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The X-Files – Providence (Review)

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

It is frequently argued that 9/11 killed The X-Files.

There are two sides to this argument. The most defensible side suggests that audiences simply lost all appetite for conspiracy and paranoia when confronted with an atrocity on that scale; that viewers wanted to be comforted and reassured about authority in the wake of the attacks. This argument is perhaps supported by the significant drop in viewers between Existence and Nothing Important Happened Today I, suggesting that the audience simply wasn’t interested in finding out what the ninth season had to offer – regardless of quality.

Oh your gods...

Oh your gods…

The other side of the argument suggests that the production team themselves were ill-equipped to deal with post-9/11 reality. The X-Files was a show rooted in the cultural context of the nineties, and had just been asked to adjust to a seismic shift. The world had changed dramatically over the course of a few hours on a morning in Autumn. The eighth season had seen the show drift away from government conspiracies and towards a more conventional alien invasion narrative, one that could play as a reactionary fantasy of the War on Terror.

The ninth season aired in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The season was actually in production when the attacks took place, with the team halting work on Dæmonicus as the reports came in. While the ninth season does not necessarily have a coherent and rational response to those events, it is clear that the production team want to say something. Much of the ninth season mythology seems to struggle with what it wants to say and how best to say it.

Fire and brimstone...

Fire and brimstone…

There are certainly elements of the ninth season that seem prescient in their commentary on surveillance and due process. Trust No 1 is a mess of an episode, but it resonates very strongly in the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency. John Doe has Deputy Director Alvin Kersh complain that his resources have all been tapped to work on issues of national security. The Truth has Mulder arrested to face a military tribunal that seems to conduct its business in direct contravention of due process.

The show never quite galvanises all of this into a coherent statement about life in the United States during the twenty-first century, but it seems unreasonable to expect the show be able to react so immediately to a crisis that shook the nation. The ninth season was already in production by the time that the attacks occurred; the show had been cancelled just over four months after the attacks; the last episode of the show aired just eight months after the world changed. That is a very short time-frame in which to process cataclysmic events.

Prey with us...

Prey with us…

After all, it is hard to articulate just how shocking the events of 9/11 were. Bruce Harwood recalls being told about the attacks and thinking that he was the victim of an unfunny joke. It was an attack for which nobody had any frame of reference, and which caused no shortage and anxiety and confusion in Hollywood. There were debates about how to treat past media featuring the World Trade Centre and whether to digitally edit the Twin Towers out of existing films. With all of that going on, it makes sense that few television shows would be ready to handle it.

On The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin had hastily scripted Isaac and Ishmael in the immediate aftermath of the atrocities. The show was completed in three weeks, airing in early October. Although the quality of the episode is open to debate, James Poniewozik described it as “the kind of fresh, quick-response thinking most of TV could use.” However, Sorkin was very careful to assure viewers that the script was out of official West Wing continuity. In the introduction, Bradley Whitford described it as “a storytelling aberration.”

"Yes, this episode does have a great cast. Why do you ask?"

“Yes, this episode does have a great cast. Why do you ask?”

As such, it makes sense that the ninth season of The X-Files should be a little uncertain about how best to acknowledge this new world within the established framework of the mythology. Provenance and Providence are very conspicuously framed in the wake of 9/11. The episodes are structured and built as a loving homage to the mythology episodes of the early seasons, but they are informed by pressing contemporary concerns. Provenance and Providence might borrow set-ups and set-pieces from earlier episodes, but they are anchored in the present.

The teaser to Provenance confirms as much, opening on two officers in a Border Patrol vehicle policing the boundary that exists at the edge of the United States. In their own way, these two law enforcement officials are engaged in their own pursuit of aliens. The use of Border Patrol during the teaser literalises some core subtext of the mythology. The X-Files has always been a show concerned about the alien, with a few episodes like Teliko and El Mundo Gira even tying that fear into immigration. Provenance brings that metaphor into focus within the mythology.

Good neighbours don't always become good friends...

Good neighbours don’t always become good friends…

The concept of “alien” within The X-Files is an elastic metaphor. The “alien” can serve as an effective substitute for the divine or the monstrous. However, as Paul A. Cantor argues in The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, the most direct metaphor is one related to migration and integration:

One of the chief concerns about both the immigrant aliens and the extraterrestrial aliens in The X-Files is that, while maintaining their foreign identity, they may be able to pass for ordinary Americans, blending right into society and thus able to carry out in secret whatever nefarious schemes they may have in mind.

This was particularly apparent when the production team reworked the mythology in the eighth season to focus primarily on the colonists rather than their human collaborators. The super soldiers are effectively aliens who have infiltrated and subverted the structures of government, a standard alien invasion narrative.

A little burnt out on the mythology?

A little burnt out on the mythology?

Indeed, the retooling of the mythology during the eighth season put the show at a disadvantage when it came to tackling the consequences of 9/11. The invasion suggested by episodes like DeadAlive or Three Words played like a reactionary fantasy about foreign terrorists conspiring to infiltrate America. The narrative plays like a metaphor for the worst fantasies about contemporary terrorism, anxiety about people who can “pass” as ordinary Americans while secretly waging war upon the American way of life.

The sixth and seventh seasons of The X-Files had slowly and painfully dismantled the classic conspiracy. In its original incarnation, the mythology was fascinated by issues related to human fallibility and greed. Power structures were treated with suspicion; they did not have to be infiltrated by aliens, they were already being turned against the people they were designed to protect. However, all of the human elements of the mythology had been stripped away. Characters like the Cigarette-Smoking Man and the Well-Manicured Man had been retired, leaving only the aliens.

Gotta have faith...

Gotta have faith…

The opening scenes of Provenance suggest that the metaphor might be more relevant than ever. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, immigration became an even bigger issue for the Bush administration. As weird as it might sound, one of the immediate responses to 9/11 was to beef up security at the Canadian border:

Well before the U.S. attacks, a report issued by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in May 2000 acknowledged, “Over the past 15 years, we have witnessed a disturbing trend as terrorists move from significant support roles, such as fund-raising and procurement, to actually planning and preparing terrorist acts from Canadian territory.”

And in 1999, an expert on Islamic groups, Morteda Zabouri of the University of Montreal, said: “Now that the U.S. is a target, Canada is a good place to raise money, create false documents and attack from. It’s just next door.”

The opening scene features a religious extremist crossing the border from Canada into North Dakota. It is generally accepted that illegal immigration from Canada into the United States is less of an issue than illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States, but things were different in the early years of the twenty-first century.

Brad to the bone...

Brad to the bone…

Given anxieties around the attacks, it made sense that the United States became fixated upon the integrity of its borders and its integrity. Of course, the hijackers responsible for the 9/11 attacks were all in the country legally. While there is some debate about whether they should have been able to obtain their visas, they did enter the United States through legal channels. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that Hezbollah smuggled people into the United States via the Mexican border via the Cartels.

The response was immediate. In October 2001, Tom Tancredo proposed a temporary moratorium on immigration, as well as the creation of a single border security agency, an entry-exit system to track foreign visitors, and an electronic system to verify identity documents for employment. At the same time, up to twenty thousand refugees seeking asylum in the United States had their admissions delayed. The United States was very keenly watching its borders, very anxious about the threat posed by the alien.

Let there be light...

Let there be light…

The political impact of 9/11 was incredible. Not only did the attacks provide the basis for a stronger surveillance state, they also radically altered the United States’ immigration policy:

Various post-9/11 immigration programs explicitly targeted country-specific groups. Under the voluntary interview program, FBI interviewed more than 8,000 nonimmigrants from specified countries with a suspected al Qaeda presence. Those interviews were extended to over 10,000 Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans. Under NSEERS (or the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System special registration program), adult males from 25 predominately Muslim countries were required to register and be fingerprinted and photographed at ports of entry or present themselves at immigration offices inside the country for fingerprints and photographs. More than 80,000 individuals were interviewed under the program, and over 13,000 were placed in removal proceedings. Similarly, the government designated as “priority absconders” thousands of men from countries with a known al Qaeda presence who had violated their final orders of removal, and placed their names in an FBI database used by local and state law enforcement officials. Almost all those affected by these country-specific programs were nationals of Muslim-majority countries.

It seemed like the fear of the “alien” that underpinned so much of The X-Files had actually been prescient; that there was a deep-seated anxiety about subversive outside forces infiltrating the United States.

Circle of friends...

Circle of friends…

In October 2001, President Bush made it clear that the country was no longer as welcoming as it had been:

“We welcome people coming to America. We welcome the process that encourages people to come to our country to visit, to study, to work,” the president said.

“What we don’t welcome is people who come to hurt the American people. So, therefore, we are going be very diligent with our visas and observant with the behavior of people who come to this country.”

This echoes the anxieties bubbling beneath the “super soldier” arc; aliens passing as Americans, up to no good.

Blame Canada...

Blame Canada…

The X-Files was arguably more relevant than it had ever been. The show’s metaphors seemed ideally positioned to explore these fears about alien infiltration. More than that, The X-Files had spent the better part of a decade exploring the abuses of authority that would come to define the War on Terror. In many respects, the narrative of the twenty-first century seems to resonate with the core concerns and anxieties of The X-Files; there is the recurring sense that privacy is non-existent and that those supposed to protect the people have their own interests at heart.

Of course, there is a question of whether or not audiences would have wanted to hear that sort of narrative in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. A patriotic fervour had swept across the nation, for better or for worse. Faith in congress climbed dramatically in the years immediately following the attacks. Ten days after 9/11, President George W. Bush scored a ninety percent approval rating; this was the highest score in Gallup polling history. This patriotic fever allowed the Bush administration to pass incredibly restrictive legislation.

"The lid on the ship goes round and round, round and round, round and round...

“The lid on the ship goes round and round, round and round, round and round…”

Against this backdrop, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask whether the public wanted heroes like Mulder and Scully in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Certainly, there were other television protagonists who seemed to resonate more keenly with the zeitgeist. Some of those characters even appeared on the same network, with the first season of 24 overlapping with the final season of The X-Files. Six years later, 24 producer Joel Surnow would argue that “America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer.”

Even if the public had been eager to engage in critical discourse around government policy in the immediate wake of 9/11, the ninth season of The X-Files was hardly in the best position to offer stinging criticism. The ninth season of The X-Files often lacks a clear purpose or direction. It frequently seems that the show is unsure of what it wants to be, let alone what it wants to say. Even if those viewers had returned for Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II, they would have found a show engaged in an extended crisis of identity.

Take me to church...

Take me to church…

More than that, the internal mythology of The X-Files was not really aligned so as to offer the most compelling or engaging metaphor for the War on Terror. At a point where it seemed like the United States government was exploiting a national tragedy to serve its own political agenda, the show had completely moved away from stories about powerful men making self-serving decisions. If anything, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers narrative of the eighth season mythology lined up with reactionary rhetoric.

It is too much to claim that the ninth season of The X-Files was a blistering and insightful critique of the War on Terror. The season is too disorganised and uncertain for that. Nevertheless, Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz do find room for some interesting observations about the direction of the United States in the wake 9/11. Although the storytelling and narrative choices of the ninth season do not hold up particularly well, there are some aspects of the ninth season that do feel astute and well-observed. (Trust No 1 is perhaps the best example.)

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Provenance and Providence engage with the religious subtext of the mythology. The “previously…” section of Provenance draws from the events of Biogenesis, The Sixth Extinction and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. The show is very pointedly and very boldly returning to the idea of the colonists as a divine force. It is something that has played out in the background of the show since Red Museum and Fearful Symmetry, but which has seldom held focus. The seventh season engaged quite heavily with the idea in an abstract way.

Provenance and Providence deal with this religious angle quite directly. Indeed, one of the most disconcerting aspects of Provenance and Providence is the way that the two-parter marries the existential philosophical musings of Biogenesis on to the blockbuster storytelling style of Colony or Tunguska. The big ideas of Provenance and Providence are not allowed room to breath, with the episode foregoing the ethereal atmosphere and weird pace of the seventh season’s pseudo-religious mythology for a more conventional “race against time” structure.

Enlightenment...

Enlightenment…

This religious element lends Provenance and Providence a sense of timeliness. Doggett reports that Agent Robert Comer was “working deep undercover, infiltrating a religious group, some kind of whacked-out UFO cult.” In the wake of 9/11, extremist religious groups were considered a serious threat to homeland security – even those operating out of Canada. The idea of a lone rogue undercover operative trying desperately to warn the authorities about the threat posed by a bunch of religious extremists resonates in the post-9/11 world.

Provenance and Providence make a conscious effort to anchor the mythology in religious themes and ideas. the rubbings that caused all those problems in Biogenesis are reintroduced to the mythology. “You interpreted them as text from the Bible, from the Qur’an,” Reyes tells Scully. “Scripture from religions around the world.” Nevertheless, the two examples that Reyes choses to name are quite telling. Despite the fact that Islam and Christianity share the same roots, connecting the Bible and the Qur’an so firmly was a bold choice.

The wasteland...

The wasteland…

The War on Terror could be categorised as a clash of cultures. That clash is inevitably anchored in religious imagery and terminology. That is not to suggest that the conflict is exclusively one of Islam and Christianity, nor that there is necessarily a conflict between Islam and Christianity. Indeed, any attempt to argue that position would be disingenuous and offense, relying upon a misrepresentation of both religions. However, there is undeniably a strong religious undercurrent to the War on Terror, for reasons both historical and cultural.

Provenance acknowledges this when Doggett and Scully discuss the power of the engravings on the ship. Doggett is, predictably, skeptical. “We’re talking about pieces of paper with marks on it,” he reflects. Scully clarifies, “They’re not just marks, Agent Doggett. It’s writing. Words. Powerful words.” This is true. After all, those engravings were enough to drive Mulder insane in Biogenesis. As in Biogenesis, Provenance equates the power of those engravings to the power of the symbols and words upon them. The medium is the message, and the message is the Word of God.

Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'...

Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’…

In some ways, this fits with Richard Dawkins’ (controversial) argument that religion could be classified as a “thought virus” that is “comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” According to this theory, religious ideas actually alter the thought patterns of the host, transmitted from person to person like an infectious agent. It is certainly an extreme position, but The X-Files seems to incorporate this metaphor into its mythology through the etchings. (Why not? Episodes like Grotesque and Empedocles suggest that evil is contagious.)

Of course, it goes without saying that religion can be a wonderful source of power and inspiration to people, that faith can give people the strength and the will to accomplish impossible tasks. Very few atrocities in history are exclusively the result of religious belief, with religion often providing a veneer of credibility to political or selfish motivation. It is very easy to convince people to do horrible things while claiming to speak with divine authority. However, while religion is not the only factor in these conflicts, it cannot be entirely divorced from them either.

Yes, they are trying to jimmy the lock on an alien ship. The mythology has come to this.

Yes, they are trying to jimmy the lock on an alien ship. The mythology has come to this.

In the inevitable conflicts that followed the 9/11 attacks, religion would become a vital part of the narrative. Five days after the attacks, President George W. Bush would describe the United States’ planned response to these attacks as a “crusade”:

We haven’t seen this kind of barbarism in a long period of time.  No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft – fly U.S. aircraft into buildings full of innocent people – and show no remorse.  This is a new kind of  — a new kind of evil.  And we understand.  And the American people are beginning to understand.  This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.  And the American people must be patient.  I’m going to be patient.

While the speech includes the words “war on terrorism”, President George W. Bush would not coin the phrase “war on terror” for another four days. As such, this twenty-first century conflict was coded by President George W. Bush as a “crusade” before it was even officially labelled the War on Terror.

Devils and dust...

Devils and dust…

Given that the Middle East would become the major battleground of this twenty-first century conflict, the choice of words seems ill-advised. The Middle East is a very diverse region with dozens upon dozens of ethnic and religious groupings. Similarly, the United States (and the larger western world) are also a diverse and multicultural society. It could legitimately be argued that one of the biggest issues with the War on Terror was a lack of understanding about the social nuances and cultural particulars of the region.

Nevertheless, both sides in the conflict claimed their own religious authority. Although Islam lacks a central religious authority like the Catholic Church, Islamic extremists do not speak on behalf of the majority (or even a significant proportion) of Muslims. The Bush administration made that clear, stating that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.” This is fair and reasonable, but religion cannot be divorced from the conflict.

The war to come...

The war to come…

This is true on both sides. As much as phrases like “Islamic extremism” and “jihad” serve to contextualise groups as Islamic State and al-Qaeda as inherently religious, the United States carries its own religious baggage. “God bless America” has become a customary sign-off for presidential addresses, including President Bush’s speech to the nation on the evening of 11 September 2001. In July 1956, President Eisenhower replaced “e pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”) with “in God we trust” as the country’s motto.

Even the title of Providence evokes the importance of divine authority in the context of American national identity. The image of the “eye of providence” has recurred throughout The X-Files, most notably in the design of the crashed alien ships in Apocrypha and Provenance. A Freemason symbol incorporated into the iconography of the United States, the eye is accompanied by the words “annuit cœptis.” This Latin phrase is present on every reverse seal of the United States. It basically translates as “God favours our enterprise.”

"Boy that is one brightly coloured stain-glass window..."

“Boy that is one brightly coloured stain-glass window…”

Similarly, the American public had always been wary of electing an atheist to high office. In 2008, a survey by the Secular Coalition found only two atheists in high office – Congressman Pete Stark and Senator Ernie Chambers. Stark lost his seat in 2012 during a heated election in which his opponent used his atheism against him. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz recently suggested that “any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief of this nation.” (In fact, only a socialist would meet more resistance at the presidential polls.)

This was particularly true of George W. Bush. Bush had a troubled past with drugs and alcohol, but had worked hard to reinvent himself. He had been sober almost a decade and a half by the time that he assumed the Oval Office. In 1985, he became a born again evangelical Christian with the help of Billy Graham. During his presidency, Bush claimed that God had chosen him to lead the United States. In March 2004, Jack Beatty would describe the Bush administration as “the faith-based presidency.”

"The crowbar didn't work. Fetch me my drill."

“The crowbar didn’t work. Fetch me my drill.”

Indeed, there is some suggestion that Bush saw the War on Terror in explicitly religious terms. He allegedly revealed as much to a Palestinian delegation in 2003:

One of the delegates, Nabil Shaath, who was Palestinian foreign minister at the time, said: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I am driven with a mission from God’. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.”

Mr Bush went on: “And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East’. And, by God, I’m gonna do it.”

Even if that is a story told through secondary sources, it does reflect with some of the rhetoric around the War on Terror that came from the Bush administration.

Heaven help us...

Heaven help us…

Provenance and Providence allude to this link between faith and warfare. In the teaser to Providence, Josepho remembers his brief encounter with super soldiers on the field of battle during the first Gulf War.  He describes the soldiers as “angels from heaven”, as if they are instruments of divine will. Nine days after the attacks, President Bush declared, “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”

As such, Provenance and Providence seem ideally positioned to serve as a critique of extreme religious belief – no matter what side of the aisle it may come from. Josepho is a religious zealot, willing to endanger the life of William and to demand the head of Fox Mulder like Salome demanded the head of John the Baptist. However, Agent Robert Comer’s faith is just as dangerous, even if it is diametrically opposed to that of Josepho. Josepho would herald doomsday, while Comer would delay it. Both men are portrayed as radical extremists.

"Um, I think I found the 'on' switch."

“Um, I think I found the ‘on’ switch.”

Unfortunately, The X-Files is not entirely comfortable with criticising religious extremism. The eighth season engaged in a series of cynical examinations of unquestioning faith in episodes like Roadrunners and Via Negativa, but the show has always tended to romanticise religious devotion. Episodes like Revelations and All Souls treated unquestioning faith as something towards which the characters should aspire; an inability to invest entirely in faith was presented a shortcoming. The X-Files was a show about wanting to believe.

That makes it very difficult for the show to reverse its position and explore the dangers of unquestioning absolute religious devotion. Even as Provenance and Providence pick away at the religious delusions of Josepho and Comer, they suggest that there is such a thing as true faith. Skinner suggests that talking to the wounded is akin to a religious prayer. “Well, I always thought it was like praying,” he confesses to Reyes. “Even if they can’t hear maybe God can.” It is not so much that Josepho and Comer’s faith is dangerous, it is that they picked the wrong God.

Heated religious debates...

Heated religious debates…

Reyes has been consistently portrayed as a New Age idealist, but she finds a more conventional faith praying for Doggett’s recovery. “I’ve known you a long time and this just seems a little traditional for you,” Follmer observes. Reyes responds, “Maybe when you’re lost you knock at the door with the porch light on.” There is something a little disconcerting in having Reyes conveniently and suddenly convert to Christianity – and to suggest that Christianity somehow trumps any other religious faith.

Ultimately, Josepho is burnt alive by the deity he claims is resting in the crashed space ship. However, Doggett receives a message from a more benign religious entity. That religious presence serves to guide Doggett back towards consciousness and provides Doggett with a clear message for Scully. There is a very clear conversion narrative taking place here. Reyes is guided from a broader belief system towards Christianity, while Doggett is allowed a divine experience even though he would not describe it as such.

Soldiering on...

Soldiering on…

It like Josepho and Comer are ultimately betrayed by chosing the wrong religion, which seems like a highly questionable analogy to bake into a story about religious conflicts. It might have been possible to structure an argument about the core values of religious belief – that any religion that rejects violence is inherently superior to a religion used to justify violence – but Provenance and Providence do not offer that much nuance. Instead, it seems like Josepho and Comer simply wind up of the wrong side of a religious divide.

Reyes even suggests as much in her arguments with Scully. “Tell me a religion that decrees the death of a child,” Reyes insists. “Not just your child but any child. This is a man saying these things to us. How many religions warn of false prophets? Men sent to deceive us?” Reyes then spends the episode praying in the chapel of a faith that celebrates the killing of the first-born children of Egypt, the genocide of Sodom and Gomorrah, and even offers a fable about how true faith is willingness to sacrifice your first-born son. It seems there might be double-standards.

Tears of blood...

Tears of blood…

There is a sense of timeliness to Provenance and Providence, with Providence opening on a flashback to Josepho’s service during the Gulf War. One of the recurring suggestions during the ninth season is that the “super soldier” conspiracy is a legacy of the Gulf War. In some respects, this feels like well-observed commentary on the American foreign policy during the War on Terror. After all, the Gulf War had been overseen by President George H.W. Bush. His son oversaw the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War.

It seems inevitable that comparisons would be made between the foreign policy of President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush, particularly as that foreign policy related to Iraq. President George H.W. Bush invaded Iraq, but did not topple Saddam Hussein; he did not earn a second term. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein; he earned a second term. It is perhaps a bit too easy to reduce this to Freudian analysis, as Oliver Stone attempted to do in W.

Reyes-ing a valid point...

Reyes-ing a valid point…

Nevertheless, the popular discourse has drawn a link between the Gulf War and the Iraq War. President George W. Bush’s foreign policy was largely driven by the same team responsible for President George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. Media coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War suggested that President George W. Bush might be “finishing the job his father started.” The question hangs so heavily over his administration that President George W. Bush has clarified his position in interviews long after his presidency concluded.

History has arcs. When Provenance and Providence aired, history was arcing towards a second invasion of Iraq. The United States had launched a ground invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, successfully toppling the Taliban. Donald Rumsfeld had begun planning the invasion of Iraq in November 2001. In December 2001, it was reported that the Bush administration was planning to topple Saddam by supporting rebels. In January 2002, Bush identified Iraq as part of the “Axis of Evil” in his first State of the Union address.

Sands of time...

Sands of time…

Although the actual invasion of Iraq would not begin until March 2003, it already felt inevitable. It cast a long shadow. It is quite interesting that Providence should open with a flashback to the original Gulf War. Indeed, there is something quite powerful about that imagery, an appropriate teaser for an episode with the production code “9ABX11.” Even though it was the tenth episode of the ninth season to air, it was the eleventh episode produced. It seems like the ninth season of The X-Files could be quite timely, in places.

The ninth season of The X-Files feels perfectly in line with a nation on the cusp of war. The term “super soldier” is employed far more frequently than it was during the eighth season, but episodes like Nothing Important Happened Today II and Providence work hard to contextualise the programme as a legacy of the Gulf War. However, there are a number of unfortunate storytelling choices that muddle these themes. There are good ideas here, but there is a lack of focus that obscures the interesting concepts.

Holey land...

Holey land…

Most obviously, the characters with actual combat experience are sidelined. There is a wonderful scene between Skinner and Reyes in Provenance in which Skinner talks about his experiences in Vietnam, implicitly comparing the comatose Doggett to a soldier wounded in action. While Skinner served in Vietnam, Doggett served in the Gulf. These are characters who have a connection to United States foreign policy, who represent a mirror to the “super soldier” mythology. However, Skinner and Doggett are brushed aside because the show cannot let go of Scully.

The problems with Provenance and Providence have little to do with the relevance of its social and political commentary. One of the ironies of the episode is that the themes are perfectly in line with the realities of twenty-first century America, but the actual production of the episodes feels like a relic of the late nineties. The X-Files may have been willing to engage with post-9/11 realities, but it seemed desperately out of step with twenty-first century television.

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2 Responses

  1. Good review but 9/11 wasn’t about “religious extremism”. It was about Third World nations ravaged by Imperialism and torn apart by Western sponsored/armed dictators/terrorist factions, getting ticked off and resorting to guerilla tactics. 9/11 was itself sponsored by Saudi Arabia, a theocratic regime which receives billions of dollars worth of arms from the US, and which receives training from the US in how to crush democracy and its own civilians.

    So X-files’ religious cults have little to do with the Middle East.

    • I think that the hijackers on those planes would argue that it had a lot to do with their religion. And I say that as an agnostic rather than a militant atheist. Same way that I think you can’t divorce religion from the Westboro Baptist Church or ISIS.

      There are other factors at play, but religious extremism is definitely an element. And an immediate and visceral one, and one that Carter would have honed in on given his interest in religion as a theme.

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