The fifth season of The X-Files saw the series reach the pinnacle of its success. Before production on the season even began, the cast and crew were filming the first X-Files movie (officially titled simply as The X-Files, or The X-Files: Fight the Future in some territories). While filmed before the series, the movie was set afterwards, which meant that the season had an explicit end point to work towards. The original plan was for the series to end with the fifth season, moving into a movie franchise (as an echo of this, the final episode of the season is named "The End"). However, the series' success worked against it in this respect. The highest-rated season of the entire series, this season showed that The X-Files as a television show was just too much of a moneymaker for Fox, and a sixth and seventh season were rapidly greenlit to follow the film. The was, arguably, a mistake, and the series never really reached the heights of its first five seasons.
The time that had to be invested in the film had repercussions for the production of the fifth season. Reshoots for the movie continued well into the filming of the series, meaning the stars were unavailable for large stretches. Some episodes were written to limit the involvement of Mulder and Scully, and two episodes – 5.3, "Unusual Suspects" and 5.15, "Travelers" – don't feature Gillian Anderson at all. Showrunner Chris Carter worked heavily on the season, writing seven episodes and directing one, while Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban were appointed co-executive producers and wrote several episodes each. Tim Minear, since best known for his work for Mutant Enemy (on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly) and more recently for American Horror Story and Feud, was made executive story editor for this season alone and wrote his only two episodes for the series. Billy Brown and Dan Angel also joined for one season as story editors and contributed one script together. There were also several guest writers, including such notable authors as Stephen King, William Gibson and Tom Maddox, showing how well-regarded the series had become in science fiction and horror circles.
The season kicks off with the two-part story "Redux," a Carter-scripted episode that ties up some loose ends of the ongoing mythology while raising a new ream of questions. The episodes continue directly on from the season four finale "Gethsemane," beginning with Mulder having faked his suicide having been convinced that all evidence of alien infiltration on Earth has been faked. Belief is a central theme of the two-parter, and indeed the season, with both Mulder and Scully wrestling with their beliefs and what it means to them, both on the verge of losing their faiths – Mulder in the existence of extraterrestrial life, Scully in her Christian faith. Mulder's revelations are imposed from the outside, fed to him by Michael Kritschgau (John Finn, Cold Case, EZ Streets), a DoD employee privee to the secrets of the shadow government that has infiltrated the military and the FBI. According to him, the shadow government – the Syndicate – has been using the myth of alien abduction to cover up their own nefarious experiments. While he makes some good points about how the harder something is denied, the more people believe it is true, it's still too far in for the viewer to truly question the existence of the aliens that have been seen in the series.
Scully's crisis of faith, on the other hand, is more realistic, brought on by her struggle with the cancer she has been suffering from for half a season. In the second part Scully is seemingly on her deathbed, making peace with her family but struggling to do so with her God, a genuine crisis of faith that is beautifully performed by Anderson. While she supports Mulder's deception and lies for him, and learns that her cancer may have been created as a punishment for her support of him, she doesn't lose her faith in his integrity. In the end, Scully's cancer goes into remission; but whether this is down to persistent medical intervention, the supposed cure Mulder risks his life for, or a miracle down to Scully's faith, is left entirely unresolved. It's by far the most effective part of the two-parter. The first part, sadly, is a disappointing opener, a rather lazy episode featuring a great deal of recycled footage from the previous one, and frankly nothing much happens in it. Part two is much better, moving the plot forward with pace.
Yet more elements of the conspiracy are thrown in, with Mulder unmasking the compromised party of the FBI (but not before suspicion is needlessly cast against Assistant Director Skinner). The Smoking Man (William B. Davis) allegedly reveals that Mulder's sister Samantha is alive and well (played, as in her earlier cloned appearances, by Megan Leitch), and under the belief that the Smoking Man is her father. However, he begins to find himself at odds with other members of the Syndicate, particularly the so-called First Elder (Don S. Williams), who orders his assassination. At this stage, of course, we can't believe anything we see or hear – anything we learn could be a lie. The most impactful moments, though, are the quiet ones between Mulder and Scully, showing both lead actors at their best. The two of them keep this story working in spite of a number of script and production shortcomings. Also notable is the introduction of Scully's brother, Bill Scully Jr, played by Pat Skipper (Boston Legal, The Young and the Restless) . Initially coming over as a bit brash and close-minded, he shares an excellent scene with Mulder where he grills him over whether his quest for the truth has been worth the death of one Scully sister and the near-death of the other, and you realise he's got one hell of a point.
The following episode, "The Unusual Suspects," is a showcase for the Lone Gunmen. The entire episode is a flashback to 1989, telling the story of how Mulder and his trio of conspiracy nerd helpers met. It's cleverly not at all how you'd expect, with the Gunmen meeting at some UFO club at college or a D&D tournament. Bruce Harwood is very impressive as Byers, the mild-mannered but courageous government employee who has hid head turned by a pretty woman on the run from her abusive boyfriend. Meeting her at a computer and electronics convention, he finds himself repeatedly crossing paths with and then throwing in with antagonistic hackers Frohike and Langly (Tom Braidwood and Dean Haglund), forming an unlikely team as they slowly uncover the truth behind Suzanne Modeski's claims. Played by Signy Coleman, who has some nice chemistry with Byers, Modeski claims to be running from the violent FBI agent Fox Mulder, who is hot on her trail. Gradually they uncover more and more troubling secrets about the governments activities and what Modeski is fighting against, turning these three nobodies into a team dedicated to uncovering the truth. Byers ends up completely turning around to become anti-government, his trust in his country destroyed, while we potentially see the exact origin of Mulder's paranoia. While it's clear filler to give the leads time to catch up on filming the movie – Scully is absent and Mulder's scenes are limited – it's a fun bit of backstory for three recurring characters who've otherwise failed to stand out much before now. There's also an unexpected but effective cameo from a long-dead character.
5.4, "Detour," finally gets us back to a proper standalone episode, with an old-fashioned monster-of-the-week story that wouldn't seem out of place in the first couple of seasons. While it's a bit throwaway, "Detour" has some fun ideas and imagery, involving a humanoid offshoot race who can blend perfectly into their environment, rendering them invisible save for their burning red eyes. A parable about the encroachment of modern civilisation on the natural world, it features some beautiful filming in the Vancouver forests, that's used to create some intense scenes of isolation and fear. It also features an early role for Star Trek: Discovery's Anthony Rapp. While writer Spotnitz was inspired by the film Deliverance, it comes over more as a low budget version of Predator, but it works pretty well, although Mulder's final theory as to the creatures' origins is absurd even by his standards.
5.5, though, is an inarguable classic. Written and directed by Carter himself, "The Post-Modern Prometheus" is an ingenious, stylistically unique episode. Carter filmed the episode in black-and-white, with backdrops and camera angels designed to emulate James Whale's classic 1931 film of Frankenstein. The episode sees the agents travel to a backwater town populated by misfits, where a woman (Pattie Tierce), supposedly no longer capable of having a child, is drugged and impregnated, in a recurrance of the event that led to the conception of her now eighteen-year-old son. The town is terrorised by a monster nicknamed "the Great Mutato," a hideously deformed humanoid created by the cruel scientist Dr. Pollidori (John O'Hurley, Seinfeld). Shunned and feared by the locals, Mutato is revealed to be a gentle and eloquent young man, with a dignified performance from Chris Owens, who manages amazingly well under a mountain of latex.
Filled with Frankenstein references, and owing a clear debt to The Elephant Man, "The Post-Modern Prometheus" rises above a generic horror pastische due to its wit, heart and some wonderfully surreal decisions. Mutato is obsessed with Cher, playing her songs as he goes about his questionable nighttime activities and finally going to see her perform in the episode's triumphant climax (Cher was actually slated to appear, but turned the chance down, something she later admitted she regretted). One celebrity who does appear is Jerry Springer, in several specially shot clips of his show. The real success though comes down to Owens, who makes the mutated protagonist truly symapthetic – an impressive feat, given that the character is technically a serial rapist due to his efforts to procreate. While this is another instance of the series downplaying the seriousness of sexual assault, the ultimate result hits a good balance between pathos, silliness, horror and humour. One of the very best episodes in any season of The X-Files.
Episodes six and seven, broadcast over December 1997, comprise a Christmas-set two-parter that ties into the mythology, specifically the reasons for and consequences of Scully's abduction in season two. "Christmas Carol" and "Emily" were allegedly inspired by Dickens' classic novel, but it's hard to see where the similarities lie, beyond a late December setting and the heavy use of flashbacks. There's no Ghost of X-Files Past or anything like that. The first part is a Mulder-lite episode (Duchovny taking time out to promote his latest film, the thriller Playing God), focusing heavily on Scully and her family. (In flashbacks, little Dana is played by Zoe Anderson, Gillian's younger sister.) The episode centres around the appearance of a young girl, Emily, who bears a striking resemblance to Scully's late sister, Melissa. A genetic analysis indicates a 60% chance that Emily is Melissa's daughter, so further tests are made. Can you guess the astonishing twist?
Yes, the cliffhanger to part one is the revelation that Emily is Scully's daughter, finally resolving the hanging plot thread of her inexplicable pregnancy during her abduction back in season two. The second part brings Mulder more into the fray and heavily links to the series' ongoing mythology, with Emily's revealed to share the same toxic biochemistry as the alien-human hybrids that have caused trouble for the agents before. It's not long before there are shapeshifters about trying to take Emily away again, but the focus is on Scully's building but tragically short-lived relationship with her daughter, whose time on this Earth is sadly cut short by illness. Anderson does a good job playing a growing connection to her screen daughter, although she has said in interviews that she found it difficult due to the briefness of the characters' time together. The fact that Emily had to be recast, and all her material in the first part re-shot, when the original actress chosen proved to have a debilitating fear of hospitals can't have helped. In the end, Lauren Diewold was chosen to take over, having recently appeared on the linked series Millennium. She does a decent job with limited material. Overall, the story doesn't quite have the impact it should, but it's generally well done.
We then get a short run of watchable but unspectacular monster-of-the-week episodes. 5.8, "Kitsunegari" (an invented term for fox hunting in Japanese) sees Robert Modell (Robert Wisden), the mind-controlling murderer from 3.17, "Pusher" break out from prison and go Mulder-baiting. It's not a patch on the original, with Modell coming across as a shadow of his former self, and the addition of a previously unknown twin sister with the same ailment/power is either a clever twist or extremely silly, depending on your tolerance for this sort of coincidence. However, Diana Scarwid (Mommie Dearest) is pretty solid as sister Linda Bowman, and there are some impressive set pieces which push (haha) home just how terrifying her abilities are.
5.9, "Schizogeny," aka "The Killer Tree Episode," has a reputation for being among The X-Files' worst installments, but... I kind of like it. Centring around a series of suspicious deaths that lead back to a troubled teen (Chad Lindburg – The Fast and the Furious, Ghost Stalkers), the story eventually reveals that the deaths are linked to a primal force channelled by his counsellor (Sarah-Jane Redmond). It's true that its central concept – trees dragging people to their deaths as an instrument of vengeance – is very silly, but it's filmed with some restraint and has some important things to say about the cycle of abuse. The climactic scenes do drive it firmly into ridiculous territory.
Next up is "Chinga" (retitled "Bunghoney" in the UK and other markets due to chinga being a very rude word in some Spanish dialects, not that "bunghoney" makes any more sense), the first of two scripts by special guest writers. This episode is co-written by horror maestro Stephen King, although heavily rewritten by Carter. Essentially a rather cliched evil doll yarn, it definitely has the feel of a King story. It's a Mulder-lite episode, revolving around Scully as she is officially on holiday but ends up being pulled into an investigation in an old-fashioned New England town, teaming up with local police chief Jack Bonsaint (Larry Musser). Scully (or maybe Anderson) doesn't quite seem to believe the absurdity of the situation she's stumbled into, but while this is a pretty clumsy episode, it gets away with it due to a combination of creepy moments and just the right amount of gore. It also helps that both Jenny-Lynn Hutcheson (as the young girl who enables/is cursed by) the Chinga doll, and Susannah Hoffman (as her beleaguered mother) are strong in their roles. It also scared the absolute b'jesus out of my little sister when we watched it as kids, and it will always have a special place in my heart for that.
This is followed by "Kill Switch," written by father of cyberpunk William Gibson (best known for Neuromancer) and Tom Maddox, another prominent author in the genre (best known for his novel Halo). If I was a little contrary about “Schizogeny,” I'm going to go completely against received opinion on this. I thought “Kill Switch” was dreadful. There's a fine line between self aware silliness and utter absurdity when cyberpunk stories are made for the screen, and this one tips to the latter. Frankly, cyberpunk is a poor fit for The X-Files anyway, and earlier attempts such as 1.7, “Ghost in the Machine,” have just about worked by adjusting the genre to better mesh with the series' style. “Kill Switch” is over-the-top to the point of ridiculousness. The hacker/activist/action hero character Esther, aka Invisigoth, played by Kristin Lehman (Poltergeist: The Legacy), in her panda eyeshadow, is embarrassing, the Lone Gunmen go from geeky to creepy in one scene and the final twist is both predictable and laughable. It does stand out for some intensely bizarre dream/VR sequences in which Mulder is interrogated, but by then it's already outstayed its welcome. Worst of all, the positive reception to “Kill Switch” led to Gibson and Maddox coming back and creating “First Person Shooter” in season seven, and at least everyone agrees that one's terrible.
5.12, "Bad Blood," is a cracking episode, a brilliant take on the vampire genre and far better than the series' previous take in the second season episode "3." With Mulder under investigation for murdering someone he believed was a vampire while drugged, the two agents compare their stories. The entire narrative of the episode is retold from each of their points of view, with us seeing the agents through each others eyes. Mudler's account makes him into a brilliant deductive reasoner, with Scully as pig-headedly sceptical, while Scully's story makes Mulder seem like an over-excitable child who believes anything. While they show their frustrations at each other in this way, they also depict themselves in a way that the other clearly finds compelling and attractive, hinting at the underlying tension between them.
There's a great guest spot by Luke Wilson (Stargirl, Legally Blonde) as a local sheriff who Scully has the hots for (and who is depicted as a buck-toothed moron in Mulder's telling in a wonderful display of jealousy). Patrick Renner plays young Ronnie, a strange young man who seems to be obsessed with vampiric lore, even believing he is a vampire. Eventually we discover the truth: Ronnie is a vampire obsessed with vampire lore, even wearing plastic fangs because "real" vampires don't have them. The episode also explores commonly forgotten elements of vampire lore, such as their compulsive need to count. With another great twist to come, this is a brilliantly entertaining tale.
Next up is another mythology two-parter, but a pretty solid one, which has novelty value for just how far Mulder has swung in terms of his disbelief of alien abduction. He's just as pig-headed in his scepticism now as he was in his determined belief before (it's good that he doesn't become sceptical about all the other bizarre things he's seen, just the aliens). What makes it funnier is that he still has this reputation for being the UFO guy, so people are still coming to him with stories and cases and he refuses to listen. The story introduces some significant new characters, Cassandra and Jeffrey Spender. Cassandra, played with wide-eyed enthusiasm by Veronica Cartwright (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien) is a self-described multiple abductee and a believer in the positive message that aliens are bringing. Jeffrey is a young FBI agent, who is aggressively sceptical of such things. He's played by Chris Owens, who, as well as the Great Mutato earlier in the season, previously played the young Smoking Man in episode 4.7, which might give you a clue to his parentage.
"Patient X" and "The Red and the Black" are quite complex episodes set over various locations and multiple plot threads, and various returning characters including Krycek and the bulk of the Syndicate being involved. There's a real sense that the aliens are now a global threat, with much of the story taking place in the former USSR. Both the Syndicate and the Russians are engaged in experiments to develop a vaccine against the black oil, the body-snatching alien virus that threatens the world. Alongside this we have both Scully and Cassandra Spender being drawn to a gathering of abductees, which introduces a violent new faction of alien-human hybrids, who have, unsettlingly, blotted out their eyes and mouths to prevent the oil from infecting them. While it complicates the overarching story even more, it's a very strong two-parter that fair rips along, with excellent performances by both the leads and guest cast. It reinvigorates both the agents' belief in the alien threat in preparation for the upcoming finale and film.
5.15, "Travelers," is another atypical episode which has limited involvement for Mulder and no appearance by Scully, with the story being entirely set prior to the main series. In 1990 Mulder investigates a case that links back to the very beginning of the X-Files. Veteran actor Darren McGavin, the lead in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the series that inspired The X-Files, appears as Arthur Dales, a former agent who recounts the main events of the story. Taking place during the 1950s, the story revolves around veterans whose bodies have been surgically fused to a, presumably alien, organism, turning them into weapons. Fredric Lehne (Dallas, Lost, Supernatural) is excellent as the younger Dales, whose commitment to his country is challenged by the communist witch hunts and government abuses he uncovers. Dean Ayelsworth appears as the young Bill Mulder, Fox's father, once more tying the web together. Unfortunately, in spite of the strong takedown of McCarthyism and the decent performances featured, the episode doesn't really work, with the pseudo-noir trappings just not gelling with the terribly unconvincing scenes of men attacking people with spiders that come out of their mouths. A filler episode is fine every now and again, though, and the episode does have one claim to fame: Duchovny mischievously wore a wedding ring as the younger Mulder, a detail that has never been elaborated on but that sent fans in a speculative frenzy.
We then have a run of fairly standard monster-of-the-week episodes as a breather before the finale. 5.16, "Mind's Eye," is a solid story about a blind woman played with skill and sympathy by Lili Taylor (Mystic Pizza, Six Feet Under, American Crime) who inexplicably appears to be guilty of murdering a drug dealer. Minnear's script is solid but nothing special, and the twist is pretty guessable, but the episode is raised up by Taylor's performance. That said, you have to wonder why they didn't get a blind actress in for the part. 5.17, "All Souls," is a Scully-focused episode, and a loose follow-up to the "Emily" two-parter. Scully investigates the inexplicable deaths of two severely disabled teenaged girls, quadruplets played by Emily Perkins (Hiccups, IT), gradually coming to believe that she has been assigned by god to save the remaining sisters. It's an interesting use of Christian mythology, involving angels that are, as in the earlier books of the Bible, terrifying in visage and so powerful that to look upon them is fatal. On the other hand, it's on dodgy ground with its suggestion that the physically deformed could be nephilim, the hybrid children of humans and angels or demons. Anderson gives an excellent performance as Scully is troubled by the death of her daughter and the disabled girls, making up for a fairly average story that once again makes Mulder the aggressively sceptic unbeliever when it comes to Christian faith, along with some mediocre visual effects.
The next two episodes really evoke the first couple of seasons in their style and content. "The Pine Bluff Variant" is an excellent episode, a straight-up thriller which sees Mulder go undercover to infiltrate a terrorist ring utilising a horrifying biological weapon. If there's a weak link in the episode, it's that Scully rather implausibly suspects that Mulder has betrayed his beliefs and joined the terrorists, something that might have worked early on in the series but is just not believable now. Thankfully, this runs out of steam pretty quickly and the plot shifts to the race to stop the terrorists releasing more of the contagion and Mulder's struggle to keep safe. There are excellent performances from Duchovny, Mitch Pileggi as Skinner, Sam Anderson (Angel, Lost, Millennium) as US Attorney Leamus and Daniel von Bargen (Seinfeld, Malcolm in the Middle) as high-ranking terrorist Haley. While there's some splashes of effectively visceral horror, the story's real strength is in the twists and turns of Rob Bowman's script.
5.19, "Folie Deux," is another highly effective monster-of-the-week story. Brian Markinson (Continuum, Shooter) is a bored telemarketer who starts to believe that his boss (John Apicella, Days of Our Lives) is actually an insectoid monster who is turning his co-workers into braindead zombies. As the only one who can see these beings for what they really are (clear shades of They Live), his sanity starts to erode. When confronting him, Mulder begins to share his apparent delusions, leading his own sanity to be questioned. It's a well-constructed episode that works because, while we know there are actual monsters in the world of The X-Files, Mulder's beliefs and sanity have been questionable before so we can imagine he really is sharing someone's delusion. The insect-man costume was much derided behind the scenes, but clever editing and video techniques keep it obscured, a classic trick that makes it far more unnerving than a clear view ever would. The end result really works, and is one of the few things that could make telemarketing worse than it already is.
This slightly shorter than usual season ends with, appropriately, "The End," a mythology-heavy episode that leads threads dangling for both the feature film and the following season. "The End" introduces several major new characters/ One of the most significant is Gibson Praise (Jeff Gulka), a telepathic, possibly part-alien boy who has become the target of the Syndicate. Also a major addition is Agent Diana Fowley, played with some charisma by Mimi Rogers (Lost in Space, The Geena Davis Show), an old flame of Mulder's whose motivation is unclear. It's a fairly run-of-the-mill mythology episode that works better when viewed as part of the ongoing story than on its own merits, but it's a reasonably solid round-up to a season that combined classic X-Files style stories with some new and experimental takes.
Review: Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on May 24th, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.