Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Secret Sun Guide to The X-Files Mythology, Part 1

Many people are rediscovering The X-Files with the advent of streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. It's no suprise; in many ways, the series is more relevant than ever.

As some of you may know the series was divided into two basic types of episodes, the standalones and the Mythology episodes, which spread out a continuous narrative over each season. 

Fox put out four DVD boxsets of Mytharc eps but those were notorious for their omissions (the pivotal fifth season two-parter 'Christmas Carol'/'Emily' was left off for reasons never made clear) and didn't include many of the episodes that dealt with aspects of the conspiracy related to but not explicitly spelled out in the offical Mytharc eps, those "sweeps week" eps usually written by executive producers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz.

Seeing that The X-Files was so prophetic and so deeply influential I thought that readers may want a guide to those episodes that deal with the main thrust of the series whether you're rewatching or watching for the first time. 

And since our friend Raj Sisodia of Amid Night Suns fame is one of those people who truly understands what the series was about and its deeper implications I thought I'd invite him to help me explore the X-Files Mythology and provide a viewer's guide for all you good people out there. 

Personally speaking the more involved the conspiracy got, the more trouble I had following it, which is why I didn't truly understand and appreciate until I was able to watch the episodes in sequence, the way they were intended. These were the days before serials as the dominant model for dramas and the producers broke them up throughout the seasons.

It may be why my favorite myth eps during the show's run were in the third and (especially) eighth seasons, when they were the most concentrated and thus easy to follow. But even the lesser entries in the canon gain weight when you can watch them in context, not only in the setting of the "sweeps week" two-parters, but in the expanded Mytharc Raj and I present here.

The criteria we chose are episodes that deal with aliens, abductions, Mulder's sister, the super-soldier program (a thruline from the first season), the Syndicate, human experimentation and mind control, in short all of the conspiracy-oriented episodes. In the interest of your eyeballs we've broken this up into three parts. I hope you all enjoy it. 

1X79 The X-Files (Chris Carter)

Raj: Two beautifully-matched FBI agents investigate mysterious goings on in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, uncovering a possibly alien force that summons a teenage test-group to do its strange bidding, and my voracious need for documentary-style dark sci-fi was born.  It’s a pilot that is engaging, investing, with a lean script and some canny visuals that put the power of the imagination front and center, hinting at an entire complex world beyond what we have glimpsed.  The finale with Billy Miles at the heart of a brightly-lit vortex of swirling leaves still has more punch than most movies, because of the emotions and intrigue leading to that stunning climax. (XXXXX)

Chris: Sometimes a pilot is so perfect it defines an entire series. This one defined an entire era. The first season hasn't always withstood the ravages of time (well, for everyone but me that is) but this is a classic 70s conspiracy feature film slumming as a mere TV show. All the elements are in place, the cinematic lighting, the moody atmospherics (Twin Peaks was a huge influence here, more obviously so than The Night Stalker), the deep paranoia and most important the incandescent chemistry between the two leads. Though I could have used a bit more Gillian Anderson in her underwear in the rest of the series, I don't know about you. (XXXXX)

1X01 Deep Throat (Carter)

Chris: The agents investigate weird goings-on at "Ellens Air Force Base" (read: Nellis) and confront a clandestine network of operatives who'll do anything to keep secrets secret. This episode blew my mind- it was hands down the most subversive thing I'd seen on network television at that time. Certainly the most paranoid. This was a series that felt dangerous and unpredictable as it depicted a government at war with its citizens. I was reading a lot of conspiracy material at the time- particularly on USENET- and this episode took the most unhinged alt.conspiracy fever dreams from my computer screen and put them on my TV screen. (XXXXX)
Raj: In many ways a secondary pilot for the show, this episode ups the ante on grandeur, and 70s style paranoia in the vein of All the President’s Men brought bang up to date – further establishing the atmospheric space the show was to inhabit.  Again a very lean and intelligent script with effectively rousing dialogue between Mulder and Scully, that manages to plant itself in a more shadowed version of the real world; with a satisfying turn by a mysterious airbase official posing as an irksome journalist.  Mulder’s encounter on the runway with a triangular military UFO is still spine-chilling, as is his drug-fogged glimpse of the secret hangar where it is stored.  The power of the unseen and half-seen from a storytelling POV is further cemented in this episode.  (XXXXX)

1X03 Conduit (Gordon/Gansa)

Raj: An episode about Messages and Messengers that owes more than a nod to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Conduit is an abduction story with heavy political and metaphysical edges.  A low-key but engaging thriller, it is noteworthy for the inklings of the very grounded science-spirituality connection that would come to define the show, with the alien force using a child to communicate evocative data through binary code.  It’s a story that expertly hints at the idea that the case and phenomena in general is far weirder than it seems.  (XXXX)
Chris:  I often regret that they outgrew these basic abduction narratives in the first season. This one is certainly more riveting than any number of later standalones. The conduit here is a young boy who receives messages like a satellite dish and attracts the attention of the NSA (the Bruce Willis film Mercury Rising stole its plot from this ep), leading to one of those future-shock scenes in which a mother and child are hauled away by armed goons. Conduit also fleshes out Mulder's obsession with his sister's abduction and how that colors his entire life's work. All of which makes Conduit's omission from the Mythology boxsets utterly baffling. (XXXXX)

1X08 Space (Carter)

Raj: This is by far the worst episode of the first season.  Although it has a special place in my heart for its ambition and genuinely weird vibe in places, nothing can really distract the viewer from its fairly sloppy execution.  In this episode you can feel the writers trying to figure out what kind of a story they want to tell and not really being sure.  It seems they want to tell a trippy Martian Space Ghost story, which could have been cool if they managed to find a resonant context in which to tell it.  But by the end of this episode I was left with the feeling of, “Well, that was truly odd, but also kind of unsatisfying and insubstantial.”  (XXX)
Chris: Everyone says this is the worst of the season- including the people who made it- but it blew the top of my head off in 1993. I was reading bizarre theories on the Internet about the Face on Mars and NASA being banned from the Moon by aliens (who were also sabotaging the shuttle program) and alien walk-ins and all of the rest of it. And here it all was, in living color. It freaked me out.

Space is essentially a bottle show, but is badly directed and suffers from truly awful special effects. It was made at a stressful time for the new series, when money was running dry and Gillian Anderson was blowing take after take, having never had to memorize the amount of dialogue the show required. But I still remember that rush I felt when it was over. However poorly it's aged it was a revelation if you were tuned into the conspiracy underground in the early 90s.
Yeah, I can think of a dozen episodes that are a lot worse than this. And it's certainly a lot more original than a lot of episodes that are more popular. (XXX1/2) 

1X09 Fallen Angel (Gordon/Gansa)

Chris: A "fallen angel" is a downed UFO in the parlance of the black ops squad sent to recover it and its pilot. Mulder is tipped off and is quickly arrested while photographing the recovery scene. There he meets Max Fenig, an eccentric UFO investigator and the obvious prototype for the Lone Gunmen (Lone Gunman Dean Haglund auditioned for the role). Mulder soon realizes that Fenig is a multiple abductee and the alien was looking for him. More white knuckle paranoia (its tableau of out of control government thugs especially shocking in 1993 after the Waco disaster) and more of the type of four-square UFO drama I'm sorry the series dropped. Bits of dialogue from the Intruders TV movie are quoted almost verbatim.  (XXXXX)

Raj: I agree with Chris about this episode’s links to Intruders.  For me, Fallen Angel showcases the majesty of the X Files remit at its finest.  It expertly blends politics, paranoia, and great character moments of sadness, humour and desperation.  There’s tons of atmosphere combined with a brilliant script, making for an hour of television that is intelligent, exciting and kind of terrifying.  It’s the first real episode in the season where we get to see glimpses of the black-ops reality of the UFO phenomenon, and where the aliens of X Files mythology are first shown as being a genuine and powerful physical threat.  One can feel the weight of material and resonance here.  It continues to hint at the link between UFOs, science, spirituality and religion through the designation given to the downed alien craft – that gives the episode its name.  And the writers and actors make it all seem so effortless.  (XXXXX)

1X10 Eve (Biller/Brancato)

Chris: The agents investigate identical deaths of fathers of identical girls on opposite ends of the country. After a UFO red herring is tossed into the mix, they soon realize they are dealing with the products of a government super-soldier breeding program, a program that was officially cancelled but is being continued by its products. Very much a 70s vintage narrative, heavily rewritten by 70s popcult afficianados Glen Morgan and Jim Wong (aka The Wongs). The early seed of a thruline that would dominate the Mythology in the last two seasons. (XXXXX)

Raj: This episode starts off like it might be some kind of vampire narrative before switching on the viewer and evolving into a full-on conspiracy story dealing with a clandestine cloning program, with biblical allusions.  And it does this extremely well, with clues and revelations uncovered in interesting ways, before finally turning into a tense and extremely creepy Dark Gemini game of psychological cat-n-mouse.  It’s also the first episode to introduce a theme that would become a staple of X Files lore – that of twinning, doubling and mirror images as psychological and mythological metaphors.   (XXXXX)

1X13 GenderBender (Barber/Barber)

Chris: The agents investigate a killer that seems to change genders at will and discover a weird Amish-like religious cult in the piney woods of Massachussetts. This might seem like a throwaway to some fans but there are all kinds of firsts here: it's the first time we get a good look at aliens of any kind, it's the first we learn that some aliens are shapeshifters, it's the first we learn that some aliens separate themselves from the Purity project and it's the first we learn that human-looking aliens live among us in colonies. It's also the first episode directed by Rob Bowman and the first X-Files appearance of Nic "Krycek" Lea. Plus, this series could have done with a bit more carnality, it must be said.   (XXXX)

Raj: Indeed, there are all kinds of firsts with regards to X Files mythology that make so much more sense when viewing the show in its entirety – all wrapped up in a creepy backwoods thriller narrative.  The Amish-inspired alien colony that refers to themselves as the Kindred, and their love/hate relationship with humans, is genuinely creepy in the broader context of the show.  (XXXX)

1X16 EBE (Morgan/Wong)

Chris: Morgan and Wong's stab at a Carter/Gordon UFO conspiracy yarn has a lot to like, including the first appearance of the Lone Gunmen. A UFO pilot shipped over from Iraq is being driven across the country to a facility on the West Coast. Mulder gets wind of it and Deep Throat and his crew do their best to keep him away from it. We see a nice tribute to Coppola's 70s classic The Conversation but also some of the comforting conventions they learned from Steven Cannell that kept the Wongs' attempts at conspiracy material from delivering the "what the fuck?" moments needed to make all the runarounds worth sitting through. All in all a bit too derivative of Deep Throat and Fallen Angel (the Lone Gunmen are just Max Fenig times three, really) to really hit the sweet spot. The Wongs were horror guys at heart- you never got the feeling they wore out their copies of The Parallax View. (XXX1/2)

Raj: EBE did have some easy conventions and extremely lucky coincidences.  But watching the episode as a young teen, one scene in particular is seared into my imagination; when Scully and Mulder discover a red-lit ad-hoc medical bay hidden behind boxes in the back of the unmarked truck.  This scene gave me chills, implying an alien presence despite the complete absence of any physical entity on screen.  That restraining stretcher in the back of the truck is one of those indelible images that I still carry around in my imagination today.  (XXX)

1X16 Miracle Man (Gordon/Carter)

Another episode people may not associate with the Mytharc but was cleverly retconned as such in 'Talitha Cumi' when the identically-powered Jeremiah Smith was called a "miracle man." The story focuses on a faith healer who can actually heal (like Jeremiah) and rises from the dead (aliens and hybrids can't be killed through normal means), clearly identifying young Brother Samuel as a hybrid or drone. Furthermore, the young Samantha Mulder appears throughout as an induced hallucination.  The X-Files obsessed New Outer Limits knocked this episode off, going so far to cast Peter Stebbings (from 'Genderbender') as the alien faith healer. (XXX1/2)

1X23 The Erlenmeyer Flask (Carter)

Chris: Here is where the random abduction narratives of the first season were discarded and replaced by a larger mythology of black projects serving an overarching agenda. And again where the show tapped into the zeitgeist; the plot was inspired by a weird news story in which paramedics were sickened by fumes when they tried to hook a woman up to an IV. Gillian Anderson shows how far she has come in just a single season- from an inexperienced starlet whose replacement was being auditioned on the show (Amanda Pays on "Fire") to a star who the producers would plan entire storylines around. You may know how this episode reaches it climax but it's still no less stunning when it all goes down. Astonishing television in every conceivable way. (XXXXX)  

Raj: An episode that I call ‘Pandora’s Flask’, because of the ultra-symbolic address of the storage facility that Mulder discovers is actually doubling as an illegal genetics laboratory.  The viewers are finally brought into the fold regarding the US government’s experimentation with alien DNA and pathogens, and their attempts to create surviving alien/human hybrids – and it’s all done in a full-bodied, darkly operatic style.  This is where The Invaders openly reveals its influence on X Files mythology, and where we are made aware of the truly murderous lengths to which the conspirators will go to protect the project.  (XXXXX)  

Season Two Episodes

2X01 Little Green Men (Morgan/Wong)

Chris: Having learned their limitations from EBE, The Wongs' second Myth epic takes its cues from Carl Sagan's Contact but delivers a good old fashioned haunted house story underneath the sci-fi trappings. With the X-Files closed down Mulder travels down to an abandoned listening station at the Ariceibo radar telescope array, which is essentially haunted by aliens. The Wongs recycle the cat-n-mouse antics from EBE to much better effect and throw in a harrowing chase with a UN alien retrieval team. Samantha's abduction is rewritten from the pilot to the version most fans will recognize as canon. Not really of a piece with the general flow of the MythArc, but a definitive hour of X-Files. (XXXX) 

Raj: I agree with Chris’ take on this episode essentially being a claustrophobic haunted house story, but with aliens.  This episode features flashbacks/daydreams to the now definitive version of Samantha’s abduction.  Little Green Men also gives us the added bonus of creepy running around in darkened forests, which is always great on The X Files.  (XXXX)

2X03 Blood (Morgan/Morgan/Wong)

Chris: A small town experiences a rash of horrific murders related to LED displays. Mulder investigates and soon learns that a local agribusiness is using a psychotropic agent in an insecticide sprayed on local groves. Here the theme of the mass experiments conducted on the public begins to take shape (a theme that Fringe would build an entire series around). It all climaxes in a replay of the 1966 University of Texas massacre. Powerful stuff, but would be done considerably better the following season with 'Wetwired'. (XXX1/2)

Raj: A truly unsettling story with subtle touches of black comedy way before X Files ever did an outright comedy episode, it concerns a quiet mail clerk named Edward Funsch who goes literally postal.  He is commanded to kill by messages he apparently sees on electronic displays, while his association to blood becomes increasingly dangerous.  He isn’t the only character experiencing these murderous messages, but he is the main antagonist as his psychosis builds to unbearable levels.  William Sanderson plays Funsch with the perfect mix of sympathy and strangeness.  We feel sorry for him, but we wouldn’t want to be locked in a room with him.  In line with this, there’s a climactic scene in which Funsch climbs a campus tower with a rifle and begins taking shots at people.  There is a scream that Sanderson does while trying to reload the rifle – an ear-piercing squeal of frenzied desperation that perfectly captures Funsch’s pitiable predicament.  That little scream is burned into my memory  (XXXX)

2X04 Sleepless (Gordon)

Raj: This episode is the introduction of one of my favourite characters and actors in the show; Alex Krycek, portrayed flawlessly by Nick Lea – Ratboy to hardcore XF fans.  I could talk about Lea’s brilliant performance for most of this review, how he sells every line that comes out of his mouth, but the actual plot of Sleepless is pretty cool also.  A government experiment to create ‘perfect soldiers’; psychotic Vietnam vets who didn’t need to sleep.  But the experiment has the terrible side-effect of giving one soldier in particular, Tony Todd’s Augustus Cole, the ability to project and direct his own murderous imagination.  The episode has a few clich├ęd moments, but for the most part the script is tight and the story very engaging.  It’s fun to see Mulder paired with a new partner, and the writers have a ball manipulating our perceptions of Krycek throughout the episode.  By the end of the story we have warmed to him considerably, which is why the final revelation is such a gut-punch even if it initially crossed our minds.  It’s also noteworthy for the continuing exploration of the link between the realms of science and spirit, or Rational and Irrational, that was such a driving force of The X Files. (XXXX)  

Chris: A great ep with some truly great guest appearances by Tony Todd and Jonathan Gries. Also marks the first appearance of Steven Williams as Mr. X, Mulder's new off the record source. The role was originally played by a female actress but Carter was unhappy with her performance so the role was recast. If you look closely you can see her shoulders in the cutaways. This storyline was originally intended for the first season but never took flight. It works better here. (XXXXX)

2X05 Duane Barry (Carter)

Chris: The abduction storyline of The X-Files would reach such a peak in the arc beginning with Duane Barry that the producers found themselves having to radically change gear, realizing it couldn't be topped. For some fans, Duane Barry was Carter's peak as a writer (he also directed the episode) and perhaps for the uncomplicated types of narratives those fans gravitate towards it was.  Carter's focus certainly changed- his next Myth solo episode following Duane Barry would be the frenetic and unhinged Red Museum. But Duane Barry also marked a point when The X-Files grabbed the zeitgeist by the throat, called it out like a demon and from then on defined it on its own terms.

Duane Barry has Mulder called in to negotiate a hostage standoff at a travel agency. A mental patient and multiple abductee is looking for the mountain resort in which he was first abducted. Mulder offers himself as a hostage after one of the agency workers is shot and the extended standoff between Mulder and Barry (played by Steve Railsback, who also played Charles Manson in Helter Skelter) is one of the great set-pieces in television history. As the show so brilliantly did over the years you are never sure if Barry is insane or if he is telling the truth. And if he's telling the truth was he abducted by aliens or the black bag bunch? Or both? (XXXXX)  
Raj: The Duane Barry/Ascension two-parter is mind-blowing.  But this first half is full of claustrophobia, emotional violence and an uneasy intimacy that really kicks the mythology of the second season into gear.  What I love about this episode is that we are consistently reminded in a tense and disturbing fashion that it’s not just former FBI agent Duane Barry who’s dangerous, but that Mulder himself is also quite dangerous.  Here were see Mulder at his most tortured so far; his desperation to uncover the truth about alien contact and to provide some kind of context for his sister’s abduction.  Duchovny’s and Railsback’s performances carry this entire episode, in what is basically two crazy guys talking in a room.  But it’s done with such style and emotional authenticity that the genre elements become doubly terrifying. (XXXXX
2X06 Ascension (Brown)

Chris: A desperate Mulder and the double-dealing Krycek search for Scully and Duane Barry, and get a hot lead after Barry guns down a sheriff's deputy during a routine traffic stop. Mulder follows Barry to the top of Skyland Mountain on an airtram, leading to one of the tense and cinematic scenes that marked the show's Vancouver residence. Mulder soon learns that Krycek is working against him and his cause seems more lost than ever before. Only a disappointment in relation to the epic it followed. It's still a brilliant and zeitgeist-defining hour of television. The extended abduction scene and brief appearance of three spectral MIBs still delivers the goods. (XXXXX)  
Raj: Scully has been kidnapped and the stakes are about as high as it gets for Mulder, in his frantic search to find her. The episode is notable for a death-defying set-piece atop Skyland Mountain’s aerial tramway, but the real spectacle is Mulder’s interrogation of Duane Barry after he claims Scully was taken by ‘them’.  This scene has an uneasy vibe from the get-go and builds to Mulder strangling and almost murdering Barry.

We empathize with Mulder’s rage and loss but are aware that he crosses a dangerous line – and is forced to deal with the consequences for the rest of the episode’s duration.  Ascension also builds on the mythology in little oblique ways, as we see another example of the potentially alien/military force using damaged individuals to do their bidding.  We also learn through a conversation between Krycek and the Cigarette Smoking Man that the conspiracy is perhaps somewhat afraid of Mulder, and what he symbolically represents; a threat not so easily removed by killing him.  Later in the series we learn that CSM has other more personal reasons for keeping Mulder alive.  (XXXXX) 

2X08 One Breath (Morgan/Wong)

Chris:  Scully mysteriously reappears in a hospital and a secret war erupts over the secrets of her abduction. Mulder learns that Scully's DNA has been altered and she hovers close to death. Writer Glen Morgan long argued that the series focused too heavily on the negative aspects of the paranormal so we meet Scully's New Age sister Melissa and a mysterious nurse who watches over Scully as she clings to life. Several riffs that would be played again first appear here: Mulder holds the Smoking Man at gunpoint in his apartment and Scully confronts the spirit of her dead father in the great celestial waiting room. I love this episode but not as much as I used to; Melissa is a bit over the top as is some of the (purple) prose ("This high-capacity compact Sig Sauer .40 caliber weapon is pointed at your head to stress my insistence that your search for who put your partner on that respirator desist immediately!" Come again?), a harbinger of similar verbal misfires in installments to come. It would be bettered by later Mytharc dramas but still stands on its own as a crucial landmark in the series' development. Essential. (XXXXX)  
Raj: I adore this episode and consider it to be one of the best Morgan/Wong scripts in the X Files canon.  Much has been made of the soft-focus New Age elements to the story, but I see it as something much darker.  It plays like a low-key horror story, an exploration of loss, anger and violence.  The scene in Mulder’s apartment while he sits in the darkness, watching pornography in utter despair, is alone worth the price of admission.  This being a Morgan/Wong script there is a strain of subtle humour for such a dark and personal story, but these humorous touches (mostly courtesy of the Lone Gunmen) are all character-based and serve to darken the overall tone with a kind of realistic gallows humour.  The episode continues to complicate the dreams/reality connection that becomes a central facet of the X Files universe.  One Breath succeeds on many levels, balancing Mulder and Scully’s POVs in organic and intelligent ways.  Duchovny’s performance is very real and heartfelt, but more than this the episode shows us that Mulder and Scully are not just partners, close friends and co-dependants – they are bonded on a very intimate spiritual level.  (XXXXX)

2X10 Red Museum (Carter)

Chris: Duane Barry gets all the kudos and rightly so. But if you followed the conspiracy underground in the 80s and 90s, this was the episode that best recreates that through the looking-glass feeling you often got reading the paranoid fever dreams of the endless American midnight. If this were prose IT WOULD BE IN ALL CAPS AND COMPOSED IN SOLID WALLS OF TEXT WITHOUT SENTENCE OR PARAGRAPH BREAKS. 

The basic story is actually very simple beneath all the red herrings- the government is injecting kids and livestock in a small Wisconsin town with alien DNA and using a vegan UFO cult (who bear an uncanny resemblance to Heaven's Gate, who were still semi-obscure at the time, as well as the Order of the Solar Temple) as a control group for the experiment. But the test is run badly- one of the livestock handlers is a pedophile who kidnaps kids at random and drugs and tags them (like cattle) to alert the townsfolk their children are being used as guinea pigs. The doctor handling the kids' injections crashes in a small plane on his way back from a payoff. And along the line all hell breaks loose. Though it seemed to some like a jumble we now realize it was prophecy. (XXXXX)
Raj: This episode has so many seemingly disparate elements that come together so well by the end, and is creepy as all hell.  Featuring strange disappearances, a sinister growth hormone approved by the FDA, and a mystic Vegetarian cult that foreshadows the eventual date for Colonization, the writers have a lot of fun messing with audience expectations through various red herrings and bait-and-switch scenarios.  The episode evolves into a powerful mythology standalone featuring a paedophile living behind a family’s bathroom mirror in a secret video-room, and the reappearance of the Crew-Cut Man; Deep Throat’s killer from the Season One finale.  (XXXXX)

2X16 Colony (Duchovny/Carter)
Chris: While the agents investigate the deaths of identical doctors, a woman comes forward claiming to be Mulder's long-lost sister Samantha. While they scramble to find other doctors before they are killed, they come face to face with a shapeshifting assassin who first approaches the agents impersonating a CIA man. 

The Terminator films were such a crucial influence on the The X-Files that they'd eventually hire the world's second most famous Terminator (Robert Patrick of T2 fame) and pit him against an army of other Terminators (the Super-Soldiers). But before that all went down they launched David Duchovny's idea of the Alien Bounty Hunter, a shapeshifting humanoid (played by Brian Thompson, who appeared in the first Terminator film) whose job it was to eliminate other humanoid aliens who wandered off the extraterrestrial plantation.  Wonderful operatic teaser. (XXXXX)

Raj: The first half of this two-parter completely floored me when I first watched it.  It took the X Files mythology to a whole new level and would sow the seeds for many new elements for the next seven and a half seasons.  Apart from elevating the show to a whole new level of epic adventure it did something that has been attempted by virtually every sci-fi show ever since – it created a unique and memorable villain that could be used as a continuing threat over the course of the show. 

And the Alien Bounty Hunter is one of the most memorable and unique villains in sci-fi history, in my humble opinion.  I get the feeling that Carter and his team hit upon gold here without quite realizing just how useful and resonant such a creation was going to be.  As well as providing an unquantifiable, mysterious threat the Bounty Hunters also serve as walking metaphors and ciphers.  Their shapeshifting nature means that not only can they imitate anyone in the show, they can also embody any particular anxiety or real-life concern that the writers wish to address. 

They are the X Files rendition of the ruthless, mercurial nature of the American body politic, among other things.  The story also continues the theme of doubling and mirroring through its use of alien clones.  Of interest in this episode is Mulder’s sad and awkward interaction with an adult clone of his missing sister, whom he at first believes to be the real Samantha. 

But something else that should be mentioned here is the CIA agent Ambrose Chapel, named for a detail in Hitchcock’s 1956 classic The Man Who Knew Too Much.  But I think this resonant name goes deeper than a mere Hitchcock homage.  Saint Ambrose has a legend attached to him concerning a swarm of bees that settled on his face as an infant, leaving behind a drop of honey – a sign of his future oratory skills.  Fans will be familiar with the role that bees would come to play in X Files mythology.  Also, Ambrose Chapel can be interpreted by discerning viewers as Chapel of Ambrosia.  And Ambrosia was considered to be the food or nectar of the gods, conferring strange powers or immortality upon those who consumed it.  Ambrosia’s potential connection to honey is explored by many scholars.  We can see the obvious resonances here to the Purity Project and specifically the black oil that would make its presence known in the following season.  Intentional or not, it’s a resonant bit of foreshadowing.  (XXXXX)      

2X17 End Game (Spotnitz)

Chris: Scully is kidnapped by the Alien Bounty Hunter who offers her up in exchange for Mulder's sister. This leads to all sorts of discoveries- secret cloning labs, becalmed submarines, mysterious alien viruses and so on and so forth.  Some great scenes, including an epic slugfest between Assistant Director Skinner and X in an elevator over map coordinates. Not as compelling as what would come before and after but it was all so new that every scene seemed like something revealed by the Freedom of Information Act. (XXXXX)
Raj:  For me, the conclusion to the two-parter doesn’t disappoint.  It’s operatic and intensely exciting, filled with bizarre new twists and revelations.  Mulder is presented with an impossible choice by the bounty hunter – a hostage exchange where Mulder must trade the clone he believes to be Samantha for Scully.  Obviously it all goes horribly wrong, and Mulder is left anguished at the thought that he has lost his sister once more.  Until a note leads him to a clinic where he discovers several Samantha clones and realizes how he has been manipulated.  This all builds to an epic finale in the frozen Alaskan wastelands, on board the USS Allegiance; a nuclear submarine stranded in the ice.  End Game closes the loop of its circular narrative by returning to the opening scene of Colony – Mulder being rushed into a field hospital and saved by Scully from a deadly retrovirus contained in the Bounty Hunter’s blood.  (XXXXX)

2X18 Fearful Symmetry (DeJarnett)

Chris: For some strange reason this is William Gibson's favorite episode of The X-Files. It's very much of a first season leftover, in which zoo animals are abducted by aliens and returned at random locations. Oh, and when they first return they are invisible (...the fuck?). There's a lot of preachy animal rights material in this episode but it's preaching a message that people need to hear; most zoos are an abomination. There's also a gorilla subplot that's clearly modeled on celebrity gorilla Koko. A strange interlude in the Mythology but interesting in ways that don't immediately make sense.   (XXX)
Raj:  This episode is a little silly at times and incoherent in terms of the larger mythology, but any episode that features an invisible elephant named after the Hindu god of Obstacles and Intellect, and Mulder questioning a highly intelligent gorilla named after the Gnostic goddess of Wisdom, earns a special place in my heart.  Also, the subplot concerning Willa Ambrose and the Wild Again Organisation – and what truly constitutes freedom or enslavement – is fairly engaging.  I guess I’m just a sucker for gorillas.  Sophie was brilliantly conceived, and apart from a few close-ups on her too-human eyes you would never guess she wasn’t a real gorilla.  (XXX)

2X22 F Emasculata (Carter/Gordon)

Chris: The Syndicate runs a prison experiment with a pathogen through one of its shell companies. All well and good until two of the prisoners- infected with the organism- escape. Mulder realizes that the Smoking Man is yanking he and Scully's chain but also realizes a lot of people will die if he doesn't clean up the mess. One of several episodes that Fringe lifted its mission concept from and a tense and well-written thriller on its own terms. (XXXX)
Raj: The X Files does Outbreak, in a prison.  This is a solid, creepy medical thriller.  While it has a few too many scenes of people leaning alarmingly close to pulsating pustules, including people who should really know better, this doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of the episode.  Mulder attempts to hunt down two escaped, infected inmates while Scully remains at the prison to investigate.  F Emasculata also touches on the very real historical phenomenon of prison inmates being used as expendable test subjects for all manners of interested parties - in this case a sinister pharmaceutical giant.  (XXXX)

2X23 Soft Light (Gilligan)
Chris: This episode is a landmark for nothing else in that it was Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan's first sale to The X-Files. Again, this is another episode that the Fringe producers wish they wrote, in which a dark matter experiment leaves a man with a shadow that acts as a mini black-hole. The X-Files team took the concept and folded it into the Mythology, bringing the always interesting Mr. X into the action. The woman who plays Scully's former student also played the female incarnation of the Genderbender alien. A nice debut for Mr. Gilligan, if not heavily rewritten by other hands. This loses a half-star simply for the jaw-dropping implausibility of its premise. (XXX1/2) 
Raj: I know that Soft Light isn’t exactly X Files at its most brilliant or subtle, but I must confess to really loving this episode.  I love it for various reasons.  Although the writers try to hang the killer-shadow concept on some kind of hard science it doesn’t really make any sense.  It would’ve probably worked better as some kind of magical or mystical occurrence, but I don’t really care because I’ve always had a thing for Singularities, Black Holes and Dark Matter theories, plus I just like Tony Shalhoub’s performance as the sympathetic but highly unstable Dr. Banton.

Which is why the last scene chills and saddens me every time I watch it.  What sounded like Dr Banton’s demented paranoia becomes something much like his fate as he sits strapped in a chair courtesy of X, subjected to an awful flashing light in some kind of perpetual brain-suck.  The last high-pitched squeal of the light as it flashes in Banton’s eyes even after the screen goes to black…*shudder*.  (XXXX)

2X25 The Anasazi (Carter)

Chris:  Starting with Anasazi, the MythArc would race from one triumph to another, mainlining into the Zeitgeist and blowing minds literally all across the world. It was here- from Anasazi to Wetwired that The X-Files made its bones as appointment television and a kind of era-defining television that few other genre shows have even approached. Duane Barry/Ascension/One Breath were superlative science fiction that tapped directly into current anxieties about government overreach and human experimentation, but The Anasazi three-parter piled so much more on that rather than reflect the Zeitgeist, The X-Files was now driving it.

Anasazi has so many moving parts it's amazing it all works so well. An earthquake in New Mexico reveals a buried boxcar filled with dead alien hybrids. The Syndicate (who we finally meet in this arc) is dosing Mulder's water with weird drugs, causing him -and other people in his building to lose his shit. A hacker breaks into a Pentagon mainframe and downloads the MJ12 documents, which were encoded in Navajo. Mulder's father has a bout of conscience and pays for it with his life. It all ends up with Mulder and Scully in New Mexico, breaking the MJ12 code and discovering horrors they didn't dream of before.  (XXXXX)  
Raj: This Season finale is just fantastic, filled with such resonance and detail that the episode seems to take on a palpable weight and life of its own, almost as if the writers, cast and crew stumbled into some mystic confluence above and beyond mere network television.  I was enraptured by this story and how brilliantly it weaved together its elements.  It manages to be highly intelligent, engaging and very exciting all at once.  Things like the Navajo codes and Anasazi back-story are handled in such a way that they become just as exciting as the action set-pieces, and the set-pieces are executed in a way that makes them fascinating as well as viscerally thrilling.  Mulder’s drug-induced assault of Skinner, Krycek’s execution of Bill Mulder…and Mulder’s apparent immolation in the boxcar at the hands of CSM - pure genius.  (XXXXX) 

Season Three Episodes

3X01 The Blessing Way (Carter)

Chris: Mulder clings to life after the train car he was hiding in is firebombed. He is nursed back to life in a traditional healing ceremony.  The dream sequences in which Mulder meets his father and Deep Throat in the twilight world are a bit too precious but so much of what surrounds them is so powerful they go by without much harm. Scully returns to DC only to be suspended for insubordination. Believing Mulder dead and conducting an investigation into recent events on her own. We meet the Syndicate for the first time, who are literally a bunch of shadowy men in a smoke-filled room. I have mixed feelings about this phase of the Mytharc, since putting faces on the conspirators took a lot of their menace away- the Unknowable is always more terrifying than the known. But that wouldn't really become an issue until later.

In one of the gut-punching scenes that made the show a classic, the "Well Manicured Man" (played by John Neville) warns Scully that the Syndicate wants her dead and goes so far to cooly describe exactly how the hit will go down. It all climaxes with Scully and Skinner in a Mexican standoff.

This episode was written after Carter took part in a Navajo peyote ceremony, just one of the endless connections between the series' Mythology and psychedelics. I would go so far as to state without equivocation that the series is about psychedelics as much as it's about anything at all. (XXXXX)  
Raj: This middle episode to the Anasazi three-parter has received criticism for its appropriation of Native American mysticism and its supposedly florid dialogue in certain scenes – but for anyone paying attention to the developing XF dreams/reality mythology, and Mulder’s place within it, this episode is a logical extension of everything that came before.  The fact that this story is concerned with genocides and the darker aspects of American history, it therefore makes sense that Native culture and spirituality would play such a key role.  Here Mulder continues his Osirian function, travelling through the Nile of the inner cosmos to the Origin Place where he encounters eidolons who take the form of the departed.  He is then reconstituted by Albert Hosteen and his friends, brought back to the realm of the living, now reinvested in his quest for the Truth.  This is where the viewers are explicitly shown that Mulder’s larger quest is for spiritual truth, of which the reality of alien contact is simply an integral component. (XXXXX)

3X02 Paper Clip (Carter)
Chris: This episode is like a thrill-ride through late-Imperial America's worst nightmares. We learn that the Syndicate were in bed with the Paperclip Nazis who were helping them develop a slave race for the alien colonists. One of the Nazis directs Mulder and Scully to a massive underground complex (in West Virginia, of course) where genetic data on every American born after WWII is kept. Mulder gets an eyeful of giant UFO and Scully sees a clowder of Greys in the tunnels, but their revelations are followed by imminent death at the hands of a CIA hit-squad. The Smoking Man tries to clean up his messes but only makes worse ones, leading to an epic flip-off by Skinner. 

Director Rob Bowman was crushed he wasn't tapped for the season opener so Carter extended the arc into a three-parter, creating one of the greatest episodes in the series run. Bowman's hand made the impossible plausible- the scene in which Mulder and Scully strategize for their own lives with Skinner in a remote dinner is rendered with an exquisite sense of the real. (XXXXX)
Raj: A stunning conclusion to the three-parter.  With Mulder back from the dead and reunited with Scully, they delve into the XF aspects of a very real period of US history – America’s deal with the Devil, as Mulder calls it; Nazi scientists who were given safe haven in the United States under Operation Paper Clip.  In real life many of these scientists worked intimately with US military, including NASA and the Air Force.  The episode never pulls its punches or softens the actual history of these things.  The story revolves around Victor Klemper (nee Frankenstein), the ‘most evil Nazi to escape the Nuremberg trials’ according to the Lone Gunmen.
Mulder and Scully uncover evidence of a comfortable alliance between the Syndicate and the former Nazi scientist, who were using secretly-gathered genetic data from US citizens to create prototype alien-human hybrids.  Mulder and Scully discover seemingly endless file cabinets with dossiers on ‘abductees’ all locked in a mountain vault in West Virginia, culminating in the brief appearance of the Greys themselves.  Because of its skilful use of real conspiracies to undergird the fantastical narrative, this episode succeeds in being genuinely disturbing.  Season 3 really hits its stride in terms of truly stunning mythology episodes.  (XXXXX)

3X08 The Oubliette (Craig)

Chris: Psychic phenomena was as integral a part of the Mytharc as flying saucers. Oubliette has Mulder reliving the agony of his sister's tragedy through the ordeal of two kidnap victims who are linked by psychic bond- one is free and one is recently taken. Canada's sweetheart Jewel Staite plays the younger victim kept in a dingy celler while Mulder desperately tries to extract information from the survivor. It all ends up on a dark river, reminding us that the Samantha storyline is a classic Mystery narrative - Demeter and Persephone. These narratives would replay with various degrees of explicitness throughout the series. This is brutal, crushing drama and comes with a serious trigger alert for trauma survivors. (XXXXX)
Raj: Man, this episode is dark.  Like, really, really dark.  I love it.  It features a stunning performance from Tracey Ellis as a former kidnap victim with a psychic connection to a missing young girl.  What is so great about this episode, among many things, is the fact that the spectre of Samantha Mulder hangs over the entire proceedings without ever feeling crowbarred into the narrative.  This episode feels disturbingly intimate and is a searingly honest exploration of emotional trauma – what it might actually feel like to be victimized by a predator.  (XXXXX)

3X09 Nisei (Carter/Gordon/Spotnitz)

Chris: Another example of zeitgeist surfing- the agents purchase an alien autopsy video that abruptly ends with the arrival of heavily armored death squad. That revelation unravels a new ball of yarn as Scully meets a group of female MILAB abductees who recognize her from the 'white place" and inform her that they are all dying of cancer because of the experiments performed on them. A meeting with his Senate sponsor reveals that Japanese death camp scientists are in the game leading Mulder to a train car used for hybrid experiments. Definitive. (XXXXX)
Raj: This is the first half of another cracking two-parter that shares much with the Anasazi narrative in that it uses real conspiracy history and war crimes to undergird the story.  Unit 731 was a real army unit during World War 2 that conducted sadistic medical experiments on civilians and prisoners of war.  Not only does the episode anchor itself to this real history, it also weds itself to the conspiracy media of the time – with Scully referencing the Alien Autopsy footage that had recently been aired on the same network.  In terms of character development we get to see Scully struggling with new revelations concerning her mysterious abduction the previous year.  (XXXXX)

3X10 731 (Spotnitz)

Raj: The second half of the two-parter takes place almost entirely aboard a train, after Mulder’s death-defying leap onto its roof.  Featuring Stephen McHattie in a menacing performance as a sinister NSA agent, the episode is largely structured around their conversations and a literal ticking time-bomb. It includes a blistering teaser in which a group of human-alien hybrids are slaughtered by an Army death-squad, and revelations concerning what these already unfortunate people were subjected to at the hands of Unit 731’s Dr ‘Shiro Zama’.  It is tight and interesting ‘A’ Grade thriller stuff, as well as possessing a genuinely unsettling kind of overall horror and sadness.  (XXXXX)
Chris: The teaser is one of those what the fuck experiences that watching The X-Files in its initial run served up on a regular basis. There were conscious attempts to bring the horrors of the past (and future?) into the present and the kind of mass killings that marred the 20th Century weren't trivialized but embellished by the sci-fi treatment they were given here. The ending is a bit of deus ex machina but Steven Williams had been lobbying for Mr. X to do something besides utter something cryptic and disappear back into the shadows and here he gets his chance. A nail-biting thriller straight out of Ludlum or LeCarre. (XXXX)

3X15 Piper Maru (Carter/Spotnitz)

Raj: This episode is the first half of another stunning two-parter that marks the first on-screen appearance of Purity, or the black oil, an evolved pathogen that uses crude oil to infect and possess a host.  This substance, or some variation of it, would later be revealed as the sentient life-force of the Alien Colonists.  Much like the Bounty Hunters themselves Purity is a brilliant, resonant villain that can embody a number of fears and anxieties – greed, corruption, faceless oppression, or the physical manifestation of evil itself.  The actual plot of Piper Maru is also wonderfully convoluted and creepy, with a chilling teaser in which a man is found alive by a French diving team in a World War 2 fighter on the ocean floor.  

This triggers a chain of events that help Mulder and Scully uncover a complex story concerning the black oil that stretches all the way back to Pearl Harbour in the fifties.  Skinner is shot by the mercenary who murdered Melissa Scully during the events of The Blessing Way.  Also, the ever-menacing Alex Krycek returns after being last seen narrowly escaping a car-bombing attempt in Paper Clip, bartering with Mulder to trade his life for the digital tape that the Syndicate were previously willing to kill him for.  His return comes in the form of an excellent, almost nightmarish sequence lit by the city’s neon red lights just outside a low-rent Hong Kong shipping office.  (XXXXX)  
Chris: Another face-grabbing, globe-trotting two-parter that reveals what Krycek's been doing with the MJ12 documents- he's been selling them off bit by bit to the highest bidder.  The kind of ambition and scope we saw in the Vancouver-era mytharc would be seriously MIA in the sixth and seventh seasons, which probably had a lot to do with the producers' decision to begin scaling it all back. Of course, it would all come back in spades when Robert Patrick took the lead in Season Eight and a deliberate decision was made to bring the show back to its roots. I can watch these episodes over and over- they're like tone poems to me. (XXXX1/2)      

3X16 Apocrypha (Spotnitz/Carter)

Raj: In the second half of the two-parter things become increasingly personal for our heroes.  Skinner is hospitalised and Scully continues to track down the man responsible for Melissa’s death.  Thwarting a further attempt on Skinner’s life, Scully eventually chases down her sister’s killer and has the brief opportunity to kill him in revenge.  She chooses not to, instead letting the police take him into custody.  But later Scully discovers that the Syndicate had him murdered in his cell under the guise of a suicide.  Meanwhile, Mulder tries to find the digital tape and is eventually led to the location of a recovered UFO being stored in an abandoned missile silo in North Dakota.  

This is an episode with some incredible images, including a finale where Alex Krycek is seen vomiting Purity as he kneels atop an alien ship, and later hammers desperately on an underground silo door while screaming to be set free, having been left underground to slowly starve to death by CSM.  It’s the X Files’ judicious use of such powerful, almost archetypal imagery coupled with intelligent, nuanced storytelling that helped the show achieve such longevity.  (XXXXX)
Chris: Krycek steals the show not only in the grotesque scene with the black oil but also during a highway chase scene that ends badly for a couple MIBs. The Smoking Man is best supporting player, displaying a brutal lack of compassion for the men he puts in harm's way. The Lone Gunmen make a fan-favorite cameo, wobbling on ice-skates at a very Canadian looking outdoor rink. The show was going from strength to strength in the third season but would soon pull back as Carter was pulled away to work on Millennium and Fight the Future. His divided focus would soon become highly noticeable the following season. (XXXXX)      

3X20 Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space' (Darin Morgan)

Raj: This is an episode that takes the complicated problem of Point Of View and tackles it in a very sophisticated and humorous way, resulting in a multi-layered narrative that is the most successful and authentic comedy episode in the entire XF canon.  For me the standout scene is where Mulder interviews test-pilot Jack Sheaffer, who divulges how fluid his own view of reality has become.  It’s a scene that manages to be funny and disturbing all at once.  But what really takes this episode into the realm of genius is that despite all the disparate, paradoxical threads there is an odd dream logic that holds the entire episode together and keeps it somehow cogent. (XXXXX)
Chris: Skeptic Darin Morgan set out to mock The X-Files and ended up bringing a heavy dose of Keelian weirdness into the proceedings instead. Enlisting Jesse Ventura to play a highly irritable Man in Black, the episode makes rich use of the Rashomon trope, telling the story of a MILAB gone hilariously wrong from a number of unreliable points of view. He's helped out considerably by Rob Bowman, who directs as straight as possible (Bowman resented having to do one of Morgan's scripts, feeling he was disrespectful to the show). Morgan did his homework and the result is a parody of the show's mythology that actually bolsters it more than many straight Mytharc episodes do themselves.  (XXXXX)

3X21 Avatar (Gordon)

Raj: The first of the Skinner-centric episodes, in Avatar we get to learn more about the personal life of the Assistant Director.  The story revolves around a woman’s bizarre death following Skinner’s one-night stand with her.  Suspected of murder, Mulder and Scully must clear Skinner’s name.  Mulder comes to suspect the work of a succubus, but nothing is truly resolved in this episode.  It’s an excuse for an intimate look at Skinner’s private life and inner psyche, and it is handled exceptionally well.  Although the whole thing is very low-key, it never fails to be fresh and engaging, much like Zero Sum – another Skinner episode from Season Four.  (XXXX)
Chris: The third season ended with a 1-2-3 punch and this was the first shot across the bow. Skinner became a liability after telling off the Smoking Man but the Syndicate realized another assassination attempt would arouse suspicion so instead they set out to frame him for murder. This is high-grade political conspiracy with a supernatural twist. Not as immediately gripping as the Mulder-Scully episodes but The X-Files could do anything it wanted at this point.  (XXXXX)

3X23 Wetwired (Beck)
Chris: Perhaps feeling that Blood didn't fully exploit its potential the writers had another crack at the basic concept, using a story idea from special effects producer Mat Beck. Referencing Anasazi as well as Blood we see citizens of a small town subject to a mind control experiment through a signal piped into their cable TV. Being color blind, Mulder is immune but Scully falls victim in the worst way. With Steven Williams finding himself on David Duchovny's elbow list we get an inkling here that Mr. X's days are numbered as well. One of those episodes that Fringe would fail at by over-rendering and an episode that feels like prophecy today. A dead-bang classic. (XXXXX)
Raj: This is a pretty cool episode that starts off as a Monster Of The Week type story before evolving into a very personal mythology standalone.  The creep factor is amplified by the elements of ‘strange ordinariness’ peppered throughout the script, such as the neighbourhood kids secretly watching TV in a guy’s house, as well as the simple but effective glitch-like hallucinations brought on by the sinister device.  Before long, Scully starts believing that Mulder is working against her, becoming more and more unhinged as the episode progresses.  Ultimately the story is about the duplicitous nature of appearances and the complex nature of loyalties.  With Wetwired, The X Files manages to find another interesting way of showing us that things are usually not what they seem, both negatively and positively.  (XXXX) 

3X24 Talitha Cumi (Duchovny/Carter)

Chris: There are some great moments here: the all-too-familiar mass shooting at fast food restaurant and the mass healing by an alien savior (a scene directly lifted for the pilot for Roswell). A classic nail-biting paranoid workplace arrest scene, the first inklings of CSM's history with Mulder's mother in a memorable confrontation between the two at an abandoned vacation home and a brutal fistfight between Mulder and X in a parking garage. But it's no Anasazi. A lot of it feels recycled from Colony/End Game and the dialogues between Jeremiah Smith and CSM certainly don't play to Carter's strengths as a writer. Worse still, at this point the Alien Bounty Hunter seems more a pest than a menace.

The purple prose that fans loved to complain about was always a sure symptom that Carter was tired (and maybe reading too much of Duchovny's poetry, according to a least one observer at the time) and didn't have time to polish the dialog. Still, it's great to see Roy Thinnes from The Invaders, which clearly had a huge impact on The X-Files. But it feels as if his somewhat abbreviated appearances in Season Eight's 'This is Not Happening' give the character more gravitas and import than we see in this two-parter. (XXX)

Raj: There are parts of Talitha Cumi that I really appreciate.  I really enjoyed the Jeremiah character, but I have to agree with Chris here on the dialogue between CSM and the Alien Healer in the prison.  I get that they were riffing on Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov and CSM as the Grand Inquisitor, but their exchange comes off as so painfully vague and portentous that it becomes funny.  Definitely not the tone Carter was going for.  Also, the final cliff-hanger just wasn’t as strong as it should have been.  It felt kind of like a cop-out.  Mulder and Scully have encountered menacing Bounty Hunters before.  So one of them getting out of a car near an old mill isn’t really the place to end an entire season.  (XXX)