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The X-Files: Ascension

Case: Duane Barry has kidnapped Scully and is desperate to get her abducted instead of him - and Mulder is equally desperate to make sure that doesn't happen.

Destination: Skyland Mountain, Virginia

Whew. Right after covering a game-changing episode of The West Wing, here I am with a game-changing episode of The X-Files (TV Tropes call these 'Wham Episodes'). 'Ascension' is a difficult episode to pull off because it has to go through certain plot motions and make sure the audience feels the weight of them, without offering much in the way of resolution - but I've always liked it, I think it pulls it off very well.

First of all, props to the director for putting together a scary abduction sequence without being able to throw his lead actress around or show too much of her. The reason for Scully's abduction story-line, which would dominate and determine the course of so much of the show, was that Gillian Anderson was heavily pregnant, so really can't be chucked around, even in a very confined space where substituting a stunt double would be difficult. This careful use of limited shots to convey what's happening to Scully continues throughout the episodes, as we are shown quick shots of Scully’s terrified eyes in the boot of the car, which is perfectly plausible in context and avoids having to show much of her (though getting into that boot can’t have been comfortable).

Finally, of course, there's the famous sequence which might be Mulder's imagination or might be what's really happening, in which we see Scully apparently being subjected to some kind of accelerate pregnancy. Or something. Anyway, it makes neat use of Gillian Anderson's actual pregnancy bump and I've always loved these weird, eerie images, which are as much as we ever really see of an actual abduction - something that's important to at least hint at when it's happening to one of your two lead characters.

Most of this episode rests on Mulder, though, who gets to be detective, action hero and crushed partner (the work kind - mostly) all in one. I didn't see Blade Runner until a couple of years ago, but when I was a teenager I always loved the scene in which Mulder magnifies the photo to reveal Scully’s face in the boot. It seemed so detective-y, so science-y. I also love the sequence on the cable car. When this episode was first shown in the UK, I went around to my best friend's house to watch it, because she had Sky and I didn't - I would have had to wait months or even years to see it on BBC 2. We were both completely in love with Mulder and really enjoyed watching him jump about all over the cable car like he was in Where Eagles Dare or something. Maybe it's cheesy, but it certainly went down well with us - bear in mind, this was around 1995 or 1996 (when we saw it first, sometime after the US transmission) and over here we didn't have so much as Doctor Who to brighten up our tellys - Pride and Prejudice was as action-packed as it got.

There's more to this episode than action and clever shots of Gillian Anderson's face, though. I love the play on the theme of 'ascension' throughout the episode. The title comes most directly from the Skyland Mountain advert that gives Mulder the all-important Clue to lead him to Scully, but Duane Barry's reference to 'ascending to the stars' also refers to what he thinks is going to happen to him. Then there are the Christian connotations of ‘ascension’ to heaven after death, which underscores Mulder and Mrs Scully's fears about what's happened to Dana, especially given the Scullys' Catholicism.

This episode also continues the tradition that where paranormal things are happening to Scully, religious themes are sure to be found. There's another ascension-themed reference to a 'stairway to heaven', which is the American title of the film known in Britain as A Matter of Life and Death, which is about a heavenly judge deciding whether a man should live or die. Scully's cross necklace, although she wears it mainly because it was a present from her mother, becomes a symbol of faith in more ways than one when her mother tells Mulder, 'when you find her, you give it to her.'

Scully's mother is there to remind us that there are other people in the world who care about her, but of course, it's her relationship with Mulder, and his pain at losing her, that's the focus here. Over the first season we saw Mulder and Scully’s relationship become ever closer, especially in 'Ice' and 'The Erlenmeyer Flask,' but this is where we see Mulder put in a really extreme state for Scully’s sake for the first time, not sleeping, nearly crashing the car and, of course, there's the action sequence on the cable car. There's nothing like an abduction scenario to show the audience how much these characters care about each other and feed the shippers.

I mentioned earlier that this episode can't provide too much resolution, but it does provide two attempts at it. The first is to get rid of poor Duane Barry, in a moving series of scenes in which Mulder confronts him before he's offed by Krycek. As Mulder questions Barry, suddenly, tragically, he doesn’t want to believe. He asks what Barry did with Scully, whether he killed her, whether he hurt her, and he tries to strangle the guy. Although he rarely doubts his sister’s abduction by extraterrestrial forces, he seems to want someone human to blame for the loss of Scully. Barry’s apology is almost tragically sweet. Last week he assured Mulder ‘I wouldn’t do that to you’ and here he seems genuinely sorry to have let them take someone Mulder loves so much.

The other bit of resolution is, of course, the re-opening of the X-Files department, allowing Mulder to get back to work, albeit sans partner as Krycek shows his true cigarette-ash-tainted colours and disappears.

Other Thoughts

Mulder explains away my quibble from last week, working out how Duane Barry found Scully and why he targeted her – the aliens were tracking the barcode thing and led him to her. Mulder initially concedes that Duane Barry finding Scully via the implant is the most implausible possible explanation, so you know he’s really emotionally down.

The tag is changed from 'The Truth in Out There' to ‘Deny Everything.’

We finally get to see X’s face!

I love the final shot of Mulder on the mountain, looking up at the stars.


Skinner: You’re too close to this case!

Random person who's in the way: I’m sorry, you’ll have to go through regular military channels… there wasn't an FBI pathologist available this morning. Ouch! Given that's Scully's job, that had to hurt.

Cigarette Smoking Man: Kill Mulder and we risk turning one man’s religion into a crusade.

Duane Barry: I hope they’re not hurting her too much with the tests.

Random man: Why are you so paranoid, Mulder?
Mulder: I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I find it so hard to trust anybody.

X: The only have one policy. Deny everything.

Skinner: There's only one thing that I can do, agent Mulder. As of right now, I’m re-opening the X Files. That’s what they fear the most.

Final Analysis: Fun, action-packed and it kicks off a whole new era of The X-Files. Four out of four sabotaged cable cars.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


  1. This is definitely a high tension follow-up to ‘Duane Barry,’ with lots of great emotional beats. It feels like the “pregnancy abduction” thing has become a bit of a trope over the years, to give a lead actress her maternity leave, but it was really effectively used here to bring the pain for their other lead. What worse could they have possibly done to Mulder than have his trusted partner seemingly fall victim to the same fate as his sister? Great use of the established mythology to accommodate an external production issue.

    But, I have two major quibbles with the episode. First, while I love that Skinner is openly defying the government conspirators, it seems odd to me that he would really have the authority to re-open the X-Files. If the conspirators are so powerful, how can one Assistant Director go against their wishes to have the unit shutdown?

    Second, the tram sequence drives me absolutely nuts. I know Mulder is all about flagrantly defying the rules, but driving that thing too fast and then climbing on top of it was exceptionally stupid. It’s a safety thing, man! I guess they just wanted to drive home how desperate he was to find her, but I find myself yelling at the screen, “You can’t help her, if you’re dead!!!”

    And, truth be told, the sequence also drives me nuts because you can clearly see Vancouver and the inlet in the background of several shots. It’s beautiful scenery, but I’ve been to the real Skyland, and the vistas from the Blue Ridge mountains look absolutely nothing like that. Vancouver just can’t double for everything. :)

  2. I love this episode and I love how it sets up the mythology that will continue for quite a while. I, too, love Mulder being all action-man, even if it does seem a bit over the top.

    My favorite part of the episode, however, is the reveal of the cigarette in Krycek's car. What a clever way for Mulder to find out the truth.

    And, although I agree that Skinner is probably overstepping his bounds, I adore the fact that he supports Mulder through all this. He is becoming a real ally to our duo.

  3. Thanks for the review. You pointed out some things I didn't see. I also have a quibble. Mulder puts the cigarette from the car down right beside the ashtray in Skinner's office which holds the same damn cigarettes yet neither of them notice?

  4. They did notice. Mulder was explicitly making a point that they were the same cigarettes and that Ratboy was in league with the Smoking Man and his ilk. He told Skinner that Krycek was likely hired by "whoever it is that the man that smokes those cigarettes works for."

  5. First time I make a comment here so allow me to start by saying how much I really enjoy your X-Files reviews/recaps. I've been watching The X-Files on and off when they first aired in the US and I've just decided I'd take a second look at them all from the pilot. Despite it's obvious 90's settings (fashion, technology, pop culture, social context, etc.), that the show ages well.

    I really love this episode and the last because the bond between Mulder and Scully is now undeniable and the pain and distress Mulder feels when she disappears is so well conveyed by Duchovny. I agree with you that they made a formidable use of Anderson's pregnancy. What could have been a major problem was turned into a major twist of events.

    I may be wrong, but I think that the "Stairway to Heaven" was more a reference to the Led Zeppelin song than to the 1946 movie, because Krycek told Mulder that Duane Barry was whistling it.

    Totally agree with Jess Lynde comment that Mulder's behavior on that tram was completely stupid and irrational. One can explain that this was caused by his emotional and physical conditions.

    Finally, Railsback totally nailed it. Barry's tortured soul was amazing to watch. Which leads to think that the med report claiming that he no longer has any sense of morality is BS. I think he's truly sorry for Scully. Probably very f**ked up, but remorseful.

  6. The Skyland car sequence really was the highlight (pun intended) of the episode for me, although like Jess, I've been in the Blue Ridge Mountains and those ain't them. :) I wanted to shake Mulder for risking himself by making it speed because hey, who is going to rescue Scully if Mulder ends up plummeting to his death? I particularly liked Nick Lea's expression as he was playing with Mulder and the car.

    I seem to remember being surprised and impressed way back when this originally aired at what they were doing with Anderson's pregnancy. I don't recall something like that happening before on TV. The X-Files was a ground-breaker in a lot of ways.

  7. A welcome trip down memory lane. I began watching the X-files early in season 2, so needless to say I was quickly hooked.