Seven years is generally considered a good run for an American drama series. Indeed, it's often considered the optimum length for a series, particularly for genre television. Even before then, a series will generally start to change, through attrition of cast, changes behind the scenes, new trends and themes in drama, or the ever-necessary desire to keep things fresh. If a series makes it past the seven-year itch, it either has to change considerably, or becomes nothing more than a veiled series of repeats.
The X-Files had already begun to struggle a little by the time it reached its seventh season; still reliably popular, and still offering some excellent material, but never reaching the critical or ratings highs it once had. The seventh season was a make-or-break year. Cast and crew were seriously talking about this being the final season, and the plotting reflected this, bringing long-running storylines to a close. Although an eighth (and eventually ninth) season was greenlit, a major change in the series' cast meant that these closures remained essential. Long-running character development began to reach fruition, with Mulder and Scully becoming visibly closer to each other. Scully, in fits and starts, finally became more accepting of the paranormal, while there was a fun running gag of Mulder making completely incorrect hypotheses to explain events.
Things were not easy behind the scenes, and a major clash developed between David Duchovny and the showrunner Chris Carter. 20th Century Fox and the producers of the show had reluctantly agreed to move production to California at Duchovny's request for the previous season, a move that was supported by some and resisted by others, so things were already strained. Following this, Duchovny became aware that Fox had undersold the rights to the series to its own affiliates, which had, in his view, cost him large amounts of money that were contractually owed to him. He sued the studio, eventually being awarded a settlement of several million dollars, and the lawsuit put a lot of people against him. While details have never been made officially available, anonymous sources connected to the series admitted that it became clear that Carter knew a lot more than he'd admitted about the missing profits, and the friendship between the star and the showrunner was damaged.
As the seven-year run is the standard, neither actor nor writer were contracted to remain beyond the seventh season. Fox negotiated with both to keep them onboard for the provisional eighth season; only Carter signed up. Duchovny, having made a name for himself with The X-Files, wanted to focus on his film career, writing and directing. He has since stated he was getting bored with Mulder's character, and the lawsuit and resulting animosity can't have helped. In the end, Duchovny agreed to continue appearing as a sporadic guest star, with Mulder being essentially written out of the series at the end of the seventh season. It was very much the end of The X-Files as originally conceived.
So, while behind the scenes there was plenty of drama, what about on the series itself? Season seven was, by most accounts, the weakest so far, although in terms of technical achievement, strength of writing, direction and performance, and the mix of ideas, there's not much to distinguish it from the first season. However, while there it was finding its feet and felt fresh and inventive, by now the weaker episodes felt like a let down and much of the series came across as derivative of earlier seasons. That's not to say there weren't some very good episodes; indeed, the season includes one of my favourite instalments of the entire run. However, by now the strong episodes were fewer and further between.
To recap: season six had wiped out the Syndicate, the shady organisation that had been dealing with alien beings intent on colonising the Earth, and had ended with the discovery of a huge, buried spacecraft off the coast of West Africa. Mulder's gone absolutely crazy, his brain stimulated beyond his ability to cope, while Scully is at the frontline studying the artefact. The two-part season opener, “The Sixth Extinction,” continues this story, considering the possibility that alien intelligences were responsible for steering the evolution of life on Earth, wiping out life in the mass extinctions of the ancient past. The concepts themselves are fascinating, with the scripts bravely suggesting that aliens were the source of religious scripture across the globe, with extracts from the Bible, Quran and more, plus plans of the human genome, inscribed on the alien wreckage.
Unlike some earlier additions to the so-called mythology of the series, this actually seems worthy of the name, and adds a level of importance and gravitas that was missing from recent myth-arc episodes. There's a real sense of the unknowable truth just out of reach. Scully's beliefs are finally well and truly shaken, with her visibly disconcerted by her experiences in the story, although she still, infuriatingly, has to argue against some of the things she has herself witnessed. (Even Gillian Anderson was voicing her displeasure at Scully's sometimes bull-headed scepticism by this point.) Mulder's exposure to alien biology over the course of the series' has seemingly made him receptive to all manner of changes, and his storyline, with Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) and the shadowy Kritschgau (John Finn) struggling to learn what is happening to him as his brain begins to reach another state of being. It culminates in an extended dream sequence, featuring multiple faces from the series' past, notably William B. Davis as the Smoking Man, imparting truths to the comatose Mulder. How much of this is true, how much is allegorical, and how much just shouldn't be taken seriously isn't clear, but it's part of a great deal of effective imagery in the episode.
On the other hand, there are various elements that defy belief completely. The Smoking Man's revelation that he's Mulder's actual father is too trite and cliched and therefore hard to swallow, while Mulder's positioning in the narrative as humanity's ultimate saviour is a bit much. Unfortunately by now the eccentric but essentially relatable character has become so entwined with the series' central mythology that he's elevated superhero status, and each revelation of the mythos pushes him ever further into the spotlight. Still, the series retains its ever-useful get-out clause of never admitting what's truth and what's lies. As ever, things get back to normal far to quickly after the earth-shattering events of the story, and it never shakes off the earlier mythology it was purported to replace, but it works solidly in itself.
After the big opening event, we're back onto the monster-of-the-week episodes, beginning with a highlight of the season. 7.3, “Hungry,” is a delightful little story from Vince Gilligan and Kim Manners as writer and director, respectively. A very straightforward monster story that harks back classics like season one's “Squeeze” and season four's “Leonard Betts,” it raises the carnivorous human mutant idea to a new level but presenting it entirely from his point-of-view. Filmed early in the season's production while Anderson and Duchovny were busy with film projects, Mulder and Scully are largely sidelined and are seen as a threat for the main character, Rob Roberts. Played by Chad Donella (Blindspot), Roberts is a mutant with an insatiable appetite for human flesh – particularly brains. It's a hoary old idea, but by presenting it from his perspective, with the anguish that goes with it as he fights his cravings, it becomes something more. Donella's incredibly affecting and sympathetic performance makes Roberts a more rounded and believable character than even Gilligan's solid writing could have managed. Some critics dislike the lack of mystery in the episode, but that simply isn't the point of the story. Surprisingly moving, “Hungry” is an undersung gem.
Other episodes are memorable and effective by reaching for new and more absurd concepts on which to hang their stories. 7.6, “The Goldberg Variation,” is a sweet and charming episode guest starring Willie Garson as Henry Weems, the luckiest man on Earth. Garson, a familiar face from genre series including Star Trek: Voyager and Stargate: SG-1and non-genre hits such as Hawaii Five-O and Sex and the City, is perfect as the genial, unassuming Weems, who tries to live his life without using his supernatural good fortune because of the inverse bad luck that affects those around him. Cleverly entwining coincidence, elaborate sequences of events and an entirely unexplained paranormal phenomenon, Jeffrey Bell's script is one of The X-Files' occasional feel-good classics. Similar in feel is 7.8, “The Amazing Maleeni,” a story of illusion and sleight-of-hand, harking back to the earliest conception of the series, which included the debunking of fakery alongside genuine paranormal events. Featuring the late stage magician Ricky Jay (also seen plying his trade in productions such as Mystery Men and The Prestige), it's a fun episode that works all the better for its use of physical effects over CGI.
The bulk of the seventh season is made up of monster-of-the-week stories; however, halfway through the run sits a significant story in the ongoing mythology. Episodes 7.10 and 7.11, “Sein und Zeit” and “Closure,” finally wrap up the mystery of Samantha Mulder's disappearance. That's not to say it was resolved as such; by this stage, like much of the mythology it had become so convoluted as to be unmanageable. What the story does, however, is give Mulder closure and allows this plotline a much-needed stepping-off point. In the first part, Mulder insists of investigating the case of a missing girl in California, which Skinner insists is not an X-File but a mundane missing persons case. Mulder is unconvinced, seeing parallels with his sister's abduction. In the strange case of Amber Lynn, a note has been found in her bedroom, but we as the viewers have already seen her mother write it herself. Bizarrely, the note makes a reference to Santa Claus, and just before the girl's disappearance, her father had a vision of her dead in her bed.
Mulder connects the case a similar one from years earlier, for which a woman was sentenced to life after being found guilty for the death and disappearance of her own son. As if this wasn't all too close to home for Mulder, his mother kills herself. So it's a pretty rough episode for him all round. Mulder is convinced his mother was murdered to cover up what happened to his sister, and begins to doubt his belief that she was abducted by aliens. Mulder visits the woman in prison for killing her son, and she tells him that Samantha is a “walk-in,” a spirit who takes children away to protect them from harm in the future. However, he and Scully discover seemingly by chance a local ranch with a Santa's grotto, and find dozens of graves there: children buried over the last thirty years by the owner of the park.
In a standalone episode, that would be the end of it, but this merely acts as a stepping stone to the second part. Mulder's emotional wellbeing suffers and he begins to think that Samantha might still be alive when Amber Lynn is not discovered among the dead children. Believing that she and Samantha were rescued and recruited by the “walk-ins,” he is approached by a psychic named Walter Piller (Anthony Heald – The Silence of the Lambs, Boston Legal) who has allegedly helped the police solve cases and is looking for his own missing son. Scully fears this man is preying on Mulder's vulnerability, but the two agents separately find evidence that Samantha genuinely lived with the Smoking Man for a time, undergoing painful tests, before vanishing inexplicably like Amber Lynn. This leads to a final scene that finally resolves Mulder's search, albeit not in the way expected, and while the scene verges on the saccharine it manages to stay on the right side thanks to an excellent performance by Duchovny. Unlike the earlier episode “Paper Hearts” (4.10), “Closure” works because it doesn't dismiss the significant evidence that Samantha was kidnapped as part of an alien/government experiment, but rather adds to it, providing new events that continue her story. While it doesn't tie up all the various loose ends, it provides an emotionally satisfying conclusion, which after all this time was the best that could be hoped for. It's an odd direction, ending a seven-year sci-fi mystery with a New Age-y ghost story, but ultimately it works.
The seventh season includes a couple of unusual crossover episodes. While this wasn't the first time that The X-Files played around with the idea of crossing over with another series, it hadn't been fully realised until now. 7.12, “X-Cops,” is an enjoyably silly crossover with the reality show Cops (1989-2020). The spectacularly successful series, not even halfway through its remarkable 32-season run at this point, might seem like an odd match for The X-Files, but this only makes it more effective. Mulder and Scully, on the trail of some kind of bogeyman that manifests its victims' fears, become embroiled in the filming of an episode of Cops, with several crewmen of the programme working on the episode to make it as authentic as possible. Featuring an array of colourful but utterly unreliable witnesses, “X-Cops” shows Mulder not only fail to find the monster he is searching for, but fail on national television. The only thing we can really believe in the episode is the camera itself, which for once seems to be showing the truth, rather than a dramatisation. Notably, the camera never once picks up the monster.
Earlier in the season, episode 7.4, “Millennium,” crosses over with the series of the same name, which had run from 1996 to '99, before being cancelled by Fox. Created by Chris Carter, it wasn't officially a spin-off of The X-Files until this episode unequivocally confirmed that they occur in the same world. The series Millennium, starring Lance Henrikson (Aliens, The Terminator) as Frank Black, a former FBI agent who can see into the minds of criminals, had begun mostly concerned with serial killers before becoming more wound up in government conspiracies and a mysterious secret society. So, nothing at all like The X-Files then. Cancelled before it could reach a conclusion, the crossover episode allowed the series a de facto finale. By splitting the story between Mulder, Scully and Black, the episode didn't really give any of them the focus they deserved.
“Millennium” ended up derailed by its inclusion of zombies, a horror staple that the showrunners had been trying to get into the series for some time. Originally, Stephen King (having already written the fifth season episode “Chinga”) had intended to adapt George Romero's classic horror film Night of the Living Dead into an episode of the series, with Romero slated to direct. This came to nothing, and the desire to use zombies in the show bounced around until finally finding a home in this episode, stitched together, Frankenstein-like, out of various ideas. It's perhaps most notable for showing the first time Mulder an Scully actually kiss, after all these years of tension. A New Year's celebratory smooch, it's up to the viewer to decide how much it means, and in any case, it was bound to happen eventually.
Actually returning from the fifth season were cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Tom Maddox, providing a loose follow-up to their bafflingly popular episode “Kill Switch.” At least, when it comes to “First Person Shooter,” pretty much everyone agrees it's terrible. Featuring the Lone Gunmen as guest characters and dealing with a hyper-sexualised videogame character who has inexplicably come to life and begun to kill players, episode 7.13 is offensively bad. Krista Allen (Baywatch Hawaii, Days of Our Lives) does her best as Matreiya (and the inspiration for her avatar, the stripper Jade Blue Afterglow) but she doesn't stand a chance. The episode is nothing but mindless machismo which, infuriatingly, the writers seem to think is an intelligent discussion of gender roles. It also cost a fortune due to heavy visual and special effects, most of which looked terribly dated by the time it was broadcast. At least Gillian Anderson seemed to like it because she got to stomp around firing big guns.
The season also includes some solid, if unmemorable, episodes that wouldn't be out of place in early seasons. 7.5, “Rush,” involves a trio of high school students who receive the ability to accelerate beyond human perception. It's a meat-and-potatoes sort of episode that does nothing particularly notable but nothing really wrong either. At least it makes you realise The Flash should have shaken his body to death after a few episodes, though. Rodney Scott (Dawson's Creek, Young Americans) is pretty good as the main protagonist, while Scott Cooper does a fair job with the thin role of the absurdly-named Max Harden. At the other end of the season, 7.18, “Brand X,” feels especially retro, seeing the agents investigate gruesome deaths connected to a dodgy tobacco company. There are some particularly nasty scenes of the victims of killer tobacco beetles, much of which required swarms of real insects to film. It also features a strong performance by Tobin Bell (aka Joseph Tobin, these days best known for his role as Jigsaw in the Saw horror franchise) as the semi-villainous Daryl Weaver. A pretty clear attack on the tobacco corporation, “Brand X” would have been a stand-out episode in the first couple of seasons, but by now seems a little run-of-the-mill, especially as we've seen killer insects in the series a few times before.
7.14, “Theef” (sic) is a grim and effective story of witchcraft (or “hexcraft,” as it's called in the episode), starring the late Billy Drago (Pale Rider, The Untouchables, Charmed) as the so-called “Hoodoo Man.” A simple but creepy tale of loss and of science versus magic, featuring James Morrison (24, CSI: Special Victims Unit) as the Hoodoo Man's victim and rationalist opposite Dr. Wieder, it overcomes its old-fashioned style with some great performances and very gruesome set pieces. Witchcraft is also the order of the day two episodes later in “Chimera,” this time as a way to illustrate the dark underbelly of suburban life. It's less effective than the previous exploration of this theme, season six's “Arcadia,” and for most of its runtime is pretty dull. Mulder and Scully are kept separate for most of the episode due to Duchovny and Anderson being busy directing their own episodes, and their limited involvement weaken an already mediocre story. Michelle Joyner gives a strong performance as the cursed Ellen Adderly, both victim and monster of the episode, but the story just doesn't maintain interest.
The episodes written and directed by the series' stars both form part of the season-long exploration of faith, and particularly Christian belief and mythology. Duchovny's “Hollywood A.D.” (7.19) is a great comedy episode, seeing a friend of Skinner's, writer-actor-director Wayne Federman (played by writer-actor-director Wayne Federman) making a movie of Mulder and Scully's search for the miraculous Lazarus Bowl. The episode is a hoot, with a witty script and plenty of in-jokes, and while the central mystery takes a back seat to the comedy, it really works. The guest cast are all great, with the late, great Garry Shandling (The Larry Sanders Show and It's Garry Shadling's Show) playing Mulder in the movie, while Scully is played by Téa Leoni (The Naked Truth, Bad Boys, Madam Secretary), who was, at the time, Duchovny's wife, and therefore the reason the entire series relocated to Hollywood in the first place. Leoni actually gives a very convincing performance as Anderson-playing-Scully. The prolific Harris Yulin (Ghostbusters II, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and some non-genre stuff too) has a guest role as a dodgy cardinal. The episode does a better job with bringing zombies into the series than the deadly serious “Millennium” episode and ends with an indulgent but unforgettable visual sequence.
Aside from his ongoing mission to get as many of his romantic partners on the series as possible, Duchovny's episode isn't all that self-indulgent. The same can't be said of Anderson's episode, 7.17, “all things” (sic). Although originally scripted by Anderson, “all things” required a lot of work by Carter to make it workable, and it still ended up as a rather pretentious and leaden affair. In the episode, Scully is led by a series of coincidences to the bedside of Dr. Daniel Waterson (Nicolas Surovy), a married man she had an affair with when she was in medical and who is now dying of cancer. Scully wrestles with whether she should become involved in his life again and the apparent incurability of his condition, leading her to give up both her Christian beliefs and scientific commitment and go looking into alternative spiritual medicine. It's infuriating that, after seven years of scepticism which was only now beginning to thaw, Scully suddenly falls for a mish-mash of Buddhism and new wave spiritualism. Anderson's direction is fine, if a bit try-hard, and there are some interesting visual and musical pieces, albeit too much reliance on Moby's “The Sky is Broken,” which is played heavily throughout. Anderson's acting is as good as ever, but nothing else about the episode really holds together.
Similarly indulgent is 7.15, “En Ami,” written by Smoking Man actor William B. Davis, but directed by Rob Bowman. Written to explore the Smoking Man's motives and drives, and clearly so Davis could give himself as much screen time and monologuing as possible, it was also an attempt to change the dynamic by keeping Mulder to one side and pair up the Smoking Man with Scully. In this last approach it's laudable, and this does give the episode a different feel to the other Smoky-heavy episodes. There's a strong central conceit: of there being a cure to all known disease that is in the hands of nefarious parties, and that the Smoking Man could tempt Scully into working with him and betraying her principles with the offer of this knowledge. Allegedly dying himself, the Smoking Man's motives remain uncertain seeing that we can never fully trust anything he says. Davis, who worked on the script with executive producer Frank Spotnitz, gives a characteristically magnetic performance and is clearly having a ball in his own episode. It's not a bad instalment by any means, but the beginning of the episode, which sees a fundamentalist Christian family refuse their son treatment for a terminal disease, only to see it cured by alleged angels, promises something far more interesting than the spy-fi run-around we actually get.
Dealing more directly with hard-line Christian groups is 7.9, “Signs and Wonders,” a Jeffrey Bell script that features a snake-handling isolationist church. Randy Oglesby (a frequent face in sci-fi TV, particularly known for multiple roles on the Star Trek franchise) appears as Reverend Mackey of the parish of Blessing, Tennessee, who assists Mulder in the investigation of Reverend Enoch of the fundamentalist congregation. Having already kicked his daughter out of the congregation and his home when she got pregnant, Enoch is now prime suspect in a series of murders involving rattlesnakes. Intense performances by Michael Childers as Enoch and Tracy Middendorf (Boardwalk Empire, the Scream series) as his daughter Gracie make for a powerful episode, with some deeply unsettling sequences involving live snakes. It's the cleverness of the script, however, that makes it stand out, with the true nature of the evil at work obscured till the end. An interesting exploration of intolerance and extremist belief, it works all the better by having Mulder firmly in the wrong for much of the story.
Less effective in its twisted look at faith is 7.7, “Orison,” a sequel to season two's acclaimed “Irresistible.” In this, the fetishistic murderer Donnie Pfaster, again played by Nick Chinlund, is broken out of prison by an obsessive chaplain, the eponymous Reverend Orison. A dignified performance by the late Scott Wilson (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The OA, The Walking Dead) makes Orison a more memorable character than the writing might deserve. Believing he is doing the work of God by killing irredeemable prisoners, Orison has hypnotic powers that would be enough to fuel an X-file alone. Chinlund is as disturbing as before as Pfaster, but the character is harmed by the sequel which insists on pushing the idea that he's a supernatural, even demonic threat. Previously, the fact that he was nothing more than a violently disturbed human being made the story and the character far more frightening. Meanwhile, Scully is helped on his trail by a repeated song and strange signs that indicate that a divine force may be guiding her. The episode ends with a controversial scene in which Scully takes the law into her own hands dealing with Pfaster. Some viewers felt this was a betrayal of her character, while I agree with those who saw it as showing how close the killer had come to breaking her. Whichever way you take the ending, it's hard to argue that the episode is a bit of a mess, in spite of some strong elements.
Before the traditionally mythos-heavy finale there are two fun, odd little episodes to keep things light. 7.20, “Fight Club,” hinges on an inventive idea by Carter of two separated twins who create chaos when they come into close proximity. Unused for some time, this idea finally found its form in this episode, in which the brilliant comedian Kathy Griffin (Suddenly Susan, Make-America-Great-a-Thon) plays both Lulu and Betty, physically identical women who have been living near identical lives, trailing each other around the country. Now settling in Kansas City, they both refuse to leave, and have both fallen in love with the unlikely figure of Bert “The Titanic” Zupanic, a wrestler played by boxer, fighter and actor Randall “Tex” Cobb (Uncommon Valor, The Champ).
Unfortunately, whenever they get anywhere near each other, Betty and Lulu unleash a wave of destruction and violence that affects everyone nearby. The eventual explanation that they are indeed long-lost sisters is a little more disappointing than Scully's theory that there are only so many shapes people can take and that they must be kept apart, but it resolves in a sweetly silly way. Griffin naturally displays great comedy skill, but fails to distinguish her two characters, and the regulars don't seem to be taking it very seriously. The fight scenes are decent, though. A daft feel-good episode, it's throwaway but fun. This is followed by the equally lightweight “Je Souhaite” (French for “I Wish”), a comical episode about a genie. A cliched “Be careful what you wish for” story, it has a certain charm, largely thanks to the sardonic performance of Paula Sorge as the genie. Vince Gilligan takes his first turn at directing an episode as well as writing it, and he acquits himself well, with some visually striking scenes.
The season ends with a solid mythology episode, “Requiem,” which makes major changes to the series, while at the same time, sliding backwards into the conspiracy arc that had supposedly been left behind. Taking Mulder and Scully back to the site of the very first episode, checking up on the now adult abductees, notably Billy Miles, as before played by Zachary Ansley. “Requiem” had the potential to be the final episode of the series even as writing began on it, and the echoes of this remain in the finished episode. As well as going back to the series' beginnings, it brings everyone into the fray: Skinner, Krycek, Covarrubius, the Lone Gunmen, the alien bounty hunter, and of course the Smoking Man, now visibly ailing and at death's door. Working with the entirely untrustworthy Krycek he intends to revive his “project,” against the machinations of the alien colonists.
While it's all too familiar, “Requiem” rises above many of the mythos episodes due to a rapid pace, plenty of new developments, and some excellent acting on behalf of the regulars and regular guests. Duchovny, Anderson and Pileggi especially show how close their characters have become over the course of the last seven years, with Mulder and Scully's relationship in particular now visibly far closer. The episode ends with a series of cliffhangers, starting with Mulder's abduction by a huge alien spacecraft. While it's just a way to write Duchovny out as a regular cast member, it's appropriate that as he finally starts to move beyond the search for the truth about alien life he gets picked up by it. Even bigger shock reveals follow, opening the way for a new set-up for the eighth season.
Season seven has its ups and downs, its tone uneven throughout. Fan and critical opinions vary a lot in regard to this run; some people found “Hungry” dull and “X-Cops” facile, and episodes such as “Chimera” and “all things” have their loyal fans. Pretty much everyone hates “First Person Shooter” though. In spite of very strong instalments, the overall impression is of a series running out of steam. It was a series in need of a new direction – and big changes were round the corner...
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 September 21st, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.