The eighth season of The X-Files brought the series into the twenty-first century with the proverbial kick up the backside that it needed. After seven years of paranormal investigations for Mulder and Scully, the departure of David Duchovny as a regular cast member forced the showrunners to make big changes to the series, which gave the waning show a late-in-the-day caffeine boost.
The seventh season finale almost ended the programme, but instead, showrunner Chris Carter ended the season with a trio of twists (and look away now if you don't want to know the final score). Mulder was abducted by aliens; the Cigarette Smoking Man was attacked and left for dead by Krycek; and Scully discovered she was pregnant. That's quite a set of dangling plot threads to deal with in the new season and pushed the series onto something of a new trajectory. On the other hand, multiple plot points and characters from previous years were reintroduced, continuing the ongoing mythology even further. Scully's unexplained pregnancy in particular is reminiscent of a similar plotline in the second season and fifth seasons, but played very differently, and the nature of her first pregnancy had seemingly left her infertile.
The biggest difference, of course, is the reduced role for Mulder and his replacement as Scully's partner by Agent John Doggett. Played by Robert Patrick, then best known as the villainous T-1000 Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Doggett is a stark contrast to Mulder. Initially brought in to investigate Mulder's disappearance, when he fails to solve the case he is reassigned to the X-Files with Scully. Doggett is a hard-nosed, stern-faced policeman, an ex-marine with a more aggressive, no-nonsense attitude than either Mulder or Scully ever displayed. In a reversal of the original set-up, Doggett is the sceptic and Scully the believer, although the relationship isn't a straight reversal. Both Scully and Skinner, now that they've witnessed Mulder being taken away by a flying saucer, have finally made their transition to believers, but neither is as credulous as Mulder was. Doggett, although sceptical, is not so stubborn or close-minded to refuse to believe the evidence of his own eyes, so is never quite as blinkered as Scully was in the early years.
Unlike the increasingly close relationship that she had with Mulder, Scully's first interaction with Doggett is completely antagonistic, but their professionalism gets them past this when they are partnered together and they begin to form a strong team, albeit with a distinctly different dynamic to the classic pairing of Mulder and Scully. Patrick lends a harder, more intimidating style to the series, but that's not all there is to his performance. Doggett can be manipulative, compassionate and vulnerable, with Patrick giving the character a realistic depth and charisma in just his first few scenes. His skill in the role is a big part of why this revamped X-Files works.
Duchovny himself appears in twelve of the season's twenty-one episodes, but his absence hangs heavy over the season. Even the opening titles – changed for the first time since the pilot episode – incorporate Mulder falling through darkness and into Scully's pupil. It hammers home how his disappearance is now a fundamental part of the mythology (as well as somehow making the titles even more ridiculous than before). During the standalone episodes, though, it makes it harder to accept Doggett as the new male lead, constantly reminding the viewer of the former star of the series. Indeed, there's a big divide between the critical view of the season, which was largely positive, and popular opinion. Fans and casual viewers alike missed Mulder, which affected the season's reception.
The opening story, played across the episodes “Within” and “Without,” focuses heavily on Mulder's abduction, its impact on Scully and Skinner, the introduction of Doggett to the series and ongoing elements from the show's mythos. Not trusting Deputy Director Kersh (James Pickens, Jr.) and his investigation into Mulder's disappearance, Scully and Skinner head to Arizona to track down telepathic teen Gibson Praise (Jeff Gulka, introduced back in 5.20, “The End”), whom they believe may be linked to Mulder's abduction. Yet there's evidence that Mulder is still around and active, leading to a manhunt led by Doggett. It's a strong, taut season opener, with the stakes raised by the opposing investigations of Scully and Doggett, getting the new team off to a very tumultuous start. The action repeatedly jumps to scenes of Mulder in the belly of the alien ship, subjected to vivisection while strapped to a cruciform table. Along with bolts through his wrists and a headpiece that's a virtual crown of thorns, the Christ imagery is inescapable. It all sets up themes of life, death and resurrection that continue throughout the season.
Much of the success of the episodes goes not only to the performances of Gillian Anderson and Robert Patrick, but also an exceptional turn by Mitch Pileggi, who injects real pathos and grief into Skinner's stoic demeanour. Even Kersh is a more interesting character this time round, with more to his character than just obstructiveness. Combined with some terrifying imagery, the performances make this a strikingly effective two-parter, and while many of the elements are ones carried over from much earlier in the series, the change to the character dynamic makes it seem fresher and more exciting than it might otherwise have done.
Following the opening doubler, the season continues with a long run of monster-of-the-week episodes. First is 8.3, the soberly named “Patience.” This episode, a deliberately back-to-basics story both written and directed by Carter, sees new partners Scully and Doggett investigate the unexplained murders of several distantly linked people in the middle-of-nowhere, Idaho. The culprit is a vicious monster, half-man, half-bat, explicitly inspired by the Man-Bat villain from Batman's Rogues Gallery. The first episode not to feature Duchovny, it's a run-of-the-mill story that stands out purely due to the new dynamic. Having Doggett come up against his first honest-to-goodness monster, with Scully as the one trying to explain the absurd truth, is all that raises this episode above a generic run-around. It's Anderson and Patrick's strong performances and chemistry that makes this episode work; entertaining though it is, it would have been perfectly forgettable as a Mulder-and-Scully episode.
8.4, “Roadrunners,” is a deeply peculiar and very creepy episode, which sees Scully unwisely go off on her own to investigate the disappearance of a hitchhiker in some backwater town in Utah. It's one of those episodes where the decision to move to California for filming is actually a benefit, allowing filming in the desert-like expanses of the state that, in an episode like this, adds to the atmosphere of isolation and helplessness. Scully finds herself at the mercy of the latest in the series' long line of pseudo-Christian cults, and while their fanatical adherence to their beliefs is frightening enough, the real threat is something utterly inhuman. If you can forgive her foolishness in going off alone in the first place, this is a great episode for Scully. Even as she is held captive and is clearly terrified, her actions are smart and inventive and you can believe she'll find a way out. Anderson's acting is exceptional. However, it's Doggett to the rescue, the episode serving to show that Scully can and should trust her new partner and that he'll come through. On the negative side, the cult's beliefs are easily the most bizarre we've seen in the series, and the object of their worship left completely unexplained. Sometimes that works to highlight the mystery, but in this case it's just frustrating.
This is followed by “Invocation,” a pretty by-the-numbers creepy child episode that reveals new information about Doggett. When little Billy Underwood reappears ten years after going missing at a fair, completely unchanged and having not aged, the agents are called in to investigate. We learn that the reason Doggett was brought in on Mulder's case is that he has a background in missing persons cases, specialising in child abduction, which goes back to his own son's abduction. Young Billy is so obviously a monster of some kind that you have to wonder how even his mother is pleased to see him back, with twins Kyle and Ryan Pepi giving unsettling performances as the silent child. In the end, it turns out that Doggett's sceptical instincts are right, and that there's nothing supernatural about the boy's abduction ten years earlier; it's only his appearance that defies explanation. Mostly, the episode serves to add new layers to Doggett. His motivation of a lost son is similar to Mulder's mission to find his missing sister; they're both motivated by loss, but where Mulder was trying to find Samantha, Doggett has to live with the knowledge his son is gone.
8.6, “Redrum,” is an outlier in the season. It feels more like an episode of the revived run of The Outer Limits than a typical X-Files episode. It focuses on the character of Martin Wells, a renowned prosecuting attorney who wakes up in prison with no memory of how he got there. He learns he is being held on suspicion of murdering his wife, and is being moved to a high-security prison for his own safety due to the number of cons he's put in his current prison. As he's being transferred, he is shot by his father-in-law – and then wakes up in his cell again, the morning before.
It's a cracking opening, and what follows is an entertaining but predictable episode as Wells continues to jump back in time, getting ever closer to his wife's murder and a chance to prevent it. His link to the X-Files is a friendship with Doggett from years before, but otherwise he and Scully wouldn't have become involved. Joe Morton, known for Brother From Another Planet, Speed and Justice League (and who appeared in Terminator 2 with Patrick) gives a decent turn as Wells, but the decision to sideline the agents this early into the new dynamic is an odd one. It's a pretty good episode, just not necessarily a good episode of The X-Files.
The standalone episodes reach their season high with 8.7, “Via Negativa.” A Doggett-heavy episode, with minimal involvement from Scully due to Anderson's schedule, the story introduces another cult, this time one that believes in embracing darkness as a pathway to God. All the cult members and the agents investigating them are found dead in impossible circumstances, save the cult's leader, Anthony Tipet (Keith Szarabajka – The Equalizer, Angel, and many voice roles). It becomes clear that Tipet has succeeded in expanding his consciousness and reaching a new level of reality, allowing him to enter people's dreams, killing them by making their nightmares manifest. While the script, by Frank Spotnitz, is linear and quite predictable, where the episode stands out is in Tony Warmby's disorienting direction and the terrifying imagery used. Facing Tipet in his dreams, Doggett is put through the ringer, giving Patrick a chance to really showcase his acting. In Scully's absence, Pileggi gets a meatier role as Skinner, and the episode also involves the Lone Gunmen, who work better with the dismissive and more narrow-minded Doggett than they ever did with Mulder. A powerfully atmospheric episode, one of the most unsettling in years.
Similarly impossible murders are the set-up for 8.8, “Surekill,” featuring two criminal twins, one who is near-blind, the other who has inhumanly powerful eyesight. It's another straightforward script, nothing especially memorable, but it does boast some strong performances by the guest cast. Michael Bowen (Valley Girl, Lost), who happened to be a “biker buddy” of Robert Patrick, was popular on set and gives a tight performance as Dwight. Patrick Kilpatrick, a prolific actor from many genre series including Chuck, Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Voyager, gives a subtle performance as his brother Randall. Their mutual love interest Tammy is played by Kelle Waymire (Six Feet Under, Enterprise), who is excellent in the role (Waymire sadly died less than two years later from a heart condition, aged only 36). Also making a small appearance is James Franco, around the same time he shot to stardom with James Dean.
8.9, “Salvage,” is the first episode of the season that doesn't really work at all. Heavily influenced by the bizarre Japanese film Tetsuo: The Iron Man, it guest stars Wade Williams, another prolific actor best known for Prison Break and The Bernie Mac Show. Williams plays a man who has been infected with an experimental smart metal and is slowly transforming into a metal creature. Williams, given are largely wordless and monotone role, does well as the vengeful Ray Pearce, but the character isn't interesting enough to hold up the episode. The similarity to the liquid metal T-1000 character wasn't lost on writer Jeffrey Bell, who included a brief line about these things “only happening in movies” for Doggett, long before the T-1000 himself was cast in the role. Although there are some fairly impressive effects, overall the episode is quite plodding and formulaic. Would it be too trite to say the script is a little mechanical?
If “Salvage” is a little forgettable, the next episode certainly sticks in the mind. That's not to say it's actually any good, though. Guest starring the legendary Deep Roy (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Never-Ending Story, Star Trek) as the one-off villain, “Badlaa” (Hindi for “revenge”) hinges on a deeply weird and disturbing concept. Deep Roy's character is a wronged Indian fakir, crippled and living as a beggar... who makes his way to the US by hiding inside and piloting an obese businessman. It's a revolting concept even by The X-Files' often gruesome standards, and leads on to a vengeance trip in which the fakir kills various people by making himself invisible, undetectable, or disguised as someone else. The villain's powers and motivation don't really add up, and the plot doesn't work well because of it. There's a stronger thread about Scully trying to measure up to her idealised image of Mulder, finding she can't quite open her mind as much as him but able to make a terrifying leap of faith at the end, but it's wasted on a weird, wonky episode.
8.11, “The Gift,” skirts on the ongoing mystery of the season by having Doggett continue his search for Mulder after finally getting a lead linking him to a homicide in a rural Pennsylvanian town. “Within” had revealed the shocking truth that Mulder, after being exposed to alien technology, was left with a brain tumour and is now revealed to have been taking unauthorised assignments to try to find a cure. It's a bit of a stretch that Mulder would keep his condition from Scully, but it does tie up the lingering plot thread from the “Biogenesis” and “The Sixth Extinction” that ran across the end of season six and the beginning of season seven, with Mulder seemingly recovering from having his brain scrambled with no long-term effects. It is revealed that Mulder had tracked down a soul-eater, a being from Native American folklore, reported to have the power to heal any sickness or injury.
In a grotesque twist, however, the soul-eater achieves this by literally eating its “patients” alive, before regurgitating them and reassembling them, having absorbed their sickness. It's another revolting bit of imagery, but this time in the service of a relatively strong episode. Discovering that the pitiful creature (Jordan Marder) has been exploited by the townspeople, Doggett becomes involved, only to be killed in an altercation and then resurrected by the creature. Peripherally involved in the mythos but tying heavily into the themes of death and resurrection that run through the season, it's a pretty strong episode, with a surprisingly effective team-up between Doggett and Skinner. Scully barely features, with Anderson being included only by brief archive footage to allow her to finally spend some time with her family, but Mulder is back, with some limited new footgage of Duchovny shot for flashbacks.
There's one final standalone episode before the mythology takes over. 8.12, “Medusa,” is pretty throwaway, concerning a deadly microorganism that has infested the Boston subway system. Visually it's a mixed bag. The huge sets recreate the T stations and tunnels, down to a, well, a T, although they changed it the “M” for some reason. The melted remains of the victims of the life form are similarly impressive, remarkably realistic, with the unsettling results created using everything from latex to figs and Fruit Roll-Ups. On the other hand, the visual effects used for the glowing infestation look terribly unbelievable. Featuring some nice guest roles for many recognisable actors, including Penny Johnson (The Orville, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Vito Ruginis (Angel, ER) and Ken Jenkins (Scrubs, Cougar Town), it's reasonable but a bit throwaway. After episodes featuring a bowel-passenger and a vomit-monster, though, it's quite a relief to have something as inoffensive as flesh-melting organisms.
From episode 8.13, though, the season-long plotline kicks into high gear with an almost unbroken run of mythology-centric episodes. “Per Manum” is a standout episode for Anderson, focusing heavily on Scully's fears around her pregnancy. It's the first episode to heavily feature Duchovny and give him some actual dialogue, with lengthy flashbacks that reveal that Scully, having found out she was left infertile after her abduction, tried artificial conception with Mulder as male donor. We're left to question whether this was successful and whether Mulder is the father of Scully's child, while she and the team deal with a conspiracy around several former abductees, all of whom have gone on to become pregnant in spite of being pronounced infertile before.
There are numerous scenes of women giving birth to alien babies, which skirt the line between unsettling and strangely cute, but the overall atmosphere is one of helplessness and horror, as the women, including Scully, are manipulated and silenced. I can't really put it any better than Meghan Deans in her review for Tor.com: "What The X-Files would have been, had Scully been the believer: a woman being told that she is hysterical, a woman being told that she imagined it all (and) a woman being told that the evidence of her own body is invalid.” It's an extra layer of paranoia and fear added to the already distressing combination of a government conspiracy and diabolical doctors. The episode also introduces Doggett's untrustworthy confidante, Knowle Rohrer, played by genre favourite Adam Baldwin (Full Metal Jacket, Firefly, Chuck). He fills the same sort of role as Deep Throat and X did earlier in the series, with the difference that he's an old friend of Doggett's from the Marines, rather than an entirely unknown quantity.
The series then continues with what's essentially a three-part story, running from episodes fourteen to sixteen, dealing with Mulder's sudden (but inevitable) return to Earth. It's another major shift in the dynamic of the series, upending the strong working relationship that Scully and Doggett have developed. Beginning with “This Is Not Happening,” continuing with “Deadalive” and “Three Words”, people abducted the same time as Mulder have begun to return, dumped naked in Montana, some dead, some barely alive, all in a brutalised condition. Investigating a link to a UFO cult run by a man named Absolom (Jud Thomas, recognisable from several Star Treks), Doggett calls in an old friend, Agent Monica Reyes, who worked with him on his son's abduction case. Reyes, played by Annabeth Gish (Halt and Catch Fire, The West Wing, Sons of Anarchy) is the final major player to be added this season, being set up to take over as the main female field agent in the ninth season. Reyes, who specialises in ritualistic crimes and cults, is refreshingly open-minded yet sensibly sceptical. She's not a believe-anything sort like Mulder, but nor is she as closed as Scully or Doggett began. She actually believes in aliens, it's just that she also knows there are lunatic fringe cults out there who dupe people. Doggett, although becoming more open-minded all the time, has a stubborn refusal to accept the idea of alien abduction.
It's fitting then that it's Reyes who, by chance, sees Mulder dumped back on Earth by a spaceship. His seemingly dead body is buried and a funeral held. Around the same time, Billy Miles (Zachary Ansley) is dredged up by a trawler in a rotten state, only to revive when he's on the autopsy table. There's a particularly arresting sequence where he washes off his decomposing flesh to reveal a healthy, regenerated form underneath. Skinner has Mulder dug up, and it's revealed he has faint vital signs. An awful lot happens in this run of episodes: Krycek (Nicholas Lea) returns to threaten Skinner with the nanites that have infected his body (in episode 6.9); Jeremiah Smith, the shapeshifting healer, is involved in the cult (he was introduced back in the finale of season three); and Billy Miles is resurrected with alien DNA, years after we first learned he was a multiple abductee (we're going back to the pilot episode there, seven-and-a-half years ago).
As well as being very busy, these episodes rely on the viewer either having a working knowledge of the series mythology and characters from years earlier, or to accept a lot of things with minimal explanation. However, the story succeeds due to its pace and excitement, the continual revelations, and the excellent performances by the main cast. Anderson, in particular, excels. Scully's devastation at Mulder's death and her quiet desperation when he is revived but comatose show how this is a woman in love, far better than any amount of passionate kissing scenes or melodramatic dialogue ever would have. While Duchovny, when he finally does wake up, free from the alien infection that transformed Miles, is robbed of the chance to really show what he's been through, he's excellent at showing how lost he is in this new set-up, kicked off the X-Files in favour of a new agent he doesn't care for. Patrick sells Doggett's commitment to the X-Files for fear they'll be shut down, while also showing how much he wants to get back on his career path. Only Gish struggles to make too much of an impact as yet, with Reyes mainly coming off as a likeable and intelligent agent but without a great deal of character otherwise.
8.17 works to rectify this. “Empedocles” takes a break from the alien abduction shenanigans but continues to develop the ongoing storyline around the core characters' relationships. Reyes contacts Mulder when she believes the case of a mild-mannered office worker going postal might be linked to satanic worship. She is reluctant to involve Doggett due to a possible link to his son's case, mainly down to a vision that she experiences that replays one that she and Doggett had when searching for him. The clash between the four main characters is at the heart of it, with Mulder and Doggett frankly hating each other at this point, Reyes and Scully (hospitalised due to pregnancy complications) vying for their attention and with all of them willing to believe in different things. What it doesn't do is give Doggett any real closure for his son's death, and introduces a pretty vague concept of a kind of possessing force of evil that's mainly an excuse for some unimpressive visual effects. As an X-File, it's a bit of a disappointment, but as a character drama it's solid.
It's followed by a strong episode that puts Mulder and Doggett together on a case (well, not officially, Mulder just sort of shows up to do some X-Filing). “Vienen” (“They're coming” in Spanish) is another episode that uses elements of the older alien mythology of the season, this time to strong effect. Doggett is assigned to investigate murders on an oil rig, where it turns out the alien Purity virus – aka the Black Oil – has taken over most of the workers. Having the oil-monster on an oil rig is a really obvious but effective idea. A perfectly isolated space for the agents to fight for their lives in, it's an old-fashioned episode that calls back to the old days, but like other episodes this season given a new spin by a different character dynamic. Having Mulder and Doggett, who completely clash in their styles and outlook, have to team up and rely on each other makes for a strong story, and we see them slowly gain each other's admiration and respect. It's the last gasp for the Black Oil storyline that was so important in earlier seasons and the film, with some creative uses of chocolate sauce and molasses to create the slippery monster.
Continually playing with the cast dynamic works wonders to keep this season's episodes feeling fresh. “Vienen” ends with Mulder finally kicked out of the FBI, setting up Duchovny's absence from the ninth season. This is followed up by “Alone,” one last monster-of-the-week episode that sees Doggett potentially running the X-Files himself. Scully is heading onto maternity leave (with some considerable reluctance) and Mulder is officially out (not that he actually stops involving himself). However, Doggett is paired with a one-off partner, the cute young Leyla Harrison. Played by Jolie Jenkins (Alexa & Katie, One Day at a Time), Harrison, who was named for a prominent X-Files fan who had died of cancer, is a devoted X-Phile herself. It's a fun take, having her constantly bang on about how Mulder and Scully would face the case and reference popular episodes. She has an entertaining interplay with Doggett, and while she's clearly set up as a one-off character, it's a shame we don't see a little more of her. Jenkins is absolutely spot-on in the role. The monster itself is pretty straightforward: after Man-Bat in 8.3, we have the Lizard from The Amazing Spider-Man. It's The X-Files at its most comicbook, but it's lifted by some excellent direction by Frank Spotnitz, although Duchovny kind of seem on autopilot.
Finally, the season ends with a storming two-parter which resolves much of the season's running storyline while setting up more for the next. “Essence” and “Existence” bring back pretty much every major mythology-related character who had a role to play this season, with Krycek, Knowle Rohrer and Kersh all involved in a complex web of changing allegiances. Vitally, though, it remains easy to follow, and is exceptionally well-paced and exciting throughout. As Scully reaches her due date, multiple parties come after her and her “miracle baby,” who is somehow a vital result of the mysterious experiments that the military and the Syndicate have been engaging in for years. Most deadly is Billy Miles, whose abduction and resurrection have left him a veritable Captain Scarlet, completely indestructible. According to one source, he's an alien replicant; from another, he's an experimental supersoldier. Alternatively, he's both... it's not terribly clear at this juncture, but it's obvious that these guys are the new big bads.
There's enough going on in this story to paper over the plotholes, and some strong performances throughout. Pileggi gets some of his finest material as Skinner, Duchovny seems energised, and Anderson maintains Scully's agency and intelligence even as she goes into labour. Patrick embraces Doggett finally embracing his role as the new face of the X-Files and Gish convinces as a formidable agent rather than just the terribly nice, rather credulous character she was introduced as. The messianic imagery of the baby's birth get a bit much, but altogether, this works. Finally, at the climax, we have some closure, with Mulder and Scully, at long last, getting together. Amusingly, the scripted very chaste kiss was thrown out by the actors, who insisted they just give the fans what they'd been waiting for all these years.
As with the previous year, this was initially written as a possible finale for the whole series. Duchovny had made it clear he would not be staying on, and Carter had no interest in continuing the series without him. Anderson was also tiring of her role and her contract was up. However, a ninth season was ordered, with Carter being persuaded to stay on the proviso that Anderson would too. Fox offered Anderson a substantial sum to stick around for one more season. Nonetheless, the finale set up the the show for a very different dynamic for its final run. “Existence” sets up the new X-Files team of Dogget and Reyes ready to take the series into its final season.
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 October 23rd, 2021. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.