The third season of The X-Files continued very much in the vein of the second, following up and building on the ongoing conspiracy backstory while playing with new paranormal concepts. While the series was already beginning to show signs of becoming formulaic, some of the episodes of the season played around with the format. By now, the series had enough of a regular format in place to allow the writers to play around and parody their own material.
The third season features some of the series' strongest episodes, but also some of its most banal. The central cast of characters is developed and expanded, most notably with Mitch Pileggi's Deputy Director Skinner and William B. Davis as the Cigarette Smoking Man becoming more three-dimensional. Skinner, who had initially been touted as a villainous character, had already become something of a fan favourite and so his uncertain allegiances were resolved, making him a clear (but often troubled) ally of Mulder and Scully. The Smoking Man, however, became ever more villainous, as well as more pragmatic and hands-on, becoming more and more involved in the episodes in which he appeared. The conspiracy became broader, revealing more links between the Smoking Man and Mulder's parents, and the mystery surrounding X (Steven Williams) deepened. New characters were introduced, most significantly John Neville (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) as the Well-Manicured Man, and Don S. Williams (The Stepfather, Reindeer Games) as the First Elder, two high-ranking associates of the Smoking Man.
The season boasted several mythology-based episodes, beginning with "The Blessing Way" and "Paper Clip," which concluded the three-part storyline begun by the previous season's finale, "Anasazi." Mulder narrowly survives the events of that episode and is found by Albert Hosteen (Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman) who nurses him back to health and also helps translate the encrypted files that had come into Mulder's possession. Scully, meanwhile, begins further investigation into the implant she received during her abduction experience in season two. Her life is threatened by the traitorous agent Krycek (Nicholas Lea), who mistakenly kills her sister Melissa (Melinda McGraw). Scully's quest for justice for her sister and the truth about her abduction propel her story arc through the season. It's a fairly strong conclusion to the story begun in "Anasazi," introducing various new elements and characters to the mythology, not least of which are the revelations about Mulder's father and his involvement with the conspiracy. The elaborate vision quest scenes for Mulder, though, don't work nearly as well as they could have done and make those parts of the episodes a bit laughable.
The storyline continues in 3.9 and 3.10, "Nisei" and "731." The agents investigate the origins of a video purportedly showing an alien autopsy. The storyline follows up on hints of Nazi experiments involving aliens in the opening episodes, linking them to similar wartime experiments by the Japanese. Adding a sci-fi twist to the genuinely horrifying medical experiments by those powers during the Second World War, the two-parter has some nightmarish imagery and furthers the concept that there is a race on to create alien-human hybrids. It also features some thrilling action scenes and some impressive stunt work by Duchovny, and "731" in particular is extremely well directed by Rob Bowman. Episodes 3.15 and 3.16, "Piper Maru" and "Apocrypha" continue the storyline further. A salvage ship, the Piper Maru (named for Anderson's daughter), discovers the wreckage of a submarine and unleashes an extraterrestrial threat: the black oil, or Purity virus, a sentient alien pathogen which can take over and control its victims. A mix of practical and visual effects make the black oil a particularly unsettling and effective monster, and would become a major and recurring element of the series.
Interspersed between the tentpole mythology episodes were, of course, an array of standalone "monster-of-the-week" episodes. The third season saw some very effective and powerful episodes from some of the series' best writers. Darin Morgan, who remains one of my favourite writers on the series, returned for three more episodes: 3.4, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," 3.12, "War of the Coprophages," and 3.20, "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'," as well as making some contributions for the script for 3.22, "Quagmire." "Clyde Bruckman" and "Jose Chung" in particular have have been consistently cited as some of the best The X-Files has to offer.
"Clyde Bruckman" won two Emmy Awards: "Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series" and "Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series" for its guest star, Peter Boyle. Best known for Everybody Loves Raymond and as the Monster in Young Frankenstein, Boyle puts in a wonderfully characterful and charming performance as Bruckman, a depressed psychic who is haunted by visions of people's deaths, including his own. Pulled into a murder investigation, he is seen as little more than a phenomenon and a resource by Mulder but is compassionately empathised with by Scully. In spite of suffering with depression himself when he wrote it, Morgan suffused the script with biting humour which takes the edge off the very dark subject matter. Dealing with murder, suicide, predestination and fate, the episode also flirts with the largely lost concept for the series of debunking fakes. With a sucker punch ending, the script is easily one of the best in the series.
"War of the Coprophages" is a fantastic exploration of mass hysteria, which involves Mulder investigating a town with a cockroach problem. When entirely circumstantial evidence sees cockroaches appear at the sites of deaths, the locals become convinced a plague of killer roaches has beset the town. Mulder falls in with local entomologist Dr. Bambi Berembaum (the stunning Bobbie Phillips, Two Guys and Girl) and consults with Dr. Ivanov (Ken Kramer), who has been developing insect-like robots. Inspired by the legendary hysteria around the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds (itself massively inflated in the telling), the episode is brilliantly funny. It boasts some excellent chemistry between the cast, with Scully being visibly annoyed at Mulder's spark with Dr. Berembaum... although she only has eyes for Dr. Ivanov. It's also an absolute creep-fest, with cockroaches everywhere, including a beautiful moment when a roach crawls across the screen, entirely unconnected to any events in the story. Just for a moment, it gets you and your stomach jumps, even when you're expecting it.
"Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space' " is one of the most unique episodes of the series, and a firm favourite among fans and critics alike. Beginning with a baffling and deliberately unconvincing scene in which two teenagers are abducted by aliens, who are then abducted by another, bigger alien, it proceeds to get stranger and more questionable from then on. The agents investigate the incident through numerous witnesses, each time getting a different version of the facts, shown to us in increasingly unbelievable sequences. Throughout, we cut back to Scully narrating events to the Capote-like novelist Jose Chung, a tremendously fun character played by Charles Nelson Reilly III (The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, Match Game). Playing with different directorial styles, unreliable narration and clearly absurd reconstructions of events, the episode good-naturedly pokes fun at UFO and X-Files enthusiasts. Also featuring a fun role for William Lucking (Sons of Anarchy) who narrates his encounter with the monstrous alien "Lord Kinbote," who was filmed to appear as if he was made by old-fashioned stop-motion animation. The most comedic episode of the series so far, it stands out as a remarkable and ridiculous story.
Morgan left the writing staff with at the end of the season, although he would return twenty years later to provide scripts for the series' relaunch. He went on to produce, direct and write for the spin-off series Millennium in 1997-98, including "Jose Chung's 'Doomsday Defense'," a loose follow-up to his earlier script. His later career includes consulting producer credits on Bionic Woman; the remake of the series that inspired The X-Files, The Night Stalker; and the heavily X-Files-inspired (and very good) Fringe. While his work on The X-Files as staff writer was fairly brief, his style of script, with its marriage of chills and humour, left a lasting influence on the series.
Noted screenwriter John Shiban had his first produced script with episode seven, "The Walk," a rather formulaic but effective story which saw a quadruple amputee murder the families of fellow Gulf War veterans using astral projection. Helped by standout performances by Willie Garson (Hawaii Five-O, White Collar), Thomas Kopache (The West Wing) and particularly Ian Tracey (Continuum) as the murderer, Rappo, "The Walk" hits home with some affecting material about PTSD. It also boasts some excellent visual effects and prosthetics, all the more impressive for how unshowy they are.
Shiban also wrote 3.18, "Teso Dos Bichos," which sadly is far less effective. A notorious mess of an episode, disliked by fans and cast alike, "Teso Dos Bichos" is a hokey story involving a cursed South American artefact that unleashes killer animals including rats, cats and a jaguar spirit on its unsuspecting victims. It's about as by-the-book as an X-File gets and unusually poorly directed by the normally reliable Kim Manners, who was unable to get the various animals involved to cooperate. (By all accounts they should have stuck with cockroaches.) Shiban went on to become a recurring staff writer and later producer on the series, also working on Star Trek: Enterprise, Torchwood: Miracle Day and Breaking Bad.
Some episodes dealt with old-fashioned, even hokey fantasy concepts, but that's not to say they don't form the basis of some great episodes. The season's third episode, "DPO" stars Giovanni Ribisi (Friends, Sneaky Pete, My Name is Earl) as a jealous and powerless young man who gains the ability to control lightning, to murderous effect. The episode, also featuring a young Jack Black, is a simple case but an entertaining one. 3.6, "2Shy," has another go at the vampire genre, but gives it a very unpleasant and inventive twist. Timothy Carhart (Island Son, CSI, 24) plays the marvellously named Virgil Incanto, a mutant who feeds on human fat instead of blood, and entraps his victims by seducing them on online chatrooms and dating sites. While the precise details are very nineties, it could easily work today updated to hinge on dating apps. It's a gruesomely effective episode, but overall too similar to season one's "Squeeze" and "Tooms" and season two's "Irresistible" to really stand on its own.
3.22, "Quagmire," involved a lake monster of the Nessie, Chessie or Champ variety (Loch Ness may have the most famous monster, but about half the sizeable lakes of North America are alleged to have one). Mulder drags Scully to track down a local monster named Big Blue, which he believes may be responsible for several unexplained deaths on and around a lake in Georgia. Looking for one of Nessie's cousins is about the most bog-standard concept for an X-File imaginable, and the series was bound to do it eventually, so they might as well get it out the way early on. While plotwise the story doesn't have much going for it, it stands out for some beautiful scenes between Mulder and Scully, including one where they are stranded on a rock in the middle of the lake at night, which famously ran to ten pages of uninterrupted dialogue. We get a strong insight into what makes Mulder tick, and his ongoing need for something to believe in.
Not every classic genre concept leads to a strong episode. Episode five, "The List," is a pretty predictable case of revenge from the beyond the grave. Necessitating an elaborate death row set, the episode utilised some horrific imagery, largely involving live maggots, which unsurprisingly was not popular with the cast. An early role for Black Reel Award winner Bokeem Woodbine (Fargo, Underground) is noteworthy, but he's submerged amongst a large supporting cast of one-dimensional characters. Ultimately, the episode is too nihilistic to be entertaining.
3.13, "Syzygy," involves a rash of murders of high school students that is blamed on a Satanic cult. The real cause, however, is a rare astrological alignment that leads people to act out of character, and two girls (Wendy Benson and Lisa Robin Kelly) to commit multiple murders. While the episode has some entertaining material about hysteria, this comes across as a weaker version of "War of the Coprophages." The direct dismissal of Satanic cults as a societal threat is solid, though, and sticks to its message, unlike the previous treatment in 2.14, "Die Hand Die Verletzt." Otherwise, though, the episode's a mess. It's twisting of high school movies into the supernatural horror genre prefigures Buffy the Vampire Slayer to an extent, except that Chris Carter's script is witless and revolves around the main characters acting like idiots.
It's clear the episode is supposed to be a parody and sends up several fan complaints about previous episodes, but it fails on this front by not being funny. Carter reportedly wrote the episode to show how Mulder and Scully would never become a couple and shut down those fan conversations – which is funny in light of later developments – but the actors seem thoroughly bored with the versions of their characters in this episode. Its main point of interest is a teenaged Ryan "Deadpool" Reynolds, comfortably the biggest star to have a "before-they-were-famous" moment in the series so far, and he's killed off before the titles roll.
The following episode, "Grotesque," stars Kurtwood Smith (who would shortly thereafter co-star with the previous episode's Lisa Robin Kelly in That 70s Show) as an agent who is something of an icon for Mulder, investigating and capturing a serial killer who believes he is possessed by a demon. Smith – easily recognisable from Robocop and sundry appearances in the Star Trek franchise – is always good value as a mild-mannered maniac, and his character Bill Patterson falls into madness due to his deep involvement with the case. It's a strong story that never fully takes a side on whether the murders are driven by insanity or something supernatural. Kim Manners directs it in a deliberately overly dramatic, intense way but it just about stays on the right side of ridiculous.
The strongest episodes of the season are more inventive. 3.8, "Oubliette," the only script by Charles Grant Craig (Eureka, Invasion), is one of the season's best. The episode revolves around the kidnapping and incarceration of a teenaged girl named Amy (an excellent performance by then thirteen-year-old Jewel Staite, later of Firefly). Mulder is naturally drawn to the case due to the abduction of his sister, although there's strangely no focus on Scully's empathy with the victim after her own abduction experiences. One of the kidnapper's former victims, Lucy Householder, inexplicably begins to manifest Amy's injuries and experiences. Tracey Ellis (The Last of the Mohicans) gives an incredible performance as Lucy, and would later come back for the title role in the ninth season episode "Audrey Pauley." At the time of the production, there was widespread media attention given to the 1993 kidnapping and murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas. Whether Craig was inspired by the case is uncertain, but it was considered too close for comfort and several details in the script were changed, including increasing Amy's age from twelve to fifteen.
Just as impressive is 3.17, “Pusher,” a powerful psychological thriller which guest stars old Brightonian Robert Wisden, best known as Nixon in the Watchmen film but with a long history of American and Canadian genre television. Wisden plays Robert Patrick Modell, a rather feeble man who is suffering from a brain tumour that, while killing him, has also granted him the psychic ability to project his will onto others – to “push” them into killing themselves. While Modell is a nasty, callous little man who is using his power to try to make himself appear strong, he is nonetheless one of the most dangerous and threatening villains in the series. The episode climaxes in a tense scene where Modell and Mulder play a game of Russian Roulette, a gripping although controversial sequence that the Fox network almost forbade. It's one of the best scripts by Vince Gilligan, who had written 2.23 “Soft Light,” and would be a staff writer from the next season onwards, also co-creating the spin-off series The Lone Gunmen and, much later, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Modell's popularity led to his return in the fifth season episode “Kitsunegari.”
Other solid entries this season include 3.11, "Revelations," which sees a murderer hunting supposedly miraculous people who have faked stigmata – the spontaneous appearance of wounds mimicking those of Christ on the cross. When a young boy seems to manifest the real deal, Scully's own faith becomes a major part of the investigation. It's an effective example of the series' periodic inversions of the usual set-up, with Mulder becoming the skeptic and Scully the believer. Mulder's dismissal of Christian belief in miracles is absolutely in character; he'll run with any fringe belief or long-forgotten folklore, but turns his nose up at major belief systems. While there are several episodes that take this path and others that focus on Scully's faith, this is the first episode to really get to grips with it. While Mulder's beliefs are all over the place and he has no trouble reconciling seemingly incompatible views, Scully's faith and her scientific outlook clash, leading to some genuinely interesting character moments. While the episode skirts a fine line in dealing with an element of Christianity that many people believe in, it's ultimately quite respectful. Anderson is excellent, and while the supporting cast aren't generally particularly arresting, with the exception of the unique Michael Berryman. The always recognisable actor, known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Hills Have Eyes, gets the rare chance to play a heroic character rather than a weirdo or monster – possibly even an angel.
One oddity in the season is episode 3.19, "Hell Money." One of the rare episodes that features no genuinely supernatural elements – although superstitions abound – "Hell Money" takes a disturbing trip into San Francisco's Chinatown where an organ-harvesting ring is operating. Throwing in everything from a death-dealing lottery and assassination by cremation to Chinese ghost stories and a frog living in someone' chest, creepy imagery abounds but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There's an impressive guest cast, though, including B. D. Wong (Jurassic Park, Mr. Robot) as Detective Glen Chao, James Hong (Chinatown, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan) as the villain of the piece and a pre-fame Lucy Liu, two years before her big break on Ally McBeal. There's a real risk with something like this that the appropriation of folklore and localised crime could come across as racist, and the episode skirts it, but by presenting events largely from Chao's perspective it keeps us on his side and makes Mulder and Scully appear as condescending outsiders. However, it also means that they're unusually ineffectual and they do little to drive the plot.
Two episodes towards the end of the season mix in some of the overall conspiracy plotline into monster-of-the-week episodes. 3.21, "Avatar" focuses on Skinner, delving into his troubled personal life as he is investigated for the murder of a woman he met in a bar. The episode explores the damage to Skinner's psyche from his experiences in Viet Nam as a young man, his inability to open up to people and, more bizarrely, his repeated hauntings by visions of a haggard old woman who Mulder comes to believe may be a succubus – a female demon. Ultimately, though, the episode is about how Skinner's clear allying with Mulder on the X-Files has made him a threat that needs to be undermined. While Mitch Pileggi is excellent in the episode – which was co-written by Duchovny as a chance for his co-star to get a share of the limelight – it never quite comes together. It does feature some notable guest roles for Amanda Tapping (a year away from her starring role as Samantha Carter in Stargate SG-1) as Skinner's apparent victim, and Jennifer Hetrick (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Sliders, L.A. Law) as his wife Sharon.
The penultimate episode of the season, "Wetwired," sees ordinary people driven to murder by subliminal images hidden in TV broadcasts. It's extremely similar to season one's "Blood," and this risks it seeming repetitive, but if you approach it as a follow-up exploring the same conspiracy it works. It's also the better of the two episodes, having a stronger plot and a more coherent link to the overall arc. Featuring both X and the Smoking Man prominently, it furthers the overall mythology storyline incrementally without being intrusive to the episode's standalone element. Anderson also delivers an exceptional performance as her own judgment is impaired by the effect of the technology. Unusually, the episode was written by visual effects artist Mat Beck, who wanted to explore the debate around violence on television and its effect on viewers.
The season culminates with "Talitha Cumi," the title of which is an allusion to the biblical story of the healing of Jairus' daughter. As had already become standard, the episode ends the season with a mythology story, but it begins as if it's a standalone phenomenon episode, as it sees a man miraculously heal a group of people wounded in a shoot-out. However, the man, Jeremiah Smith, is linked to the conspiracy, knowing the Smoking Man and holding information about Mulder's family and their involvement. Roy Thinnes – a prolific actor but best known as the lead in The Invaders – gives a powerful performance as Smith, sharing some intense scenes with William B. Davis. Once again, the episode brings in further elements of the conspiracy and ends the season on a cliffhanger.
The ongoing mythology arc proved to be both a strength and a weakness of the third season. While the individual episodes are gripping, by now the overall storyline was already beginning to sag under the weight of all the elements. Involving now an alien parasite, shapeshifters, human-alien hybridisation, clones, wartime experimentation, multiple high-ranking parties working to different ends and seemingly both humans and aliens hiding behind each other to facilitate abductions, the storyline had begun to lose focus. The most memorable episodes remain the standalone monster-of-the-week stories, and the mix of humour and horror would stand the series in good stead for the future.
Review: Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on February 5th, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.