Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Secret Lives Of Bees, Aliens And Genetic Mutants As The X-Files Tumbles From Perfection!

The Good: Great Scully character arc, Pretty amazing acting, Some decent plots, Good DVD bonus features
The Bad: The highs aren't as high as the past seasons, Repetitive feel to bottle episodes
The Basics: A pretty incredible, but not quite perfect, season of The X-Files begins to mix up the great with elements that will lead to the show's downfall.

While The X-Files was on the air, it was one of the few shows I made a point to watch. That's not entirely true. After the first two seasons, I was overwhelmed by people who told me I HAD to watch this show and it was so amazing and so I started watching it and I found that was generally true. I watched it pretty loyally until Alias began to share its timeslot and The X-Files fell by the wayside for me. Now that I own the complete series on DVD and have been going back through the whole thing, I am finding what I enjoyed so much about the series. With The X-Files - The Complete Fourth Season, I am right in the middle of the episodes from when I enjoyed the show the most in the first-run. I was a devotee of the series and watching it again now, I'm not entirely certain why.

That's not to say The X-Files - The Complete Fourth Season is not worth a viewer's time, attention and money, because it is. Rather, in the fourth season, The X-Files both goes off course with its "mythology" and becomes a truly great television series in terms of the character work. The character work there is the inevitable contraction of cancer by Special Agent Dana Scully. The season follows a long arc from Mulder seeing the truth of his sister through to the exposure of everything he believes in as a lie. The fourth season is great television, but it is already showing the cracks in the series that will ultimately drag it down.

Mulder races to save his mother following her stroke. To that end, he enlists the aid of Jeremiah Smith who is one of the shape-changing aliens who is here on Earth for unknown purposes (so far, we have only seen them as the Alien Bounty Hunter). Jeremiah reveals a small agrarian colony in Canada where bees are cultivated to deliver an unknown toxin. The drones are Samanthas and the a pretty bland boy, who Mulder later finds an adult version of. Armed with a renewed sense of purpose, Mulder returns to the x-files more prepared than ever to expose the truth about the paranormal in the world.

Unfortunately, with his renewed zeal comes an incredible consequence. Scully soon discovers she has an inoperable brain tumor and Mulder quickly comes to believe that the Cigarette-Smoking Man and his forces are behind it. As Mulder prepares to do anything to stop the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Skinner steps forward to sacrifice his reputation to save Scully's life, which puts Mulder, Scully and Skinner in the crosshairs of the conspiratorial syndicate as a new man comes forward to reveal that the conspiracy involving extraterrestrials is all a lie fabricated to hide the government's greater misdeeds.

The fourth season of The X-Files is an incredible bit of contradictions on DVD as it presents some of the best and worst episodes of the series. On the plot front, the fourth season begins to crack at what the conspiracy is and just who is involved and how. Unfortunately, it also begins to make far less sense than it previously did. What works is the Cigarette-Smoking Man. In this season, his backstory is revealed as Frohike uncovers that the agent of darkness in the series is the man who killed JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. It also puts him nearer the top, as the Well-Manicured Man calls upon him for aid and he has direct control over Mulder's new contact after his former one is purged. And at this point, the shape-changing aliens work as well. They are here to establish a colony, I can dig that.

What doesn't work on the plot front are the bees and the black oil. While the alien-human hybrids come to be related to Scully's abduction, the black oil is recast as a black cancer in this season with very different properties than it had in the prior season. The bees, however, make even less sense. They are carrying smallpox, according to a late-season four episode. The whole point of the bees was to transmit a toxin that one side would have a standing army immune to the effects of. What Chris Carter's vision seems to be advocating is a nightmare scenario involving geriatric warfare wherein only seniors and aging baby boomers would fight after the bees kill off all the young, unimmunized folks. Wow, that's ridiculous!

More than that, most of the bottle episodes do not work nearly as well as the serialized "mythology" episodes. By this point in the series, the freak-of-the-week episodes tend to boil down awfully quickly into one of two types: the viewer knows who and what the freak is from the very beginning or we follow the clues with Mulder and Scully only to learn about what the true nature of the entity is in the very end. This season, such one-shot episodes include a time traveler (I remember feeling awfully betrayed by The X-Files when this one originally aired because it involved freezing and was used as a tie-in of sorts to Batman and Robin), a melatonin eating creature, and a Jewish golem. This season has arguably some of the best bottle episodes, though, with episodes like "The Field Where I Died" (involving Mulder's past lives), "Musings Of A Cigarette-Smoking Man" (which recasts the recurring villain of The X-Files as a lonely, embittered writer), and "Unrequited" (where a veteran who has developed the ability to disappear begins hunting officers who are lying about the existence of P.O.W.s). As well, there are bottle episodes that arguably become much closer to mythology episodes, at least on the character front. Episodes like "Paper Hearts" challenge Mulder's assumptions on what happened to his sister and "Elegy" foreshadows the demise of Scully when she begins to see the newly-dead.

In fact, it is in this season that the characters truly come into their own and rise to the status of cultural icons more than they have in prior outings. Here is how the season finds the principle characters:

Agent Fox Mulder - Desperate to save his mother's life, Mulder learns about the connection between her and the Cigarette-Smoking Man. This sends him into a frenzy of greater devotion to his work and an obsession with learning what truly happened to his sister Samantha once and for all. This puts him in the grip of a serial killer he had locked up years prior, one who claims to have kidnaped and killed Mulder's sister and sets him up for a fateful meeting which shakes him to his very core,

Agent Dana Scully - As the evidence of extraterrestrial visitation to Earth begins to mount, Scully creeps closer to becoming a believer. No sooner is she close to accepting Mulder's long-held beliefs from a scientific perspective than she falls prey to a lethal brain tumor which causes her to question everything. She begins to rely more on Mulder and accepts that her life may well be in his hands,

Assistant Director Walter Skinner - More an ally to Mulder and Scully than ever, Skinner makes an unholy bargain to save Scully's life, in the process becoming indebted to the Cigarette-Smoking Man,

The Cigarette-Smoking Man - Having snuffed out the mole in his organization, his past is revealed by the Lone Gunmen. As well, Mulder begins to recall seeing him as a child and becomes convinced that he was involved in Samantha's abduction. Skinner, like Mulder, becomes convinced that he has the cure to Scully's cancer,

and Krycek - Sure, he appears only for a two-parter, but the villain's true allegiances are exposed when he is rescued from the missile silo out West by a group of domestic terrorists. He then takes Mulder to Russia where he turns him over to scientists performing cruel experiments involving the black cancer and Krycek becomes seriously . . . altered to protect himself.

There are twenty-four season four episodes and if I seem at all punchy about Scully's cancer, it is because everyone else who was similarly abducted and had a chip placed in their neck contracted cancer, back in "Nisei" (reviewed here!). What is does allow the series to do, though, is give actress Gillian Anderson to show off her acting chops in a significant way that she had not been allowed to before this. Anderson shows some amazing ability to play subtle, melancholy and she does some amazing voice-over work that makes her character's condition absolutely agonizing to watch.

And in a season where Scully is given so much to do, it is astonishing how great David Duchovny is allowed to be! Duchovny plays it deep and moody in "Paper Hearts," just the right side of absolutely in love with Scully in "Memento Mori" and like a completely different guy playing Mulder in "Small Potatoes."

It is tough to complain about The X-Files - The Complete Fourth Season as it does some great things. Unfortunately, the greatness is weighed down with some remarkably passe bits that have already been done or were done better before (the comedy episodes this season are nowhere near as funny as the prior comedies the show did). On DVD, though, there are a score of deleted scenes which can be branched back into the episode, which is real nice. There are no "previously on The X-Files" bits, but that time tends to be used for things like deleted scenes in episodes that had them! As well, two of the episodes have commentary tracks and there are featurettes on the entire season which are decent, though they do not exactly explain how the show went off with some of the mythology elements the way it did.

That said, it's still better than most anything else that is out there and it is certainly worthy of the time and attention of anyone who likes science fiction and/or drama. Then again, fans of The X-Files would probably be better served by purchasing the Complete Collection here!

For a better idea of exactly what this season consisted of, please check out my reviews of episodes from season four at:
Herrenvolk/ Home
Unruhe / Paper Hearts
Tunguska / Terma
Leonard Betts / Memento Mori
Tempus Fugit / Max
Small Potatoes / Gethsemane


For other television program and DVD set reviews, please be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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