The X Files Revisited: 8.18 Vienen
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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. The latest Revisited features a final return of the black oil as Doggett and Mulder are forced to work together...
The black oil was one of the most memorable alien threats within The X Files, first appearing in season three's Piper Maru / Apocrypha two-parter and playing a central role in the first movie. What started off as alien presence that could affect and control its human host was eventually revealed to be a virus that could gestate within, and transform its victim first into a terrifying monster and then eventually a grey alien. But after the revelations in the movie and the resolution of the colonisation arc (mostly) in season six, it had become a thing of the past. But when the opportunity came to pit Doggett and Mulder on a mission together, the black oil was a perfect choice to bridge the gap between the old and new eras. It was that or the bees, but they're far less interesting.
Vienen is The X Files' attempt at a buddy cop movie. Doggett and Mulder continue to be at odds (admittedly I found myself sympathising with Doggett) and this episode addresses that change in the show as they are forced to work together in a setting where there is no escape. The oil rig is an inspired choice, both for the threat (a greedy company unwittingly drilling into the alien menace) and as a big-scale setting off in the wilderness. There are themes of season one's Ice or Darkness Falls. The two agents are cut off from the rest of the world, miles off the coast and they must fight to stop the threat from escaping into the general populace.
In this instance it is the threat of barrells of alien black oil being shipped to the mainland and causing a global pandemic; it's actually apocalyptic but on a small scale and yet it never feels like the audience is being hard done by for budgetary reasons. Part of that is because we already have the knowledge of what it can do (though there is no talk of alien gestation in Vienen), but it isn't necessary to enjoy the episode. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe (a common theme in season eight) suffices and the oil rig setting gives a cinematic feel to the proceedings.
Another, almost retro feel to this episode is the double bluff at the beginning. Two Mexican workers try to commit murder, one (Simon de la Cruz) stealing a carving knife and killing the communications worker before destroying the radio. But however dodgy ground that might be, it's the audience perception of what is happening that is twisted. Simon is actually trying to stop the alien threat escaping; when he is confronted by the deck officer Bo Taylor (M.C. Gainey), he is horribly burned as the Bo's infected body delivers a fatal burst of radiation, something not seen since those season three episodes. It's the washing up of Simon's body on the US coast that prompts Mulder's interest and the opening up of an FBI investigation with the oil company and its executive Martin Ortega (Miguel Sandoval).
This is truly Mulder at the end of his career and while he quickly feels the wrath of Deputy Director Kersh you can't help but feel he dug his own hole. It's interesting how little Mulder cares about his career now; where Doggett is set to the oil rig to investigate the possible black oil threat he betrays orders and gets there ahead of him. Doggett is being shut out and Kersh is being continuously disobeyed. It puts Doggett in an uncomfortable situation and forces both Scully and Skinner to lie for him, something that looks set to damage their careers further when Kersh eventually finds out.
It is great seeing Mulder and Doggett forced to work together though, particularly as it is incredibly rare. We have witnessed the strong working relationship between Doggett and Scully and that bond will continue even after she has left the X Files but this is the rare occasion where Mulder and him are united for a common goal. There is a grudging respect as the episode progresses, as Mulder correctly deduces that the oil workers are lying and Doggett proves his commitment and respect to the X Files by having knowledge of the black oil as part of his initial review of the X Files, rather than waiting for Mulder to fill him in with his wild theories.
The scenes on the oil rig add a certain amount of claustrophobia. Even without the black oil threat, the acknowledgement by Bo that men go crazy out here only fuels the paranoia and isolation.There are moments of horror, such as the moment the black oil pours out of Bo's face onto the unsuspecting new communication technician. It takes a while for the final threat to emerge but when it does and the two agents realise everyone is infected, the stakes are raised for a thrilling final act.
Autopsying the original victim and discovering the black oil, Scully knows that Doggett and Mulder are in danger but she and Skinner are powerless to stop them and the threat of Kersh on their backs only heightens that desperation. The incoming signals - UFOs? - and the possibility of the infected men being shipped mainland add a real ticking clock to the situation. Mulder and Doggett are truly trapped and no amount of FBI training can save them.
The fact that Scully manages to get a helicopter out to save them still comes with its troubles. The infected crewmen are closing in and the rig is exploding around them. It's a great action sequence and Doggett and Mulder jumping into the water as the explosions tear through the platform behind them is that perfect 'buddy cop' moment.
In the end Mulder takes the rap for the destruction of the rig and the loss of oil interests it entails. By saving Doggett, Mulder finally accepts that he is good enough to continue the work on the X Files. Kersh finally has his victory and Mulder is kicked out of the FBI, but not before that final scene where he hands over his life work to Doggett in his old office. It's a momentous moment, the transition of one hero to another, the closing of Duchovny's long-running chapter on the show and the start of the new Doggett era that would continue into season nine. Mulder isn't gone yet, but this is something that has been eight years in the making. No longer will 'spooky Mulder' be an embarrassment to the FBI.
Vienen isn't perfect; the idea that the Mexicans are secretly native Americans with an immunity to the alien virus is borderline controversial and the simplicity of the story doesn't do anything to expand the alien mythology or do anything 'new' with the black oil. But I guess that doesn't matter; this is about the changing of the guard and with a familiar enemy and a great setting, this is one memorable story that shows The X Files could still pull out all the stops and deliver and exciting tale after eight years.