“Nothing Important Happened Today, Parts 1 and 2” (season 9, episodes 1 and 2, originally aired 11/11/2001 and 11/18/2001)
In which the show reconfigures itself
The second episode of “Nothing Important Happened Today” is dedicated to the memory of someone named Chad Keller, who had been closing in on 30 at his death. The date of his birth—October 8, 1971—will strike few as particularly notable, but the date of his death—September 11, 2001—is instantly familiar to nearly everyone. An employee of Boeing, Chad Keller was on board American Airlines Flight 77 on that tragic day, and his life ended when terrorists flew the plane into the Pentagon. He left behind a wife, his family, and many friends, who included among their number fellow surf enthusiast Chris Carter. The marking of Keller’s death is both a bit of grieving on the part of a man missing a friend cut down far too soon and a tacit acknowledgement of something awful that would hang over the entirety of The X-Files’ final season: These episodes were the first to air in the wake of the terrorist attacks that would affect every aspect of American life, right down to the country’s television shows.
There were many good reasons to end The X-Files after its ninth season. It had run out of ideas, and its plan to shift the story from Mulder and Scully to Doggett and Reyes hadn’t really panned out. Its place as the buzziest show on TV had been eclipsed by programs as diverse as Buffy, The Sopranos, and C.S.I., and it would soon find itself competing for the title of best drama on its own network with a young show named 24, a series that would come to define the zeitgeist of its decade as thoroughly as The X-Files had defined the ‘90s. But for more than any other reason, Fox canceled The X-Files because its ratings took a nosedive from the first episode of season nine on. (It goes without saying that if one goes to look up those ratings now—which include viewership numbers in the 10 million range—they seem incredibly impressive when compared to current programming.) At the time, Chris Carter said that the audience had simply gone away and he couldn’t find them. But later, when promoting the show’s second movie adaptation, he said that, basically, the audience had lost interest because of September 11.
The most important story or greatest tragedy to come out of the terrorist attacks is not the death of a TV show. But it’s a telling story. For TV shows to become as successful as The X-Files was, they have to capture some element of public fascination. The X-Files was always a show about not trusting institutions, be they public or private, and it best expressed this via the story of the alien conspiracy, which roped together decades of actual history into a secret history of the country from World War II onward, all of its carried out in a potentially fruitless attempt to stop an alien colonization project. In the wake of a national tragedy like 9/11, however, the last thing anyone wanted to do was suspect those institutions of trying to do evil things (an impulse that got the U.S. into plenty of problems, but that’s for whenever Handlen and I tackle the first several seasons of 24). The period after 9/11 was about people of all political stripes hoping to trust the government again; The X-Files was always about trusting no one, but especially the government. You can see where this would be a problem.
But an even larger problem is the alien conspiracy. Sure, there are people who legitimately believe that the government or corporations or someone is collaborating with aliens to bring about an invasion that will end life as we know it, but most of us soldier on through each day pretty certain that we’re the only intelligent life in the universe anybody on this planet knows about. The X-Files had been savvy enough in the mid-‘90s to pull the Oklahoma City bombing into its DNA and make it a part of the show (and especially a part of the first movie). But it didn’t have a clue what to do with Islamic militants flying jets into American landmarks for fairly nebulous aims, mostly centered around a global jihad. The X-Files always dealt best in greys. The government might have been carrying out horrible collaborations with aliens to wipe out most of humanity, but it was also trying to defeat those aliens. What’s more, the person bringing all of this to light was, himself, a government agent. At least in November 2001, the war on terror was still an issue that was easily made black and white, and the idea of alien colonists sounded more ridiculous than ever. The X-Files was simply too old to be nimble enough to solve this problem.
On top of all of that was the problem of David Duchovny, who opted to leave the program in the summer of 2001 (though from the last few episodes of season eight, it was pretty clear that all involved knew which way this was going). The X-Files had always been centered on Mulder’s quest. It had been fitfully successful at making that Scully’s quest, then Doggett’s quest, but it always needed the promise of Mulder coming back in to juice up the action. By this point, the story of the alien invasion had gotten so hopelessly convoluted that one basically needed a flowchart to keep track of it anyway, but Duchovny always succeeded at bringing everything back to the very human cost this lonely quest had had on the soul of Fox Mulder. Without Mulder around (or without the other characters searching for him, as he had so often searched for his sister), it became that much more difficult to believe anyone would carry the torch of his alien investigations forward.
All of those problems, however, were out of Carter and the other producers’ hands. They couldn’t control global geopolitics, and they ultimately couldn’t control Duchovny either. What was under their control was how the story would move forward under both of these conditions, and the answer to that question was “haltingly.” “Nothing Important Happened Today” is a limp piece of storytelling that has maybe enough good ideas for three-quarters of an episode but is stretched across two for no particular reason. It has the good sense to pick up on the strongest thing about season eight—having an immediate goal (finding Mulder) that unites the season’s stories around a central thrust—and come up with a new riff on that. (This time, it’s something to do with the latent superpowers displayed by the infant William, Scully and Mulder’s child.) But it’s also scrambling to put together a brand-new mythology on the fly, because it senses that seeing Doggett face off against, say, the Cigarette Smoking Man isn’t going to have the same power that it had when Mulder did so. But every time it introduces some new figure meant to carry the same weight as one of the old—like Doggett’s old military buddy Knowle Rohrer (played by Adam Baldwin)—it struggles quite a bit to give that relationship the weight needed for the audience to really be invested in it.
This is too bad, because in theory, Carter’s belief that the series’ premise was strong enough to carry it through many more seasons and cast changes was probably accurate. The slow integration of Doggett into the series in season eight was handled incredibly well, and though the series had more trouble integrating Reyes the times she showed up last season, there were still some good ideas behind her character and the series’ attempts to turn its “skeptic/believer” core on its ear. In particular, turning the relationship between skeptic and believer from two poles that each character stayed at eternally into a continuum where all of the characters could find individual places to stake their claims was probably the right call. The “Scully believes in science!” thing was a good idea at the show’s start, but by season four or five, it started to seem ridiculous that she didn’t realize how heavily the show’s deck was stacked against her. (That this was at all plausible is a credit to Gillian Anderson’s acting.) You can’t really say if Doggett or Reyes is “the new Mulder,” because they both believe in different things. That’s a sign of the character complexity the show earned over many seasons creeping into brand new characters.
On some level, this show probably could have run forever. The idea of two FBI agents traveling all over the country to hunt down monsters is just about as elastic as Law & Order’s central premise, and that show replaced its cast many times over. Where I think The X-Files went wrong was in trying to extend Mulder’s quest across the show that existed without him around. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a way to make this series keep going by ending the Mulder-vs.-the-aliens storyline somewhere in the final episodes of season eight, then sending him off to do whatever it is he has to do to keep the Earth safe from colonization. By then making season nine a season that has none of the series’ mythology and focusing solely on monster-of-the-week stories, the series could have slowly built Doggett and Reyes into a team viewers were invested in, before introducing some new sort of ongoing myth-arc (probably involving ghosts, because ghosts are great).
I’m saying this with 20/20 hindsight, of course, because when I went back and read reviews of the show from when this season debuted and ended, the critics were, by and large, invested in questions about the mythology and wondering how the series was either going to keep it going or wrap it up. To me in 2014, this seems like an indication that, yeah, the producers should have wrapped that mythology up. But I think that’s also missing the fact that the series was known for that mythology and probably terrified of turning off some portion of its fanbase by dropping that element of the show entirely. By the end of this season—when Carter was promising that the second movie would be a standalone monster-of-the-week story—I think they’d all clued in to it, but at this point, the super-soldier arc probably seemed like a necessity.
It shouldn’t have, because the super-soldiers are just a dumb idea that feels like the show desperately rehashing and regurgitating a bunch of things it did much better in the past. What are the super-soldiers but new riffs on the alien bounty hunters or the alien-human hybrids? And how is it that all of this ultimately boils down to more fears about women’s fertility and Scully’s fertility in particular, when it started to seem somewhere around season five that the whole show was about that? The X-Files had the right impulse in ridding itself of most of its mythology and trying to instead tell a story about internal FBI corruption, but it held on to a few too many elements and tried to use them to weave a new story that’s mostly a non-starter. That it then hangs so much of the weight of this story on the shoulders of Cary Elwes, who doesn’t make a particularly convincing good or bad guy in this setting, was another crucial miscalculation.
But even with all of that, there are things here that might have been worth preserving. As mentioned, the idea of centering the season on William is a good one, and I was pleasantly surprised to remember that Lucy Lawless was such a fun presence here as super-soldier Shannon McMahon. I also like how forthright the show is about giving answers when it comes to said super-soldiers, with Shannon pretty much sitting down with Doggett to tell him about what happened to her and Scully’s discovery onboard the mystery ship that the experiments being carried out there are being carried out on human ova (thus tying everything back in to William and his seeming telekinetic powers). And though it’s a retread of season eight, it’s not a bad idea to have the question of what Mulder’s up to hanging over everything else. Leaving him in as a wild card at least allows the producers to play said wild card if Duchovny decides he wants to show up and pretend to love his fake baby.
But the good moments, such as they are, are washed aside by the endless feeling of repetition. Even the race away from the ship that’s about to blow up feels oddly lugubrious, as though everybody involved knows they have all the time in the world because of how many exploding government labs they’ve run away from in the past. Anderson is a delight as always, but the episodes give her far too little to do, and the fact that the show hasn’t quite figured out what to do with Reyes yet is really telling when it immediately throws her into a liplock with Elwes’ character (named Brad Follmer, in case you were curious). There are some nice moments between Doggett and Kersh, and I like when the FBI agents chasing Doggett assume that Skinner is on their side at the end of episode one. But there’s also the frequent sense that the series is writing Doggett—a compelling character with his own goals and interests—as Fox Mulder, basically, because that’s what it knows how to do. This shows up in everything from his interactions with the Lone Gunmen (returned home from a failed spinoff) to those scenes where he goes for a run with his files. In the end, the only moment that legitimately grabbed me in these episodes—instead of making me intrigued in theory—was when Shannon lunged up from the bottom of that water tank to grab Doggett’s ankle at the end of episode one.
At all times, also, there’s the sense that the series now takes place in a different world. That point was made succinctly enough when the photo of Bill Clinton on Skinner’s wall changed to one of George W. Bush in the middle of season eight, but now, especially with that episode-ending dedication, it’s not hard to look at The X-Files and suddenly see its age, see how it’s a part of the decade that birthed it and realize that it’s not going to be able to adapt to the new world it finds itself in. It probably feels insensitive to look at the tragedy of Sept. 11 through the prism of a television show, but I’d argue in this case, at least, it’s necessary. The X-Files was born in an age of peace and prosperity, and it spat in the face of those with a kind of earnest cynicism. When it came to an end, the United States was involved in a war that has yet to end, and fewer people were worried about whether they were protected from the government than were worried about whether the government could protect them. Not every show that struggled to respond to Sept. 11 ultimately fell apart—The West Wing eventually found its way back—but in The X-Files, we have a prime example of a show that was no longer necessary once reality made conspiracy-based horror redundant.
- Welcome to the reviews of the final season of The X-Files! This show has so often come so close to being discontinued at this site that it’s a relief to announce we’ll be done with it entirely in just a couple of months. You also might appreciate how the new site design makes it easier to separate out X-Files reviews from Millennium ones on the shows’ individual landing pages and how it will allow Zack and I to enter individual grades for every episode, instead of having to average them out.
- There are some nice gags about the cancellation of The Lone Gunmen when the Lone Gunmen show up to commiserate with Doggett. As it turns out, they’re all “unemployed.” (I also enjoyed Frohike being unable to see out of the peephole in the door.)
- The “nothing important happened today” story that Kersh tells Doggett near the end of episode two feels like bullshit. I need one of you historians to tell me its bullshit.
- I was going to keep a counter of how often Scully says “baby,” because everything I’ve read about this season indicates she says it a lot. But I forgot. My apologies.
- The image of a headless Knowle leaping up to stab Shannon through the midsection should feel scarier than it does. It also sort of ruins the moment at the end of the episode when Scully dreams about Shannon’s eyes opening at the bottom of the ocean, because wouldn’t we expect that to happen now?
- I always enjoy seeing some old-fashioned detective work on this show, but Doggett going through and calling all the members of the platoon feels like padding.
- Let’s not forget to talk about the show’s redone opening credits, altered both to remove Mulder and to add Reyes and Skinner. The credits were actually due for a revamp, but I’m not sure how I feel about a lot of the imagery in the new ones, which rather make everything look strangely like an After Dark screen-saver, particularly that final shot of the young boy—probably William?—who appears to be standing on a telephone wire or something.
Next week: Zack watches Scully leave FBI headquarters in “Daemonicus,” then leaps between parallel universes to review “4-D.”