The X-Files and the Monsters of That Week: Via Negativa

by thethreepennyguignol

The X-Files was an entirely different beast in its eighth year.

While it could be considered as a paranormal procedural – CSI or Law and Order with monsters, an almost infinitely milkable premise – it should have had a much harder time in season eight, with the disappearance of Mulder from the show. Those normal procedurals went through a bunch of lead characters in their time, but The X-Files was Mulder’s quest even before a certain Dana Scully walked through his basement office door.

Mulder’s abduction, in the nineteen years of hindsight we now have, is the best thing that could have happened to The X-Files. As I mentioned in my season seven articles, the show had become stale, the mythology unwieldy, and David Duchovny especially looked bored out of his mind. A change was needed of the show was going to continue, and that change was Special Agent John Doggett.

Season eight of The X-Files is based entirely on the need to find Mulder. Because of this, this is the show’s most serialized season, with Mulder’s vanishing casting a wide shadow over proceedings.  As a result, monster of the week choices were slim at best – such is the scope of the search for Mulder that even traditional MOTW-s like the excellent The Gift, became mythology. Even with these restrictions, my pick for this season’s best monster of the week was obvious: it’s time for some nightmare fuel!

Via Negativa is Latin for negative way, making it a perfect title for a season eight episode. It won’t surprise you that Doggett was not a popular character when he was drafted into The X-Files. No one could replace Mulder, so the writers didn’t even try. Doggett doesn’t have Mulder’s knowledge of the paranormal or Scully’s scientific know-how, but what he does have is great instincts and a good work ethic. He’s like a beat cop with a fancy badge, but he’s thorough enough to have read every X-File before starting the job. Via Negativa is the first episode in which, due to Scully’s hospital stay, he has to go it alone. 

Dreams are where our true horrors (and if you’re a TV character, your detailed past memories and handy future foreshadowing) come out to play. A nightmare that kills you is the kind of horror trope that can never be overdone, because half the time we still wonder how we survived last night’s bad dream in the first place. On the face of it, Via Negativa is the standard dreams-kill story in which a cult leader tries to reach a higher spiritual plain only to find that it’s a place of darkness and death. The neat twist is that his astral or dream self has been so infected by this negative place that it begins to kill without remorse or thought. It’s a cool concept from writer Frank Spotnitz, and is packed with dream logic imagery that is truly the stuff of nightmares. 

But what truly makes Via Negativa great is the metaphor it utilizes through its nightmares. There is a fantastic sequence in which Doggett, who is being stalked in his dreams, walks through the FBI offices into Skinner’s office. It’s at this point, when I first watched this episode twelve years ago, that I fully began to love Doggett: the fear and desperation in Robert Patrick’s voice when Doggett tells Skinner that he doesn’t know if he’s awake is stellar in every way.

What would the X-Files be like to a newbie like Doggett? Even Scully had both Mulder and her own expertise to light the dark places the job has taken her. Doggett, if we take Spotnitz’ metaphor to its logical conclusion, has found himself going the negative way. Mulder’s obsession was always offset by his general charisma, humour, and enthusiasm for the unknown, but Doggett doesn’t have that; he doesn’t even have Scully in this episode. In order to find Mulder, Doggett must wade into the darkness of this obsession, he must look at the sign that says, “Here be Monsters” and keeping moving forward. Wouldn’t it be like walking into a nightmare? As a certain Dana Scully once said, “Dreams are answers to questions we haven’t learned how to ask” – Via Negativa gives the answer: Mulder’s with the monsters. The question is, can Doggett follow him there?

By Kevin Boyle

(header image via IMDB)