The X Files Revisited: 2.05 Duane Barry, 2.06 Ascension
The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. Now eight years after the second movie The X Files: I Want To Believe, the show is returning for six new episodes in 2016. Here at The Digital Fix, we are going to work our way through each season, reviewing some of the big episodes – and both movies – across the years in the build up to season ten. With 202 episodes, there is simply too much to cover every episode; instead we'll pick the story highlights of each year. The first two-parter of the series sees a pivotal turning point in the show as Mulder loses his closest ally...
Gillian Anderson announcing her pregnancy towards the end of season one certainly shook up the dynamic of the show. Either they could write a baby into the series, which would have taken The X Files in a direction that would break the winning-format it had established, write out one of the two series leads out for an extended period of time, or work around it. And the third option is the route Chris Carter took, delivering a masterpiece in storytelling.
The seeds were sown in the closure of the X Files in the season one finale, forcing Mulder and Scully apart for the first part of season two. It meant a reduced role for Anderson but it worked; her pregnancy could by hid by limited screentime, autopsy tables and sitting her at a desk researching while Mulder took on all the action. But of course, there was always going to come a point in time when she could not be part of the show. And that was where her abduction came in. While Anderson was technically only absent for one episode, the story was structured in a way that her absence felt much longer.
Starting with Duane Barry, we are introduced to the titular character in a flashback that sees him abducted in his own home. Blinding white light, alien beings hovering around him, the UFO poised over his house this is the most overt scene yet featuring possible alien life. As to whether it is all real or part of his delusions becomes part of the mystery as the episode progresses, where we follow him hearing voices in a psychiatric hospital years later and making a violent escape.
Still working with Krycek, Mulder is called into action by his new partner after Barry holds up a travel agents on his way to take his doctor to an abduction site. Given his sex symbol status in the 90's David Duchovny is virtually exploited here, getting out of the pool in red speedos. It is certainly something my wife appreciated watching it!
What develops is a tense psychological thriller as Mulder is brought up to speed by CCH Pounder's Lucy Kazdin, overseeing the hostage situation. Kazdin is a formidable presence in the episode, using Mulder to help understand the madness of Duane Barry while remaining cautious of Mulder's attempts to connect to Barry over the phone as Mulder expresses his own beliefs in alien life.
And she gets one of the best moments of the episode where an eager Krycek asks her if there is anything he can do. "Krycek, have you got your notepad? ...Grande, two percent cappuccino with vanilla." His face dropping is priceless, but considering we know now that he is a villain, it isn't as easy to feel sorry for him any more.
The real star if the episode though is Steve Railsback as Duane Barry. He plays the character as highly deranged, violent and paranoid but but doesn't verge on hammy. The beauty of much of this episode is the debate over whether anything he is saying is real. Mulder naturally is absorbed in the story of this repeated UFO abductee and even volunteers to go into the travel agent disguised as a paramedic to help save the hostages but also find the truth. He buys into everything Duane Barry says and the flashes to his horrific abductions only heighten the drama. Alien devices drilling holes in his teeth with laser while strapped to metal trellis delivers possibly the most terrifying dental treatment ever seen on TV!
This taut psychological thriller develops further as Scully arrives, claiming that "Duane Barry is not what Mulder thinks he is." The Duane Barry Scully sees is not the alien abductee that Mulder sees; he is a pathological liar, suffering from severe delusions, and violent reinactions of his fantasies after a bullet to the head, destroying the moral centre of his brain. Science versus faith at its very best.
"Sometimes when you want to believe so hard, you end up looking too hard." Scully tells Mulder after Barry has been taken down and hospitalised. It sums up their relationship and quest for the truth to this point. Mulder wanted to believe so hard he put himself on the line to get it. And yet what makes this episode so interesting is that the truth continues to remain vague. Barry tells Mulder about the implants in his gums, sinus cavity and abdomen - the ravings of a mad man? - but later the doctors finds metal fragments in those very places and drills holes in his teeth. Again the audience has to ask - did he fit his delusions around the events that caused them - Shrapnel from Vietnam perhaps - or did aliens really abduct and experiment on him?
The truth, rather shockingly is the later. When Scully accidentally tests the metal fragment at a supermarket checkout and brings up a strange barcode, she uncovers something far more insidious, something that leads a psychotic Duane Barry to her very door. As a storm rages outside, Scully nervously leaves a message on Mulder's answering machine, a call she never finishes. For the first time in the show's history, The X Files ends with 'To Be Continued...'
Ascension picks up with Mulder listening to Scully's message and frantically rushing to her apartment. The audiences gets glimpses of the violent attack on Scully, used to recount a very physical scene around Anderson's pregnancy. From there the tension racks up as Mulder desperately searches for his missing partner before it is too late.
This episode structures three brilliant threads. Duane's journey to the summit of Skyland Mountain (the use of Nick Cave's Red Right Hand is a brilliant, evocative piece of music), killing a poor police highwayman while Scully lies bound and gagged in the boot.
The second is Mulder's pursuit, uncovering the clues to Barry's destination and trying to get to the mountain summit ahead of him. The third is Krycek playing the loyal partner to Mulder while secretly reporting to the Cigarette Smoking Man and blocking his attempts to save Scully.
Mulder taking the cable car up Skyland Mountain is thrilling. Only 45 minutes behind Barry, Mulder takes a cable car to the top of the mountain despite the operator's protests. Racking up the speed to the very limit, the cables looking ready to snap, the car rattling past each tower as night closes in; it was surely nail-biting stuff on original viewing and loses very little on repeat . With Mulder almost at the top, Krycek finally strikes, killing the operator and stopping the cable car with Mulder inside it. Unperturbed, Mulder climbs on top of the cable car, forcing Krycek to start it moving again. It is a real breath in your throat moment as Mulder hangs perilously off the side. You can almost imagine a ticking 24-style clock...
And of course, the biggest twist is that Mulder is too late. As he reaches Barry's abandoned car at the summit, wind and rain raging around him, he discovers Scully's bloody crucifix necklace in the boot, the only thing left of his partner. A blinding white light fills the sky and he loses. A maniacal Duane Barry rages that the aliens took her - and so Gillian Anderson's maternity leave begins...
Like Duane Barry, Ascension raises a number of questions in the wake of Scully's disappearance. Did Duane Barry kill Scully? Who are the men in black watching him? Do they know where Scully is? Was it a UFO or a helicopter that Mulder witnessed at the top of the mountain? Is it the military or aliens? Exhausted and enraged, Mulder almost kills Duane, with David Duchovny at the top of his game as a man who is losing everything, defeated at every turn.
The episode does lose focus a little after the initial pursuit, instead redefining where the show is at. There are some rather vivid flashes to Scully comatose on an alien ship (including use of her real-life pregnancy), but it is never clear whether this is real or what is going through Mulder's mind.
The end game with Krycek comes surprisingly quickly (Nicholas Lea only spends three episodes as Mulder's partner). By killing Duane Barry with poison and framing Mulder he extends his hand too far and when Mulder finds one of the Cigarette Smoking Man's Morley's in the glovebox of Krycek's car, he realises too late that there was an enemy in his midst. Krycek vanishes as mysteriously as he appeared, though he would return more badass than ever.
But there is a bittersweet ending to the episode. Despite losing Scully, Mulder gets the one thing back he was looking for - the X Files. Skinner proves his worth, making a momentous decision to help Mulder find answers even at the potential cost of his own career. Asked what he can do about the men like the Cigarette Smoking Man and Krycek who can control, manipulate and kill at will Skinner tells Mulder "The only thing I can do. As of now I am reopening the X Files. That's what they fear the most" It is a great moment, even if Mulder can't see it yet.
Ascension ends with hope. A returning Sheila Larken as Margaret Scully discusses Scully's religious beliefs with Mulder and they vow not to give up. She asks Mulder to give Scully's crucifix back to her when he finds her. That path might seem vast, but the show would go on and Scully would return.
Next time we'll skip the rather arduous 3 and and jump to Scully's return in One Breath, a very different episode to the above, as the abduction story reaches its dramatic conclusion...