8.7: Via Negativa
I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, albeit the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth. For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered being Via Negativa.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. A key scene here remains a doozy, and it’s engaging to see a still early-days, sceptical Doggett attempting to wrap his head around matters where Mulder would be a duck to water. But I’m instantly reminded of my issues with the change in line up. To be honest, I found the ever-sceptical aspect of Scully, much as it made sense for a character dynamic, to be an irritant after a certain point. So now, with Mulder out of the way, recasting her as the believer – pretty much – never washed. You even have Skinner fighting the good fight. And the irony is, when Doggett actually grapples with the case – having rejected Skinner’s “science fiction stories” – he does so with far more acumen than any barring Mulder would have.
Writer Frank Spotnitz is clearly aware of this big ask, which is why he incorporates a scene with the Lone Gunmen – amusingly messing about in Mulder’s files when Doggett walks in, as he pretty much represents “the Man” to them. They have him pegged as a slow joe, and patronise him accordingly as “in way over your head”. However, after Doggett is through outlining a near-enough note-perfect surmisal of what is going on, they have to admit “That’s not bad for a beginner” (Doggett has given the caveat that he doesn’t believe any of it, “… but if Tipet does…”)
The basic premise is your X-Files standby of a cult leader/killer leaving a gruesome trail of bodies in their wake (one might call it Manson-esque, if one wasn’t rightly dubious of the self-prescribed status of that engineer of the demise of the hippie dream). Anthony Tipet (Keith Szarabajka, also in a recurring role on Angel around this time) has figured out, rather vaguely it has to be said, a way to get closer to God through the titular path of “negative theology” – God’s unknowability, essentially – and copious quantities of hallucinogens (African tree bark iboga). Spotnitz’s idea is well and good – trying to reach to a higher plane of existence, but ending up somewhere lower – but it’s also very sketchy. Tipet’s cult aren’t allowed his drugs yet somehow still come on board for his rather unremarkable “The body is but clay…” lectures.
So too, the third-eye element is lent some memorable visuals when it becomes literalised in a dreamscape, but that’s by way of a rather blundering, gruey motive to hack at said place with an axe on the part of Tipet’s crazed alter. The Lone Gunmen proffer the dollar bill and reference MKUltra “failing where Tipet is evidently succeeding”. Which finds The X-Files, not altogether surprisingly given that it is only really going places it is allowed to go, toeing the party line. So, while I didn’t regard Via Negativa as a missed opportunity exactly, I did think, revisiting it, that it might have done much more with some quite fertile ground.
Doggett: I thought I woke up this morning. I thought I was awake, and then. He knows me now. He can enter my dreams.
The episode’s most memorable sequence, though, finds Doggett returning home after barely stopping a now comatose Tipet from putting his head all the way through a table saw. Which follows the prison death of illicit pharmaceutical chemist Andre Bormanis (Grant Heslov, Clooney’s producer partner and director of the very sanitised and approved psychic-spies comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats, based on the very sanitised and approved book by trusted establishment sceptic Jon Ronson). We’ve already seen Doggett, in a wave of dreaminess, hallucinating that he is holding Scully’s severed head in his hands (told he should get some sleep he responds very drolly “Yeah, I just grabbed a few winks”). Now though, he “wakes” and walks into the bureau as if in a fug: “I’m not sure if I’m awake” he tells Skinner. This culminates in his dream self trying to axe himself rather than kill dream Scully; Scully-ex-machina wakes him just in time.
This is very much Doggett’s show – Scully’s barely in it, having tests on account of her not-yet-admitted pregnancy. Robert Patrick’s more than able to hold his own. Although, the truth is, Patrick’s a more interesting actor than Doggett is a character. He generally does the heavy lifting where Doggett is concerned.
I should mention director Tony Wharmby here too, as it’s his first gig for the show at the ripe old age of sixty. He started out on Coronation Street in the late 1960s, added flair to Dempsey and Makepeace in the mid-80s, clearly got noticed for it and crossed the pond to take on the likes of The Equalizer, Magnum P.I. and Miami Vice. Notably, he’s eighty and still working, having been a fixture on various NCIS incarnations for more than a decade. I mention him in part because that’s fairly impressive all on its own, but also because he also helmed the second late-series episode I picked, one that turns out to be more up to the standard I recalled than Via Negativa…