The X-Files: “The 6th Extinction”

Extinction or Extermination?

by Sarah Stegall

Copyright 1999 by Sarah Stegall. All rights reserved.

I’m dying, you idiot.” — Fox Mulder to the Cigarette-Smoking Man

“Biogenesis” written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, directed by Rob Bowman.
“The Sixth Extinction” written by Chris Carter, directed by Kim Manners.
“The Sixth Extinction: Amor Fati” written by David Duchovny and Chris Carter, directed by Michael Watkins.

Something really is in danger of dying on The X-Files, and it’s not just Fox Mulder.

The last episode of the sixth season of The X-Files (“Biogenesis”) started with the most visually stunning opening sequence I have seen to date, with images of burgeoning, seemingly unstoppable life arising and decaying and arising again. Over this rich montage we hear Scully’s neutral recounting of the tumultuous history of life on earth, emphasizing its precariousness with a clinical reiteration of our many brushes with extinction. Editor Heather MacDougall and Director of Photography Bill Roe are to be congratulated on an outstanding piece of work. This is, after all, what photography is all about–the evocation of emotion through images. That opening montage alone earned “Biogenesis” a sunflower seed in its first five minutes.

From that lovely seed, however, a strange mutation grows. An oddly-inscribed, weirdly-behaving hunk of metal is found embedded in continental bedrock on the shore of West Africa, and is brought to America by a researcher who believes it is evidence of the alien origin of life on Earth. His murder brings Mulder and Scully into the case and resurrects a host of old friends (Deep Throat), ambiguous allies (Michael Kritschgau) and enemies (the Cigarette-Smoking Man). As soon as Mulder is exposed to a rubbing of that metal artifact, he begins hearing voices, becoming increasingly disoriented. To find out what caused this illness, Scully goes to Africa herself, and discovers that the metal shard is only a piece of a larger artifact: an entire spacecraft, buried in the sands of the Ivory Coast, covered in similar writing.

After this promising beginning, the following two episodes, “The Sixth Extinction” and “The Sixth Extinction: Amor Fati” open the seventh and probably last season of The X-Files by separating Scully and Mulder, and putting Mulder’s life and sanity in peril. Scully announces to Assistant Director Skinner, in a scene that should have been scored for trumpets, that Mulder’s illness is extraterrestrial in origin. Skinner (in a bravura performance by Mitch Pileggi) becomes a frightened but determined defender of his bad-boy agent, but fails to save him. The serpentine Agent Fowley apparently seduces Mulder, then betrays him to the Cigarette-Smoking Man. By the end of “Amor Fati”, we are given to understand that the stakes are far higher than merely Mulder’s soul: the fate of the world is at stake as we are warned of an imminent alien invasion. Mulder himself has become the proof of the truth in The X-Files, or so he believes. His Messiah complex is made even more obvious (nothing like hitting us over the head with it) in a dream sequence that mirrors Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”.

I am unmoved by all of this.

We have had, in the last six years, revelations and denouements of this “mythology” without number, until I am numb with it all, emotionally exhausted by a story line which persistently refuses to yield any resolution. I am bored with this endless and futile unraveling of a Gordian knot of false clues. The X-Files was never about UFOs or aliens or abductions or weird science; those were only the outward flourishes. The real story of the X-Files is about paranoia, about how in the midst of one of the greatest peacetime economic expansions in our history, when we are not threatened at home by poverty or abroad by war, we are distrustful of our government and unsure of our place in the universe. In a relentlessly materialistic culture, we wonder what’s out there in the dark. God? The Devil? The Blair Witch? In the early days of the series, we didn’t even know who not to trust–was it the government? Big business? The Illuminati? It was the very ambiguity of The Enemy that lent mystery and excitement to the story line: that excitement was missing throughout most of “The Sixth Extinction”.

The other story of The X-Files was the remarkable relationship between the “feminine” mind of Fox Mulder (intuitive, metaphysical, impulsive) and the “masculine” mind of Dana Scully (rational, logical, analytical). His passion and her self possession balanced each other even in the middle of some pretty high-level sexual tension. They were the two halves of a delicious whole, playing off one another’s strengths. Whatever happened to those two? They disappear throughout most of the three hours of these episodes, returning only at the end. Rescued by Scully from a fate worse than imbecility, Mulder recovers from brain surgery in remarkable time, and acknowledges in one tender final scene how important she is to him. But it comes too late, and it’s too little. The teasing banter that leavened the self-importance built into the premise is missing. The usually breakneck gallop slows to a funeral pace. The humor that mitigated Mulder’s intensity was MIA.

Increasingly, The X-Files is about itself. It is turning inward, eating its own tail (tale?) in a claustrophobic story line that cannot be resolved, that endlessly frustrates, that holds no hope and frankly, no interest. Carter could dump his whole hand on the table and reveal every detail of this mythology, and by now no one would believe a word of it. I don’t care any longer who is concealing what from whom. I don’t want Mulder turning into a Martian–could he get any weirder than he already is? Mulder must remain an ordinary man, a character I can identify with as a hapless pawn of The Machine. But Mulder is turning into an Ubermensch, a man who can trade bodies and come out unscathed, who can be infected by black viruses and miraculously (and inexplicably) survive, who is now able to hear voices and predict the future. What next–will he leap tall buildings at a single bound?

This apotheosis of Fox Mulder is proceeding on an ever more obvious track. By the time we reach the end of “Amor Fati”, Mulder is crucified, complete with crown of thorns, on an operating table. It is clear that Duchovny and Carter structured “Amor Fati” along the lines of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”. The hero rescued at the last moment from death, the dream of a “normal” family life, the constant reiteration that he need no longer try to save the world, the revelation that his failure in his mission doomed the world and his best friend’s (Scully) admonition that “this is not what you were supposed to do”, are all derived from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It is equally obvious that Duchovny and Carter missed the point of that novel. The whole intent of “The Last Temptation of Christ” was to show Christ as a true martyr, one who knew wholly and completely what life he was giving up, what pleasures and perils and ordinary events of a human life he would relinquish if he fulfilled his mission. At the end of “Last Temptation”, Christ fully accepts his mission and consents to his death, dying in triumph. An unconscious man strapped to an operating table, no matter how vivid his dreams, cannot consent to his fate. Mulder is not a martyr but a victim, which makes him pitiable, not heroic.

So why go through all this? What’s the point? An homage to Scorsese? Wouldn’t an homage to Hitchcock be more appropriate for The X-Files? Is Duchovny showing off that Ivy-league education, or is Carter looking to gild The X-Files with the patina of a literary masterwork? There must be more to our experience of The X-Files than beautiful photography and editing, more than the allusion to literature that quotes without real understanding. There must be more than mere character and episode; there must be a sense of progression. This is a dramatic necessity, yet the very nature of episodic television works against it. Over the past six years we have not really seen much natural growth or change in Mulder and Scully. Any “character development” we’ve seen, such as Mulder’s temporary and wholly unbelievable conversion to skepticism last year, has been reset to zero after a few episodes. But now Mulder develops a martyr complex?

If these episodes leave me profoundly unsatisfied, it is certainly not the fault of the cast. Gillian Anderson turns in a wonderful performance as Scully struggles with the plain and solid fact of an actual UFO sitting in front of her on a beach. Her emotional journey from despair to hope is carefully delineated in a mature and controlled performance. David Duchovny has little to do other than lie flat and sweat dramatically, but in his temptation sequence he shows warmth, vulnerability, even bashfulness after a night with Diana Fowley. Was it Duchovny’s own recent experience with fatherhood that led Fowley to challenge Mulder to “plant your feet in the world and become a father”? His moment with Scully at his door, re-establishing their profound trust in one another, was sensitive without being mushy. Well done, sir.

So I remain hopeful that this series will conclude with an emotional climax, if not a satisfying narrative one. If the writers can resist the urge to recomplicate the already recondite story line, if they can refrain from bogging us down in an increasingly implausible and unsupportable fable, this series could end with a triumphant finale that nails its place in television history. It’s really up to Chris Carter. This is the final season. If you’re going to “solve” a mystery, now’s the time to nail that sucker to the floor and don’t let it up again. It’s time to start reaching for closure. Chris, don’t let the magic die now.

These three episodes earn a collective three sunflower seeds.