Thursday, May 31, 2012

Underrated but Great # 2: The X-Files, Season 8 (2000 - 2001)

The Conventional Wisdom:

Many of you are already familiar with the conventional wisdom about The X-Files (1993 – 2002).  This conventional wisdom has been disseminated and repeated across fan hubs and critical review web-sites for many years now.

It goes something like this: After star David Duchovny departed the series as the lead actor, the series went down-hill…fast.  In fact, The X-Files stayed on the air a few years too long, and ended in something resembling disgrace and embarrassment.

Well, the truth is out there…and it’s much more nuanced and intriguing than the conventional wisdom suggests.  First, it’s accurate that during the eighth season of The X-Files, David Duchovny reduced his participation considerably.  He was no longer the star of the program, and he appeared as Mulder in less-than-a-dozen episodes airing that year.  But he wasn’t gone entirely.

His successor in the male lead position was actor Robert Patrick (Terminator 2 [1991], Fire in the Sky [1993]).  On The X-Files, Patrick played John Doggett, an ex-New York police detective who did not boast a familiarity with the paranormal or supernatural, but instead constructed his cases upon the bedrocks of common sense, a finely-tuned moral barometer, and good old-fashioned police work. 

In short, Doggett equaled “dogged.”  He was a superb, tireless agent (as Scully once noted: “above reproach”), and the character and performance provided the series with a welcome injection of fresh blood.  Yes, Doggett was quite different from the beloved Agent Mulder, yet if you speak to many X-Files fans that actively disliked Patrick’s tenure as Doggett, they won’t name either the actor or the character as the source of their upset.

Instead, a series of arguments are raised.  For instance, a few of these critics will suggest that the writing was bad in Season 8, even though episodes were by-and-large penned by the same authors who toiled on earlier seasons of The X-Files and knew their way around the series’ premise and characters.  Their stories in season eight at least deserve a fair hearing.

Some will tell you that the monsters of the week during Season 8 suddenly grew “tasteless,” based on disgusting premises like a vomiting monster (“The Gift”) or a creature that could crawl into the rectum of a grown man (“Badlaa”). 

And yet -- again -- one must wonder why earlier, highly-praised X-Files stories such as “Home” (featuring an amputee and genetic mutants), “F. Emasculata” (concerning a disease with exploding flesh pustules), “Bad Blood” (with extracted human organs dripping blood from a scale during an autopsy) or “The Host” (with a creature hiding in a port-a-potty) did not encounter the same negative response of “tastelessness.”  Throughout its run, The X-Files was persistently and gory, and that’s a good thing in my estimation, especially in a medium (at the time) that favored homogeneity.

Another oft-voiced complaint is that during Season 8, Scully and Doggett ended up striking off on their own too much, and thus ending up in mortal jeopardy without back-up.  Once more, did those folks complaining about this issue ever actually watch the earlier seasons of The X-Files? 

This sort of situation happened all the time to Scully and Mulder.

One potential answer underlying the conventional wisdom is that, at some point, many critics of The X-Files decided, a priori, that a Mulder-less version of the show wasn’t going to be something good, or something in which they could fully invest and actively engage with.

So they erected a series of false premises about the series to reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. 

The Affirmative Case:

So, if the conventional wisdom is wrong, why is Season Eight a strong season and one worthy of praise and The X-Files legacy?

First and foremost, there’s Doggett.

He is the third leading “Chris Carter male” we have encountered, following Fox Mulder and Millennium’s Frank Black (Lance Henriksen).  My wife, a therapist, coined the phrase “The Chris Carter male” because she became intrigued by the writer’s male characters, and their common traits.  She describes the Chris Carter males as “chivalrous and heroic, but unavailable emotionally to the women in their lives.” 

When I interviewed Chris Carter in late 2009, he responded to this psychological classification and noted that it was “dramatically-interesting to him” to write for characters when “it’s what’s withheld that counts, or is that important.”

He went on to say:  “If the character is remote or unable to speak about these things – because it’s series television we’re talking about here – it becomes something that needs to be discovered.  So if you discover these things too quickly, if a person is too emotionally available, it actually takes away from interest in the character.

What's Doggett laughing about with his budz?
With this premise in mind, Carter and the other writers of The X-Files grant Doggett a particularly intriguing arc in Season Eight. He starts out as a dependable but relatively unimaginative by-the-book agent in the premiere “Within/Without.”  In fact, viewers even feel a little suspicious of him starting out because when we first see him  approaching Mulder’s basement office in “Patience,” he is depicted laughing outside the door with colleagues…as if mocking the X-Files.  He’s responding to a joke we don’t get to hear, and so the audience response is suspicion…even paranoia.

Later in the episode, one penned by Chris Carter, a police detective, Abbott (Bradford English) proves downright dismissive of and hostile to Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson). Doggett steps in and whispers something to Abbott to back him off.  Notice that we never hear Doggett’s words, nor see his facial expressions as he speaks to Abbott in this particular scene.  Once more, the implication is that Doggett is not entirely trustworthy.  He may be sympathizing with the misogynistic detective…we don’t know for sure.  Again, the primary feeling with Doggett is one of suspicion, or uncertainty.

After these moments and a few others like them, we slowly warm to Doggett, and his sense of emotional unavailability begins to recede. In later episodes we learn that his marriage failed, and that his son died under tragic and mysterious circumstances (in “Invocation”), but more importantly, we begin to see how he and Scully develop a working relationship.  The distance we feel from him diminishes.  But the important thing is that Doggett as a character earns our trust over a period of episodes.  He is not inside “the circle” (like Skinner is, for instance) instantly.

In some ways, this is a touch very respectful of Mulder, and Mulder’s role on the series.  It would have been terrible, not to mention unbelievable, to have a character jump in and pick up where Mulder – after eight years – left off, emotionally vulnerable with Scully and trusted by Skinner.  Instead, the writers gave us a character that had to find his way both on the job, and with the dedicated fans of the show.

In addition to the new and at times ambiguous presence of Doggett, the eighth season of The X-Files is successful because, by and large, the stories feature interesting “monsters of the week” (soul eaters, Siddhi mystics, microscopic flesh-eating ocean life…), ones often based on myth and folklore.  But the stories are good for more than that reason.  In particular, they establish the new dynamic for the characters and their interactions.

The original and admittedly brilliant X-Files dynamic of Scully/Mulder is best expressed as the comparison of two distinctive and competing world views: science vs. faith/skepticism vs. belief.  Virtually every story in the first six years was filtered through this highly entertaining and cerebral double lens.

In Season Eight -- with a mostly absent Mulder to contend with -- that dynamic could no longer function.  So instead, the episodes of this span largely concerned how Scully had to re-train herself to “see” the world, accommodating Mulder’s genius into her own perspective.  This endeavor not only made Scully grow as a person, it kept Mulder as the “absent center” in Carter’s words, of the drama.

Consider for a moment just how often the episodes in Season Eight involve “sight,” or more specifically, “learning to see.” Here are some examples: 

In “Patience” Scully tries to see the world (and a specific case) as Mulder would see it, but admits she has difficulties making the same leaps of faith. 

In the episode titled “Medusa,” Scully assumes control of a command center on an investigation, and must “see” through Doggett’s eyes in the subway below.  Again, she’s re-learning how to interpret the world and its mysteries. She needs Doggett as her “eyes and ears” to do that.  He needs her, oppositely, calling the shots, because of his inexperience on the X-Files.

In “Via Negativa” a cult leader grows a “third eye” by opening his mind to the path of darkness, and Doggett nearly goes the same way, into a new realm of diabolical sight. 

In “The Gift,” Skinner commends Doggett for seeing a case through Mulder’s eyes…by getting inside the missing agent’s head.  

“Badlaa” involves an Indian mystic who can cloud the sight of normal people, including Scully and Doggett, making them see -- or not see -- what he wishes.  Our very reality is up for grabs, and Scully must make a decision based on what she believes, not what she actually sees. 

Even “Three Words” is about sight in some critical sense. It concerns how Mulder comes to see Doggett, and then how Doggett comes to see himself: as being manipulated by an untrustworthy informant. 

“Alone” is about blindness (another aspect of sight), and about how in the absence of clear sight, trust can substitute for vision.  This lesson comes in relation to competitors Doggett and Mulder, who are trapped by a kind of lizard monster in a dark labyrinth.  His eyes sprayed by venom, Doggett can’t see his nemesis well enough to shoot it.  He must place his trust in Mulder, and Mulder’s words to survive.

The leitmotif of “learning to see” appears in more than a handful of episodes, and grants the eight season an umbrella of unity that draws it together.   

Episode Highlights:

Scully (and the audience), on the outside looking in.
1. “Patience.” Written and directed by Chris Carter.  This is a standalone story (or “monster of the week”) involving a  sort of man-bat (who sees quite differently than human beings, by the way…) seeking vengeance against tormentors from the year 1956. 

But this episode – essentially a second pilot for the series – cunningly sets up the fundamentals of the Scully/Doggett relationship as well as the season’s obsession on sight.  Furthermore, it features a great commentary on what it means to live in fear.  On the latter front, consider Ernie Stefaniuk’s moving monologue about what fear did to his marriage…and to his (now deceased) wife.  For forty-four years the couple lived in virtual isolation on a six mile stretch of land and denied themselves modern conveniences, family contact, and more.  In the post-9/11 age, “Patience” takes on a new meaning given the government’s color-coded exploitation of fear during the last decade.

Chris Carter is a gifted director and he proves it again in “Patience” with the carefully constructed and perfectly framed scene I mentioned above wherein Scully is castigated and treated poorly by Detective Abbott, and Doggett steps in to ameliorate the detective’s concerns. 

A less clever director would have included a frontal shot of Doggett’s explanation or provided audio of his words.  Instead, the moment is left intentionally ambiguous because we never learn exactly what it is he said.  

This makes us wonder if Doggett will be there for Scully when she needs him…

“Patience” is the first standalone episode in the series sans Mulder, and it is therefore the template for the two final seasons, diagramming the fresh terrain of the burgeoning Scully/Doggett relationship and the importance that “learning to see” will play in upcoming episodes. 

Also, “Patience” is a coded-title and a message directly to X-Files fans.  Be patient, and you’ll be rewarded with a new character dynamic that, conceivably, could rival the richness of the original format.

Burks or Siddhi Mystic?
2.”Badlaa.”  By John Shiban. This absolutely go-for-broke episode concerns a Siddhi mystic (Deep Roy) who travels to America inside the rectum of a four-hundred pound businessman. 

Yes, you read that synopsis correctly…

When the vengeful mystic evacuates the rectum, the fat man bleeds out, and we are spared no nauseating detail.  One thoroughly terrifying scene finds the mystic hidden inside a corpse, and as Scully begins her autopsy, we see his tiny hands wriggle their way out of a chest incision.

Doggett or Siddhi Mystic?
The sense of escalating terror generated by this episode is not only visual.  The Siddhi mystic – an amputee -- drags himself from one location to another on a scooter with squeaky wheels, and that ubiquitous squeak quickly emerges a fearsome harbinger of terror.  We come to expect it, and fear it.

But the episode works splendidly not because of the nutso (if inspired) premise, but because it fits into the season’s leitmotif about “learning to see.” Specifically, director Tony Wharmy achieves something extraordinary in terms of visualizing certain crucial moments in the play.  It is established early on that the Siddhi mystic can control how people perceive him, and there are at least two instances in the tale when Scully sees people who are already present on the scene – in long establishing shot – standing in the distance, observing her.

One is Charles Burks (Bill Dow), bracketed inside the door frame at the X-Files FBI office.  Another is Doggett himself, standing pool-side, with strange light reflected on his face.  Neither figure gets a traditional entrance when Scully sees them: they’re already present -- motionless– and the implication is that there is something not quite right about them.

If you go back and watch this episode with a careful eye, be certain to ask yourself at all times, who is Scully actually “perceiving” and receiving information from? Those she knows and trusts, or the mystic himself, carefully insinuating his “sight” into her mind?  It’s a brilliant idea and a visual grace note in a highly disturbing and provocative episode.

Learning to see.
3. “Via Negativa.” By Frank Spotnitz.  This is another brilliant standalone episode. In philosophy, the "via negativa" is an approach to understanding God; a strategy that seeks to define God by enumerating those things God is not. God is not mortal, God is not Evil, and so forth. Sometimes, this unusual approach to comprehending the Divine is also called Negative Theory or The Negative Way. 

The episode "Via Negativa" finds stalwart Doggett investigating the brutal murders of two FBI agents who were staking out an apocalyptic cult. Doggett is investigating this particular X-File alone because a pregnant Scully is away at the hospital. Still new to the X-Files unit, Doggett is uncertain and rudderless. He's no Mulder, and boasts no interest in being Mulder. Leaps of faith don't come easily or naturally to him. Without Scully to ease him in, the "dogged," meat-and-potatoes Doggett is, in a very real sense, vulnerable, to what he learns during this investigation.

Doggett discovers that the members of the apocalyptic cult died horribly and that their still-at-large leader, Anthony Tibbett, is an ex-convict who developed a peculiar brand of evangelical Christian/Hindu philosophy. Tibbett suggests that "the body is but hold the twin aspects of the human spirit: the light and the darkness." Furthermore, he believes that if his dedicated followers gaze into the path of darkness ("the Via Negativa" of the title), they will see God there.

To help them reach this dimension of darkness, Tibbett administered experimental hallucinogens that would awaken the cult members’ "Third Eye." It is this "Third Eye" -- the Hindu gyananakashi, or "Eye of Knowledge, positioned between hemispheres of the brain -- that can see into the realm of darkness..

Doggett delves deeper and deeper into Tibbett's strange, dark beliefs until the agent himself takes a walk on the Via Negativa during a horrifying dream sequence. The scene is cast in a suffusing blue light, and intermittent fade-outs and pulsating strobes provide a sense of fractured time and  splintered consciousness. This tense, virtually silent scene witnesses a sweaty, desperate Doggett (depicted in extreme close-up) contemplating murder...and the specter of his own internal darkness.

Another scene, in which a vulnerable, confused Doggett confesses to a baffled Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that he’s uncertain about his own state of consciousness (dreaming or awake...) also serves as Doggett's authentic indoctrination into The X-Files...the horrifying case from "outside" that changes him "inside."

In "Via Negativa" there's a deep underlying fear at work. Doggett has no support system. His walk on "the dark path" is a walk alone (or so we believe, until the denouement) and there's something incredibly unsettling about the brand of evil he faces here. This episode is absolutely terrifying.
A succession earned, not bestowed.

4. “The Gift.”
  This episode by Frank Spotnitz and directed by Kim Manners is another story that focuses on “sight” and how people see things differently.  Agent Doggett investigates one of Mulder’s old cases, and finds evidence that Mulder may have committed murder.  Through enigmatic flashbacks, we see Mulder’s unorthodox work on the case, and the execution of the crime. 

Only in the end do we come to understand that Mulder’s blood-soaked act of murder is actually one of mercy.  And we uncover this revelation not in straight-forward narrative fashion, but through Doggett’s investigation as he follows literally in Mulder’s footsteps, and comes to make a similar choice regarding mercy and decency.  The result, at episode’s end: Doggett – for the briefest of instants – imagines the specter of Mulder in his office, as if a tacit sign of approval of Doggett’s presence there.  He has, finally, earned the right to sit where Mulder once did.

The monster of the week in “The Gift” is a great one too: a “soul eater” who may be summoned to eat the bodies of the sick.  After eating sick people and absorbing their diseases, the soul eater than regurgitates the digested human beings…and they re-form and are resurrected.  Both Mulder and Doggett go through that horrifying process in this episode (another instance of “parallel” footsteps), and yes, the vomiting scenes are nausea provoking.  But regurgitation isn’t the point of the story.  The point is that the soul eater is a tortured creature who cannot die and who must keep healing others…and absorbing their horrible illnesses.  He’s in pain and wants his life to end.

As the episode commences, you think that “the gift” of the title belongs to the soul eater. He is giving those he digests and regurgitates the gift of health. But at episode's end, we learn that Doggett has actually given the monster the greatest gift of all: death. Release.

This is a poetic and lyrical X-Files episode, and one that asks us to see the soul eater differently at different times.  He’s a monster and a terror at first.  But then – as we look into his eyes – we register that if he is a soul eater, his soul too has been eaten by a lifetime of physical suffering.

The truth we now know, and have "learned to see..."
5: “Existence.” Written by Chris Carter and directed by Kim Manners.  In this season finale, a pregnant Scully gives birth to her unusual child, and we learn – at long last – that Mulder is the father.  Shippers will enjoy the Mulder/Scully kiss, but on a more significant note, the episode provides the punch-line to the season-long exploration of "learning to see."  

Before our eyes – for we don’t know how long – Mulder and Scully have been together…romantically. And, now, we suddenly see and understand it all.  It’s a beautiful end to the season, and to this nearly-season long arc.  We’ve traveled a long road believing one thing, or suspecting one thing, and then – in a single scene, and with a single line of dialogue – we finally see “the truth.”  It’s a perfect capper to Season Eight.  In this final installment of the year, the audience learns to see, thus mimicking the odysseys of Scully and Doggett.  How's that for elegant storytelling?

Season Eight could have been one of jarring change and false starts, but instead, The X-Files triumphed with fine storytelling, great performances, scary monsters and a recurring theme.

Other Season Eight high notes: “Roadrunners,” “Medusa,” “Three Words” and “Alone.”


  1. Hi,

    Great recap. I liked the Dogett character, too.
    What I didn't like about the eight season had nothing to do with him, as you point out, but with the way the Scully character changed. I hated the pissing contest (pardon my french) she was always involved in. I don't know who decided that more soap opera type drama would be great for the series, but ... it wasn't. Not for me, anyway.
    I also liked the interaction between Doggett and Mulder. It was great.
    As for when the series lost it's greatness, for me personally it was season 4. They changed the format, the music and audio were really bad, and they had no idea what they wanted to do with the "mythos" story.

    1. Hi jay-jay

      I agree with you that the Doggett/Mulder relationship turned out to be pretty awesome.

      I loved the eighth season episode "Vienen" where they were trapped together on an oil rig at sea, grappling with the black oil alien. Maybe I should have included that episode as a highlight as well...

      I always really liked Season 4, the era of "Home" and "Small Potatoes," as well as other very enjoyable episode in my opinion. But I do know that personal tastes vary, and I appreciate that fact.

      When I write here about conventional wisdom, I'm not trying to insult anyone personally, by the way (not that you thought that...I'm just bringing it up early in the comments...) only that there is often another side to the story, and if you look carefully at the episodes and overall arc, you can make a pretty strong case for Season 8...

      Excellent comment...


  2. Fantastic recap. Aside from the absence of Mulder, I think part of the reason why 8 (and 9, though the former is definitely the stronger of the two seasons) gets the hairy eyeball is the seemingly belated replacement of the Syndicate with something that can be perceived as lesser, and perhaps less plausible within the show's accepted mythology and science, the super soldier storyline.

    I do think it's not as compelling (oh CSM, how we miss you), but the episodes tied to this mythology do work for what it is (and Vienen is wonderful), while the characterization is believable. How easy would it have been to screw up introducing a new character, a new *main* character? But they pulled it off, and told scary, interesting stories along the way.

    1. Hi Randal,

      Thanks, my friend. I agree with you that a lot of people dislike the super soldier mythology, but of course, the Syndicate story had run its course, and the Super Soldier story never really, truly, got to finish, because the show ended. So it's hard to compare those two story lines.

      I definitely agree with you that CSM is missed here, and also that it would have been so easy to screw up Doggett, creating a character people hated. Season Eight did so much so well, I just hate to see it get -- as you say -- "the hairy eyeball."

      Excellent insights...


  3. Anonymous2:14 PM

    “Via Negativa” third eye a nod to the Twilight Zone episode "Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up". Very cool.


    1. SGB:

      Great catch!

      Yes, I think you're absolutely right about the nature of that homage. So now I'm going to use those two episodes (from X-Files and TZ) for an upcoming Cloned at Creation. I will credit you, since you brought it to my attention.



  4. As I noted before, John, I was very much looking forward to this piece... and of course, you did not disappoint! I recall defending Season Eight at the time to a few folks in vain, one or two of whom have since let me illuminate them as to the series' ongoing quality. That motif of "learning to see" had never occurred to me, but now you point it out it's most certainly there!

    Doggett himself was such a fine character, perfectly embodied by Robert Patrick, and as has been noted his interplay with Mulder was just superb, with "Vienen" one of my highlights also. (I also very much enjoyed "This Is Not Happening" and "Deadalive" for some of the more mythology heavy storylines, plus of course Mulder's dramatic return.) The Chris Carter males theory is an interesting one, and I do not think it is an accident that Carter referenced Doggett as being perfect to be integrated into a Millennium movie alongside Frank Black; the two would be great together, not least given the themes and events of Season Nine's "Release".

    I have to wonder too if some of the bad reaction to Doggett came from the "Shipper" community mourning the (partial) loss of Mulder from the series and fearing a quick replacement, as you note. Missing the dry wit of Mulder, protective of Scully... expectations that were played with, as you also point out, but only with that dramatic payoff if folks were ready to suspend judgment, take the time to let Doggett in and get to know him, and stick around to enjoy the ride.

    Here's to a Season Nine piece in the future!

    1. Hi Adam,

      I'm glad you liked the piece. I agree with you that Doggett is a great character, especially in Patrick's capable hands. I'd love to see Doggett return in a Millennium movie. It really wouldn't be a stretch, given his background in law enforcement (NYPD and FBI). I can definitely envision some great character interaction between Frank Black and John D., and if I'm not mistake, aren't Lance Henriksen and Robert Patrick actually good friends? Hmmm...

      I absolutely adore Mulder. I love him as a character and nothing I write here is meant to diminish him. I'm with you: there's room for Doggett and Mulder, but I think your diagnosis is on the money. Some folks didn't care for these Season 8 episodes because, with Mulder's absence, the X-Files love story could not continue. Good point.

      I would love to do a Season Nine piece. I would have to go back and watch it from start to finish to get a good feel of it...


  5. Great stuff John. I really enjoyed the essay and your reasoning is sound as always.

    Honestly, some folks resistant to change fall in line like lemmings over the cliff. It's like Kathy Bates in Misery demanding a story be a certain way.

    People are just generally resist change and that's really unfortunate. Those later seasons were terrific. I loved them. I also loved Robert Patrick.

    He really gave the creative team a chance to spread their wings and do some new things and offer new angles. It was a refreshing departure as you say.

    Just a shame writers and critics follow a common thread and never seem to divert from the script creating a false impression of a series whether it's The X-Files, Space:1999 or a favorite rock band.

    Thinking outside the normal refrain seems to be in small supply at times.

    Great article John. Glad to see you're out there correcting those false impressions with the truth through facts.


    1. Hi SFF:

      I agree with your premise about change, my friend. It's just anathema to people when, as Mr. Spock shared with us (in "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield) "change is the essential process of all life." Change happens and to resist it -- especially when it is worthwhile, is foolish and counter-productive.

      As you say, Robert Patrick was great as Doggett, and the character was fascinating and well-conceived.

      Today, there's that conventional wisdom that the last few years of the X-Files "sucked" (to use a popular "critical" term), but anyone who watched the show actively knows that this conventional wisdom is absolutely wrong.

      Thank you for an excellent and thoughtful comment.