Monday, July 11, 2016

Dog Days: Another Look at the X-Files Reboot

The X-Files "Event Series" has been released on DVD. The hype is over and so is the inevitable controversy and things have returned to status quo in X-Files fandom. Or perhaps status quo ante.

I wasn't thinking much about The X-Files after the miniseries. I can't say it didn't live up to my expectations because I really didn't have any. I remember watching the teaser doc on Christmas day and not exactly feeling like Santa brought the 90s back.

But you can't exactly make a snap judgment based on soundbites taken out of context in a promotional teaser like that. Also, being aware of the power of the zeitgeist --and also the behind-the-scenes interplays that gave the original series its kick-- I was all too aware how hard it is to reheat that gumbo and make it fresh.

Indeed, there are all kinds of potent and compelling ingredients that gave the series its bite, many of which fans may never be aware of (even if, as they say, the truth is out there). Many of the things that made the show magic simply can't be recaptured, even if it was obvious to me some wished very much to do so. Getting the band back together is a laudable goal but a lot of water has passed under the bridge since the days when everyone was young and fiery.

No matter how hard you try you can't turn back time.

Neither can you undo the damage the intervening years have done to our culture and the fabric of our society. Many of the worst nightmares depicted on The X-Files have come true. If a prophet is not welcomed in its hometown, neither is he welcome in the dystopia he prophesied, even if only in allegorical form.

But something else was bothering me, dating back to the schedule announcement. Instead of a six-episode serial that would tie up all of the countless dangling threads left over from the original series, the plan was to bookend the event with two mytharc eps and fill the difference with standalones, including two comedies.

I smelled trouble right away.

As it happened, one of the standalones was essentially a mytharc ep (though it tied into the old mytharc rather than the new) and another tied into the arc by spending most of its time focusing on Scully's family. 

But the "narrative whiplash" I worried about was in full effect here, four very strong-willed writer/producer/directors creating four entirely separate visions of the show (or five, really, given how wildly disharmonic 'Babylon' was with Carter's myth eps). 

Each episode looked, played and felt completely different from the one before, with Carter's 'My Struggle's' feeling more like an X-Files TV movie than episodic television.

Worse, the stakes were raised so incredibly high in the first episode that the second seemed like an entirely different series.  Seeing the pair back in their 90s power suits made sense as fan service but less so as continuity (do FBI agents even dress that way anymore?)

And fan service seemed to be the order of the day, at least servicing a segment of the fan base that controls and dominates the fan press and to a lesser extent, the message boards.

Carter is keenly aware of how that segment of the fanbase can create, control and steer the conversation, whether in Reddit groups or as reviewers for media outlets. So he made sure most of their favorites were back: Glen Morgan, James Wong and Darin Morgan.

Which is fine, especially since Frank Spotnitz and Vince Gilligan weren't available. I don't think there was anything objectively wrong with Glen Morgan or James Wong's episodes, they're both highly-capable writer/directors, they just didn't feel particularly "event." Certainly nothing like the bookend episodes, which were nothing if not event-full.

Of the three, Glen Morgan worked the hardest to recapture the early season X-Files vibe; soaking up what's left of Vancouver's original ambiance, signing up Rancid singer Tim Armstrong for a major guest role (providing some Secret Sun Clash Convergence), and replaying one of his greatest hits in recreating the bedside drama of the seminal 'One Breath'.

But some fans felt cheated by the title: they were sure 'Home Again' meant a return of the notorious Peacock Brothers from the fourth season shocker, 'Home'. Strangely, "Band-Aid Nose Man" was somewhat of a retread of a monster from a fan-favorite episode from the sixth season, "Arcadia." 

As a director, Morgan served up some effective visuals that, again, recalled early X-Files. But the story strangely just seemed to stop, rather than end.

Some fans felt the death of Scully's mom played more like angst-porn than drama. But in an event series, you want major events in your characters' lives. That's the whole point. I just wasn't sure how Scully's ordeal connected to a Band-Aid Nose Man. 

It seems to me it would have been more effective had the subplot tied into the main arc the way "Founder's Mutation" did, if the tulpa here was more explicitly UFO-based.

I wrote about James Wong's episode in detail on The Solar Satellite, which was a remarkable replay of past iconic scenes, so much so that it was practically a clip show. But fans were certain it was to lead to William's return in the miniseries, and it didn't. Carter loves to dangle those carrots. Fans howl and scream but don't realize it's actually what keeps them tuning in. 

Just ask the producers of Fringe.

Fringe is germane to this discussion because as I said, 'Founder's' looked, felt and played very much like a Fringe episode, with a special guest appearance by Duchovny and Mulder. That's no knock-- it's very much like first season Fringe, which I still think is great TV (I'm less taken with the other seasons as time goes on)-- it's just a stylistic difference.

Part of the problem with Carter enlisting Morgan, Morgan and Wong for The X-Files reboot was how short a tenure the three actually had on the series and how atypical their episodes were to what the series eventually became. And they've all spent a lot of time since then doing other things and soaking up other styles and influences.

Although the second season of X-Files is probably my favorite, the series really defined its style in its third season, when Morgan and Wong were working on Space: Above and Beyond and Darin Morgan was writing comedy episodes that were held in check by a very tightly run organization overseen by Carter and Bob Goodwin.  

Carter let the other producers do whatever they wanted here and it comes up X-Files essentially because of the umbrella concept and the principal actors in it. But as I said, you had a much different David Duchovny and a much different Gillian Anderson than 20 years ago. 

Of the three, only Glen Morgan seemed conscious of the style and look of the series as it had been established in its original run. Even Carter himself seemed to veer off model when it came time to do his comedy episode.

As I wrote about here in January Carter took a lot of heat from the media for the radicalism of 'My Struggle, Part 1' and it's entirely reasonable to assume he anticipated that, which is why he sweetened the pill with the standalones and the comedy. 

Mulder descends to the Underworld

I don't know how much good it did him when he started tipping sacred cows in 'Babylon',  an ambitious piece of television that is as semiotically-fascinating as it is narratively-fractured.

'Babylon' was ambitious, wildly-ambitious,  but at the same time totally extraneous for an event series (there was no real need for one comedy episode in a six episode run, never mind two). Carter likes to show off how many balls he can juggle with his comedy eps and likes to press people's buttons too, but no one was expecting- or even asking- for an episode like this. 

That being said, there was a boat-load of fan service in 'Babylon', the trip sequence having David Duchovny line-dancing and being whipped by a dominatrix and a long 'shippy scene at the end with Mulder and Scully holding hands and pondering the meaning of it all, while a popular song by The Lumineers played in the background. 

I'm not exactly sure what Carter hoped to achieve in the splintered, hypersensitive environment of 2016 (and of course he'll never tell us). I can only speculate, knowing how far and how deep the entheogen theme runs in The X-Files, that it was a damn-the-torpedoes manifesto. 

That in fact Carter was arguing that an entheogen-based spirituality is the only viable alternative to the civilizational-suicide that religious --and political-- fanaticism presents us with.*

That's a ballsy thing to say on network TV in 2016, but I feel as if Carter's reach exceeded his grasp here. No one was really in the mood to yuk it up over terror cells, coming so soon after Paris and San Bernadino. 

It also felt like network was leaning on Carter to balance out the ISIS villain plot-line with some good old-fashioned Hollywood flyover-bashing, which felt egregious and out of character. So 'Babylon' managed to alienate liberals and offend conservatives, which was not really what the series needed to be doing after leaving the air in its first run under a storm-cloud of controversy. 

Again, I'm certain this was a function of network pressure but these are the kinds of problems an executive producer should anticipate. Unless, of course, Carter just doesn't care and wanted to ram his message through and let the stones fall where they may.

Which, knowing how Carter operates, is entirely possible.

And it should be noted that 'Babylon' did make explicit what was long implicit in The X-Files- the connection to the Mystery Religions. This is no longer a matter of conjecture or speculation- 'Babylon' put it all out there on Front Street.


Then there's 'Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster'.

Now, Darin Morgan wrote some of the very best episodes of The X-Files, winning an Emmy for one, and then moved over to Millennium to write one if its very best episodes, a blistering attack on Scientology long before it was fashionable to do so. 

In between Morgan hit a very long dry spell. They call it "writer's block." Too much success-too soon can do that to a writer, especially a writer who was very much sheltered and protected by his boss.

Now, Morgan was supposed to write an episode for the fourth season of The X-Files in 1997 but dropped out at the last minute, leaving the executive writing staff high and dry and an entire production staff waiting for work (without which many of them wouldn't get paid). He quit the show soonafter.

The story goes that 'Were-Monster' was an unproduced script for X-Files producer Frank Spotnitz's Night Stalker reboot in 2005, but I have a very strong feeling this was in fact Morgan's unfinished 1997 X-Files script repurposed for Night Stalker and then repurposed for The X-Files reboot. Why?

Well, one thing you can say about Darin Morgan is that he does his homework. As Tracy Twyman wrote, it's entirely probable this episode is based on Nicholas De Vere, self-styled lord of the Dragon Court (Vere, Were- get it?). 

Which, again, dates this script back to X-Files Season Four vintage, when De Vere was big news on USENET. Not only that but we also see the two stoners from 'Coprophages' and 'Quagmire'. So it's a pretty safe bet we finally got to see the episode that 'Memento Mori' replaced. 


I will say this; whatever the critics said, fans were on fire after the season premiere. Not only the fanbase proper but also the conspiracy and UFO communities online. Carter didn't throw a large rock into the center of the pond, he dropped a bunker-buster.

By comparison, the drawdown in energy from Sunday night to Monday (with 'Founder's Mutation') was palpable. Reaction was still highly positive, but definitely muted. 

I think this was a mistake on Fox's part- they should have let the pilot sink in and left everyone hungry for more. That's just basic showbiz.

There was the de rigeur praise to 'Were-Monster', especially in the media (who were relieved by the unchallenging escapism more than anything else) but that was a fait accompli before the episode even aired. However, there was also a flurry of negative reaction to it as well. 

The conspiracy/UFO fanbase had gone silent by this point. I'd say this cost the miniseries a million/million-half viewers overall. 

By 'Home Again', the mood had shifted, in the press and in fandom. Grumbling arose. And 'Babylon' was incredibly polarizing, for several reasons. 

So 'My Struggle II' had a lot to accomplish and there was no way it could have done so, not in the 40-odd minutes Carter had allotted himself by giving up a slot to 'Babylon'. And certainly not given the ordnance he wanted to drop in American living rooms.


The rap on X-Files was that it always promised that all hell was going to break loose but it never did. 

Well, of course not. If it did there wouldn't be anything left to do on the show, not if you wanted to preserve the illusion that all of this was happening in real time. You had to kick the can down the road. 

Well, it's clear to me that Carter finally let the genie out of the bottle and gave fans what they'd been promised but did so in a way that they didn't quite realize what was happening.

Pretty typical Chris Carter strategy, actually.

Now, Carter had previously said that he had written a script for a third X-Files movie and I can't help but wonder if we just saw it. Or most of it (Carter wrote the actual teleplay for 'My Struggle II' while working on another episode) at least. That in fact Carter simply repurposed his storyline from X-Files 3 and adapted it to the small screen.

After rewatching the 'My Struggles' I'm more convinced than ever that what we saw was culmination of the series' mythology as it is commonly understood and not the revision that we'd all been led to believe. 

Or again, most of it. Carter publicly said he was going to end the series on a cliff-hanger and I read a leak saying that the story ended, well, the way it ended, some time before the episode aired. I just wasn't sure if it was a spoof or not. Carter is intensively secretive and likes to circulate false information to throw internet spies off the scent.

And of course, the entire storyline of 'My Struggle' was a misdirection, at least in this experienced Carter-watcher's opinion. 

I've written in-depth about 'My Struggle II' and exactly why I think the "conspiracy of men" storyline was a misdirect and that what we actually saw take place was in fact the Colonization that the entire series had been working up to since day one.

Sigils. Friggin' sigils.

If you don't want to work your way through that thicket I'll just restate my arguments here. See the post for elaboration.

• Tad O'Malley is a Syndicate plant. He has way too much money and access for an Internet conspiracy host and appears and disappears at strategically-timed intervals. His role is to get Mulder and Scully back in the game. Note how he coaches the abductee. Note that the ARV crew and the abductee are both eliminated as soon as O'Malley rubs them all over Mulder. Note how he's able to stay on the air long enough to direct people to Scully's alien vaccine.

Plus, sigils.

• The Old Man is a Syndicate plant. He's Michael Kritschgau redux, whose role it is to get Mulder believing that the Colonists don't exist. The fact that he'd be upwards of 100 years old and meets Mulder, alone, in the center of Washington DC in the middle of the night is proof he's a fraud. 

In a deleted scene, his alleged daughter appears and tells Mulder the Old Man is dead. She looks to be in her mid-40s (more his grand-daughter's age, in other words) and not particularly grief-stricken. Mulder doesn't seem to buy it.

You should put some ointment on that

• Cigarette Smoking Man is an impostor. Carter said that CSM and the Lone Gunmen were going to be brought back in a way that respected past story-lines, which is why the Gunmen came back as hallucinations. CSM wasn't just burned, he was completely incinerated and then atomized. There was no coming back from that.  He had also been exiled by the conspirators, which is why he was hiding out in New Mexico.

"CSM" is his son Jeffrey- also badly burned- surgically altered to take his place in the new Syndicate. The last time before 'Struggle' that we saw Mulder holding a gun on CSM was during the aborted colonization in 'One Son', where Mulder encountered CSM while he was looking for Jeffrey.

The fact that 'My Struggle II' repeatedly references 'Patient X'/'The Red and the Black', meaning the episodes when Jeffrey was introduced, is proof of this. Carter also uses Monica and Miller's introductions to CSM to call his identity into question ("Who are you?").

• The Spartanburg virus is a modified version of the Syndicate's smallpox virus. The first live test of the smallpox virus also took place in South Carolina (in 'Zero Sum'). What the Colonists need is viable hybrid DNA to create the slave race. Which brings us to...

• Scully is the new Cassandra Spender. Her DNA will be used to create the slave race. She will inadvertently create the vaccine which will infect everyone with the marker (seen in 'Herrenvolk') and activate their dormant alien DNA. Everyone else will die. Carter repeatedly signals her hybrid status by zooming in on her green eyes, a marker of alien hybridity in UFO lore.

So all hell broke finally loose and it all ends with Scully about to be abducted into a UFO. We know this by the blatant visual parallel made between Scully on the bridge and Cassandra on the bridge before her abduction. The eye extreme zoom is weird and unsettling, making me wonder what parallel messaging we're getting here.

A reviewer called this a "dick move" but what it is is a ballsy move. 

Carter's been ending this story since 'Erlenmeyer Flask'. The only season finale that couldn't double as a series finale is 'Talitha Cumi', written when he was completely exhausted. He did the 'shippy ending three times in a row (S8, S9, IWTB) and got nothing for his trouble.

At some point you have to just write, "And then everyone dies. The end.", and walk away. Though chances are pretty good this is not the end. Not with the money at stake.

Some fans have been thrown off by Carter's statements about the Mytharc in interviews, as if expecting the hyper-controlled, hyper-secretive producer to reveal major plot spoilers in interviews when he's been known not to distribute scripts to people working on his films.


Carter is the Great Sphinx of pop culture. He throws mystery upon mystery, symbol upon symbol, hint upon hint, layer upon layer in his scripts and reveals absolutely nothing in his interviews or director's commentaries. He won't let his fans in- not even a little- into his private world. His secrecy and paranoia towards the press is legend in Hollywood. 

This hasn't exactly ingratiated him with the fanbase, not in this age when pop culture mavens make themselves available, practically 24/7 to fans on social media and at conventions. 

But Carter doesn't seem to care. Certainly not judging by recent interviews. After a certain point you stop negotiating, as Jonathan Lethem said of Jack Kirby.

From the epic 'Redux II'

Having cracked the code some time ago my ears pricked up when I heard there was going to be this Redux-redux move in the new Mytharc. Knowing the politics involved I knew to pay close attention to what Carter was showing us rather than what his characters were telling us (two rules on X-Files: 1. everybody lies, 2. everybody dies). They'd almost certainly turn out to be two separate realities.

I understood the real-world complexities that drove the 'Redux' storyline so to see Carter revisit it so directly is utterly fascinating to me. I mean, riveting. 

Carter was essentially reversing 'Redux I and II' here, moving the timeline back to 'Herrenvolk' and 'Zero Sum' (and arguably, to 'Erlenmeyer Flask' and 'Anasazi' and 'Paperclip') and then at the very end, fast-forwarding us to 'The Red and the Black', if not to 'Amor Fati' (Mulder dying, aliens invading). 

'Redux' had Mulder losing his belief in aliens, 'My Struggle' had him lose his belief in Colonization. 'Redux II' had Mulder fighting to find a cure for a dying Scully, 'Struggle II' flips the script. 

And just as we see 'Red's' pivotal alien war over the bridge referenced--if not actually replayed-- in 'Struggle II' (which set Scully on the road from skeptic to believer), we also see Mulder's battle with Krycek from 'Red' replayed earlier on, complete with a dead-on Krycek ringer. Why is this important?

Because it was Krycek's encounter with Mulder that ended the 'Skeptic Mulder' arc and rekindled his belief in his mission. It also directly presaged what? Mulder (and Scully's, to an extent) close encounter with the rebel alien rescue mission.

What we are really seeing then is 'Redux' replayed then what would have actually gone down in 'Two Fathers'/'One Son' actually go down, capped off with a reenactment of the scene where Mulder gets "CSM" to spill the master plan. 

It all ends with a note-perfect reenactment of Scully's close encounter from 'The Red and the Black', a sequence that was originally intended to signal a ramping up of the Mytharc but actually presaged its ramping down.

This all almost starts to seem like a kind of ritual, a ceremonial turning back of the clock to a point in time before something was lost. 

And in this case you realize a lot was lost: the X-Files' do-no-wrong aura, its air of mystery, its "hot factor",  and the sudden end of the Syndicate arc in the middle of Season Six, which alienated a lot of fans and still has not been properly explained. 

I still highly doubt that decision came from the writer's room. The evidence points to the contrary.

This all sounds rather contrived until you think about 'Babylon', with its explicit, upfront, no-two-ways-about-it ritual enactment of the "Descent to the Underworld", the defining myth-theme of the ancient Mysteries. Or the fact that The X-Files was writing rituals into its scripts from the first season on.

Or the fact that 'My Struggle II' has friggin' sigils in it.


So basically what this series boiled down to for me was a X-Files feature film called The X-Files: My Struggle and four bonus featurettes. I watched and rewatched 'Founder's Mutation' pretty carefully and I'll definitely rewatch it with the commentary track. 

The other standalones? We'll see. 

I originally signed on to The X-Files because of the UFO and conspiracy angles. That's why I showed up at 9 PM on September 10, 1993. Those are the episodes I return to. 

A lot of fans don't roll that way. I get that. But those episodes still surprise me with new information, new connections, new syncs. What could make them sometimes intimidating or frustrating in their first run makes them rewarding in repeated viewings and it looks like the same pattern holds true here. 

'My Struggle II' didn't scan with me on first watch but then again, 2016 hadn't really happened yet. 

Timing is everything.

You see, the reason I thought to write about it at all again was thinking how the whole "all hell breaking loose" tableau we see in 'My Struggle II' certainly seems to be threatening to unfold in the real world. 

There are scenes in the season finale that look uncannily like very recent news reports. And not just in this country, all around the world. Those two 'Struggle' episodes feel increasingly like a sneak preview of 2016 (this story just showed up as I was polishing this piece).

And as I wrote before, those disturbing scenes in 'Founder's Mutation' with the birds repeated themselves in my yard not once but twiceI lost count of my eerie X-Files syncs a long time ago, but that was pretty effin' strange.

All of this was a pretty apt foreshadowing of 2016, a year in which the local environment seems to becoming increasingly toxic for me. A year in which death has taken the old and the young in my family circle. 

A year in which a filler post about Fox's Lucifer TV show (very loosely based on a comic I was reading back when The X-Files was originally on the air) unraveled into an epic series of posts following the X-Files' thruline of alien technology and tracing back the Lucifer archetype to its ancient roots, two pursuits that turned out to be all too connected.

So as it happens, the old warhorse hasn't lost its prophetic powers. That much I can say for sure.

PREDICTIONS UPDATE: ANNNNNDDDD it was all a dream. Or a "vision." Hilarity. 

UPDATE: I listened to the director's commentaries on 'My Struggle II' and 'Founder's Mutation'. Didn't get much out of the former but it was a real pleasure to hear Carter and Wong talk about the making of the latter. Carter is far less guarded and more relaxed than he usually is with these things and I definitely got some interesting insights into the episode. 

It's a shame there isn't one for 'Home Again'; I'd very much like to hear more of what Glen Morgan has to say about the ep and the reboot in general. Carter revealed that the sigils in 'My Struggle' were inspired by mysterious graffiti he saw all around the hotel he was staying in while working on the show. Which opens up all kinds of fascinating possibilities. 

It also reminds me very much of the graffiti used by the 'Low Men' (read: MIB) in Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis (which it did when I first saw it) and I'm definitely wondering if Carter was drawing on the same influence here.

What a lot of fans don't realize is that sigil magic is nothing new to The X-Files. The so-called "Navajo writing" in the 'Sixth Extinction' series and 'Providence/Provenance' is no such thing, but in fact the sigils reported from the craft seen in the alleged Kecksburg, PA UFO crash in the 1960s. 

It's explicitly identified as "magic" in 'Biogenesis' and implicitly in 'Provenance'.

UPDATE: More unhappy prophecy.

* That tracks with the history of the series and with Carter's episodes in particular. This is a guy who underwent the peyote ritual during his vacation then put it in one of  his scripts.