Cumartesi, Temmuz 26, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Chris Carter

What if, in the middle of a summer of expensive, special effects-driven superhero blockbusters, they released a modest, intelligent, adult thriller based on the cult TV series The X-Files? What if it had almost no special effects, no extraterrestrials, no "government conspiracy"--and went in the exact opposite direction of its previous big-screen outing of ten years before (1998's The X-Files, aka The X-Files: Fight the Future)? What if, instead of delivering on what fans and non-fans would expect, they actually answered the criticisms leveled at the first film (and at the series' later, less-valued years)? The answer, I'm afraid, might be the death of the whole enterprise. And it's a shame, because in doing all these things they've actually delivered a very good film.

As every X-Phile knows, there are two kinds of X-Files episodes: one from the formidable "mythology" arc--involving UFOs, alien abductions, and government cover-ups--and the more common "stand-alone" hour, which might be either a "monster of the week" installment or a thriller on a variety of paranormal topics. Contrary to what an outsider might think, most fans prefer the latter, and indeed, the best episodes of the series have been stand-alone episodes with nothing to do with "black oil" or Alex Krycek or little spikes to be jabbed in the back of the alien bounty hunter's neck. Early in The X-Files: I Want to Believe, an FBI agent tips off the viewer by referencing a handful of the stronger X-Files episodes ("Beyond the Sea," "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"), all of them having to do with psychic phenomena. And that's exactly what you're getting here: a stronger stand-alone episode, stretched out to just under two hours. Expect anything else and you'll be greatly disappointed. Many of you will be.

It's a FBI-procedural mystery first and foremost, the kind you'd expect to see in a thriller starring Morgan Freeman and/or Ashley Judd. As the movie begins, FBI agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) is employing a psychic, Father Joe (Billy Connolly), to help track down a missing agent. Instead he finds a severed arm buried in the snow. She then brings in former agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), late of the X-Files and now a practicing doctor, in hopes that she can contact paranormal expert Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), who has been in hiding for years (the 2002 series finale left Mulder and Scully on the run from the shadow government lurking within the FBI). Mulder is now living in exile, having grown an Al Gore beard and working out of a cramped room layered with newspaper cutouts and the familiar "I Want to Believe" UFO poster, dozens of pencils stuck in the ceiling. It's pretty much how you'd expect the obsessive, eternally driven Mulder to be getting on. Distrusting the FBI, he thinks this is just a trap to bring him into the open; nevertheless, as another agent's life is at stake, he's persuaded to meet with Agent Whitney and the psychic Father Joe, who, we quickly learn, is a convicted pedophile, now castrated, and living in squalor while nursing an addiction to cigarettes. The man's visions are beyond his control, and very often lead nowhere. Scully is disgusted by his crimes and convinced he's a fraud, although when he tells her, apropos of nothing, "Don't give up," she can't help but wonder if it's a message from God, as she's locked in an ongoing battle to save the life of a young child afflicted with a terminal illness. She wants to put the child through an experimental and grueling stem cell therapy treatment, but another priest (Adam Godley), the "good" priest to Joe's "bad" priest, counsels the parents to have the boy taken out of the hospital, where he can die in peace. It's a completely unrelated subplot that regardless brings an emotional and philosophical weight to the film. Meanwhile, Mulder puts all his faith in the increasingly discredited Father Joe, and just as the investigation seems to be drying up, a sinister conspiracy of an altogether different sort begins to reveal itself. No, aliens are not involved. Stop thinking that.

While it's jarring to see how much Anderson and Duchovny have aged over the intervening years (a familiar face makes a cameo late in the film, and he looks uncannily, almost comfortingly the same), they slip so naturally into their old and best roles that it becomes easy to accept this as the latest chapter in their continuing relationship. Viewers unfamiliar with the last two seasons of the series (and, let's face it, that's 90% of the audience) will find it jarring to see the two agents romantically involved, the sexual tension of the first film long since dissolved as they hop into bed with each other early into this sequel. The more obvious path would have been to treat the agents like ex-lovers, with a frosty reception before finally rekindling their affection for one another--an overly-familiar arc that, I think, anyone else would have taken. But writer/director/series creator Chris Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz have chosen a braver path with this film, more respectful of the fans who want to see Mulder & Scully grow, but also respectful of adults who want a mystery-thriller that treats them like adults. The plot goes in genuinely unexpected directions. The moral dilemma each agent faces has a severe and real-world weightiness--particularly Scully's. Father Joe is a fascinating character, alternately creepy and sympathetic, sometimes at the same moment, and a concrete symbol of the moral gray areas with which the plot concerns itself. The film's biggest flaw is that the climax feels too muted--and when Mulder wields a wrench and groggily shouts, "Does anyone here speak English?", it's easily the most embarrassing scene in the film. The movie is also slow and talky, which is poison in the middle of the popcorn season. But I will also admit that when someone complains to me that a movie was "boring" and "nothing happened," I consider that an endorsement. (Would you rather Michael Bay direct this?) What you actually have here is not a "boring" movie, but one that will, I suspect, look a lot better when viewed outside of the bigger-is-better frenzy of The Dark Knight (which is great, but an altogether different beast), Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, etc. It will seem considerably more appealing when viewed on DVD in the fall. It will also age well, as it doesn't tie itself up in knots trying to connect itself to the series' convoluted plotline.

But in making all these risky choices, Carter and Spotnitz may very well have killed off the franchise. Good grief, I thought as I left the theater: who knew that they would make such a modest movie? And release it in July? What were they thinking? But if you sit through the credits you'll get a clue that they knew the risk they were taking, in a cute, unexpected farewell shot of Mulder and Scully which might be--they know very well--the last time we glimpse the two characters. It's a sweet, whimsical wave goodbye. I would rather hope that they get to make at least one more.

Pazartesi, Temmuz 14, 2008

The Best of the X-Files

On July 25th we will finally have a second X-Files feature film (the first was released ten years ago). The original FOX Network series ran from 1993-2002, and most X-Philes would agree that it went on a bit too long, leaving many fans feeling a bit disillusioned with the series. But it is without a doubt one of the most popular science fiction series of all time, and Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, FBI investigators of the paranormal, have became iconic figures on a level few TV characters achieve. We should be reminded that there was a time, around the third season, when the show went from being a cult hit to a mainstream smash, and Mulder & Scully made the cover of Rolling Stone (naked and in bed together, of course), and a soundtrack was released featuring R.E.M., William S. Burroughs, Nick Cave, and the Foo Fighters. The X-Files, for a while, was hip. Long before Alias, Lost, or Heroes, viewers obsessed over the details of the tangled "mythology" plotline, trying to guess which secondary character would get killed next. The feature film marked both the height of the series' popularity as well as its demise; like those viewers who hoped to find out who killed Laura Palmer at the end of the first season of Twin Peaks, those expecting to get "all the answers" in the X-Files: Fight the Future walked away disappointed (though the reviews weren't bad). The seasons that followed were greeted with increasing indifference from the public; the ratings were enough to justify Fox's insistence that it stay on the schedule, but the phenomenon was over. Eventually David Duchovny was replaced by Robert Patrick (Agent John Doggett), and Gillian Anderson was slowly edged out of the series by Annabeth Gish (Agent Monica Reyes). Fans weren't enthusiastic about the changes, and while the ninth season began as a relaunch, halfway through the creators changed focus and began to wrap up the storylines, sometimes hastily.

I became a fan of the series from the first episode (attractively entitled "Pilot"), watching it only because it debuted right after The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., the show which Fox was really putting its money and marketing behind. Brisco disappeared quickly, but the X-Files got rave reviews and slowly attracted a rabid cult following, who took possession of this new thing called the "internet" to use as their own virtual water cooler to discuss the show. Having been there from the beginning, I felt a certain ownership of the show; while I was never a part of the fan communities, I made it a point to learn who all the writers and directors were, so I could figure out who was behind the best episodes and the worst. I bought the trading cards and the fan magazines. I was first in line when the movie opened, and obsessively taped the show off television, in those days before "complete season" box sets. But around the sixth season I began to lose interest, and I was dismayed enough by the Doggett/Reyes thing that I tuned out of the ninth season entirely. (Although this was just as much because The Sopranos was airing in the same time slot--a show whose quality I was more excited about.) A while back I took advantage of a sale at a certain brick & mortar store and picked up the first few seasons of the series, to revisit the show that I hadn't watched in years. I figured that even if I disliked what the show became, it was such a part of my life between about 1993 and 1999 that it deserved some special space on my shelf. Watching the episodes, the "comfort food" factor kicked in, and I quickly became a fan again. While the worst episodes are still the worst, the best of the series has stood the test of time. And taking a break of a few months between Netflixing the seventh and eighth seasons, I could even gain a newfound appreciation for the Doggett/Reyes years, as I gained a much greater respect for Robert Patrick's nuanced performance. (Let's face it, he can emote with more skill than Duchovny.) Now, following another sale at that brick & mortar store, I've got all the seasons but the ninth. It's just a matter of time before I break down and buy that one too.

In anticipation of the new X-Files film, which will either revive or permanently bury the franchise, here's a guide to the best of the X-Files. If you want to revisit the series with a bit more caution that I, these are the episodes worth watching.

Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) inside an abandoned truck in E.B.E.

Season One (1993-1994)

While Duchovny and Anderson are still getting a handle on their characters in Pilot (1x79), creator Chris Carter fully understands them, and the classic formula is already in place: Mulder and Scully uncovering a conspiracy--here involving alien abductions--in a small town and in the deep woods, poking around with flashlights while Scully rolls her eyes at Mulder's every theory. Deep Throat (1x01) is even better, making plain the show's All the President's Men inspiration (exploited to its full in the feature film), and with a plot the "conspiracy" episodes would mimic countless times: Mulder attempts to infiltrate a military base to learn the truth about the government's involvement in UFO activity. (A young Seth Green seems to be working out his persona as Dr. Evil's son in the Austin Powers movie that was just a few years away.) Squeeze (1x02) is the first "stand-alone" episode, and one of the most fondly remembered: Eugene Tooms (Doug Hutchison) is a serial killer who can contort his body to fit into very small spaces; he also hibernates without aging, and eats human livers. It's written by Glen Morgan & James Wong, who were to become the first celebrities of the series' writing staff; they became known for writing crackerjack goosebump thrillers, before using their success on the series to launch a movie career (to this day, they're best known for creating the Final Destination franchise). Ice (1x07) is heavily derivative of "Who Goes There?", the classic John W. Campbell science fiction story remade--twice--as The Thing. Once again characters are trapped in an arctic environment, paranoid about who they can trust and who has been infected by a monster; in this case, it's a parasite which makes people hyper-aggressive. Despite its lack of inspiration, the episode is so tense and effective that it justifiably became a fan favorite of the early seasons. Yet Eve (1x10) has aged more gracefully. Possibly the most exquisitely crafted episode of the first season, this begins as a supernatural thriller (doppelgangers? ghosts?) before becoming a human cloning horror story featuring two murderous little girls and a climax worthy of Hitchcock. It would have been nice to have seen this story thread tied into the wider conspiracy plotline that later developed, and in retrospect it seems curious that it wasn't. Beyond the Sea (1x12) is another winner, this time taking Silence of the Lambs as an inspiration (Chris Carter was inspired by Jodie Foster's performance in that film to create Dana Scully). Brad Dourif, best known as Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and as the sickly town doctor of Deadwood, here gives another unbearably intense performance as death-row inmate Luther Lee Boggs, who claims to have psychic insights into a killer pursued by the FBI. Mulder this time becomes the skeptic, while Scully is disturbed by Boggs' seeming ability to communicate with her recently-deceased father. This is probably Morgan & Wong's finest script, and the director, David Nutter, would become known as the go-to suspense director for the series, earned in part by the skills on display here. But the episode also packs an emotional punch rare for the show's first season. E.B.E. (1x16 - pictured above) is a great romp, as Mulder and Scully chase a UFO cross-country; along the way we meet The Lone Gunmen, publishers of a conspiracy-theory newspaper, and a backhanded homage to the growing X-Phile community. The killer from Squeeze returns in Tooms (1x20), which has the unusual distinction of bringing back a popular character within the same season (though story continuity necessitates it). Morgan & Wong here begin to establish the black humor which be one of the series' strongest traits. In the season finale, The Erlenmeyer Flask (1x23), the "mythology" finally gets going, as Scully sees her first "evidence" of alien life, and a cold-blooded assassination occurs when the two agents get a little too close to the truth.

Peering at the Flukeman with fascination and disgust in The Host.

Season Two (1994-1995)

A bigger budget and the glow of good reviews led to a more confident and stylish second season. This is also the season that made the show famous, with a richly-developing conspiracy plotline and stand-alone episodes that made for perfect Friday night chills. (The show would later move to Sunday nights in search of higher ratings, to the disapproval of many fans.) Little Green Men (2x01) shows off the bigger budget as Mulder heads to the jungles of Puerto Rico for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, on a tip from the sympathetic Senator Matheson (named after Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson). In the Chris Carter-scripted The Host (2x02 - pictured), AKA the notorious "Flukeman" episode, a monster in New Jersey's sewage system is growing at an alarming rate, and killing in alarming ways. The Flukeman was played by Glen Morgan's brother Darin, who would later become the series' most acclaimed writer. Duane Barry/Ascension (2x05/06) is a two-parter prompted by Anderson's real-life pregnancy; working around her maternity leave, the writers concocted a plotline which would have ramifications for the rest of the series: Scully's kidnapping by a deranged UFO abductee (Steve Railsback), who hands her over for sinister experiments by forces which are either alien or--worse?--part of a shadow government. Later in the season is Die Hand Die Verletzt (2x14), a witty black satire and a Morgan & Wong tour de force, with the agents facing off against the Satan-worshiping faculty of a high school (the pre-title sequence, featuring a typical faculty meeting, is one of the greatest in the series' history). Colony/End Game (2x16/17) ties the biggest life-altering event in Mulder's past--the abduction of his sister when he was an adolescent--and ties it into the mythology, with surprising results. Humbug (2x20) is Darin Morgan's first script, and possesses his distinctive stamp: irreverent humor that pokes fun at the X-Files clichés (already well established, although at the time it seemed that only Morgan had noticed). Sideshow performers are being murdered by a tiny, crawling mutant--but every aberration of nature has someone who loves him. F. Emasculata (2x22) is the X-Files take on the virus/outbreak thrillers that were then popular in bestsellers and in film, and works better than most of them. Our Town (2x24), written by Frank Spotnitz, effectively demonstrates that even cannibalism can bring a community closer together. But don't watch it while eating KFC.

Peter Boyle guest stars in the series' high watermark, Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose.

Season Three (1995-1996)

Here is the show at its zenith, when the creative staff was firing at all cylinders (Darin Morgan in particular), and the ratings began to reciprocate as the show became a genuine phenomenon. The opening two-parter, The Blessing Way/Paper Clip (3x01/02) is riveting stuff, even if it also marks the first overuse of a technique that would quickly become tiresome: the pre-credits extended, pretentious monologe spoken in voice-over to accompany a montage. It was first used in Little Green Men, and apparently deemed successful enough to warrant its overextension for the rest of the series. Here, one can tolerate the voice-overs to get to the really good stuff, namely Mulder & Scully discovering miles of mysterious filing cabinets in an underground facility, where there also lurks an alien spacecraft. Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (3x04) is, however, utterly flawless, and arguably the best hour the series ever produced. A showcase for the talents of writer Darin Morgan and guest actor Peter Boyle, it concerns an insurance salesman whose psychic gift is also a curse--he can only see how people will die. (He suggests that Mulder will die of autoerotic asphyxiation.) It's about fate and destiny, and whether life is a gift or a long, weary, miserable crawl toward death; but it's also existentialism by way of Woody Allen (the name "Clyde Bruckman" is taken from the famous director of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd silent comedies). The ending is both tragic and moving. His War of the Coprophages (3x12) is less emotionally serious--the plot is about killer cockroaches, after all--but just as serious philosophically. While the parody is even more outrageous than in his effort for Season Two, Humbug, the intelligent sensibility is quite present. His final script for the series, Jose Chung's From Outer Space (3x20), pushed these seemingly conflicting impulses--the silly and the thoughtful--to extremes. An instant fan favorite, it shrinks not from goofy cameos (Jesse Ventura, Alex Trebek), or girly screams (from Agent Mulder), yet when it's all over, ask yourself: why does the episode feel so bittersweet? How did he do that? Apart from writing beautiful scripts, Morgan was also establishing wider parameters for the series to explore. Now the X-Files could be touching and funny. And when it was funny, it could also be delirious and bizarre. Some X-Files scribes would imitate him poorly, and others would pick up the baton for some really inspiring work--namely Vince Gilligan. Gilligan, who most recently co-wrote this summer's Hancock, produced efficient, lean scripts that also made room for whimsical ideas. His second outing, Pusher (3x17), is actually one of his few "straight" episodes, proving that he could create the ideal X-Files mystery thriller, that was the show's bread and butter. Of that mode, the episode is one of the series' best. Mulder and Scully are put up against one of their most formidable villains in Robert Modell (Robert Wisden), a man who can psychically "push" other people into doing his will, or seeing what he wants them to see. As with all of Gilligan's scripts, the premise is fully and satisfyingly explored, with a memorable stand-off in the climax, Mulder's will pitted against Modell's. Quagmire (3x22), written by Kim Newton, is marked most heavily by Morgan (it even acts as a sequel to two of them, since Clyde Bruckman's dog, Queequeg, plays a central role here, and the stoners from War of the Coprophages make an appearance). Mulder and Scully investigate murders attributed to a lake monster, but their investigation hits one snag after another, and their culprit is not what they expect. The season's mythology arc, meanwhile, gets more interesting--and more tangled--with Piper Maru/Apocrypha (3x15/16), which introduces the "black oil" alien that can hop from one body to another, the payoff ultimately reserved for the feature film.

A member of the inbred Peacock family guards his territory in the savage Home.

Season Four (1996-1997)

A strategic move to Sunday nights was accompanied by the slick, satisfying season premiere Herrenvolk (4x01). But it was the second aired episode, Home (4x03), which gained the most attention--or notoriety. Preceded by a parental advisory, the Morgan & Wong-scripted hour proved, if nothing else, that the X-Files could still be scary on a Sunday night. Some have called it the scariest hour ever produced for television. It's actually wittily done, with Mulder's spoken nostalgia for small-town America undermined thoroughly as we're introduced to the Peacock family, inbred mutants who, in the pre-titles sequence, bury a squealing infant in the yard minutes after it's been born. The agents' investigation into infant murders leads to a final, violent battle for the Peacock home. This was the comeback for Morgan & Wong, who had left the show for a season; it would also be their last season with the series before they left for good. Home is their standout script of the season, and a calling card for Kim Manners, who, from here on out, replaced David Nutter as the show's unsurpassed "thriller" director. Vince Gilligan's Unruhe (4x02) is one of many episodes in which Scully is taken hostage, but one of the most unnerving, with a killer who can take psychic photographs, and uses them as justification to perform amateur lobotomies on his unwilling patients. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man (4x07) concentrates on the central villain of the mythology arc, filling in his history generously (tying him to the assassinations of JFK and MLK), with the qualifier that none of this might actually be true. It's a mythology episode that pokes fun at the idea of government conspiracies, but humanizes the CSM regardless. Leonard Betts (4x14) and Memento Mori (4x15), on the other hand, take the X-Files mythology completely seriously, and go to a greater extent to humanize those effected by the government conspiracy. Leonard Betts in particular benefits by sneaking in a key mythology plot element into what seems like a stand-alone episode, leading to a shocker of a denouement. The season's lightest note is struck by an extended Darin Morgan homage, Gilligan's Small Potatoes (4x20), which even casts Morgan himself as the main character, a schlub with the remarkable ability to take anyone's face--even Luke Skywalker's--which may explain why there have been a number of spontaneous pregnancies in town.

The Lone Gunmen meet a real cyberpunk in William Gibson & Tom Maddox's Kill Switch.

Season Five (1997-1998)

With the X-Files: Fight the Future in production, Season Five became a build-up to the main event, which would open about a month after the season finale aired. So while the mythology episodes lay the groundwork for the film (with an eye, it seems, toward the possibility that this might be the last season of the show), it's the stand-alone episodes which really shine, introducing the idea of the guest star writer, as Stephen King and science fiction writers William Gibson and Tom Maddox each take a crack at adapting their distinctive styles to suit the show. To that end, King's Chinga (5x10, co-written by Chris Carter), about a demonic doll, is most interesting as a meeting of the two fictional universes, as Scully seems to wander into King's New England hell. It is, however, not as effective as Gibson & Maddox's script for Kill Switch (5x11), which smoothly incorporates Mulder and Scully (and, naturally, the Lone Gunmen) into the cyberpunk genre that Gibson helped invent. A novel's worth of action and twists are packed neatly into the show's forty-five minutes. A crossover of a different kind occurs in Vince Gilligan's Unusual Suspects (5x01), which brings in Richard Belzer's Detective Munsch from NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, investigating an incident involving the Lone Gunmen. With Duchovny and Anderson off filming the movie, this episode acts as a placeholder until they returned, though it doesn't feel like filler, thanks to Gilligan's extremely entertaining script--good enough, in fact, to inspire a short-lived spin-off series called The Lone Gunmen not long after. Frank Spotnitz's Detour (5x04) sees the agents return to battle chameleon-like monsters in the Everglades; despite a far-fetched explanation (even by X-Files standards), the episode features one of the season's most memorable scenes, as, stranded in the forest in the middle of the night, Scully sings Three Dog Night to a sleeping Mulder. The Post-Modern Prometheus (5x06), though it borrows from the plot to last season's Small Potatoes, is nevertheless one of the oddest episodes in the series' history. Written and directed by Chris Carter, it's an extended, black-and-white Frankenstein homage which also involves possible sexual assaults and plenty of Cher music. It works, somehow. Bad Blood (5x12) is Gilligan's best-known episode, and most popular; a Rashomon-style tale (the same approach taken by Darin Morgan with Jose Chung's From Outer Space) that sends up vampire lore. It's the series' second shot at vampires, after the second season's unsuccessful, Gothy "3." Travelers (5x15), written by John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz, finally brings X-Files inspiration Kolchak the Night Stalker into the series--Darren McGavin, here playing Agent Arthur Dales, who recounts an X-File from decades prior. Tim Minear's Mind's Eye (5x16) showcases the acting chops of guest star Lili Taylor, playing a blind woman who can only see out the eyes of a killer. Finally, the season's penultimate episode, Folie a Deux (5x19), has a call center employee driven mad by visions of his boss as a man-eating insect, a madness which is passed on to Mulder.

Scully, marked for death in Tithonus.

Season Six (1998-1999)

It's unusual for a TV show to continue in the wake of its big screen spinoff; usually feature film adaptations come only after the show has left the air, such as this summer's Sex and the City. But The X-Files returned, and many fans would say that it was the show's mistake, or the moment when it "jumped the shark" (a notion parodied in the Ninth Season episode of the same name). Certainly the mythology episodes began to repeat themselves and grow a bit tedious (with some exceptions), and the series began to rely a bit too heavily on comic relief episodes, at least in this season and the next. But Vince Gilligan's scripts continued to provide bright spots, and Chris Carter wrote and directed the satisfying and ambitious stylistic experiment Triangle (6x03), which sees Mulder wandering into the Bermuda Triangle and onto a 1939 luxury liner taken hostage by Nazi spies. Here he encounters doppelgängers of Scully and the Cigarette-Smoking Man, while the real Scully tries to finagle his rescue within the bureaucracy of the FBI. Every scene is an extended tracking shot, with minimal edits, a la Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. Drive (6x02) , by Gilligan, is a premise inspired by Speed with elements of Vanishing Point: a man is infected with something that will make him explode unless he drives as fast as he can westward. It's a good opportunity to show off the series' recent relocation from Vancouver to Los Angeles, utilizing striking desert locales that are in contrast to the series' familiar dark, damp forests and overcast suburbs. Gilligan's script to Tithonus (6x09) ranks among his best work. A world-weary newspaper photographer takes photos of people just before they die; his secret, and what he's attempting to accomplish, take Scully by surprise. His script to Monday (6x15), co-written with John Shiban, does the Groundhog Day thing--one woman keeps reliving the same day over and over--but with urgency as well as palpable despair. She's part of a bank heist that ends tragically, and must somehow find a way to convince Mulder and Scully that the best way to stop the heist is to not interfere; or, more impossibly, convince them that they've lived through this again and again. Arcadia (6x13), smartly conceived by writer Daniel Arkin, sends Mulder and Scully undercover into a gated community, investigating a murder while posing as the perfect married couple. They quickly bump up against the strict community guidelines, which inspires Mulder to become something of a suburban terrorist, sticking pink flamingos in his front lawn and a basketball hoop on his driveway. In The Unnatural (6x20), written and directed by Duchovny, we again return to the archives of the X-Files courtesy Agent Arthur Dales--or, rather, his brother (when McGavin bowed out)--in a tale of a shapeshifting alien who infiltrates the Negro baseball leagues, just because he wants to play baseball. During the series Duchovny would return a couple more times to the director's chair, but this is his best effort by far. Field Trip (6x21) involves some strange phenomena occurring after the discovery by Scully and Mulder of two skeletons buried in a tunnel in the woods. To give away the ending would be a crime, but suffice it to say that the key revelation is a lot of fun. As for the mythology episodes, the series from here on out seemed to want to answer the criticism that the conspiracy plotline was too complicated to follow, so the elements were simplified and the plot was frequently spelled out and underlined by the dialogue. What you finally get is something of a satisfying payoff in the two-parter Two Fathers/One Son (6x11/6x12), which brings the saga of the "Syndicate"--the Mafia-like shadow government--to a resolution that feels like a series finale (although it comes in the middle of the season). Yes, for once something actually happens.

In Brand X, Assistant Director Skinner discovers just how evil the tobacco industry can be.

Season Seven (1999-2000)

The last full season with David Duchovny, Season Seven had its share of highlights, but a certain weariness seemed to be setting in, in particular infecting the mythology episodes--with a key exception. Sein Und Zeit and Closure (7x10/7x11) wraps up the subplot involving Mulder's abducted sister in a manner both unexpected and incredibly moving. It's also the most subdued two-parter of the mythology storyline, more in line with the Season One episode "Conduit" (which also explored the effect of Samantha Mulder's abduction upon Fox) which was a wise decision. As for the stand-alones, The Goldberg Variation (7x02), written by Jeffrey Bell, is a lot of fun; Goldberg is for Rube Goldberg, whose ghost seems to haunt this episode--the story of a man with unusually good luck, who's marked for murder by an increasingly frustrated Mafia. The Amazing Maleeni (7x08) stars David Mamet's favorite magician, Ricky Jay, who in the opening sequence appears to be murdered by a rival magician. The fact that Ricky Jay is in the episode at all should give you a clue that nothing is going to be what it seems. X-Cops (7x12) presents an X-File as an episode of the long-running FOX series Cops, as Mulder and Scully are chased through Los Angeles by a camera crew, while working with the LAPD to catch a monster that can take on the form of whatever its victim most fears. In En Ami (7x15), the Cigarette-Smoking Man promises Scully a cure to her cancer if she travels with him to an unknown destination. Written by Cancer Man himself, William B. Davis, it's an interesting presentation of how the actor perceives his most famous character. Brand X (7x19) has exactly the sort of premise that would have made it a classic if it had aired a few years earlier, when the show was making a name for itself: smoking a new, experimental brand of cigarette leads to a grisly demise. The explanation has the quality of a convincing urban legend, and surely must have convinced at least a few viewers to quit smoking. It's admirably straight-faced too; a relief in a season with too much over-the-top comedy. Though I admired the humor in Je Souhaite (7x21), a thoroughly unnecessary X-Files take on the djinni legend (and "three wishes") that is nonetheless hilariously perceptive: one man asks to become invisible, and is immediately struck by a car.

Agent Doggett is annoyed by number-one X-Files fan Leyla Harrison in Alone.
Season Eight (2000-2001)

Season Eight finds the series in transition between the Mulder & Scully years and what Chris Carter apparently hoped to be a long-running stretch with Agents John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish). To ease the pain for fans, Anderson is still present, though Duchovny, on his way out, appears in only a handful of episodes late in the season. I despised this season when it first aired, and gave up on the show; revisiting it this last year, I was surprised to see that it had many pluses: it shunned the jokey/parodic episodes to return to a more serious tone in line with the show's first season; Doggett is well-developed and sympathetic, and superbly played by Patrick; and there's a sense of excitement when Mulder does, belatedly, return, leading to a two-part season finale that delivers--and should have been, alas, the very final episode. So let's count the positives: there's Roadrunners (8x05), about a strange cult in the deserts of Utah who want Scully to host an alien creature whom they worship; I also liked Invocation (8x06), by David Amann, with a simple but involving mystery plot--a boy returns years after his disappearance, having not aged a day--that also humanizes Doggett (whose own son was kidnapped and murdered). Redrum (8x03), written by Steven Maeda, is one of the season's very best, and only tangentially involves Doggett and Scully: a lawyer (Joe Morton) finds himself on death row for the murder of his wife--and then finds himself slipping backward in time, inexorably moving toward that critical event. After Mulder's return (involving a literal rebirth), the almost nostalgic Three Words (8x18) sees him again infiltrating a top-secret installation with the aid of the Lone Gunmen. (The three words, by the way? "Fight the Future," unfortunately.) Vienen (8x16) is another old-school romp, this time with Mulder and Doggett aboard an oil rig that's become infected with the alien black oil (it also, once more, has shades of The Thing). Frank Spotnitz's Alone (8x19) teams Doggett with FBI agent Leyla Harrison (Jolie Jenkins), a real X-Phile who has memorized all the past cases, much to Doggett's annoyance. (When she finds a mysterious slimy substance, she immediately assumes it to be bile, referencing a moment in "Squeeze.") The villain actually seems to be the Lizard from the Spider-Man comics, though no one seems to catch that (unintentional) reference. Finally, the season draws to a satisfying close with Essence/Existence (8x20/21), with exciting action scenes, the death of a major character, and a long-awaited emotional resolution for two others. Unfortunately, there was one more season still left.

Scully performs a kitchen autopsy on a cat in the late-series standout Scary Monsters.

Season Nine (2001-2002)

What turned out to be the final season of The X-Files was clearly intended to be the first of The X-Files 2.0. For the first time, the opening title sequence was completely revamped (not just subtly altered, as it had been in past seasons). It was flashier, more up-to-date, and even included Mitch Pileggi's name and face--deservedly so. But it also misguidedly assumed that Doggett and Reyes would be an adequate substitute for Mulder and Scully, who were always the heart of the series. While Robert Patrick was engaging as Doggett, Annabeth Gish never quite comes to own the role of Agent Reyes; it doesn't help that her character is so weakly conceived (she's New Agey, and she's trying to quit smoking). Luckily Anderson stuck around in Duchovny's absence, but it's quite clear that she wasn't going to stick around long. Late in the season, there's a dramatic shift in approach, and rather than launching new story threads (as begun unimpressively in the two-part season premiere), the writers begin to wrap them up; clearly, Chris Carter had decided that this was it. In the meantime, you had few stellar episodes. But Lord of the Flies (9x06) has a clever idea even though it doesn't quite come together the way it ought to: an awkward adolescent, addicted to the music of outcast icon (and schizophrenic) Syd Barrett, finds himself undergoing biological changes when his hormones begin raging--he begins to transform into an insect. Which makes it difficult when he wants to impress a girl. Improbable (9x14), written and directed by Chris Carter, is even more eccentric and bizarre than Season Five's "The Post-Modern Prometheus." Burt Reynolds guest stars as a man with some kind of connection to a serial killer who, in turn, commits murders that adhere to a strict numerology which only Agent Reyes notices. Imagine Darren Aronofsky's Pi reimagined as a jolly Italian musical, and you might approach what is happening here. Scary Monsters (9x12), written by Thomas Schnauz, is easily the best episodes of the season, and is the real discovery of the neglected "Doggett years." It also has one of the best openings of the entire series: a little boy, terrified of monsters under the bed, cries out for his father. The father looks under the bed and sees something scurrying in the darkness, and deliberately ignores it; then he closes the door and holds it shut while his son screams helplessly, besieged by the monsters of his nightmares. While Scully stays behind to autopsy a cat on her kitchen table, Doggett, Reyes, and Leyla Harrison (from last season's "Alone") travel to the secluded home to find out if the boy's allegations about his father are correct. Just about as perfect as an X-Files episode gets; or, at least, one without Mulder. But now the loose ends were beginning to get tied up. Jump the Shark (9x15) is an affectionate goodbye to the Lone Gunmen, also providing closure for their prematurely canceled spinoff series. Release (9x16) ties up the mystery regarding Agent Doggett's son--rather devastatingly. It's an excellent script by David Amann and John Shiban. Finally, Sunshine Days (9x18), a Vince Gilligan script, involves the Brady Bunch, bodies launching through rooftops, and telekenesis, and yet it's ultimately sweet-natured and smart. As for the series finale, well: it's there. "The Truth" is two hours that feel like a marathon runner crawling with anguish across the finish line. The first hour is a laborious summary of the mythology arc, attempting to draw the threads together; the second hour is all over-the-top action. One wishes the two halves had been better coordinated. Still, when all is said and done, the X-Files legacy was preserved, however tattered around the edges. The episodes highlighted above rank as some of the finest hours network television has ever produced, and certainly are in the pinnacle of science fiction TV, right there next to classics from The Twilight Zone. The series has become iconic, and the next feature film has an intimidating legacy to live up to. Though I truly wonder if the series was ever meant for the big screen. My fondest memories of watching the shows: when it aired on Friday nights, with none of the fanfare (and little of the budget), just the excitement that this week there was a new episode from one of television's best-kept secrets. One of the great things about DVD is that the X-Files can become a Friday-night spook-show staple once again.