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Archive for March, 2018

11X10: My Struggle IV

My Struggle IV marks the end of a journey.

It is of course the end of this season, and as a cliffhanger it is calling for more to come; it is also the end of the 4-episode My Struggles arc of the revival (plus Ghouli, given its importance); it is highly likely, given Gillian Anderson’s declarations, that it is the end of Scully’s part in The X-Files; with such an uncertain future it could prove to be the end of the series. It is an unsatisfactory end to all of these possibilities.

There’s not much to say here really…

The end of the Struggles

Chris Carter announced several times that My Struggle IV comes to close the saga started with My Struggle I:

Reddit AMA: “The four struggle episodes were all pieces of a whole and Episode 10 completes the whole.”
TV Insider: “They really are four quarters of a whole. And I think that maybe threw some people at the beginning of last season, and even at the end of last season. But I think that you see, as you have seen, that they were puzzle pieces—four puzzle pieces to form a circle.”
E!Online: “I think that it will be satisfying for everyone, once they finish the finale, to go back and watch the four parts, the four puzzle pieces together. I think it will be a very satisfying miniseries within the series.”

From this perspective of an end of a four-episode saga, MSIV is completely random!

All the times reactions and reviews closed with “answers might come later”, MSIV was the one to have them, or not at all. The story of MSIV is extremely simple compared to its predecessors, it is just a manhunt.

Mr. Y and Erika Price are the two most definitive deaths in this episode, and this is very surprising given that the casting of these characters by two very interesting actors made me expect they would become the new recurring villains in any future season 12. Instead, they were given no character development; their plans were not expanded upon (we do see in MSIV some spacecraft and Purlieu services, confirming the information of MSIII and This); they are offed in a very expeditive manner. (Interestingly, Carter said he had initially seen Strughold for the role of Mr. Y, but I suppose the 90-year-old German Armin-Mueller Stahl was unavailable!)

MSII and MSIII, within their dialogue, set up the activation of CSM’s plans of a viral apocalypse in a future seen in visions by both Scully and William, and one would expect the finale to do something about it; MSIV just mentions the threat but delivers nothing on the visions. MSIII and This, within their dialogue, set up a confrontation of CSM and Mulder, where CSM was afraid that Mulder would kill him (the same CSM that survived a missile strike…); while Mulder did shoot CSM, the confrontation itself was just a shootout. MSIII, within its dialogue, also set up a Sophie’s Choice type of situation where Scully would have to choose between Mulder’s life or William’s life and joining the CSM’s side; nothing came out of that set up.

Furthermore, absolutely no answers are given to the issues raised by the Struggle episodes themselves, not just questions pending from seasons 1-9. For instance: why didn’t Scully directly start working on a vaccine with the knowledge she got from her visions (only her DNA was necessary)? what is the virus within a virus in the Spartan virus? how is the Spartan virus an alien pathogen when My Struggle II explained in detail how it works with CRISPR-Cas9? how did the CSM survive? why did the CSM’s appearance change from episode to episode (including between My Struggle I, which happened outside of Scully’s visions, and My Struggle III)? why were William’s stem cells important for saving Mulder, if after all he is not the father? why did the CSM consider the secret around William’s paternity a weakness?

(There is another This Man appearance here, on a billboard next to the sugar factory, making him present in nearly all of season 11. This is nothing more than an Easter Egg it turns out.)

Long story short, MSIV is more of another independent episode that doesn’t need much information on what came before, than a continuation of an arc — in the same way that MSI was essentially unnecessary to MSII, that MSIII erased MSII.

The end of a 25-year mythology: the old mythology and William

It is obvious that the original mythology of seasons 1-9 has been done away with, and it is illusory to expect any continuation or closure or answers to a number of lingering questions — the Black Oil, the Rebels, the Supersoldiers — nor any clarification further than the MSIII flashbacks, which can be read in both ways, as to how well this revival articulates with what came before — was the colonization threat a sham? has CSM’s Spartan virus plan existed since before the colonization threat went away? why doesn’t the Black Oil behave as before? All of this is dead and buried.

At least, we are given more background to William/Jackson in the traditional Struggle teaser. He lived a normal first five years (so Scully was right to give him up for adoption?) but then his powers kept developing and he became a criminal, a masterful liar and somewhat of an emotionless manipulator (and so Scully was not right to give him up?), who can also blow people up with psi powers, Scanners-like. All this builds him into this troubled teenager with supernatural powers that could be the focus of a monster-of-the-week episode (and indeed his trick with the lights that cause a traffic accident is reminiscent of 3X03: DPO!). William/Jackson is his own man, no longer wants anything to do with Scully or Mulder or the CSM, and although it would be interesting to see him again, it is just as well possible that Carter is done with him.

But the single and most important, essential, basic item we could have expected to have an answer about, something that has been an open issue since the year 2000, something teased at with that teenage boy in the credits of season 9, something that must be spelled out in order to make this whole story engaging and understandable, is the why of the importance of William. Apart from stating the fact that he is “the key”, or Mr. Y’s last words “Your son has what everybody wants, what people would kill to have“, there is nothing here apart from the same tease since season 8: why is he important to, well, everyone? The posts at ghouli.net suggest that he could be a weapon, and that “the cure is in the blood” (see analysis here). Does that mean that he can prevent or be used to prevent CSM’s plans somehow and save the world (tagline change: “Salvator Mundi“)? (however MSII suggested that any abductee like Scully, and at least CSM, Scully and Reyes should have the materials necessary to build a vaccine/cure against the Spartan virus) Does that mean he could be used as a weapon to any resistance to CSM’s plans? We don’t know.

William did help out, unwillingly, in having the CSM’s back turned so that Mulder could shoot him, and that’s it, but that’s far from the miraculous alien-supernatural importance conferred to him with the weight of four seasons’ mythology. At the end of the episode, William emerges from the water (in a scene echoing all the way back to Dr. Secare, a hybrid that could breathe underwater, in 1X23: The Erlenmeyer Flask!). William has been “downgraded” from being the center of the universe to another monster of the week that Mulder and Scully encounter and forget in the next episode.

The end of a character: Scully, William’s father and the new pregnancy

The CSM declares himself William’s “creator“, and indeed William’s visions with the CSM confirm that he is the father: “the truth can only come from my father, a man I’ve only seen in my visions, but who I know I already hate“. (Why then didn’t he blow him up when he had the chance the way he did with Erika Price?) Presumably the CSM is also the biological father and not just the abstract father-creator then, along with some alien DNA thrown in the mix (no double DNA as hinted at in ghouli.net, which let open the possibility that the father was Mulder and that the additional DNA was alien). Scully was an incubator, and we spend the whole of one minute on that as Skinner tells numb Scully all about it, and when later Mulder accepts that information when Scully shares it with him.

There is no reversal of the reveal in My Struggle III: Scully was indeed, again and again and again, the victim of experiments involving medical rape and her reproductive system. And so because of that, all of a sudden, one year of miraculous pregnancy, one year of stressful upbringing, and seventeen years of remorse at having given up William for adoption, including in the revival (Founder’s Mutation, Ghouli), are all swept away: Scully no longer cares about William. Apart from this being an insult at anyone that has adopted a child and has been able to genuinely love it independently of biology, it is also shoehorned in the story in a way that messes enormously with the way Scully’s character is represented. Scully cared more about Emily, clearly the result of an experiment, than for William, whom she carried and thought about for so long. Carter gives Mulder a hug and chat with William but denies any real meeting between Scully and William — something unimaginable in the emotional context of anything up to this episode, particularly since this is most likely Anderson’s last episode (another indication that Carter is done with William as a character?).

All because Scully has a new child coming. The weird dialogue and never-seen-before sex in Plus One was indeed foreshadowing: Scully is pregnant again! She is pregnant at 54 (not that this is unheard of, but she has not been shown actively trying to get the necessary medical assistance to conceive at that age) and very fertile given that her being barren was such a big part of her character story; there are no explanations given other than the prayers in Nothing Lasts Forever and, well, her alien DNA. The future Benjamin (Rachel’s second son) or Wilhelmina or Samantha is supposed to be consolation for the loss of William, both figuratively (Scully learns from Skinner that he was an experiment, and thus no longer her true son) and literally (Scully & Mulder think William is dead), which given how much emotional and mythological capital this series has spent on making William important, is crazy.

What is the point of doing that? If the series ends now, Carter has given Scully and Mulder a happy end similar to the end of season 8, with a child together, complete with Mark Snow’s reprise of the lovely “Surgery” track from I Want To Believe — at the cost of scrapping 18 years of William’s storyline, just because too many years have passed in the real world, with the third film or the revival taking so long to materialize, and Carter can no longer write them rejoining with William and raising him as a family. If the series continues, the new baby’s conception will again be a mystery to focus on, repeating the tired tropes of seasons 8 and 9. (Or, continuing the parallel with Rachel, Scully could die at childbirth of her second child!) Some placed Scully’s pregnancy as a “jump the shark” moment; this is that to the power of eleven.

The end of a show

On top of all things, MSIV includes the age-old season-ending intrigue of “they are closing the X-Files”, this time coming from Kersh, for reasons of FBI image, as Mulder and Scully’s theories and Mulder himself appear on Tad O’Malley’s conspiratorial show. Incidentally, the show has still to give any subtelty and shades of grey to Tad, a shame really given how much unsubtle credence and echo the show gave to his far-right-pleasing extreme theories during season 10. It’s unclear why it is so important that the X-Files would close, given how few actual FBI cases Mulder & Scully have investigated in this revival.

MSIV also features the death of Skinner and Reyes. Skinner’s death is the only new variation of the dubious ally/enemy trope this character has been trapped in since his conception, but his sacrifice comes at not such a big surprise. We were expecting more background on Reyes’s apparent deep change of character as presented in Scully’s visions in MSII; instead of that, we got a short and at the nick of time phonecall from Reyes to Scully that gets the story rolling, and that is all the redemption Reyes could get for herself in the ten-plus years she has apparently been working for the CSM. Even so, that redemption is ambiguous, as that phonecall gets Mulder in a situation where he could easily have been killed, and does not lead to William, it’s Scully’s search “on the web” and William’s ex from Ghouli (and her sister Maddie aka Duchovny’s daughter West!) that lead Mulder on his trail!

Some nice things can be said about MSIV, such as its very XF-like cinematography (dark and wet), its XF-like settings (the motel, the sugar factory, the pier), and its through-and-through better management of tension than MSIII. However, with the Struggle episodes, especially this season, Carter has turned The X-Files mythology into an action flick completely different from its atmospheric roots. Mulder is a Jack Bauer-like action hero who can take down trained professional soldiers, unfazed by the consequences of his unlawful actions; the “confrontation” with the CSM is a “shoot first ask questions later” type of situation. It is loud, fast, unsubtle, incoherent.

With no less than five deaths, unprecedented in the show, MSIV does away with nearly all the show’s side characters. MSIV blows up the show’s mythology, something Carter was in retrospect obviously fed up with, and clears the scene for something new and yet unknown to emerge in the future. It provides some sort of end point for the leads. There is actually a lot of closure in this episode, despite it being described as a cliffhanger.

But then Carter was quick to undo this closure in interviews, by pointing out how everything can be impermanent: none of the CSM, Reyes and Skinner’s deaths are confirmed; others could emerge from the depths of the neoSyndicate to replace Mr. Y and Erika Price; the Spartan virus and the aliens are still out there; Scully’s new baby’s conception is something to be explored…rince and repeat.

Given what he has done to the mythology of the show, to its central characters (particularly Scully), and to its visual/cinematic/editorial identity, I’m not sure I’m much interested in anything The X-Files that might come in the future any more.

No animals were blown up in the making of this review.

11X09: Nothing Lasts Forever

This is the last stand-alone case before the (season? series?) finale, after being switched with Familiar — and the switch works, as this episode includes some watershed Mulder & Scully moments that we are not likely to have time for next week. Nothing Lasts Forever is written by Karin Nielsen (script coordinator for season 11; and apparently someone Carter knew, since her short film Grace was included in the season 10 BluRays) and directed by James Wong, although it was was initially advertised as a Morgan & Wong script (their first collaboration for over a decade, after their writing partnership split); there are plenty of elements still in the final script that remind of a Morgan & Wong story: Nielsen must have worked closely with both even more than Cloke & Hamblin worked with Morgan for Followers.

The Gore-Files

Nothing Lasts Forever looks at a particular sub-genre of horror: gore. It purposefully tries to out-do the series’ well-known precedent shocker of an episode, 4X03: Home, and certainly succeeds — I wouldn’t know whether this is testing the limits of what can and cannot be shown on network television since there have been so many shows since then (Hannibal?), however things have changed a lot compared to the strictness of the 1990s!

The X-File here mixes a cult of vampire-like cannibals, organ theft by doctors, a mad scientist looking for the fountain of youth, the public persona pressure for a youthful appearance and fear of old age (with yet-another-tagline-change, unfortunately: “I Want To Be Beautiful“), as well as a revenge story fuelled by religious Catholic fervor — quite a bit for a single episode! As a consequence, the Mulder and Scully scenes feel clumpsily out of place and tonally and thematically not very linked with the rest of the episode; the investigation aspect is boiled down to its very minimum, with much of it happening offscreen; the plot itself is, after all, very simple, and could be summarized in just two scenes of setup in the vampires’ den and the resolution. There is only so much you can do in 42 minutes, and Nielsen & Wong’s choice was to sacrifice investigation time for building atmosphere and tension, a fair choice.

A significant part of the episode is spent in the vampires’ den (reminiscent of 7X01: Hungry), giving actress Fiona Vroom time enough to shine (she was also the young Cassandra Spender in My Struggle III!) in a role reminiscent of Gloria Swanson’s in Sunset Boulevard. The episode’s gore culminates with a gory combination of a song over horrific images, a stylistic choice used many times by Morgan & Wong! There are comments about scientists going beyond what regulation and morals permit so as to attain a goal for the good of humanity, as in 1X15: Young at Heart (although Dr. Lovinus’ tirade comes at an odd time in the episode though, pausing the tension of Mulder searching for the missing Scully).

There are parallels drawn between the cult’s literal consumption of human flesh and blood and the Christian act of symbolically consuming Christ’s flesh and blood in order to accept him in one’s life and attain eternal life — both in the way Scully’s communion is shown and how a cult member is willing to sacrifice himself so that he can live on through Barbara. The B-story of “La Avispa” (the wasp, stinging its victims), a Latina Buffy-like vampire hunter straight out of an action movie, is given a short time to develop, but the script makes the most out of it with the two scenes echoing each other of the two different sisters coming down to their mother, who is weeping and praying for the missing one.

Overall, this is not an episode for the faint of heart! Wong’s directing does an excellent job, particularly putting attention to the transition between scenes, and not hesitating to add icky sound effects of chewing and licking and squishing to maximum effect (remember that a sound — a baby crying — was a specific element that did not pass the censors for Home!), making use of his experience with American Horror Story, a show with a similar tone. Between this and Ghouli, Wong signs two of the best-directed episodes this season, making it obvious how important directing, not only writing, is for a show like The X-Files. One has to wonder how the episodes directed by Carter and the Morgans would have turned out with directors of Wong’s caliber: the auteur approach of a single person writing and directing his own episodes is interesting, but it has shown its limits in this revival.

Mulder and Scully and that church scene

The aptly titled Nothing Lasts Forever ties the theme of the episode of working against the natural process of ageing with how our main characters have grown old as well — the passage of time is something that almost every single episode has dwelled on in this revival with uneven results, and it would have been repetitive here would it not have been for the quality of the dialogue. Yes, Mulder and Scully are older, the show itself is old, there is no denying it.

This comes off almost like a meta commentary on the show itself: it too wants to be young an hip when it is two decades past its prime, and goes through all kinds of artifices to trick itself and its cult (us fans) that you can go back. More than just mentioning these characters are older, like This, it is integrating this fact in its story; in a sense it is building on ideas discussed in The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat. Certainly the Mulder & Scully scenes show that the episode is conscient that it is in the closing age of the series and not before a new golden era. There is a sense of inter-connectedness between the episodes this season more than in season 10, rarely in character continuity but at least in the underlying themes.

Mulder and Scully’s scenes together are destined to remain among those most remembered from this revival. They are in tone with the show, much better written and acted than the ones in Plus One, far from the sappiness of love declarations of 9X08: Trust No 1, and strong enough to convince even this agnostic noromo; their dialogue rings true in the mouth of these characters and for once we really have the impression that we are watching the characters and not the actors. Although it could be said that this is the sort of discussion that is one or two decades too late and that they might have had it repeatedly offscreen in the past already, the fact is that such a discussion openly addressing their relationship and their common future has been a long time coming for viewers, and this potentially being their penultimate episode together it fits very well here.

Scully laments her failures: “I believed I could protect our son, and I failed. I believed that we could live together, and I fled.” Mulder’s fear is that their work in the X-Files has been holding Scully back from living a better life, echoing the hallway scene in Fight the Future or the motel scene in 7X22: Requiem. But Scully absolves Mulder of all that guilt (“I don’t begrudge you any of those things“): their shared history has been going on for so long that it is not about Mulder’s obsession in the paranormal, it is not about who is pulling who into the X-Files. Mulder is very much ready to start again, and it has been Scully who has been thinking things over.

While Carter did not include any scene in the revival to show how their relationship broke up, he did describe the end scene of Babylon as an important moment for them; but it is really the moments in this episode that are the important (and superior) ones. The question is, bluntly, “are we together?“, however the acting and directing, the church scenery, and the a religious and spiritual connotations of Mulder lighting Scully’s candle give this a lot more weight and significance than any melodrama from a telenovela. As frustrating as Scully’s inaudible whisper was upon first viewing, it is indeed a beautiful moment of intimacy for them and them only — similar to us not knowing what were their gifts in 6X08: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas or what happened after the credits in many an episode.

This analysis would not be complete without mention of the pregnancy theory. Picking up on the discussion and sex and the name of the St Rachel motel in Plus One; the stained glass depicting children joining Jesus under which the discussion takes place; the mention here again of Scully as a mother (“have a bunch of kids that you wouldn’t have to give up“); all of these seem hints that a pregnancy is brewing. Indeed, why discuss “miracles” so heavily, a term associated with the conception of William, when all Scully is mulling over is their future together? What action and project does she refer to when she says “I’d like to do it together“? It somehow feels more than a decision to “be” together, but to “do” together. It can be read both ways, and probably purposefully so — My Struggle IV itself might leave it ambiguous as well!

Regardless, dialogue like “reason and faith in harmony” is a summation of everything in The X-Files: a callback to season 7, when the show was also ending then, during which Mulder and Scully’s beliefs drew progressively closer until they became one. A great point to leave these characters, if there was any.

Next week: finale!

“This Man” is again present in this episode (graffitied on the building of the vampires’ den, when Mulder and Scully enter it), and its status as something significant or as an Easter Egg should be revealed next week.

And thus we come to the end of the string of eight stand-alone episodes this season. The X-Files has always worked by being more than the sum of its parts, by having a base template that could be used to explore all sorts of stories and genres. The longer length of season 11 has allowed the show to look at science fiction stories, technology parables, supernatural horror, paranormal thriller, gore. The longer length has also allowed episodes to tackle their story and not fusing things together like 10X4: Home Again. There has been, at times and far from consistently, some continuity (here: reference to Charlie Scully, Scully’s mother’s coin from Home Again, an 1121 reference, a 9X03: 4-D reference (?)); much less so than how other shows do it but more than the stand-alones in an average X-Files season; the mythology is another issue altogether. Each episode has had its more or less big ball of problems, some with huge, but the overall feel is that of a more satisfying season than season 10 (a feel perhaps reinforced due to two of the season’s strongest are these two last ones).

It is interesting that only one of the old gang, Wong, and two new writers, Van Allen and Nielsen, are the ones that seem to understand what works in The X-Files and give episodes that feel satisfying as “scary stories” and as emotional stories. It has been an uneven run of episodes, which shows that The X-Files still has life in it left when it is handled well, but that it should really think about the stories it wants to tell in an environment where so many quality shows out there make viewers less forgiving of missteps.

11X08: Familiar

The X-Files Season 11 / Event Series 2 : Introduction 11X01: My Struggle III 11X02: This 11X03: Plus One 11X04: The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat 11X05: Ghouli 11X06: Kitten 11X07: Rm9sbG93zxjz

When this season was announced, one of the aspects I was most interested in was to see how episodes both written and directed by newcomers to The X-Files would turn out. Certainly my main expectation from this revival was closure with the mythology and characters, but Carter expanded the revival to cover stand-alone episodes as well, and with more quantity of episodes this season comes experimentation and open slots for new blood. Kitten was extremely derivative of the past and lacked stamina; Followers was all concept and not enough content; Familiar is the first one to truly get it right. It is written by Benjamin Van Allen (writer’s assistant/staff writer in the two revival episodes in the first solo script of his career!), and is directed by Holly Dale (veteran TV director, newcomer to The X-Files).

Release the Hounds of Hell!

The story is not something we have never seen before. Small town witchcraft where those calling it get more than what they can handle, couples cursing each other because of extra-marital affairs: see the landmark 2X14: Die Hand die Verletzt and 7X16: Chimera. The little boy in yellow parka and the scary clown figure inevitably bring Stephen King’s It to mind. The use of whatever is familiar to the victims to attract them or scare them is reminiscent of the changing monster of 7X12: X-Cops, but here it is in fact derived from a real belief: the familiar spirit of Medieval European folklore, reminiscent of the succubus (3X21: Avatar). The originality of the episode is not in the paranormal phenomenon itself.

However, the story is approached as a true mystery with enough twists and turns throughout as to what is happening and why that the result is gripping and fresh. We get to care for the drama happening to the people we meet here, be it due to the horror of children dying, due to some good acting, or to some tight editing. We feel for the raw wrath that leads to an innocent person getting accused because of his past and hunted like a witch by a mob, in a scene that is reminiscent of classics like Frankenstein or 3X13: Syzygy or 5X06: Post-Modern Prometheus. It is true that Mulder & Scully are more spectators and their investigation does not prevent any murder — actually, Scully’s involvement inadvertantly results in an additional murder, but such are the complexities and perils of law enforcement — and this is not something we haven’t seen in several episodes. The only odd passage would be them not attempting to do anything while Mrs Strong spontaneously combusts at the end.

Another aspect that the episode gets right is Mulder and Scully’s interaction: the intense intellectual exchanges between them, throwing theories at each other to see what sticks, seeing them grinding their gears while the events are unfolding around them. Mulder being Mulder with his encyclopedic knowledge of all things paranormal and his knack for literally tasting the evidence;
Scully taking the role of the one looking for a grounded explanation, using medical vocabulary and actually performing an autopsy. It is really a mystery why it took us fourteen episodes in this revival to get scenes like these.

The other trademark element that is present here as well is the Vancouver atmosphere. The forests are utlized better here than in Kitten, and there is rain and mud in several scenes. It helps that the shooting was advanced enough by this time, November, that they could make use of the rainy weather that defined the early seasons of the show — in contrast to the light due to the shooting during summer months in season 10 and the early part of season 11. Mark Snow’s music is noticeable this time, in horror mode, and includes that damned catchy Mr Chukleteeth theme song. The incredible design of Mr Chuckleteeth and the Teletubbies lookalikes all contribute to the overall spookiness. Incredibly enough, it is also the first episode of season 11 to feature the normal tagline, “The Truth Is Out There“!

The fact that all the elements work is a tribute to Holly Dale’s directing, I really wish she would have been involved in this revival from earlier on.

MOTW vs Mythology

Thus we have here a stand-alone episode that could have been pulled straight from season 2. And that is almost true too in the way Mulder and Scully interact. While it is wonderful to have Mulder and Scully arguing their case to each other again, there is no denying that 25 (26?) years have passed since these characters met and they cannot be behaving in exactly the same way. Phrases like “as we’ve discussed before, people don’t just spontaneously combust” are interesting, since they both acknowledge a precedent, yet omit the fact that at one point Scully was the one opening up to Mulder’s theories and proposing spontaneous human combustion to interpret a murder (a memorable dialogue in 6X17: Trevor)! Can Scully still say “it doesn’t mean that witchcraft has any basis in reality” after all she’s seen? (e.g. 7X14: Theef) While Scully mentions it’s always difficult to autopsy a child, it’s a lost opportunity not to make the connection of the name of the second child victim, Emily, with her own child (5X05 Christmas Carol / 5X07: Emily).

Of course, that kind of radical shift from mythology episode to stand-alone episode and lack of experience accumulation are encoded in the series’ DNA since the beginning. Even so, season 7 was notable and enjoyable for its progressive convergence of worldviews of the two central characters, which could be felt not only in the mythology episodes but in the stand-alones too. It is evident the revival is not attempting such ambitious character development and prefers to return to the roots of the series. Mulder as the archetype of the believer, Scully as the archetype of the skeptic, in a formula that could be repeated in any number of reboots for future generations. Perhaps this schizophrenia is even more noticeable now given the short amount of episodes and our impatience at approaching an end that might be very final. Indeed, one’s enjoyment of episodes such as this one is colored by one’s expectations: more and more of “Golden Age” type of episodes; or advancement of character and plot towards a long-awaited conclusion? While this site’s focus on the mythology definitely tells you my preferences, there are few things to nitpick here. Familiar does not tackle a big current societal concern, it does not cover completely original ground for The X-Files, but — finally! — it works.

11X07: Rm9sbG93ZXJz

The X-Files Season 11 / Event Series 2 : Introduction 11X01: My Struggle III 11X02: This 11X03: Plus One 11X04: The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat 11X05: Ghouli 11X06: Kitten

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Rm9sbG93ZXJz is written by Kristen Cloke (Glen Morgan’s wife and mostly an actor, memorably as the incredible Lara Means in Millennium) and Shannon Hamblin (s11’s script supervisor) and is directed by Glen Morgan (of This fame, among others), however it seems Glen also had some significant input in the story (initially it was described as his, or that the story would be his and the script would be Cloke/Hamblin) and the approach (the lack of dialogue). So while it might look like this is an episode that introduces new blood into the series, the reality is more ambiguous.

The distinguishing mark of this episode is its near complete lack of dialogue, putting it in a long tradition of “experimental” X-Files episodes like 6X03: Triangle or 7X12: X-Cops. After many episodes that feel too busy with dialogue (although less so in season 11), this is a welcome change! In that sense, this episode is The X-Files‘ counterpart to one of the best Millennium episodes, 3×06: The Curse of Frank Black, and to Space: Above and Beyond‘s Who Monitors the Birds? (both Morgan & Wong episodes)!

The subject is technology and artificial intelligence: how pervasive technology has become in all aspects of our daily lives, how we grow distant from each other due to our addiction to technology, how incapacitated we would find ourselves were this technology turn or be turned against us. The episode make use of very modern technology at the border of science fiction — Internet of Things, drones deliveries, driverless cars, automated cooks, Anymal dog-like robots — all of which exist but which still feel very science fictional to 2018 viewers, which is indeed exciting.

And that’s it, really.

It doesn’t do much more with all this than point out what 1X06: Ghost in the Machine did 25 years ago: modern technology can be spooky and dehumanizing. There is something about the A.I./children learning from humans/its parents, and that we should better ourselves or our bad aspects will be reflected back upon us, notably in the teaser (inspired by a real event with a Microsoft experiment in 2016) — however that as well is served with the subtelty of a T-800 crushing a skull.

It doesn’t help that the intrigue is, once more, not a case investigation, but a random event happening on our characters, and that the motivation is nothing more but a vendetta over a waiter’s tip. There were many ways to make a more intense use of the A.I. theme and the lack of dialogue: shoot with a smartphone as if it were found footage; show everything from the point of view of the A.I. and the cameras it can access; force the characters not to use dialogue because they fear surveillance; have the agents discover the A.I. is covering something up and that’s why it’s turning against them; etc. This is a more conventional episode. The themes and the approach are not new to either show, but comparisons to Black Mirror are inevitable — especially with the episode Metalhead in its latest season, which was produced essentially simultaneously as season 11 (featuring a manhunt by similar dog-like robots, little dialogue, and a gorgeous black-and-white photography). A.I. is a topical concept, but instead of spearheading the originality in television drama The X-Files is content to lightheartedly tackle themes better handled by other shows more attuned to the present zeitgeist.

The tip vendetta is a joke of course, like a Twilight Zone punch line, in an episode which, talking about silent film, doesn’t know if it wants to be Buster Keaton or Alfred Hitchcock. Despite the seriousness of the threats, the tone is playful; with all the focus on everyday little worries, once more it feels like we are watching the actors instead of their characters; compared to Morgan’s This, it’s a bit “been there done that”. And honestly, who could have imagined that 2018 would give us Mulder cleaning his nose hair and Scully’s smart vibrator, and labelled this The X-Files?

That being said, the episode as a whole is entertaining and enjoyable to watch, with some good scares! Morgan’s direction is competent and gives us some interesting shots of weirdness, such as Scully at eye level with the delivery drone. There was certainly some thought into the cinematography, with cold whites in the sushi bar (a cold version of Hopper’s “Nighthawks“, re-imagined with robots later in the episode!), darkness and infernal reds in the final confrontation with the robots, and human warmth in the closing scene. Technology-focused episodes like 1X06: Ghost in the Machine, 5X11: Kill Switch or 7X13: First Person Shooter don’t tend to age well despite other qualities; with its interesting ideas treated with little inspiration, at least Rm9sbG93ZXJz will be remembered for its pure entertainment value.

Miscellaneous

  • Tagline change, again: “The Truth Is Out There” in Base64.
  • This episode aired on February 28 — fittingly, March 1 is Future Day, as established in 2012 by transhumanist organization Humanity+!
  • The restaurant is “Forowa”, Japanese transliteration of “Followers”, i.e. the decoded title of the episode from Base64, but also the Twitter followers the A.I. was gathering, as described in the teaser. So right before it was shut down, the A.I. copied itself and decided the best way to make a humble living while getting to know people was to open a fully automatized sushi bar.

  • Despite the “our home” talk in This, this episode clearly establishes that Scully and Mulder live separately. And what a home Scully has! Much more interior design and coldness than could be expected from her — and high tech, obviously just for the purposes of this episode. Why does Scully no longer live in the place we got glimpses of in Founder’s Mutation? Why does Mulder drive Scully’s SUV, forcing Scully to take a taxi? Do they swap cars? Why does Mulder drive Scully’s car but has never visited her place? Do we really want to make sense of this?
  • Mulder’s credit card is “Bigly Credit”: a nod to Trump’s sort-of-neologism “bigly“?
  • Poor blobfish: once upon a time Scully would have lectured Mulder on the scientific reason behind his looks, today she just takes a photo of it.
  • It didn’t take long for obsessed fans to track the model of Scully’s vibrator, then Anderson played the game as well.
  • “This Man” sighting again, behind Mulder & Scully in the final robot showdown! Where is this taking us? Hints that this is all a dream? Related to those who want to contact William?

  • We get glimpses of what Scully and Mulder are reading on their phones: this August 2017 article about Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk warning about AI; and something from Nevada Senator Harry Reid, who in December 2017 was revealed was behind the real DoD-sponsored UFO investigation Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (kudos to the team for inserting that, this happened after the episode was shot). In a double touch of meta, Reid said “The truth is out there” when news broke out, and here Mulder receives a warning message from Reid! (Does the episode take place in December 2017 then? Mulder’s parking ticket mentions a date, June 13 2018, but that seems wrong.)