The X Files Revisited: 8.01 Within, 8.02 Without
The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. And then in 2016, it returned for six new episodes, a mix of mythology and case of the week stories that brought Mulder and Scully back the FBI. From the brilliant Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster to the frantic mythology cliff-hanger in My Struggle II, it was largely viewed as a success and there are hopes that season 10 is just the first of more. In the lead up to the revival, The Digital Fix reviewed the pilot episode and then carried on throughout the series, covering the best and most significant episodes of the show including the first movie The X Files: Fight The Future. We now kick off season eight with a major change as Agent Doggett joins the show.
Can a show survive the loss of one of its leading characters? That was the question The X Files had to ask as it approached its eighth season. Fox Mulder was gone, abducted by aliens in the season seven finale Requiem and so too was David Duchovny. While he would appear in about half the season (including cameos in the season two-part opener) he was no longer a series regular and so The X Files was forced to change its format.
Enter John Doggett, played by Terminator 2: Judgement Day star Robert Patrick. Apparently over a 100 actors auditioned for the role of Mulder's replacement, with Patrick winning the role and he certainly makes an impact in his debut episodes. What strikes me is how incredibly likeable he is in the role, no mean feat after seven years of watching Duchovny as Mulder. He talks sense, he is genuine and doesn't hide behind bureaucracy. He might be the man charged with the manhunt for Mulder but he isn' so aggressive that he disrespects Scully; in fact for most of the two-parter it is Scully that comes off as disrespectful to him. Admittedly his introduction is a little underhanded, 'interviewing Scully' by pretending to be a casual agent in the chair next to her, but a well-aimed cup of water to the face from Scully puts an end to that.
We've seen how great a performance Gillian Anderson can deliver over the years and with season eight she firmly takes the lead for the final two years. She absolutely delivers, playing a woman broken by the loss of Mulder but determined to do what she can to find him. That grief is bottled and pushed down but she is able to convey that toughness and vulnerability incredibly well. When she fights back at Doggett you genuinely feel her hurt and that despair that no one is ready to really acknowledge the truth.
Except Skinner. He is a changed man in these episodes after encountering the UFO in the season seven finale. He now believes, perhaps a little frustratingly more than Scully and there is an interesting dynamic to his partnership with Scully over these two episodes; more friend and partner than boss. But that is because there is a new man in charge of both of them. Alvin Kersh is now Deputy Director and he is as cold and ruthless as he was in season six. He claims to want to know the truth about Mulder but forbids any mention of UFOs or aliens. Scully and Skinner are both trapped, searching desperately on their own for Mulder by tracking UFO activity across the US (with a little help from the Lone Gunmen) and butting heads with Doggett's task force.
One thing that doesn't quite ring right is the revelation that Mulder was dying in season seven as a result of his brain surgery in The Sixth Extinction - the same surgery that was killing the now deceased Cigarette Smoking Man. There is something rather grim about Doggett's discovery of the tombstone he was having built, containing the names of his father, mother, Samantha and himself...with 2000 as his date of death. Future episodes such as The Gift will explore this further but it seems like a left-field plot point from Chris Carter.
After a lot of interrogations, Kersh exerting his authority, Scully finding her phones are tapped (something Doggett seems fully unaware of), and everyone believing Mulder is alive and taking evidence, the episode heads to Arizona. Doggett's man hunt and Skinner and Scully's own investigation lead them to the same person; child prodigy and alien / human hybrid Gibson Praise (Jeff Gulka). We last saw Praise hidden in the power plant with an alien creature in season six opener The Beginning and two years later we find him studying in a school for the deaf (presumably because reading minds is more than enough) and living in a cave in the desert away from prying eyes. But someone is already there to claim him, leading to the first episode's cliff-hanger, Doggett confronting Mulder as he holds a panicked Praise in the desert.
Of course this isn't really Mulder and Without quickly turns the search for Mulder into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque story as the shape shifting alien bounty hunter (Brian Thompson) returns to track down Gibson Praise (who escapes his first attempt) and remove all evidence of alien interference. First fake Mulder throws himself off a hundred foot cliff to Doggett's horror and then he impersonates Scully in a great double-bluff moment as he / she turns on an unsuspecting agent and tries to rip his throat out. If there was a level of distrust before, it is greatly amplified by the bounty hunter's presence among them, even resulting on allies Scully and Skinner turning on each other. Scully's claims that it is an alien shape-shifting bounty hunter fall on deaf ears, but that's the dynamic of the show now; Doggett the skeptic, Scully the believer. It is not always successful this season but after all she has seen, it is nice to see Scully leading Mulder's cause and opening her eyes to what she has witnessed.
Throughout both episodes there are shocking scenes of Mulder tortured on an alien craft, his cheeks impaled, drilling into the rook of his mouth, a saw slicing through his chest. The episode plays on the idea that these are Scully's nightmares only, flashing up throughout the first episode, but when Gibson Praise sees them too, that nightmare becomes all too real. All thoughts of Mulder willingly going off to meet aliens in Requiem are crushed as we realise he is going through something really horrific. But it also adds to the drama of their search for Mulder, something that adds some well-needed momentum to the series after it seemed to come to a sputtering halt almost a season and a half ago.
The second episode is stronger than the first as the bounty hunter adds a very real threat. The desperation in Scully grows; seeing her desperately walking through the desert at night with a torch, calling for Mulder, she is a woman at wits end and Anderson is engaging throughout. There is a moment where she perfectly captures the gasp of wonder as a bright light approaches in the sky - be it Mulder or the UFO that proves his beliefs - and a crushing defeat when it is revealed as a helicopter...with Doggett forcing her to leave. And that's when the real tragedy occurs; as the helicopter takes off we see the UFO through the stasis field and Mulder screaming her name. She is just feet away from him but she never knows and it will be months before they are reunited.
The final showdown in the hospital is gripping. Skinner almost dies, his eyes burned as he comes face to face with the alien bounty hunter and Scully engages in a brutal, desperate fight with him to save Gibson, shooting him in the neck and destroying him. Of course, with her the believer and Doggett now the skeptic, the bounty hunter dissolves to a green, bubbly ooze on the floor before he can arrive to help her.
Without ends with Skinner and Scully hospitalised and Doggett assigned as her partner on the X Files. Over the course of these two episodes he certainly proves his worth, particularly when he heeds Skinner's words that he has been set up to fail and confronts the show's new villain Kersh. While I have seen season eight and nine at least once before, I remain eager to see this new partnership between Doggett and Scully evolve.
And that's where this opener is a success. It might be new with a flashier title sequence and a new lead character but it proves that The X Files has a chance of surviving without Fox Mulder. And with his abduction providing a new sense of direction, the show appears to have found a new lease of life. But let's see how that works when there is no David Duchovny in sight...