Sunday, August 19, 2012

Doggett Days: The Penultimate X-Files

Well, it's the doggiest of the Dog Days, and this is the customary time of year where I let it all hang out and let my freak flag fly.
Fanboy indulgences are a priority, and usually act a sparkplug for getting things in motion in September.

It's been quite a while since I did anything on The X-Files (March 2011, to be precise, though I did talk some X in the Millennium series, which I do plan to revisit at some point), so I thought I'd work my backwards and talk about the penultimate season of the series, since it's by far my favorite of the LA years.

It was very much a back to basics move on Ten Thirteen's part, a deliberate attempt to bring the series back to its roots. The core elements of the series' identity-- sci-fi, horror, political conspiracy, alien invasion-- were sharply curtailed through the first two seasons in Los Angeles. They'd all be back with a vengeance in the eighth season.

The move from Vancouver was imposed on the series by David Duchovny, who was recently married and apprarently tired of the cold and wet in Canada. Many of the show's principals thought the move was a huge risk, not only financially but also because the rich atmosphere of the Canadian city- the "Sherlock Holmes," as the staff called it-- was such a crucial part of the storytelling.

Alas, time has since proved the LA skeptics right. Despite Ten Thirteen's breathtakingly ambitious high-concept efforts (designed to garner publicity as much as ratings), viewership began a steady decline from the beginning of the sixth season to the end of the seventh, and The X-Files was eclipsed by The Sopranos for the coveted Sunday night appointment television spot.

As much as some revisionists would have you think otherwise, it was S8 where the bleeding was staunched and ratings finally stabilized. Remarkable for a show of that age, since older shows- especially SF shows- tend to bleed viewers at an increasing rate as the years go on. Despite the very loud protests from Mulder fans, Robert Patrick appealed to male viewers, a demographic who'd been alienated by the frivolity of S6 and S7.

Many fans see The X-Files as two separate series today, the superior Vancouver version and the inferior LA one. I would argue that this is a gross simplification and that the producers did some amazing work dealing with time and money constraints forced on them against their wishes.

But as a fan of The X-Files from day one, there were a number of developments in the sixth and seventh seasons that I was uncomfortable with, creative decisions that I believe to this day hurt the show by squandering its greatest strength-- its believability. The care taken to create a twilight world almost more real than our own was peeled away in the sixth season, and restoring an aura of believability might be the single hardest task an artist can ever face.

Before the move to LA there was a deliberate policy to avoid casting well-known actors, that was discarded when people like Ed Asner and Kathy Griffin showed up. There were a host of comedic actors appearing in S6 episodes, many of whom were Saturday Night Live alumni such as Michael McKean and Victoria Jackson. Although I felt that most of these episodes were well made, it simply didn't feel like the same show anymore.

Both S6 and S7 were heavy weighed with comedy (and light comedy 'high concept') episodes, and in too many cases the comedy simply became too broad for the show. Duchovny and McKean's Duck Soup mirror routine might have been popular with some fans but for me it signaled a creative low in what was otherwise a very well-balanced Mythology parody (well-balanced in that it was equal parts comedy and sci-fi drama).

The other major problem I had with S6 and S7 was the way the Mytharc seemed to be demoted to second-class status. From the second half of the fourth season (starting with 'Tunguska') to the end of the fifth, the Mytharc was at the dramatic core of the series, its absolute center of gravity.

Scully's cancer, the blackmailing of Skinner, the tragic reappearance of Max Fenig, Mulder's crisis of faith, the appearance of the faceless rebel aliens-- what sometimes seemed convoluted and overwrought ( 'Talitha Cumi'-- made while Carter was working on Millennium--was the nadir of the arc for me, as was 'Redux I', which was the inert, voiceover-crazed meat in an brilliant, highly dramatic three-part sandwich ) became razor-sharp, dangerous and emotionally volatile.

Some of the most shocking moments I've ever seen on television were rolled out, one after another-- the Russian vaccine tests, the interception and horrific downing of Flight 549, the test of the genetically altered killer bees on a school playground, the immolations of the alien abductees-- Chris Carter's deeply twisted imagination was absolutely unleashed, and his brilliant core of writers were similarly inspired (you could put a two-parter like 'Tempus Fugit'/'Max' together and have a feature film that kicks the living shit out of anything Hollywood can work up these days).

There was also the emotional violence-- the desperation of Max and Sharon to have their lives as alien abductees count for something but misery, Mulder's refusal to accept Scully's cancer diagnosis, her mother's rage at same, the devastating contempt that Bill Scully unleashed on Mulder outside his sister's hospital room, Mulder's petulant and offensive born-again skepticism, the burning, palpable jealousy Scully felt when Mulder's former partner and lover reappeared--all these moments were rendered with exquisite clarity by the brilliant staff before and behind the camera.

Not that the Mytharc in S6 and S7 were lacking in interpersonal drama- quite the contrary, the writing in the Myth eps in those seasons are exemplary, in my opinion-- but was missing were the widescreen production values of the Vancouver years. The Mythology seemed to be played out indoors, and we saw a lot of scenes of people sitting in the dark talking. The planes, trains and automobiles of the Vancouver years were in short supply.

This wasn't a question of laziness on the producers' parts. The cost of the show had skyrocketed when the show moved to LA-- Bruce Harwood said the pricetag of an average episode was about two or three times more expensive than one in Canada. What's more, Vince Gilligan complained that there was less time for writing in LA, since the producers had to spend more time dealing with the unions, LA traffic and higher location costs and the rest of it.

Now, I'm not sure if Fox gave Ten Thirteen more money in the eighth season (even at that late date, The X-Files was still Fox's top-rated drama) or if the difference between Robert Patrick's and David Duchovny's salary was really that significant, but I do know that not only was the Mythology back in full force-- and then some, besides-- in S8, but the cinematic quality was restored as well.

Mulder's abduction, death and resurrection and Doggett's initiation into a world he had no conception of gave the series a raison d'etre it had been lacking since the end of the Syndicate arc. To mark the restoration, Carter spliced the two-part season opener into a feature film and showed it on the big screen at the Academy of Television Arts and Science in Hollywood.

The opening two-parter, 'Within' and 'Without' were widescreen television, there are no two ways about it. After setting up the story predominantly in an FBI situation room, Carter then took the action out into the desert and filled the skies with helicopters and flying saucers. Nearly the entirety of the second half takes place outside (and at night), as if in answer to the relentless claustrophobia of the Mytharc of the previous two seasons.

My primary criticism of S8 is how the standalones start off extremely strong (and I do mean extremely- these are some of the best standalones in the series' history) but seem to putter out a bit until Mulder's return midseason. But looking back, I realize that the standalones are clustered together since the second half of the season essentially becomes a serial.

Every season since the first has its second-tier standalones- the difference here is that they're all clumped together in S8 and as such suffer from a kind of monotony. But at the same time I can say that while a lot of the standalones in question are hardly my favorite hours of television, neither are they the kind of wince-induction sessions of previous seasons.

Nothing is as painfully tedious as 'Dod Kalm', or wince-inducing as 'El Mundo Gira' or just plain boring as 'Alpha'. The weakest of the litter is 'Salvage', a too-cute nod to Patrick's role in Terminator 2. It's slight, but it goes by without too much damage done (let me say also that there are very few XF eps that I actually hated the first time I watched them *cough, Fight Club, cough*).

The main fault here is familiarity- after seven and a half seasons, you simply can't tell the same kinds of stories you did when the series was new and fresh. You need to add more to the mix, which many of the best S8 and S9 standalones did.

Ironically, S8 and S9 are mirrors of each other in a way- S8 has by far the best mythology of the two (probably the best run of Mytharc eps since the third season) but S9 generally has better standalones.

But the meat - and dramatic focus- of S8 is the Mythology and the whopping nine Myth eps (the most ever in the series' history) make it worth the price of admission alone. In addition to the Mytharc proper, there are related episodes like 'The Gift', 'Empedocles' and 'Alone' that connect to the arc, bringing the total to twelve, well over half the season.

I don't think it's by any means coincidental that you had this return of the Mythology, especially done in such a bold and unapologetic manner, at a time when Chris Carter's attention was focused on Ten Thirteen's flagship for the first time since Season Five, or allowing for the feature film post-production, Season Three.

Without his attention focused on Millennium (seasons 4 and 6) or Harsh Realm (season 7), the writing was much stronger and the storylines easier to follow. Similarly, Frank Spotnitz would cite Season Eight as one of his favorite- if not the favorite- seasons of his time on the series, even if his attention was a bit more focused on The Lone Gunmen than Carter's.

There's another item on my wishlist that Season Eight checked off -- there were no comedy episodes. At all.

Now, don't get me wrong; I love a comedy ep as much as the next fan but the concept ran into trouble in S6 (after peaking in S5 with eps like 'Unusual Suspects' and 'Bad Blood' and Carter's totally whacked-out 'Post-Modern Prometheus') and ran aground by the end of S7. There were fewer in S7 than S6, but for my money none of them really worked.

'The Goldberg Variation' and 'The Amazing Maleeni' had humorous elements but were basically hour-long Twilight Zone episodes. 'X-Cops' was cute and followed the POV rule of old-school XF comedy (meaning if the leads are acting ridiculous, it's because they are perceived as such by an observer).

'First Person Shooter' was the first sign of real trouble. William Gibson and Tom Maddox produced one of S5's highest highlights, 'Killswitch', even though their script was heavily revised by Carter. That episode was an absolute gem- a perfect grafting of the Cyberpunk aesthetic onto an established series.

With 'Shooter', Gibson and Maddox tried their hand at comedy and end up completely misinterpreting not only Mulder and Scully, but the Lone Gunmen as well. It didn't help that the entire operation was in a state of flux and turmoil, the season having begun with Duchovny suing Carter and announcing his departure as a fulltime cast member at the end of the year. Knives were being drawn all over the Internet as well.

Suffice it to say, 'Shooter' is a disaster. Carter did his best to save it, but the very premise itself belongs in the circular file. And this is coming from a major Gibson fan.

Duchovny's second writing/directing job, 'Hollywood AD' is considerably better, but is entirely too meta, to the point of taking you completely out of the X-Files universe. It also suffers in hindsight, as it serves as his too-eager embrace of a Hollywood establishment that never embraced him back.

The only thing worse than one Kathy Griffin is...

Then there was the absolute worst X-Files episode of all, yes, you guessed it, 'Fight Club'. Now, I know what exhaustion feels like. I know what kind of strange shit floats around inside you're head when you're exhausted. Carter was working 100+ hour weeks for years at this point- that creates a kind of exhaustion that's hard to shake.

This all gets worse when exhaustion is accompanied by emotional stress, and certainly Carter had more than his share of that, given the draining, open (and well-publicized) warfare he found himself in with his star and his network head. So given all of the amazing television he wrote and would write, I can easily chalk up 'Fight Club' to exhaustion. I get exhausted just watching it. Or thinking about it.

Predictably, Gilligan's 'Je Souhaite' is the best of the bunch, but the casting (Mad TVs Will Sasso and comedy relief specialist Kevin Weisman) takes me right out of the story. For what could have been a penultimate episode of the series, it's also too slight by half.

Clowntime is over: Adam Baldwin as superspook Knowle Rohrer

So needless to say, I didn't miss the absence of comedy episodes in the eighth season. At all. I welcomed it-- with immense gratitude.

As much as many fans loved all the comedy and high concept, I signed on for the darkness and the paranoia, the real-time sci-fi and the plausible horror. And of all the LA seasons, it was the eighth that brought that back to the fore. It was also the season that felt the most like the Vancouver years, for reasons I can't quite explain. Other than it seemed to be cloudy in Southern California a lot back then.

Another noticable difference in S8 is a much higher energy level and greater level of intensity. Robert Patrick was described by crew and co-stars as a tireless force, and the tension and bad feelings that William B Davis and many others reported between the show's stars (largely the result of the grinding, inhuman workload the two had endured for years) dissipated with Duchovny's departure.

Patrick, Anderson and Mitch Pileggi worked together more closely this season and apparently got on famously, hanging out and joking and smoking between sets, rather than retreating to their trailers to sulk.

Finally- and I know this is going to sound terribly superficial-- but Gillian Anderson was getting too butched up in S6 and S7, with her short hair and leather jackets. That might work fine with some actresses, but it doesn't suit her face or body type at all. The stylists glammed her back up in S8 and she looked terrific- and she looked like like a (well-dressed) FBI agent again.

I thought I'd do this entry a bit differently than the S9 rant and do rated capsule reviews (with X's in place of stars, of course), in order of airing not production. Be aware that these are as biased as you can possibly get, but I'll do my best to stay reasonably objective...


8ABX01 Within (XXXXX) If 'Requiem' was the warning shot, this was the shot across the bow- old-school X-Files was back. The Alien Bounty Hunter was cleaning up evidence of abductees, the FBI was treating Mulder's abduction as a manhunt (as if he were a criminal and not a victim, in other words), and new agent John Doggett introduced himself in the customary XF fashion- by lying.

The early season antagonism between the X-Files unit and FBI brass also made a welcome return when hardass, by-the-book AD Kersh was made Deputy Director, leapfrogging over Skinner. Kersh had acted as a foil in S6, but with Mulder and Scully out of the XF unit, it didn't have the same friction that a senior officer in direct conflict with the agents' paranormal work would have. Doggett's evolution from Kersh's dutiful son to rebellious outcast gave the arc a nice touch as well.

The Lone Gunmen were on the premises (not for long, they were getting ready to shoot their own series) and Gibson Praise reappears after a two year absence. Chris Carter makes a definitive statement of purpose with a leaner, meaner, more documentarian writing style, devoid of the florid, purple-prose flourishes of earlier Myth eps.

Clowntime was over, it was back to the roots of what made the show work in the first place: action-packed, conspiracy-driven science fiction thrillers. 

8ABX02 Without (XXXXX) The titles of 'Within' and 'Without' reference the fact that most of the action of the former is indoors and in the desert (that most ancient of initiation places for those meeting angels and demons) for the latter.

And here Doggett is initiated into the world of the X-Files-- he comes face to face with the Alien Bounty Hunter (who shapeshifts as Mulder, Scully and Skinner), and then faces up to the cold realization (delivered by Skinner, the messenger archetype) that he's been set-up to fail by Kersh, who sees Doggett as a potential rival.

X-Files two-parter had a reputation in the early seasons for strong setups and lesser followups, but 'Without' is even better than 'Within' and is one of my top 10 episodes of the entire series. Truly suspenseful and shocking, this is old-school, widescreen, deeply paranoid X-Files mythology, a return to the southwest of the pivotal 'Anasazi' three-parter. Only this time they really are shooting in the desert, not a spray-painted Canadian quarry. Albert Hosteen and the Navajo elders are not here in body, but certainly in spirit. Another two-parter that could stand on its own as a feature film.

One thing I remember feeling when this episode was over was that it was so classic X-Files that it felt strangely unfamiliar, after two very long seasons of comedy and high-concept.

8ABX04 Patience (XXXX) After the widescreen manifesto of the season-opener, 'Patience' can only suffer in comparison. Still, it's a solid, back-to-first-principles MOTW manifesto (S7 only had true MOTW, 'Chimera') filled with sharp, canny character sketches: Scully's struggle to think like Mulder and Doggett's evolution from kneejerk skeptic (in typical skeptic fashion, he seems to write off everything that happened in Arizona as a fluke) to bewildered gumshoe dealing with forces beyond his understanding. The old expository slideshow even made a comeback, a storytelling device in very short supply during the first two LA seasons.

The scenes where Doggett goes from yukking it up with the boys to gallantly staring down a typically recalcitrant X-Files sheriff after he hassles Scully are worth the price of admission alone. DC Comics fans will instantly recognize the MOTW is Man-Bat aka Kirk Langstrom. Hardcore DC Comics fans will recognize the Manbat/Manwoman story features a salient detail from 'Man-Bat Over Vegas 'by the late, great Frank Robbins.

For a guy who claims not to have read comics as a kid, Carter sure knew his DC Comics- S6's 'Triangle' bears an uncanny similarity to a Frank Robbins Shadow yarn. A bit more Bill Roe-florid (plus, too much sunshine) than your typical Vancouver MOTW but definitely of a piece with early season offerings. And deliberately so.

8ABX05 Roadrunners (XXXXX) After a slot of (s)light comedy entries in S7, Vince Gilligan gets back to his own X-Files roots and delivers a brutal, shocking and nail-biting MOTW, with strong undertones of Fundamentalist Mormonism in the script's villains.

Scully is called out to Utah to investigate a backpacker's mysterious disappearance and finds herself abducted by an insane cult that thinks a parasitic alien slug is the Second Coming of Christ. The subplot of the story centers on Scully's lingering distrust of Doggett, a mistake that nearly gets her killed in the most horrific fashion imaginable. Robert Patrick plays a great Shane in this twisted Lovecraftian Western, and Gilligan delineate the character as a stolid, loyal, old-school gumshoe with Patrick's Clint Eastwood-like flourishes added in for seasoning.

The best moments are silent:
Scully in shock as Doggett's dark past is revealed

8ABX06 Invocation (XXXXX) Another gut-puncher (heavily revised by Carter) and a return to the great theme of the early X-Files; the devastating consequences of child abuse. A boy who was abducted when he was seven reappears ten years later, totally unchanged by the passage of time. Well, physically at least.

This episode is pure Vancouver, right down to the gloomy skies of the teaser. This episode has strong echoes of second-season stunner 'The Calusari', also heavily rewritten by Carter as a tribute to the Thomas Tryon novel, The Other.

We also learn that Doggett's own history is scarred by tragedy- the abduction and murder of his son by a sexual predator. That history drives Doggett emotionally throughout the episode making for some tension between he and Scully. The last act harkens back to the brutal revelation of 'Sein Und Zeit', with a very similar archetype at work.

Carter was so relentless in depicting pedophiles as the scum of the Earth, you wonder how he got any work in Hollywood. Note Rodney Eastman from Millennium's "Powers, Etc."

8ABX03 Redrum (XXX1/2) Essentially a Twilight Zone episode starring T2's Joe Morton, with brief and sporadic appearances by the show's stars. Even with the back-to-basics mandate of S8, the producers continued to experiment with the elasticity of the X-Files concept, and this is a perfect example. Morton plays a District Attorney accused of murdering his wife who is living his life in reverse time. Not a totally successful experiment (it would be nice to see a bit more of Doggett and Scully) but a fine, solid hour of television. Rod Serling would be proud.

8ABX07 Via Negativa (XXXXX) As I've written, hallucinogens lie at the core of The X-Files; their use, their symbolism, their mythology. This episode is a prime example, the story of an Iboga shaman who actually reaches that ultimate disembodied astral state all of the gurus preach about and discovers it has unleashed a darkness in his soul that he has no control over.

Scully is mostly MIA in this issue (despite the nonsensical fan speculation you can still read on Wikipedia about big meanie Chris Carter trying to phase out his old character, these Scully-less episodes were made because Gillian Anderson demanded time off to spend with her daughter in Vancouver), allowing Doggett and Skinner to do the field work, and play the Scully and Mulder roles, respectively. Scully reappears for an unexpectedly suspenseful final act.

Thanks to the direction of dedicated X-Files fan Tony Wharmby, this all looks and feels a lot like late-period Vancouver X-Files (with dashes of Millennium), and indeed it harkens back to the Heaven's Gate and Solar Temple mass suicides of that era.

Picking the best standalone of this season is devilishly hard, but this is a strong candidate. Hell, it's a strong candidate for one of the best standalones of the series. Patrick and Pileggi have both cited this episode as their personal favorite. Great direction by Tony Wharmby and creepy visual effects, particularly the strobe effects at the climax.

8ABX09 Surekill (XXXX) I love this episode and never understood some of the abuse it gets from the fans. The Worcester setting helps, of course, but this is yet another return to late-period Vancouver storytelling, very much a companion piece with 'Mind's Eye'. As in that episode the drama isn't about the supernatural angle, it's about how it affects the lives of the people involved. That's something more simple-minded reviewers failed to grasp.

The supporting cast - Michael Bowen, Patrick Kilpatrick and the late Kellie Waymire -- do a fantastic job holding down the plot of a crooked exterminator outfit that takes advantage of Kilpatrick's X-ray vision to rip off drug dealers. Bowen is especially riveting as the ringleader and the interplay between his character and Doggett works so well precisely because of the refeshingly blunt cop/con dynamic. Top-rate X-Files.

You can just imagine the smoke machine
and water truck bills...
8ABX10 Salvage (XX1/4) And then there's 'Salvage'. I don't know what to say about this episode. It's one of those episodes that might have gone down fine in the Mulder-Scully days, but the Doggett-Scully dynamic needs more to play off of, more to push against.

There is a lot to like about this episode, including some truly shocking scenes where the monster/villain demonstrates his power and what is probably the greatest effort made to replicate the look and feel of the Vancouver MOTWs of the LA years.

But it's all tragically undone by a one-note performance by Wade Andrew Williams and ones not much better by the rest of the supporting cast. Granted, there's not much to work with in the script but a charismatic player in the lead guest spot would have gone a long, long way in "salvaging" this episode. Williams sucks the oxygen out of every scene he actually has to act in. Such are the pitfalls of the high-pressure world of series TV. There is no room for error.

Rather than a return to first principles, this all comes off like a pastiche of old school schedule-fillers, especially "2Shy" and "Kaddish." But again, worth watching for the obvious attempt to recapture that elusive Vancouver ambiance.

8ABX11 The Gift (XXX) This is a solid MOTW that doubles as a quasi-Myth entry. Doggett goes to Pennsylvania to investigate unauthorized trips --and the unauthorized discharge of his weapon-- made by Mulder before his disappearance (Duchovny appears in a few brief cameos). There he encounters a hideous creature that the local townsfolk seem to claim as their property.

This works in a pitch black, second season kind of way, but it would have worked a lot better in some primeval British Columbian forest. Luckily, the difference is split with some luscious Hollywood rain and a relatively subdued palette.

It must be pointed out that the shots got a lot tighter in LA, which hurt the documentary flavor of the series. No one will ever admit it, but I believe this was a cost-cutting move (soap operas also rely on tight shots), given the knee-capping the show took in the budget department when Duchovny forced the show to leave Canada.

8ABX12 Badlaa (XXXX) The infamous 'Butt Genie' episode. This is a real corker (no pun intended) and another throwback to old-school MOTWs (right down to the reappearance of the criminally underused Chuck Burks). Writer John Shiban had a Lynchian idea of a mystic that would shrink himself to ant-size and insert himself in someone's ear.

But Carter did what he so often did with so many scripts and offered up a twist that totally changed the dynamic and put something on the screen no one has seen before. If Mulder was in this episode it would surely be in everyone's Top 10- a sickly hilarious horror story with moments of genuine suspense and a great supporting cast (anchored by Deep Roy as the Butt Genie).

8ABX13 Medusa (XX) By far the worst episode of the season, and an unwelcome harbinger of some of the changes to come in the ninth season. As with 'Nothing Important Happened Today, Part One', 'Medusa' sees The X-Files threatening to go off the rails and become another show entirely. An ordinary TV show. This could be an episode of any cop show at all. Given its Boston setting, it also feels a lot like a harbinger of Fringe, and plays almost exactly like one of its weaker standalones.

The plot essentially has Doggett and Scully and a boring team of generic TV cop types investigate mysterious deaths in the Boston subway system. The deaths don't add up to anything (you don't care at all about anyone who dies) and it all kind of goes nowhere and basically stops rather than ends.

There seems to be a symbolic narrative at work (the bad cop who wants to keep the trains running is named Karras, Greek for "Carter") but as entertainment it falls flat. Again, not terrible, just meh. But every season had at least one major clunker (you have to fill those slots somehow) and writer Spotnitz (who later disowned the episode) was obviously busy cooking up a one-two-three-four punch with Carter that would knock the S8 skeptics on their asses.

8ABX08 Per Manum (XXXXX) It was a this point that The X-Files became a quasi-serial, and the back-to-basics philosophy of conspiracy-driven sci-fi was brought out in full force. The zeitgeist may have been working against the Mytharc, but that only seemed to strengthen the writers' resolve.

This seems more a Spotnitz plot than a Carter one-- filled with double and triple crosses, but there's no shortage of Carterite emotional violence. From the very first minute of the teaser we are back in old-school Mythology territory, with a harrowing scene of a woman giving birth to an alien Grey before she is put to death by her doctors.

Mulder appears in a series of flashbacks dealing with Scully's infertility (significantly all from the Vancouver era timeline), brilliantly intercut with her present dealings with an increasingly suspicious Doggett, and a new Deep Throat appears in the form of Knowle Rohrer, a shady Naval Intelligence operative played by Adam Baldwin (Firefly). But this and the following episodes are Gillian Anderson's and Robert Patrick's alone, showcases for their acting chops and their own unique chemistry.

The appearance of a CIA mole named Duffy Haskell (played by Jay Acovone, who also guest-starred in Bob Goodwin's S4 Mytharc stunner, 'Demons'). who is working with doctors to create human-alien hybrids leads to one of the most gut-punching three seconds I've ever seen on television: the withering look of anger and betrayal Doggett shoots at Scully when he realizes she's been keeping her secret from him. The greatest moments of this series are wordless.

8ABX14 This Is Not Happening (XXXXX) TV just doesn't get any better than this. Full-tilt, old-school X-Files Mythology; skies full of saucers, Darth Vader SWAT teams terrorizing the already traumatized, new faces (new agent Monica Reyes, Absalom- a classic XF UFO cult leader- played by V star Judson Scott) and old (Invaders star Roy Thinnes as shapeshifting alien messiah Jeremiah Smith, multiple abductee Teresa Hoese, UFO hunter Richie Szalay) all scouring the Montana countryside as the Colonists dump dying abductees like sacks of garbage.

The introduction of Monica Reyes (pre-S9 makeover Monica, that is) is an X-Files classic. Rather than being presented as a feminist cartoon, Reyes seems like a real person; intelligent, good-natured and charming, but socially awkward, self-contradicting and clearly uncomfortable with the position of authority she finds herself being put in by Doggett.

Carter was clearly casting Monica as a reincarnation of Melissa Scully, who was killed during a similar crisis five years before. Reyes is also presented as sexually ambiguous and- for all her boasting of empathic sensitivity - oblivious to other people's feelings. A real person, in other words.

Most of this character development would be unceremoniously flushed away in S9's opener, and would only return in Carter-driven scripts like 'Improbable'.

Brilliant character development- Reyes' pained smile,
trying to save face after being humiliated by Scully
No one would ever talk about it, but there definitely seemed to be a conflict in the XF writing team over what to do with this character, a conflict probably not helped by the network. And sadly, Annabeth Gish- a very talented actress- would take the blame for Monica's underdevelopment.

In any event, all of this was leading to the death of Mulder and a very strange, real-life interlude (which we'll have to look at in the next installment). Any doubts I had about the new direction of the series were shredded into confetti at this point. This shit kicked my head in. In my all time Top 3.

8ABX15 DeadAlive (XXXXX) "Within/Without" was a mandate for the Mytharc in S8- widescreen drama followed by its aftermath in more intimate settings. Without was followed by the interior drama of 'Per Manum', most of which took place in the FBI offices and a military hospital, and 'Dead Alive' too centers the action in a Naval hospital.

But as with much of S8, there is the return of what made The X-Files great in the Vancouver era; a star-worthy supporting cast, weird science and, of course, all of those parking garage scenes inspired by All the President's Men. 'Dead Alive' brings back Billy Miles (from the pilot ep) and archvillian Alex Krycek, whose behavior here is despicable, even for him.

Robert Patrick's casting was an inevitability, given the incalculable influence the Terminator films had on The X-Files, and Carter and Spotnitz mischieviously replay a classic scene from T2 with Doggett and Krycek.

8ABX18 Three Words (XXXXX) Back without, on the White House lawn for an eerily prescient scene foretelling a takeover of the government by alien forces and on a West Virginia roadgang site where Absalom escapes to seek out John Doggett. Knowle Rohrer reappears like a shade from the fourth day of the Condor. Indeed, all of this is strongly reminiscent of the classic 70s conspiracy films that inspired both Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, as well as The Invaders.

Then more Vancouver-worthy scenes at a Census Bureau HQ where the Lone Gunmen replay their action-hacker role from 'Memento Mori', helping Mulder break in and access a Census data mainframe. You get the distinct impression the next season that Carter and Spotnitz regretted killing off Absalom when his doppelganger Josepho shows up in 'Provenance'.

8ABX16 Vienen (XXXXX) It doesn't get any more widescreen than this. Or back to basics. Mulder and Doggett investigate a murder on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico only to discover it's not light sweet crude they're pumping, but Purity (aka the Black Oil), missing in action since Fight the Future. If you don't like 'Vienen', you simply don't like The X-Files.

This is pure Vancouver-era Mythology in the 'Tunguska'/'Terma' vein, with Doggett standing in for Krycek while Scully phones from home. A much needed jolt of big sky, Black Oil and big things going boom. Director Rod Hardy- who came aboard this season- saw this as his chance to direct a classic X-Files Myth ep and goes out of his way to hit all those great Rob Bowman story beats with LA-era production values. Deep Space Nine's Casey Biggs guest-stars, the second Cardassian to make a major appearance on XF.

With 'Vienen', Season Eight had now featured an unprecedented five Myth eps in a row (though 'Empedocles' aired before 'Vienen'). Even though producers would claim that the heavy use of the Mytharc in Season Eight was a necessity of Duchovny's Byzantine contract, those claims were belied by his appearance in the standalones 'Empedocles' and 'Alone'.

What was really going on in was that with Duchovny on guest-star status, the producers could finally feature the Mythology without worrying about constant vetos and ultimatums coming from outside the writers room. The reappearance of Gibson Praise in the season opener wasn't arbitrary- it was a statement of intent. Carter and Spotnitz had told reporters that the sixth season was going to concentrate heavily on the Mythology and many fans were confused and angry when the arc was seemingly ended halfway through the comedy-sodden season.

But as with so much with this series there were demands being put on the producers that did a lot of palpable damage to the series (the death of X, the Mulder Skeptic storyline, the move to LA, the heavy emphasis on comedy, the death of the Syndicate, etc etc), demands that Chris Carter was inevitably blamed for. So the heavy emphasis on Mythology- and total absence of comedy episodes - in Season Eight was a way of the producers taking control of their show back and signaling as such to those fans who might be paying attention.

8ABX17 Empedocles (XXXX) The basic concept here - evil as a contagion- was Spotnitz's and signaled the direction he intended to take the series in when Carter left (which most people assumed would be at the end of this season). But the larger mandate here was similar to that of 'Vienen'; use Mulder to allow a very vocal minority in the fanbase to become comfortable with the new leads by having them work a case with Mulder.

But the Monica Reyes of S8 was considerably different than the character we saw throughout most of S9. As we saw in 'Happening', Reyes was clearly meant to be a surrogate for Scully's sister Melissa, who had been murdered in S3. Here Reyes has psychic visions and intuitive flashes and argues incessantly with Doggett (who clearly feels a bond with her but finds her New Age philosophizing insufferable), whose sense of dignity and loyalty is greatly burnished here.

This is a very strong episode written and shot in the LA style (very similar in tone to late season standalones in S6 and S7) that sheds important light on the Doggett and Reyes characters. It's diminished only slightly by a weak, hesitant ending. The subplot of Marilyn Manson being blamed for an office shooting is typically XF topical. Note two-time Millennium player Jay Underwood as guest villain, continuing the Season Seven trend of Carter enlisting MM standouts for XF eps.

8ABX19 Alone (XXXX) This is the closest S8 gets to a comedy episode, with super-annoying fangirl Layla Harrison assigned to replace Scully on The X-Files and working a classic MOTW with Doggett and a civilianized Mulder. What makes it all work so well is that it gets very dark and scary in short order.

Props as well to the monster and the actor who plays him (not to mention the para-implications of it all). Duchovny's longstanding argument that the producers needed to cast more agents is vindicated in these late-season eps and plays the decomissioned Mulder beautifully. The Mulder/Scully stuff gets a bit too Moonlighting- exactly as Carter feared it would one day- but I wasn't focusing on that at all. Unfortunately a lot of other fans were.

8ABX20 Essence (XXXX) Within again, as Scully tries to return to the life she left behind before joining The X-Files. No such luck. Scully soon finds out that the nursemaid her mother hires is working for Duffy Haskell and when she's arrested she reveals she was a doctor on the Syndicate's payroll.

At the same time Billy Miles-- or the Terminator-like "replacement human" that has taken his form-- is wiping up the Syndicate's old mess, killing the doctors that were treating Scully. Krycek resurfaces to tell the X-Files team that they're really screwed now- the aliens have changed tactics and are taking no prisoners now.

All of this was remarkably timely, with the neoconservative takeover of the White House at the same time these episodes were airing. This loses an X for the discordant Scully domestic moments (another conscious throwback to the earliest episodes, but out of place within the evolution of the series) and the teaser, in which out-the-door Duchovny delivers a voiceover with all of the passion and enthusiasm of Carlton the Door Man.

Note the canny symbolism, indicating the offcamera subtext
of why Skinner enjoyed killing Krycek so much...

8ABX21 Existence (XXXX1/2) And back without. Fleeing Billy Miles, Scully and Reyes hide out in a Georgia ghost town. However Scully has forgotten that the implant was reinserted into her neck four years earlier and so the aliens know where she is at all times. Soon the ghost town is crawling with terminator aliens. At the same time, Doggett and Mulder discover Krycek has cut a deal with the aliens and has sold the X-Files team out.

All of this is leavened with genuine suspense (including a chilling encounter with Knowle Roher and an escape from Billy Miles), Reyes getting all sapphic on the ready-to-pop Scully and probably the greatest teaser in the show's history (as well as the best death scene of a major character since 'Erlenmeyer Flask'), not to mention that kiss.

As always, Robert Patrick's and David Duchovny's wildly-underrated chemistry in playing Mulder and Doggett as frenemies adds a kick to these episodes I wish the producers had more of a chance to explore. The only off-note was the setup for the dreadful S9 opener, but that didn't bother me at the time.

More tonally consistent than the first half and a fitting finale for a great season. As I've written the following season would be considerably more problematic, but for my money all wrongs were righted when the operation returned to Vancouver for the second XF movie, no matter how star-crossed that bit of uncomfortable prophecy might have been.

That film went back to the basics in all the right ways while respecting the arc of the characters' story. Maybe a lot of people disagree, but I have every confidence that the passage of time will vindicate that film, whose sin was to capture its era's miserable zeitgeist only all too well.

POST SCRIPT: I was going to do a lengthy section on The Lone Gunmen pilot here but because this post is so huge, decided to spin it into its own post. I wanted to revisit the issue not only to refute the deliberate misinformation circulating about it in the conspiracy media (one day people will figure out that nearly everything circulating in the conspiracy media is deliberate misinformation), but offer what I think is an incredibly compelling argument of what that episode really was based on recent information I've gleaned about the Bush Administration's policy of obstruction and deliberate ignorance when confronted with credible intelligence about the plot in the early months of 2001.

Stay tuned for the next installment....