As noted, Ascension is something of an addendum to the originally intended solo Duane Barry outing. Consequently, it’s serviceably written by Paul Brown (also 2.11: Excelsis Dei) and Michael Lange, but it’s a victim to the “blockbuster” mentality that would ultimately favour attractive set pieces over coherent plotting in the arc episodes. Mulder trapped in a cable car! Scully gets snatched! The shortfall is perhaps more transparent in Ascension, since all that fine character work in Duane Barry leads to the character’s rather perfunctory demise in favour of shifting Scully’s abduction centre stage.
X: There are no answers for you, Mr Mulder. They only have one policy... Deny everything.
Quite a few of the series’ tics are becoming a little aggravating even at this early stage. Cigarette Smoking Man may have been intriguing and foreboding to many at this point, as a prelude to the mysterious face of the Syndicate, but in retrospect he feels like a cumbersome “heavy”, devoid of nuance and, worse, given to nonsensical reasoning. I’ve mentioned this before and will again, as it’s the backbone of much of the “logic” behind permitting Mulder’s continued activity, but his rebuttal of Krychek’s request to dispose of Fox with “you run the risk of turning one man’s religion into a crusade” is desperately weak. I can understand Carter needing it, because the series collapses in on itself without some voiced motivation from the bad guys. But unfortunately, it just doesn’t wash.
Krychek: If Mulder is such a threat, why not eliminate him?
CSM: That's not policy.
Krychek: It's not? After what you had me do?
CSM: Kill Mulder and you risk turning one man's religion into a crusade.
Krychek: What about Scully?
CSM: We've taken care of that.
I’d forgotten just how quickly Krychek’s suspect motivation is revealed. He doesn’t even wait around for Skinner to investigate Mulder’s frankly weak accusations, simply deigning not to show up for work after trapping Fox in a cable car, killing the operator and poisoning Duane Barry. Oh, and there were tell-tale cigarettes in Krychek’s car! Honestly, Skinner should have slung Mulder out of his office right then and there. I’m doubtful much could have been proved against him – Mulder’s culpability for strangling Barry is more black and white – but there’s no doubt his behaviour is ridiculously bull-in-a-china-shop throughout.
X: You've wasted a trip, Mister Mulder. There's nothing the Senator can do for you now.
X: Not without committing political suicide.
Mulder: Why? Do they have something on him?
X: They have something on everyone, Mr Mulder. The question is when they'll use it.
Mulder: I need his help.
X: No one can help you now. Your channels of appeal and recourse are closed.
There’s also X (Steven Williams), in his third appearance after 2.2: The Host and 2.4: Sleepless, informing Mulder that Senator Matheson (2.1: Little Green Men) will not be able to help him. Plus, he emphasises the episode’s change of tagline (Deny Everything). And the episode ends with Skinner reopening the X-Files, so announcing where his sympathies ultimately lie (even if he’s going to go back and forth in curmudgeonly fashion on expressing that volubly). Mrs Mulder (Sheila Larken) shows up. Twice. So already, the show is utilising its smorgasbord tendencies with regard to the arcs, throwing everyone and everything in there.
The thing is, Ascension begins very stylishly. The use of Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand, as Duane is pulled over by a cop and proceeds to deal with him, is creepy and atmospheric. Less so, the remarkable magnification properties of your average cop-car camera (able to provide a magnificently detailed blow up of Scully peeking out of the boot). Is it actually explained how Duane knows to grab Scully? I know it’s queried by Mulder (either the chip led him there or he was told where to go), but I’m not sure it’s pinned down.
Mulder: Don't move!
Duane Barry: I'm not going anywhere!
Mulder: Where is she? Where'd you leave her?
Duane Barry: They took her.
Duane Barry: Them! I told you they would take somebody else. They did!
The problem is, once Mulder catches up with Barry, now sans Scully, the episode has little place surprising left to go. The rapport with Barry is gone, leaving Mulder threatening him and Krycek required to mop up the loose end. We see Scully experimented upon of course, but aside from her apparently being pregnant (well, she was, natch), this is already a passé nightmare effect (running with the previously noted ambiguity, Carter didn’t want it clear whether aliens, the military, or both had abducted here). Ascension works well enough on a surface level, but it’s a functional piece that leaves you wishing they’d given Barry a better send-off (he even dies off screen).