"731"/"Revelations"/"War of the Coprophages" S3 / E10-12
- A Community Grade
There are premise shows and there are problem shows, and The X-Files is a problem show. I'm not talking about quality. Like, Star Trek: The Next Generation? That's a premise show. We've got a space ship full of characters, they fly around the galaxy, and they can have as many adventures as there are ratings and money to support them. Quantum Leap, on the other hand, is a problem show. Sam Beckett jumps from life to life, "hoping each leap will be the leap--home." The man has a goal, and that goal suggests an end point in the series. Sam Beckett has a problem he has to solve, and that's why we're watching Quantum Leap instead of Friendly Scientist Fellow Stays In Most Nights Nailing His Wife. (I would probably watch that.)
Obviously problem shows (and I just know there's some kind of industry standard name for this, and I'm sure Todd will throw it out next week) are, to an extent, open-ended. Richard Kimble caught his one-armed man in the end, but it took four years, and he had a lot of wacky adventures before that final resolution. In the same way, there's no precise limit on Mulder and Scully's investigations. By using the FBI as a home base, there are hundreds of possible stories to tell, but at the same time, at the heart of all these stories, there's Mulder's quest to unravel the conspiracy that took his sister away from him, killed his father, and has arguably ruined his whole life. That drives the mythology, and it gives the show its core. Even in the worst episodes, we know our heroes are still searching for the truth, and one of the reasons we keep watching is the hope that, someday, they'll find it.
This approach to television drama isn't inherently better than the other kind--both have their strengths and their weaknesses. The real danger of a problem show is the Wile E. Coyote factor. The castaways on Gilligan's Island never stop trying to get home, but in order for the show to keep running, each new plan has to fail. The kids trapped in the land of Dungeons & Dragons had to stay trapped, at least until cancellation struck. Wile E. Coyote can't ever catch the Road Runner. There are ways around this, like the flash-forwards on Lost, or the resolved mystery of Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks, and The X-Files could have, and should have, tried to strike out from its original concern, because the premise was strong enough that the problem didn't need to be around forever. But it didn't, and so at some point the mythology went from, "Man, I completely believe they've finally got the edge on the bad guys!" to "I wonder which ACME product will fail this time..."
I was thinking about this while I watched "731," which is terrific. No fatigue here. Todd is right in saying that Season 3 really comes together because the Monsters of the Week episodes are finally starting to pull their own weight. The mythology eps, in contrast, have always been strong. The stakes are personal here, because we know what happens will have ramifications for both our leading characters, and Mulder and Scully are more central to the action than in most MotW episodes. In "731," Scully finds some of the answers she's been looking for, and Mulder gets as close as he's ever gotten to the truth, and both of them are the driving forces behind the story. In the end, when all is said and done, neither can walk away from what happens here, not in the same way they can from their other cases.
What got me to thinking about Wile E. Coyote (which is, let's face it, not a great example of what I'm talking about since Wile E. is ostensibly the villain of his shorts, whether we root for him or not. Still, it's the name that keeps popping into my head) is I always forget just how brutal this show is to its supporting and ancillary characters. Mulder loses his father, Scully loses her sister, and Deep Throat is gone, but what creeps me out is the casual attitude the series has towards its deaths. For all its sci-fi trappings, I think The X-Files is a straight to the bone horror series (which is one of the reasons why the comedic episodes, when done well, are so effective), and the way Carter and the others are willing to off so many fictional people to keep our heroes from their goals is one of the reasons why. Dr. Shiro Zama isn't exactly a nice man, but I can think of few series willing to toss off a death as unsettlingly casual as his, with Mulder walking by the locked door as the man he's searching for is silently killed.
And how about that weird... creature... in the back of the train? The core of "731" has Mulder holding an assassin at bay while Scully tries to talk some sense into him. It's a marvel of construction, as the bomb in the train car is both a logical safeguard and a great device to force Mulder to make rapid decisions without much time to think them through. That's another sense you get from the mythology episodes--it's not just that the answers are well-buried and guarded by monsters. It's that there are so many possible answers, one really needs to be able to sit down a spell and work through them, step by step, only there's never enough time to do so. It's like trying to read a paper that's burning from the bottom. No matter how fast you go, there are always going to be pieces you miss.
The main point we get here is the possibility that the whole "truth" Mulder's been working to uncover for all these years is nothing but a kind of double bluff to hide the real truth: the government has been kidnapping and running tests on humans, and hiding it under cover of "alien abduction." I remember being frustrated by this idea when I was younger, because evil government Nazi stuff was a lot less exciting to me than little green men, but I've changed positions since then. Maybe it's just knowing how random everything is going to get in the next few seasons of the show, but I appreciate the closed circuit nature of Scully's discovery, the way it explains everything it needs to in such a depressing, miserable way.
Because, let's face it, Mulder's theory is more fun. He wants answers because he wants to find out what happened to his sister, and he's outraged at what's been hidden from the public by the men in power (well, I'd say he's more outraged that they'd been hiding things from him, as Mulder doesn't seem to have a huge amount of respect for the rest of the world, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt), but there's also that same reason we all want the truth: because deep down, he believes that the Truth will give meaning to his life, that it will justify all the countless miseries and ugliness he's struggled through to get to where he is. Learning there are aliens attempting to colonize Earth? Yeah, that'd about cover it; he could prove the existence of extraterrestrial life, and maybe help save the planet in the mean-time.
Scully's solution is a bummer. No aliens, just a bunch of vile, arrogant men exploiting their power to use people in ugly ways. Sure, there's a certain grim satisfaction to it, confirming our darkest suspicions about what our government gets up to when the recorders are off, but it's not exactly mind-blowing. It's not going to change the way we view our universe to learn that bastards remain bastards behind close doors. At least aliens could bring us together as a race, maybe. There are still all those evil white dudes to deal with, but it opens more doors than it closes. It appeals to the five year-old in me that looked at all that emptiness in the night sky and wondered what filled the spaces between the stars.
Even worse, this truth is a mockery of Mulder's struggles. He knows there are forces against him, trying to hold him back, but his belief in the occult and the strange and the seemingly impossible is based on his faith in his own integrity and discernment. He's an arrogant dude (which we'll have to deal with next episode), but that arrogance is a way to handle what happened to his world when his sister was abducted. It's like Bruce Wayne watching his parents get gunned down; Bruce had to become Batman to bring back meaning to his life, and Mulder needs his monsters to give his missing sister a purpose beyond simple tragedy.
That's why I like the less romantic explanation. It's more tragic. I have seen hundreds of movies and shows and read as many books where the "crazy" guy was the only one who knew what was really going on. It would speak more to the sadness at the core of the X-Files to have Mulder find his answers and be forced to accept they weren't what he was looking for. I'm not sure it could've fit the series in the long run (and I'm not sure it even fits now in terms of plot, given that whole shape-shifting bounty hunter thing); it would've been an incredibly bold choice to turn Mulder into an actual Don Quixote, and I can't imagine audiences really embracing something that depressing. At least then, though, we might've had a conclusion whose emotional impact would've lived up to the intensity of early mythology episodes like "731."
- New tag-line for the opening credits: "Apology is policy." In other worlds, it's easy to ask for forgiveness than permission for decades of illegal, unethical tests on unwilling subjects.
- Aww, lepers.
- Mulder is super aggressive on the train, isn't he? He doesn't really have a lot of room in his head for gray areas, or subtlety, or tact.
- More creepy info on Scully's old neck chip. It could've been reading her mind...
- "I'm not a very good shot. And when I miss? I tend to miss low."
Religion makes me uncomfortable. No, okay, that's hedging a little. Christianity makes me uncomfortable. I'm not happy about that, either. There are plenty of legitimate problems a person can have with the church, and yeah, I've definitely got issues I can articulate, but I think my discomfort goes beyond logic or ideology. You could even call it a prejudice, and that's not a fun thing to realize about yourself. I suppose it's good that I'm aware of it, and that I can make a conscious effort to overcome it, or at least avoid situations where it would come into play. It's still there, though, and so watching "Revelations," I found it easier to identify with Mulder's skepticism than with Scully, and that didn't make me happy, either. Because Mulder can be kind of a dick.
Look, you all know nerds, right? Oh, I'm not talking about you, obviously you're the coolest cat around if you're sitting around on a Sunday evening poring over some overlong, rambling reviews of a show that's been off the air for nearly a decade. But you've got friends, and you're on the Internet, so odds are, at some point, you've had friends who're nerds. If this is the case, than you've noticed that nerds tend to be somewhat resistant to admitting they're wrong. (The "somewhat" should be read as sarcastically as possible.) They also don't like it when you favor an obsession that runs parallel to theirs. Mulder is a nerd. He doesn't look like a nerd, because he looks like David Duchovny, and I have it on good authority that David Duchovny is a good looking dude, but underneath the skin beats the heart of a socially maladjusted, bitter little fruitcake. He chastises Scully for not believing in the absurd when it's a question of aliens or flukemen or werewolves, but as soon as Scully starts exploring ideas that fall out of the Tobin's Spirit Guide realm, he gets snippy. It's not a conscious thing, which is about the only reason he's not completely reprehensible, and he at least tries to be supportive when she's emotionally shaken. It's just too bad the nerd in him starts speaking the rest of the time. How dare she like Star Wars more than Star Trek! How dare she believe in a higher power and angels and demons when everybody knows it's the Cigarette Smoking Men that you really have to worry about.
"Revelations" is more about Scully than it is about Mulder, though. I'm not a huge fan of this episode, but it's solid. I like the idea of giving Scully her own adventure, and there are a lot of great images here. R. Lee Ermy as a phony priest who gets choke-burned in the pre-credits teaser is a great fake out (his stigmata con job initially tricked me into thinking the episode was going to be about him; seems like these days, if you cast Ermy as a supporting player, you would've given him more to do then he got here), and Michael Berryman is terrific. The strain on Mulder and Scully is organic and dramatically effective, and I do love how willing the series was to show how dysfunctional its core relationship could sometime be. Mulder needs Scully because he needs someone he can trust completely, and someone who can he share all his crazy theories with and not worry that she'll get spooked off. And yet when the reverse happens, and Scully needs someone she can bounce ideas off, Mulder can't handle it. It's easy to dismiss Scully's skepticism as evidence of a closed mind (especially as the show progresses and it becomes less and less believable that she'd keep going back to the same approach), but I think Mulder is actually worse than she is. Scully tries to logically solve problems, while Mulder views the world the way he needs it to be ("I Want To Believe" is not a philosophy that lends itself to discernment). He's just been lucky enough to live in a world that largely confirms his beliefs, and when he encounters an experience that doesn't fit into the patterns he wants, he dismisses it.
So, I think that all works, and it's always great to get more Scully time. The idea of her as some kind of mystical protector is both goofy and perfectly sensible, and it's great to finally put her in a situation where Mulder doesn't come to her rescue in the final minutes, and where she doesn't break down emotionally after being scared by the big bad so and so. Simon Gates is a fine monster, although his backstory is interesting enough that I wish we'd spent more time with him. There's no surprise in a character who goes to the Holy Land and experiences a religious conversion, but the idea that Gates' conversion has him playing for the Devil's side could've used more explanation than a throwaway line. Plus given that he does actually have supernatural abilities, it would've been nice to see Mulder actually fixate on that, instead of just losing interest in the entire case.
My issue with "Revelations" is that I don't entirely buy it. I don't really buy that Mulder and Scully were able to arrive at Kevin's school the same day (within hours) that he manifested the stigmata, because a single occurrence doesn't seem enough to get that kind of attention that quickly, even if they are looking for a killer who targets religious freaks. Kevin is a normal kid who just happens to be blessed/cursed by God, but it would've felt more natural if he'd at least already had some trouble with the ole bloody palm blues. (I guess since we've already had our "young boy preacher" episode, we probably weren't going to get another one.) Plus, it would've been nice if Kevin had an actual personality beyond generic boyhood. The structure of the episode is odd, because Scully doesn't really step in to protect the kid until the very end; I wonder if it wouldn't have worked better if the two had paired off sooner.
The other reason I don't buy this is harder for me to justify: I have a hard time lumping Christian faith in with the usual kind of x-files we see. I'm guessing that's partly to do with the prejudice I mentioned earlier. To me, Christianity is different than monsters, and less fun. (Although I had no problems with "Die Hand Die Verletzt," which approached the problem from the other direction, which shows you what side I'm playing on, I guess.) Guys who can squeeze into weird shapes, flecks of light that eat unwary lumberjacks, punk kids who can control lightning, these are all weird, but they don't suggest a comprehensive philosophy. They're anomalies, and even if their existence implies a potential for greater occult possibilities, that implication isn't restrictive. There really isn't a "squeeze guy, light flecks, lightning punk" Bible out there, and belief in any or all of these creatures doesn't require a massive overhaul of one's notion of existence.
Having proof there are angels and demons and God, though, that's a lot trickier. If there's a Christian God in the X-Files universe, doesn't that trump just about everything else that Mulder and Scully have spent their time on? (Maybe that's why Mulder's so pissy about it. Nobody likes discovering their pet cause isn't the shiniest.) There are too many implications here for the show to support, and while it doesn't destroy the episode, it does make it difficult for me to back it as fully as I'd like to. Or maybe I'm just approaching it the wrong way. Maybe the idea is that God is on the same level as those little green men everybody keeps talking about, like that monstrous face that disappears when they pull of the masks at the end of a Scooby-Doo episode--but you can't help thinking that maybe the monster was the real truth, and not the boring old park-owner. It's not worth it to get too bogged down in the details. Enjoy the mystery, because it's better than oblivion.
Really, this works best as a Scully episode. I prefer Darin Morgan's version of the character (which we'll get to in the next episode), but I doubt that version could support a full episode about God in the same way that this more searching, and lost, Scully does. Given her track record, she makes a much better protector than Mulder does (honestly, if I was being hunted down by government agents or devils or whatever, Mulder would be the last person I called), and her honest, slightly appalled amazement at each new discovery makes the premise easier to swallow. We should see her skepticism work like this more often, as a way to ease us into the story, and not a wall for Mulder to butt against. Her despair at the end is heartbreaking, even if the sentiment isn't. She's worried nobody's listening to God, but after what happens to poor Kevin (crazy Dad, Mom killed in a car crash), I think I'd be more worried as to what the hell God is trying to say.
- Michael Berryman is really well-used here. The guy is his own special effect, and it's smart to play him against type.
- "Mulder, would you do me a favor? Would you smell Mr. Jarvis?"
- Mulder on religious fanatics: "They give bonafide paranoiacs like myself a bad name." Really, what else is there to say?
"War Of The Coprophages"
I knew Darin Morgan wrote "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" and "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," but it wasn't till Todd mentioned it that I realized he also wrote "War Of The Coprophages." I always liked the episode, but it seemed very slight in my mind, a goofy off-shoot with a repetitive structure. (Something weird happens, Mulder calls Scully, she comes up with a reasonable explanation, rinse, repeat.) Really what I remembered about it were the funny deaths, the guy in the wheelchair, and, of course, Dr. Bambi Berenbaum. I was all of 17 when this aired. I had certain priorities.
Man, though, how brilliant is Darin Morgan? Because while my memories of the episode were all spot on (and I apologize for returning to the "Hey, I saw this when I was a teenager so I thought I'd mention that" well again, but I'm running out of words at this point), there's more here going on than I'd realized... and oddly, less. Miller's Grove, the name of the Massachusetts town where all the craziness goes down here, is a riff on Grover's Mill from Orson Welles' War Of the Worlds broadcast, and thank you Wikipedia for pointing that out. People go crazy here because of a series of events that appear to have a malicious connection, but--well, they actually don't. For once, skeptical Scully is right. The cockroaches are cockroaches, the exterminator dies of natural causes, the dumbass teenager tears up his arm because of a drug induced hallucination, and so on. There are a lot of roaches, but that's because of the dung at the methane plant. Everybody just draws the wrong conclusions, and that inspires them to make bad decisions. In the end, it's all smoke and mirrors.
Or is it? I actually thought there was some kind of conspiracy going on here. Somebody suggests that the bugs could be robot scouts sent by alien intelligence to try and get a read on us, and hey, given what we've already seen on the series, that sounded plausible enough. For a while, it looks like the cockroaches are targeting scientists, so what if they were trying to prevent some sort of new space exploration program like in, um, "Space." (See, that episode was so bad I wouldn't mind a do over that didn't suck.) I was so convinced by this, by the vague conjectures and innuendos thrown out over the course of the hour, that it didn't occur to me till later that this is one of the few X-Files where the implications don't add up to something more sinister. We can draw our own conclusions, but there's no real justification for thinking this is anything more complicated than a bad case of mass hysteria.
Normally, that would disappoint me. I do so like my evil beasties, after all. Here, though, it connects with Morgan's general disregard for malevolent plotters and grand schemes. Morgan is too much of a cynic for that kind of grand structure to make sense, which is probably why he didn't write more than a handful of episodes for the show. X-Files' willingness to satirize its core principles is one of the reason it got as great as it did, but you can only go so far with that before it becomes impossible to go back. It's not just that "Coprophages" presents a possible conspiracy and then fails to deliver on it. It's that, in this world, even if there was a conspiracy, it wouldn't really justify the stupidity of humankind, the greediness, the selfishness. There's no romance in cockroaches murdering people. The Scooby-Doo ending isn't disappointing here because there really doesn't seem like any other option. Who would need an elaborate monster to take down this bunch of rubes?
Morgan is on record as not loving this episode (thanks again, Wikipedia!), and I can see what he's getting at. The ideas here don't come together as effectively as they did in "Clyde Bruckman," as there's no real emotional center or Morgan-esque viewpoint character to hold everything in place. We're dealing with hysteria, but we're also dealing with how humans might deal with other species, when those other species aren't particularly attractive. Alienness is an inherently threatening concept. We fear the unknown because we don't grasp its limits or its potential to do us harm, and aliens are the unknown personified. We can aspire to greater understanding and compassion, but when it comes down to it, we're mostly like Mulder, dropping everything to embrace the hot doctor in the short shorts, and killing the ugly bug that wanders into our personal space, because, blech, ugly.
I'm not sure that thread is as fully realized as it could be, but then, I don't really think it's worth complaining about, because "Coprophages" is tremendous fun to watch. The dialogue is great, the pacing is sharp, the leads are at their best. It's great to see Mulder actually turning to Scully for answers, and even listening to what she tells him and agreeing with her. Mulder is more likable here than in "Revelations," although not quite in the pure driven hero mode of "731." I said last time that I had difficulty writing about Scully in "Clyde Bruckman" because she's just so sane and reasonable that there isn't much to say about her, and I sort of have the same issue with both characters here. Mulder has his moments--his sudden infatuation with Dr. Bambi (Bobbie Phillips, who probably wasn't cast for her acting ability) and bug-killing show him almost as much at the mercy of his base impulses as the rioting townsfolk. But overall, he and Scully are still our identification figures, and identification figures are more about dependability and presence than about fascinating depth.
I don't mean that as a criticism. Morgan's version of Scully is my favorite, because she's just so easy to fall in love with. This is the Scully I always think about when I think about the show, because this seems like her core essence, and yet, much as we couldn't have this Scully struggling with her religious beliefs, it's difficult to imagine the mythology episodes being quite so terrifying with her around. There's no conspiracy that could stand up to her calm, occasionally snarky rationalism. She'd point out how implausible the whole scenario was, and the CSM would simply collapse like a house of cards. Yet this Scully does get sucked into Mulder's story, even with all her sanity. No matter how sane you are, you want there to be a pattern, and you want it to be a pattern you can influence. I doubt she'd be wearing a cross around her neck if it were otherwise.
So! This is the second Darin Morgan episode I've had to write about, and once again, I'm not sure I've done it justice. I don't think "Coprophages" is in the same ballpark as "Clyde Bruckman," but it is great, whatever reservations the writer may have had with it. There's something exciting about watching or reading a story that's willing to throw out big ideas and mix them together without slowing down, that trusts its audience will be up for paying attention when it's important, that aims for a balance between black comedy and pathos (here leaning more towards the comedy, as I don't think we're supposed to be all that broken up at any of the deaths) without overplaying either. The comedy here can be broad, but there's always enough self-aware commentary buried in it that it never becomes simplistic. While "Bruckman" dealt with the misery of knowing all the answers, "Coprophages" looks at how easy it is to convince yourself you know what's going on, even when you don't. It'd be better to believe in a bunch of bugs from outer space coming down to earth to mess with our minds, than it would be to accept the more likely truth that bugs like shit--and around here, there's always plenty to go around.
- Scully still has the same dog she got in "Bruckman." Continuity!
- Multiple Planet of the Apes references. (Two is multiple, right?)
- I really wonder if Bobbie Phillips was in on the joke.
- "I see the correlation, but just because I work for the federal governement doesn't mean I know everything about cockroaches."
- No Space: Above And Beyond from me this week. I liked the show, but just didn't have time to watch the episodes.
- Next week, Todd returns with "Syzygy," "Grotesque," and "Piper Maru."