Gish (Reyes). The show had changed and it was no longer just “The Mulder and Scully Show,” and it couldn’t suddenly just go back to being “The Mulder and Scully Show” when David’s character returned. And I think what he was reacting to was the fact that… he used to be it; he was the driving force behind every story. And that just wasn’t possible [anymore] given what the show had become and where it was going.

While Duchovny’s complaints were understandable, they did seem unreasonable.

"You mean you're keeping Doggett?"

“You mean you’re keeping Doggett?”

Given that Duchovny’s return (rather than his absence) was likely to be temporary, it seemed unreasonable for the production team to brush all of that aside to pretend that nothing had changed and nothing was ever going to change again. Was Robert Patrick supposed to take the rest of the year off? Was Scully supposed to stop being pregnant? Were the production team supposed to forget about the introduction of Monica Reyes because Gillian Anderson had also signalled her desire for a reduced role?

The purpose of the eighth season was to serve as a smooth transition from The X-Files as “The Mulder and Scully Show” into something more sustainable. It is not a perfect transition, in hindsight. It seems like the production team devoted a little bit too much time to the relationship between Mulder and Doggett at the expense of the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. However, the show ultimately handled it in quite a graceful manner, considering all the competing demands at play during this last third of the year.

Practicing what he preaches...

Practicing what he preaches…

One of the ways that it managed all of these competing demands was through the use of serialisation. Even though Three Words marks the last time that the new conspiracy appears until Essence, there is a very clear thread of continuity running from episode to episode. It feels like Mulder (and possibly Scully) are only going to be around for so long, and so the show has to actually begin resolving things. The seventh season was paralysed by indecisiveness when the possibility of ending came up, leading to a bunch of clumsy retroactive continuity in the eighth season.

Rather than properly seeding and foreshadowing Mulder’s departure and Scully’s pregnancy, the seventh season remained non-committal. While the procedure in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati made the Cigarette-Smoking Man ill in Closure and En Ami, Mulder never exhibited any symptoms until Doggett retroactively revealed his brain condition in Within. Similarly, the seventh season was non-committal on whether Mulder and Scully were romantically and sexually involved, with only the teaser to all things setting up William’s parentage.

You know, this would probably be a lot tougher today.

You know, this would probably be a lot tougher today.

It is telling how quickly and subtly Three Words decides to bury the whole story about Mulder’s “undiagnosed brain condition” with a throwaway line from Scully. While Mulder’s brain condition did set up The Gift, it remains perhaps the clumsiest creative decision of the entire eighth season. Perhaps the difficulty that the production team had retroactively fleshing out the big twists of Requiem inspired them to adopt a firmer approach to the eighth season. There is never any doubt during this part of the season that this should be Mulder’s (and possibly Scully’s) swansong.

As a result, the episodes tend to dovetail into one another nicely, largely eschewing the Chinese wall that long existed between the mythology and the “monster of the week” stories. After Mulder’s resurrection in DeadAlive, the show does not segue back into a bunch of disconnected “traditional” stories like it did with Pusher or Kaddish or X-Cops. Scully copes with her pregnancy, with Denise Crosby’s Doctor Mary Speake appearing in both Empedocles and Essence. Mulder acclimatises to life back in the world in Three Words and Vienen.

Gotta have faith...

Gotta have faith…

This is a big deal. This is the most serialised that The X-Files ever was. While each of the episodes between Three Words and Essence has its own distinct story and plot, there is a sense that the show is building towards something with each and every creative decision. Mulder’s interactions with Doggett in Three Words inform his behaviour in Empedocles and their delightful buddy cop routine in Vienen. As Mulder is pushed further and further from the X-files and the FBI, it is clear that the show is pushing him towards a satisfying resolution with Scully.

It is important not to over-emphasise this serialisation. The kind of threads running through the final third of the eighth season are threads that most contemporary television viewers would take for granted in modern drama. They are more akin to the little interpersonal “runners” that are threaded through procedurals like House than they are to serialised drama like 24. At the same time, this is a bold departure for a show airing at the start of the twenty-first century. It seems quaint now, but it was ambitious in 2001.

Scarred tissue...

Scarred tissue…

The X-Files is frequently credited for popularising long-form storytelling in prime-time nineties television. After all, the networks had shied away from prime-time serialisation when they learned that eighties prime-time soap operas like Dynasty and Dallas did not sell well into syndication. The X-Files proved that it was possible to have a show with serialised threads running through it, while still remaining popular and accessible. Indeed, the fact that The X-Files was so successful in syndication was part of the reason it was in this current predicament.

The X-Files was not always particularly bold when it came to long-form storytelling. Certainly, shows like Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were also experimenting with that approach during the nineties. It could also be argued that the mythology of The X-Files occasionally existed as a status quo rather than a compelling narrative, a backdrop against which the production team could tell blockbuster stories. Did two-parters like Tempus Fugit and Max or Christmas Carol and Emily advance the central story in any appreciable way? (Or does that matter?)

Worth his salt...

Worth his salt…

However, The X-Files does deserve a great deal of credit within the context of the time. Certainly, the last eight interconnected episodes of the eighth season arrived just on the cusp of the twenty-first century serialisation boom. 24 would debut in November 2001, just over half a year after Three Words. Although 24 was not a breakout success in its first season, it did capture the popular imagination. Chris Carter would observe that perhaps 24 enjoyed more patience and support from the network than The Lone Gunmen and Harsh Realm had.

Although HBO had proved the viability of long-form storytelling with shows like Oz and The Sopranos, the networks were slow to catch on. It would not be until 24 broke out in the year following the cancellation of The X-Files that the major networks would begin seriously considering serialised prime-time dramas. They might be a few years away at this point, but it could be argued that break-out serialised hits like Lost and Prison Break helped to secure the future of scripted drama at a time when networks were embracing cheaper reality shows.

"You don't know how big this government is. It goes all the way to the president!"

“You don’t know how big this government is. It goes all the way to the president!”

It is arguably a shame, as the structure and format of television lends itself to this approach. As Bob Thompson, the founding director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television, noted of the trend:

“Serialized drama is the one thing TV can do that no one else can do as well,” says Thompson. “You might have a six-part Star Wars saga over 25 years, but on television, stories can go on potentially forever – 100, 150 hours. You can tell stories you couldn’t anywhere else.”

Embracing the possibilities of these sorts of narratives was a major part of developing and evolving the medium as a whole. While not the most graceful or elegant example, the eighth season of The X-Files was an early adapter.

Putting his neck on the line...

Putting his neck on the line…

There are reasons why this revolution took root at this point in time. Perhaps the most obvious factor is the widespread adoption of DVD as the default media platform. In 2001, DVD sales topped VHS sales for the first time. Allowing audience an affordable and convenient way to own entire seasons of a television show, the advent of DVD ultimately defined the shape and rhythm of the entertainment of the era. Allowing audiences the opportunity to process a serialised narrative on their own terms made that mode of storytelling more accessible.

Indeed, the influence of technology upon narrative trends is often overlooked; the best storytellers find a way to capitalise on the distinctive aspects of their medium. The medium might not literally be the message, but the delivery method does change the way that people engage with that message. This can be seen in the way that smart phones and easy-access wifi encourage “bite size” culture – from the way that Key & Peele sketches seem ubiquitous online to the way that Trevor Noah is consciously future-proofing The Daily Show with web content.

"Nothing suspicious here at all, officer..."

“Nothing suspicious here at all, officer…”

The X-Files was also one of the early adaptors when it came to DVD home media releases. While shows like Spencer: For Hire have never received complete home media releases, The X-Files capitalised on the opportunity as soon as it became possible. By the time that Three Words aired, DVD box sets of the first and second seasons had already been released; the third was already scheduled. The X-Files was aware of changing cultural tastes and moods, existing on the bleeding edge even when it was (to be brutally honest) well past its cultural prime.

Nevertheless, the eighth season continues to demonstrate that there is life in The X-Files yet. The show has an energy and vibrancy that was sorely lacking from the seventh season, willing to commit to big changes and novel approaches. Watching the eighth season with the benefit of hindsight, it seems entirely possible that the show could have run another three or four seasons before reinventing itself again. The X-Files was always rooted in the nineties, but the eighth season pushes it to the very threshold and towards the new millennium.

There are those words again...

There are those words again…

Unfortunately, the ninth season allows the show to snap back into that earlier decade. If the eighth season seems quite in line with the changing landscape around it, the ninth seems almost out of touch; undoubtedly coloured by the trauma of 9/11, the ninth season feels like a lost relic of the twentieth century that has found itself in a truly alien environment. The eighth season pushes forward, while the ninth season pulls back. It is a shame, because it really seems like the show has a lot more going for it at this point than it did even a season earlier.

Perhaps the password wasn’t “fight the future”, after all. Perhaps the password was “fight for the future.”

One Response

  1. Excellent insights here… I like your references to both B5 and DS9. I remember noticing this new serialization at the time those were airing, especially with B5 since the guy who created it (whose name I cannot spell but it starts with “Str…”) had actually mapped out the entire 4/5 year mythology in advance. Impressive stuff at the time.

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