Re-viewing The X-Files: I Want To Believe (dir. Chris Carter, 2008)
I can’t remember how it came up in conversation, but himself indoors didn’t believe me that there had been a second X-Files movie. Although he watched the show when it was first broadcast, he has clearly never been an ‘X-phile’. His lack of awareness of the film is perhaps indicative of the show’s continuing cult status. Even when I informed him that my DVD copy was in our house, he remained sceptical. Upon returning home, I produced the undeniable evidence. He decided that it was the next film we should watch, so we did the following evening. We had to pause a few times so I could catch him up and explain a few in-jokes planted for the fans, e.g., why Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) share a bed, the pencils in the office ceiling, and so on.
It had been quite a while since I last viewed the film, probably not since I got the DVD when it came out, and some aspects niggle at me now that I’ve had critical distance from it and possess broader knowledge and understanding of the relevant issues. I feel great love for The X-Files, which is probably why I see lost potential in the film. Much of this centres around problematic representations of many of the characters, which I think through in this post.
Mysterious disappearances of fit, professional women, including an FBI agent, lead investigators to seek the help of former agents Mulder and Scully who had once been assigned to investigate ‘X’ files, that is, cases involving unexplained phenomena. The FBI search taskforce has also enlisted the help of a disgraced paedophile priest who claims to experience psychic visions and sensations relating to the victims. As the case unravels, disturbing truths emerge which push the boundaries of moral thinking around to what lengths we are prepared to go to extinguish and preserve human life.
Belief and scepticism
The subtitle I Want to Believe has been integral to X-Files since the pilot episode which first aired in 1993. It features regularly in the mise en scène on Mulder’s UFO poster, posing a constant reminder of his desire to believe in the conspiracies and strange phenomena he encounters and which have deeply affected his and Scully’s lives. Many descriptions of the show, including by those involved in producing it, will frame the lead characters’ dichotomy as believer and sceptic. Mulder is painted as a believer in all things paranormal and science fiction, while medical doctor Scully brings him down to earth with scientific fact.
However, the phrase ‘I want to believe’ is key. Mulder is more akin to an atheist searching relentlessly for evidence to either support or dispel truth claims and suspicions, while Scully, a practicing Roman Catholic, often dismisses his claims without wanting at first to prove or disprove them. The statement’s use as the film’s subtitle refers more to Scully this time than Mulder. She wants to believe that there is a treatment for the rare brain condition suffered by one of her patients, and she must reluctantly admit that she wants to believe that Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly) can lead them to the missing women and that he regrets his past abuse of young boys.
Bodies and medical science
In the show, Scully is depicted as a medical all-rounder who specializes in pathology. It is understandable for a character who spent many years mired in strange and horrific deaths that she would want to switch to saving life. We must suspend quite a bit of disbelief, even in alien/conspiracy-themed sci-fi, to accept the career leap from pathologist to brain surgeon, particularly when the surgery involves extremely rare and elusive conditions. This could probably be easy to gloss over if this aspect of the plot were not reliant upon the product-placement for Google. Indeed, this shapes two major plots points: 1) Scully's non-specific ‘stem cell research’ to save a boy with a degenerative brain condition with symptoms akin to Sandhoff disease; 2) Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) ‘Googling’ an address from his phone to find Mulder. The latter is more credible and remains in keeping with the technological edge of the original show. But Scully using Google as her only tool for extensive research which coincidentally helps crack the FBI case is a reach, particularly when in the show Scully often refers to writing and reading academic monographs and papers for peer-reviewed medical science journals.
Scully's non-specific stem cell research being conducted by an afternoon Googling it is irksome at a time when many university students consult such internet search engines instead of academically-viable texts and institutional libraries. While I appreciate that product-placement can be vital and important for funding and marketing in commercial films, this use of Google could have been more deeply considered and less clunky. It is one area of several that makes me think the script could have done with a couple more well-researched drafts.
I find it puzzling for Scully, and presumably the show’s writers, to research/Google medical experimentation very broadly related to stem cell research which pulls up examples of the Nazis’ human medical experiments in concentration camps, but to not come across the Resurrectionists (the graverobbers supplying cadavers to the Edinburgh surgical college in the early nineteenth century) or their murderous piggybackers, William Burke and William Hare. Instead of making clichéd references to Frankenstein, it would have been more appropriate for the film to allude to these real-life, horrific events in history. In the late 1820s (the decade following the first publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818), the Ulstermen who had taken up residence in Edinburgh murdered sixteen people to sell to Dr Robert Knox of Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons. The parallel with the two abductors supplying Russian experimenters in the film is clear, and, funnily, Burke and Hare do tend to come up on basic Google searches for this sort of thing.
While the nineteenth-century advancements in pathological science combined with the fictional Victor Frankenstein’s use of cadaver parts to animate new life closely resembles the Russian medical experimentations in the film, the show had a Frankenstein-like story in its hey-day, namely the season 5 episode ‘The Postmodern Prometheus’. The more serious take on it in I Want to Believe combines the show’s ‘monster of the week’ model with the need for a story worthy of a decently-budgeted feature film and to appeal to fresh viewers, but, it feels, at the expense of the weighty discussions the TV show often carried so well.
The questions raised for moral philosophy are worth exploring. Medical science advanced exponentially due to underhand activities, and there was a kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy for the purchase of cadavers as the trade was illegal. While it was wrong and horrific to supply stolen and murdered bodies, no less for financial gain, the practice sped up the advancement of medical knowledge and very likely subsequently saved many lives. A deeper examination of such an ethical minefield in the film would have been more satisfying than the suggested good vs evil binary that emerges, and could have intersected more clearly with important discussions around use of the Nazis' research findings gleaned from their war crimes.
Instead, the film polarizes 'good' surgery and 'bad' surgery. The 'good' defies Catholicism and parental consent to save a North American boy called Christian (Marco Niccoli). The 'bad' is body-swapping implemented by unnamed Russian scientists and doctors to simultaneously overcome terminal cancer and to reassign gender. Both types of extreme surgery in the film are made possible in the long or short run by the brutal deaths of others to facilitate experimentation and provide transplant materials at cellular and full-body levels. Both involve the painful prolonging of the patient’s life with the indication that their consent in these cases has not been directly sought for or given.
Christian is around the age that William, the son Scully and Mulder had to give up, would have been. As a mother and a physician, Scully makes an emotional decision to save the boy’s life. She had done similar with Emily (Lauren Diewold) in season 5 who turned out to be the product of one of Scully’s stolen ova. Meanwhile, the main abductor of the women in I Want to Believe, Janke Dacyshyn (Callum Keith Rennie) is trying to save the life of his partner (Franz Tomczeszyn played by Fagin Woodcock), a person who suffered another kind of major childhood trauma and, we can presume given the nature of their relationship, has never gained control of his own life. He too is being saved by someone who wants to keep him alive for their own reasons while his view seems not to have been consulted. Dacyshyn seems to be a raging misogynist, yet is replacing his husband's diseased and dying body with a woman's. Both situations are difficult to defend morally.
Christian and Tomczeszyn are prevented from exercising their right to die. Yet the film’s default moral position is: Scully experimenting with stem cells to save a sick young boy equals good; Dacyshyn and the Russian surgeons transplanting live bodies (notably, with the ability to keep the heads alive, and as implied by the two-headed dog, preserve life albeit in a perverse way) to save a terminally ill survivor of childhood sexual abuse equals bad. This moral turmoil is underdeveloped in the largely nameless group of Russian perpetrators, who are placed at much more of a distance than typical 'monsters of the week' in the show. However, Fr Joe, who happens to have abused the younger Tomczeszyn, is fleshed out to the extent that it is possible to feel compassion for him and he is permitted opportunities for redemption.
Given the tensions around experimental, life-prolonging surgeries and relationships between victims and perpetrators of abuse set against the backdrop of religious belief, it would have been interesting to develop the debates between atheism and faith, and the clashes between morality and medical science that the film skirts around.
Politics, gender and sexuality
The film was made at a time when the USA and Russia were clearer enemies, yet the Russian group in the film go to the USA to perform experiments in Frankensteinian sex change operations – a bodyswap approach that smacks of biological essentialism. Under the current Trump administration, the US’s enemy status with Russia is less clear, and his and Putin’s feelings towards women, homosexuals and transgender/non-binary people are relevant to the misogyny and homophobia which underpin much of the film. Fr Joe, for example, is a priest so horrified at his sexual urges towards young boys that he claims to have castrated himself aged 26. It is unclear where Fr Joe practiced. He has a Scottish accent with an Irish twang, and his crimes took place roughly 40 years before the events depicted in the film. Tomczeszyn, one of his alter-boy victims-cum-perpetrator, never speaks, so there is no knowing where the abuse took place. Presumably they were both migrants to the US.
Tomczeszyn is rendered down to being the silenced partner of the dangerous Dacyshyn who stalks and violently abducts women who share Tomczeszyn’s rare AB- blood-type. By going to such extreme lengths to change Tomczeszyn’s biological body, and in showing Dacyshyn’s clear pleasure in watching his second abductee swimming, there is an indication that the film or its characters regard same-sex marriage as dangerous. It could also be read as a comment on perceptions of homo- and transphobia in Russia, with the ‘bad’ Russians taking too much advantage of American freedoms.
Tomczeszyn has terminal cancer (lung, I think), so the procedure will ‘cure’ his body in two ways: by replacing his diseased body with a well body, and in changing his biological sex to female. This complicates trans identities and would ‘correct’ the couple’s gayness by re-establishing heteronormative marriage. It seems that Tomczeszyn is yet again the voiceless victim of another overpowering man with deviant, violent sexuality exhibiting signs of a homophobic misogynist.
This part of the plot is uncharacteristically underdeveloped for The X-Files. Normally the motivations of the ‘monsters-of-the-week’ are more fully revealed. It remains unclear why the transplant bodies must be those of women, and why Tomczeszyn and Dacyshyn cannot continue to be a gay couple. It is unclear whether Tomczeszyn consents to the procedures that could save but radically change his life. I fathom that Dacyshyn is not in fact gay and has married someone whose identity has been so tremendously shattered by past traumas that he is willing to recklessly shatter those of others to survive at all costs, and that Tomczeszyn’s illness provides the necessary window of opportunity both for him to change sex (rather than gender) for Dacyshyn, and to become a lab rat for the Russian scientists. After all, he has no further use for a dying body, so he may as well re-grade it.
Clunky plot points
Another clunky plot point I can’t reconcile with is the blood-type bracelets. Perhaps it is different in the US, but himself has the rare AB- blood-type and does not have to or choose to wear a medical bracelet to that effect – the kind my dad wore as a type I diabetic. How improbable is it that two people, never mind two fit, healthy women in their 30s, with such a rare blood type could both be found frequenting the same swimming pool in what looks like the arse-end of beyond in rural USA? The surveillance intelligence gained by hacking blood donor records might have been more plausible, and more in keeping with the show. I don’t even know where to go with how convenient it is that Dacyshyn managed to get work as a donor organ transporter. I suppose that was the way in to the horrid business, but how did he know the unnamed, incommunicative Russian surgeons?
Another missed opportunity in the screenplay surrounds the remains of first abductee, Special Agent Monica Bannon (Xantha Radley). Given that Dacyshyn drops the case containing her frozen head when Mulder sees him and gives chase, it is implied that until then she had a chance of survival in the most horrific of ways. Along with transplant patient Tomczeszyn and second abductee Cheryl Cunningham (Nicki Aycox), their heads may have ended up sharing other bodies in the way the successful two-headed dog experiment shows. Mulder seems to understand this when announcing that Bannon is not dead, but in making Dacyshyn drop the organ carrier and Special Agent Mosley Drummy (Alvin 'Xzibit' Joiner) opening it to discover the horror within, her fate is sealed and her last chance of survival is ironically lost at the hands of the ‘good’ guys.
Frustrating amounts of incompetence abound amongst the agents. Special Agent in Charge Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) is out-run in the chase by Mulder, around 20 years her senior and who has been out of action for nearly a decade (not that an older person can’t be fitter, but it is implied he has been sitting around in an office feeling sorry for himself the whole time). Her ineptness and doe-eyed focus on Mulder and his whereabouts in the construction site leaves her vulnerable to Dacyshyn who seems to enjoy callously pushing her to her death. It’s hard to buy that one. Drummy also lacks depth. He does not seem phased by the brutal murder of his two colleagues. His performs a one-dimensional put-upon angry sceptic throughout.
In saying all that, I remain a fan. I enjoyed re-watching I Want to Believe and spotting the guest actors from the show’s first five years filming in Vancouver. Especially now that showrunner and creator Chris Carter is slowly relenting to demand to make the show’s cast and crew more diverse by adding women to the writing staff on season 11, I will watch on. It's about time he handed over writing duties to people who are less likely to send me off on one about plot-holes.