The sixth season of The X-Files saw a sea change in the production, and it was all down to David Duchovny. By now, he and Gillian Anderson had enough clout as stars of the series to start making serious demands, and Duchovny instigated the biggest shift in the series' production by insisting they move filming to Los Angeles. Up until then, filming had largely taken place in and around Vancouver, and while one of the series' strengths was its visits to varied locations across the US (and sometimes beyond), they were almost always mocked up in Canada. Duchovny's reasons for moving were twofold: firstly, he needed to be closer to Hollywood for his burgeoning film career, and secondly, he wanted to be closer to his wife, actress Tea Leoni. Given his rocketing star status, and his onscreen chemistry with Anderson that was responsible for much of The X-Files' popularity, Fox allowed the move and all future filming was based in L.A.
This had a massive impact on the look and feel of the show. While there had been plenty of sunny scenes in the series so far, the general aesthetic was grim, gloomy and dimly lit, as befit a series about the supernatural. That's not to say that sunny California can't be the basis of an effective supernatural show (look at Buffy and Angel). Still, the change in location had a major impact on The X-Files' atmosphere, and many fans felt that the series had sold out, or “Hollywood-ised.” While the change in location had an impact, it was the change in story style that followed that was really significant. Immediately the series' style changed, incorporating more comedy, more romance – even romantic comedy. There were more high-profile guest actors, and the cost of filming in L.A. reduced the money available for expensive effects work. Alongside this, the characters, particularly Mulder, began referencing popular culture more, which both added to and detracted from the reality of the show. It's a matter of opinion whether Mulder commenting on how an episode inspired by Speed reminds him of a movie is a good idea or not.
The series had become, in a word, sillier. This wasn't such a bad thing, though. The X-Files' comedy episodes had been some of its strongest since they began to appear in the second season, and the series frankly works best when it's all a little tongue-in-cheek. Given how resolutely po-faced it could be at times, particularly in the mythology episodes, it's refreshing to see it kick back and have fun. Understandably, some fans were put off by the changes, but while it's true that viewing figures began to drop in this season, it wasn't a significant drop and could just as easily be the series beginning to show its age. And when a series continues for a long time, there's a tricky balance between continuing with what made it successful in the first place and changing enough so that it doesn't become stale.
The season had the somewhat difficult task of following on from both the closing episode of season five, and the first feature film of The X-Files. The opening episode, “The Beginning,” manages this rather well, tying in both the character-based plots of season five's “The End” and its mystery surrounding the psychic child Gibson Praise, and the more cinematic alien monsters plot from the film. Pushing Mulder and Scully off the X-Files and forbidding them to become involved in anything tangentially related to them, it sees the department put in the hands of agents Fowley (Mimi Rogers) and Spender (Chris Owens), the latter working in secret with his father, the nefarious Smoking Man (William B. Davis). It's fairly decent material, although, while Mulder is back as a true believer, it's aggravating in the extreme that Scully is back to scepticism after her extremely close encounter in the movie. (Really, there's no possible way that anyone could experience the events of the film and not believe whole-heartedly in alien invaders.) As is often the case with the mythology episodes, it's better as a part of the ongoing story than an episode in itself, but it's solidly watchable.
It's not until episode nine that we get another story focused on the ongoing plot. “S.R.819” is the unglamorously-titled story of A.D. Skinner's battle with a deadly poisoning, by returning villain Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea). The series' writer's had forced Skinner to the sidelines of the show by moving Mulder and Scully off the X-Files and saddling them with a new overseer, A.D. Alvin Kersh. Kersh, a jobsworth brick wall, is unfortunately terribly one-note and rapidly becomes dull, in spite of James Pickens (Grey's Anatomy) attempts to give him some depth. “S.R.819” makes Skinner a central element of the plot and sets up some dominoes to fall later on. The use of nanites, microscopic robots, as the source of his “poisoning,” is the ultimate millennial sci-fi fear, making it seem a little dated now. In spite of a strong performance by the reliable Mitch Pileggi, it's a distinctly average episode.
Only two episodes later the season hits a landmark with the two-part story, “Two Fathers” and “One Son.” Veronica Cartwright returns as Cassandra Spender, wife of the Smoking Man and mother of Agent Spender, and the apparent key to the alien colonisation of Earth. The two-parter builds the stakes and brings together various elements and characters from the ongoing mythology, before dispassionately shutting them down. A swathe of recurring characters are killed off, the idea being that the story would effectively relaunch the central plotline of the series, jettisoning overly complicated elements of continuity. This, as might be expected, didn't really work, instead just tangling the mythology even more, but by dealing with Syndicate it did free the series from a group of antagonists that had overstayed their welcome. “Two Fathers,” narrated by the Smoking Man, is held back by the heavy exposition, and even in the better “One Son” far too much of the story is just characters painstakingly explaining events to each other. That's not to say there are no arresting or action-packed moments, but they're overwhelmed by the infodumps. Still, William B. Davis is as good as ever, and it's good to see Chris Owens have a chance to really impress as Agent Spender, who becomes a far more sympathetic character. The story ends with Mulder and Scully officially reassigned to the X-Files, as opposed to sneaking around investigating mysteries between dull official assignments.
After the mythos-overload of the fifth season, though, there's a better showing for standalone, “monster-of-the-week” episodes. The second episode of the season, “Drive,” kicks these off in high gear. The aforementioned Speed-pastiche, it sees Mulder taken hostage in his own car, forced to drive on and on by a man who will die if he slows down or stops moving west. It's a strong episode that overcomes it derivative central concept by playing it dead straight (aside from Mulder's movie comment), and features an excellent performance by Bryan Cranston as the afflicted Mr. Crump. Given that he's a pretty unpleasant character, it's testament to Cranston's skill that he makes Crump's plight so sympathetic. Until then, Cranston was best known for Seinfeld, and most of his work was voice overs for kids' series such as Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. “Drive” was part of his breakthrough to more serious roles, and when the episode's writer Vince Gilligan later created Breaking Bad, he remembered Cranston's performance here and cast him as the now-legendary Walter White.
Another story with a major guest star is the two-part “Dreamland,” which makes up the fourth and fifth episodes of the run. Involving a visit to the legendary Area 51 (aka Dreamland) and a run-in with the Men in Black, you'd think this is would be a mythology-heavy episode, but it's a standalone comedy tale that has almost no bearing on the ongoing storyline. An experimental aircraft based on alien technology salvaged from the Roswell crash leads to a disturbance in space-time, with bizarre consequences. The main effect is that Mulder switches bodies with a Man in Black named Morris Fletcher, played by the brilliant Michael McKean. Best known then mainly for movies including Clue, This is Spinal Tap and Short Circuit 2, McKean has rarely been off television screens either, and a recent renaissance in his career has included appearances on Good Omens, The Good Place and Grace and Frankie. Most notably, “Dreamland” co-writer Gilligan once again remembered one of his great guest actors and cast him as Chuck McGill, for which he won awards during his time on Better Call Saul.
McKean's comedy chops elevate the comedic script, in which Mulder finds himself finally on the inside of the government and military conspiracy but totally out-of-his-depth, saddled with an unhappy marriage and in serious trouble, while Morris enjoys his newfound freedom and tries to turn Mulder's career round. There's some great interplay between Scully and Morris-as-Mulder, and a memorable sequence in which Duchovny and McKean synchronise movements in a recreation of the mirror scene from the Marx Brothers flick Duck Soup. They don't quite manage to line it up but it's a great scene nonetheless. It's not all goofing around though, with another effect of the space-time warp being the fusing of people and/or objects. As well as clearly influencing a similar plot on the heavily-X-Files inspired series Fringe, the unlucky fusion of an amorous couple remains on the series' most disturbing and unexpected images. While it's a great story, it's a bit overextended as a two-parter, and the writers commit a cardinal plot sin by hitting the reset switch at the end. McKean is the best thing about the episode, and his character was brought back three times: twice on The X-Files and once for its spin-off The Lone Gunmen.
“Dreamland” is far from the only story to nail the mixture of humour and SF weirdness. Festive episode “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” (6.6) followed it, with a marvellously daffy concept. The agents find themselves exploring a haunted house, wherein two ghosts try to psychoanalyse them to death. Although it has its share of creepy moments and a remarkable amount of blood, this episode is all about the two spirits roasting the agents with their obvious flaws. Lily Tomlin (Grace and Frankie, The West Wing, The Magic School Bus) displays her legendary comedic acting skills, alongside the great Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, Up), the seven-time Emmy award-winner, as the two ghosts of Christmas Eve. A proper ghost story is a grand Christmas tradition, and the bittersweet comedy is a far better festive episode than the previous season's “Christmas Carol,” broadcast in the same slot.
6.7, “Terms of Endearment,” is a clever but flawed episode, and another showcase for a great guest star. Horror legend Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead, Bubba Ho-Tep) plays Wayne Weinsider, a seemingly mild-mannered salesman who is hiding a secret – and it's not just his bigamy. Mulder and Scully steal a case that Mulder believes may be an X-File, concerning the apparent abduction of a baby straight from its mother's womb. While the episode features a disturbing concept and some deeply unsettling imagery, it's peculiarly light-hearted, starting life as Rosemary's Baby “from the point of view of the Devil.” That was the pitch by writer David Amman in his first commission for the series, something Chris Carter enthusiastically went for. While the plot's a little thin and hard to swallow, the episode is lifted by a brilliantly sympathetic performance by Campbell, and an excellent final twist – Carter's addition to the story. The soundtrack is great as well, mixing spooky Gregorian chants with lashings of Garbage.
Less effective but rather sweet is the following episode, “The Rain King,” a Hicksville romcom in which one of the parties can miraculously influence the weather. It's another first-time script, this time by Jeffrey Bell, who would go on to write many more episodes over the next few seasons, before moving to Angel, on which he acted as showrunner for the final two years. Clayton Rohner (Murder One, Daybreak) steals all his scenes as Daryl “Rain King” Mootz, and Saturday Night Live's Victoria Jackson is great as his former partner Sheila. Really, though, this is about Mulder and Scully's repressed feelings for one another, and how they're as unable to communicate as the confused characters of this story. Bell's second script for the season, “Alpha” (6.16) is sadly much less memorable, a tremendously generic X-Files by-the-numbers episode about a killer dog. This comes not long after Amman's equally tedious “Agua Mala,” (6.13), about a water-based monster, which stands out only for including the second appearance of Darren McGavin as retro-X-Files agent Arthur Dales, following his introduction in 5.15, “Travelers.” Both episodes would have struggled to make an impression in earlier seasons, and in a year as experimental as this one, are nothing but filler.
Arthur Dales would be back once more in the brilliant “The Unnatural” (6.19), however two days into production, McGavin suffered a severe stroke, forcing the production team to recast the character. The prolific M. Emmet Walsh (The Jerk, Blade Runner, Ordinary People) plays the new Arthur Dales, incredibly said to be the brother of the original. Frankly I prefer his eccentric, characterful version of the character. Frederic Lane, who had already recorded most of his scenes, played the younger Dales as he had in “Travelers,” necessitating the strange solution.
Written and directed solely by Duchovny, “The Unnatural” guest stars the charismatic Jesse L. Martin (Rent, Law & Order, The Flash) as Josh “Ex” Exley, a minor league baseball player who turns out to be an alien. Having fallen in love with Earth and, specifically, the wonderful waste of time that is baseball, Ex took on the form of a black player, knowing the racism of the time would preclude him from making the big leagues and allow him to stay under the radar. Inspired by Duchovny's love of baseball and the history of baseball in Roswell around the same time as the alleged UFO crash, it's a charming, sweet-natured story with some great interplay between Martin and Lane. I've a soft spot for baseball episodes of shows; they're unadulterated Americana, and this scores better than most for its exploration of isolation, otherness and racism. It also sees Mulder and Scully, in their few scenes together, at their most flirtatious, clearly showing how Duchovny saw the characters' relationship.
An episode that manages to be both traditional and effectively inventive is 6.10, “Tithonus.” Named for the ancient Greek mythological figure, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem of the same name, Tithonus is a treatise on immortality. Geoffrey Lewis (Double Impact, Pink Cadillac) guest stars as Alfred Fellig (named for the noted street photographer Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee), a man who longs for death after over a century of life, and who has an uncanny knack for capturing the moment of death of his subjects. While Scully trails him on suspicion of murder, Fellig is merely seeking death, hoping to capture the spectre of Death itself on camera, which he believes will allow him release. A strong script by Vince Gilligan and a quiet, thoughtful performance by Lewis makes this episode memorable. It is, perhaps, a little too reminiscent of season three's “Clyde Buckman's Final Repose,” in which Scully forms a bond with a man haunted by others' deaths and longing for his own, but serves well to explore similar themes. In particular, both episodes hint, albeit gently, that Scully may herself be immune to death... if that's how you wish to read it.
Equally straightforward are 6.17, “Trevor,” and 6.18, “Milagro.” The former is reasonably successful, thanks to a decent performance by John Diehl (Miami Vice, Point Pleasant) as Pinker Rawls, an escaped violent convict who has developed the ability to pass through conductive materials and carbonise flesh, stopped only by a non-conductive amorphous solid, like glass. It's linear but fairly solid, with visual effects that look unshowy, but are all the more impressive for that. The latter episode, “Milagro,” struggles to make an impression. Guest starring John Hawkes (Deadwood, Eastbound & Down) as a reclusive author who becomes obsessed with Scully, it explores the notion that a writer's imagination could manifest in the real world. The part was specifically written for Hawkes, but he fails to make that much of an impression and has little chemistry with Anderson, leading to the episode falling flat. Anderson is herself excellent, though, and the murders that propel the episode are suitably gruesome. Nonetheless, it never quite gels together for me. Many fans, however, rate it highly as a character piece.
6.15, “Arcadia,” is a slight but fun episode. Inspired by his own experiences of planned communities and homeowners' associations, Daniel Arkin scripted a story in which the agents go undercover as a married couple to investigate the disappearance of people in a supposed suburban paradise. The pressure to conform and the threat if you don't is at the centre of the episode, but the fun comes from watching the stars pretend to be a couple. Mulder is notably more into it than Scully, although he also struggles to conform to Arcadia's hundreds of rules. The revelation that the murders are being committed by a tulpa – a Tibetan “thought form,” willed into existence to enact its creator's will – is less important than the way the residents are being terrorised by the rules. The tulpa, akin to the Jewish golem, is here formed from garbage, and the concept would be revisited much later in the tenth season episode “Home Again.”
The season boasts some of the programme's more experimental episodes. 6.3, “Triangle,” sees Mulder abscond to investigate a luxury cruise liner, the Queen Anne, which has appeared in the Bermuda Triangle. It was only a matter of time before The X-Files paid a visit to that mysterious and storied region of the sea, and “Triangle” doesn't disappoint. Mulder is injured a wakes up on the Queen Anne in 1939, just as it is being boarded by Nazi SS troops. The various characters in the 1939 sequences are played by the regular and semi-regular stars of the series, with the Oberfuhrer appearing as the Smoking Man, Spender and Skinner appearing as lieutenants, and Kersh as a Jamaican engine crewman. Mulder shares his adventure, and something of a romance, with an American passenger/secret agent who looks just like Scully. Meanwhile, in 1998, Scully disobeys orders and contacts the Lone Gunmen for help finding Mulder.
Chris Carter wrote and directed the episode as a technical challenge, attempting to make it appear as if it was filmed in four long takes. As with the film it homages – Hitchcock's classic Rope – it's actually made up of several extended shots cleverly edited together to create the illusion of continuity. He also utilised split-screen techniques to counterpoint the different eras, including an effective sequence where Mulder and Scully walk down the same corridor in different years. The episode became notorious internationally for its appallingly-translated and performed German dialogue, which was learned phonetically by most of the cast. Of the regulars, only Pileggi actually spoke German, and had to correct much of his dialogue so that it made sense. The episode is a lot of fun, and while it's almost derailed by the hokey “perhaps it was all a dream...” ending, it has enough panache to get away with it.
Time travel, of a sort, is also the driving force of the excellent “Monday” (6.14), in which the entire world is seemingly caught in a time loop, with only one woman aware of it. Singer, playwright and actress Carrie Hamilton (Fame, Tokyo Pop) is absolutely excellent as the desperate Pam, run ragged by the living hell of playing out the same day, again and again, with the same tragic consequences. Sadly, this was one of Hamilton's last roles; she died from complications due to lung cancer less than three years later. Her grounded and powerfully sympathetic performance really makes the episode work, and she would surely have gone onto greater things had her life not been cut short.
Each iteration of the day begins with Mulder's waterbed springing a leak (the waterbed itself being a relic of the temporal anomaly in “Dreamland,” with Mulder's inability to remember where he got it a running joke). Each iteration ends with Pam's drop-out boyfriend Bernard (Darren Burrows – Northern Exposure, CSI) blowing up a bank in a botched hold-up, taking Mulder, Scully and countless innocents with him. Each day is slightly different, though, with Pam trying to find someone who will believe her and remember enough in the next cycle to break it. At the beginning of the episode she tries Skinner, before finally resorting to her “last hope,” Mulder, making you wonder just how many cycles she's been through. While naturally most viewers would see this as a riff on the 1993 film Groundhog Day, writer Vince Gilligan actually based it on “Shadow Play,” a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone. Perhaps the best episode of the season, “Monday” is a story of desperation that balances humour and horror beautifully, hinging on Hamilton's haunted performance.
The end of the season gives us three distinctly different episodes. “Three of a Kind” (6.20), a sequel to 5.3, “Unusual Suspects.” Involving the Lone Gunmen in Las Vegas, it brings back the mysterious Susanne Modeski (Signy Coleman) to finally resolve her storyline. There are strong guest roles for John Billingsley (Star Trek: Enterprise, The Man From Earth), Charlie Rocket (Saturday Night Live, Dumb and Dumber) and, cameoing again as Morris Fletcher, Michael McKean, but the episode belongs to Bruce Harwood as the romantic Gunman Byers. It's ultimately a bit of fluff, but it's good fun, and works better than most Lone Gunmen stories by teaming them up with Scully, as in “Triangle.” It's just funnier than having them work with Mulder.
6.21, “Field Trip,” is a last great episode for the season. A mind-bending story that makes you constantly question reality, it sees the agents investigate the deaths of a young married couple, whose stripped skeletons have been recovered after only three days missing. Mulder, naturally, suspects aliens, linking the deaths to oft-reported lights in the sky in the area, while Scully is convinced it's a more mundane, albeit gruesome, murder. The script gets points for Mulder arguing that he's been right in his theories far more often than he's wrong, and it's getting ridiculous that they have to go through the same rigmarole every time they get a case. He is, however, utterly wrong, as is Scully, but at first their experiences bear out exactly what they believe. The real killer is a vast, underground fungus that keeps its victims docile by inducing hallucinations while it slowly digests them. The series had played with alternative realities, hallucinations and unreliable narration before, but never as successfully as this. You’re never quite sure when the characters break free of the dream world and make it back to reality. Given how daft the series gets in the future, maybe they never did...
Finally, the season ends with, naturally, a mythology episode. “Biogenesis” acts as an attempt to relaunch the ongoing storyline in a new direction. Playing with heavy themes, it explores the concept that life on Earth was seeded by aliens and that alien life had directed our history and religion. A strange rock washes up on the Ivory Coast, bizarrely inscribed in the Native American Navajo language. In spite of the artefacts apparently ancient age, the inscriptions include passages from the Bible and sections of the human genetic code. Meanwhile, Mulder's displaying disturbing mental symptoms. While it's not quite the big redirection of the series it was touted as, using ideas and tricks that the series had already tried, it's a solid episode, leaving some major questions for the seventh season. And that final shot is an absolute belter.
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 July 15th, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.