When a television series grows in depth and complexity, more often than not, there's no going back.
The X-filesCast: Gillian Anderson, Robert Patrick, David Duchovny, Mitch Pileggi
Subtitle: The Complete Eighth Season
First date: 2000
US Release Date: 2003-11-04
We open on a close-up of someone surrounded by goop. The camera twists around slowly, and eventually pulls back to reveal that this goopy man is our hero Mulder (David Duchovny). He squirms and gasps. The camera cuts to Scully (Gillian Anderson), waking abruptly in bed, alone. Goopy Mulder was all a dream. Or was he?
And with that, Season Eight of The X-Files is off and stumbling. Yes, this is the season where David Duchovny flew the coop and his alter ego, Fox Mulder, found himself non-coincidentally abducted by aliens. With Mulder went the show's centerpiece, the ever-tense and well-developed relationship between Agents Mulder and Scully, boy believer and girl skeptic, the sexiest noncouple of the '90s.
The post-Mulder episodes are on the dull side. And the season as a whole is a serviceable study of how quickly a good show can go bad -- the fragile nature of good television. The X Files' slow death lends the series' lifespan some symmetry; it was given a year or two develop and find its audience, and then a year or two to disintegrate and lose it again.
Mulder remained a background presence throughout Season Eight, replaced in the foreground by Agent John Doggett (Robert Patrick), a hard-facts man who clashes with Scully, now a full-fledged believer after years of hanging out with her better half. We meet Doggett in a scene of thudding obviousness in "Within" (8.1), as he makes casual conversation with Scully while she waits to be questioned by her superiors concerning Mulder's disappearance. Because Doggett doesn't introduce himself, it takes her a while to realize that his is the questioning.
When Scully reacts to this deception by throwing water in his face, it's not shocking or vindicating; it kinda seems like a waste of water. Doggett isn't what you'd call a galvanizing presence. He's barely any presence at all; the role is written as square, with a hint of bland menace. Commentaries and other supplemental materials on the DVD display an odd affection for the character. Was Doggett beloved by the writers for his ability to blend into the background?
Robert Patrick wouldn't be my first choice for an actor to match wits with Gillian Anderson, but he's been fine in any number of B movies, and his career-making A-lister, Terminator 2; he's just miscast here. To paraphrase the famous line about Jimmy Stewart and Ronald Reagan, Bruce Campbell for sci-fi hero; Robert Patrick for supporting G-man.
In "The Truth About Season 8," a documentary included in the DVD set, behind-the-scenes folks (series creator Chris Carter, longtime episode director Kim Manners and others) draw a parallel between Doggett's role in the FBI and Patrick's role in the series, portraying them both as steadfast and tough, "doing the work" in the face of adversity. Scully's initial reluctance to work with Doggett matched fans' initial (strike that: continual) reluctance to warm to Patrick (or, more fairly, the lack of Mulder).
But continuing The X-Files wasn't necessarily noble work. It was not an act of artistic integrity or even charity, but a lazy deal with Fox: you keep paying us (and Fox, despite the show's declining ratings, seemed to want to turn it into an overlong run like 90210's) and we'll keep churning 'em out.
The documentary subtly illustrates the lack of interest in Doggett and his partner-to-be Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish). From the doc's overview of the season (heavy with footage of Anderson and Duchovny), you'd think they produced about 10 episodes, not 21 (of those 21, Duchovny appeared in about half, although mostly in fleeting glimpses).
An abbreviated 10-episode season might've been a good idea. One genuinely enjoyable Doggett adventure, "Redrum" (8.6), is predictably tangential to the character himself. The focus is on a lawyer (Joe Morton) who awakes imprisoned for the murder of his wife and proceeds to live the past three days of his life in reverse order. It's for occasional, minor gems like this that the Season Eight DVD set may be worth a look, though by diehard fans only; most of the other stand-alones, like the dopey bat-creature feature "Patience" (8.3), are gory retreads.
In its earlier years, the series showcased stories so consistently compelling that the Mulder-Scully sexual tension was often a satisfying side dish, rather than the series' main course. But Duchovny picked an inopportune time to begin his exit -- or rather, he picked a perfectly smart time, as the show was showing its age. Without the interplay between its original stars, The X-Files was forced to rely on its sci-fi lockbox of terrors and curiosities, a box that soon revealed itself damn near empty.
The producers also insisted on continuing the "serial" component of the show's storyline, with heavy emphasis on Scully's pregnancy and the ongoing search for Mulder. These stories lacked emotional resonance without full participation of Duchovny and, later, Anderson (both of whom, in Seasons Six and Seven, branched out to write and direct some of the show's strongest episodes). And so the show became a victim of its own success, perpetuating nonsensical plot twists and expansive conspiracies long after its creative goop had dried up.
The gradual introductions of Agents Doggett and Reyes as the new investigation team seems, as discussed in the DVD documentary, intended as a back-to-basics move. The X-Files would once again become a show about two FBI agents in spooky situations. The show's roots as a Twilight Zone-like near-anthology, heavy on monsters and guest stars with few recurring characters, are worthy. But the show had long since moved into more complicated territory. (Season Six, for example, deals almost exclusively with the Mulder-Scully relationship, as episodes like "Arcadia" [6.15] play like a twisted sci-fi romantic comedy of workplace tension.)
In its final two years, the only real tension emerged from the show's desire to move on from the Mulder-Scully years without quite abandoning them altogether. Season Eight finishes up with "Existence" (8.21), which is capped by a personal moment between Mulder and Scully so tender and lovely that it could've served as a nice closer to the series, or at least to those two characters. But of course the show sputtered along for another year, with Scully popping up less frequently and Mulder only returning for the less-than-grand finale.
Contrary to the beliefs of fickle sci-fi fans (or television fans in general), eager to point out exactly when a show "jumped the shark," changes in direction (or even personnel) can be healthy, and The X-Files successfully weathered several. But the nature of Season Eight's changes were its undoing; when a television series grows in depth and complexity, more often than not, there's no going back.