“The Unnatural” (season 6, episode 19; originally aired 4/25/1999)
In which aliens play baseball
Every time I watch “The Unnatural,” I start out scoffing at how corny it is and end the episode with the damn thing’s hooks in me. It’s an episode that, by all rights, shouldn’t work whatsoever, but it gets by on a sense of nostalgia and an almost aching sincerity. It’s a reminder that at the height of its powers, this show used the very elasticity of its premise to become all manner of things. Can you think of a series on the air today that would devote nearly an entire episode to a 1940s-set flashback about black baseball players of the era, then interweave a story about aliens in a way that feels mostly elegant? This is not to mention that that flashback would feature neither of the show’s regulars, relegating both of them to the sidelines of the story. Though there are shows that might attempt individual elements of the above, I don’t know that there’s any on the air that would do all of them at once. And who can blame our modern producers?
And, yes, let’s get this out of the way first. “The Unnatural” is a little—okay, a lot—corny. The script by David Duchovny occasionally tries too hard, particularly when he has the characters in the 1940s talk in a sort of folksy patois that’s meant to denote they have great wisdom or what-have-you. The early banter between Mulder and Scully—particularly when they’re exchanging proverbs and platitudes—is also a little clumsy, and when we meet Arthur Dales (this one a different Arthur Dales from the Arthur Dales we already know, though apparently also his brother), he seems to spend all of his time talking like an old man in a movie. In particular, there’s an incredibly hokey speech he gives about what makes a man that is impossible to watch without repeated eye rolls. Also, apparently, all great baseball players were actually aliens, which is a ridiculous idea on its face, though at least the episode doesn’t take Dales at face value on this one.
In addition, “The Unnatural” leans heavily on the magical black man trope, a trope that was already well-worn at best and offensive at worst when this episode was made. It’s not even just that baseball player Josh Exley is such a good player that his home runs seem to travel for miles. He’s also impossibly caring and warm-hearted and fun-loving. He’s the best friend a guy could ever have, able to overcome both a racial and species barrier through his simple, loving ways. And, oh yeah, he’s literally magical, in that he’s an alien who loved baseball that can shape shift and apparently becomes an actual human being through sheer force of will. Duchovny’s script does some interesting things with the idea of how the grey aliens might feel like outsiders in our society, but the whole premise is such a wholesale take on this trope that it’s not hard to feel just a touch uncomfortable with the whole endeavor.
As I said, though, “The Unnatural” somehow works. I think it’s the fact that the episode turns mournful in its last quarter that finally saves it. The stuff about the Cactus League baseball teams is entertaining enough—and I love the team name of the Roswell Grays—but it also feels as if it’s been ported in from another series entirely. (I’m not even certain the episode gets the alien mythology down accurately. Has the Bounty Hunter always been a Grey?) Once the episode reaches its emotional core, however, and once Exley and the young Dales are becoming friends and Exley is sharing with Dales the secrets of his species, it becomes remarkably warm. The X-Files was such a chilly show that it’s easy to forget that it could do something sweet and lovely and moving, and I think “The Unnatural” ultimately works because it embraces this side of the show’s profile.
It also helps that as Exley, Jesse L. Martin is terrific. The script asks him to play more of a saint than a human being (you know what I mean), but with his wide grin and aw shucks demeanor, Martin finds the dignity in Exley that Duchovny’s script doesn’t always locate. (The scene where Exley’s true form is first revealed to Dales threatens to fall apart at any moment, and Martin somehow carries it solely through his voice.) Frederic Lane is a bit stiff as the young Dales here, but the young Dales is meant to be something of a stiff character, so it’s at least consistent with his prior appearances. (The need for this to be a different Dales muddles things a bit, but it’s easily forgivable, as the producers had to make a quick judgment call after Darren McGavin had a stroke in the course of production.) The scenes when Exley and Dales can finally be honest with each other give Martin and Lane some nice material to play, and the two have an easygoing chemistry that makes the characters easy to care about—no small feat in an episode that’s just introduced one of them.
Duchovny’s visual sense also gives the episode plenty of pizazz. He sometimes overplays his hand—as in a slow pan in on a television that is showing what will be the next scene in black and white—but he mostly lets this all play out like a weird American folk tale, with the images of Exley’s alien reflection or those baseballs Mulder and Scully hit turning into winking stars making for some lovely little motifs that Duchovny doesn’t call too much attention to. I’m particularly fond of the shot of the Klan galloping across the baseball field to attack the game in the teaser. It’s an unlikely image, but Duchovny gives it a grounded nature that gives it the requisite weight while preserving the whimsy of the whole “aliens playing baseball” thing. It’s a tricky balancing act Duchovny manages here, and even if his script sometimes veers too far into cornpone, his direction is very good throughout.
In the end, “The Unnatural” works because it takes this very silly idea and proceeds to take it seriously. It gradually loses the corniness and the “magical black guy”-ness that hold it back a bit in the beginning and just goes whole hog. If it’s going to be about this world of outsiders traveling the backroads of 1940s America, it’s going to have African-Americans singing spirituals and Exley having to sacrifice himself and everything it can possibly think of to provoke an emotional reaction. It’s shameless, but it works, particularly since Duchovny knows exactly when to puncture the weightiness with a joke. He also knows exactly how to leave the episode, with Mulder and Scully at the ballpark, hitting balls off into the night. It may have nothing to do with anything, but it still connects them to a noble man the episode has just improbably managed to make us care about. Most of all, “The Unnatural” works because it just feels so utterly itself. It’s hard to think of another X-Files like this one. It’s hard to think of another episode of television like this one, period. That it can ultimately make us feel for these characters, well, that’s the icing on the cake.
- This seems to be one of those X-Files episodes everybody remembers, probably because of the novelty of the premise. When I mentioned watching it on Twitter, I got a flood of “Oh, that one was my favorite” responses, which doesn’t always happen.
- It’s fun to see how flirty Scully is in her two scenes with Mulder. This isn’t really an episode for her, but it’s always nice to see her act like she’s having fun when she’s not around him.
- I am utterly undecided on those baseballs turning into winking stars. It should set off my cheese-o-meter, but it somehow just works, dammit. Maybe it’s my Mulder/Scully shipper heart coming to the fore.
“Seven And One” (season 3, episode 19; originally aired 4/30/1999)
In which Hank Schrader is a shape-shifting demon or… something
In a way, it’s too bad that Chris Carter didn’t get a chance to debut Millennium a few years later. At that point, the idea of “franchise” TV series was in full swing, with Law & Order and CSI opening up new versions of the original series to improve their producers and network’s profit margins. The more I watch Millennium, the more I’m conscious of how much Carter and his producers seemed to want to give the show an X-Files feel without actually making The X-Files. If they’d been able to franchise the earlier show, however, then they could have just gone whole hog and done something like The X-Files: Bible Mysteries. In its third season, Millennium has drifted uncomfortably close to this from time to time, and that’s made for some rather bland episodes of TV.
On the other hand, it’s also made for absolutely bugnuts, fucking crazy episodes of television that I can’t exactly call good but are certainly episodes I’m glad I’ve seen because they’re a nice reminder of how really talented people can make interesting things that don’t really hold together as a whole. Say what you will about the show’s ultra-grim first season or its weird Biblical mélange in season two. Those were two seasons of television that knew what they wanted to do and were remarkably efficient in accomplishing that task. I have absolutely no clue what season three is trying to do, other than come up with a new version of the series that would be more successful. But that desperate flailing makes for some entertaining TV, mostly because it’s made by people who obviously know their goose is cooked, but they have to play out the string anyway.
To that end, I sometimes feel as if these third season reviews should simply consist of me describing in explicit detail what happens in each episode of the season. This is already a show that was never as highly watched as Carter’s earlier show, but even with that stipulation, you come up against the fact that most people who watch the series drop out somewhere early in this season, during that long, deathly dull stretch of episodes that begins the season. By and large, the episodes Zack and I are watching are like uncharted territory. Plenty of people have been here before, and some of them have left maps, but it still feels like we’re headed into a land where there be monsters, and maybe we should leave more detailed floorplans for everybody who follows.
For instance, if I were to ask you to picture a Millennium episode, would you ever picture something that begins with a bunch of grimly smiling children dancing to a Backstreet Boys song? I’m going to wager you would not, yet that’s exactly what this one does. It’s set at Jordan’s birthday party, which is one thing, but it’s then coupled with Frank being informed by Catherine’s father that, hey, kids grow up so quickly, and this time will all be over soon and blah, blah, blah. But then, as if the show were parodying its own preponderance of grim moments, Frank starts having visions of death and destruction and flowers decaying and himself drowning while Jordan blows out the candles on her birthday cake. It’s as if the series saw that Suddenly Millennium parody I posted last week and decided to turn to it for notes. It’s completely nonsensical and goofy, but it’s also kind of awesome just how thoroughly the show has lost control of its tone at this point.
This episode was written by Carter with right-hand man Frank Spotnitz, and it’s a grand mess. I went to fact check something that happened on the invaluable fan site This Is Who We Are, and I got sucked into reading the synopsis of an episode I’d just watched because of how much it seemed like a weird dream I’d already half-forgotten. Did the episode really end with Frank getting trapped in a bathroom that continued to fill with water, in defiance of physics? (Yes, I know. Demons.) Did it really feature that lengthy monologue delivered by Dean Norris of all people, about how he’d seen people like Frank lose it time and time again, and everyone should watch out for him really snapping? Did it also conclude with Emma running into a version of herself, who then pointed the gun at her own head and pulled the trigger, before her corpse completely disappeared? The answer to all three of these questions is yes, but I’m half-convinced I’m making all of this up.
Like a lot of episodes this season, “Seven And One” is attempting to add up to something about how the end of days is coming, and the year 2000 will bring Satan back to Earth or something. In looking over my reviews of this season, I seem to say “or something” a lot, because I’m not entirely convinced Carter and his writers had any idea where they were going with this. They sure seem to just be tossing shit at the wall and hoping that some of it sticks for many of these episodes, and this one is no exception. Part of the problem, I think, is that any time you decide to create a villain who’s non-corporeal, you’re stuck with having to find a way that the villain defeats itself too much of the time. Whatever it is that Frank and Emma are chasing—maybe it’s Group member Mabius, but it sure seems far more demonic in nature—it only is defeated when it shoots itself in the head. That might make for a freaky ending, but it doesn’t really make for coherent storytelling.
That might be okay if I thought for a moment that all Millennium wanted to do was toss as much freaky shit at us as it could come up with. But I think the series still wants to say something profound about the nature of evil or about how those who are forced to gaze into the darkness are unable to stare for too long without blinking. The problem is that these philosophical queries are all well and good when you’re high and hanging out in the dorm room late at night, but they’re kind of dull to build a television series around. This means that the lasting impressions these third season episodes leave viewers with mostly have to do with the weird little fillips around the edges of any given episode.
At the same time, though, those weird fillips are really fucking weird, and that has to count for something, right? I hesitate to call this bad TV, even though it pretty clearly is bad TV. No, this is a season of TV made by professionals who knew the clock was ticking and were desperate to find some answer outside of the normal boxes. Maybe if this series had aired even five years later, it would have just been another X-Files. But by attempting to find some answer to what version of Millennium would be better off than all of the ones the public had already rejected, Carter and his writers created this glorious mess of a TV show, one that’s bad but in an utterly fascinating way you can’t look away from. These are people who know their shit but don’t know how to make this work, no matter how hard they try, and something like that is always going to be at least a little fun to watch.
- It’s very strange to me that Dean Norris is in this episode, even if I’m perfectly aware that he had a career before Breaking Bad. His voice has gotten much deeper over the years, though, hasn’t it?
- Poking around on fan sites has given me all sorts of explanations for what people think was going on in the series’ mythology, but I almost prefer the idea that we have no clue whatsoever. It makes the series that much more gloriously random.
- I always like when the show clumsily works Frank’s status as a single parent or his status as a grieving widower into the storyline, because it immediately has to, say, ship Jordan back off to her grandparents’ house so she doesn’t get stalked by the second coming of the Polaroid stalker.
- I will say that Lance Henriksen kills that monologue about when he and his friends swam in the lake, and one of them never came back out because of a prank his brother pulled. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
- Seriously. The Backstreet Boys. Wonders never cease.
Next week: Zack and the Lone Gunmen hang out again in “Three Of A Kind,” then watches as Millennium tries again to make Emma an interesting character in “Nostalgia.”