X-Files Recap is a weekly column by Keith Uhlich covering Chris Carter's 10-episode continuation of the X-Files television series.
How do you follow the end of the world?
Hold that thought. Let’s start with another question, one of the previous year’s most pressing: Is it film or is it television? I could be talking about David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks revival, which I covered for MUBI this past summer, and which caused quite a stir after it placed second in Sight & Sound magazine’s 2017 movie poll, as well as first on a year-end list from the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma. I could also be talking about the subject of this column, the long-running science-fiction serial The X-Files, which just returned on January 3rd for a ten episode 11th season, and which its creator—guru-like surfing journalist-turned-TV showrunner Chris Carter—has often equated with making a weekly “mini-movie.”
But what I’m really talking about is the Apollo 11 space mission that, on June 20th, 1969, put the first man on the moon. Official history tells us that a captive audience of nearly 600 million watched this epochal event live on television. Yet the jam-packed teaser of The X-Files’ deliriously overstuffed Season 11 premiere, “My Struggle III,” which was written and directed by Carter, relates an astounding (to the non-conspiracy-minded among us, anyway) alternative fact: The moon landing was faked. It was filmed in advance on a movie set, helmed by a bullhorn-bearing director (not Stanley Kubrick, sadly), and overseen by the strings-pulling producer to end them all—the Cigarette Smoking Man (hereafter CSM), The X-Files’ imperishable antagonist, played by Jeremy Schuetze as a young man and in elder form, as ever, by the nefariously velvet-voiced William B. Davis.
“My name is Carl Gerhard Busch,” CSM says at the start of the teaser, the first of several surprisingly direct revelations for a sprawling work of art (nine seasons and a theatrical movie in its original 1993-2002 run, a second theatrical movie in 2008 and a six-episode event series in 2016) that typically tends toward atmospheric and anecdotal murk. Take the initials of Carl Gerhard Busch and you get C.G.B., as in C.G.B. Spender, CSM’s primary alias. And how clever to make him homonymous kin to a political dynasty that is, in recent years, on the descent (unless he's an actual relation of a certain brewery company co-founder…but I digress).
A few more concrete disclosures follow, most of them having to do with the parentage and tragedy-prone lives of FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and his half-brother Jeffrey Spender (Chris Owens). Short of it: CSM did indeed biologically father them both and use them as pawns in his humanity-extinguishing endgame. Much of the teaser, however, is given over to one of those grandiose monologues at which Carter, depending on your tolerance levels, either excels or flounders. “Is there life out there?” CSM posits to the ether. “Good heavens, to doubt it is the failure of more than imagination. It is a failure to recognize the limits of our own stupidity—the nascency of our science, the rudiment of our tools.” Much like Carter’s haphazard approach to storytelling (few artists so earnestly embrace hoary cliffhangers and viscous melodramatics), the words and the ideas they conjure are at once unabashedly serious and utterly absurd. But more often than not, it’s the tension between these extremes that gives rise, for this viewer anyway, to pleasure and profundity.
Like its lead characters, Mulder the believer and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) the skeptic, The X-Files is in constant dialogue with itself, both within and between episodes. I know of no other series that has as strong a creator/executive producer point-of-view and equivalently robust perspectives from its rotating roster of writers and directors. Mulder and Scully are the constants, but they can be molded to the concerns of the person(s) in charge for that particular week so that a Carter episode is demonstrably different from a Glen Morgan, a Darin Morgan from a James Wong (to name just a few of Season 11’s returning personnel). This is not the place to go, in other words, for narrative and tonal consistency. Contradiction is a key component, and the overall effect is like looking at a mosaic with no discernible endpoint. “The Truth Is Out There” (per the show’s evergreen tagline) and will always remain so. That doesn’t make the search for the “truth” any less worth it, nor does it negate the importance of asking questions that may ultimately have no answer.
So, once more: How do you follow the end of the world? In this case, you reveal it was kinda sorta all a dream. No sooner do we come back from commercial than the precarious position that Scully found herself in last season—trapped on a Washington D.C. bridge with the world going to hell, Mulder near death, and a destructo-beam discharging alien spacecraft hovering overhead—is shown to have been a seizure-induced vision. Here she is lying unconscious on the floor of the X-Files’ basement office, a distraught, but healthy Mulder crouching over her, and their no-less concerned boss, Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), standing close behind. There’s barely time to roll our eyes (I’m guessing that reaction was legion) before the episode, like its predecessor, barrels forth at a breakneck pace, keeping to what’s come before while reworking it to fit Carter’s zeitgeisty whims.
The constant X-Files fan (or X-Phile) should recognize Carter’s methods. (I’ve often likened his mind to a blender that purees current headlines, fringe theories and of-the-moment ephemera into a goopy, delectable mush.) But the number of viewers who find enjoyment in them has considerably diminished the longer the series has gone on. The X-Files’ overarching mythology long ago stopped making sense, which is not necessarily the same thing as being able to make sense of it. It’s now at the point where I take Carter’s never-ending tale of alien invasions, shadowy consortiums and species-killing pathogens as one of those illusory conspiracies out of a Raúl Ruiz or Jacques Rivette film in which the aura of something sinister matters more than the reasons behind the portent. As further evidence of the series’ arthouse cred, I often point to the fact that one of biggest Philes out there was Alain Resnais, no stranger himself to narratives leading “nowhere”; he even hired the show’s composer, Mark Snow (whose ethereal, often wall-to-wall electronic scores are still among the series’ prime components), to write music for his final three features, all of which struck a fine balance, as The X-Files does at its best, between the philosophical and the funhouse.
“My Struggle III” is mostly funhouse (no shame in that), and it works as well as it does due to the editorial efforts of Robert Komatsu, whose cutting lends a lightning-quick propulsion to the proceedings. Speed (such as a brakes-screeching nighttime car chase—Fox drives a Mustang!) and some giddy edge-of-the-abyss line readings (as when Scully implores Mulder to find and stop CSM before “he unleashes hell on earth!”) offset much of the script’s slamming-doors farcicality. Scully is admitted to and discharged from the hospital twice, the latter time mainly to afford a token appearance by two of the 10th season’s least-liked characters, the Mulder/Scully-esque doubles Agents Miller (Robbie Amell) and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose). Mulder drives back and forth, in what seems like barely a day, over the length of three states while following a lead about the Cigarette Smoking Man, who is hiding out in a mansion with the 8th and 9th season’s replacement agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), her allegiances once again nonsensically shifted. Spender, his face reconstructed since his last appearance in the 9th season finale, pops up like a jack-in-the-box to reveal the possible location of Scully’s absent son William (played by an as-yet-uncredited actor, and seen here in flashes since Scully’s visions, which appear to be happening in real time, are inextricably connected to him), and then quickly disappear.
You either go with this kind of televisual shorthand or you don’t, and I’ve been going with it since Don Johnson met, bickered with, safeguarded, romanced, rescued and married Sheena Easton in the space of a single late-season episode of Miami Vice. It’s rather charming in an era when television, even in its genre pieces, strives toward elephantine self-seriousness and all-dots-connected perfection.
Whatever the narrative defects (whether they’re bug, feature, or both), Carter more than nails a world-off-its-axis mood that’s extremely appropriate to the current moment. A spirit-of-the-times temperament is encoded in the show's DNA, and it's frequently punctuated by cheeky nods at the people presently in power. Think of the throwaway reference to then-president Bill Clinton’s intern troubles in Season Six’s “Triangle” (“That’ll blow over…so to speak,” quips Mulder) or the sublime gag from the second movie, The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), in which the iconic whistle from the show’s theme song is laid over a photo of George W. Bush that Mulder and Scully are eyeing with how-hell-did-THIS-happen? shock and awe.
They had no idea: Take a meta view of “My Struggle III” (which follows an episode that aired nearly two years ago in February, 2016) and it’s effectively about Scully falling asleep at the tail-end of the Obama years and waking up, frantic and agitated, in Trump-land. Talk about a funhouse…or a haunted one: Our divisive commander-in-chief is referenced explicitly and implicitly throughout, as well in the four other installments sent out for preview (we’ll get to that in future columns). Carter also has CSM describe parts of his convoluted apocalyptic machinations as “fake news,” and the added irony of this politically and thematically shifty series airing on the Fox network is so evident as to not require mention. (Steve Bannon and the Mooch, by contrast, get throwaway nods.)
The Donald is a mere bogeyman, of course—a brasher, boorish sign of the times as opposed to a full-on cataclysmic conduit. A shadowy elite still works behind the scenes to exploit the proles and the paranoid present as a way of ensuring their future survival, though the goalposts have drastically shifted. CSM represents one apocalyptic school of thought, basically those who’d like—with the aid of an alien pathogen known as the Spartan virus—to watch the world burn and then cackle atop the ashes. On the opposing throne sits a CSM doppelganger named Mr. Y (Canadian character actor A.C. Peterson) who, with the aid of cagey corporate lackey Erika Price (XF newcomer Barbara Hershey), plans to colonize space with a select few since mankind has made a mess of a climate changing, resources-starved Earth. As Mr. Y and Price explain to Mulder, it is because we’ve so exhausted the planet that the long-planned alien colonization set for December 22nd, 2012 never occurred.
But who’s to say that’s the real truth? More than ever on The X-Files (as in the real world that it playfully, pulpily comments on) veracity is malleable, and the few control the many—or at least, per Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, delight in keeping their “foot in the other one’s face.” What are a pair of righteous crusaders like Mulder and Scully to do? “We do our work,” says Scully to Mulder near episode’s end, an acknowledgement of the series’ central motivation: To toil with no hope of reward. To reach toward the dying light. To, in a word, struggle.
MUSINGS OF A NON-CIGARETTE-SMOKING FAN
• Let’s parse one of “My Struggle III’s” biggest revelations: That CSM is William’s biological father, a product of the road trip that he and Scully took back in the season 7 episode “En Ami” (an installment, incidentally, written by William B. Davis, though with uncredited additions/revisions by Carter and his then-co-producer Frank Spotnitz). “You impregnated her?” asks Skinner, once again put in a position where he’s forced to play both sides. “With science,” replies CSM. (Thomas Dolby blinds, CSM impregnates.) As retcons go, this feels more than true to his demonic character. (Carter has often likened CSM to a human manifestation of Beelzebub.) It is interesting, however, that Carter rewrites history in one of the “En Ami” flashbacks: Via ADR, he has CSM tell an indignant Scully (who’s convinced that she’s been drugged) that he and a housekeeper carried her into his home, changed her clothes, and put her in bed. In the episode as it originally aired, CSM only says, “I carried you.” There is no housekeeper. Is this Carter’s attempt, in the #MeToo moment, to soften the blow of what is, if not literal rape, then clearly assault? Or, additionally, to rather callously allude to the complaint, aired earlier this year just as the 11th season was entering production, that the show’s primary staff was all male? (Several female writers and directors were subsequently added.) The choice certainly leaves an astringent aftertaste. At the same time, the retconning does work to buoy one of the season’s overarching themes, which is, without giving any future plot points away, the way things are vs. the way we remember or wish them to be. (I’ve seen five of the ten episodes, and they each play around with this idea.) This spotlights one of the series’ great frustrations: It’s often most interesting when it barrels headlong into thorny territory, what the modern thinkpiece industry, and the outraged commentariat feeding it like Moloch, would (sometimes rightly) term “problematic.” Speaking for myself, I’d rather an artist risk offense (or actually offend) than suppress their instincts. Better rough edges than none at all. Your mileage will vary.
• Furthering the sense that we’ve somehow skipped a beat in-between “My Struggle II” and “My Struggle III”: CSM is no longer facially scarred or smoking from a tracheal hole in his throat. Ravages of old age aside, he seems more himself than he’s ever been, which leads me to wonder if the subtle sense that this is some parallel existence (dream-within-a-dream? something other?) might be more than just an ephemeral notion. “I’ve been at this too long not to have my alternatives,” says CSM. A puppet-master to the end.
• Any discussion of The X-Files’ cinematic qualities revolves, frequently, around its visuals. Previous DPs such as John S. Bartley, Joel Ransom and Bill Roe each brought a distinctive look to the series, playing with shadow and color in such a way that The X-Files tended to feel bigger than its boxy medium. This season, a new cinematographer joins the ranks—Craig Wrobleski, best known for his efforts on two Noah Hawley TV shows, the compelling redo of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo (1996) and the too-clever-for-its-own-good X-Men spinoff, Legion. Wrobleski is well-suited to Carter’s paranoia-infused world (I especially love the moment when CSM’s reflection is captured in an alien oculus—Smokey Gets In Your Eyes), though the frenetic pacing of “My Struggle III” doesn’t afford much time to linger on the imagery. This one’s all about editing and score; in subsequent installments, Wrobleski’s work gets a stronger showcase.
• The opening credits typically end with the tagline “The Truth Is Out There.” Here it’s the series’ other mantra, “I Want to Believe,” which morphs into “I Want to Lie.” But of course you do, Chris. I'm also convinced that CSM's line to Reyes, "I've enjoyed more hatred than you'll ever know," is the Creator winking, mockingly yet affectionately, at the fanbase. You do you, CC. I wouldn't have it any other way.