“Travelers” (season 5, episode 15; originally aired 3/29/1998)
In which John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz get to write the most elaborate Dark Skies fan fiction ever.
One of the interesting offshoots of the weird shooting schedule of season five—which had to be changed all over the place to accommodate the schedule on the X-Files movie, which had been shot the summer before—is that it contains any number of episodes that feel like weird backdoor pilots for shows that never happened. Granted, they’re not actually that, but if these were on any other show, they’d probably be ideas for new shows the producers had come up with while bored working on their hit show. (And “The Unusual Suspects” would indirectly lead several years down the road to an actual series starring the Lone Gunmen.) “Travelers” is the episode like this that I most wish had led to an actual series, particularly since it actually feels like a pilot in many ways.
The authorities barge into the home of a man who seemingly lives in the middle of nowhere. They’re looking for someone named “Edward Skur,” but they don’t seem to find him. What they do find is a rather horrifying looking body in a bathtub, then an old man who tumbles down the stairs and finally says “Mul… der.” If you’re looking closely enough, you’ll see that it’s TV star/character actor Garret Dillahunt in old-man makeup. (This was one of his very first TV roles.) Of course this works its way to Mulder—and since this is 1990, he still hasn’t made his way down to work in the X-Files’ basement office and is working as a profiler—and he combs through the one file he can find on Skur (which is an X-File), which leads him to the doorstep of an elderly man named Arthur Dale. And does he have a story for our boy, Fox.
Though “Travelers” probably isn’t as good as it could have been, it’s still a mostly fun episode, with some solid gross-out moments. But by far the nicest, slyest thing about it is that the old man Dale is played by Darren McGavin. Now, McGavin, of course, was Kolchak in the series The Night Stalker, which was the most significant influence on Chris Carter’s creation of The X-Files. It’s a nice nod to the show’s roots to have him play the spiritual father of the whole department Mulder works in. And the episode works nicely as that kind of origin myth, giving us hints about where the X-Files were before there was an official office set up to investigate them and giving us a better idea of how Mulder comes to be associated with that office. On modern TV, this would have been a full-blown, “How things came to be that way” episode, and while I often prefer that approach, I like the way The X-Files allows viewers to let the facts snap into place on their own.
The bulk of the episode, of course, takes place in 1952, when Dale is a young man, and he confronts the strange case of Skur, labeled a communist by some and revealed to him to be a man inflicted with something he doesn’t really understand by a young Bill Mulder. Skur—in the style of the somewhat underrated X-Files ripoff show Dark Skies—goes around killing people utilizing the alien spider thing that lives inside of him (and drops down out of his throat), and this makes for wonderfully gross images. As Dale investigates, he finds himself drawn further and further into a conspiracy that has some ties to HUAC and the hunt for communism (a young Roy Cohn briefly pops up, even more like this is Dark Skies) but is mostly all about rooting out the aliens in the early days of a war the U.S. was barely prepared to fight. The Cold War paranoia makes just as addictive a mixer for the alien conspiracy as post-Cold War paranoia does.
If there’s a problem with the 1950s setting, it’s that it feels a little generic. Again, this is very much an attempt to flesh out the backstory of the world of the show, and it’s an attempt to give us a sense of just how thoroughly Bill Mulder was drawn into the conspiracy. (He also played a kind of Deep Throat for the man who was the 1950s version of his son, which should be too simplistic but somehow isn’t.) This should be a potent chance for us to catch up on vital backstory and get lost in an evocation of a bygone era that is always portrayed as squeaky clean but offers plenty of opportunities for seediness around the edges. And, as mentioned, this really does feel like a pilot, even if it’s not one. Lots of care is put into establishing the world of the series, and there are lots of big scenes where we get introductions to the people who would presumably be the main players in a series version of this. But this also means that the storyline, as mentioned, gets a little generic. HUAC is all well and good as a cover for alien activities, but it feels, again, a little easy, like when Dark Skies decided to make the reason for the Kennedy assassination be that he was about to find out about the aliens among us. (Don’t worry, those of you who want to watch this series: I am spoiling nothing.)
So that means the ‘50s stuff becomes the usual “the aliens are behind it all” rigamarole. It doesn’t help that the actors cast as the young Agent Dale and the young Bill Mulder are fine, as these things go, but not really charismatic enough to carry a whole episode (much less this whole theoretical series we’re imagining). The scene in the restaurant where Bill lays it all out for Dale is pretty fun, and it’s interesting to watch the both of them chase after Skur (and to see Bill eventually set Skur free), but neither actor really sets the screen afire with excitement. It’s not hard to wish that Dale had his own version of Scully, particularly when his partner is one of Skur’s first victims. But, again, the producers weren’t looking toward making this an ongoing series and probably just saw this as a creative solution to not having Gillian Anderson around for a week.
One of the interesting things about this project has been re-examining my own relationship with the material. I was a pretty big X-Files fan back in high school, but I recall that in season five, I stopped feeling like I had to see it every week (even as I was absolutely excited for the movie to come out), and I got much more interested in Buffy. At the same time, the show had crossed over into the mainstream and was something I could talk about with my shop teacher or a few of my friends. And as I get into the meat of season five, I’m finding that the show was often just as good as it had been in the past, but it was, indeed, feeling a little less like a show designed to keep moving the ball forward and more a show designed to protect the franchise. In particular, season five often feels like a stall in episodes like this, where, simply because the movie was taking up all of that time, the writers tried to fill in the story around the edges of the series, more than the story of the series itself. To a degree, we’ve seen all of “Travelers” before, and that makes it feel much more retread-y than it might have had it actually been a pilot for an X-Files prequel. Weirdly, it doesn’t work as well as a one-off episode as it might have as a backdoor pilot.
Still, despite those problems with both the story and the acting, I kind of dig “Travelers” all the same. I’m a big fan of this period in history, and as always, The X-Files is great at overlaying its own version of history over actual history, drawing weird connections between assorted events and coming up with little links that most viewers wouldn’t think of on their own. And I really liked the turn the show took in its fourth and fifth seasons to broaden its world substantially, if only to give Anderson and David Duchovny a bit of a break. If “Travelers” doesn’t always work, it’s still nice to get this insight into the earliest days of the program, and Dale is a fascinatingly enigmatic character, particularly as an old man played by McGavin. The X-Files was always great at showing you something seemingly idyllic and normal, then pulling the rug out from underneath you, and “Travelers” does a great job of transplanting this attitude to the 1950s, often considered the United States’ “best” decade.
And, if nothing else, it’s a reminder that when other shows could get trapped inside of their own formulas, The X-Files was always willing to try completely new things. Episodes like this one or “Unusual Suspects” (or the two Skinner-centric hours) may have been born out of necessity, but you could tell the writers relished the challenge and looked for ways to expand the show’s universe by following the characters into new corners and by exploring the backstory and mythology of the show itself. (That said, I always did want a Krycek-centric hour.) Even when the show was at its worst, The X-Files was more willing than just about any show on the air today to completely break with its own format and try something that felt like an essentially new show. And even if “Travelers” doesn’t always work, it rests comfortably enough in that tradition to be worth a recommendation.
- Dillahunt looks just incredibly young here. He’s one of those actors who seems to be ageless, but seeing him here, then seeing him over on Raising Hope, it’s obvious that he ages just like the rest of us.
- I like the way that scene with “The Director” is shot. It’s in keeping with the entire episode’s film noir aesthetic.
- Watching this episode, I became convinced that if Fox wants a new X-Files show (which I sort of doubt they do, but whatever), they should set it in the 1950s and go to town. It would allow them to play within the continuity of the established show without having to invalidate any of it, and it would let them get in on the period piece excitement the networks are getting in on nowadays.
- It’s worth pointing out that despite the similarities to Dark Skies (which are almost certainly unintentional), this episode does virtually everything that show did much better, from period aesthetic to “famous person” cameos to aliens coming out of a dude’s mouth and going into another dude’s mouth.
- Another great scene: Dale and the doctor confront the spider beastie while doing the autopsy on the dead man.
“Owls” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 3/6/1998)
In which the owl knows it is still dark of night and the foxes are out and about and cryptic, cryptic, cryptic.
“Owls” (and, to a lesser degree, its sequel, “Roosters”) should not work nearly as well as it does. For starters, it’s nearly plotless, without any real center holding things together. Yes, we’ve got the various factions of the Millennium Group fighting over the True Cross, but at the same time, this is one of those ludicrous notions that should utterly derail everything that happens. A plank that makes you unbeatable in warfare? That makes men’s guns jam up? That just should not work at all. For another thing, the episode largely sidelines the characters we care about, and strands Catherine in an unforgiving subplot that seems to have nothing to do with anything. And finally, this is an episode that just goes fucking crazy with weird, cryptic hints of some larger, more terrifying thing about to happen without really specifying anything. This should feel maddening, a centerless void of people saying darkly scary stuff.
Instead, it’s exhilarating, and this two-parter makes a great case for Millennium’s second year as a season of television pretty much all TV fans should watch. It’s legitimately one of those times when a couple of episodes of TV solidify everything a show was going for and point the way forward. After this, Millennium could no longer just do episodes that felt like serial killer of the week stories or weakened X-Files tales. Everything it needed to do had to be big and bold and in keeping with the show’s new, sweeping vision. I don’t know just how much of this Glen Morgan and James Wong were planning when they embarked on the season, but “Owls” and “Roosters” bring a bunch of threads that don’t feel like they should work together in bravura fashion.
We open in Damascus, where a group of men speaking French (and repeating the Millennium Group’s “This is who we are” to each other to let us know, well, who they are) work under cover of darkness to dig a hole in the sidewalk, carefully loosening up the cement, then digging underneath it to reveal… a piece of wood. They remove it and dust it off, and the music kicks into reverential mode. Or it does until the men start getting picked off by other men, hiding in the shadows. One of the men dives into the middle of the gunfire to retrieve the wood, and when he stands, he’s seemingly impervious to danger. The others cannot shoot at him. Indeed ,their guns fail. He kills the gunmen, then hops in a van and rides off into the night. When told that the blood of one of the dead men has gotten on the piece of wood, he shakes his head and says, no, that’s the blood of Christ. And we’re off.
It’s an insanely great opening to what’s a breathless two episodes of television. A lot of the times in TV two-parters, it can feel like one episode stretched out to two hours for whatever reason, but that’s never the case here. This thing moves like a rocket, and all of the pieces matter, even if it’s not immediately clear that they do here. Once we’re back in the States, we’re seeing that Frank’s estrangement from the group has led to a situation where Peter desperately wants him to come back—because of what went down in Damascus—but Frank is intent on not coming back.
And just what is going on? The war over the True Cross has erupted within the Group, playing off an ancient schism that lies between the “owls,” who believe the apocalypse is not imminent (and, thus, want everyone to know there’s a few more hours of night to go), and the “roosters,” who believe that the year 2000 will bring the end of all things (and thus want to crow to announce the dawn). Peter’s a rooster. Lara and Frank are in the dark, except she can’t figure out why the hell an “owl” would want the cross in the first place. Aren’t they supposed to believe in a secular end to life on Earth, a kind of cosmic event that will send everyone into oblivion? Peter’s a bit shaken by her observation, but there’s no time to really think about that. Various Group members are too busy getting killed by a guy with some sort of portable EMP who doesn’t seem to give a damn about the cross. (Except he does, and he just wants to send everyone off on the wrong track with his fake cross.) Lara’s seeing angels. Frank’s going nuts but also having visions of Hitler. Catherine’s being recruited by a weird corporation known as Aerotech. And lightning cufflinks are everywhere.
And, honestly, I could go on about this episode at length, just doing plot recap. So much stuff happens in this episode, and all of it feels vital and urgent and important. There’s a lot of great direction here, from Thomas Wright, particularly in the sequence where Johnston drives through the night listening to America’s “Horse With No Name” (the greatest use of that song on TV until X-Files alum Vince Gilligan used it on Breaking Bad). There’s never a sense that any moment is wasted because there’s never a sense that there’s time to waste. This is an episode reminiscent of those great X-Files two-parters in seasons two and three, when the show was just starting to rev up its alien mythology. Only instead of aliens (and the idea of an alien conspiracy is more or less mocked in this episode), we’re dealing with ancient, secret societies, attempting to play chicken with the apocalypse and get their hands on the one thing that will ensure they come out on top when the shit goes down.
I could make a number of objections to this episode, I suppose. For one thing, the presence of the split between the Owls and Roosters feels poorly built to, and I think it’s something the show might have laid a little more groundwork for. The apocalypse has been so thoroughly a part of this show’s DNA from word one that the announcement of the group’s preparations for the end of the world doesn’t feel too abrupt, but the stuff where we’re supposed to buy that this is a conflict that’s been going on for ages does. It’s kind of like when The X-Files pulled back to reveal the Syndicate, only clumsier because it involves Watts, whom we know pretty well. In addition, the Aerotech stuff doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything and is indicative of how poorly the show has gone about building Catherine into the narrative this season.
But in the end, I just don’t care. If The X-Files felt like a series about how the rational and scientific eventually catalogs and explains the unexplainable, Millennium in its second season feels like a series that shows how wild and unpredictable the world still is. The sequence where Johnston dies feels, for all the world, like that moment when you’re out on the road in the middle of the night and another car is coming at you, and you wonder for just a moment if that’s someone intent on destruction or something behind the secret society that runs the world. These are the episodes that say that no matter how tidy you try to make the battle between good and evil, it’s always going to slip just out of your grasp.
And it’s also an episode about the crushing weight of belief, about the fact that when you really believe something, it can be difficult to watch as the rest of the world shrugs off your sincerity. Watts really does believe everything he tells Frank and everything he tells Lara. And when you’re that intent on something that sounds this crazy, it can be hard to be rebuffed (as Frank does to him here). Think of all of those fundamentalist Christian relatives you have and how they try to “witness” to you every so often. Think of the look of both passion and terror—at the notion that they might be cut off from you for eternity—in their eyes as they talk. And now imagine that expression stretched over an hour of TV. Despite its faults, “Owls” deserves credit for plunging us headlong into the center of that desperation and asking us to make sense of a world that was wilder than we thought it was.
- Our good buddy the Old Man returns, receiving faxes and then drawing lines through them like he’s playing some sort of long-distance version of those “draw this turtle and apply for art school” ads in the back of comic books.
- When Frank charges out of his house at the end, gun pointed at the Group members, it really does feel like he’s come unglued. Props to Lance Henriksen’s awesome acting, which makes the whole arc vaguely believable.
- The fact that the corporate recruiter is named “Clear Knight” is kind of eye-rollingly bad.
- I like that the Owls apparently have their own custom screensavers they can use to scare people for no good reason.
- This is also the episode where it really felt to me like Lara’s place within the show snapped into focus. When she’s dismissed at the end by an enraged Watts (who’s just read that Johnston tried to recruit her), it feels shocking.
- I’ve always loved Christian mythology and esoteric, so that long speech about what happened to the True Cross was like candy for me. In general, I loved all of the exposition in this episode, even the clunkier stuff.
- There was also a company named Aerotech in Space: Above And Beyond. Thanks, Wikipedia!
Next week: Zack hangs out with Lili Taylor in “Mind’s Eye,” then finds out who will win the battle in “Roosters.”