The X Files Revisited: 4.17 Tempus Fugit, 4.18 Max
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 latest story sees the return of Max Fenig is a bold retelling of season one's Fallen Angel...
Multi-episodes of The X Files tend to follow a similar pattern - the reemergence of the on-going conspiracy, ties to the Cigarette Smoking Man and his shadowy cohorts, the tease of clues to answers that puts both agents lives in danger - but season four's Tempus Fugit / Max works a little differently. The story is largely self-contained with minimal reference to the on-going storyline. Even Scully's cancer is given a passing reference only. In the same manner as season six's Dreamland two-parter this is a feature-length story that is given room to breathe but can be watched without the context of what had come before.
And for that reason it is both largely successful and somewhat frustrating. Given how complex the series has got at this point there is a sense that this has forgotten what has happened and has jumped right back to the season one themes of the military working on alien technology; in fact this story is a sequel to season one's Fallen Angel., which introduced Max Fenig and saw Mulder trying to uncover the truth as military forces tracked down an escaped alien after shooting down a UFO. It is also in the same manner a bigger-scale, bigger-budget remake.
And the premise is an interesting one. Max is abducted mid-flight and the UFO attached to the plane mid-air is shot down by military forces, causing both the alien craft and the plane to crash - killing Max and all 144 passengers. For such a self-contained story, the drama is huge and leads Mulder and Scully into the investigation to discover what happened to the doomed Flight 549. Those early scenes as they traverse the crash site are sensitively handled and in the days before Lost were quite something to behold.
If anything the one thing that seems out of place is Mulder and his theories - walking into the hangar where the investigators are working and boldly announcing that the crash was the result of an aborted alien abduction and a military cover up does come across as the ravings of a madman and I was quite behind lead investigator Mike Millar (a guest starring Joe Spano) as he called Mulder out for trivialising the events.
But low and behold the clues are there, from the eight minutes of lost time on the watch of a deceased victim to the last transmission by the cabin crew claiming something was trying to intercept them. The mystery is what keeps Tempus Fugit going even if it does sag a little in the middle, particularly the obvious cover-up from Sgt. Louis Frisch as the two agents visit a nearby military airbase. With the added conspiracy over the mysterious package Max was carrying and concerns that that might have caused the crash, there is some intriguing stuff at play.
But it is the moment that Sharon, the supposed sister of Max Fenig who came to the two agents with the case, gets abducted that things start to get really exciting. Sgt. Frisch discovers he is being set up by men in black and goes to Scully who agrees to take him back to DC as a witness. Scully, Mulder and Frisch being pursued across the airfield by the mysterious enemy, racing across the runway and under the wheels of a landing plane is one of the most thrilling moments the series has had in quite some time. Their unlikely ally Millar meanwhile encounters a UFO searching the crash site and a terrified Sharon, returned by her abductors. The shot of him standing under the light of the alien craft is another of the show's iconic images.
Tempus Fugit also makes good use of its cliffhanger too. Scully takes Frisch to a bar in DC as they wait for a Federal Marshall but are quickly tracked down. Poor Agent Pendrell,a recurring character for over a year is fatally shot trying to protect Scully from the gunman. I rather liked his character and his unrequited love for Scully and Brendan Beiser gave a very endearing performance that I will miss moving forward.
As for Mulder, he uncovers the second crash site in the middle of a lake and prepares to go diving. On telling Mulder the depth is about 50 or 60ft, the crewman taking him into the waters asks him if he has worked at this depth before. "Once I got a quarter off of the deep end at the wide pool." Mulder grips before plunging into the dark waters, a nice bit of humour among the grim nature of this episode. Discovering an alien among he wreckage, Mulder is blinded by a bright light from above - the UFO returning? It is a great cliff-hanger sadly diluted by the immediate reveal that it is the boat belonging to the mysterious government officials at the start of the next episode. Mulder makes a quick dash to the shore but soon finds himself arrested by a black ops unit.
With Pendrell dead and Frisch taken into custody as the conspiracy blames him for the crashed flight, Scully heads back to free Mulder from captivity. Again, it feels like a complete replay of season one's Fallen Angel on a bigger scale and the exciting, tense final ten minutes of Tempus Fugit feel lost. Scully tells Mulder about the death of their colleague, the supposed truth by Frisch's actions (he disappears from the story at this point), that he accidentally had Flight 549 shot down, that Sharon is not really Max's sister - it's all very exposition-heavy in a tell rather than show kind of way.
I found it really interesting how much focus was placed on Max Fenig in the titular second episode as they visit his trailer and watch his videos about alien abductions and alien conspiracies. As Scully notes, he was very much a kindred spirit for Mulder but I didn't really feel there was that emotional connection to his death that the episode was trying to convey. Rewatching The X Files in the manner I am now, it was just five months since I had seen season one's Fallen Angel and yet for the audience at the time it would have been three years. Too long surely to even remember who was being played here as a pivotal character. Scott Bellis made a great pre-Lone Gunmen but I think the impact would have worked more had he made an appearance every season.
Another issue I have with Max is that the audience will have pretty much guessed what happened to Flight 549 by the time Mulder tells Millar, courtesy of flashbacks. Max's abduction mid-flight, floating in the white light outside the plane as the bewildered passengers watch on is a great moment though and the shooting of the UFO, causing the plane to crash is harrowing to watch, passengers being sucked out while other scream, hug each other and grasp for airbags as the plane plummets.
It is cinematic-quality drama and paves the way for the tense final scene as Mulder takes Max's bag, uncovered in a secret airport storage locker back to DC. The mysterious moustached man who killed Pendrell and covered the conspiracy tracks Mulder onto the flight. I can't say I found this villain all that imposing - perhaps he should have had a twirling handlebar moustache to be look more villainous - though I did like his attempts strike up a friendly conversation with Mulder and the agent seeing right through him. Mulder's watch stopping and the bright light flooding the plane from outside makes for a dramatic conclusion to the story. The moustached man, having claimed the bag containing the alien power source is abducted by aliens and Mulder lands with the rest of the passengers, eight minutes of his memory wiped.
The episode ends with Mulder and Scully standing outside Max's trailer. Scully's final speech to Mulder as she holds the Apollo 11 keychain he got her for her birthday is lovely. Scully notes that Mulder appreciates that there are extraordinary men and women and extraordinary moments when history leaps forward on the backs of these individuals, that what can be imagined can be achieved, that you must dare to dream... Mulder tells her it was a pretty cool keychain; it is perfectly played and a nice moment of bittersweet humour on an otherwise heavy story.
Tempus Fugit / Max is a bold attempt to tell a dramatic self-contained alien abduction story in a novel way and the incidents around the fatal crash certainly work. There are plenty of shocks and surprises and a cinematic scale at times, though the reliance of Max - a character seen once three years ago - to raise the emotional stakes fails to work. The second episode also fails to quite capitalise on the promise of the first, though the scenes on the planes are thrilling. Perhaps however it is a good story to introduce potential viewers too; it certainly demonstrates what great stuff can be done when a story has time to breathe...