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The X-Files – Babylon (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

There are two schools of thought on Babylon.

The first school of thought is that the episode is quintessentially X-Files. It is Chris Carter taking advantage of the flexibility of the show’s form to produce an episode of television that looks utterly unlike anything else on television. This is the series at its most creative and its most gonzo, the free-spirited free association that powered early Carter episodes like Syzygy, The Post-Modern Prometheus, Triangle, Fight Club, First Person Shooter and Improbable. It is crazy and “out there”, but… well, so is the truth.

Party on, Mulder.

Party on, Mulder.

The second school of thought is that the episode is spectacularly and recklessly ill-judged. Although undoubtedly well-intentioned, Chris Carter produces a script that is deeply problematic and even potentially inflammatory. Given that so much of the script hinges on the idea that thoughts have “mass” and that ideas can be dangerous, the resulting episode is definitely clumsy and borderline reckless in its exploration of a sensitive issue. This is just as problematic as “classic” episodes like Teso Dos Bichos, Teliko or Badlaa.

Both of these things can be true.

"... I just don't think it'll understand..."

“… I just don’t think it’ll understand…”

Babylon deals with the hot-button issue of Islam extremism. Chris Carter’s script was explicitly inspired by the terrorist attack on the Curtis Culwell Centre in Garland Texas in May 2015. The attack saw two gunmen opening fire on the art gallery that was hosting a “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” with a $10,000 prize for the best illustration of the Prophet Muhammad. The incendiary contest was part of a wave of highly offensive “free speech” protests against Islamic objections to depictions of the Prophet Mohammad.

There is a larger context for all of this, of course. In September 2005, conservative Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. In January 2010, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was attacked and almost killed by an extremist wielding an axe. In January 2015, four cartoonists were killed by gunmen in an attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. In February 2015, a gunman in Copenhagen opened fire on a panel featuring cartoonist Lars Vilks.

A hot button issue.

A hot button issue.

In the case of the attack upon the Curtis Culwell Centre, the terrorist organisation Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would claim credit for the violence and carnage. It was the first documented ISIS attack on American soil, although their level of involvement and planning in the attack would be debated by experts. It would not be the last time that ISIS took credit for an attack on America soil, claiming involvement in the San Bernardino attacks of December 2015 and the Orlando nightclub attacks in June 2016.

In all of these cases, there is some debate over how involved this organisation was on the attacks. Did they simply inspire the violence through their propaganda wings, attaching their brand to acts of brutality in order to raise their profile? Or were they actively involved in the planning and orchestration of these horrific atrocities? Nevertheless, these high profile attacks stirred up a palpable anxiety hanging in the air about the possibility of violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists in the United States.

"This is about to get all 24 up in here."

“This is about to get all 24 up in here.”

At the same time, there was a shift in the political rhetoric taking place. Donald Trump had launched his campaign in June 2015. Part of his campaign launch was built around a host of nationalist xenophobic rhetoric concerning immigration from Mexico to the United States. In July 2015, Trump alleged that “the worst elements in Mexico are being pushed into the United States by the Mexican government.” In August 2015, two men were arrested for beating a homeless immigrant with a pipe while reportedly praising Trump’s anti-immigration platform.

This heightened and racially-charged rhetoric inevitably turned towards Muslims. It should be noted that reports of hate crimes against Muslim Americans had increased steadily following 9/11, but that recent years have seen a sharp escalation in the rhetoric employed against them. It was not long before Trump and his campaign began to single out Muslims. Most notably, Trump suggested a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States as part of his campaign platform in December 2015.

"Sorry. Jack Bauer was busy this week."

“Sorry. Jack Bauer was busy this week.”

It should be noted that Trump largely built his political brand upon xenophobia. He gained a lot of credibility in far right circles for his support of the “birther” conspiracy, the popular right-wing rumour that Barrack Obama was not born in the United States and thus not legally capable of holding the Oval Office. It should be noted that these charges were not leveled at previous leaders like George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. It seems fair to note that the biggest difference between Obama and these Presidents is his skin colour.

Apparently one in five Americans believe that Obama was not born in the United States. This racial anxiety overlaps with Islamophobia. The “birther” myth is closely linked with the far right conspiracy theory that Obama is secret a Muslim. Almost one in three Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim, despite his professed Christian faith. Left unspoken in these conspiracy theories, the Islamophobic implication is that Obama is a secret Muslim involved in a conspiracy against the United States.

Yes. We're going to be talking about Trump here.

Don’t worry. There’s no way Trump can win. Surely. Probably.

All of this latent xenophobia (and the subset of Islamophobia) had been fermenting in the background for years, dating back to the election of President Obama or the 9/11 attacks or even further. However, the current election cycle seemed to draw these ideas out into the open. While these rumours had long been circulated on the far corners of the internet or whispered in meetings of the Tea Party, Trump was stating them in the heart of the Republican Party. In June 2016, he all but directly accused Obama of colluding with ISIS.

It was not just Trump. In fact, Trump proved to be something of a stalking horse, who could lead these vile (and previously unthinkable) ideas into the open. Far from forging a safeguard against his Islamophobic policies, the Republican Party quickly began pandering. Ted Cruz suggested that the government administer religious tests to Syrian refugees to ensure that only the “right” refugees would be accepted into the country. Paul Rand advocated limiting immigration from thirty-three Muslim majority countries.

Blistering debate.

Blistering debate.

There were indications that this was not a phenomenon exclusive to the United States. The United Kingdom Independence Party became the country’s third biggest political party in the May 2015 election, despite having a leader who was willing to defend the use of racist slurs on live radio. The Syrian refugee crisis was causing immigration anxiety (and Islamophobic tension) across Europe. By the end of 2015, the United Kingdom was preparing for a referendum on EU membership that would become a battleground about race and migration.

This was the political climate in which Babylon aired. It seems fair to suggest that any episode of television looking to explore Islamic extremism needed to be very careful about how it framed that particular argument. No matter how well-intentioned, it would be very easy for an hour of television exploring these themes to appear ham-fisted as best and offensive at worst. This was particularly true of network television, where nuanced and complex explorations of religion were typically avoided in favour of broad generalisations.

"Hey, terrorist... terrorise this."

“Hey, terrorist… terrorise this.”

Historically, American media has demonstrated a clear bias against Islam. (This bias is not limited to Fox News.) This is particularly true when compared to other religions like Christianity or Judaism. This bias applies to film and television as well. Jon Ronson observes that Middle Eastern actors have reconciled themselves to landing roles playing generic terrorists:

Then Waleed says something you don’t often hear actors say, because most actors regard their competition with dread: “Whenever it’s that kind of role and we see each other at the auditions, it’s so comforting. We’re not in this alone. We’re in this together.”

We’re in this together. By this Waleed is referring to a uniquely demeaning set of circumstances. I’m sure practically all actors, Muslim or otherwise, feel degraded. Most have no power over their careers—what roles they can play, how their performances are edited. But Muslim actors are powerless in unusually hideous ways. The last time one became a big star in America was back in 1962—Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. These days they get offered terrorist roles and little else. And we—the paying public—barely even notice, much less worry about it. Where’s the outrage? There is none, except from the actors themselves. These roles are ethically nightmarish for them, and the stress can wreak havoc on their lives. Waleed’s father, for instance, threatened never to talk to him again if he ever played a terrorist.

It seems like the most high-profile Middle Eastern roles in film and television are all related to terrorism. This was the case even before 9/11, with many of the actors interviewed by Ronson pointing to Executive Decision as the “ground zero” of stereotypical terrorist roles. However, there are plenty of other examples, from The Siege to 24 to Homeland.

A poison pill.

A poison pill.

This trend is so noticeable that it has become part of a larger discussion about America’s relationship with it Islamic citizens. In February 2016, less than a fortnight before the broadcast of Babylon, President Obama even made a point of broaching it during a speech at the Islamic Centre in Baltimore:

“Part of what we have to do is to lift up the contributions of the Muslim-American community not when there’s a problem, but all the time,” Obama said. “Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security. It’s not that hard to do.”

“There was a time when there were no black people on television and you can tell good stories while still representing the realities of our communities.”

The day after Babylon aired, John Kerry reiterated that sentiment. It should be noted that Babylon features precisely one Muslim character who is not involved in a massive suicide bombing plot, demonstrating that there are still ways to go.

"I found her! I found the one Muslim character not directly involved in the plot!"

“I found her! I found the one Muslim character not directly involved in the plot!”

To be fair, featuring an Islamic extremist is not enough to make a production Islamophobic of itself. There are plenty of Islamic extremists in the world doing horrible things; one need only look to Iraq or Syria or Paris or Orlando. It is absurd to suggest that these topics should be ruled “off limits” to writers and artists, that any attempt to explore them should be dismissed out of hand. This type of religious extremism clearly a subject that weighs on the public’s consciousness, and good art must be willing to engage with subjects that weigh on public consciousness.

And, also to be fair, there is a sense that Chris Carter is acutely aware of the dangers of this rising tension. The reconfiguring of the mythology in My Struggle I and My Struggle II seems intended to tone down the more xenophobic elements of the show’s original colonisation arc in favour of a narrative of class conflict. That idea of class seems to bubble through the rest of the miniseries as well, most notably in the victimisation of the homeless in Home Again and in the invisibility of service staff in Founder’s Mutation.

You know. Coming up with puns and joke captions for this episode isn't easy.

You know. Coming up with puns and joke captions for this episode isn’t easy.

Even within Babylon itself, Carter is explicitly mindful of the damage that can be caused by rhetoric. “Do you believe that thoughts have mass?” Mulder asks Agent Einstein at one point in the episode. “Neo-Darwinists believe that every word spoken, every thought, every perception, lest I misperceive, is a step in the evolution of mankind.” In the context of the episode, with its focus on hatred and violence, it seems like Carter is acknowledging that words and ideas can have consequences and cause harm.

Indeed, this is a theme that Carter carries over from Home Again. In that episode, Glen Morgan featured what was literally a killer idea made flesh; the Band-Aid Nose Man was a literal manifestation of anger and violence wrecking havoc upon those who prey upon the homeless. Babylon is quite explicitly tied to Home Again, to the point that Carter includes a shot of Scully holding her mother’s coin necklace while on the phone with Miller. Scully describes her attempts to communicate with the comatose Shiraz as “a personal quest” based upon the loss of her mother.

"You had what kind of dream about me?"

“You had what kind of dream about me, Agent Mulder?”

This is not the only pronounced connection that exists between Babylon and the rest of the miniseries. At the end of the episode, Mulder and Scully talk about the difficulty in reconciling their experiences. Mulder had a “woo-woo paranormal” trip, while Scully moved through a more mundane world. “I saw things, though, Scully,” Mulder insists. “Powerful things. I saw deep and unconditional love.” Scully responds, “I saw things, too. I witnessed unqualified hate that appears to have no end.”

“But how to reconcile the two?” Mulder wonders. This conversation seems to echo the themes of Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. In that episode, Mulder laments the tired mundane slog of the real world, only for Guy Mann to convince him that there must be more. If there is magic in the world, that means there is more than what mankind can see. In the case of Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster, there is more than loneliness and pain. In the case of Babylon, there is more than hate.

Among the fields of gold.

Among the fields of gold.

The six episodes of the X-Files revival stand quite apart from one another. There is no single unifying plot. At the same time, there are certain points of thematic overlap. Although each of the writers worked on their scripts separately, they did pitch them to one another in Glen Morgan’s backyard:

We would just sit in my backyard and tell each other what we wanted to do, and we used the system of putting index cards with the plot points on a big board and we set them out and everyone would say, what if that went there, what if this went here. We really were trying to be encouraging to each other and be supportive.

In fact, Carter made a point to write both Babylon and My Struggle II after he had read the scripts for Home AgainMulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster and Founder’s Mutation. As a result, it makes sense that he would incorporate connections, even thematic connections.

One world.

One world.

My Struggle II is more closely tied to My Struggle I than any of the other episodes, but Carter positions Babylon as the nexus of the season. Although it was broadcast as the fifth of six episodes, it was produced as the fourth in the season. It was positioned at the half-way point of the year. Scully’s interest in Shiraz is explicitly tied to the death of her mother in Home Again. The final discussion of the elevation of the spiritual over the human mirrors Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. The doomsday trumpet heralds the apocalypse of My Struggle II.

It is an interesting sort of continuity, one quite distinct from the form of tightly interwoven plotting that most viewers expect from contemporary television. It speaks to an overlap in thematic ideas, which is something that was quite common during the initial run of the show, with the fifth season’s fascination with monstrous children or the seven season’s recurring engagement with the idea of the unreal. The revival miniseries is too short to really follow these ideas to their conclusions, but they are definitely there.

The spirit of reconciliation.

The spirit of reconciliation.

As such, Babylon makes a point to carry over that theme of dangerous ideas from Home Again. More than that, the script emphatically rejects the politics of hate and bigotry. Agent Miller is presented as a younger version of Mulder, and apparently shares some of Mulder’s naivety and romance about the way that the world works. “They’ve come here for retribution,” he remarks of the mysterious Homeland Security agents. He is horrified by Agent Brem’s Islamophobia. “This boy can hear everything you’re saying, and we’re trying to win his trust and talk to him.”

(Quite pointedly, Agent Brem’s Islamophobic remarks can also be heard by the nurse who later tries to murder Shiraz. She is shown to be listening at various points in the conversation. There is an implied connection there, as Agent Brem’s disdain and contempt for Shiraz bleeds through to create an environment in which the racist nurse feels perfectly comfortable turning off the young man’s life support machine. There is a sense that this culture of fear and hatred is institutionalise, bleeding from the top down.)

"Well, thank goodness these things aren't alarmed or anything."

“Well, thank goodness these things aren’t alarmed or anything.”

At the same time, it seems fair to ask whether The X-Files is really the best show to explore these questions. Put simply, The X-Files is a very white television show. The show’s production staff has historically been predominantly white and male. The show’s cast is predominantly white, to the point that all three credited leads (and they two new recurring characters) featured in Babylon are white. The vast majority of the show’s guest cast is white, although the revival has made a conscious emphasis to include more diverse guest actors.

The show is, by and large, told from a predominantly middle-class white perspective. Non-white perspectives are traditionally treated as something alien, usually as the source of the “monster of the week.” There are entire episodes built around exploring subcultures and their monsters, but even fairly generic episodes like Excelsis Dei or Alpha make a point to import the threat of the week from a foreign culture. The mythology occasionally turned to Native American culture as a vehicle for new age mysticism in stories like The Blessing Way.

"Oh boy. I haven't had one of these since The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati."

“Oh boy. I haven’t had one of these since The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.”

This is true even beyond issues of race. In the episode Gender Bender, Mulder and Scully immediately deduce that the killer who was sleeping with both male and female victims must be able to switch genders because bisexuals obviously had not been invented by January 1994. X-Cops offered the show’s first glimpse of a gay couple in February 2000, which was a hugely stereotypical (yet admittedly affectionate) portrayal. This is to say nothing of the homophobia and transphobia rippling through The X-Files: I Want to Believe, released in July 2008.

To be fair, sometimes these stories can work well. Fresh Bones is a Haitian voodoo horror that writes around its exploitation tendencies by literally writing cultural appropriation into the script. Hell Money is a story about how little Mulder and Scully actually understand these cultures into which they blunder. However, the success rate is questionable, at best. For every Fresh Bones, there is The Calusari or Teso Dos Bichos. For every Hell Money, there is El Mundo Gira or Teliko.

"Still, it's not as bad as Fight Club, right? I mean, we haven't had any nonsensical doppelgangers show up yet, right?"

“Still, it’s not as bad as Fight Club, right? I mean, we haven’t had any nonsensical doppelgangers show up yet, right?”

It is no wonder that the show steered away from these stories when it moved to Los Angeles at the start of the sixth season. Starting with Drive, it seemed like the show’s “monster of the week” stories had a renewed interest in class conflict over ethnic subcultures. The show’s last “ethnic monster” episode was really Badlaa during the eighth season, and even that touched faintly on issues of class by having its monstrous Indian fakir disguise himself as a mute janitor once he visited the United States.

By and large, the revival miniseries has remained more interested in class than race. This demonstrated by the revived conspiracy’s fixation on class rather than hybridisation, or through the working class monsters in both Founder’s Mutation and Home Again. Even Babylon reinforces the idea of the new mythology as class warfare in its handling of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. During Mulder’s hallucination, the Cigaratte-Smoking Man is cast as Charon on the River Styx, operating a ferry service for the living and the dead.

"He's behind me, isn't he...?"

“He’s behind me, isn’t he…?”

This is the character’s first appearance since the closing scene of My Struggle I and his first interaction with Mulder in fourteen years. Unsurprisingly, given the thematic fixations of Carter’s work on The After, Carter’s portrayal of Cigarette-Smoking-Man-as-Charon draws from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante cast Charon as a cruel taskmaster with little patience for his subjects’ procrastination. (“…each, that lingers, with his oar strikes.”) There is an element of that to the portrayal of the Cigarette-Smoking Man here.

Given the revelations coming in My Struggle II, there is a lot of symbolism in casting the Cigarette-Smoking Man in a role equivalent to the Grim Reaper; the Cigarette-Smoking Man will soon play the ferryman to all mankind. Still, there is more the sequence than allusions to Dante or Greek mythology. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is also cast in a role more specifically American than that of Charon on the River Styx. Carter is quite fond of mixing and matching his archetypes, framing a Muslim mother and son in a mock-up of the Pietà inside a Greek myth.

A Pieta the action...

A Pieta the action…

Holding a whip rather than an oar, the Cigarette-Smoking Man is cast as a slave-driver. The image of a white man with a whip taking people on a boat to a far away land is visceral and loaded, even before delving into the fact that the oarsmen are all clad in black and the passenger on the boat is not white. Slavery is one of the defining images of American capitalism. Slavery has long haunted the American consciousness, but recent years have seen popular culture particularly interested in grappling with the legacy of slavery.

To pick a few arbitrary examples of popular culture’s renewed fascination with the topic, Django Unchained won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2013, while 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar in March 2014. Even this year, there is considerable Oscar buzz around slavery drama Birth of a Nation. The WGN found great critical success with their slavery heist drama Underground, launched March 2016. The History Channel remade the hugely influential miniseries Roots, premiering in June 2016.

The man in black.

The man in black.

Slavery could be described as “America’s original sin”, and remains the root of a whole host of lingering social and economic injustices. It is worth noting that the only physical evidence that Mulder carries back from his vision quest is the scar of the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s whip. The revival miniseries makes much of the Cigarette-Smoking Man as a representative (or embodiment) of the “elite.” Using the character’s only appearance outside of My Struggle I and My Struggle II to tie him to slavery imagery creates a thematic thread. Power has always been tied up in ideas of class.

All of this serves to create an implied intersection of class and race that is layered and complex, without being crass or offensive. The X-Files has typically suggested that America’s darkest secrets can be traced back to the Second World War, so it is interesting to see Mulder’s vision creating a richer historical context for these abuses. There have always been powerful men dominating those they deem lesser. The Spartan virus is just the latest iteration of the whip In some ways, that small scene with the Cigarette-Smoking Man is the most powerful and potent sequence in Babylon.

Pushing the boat out...

Pushing the boat out…

Unfortunately, the skill with which Carter handles the metaphorical imagery in Mulder’s hallucination only underscores how clumsily the episode handles its themes with regard to Islam. Other episodes in the revival miniseries have been quite conscious of the blindspots of nineties television. Founder’s Mutation featured two gay characters who were handled more matter-of-factly than any on the original show. Home Again finds Mulder calling the Trash Man out on his attempts to appropriate Tibetian culture to absolve himself of responsibility.

In short, a lot of the revival seems to be aware that the standards and expectations of television have evolved in the twenty-first century. It is no longer acceptable for high-profile prime-time shows to trade in stock stereotypes or crude caricatures. Although still far from perfect, modern television demonstrates increased sensitivity to portrayals of race and religion. Network television has come a long way since the nineties. All of this serves to make the clumsier elements of Babylon particularly striking.

CGI has come a long way, though.

CGI has come a long way, though.

Watching Chris Carter’s work on the revival, it feels as though his aesthetic is still rooted in 1997 and 1998. Mulder and Scully are using smart phones, there are topical references to drones and Edward Snowden, the content of the show has been updated. But Founder’s Mutation is the only episode that feels like a modern piece of television. My Struggle I and My Struggle II seek to take the mythology back to the heady days of Redux I and Redux II; the episodes are paced in the style of older television shows; the credit sequence is almost a frame-for-frame recreation.

However, Babylon feels as thrilled and excited to be focusing on a Muslim American as Teliko was feature characters from Burkina Faso or El Mundo Gira was to focus on a pair of Mexican labourers. There is a sense that the episode is fascinated by them. Mark Snow’s score even regresses back to its nineties sensibilities, turning up the “ethnic” vibe during the teaser just in case the audience misses that this is not a generic white guy. There is a sense watching the episode that Babylon is aiming to be “the Muslim one.” Also being “the terrorist one” makes it problematic.

Don't worry. He's a bout to get eaten by a swamp monster. Any moment now.

Don’t worry. He’s a bout to get eaten by a swamp monster. Any moment now.

As Zack Handlen notes in his review of the episode, the teaser to Babylon serves to make Shiraz monstrous in a way that leans rather heavily on his faith:

Babylon opens with a young man praying to Allah. It’s a peaceful, lovely sequence which only becomes disturbing in context. If we’d never seen a TV show before, or watched a modern action movie, we might be forgiven for assuming the man we are seeing is about to be the victim of a monster of the week. Or, if we’re familiar with The X-Files, maybe we’d assume he’s about to make a horrible mistake that turns him into a monster. Technically, this is what happens, but at the end of the cold open, the young man becomes a monster of a familiar sort: a suicide bomber who blows up a museum with a fellow believer.

The opening shot of Babylon is Shiraz reciting his morning prayer. It is the first time that The X-Files has featured a prominent and explicitly Muslim character or a prayer to Allah. It all leads to a suicide bombing.

Yep. Any moment now.

Yep. Any moment now.

This issue is compounded by the fact that The X-Files has never featured a Muslim character before. This is the only time that the show has directly engaged with Islam as a religion. There is something rather problematic with the fact that the only time that The X-Files has allowed a character to express their faith in Allah is right before taking a morning trip to strap on a suicide vest and target an art gallery full of innocent people. As noted above, even within this episode, there is only one Muslim character not directly tied to a massive terrorist plot.

To be fair, every character in Babylon is a caricature of some description. It seems like virtually every white person in Texas is obligated to wear a cowboy hat, to the point that Mulder is issued one on arriving at a country and western bar. (A deleted scene reveals that Mulder “appropriates” one from a patron at the bar.) Between the racist nurse and the government agents, and even Miller and Einstein, every single character in Babylon is painted as a one-dimensional archetype.

That Mulder is a real cowboy.

That Mulder is a real cowboy.

By this logic, why are the Muslim characters any different? There are a whole host of answers to this question. Being earnest, it is not as if the stereotypical portrayal of white Texans corresponds with a significant growth in hate crimes against that particular ethnic group. Being flippant, it is not as though white people are under-represented in the twenty-odd-year history of The X-Files. There are plenty of other episodes featuring multi-faceted nurses and federal employees. This is perhaps a more important point than it first appears.

There is a certain degree of empathy required here. Imagine if Signs and Wonders were the only portrayal of Christianity on The X-Files; imagine if the show stripped away Scully’s faith, or the playful trickster God of Improbable, or the spiritual communion of Closure. Imagine if the show’s only depiction of Christianity were abusive and patriarchal and absolutist, contemptuous of outsiders and confrontational. Then imagine that there were very few portrayals of Christian values on television that weren’t abusive and patriarchal and absolutist.

"No, Scully. I'm sure I can take care of myself while you follow up with Agent Miller. No, I promise I won't get high. Well. Maybe a little."

“No, Scully. I’m sure I can take care of myself while you follow up with Agent Miller. No, I promise I won’t get high. Well. Maybe a little.”

Or, to pick a broader example for this thought experiment, imagine if Home were the only portrayal of rural white people on The X-Files; imagine if the show cut out the affectionate portrayal of isolated rural life in episodes like Humbug or Quagmire. Imagine if every white rural community on The X-Files were portrayed as a nest of incest and violence. Imagine that this were the dominant portrayal across television as a whole. No Andy Griffith Show, no Picket Fences, not even a Twin Peaks.

These thought experiments are almost impossible, because American popular culture is saturated with an abundance of diverse and multi-faceted portrayals of Christianity and rural life. However, in spite of the abundance of white male characters (and narratives about white male characters) in popular culture, attempts to introduce diversification are frequently portrayed as attacks. The decision to do an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters. The possibility of a black James Bond. Making Furiosa the lead in Mad Max: Fury Road.

"I got a fever. And the only perscription... is magic mushrooms."

“I got a fever. And the only perscription… is magic mushrooms.”

This is a culture in which the straight white male is treated as the narrative default, and yet still provokes a controversy whenever films or television branch away from that template. There is a vocal segment of fandom still mad at the prospect of a Star Wars film headlined by a white woman and a black man, in spite of the fact that they can look almost anywhere (including the other Star Wars films) to find straight white male protagonists. Imagine how much frustration would build up if the vast majority of roles available were terrorists and mothers of terrorists.

This is not to suggest that the answer is “tokenism” or that minorities can never be cast as antagonists. To pick a random X-Files adjacent example, consider Gustavo Fring from Breaking Bad. Fring is easily one of the best television bad guys of the new millennium, played by African-American-Italian actor Giancarlo Esposito. Fring is not a caricature or stereotype, he is fully fleshed out and developed character in his own right. Although his background is kept mysterious, he is one of the most compelling figures in the show.

Getting the lay of the land.

Getting the lay of the land.

Diversity in representation is important. There are storytelling reasons why it is important, because it opens up unlimited possibilities. There is infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Unique perspectives make for unique stories. However, it is also important from a social point of view. It means a lot for children to be able to look at film and television and see multifaceted characters who look and sound like they do. Uhura on Star Trek inspired African American women as diverse as Mae Jemison and Whoopi Goldberg.

In its own way, Babylon clearly understands this. The episode repeatedly suggests that disenfranchised and radicalised young men like Shiraz are made to feel like outsiders. In the teaser, pretty girls refuse to return a smile while other drivers make racist remarks. As one of the bomb makers works on a suicide vest, two American news presenters (one black and one white) banter viciously back and forth without any attempt to actually engage with the community over which they are fighting.

"Sure, he can hear me. And that might be a problem if he wakes up. That's why I've only been using my sarcastic voice while being Islamophobic. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to outfox Agent Brem."

“Sure, he can hear me. And that might be a problem if he wakes up. That’s why I’ve only been using my sarcastic voice while being Islamophobic. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to outfox Agent Brem.”

Babylon is all about the ambient hatred and anger that Shiraz soaked up, that must have slowly poisoned him. Even in his coma, he listens to Agent Brem making casually racist assumptions. “There’s a large and unassimilated Muslim community in the area, with one shared wish,” he states, as Shiraz lies comatose and listening. “To wipe you and America off the map. To honour their hero, Osama bin Laden, whose picture we find all too frequently on their refrigerators.” That is the background noise of contemporary culture, Babylon seems to suggest.

Babylon suggests that the key to peaceful coexistence is in communication. The episode makes repeated reference to the legend of the Tower of Babel and the curse of misunderstanding. The terrorists are hiding out in the “Babylon Motel.” The art gallery is called the “Ziggurat”, a reference to the ancient Babylon architectural style. However, Babylon suggests that the best resolution to this chaos and anxiety is simply to listen to one another. Mulder listens to Shiraz, much like Noora listens to her so. Through listening, the crisis is defused.

Zigg-Zagguraut.

Zigg-Zaggurat.

This theme of communication bubble through the episode. Indeed, Carter reinforces this theme of broken down communication in Babylon and My Struggle II by keeping Mulder and Scully separate from one another until the climaxes of the episodes in question. As demonstrated by The After, and suggested by Millennium, it seems like Carter believes that the apocalypse is most likely to manifest itself through the breakdown of established orders and systems. Having Mulder and Scully interact more with ersatz counterparts than each other plays into this.

Indeed, this difficulty with communication is most apparent during the scene with the two Homeland Security agents. It is a weird scene, and intentionally so. There is no real communication between the two agents and Miller. Their motives are obtuse, their identities impenetrable. After all, if these agents are really from the Department of Homeland Security, then why is Agent Brem necessary later in the episode? Why do they speak Arabic to one another, except to underscore the theme of miscommunication. It is a surreal touch in an episode full of them.

"Ah, it's this new camera app. Not sure if it's working right."

“Ah, it’s this new camera app. Not sure if it’s working right.”

However, there are points at which Babylon seems to fall short of its own lofty ambitions. What if Shiraz had flicked through the television channels and turned on Babylon? Would he have felt any more included? Or would he have felt talked over? Would he have looked at a piece of popular culture that first turned its attention to Islam so that it could build a story about a suicide bomber? It seems fair to suggest that some of the storytelling and creative decisions in Babylon are deeply problematic and undercut the episode’s more important themes.

At the same, it is clear that Carter is well-intentioned. This is obvious even during the opening scene. As Shiraz prays, Carter is sure to translate the prayer for the audience. It is not portrayed as something indecipherable and alien. It is just a different religious custom. Towards the end of the prayer, Shiraz repeats, “Peace and mercy of Allah be upon you.” The fact that Carter translated this line and emphasised its role as part of the daily prayer seems like a clear acknowledgement that Islam is a religion distinct from the rhetoric of hate groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda.

What drives a man to hate?

What drives a man to hate?

However, Carter never quite gets past this hurdle in his handling of Shiraz. Shiraz never feels like a character. He feels like a plot device. Even when discussing the episode in Season X, Carter talks about Shiraz primarily in terms of his relationship with Noora:

I’m interested in the idea of the recruiting of people by Muslim extremist groups. And that while there are people’s sons and daughters being enlisted, we don’t think much about their parents and what they must think. And that when you become a suicide bomber, that your parents gave you life, and that you are using that life for something that is heinous in my mind. It has a homegrown terrorist event, much like the bombing of an art gallery in Texas in this past year.

Given that Shiraz is the Muslim character at the centre of the story, it is frustrating that the episode never quite gets past a characterisation of Shiraz that extends no further than “suicide bomber” and “son of Noora.” There is never a real exploration of his experiences or his perspective or his motivations.

Mother's mercy.

Mother’s mercy.

This causes a great deal of trouble at the climax. The climax of Babylon hinges on forgiveness and reconciliation. Chris Carter is asking the audience to extend their empathy to a would-be suicide bomber. In some respects, this mirrors the ending of I Want to Believe. The second X-Files film featured a convicted paedophile priest who assisted in a monstrous murder investigation. Carter asked the audience to accept some measure of redemption for Father Joe, to the point that Mulder lamented that the convicted paedophile priest died unrecognised and unmourned.

This is a very bold and ambitious idea of “forgiveness.” Carter is asking a lot from his audience, to forgive a man who put on an explosive vest and decided to participate in the murder of innocent people. Babylon tries to hedge its bets by revealing that Shiraz did not detonate his own vest. “Your heart is too big for them,” Noora cried. “You see the faces of the innocent, and you lose your nerves. You cannot go through with the bomb.” This seems to be supported by the fact that Shiraz is still (mostly) in one piece.

You know, if the FBI can't figure out this guy's vest didn't detonate, no wonder Miller and Einstein seem to be taking lead on this.

You know, if the FBI can’t figure out this guy’s vest didn’t detonate, no wonder Miller and Einstein seem to be taking lead on this.

Even allowing for that small detail, Chris Carter still asks a lot. Shiraz joined an extremist organisation. Shiraz drove to meet his colleague in arms. Shiraz put on a suicide vest. Shiraz drove to a crowded art gallery with another man who was also wearing a suicide vest. Shiraz and his colleague walked into a building populated by innocent people. Shiraz gave no warning. Shiraz showed no hesitation. Shiraz did not try to stop his colleague. Shiraz might not have detonated his own bomb, but he actively enabled the detonation of the bomb worn by his colleague.

As such, this seems like an arbitrary line for forgiveness and reconciliation. Would the Cigarette-Smoking Man be forgiven if he had second thoughts in the last moment of his life, even if he did little to actually stop or reverse the damage he had already caused? It is much harder for the audience to make that leap and forgive Shiraz given that Babylon reveals nothing about him beyond those two overlapping character descriptions, “suicide bomber” and “son of Noora.”

"Yes, I was as shocked as you that Fox only offered Gillian Anderson half of my salary for the revival. Luckily, they had a back-up plan."

“Yes, I was as shocked as you that Fox only offered Gillian Anderson half of my salary for the revival. Luckily, they had a back-up plan.”

So Babylon is a deeply flawed and problematic work, one that often trips over itself in telling the story that it wants to tell and exploring the themes that it wants to explore. And yet, in spite of all that, there is something oddly endearing about Babylon. This is an incredibly earnest attempt to construct a very nineties style “very important episode” that seriously suggests that terrorism might just be defeated if we find it within ourselves to actually listen to on another. Maybe we could take mushrooms and trip balls together.

It is certainly a novel approach to dealing with terrorism. As with certain elements of My Struggle II, there is a sense that Chris Carter is making a none-too-affectionate jab at 24, the show that largely came to replace The X-Files as the centrepiece of Fox’s drama lineup. Jack Bauer would engage in a rampage of torture and brutality to expose the viper’s nest of suicide bombers featured in Babylon, adopting a policy of retribution and revenge. In contrast, Mulder takes some magic mushrooms and preaches about redemption and reconciliation.

"Well, at least we didn't urge you to just give up this time."

“Well, at least we didn’t urge you to just give up this time.”

It is easy to be flippant about the plot of Babylon. Chris Carter’s script makes it easy. At points Babylon feels like it is immune to parody because it plays like self-parody. It is an episode about terrorism that devolves into a trippy hallucination dominated by the male gaze and indulgent cameos from the Lone Gunmen. The contrast between the seriousness of the subject matter and the goofiness of the premise is very much the point, but there is a recurring sense that Babylon runs the risk of impaling itself upon that very point.

There are points at which Carter’s script crosses the line between camp and tasteless. Babylon is fascinated with heart-related imagery. Towards the end of the episode, Scully suggests, “Maybe we should do like the prophets and… open our hearts and truly listen.” Noora talks about how her son has a heart that is too big for him to take innocent life. However, in an episode about suicide bombing, the subset of recurring imagery around opening a person’s chest to get access to their heart feels a little crass.

In the teaser, Shiraz prays that Allah will “open [his] chest” before walking into the gallery. It is an allusion to the communication themes of the episode, lifted directly from The Prayer of Prophet Musa which concludes by wishing “remove the impediment from my speech so that they may understand what I say.” It is certainly appropriate in an episode about the challenges in communicating across cultural and social divides. However, it also seems a little bit too bleak given that Shiraz is planning on detonating a suicide bomb that literally open his chest.

Similarly, this bleakness overshadows another clever thematic connection. During his hallucination, Mulder finds himself line-dancing to the camp country classic Achy Breaky Heart. The song is more than just an affectionate nineties throwback. Its lyrics resonate thematically with the episode around it. “And if you tell me heart, my achy breaky heart,” croons Billy Ray Cyrus, hitting on those themes of communication, “it might blow up and kill this man.” It is a very cheeky inclusion in the episode, but it also feels just a little too glib given the context.

"Don't tell anybody, but Billy Ray Cyrus cracked terrorism."

“Don’t tell anybody, but Billy Ray Cyrus cracked terrorism.”

There are, to be fair, other issues with Carter’s writing. It seems fair to acknowledge that Carter was never the strongest writer on The X-Files, even if he was frequently underrated as a director and an executive producer. Carter’s writing is heavily stylised and quirky, to the point that his dialogue and character work has a heightened feel to it. Quite simply, characters in Chris Carter scripts rarely sound like either real people or television characters. There is an arch quality to Chris Carter’s scripts that can be appealing and infuriating in equal measure.

Consider the sequence early in the episode when Scully converses with Miller about the events of Home Again. She reflects, “This may sound heavy, but this is a bit of a personal quest for me. My mother was in a coma recently, and I wasn’t able to communicate with her, either.” She explains her plan to communicate with Shiraz. “I wish I’d had the presence of mind to think of this when she was still alive. It might’ve solved a mystery that I may never know.” It is a very poetic way of addressing the mystery of the coin that Scully found among Margaret’s belongings.

Home Again again.

Home Again again.

There is a lyricism to the way that Scully talks – “a personal quest for me”, “the presence of mind”, “a mystery that I may never know.” These are all rhetorical embellishments that add an element of (clunky) poetry to what is essentially simple character exposition. When Scully talks about her mother’s death in Glen Morgan’s Home Again, her dialogue is naturalistic and emphasises the mundanity of her loss and the resulting mystery. In Chris Carter’s Babylon, Scully’s dialogue makes the “little question” seem so much bigger. Which somewhat undercuts the point of Home Again.

Another example of Carter’s arch dialogue comes in the parallel conversation between Mulder and Einstein in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. In keeping with the theme of the episode, it seems like Mulder and Einstein are talking around each other. “Ever suck on a lemon, Agent Einstein?” Mulder teases. “Do you feel a sensation right now?” Einstein responds, “I am getting a taste of what Agent Scully must suffer.” No two people on the planet have ever had a conversation like that. Which is not an issue of itself, of course. It is not as if Babylon is particularly grounded.

Mother loving.

Mother loving.

There is a very “stagy” quality to the banter between Mulder and Einstein, a sense that the episode is already disconnected from reality before Mulder pops the first of his magic pills. The issue is not that Carter is eschewing naturalism; after all, very few characters in Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster talk like real people. The issue is that the dialogue simply doesn’t work. It sounds almost like Carter is attempting an impression of Quentin Tarantino signature dialogue, although he doesn’t have the right actors (nor the right directorial touch) to pull it off.

And yet. In spite of all of these flaws, there is a certain charm to Babylon. This is a story that Chris Carter clearly cares a great deal about, and which offers a story that could only be told on The X-Files. Much has been made of the influence of The X-Files on twenty-first century, on everything from CSI to Fringe to Bones to 24. The show casts a long shadow over contemporary television. However, Babylon is a reminder – for both better and worse – that there are somethings that remain unique to The X-Files.

"Why, yes, I though Hollywood A.D. was pretty good too, thank you."

“Why, yes, I though Hollywood A.D. was pretty good too, thank you.”

Most of the big questions about the revival miniseries were fundamental. What does The X-Files mean in the twenty-first century? Would it be an ending? Would it be a single story? Would it wrap up the mythology? Would it be an exercise in nostalgia or something new? The answers to most of these questions were remarkably straightforward. Watching the six episodes of the miniseries, it seemed like the answer was quite simple. “The X-Files revival will be pretty much exactly the same as The X-Files was.”

Sure, there are some changes. My Struggle I takes the standard conspiracy tropes and repackages them for a more fragmented twenty-first century. Founder’s Mutation takes the basic “monster of the week” template and updates it for the new millennium. Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster handles the show’s classic existential themes as gracefully as ever, even if it does sprinkle a healthy helping of nostalgia on top. Home Again is a reminder of the chemistry between Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny sewn into an old-school “monster of the week” story.

Some Skin(man) in the game.

Putting some Skin(man) in the game.

Oddly enough for a show that had been away over a decade, “business as usual” seemed to be the order of the day for these six episodes. In early publicity around the planned revival, Chris Carter described the interregnum as “a thirteen-year commercial break.” There was a sense that Carter was consciously trying to pick up the show exactly where it had left off, with little regard for how television had changed. Carter would not be assuming the role of auteur in the mode of Bryan Fuller or Matthew Weiner. He would do things the way that they had always been done.

This was for better and for worse. The season lacked the cohesion that many audience members had come to expect from contemporary television. There was no singular plot thread running through the year. There were little thematic threads, but nothing that tied the season up in a neat little bow. Tone changed dramatically from one week to the next. The episodes were all very clearly the work of their individual authors, to the point that the Scully talking about her mother’s death in Babylon was hardly the same character who lived through that loss in Home Again.

"Mom's the word."

“Mom’s the word.”

Truth be told, the quality was also highly variable from episode to episode. There was no clear template for what an episode should look like. There were no rules for what an episode would look like. There was no central drive through the six episodes. In many ways, the revival of The X-Files felt rather strange in this era of auteur-driven “peak” television. It looked as alien and as weird as anything that Mulder and Scully had ever chased through the backwoods of Vancouver.

However, there was also an honest to all this, an honesty that is reflected in Babylon. The six episodes that comprise the revival miniseries are as variable in tone and quality as the episodes that marked other points of transition in the run of the show. The variation in tone and quality over the course of the revival season recalls the ping-pong effect at the start of the fourth or sixth seasons. The X-Files had never been a show that was particularly consistent in terms of tone and quality, prone to bouncing around from week to week.

The whole thing was one big misunderstanding. Those rednecks were really just wondering if Shiraz had misplaced the cowboy hat that Texans seem required to wear by law in the world of Babylon.

The whole thing was one big misunderstanding. Those rednecks were really just wondering if Shiraz had misplaced the cowboy hat that Texans seem required to wear by law in the world of Babylon.

Babylon feels very much like The X-Files at its most eccentric and indulgent. It recalls Chris Carter’s most “out there” scripts for episodes like Syzygy, The Post-Modern Prometheus, Triangle, Fight Club, First Person Shooter and Improbable. In evaluating Babylon as part of that larger context, it feels appropriate to concede that Carter’s hit ratio is about fifty percent, although fans and critics will argue about which fifty percent. Nevertheless, there is an ambition to Babylon that is breathtaking, a commitment and confidence that are striking.

However, for all that Babylon features line-dancing and country music, it is still very much an X-Files episode. Indeed, with its echoes and callbacks to episodes like Home Again and Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster, it seems like Carter is positioning Babylon as the heart of the season. For all its goofiness, Babylon is a surprisingly earnest episode of television. For all its dark subject matter, Babylon is incredibly optimistic in its commentary on human nature.

Well, the soundtrack's definitely upbeat.

Well, the soundtrack’s definitely upbeat.

Babylon believes that people are not so different that conflict is inevitable. Babylon suggests that people are still capable of forging connections and feeling empathy, even in this most cynical of moments. Babylon does not engage with the particulars of the War on Terror or the threat of radicalisation. It does not delve into the impact of American foreign policy on the people who detonate suicide bombs. Babylon structures its argument from first principles, and its argument is hopeful: love is stronger than hate, and we can all communicate if we are willing to listen.

In this respect, the episode is almost certainly naive. As important as it is to listen, there are very real and very immediate steps that could be taken to deal with this situation. There are deep-seated attitudes and policies and doctrines on both sides that feed this cycle, and to suggest that “listening” is the answer could be considered reductive and patronising. After all, it is very much the luxury of a Hollywood production filmed in Vancouver written by a former surfer to suggest that all of the world’s problems can be solved by taking magic mushrooms together.

"Okay, I know this looks bad..."

“Okay, I know this looks bad…”

Still, there is an earnestness to Babylon that chips away at this cynicism. Babylon never quite convinces the audience that it understands the mechanics of the politics of hate. (To pick a random example, Doctor Who offered a much more nuanced and skillful evisceration of these same politics in The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion only four months earlier.) However, Babylon does make a much more convincing argument on the general principle that the world would be a much better place if people were open to listening to one another.

This gets right to the heart of The X-Files. Conventional wisdom would suggest that The X-Files is a cynical television show. It is a television series that warns the viewers to “trust no one” while exposing government conspiracies and advocating mistrust of authorities. The X-Files is a show rooted in the paranoia of the seventies, in a public consciousness that never recovered from the twin betrayals of Vietnam and Watergate. However, this is an overly simplistic take on The X-Files. In many ways, The X-Files is a hopelessly romantic show.

Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!

Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!

This is most obvious in Mulder’s character arc. Mulder’s life was shattered with the abduction of Samantha in November 1973. However, Mulder is largely motivated by the belief that he can put that family back together. In a way, Mulder does. At the end of the eighth season, Mulder is shown with Scully and William, the family that he managed to build to replace the one he lost. While “trust no one” is a tagline of the show, it competes with more optimistic mantras like “the truth is out there” or “I want to believe.”

That hope bubbles through Babylon. Mulder and Scully want to believe that the world is a better place. Miller embodies this idealism as he confesses early in the episode, “I just want to believe there’s some way of reaching this young man and learning what he might know.” That is the heart of the episode, and perhaps the show, the belief that there is something more. In the final scene, Mulder sums up his own position, telling Scully, “I refuse to believe that mothers are having babies just to be martyrs. I want to believe that mothers have a greater purpose for all of us.”

Music to his ears.

Music to his ears.

Even the use of hallucinogens in Babylon is a classic X-Files element. As X-Files expert and critic Chris Knowles notes, the show has a long history of positioning trippy psychedelic experiences before big alien-driven finales:

The Biogenesis AAT storyline was immediately proceeded by Field Trip, a brilliant episode written by Hancock co-author Vince Gilligan in which Mulder and Scully are trapped within a giant fungal organism that uses a hallucinogenic compound like LSD to induce visions in its victims while it consumes them.

The genius of the episode is that the organism repeatedly allows the agents to believe they’ve escaped, with the fantasy becoming more and more convincing with each repetition. But Mulder and Scully are always able see through the illusion, until you’re left at the end wondering if in fact they did escape in the end.

So have they finally escaped the mushroom when the wheels come off of their reality conception in the following AAT storyline? Or were their brains blown open enough that it attracted the aliens’ attention? Did they notice Mulder and Scully noticing them, in other words?

Knowles has pointed to the positioning of Babylon directly before My Struggle II as vindication of his theory. The fact that the magic mushrooms in Babylon allow Mulder to hear the trumpet (“a herald of the end times”) before the apocalypse of My Struggle II is also telling.

"We have so mush to talk about."

“We have so mush to talk about.”

As Knowles points out, The X-Files has a long history of getting trippy before the big finale. Scully’s breakdown in Wetwired comes before Mister X confirms colonisation in Talitha Cumi. Mulder’s trepanning in Demons aired right before the hazy unreality of Gethsemane. Mulder was committed to mental hospital in Folie à Deux before proclaiming Gibson as the next leap in human evolution in The End. Mulder and Scully were eaten by a giant magic mushroom in Field Trip before things got existential in Biogenesis. Even the first half of Anasazi finds Mulder doped up.

(This formula was such an X-Files standard that writer Joe Harris even incorporated it into his work on The X-Files: Season 10. The penultimate arc of the season was G-23, a short story about Mulder’s investigation into a government-engineered strain of marijuana that suggested it wasn’t only tobacco that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was rolling. From there, the comic book segued into the big season-ending mythology arc Elders. It is a very nice structural reference, demonstrating that Harris was in tune with Carter’s sensibilities.)

"Not cool. Dude."

Of course, we couldn’t go a whole miniseries without Skinner-as-disappointed-dad.

Babylon is a pretty explicit endorsement of psychedelia. When Mulder reaches out to Einstein, he explains that he got her contact details from Skinner. Einstein explains that she “helped him with his migraines.” Given that one of the more mundane therapeutic uses of marijuana is the treatment of migraines, the very thinly-veiled suggestion seems to be that Skinner basically passed along Einstein’s phone number when Mulder asked for a dealer. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the image of Walter Skinner puffing the magic dragon. Dude.

Even before Mulder and Scully find themselves drafted into the case in Texas, Mulder seems to be pretty heavily hinting that he is ready to try expanding his consciousness. Discussing the mysterious trumpets heart playing around the world, Mulder and Scully take a brief philosophical detour to the subject of Christian theology. Mulder makes a specific (and somewhat fortuitous) reference to The Book of Genesis. Mulder tells Scully, “God told Adam that if he ate the forbidden fruit he’d die, and he lived 930 years.” Yes, but what about the forbidden fungus?

One pill makes you larger. And one pill makes you small. And the ones that Einstein gives you. Don't do anything at all.

One pill makes you larger. And one pill makes you small.
And the ones that Einstein gives you… don’t do anything at all.

After the fact, Einstein insists that she didn’t really give Mulder mushrooms. Instead, she actually gave Mulder “niacin capsules.” However, the episode refuses to commit to that idea, beyond the barest of lip service. Earlier in the episode, Einstein seems to hedge her bets, complaining to Mulder about having to talk to “internal affairs, if [she] were to go through with this lunatic scheme of [hers].” After she tells him that she took a placebo, Mulder wryly responds, “You’re just covering your ass.” She doesn’t deny it, offering a noncommittal, “Either way…”

The ambiguity over what Einstein actually gave to Mulder is so important to Carter that he returns to it later in the episode. “I have to applaud her, though, on her clever trick with the placebo,” Scully remarks at one point. “Yeah,” Mulder concurs, sitting on his porch and nodding. “Yeah. How did that work?” It is a legitimate question, given that Mulder actually manages to accomplish precisely what he set out to do with magic mushrooms using just niacin capsules. Maybe he simply opened his heart and listened. Maybe the universe just works like that.

"I suggest you don't worry about those things and just enjoy yourself." "That goes for you all, too."

“I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.”
“That goes for you all, too.”

The whole magic mushroom plot point is muddled and contradictory, much like the brief appearance from the Homeland Security officials earlier in the episode. Carter is being intentionally obtuse in his construction of the episode, which is at once endearing and frustrating. Babylon is undoubtedly the result of a singular creative vision, but there is also a sense that it might just be too much. There are a lot of interesting ideas here, that get lost in the noise as Carter turns the volume up to eleven.

Adding to the sense that Babylon is over-stuffed and over-indulgent, Carter makes a point to introduce Agent Miller and Agent Einstein. The two characters are obvious doppelgangers for Mulder and Scully, “a profiler, obsessed with the paranormal” teamed with “a medical doctor” who is “also a scientist.” Miller is even the translation of “Mulder” from Dutch. This is to say nothing of the obvious physical resemblances between Robbie Amell and David Duchovny or Lauren Ambrose and Gillian Anderson.

"I mean, we could call it The Y-Files, right?"

“I mean, we could call it The Y-Files, right?”

It is a wacky touch in an episode that is already packed to the brim with wacky touches. According to Chris Carter, Miller and Einstein were his response to Fox’s suggestion that it might be possible to revive The X-Files without Gillian Anderson or David Duchovny:

You know, Fox had come to me at one point and said would you be interested in doing this without Mulder and Scully, and I hadn’t ever thought about that, and actually I don’t know that I would do that. But it was an interesting question and so I thought, I’m going to play with that idea, and introduce younger mirror images of Mulder and Scully and see what that does to the story-telling, and I found an episode where I thought it suited that approach, and I found two terrific actors to play those parts, and so I think it was a gamble that paid off.

It should be noted that this was not the first time that Carter had openly mocked the idea of replacing Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny with doppelgangers. He did the same in the teaser to Fight Club, the last episode he wrote before Duchovny departed the show in Requiem.

"It's Miller time."

“It’s Miller time.”

Miller and Einstein are rather uncomfortable characters in a number of respects. On a pure plotting level, they largely exist to keep Mulder and Scully separate from one another over the course of both Babylon and My Struggle II. Mulder is paired with Einstein in Babylon and Miller in My Struggle II. Scully is paired with Miller in Babylon and Einstein in My Struggle II. It is noticeable that Mulder and Scully spend far less time together in each of Chris Carter’s three scripts as compared to the other three episodes of the revival.

A major appeal of the six-part miniseries is reuniting David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, as demonstrated in Home Again and Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. As such, it is frustrating to see the characters spend approximately a third of the miniseries interacting with parody versions of themselves. The very notion of “X-Files Babies” is the sort of ridiculous idea that is all too feasible in the current wave of nineties nostalgia. In fact, there are already a number of “origin” stories in the work in prose and comics. But the gag is over-extended.

X-Files baddies.

X-Files babies.

There is also something just a little bit mean-spirited about this, particularly when coupled with the characterisation of Monica Reyes in My Struggle II. Miller and Einstein are an extended joke about the absurdity of trying to do The X-Files without both Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny. However, Chris Carter already did run The X-Files without Mulder and Scully. Duchovny’s departure at the end of the seventh season forced the production team to try. They drafted in Robert Patrick for the eighth season and Annabeth Gish for the ninth.

The ninth season was an unmitigated disaster for the show, with dwindling ratings that led to cancellation. Still, it is disingenuous to blame the replacement characters played by Patrick and Gish. The ninth season struggled from a combination of a hostile cultural climate after 9/11 and the poor creative decision to focus on Mulder and Scully when Duchovny was already gone and Anderson had her foot out the door. The strongest episodes of the season (John Doe, Hellbound, Audrey Pauley, Improbable) were those focusing on the new characters.

Right now, Miller is thinking, "Please don't do to me what you did to Agent Reyes."

Right now, Miller is thinking, “Please don’t do to me what you did to Agent Reyes.”

More than that, the decision to introduce a new character played by Robert Patrick at the start of the eighth season had actually proved a creative boon to the show. The eighth season represented a significant improvement upon the seventh season, in a whole host of ways. The episodes were much stronger, the season and character arcs were more cohesive; while the mythology was more simplistic, it was also more linear. The eighth season remains the only one of the final four seasons to actually grow its audience compared to the previous year.

Despite his admitted reluctance to embrace nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia, Chris Carter is crafting his own history of The X-Files. With I Want to Believe and My Struggle I, there is a sense that Carter has come to treat the first five years of the show as the be-all and end-all. My Struggle I takes the mythology back to Redux I and Redux II with a touch of The End and an explicit disavowal of Patient X and The Red and the Black. When it comes to William, Carter leaves the thematic heavylifting to Founder’s Mutation and Home Again.

Well, you did crack that joke about little uber Scullies.

“Well, you did crack that joke about little uber Scullies.”

As such, the introduction of Miller and Einstein feels like part of a larger trend, a revision of the show’s own production narrative. To be fair, Carter talked at length during the production of the original show about his loyalty to David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, that he promised to work on the show for as long as they did and that he only really stayed on as long as he did because they signed on as well. It is perfectly reasonable for Carter to only want to return to The X-Files when paired with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

And, truth be told, Mulder and Scully will always be the most iconic parts of The X-Files. They are part of pop culture shorthand in a way that none of the other characters ever could be. Catatonia would never have reached number three in the UK Singles Chart with a song titled Doggett and Reyes. In retrospectives of Duchovny and Anderson’s careers, The X-Files will loom large. Robert Patrick’s involvement is likely to be a footnote or bullet point, buried beneath the headline of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. There is no disputing that.

It Styx with you.

It Styx with you.

However, it still feels somewhat unnecessary to make that sort of jab so pointedly and so blatantly in what should be a celebration of the series. The presence of Miller and Einstein in two of the six episodes feels a little pointed, a joke that receives so much focus that it stops being a joke and starts feeling like a serious point. Even ignoring the fact that Miller and Einstein are an extended gag about the folly of doing The X-Files without David Duchovny or Gillian Anderson, their narrative role could have easily been afforded to Reyes.

Babylon provoked quite a visceral response from the fanbase. Despite the fact that the aggregate of the reviews was still broadly positive, the episode came under fire for a host of reasons. The episode’s portrayal of Islam was roundly criticised, as was Carter’s indulgence. This is to say nothing of the social media response to the episode. To be entirely fair, a lot of this criticism was deserved. Babylon had a host of good ideas, but its execution was both clumsy and ill-judged. At the same time, the backlash seemed rather deafening.

Time to hit the road?

Time to hit the road?

The double header of Babylon and My Struggle II prompted a backlash. Critics and fans seemed to have had enough of Chris Carter’s involvement in the show. A number of high profile fans advocated for Carter to gracefully step aside. Todd Van Der Werff at Vox. Devin Faraci at Birth.Death.Movies. Alan Sepinwall at HitFix. James White at Empire. Josh Kurp at Uproxx. All of these commentaries were couched in respect for Carter’s contribution in creating the show, but all  suggested it might be for the best if Carter never wrote for The X-Files again.

My Struggle I, Babylon and My Struggle II were not the strongest episodes of The X-Files ever written. In fact, they were not even the strongest episodes of the revival. They were definitely weaker than Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. It would be difficult to argue that any of them were better than Founder’s Mutation. Most viewers would probably give the edge to Home Again over any of the three aforementioned episodes. Being entirely candid, Chris Carter has never been the strongest writer on his own show. He is not Aaron Sorkin or Bryan Fuller.

Nursing a grudge.

Nursing a grudge.

However, this criticism tends to overlook the fact that Carter is a phenomenal executive producer whose fingerprints are all over modern television. Carter may not be an auteur in the vein Matthew Weiner, but his style has its own unique strengths. It seems hard to imagine that a modern showrunner like David Chase or David Simon would allow a writer like Darin Morgan the freedom to do something like Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. This production model does not provide consistency of quality, but it allows for some incredible peaks.

Even just as a writer, Carter remains ambitious. That sort of ambition is what made The X-Files so exciting in the first place. While Babylon doesn’t hit as well as it might, it demonstrates that Carter still has a unique voice and a unique artistic sensibility. There are few television shows on the air that could produce an episode like Babylon. There are far fewer shows that would attempt it. It is hard to fault that reluctance, given how messy and awkward Babylon turned out. However, it also seems counter-productive to fault that ambition.

Love would seem to be the drug.

Love would seem to be the drug.

However, even allowing for legitimate criticisms of Carter’s writing, there is something disconcerting about trying to convince a writer to step back from their work. There is a strange sense of ownership underpinning this, as if The X-Files is a cultural institution in which everybody has a stake and of which Carter is a trustee. There is a suggestion that what the audience expects from The X-Files might be accomplished through marginalising Carter or diminishing his contributions to the series, and that this would be a good thing.

Modern creators seem particularly prone to such criticism and engagement from fandom. George R.R. Martin’s work on the Song of Ice and Fire books is perhaps the best contemporary example, with many fans lamenting the author’s inability to finish his fantasy series before HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones overtook it. Many fans were frustrated by this, feeling that Martin had in effect failed to deliver on a promise that he had made with the publication of the first book August 1996.

"And, I mean, the sixth season of Game of Thrones worked out pretty well, right?"

“But, I mean, the sixth season of Game of Thrones worked out pretty well, right?”

Neil Gaiman weighed in on the G.R.R. Martin issue, citing it as an example of “entitlement issues” in fandom:

George R.R. Martin is not your b!tch.

This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your b!tch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.

People are not machines. Writers and artists aren’t machines.

It is disconcerting to think of art can be perfectly calibrated to audience expectations. This is why focus groups have historically been terrible ideas.

"Hey, no group shots."

“You better not apply a filter!”

In many respects, the logical response to “this is terrible, I do not enjoy this any longer” has always been “the world is a big place, find something you do enjoy and invest your energy in that.” Sure, people are invested in the things that they love, and don’t want to stop loving them. That is a fair response. However, issues the current creative direction of a project do not invalidate all the earlier work. It is entirely possible for a fan to loath My Struggle I and My Struggle II, while still loving Nisei and 731. The issues with Babylon do not retroactively taint Triangle.

Those fans complaining about the all-female Ghostbusters act is if something is being taken away from them. It is not. They still have their Ghostbusters and their Ghostbusters II. It is not as if Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy are traveling around the United States confiscating blu rays of the old film. It just means that that those fans are no longer receiving something that caters to their specific idea of what Ghostbusters should be. Of course, in the case of Ghostbusters, it could legitimately be argued that sharing the franchise with young girls is intrinsically a good thing.

"Agent Einstein, did you pick up my cowboy hat?"

“Agent Einstein, did you pick up my cowboy hat?”

Those fans horrified by what Chris Carter has done to The X-Files might have a legitimate case. It seems unlikely that these six episodes will be remembered as a classic season in the vein of season three or season five. Babylon is a very problematic episode of television that should have been handled with more care. However, that does not mean that Chris Carter has “ruined” the show. At most, he ruined an extra episode of the show that doesn’t increase your net enjoyment of the show but should not decrease it either.

The suggestion that Carter should step aside or surrender his own show because fans are dissatisfied is disconcerting, because it seems to imply that television storytelling is a consensus artform. It is not. At most, it is a referendum. The audience gets a vote, but it is a simple yes/no binary. They can choose to spend their time on the show, or they can choose not to spend their time on the show. They can engage with it through criticism or fan fiction or debate, but it seems too much to demand that the writer play to their tune.

Fox on Fox.

Fox on Fox.

It is worth noting that this is a relatively recent development. When David Duchovny left the show at the end of the seventh season, there was a very strong reaction against the direction of the show. Fans started groups that demanded justice for Mulder and wrote fan fiction that “fixed” the eighth season. However, there was never a strong argument made that Chris Carter should step aside. Even during the dark days of the ninth season, which was considerably weaker than the relaunch, the media never advocated for Chris Carter to surrender his show.

It should also be noted that this exists quite distinct from traditional fandom activities like fan fiction or shipping. Indeed, it should be noted that Carter and the show have implicitly endorsed the idea that fans have ownership of their own version of the show, that Mulder and Scully exist beyond what Carter originally intended. This is very much the subtext of episodes like The Post-Modern Prometheus, Milagro and Audrey Pauley. Viewers are perfectly within their rights to advocate for their own version of the show.

Walk and talk.

Walk and talk.

After all, that is the basis of criticism. Criticism is very much arguing for a unique interpretation of a story, and then deconstructing or examining that version of a story. That is why criticism can never be an objective artform, because interpretations are inherently subjective. These extended reviews are ultimately just arguments for a particularly interpretation of the series. They do not claim to be definitive, or even objectively correct. They are just one way of looking The X-Files across its twenty-odd year run. Fan fiction is no different, allowing authors their own interpretation.

The recurring suggestion that Chris Carter should be distanced from his own show is disconcerting in that respect. Arguing for a particular version of the show, and debating the relative merits of that version of the show is one thing. Arguing that the executive producer should be bound to a viewer’s version of the show feels very much like a bridge too far. It is an approach that by definition limits a show, and which restricts its ability to confound expectations or to surprise audiences. For better or worse, Babylon was a surprise that nobody could have seen coming.

"Okay, so maybe it wasn't a good surprise."

“Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a good surprise.”

In a way, this debate is a reminder of how much the internet has changed in the years since The X-Files went off the air. The X-Files had been one of the first shows to consciously engage with and cultivate its online fanbase. Writers would do exclusive online interviews or host chats on the official site, episode notes would be published on the official site for those interested in following the show. alt.tv.xfiles was one of the earliest television usenet boards, and remains active to this day. Online fandom was part of the cultural history of The X-Files.

However, in the years since the show had gone off the air, internet fandom had become a lot more vocal and a lot more influential. Part of that was due to evolution in technology and social networking. The development of sites like facebook and twitter, not to mention smaller sites like bebo and livejournal, made it easier to document and share immediate unfiltered reactions. It is hard to overstate the importance of convenience in these modes; even the intermediate step of having to format content for a web page or email was removed.

Middle of the road.

Middle of the road.

This has fundamentally changed the way that people interact with one another. Studies suggest that even the process of engaging with social media can be a highly stressful activity. Indeed, it has been linked with depression in young adult users. The high volume of “confrontational” behaviour on these networks is considered to be a factor. Research suggests that rage travels faster than joy or sadness through these social networks. Ironically, social media puts everybody at a “virtual distance” from one another even as it theoretically makes everybody accessible.

Of course, this is just one facet of social media. Social media can be a great tool for communication and activism. In particular, social media has been a boon to social activism. It increases awareness and helps to spread word. In recent years, social media has enabled the spread of videos that serve to hold certain individuals and bodies – particularly law enforcement officials during their interactions with minorities – to account. Social media encourages and enables conversations that otherwise would not happen.

However, there is a flipside to that very worthy activism. Social media can occasionally foster something akin to a mob mentality, an intense knee-jerk reaction over seemingly trivial things. As Jon Ronson reflects of social media:

These unimportant things take on great prominence—the mainstream media does it too. On social media we have a chance to do things better. Somebody told me, “Twitter hates tabloids, but Twitter is constantly acting like a tabloid, repeating the mistakes of the things we’re hoping to better.” Twitter wanted to become a more egalitarian justice system, but instead it became a draconian one. We could have been Atticus Finch—the pre-Go Set A Watchman Atticus Finch, the nice one—but we ended up being some kind of hanging judge from a Western.

This applies to world of creative art. It is no longer enough to merely criticise content and creators as holding unacceptable or contrarian views, there is a conscious move towards silencing ideas that are considered offensive or inflammatory. This attitude arguably reflects certain trends in the real world.

In June 2015, The Huffington Post published an open letter from a college student to comedian Jerry Seinfeld suggesting that he was only welcome to perform on campus if he performed the “right” type of jokes. In recent years, a number of controversial speakers have been disinvited from speaking at high-profile college commencements. These include the first woman to head the IMF, Christine Lagarde, and the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk, Dustin Lance Black. The common thread seems to be that people should not be exposed to ideas with which they disagree.

On college campuses, professors have talked about having to temper their course materials for fear of offending students. College professors have faced censure for holding contrary or unpopular opinions. Activists with legitimate grievances refuse to engage in dialogue. Indeed, the debate has become so significant that President Barack Obama has felt the need to comment on the trend, reflecting that shutting down views that run counter to an accepted political viewpoint is not conducive to debate or discussion. “That’s not the way we learn.”

In a way, this reflects the online experience. The internet has fundamentally changed the way that people engage with the world around them. More than that, it offers them more control over the sources of their information. The internet allows people to selectively process information from outlets that support and reinforce their views. This was always the case to an extent, with certain newspapers holding clear and well-established political perspectives, but it is even more pronounced in the era of social media where information is even more filtered and curated.

The result seems to be that there is less room for moderation and compromise, less willingness to accept that media can be problematic and still valid. It is seemingly impossible to adopt a moderate approach, to concede that Babylon can be both ill-judged and ambitious. Even the language used tends to discourage engagement with the text, as if wrapping it in crime scene tape so that it might be safely cut out of the conversation. This is not to dismiss these valid critiques of Babylon, but to argue that they cannot be the only conversation about the episode.

Social media is a greater part of media discussion these days. In terms of entertainment, movie studios have made a conscious effort to engage and empower social media. The new millennium has seen content providers increasingly sensitive to the demands of online commentators. The internet allowed more immediate contact between producers and consumers. Perhaps the most obvious (and infamous) example, the movie Snakes on a Plane was famously greenlit and rushed through production in large part due to the online excitement about the four-word title.

Studios aggressively court fanbases, frequently trying to appease or placate it. When the internet responded negatively to Batman vs. Superman, Warner Brothers immediately went into damage control mode. This damage control mode led the studio to invite a host of hostile online writers to visit the set of Justice League so that figures like director Zack Snyder and actor Ben Affleck could assure them that everything was perfectly fine and that their criticisms had been heard.

To be fair, there is a lot to like about a media model that encourages engagement and discussion. Star Trek: The Next Generation veteran Ronald D. Moore reflected that the internet had enabled an “immediacy of the contact” between creator and audience in a way that benefited Battlestar Galactica. When the revival was announced, there was a huge social media presence, including an organised fandom rewatch of the entire classic series in the lead-up to the premiere of My Struggle I.

In some ways, this speaks the the strength of social media as a communication tool. It allows people to share in culture, to be part of a community, to bond over the discussion and appreciation of a common interest. It also encourages constructive debate and discussion. Conversing about television with other people can be an enlightening and enriching activity even (especially) if everybody has their own distinct opinion. Social media makes it easier than ever for fans to communicate across distances and other barriers.

This had all changed since The X-Files went off the air. Chris Carter admitted some bemusement at the new mechanics of social media:

Personally, I have an Instagram account that I think I’ve posted two photos to. I’m not a social media person but I appreciate how much social media plays a part in the interaction between fans and the interaction between fans and producers. When I went to a marketing meeting with Fox before we shot the show, or during the shooting of the show, I was amazed to see that there were 50 people in the room and I’d say a good amount of them were there because they conduct marketing via social media, so the show is marketed very actively on social media platforms. I think that the second screen experience will help the show. I think that the show will, I think, rise, or I should say, its popularity will be enhanced by what I think is the beauty of social media.

That social media meeting room populated by fifty people is a revealing comment, demonstrating just how much had changed in the years since The Truth.

This heightened engagement between audience and creators was not always smooth, particularly when fans did not agree with certain storytelling choices made by those in charge. In 2002, the year that The X-Files went off the air, Aaron Sorkin found himself tangling with online posters who objected to certain aspects of The West Wing. In 2006, Rescue Me writer Peter Tolan found himself embroiled in an online flame war when he tried to explain his justification for making certain controversial storytelling decisions.

There were a number of high-profile controversies around fan engagement with shows on social media in early 2016. Although the decision was driven by production realities more than authorial intent, the death of the Lexa on The 100 produced a huge wave of social media outrage. William Shatner complained about bullying when he voiced his discomfort with the shipping of two castmembers in the television show Outlander. Marvel editor Tom Brevoort received some pretty chilling death threats when Marvel revealed Captain America to be a Hydra agent.

Although many of these controversies got particularly heated after the revival miniseries wrapped up, they still reflected the larger pop culture context. All of this background noise serves to explain how discourse on cult entertainment had escalated so dramatically, to the point that two disappointing mythology episodes and a single ill-advised off-format episode were enough to prompt several major web publishers and professional journalists to suggest that Chris Carter should effectively stand aside from his own creation.

It should be noted that – by any objective measure –  the revival was an astounding success for both Carter and Fox. The revival represented an improvement upon the ninth season ratings, which is remarkable given the realities of contemporary television audience erosion. The revival was the second most-watched programme of the season on Fox’s video-on-demand service, behind only Empire. This success was not just national. Fox reported fifty million viewers worldwide in the first three days. It broke records on the UK’s Channel 5.

The show is no longer on life support.

The show is no longer on life support.

This was part of a larger discussion taking place around the relationship between fans and creators. Devin Faraci argued that this was inherent to fandom, but enabled by technological advances:

In a lot of ways fandom has always been a powder keg just waiting for the right moment to explode, and that moment is the ubiquity of social media. Twitter is the match that has been touched to this powder keg, and all of a sudden the uglier parts of fandom – the entitlement, the demands, the frankly poor understanding of how drama and storytelling work – have blown the f$%k up. Annie Wilkes is ascendent, and she’s got #BringBackMiseryChastainOrDie trending. Paul Sheldon was doing pretty okay until Annie Wilkes got direct access to him, after all.

This is a rather bleak interpretation that generalises from extreme behaviour, but there is an element of truth to it. However, there is also need to draw clear lines in defining where these tension in fandom are coming from.

Fandom politics can be tricky, not least because there are a whole host of politics underpinning them. As Sarah N. Gatson argued, the “default fanboy” is presumed to be “white, middle-class, male, heterosexual.” A large proportion of fandom politics are rooted in challenges to that assumption; GamerGate and the Rabid Puppies could largely be read as an attempt to defend that “default fanboy” identity against perceived intrusions from women and minorities. The same with the visceral reaction to the Ghostbusters reboot or The Force Awakens casting.

Although these conflicts are only bubbling to the surface now, they have deep roots in fandom. It seems likely that this culture clash explains why traditionally feminine fandom activities like fan fiction have been frowned upon while traditionally masculine fandom activities like wondering if the Enterprise could beat the Death Star are more acceptable. This is perhaps why shipping took the X-Files fandom by surprise in the early nineties, as such interest in character dynamics was seen as feminine while interest in continuity was seen as masculine.

Mulder's in a bit of a funk.

Mulder’s in a bit of a funk.

As such, fandom politics can difficult to navigate. In the context of the larger debate around issues of fan entitlement, it is worth noting that most of the high-profile critics advocating for the removal of Chris Carter are male. For all that Faraci criticises fandom for feeling that they are owed the version of the story that they want, the strongest voices asking Carter to step aside so The X-Files can meet their expectations come not from the base that is traditionally described as “entitled”, but from the establishment that is prone to make those criticisms of fandom in the first place.

None of this is to invalidate the criticisms of Babylon. It is a very messy episode of television that is deeply flawed and incredibly problematic. It would be interesting to see Carter engage with the criticisms of the episode, discussing his vision and the response to it. However, in spite (and even because) of its flaws, Babylon is also the work of a singular creative voice. Carter might not articulate himself as clearly as he does in his best scripts, and his stylistic sensibilities might be stuck in the world of 1998, but Babylon looks and feels like nothing else on television.

That is not always a good thing. That does not render it immune from legitimate criticism. However, it is certainly not a damning indictment when it comes to writing a show that is twenty-three years old.

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8 Responses

  1. Good Article, Thanks for Sharing

  2. There must have been an incredible amount of work you’ve put into this review. There was a lot to unpack in “Babylon.” Thanks.

    It’s certainly ambitious. Tonally, the mushroom trip feels completely off and might have worked better if it cut straight to Mulder on the boat.

    I find it interesting that more people criticize the episode’s portrayal of Muslim characters, which is all fair, than its use of a would-be suicide bomber in place of Christ in the Pieta.

    Good spot on the theme of ideas from “Home Again.” They were handled so differently by the two eps, I missed it.

    • Yep, I think that there was a very knee-jerk reaction to Babylon, which was understandable. It’s a very bold and messy episode of television, one that tackles a contemporary issue in a very nineties manner. I can understand people being reluctant to engage with it, for fear of being seen to tacitly endorse its more problematic elements. Which I think bugs me about modern criticism. You can engage with art that offends you, without dismissing it out of hand because it runs counter to what you find acceptable. There are obviously edge cases where the offense is the point, but I think it speaks to the polarisation of pop culture that a lot of the criticism of Babylon stopped with “this is offensive and ill-judged”, which it is in many ways. But it’s also ambitious.

  3. Spot on review as usual, actually you did a very good job here, way more than this disaster of a episode deserved. I’m not sure about it but it’s very probable Duchovny had some input in the final script, he seems to enjoy the comedic tone on everything he does for TV; Californication, Aquarius, that terrible Head & Shoulders “moviemercial”. So Mulder on mushrooms could be very likely an idea from David, anyway it only adds to the chaotic mess Babylon was until the “quebradita time”, it got even worse after that. This one belongs to my bottom ten of most hated episodes of any TV series.

    • Hi Johnny!

      I’m not sure I’d put it in my bottom ten X-Files!

      (Off the top of my head: Space, Fearful Symmetry, Dod Kalm, Teso Dos Bichos, Teliko, El Mundo Gira, Emily, All Souls, Alpha, First Person Shooter, Fight Club. And that’s before we get to Salvage or any of Season 9.)

      I’m not sure about mushrooms being a Duchovny idea, though he certainly seems to like the touch. As Chris Knowles pointed out, Carter seems to have a long-standing interest in hallucinogens and mind-altering drug imagery and plots. I can see this stemming from that as much as from Duchovny’s admitted preference for goofiness.

  4. I also liked to identify the themes throughout the episode: love and communication, trickle-down self-feeding hatred, the Mulder-Scully dichotomy being one example of separating the world into two that needs to be overcome in order to go forward. It’s all interesting. But in the case of this episode all these are hardly more than just ideas that are there. The dialogue doesn’t help develop these ideas, the plot either, and it’s all a sequence of scenes one after the other with no flow. The Homeland agents? The nurse? The 1-second Lone Gunmen cameo? (which had Dean Haglund travelling from Australia!) The episode is much better and well-written in the beginning, with the two couples of agents and the fun Carter has in creating the criss-crossed couples of Mulder/Einstein and Scully/Miller.

    It’s a kitchen sink of an episode that only Carter could do, and at times it works. The best example is the boat rowing scene: a Christian reference with Muslim characters in a setting derived from Greek mythology in the middle of a psychedelic trip. What an idea! Too bad the rest of the episode isn’t as elegant.

    The issue with the characters being just archetypes can be tracked back to The After, where it’s very visible as well. Carter is not meaning ill, however his script ends up doing him such a disservice that people read into it the exact opposite of his intentions.

    • That’s a fair point.

      I still stand by the idea that the fact the show can (and will) do an episode like this is a fundamental strength, even if it doesn’t always work out.

      It’s akin to the reason that I prefer the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who to the Russell T. Davies era; while Davies re-wrote pretty much every script ensuring a level of impressive consistency, the willingness to go in completely random and arbitrary directions is a strength that can pay off spectacularly for the show. Of course, I love both the Moffat and the Davies eras.

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