“Provenance” and “Providence” (season 9, episodes 9 and 10; originally aired 3/3/2002 and 3/10/2002)
In which Scully’s baby blah, blah, blah
There are two major problems with the mythology as we work our way through season nine. (Well, there are a lot more than “two,” but you catch my drift.) The first is that it has precisely no new cards to play. After a few episodes where it seemed like the show might settle into something more about weird mysticism, we’re now right back where we started, with the aliens as the key to everything—up to and including the origins of human religion, a thread the show mostly dropped after the season seven premiere. The second problem is that the mythology remains relentlessly focused on Fox Mulder and his and Scully’s son William. Mulder isn’t present, so turning so much of the story into a story about him—and whether he’s dead or alive—is a dead end. And William seems around simply to make Scully make stupid decisions.
Put another way: I just finished “Provenance” and “Providence” a couple of hours ago, before I had to do a few other things. Now that I sit down to write the reviews, I can barely remember the episodes, outside of a couple of key sequences that rose above everything else around them. I liked the firefight that opened “Providence” a fair amount. And I liked the sequences where baby William activated the buried spaceship and decimated the UFO cult living in Alberta, Canada (don’t ask). But other than that, I found the vast majority of this to be bland and unworthy of note, lacking in the sort of urgency that once drove the best conspiracy episodes forward. Remember when Agent Mulder had to get on that train way back in “731,” and then he jumped atop it from a bridge to do so? Those days seem long gone. Now, the characters do things largely just to do them, and they’re dragged around by forces beyond their control. The immediate goals—find Scully’s baby!—are simple enough (if lacking in the sort of narrative drive we would find as involving as possible), but the long-term goals are nowhere to be found.
At the center of this two-parter is the idea that looking into the aliens’ history on Earth will explain just about everything, from the roots of modern religion to William’s superpowers to whatever is up with the Super Soldiers (whose number now includes obvious Cigarette Smoking Man replacement Toothpick Man, played by Alan Dale in a performance less likely to support known carcinogens). In and of itself, there’s maybe a way to tell a story about this, but I’m not sure the confines of The X-Files is the place to tell that story, ultimately. Way back in seasons four and five, Zack and I were talking about how the mythology was trying to bide its time by taking more of an international focus, something the show wasn’t quite able to get away with. So if that was the case, then you can imagine how ill-equipped everybody is to deal with expanding the focus of the mythology to include the entire history of life on Earth. If the roots of all world religions—and much of our science—can be found on the sides of spacecraft buried beneath the ground for millions of years, that’s definitely a notion that would shake humankind to the core and open up thousands upon thousands of questions about our place in the universe, as Scully mentions. But The X-Files, at least in its ninth season, is nowhere near capable of telling that story to the full extent it should be told. So it decides to cross its fingers, boil it all down to a story about malevolent forces with dark designs on William, and hope for the best.
I said back in my review of the season premiere that I thought making the mythology this season all about William could have been a good idea. Some of you took that to mean I actually thought the execution paid off, which these two episodes would handily suggest is not the case. But I still think there was the germ of an idea here. With Gillian Anderson still on the show, the series needed to give Scully something to invest in, while still continuing the process of weaning longtime viewers off of Mulder and Scully and switching them to unadulterated Doggett and Reyes (something that presumably would have happened in a 10th season). The problem is that whatever’s going on with William—something almost certainly having to do with experiments that turned him into a human-alien hybrid—is so rote and predictable and so stocked in Chosen One symbolism the show purchased at a dollar store. Add to that all of the times we find out that the UFO cult and the new Syndicate want both William and his father dead, and we have the recipe for dramatic stakes that have no real meaning, so long as they can’t directly threaten anybody who’s actually onscreen and capable of delivering dialogue.
I continue to believe, however, that there was a way to make William’s centrality to this season’s storyline work. It almost certainly would have involved digging deep and coming up with a storyline that was all about a mother terrified of what her baby might have growing inside of him, instead of constantly introducing external threats, but Gillian Anderson was completely up to playing Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. (Come to think of it, how has she never done something like this?) Instead, the season keeps asking her to play Meryl Streep in A Cry In The Dark, and while that’s a fine performance and all, we don’t exactly want to see Scully continually wailing about her baby and not really doing anything about it. We want to see her walk into that cult compound, guns blazing, taking her son back. Instead, we get to watch as an alien ex machina blows everybody up real good.
The idea of a UFO cult who worship the aliens as gods was one that the show turned to a few times throughout its run—most notably in the episodes that returned Mulder to the show in season eight—but it was never one the series developed as well as it might have. You can sort of see the core of what the show wanted to do here, in that if this were a world where aliens were literally interfering with human evolution and the like, there would almost certainly be people who worshipped them. But it was an idea the show never quite wrapped its head around as much as it wanted to. I think it probably needed to be bolder in the presentation, to really commit to the idea of these people who worship beings from outer space. Instead, it just comes off as a vague, hinted-at menace, one that never poses a real threat to anybody because of how underdeveloped it is. “Roadrunners” isn’t everybody’s favorite episode, but there was a real presence to the cult in that episode; these UFO cults just feel like they’re sort of a dime-a-dozen.
That particularly extends to this one, which is run by a guy named “Josepho.” As played by Denis Forest, Josepho had a nice air of pragmatic evil. He was the sort of guy who would kill a baby just because he thought that would further God’s plan on Earth. And, again, I liked the sequences where William caused the spaceship to come to life (and to reveal that in the compartment was not God but, rather, death). But beyond Forest’s performance, there’s not a lot to this cult. Most of what we find out about it, we find out secondhand, via the character of Comer, who infiltrated the cult and then eventually broke out of it to race back across the Canadian border to inform his FBI superiors of what he had learned. (Comer is played by a young Neal McDonough, who seems to be having a pretty good time.) The FBI stuff in these episodes is a little bit better—and I like where we leave things with Follmer and Kersh—but it’s still a bunch of stuff we’ve done a number of times before, beats this show knows how to hit in its sleep. Somebody has infiltrated the FBI. Information is being kept from the team working on the X-Files. I could go on.
The characters who get the worst of this are Reyes and Doggett, who are by and large kicked to the sidelines in favor of Scully, the FBI zoo crew, the Lone Gunmen, and whatever Josepho is up to. (Seriously, his name is Josepho.) In the second episode, Doggett spends a substantial amount of time confined to a hospital bed after getting run over, and nobody seems to give a shit. This is probably meant to help Reyes become just as bound up in Mulder’s Quest as everybody else, but without Mulder onscreen (and the greatest stakes bound up in somebody possibly killing him, so that something might not happen to his son in the decades to come), that’s much harder. Reyes and Doggett become literal supporting characters on a show they’re supposed to be taking over. That’s rarely a good thing.
The mythology episodes have always had the feeling of the writers constantly moving pieces around on a gameboard, without ever really changing the landscape of the board. Pieces are occasionally removed, but they’re just as quickly put back on once certain conditions are met, and the goals the characters might have shift so rapidly that it wouldn’t matter anyway. This was kind of fun in the early days of the show, when the audience knew about as little as Mulder did, and we got to watch him try to figure out just what that gameboard looked like. Once he figured that out, it was fun for a few seasons to watch him dart around between the pieces, trying to figure out who was keeping The Truth from him. But now that his piece is no longer on the board, and we’ve seen every possible configuration of all of the other pieces, it doesn’t matter what the show does. There’s nothing here that can surprise or shock us. There’s nothing here that can move us. This is simply a story frantically trying to find a new reason to justify its own existence as it circles the drain.
- William is the one who will lead humanity when the aliens invade, but only if Mulder is still alive. This really feels like something that was put into the series in the expectations of getting seasons beyond this one, doesn’t it? (I say this particularly knowing where some of this is going.)
- I really wish these episodes had just opened with a voice reading, “At this afternoon’s performance, the role of the Cigarette-Smoking Man, normally played by William B. Davis, will be played by Alan Dale” and proceeded apace. Even the show’s writers acknowledged that his character was basically there to be a direct replacement. (It is nice to have the Lone Gunmen back in the fold, though. I liked when they tried to identify the woman who took William, glumly unable.)
- That firefight really was cool. I loved the image of the Super Soldiers striding through the chaos all around them, and it was easy to see how Josepho might have concluded they were guardian angels.
- Scully and Reyes watch the spacecraft take off at the end of “Providence.” Is this the first time that Scully has ever seen a spacecraft in flight? Or am I forgetting stuff from last season? The show’s conception of faith seems so rigid—Scully can only see spaceships once she’s willing to believe.
- I also like the small moment in the first episode (pictured above) where William makes the bit of the spacecraft that heals Comer float above his head. (Sidebar: Wouldn’t a telekinetic baby be kind of terrifying?)
- I should have known I was in trouble when “Provenance” opened with awesome dirt-bike stuntz.
- Seriously, his name is Josepho.
Next week: Zack heads into the afterlife with “Audrey Pauley,” then watches the least-watched X-Files episode ever in “Underneath.” Just five weeks left, six if we do the second movie!