This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.
It is interesting how the popular memory of a thing can differ from the actual thing itself.
Memory was always a key theme of The X-Files, particularly in the early years of the show. Although the aliens and the conspirators were plucked from the demented imaginations of the most paranoid tinfoil hat enthusiasts, a surprising amount of the show was rooted in real history that had been allowed to slip by under the radar: the genocide of the Native Americans; the resettlement of German and Japanese war criminals after the Second World War; radiation experiments upon prisoners; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
The truth is contained in the gap between memory and history. In a way, then, it feels entirely appropriate that the popular memory of The X-Files should remain quite distinct from the show itself. The popular memory of The X-Files tends to suggest that the mythology makes no sense, that it does not fit together in any tangible form. This is an opinion repeated so often that it has become a critical shorthand when discussing the end of the show; much like the assertion “they were dead all along” tends to come when discussing Lost.
The truth is that the mythology of The X-Files largely made sense. Sure, there were lacunas and contradictions, inconsistencies and illogicalities, but the vast majority of the mythology was fairly linear and straightforward. It had been fairly straightforward for quite some time. The show had been decidedly ambiguous in its first few seasons, only confirming that colonisation was the conspiracy’s end game in Talitha Cumi at the end of the third season. Elements like the black oil and the bees tended to cloud matters, but the internal logic was clear.
Significant portions of both The X-Files: Fight the Future and Two Fathers and One Son had been dedicated to spelling out the finer details of the mythology in great detail. Mankind were not the original inhabitants of Earth; the former occupants had returned and were making a rightful claim; the conspirators had agreed to help them, selling out mankind for a chance to extend their own lives. Everything else was window dressing. The production team had laid everything out during the fifth and sixth seasons.
Still, the general consensus of The X-Files was that it was a show driven by mysteries that was always more interested in questions than answers. This was certainly true, but it was somewhat exaggerated. When the cancellation was announced, the media immediately demanded answers. A month before The Truth was broadcast, Tim Goodman complained about how the show offered “precious few answers to Carter’s riddles.” Two days before the broadcast, Aaron Kinney wondered of the conspirators, “Who are these people and what is their agenda?”
It does not matter that these answers have mostly been provided and that the truth is mostly know. This was the context of the conversation unfolding around The Truth, and it likely explains a number of the creative decisions taken during the production of the episode. The Truth plays as an extended video essay dedicated to providing answers that were offered three or four seasons earlier in relation to mysteries that are no longer part of the show. The Truth is a passionate and intense argument that the mythology of The X-Files does make sense.
For viewers tuning back into the show for the first time in years, this means long expository monologues and skilfully edited montages that do not tie into the plot of the episode in any significant way. For those who stuck with the show for these past few seasons, it means rehashing everything that the show has taken for granted since the fifth or sixth season. While it feels like The Truth is desperately longing for vindication, to the extent where the show puts itself on trial in the person of Fox Mulder, this does not make for compelling viewing.
There are a lot of problems with The Truth. The most obvious structural problem is the trial at the heart of the episode. It is the most glaring issue with the feature-length series finalé because it just saps the momentum out of the episode and accomplishes absolutely nothing. The X-Files was always praised for its cinematic production values and its feature film sensibilities, but so much of The Truth is spend in a small room with a bunch of extras providing an excuse to watch clips of earlier (and often better) episodes.
The X-Files took a great deal of pride in demonstrated what could be done on television. It is perhaps a cliché, but The X-Files was frequently described as a weekly film on a television budget. At its peak, the show looked and sounded better than anything else on television with a breathless ambition that allowed Mulder to journey to the Arctic in End Game or jump atop a moving train in Nisei. There was a sense that The X-Files had shaken off a lot of the preconceptions and expectations associated with television in the eighties and nineties. It changed the game.
This makes The Truth feel all the more tragic. The finalé demonstrates so many of the restrictions that were associated with television production when the show began, before it raised the bar. There are tacky narrative contrivances and shortcuts, the show is padded out with expensive-looking footage from earlier episodes, the bulk of the episode takes place in a single room, storytelling is more verbal than visual. These were all restrictions associated with television during the eighties and nineties, restraints against which The X-Files often strained.
This was particularly disappointing in the context of May 2002, when television had moved so far beyond those limitations. The X-Files had been on the air for nine full seasons, an incredible run by any measure. it had witnessed a revolution in television storytelling and production. When The X-Files began, prime-time was flooded with shows like Grace Under Fire or Matlock or Murder, She Wrote. When The X-Files ended, prime-time was making room for shows like 24 or The Sopranos or The West Wing.
As such, The Truth does not just feel like television, it feels like out-dated television. The first hour or so of The Truth basically amounts to a clip show, that most hated of television clichés. As Randy Dankievitch summarises:
The bane of scripted television, the clip show is often a signal of two things on a television show: creative exhaustion and/or budgetary restrictions. It often makes for lazily-framed episodes with the main cast “reflecting” on events of the past – Friends was notorious for it, airing six of them (that’s right, six) throughout their ten-season run, with only one (season nine’s The One With Christmas in Tulsa, which pushes Chandler into his final interesting solo arc) providing any reason for existence.
While the use of recycled footage in The Truth was not a result of budget or production constraints, it was a creative choice that felt curiously out of step with television around it.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, it had become more and more difficult to play the clip show entirely straight. Subversions were more common than straight-up examples. In 1998, South Park had broadcast City on the Edge of Forever, wherein all the clips were consciously and wryly “wrong.” In 2000, the animated television series Clerks cheekily broadcast a clip show as its second episode. A few weeks before the broadcast of The Truth, Malcolm in the Middle used its own Clip Show for some nice character development.
One would have hoped that Carter might have learned from Larry David’s mistake of ending Seinfeld with a clip show disguised as a trial. Sadly, The Truth plays its clip show incredibly straight. Characters sit around inside a room and talk about things that the audience has already seen, as old footage is edited together to spell it out. Naturally, the clips are impressive; the production team make a point to draw a lot of the alien footage from Fight the Future so as to capitalise on the film’s larger budget.
Ultimately, The Truth feels like a filler television “special” that should have aired before the finalé rather than as the finalé. It should exist as a DVD extra rather than as the culmination of the ninth season DVD. There is absolutely no justification for the decision to end The X-Files with an extended and overly elaborate clip show. There is a sense that the production team are more interested in demonstrating that the show’s mythology makes sense than they are in telling an interesting story.
In many ways, putting Mulder on trial plays as a metaphor for the show’s own perception of its cancellation. Chris Carter has talked a bit about how he felt like a lot of the hatred and criticism of his shows was political in nature, directed towards him. Discussing the negative critical reception to The Lone Gunmen, he suggested that “people are reviewing this so-called powerful person, and they’re not reviewing the show.” Discussing the cancellation of The X-Files, he noted, “It’s frustrating when you’re doing good work and people aren’t watching.”
A lot of the ninth season of The X-Files feels rooted in a sense of frustration, whether intentional or not. In Scary Monsters, Leyla Harrison’s criticisms of Doggett and Reyes stink in light of the cancellation. Although the production team insist that they meant to pay homage to the Lone Gunmen by killing them off in Jump the Shark, the whole thing rather mean-spirited. There was a sense that the production team was not entirely happy about how things had played out, and had adopted a siege mentality.
The trial structure of The Truth takes this to its logical extreme. It feels like a carefully structured and painstakingly compiled rebuttal to every critic who accused the show of not making sense or who claimed that the production team never knew what they were doing. Devoting so much time and so much energy to spelling everything out so carefully felt like a rejoinder to every on-line or print journalist who made some wise crack about how the show’s cancellation meant that Chris Carter would have to finally offer answers.
The problems here are quite apparent. The original and iconic mythology had been tidied away three seasons earlier. The show had moved well beyond the black oil and the grey aliens and the bounty hunters. However, those were all aspects at play within the mythology when the show was its peak. Given the publicity afforded the show with its cancellation, The X-Files felt the need to reintroduce those elements as it came near the end. Many of the people watching The Truth would not be newer mythology elements like “super soldiers” or “Toothpick Man.”
The two versions of the mythology were relatively well insulated from one another. The original mythology ended with Requiem, the new one began with Within. As a result, reintegrating them meant reopening the old mythology and addressing a whole host of concerns that were no longer relevant to The X-Files. This was a problem that became apparent in William, but which is particularly clear in The Truth. Characters are talking about stuff is ancient history in the context of the show.
The script admits as much during Skinner’s examination of Marita Covarrubias. Marita provides a lot of exposition around the mythology as it existed on her time as a major player, from Herrenvolk through to One Son. Skinner even points out that most of the men she dealt with (and discussed) are dead. “Why resist testifying here today?” he asks rhetorically. “Because the conspiracy continues just in another form by other men.” This would seem to concede that the bulk of testimony in the trial is all just a prelude to the conspiracy that actually involves Knowle Rohrer.
The “super soldier” mythology of the eighth and ninth season is very simplistic. There is a credible argument to be made that it was too simplistic to sustain the show going forward, and that The X-Files was never able to replace the iconic elements of the first conspiracy. This is a very valid and fair criticism, one that became quite clear in Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II. However, that simplicity does not have to be a bad thing. The “super soldiers” worked in the eighth season because they did not distract from the drama.
It feels like the “super soldiers” are simple enough that they could be easily dealt with in the context of a two-hour season finalé while still leaving room for Mulder to reunite with Scully and for the rest of the cast to get their big moments. Reopening the old mythology, building on the effort made by William, feels like a miscalculation that costs The Truth dearly. The Truth winds up wandering into what Stephen King once derisively described as “a swamp of black oil” of its own volition.
It all feels excessive, to the point where the audience sympathises with the prosecution for pointing this out. “What does this nonsense have to do with Mulder murdering a man in cold blood?” Special Agent Kallenbrunner wonders. Skiner explains, “Agent Scully will prove that a government conspiracy exists to deny the existence of extraterrestrials.” While technically correct, it feels like filibustering and padding. “You are not here proving government conspiracies Mister Skinner,” states Kersh. “You are here to defend Fox Mulder.” He is entirely correct.
The problems with this structure become clear quite quickly. The introductory testimony is offered by Dana Scully. Scully was introduced in The Pilot as the skeptic. She was the audience surrogate, serving to introduce the audience into the world of Fox Mulder. She came to the X-files as blind as the audience came to The X-Files. The audience has been on the same journey as Scully, season-by-season and episode-by-episode. As a result, Scully is pretty much providing information that fans already know.
To be fair, there is an argument that The Truth should be considerate of viewers who have not religiously watched every single episode. Certainly, the viewing figures for The Truth were considerably higher than the viewing figures for the rest of the ninth season. However, the information provided by Scully is dull to both long-term fans and casual viewers. Die-hard X-Files fans already know all of this, while casual fans didn’t really tune in for a feature-length power point presentation.
There is a sense that The Truth is never entirely sure who the target audience is meant to be. The trial structures seems designed to satisfy the complaints of casual viewers confused about the workings of the mythology, but the episode is saturated with cameos and appearances that only make sense to viewers who understand the inner workings of the series. One of the act breaks is the reveal of Gibson Praise, a character who has only appeared in four previous episodes of the show’s nine-season run. The Truth cannot get its priorities straight.
There is also a sense that the show is being a little disingenuous in places. The testimonies occasionally fudge and obscure details. This is all done for the sake of convenience, but the entire trial sequence is designed to favour long-form accuracy over short-form convenience. If the audience wanted the broad strokes of the mythology, The Truth could open with a two-minute voice-over explaining what the show is about. Using the trial is about putting the jigsaw together piece by piece. As such, the moments where the show fudges its own memory feels like cheating.
This is most obvious in the testimony of Jeffrey Spender. When Spender is asked to identify his father, he states that the Cigarette-Smoking Man “led the government conspiracy to exploit the existence of aliens.” This not really the case. The Cigarette-Smoking Man spent the first six seasons as a government lackey, with episodes like The Blessing Way and Paper Clip stressing that he was in a precarious situation. Fight the Future suggested that Conrad Strughold directed the conspiracy, and he was conspicuously absent from the bonfire at the end of One Son.
Of course, there are practical reasons for Spender to give that answer. Most obviously, it is a lot simpler than the truth. It also has the benefit of reestablishing the Cigarette-Smoking Man as an essential character before his reappearance at the climax of the episode. More to the point, the Cigarette-Smoking Man is one of the most iconic characters to appear in The X-Files; as far as many casual viewers are concerned, Spender’s statement reflects the reality of the show. It still feels like something of a betrayal of the courtroom format, demonstrating how cynical it is.
Spender’s testimony is problematic in other ways. Spender testifies to events to which he was not party. While the military tribunal is not a standard court of law, it seems like the prosecution would be able to strike a lot of his testimony. “He didn’t know both his father and mine were in the alien conspiracy,” Spender testifies at one point, shortly before revealing that Alex Krycek murdered Bill Mulder. The audience knows that this happened because they watched Anasazi. Spender would not actually exist for another three seasons. It is another cheat.
Similarly, The Truth builds on the retroactive continuity introduced in William designed to bridge the two separate conspiracies as Spender explains that the Cigarette-Smoking Man apparently spent the seventh season working on the whole “super soldier” thing before he was thrown down the stairs in Requiem. Again, it feels like a cheat with the trial format, an attempt to quietly slip in a bit of new information that was never actual present before in order to make the whole thing look a bit smoother.
Again, there is nothing wrong with this in theory, but it does seem to go against the spirit of the courtroom scenes. The entire point of the trial is to demonstrate that the mythology of The X-Files always made sense. While this is a terrible idea for a series finalé, it is an idea that the show imposed upon itself. As a result, introducing new information within that framework feels like it goes against the spirit of the episode itself. It suggests that the interminable trial seasons cannot even adhere to the rules they have set for themselves.
Of course, the biggest problem with the trial scenes is something that has haunted the mythology since the sixth or seventh season. The mythology has always been at its best when it seemed suitably epic and ambiguous. The X-Files was a show that felt reasonably grounded, in spite of all the crazy b-movie stuff happening in the background. The black oil might be ridiculous and the alien bounty hunter might be absurd, but characters like the Cigarette-Smoking Man and the Well-Manicured Man grounded the craziness in a very heightened drama.
Chris Carter’s prose could occasionally seem a little excessive or indulgent, but it did lend the pulpy material a very literary tone. The X-Files generally treated its more ridiculous plot elements with absolute seriousness, allowing the audience to invest in a world that felt real even as it featured shape-shifting aliens and sentient viruses. The show’s preference for abstract metaphor and witty ambiguity earned it a reputation for being obtuse or inaccessible, for refusing to clearly articulate what was going on.
It seems like Carter worked to fix that in later seasons, having characters talk more bluntly about the workings of the mythology. The problem is that the mythology itself is cheesy and pulpy. It is essentially an alien invasion narrative lifted from a fifties b-movie. The metaphors elevated that element, allowing the audience to buy into it. The problem with scripting more literal dialogue is that it immediately sounds like b-movie schlock. This was a problem with the eighth and ninth seasons, where there was no way to make “super soldier” sound less goofy.
The Truth is essentially a series of expository monologues that eschew the lyrical dialogue that helped mask the sillier science-fiction trappings of the earlier seasons. This becomes particularly obvious during the testimony of Marita Covarrubias, who sounds like she is repeating the plot of a lame Star Wars knock-off. By the time Marita starts talking about “a race of shape-shifting alien bounty hunters who policed the conspiracy for the aliens”, it feels like spelling out the finer details of the mythology robs the series of a lot of its power.
After all, does it really matter if the bounty hunters are a different race or the same race as the colonists? If they “police” the conspiracy, how can they be “bounty hunters”? How does Marita have that level of intricate knowledge of colonist social structures? It is a cliché to suggest that what the audience cannot see is scarier than what they actually see, but it seems appropriate to observe that what the audience intuits from the mythology is more effective than what the characters actually explain in simple English.
Explaining a magic trick is never as exciting as watching a skilled magician perform it. The Truth is redundant, but it is also artless. There is no verve or energy to it, no power or drama. It reads more like an extended statement or press release than a convincing narrative. In doing so, it robs the mythology of what little power it had left following the embarrassments of Nothing Important Happened Today I, Nothing Important Happened Today II, Trust No 1, Provenance and Providence.
There is a strong sense of self-righteousness running through the episode. If the trial was a metaphor, then Mulder is a surrogate. The version of Mulder who appears in The Truth is incredibly self-righteous and self-indignant. There are only a handful of jokes and wisecracks, with Mulder’s righteous fury dialed all the way to the top. Mulder was always at his best when his sense of irony tempered his zealotry, when his humanity bled through his self-assuredness.
The ninth season has always had a weird relationship with Mulder. David Duchovny departed the show following Existence, and made it quite clear that he did not plan to return. Most television shows would respond to this by writing the character out permanently, whether by killing them off or sending them to Siberia. Instead, The X-Files refused to let go of Mulder even as Duchovny refused to budge. Duchovny’s stunt butt appeared before any of the credited leads in Nothing Important Happened Today I.
It seemed like Mulder was always on the show’s mind. The ninth season was obsessed with a character who was unlikely to return in the near-term. Episodes like Trust No 1, Provenance and Providence insisted that Mulder was still vitally important to the mythology going forward. Stand-alone episodes like Dæmonicus and Sunshine Days made sure to remind viewers that the character was not around, even though his absence spoke for itself. Mulder was arguably a bigger player in the ninth season than he had been in the first two-thirds of the eighth season.
So when David Duchovny actually returns in The Truth, Mulder becomes a fetish object. He is not just part of the ensemble, he is the character around whom the universe pivots. The central conflicts of The Truth all belong to Mulder. The other characters are important to the plot only in terms what they offer to Mulder. Once Skinner has helped Mulder escape, he can disappear into Kersh’s office and never return. (The X-Files: I Want to Believe suggests that he is okay.) Once Doggett and Reyes say goodbye to Mulder, they can disappear.
There is something quite pathetic and desperate about how quickly the characters who actually remained a part of the ninth season of The X-Files are realigned in service of Mulder. Mulder allows himself to become a martyr, the man who learns the truth and who can save mankind. Skinner and Scully literally beg Mulder to become active in the plot, to speak the truth. “Take the stand, Mulder,” Skinner urges. “Testify.” Scully insists, “Expose it, Mulder! Take the stand. Whatever it is that you’re withholding take the stand and hit them full force.”
The suggestion seems to be that even the mere word of Fox Mulder is enough to force aliens to tremble. Confronting the Cigarette-Smoking Man at the end of the episode, Mulder contemplates his role. The Cigarette-Smoking Man advises Mulder, “You’ve even refused to testify what you learned… even though it would have saved your life.” The suggestion is that Mulder was always entirely in control of his own fate. Mulder only allowed himself to be sentenced to death because he choose not to speak. The Truth frames Mulder as a superman.
Of course, there is something just a little bit contradictory and hypocritical about this. Mulder is incredibly self-righteous about the idea of the truth. He gets a bit sweeping monologue challenging the extra-judicial panel at the military trial. “Greater than your lies, the truth wants to be known,” Mulder warns them. “You will know it. It’ll come to you, as it’s come to me faster than the speed of light.” However, Mulder refuses to share the most essential truth that he knows.
The Cigarette-Smoking Man is entirely correct when he calls Mulder out on this. “You damned me for my secrets, but you’re afraid to speak the truth,” he reflects. Mulder has become the Cigarette-Smoking Man in his own fashion. Mulder has uncovered evidence of doomsday, but he refuses to share that with the rest of mankind. Mulder has become precisely the sort of coward he railed against in the show’s earliest years. Mulder is the man who pretends to know better than his fellow citizens, the custodian of truth. Mulder has become his father.
Mulder tries to justify his decision not to tell Scully about the looming alien invasion due in December 2012. “I was afraid that it would crush your spirit,” Mulder confesses to Scully. That is not his decision to make, whether on Scully’s behalf or on behalf of the rest of the world. However, The Truth portrays Mulder as a tragic hero rather than a morally compromised and disingenuous individual. After nine years of protesting that the public has a right to know, Mulder has decided that the public don’t actually have a right to know.
It feels like cowardice on the part of the production team. There are obvious reasons why Mulder could never expose the conspiracy to the public. The X-Files thrives on verisimilitude, and exposing an imminent alien invasion with incontrovertible proof would break that verisimilitude. Although the final episode would seem the perfect place to allow Mulder the victory he could never enjoy while the show was on-going, the obvious desire to leap frog into a series of feature films means that Mulder has to keep that secret, no matter how out of character it may seem.
Still, the episode’s intense fixation upon Mulder comes into play here. It appears that The Truth applies something of a double-standard when it comes to matters like integrity and honesty. Most obviously, Doggett is portrayed as a failure when he is unwilling to testify that the “super soldiers” might actually be alien in origin. Ignoring the character growth demonstrated in Sunshine Days, this is reasonably consistent with his character. While Mulder’s unwillingness to compromise on his beliefs is presented as a virtue, Doggett’s becomes a shortcoming.
Similarly, the brief appearance from the Lone Gunmen serves to dramatically undercut the entire point of their death in Jump the Shark. Ironically foreshadowing their demise, Byers observed, “We never gave up. We never will.” However, ghost!Byers immediately proceeds to urge Mulder to give up, only so Mulder can appear more heroic by refusing to give up. There is something rather hypocritical in how The Truth approaches Mulder as compared to the way that it treats other characters.
The fact that The Truth is very clearly and consciously angling to set up a series of feature films means that the plot does not actually resolve. There is nothing new learned over the course of the episode. Trust No 1 revealed that magnetite killed super soldiers. Vienen explained that indigenous populations had prepared defenses against the colonists. Patient X suggested that colonisation was due to take place in 2012. Red Museum even offered the date at which the world would change, although it did not tie that date to the mythology.
The Truth simply regurgitates old information, but does not do anything with it because the production team are holding out for a feature film. “Why risk perfect happiness, Mulder?” asks ghost!Byers at one point. “Why risk your lives?” Mulder replies, “Because I need to know the truth.” When ghost!Byers points out that Mulder already knows the truth, Mulder responds, “I need to know if I can change it.” However, by the end of the episode, the only conclusion that Mulder and Scully can reach is a half-hearted “maybe.”
It is not a satisfying conclusion to a nine-year journey. It would not have been a satisfying conclusion had The X-Files transitioned immediately to a series of feature films, as Chris Carter clearly hoped. As with the ending of William, irony strikes again. Although Chris Carter had planned for the next feature film to work as a stand-alone “monster of the week” story as early as 2002, I Want to Believe would not hit theatres until 2008. The date of the invasion would come and go with no new X-Files material. The Truth ended up even more of a dud than it seemed at the time.
It doesn’t help matters that the episode’s big action set piece feels rather lack luster and half-hearted. The X-Files has thrived on conspiracy theory imagery for nine seasons, so having the final episode feature a bunch of black helicopters firing missiles into a Native American structure as Knowle Rohrer flies face-first into a rock feels like something of an anticlimax. The destruction of those Native American ruins looks more impressive (and expensive) than the court room scenes, but there is no emotional weight to it.
The spectacle of the sequence should measure up to anything that the show has ever done before, from the mid-air abduction in Tempus Fugit and Max to war in heaven of Patient X and The Red and the Black. Instead, coming out of nowhere after so much exposition, it all feels rather shallow. It feels like an action climax that was grafted on to the end of the episode because all those talking head scenes allowed the production team to come in under budget for a change.
There are a few elements of The Truth that work. The most obvious is the fact that the particulars of Mulder’s trial are more interesting than the trial itself. Mulder is arrested by military police after breaking into Mount Weather to expose vital information. Once captured, Mulder is detained in a prison facility where he is beaten into submission. “No sleeping!” a guard declares, in brazen defiance of various laws regarding the treatment of prisoners. (“I want answers!” he demands at another point, suggesting that he might simply be an angry fan.)
Scully is shocked at the way that Mulder has been treated. “How long has he been here?” Scully asks. Skinner is unable to answer. “I’m trying to get someone to say,” he offers. When Scully asks where the information came from, Skinner can provide no further details. “I don’t know; I just know that Mulder’s being held here indefinitely.” It seems like Mulder’s rights are suspended, that he has no real legal standing. Although never explicitly confirmed, it seems likely he is being held under anti-terrorism legislation.
The conditions of Mulder’s captivity reflect contemporary concerns about the treatment of captives during the War on Terror. Camp X Ray had opened in January 2002, for the express purpose of holding suspected terrorists without trial. The lack of due process (and other allegations of impropriety) immediately generated controversy:
With the help of binoculars, some of the detainees could be seen slumped motionless in the corner of their pens. The only apparent sign of life was on the west side of the cell block where the prisoners were trying to fix their sheets to the chain-link walls of their cages to take the edge off the intense evening sun, and arguing with the guards, who wanted to keep them in sight, over how high they could hang their makeshift blinds.
In six plywood watchtowers positioned along the outer ring of two perimeter fences, snipers trained their rifles on these encounters, as if the detainees might at any moment break through the wire with their bare hands and mount a mutiny.
It may not amount to torture, but the cramped metal cages baking in tropical heat in the US base in Guantanamo Bay seemed to belong to another more brutal era. This is a sort of Caribbean gulag, and without doubt the scene before us would raise concern if it was being run by any other country.
Mulder’s treatment calls to mind reports of torture (“enhanced interrogation”) that would stem from this culture of detention without trial. Similarly, the Bush administration’s decision to try some of these terror suspects by military tribunal rather than through the civilian courts is reflected in the hearing that Mulder faces throughout The Truth.
The details of Mulder’s captivity are actually far more interesting than the actual hearing itself. Even Kersh seems taken aback by the lengths to which the military establishment can go. “A fair hearing for your agent by his own agency,” General Suveg instructs Kersh. “Your prosecutor, your judges. Held in my court.” Kersh simply responds, “That can’t be legal.” Of course it is. Later on, Kersh advises Skinner, “Both the panel’s judgments and rulings are sovereign, Mister Skinner. There is no record.”
It is quite impressive how willing the ninth season mythology was to engage with post-9/11 realities. The whole “super soldier” plot thread put The X-Files at a bit of a disadvantage when it came to offering biting social criticism of the Bush administration. After all, the whole “super soldiers” plot centres upon the infiltration of the United States by a sinister outside force rather than the abuse of power by a politic elite; on the surface, the ninth season mythology would seem to align with a reactionary counter-terrorist narrative.
The ninth season has worked very hard to use the framework of the mythology to comment upon the nascent War on Terror. Trust No 1 is more insightful now than it was on initial broadcast, offering a chillingly prescient glimpse into the future of surveillance culture. Provenance and Providence touch on issues relating to religious extremism on both sides of the political divide, suggesting that even the “faith-based” Bush administration might need to watch its religiously-charged language.
The Truth is even more explicit in its politics. The colonists are none-too-subtly aligned with Bush administration and the military establishment. When Kersh shows some reluctance to go along with this farce, General Suveg is quick to put him back in his place. “You and I both know there are forces inside the government now that a man would be foolish to disobey,” General Suveg reflects. It is obviously a reference to the colonists who have infiltrated the government, but also seems like an allusion to the more hawkish elements of the Bush administration.
The episode makes another veiled reference in the second half, as Mulder and Scully are afforded one last conversation with the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Reflecting on his new surroundings, the Cigarette-Smoking Man confesses, “It’s the final refuge. The last place to hide from those who are insidiously taking power now.” Again, it is a reference to the colonists, but it also feels like a pointed piece of political commentary referring to the emerging political status quo. Even the Cigarette-Smoking Man is uncomfortable with the Bush administration.
It is worth noting that The Truth is saying this at a point in time when it was provocative to criticise the Bush administration. President George W. Bush still had the approval of approximately three-quarters of the American public when The Truth was broadcast. Although that figure would decline significantly in the months and years ahead, it was still higher than the approval rating that President Bill Clinton held at any point during his own term in office. It is reassuring to know that The X-Files still had some teeth.
Indeed, The Truth originally ended with a scene between the Toothpick Man and George W. Bush, cementing the ties between the colonists and the establishment. Whereas Three Words suggested that the White House was under threat, The Truth reveals that it has been taken. Alan Dale recalls:
We actually shot the final scene. They completely built the Oval Office and I was in the Oval Office with President Bush – they got that famous guy that’s a Bush lookalike and they cast him in it – and we did this scene, the end of The X-Files, which in the end they didn’t use. And I think they did seven different scenes like that and then decided which one to use so no one could guess how it was going to end.
Cutting the scene was probably a good decision, allowing the episode to close on a conversation between Mulder and Scully. Nevertheless, the scene makes the politics of the ninth season quite clear. The X-Files is not swept up in the War on Terror, despite the patriotic overtones of the eighth season.
There are other elements of The Truth that work, even if they are scattered across the episode and separated by a mountain of continuity. The teaser is surprisingly fun, featuring Mulder’s infiltration of Mount Weather. These short sequences hark back to the exciting action-driven storytelling that defined so many of the classic mythology episodes, and feel like they might justify Mulder’s return. After all, one likes to imagine a whole season full of these sorts of epic adventures and risky sojourns.
It also keeps with the stylistic sensibilities of the ninth season. The ninth season always felt a little cartoonish, particularly when compared to the more grounded earlier seasons. This began with the bright colours and emphasis on “super soldiers” in Nothing Important Happened Today I, but bled through into Burt Reynolds’ appearance as God in Improbable and the manifestation of the house from The Brady Bunch in Sunshine Days. Mulder getting a reintroduction that could have come from a James Bond film fits comfortably with that.
The Mount Weather sequences even look like a Bond villain lair, with lots of manmade infrastructure intersecting with caves. There are some nice primary colours visible while Mulder spies on questionable research, with red and yellow support girders providing a nice visual contrast to the browns and greys of the rock and the steel. The fancy equipment and the rows of old-fashioned computers (not to mention the piping running alongside the corridors) help to make Mount Weather feel like something that escaped from the mind of Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
The introductory sequence is so much more interesting than the trial that the audience wishes the show could have maintained that sort of momentum. Imagine a final episode that set Mulder on a globe-trotting adventure into the heart of darkness to recover the final piece of the puzzle so that he might finally know the truth. It seems far more compelling than an episode where Mulder spends most of his final appearance in an orange prison jumpsuit looked bored out of his mind. (The audience empathises.)
It is also nice to see Mount Weather incorporated into the show’s mythology, even at so late a stage. The base was completed in 1959, and has become a fixture of various conspiracy theories. Milton William Cooper helped to popularise those theories with his 1991 conspiracy thesis, Behold a Pale Horse:
The installation is beneath a mountain and its name is the Western Virginia Office of Controlled Conflict Operations. Its nickname is Mount Weather. It was ordered to be built by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, which is now the Federal Preparedness Agency. Mount Weather was designed in the early ’50s as part of a civil defense program to house and protect the Executive branch of the Federal government. The official name was “The Continuity of Government Program.” Congress has repeatedly tried to discover the real purpose of Mount Weather, but so far has been unable to find out anything about the secret installation. Retired Air Force General Leslie W. Bray, director of the Federal Preparedness Agency, told the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights in September 1975: “I am not at liberty to describe precisely what is the role and the mission and the capability that we have at Mount Weather or at any other precise location.”
In June 1975, Senator John Tunney, California, chairman of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, charged that Mount Weather held dossiers on at least 100,000 Americans. He later alleged that the Mount Weather computers, described as “the best in the world,” can obtain millions of pieces of additional information on the personal lives of American citizens simply by tapping the data stored at any of the other 96 Federal Relocation Centers.
As such, it seems like the perfect base of operations for what the Cigarette-Smoking Man describes as the “secret government.” According to the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Mount Weather will be “where our own secret government will be hiding when it all comes down.”
The return of the Cigarette-Smoking Man is another example of The Truth doing something right. As much as The Truth burdened itself by trying to suture both versions of the mythology together, it was inevitable that the Cigarette-Smoking Man would make an appearance in The Truth in some form or another. The character had been entirely absent since Requiem at the end of the seventh season, but he was too iconic for the show to leave out of a milestone like this. The Cigarette-Smoking Man had been around since The Pilot.
While some of the dialogue in The Truth is cringe-inducing, it is impressive how quickly Chris Carter and William B. Davis find the voice of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The Cigarette-Smoking Man gets some of the best lines of the episode, even warning Mulder and Scully, “My story’s scared every president since Truman in forty-seven.” One of the most enduring villains of the nineties, it feels entirely appropriate that the character should have one last confrontation with Mulder and Scully.
After all, William and The Truth confirm once and for all that Mulder is the biological son of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Given the themes of generational conflict and betrayal that run through The X-Files like a fault line, bringing back the Cigarette-Smoking Man allows Mulder to make something vaguely resembling a journey. Mulder gets to confront his father as an equal, finally knowing everything that his father knows and allowing himself to emerge as a man rather than a boy.
Mulder’s charged confrontation with his father is as much an exorcism as the scene in which the flesh burns from the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s bones. Of course, the scene does not work as well as it might. Mulder’s position is severely undercut by the fact that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is entirely correct to label him a coward and a hypocrite. In keeping that horrific secret, Mulder embraces his father’s philosophy rather than rejecting it. Mulder accepts the power that his father so cravenly claimed.
While the reappearance of the Cigarette-Smoking Man works well enough, the other guest appearances feel a little forced. Over the course of the episode, Mulder is visited by the ghosts of various characters who died along the way. Krycek appears in the teaser, Mister X appears in the middle, the Lone Gunmen appear towards the climax. Deep Throat and William Mulder are conspicuously absent, suggesting that perhaps The Truth only has room for one father figure. While the urge to include these characters is understandable, it also creates problems.
Most obviously, the ghosts feel like a paranormal element too many in the context of a script about aliens. To be fair, the mythology has always been drawn towards ghosts and phantoms. The connection was strictly metaphorical in Piper Maru and Apocrypha, when Scully suggested that ghosts are ultimately the voice of memory and conscience. However, the connection became more literal in Christmas Carol and Emily when the ghost of Melissa Scully helped to guide Dana Scully towards her biological daughter.
However, the mythology has always been more firmly rooted in political science-fiction than gothic horror. The X-Files worked quite hard to delineate between the more paranormal “monster of the week” stories and the central mythology, with D.P.O. erecting something a wall between the two. The “monster of the week” episodes might mirror the mythology, tackling similar themes and ideas, but they were largely kept separate for most of the show’s run. as such, “… and then the ghosts showed up” feels like too much to heap on top of the episode.
It might have worked better if The Truth were willing to treat the ghosts as an expression of Mulder’s conscience. The best interactions are not plot-driven, with ghost!Krycek resting his hand on Mulder’s shoulder and warning his surrogate brother that this quest runs the risk of getting innocent people (in this case, Marita) killed. There is something interesting in the idea that Mulder’s conscience would take the form of Krycek, but also that his conscience would presume to call him out on all the collateral damage generated by his quest.
Sadly, The Truth is not content to treat its deceased guest characters as metaphorical windows into Mulder’s psyche. It becomes quite clear that the ghosts are not just figments of Mulder’s imagination. For one thing, Mulder first sees ghost!Krycek before he is brutally beaten and tortured, as if to reject the idea that these are stress-induced hallucinations. For another thing, ghost!Krycek can close and lock a door, suggesting he has a tangible form. More than that, ghost!X is able to find Marita Covarrubias when none of the living characters can.
The use of these ghosts feels like an attempt to elevate The Truth towards the mythic. The mythology of The X-Files has always been heavily influenced by Star Wars, and the ghosts in The Truth owe as big a debt to the concept of “force ghosts” as the alien bounty hunter from Colony owes to Bobba Fett or the Cigarette-Smoking Man owes to Darth Vader. The presence of literal ghosts in The Truth feels like an attempt to make the story seem truly epic and expansive. Sadly, the clip show trial format of the episode does not lend itself to such high-mindedness.
More than that, the ghosts become an expression of the religious themes of the episode. The X-Files was always a spiritual show that bordered on the religious. “I want to believe,” suggests Mulder’s poster, rolled up and claimed by Doggett here. Over the course of the show’s nine seasons, it has become increasingly clear that this belief is not secular in nature. Mulder does not want to believe in aliens. Mulder does not want to believe that Samantha is out there. Mulder does not want to believe in the basic decency of mankind.
Mulder wants to believe in God. This is not that much of a surprise. After the cancellation was announced, Chris wrote and directed the episode Improbable, which featured a benign deity played by Burt Reynolds. So the turn that The Truth takes into religious territory is not out of left field. The final scene of the episode finds Mulder and Scully together in a motel room, a nice visual allusion to their first case back in The Pilot. However, it also finds Mulder getting evangelical.
“I want to believe that the dead are not lost to us,” Mulder assures Scully. “That they speak to us as part of something greater than us – greater than any alien force. And if you and I are powerless now, I want to believe that if we listen to what’s speaking, it can give us the power to save ourselves.” From the outset, The X-Files was a show very engaged with questions of spirituality in the nineties. However, that is not spirituality, that is religion. Chris Carter did something similar in his last script for Millennium, Seven and One.
Again, this is not out of character for the show. The end of Conduit found Mulder kneeling in a church. Miracle Man presented Mulder with visions of Samantha at a religious gathering. Scully talked about her fear that God was talking and nobody was listening in Revelations, a theme repeated in both Improbable and The Truth. The mythology has been tied to ideas of religion and notions of God from Red Museum and Fearful Symmetry. Stories like All Souls and Signs and Wonders suggest that absolute and unquestioning faith are good things.
There are points in the run where the show has been more skeptical of unquestioning religious faith, particularly during the eighth season. Roadrunners featured a crazy religious cult in Utah built around a mind-controlling banana slug. Via Negativa and This is Not Happening both featured dangerous religious leaders disgraced by the fact that their doomsday prophecies did not come to fruition. However, this criticism was always tempered. In Provenance and Providence, Josepho’s zealotry is not the issue; the problem is that he prays to the wrong God.
As such, it seemed inevitable that The Truth would end with some sort of religious sentiment or expression. The X-Files was a show about faith and hope, about the power of belief in a cynical world. There are just two problems with this. The most obvious is that Mulder has always been a religious atheist, as demonstrated by his interactions with Scully in episodes like Revelations and All Souls. The show has made the point that his belief in aliens is equivalent to Scully’s religious faith, but this still feels like a sharp U-turn for the character.
The other problem with ending The Truth on an explicitly religious note – and the bigger problem, by far – is the cultural context. The show’s fascination with unquestioning religious faith made sense in the context of the nineties, a time of existential ennui and metaphysical uncertainty. However, things changed during the War on Terror. Unquestioning faith became a lot less appealing when the entire world was confronted by the atrocities that could be committed in the name of such untempered faith. The Truth aired less than a year after 9/11.
Every bit as much as the clip show framing sequence, the decision to wrap up the episode on a religious note marks The Truth (and The X-Files) as something of a pop culture relic. Despite the hard work done by the production team to modernise the show during the eighth season, the ninth season suggested that The X-Files was very much a nineties television show. It was more than just an institution, it was a fossil that had somehow survived into a twenty-first century where it could no longer keep pace.
Perhaps that is the real truth at the heart of The Truth. The nineties were over, and had been for some time. The X-Files was only realising it too late.