The X-Files Enters its Incomprehensible Period

First, a note about how the mythology was structured in the seasons. An X-Files season finale will address some of the questions raised during the season’s mythology episodes, but then add an entirely new, out-of-left-field element that sets up a big season premier after the summer hiatus. That premier, usually a two-parter, set the stage for the following season’s mythology arc. This follows the good mystery writing advice that for every question you answer, raise two new ones. So: The 1st season finale confirmed that the government has evidence of aliens in the form of a fetus, and added the element of the Human-alien hybrid Project. The 2nd season finale confirmed that there is a government syndicate of elders working on said Project, and introduced the idea of vaccinating humans against an unknown virus. The 3rd season finale explained the shape shifting aliens, and then introduced the idea that there is a coming colonization that some aliens are opposed to.

This cycle repeats until the 6th season when the alien colonization arc is definitively resolved mid-season with “Two Fathers/One Son” where the alien rebels kill the Project and all the elders except CSM. Now the writers’ trusty mythology-episode formula is inoperable. There are no more questions the need answered, and the alien mythology needs an entirely new direction. The finale provided a new direction with great promise—unfortunately the season 7 follow up squandered it by being nonsensical and full of cop-outs.

On the plus side, I loved the concept of the aliens having our genetic code (not mapped out at the time the episode aired) and the holy texts of all world religions scrawled on a ancient artifact buried off the coast of Africa. The mind reels at the possibilities: Humans were not just planted here, but the aliens also bestowed their creation with religion and culture. Why? And how does that fact fit with the idea that the aliens are returning to take over the Earth and potentially kill their creation after we established a global society and modern infrastructure? These are good, satisfying questions for a sci-fi series to pose. Also, CSM has a brief scene where he is in a conference room overseeing a group of men in suits getting up to speed on the alien invasion plans, essentially reconstituting the Syndicate. An exciting, mind-bending finale.

Unfortunately, the season 7 payoff does not pay off. Scully is exhuming the ancient alien artifact and faces three biblical warnings: a plague of insects, the sea turns to blood, dead animals and one person comes back to life. Her reaction is that she is not supposed to gain the knowledge contained in the artifact and she decides to walk away from it. She returns to the U.S. without any evidence. Later—after we see a reanimated human corpse!—the massive craft-shaped artifact is simply gone. No clue as to how it was removed. Was is the government, or aliens? Did the zombie drag it out to sea? The episode doesn’t tell us.

Even more nonsensical is Mulder’s illness. Apparently he has had the junk DNA in his temporal lobe activated much like Gibson Praise (though the episode does not make this explicit connection to the season 5 episodes) and he is now “more alive” by becoming “biologically alien.” His brain is so active that his body can’t respond and he switches from raving lunatic to comatose. In the words of CSM he has become an “alien-human hybrid…immune to the coming viral apocalypse.” CSM has his doctors extract the alien DNA from Mulder and inject it into himself so that he will survive also.

The reason Mulder was thus altered? A rubbing of the artifact in Africa on a piece of paper reacted with the latent alien virus that was still in Mulder’s system since season 4 when he was infected with the Black Oil (in that two-parter “Tunguska/ Terma” where he went to Russia with Krycek and was captured in the gulag).

So now we have the kind of not-so-good questions that indicate a sci-fi series is not telling a coherent story. How did a piece of paper turn Mulder into an alien-human hybrid, the thing that took the Syndicate 25 years and countless abductions to fabricate? If Mulder’s exposure to the alien virus is the answer, then why wasn’t Scully affected by the same piece of paper? She was infected with the virus too, and worse. When Mulder was splashed with the Black Oil, it crawled into his skin, but he was shown in the next scene none the worse for ware. But when Scully was infected we actually say an alien baby sucked out of her mouth. The rubbing did not affect her.

Furthermore, in the previous big mythology episode, we learned that the alien invasion is thwarted because the rebels are winning. Their victory was made apparent when they killed all the members of the Syndicate and stole the alien fetus that was the center of the Project. Why does CSM act as though that did not happen and the “coming viral apocalypse” is still on schedule? This too is ignored.

The 6th season finale cements an X-Files cliché that has Mulder going crazy. At the end of season 2 he was suffering extreme paranoia because CSM was drugging him. At the end of season 4 he suffers depression and we are left to believe he actually commits suicide. Season 6 ends with him committed in a padded room. The fact that he is going crazy yet again would be excusable if the reason for it made sense. In this case it does not. Nor does it add anything to his character. By the end of the follow up two-parter, the alien DNA is extracted from him and he returns to his normal self. It was all just a contrivance to put Mulder in danger in time for another cliffhanger.

And that is why shows like The X-Files run out of steam about this point in their life cycles. You cannot tell stories of a global-to-cosmic scale without having something interesting and usually dangerous happen to your main characters (if you doubt that, try reading Last and First Men—I cant get through 20 pages.) There are only so many times you can put your characters through the ringer without it getting ridiculous.

The TV writer’s first priority is to develop stories that don’t have characters simply walking from one room to the next or getting sunk into long, talky scenes of expository dialogue about action happening elsewhere. You have to make sure your story has something happen to your characters every 10-15 minutes of screen time no matter what. The second priority is to connect that action with some larger meaning or significance. The third and final priority—and here is where it gets hard—is to keep the action and meaning of this episode consistent to all the mythology episodes that came before it. A writer is going to care about the first two priorities, and if the third one doesn’t fit… oh well. Deadline’s coming.

The trick is to keep the plates spinning. I for one am glad that The X-Files kept them spinning for 6 years. By season 7, the plates were falling.

Implications for the new season:

It will be interesting if Chris Carter radically changes the X-Files mythology formula described above. There are undoubtedly unanswered questions left over from Season 7-9. Does he answer them and pile on new questions? Does he ignore them and try to start new mysteries?

And what does a 6-episode X-Files season look like–one that we now know will contain stand alone and alien mythology episodes? Will the first episode establish a new mythology to be resolved in the sixth episode? Will the sixth episode contain a cliff hanger?

I’m reminded of Mathew Weiner’s philosophy when writing Mad Men, a series that he was never sure would get picked up for a next season. He said that every season they went for broke, never holding any great twist for a later season, but dumping into the one they were writing. And every season finale was written as though it was a series finale. Carter should heed that advice right now.

One thing I am confident of: the new season will not continue the “TV senility” of the last few X-Files seasons. This will feel like a fresh, new TV series. It will be narratively tight and comprehensible. I hope.

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