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Episode Analysis

The X-Files | ‘Travelers’ and ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ Blur the Show’s History

The X-Files episodes ‘Travelers’ and ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ place the show’s influences into canon to interrogate changing definitions of truth.

Long-running television shows, particularly those in the sci-fi genre, are obsessed with their own origin stories. Doctor Who and Star Trek in particular consistently revisit and remix significant events relating to their origins, within both the continuity of the series (Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is a prime example of this) and in references to the real world (John Smith’s parents being ‘Sydney’ and ‘Verity’ in the Doctor Who episode ‘The Family of Blood’ springs to mind). 

A particularly interesting example of this trope is in The X-Files, a more actively mythological series than most seeing as it spends 11 series in worldbuilding, whilst interrogating the ways in which ‘monsters’ are defined, concealed, or revealed—frequently doing this through going into the conspiracies that began the X-Files, such as the existence of the Syndicate. The show also actively situates itself within the sci-fi/horror televisual tradition, using the connections between shows to interrogate its status in the real world and reach into the pasts of its characters and writers. In episodes such as ‘Travellers (S5, Ep15) and ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ (S11, Ep4), the series and people that inspired Chris Carter are remixed to provide a new lens through which to read Mulder and Scully’s world in relation to our own.

‘Travelers’ is overwhelmingly concerned with the origins of the X-Files, both department and show. The episode acts as a tribute to Howard Dimsdale, who was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s for “Communist leanings”, suggesting that the ‘witch-hunt [of the 1950s] was actually a smokescreen to conceal something else’ [Andy Meisler]. Dimsdale had taught executive producer Frank Spotnitz and co-producer John Shiban during their time at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and the episode functions as a tribute to their teacher, who had recently died at the time of production.

Arthur Dales viewed through the crack in the door, the chain drawn.
Arthur Dales (Darren McGavin) reluctantly agrees to answer Mulder’s questions in The X-Files episode ‘Travelers’ (S5, Ep15). Darren McGavin is, of course, best known as the titular Kolchak. | 20th Century Fox, 1999.

Dimsdale’s name appears later in the series as a newspaper staff writer in both The X-Files movie (1998) and The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008). However, here Dimsdale’s script-writing alias ‘Arthur Dales’ is the name of the episode’s central character, and the two writers decided to take direct inspiration from Dimsdale’s stories of ‘paranoia, treachery, and double-dealing’ (as in work for Quincy and Mannix) when developing the episode. These are shown from the off in Dales’ character, as he is reluctant to discuss the case and attempts to make Mulder give up the case. When Mulder threatens a subpoena, Dales reveals all, the episode so reinforcing the concepts of governmental control and secrecy even in the framing.

Other in-jokes referring to the real world of the series are featured, most notably the names of production staff such as Paul Rabwin (here the singer ‘Paula Rabwini’) and the fiancé of Chris Carter’s executive assistant Mary Astadourian (‘Hayes Michel’). Situating the episode in the writers’ pasts opened up an avenue to ‘trace the roots of both Fox Mulder and the X-Files’—tribute naturally leading to flashback.

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Neo-Noir in The X-Files Episode ‘Travelers’

The episode is first situated in the present day, as seeming serial killer Edward Skur (Garret Dillahunt) is shot by police, his last word being ‘Mulder’. A pre-series Mulder then travels to visit Arthur Dales, who had investigated Skur in the 1950s—and who had been present when Skur was reported dead in 1952. We then return to the past, to discover the truth. ‘Travelers’ is obsessed with the past, from the way in which it was filmed (Physical effects used to create the creature crawling out of Skur into his victim, and a bleaching job to give the film an aged feel) to explicitly saying the origins of why they’re called ‘X’ files in the first place, given by the closest thing the episode possesses to a Scully, secretary Dorothy Bahnsen, who says that they are filed under ‘X’ as there is more room there than under ‘U’ for ‘Unsolved’. 

Arthur Dales is bathed in soft pink light from the bar as he rests his temple on two fingers.
A young Arthur Dales (Fredric Lehne) ponders the case from his barstool in The X-Files episode ‘Travelers’ (S5, Ep15). Lehne later appeared in Frank Spotnitz’s shortlived 2005 reboot, Night Stalker. | 20th Century Fox, 1999.

1950s tropes proliferate, including a nuclear family with a bunker in the backyard, fugitives and noir-leaning trenchcoats, bartenders, and conspiracies. Likewise, the alien experiments at the heart of the episode are more in line with 1950s science fiction such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) than The X-Files itself. However, the origins of the mood of the 1990s could also be seen in the 1950s, in which there was a resurgent interest (in films such as LA Confidential, for instance). Dark Skies, a 1960s-set X-Files-inspired alternate history show, had also delved into the conspiracy thriller-film noir genre.

David Ansen wrote for Newsweek in 1996:

“Why are we in this somber mood? Crime is down, Wall Street is up and saturated fats have replaced communism on our worry list. But, of course, it was during an age of peace and prosperity that film noir got its start. During the Depression and war years, Hollywood had diverted a besieged nation with escapist entertainments and patriotic cheer. But with victory, our storytellers let down their psychic guard, and what poured out was dark and troubling fantasies of a dangerous, corrupt new world where the lines between good and evil got crossed. The streets were rain-slicked, fogbound, menacing; the heroes deracinated and weary; the women ambiguous, sexy, and treacherous.”

Film noir, then, looked for its enemies: much as the US in ‘Travelers’ looks to define itself against Communists and Fox Mulder looks for enemies or allies under the lid of secrecy. ‘Travelers’ also plays with the show’s origins in the culture of the 70s—from Watergate to Kolchak: The Night Stalker to The Parallax View (1974)—by referencing Alien (1979), especially in the way the creature emerges from Skurr and attacks his victims. The era-specific influences/origins of the show so tap into America’s present anxieties and offer playful opportunities for set design.

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How ‘Travelers’ Plays with the History of Television

The origins of television itself also play a large role in the episode. In the first era of mass television ownership, the medium almost becomes a character in and of itself: much of our exposition is framed through newsreel footage encountered on the television, from our first glimpse of Mulder’s father (Dean Aylesworth) to the real-life plots of Roy Cohn (David Moreland). As Michels is murdered by Skur/the creature, the camera pans to newsreel footage of Cohn and then the ad break—two generations of television colliding in real-time. ‘Travelers’ further ties into television history by acting as what Emily VanDerWerff described on AV Club as a “backdoor pilot for [a show] that never happened,” as seen in 1960s TV shows such as Star Trek (‘Gary Seven’ in particular) and television movies such as Kolchak: The Night Stalker (which we’ll come to presently). The episode is so interested in the origins of its own medium, and how this influences both its style and the decisions the characters therein make.

A young Bill Mulder looks furtively off camera.
Arthur Dales (Fredric Lehne) gets answers from the young Bill Mulder (Dean Aylesworth) in The X-Files episode ‘Travelers’ (S5, Ep15). | 20th Century Fox, 1999.

However, ‘Travelers’ is both parts of and divorced from The X-Files’ wider mythology: multiple episodes from season three onwards emphasized that the mystery resulted from actions at the end of the Second World War, and whilst ‘Travelers’ reflects that post-war paranoia it does not tie into the wider elements of continuity. The closest it comes to it is in exploring Mulder’s origins: he is shown wearing a wedding band. David Duchovny wanted to wear the band as he had recently gotten married, but Chris Carter emphasized that if there were any episodes that had taken place “seven years ago, you’ll have to be married.” Duchovny responded that few episodes would take place seven years in the past, ironically as this was one of many flashback episodes in the series. A young Bill Mulder oversees the procedure turning Skur into a parasitic monster, as part of the State Department (as established in The X-Files episode ‘Apocrypha’ – S3, Ep16), but is also under the command of real persons such as Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover, who maintain their historical personalities but are shown as even shadier. Mulder is shown to already have seeds of discontent over the acts he participates in—the first glimpses of what will lead him to leave the Syndicate, retire, and be killed. He tells Dales that “someone needs to know the truth,” but fails to fully commit to investigating the unsolved—instead it is Dales who takes up the mantle, the father of Fox Mulder’s career if not himself. It is in this way more of an investigation into the tropes that defined The X-Files as a series, and the characters driving these tropes, than the conspiracy itself, naming of the files aside. 

The older Arthur Dales sits on a sofa speaking to Mulder, who sits across from him on an armchair.
Arthur Dales (Darren McGavin) and Mulder (David Duchovny)The X-Files episode ‘Travelers’ (S5, Ep15). | 20th Century Fox, 1999.

In doing so, ‘Travelers’ goes into the origins of those tropes, many of which emerged from the short-lived series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-5). Featuring Darren McGavin as hard-nosed journalist and part-time paranormal investigator Karl Kolchak, it is one of the series that defined Chris Carter’s approach to his own series, with Robert Shearman going as far as to call McGavin the series’ “spiritual father.” McGavin was requested for the part of Dales by Chris Carter, having been asked to appear previously in episodes such as Senator Matheson in ‘Little Green Men’ (S2, Ep1) and as Mulder’s father. Both these roles echo Dales: Matheson is especially sympathetic to Mulder’s work, assuring him he will hold off a UFO capture team until Mulder can sort out the situation, Matheson is in turn named after Richard Matheson, the science-fiction writer best known for I Am Legend (1954). 

Casting director Rick Millikan noted in The Complete X-Files: Behind the Series the Myths and the Movies (2008): “McGavin was Chris’s inspiration for writing this series. He always had Darren in mind to use somewhere, and that was really his doing. He said ‘I want Darren McGavin for this,’ and he happened to be available, and we got him.” Consequently, intentionally or not, this casting draws our attention to the parallels between Kolchak and Mulder, Kolchak and Dales, and Kolchak and The X-Files.

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Kolchak as The X-Files’ Deep Past

Similarly to both Kolchak and other police procedurals of past and present, the episode first roots itself in the pre-credits mystery of who Skur is, and why there’s a desiccated corpse in his bathroom. It plays out as a monster-of-the-week style show that could fit into any genre—in fact, it could be a scene straight out of Kolchak. Dales tells Mulder that an X-File is a case “that’s been designated unsolved”—a lack of trust for authority as seen in Kolchak, who despite being placed on particular cases refuses to stick to a single story.

The episode stresses its investigatory elements, Dales (Fredric Lehne) and his partner Michels (Brian Leckner) paralleling both Scully/Mulder and Kolchak by wandering around attempting to find answers, but with Dales as an independent agent who won’t accept the government mandated-story. Bahnsen (Jane Perry) tells Dales that X-Files are “dead ends. No one’s supposed to see them, but it makes for interesting reading.” Like Kolchak’s work, no one would (or should be allowed to) believe them, but they still exist. McGavin’s hardboiled narration is not only a link to film noir, but also to the Kolchak series, a large amount of which features the wry narration of Chicago’s city streets delivered by the hardboiled reporter. Kolchakian lines such as “Debbie wanted to be successful: she should’ve settled for being alive” has the same rhythm/tone as “losing your partner means losing a part of yourself,” and McGavin delivers the lines in a similar way, twenty years apart.

Carl Kolchak is recoils in horror.
Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) in Kolchak: The Night Stalker. | Universal Television, 1974.

The episode firmly roots itself in both of its pasts via on-screen captions: the framing narrative is set on November 17th-November 21st 1990, for instance. This is also pulled from Kolchak, which in the episode ‘The Ripper’ (S1, Ep1) episode for instance is careful to inform us of the precise date/times of the murder victims’ deaths (“May 21st, 3 am… in Wisconsin”). Other Kolchakian elements include the lead character being prevented from doing his job by a higher-up; working with a sympathetic fellow journalist/agent who is on the same side but from a different paper/department; the lead and the state at odds; and a disgusting, frightening horror-inspired creature that middle America would never believe in. 

The parallels are even clearer in exploring a typical Kolchak episode (‘The Ripper’ – S1, Ep1). Kolchak is immediately presented as someone without his life quite together, as he slings his hat which fails to catch on a hook, but then puts his paper into his typewriter and begins the story—his fallibility but unerring desire to find out the truth established from the opening credits and putting him firmly in league with Mulder: he narrates to both himself and to the audience, emphasizing that he will present “the true facts” of the case. Kolchak pushes his way into crime scenes even when he hasn’t been assigned to the story, and he is consistently prevented from generating real evidence—‘The Ripper’ has him constantly taking photos of the man, only for them to be overexposed or be “nice shots of the back of his head.” As in The X-Files, the truth is out there but cannot be shown to a wider audience. Jane Plum (Beatrice Colen) acts in this episode as a Scully, fulfilling the skeptic route (“I don’t trust you Kolchak”) but also gaining mutual respect and working together.

Plum also investigates on her own, interviewing Ripper suspects, but has high humor about it (“I get to meet some interesting guys.”). Kolchak as a whole is rooted in Chicago’s dirty underbelly, its titular detective poking into the murkiness of a city rather than a government. Kolchak loses the story but is left with the evidence of the 70-year-old shoe the Ripper was wearing—but still can’t prove anything, ending the episode by saying: “How d’you explain it? Who could explain it? Who’d believe it?”

By drawing our attention to these parallels, Carter, Spotnitz, and Shiban use their episode to interrogate and remix the origins of their writing, their characters, their decade, and their medium.

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The Power of Nostalgia in ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’

The show returned to this emphasis on its origins multiple times across the years, but perhaps never so great as in the episode ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ (S11, Ep4). From the title downwards, we are placing The X-Files in a meta context, where its televisual origins as a science-fiction, reboot franchise, and pop cultural institution are all interrogated in a very silly way. Beginning with a heavily tongue-in-cheek episode of The Twilight Zone, complete with shoddy special effects (shoddier than those in Serling’s masterwork, perhaps an unintentional reference to the popular misconception that everything looked awful before 1990), the episode is then revealed to be missing by Reggie (Brian Huskey), a character who claims to know Mulder and believes he is being erased from society.

Martin, in black and white, screams as he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror.
Martin (Dan Zukovic) catches sight of himself in the mirror in the Twilight Zone-style opening to The X-Files episode ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ (S11, Ep4). Like many X-Files contributors, Zukovic previously appeared in two episodes of Mellennium. | 20th Century Fox, 2018.

A greater sense of mislocation is also produced by the collision of the two televisual types—the clean, widescreen of the 2010s jars with the 1960s low-rent styling, immediately creating the sense of unreality the remainder of the episode looks for.

Mulder has checked his tapes, “Box DVD sets, episode guide books [and] searched online,” further reaffirming his nerdiness by replying to Scully’s question about which show he watched:

“Confuse The Twilight Zone with The Outer Limits? Do you even know me?”

It is Mulder’s memory of the episode that’s important:

“It’s not about the episode, Scully. It’s about my memory of seeing my first Twilight Zone. It changed me. You don’t forget that. I was 8 years old, my parents let me stay up till midnight… because that was back in the day when it only aired late at night… on some local channel. […] I remember it all so clearly as if it just happened.”

The episode is so already playing with people’s desperation to recapture the original experience of something through repeating it — ‘Lost Martian’ is supposedly the first episode of Twilight Zone that Mulder ever saw—both through media and, in the case of the show itself, reboot.

Mulder and Dr. Thaddeus They speak with mocking sculptures behind them.
Mulder (David Duchovny) meets with Dr. Thaddeus They (Stuart Margolin) in The X-Files episode ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ (S11, Ep4). | 20th Century Fox, 2018.

The episode then goes on to invoke the ‘Mandela Effect’, the trope by which history becomes rewritten by collective memory, or in this case Dr. Thaddeus They (Stuart Margolin), who has discovered a way to manipulate memory and uses it in cases ranging from corporate products to Holocaust denial. In naming the doctor ‘They’, the show gives definition to the shadowy term often employed by conspiracy theorists to refer to the people pulling the strings, and so undermines its own central premise. Reggie is then revealed to have been part of The X-Files from the start, ranging from the day Scully first arrived in Mulder’s office to darker, Mulder-centric episodes such as ‘Unusual Suspects’ (S5, Ep3).

An added element of unreality is added in inserting Reggie into these episodes as, as director Darin Morgan told TVLine, “There was no place to put Reggie [as all the shots were] tight close-up.” In order to film the episode, Morgan also had to act as a fan, “watching DVD episodes and sort of fast-forwarding through them.” The episode also makes specific references to basic elements of the show: Mulder meeting shadowy informants in parking lots, Scully being so skeptical as to, after all this time, defy belief. Mulder becomes a stand-in for the show itself and its legacy: pushing ‘conspiratorial powers’ in an age when conspiracies win elections is worthy of interrogation.

The episode also takes its time lampshading sci-fi tropes (“We’re not gonna do that parallel universe gobbledygook.”) and sci-fi television’s casual sexism (Reggie says to Scully in a flashback episode: “Move along sugarboobs, no women allowed.”). Like ‘Travellers’, the episode plays with these origin stories to interrogate the reasons behind Mulder’s quest for truth—They tells Mulder that he is ‘dead’, insofar as his purpose in chasing down conspiracies in a post-truth age. “You believe what you want to believe.”

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Post-Truth in ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’

Reggie recounts his, Mulder, and Scully’s last case together, wherein upon meeting a satirically Trump-like alien they were handed a book that reveals all the answers: literally destroying Mulder and the show’s purpose. This revelation is filmed as ‘flat staging’, further adding to its unreality: like ‘watching actors on a stage’, it becomes a watered-down, almost studio-mandated idea of what The X-Files should look like. It is chockablock with cultural references for a specific age: a Voyager space probe crashing to home as in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), a huge alien ship recalling Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and a Martian wearing an Elvis suit. Having received the book with all the answers, Reggie becomes an audience surrogate, saying that “maybe the point wasn’t to find the truth but to find each other… we will always have the memories of our time together,” a doubly meaningful statement in light of the show’s various cancellations and reiterations.

Mulder, Scully and Reggie stand in front of a glowing B-movie style flying saucer.
An alien in a foil Elvis outfit hands Mulder, Scully, and Reggie a book entitled All the Answers in The X-Files episode ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ (S11, Ep4). | 20th Century Fox, 2018.

Reggie is revealed to be a mental-ward patient who had suffered a mental breakdown on discovering that his actions in service of the government were in fact contrary to its ideals, and (like the viewers) having received all his information about The X-Files through media sources created a version of himself where he helped in something making a definite difference. Mulder and Scully end the episode by watching ‘The Lost Martian’, revealed to be an episode from a cheap Twilight Zone knockoff called The Dusky Realm. The episode ends with Scully saying she “wants to remember”: a parallel to the series’ motto “I want to believe.”

‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ so looks at the series as something in the past, confined to fandom, but also what it exists as beyond those origins, and how its tropes work in a modern world. Can the remembered structure, tropes, and televisual language of The X-Files, owing what it does to television of the 70s and earlier, survive in a post-truth world?

‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ and ‘Travelers’ both play with origins: personal, political, televisual, and mythological. Their writers draw from their memories of the series’ inspirations and various incarnations to give attention to their implications: what truth means, how we discover it, and how can it impact our characters, whilst offering opportunities to delve into the dress-up box and poke fun at a science fiction series becoming a phenomenon. If nothing else, these two episodes demonstrate the powerful grip ‘origins’ have on science-fiction television and offer a way of remaining playful with totemic real-world and fictional mythology.

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Issy Flower is a freelance writer and actor. When not trying to complete fifteen different projects, she can be found on Twitter @IssyFlower

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