The X Files Revisited: 9.07 John Doe
The X Files ran for nine seasons between 1993 and 2002, spanned two movies and then came back from the dead in 2016 for a revival series of 6 episodes. In many ways, the show is as much a cultural phenomenon as it ever was and The Digital Fix has been looking back at key episodes across the show’s run starting with the pilot episode, reviewing numerous classic stories and the first movie The X Files: Fight The Future. Now we're in the final stretch of our revisited as we cover the last season of the original run, the second movie and look back at 'season 10' a year on. John Doe is a surprise win for a much maligned season nine, proving there was still life in the show yet...
Poor John Doggett suffered in season nine of The X Files. After delivering an outstanding debut in season eight as the no nonsense, cool headed, respectful FBI agent, a man Scully called 'beyond reproach', it all seemed to fall apart in his final year on the show. Instead of leading the series alongside Monica Reyes, he found himself fighting for the limelight as the season focused heavily on the spectre of Mulder and the mystery of William. What was worse was how his character was written; that great relationship with Scully felt strained for no reason at all and he was shoe horned into the rogue agent 'out to fight the establishment' role that had become Mulder's central identity. Considering he was a replacement for Mulder without being a Mulder clone, this new focus did him no favours.
But as soon as Scully, William, the shadow of Mulder and the super solider threat was put to one side, audiences began to get glimpses of how good a show The X Files could have been under Doggett and Reyes. John Doe is a prime example of a good episode in a lacklustre era; it's a role only Robert Patrick could have delivered. While you can imagine Mulder in the same storyline - washed up in Mexico with no memory of who he is or what he is doing there - it suits Doggett's gruffer, no nonsense character so much better.
It starts with the rather ominous DAY 1 as Doggett wakes up dazed and confused, no memory of who he is in a rough-looking Mexican town controlled by the Cartel, discovering a local stealing the trainers from his feet. With no way to prove who he is, he finds himself locked in prison for the next seven days before he is given the chance to work for local Domingo (Frank Roman), fixing a bus in order to transport immigrants across the US border. It is interesting to see that even when he is stripped of his identity, Doggett remains at heart a good man, refusing to go as far to commit any crimes, searching for the truth, acting in the down to earth manner we have always seen him. He refuses to fully embrace the darkness gripping this town and he only kills when he finds himself under threat by another local who learns he is FBI.
Only fifteen minutes in, after his dangerous and seemingly hopeless situation has been established, does the episode expand to incorporate the rest of the cast. Scully yet again is given a thankless task, dialling in her pay cheque in a scene where she accompanies Skinner to a meeting with Kersh to help continue the search for Doggett. This and her scene to Texas to give Reyes information on a potential Doggett sighting could easily have been done by Skinner; again nothing is added by having Gillian Anderson in this episode. The scene with Kersh is interesting though, the deputy director explaining why the search is being called off. Like the last episode Trust No 1's paranoia thriller storyline, Kersh's line "FBI’s resources are already taxed by National Security concerns. There are political realities I have to account for." is obviously influenced by the fallout of the recent 911 attacks. It enables The X Files to be grounded in reality, something that would be taken to disturbing lengths in season 10 opener My Struggle
Reyes also gets another well-needed step in her development, her upbringing in Mexico allowing her to navigate the shady dealings of corrupt police officials to find her way to Doggett even when he doesn't know who she is. Through her we learn that Doggett was tracking a missing Texas official who may have been 'disappeared' by the Cartel, though being an episode of The X Files this is more than just a bullet to the back of the head and body disposed in a ditch somewhere. Zitto Kazann's Caballero is the supernatural twist here, a man that can steal someone's memories by touching the other person (I liked how digging his fingernails into the temples of his victims left the crescent-shaped mark Doggett discovers on himself). The Cartel's use of Caballero's abilities is an ingenious one; after all if there is no murder, how can they ever be held accountable?
The mystery of what happened to Doggett is therefore both startlingly simple and very effective. There is no convoluted tale of mind control of government experimentation, just a story of one man feeding off the memories of another like a vampire. Vince Gilligan's script combines the right mix of mystery and drama as Doggett's situation grows more perilous and Breaking Bad collaborator Michelle MacLaren makes her excellent directing debut here. The harsh grittiness of the Mexico town almost washed out by the intense yellow filter of the sun makes the setting both absorbing and believable; not for a moment does this feel like it was filmed in Los Angeles. The makeup too is terrific, with Doggett looking more haggard as the days progress.
In contrast, the dreamlike flashbacks to his son Luke as he slowly begins to recover his memories are a nice visual contrast, while the reminder of his son's murder provides a nice hook for the conclusion to that mystery in later season nine episode Release. The most interesting use of the mystery behind the abduction of Mulder's sister Samantha was when it ignored all the alien and conspiracy storyline in season four's Paper Hearts. Equally so, the inclusion of the death of Luke into this episode feels like a good use of that mystery as it brings Doggett back to the present.
By day thirteen, Reyes finds Doggett in the barn after his violent confrontation with Domingo as the corrupt local police close in. It's at this moment his memories really start to return and Robert Patrick delivers a heartbreaking performance as he relives his son's murder once again. The bond between Reyes and Doggett really comes to the fore - it was a great move to make her part of the investigation into Luke's murder as it gives them a shared past that can be used here in the present. Together they work together, Doggett driving the bus backwards through the police cars before it spectacularly capsizes. Skinner arriving with the Mexican federal authorities is a great fist pumping moment as he saves Doggett and Reyes from certain death. It's a great use of his character that has also felt largely sidelined this season, despite finally appearing in the credits.
The final scene where Doggett confronts Caballero is a great moment. "Why would you want to remember? You can't tell me you're happier now because you recall your life. I saw it all. So much pain... Why would you want to struggle so long and hard to get that pain back? the villain asks. "Because it's mine" Doggett responds. His character has been largely reduced by Scully and the super soldier storyline this season but it is moments like this that prove just how good an actor Patrick was, and how essential Doggett was to the final two years on The X Files.
John Doe is a bright spark in a less than bright season, proving that when The X Files strips everything back and focuses on its core characters, it can really work. It is another episode that proved the show could have worked without Mulder and Scully; Doggett, and to a lesser extent Reyes, shining here. Alas, this is not the kind of episode The X Files was remembered for in its latter years. For me, this was only my second viewing of John Doe and what a pleasant surprise it was.