Revisiting The X-Files: Mulder’s Return from Abduction

An Emotional Punch

Usually when a lead actor departs from a TV series (be it over contractual, personal, or mortal reasons) the departure is permanent. The character that actor played must be written out of the show with degree of finality, usually killed off. Since Duchovny’s desire was to only lessen his episode load during Season 8, the writers were given a rare dramatic gift. They could lead Scully and the rest of us to think that Mulder was ‘killed off’ while also teasing the audience with visions, nightmares, and flashbacks with Duchovny playing Mulder in the flesh.

Doggett and Scully each have moments where they imagine they are seeing Mulder standing before them, and in the filmed scene Duchovny is clearly on set standing before them. These are jarring images that capture both Doggett’s desire to find Mulder and Scully’s suffering at the loss of Mulder, not to mention our own desire to have him back.

Mulder Ghost

In the first episode of the season were Mulder is in full scenes, The Gift, the entire teaser is devoted to a big reveal of Mulder as a concealed shooter. The mystery of the episode is about why Mulder would shoot someone in cold blood. The answer has to do with the fact that he was dying from his brain surgery with Smoking Man in Season 7, and involved an unusual and great monster-of-the-week. It was fun in the midst of his absence from the series to watch Mulder solving an X-File in flashback, while Doggett solved the same X-File in an interwoven plotline set after Mulder’s abduction.

One of the best elements of Season 8 is watching Scully grieve. Mulder is gone but not gone. He might return, but then again he might not. Like so many mysteries on this show, no satisfying answers are forthcoming. It is heartbreaking to watch, especially because we know as viewers that Mulder is so close. In the second episode, Without, Scully is in an empty desert just outside of an invisible UFO. We know Mulder is inside that craft—Duchovny is filmed strapped in the alien laboratory—but she doesn’t even know the UFO is there. Mike Snow also wrote a haunting choral theme that played whenever Scully was shown contemplating her loss. These scenes truly capture how painful an abduction feels for the people left at home with nothing but their questions.

scully in desert

This pathos—‘so close yet so far away’—is surely what inspired the writers to return Mulder only to kill him off. The scenes between Scully and Skinner—just before Mulder’s return where Scully is recalling that Mulder once told her that souls of the dead reside in starlight, and at his funeral where she can’t believe she is standing over his coffin—are heart-rending. Of course, Mulder is not dead. He is nearly dead—to borrow a phrase from The Princess Bride—and that makes watching Skinner and Doggett solve the mystery of how he could be in a grave for three months but still alive kind of fun to watch. It is the pleasure of watching what you know is highly improbably but narratively inevitable unfold before your eyes.

One Contrivance Too Many

Now, as with so many mysteries, the full explanation is so less satisfying than the slow unveiling of it. According the what we see in these episodes, the new alien tactic of colonization—or whatever they are up to—is to abduct groups of people, return them nearly dead and infected with “the alien virus,” and have them be reborn as alien-human hybrids, or as “alien facsimiles.” This happens to poor Billy Miles. There is no information, not the slightest suggestion, as to what these reborn aliens are supposed to do to further the alien agenda.

At some point you realize that the entire crazy idea exists only so that the writers could kill Mulder, have a funeral and then bring him back to life. This is the definition of a plot contrivance.

Trouble is, The X-Files has always trafficked in these contrivances. It is just that the series was much better at wielding them for dramatic effect earlier in its run. It’s an unfair criticism to say the writers are making it up as they go along. All TV is made up episode-by-episode, and so long as the stories are good, who cares? The X-Files writers always started planning mythology stories by asking: what is a scary or bizzarro concept that could adequately carry the drama for one hour of television? Once that concept was established, only then did they bother to explain it in context of the overarching mythology, usually in dribs and drabs over a season or two or three.

I imagine the writer’s room sounded something like this over the years:

  • Wouldn’t it be cool to have a human who is spliced with an alien, who has super-human strength, can breath under water, and has toxic green blood—we’ll call them alien-human hybrids, or alien clones.
  • Let’s have an Invasion of the Body Snatchers type creature—we’ll call it the Black Oil alien virus.
  • People are scared of killer bees, let’s do killer bees—we’ll say the aliens are growing bees to deliver the alien virus.
  • Uh, we’re making a big summer blockbuster, and our spindly gray alien isn’t much to look at on the Big Screen. Let’s make an alien that is big and slimy with long claws and teeth—but when we get back to the small screen next season we will reveal that the long-clawed alien is nothing more than a gray alien at an early stage of its development, just after it rips itself out of its host body.

long claw alien

The exact details of the alien colonization conspiracy don’t matter all that much. They are secondary concerns, mere vessels for delivering scary, creepy, weird stories. This is not a criticism because the show would not have been a hit without the approach. But it is an important thing to understand as we evaluate the later seasons, and the upcoming Season 10, because the writers can only keep adding new elements to the mythology arc so many times before the process itself gets old. There are a lot of balls in the air to begin with.

The Season 8 concept of abductees returning as corpses that come back to life, shed their skin and become reborn as aliens is no more or less ridiculous than any of the previous alien storylines. And it is genuinely unsettling to watch Billy Miles’ corpse get out of bed, get in the shower and have all his rotting flesh wash off of him. This might have been a fine addition to the mythology if it had been introduced in Season 2 or 3. It then would have been given some nefarious purpose that contributed to the whole colonization story—like the clones, black oil and bees were. But this particular contrivance is introduced in late Season 8, and it’s clear that once the writers use it to resurrect Mulder, they want to forget about it. There is not better evidence for that than the fact that reborn alien Billy Miles is allowed to walk out of the hospital and go do whatever he is designed to do—and the episodes never even hints at what that might be. Mulder and Scully know he’s an alien, and they let him go. They don’t even care about this story line.

We are left to wonder: “Man, I thought I hade the colonization plan all figured out. The virus will be spread to the population. The aliens will gestate inside of the hosts and then kill them. They will take over the planet. Now you are telling me that the aliens will first abduct people, return them dead and have their bodies become reborn with alien consciousness? How does that fit with everything else we know? Oh, you’re not going to tell me, not even a hint? [Throws up hands in frustration] I give up!”

A similar break down of narrative sense happened with the Season6/7 bridge episodes, the ones where we learn that the aliens gave us the world religions. Great sci-fi concept! But the writers never give us any insight into why the aliens would do this. After Mulder and Scully are out of danger at the end of the episodes, the whole concept is never brought up again.

In fact, very little about the alien stories make much sense after the official end of the Syndicate Conspiracy arc in Season 6, when the rebel aliens supposedly dealt a blow to the Gray’s colonization plans—which is yet another major plot point that was dropped and never mentioned again.

In summary: Loved how they used Mulder’s abduction to create genuine pathos, but hated how they eventually explained it all.

Implications for Season 10

Chris Carter has said the new episodes will stay true to the mythology of the series. To which I reply: Great, but which part of the mythology? The clones? The Black Oil? The virus-carrying bees? The gestating long-clawed aliens? The faceless rebel aliens? The corpse-facsimile aliens? Surely they won’t risk losing contemporary viewers by rehashing all of that in the two out of six episodes that will be devoted to the mythology.

No, the writers will start the process like they always have, by asking what will make good, scary TV? The show’s science advisor has said that the last episode, a mythology episode, will introduce some “scary science.” The hard part—and I hope they figure this out—is to start with that question and come up with an answer that doesn’t have the same feeling of contrivance as the later seasons, but feels as fresh, scary and even awe-inspiring as the early seasons.

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