Monday, October 31, 2016

Epilogue: Closing the Book on the X-Files Reboot

After watching the X-Files reboot last winter, I needed several months of emotional distance before I could return to the topic and offer some somewhat-objective thoughts. To say that as a fan I was extremely disappointed in the reboot would be an understatement. I was actually downright offended by several aspects of the reboot, which is something I don’t remember experiencing previously with this franchise. The X-Files was an excellent, high-quality, ground-breaking show in the ’90s, and I will always appreciate it for that. But apparently what happens in the ’90s should stay in the ’90s.

One of those offensive episodes from the reboot was Babylon. In fact, that episode has a little something to offend just about everyone: Muslims, Christians, Texans, you name it. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t recommend watching it. However, since my book, and this blog, addresses matters of faith and Christianity in The X-Files, I feel that the episode warrants me offering a few words of commentary on the topics that are addressed, for the sake of those who have already seen it (and in some respects, are unable to un-see it). This is also the episode that was touted as the one that would deal with Scully’s faith, although compared to earlier episodes in the series (and the second movie) dealing with Christianity, it has little to do with the theme of Scully’s faith.

The portion of the episode worth considering is the final conversation between Mulder and Scully. The main themes of their conversation are love and hate, the “angry” God of the Bible, the Tower of Babel, confusion and hubris, the power of suggestion, and mothers and their children. (And trumpets.)

(This final conversation bookends the opening conversation between Mulder and Scully in the office. Mulder has video recordings of people hearing trumpets “from the heavens,” leading into a conversation about God and the Bible. Mulder jokingly, or mockingly, refers to God “blowing his own horn,” and Scully says, “Since when do you believe in God, Mulder?” He replies, “What makes you think I do?” In their conversation, he quotes from Revelation 8:2 [once again erroneously referring to it as “Revelations”] and refers to Adam eating the forbidden fruit, capping it off by telling Scully that the Bible is “your book.” Their discussion touches on prophecy about the end times and false prophecy. The themes of prophets and trumpets return in the final scene, especially toward the end, as the episode finishes off with Mulder hearing trumpets—the power of suggestion or a herald of the end?)

The title of the episode, Babylon, also happens to be the name of the motel where the terrorist cell is arrested, but even before this location is revealed, the name is explicitly connected with the ancient city Babylon, later identified with the Tower of Babel in the Bible. (In his magic-mushroom-placebo-induced hallucination, Mulder hears the Muslim suspect say the name “Babylon” in Arabic, and as Mulder tries to remember the exact words, his younger doppelganger with better linguistic skills, Agent Miller, recognizes the name, connecting it with the city Babylon.) (By the way, the art museum that is the target of the bombing in the teaser is named “Ziggurat,” which is an ancient Near Eastern tiered temple, such as scholars believe the Tower of Babel to be.)

In their final dialogue, Mulder and Scully refer to this biblical narrative, recalling how the “angry God” of the Old Testament scattered the people “violently” and confused their languages because of their hubris. Although Mulder and Scully get some of the details right, the point of the story in the Bible is not God’s anger but the people’s hubris. Actually, the story in Genesis 11 doesn’t mention God’s anger at all. God simply sees that the people are trying to “make a name” for themselves, which is usurping a right reserved for deities, and especially The Deity, and so he confuses their languages to confound their efforts. This is not the same kind of story as God raining down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah. God doesn’t strike the Babylonians down in judgment; he just presents them with an obstacle. The purpose of the story is to present an explanation for the diversity of human languages. Scully then compares this “angry God of the Bible” to the angry God of the Qur’an—that is, both Christians and Muslims (implied by the Texans and terrorists in the episode) share this most basic aspect in common.

It is a sad statement that this “angry God” seems to be the only God that Mulder is familiar with from the Bible, and the only message he carries away from the Bible is that God wants people to worship him in his great anger. However, here Mulder seems much less hostile about discussing God than the Mulder of the early seasons, although he again expresses his earlier belief that God is “absent from the stage” (reminiscent of his statement from “Orison” that God “just reads the box scores”). Paralleling her comments in the office at the beginning of the episode, Scully jabs at him for the potential that he is contemplating God (“You, Mulder, thinking about God?”), but otherwise Scully’s faith stays rather neutral in their discussions. She doesn’t take offense at his comments (unlike some members of the viewing audience), nor does she argue for a strong sense of faith in God. Mulder is simply musing, and Scully offers a sounding board. Overall, the tone of the final scene is that Scully is rather amused, if not charmed, by Mulder’s placebo-induced hallucinations (it seems to be an underlying theme in the reboot that Mulder is either clinically depressed or clinically insane) and equally light-hearted about Mulder’s musings on God. The Scully who was angry with God and perhaps questioning her faith in I Want to Believe seems to be long gone, but there is no clear sense of progression about where her faith has landed.

Rather than discussing faith and the nature of belief, as we see in some earlier seasons, the two talk here about the “power of suggestion.” Mulder connects his own placebo-induced hallucinations (“swallowing the pill”) with the power of suggestion that induces young men like their suspect to buy into hatred and violence, to worship the “angry God” with their own anger.

In light of all this discussion about an angry God, where is the God of love who is known from the New Testament (and the Old Testament too)? This portrait of God, and specifically Jesus Christ, is not directly invoked in the episode, but the God of love is present in a subtle and ironic way. In Mulder’s journey down the (placebo-induced) rabbit hole, after he’s finished line dancing, he sees the Muslim suspect with his mother, the two of them positioned to imitate the crucified Christ held by the Virgin Mary in Michelangelo’s Pietà. In other words, the Muslim suspect is depicted as the crucified Christ.

But the “unconditional love” that is emphasized in the episode is not necessarily divine love but the love of a mother for her child. That love transcends any of the hate discussed, the hate of the young Muslims toward the victims of their terrorism, and the hate of the Texan and American culture for the Muslims. Perhaps there is an underlying sense in which the Muslim suspect is redeemed as a Christ figure, changing from criminal to victim, and even becoming a savior by (unconsciously) revealing the location of the terrorist cell and therefore saving lives. But the real emphasis is on the universal truth of a mother’s unconditional love for her child and her willingness to see his innocence and goodness beyond the veil of violence and hate.

Although it is lost in an episode that is confusing, caricatured, and far-too whimsical (or macabre) for its sensitive subject matter, not to mention buried in heavy-handed dialogue at the end, the beauty of the message is that for all our ideological differences, all humans have more in common than not, starting with the simple fact that every one of us is the child of a mother, and the love of a mother for her child transcends all languages and all cultures.

Mulder asks, “Where does the hatred end?” and Scully brings the conversation full circle, back to the Tower of Babel: “Maybe it ends where it began, by finding a common language again. Maybe that’s God’s will.” In the end, love trumps hate, and the language of unconditional, maternal love is universal. If we can recognize that common ground, we can overcome any obstacle. The implication is that God’s will in confusing human languages to counteract hubris is to force us to work together in spite of our differences, to find a common ground, but for the right reasons: to overcome hatred with love. If the true message of the Pietà is read into this conversation, this is exactly what God has done through the crucifixion: overcome anger and hatred with the ultimate act of love.

But perhaps the real message of this episode, along with the entire reboot, is that the audience has swallowed the pill of nostalgia and been duped into accepting this stroll down reboot lane as the best that Mulder and Scully have to offer after so many years away from the FBI. After the audience has climbed out of the rabbit hole with Mulder, we can only hope to wake up and find out that this has all been a hallucination. (Do I hear trumpets?)

As a final note about this blog, I had great intentions of posting episode reviews for all of the Top Ten Religious X-Files. However, as the reboot aired in 2016, I lost my appetite for all things X-Files. At this point, I don’t know if I will return to finish and post the remaining reviews.

The X-Files had a great first seven seasons. I commend those episodes to you as some of the finest that television has to offer.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Trust and Loyalty

The day has arrived. I'm posting some snippets from chapter 4 of We Want to Believe as a reminder of what The X-Files stood for during the first nine seasons and two movies: the unbreakable bond between two people who fought for each against all odds, trusted each other beyond any other, and let nothing and no one break them apart. The X-Files was always about Mulder and Scully together against the world.

They act out their love through partnership and respect, through trust and loyalty, protecting one another at all costs and literally going to the ends of the earth for each other. Even when, late in the series, the pair could be called lovers, they are first of all partners and friends. They form two halves of a whole, two contrasting elements working in tension and in harmony to create an effective synergy. The characters, as the show itself, is noticeably lacking when one half of the pair is missing. Together, however, they are formidable, and more than the sum of their parts.

The dynamic between Mulder and Scully of opposites attracting, or more importantly, working in conflict and yet in harmony, is not just an aspect of romantic love, where the male-female pairing is most often emphasized. This is an element of their friendship and partnership, and therefore reflects both what the two genders can contribute to one another beyond simply procreation or a sexual relationship, and also what any two human beings can contribute to each other through their differences. Mulder and Scully each bring something to the partnership that the other lacks. Scully contributes cool-headedness to his impulsivity; Mulder adds spontaneity to her reticence. She provides a foundation of weighing evidence and establishing provable facts, while he has the imagination to think outside the box and make intuitive leaps. Although their differences lead to many arguments, the pair uses this in the positive sense of arguing one side of a case and thereby reinforcing it, rather than allowing their disagreements to become merely fights. They let their differences and their contradictions combine to become their greatest strength. 

What Mulder and Scully have left, without the FBI or their mutual fugitive status, is their commitment to each other. “Don’t give up” is the essence of commitment: refusing to give up on a person or a relationship even when common grounds have been stripped away, even when the individuals have changed or grown apart, even when there are disagreements, when the only reason to stay is the commitment itself. This is the true constancy of love, not in the persistence of an emotion, but in the choice to make and honor a commitment. For Mulder and Scully, the end of I Want to Believe is a renewal of their commitment to one another, the decision to move forward together to face whatever may come. Their connection to each other, face to face (or forehead to forehead), is alone what now defines them—friendship has become eros.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Episode Review: "Signs & Wonders" (7x09)

Today is "Signs & Wonders" day in the 204-day rewatch. This is one of the more overtly religious episodes, as it offers an interesting juxtaposition between two different churches, prompting the viewer to consider the true nature of evil. The full review is below and also on the Top Ten Religious Episodes page.

Signs & Wonders (7x09)
Original airdate: 1/23/2000
Written by: Jeffrey Bell
Directed by: Kim Manners

The title, “Signs & Wonders,” is a phrase that shows up throughout the Bible, especially relating to the plagues and miracles of the exodus (Exod. 7:3; Deut. 6:22; 34:11; Neh. 9:10; Ps. 135:9; Jer. 32:21) and the miracles of Jesus and his disciples (John 4:48; Acts 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12; Rom. 15:19; 2 Cor. 12:12). It refers to any kind of supernatural event prompted or empowered by God. Although this episode does not focus specifically on miracles, it does highlight unexplained, supernatural occurrences, such as surviving snake bites and being delivered from snakes.

In the teaser, Jared Chirp is calling out to the Holy Ghost in his prayer for help. The Holy Ghost , or Holy Spirit, recurs throughout the episode, probably more so here than in any other X-Files episode, although it remains a minor theme. Snake-handling churches such as O’Connor’s tend toward ecstatic or charismatic worship, as seen in the juxtaposition of the two church meetings, and so are often Spirit-focused in their theology. As Reverend Mackey describes, “They believe that the Holy Spirit protects the righteous” (when they handle snakes). (In the credits, three of the church members are named “Holy Spirit Man”/“Woman.”) But Mackey’s congregation also emphasizes the Holy Spirit, if in a different way: in a scene in his church, near the end of the episode, a banner hanging in the church reads, “Come Holy Spirit.” The flames on the banner evoke the coming of the Spirit upon the first generation of believers in Acts 2, empowering them, among other things, to do signs and wonders as Jesus did (Acts 2:22, 43).

In their opening dialogue, Scully suggests to Mulder the religious symbolism of the snakes: “They’ve represented the temptation of Eve, original sin. They’ve been feared and hated throughout history as they’ve been thought to embody Satan, to serve evil itself.” The themes of Satan, evil, and the Garden of Eden appear throughout the episode, especially toward the end. The final scene bookends the episode with another allusion to Eden: the painting hanging in the reverend’s new office is Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (15th cent.).

When placed within the context of the Eden story, Reverend Mackey as the devil represents the tempter who has seduced Reverend O’Connor’s daughter to sin, causing her to be banished. Although the Genesis narrative does not specifically mention sexual temptation or sin in the Garden, over the centuries that became one interpretation of the serpent’s interaction with Eve.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Episode Preview: "The Sixth Extinction: Amor Fati"

It's time for "Amor Fati" in the rewatch schedule. I will eventually post the episode review for this episode, but in the meantime, I am posting a link to the article I published on this episode, "The Last Temptation of Mulder: Reading The X-Files through the Christological Lens of Nikos Kazantzakis" (published as the first chapter in "The X-Files" and Literature, ed. S. Yang).

Since one of the main threads of "Amor Fati" uses The Last Temptation of Christ as a model for Mulder and his temptation to abandon his quest for the simpler life, this article explores in detail the comparison of the episode and Kazantzakis's vision of Jesus, as well as bringing in other literary and philosophical themes in the episode.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Episode Review: "All Souls" (5x17)

Today is "All Souls" day in the 204-day rewatch (somewhat appropriate, with All Souls' Day being just around the corner). The full review is below and also on the Top Ten Religious Episodes page.

All Souls (5x17)
Original airdate: 4/26/98
Teleplay by: Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban
Story by: Billy Brown and Dan Angel
Directed by: Allen Coulter

This episode in some ways parallels “Revelations,” especially with Scully’s visit to the confessional, her role in protecting a child, and the message of a religious figure that seems aimed directly at Scully but not her partner. But a major aspect of this episode is Scully coming to terms with the death of her daughter Emily in “Christmas Carol”/“Emily” and the role that Scully played in Emily’s death by discontinuing her medical treatment. In the first confessional scene, Scully tells the priest, “An innocent girl is dead because of me. I could’ve saved her life, but I let her die.” On the surface, it seems that she is talking about the last girl in the episode, whom Scully does not manage to save from death, but the words could also apply to Emily. Scully tells the priest that she is not sure he can offer forgiveness for the sin she has come to confess, which is letting the girl die, but what this really highlights is the guilt that Scully clearly still carries. The priest can offer her forgiveness, but she also needs to forgive herself.

In the teaser, Father McCue explains baptism and the rite of initiation: it takes away original sin and confers grace, “bringing the soul into God’s family.” This, then, sets up the theme of family, adoption, and fatherhood that runs throughout the episode. The Kernofs have adopted Dara, just as Father Gregory is trying to adopt another one of the four girls. This recalls Scully’s attempt to adopt Emily and highlights her tenuous identity as Emily’s mother.

At the end of the teaser, when Dara’s father finds her in the street, the scene closes with the shot on a telephone pole that looks like a cross. Throughout the episode, there are additional cross images, both upright and upside down, used in set design and as the focus of shots.

We see the transition in Scully’s church attendance from “Revelations” to the “Redux” arc to “All Souls”: in “Revelations” she hadn’t been to confession for six years, and when she was facing cancer she didn’t feel the need for religion (“Redux”), but now she is attending church on Easter, and it has been several months (rather than years) since her last confession. Father McCue comments on seeing her at mass again recently, and she says she’s been trying to come more often.

The fact that Scully’s involvement in the story begins on Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day, brings in the theme of life after death. Although the characters in the episode are not resurrected, what Scully struggles with, as she especially discusses with the priest in her final scene, is the fact of the “life after this one” and reconciling that with the physical death of the girls and Emily. As a doctor, a scientist, and an agent, Scully fights to protect and preserve life. But the fate of the soul is another matter.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Episode Review: "Gethsemane" (4x24)

It's time for "Gethsemane" in the 204-day rewatch. This episode is not as overtly about religion or Christianity as some of the other episodes, but it has some significant themes relating to the nature of faith. The full review is below and also on the Top Ten Religious Episodes page.

Gethsemane (4x24)
Original airdate: 5/18/97
Written by: Chris Carter
Directed by: R. W. Goodwin

This episode ties in with the larger mythology and is the first episode of a trilogy, which continues at the beginning of season 5 with “Redux” and “Redux II.” Considering this episode from the question of faith, however, there are two main keys for examining the episode: the title, and a conversation between Mulder and Scully.

The title, “Gethsemane,” is an allusion to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus Christ spent his last night on earth in prayer with his disciples, and where he suffered betrayal by one of his own, handing him over to the authorities and ultimately to his death (Matt. 26; Mark 14; cf. Luke 22; John 18). This allusion brings to the surface expectations of contemplation, betrayal, and ensuing death.

The aspect of contemplation, as well as ensuing death, comes especially in the scene toward the end of the episode when Mulder is alone in his apartment, crying. This is his moment in the garden, alone (as Jesus essentially was, when his disciples continually fell asleep), contemplating his life up to that point. The element of ensuing death is also there, as the episode ends with the implication that after this scene, Mulder has taken his own life (only in the sequel, “Redux,” will the audience learn the full story of what happens between the scenes of Mulder in his apartment and Scully coming to identify his body).

The aspect of betrayal is more complex and subtle, but definitely present. Whereas in the episode “The Red and the Black” (in the next season) Mulder receives a Judas kiss from Krycek, here the betrayal is not necessarily as overt or by a single person. And, in a sense, Mulder himself is the betrayer. In “Gethsemane,” Mulder is confronted with the possibility that everything he has believed about extraterrestrials is a well-orchestrated lie, put together by the powers that be in order to make him a believer, and that Scully’s cancer is a part of this larger scheme. If Mulder has truly been a pawn all along, then he has betrayed himself, and Scully, through his unknowing complicity in these acts, as well as in the deaths of several others, including the people who have been killed to cover the truth, and ultimately Scully herself.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Episode Review: "Revelations" (3x11)

It's "Revelations" time in the 204-rewatch schedule. The review is below and on the Top Ten Religious Episodes page.

Revelations (3x11)
Original airdate: 12/15/95
Written by: Kim Newton
Directed by: David Nutter

“Revelations” is the first episode that reverses the roles of Mulder and Scully surrounding issues of religion, signs, and miracles: Mulder becomes the skeptic, and Scully becomes the believer. Many similar issues appear especially in the fifth-season episode “All Souls,” which like this episode features Scully’s conversation with a priest in a confession booth. Viewed together, the two episodes show a progression in Scully’s faith journey and present an interesting backdrop or counterpoint for her spiritual struggles in the second movie, I Want to Believe.

The opening monologue by Reverend Findley sets up some of the main themes for the episode: testing faith, miracles, science and skepticism vs. faith, believing without question. These themes are echoed especially in the dialogues between Mulder and Scully and also in some of the conversations between Scully and other characters.

The reverend says that God tests our faith so that we won’t take it for granted. As he begins to bleed, he says that his blood flows as a test of their faith. (Mulder later says that what he has seen in this case has tested only his patience, not his faith.) The reverend says that the test is whether they will open themselves to divine possibilities (recalling Mulder’s frequent appeal to extreme possibilities), and only then will they truly understand. While Scully does not refer to her faith being tested, the way she is affected by the case and her closing conversation with the priest suggest that this case is indeed a test of her faith, which until now has waned but is possibly being rekindled. Scully is open to the possibility of divine causes for the signs and events she has encountered; Mulder is not. As her conversation with the priest may suggest, it is because she is open to divine possibilities that she truly understands, although from Mulder’s point of view, it may be her openness that makes her more gullible.