“The Beginning” (season 6, episode 1; originally aired 11/8/1998)
In which we mostly ignore a major motion picture even happened.
If you get into one of those intense, all-night-long fan arguments about when The X-Files started to lose its shit, a lot of people will claim season six was the beginning of the end. There are so many places where one could point to a shark jump (much as I hate that term) that it’s almost too easy to pinpoint the slump beginning here. The show moved its production base from Vancouver to Los Angeles. It started doing lots of episodes seemingly designed to show off its new, sunny locales. The mythology had long ago ceased to make much sense to the layman. The series was still a big hit, but it was down ever so slightly from the season before (for the first time ever in its run). The movie was a hit, but it wasn’t the world-beater the studio needed to prove that, yes, this was going to be the next sci-fi franchise. Also, the show briefly became a comedy for several episodes in a row, and the fans nearly mutinied.
But I kinda like season six. I don’t think it’s one of the series’ very best years (those would be the second, third, and fourth seasons), but I think it easily sits on the same level as the first and fifth seasons. The mythology has mostly given up—despite a big, midseason two-parter that attempts to wrap everything up—but the standalones are as inventive and wickedly funny as they’ve always been. Yes, there are a few by-the-numbers monster-of-the-week episodes, but that’s inevitable in any season with a 22-episode order. No, this is the season where we’ve got some grandly ambitious hours coming up, the season when the show is no longer content with making us question our government but, instead, wants us to start questioning the very limits of reality itself.
Before we can get to that, though, we have to get through yet another lackluster first episode.
I often like to scan the Internet after watching one of these episodes, to see what fans of the show thought of that episode at the time of air. I’m often amazed by how some episodes’ reputations have been virtually unchanged since that time and how some have grown in reputation as the years have gone by (both “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “Bad Blood” got “it was good, but it wasn’t that good” reviews from a fair number of writers when they initially aired). Yet the idea that the series often did lackluster season premieres took hold early in its run and mostly held sway until the show ended. “Little Green Men” is pretty great, I’ll grant you, but “The Blessing Way”? “Herrenvolk”? “Redux”? All are marred by by-the-numbers plotting and some questionable voiceovers. (Okay, I kinda like “Herrenvolk,” but I get the sense I’m in the minority on that one.)
“The Beginning” isn’t a great episode of the show, but it works well enough that I don’t mind revisiting it. For one thing, the idea of a chest-bursting monster that erupts from within will always be terrifying, even if the series is mostly ripping it off from other sci-fi series (most notably Alien). For another, I still think the ending revelation—that the hungry monster alien is just the pupal stage of the grey aliens—is pretty cool, if a touch predictable. It beggars belief that a being would evolve in such a way that it would have its larval stage as a virus, its pupal stage as a flesh-rending monster, and its adult stage as a sentient being, but that’s why it’s called science fiction, I guess. I also think the monster attacks in the episode are stylish and ghoulish, and the series is clearly having a lot of fun with its new shooting location. This episode is set in Phoenix, and dammit, the producers are going to make everything look like Phoenix would actually look.
The big problem here is that the producers have to essentially close off the events of two separate storylines. The fifth-season finale, “The End,” had only tangential connections to the movie, and while the movie was somewhat close-ended, it left hovering the giant question of whether Scully would remember being infected with an alien virus, being taken to a spaceship buried beneath Antarctica, being cured by Mulder, then passing out on the ice beneath said ship rocketing toward the stars. Since this is a show that never met a reset button it couldn’t wait to hit, the answer to all of this is that Scully has only the vaguest of memories of what happened. On one level, this makes absolute sense. Scully was sick with a disease that was hollowing her out to be the incubator for an alien beast monster! Of course she was tired! On another level, it’s incredibly frustrating to see her start harping about how the science doesn’t bear out what happened to her when there’s simply no logical explanation for it other than “aliens did it.”
If you’ll indulge me, there’s been a debate centered on the actions of another famous TV redhead in the past week, as some critics have questioned the actions of Joan Harris in last week’s episode of Mad Men. I won’t spoil what happened, but suffice it to say that the actions of the episode required Joan to do something that made some critics question the string pulling by the writers on the way to the finale. (I liked the episode a lot and found the finale gutting, but even I’ll admit there was a lot of tap-dancing on the way there.) I’ve always thought of character development like this: There’s a central point that is the core of that character. The central point doesn’t move (often because the actor will offer a consistent performance, at the very least). But there’s also a radius that goes outward toward the diameter of what that character is capable of. On a series like Mad Men, the radius is so long that every character seems to encompass about five or six different versions of themselves, while still remaining recognizably them. To me, the Joan of that episode was still Joan. To others, she wasn’t. The line had stretched so far that it snapped.
Scully has the opposite problem in this episode. The writers have made her circle far too small. Because they need to maintain the “skeptic/believer” conceit, they need her to constantly be questioning things she probably would have just given up and admitted were real within the show’s fiction ages ago. It’s one thing to have Scully say, “Hey, Mulder, werewolves seem like a pretty crazy thing to believe in,” but it’s altogether another to have her continue to deny that there’s a completely ludicrous conspiracy to overthrow the Earth undertaken by aliens and the Syndicate. The writers’ conceptions of Scully have become too limiting, and that hurts the character in these mythology episodes. (She’s still her old self in the standalones, where everybody has more room to breathe.) When she starts rambling on about how the “science” doesn’t bear out what Mulder says, it’s too easy to start rolling your eyes. Nobody is this narrow. Nobody has a radius this short. (That said, Gillian Anderson does some lovely work here, particularly as she tries to protect Gibson from the men who are trying to take him away.)
Yet as mentioned, “The Beginning” mostly works. The foremost thing the series had to do in this episode was prove that it could still be recognizably itself while filming in Los Angeles, and I think it does so readily. It’s obvious the budget has been upped, as even the foot chases through murky locations (in this case, a nuclear power plant) have a handsomeness to them that indicates the kind of time and care that goes along with more money to spend per episode. The guest actors are strong, the show’s supporting players are all present and accounted for, and if the mythology is totally ludicrous now (which it is), at least all involved are still dedicated to making it scary. The world conquest narrative has gone completely off the rails, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had with space monsters literally eating us from the inside out, that they might evolve into higher lifeforms in our nuclear power plant reactors.
I also like the idea that Mulder and Scully are finally coming under fire for all of the crazy trips they’ve taken and all of Mulder’s wacky ideas about what’s really going on out there in the world. This is something the show has tiptoed up to before, without ever actually pursuing, and I think the series got some strong episodes out of this idea. This is actually a strong start, as it gives David Duchovny something to play in an episode where Mulder occasionally seems to be going through the motions. When the X-Files are taken from him, he looks suitably gutted, and when he’s trying to imagine a world where he works for Kersh (James Pickens, Jr., doing solid work in a thankless role), it’s like all the air has gone out of him. This is a great idea for a story arc—not least of which because it can mostly run along in the background—and the show has some fun with it.
That said, I can’t get out of this review without talking about the episode’s biggest change: Spender and Fowley are now working on the X-Files, and they mostly seem to be there to antagonize Mulder. Fowley as a character never really worked. She often just seemed to be there to do whatever the plot needed her to do, and the show spent too much time insisting she was this awful villain we all should be booing and hissing, making every action she took feel extra ridiculous. Spender was slightly better—and the reveal that he’s working for the Cigarette Smoking Man is telegraphed, but effective—but he still felt too much like a rote antagonist. The idea of other people working in that office is a very potent one, but the show went the easy route of making them new villains, rather than people who could be rattled by Mulder’s search for the truth.
“The Beginning” has so much to overcome that it’s not a surprise to realize that it didn’t, not quite. Yet it’s still a grimly effective little episode of television when it needs to be, even if it feels stitched together out of pieces of other, better episodes (Gibson realizing Scully is thinking of Frankenstein is a nice reference, in that sense). All the same, it’s disquieting to realize that the episode is at its best when it’s focused on the monster, not the man and woman chasing it. There’s good stuff in “The Beginning,” but it’s an episode more notable for its potential than anything else.
- Of course the power plant worker is named Homer. Of course.
- That shot of the translucent skin on Sandy’s hand in the teaser is eerily effective. I like how you can see the alien being growing inside of him.
- The “previously on” bit is pretty wild. How many other shows have had to incorporate knowledge from a movie into their catch-up montages?
- I praised the guest stars above, but I don’t think Mimi Rogers really does all that much to make Fowley work. Chris Owens, at least, is acting the shit out of Spender, even if what he’s given is often ludicrous.
- I would really like to see a version of this story told from the point of view of the aliens and Syndicate. “So you have to infect people with a virus to grow aliens inside of them, aliens that will eventually evolve into you?” “Hey, nobody said this was ideal! We’ve had to make do with what we had!”
- The other big revelation: Everybody on Earth is apparently part alien. Why does every sci-fi series feel the need to make us part-the villain? (That said, I kind of like this reveal, though I don’t really like where the show goes with it.)
- I liked the joke about how the authorities blamed the deaths on a Native American, given both Chris Carter shows’ penchant for going to the “mystical Native American” well.
- “A rattletrap tale of high adventure in the Antarctic.” Man, I love that description.
- And once again, welcome to our coverage of The X-Files and Millennium! Zack and I will be alternating weeks for the next 22 weeks (taking holiday weekends off, most likely), until we’re through the sixth season of the former and the third season of the latter. After that, who knows, though we’re both committed to finishing out the run of this show (and maybe The Lone Gunmen while we’re at it).
“The Innocents” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 10/2/1998)
In which the Millennium Group is trying to kill a bunch of identical women in the most dramatic fashion possible, and wolves find bodies by smelling their tears
“The Innocents” isn’t a very good episode of TV. For the most part, this isn’t the fault of anybody who worked on it.
I know, I know. I’m supposed to be mad when a show’s producers choose to radically alter direction after a season I really liked—and I do think the second season of this show is a mad kind of genius. But I can’t blame Chris Carter for cleaning house and putting new people on this series. The show rapidly lost viewers in season two, and even if it had also done so throughout season one, Fox had put the series back on the air entirely because it owed Carter—thanks to the massive success of The X-Files—and it made sense for him to get back to the more broad-based show that this series was in its first season. Yeah, I love serialized dramas about Biblical conspiracies carried out by groups that secretly run the world, culminating in the apocalypse, but I might be the only one.
So, sure. I can understand why Carter and his team radically changed course back toward what the show was in season one, even as they attempted to shake in just enough X-Files as seasoning to hope that show’s flavor would boost this one back toward hit status—or at least toward a place where its ratings weren’t so bad that it had to be canceled, thus giving Carter another series that could be sold into syndication. (As you might have noticed from the resounding lack of Millennium reruns, this didn’t work.) That, in and of itself, is a difficult shift to make. But when you add on top of that the fact that the series had viscerally depicted the end of the world in the previous season finale, expecting that it would be canceled, well, it’s hard to imagine any way this episode of TV would be good. That’s just too big of a cliffhanger to back out of without some sort of master plan, and if season two showrunners Glen Morgan and James Wong had had a plan, they weren’t telling anybody. “The Innocents” is a mess, but I find it hard to blame anybody involved in it for its problems.
If nothing else, the episode starts with an absolutely fantastic teaser. A woman sits on a plane, looking sick to her stomach. She looks over to a little girl, who’s coloring in a page of pictures of “things that fly.” She gets up to use the bathroom, where she pulls down a gun from a hidden compartment. She stares at it, unable to do what she must. Cut to a flight attendant—who has the same eerie blue eyes as our mystery woman—who sees the light for the smoke detector in the restroom go off. She heads to check on who it is, then abruptly reveals she’s in on the plot, too, as she picks up the gun and points it at the woman… before firing several rounds into the wall, creating holes in the plane’s exterior, holes that rapidly depressurize the cabin, sucking our mystery woman into the night’s sky and causing the plane to crash. Never mind that faithful fans of the series must have been wondering just what happened to the end of the world. That’s how you suck people into a story. (Oh, yes. The episode technically begins with an old woman with the same eerie blue eyes, who says, “It has begun,” because she’s on a show where you can say that as a line of dialogue.)
While we’re being generous, I’d say the end of the episode is pretty great, too. There are these women with crazy blue eyes all over, and they’re all clearly part of some experiment or cloning attempt gone wrong or something. We’ve discovered that the Millennium Group is trying to rub them out and that the deadly plague from the end of last season was a part of that (or something equally strange). Anyway, one of the women takes a little girl of the same bloodline—the last, it would seem—and Frank Black and new partner Emma give chase in their car. There’s the inevitable accident, and the woman’s car dangles over the edge of a bridge. But before Frank can go and get her, she raises her hands from the steering wheel and lets the car plummet backward, crashing into the woods below. It’s both a pretty cool moment and one that shows just how far these women are willing to go to accomplish whatever their ultimate goal is.
The episode between those moments, though, is a mess. It’s designed to do a whole bunch of things, but it does none of them particularly well. It wants to get the show back to its roots with Frank as a cop who has weird visions, but it also wants to incorporate some of the conspiracy material from season two (though not the more complicated Biblical stuff). At the same time, it has a bit of an X-Files lite vibe that was clearly there to hopefully boost the show in the ratings. And while all of that’s going on, it has to resolve the story from the finale, as well as show how Frank and Jordan are getting along without Catherine anymore. It’s a muddled mess, but there’s probably no way it could have been anything else. The show veers so abruptly from storyline to storyline that none of them gets any room to breathe. Frank argues with his father-in-law about helping Jordan or has a psychiatric evaluation, and it’s smushed right up next to Frank pontificating on how wolves smell tears. (This, in and of itself, feels much more like the first season’s love of pushing everything into the grim by about 75 percent too much.) There’s just too much going on in Michael Duggan’s script.
In addition, our new character isn’t very interesting at all. Emma is presented less as a fascinating new person with her own take on the show’s central ideas and more as the producers shrugging and saying, “Well, we need another regular cast member on this show.” To be sure, Lance Henriksen needs some downtime now and then, and giving him someone to play off of can be a lot of fun. But Emma—played by the generally enjoyable Klea Scott—is such a cipher here that it’s hard to know what to make of her. I’m sure she’ll get some character development episodes in the weeks to come, but this episode forces her into the proceedings so transparently that I found myself wishing it had been a Frank-only hour. Then she could have signed on next week or in episode three (since these first two are a two-parter). Emma’s just a black hole that devours all viewer interest, and every time the camera turns to her, I start tuning out.
Ultimately, there have been worse episodes of this show, and there have been episodes I’ve been less charitably inclined toward. This must have been a tough episode to make, and if the answers it gives—only a handful of people died in that outbreak, not the entirety of humanity!—don’t make a lot of sense, well, they were probably necessary, given the unexpected renewal. There’s still room for the writers of this series to tell us stories about these people, but they’re starting from a very weak position indeed with this episode. And yet I can’t help but wonder if that wasn’t inevitable, if there was simply no way this season wasn’t going to start roughly, thanks to all that had come before.
- I’m having trouble thinking of series that retooled once, then retooled again, taking them in a direction back toward the original version of the show. Thoughts?
- It’s worth stating that Henriksen really nails the psychiatric evaluation bits. He looks believably crazy both when he’s ranting and raving and when he’s more buttoned down. This is a man who’s seen the world end and somehow survived to return to a world that didn’t end. (And come to think of it, having him patch in from some other reality might have been a more interesting development than what the show actually did.)
- I know he and Frank are on the outs, but I wonder if there was ever any thought given to making Peter Frank’s partner in this season. While we’re speculating, does anybody know if Morgan and Wong have ever suggested what they might have done with the third season?
- The newspaper account of the plane crash has a subhead that seems to only care that 23 children died in the crash. Seems a bit odd.
- The title sequence has been redone yet again, but “Wait. Worry. The time is near.” is probably the least of the show’s taglines.
- I did like the moment when Frank opened the coffins and found them empty. It’s nice to have a hero who’s not always right.
- This is the first time I’ve seen anything of Millennium’s third season. Let me know—in very general terms—if I’ve got more to look forward to or if Emma ever becomes interesting.
Next week: Zack hits the secret origins of Breaking Bad in “Drive,” then finishes out a two-parter with “Exegesis.”