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The X-Files – Provenance (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Provenance and Providence are a landmark moment for The X-Files. They represent the last mid-season two-parter.

The mid-season two-parter has been an institution since the early second season, when external factors forced the production team to improvise around Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy. It was decided that the character of Scully would marginalised and written out so as to avoid dealing with the pregnancy, and the centre-piece of that plan was an epic two-parter that would air during in October 1994. Duane Barry and Ascension were such a big hit that the production team opted to do a second mid-season two-parter in February 1995, with Colony and End Game.

The Truth will not be buried...

The Truth will not be buried…

The show never looked back. Those episodes quickly codified the mythology, becoming a highlights in the season schedule. The two-parters typically aired during Sweeps and occasionally managed to garner press and media attention. They featured bigger budgets and impressive scale, with many of those two-parters standing out as prime examples of The X-Files as “event” television. The submarine in the ice in End Game, the leap to the train in Nisei, the mid-air alien abduction in Max. These were blockbuster moments.

Provenance and Providence would mark the end of this rich tradition. Sadly, they do not embody the finest attributes of the form.

Burnt notice.

Burnt notice.

One of the joys digging through the history and the legacy of The X-Files is the window that it offers into the world around it. The X-Files ran for nine seasons, from September 1993 through to May 2002. That is a phenomenal amount of time in the rapidly-changing world of television, but it is also a long time in the real world. The X-Files ran through both terms of President Clinton, and from the end of the Cold War through to the start of the War on Terror. The real world changed dramatically while the show was on television, and those changes ripple into the show.

The television landscape also changed dramatically. The model of television distribution and production shifted over the years. Popular tastes changed and evolved. The X-Files went from a weird fringe show to a defining show of the generation to a fading institution. The X-Files evolved from a hungry young upstart to an embattled old war horse. When it began, The X-Files was provocative and novel; when it ended, The X-Files was rather quaint and old-fashioned. The show had the luxury of watching generations of imitators and innovators in its wake.

On yer bike, John...

On yer bike, John…

It is easy to focus on the show so much that everything around the show gets drowned out. This might be termed the “metadata” of The X-Files; the shifts in the style of the show itself, but also the format in which the show aired and the context in which it was consumed. The X-Files had launched as a cult show on an upstart young network that aspired to become the fourth network, a notion that seemed ridiculous to many observers who had watched other providers try and fail. The X-Files would retire as that network became one of the biggest on television.

The model of television was gradually changing at the turn of the twenty-first century, to the point where The X-Files was feeling like a relic of nineties programming. Reality television and resurgent game-shows dominated the major networks, while prestigious dramas were getting away with more provocative storytelling and more auteur sensibilities on exclusive cable channels. However, there were other big changes taking place that would change the way that television was consumed and enjoyed.

Your new PC-friend niccotine-free Cigarette-Smoking Man replacement...

Your new PC-friend niccotine-free Cigarette-Smoking Man replacement…

It was relatively easy for a compelling drama to become “event” television when there were only three (or four) channels available. There were only so many alternatives available when Fox was promoting the hell out of Two Fathers and One Son. It could be cynically argued that The X-Files reached its cultural peak when people forgot to change the channel after Super Bowl XXI and Leonard Betts was pumped into nearly thirty million homes. This is not to diminish the care and skill that went into crafting the show, but instead to provide a little cultural context.

The idea of “event” television was reinforced by the fact that audiences had to see a show at a particular time on a particular channel. In hindsight, it is hard to imagine a world where wanting to watch a particular episode of television meant being in front of a television at a particular time. Given the wealth of options available to contemporary audiences – watching any time they want on any device they want in any place they want – the realities of nineties television must seem quite quaint.

"Oh yeah, we're in this episode too."

“Oh yeah, we’re in this episode too.”

That was the nineties model of television consumption. Although video recorders existed, they were not in widespread use. The X-Files had courted a very technologically-minded fanbase, and a lot of the show’s early cult appeal could be traced to the fact that those early on-line fans were willing and eager to circulate VHS recordings amongst themselves. Although certain episodes of The X-Files were made available on VHS, the show was far from complete in the format. Most viewers watched the show on television channels at a scheduled time.

At the start of twenty-first century, things began to change. DVD became increasingly ubiquitous, allowing people to own more media content with more control over it. Instead of two (or three) episodes to a cassette, viewers could have four episodes on a disc; menus and chapter controls made DVDs easier to navigate, rather than having to fast forward or rewind a VHS cassette to watch a particular episode. The X-Files embraced DVD. By May 2002, the first five seasons of The X-Files were completely available on DVD. It was not the only show available in the format.

Digging through the files...

Digging through the files…

Even for fans who had yet to convert to DVD media consumption, other technologies were changing the way that media was consumed. TiVo was perhaps the most obvious example. Writing in August 2001, before the start of the ninth season, Andrew Lawrence recalled his own conversion:

The first TiVo I saw belonged to a friend, a die-hard home theater addict and eternal first-adopter. To be honest, his initial descriptions and zeal left me wondering the extent of his laziness (“you never have to change the tape!”). When I saw it in action, however, I began to understand its appeal. The capability to pause live television (to answer the phone or nature’s call) showed immediate usefulness – just press Play and pick up where you left off. The capability to rewind a few seconds of a live show to replay muddled dialog immediately removed an element of television’s frustrations. The playlist of recorded programs, immediately available and composed of programs my friend already likes, showed that good television does exist, but not necessarily when you feel like watching. Finding a TiVo at an August 2000 clearance special at Circuit City sealed the deal for me – my recorder, holding up to 14 hours of shows, was only $99 after rebates.

Much like DVDs, TiVo freed viewers of the obligations imposed by scheduled television. Keeping track of a particular show no longer meant having to be home at a certain time; viewers could record a programme and watch it later at their own convenience.

"We're getting a band together. We just need a name. I was thinking 'The New Constortium'?"

“We’re getting a band together. We just need a name. I was thinking ‘The New Consortium’?”

It is no exaggeration to suggest that TiVo changed the way that people watched television. This understandably presented a challenge to the industry in the twenty-first century. Writing in Fortune in March 2001, Christine Chen discussed how radical a game-changer this was:

So what is it about this thing that makes perfectly normal human beings sound as if they were hawking Ginzu steak knives on late-night TV? TiVo calls its product personalized video recording (PVR), a technology and service that enables viewers to watch what they want, when they want, not to mention skip the commercials. Ever since TiVo hit the market a year and half ago, consumer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The response from TV and ad execs has been more wary.

If enough people were to use PVRs, it would upend the way network programming and advertising works today. In February 2000, Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff penned a report on PVRs titled “The End of TV (As We Know It).” Six months later, writer Michael Lewis added to the hype with a breathless cover story for the New York Times Magazine. He declared that PVRs would lead to the end of the mass market. The photo on the cover was of an exploding Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box.

In November 2001, TiVo boasted that ninety-six percent of its user base would never go back to conventional television models. In August 2002, months after the cancellation of The X-Files, Nielsen would announce plans to start monitoring TiVo usage as part of their ratings scheme.

"Hey, this 'lone woman in a room full of powerful men' thing was powerful back in Patient X."

“Hey, this ‘lone woman in a room full of powerful men’ thing was powerful back in Patient X.”

TiVo did not quite represent a television revolution by March 2002. Its user base was still comparatively small as a proportion of total television audiences. However, along with viewers switching to cable providers and those investing DVD technology, it did suggest that the model of television was in the process of changing. The television landscape was not the same as it had been two or three years ago, and it was highly unlikely that it would ever be the same again.

In many ways, the mass adoption of TiVo paved the way for twenty-first century television consumption. The other necessary ingredients were also coming into play at the dawn of the twenty-first century. In 1999, Apple began incorporting wireless networking into its laptops; pretty soon, wifi had made the internet easily accessible from portable devices. In October 2002, the “Danger Hiptop” confused commentators as to whether it was small laptop or a big phone; contemporary observers would recognise it as a prototype of the smartphone.

The real alien hunters. Illegal alien hunters.

The real alien hunters. Illegal alien hunters.

These seemingly innocuous advances would change the way that people experienced media. Time-shifting and streaming became more common, allowing viewers to choose what they wanted to watch and how they wanted to watch it. During the twentieth-century, television discourse was limited to prime-time television shows airing on the major networks. The amount of content was limited, and there were a finite number of channels through which that content might be accessed.

The revolution in media during the early years of the twenty-first century meant that something like The Sopranos or Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad could become “event” television, despite not being readily available to the majority of population via the traditional networks. At its height, The X-Files was attracting an average of around twenty million viewers in the late nineties. Game of Thrones only attracts eight million viewers, and yet it can claim to be the most talked about television show of 2014.

Digging up the past.

Digging up the past.

Appropriately enough, the form of television has changed so as to adapt to the new realities of the medium. This is arguably most obvious in the shift towards arc-driven storytelling in the DVD and TiVo age, exploiting the fact that episodes can now be rewatched and poured-over by fans and that nobody has an excuse for missing an episode any longer. There are other changes to the structure of narrative as well. Television content is now designed to go viral, internet-ready. Even the narrative structure of Game of Thrones could be said to reflect the internet age.

All of this is to say that Provenance and Providence arrived out of time. At the start of the new millennium, The X-Files felt increasingly out of touch with the television landscape around it. The sixth and seventh seasons seemed a little outdated and old-fashioned at a point where the model of television was changing. In many ways, the eighth season was boldly adventurous and ambitious – particularly during its highly serialised final third. However, the ninth season had worked very hard to back away from the more radical ideas proposed by the eighth season.

Who says that piecing together the mythology is tough?

Who says that piecing together the mythology is tough?

Provenance and Providence are decidedly classic mythology episodes, harking back to the sort of stories that the show told during its second season through to the fifth. These are very consciously designed to be “epic” episodes that pose deep mysteries and feature huge stakes. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz practically structure the episodes as a “greatest hits” collection of cool mythology moments in a conscious effort to recapture the buzz that surround the mythology at the peak of the show.

Provenance and Providence are not a goofy mythology two-parter like Dreamland I and Dreamland II. They are much more grounded and urgent than the weird waking dream of Biogenesis, The Sixth Extinction and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. They lack the morbid profundity of Sein und Zeit and Closure. They do not possess the focus and purpose that made This is Not Happening and DeadAlive seem so unique and contemplative. Instead, Provenance and Providence feel like an attempt to revive the energy and excitement of “peak mythology.”

A shot in the arm. Or thorax.

A shot in the arm. Or abdomen.

In some ways, it feels entirely appropriate that Provenance and Providence should be broadcast at this point in the ninth season. The ninth season is a jumbled mess of half-developed themes and ideas, with the production team never entirely sure what they want to do or how they want to do it. However, Provenance and Providence arrive hot on the heels of two standalone episodes touching on the idea of memory and identity, how the past can serve to define and also constrain an individual.

In both John Doe and Hellbound, the past intrudes upon the present. In John Doe, Doggett works hard to reclaim a past that has been stolen from him. In Hellbound, Reyes finds herself trapped in a viscious and repeating cycle. In some ways, these episodes feel like commentaries on the strained relationship that exists between the ninth season of The X-Files and what came before. In many ways, Provenance and Providence serve to make that commentary even more explicit. The episode begins with Scully rooting around in past case files, and continues from there.

Oh, mother, where art thou?

Oh, mother, where art thou?

The two-parter is quite blatant in its homages to past episodes, playing as something of an off-tempo mix tape. Provenance opens with an impressive action sequence, reminding the audience that these two-part episodes are very much the “blockbuster” instalments of the show. There is a crashed space-ship as in Nisei. There is a focus on eye-imagery related to that space-ship as in Apocrypha. The Lone Gunmen are involved in an unlikely action sequence as in Apocrypha or Memento Mori.

Provenance climaxes by putting Doggett in peril, reflecting the assassination attempt on Skinner at the climax of Piper Maru. The attack on Doggett also allows for a subplot in Providence featuring various characters hanging around a hospital looking sad, an image to which the show has returned time and time again – One Breath, Memento Mori, Redux II, Emily. Comer scrawls “jacket” like Teena Mulder scrawled “palm” in Talitha Cumi. There is a sense that Provenance and Providence were assembled IKEA-style from bits and pieces of mythology leftovers.

A relic of a bygone era...

A relic of a bygone era…

The show even falls back on the “trusted character acting ambiguously” cliché that defines so many classic mythology episodes. After nine years, it seems like Scully still cannot count on Skinner to be honest and open with her. “I don’t understand – none of us do – why you’re keeping their secrets, why you’re keeping quiet,” Doggett complains. Skinner responds, “Because I know things you don’t, John. And it’s for your own good.” Of course, Doggett wasn’t around for episodes like Zero Sum or S.R. 819 or any other “ambiguous Skinner” episodes.

Even the characters populating the story feel designed to emulate past archetypes. Provenance introduces Alan Dale as “the Toothpick Man”, who “effectively stepped into the nicotine-stained chair of the departed Cigarette Smoking Man as the head of a shady new syndicate, although he was later exposed as an alien.” With his relentlessness and subsequent disposability, Comer recalls other one-shot mythology heavies like Malcolm Gerlach in 731 or Scott Garrett in Max.

"Don't worry. Three Men and a Smoking Diaper worked out well, right?"

“Don’t worry. Three Men and a Smoking Diaper worked out well, right?”

Even Josepho is cast as a low-rent version of Absalom from This is Not Happening, DeadAlive and Three Words. The character’s crop of white/grey hair and his devoted acolytes invite comparisons to the charismatic cult leader who recovered those left behind by the colonists during the eighth season. The only problem is that Denis Forest lacks the screen presence that made Judson Scott so compelling. Like so much of Provenance and Providence around him, Josepho feels like a faded copy of what came before.

Provenance opens with an extended “previously…” section that ties back to the events of Biogenesis, The Sixth Extinction and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. While the episode hinges on the continuity of that episode, it is far more conventional in tone and structure. Provenance and Providence inherit none of the weird introspection or reflection that marked the season-bridging three-parter, instead digging up the continuity as an artifact. Provenance and Providence unearth that past continuity like Josepho unearths that space-ship, treating it as a fetish object.

Baby troubles...

Baby troubles…

Even if the production team had managed to recapture all of these past glories instead of creating a lifeless patchwork monster, Provenance and Providence would still feel out of touch with the television landscape around them. At the start of the new millennium, a show needed more than just impressive stunt work and some sense of scale to qualify as “event” viewing. While there would still be landmark television “events” of the twenty-first century, The X-Files was past the point where simply constructing a “blockbuster” mid-season two-parter qualified.

This was not the only way that Provenance and Providence felt out of touch. The cancellation of The X-Files had been announced in the middle of January, between the broadcasts of John Doe and Hellbound. The show spent February off the air, meaning that Provenance and Providence were broadcast two months after the audience knew that the show was coming to an end. However, the episodes had been produced before the production team found out. This creates a dissonance between what Provenance and Providence want to be and what they actually are.

Well, that's shot.

Well, that’s shot.

In its own way, the eighth season had understood the changes to twenty-first century television. The show was able to exploit David Duchovny’s absence so that it could build to his return. This is Not Happening was broadcast at the end of the Sweeps period, following two flashback appearances from David Duchovny in The Gift and Per Manum. The episode climaxed with Scully discovering Mulder’s dead body. That cliffhanger stood for five weeks, before it was finally resolved in DeadAlive. The audience was invested in that cliffhanger, and their anticipation could grow.

Provenance and Providence lacks the sort of emotional investment that is necessary for twenty-first century scripted “event” television. This is why modern “event” television tends to fixate upon final episodes; not only is there a “now or never” aspect for viewers who catch up through streaming or home media, but the finalé is typically read as the culmination of a character’s arc or journey. Audiences want to know what Lost really means. Viewers want to see what ultimately happens to Tony Soprano or Don Draper or Walter White.

Floating new ideas...

Floating new ideas…

This is something which the eighth season mythology understood, but which the ninth season mythology never quite understands. The eighth season could build towards David Duchovny’s return as a moment of catharsis, while Scully’s pregnancy provided a compelling character-driven mystery. The ninth season is not even sure whether David Duchovny will bother coming back, and is too desperately worried to acknowledge that Gillian Anderson might be disappearing at the end of the season.

Instead of investing in legitimate and intimate character drama, the ninth season aims for scale and scope. The X-Files was always a show that measured its own success in terms of cinematic storytelling, in its capacity to push the technical limits of what could be accomplished on a television budget and a television schedule. In the nineties, The X-Files took a great deal of pride in being able to look like a movie every single week. It took even more pride in looking like a blockbuster when it came time to do a mythology episode, with great stunts and effects.

Okay, so maybe Byers' "Lone Gunmen and William" spin-off wasn't a runner...

Okay, so maybe Byers’ “Lone Gunmen and William” spin-off wasn’t a runner…

Provenance and Providence certainly look impressive. There are some production issues around the lighting of various sets and the use of CGI, but the standards on The X-Files have always been very high. The motorcycle chase that opens of Provenance is an impressive piece of stunt work, as is are the stunts involving the kidnapping of William at the climax of the episode. The opening of Providence flashes to the Gulf War, while the desolated camp at the end of the episode offers an impressive sense of scale and power.

The ninth season is consciously brighter than the eighth had been. The eighth season marked a return to the tone and aesthetic of the Vancouver years, with lots of shadows and darkness. The ninth is more colourful, in both theme and imagery. The ninth sees the return of comedy episodes like Lord of the Flies or Improbable, but it also sees more daytime shots and deeper saturation. Indeed, the bright colours of Provenance and Providence hark back to the primary colour comic book aesthetic established in Nothing Important Happened Today I.

"Look, it was either this or do a Robin Hood: Men in Tights sequel."

“Look, it was either this or do a Robin Hood: Men in Tights sequel.”

There is a slight problem with this. Quite simply, The X-Files is never as effective when the lights are turned up high. The scenes of Josepho’s excavation might showcase some wonderful production design, but turning the lighting up around the alien ship only serves to make it look less convincing. The scenes with Absalom’s cult in This is Not Happening were much more menacing than the scenes with Josepho’s cult here, because there was more ambiguity and uncertainty. A monster is never quite as terrifying when glimpsed in the harsh light of day.

Still, Provenance and Providence do find some nice uses of colour. The highly saturated scenes shot in the prison chapel in Providence feel slightly stylised, lending them an ethereal quality that fits quite well with the colourful comic book aesthetic of the ninth season. Although the destruction of Josepho’s camp at the climax of Providence serves as a convenient deus ex machina, the deep reds and yellows add an impressive unearthly vibe to the carnage. It might not look as good as the eighth season did, but Provenance and Providence look impressive.

Doggett takes a nap on this one...

Doggett takes a nap on this one…

However, it is no longer the nineties. Merely looking like a blockbuster is not enough to hold the audience’s attention. Shows like The Sopranos had demonstrated that television no longer had to content itself with looking like the younger sibling of cinema; there were things that television could do that would be impossible on the big screen. The most successful shows of the twenty-first century capitalised on these differences, telling long-form stories with emotional investment. The eighth season of The X-Files does this; the ninth does not.

Again, the ninth season’s fixation on Mulder undercuts the episode. Provenance and Providence feel particularly interested in a character who does not appear on screen. Provenance even goes so far as to suggest that Mulder might be dead. Follmer reports, “Before losing all contact with our undercover agent he sent us a communication. A communication we’ve been trying to confirm that… that Mulder was already dead.” The show is quick to retreat from that assertion in Providence.

No news.

No news.

“I believed he was dead,” Josepho confesses to Scully. “But now I have reason to doubt that.” It is an infuriating about-face from the show. Why did Josepho think Mulder was dead? Why does he no longer think that? Has he been interacting with Mulder? Did he send assassins to kill Mulder? How did he find Mulder? Why did he not verify the kill? There are so many questions that stem from Josepho’s assertion, but the show glosses over them in favour of a cheap “gotcha!” moment concerning the possible death of an off-screen character.

This is even more infuriating because the show doesn’t even try to sell Mulder’s death. The show is nowhere near bold enough to actually kill Mulder, even if David Duchovny had made it clear that he was not coming back. However, following the cancellation of the show in January 2002, Duchovny had confirmed that he would appear in The Truth at the end of the ninth season. Provenance and Providence both aired two month after that announcement had been made, ensuring that even the least savvy audience member could call the show’s bluff.

"I am going to get Jack Bauer on his ass."

“I am going to get Jack Bauer on his ass.”

There is no emotional resonance to the two-parter because the big character beats are buried beneath twisting plot points. In Providence, Scully does not have the opportunity to process the fact that Mulder is still alive before Josepho tries to force her to kill him. “If you want to see the boy,” he warns her, “you’ll bring me the head of Fox Mulder.” However, even that character beat does not get time to breathe because Scully is immediately following Josepho to his camp where he and his acolytes are conveniently murdered by their space-ship.

This is all terrible storytelling. A pivotal character spends the two-parter entirely off-screen, with lots of exposition wasted to reveal next to nothing about him. Scully is told that Mulder is dead, that Mulder is alive, that she will have to kill Mulder; but no space is afforded for Scully to process any of that. After spending two episodes trying to break into the crashed alien ship, the alien ship proceeds to brutally murder Josepho and his followers before jetting off into the night and leaving nothing but William and a smoking crater.

Doggett is hardly key to any of this...

Doggett is hardly key to any of this…

It all feels like a “shaggy dog story”, where all the big twists and turns of the story ultimately amount to nothing and where the protagonists have no real impact on the plot. The audience is told that Mulder is dead, but then they are told that he is alive. Scully concocts a plan to rescue William, but it turns out that the cultists are conveniently murdered by their own stupid plan. The biggest change to the status quo comes in the “prophecy” that is articulated by Comer and Josepho, building on the Shadow Man’s comments from Trust No 1.

One of the problems with the later seasons of The X-Files is that they put a loss effort into concealing the absurdity of the show’s central premise. The double-speak and euphemisms of the first five seasons lend themselves to mockery and parody, but those abstract nouns also tend to mask the ridiculous science-fiction concepts at the heart of the show. By the time the show has reached its eighth or ninth season, it seems like the characters have gotten tired of talking around these ideas and instead address concepts like alien colonisation in a weird head-on fashion.

Over hills and (Alan) Dale...

Over hills and (Alan) Dale…

When Scully interrogates Comer, the undercover FBI agent is very forthcoming with the blunt mythology exposition. “The FBI sent me undercover on a man named Josepho to get inside his cult whose followers believe an alien race will rule the world,” he states. It is certainly not inaccurate, but it does make it harder to take the world of The X-Files seriously. Reyes described Comer as a “company man, straight as a ruler.” What does it take for a by the book agent to offer a blunt summary like that? Sadly, Provenance and Providence never get into that.

The bluntness of the prophecy suggests some of the mystery and intrigue that has been stripped away from the show at this point in its run. It seems highly unlikely that Provenance and Providence could support a surreal moral debate like the conversation between the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith in Talitha Cumi or between Mulder and Scott Garrett in Max. Instead, all the characters spout blunt exposition instead of colourful literate meditations on the human condition. Something has been lost.

Sketchy details...

Sketchy details…

Then there is the content of the prophecy itself, which was heavily implied by the Shadow Man in Trust No 1. It seems that William is very much a “Chosen One”, demonstrating the ninth season’s increasingly apparent wish that Essence and Existence had simply never happened. It turns out that both Mulder and William are essential to the prophecy. “Josepho believes your son will follow in his father’s paths and try to stop the aliens’ return. Unless his father was to be killed. That is the prophecy.”

This is notable in a number of respects. Most obviously, it confirms that William and Mulder are figures of cosmological importance to the alien colonists who are hoping to supplant mankind and make their claim to Earth. This represents quite a shift from the climax of Existence, where it appeared that the colonists were completely disinterested in what William turned out to be. Mulder has come a long way from “the FBI’s most wanted”, elevated to the position of a mythological figure in the canon of an advanced alien civilisation. It changes everything.

"I know it's Brad, but it feels so good."

“I know it’s Brad, but it feels so good.”

The mythology has always had an epic scale. The idea of a “war in heaven” recurs throughout Chris Carter’s work, with in Colony and End Game or Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions or Patient X and The Red and the Black. There is a sense that The X-Files unfolds against the backdrop of cosmic turmoil beyond humanity’s capacity to render or process. There are rebels and colonists, secret histories and divine judgments. However, Mulder and Scully have been kept quite separate from that.

To be fair, The X-Files has hinted at the importance of Mulder in the past. Samantha Mulder was confirmed to be of importance to the colonists in Colony, while William Mulder was revealed to be a pretty big wheel down at the conspiracy club in Anasazi. However, Mulder’s importance has always been relative to the human side of the conspiracy. The relationship between Mulder and the Cigarette-Smoking Man was that of wayward son confronting a stern father.

Paper trail.

Paper trail.

Although the show heaped messiah imagery on Mulder in stories like The Blessing Way, The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati or DeadAlive, Providence pushes it to a whole other level. Mulder is not just a key figure within the mythology of the show, he is elevated to a key figure within the mythology of the aliens within the mythology of the show. It is a big leap, and one that fundamentally undercuts a lot of what made The X-Files so effective by removing the personal and intimate scale of this plotting. (Mulder no longer exists as a character, but is now a messiah.)

More than that, this storytelling choice further marginalises Scully. Trust No 1 warned of the dangers of this storytelling approach, making Scully primarily important as a conduit connecting Mulder and William. Scully is not treated as a character in her own right, she is treated as tangential to a plot involving a character who does not appear in the episodes and a character who is not old enough to have his own agency. It is a cliché to suggest that the ninth season reduced Scully to cries of “my baby! my baby!”, but it is not entirely inaccurate.

"Melvin is a great choice for a middle name, right?"

“Melvin is a great choice for a middle name, right?”

This is a criminal waste of Gillian Anderson. Anderson is a phenomenal actress who won an Emmy for her work on the show. She is one of the best television actors of her generation, and there was every possibility that the ninth season would represent the last time that Anderson played the role. Anderson is very good at shouting “my baby! my baby!”, but that is because Anderson is very good at everything. One of the ninth season’s biggest crimes is its refusal to give Anderson anything worth playing.

There is an unpleasant subtext to all of this, with Provenance and Providence seeming to suggest that Scully really should give up her job and become a full-time mother. Early in Provenance, Margaret Scully offers a rather conservative opinion that Scully is spending too much time away from William. “You have to love him and raise him in spite of everything,” Margaret urges. “Dana, God has given you a miracle. A child that wasn’t supposed to be. Maybe it’s not to question… just to be taken as a matter of faith.”

Reyes-ing hope...

Reyes-ing hope…

The episode seems to endorse this position. Bad things happen to William when Scully tries to balance being a mother with being a federal agent. When Margaret is left alone babysitting William, Comer breaks into the house to murder him; it is only Scully’s return from work that prevents Comer from succeeding. Josepho manages to kidnap William when Scully entrusts William to the care of the Lone Gunmen so she can continue working the case. The two-parter seems to suggest that Scully really shouldn’t try to keep working and should just stay with William.

It is a rather disconcerting and unfortunate subtext, but Provenance and Providence do nothing to dispel it. Indeed, Scully proves positively useless in trying to rescue William. Scully and Reyes arrive quite late to the encampment, after William appears to have activated the alien ship and used it to brutally massacre his captors. Scully gets a pass this time, but not through any of her own actions. This feels particularly uncomfortable given how eager the ninth season is to excuse Mulder as an absentee father. How come Scully cannot be a working mother?

"I love it when some plans come together..."

“I love it when some plans come together…”

It is highly unlikely that any of this subtext was intentional, but it does suggest how poorly constructed Provenance and Providence are. These might be the last mid-season two-parter of the show’s nine-season run, but they represent a whimper rather than a bang, the last gasp of air escaping from the lungs of a corpse.

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  1. “Josepho believes your son will follow in his father’s paths and try to stop the aliens’ return. Unless his father was to be killed. That is the prophecy.”. When did Mulder tried to stop the aliens return?, in 9 seasons I don’t recall a single line or a fact supporting that assumption; maybe I missed it, or possibly it’s just more mumbo jumbo from Carter/Spotnitz at this point to keep “mighty Mulder” in the drama.

    Besides that, this was simply boring!…2 chapters wasted in a baby kidnapping. This is like watching a totally different show from that of 3rd season nisei/731 or 4th Tunguska/Terma, even by today standards those were great mid-season two parters. Provenance/Providence feels basically like a badly written sci fi soap opera, this can be said of other episodes in this season.

    • I think we’re meant to imply that Mulder’s crusade was not just to expose the conspiracy, but to actually stop it. Not that he does a decent job of either, and not in a wry deconstructionist sort of way. It just simply never happens. But I think you’re on to something. At some point – I’d peg it in the transition between S2/S3 when the Mulder family is tied to the conspiracy – Mulder’s quest is reconfigured to make it more conventionally heroic.

      And the plotting on the ninth season mytharc is disastrous, as you point out. It’s leaden, cliché, overly-familiar, out-dated, and centred on a character who is unlikely to return at any point in the near future.

  2. I can’t stand prophecies. They are one of the most cliched and lazy mechanisms in science fiction and fantasy to give an often dubious sense of mythic weight to what characters are doing. Characters like Mulder or, say, Darth Vader get prophecies clumsily and retroactively tacked on to them so they become much more important than they need to be, and it just falls flat.

  3. I like The Lone Gunmen, but Scully must’ve really been scraping the barrel if they were the only ones she could entrust with her child. Powerful allies, they’re not.

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