18 January 2018

The X-Files: This (Spoiler Review)

Welcome back to my new series of reviews, where I talk about the new episodes of my favourite TV-show, The X-Files. Last week. This week, I'm reviewing the second episode in the eleventh season, titled "This." 

As always, there will be SPOILERS.

If "My Struggle III" still suffered from some of the stiffness and clumsiness of the warm up session that was season ten, "This" is The X-Files' return to fighting form. It's sharp, suspenseful, and most importantly - fun.

Written and directed by the show veteran Glen Morgan, "This" is a monster-of-the-week/mythology hybrid episode. Mulder and Scully find themselves on the run from Erica Price's private army after having received a cryptic message from someone who appears to be Richard Langley - one of the members of the Lone Gunman. 

A quick reminder: The Lone Gunman met their demise in the season nine episode "Jump the Shark", while saving the world from a biological weapon. They were buried in Arlington Cemetery in Virginia as real American heroes. 

Following leads left for them by Langley before he died, the agents discover that Langley had uploaded a copy of his consciousness into an NSA-run simulation, and that his "cookie” was activated after his death. And it was the "cookie" that reached out to Mulder.

Run by Erica Price, the simulation is using digital copies of some of our world's greatest minds as slave labor to aid Price's program of colonizing space. Langley's "cookie" begs Mulder and Scully to shut down the simulation, and the duo go to the NSA: s Titanpointe building, where - after some altercation with Price and her private army they shut down the head server. When the agents later return to Titanpointe, they discover that Price has removed all the physical evidence of her program. The episode ends with Langley's "cookie" reaching out to Mulder again begging him to "shut down the backup server".

If the premise sounds too much like an episode of Black Mirror, that's because it kind of is. Some Black Mirror episodes explore the possibility of uploading a copy of your consciousness into the cloud, and the dangers it can entail. A fan of the British anthology series, Morgan wanted to explore a similar scenario. 

"I admire Black Mirror a great deal and its insights into our present and future relationship with technology is an inspiration. I had followed the theory of computer simulation for some time. It would take a season of TV do to the discussion justice."

"This" isn't the first time The X-Files dealt with the idea of uploading your consciousness into the digital world. I don't know if this intentional, but "This" is a thematic sequel to the season five episode, "Kill Switch" in which a software genius uploads his consciousness into an AI he created. An episode about futuristic technology it also features guest appearances by the Lone Gunmen.

But if "Kill Switch" gives us a more optimistic look at the possibility of hooking up your consciousness into the cloud (think eternal life, and freedom), "This" offers a far less idealistic scenario. It isn't the real you that will be uploaded but the digital copy of your mind. Nothing but ones and zeroes. Moreover, freedom isn't guaranteed as any agent with sufficient amount of power and an agenda can trap your "cookie" inside a simulation and use it for their own gain.

"This" is a classic X-File set in a modern setting. Morgan uses some of the most famous tropes and themes of the show to tell a story that is relevant to our day and age. Mulder and Scully are on the run from the law - again. Skinner is reluctantly helping them - again. And the agents find out a horrifying truth about their government only to have the physical evidence snatched from right under their noses - again.

For those who always say "Why can't Scully just believe? The evidence is right there!", "This" is a reminder that the X-files exist in a shadow territory where the truth is defined by people with power and interests, and often when the case seems crystal clear at first, there is more going on behind the scenes. Real evidence is removed, false evidence is planted, documents are forged, and witnesses silenced. 

"This" continues to answer the question as to how the X-Files - both the show and Mulder's project - fit in today's world. As Tony Black put it in his review:

‘This’ doesn’t just feel like an episode of The X-Files. It feels as much like a core distillation of not just everything the show says today about the state of global surveillance, conspiracy and government, but rather everything it *used* to say. If ever an episode of the show was designed to remind us we’re no longer watching The X-Files of the 1990’s, it’s, yes, ‘This’.

There is a touching scene at Arlington where Mulder and Scully are standing by Deep Throat's headstone. Deep Throat, who was a former member of the Syndicate, and Mulder's informant famously sacrificed himself to save Mulder's life. A moment of tearful nostalgia, this scene also allows Mulder to wax philosophical about the state of the world.

"(Deep Throat) is dead because the world was so dangerous and complex then. Who would have thought we would look back and say these were simpler times?"

The times have indeed changed. If anything, Mulder and Scully's work has become more demanding, and the agents seem to have adapted to these demands. Physically, at least. 

If you ever wondered what it would be like if Scully and Mulder were full-blown action heroes, "This" gives you a taste of that. One of the most memorable moments of this episode is Scully sliding under the table in the middle of a shoot-out, looking more like an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. than FBI. 

The action is one of the things that gives this episode its energy boost (the dialogue is the other). The actions scenes are fast, brutal, and suspenseful. I really like Mulder’s fight choreography. He isn’t a martial arts expert, but he can still kick some major ass (as first displayed in "My Struggle II"),  

Some of the action could have been edited better, and there are a few details that deserve an X-file of their own. Like, how could Mulder and Scully overpower a group of armed thugs while still handcuffed to each other

One of season ten's weaker points, was the writers and the actors trying to find their way back to the show. As a result, most of the episodes, though very good, felt too plot-driven, and "safe". In "This", it seems that both Morgan and the actors have found their stride again. The story is exciting, the writing crisp, and the atmosphere buzzing with energy. It feels like the creators can play with their characters and their own tropes. They take more risks; the story doesn't feel like it's bound too tightly to the plot.

This freedom is especially evident in the interaction between Mulder and Scully. In an interview, Glen Morgan said that one of the mistakes he did in "Home Again" which he wrote was separating Mulder and Scully for most of the episode. He learned from that mistake because in "This", he never lets the dynamic duo be apart for more than a few minutes in the third act of the episode. 

And boy, am I grateful for that decision! The energy between Duchovny and Anderson is insane, and their quippy flirty banter is a joy to take in. You can see that these people enjoy doing what they do, and how comfortable they are stepping into these characters' shoes again. This is the funniest that Mulder and Scully have been since perhaps season seven. Their dialogue has a lot of energy, and warmth.

There are a few issues I do have with this episode. One of them being the tone. "This" is the funniest episode since "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster" (written by the younger Morgan brother), but it's not a comedy. The subject matter and themes discussed here would suggest that "This" was supposed to be a lot darker in tone. But the quippy dialogue, and the jokes (some of which were improvised by the actors) give the story a more light-hearted feel. Most of the jokes work but when a scene in which an innocent woman get shot is directly followed by a scene where Mulder calls Scully "adorbs" it feels jarring and kind of disrespectful. 

That occasional tonal dissonance can be explained by the pacing. This is one hell of a story to tell in just over forty minutes, and things are progressing at top speed. A part of me thinks that "This" would have worked (even) better had it been a two-parter. 

But these are all minor quibbles that you can forgive in an episode that accomplishes as much as "This" does. A tribute to the 1970's spy thrillers, it's an old-school X-File that nonetheless feels fresh and relevant in 2018. 

I would be amiss if I didn't mention some of the Easter eggs and tributes to the show itself and to its history. The conversation by Deep Throat's headstone, for example; Mulder and Scully napping on the couch, which is a visual callback to the season seven episode "All Things". The Ramones playing in the background is a nice touch, given that Langley was a die-hard Ramones fan. The whole episode also works as a posthumous tribute to the Lone Gunman, and their contribution to Mulder and Scully's search for the Truth. I wasn't the biggest fan of the Lone Gunman during the show's original run (I have yet to watch their short-lived spin-off), but given how much these characters meant to the world of The X-Files, "This" seems like a much better send-off to the beloved trio than the rushed, and jumbled "Jump the Shark".  

Links and sources

Exclusive: X-Files Writer Glen Morgan Tells Us About The Making Of "This" - Syfy Wire

The X-Files: 5 Questions Answered About "This" - Den of Geeks

The X-Files: "This" - Cultural Conversation

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