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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 4, Episode 15 (“Kaddish”)

Always a delight to stop by The X-Cast again. This time discussing a (relatively) underrated fourth season installment, Kaddish with the fantastic Russell Hugo.

Kaddish exists at a very weird point in the fourth season of The X-Files. It arrives following a blockbuster run of episodes, including Leonard Betts, Never Again and Memento Mori. Those are big episodes in the context of the show’s larger run the kind of stories that people have very strong opinions about. Kaddish follows those episodes, and so tends to be overlooked. In fact, it explicitly avoids dealing with any of the fallout from those episodes, at least directly. However, on its own terms, it’s a very lyrical and abstract story, a tale that is perhaps more timely now than when it was broadcast, a gothic fairy tale that hints at the big themes of the stories around it: about life, love, mortality, and loss. It’s beautiful in its own intimate way.

As ever, you can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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The X-Files – Season 4 (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

The fourth season of The X-Files is a work of chaotic genius.

While the third season of The X-Files is one of the most consistently well-made seasons of television ever produced, the fourth season is a lot more uneven. There are a lot of reasons for this. Chris Carter was busy launching Millennium. Fox had decided to press ahead with The X-Files: Fight the Future. Behind the scenes, it was chaotic. Glen Morgan and James Wong hung around for half the season before leaving to work on their own pilot, a planned script from Darin Morgan fell through, Chris Carter’s attention was divided.

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However, the fourth season represents something of a changing of the guard on the writing staff, a transition between two generations. The fourth season sees the permanent departure of writers Glen Morgan, James Wong and Howard Gordon. These were all writers who worked hard to give The X-Files its unique flavour and identity in the show’s earliest years. The X-Files would not be the same show without the input of those three writers. It is a shame to see them depart, although four years is a long time in the industry.

In contrast, the fourth season also sees younger talent rising up. It sees the first collaboration of Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz. The trio would become one of the most consistent (and productive) writing ensembles on the series. The fourth season also saw the rapid ascent of Vince Gilligan, who had only contributed one script to the third season; Gilligan’s three solo scripts for the third season are iconic and influential in their own right. These are the voices that will steer The X-Files through to the end of its nine-year run.

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As such, the fourth season feels transitional. It is a season that lacks the finely-honed efficiency that defined the third season, in favour of a more ambitious and even experimental style. The result is a season that feels wildly creative, a joyous cacophony rather than a harmonious symphony. The fourth season may not always hit the notes, but it is doing something very fresh and exciting. There is an energy and enthusiasm to the season that carries even some of the weaker episodes.

The fourth season is not consistently brilliant, but it is more than occasionally transcendental.

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The X-Files – Zero Sum (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

For all that The X-Files exists in a murky shadow world populated by ambiguous figures and a government conspiracy dating back generations, the show has a pretty straightforward sense of morality. No good can stem from evil, the show seems to suggest; the show’s central mythology repeatedly has Mulder and Scully confront the legacy of sins committed by their forefathers. Even the title of Zero Sum alludes to the hollowness of Walter Skinner’s deal with the devil, his moral compromise that has no demonstrable benefit and severe demonstrable harm.

In Memento Mori, Walter Skinner compromised himself. He made a deal with the Cigarette-Smoking Man, in return for Agent Scully’s continued well-being. “What’ll it take?” Skinner asked, desperate for a chance to save Dana Scully. Ever ambiguous, the Cigarette-Smoking Man offered, “Well, I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Unfolding a few months later, Zero Sum is essentially about paying the piper. It is Walter Skinner settling up with the Cigarette-Smoking Man. He rolls up his sleeves and jumps into the dirty work.

Fire and brimstone...

Fire and brimstone…

Zero Sum is a story that you could not tell with Mulder. Although Mulder never faces the same choice as Skinner, the show has been quite consistent in its portrayal of Mulder’s morality. Mulder does not compromise; Mulder does not subscribe to the theory that a deal with the devil could ever pay dividends. In contrast, Skinner is a more ambiguous and pragmatic figure. Skinner spent significant sections of the second season caught between Mulder and the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The show only firmly committed him to Mulder and Scully in Paper Clip.

Zero Sum is a fantastic example of how the world of The X-Files has really grown and expanded around the lead characters. While the show will never quite develop into an ensemble, it is a series with a broad cast. It makes sense that it should begin to use them in a productive manner.

"Walter Skinner, F.B.I."

“Walter Skinner, F.B.I.”

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The X-Files – Synchrony (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Time travel is one of the great science-fiction tropes.

Although magical or metaphorical time travel has long been a part of literary tradition, pseudo-scientific or pseudo-rational versions of science-fiction really took root towards the end of the nineteenth century. Although H.G. Wells blazed a trail with The Time Machine, Edward Page Mitchell actually beat him to the punch – he published the short-story The Clock That Went Backward fourteen years before Wells wrote The Time Machine. Nevertheless, time travel quickly caught on as a literary device.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

There are films, television show, novels, comics and songs all playing with the idea of moving through time. Although there is considerable debate about the feasibility of actually travelling backwards through time, time travel serves as a wonderful narrative device. It opens up all sorts of possibilities for structure and style; it provides some pretty heavy themes; it opens up a myriad of settings and possibility. It is no surprise that there have been so many variations and permutations based upon the idea of going backwards in time.

Indeed, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before The X-Files got around to telling its own time travel story. Synchrony was as inevitable as the decision to close the episode with a clumsy hint toward predetermination.

Ghosts of future self...

Ghosts of future self…

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The X-Files – Unrequited (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Unrequited opens with Mulder and Scully’s attempts to stop an assassination attempt by an invisible man, before jumping back twelve hours to explain how our heroes got into this situation. With that set-up, Unrequited falls into a lot of the narrative traps associated with an in media res teaser. After all, there’s not really anything special about the teaser. There is no mystery to be solved, no strange behaviour to explain. What questions are we meant to ask, based on that opening scene? How are we meant to look at the rest of the episode differently, knowing what we know?

Sure, Mulder and Scully are protecting Major General Benjamin Bloch. That would seem to be a little bit outside the remit of “the FBI’s most unwanted”, but that is not too strange a situation for the duo. They are FBI agents, so there is a certain flexibility in their job description. The Field Where I Died – an episode with a much more effective non-linear teaser – featured Mulder and Scully collaborating with the ATF. So it isn’t as if the set-up should be striking or compelling.

Stop, or my Mulder will shoot!

Stop, or my Mulder will shoot!

It seems like we are meant to focus on the monster of the week – Vietnam veteran Nathaniel Teager. Teager has the ability to turn himself invisible, which is quite something. Sure enough, the teaser to Unrequited offers a glimpse of that ability in action. But why is it important to have show us that ability in a scene from the climax of the episode? With a few adjustments, Teager’s first murder in the back of the limousine would serve the same purpose; introducing the audience to his powers without the need to recycle several minutes of footage from the climax.

After all, the most dissatisfying aspect of the in media res teaser is not the fact that it is completely inessential. Instead, the decision to use footage from the climax means that the audience has to sit through the same sequence twice. The teaser for Unrequited works well enough the first time around, but the sequence is not clever or inventive enough to merit a live-action replay towards the end of the hour. It just saps momentum from episode, rendering the final sequences somewhat tedious. That is the biggest problem with the opening of Unrequited, even beyond laziness.

Flags of our father figures...

Flags of our father figures…

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The X-Files – Kaddish (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Kaddish is the last solo script that Howard Gordon wrote for The X-Files.

The writer would remain part of the writing staff until the end of the fourth season, contributing to scripts like Unrequited or Zero Sum. However, Kaddish would be the last script credited to Howard Gordon alone. So Gordon does not quite get the clean farewell that Darin Morgan got with Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or that Glen Morgan and Howard Wong received with Never Again. Instead, Howard Gordon remains a pretty significant presence on the show even after writing his final solo script.

The word made flesh...

The word made flesh…

Nevertheless, Kaddish is packed with a lot of the images and themes associated with Gordon’s work. As with Fresh Bones or Teliko, it is a horror story set within a distinct ethnic community. As with Firewalker or Død Kälm or Grotesque, there is an element of body horror at play. As with Lazarus or Born Again, this is essentially a supernatural revenge story. Kaddish offers a distilled collection of the tropes and signifiers that Gordon helped to define for The X-Files, making it an appropriate final script for the writer.

It helps that Kaddish is a surprisingly sweet and thoughtful little horror story.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

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The X-Files – Teliko (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

The very premise of Teliko is something that should probably have big flashing warning lights around it.

Teliko is an episode about an immigrant from Burkina Faso who celebrates his arrival by murdering within the African-American community. As such, it is the kind of story that the production team has to be very careful in handling. It could easily become a horrendously xenophobic anti-immigration story, a warning about the dangers of opening the borders to foreigners from cultures that are different to our own. And that is even before the episode decides to have the monstrous murderers turn his African-American victims white.

Top drawer...

Top drawer…

Writer Howard Gordon has navigated this sort of minefield before. Fresh Bones was a voodoo story set within a Haitian refugee camp. As such, it came with many of the same sorts of latent issues. It would be very easy to put a foot wrong, to turn the story into a collection of unpleasant and reactionary stereotypes that painted the foreign as inherently and undeniably horrific. Gordon’s script for Fresh Bones cleverly side-stepped a lot of these problems, becoming one of the strongest scripts of the second season.

While Teliko makes a conscious effort to avoid these potential hurdles, it isn’t quite as quick on its feet.

It's okay. Everybody gets a little airsick.

It’s okay. Everybody gets a little airsick.

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