The X-Files – season nine overview (2001-02)
The last series in The X-Files' original run, and what, for many years, looked like it would be the end altogether, the ninth season saw the programme move further away from its original set-up than ever before. Yet, where it could have reached out in a new direction, and tried something bolder, it was just more of the same.
As soon as the first episode airs, it looks different, with the second new title sequence in two years, this time more distinctively different from the original. David Duchovny left the series as a regular, returning only to write and direct the episode “William” and for an appearance in the final episode. The main cast now included Gillian Anderson as Agent Dana Scully, Robert Patrick as Agent John Doggett and Annabeth Gish as Agent Monica Reyes, with Mitch Pileggi listed in the title credits as well on episodes where A.D Walter Skinner appears.
This gave Chris Carter and his team of executive producers and co-writers the chance to revamp the series, considerably more than with the transitional eighth season. To an extent, this happened. Scully's role was altered considerably, with the character taking more of a backseat involvement in the majority of cases as she prioritised caring for her infant son, William. While she continued to work as an instructor and pathologist, she was no longer a formal part of the X-Files team, she was consulted by Doggett and Reyes most episodes or was drawn into the story another way. Often, it was her son, and the forces who looked to use or kill him, that provided the threat in the story, pulling Scully directly into the fray, but this made her a more reactive character than before.
This left Reyes and Doggett as the main hero team for the show. Their dynamic remained largely an inverse of the Mulder-Scully pairing, but not exactly: while Reyes is the new-age, open-minded believer, Doggett's scepticism isn't as wilfully blind as Scully's sometimes was. Reyes perhaps believes too easily, yet while Doggett struggles to accept or understand certain concepts, he doesn't disregard the evidence of his own senses and is able to make the occasional leap of faith. He also boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of former X-Files cases, leading him to approach things from an informed viewpoint. Doggett's background with both the police and the marines informs his character, and he's a far more aggressive force than Mulder generally was. Reyes also boasts some peculiar abilities herself, although they are pretty vaguely defined.
All this could have provided a whole new set-up for the series, if only the showrunners could have let Mulder go. Instead, his absence, allegedly on his own mission to investigate the alien threat, deforms the season's entire narrative. The ongoing conspiracy mythology continues in a tweaked form, but it's altogether too similar to what's gone before. For all the new elements, it's altogether too samey, and the continual references to Mulder just remind the audience that things have changed. Doggett and Reyes actually make an excellent team, with Patrick and Gish providing a new style to the programme when given room to make their mark. The best episodes are those standalone instalments which take on an overtly supernatural bent, suiting the combination of spiritualist Reyes and the pragmatic blunt object that is Doggett perfectly.
The mythology episodes, as per standard procedure, bookend the season and pop-up throughout. The season begins with the two-parter “Nothing Important Happened Today,” a story that serves to set up more of the supersoldiers storyline seeded in the previous season. The supersoldiers aren't, in any dramatic respect, any different to the shape-shifting bounty hunter that came before. They're seemingly indestructible, biomechanical and with sometimes unique abilities, but this is never enough to make them anything more than a rerun of the previous heavies who threatened the agents. However, this opening story does introduce Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess, Battlestar Galactica) as Shannon McMahon, a woman transformed into a siren-like supersoldier. Lawless brings a great charisma to the role when she's engaging the agents on dry land, and is beautiful yet deadly when she is beneath the water. A more complex character than most of the soldiers, she Shannon was created to be a major recurring character, but unfortunately Lawless was forced to stop acting for a time due to a risky pregnancy, and the character did not return. These episodes also introduce Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Saw) as Agent Brad Follmer, a smarmy slimeball who shares a history with Reyes. A recurring character whose motives are uncertain, he comes across more as an unpleasant nuisance than a threat. More interesting is Doggett's investigation into AD Kersh (James Pickens Jr.), who calmly hints that he may be on the side of the agents after all.
11.6, “Trust No 1,” continues with the supersoldier storyline and the growing threat to, and mystery behind, baby William. However, it's derailed by the decision to make it all about Mulder, and his off-screen investigations. Terry O'Quinn, best known for Lost and having previously appeared in 2.12, “Aubrey,” the X-Files feature film and its sister series Millennium, takes on yet another character for the franchise as the sinister “Shadow Man.” Manipulating Scully and seemingly knowing everything about her and her baby, his real goal appears to be capturing Mulder, who almost appears several times but remains elusively out-of-shot. With the regulars often behaving out-of-character, and the Shadow Man remaining fairly uninteresting in spite of O'Quinn's best interests, the main effect of the episode is to remind everyone that Mulder isn't there and that the series is losing its way without him.
The ninth and tenth episodes, “Provenance” and “Providence,” continue these storylines. There are threats to the absent Mulder's life, but mostly this story focuses on Scully and William. It also brings back significant elements from earlier seasons, including the wrecked alien starship from the sixth-to-seventh season story climax. Drawing back on that story's alien astronaut theories of humanity's origins, this continuation adds a new layer to the plot by uncovering a second spacecraft and a fragment of technology which reacts to William's presence. The heavy involvement of several supersoldiers, including the reliably intimidating Alan Dale (The Young Doctors, Neighbours and many, many genre appearances) as the “Toothpick Man” adds something, but altogether the various bits of hokum add up to little. Extra-terrestrial involvement in the Gulf War, miraculous healing technology and messianic prophecies concerning young William are piled on top of the existing conspiracy theories and callbacks to earlier episodes. It's all a bit much.
Rather better is 11.16, “William,” in which the eponymous boy's story is, if not resolved, then at least parked. Written and directed by Duchovny, who appears for the briefest of brief moments, “William” sees a mysterious and horrifically disfigured man turn up at the FBI trying to pry with evidence. Having been severely altered by experimentation, the so-called Mr. Miller's true identity is in question, but his knowledge of the FBI and Scully in particular convinces Reyes and Doggett that Miller is none other than Mulder. Look away if you don't want to know the score: he's not, but is in fact another major character returning out of the blue. Without wanting to give everything away, since the mystery of Miller's identity is the crux of the episode, it revolves around William and the ongoing threat to his life from various factions in the new conspiracy movement. Finally, Scully is convinced to give the boy up for adoption to hide his identity. There's some strong performances and direction throughout, but the ending is a bit hard to take. After all the threats to his safety, it seems perfunctory that Scully would suddenly give William up, as if she knew time was running out on the series.
The monster-of-the-week episodes are more consistently entertaining. “4-D,” episode 11.4, sees Reyes framed for the shooting of Doggett by woman-hating serial killer Erwin Lukesh (a disquieting performance by Dylan Haggerty). The impossible part is that Doggett was with Reyes in her apartment in completely different part of town to where he was found after the shooting. A pretty clever tale that uses the parallel universe concept to good effect, the real triumph of the episode is the powerful performances of Patrick and Gish. Doggett is left paralysed after the shooting, cared for by Reyes once her name is cleared, in intimate scenes inspired by the experiences of Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Writer Steven Maeda based Lukesh on Norman Bates of Psycho, but it's the quieter, subtler material with the two regulars that makes the episode. While it does push the dreaded reset switch at the end, it's a strong instalment.
The leads give excellent performances again in 9.11, “Audrey Pauley,” a supernatural thriller with more than a hint of Stephen King to its style and story. Reyes is involved in a car accident, leaving her in a coma and trapped between life and death. Reyes finds herself in a surrealistic reflection of the hospital, which floats in some kind of cosmic void, where her only company is the handful of poor souls in a similar position to her. Doggett, in a display of bloody-minded optimism that would make Mulder proud, refuses to believe Reyes is braindead and does everything he can to delay her removal from life support to be cut up as a donor card holder. An orderly, the eponymous Audrey Pauley, has some kind of psychic ability, and has built a model of the hospital in its basement, implied to be where the souls of those on the brink are being held. Tracey Ellis, who had been so impressive in episode 3.8, “Oubliette,” is affecting once again as Pauley, trying to help Doggett in the simple ways she can understand as she shifts between realms. Gish gives a subtle but powerful performance, while Patrick gives an astonishingly heartfelt one. Along with some fine visual effects, all the more impressive for how unshowy they are, the combination of an intriguing central conceit and two excellent performances from the leads make this episode a real triumph. A perfect example of what the series could and should have become with its new leads.
Other strong episodes which make good use of the new leads include 9.12, “Underneath” and 9.17, “Release.” Both draw on Doggett's background as in homicide, dealing in mundanely gruesome murders with a paranormal bent. “Underneath” sees W. Earl Brown (Deadwood, Pracher, I'm Dying Up Here) giving a quietly intense performance as Robert Fassl, the so-called Screwdriver Killer who Doggett put away thirteen years earlier. Released due to new DNA evidence that proves his innocence, the staunchly Catholic Fassl appears to be coming apart, while Dogget is committed to proving his guilt. Also featuring the prolific Arthur Nascarella (The Sopranos, Cop Land) as Doggett's former partner, it's a decent episode that posits the intriguing idea that a religious man could suppress his dark side so fervently that it could surface as another man. It's about time The X-Files did a Jekyll-and-Hyde story and it works well. The episode was best by production problems, though, and Fox almost nixed its production altogether.
“Release” is even more personal for Doggett, seeing him approached by a strange young FBI recruit who convinces him he has information on the murder of his son, linked to a series of murders he and Reyes are investigating now. Little known actor Jared Poe plays Rudolph Hayes, the FBI cadet who has an uncanny insight into murders and pathology. Poe's performance is unsettling and sincere, and his true nature is never clear. On the one hand, he could be a socially inept but brilliant genius, on the other, an obsessive murderer who enjoys playing games with law enforcement (clear shades of modern Sherlock Holmes reimaginings, prefiguring series like Sherlock). Alternatively, he could possess some supernatural insight. The ambiguity is one of the episode's strengths, as is its exploration of Doggett's character. The writers had shown admirable restraint in dealing with the death of his son, giving this episode more power now he confronted it again, and while it does commit the same sin of continually muddying the waters as previous ongoing mysteries, the episode itself works.
Episode 9.4, “Daemonicus,” similarly leaves the agents and viewers questioning whether supernatural forces have really been at work, or whether they've been manipulated by a brilliant but very human mind. Aside from some gruesome murders and a grotesquely over-the-top Exorcist moment, this story of the insane mastermind and possible demon Josef Kobold (James Remar – Black Lightning, Dexter) is frankly very dull and not as clever as it thinks it is. Still, Patrick puts in an excellent performance, perhaps because he was reportedly discomfited by the themes of the episode. He's very strong again in 9.7, “John Doe,” an episode that sees him locked up in a Mexican jail suffering from amnesia and fighting for his very identity. An intense episode with some fine cinematography – the outside scenes are overly saturated while inside the buildings is drained and colourless - “John Doe” has a strong sense of place that separates it from the episodes around it. While there is a paranormal explanation, the episode could have functioned perfectly well without it.
For a full-on supernatural episode there's 9.14, “Scary Monsters,” an episode that on paper looks like a creepy kids story except that it's so very nasty. Jolie Jenkins returns as Agent Leyla Harrison from the previous season's “Alone,” teaming up with Doggett and Reyes to investigate the case of a young boy who is seemingly being kept captive by his father, and whose mother has stabbed herself to death. In a predictable but effective twist, it's the kid himself who is the threat, manifesting fears and nightmares, including hideous insect creatures that could be laughable if they didn't start crawling inside people. Gavin Fink is suitably sinister as creepy little Tommy, and again, the Doggett-Reyes team works very well, with Doggett able to resist the illusions by stubbornly refusing to believe that they exist. The only thing that lets it down is having the three agents continually talk about how Mulder and Scully would solve the case. While it's quite clever to have the characters comment on the fans' gripes, it continues to make the series feel like its treading water waiting for the old cast to take over again.
Deeply unsettling is 9.8, “Hellbound,” a very gruesome story of murder and mutilation. Reyes gets some more exploration, going down a darker route than before, coming to believe that she, the murderer and his victims have been reincarnated again and again, and that she herself may have perpetrated heinous crimes in a former life. Featuring horrific scenes of men being skinned alive, the episode balances some strong writing and convincingly unpleasant visual effects.
Making a welcome return amongst all this nastiness are the light-hearted and comedic episodes, having been absent for the eighth season as the series reaffirmed its serious roots. 9.5, “Lord of the Flies,” is an odd mix of awkward teen romance, gruesome effects and humour. It doesn't quite hold together, and Patrick, by all accounts a very serious actor, reportedly struggled to get to grips with the sillier style of the episode. Guest starring Hank Harris (Popular, The Lyon's Den, Once Upon a Time) as a part-insect boy who can control a swarm of flies, it seems to be angling to recreate the unexpectedly sweet season six episodes like “Rain King” but doesn't quite manage it. Nice use of Pink Floyd songs though.
9.15, “Jump the Shark,” is little more than housekeeping. Between the eighth and ninth seasons of The X-Files, spin-off series The Lone Gunmen starred Bruce Harwood, Tom Braidwood and Dean Haglund as Byers, Frohike and Langley, giving the long-serving sidekicks their own show, alongside English actress Zuleikha Robinson (Lost, Homeland, Law & Order: SVU). Aside from astonishingly predicting the attack on the World Trade Centre six months prior to 9/11, the series is mostly remembered for crashing and burning, being cancelled after only thirteen episodes with its plot threads left dangling. Taking its name from the now well-known phrase that originated with a 1977 episode of Happy Days, in which the Fonz waterkskii'd over a shark and set a new low for desperate, late season attempts to bring back viewers, “Jump the Shark” brings some closure to the characters but fails to make much of an impression. Even bringing back Michael McKean as Man in Black Morris Fletcher fails to liven things up.
Rather better are “Improbable” and “Sunshine Days.” The former, episode 9.13, features a glorious guest appearance by screen legend Burt Reynolds playing a character who may, in fact, be God. Having met on the 1996 film Striptease, Reynolds mentioned to Patrick that he wanted to appear on The X-Files and Chris Carter made it happen. Ellen Greene (Little Shop of Horrors, Pushing Daisies) also guest stars, and in any other episode she'd be the big draw. The plot involves Reyes and Scully investigating a killer who takes his cues from the mystical pseudoscience of numerology, but it's all rather flimsy and is really only there to make way for Reynolds's mysterious, music-loving, gently manipulative stranger. “Sunshine Days”, the final episode before the grand finale, is a peculiar little tale written and directed by the stalwart Vince Gilligan in his last contribution to the series. A quirky love letter to The Brady Bunch and American television in general, it features Michael Emerson (The Practise, Lost, Person of Interest) as a man obsessed with the old TV series. Always good at portraying a slightly sinister oddball, Emerson's makes his character, possessed of remarkably powerful abilities, the sweet but unsettling centre of a surprisingly moving episode.
Everything comes to a head in the series finale, “The Truth,” released both as a two-part story and a single feature-length episode. After nine years, fans were justified in expecting some closure to the ever-more convoluted myth-arc of the series. This really isn't what they got. “The Truth,” sadly, is an unabashed mess. While its opening and closing acts feature some diverting, over-the-top action scenes, they stretch the budget and capabilities of the series to breaking point, while the bulk of the storyline involves a stagey court case that plays out as one long, interminable bout of exposition. Having been absent in front of the camera save for the briefest of cameos all season, Duchovny returns as Mulder, instantly deforming the entire show and making himself the centre of it again, as if he'd never been away. Having broken into a military compound and charged with the alleged murder of supersoldier Knowle Rohrer (Adam Baldwin), Mulder finds himself in military custody and then in a sham trial where Deputy Director Kersh is on the judging panel and AD Skinner is, for absurdity's sake, representing his defence.
What follows is a parade of long ago recurring characters brought back to act as witness, or, for those who were killed off, as visions/hallucinations/ghosts appearing to Mulder. Between the regulars and the guests, the cast has to sit there and recount the entire backstory of The X-Files, complete with handy clips to break up the monotony, as Skinner tries to use his belief in Mulder's mission to either justify Mulder's actions or prove he couldn't have killed the indestructible Rohrer (the aim seems to vary from scene to scene). When it's all laid out like that over the course of forty-minutes (about the length of a standard episode), it really does sound utterly ludicrous and it's hard to imagine even a genuinely impartial court would accept a word of it. What's worse though is that the grand finale of The X-Files ends up being little more than a jazzed-up clip show with the cast reading the series' Wikipedia entry.
The final act, in fairness, does step up the game, with Mulder and Scully on the run, Doggett and Reyes defending them against the unstoppable Rohrer (who doesn't need to pretend to be dead anymore) and Mulder finally revealing the final truth. On the one hand, Mulder coming face-to-face with the Smoking Man (William B. Davis in his first appearance on the show in two years), haggard, long-haired and smoking through a surgical incision in his throat, dispensing wisdom Fisher King-like, is an arresting final confrontation. On the other hand, Mulder has already gained information he imparts, having essentially found it on a computerised memo on his outing to the military base. The final alien invasion is scheduled for 22nd December 2012 (tying into the Mayan prophecy, one of the more irritating bits of pop folklore of the early twenty-first century).
The final scene is, surprisingly, rather fine, seeing Mulder and Scully sat in a shady motel room at night, reflecting the inauspicious outings of their earliest adventures almost a decade earlier, speaking honestly and frankly about their beliefs. With Mulder finally coming to open himself to a spiritual faith, and Scully firmly a believer in the alien and the impossible, the two agents, having moved from mildly antagonistic, to firm friends, to lovers, end the series in perfect union. While I have no issues with an open ending, I can understand why so many viewers were disappointed by the lack of closure. Frankly, foretelling an alien invasion that the series would never get to show is a pretty poor way to cut things off. As it had done throughout, The X-Files could only deal with increasingly complex mythology by adding yet another element to it at the last moment. Add to that the dreadful pacing in the middle half, the poor visual effects, laughable stunts and frankly abysmal dialogue at points, and there's simply too much bad that's in the finale to be saved by the little that's good.
In spite of the disappointment of the finale, the final regular season of The X-Files features some solid episodes and manages to tie-up at least some of the ongoing storylines. Overall, though, it was clearly a series running out of steam and looking for a new direction. Perhaps a more courageous turn, embracing the new leads and giving them room to really make the series their own could have kept the show going, but ultimately, it was time for a rest.
After the end of the series, the leads all continued to have rich careers. Patrick racked up film and television roles, both in front of the camera and vocal, currently co-starring in DC comicbook spin-off Peacemaker. Gish has been almost as busy, with notable credits including Sons of Anarchy, Halt and Catch Fire and The Haunting of Hill House. Pileggi is also never out of work, appearing recently in Supergirl, American Horror Story and Walker, as well as appearing in many episodes of Sons of Anarchy and Stargate Atlantis. As for the original two leads, The X-Files made them superstars. Anderson appeared in films from Crooked House to Johnny English Reborn, and TV series on both sides of the Atlantic, including Bleak House, The Fall, Hannibal, Sex Education and American Gods. Duchovny appeared in films such as Evolution and Zoolander during his on-off relationship with The X-Files, continuing with Si j'etais toi, Trust the Man and Queer Duck: The Movie among others, before starring the in the hit series Californication.
This wasn't to be the end of their association with The X-Files, however. In a few years, Chris Carter and his leads would be back for a new era of the series.
Published on February 15th, 2022. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.