“Alpha” (season 6, episode 16; originally aired 4/28/1999)
In which there is a very bad dog...
I’ve been having a good run this season of reviews; with the exception of a minor mythology episode, I’ve been lucky enough to cover a number of classic or near classic hours of The X-Files, while poor Todd has gotten stuck with most of the wet ends. It’s only fair, then, that I get at least one less-than-stellar entry, and “Alpha” fits the bill, a muddled, tepid bit of television that never really seems to know what story it’s trying to tell. Are we supposed to be invested in the animal loving shut-in with a crush on Mulder? Intrigued by the monster dog that’s been murdering strangers to demonstrate dominance? Questioning the motives of the politely sneering Dr. Detweiler? All of these threads come together by the end, but none of them are very well-developed, and none of them have the clarity the episode needed to be effective.
In many ways, “Alpha” is old school, with a structure that harkens back to the show’s early years. This is refreshing, at least at first; season six has gotten some terrific TV out of stretching its legs and poking at the boundaries of just what an X-Files episode can be, but it’s nice to see Mulder and Scully back in familiar territory, tracking the inexplicable in between standard stalk-and-kill scenes with doomed guest stars. Unfortunately, it turns out there’s a reason the series started to move away from this approach: by now, it’s been done so many times that it’s easy to predict each distinct beat, which turns what should be a slowly building series of tension-building setpieces into a checklist of death. Oh, here’s the cold open kill. Oh, here’s the first act kill. And so on. This is an old structure, and, predictable or not, it’s a sound one—there’s a reason shows keep returning to it. But this particular show has spent so much time thinking outside the box that going back inside can’t help but seem reductive, and disappointing.
All of this wouldn’t matter so much if the story was better, but the tale of the Wanshang Dole would’ve been a dud even if it had aired back in 1993. There’s this dog, see, and according to Detweiler, the expert (played by Andrew Robinson, with a disappointing lack of menace or flare) who claims he had the animal shipped into the country, it’s from a rare and long believed extinct breed. The dog kills a couple of crewmembers dumb enough to open his crate, and then disappears onto land, where he dispatches a security guard, and a U.S. Fish And Wildlife agent dumb enough to track him. Mulder and Scully get involved after the first kill, primarily because the crate where the first two victims are found was locked from the outside, and dogs don’t usually know how to operate locks. Or cover up evidence.
Already, this isn’t exactly compelling. Mulder makes some so-awful-they’re-funny dog puns, but threat-wise, the Wanshang Dole just looks like a big wolf; being told he’s super intelligent doesn’t provide him with a personality. Things get more interesting when the third victim actually sees a human figure transform into a dog, but “interesting” is only a relative term here; this is a werewolf story, and apart from the foreign origin and cool sounding name, there’s little to distinguish it. We learn two thirds of the way through the hour that Detweiler has been lying the whole time, and that instead of catching a Wanshang Dole and bringing it home, he was actually bitten by the creature during his expedition, and came down with a bad case of lycanthropy. Apart from raising the question as to just what was inside that shipping crate (Detweiler only becomes a dog at night; did he just ship himself home somehow?), the reveal doesnt’ do much to change the dynamics of the episode. We’re never encouraged to feel much pity for the doctor, and we never get to know him beyond his basic twerpy-villain status.
That could’ve been fine, though, since Detweiler is never supposed to be the heart of “Alpha.” That honor belongs to Karin Berquist (Melinda Culea), the animal loving shut-in who calls Mulder in on the case after meeting him on the Internet. It’s funny how much the episode makes of that last part; just the fact that Mulder had never met Karin in person before, but had shared information with her online, seems to make their interactions suspect, and color Scully’s view of both their relationship, and Karin herself. Because Karin is quiet and awkward and withholding, and for some reason, Scully decides that she’s keeping secrets in an attempt to win the affections of our favorite Fox. The fact that Scully’s basically right doesn’t change how badly this cynicism suits her. It’s less a matter of the vague sense that Scully’s defending her own territory when it comes to possibly rivals for Mulder’s affection (although that’s slightly there), and more how quickly she goes from “Huh?” to “This woman is lying to you.” Karin is, in fact, withholding information, but there’s never any clear reason as to why Scully would become suspicious. For an episode with a relatively straightforward premise, “Alphas” is often muddled, with a script that dictates its twists instead of developing them. First Karin shows up; then Scully decides she’s weird; then Detweiler’s a monster; then Karin decides to sacrifice herself to stop the monster. There are pieces of compelling drama in there, but none of them fit together the way they should.
Which is frustrating, because parts of this episode work quite well. Karin, for instance. Culea gives a low-key, convincingly uncomfortable performance as a woman so wounded she can barely stand to be around other human beings, and her conversations with Mulder, and even Scully, show glimpses of a much more interesting story, something that gave her character enough screen-time so that we could more fully understand her loss. Really, Detweiler and his canine proclivities come off more as a distraction than anything else, especially considering that he and Karin have knowledge of each other prior to the story. Karin giving her life to kill the doomed doctor is treated like the conclusion of some awful tragedy, but while the scene is well handled, there’s nothing to really support it in the rest of the episode. I’m a fan of Robinson’s (his work as Garak, the spy-turned-tailor on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is one of that show’s highlights), but isn’t giving anything to do, and while Culea makes the most of her scenes, it still feels like something is missing. Maybe the script could’ve used an extra few drafts.
Still, while it’s not really earned, I did like the final scene, with Mulder back in the X-Files office, feeling lousy about what happened. Scully tries to give him a pep talk, but while the actual dialogue isn’t strong, the discovery that Karin mailed Mulder a gift before she died, a copy of the I Want To Believe poster that has so long being his character’s hallmark, serves to end the hour on a bittersweet note. It’s too bad the rest is such a mess.
- “Don’t underestimate a woman. They can be tricksters, too.” What an odd, and very clunky, sentiment, Scully.
- Detweiler’s dog-form is able to change into different dog forms. That’s neat, although it only comes up once.
- Oh, and because it’s ironic, poor Karin has lupus.
“Saturn Dreaming Of Mercury” (season 3, episode 16; originally aired 4/9/1999)
In which something wicked this way comes...
In case the title didn’t give it away (and given the titles of some of these episodes, it probably wouldn’t), “Saturn Dreaming Of Mercury” is a strange chunk of television, and while that’s hardly unusual for Millennium, it comes so close to being a good chunk that it’s sad to see all the plot threads get tangled up in the final third. The first twenty or so minutes, which follow Jordan in her growing paranoia that something is very wrong with the new neighbors down the block, are deliberately paced, and do a fine job of conveying just how painful it is as a young person to recognize horrors in the world, but lack the adult power and vocabulary necessary to deal with them. As well, Frank’s struggles to understand what’s happening to his daughter serve as a solid metaphor for the agony of any parent faced with a gifted, but troubled, child. It’s slow, but thoughtful, and the growing sense of dread is heightened by occasional glimpses of weirdness. But then there’s this trophy case full of eyeballs, and a pregnant woman has a baby ripped out of her stomach, and it’s all goes crazy. And not in a good way.
As always with episodes like this, where the plot seems to get away from me somewhere after the half hour mark, I’m not entirely sure what happens in “Saturn Dreaming Of Mercury,” or why it happened. The Sandersons, a new family, moves in; Jordan keeps seeing the father as a demon; she gets more and more aggressive towards the dad; Frank, uncertain at first, suspects this might all have something to do with a case he’s working from Phoenix, AZ; the son of the new family is the demon, not the dad, unless they both are, which would be kind of cool; a house explodes; Frank and Jordan see the son turn briefly into Lucy Butler before the flames consume him (?); and then Jordan sees the son leaving the neighborhood with a new family.
There’s more going on, including some horrifying visions, the brutal death of an incredibly annoying one woman welcoming committee, and Jordan’s invisible friend “Simon,” who keeps pushing her to do something about the demon dad. I guess that “Simon” is actually a manifestation of the demon, and it’s trying to endanger Jordan to get at Frank? Or tempt her somehow? Which means that the dad is never really a monster, the boy is just fooling Jordan into thinking he’s a monster. Although even that isn’t completely satisfactory, because it violates any number of rules established by the show (namely that when a character has a demon vision, we should be able to trust what they see). Which would be okay if there was a clear explanation of what was happening by the end of the hour, and that never really happens. Stories don’t need to underline every point to be effective, but they do need to conform to an internal logic (even if that logic is the logic of a fever dream). The last third of this episode is just scattershot, a collection gory and/or disturbing images which fall to satisfy the standard set by the opening section.
Which is too bad, since that opening section really is quite effective. Ever since we found out that Jordan shared her father’s ill-defined psychic abilities, I’ve been waiting to see how she’d deal with them if an actual threat appeared, and, at it’s heart, that’s sort of what the episode is about. Ish. Jordan gets more to do here than she’s had in ages, first following the new neighbors to their home on her bike, seeing a vision of the house exploding, and then, becoming increasingly desperate in her attempts to convince someone, anyone of what’s she’s seeing. She can’t explain it, because she doesn’t know exactly what “it” is, but she knows something is wrong, and that creates instant, entirely understandable drama. While the story is about demons and second sight, the concept of a little girl who knows something is wrong but doesn’t think anyone will believe her isn’t hard to relate to.
Neither are Frank’s struggles. Jordan’s burgeoning abilities were always a point of concern for our hero, and to have them manifest in a way that he can’t immediately pinpoint must be painful. His daughter has always been an almost ridiculously perfect little girl, and to have her suddenly act out at school—and not just act out, but apparently bite another child, and then throw shrieking fits, before breaking into a stranger’s house and stabbing that stranger in the leg—must be terrifying. At its best, “Saturn Dreaming Of Mercury” captures the helpless, hopeless feeling of finding something you thought was dependable and trustworthy (home, your relationship with your child) thrown askew, with no reason why, and no clear answer to return everything to the way it was.
But this is also an episode with a case full of fake (?) eyes, which can see in black and white, and apparently lead to someone’s violent death. I’m not sure how a little boy grabbing a fake eye out of the Sanderson’s home brings about his mom’s gruesome demise, or why that lady’s end (bunch of wooden sigh stakes in the gut) resembles the death of the woman in Phoenix who had her unborn baby ripped out of her. That’s a problem. The more unnecessarily complicated this story becomes, the more it distracts from the Jordan and Frank scenes, which are easily the best part of the episode. I have nothing against frenzy or explosions or shape-changing demons, but when a show spends twenty minutes demonstrating how good it can be before it decides to throw caution to the wind and set everything on fire, it’s disappointing.
- There was also some weirdness about a 007 virus.
- Emma’s frustration with Frank makes sense—being on the edge of this kind of lunacy, and only getting bits and pieces of what’s going on, would be awful.
Next week: Todd runs into (and through) “Trevor,” and pokes a sharp stick in “Darwin’s Eye.”