“The Sixth Extinction”/“The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati” (season 7, episode 1 and 2; originally aired 11/7/1999 and 11/14/1999)
In which Mulder clears the Last Temptation Of Christ level
The “Sixth Extinction” two-parter is a real test of a viewer’s X-Files fandom. It indulges many of the series’ worst tendencies, wanders down tangents that no longer really matter, and gorges itself on awful, awful dialogue and voiceover. It’s a Last Temptation Of Christ episode for no particular reason, and it’s obvious at all times that the show’s writers are frantically scrambling to keep the alien mythology plots spinning without all of their usual go-to tricks. Don’t get me wrong: Killing off the Syndicate was the right move for the story, and it gave everybody room to maneuver that was desperately needed after the story of how the Syndicate was developing its vaccine (or whatever) got hopelessly convoluted. But by delving into stories of ancient aliens, the series wandered into another narrative cul-de-sac, checked out the location, then wandered right back out.
My love of The X-Files stems from my love of unexplained phenomena. When I was a kid, our local library—surprisingly well stocked for such a small town—had a surprisingly large collection of books about the strange mysteries and weird terrors that haunted the darkest shadows of the world, and my friends and I soon got into a habit of checking out books about Bigfoot or psychic phenomena or ghosts, then trading stories we’d read in the books, the better to psych ourselves up to continue our way through the collection. The most popular books were about the Holy Trinity of cryptozoology: Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Abominable Snowman. But we’d also take tales of aliens abducting people or books that were catch-all tomes, carrying such weird little anecdotes as stories of Spring-heeled Jack or the Mad Gasser of Mattoon
On the other hand, one of the books that never interested any of us all that much was about ancient astronauts, about aliens that knowingly influenced human civilization, whose markers pop up in our oldest art and in our religious texts. There’s a good reason for this, I think. If Bigfoot’s out there, he’s out there right now, Bigfooting around and making giant footprints. If aliens influenced our evolution, that’s interesting, sure, but there’s not really anything I can do with that information. Bigfoot is something vital, something that can be tracked and trapped. Ancient astronauts are a theory that can never be proved, a bunch of back-story when what’s more interesting is the idea that aliens might be visiting us (and abducting us and spying on us) right now. The idea that aliens drew the Nazca lines or helped build the pyramids is cool as whacked-out hypotheses go, and it made Erich von Däniken tons of money, but it lacks dramatic impetus. It’s more mythology in a world that doesn’t need more.
This is pretty much what happens once The X-Files starts toying around with these ideas as well. The series largely drops them after this two-parter. (I believe they pop up one other time in season nine, in a couple of episodes that are largely awful.) And even this two-parter doesn’t seem all that interested in them. Scully gets some monologues in the first hour about how our pasts are intertwined and blah, blah, blah, but the vast majority of the material here is a weird attempt to pull back in as many long-missing guest stars as the series can think of. There’s Albert Hosteen! There’s Deep Throat! There’s Mulder’s mom, who’s been weirdly absent for a couple of seasons, and did you notice? There’s Kritschgau, for some reason! The only thing the episode missing is a scene where Gibson Praise throws a wild party and dances the Charleston with Alvin Kersh.
It sounds like I’m going to pan these episodes, I realize, but if you’ll look at the grade, you’ll realize I kind of love the hell out of them. They’re awful and ridiculous and so, so pretentious, but there’s a lot of fun to be had here, particularly in the second hour, which is chock full of insanity. There’s a sequence where Fowley walks toward Mulder in the middle of his “last temptation,” in which he’s moved into a pleasant suburban neighborhood with everyone else from the conspiracy, and she tells him all about what a pleasure it is to a man to have a woman around, to have her taking care of him, to have her take him into her arms every night, and it’s impossible not to start giggling. Somebody actually thought this was going to be profound! Somebody actually thought this was going to be a serious attempt to get Mulder to abandon his quest! (Also, the fact that he lives just a couple of doors down from Deep Throat and just down the block from the Cigarette Smoking Man is even better.) The whole two-parter is filled with the very purplest of the purple prose, and Chris Carter delivers what might be his most overwrought script since the glory days of “The Blessing Way.”
But the crazy goodness doesn’t stop at the dialogue and voiceover, though. Mulder walks up to a little kid on the beach, and they build sand UFOs together! Scully, while in Africa, comes across a man who isn’t there, who just pops into her car with her, seemingly at random! Albert Hosteen shows up just to cryptically tell Scully that Mulder is in danger, then prays with her, then is revealed to have been in a coma all of this time! Krycek kills Kritschgau, even though by the time the two-parter ends, both Hosteeen and Fowley, marginally more important characters than Kritschgau, will have died as well, but completely off-camera! (We don’t even get to see somebody shooting Fowley, perhaps because Carter or somebody didn’t want to give us the satisfaction of seeing a character fans despised dying.) The CSM reveals that he’s Mulder’s father, and he couldn’t sound less convincing doing so! Scully turns up in Mulder’s vision of the alien-ravaged future to play the role of the one who gets him back on the true path, and Gillian Anderson sounds deeply conflicted about her dialogue!
I realize that I’m largely just talking about the second episode of this two-parter, but that’s mostly because the first episode is a weird bridge. The X-Files was never very good at making the second parts of its three-part stories all that interesting. (See also: “The Blessing Way,” again.) Instead, they seem to be continuations and extensions of the first acts of these stories, so where we saw Mulder getting sick in “Biogenesis,” we now see that it’s gotten much worse, and his telepathic abilities have gotten stronger, and so on. There are no real twists or complications here. Instead, we see that things just keep getting worse along a linear path, until the second episode drops in the other big idea the trilogy of episodes has: Mulder entering his Last Temptation Of Christ fugue state.
Really, it’s kind of remarkable that more shows haven’t done a riff on Last Temptation. I guess The Sopranos had Tony’s coma dream, and Mad Men had Don Draper’s adventures in California, but I’m surprised more shows don’t come up with ways—even figuratively—to have their characters get a chance to see what life would be like if they just abandoned their holy quest in order to live a normal life. (The CSM even gets a completely ridiculous monologue about this, as he looks down at Mulder’s comatose body and intones about how proud he is of his son, who was owned by the world or somesuch.) “Amor Fati” is the better of the two episodes precisely because it suggests that Mulder could have lived a happy life, could have given away the quest in favor of turning a blind eye to what he knew to be coming, and, crucially, he might have been happier that way. There’s more ridiculousness in a scene where the CSM talks about how he admires Mulder’s capacity for suffering, but it sometimes seems in these later seasons as if that’s what the writers most admire about him. Thus, showing him the possibility of a normal life, then showing us how the world would eventually crumble anyway, feels like the show itself wondering what it would be like to be some other show entirely.
Of course, as it turns out, Mulder’s just in a weird dream state because he’s been made an alien-human hybrid, and the CSM needs his genetic tissue—the removal of which might kill Mulder—so that the CSM, too, can become a hybrid and live out the coming colonization project. The relationship between Mulder and the CSM has always been a lot of fun, and there are some good scenes—if you can overlook the purple dialogue and David Duchovny’s absolutely atrocious old-age makeup, which seems to reduce all of his facial expressions to that of an old woman looking over lunchmeats at a deli counter—between the two of them in the alternate world of Mulder’s coma dream. And I like that ultimately, it’s Scully who finds Mulder, with some help from Fowley, of all people, and that when push comes to shove, she’s the one he wants to be around. There’s even a rather tender moment where she kisses him on the head. Aw.
Look. We’re in for some rough sailing in the weeks ahead. This is a messy season of television, and even if it has some good episodes in the midst of everything else, it’s also a season that lacks a strong, clear purpose, which is a dangerous thing for any series. The mythology has gotten so pointless that it’s now just coasting off of other, already existing, already boring mythology, to the point where the episodes have to somehow personify the “threat” of ancient astronauts via Scully’s threatening African phantom man. The first episode, in fact, ends with a guy being murdered, and then the second episode doesn’t seem to care about this whatsoever. The show has slowly slipped loose of its moorings, Duchovny’s clearly ready for just about anything else to present itself as a job opportunity, and everything has grown listless. The show lacks definition.
But damned if I didn’t enjoy both halves of “The Sixth Extinction” all the same. It takes a certain kind of show to make an episode this entertainingly bad, this ludicrously over-the-top, and X-Files was definitely that kind of show. I’m not exactly looking forward to revisiting the seventh season of this show, but I’m also not going to just stop appreciating what it was I once loved about it. By this point in the series’ run, it’s trying so hard to run through all of the old tricks it once knew, the better to impress you, that it’s a little hard to not nod your head in appreciation, even if the act is a desperate one. “The Sixth Extinction” is an often ridiculous bit of television, but dammit, it’s our ridiculous bit of television. It’s not enough to kill this fan’s love of the material. Not yet.
Part 1: C
Part 2: B
- The scene where the CSM looks out over a burning cityscape, UFOs blitzing it every now and then, is a pretty impressive TV effects accomplishment for the time period. It’s so transparently there to give the episode weight it doesn’t really earn, but I still liked it.
- Who else do you think should have popped up in Mulder’s coma hallucinations? I wish Marita Covarrubias and Mr. X had been married and living right next door. Now there’s a spinoff.
- There’s a certain element of reckless abandon to these episodes I find really appealing. “Why Kritschgau? Why not?!”
- It’s amazing to me how thoroughly this side of the mythology was abandoned, when the show realized it wasn’t particularly interesting. Then again, the mythology was moving to the back burner at this point in the show’s run, until Duchovny’s leavetaking would kick it back into gear.
- It’s always worth saying that Gillian Anderson is excellent. She even sheds some real tears when Mulder’s strapped to that official, trademarked “Christ on the cross operating table.”
- Carter, never one for subtlety, layers on the Christ imagery like there’s no tomorrow in this one. By the time Mulder’s on that operating table, arms outstretched to either side, you want to call Carter up and tell him you get it already.
- These episodes were very oddly structured. The act breaks had no real tension to them, and that hurt the proceedings. They all ended very softly, with moments of no real drama. A strange, possibly deliberate choice.
Next week: Zack gets “Hungry” with a fast-food employee, then checks in on an old friend in “Millennium.”