“Daemonicus” (season 9, episode 3; originally aired 12/2/2001)
In which “triumphs” is used ironically in a Scrabble game...
I took a lot of notes for this episode, more than I usually do (I take notes but never use them, because of osmosis or something). This would suggest that a great many things happen over the course of “Daemonicus,” but in retrospect, I’d have a hard time arguing that any of it matters. By the end, we learn that the whole story was a plot by serial killer mental patient looking to escape from incarceration—or else it was a complicated, somewhat inexplicable tale of demon possession and Satan and ectoplasmic vomit. Or both. I’d say the safe money is on “both,” but it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm either way. We have James Remar as Kobold, a former professor who used to murder coeds and grind up their bodies to serve as fertilizer. We have a pair of killers wearing pretty freaky demon masks. We have gruesome murders, corpses with snakes sown inside them, and illegal Scrabble words. And yes, we have a lot of vomit. Yet the meandering structure, over-emphasized grimness, and deadening pace render all of these elements inert.
Which isn’t a first for the show, but after the snooze-fest of the season’s two-part opener, it’s disheartening to get back to monster of the week episodes and find that inspiration is still eluding pretty much everyone. Scully has been shunted over to a teaching position, which allows for some unnecessary, vaguely relevant lectures; I guess it’s nice to be reminded yet again that her view of the world has changed, but the episode can’t seem to decide if she’s a central figure in the story or just someone on the periphery. (This becomes even more obvious at the end, when she’s taken hostage by one of the killers; the attack is tense enough, but then we only see the aftermath through Doggett’s eyes, which turns her into a guest star on what used to be her own show.) Doggett and Reyes are working together on X-Files, and yet the first case we see them teaming up on supposedly has nothing to do with the X-Files at all. Reyes is called in to investigate the murder of a married couple whose bodies were arranged in a way that maybe sort of suggests a Satanic cult of some sort. It’s not officially an X-File, it just turns out to be one, which is the sort of coincidence the Mulder and Scully years at least had the decency to wait a few episodes to throw out.
Really, how the heroes get involved in the mystery has never been a huge issue on this show, regardless of who those heroes are. If Reyes and Doggett’s efforts to track down the killers had proven an exciting, horrifying tale, I wouldn’t give a shit how they got involved. But when an hour proves as listless as this, it’s easy to fixate on the little flaws, because the big ones are harder to pin down.
“Daemonicus” is an episode that relies on mood. The show has managed to pull this off before, and in fact, one of The X-Files’ great strengths is its deft grasp of tone, the ability to switch between grim, portentous horror and snide self-mockery without making either approach seem out of place. This entry is heavily on the “grim, portentous horror” side, but apart from a few isolated, eerie moments (most of them in the first half of the hour, before everything gets too obviously loopy to take seriously), the approach only manages to underline how hollow the story is. And it’s some aggressive underlining, too. There are shots in this that call more attention to themselves than any shot I can remember seeing on the series before, and that’s saying something; I’m thinking specifically of the fast-moving cloud cover that pops up in a few scenes, or the utterly bizarre overhead shot of the chessboard tile floor at the mental institution that transitions into a grid of white squares and clear squares that block the screen, briefly only allowing us to see the next scene through the grid. Bold directorial choices can work (and director Frank Spotnitz’s first turn behind the camera for the show, the season eight episode “Alone,” was pretty good), but this is absurd, and not in a good way.
It’s also distracting, which may or may not be intentional. Spotnitz also wrote the script for the episode, and each new, increasingly desperate flourish has all the earmarks of a creative person trying to force relevance and intensity into a story which simply doesn’t have the space for it. James Remar is a fine actor, but as far as terrifying presences go, Kobold is a blank slate, only briefly coming to life in the few scenes where he taunts Doggett with suggestions of inadequacy and references to Doggett’s dead son. He’s not particularly scary, no matter how many tight close ups and weird whispers swirl around him, and the realization that he planned the entire mess (right down to the initials of the people he killed spelling out the episode’s title, a reveal which the episode presents as mind-blowing, but comes off as the last five minutes of any given Scooby Doo episode) isn’t so much devastating as, well, whatever. I mean, I’m glad somebody was pulling all those strings, but Kobold is such a grab-bag of “evil genius” traits that he barely qualifies as a “somebody.” Remar does what he can, and Kobold’s seizure of vomiting is admirable for its commitment to a premise, but as boogeymen go, he’s easy to not believe in.
As for Reyes and Doggett, the episode briefly dances around the idea that Reyes’ instincts or heightened perceptions allow her to sense a legitimate demonic presence. It’s a theoretical concept (she senses “evil,” and later tells Scully, in a final line that’s clearly intended to hit us straight between the eyes, that Doggett sensed it as well) that’s difficult to demonstrate effectively, although I’m sure that’s what all those distracting camera angles and strange edits were about. Doggett, on the other hand, is determined to prove that there isn’t anything supernatural about any of this at all. He gets angry about it, and there’s a conflict between Reyes (and Scully, who is now firmly Team Gut Feeling) and him in how to approach the case. A clash of philosophies between two well-intentioned people who fundamentally respect each other is one of the show’s core concepts, but this really just feels poorly defined. The fact that Reyes and Doggett aren’t carbon copies of Mulder and Scully is a good thing, and I don’t need them to settle into intractable ideological lines. But the whole thing is so rote, and shapeless.
It doesn’t help that Reyes’ position—that the patient and guard who disappeared from the asylum where Kobold are actually possessed by demons, and, uh, something—is simultaneously wishy-washy and utterly absurd. That last is especially pernicious, because The X-Files was built off the terrifying possibility that even the most absurd urban legends and cultural myths might be true. It worked because the tone was right, and because Duchovny was able to sell these insane ideas with just enough self-mocking humor to make them viable. (It didn’t hurt that Anderson’s rebuttals always had the right sort of frustration, as though part of her was starting to believe in spite of all common sense to the contrary, and it was annoying the hell out of her.) Gish doesn’t really have that, and so she flounders; her floundering, in turn, makes it that much more difficult to take anything that happens seriously. The over-the-top intensity of the episode’s presentation requires either a sense of humor or a plot that deserves this level of theatrics. “Daemonicus” has neither.
- The cold open is definitely creepy though. And those snakes in the dead woman’s stomach were a terrific visual. (The death-by-multiple-syringes, less so, although it did make me think about Basket Case, which is an odd, nifty little film.)
- Since Todd covered the first two episodes of season 9 last week, allow me to take the opportunity to say how much I hate the new opening credits.
“4-D” (season 9, episode 4; originally aired 12/9/2001)
In which Doggett dies...
This one hurt a little.
“Daemonicus” is a mediocre to bad hour of television. It has a few striking visuals and eerie moments, but overall it’s dull and doesn’t accomplish a whole lot. But it’s easy to forget. There’s nothing inherent in the premise that makes it worthwhile, which also means there’s no serious sense that a good concept was poorly used. Apart from time and some game performances, there’s nothing really wasted; this could theoretically have been a good, maybe even great, episode, but it would have taken a lot of heavy-lifting and some serious script revisions.
“4-D” is also a mediocre to bad hour of television. But it could’ve have been good, and it wouldn’t have taken that much effort to get there. Some sharper editing, a stronger structure, more urgency, and a better understanding of how to translate this particular idea from the page to the screen, and this could’ve been great. That it isn’t has killed what little hope I had left for the rest of the season. Two bland mythology episodes and a clunker monster of the week, well, that’s a bummer, but it’s not the end of the world. While last season made it work surprisingly well, the mythology has been stumbling for a while; and every season before this one, even the great ones, had a standalone I wasn’t crazy about. But “4-D” shows what happens when this creative team has a legitimately cool concept: it wastes the opportunity. There are bad times ahead, folks.
I suppose I’m exaggerating; one of the problems with the episode is a weak script, and if I wanted to really despair, I would need to see a great script handled poorly. But maybe there were changes made during the filming process. Regardless, I like the premise: a killer is able to pass between two similar but distinct dimensions, allowing him to murder with impunity in one while living a “normal” life in the other. While there’s little effort given to explain how he figured all of this out, or exactly what the rules are (leading to an ending that is both heartfelt and irritatingly half-assed), it’s a concept with potential for all kinds of different forms of mind-fuckery. Parallel dimensions, man! That shit is intense!
It starts off promisingly enough. Doggett, Reyes, and Brad Follmer are staking out an apartment building, looking to trap a man named Erwin Lukesh (Dylan Haggerty). Lukesh has killed a number of women, removing their tongues in the process, but our heroes have his name and his whereabouts, so Doggett and Follmer wait outside in a surveillance van while Reyes hangs out in the lobby, working on a bicycle. It all goes to hell, and before we cut to the (ugh) opening credits, Reyes has had her throat cut, and Doggett has been shot close range by Lukesh, who apparently has the power to disappear and reappear at will.
Not bad, huh? And it gets weirder when we come back from the credits to find Reyes settling into her new apartment, no injuries visible. Doggett comes buy with two Polish sausages, the two banter for a while, and then Reyes gets a call from Skinner that Doggett has been shot, and he’s in critical condition. Which is impossible, since Doggett is right there in the living room, getting mustard all over his-
But he’s gone.
The idea is that the Reyes, Follmer, and Doggett we saw in the beginning aren’t “our” versions of those characters, but rather alternates from the parallel dimension in which Lukesh does all his killing. (Actually, if you want to get metaphysical about it, it could be that the Reyes, Follmer, and Doggett in the cold open are “our” versions, and this episode is just a transition from one dimension to another. Which is kind of mind-bending, but, given how things end up, impossible to prove either way.) This is a cool idea. But it’s handled clumsily, as there’s little to no effort to distinguish between the two dimensions. While I can understand wanting to stress that the Earth A and Earth B are very, very similar, failing to make either reality distinct means the whole confusion of Reyes rushing to the hospital and finding the man she’d seen in her home not five minutes before half dead and paralyzed is just, well, confusing. Inter-dimensional travel is not an easy concept to portray on film or TV, because, as helpful as spoken exposition is, you really need a visual way to convey the information so that your audience doesn’t spend the time it should be caring about the story trying to figure out what the hell is going on. There’s a difference between an intriguing mystery and a muddle, and “4-D” gets muddled early, and spends the rest of the hour trying to work its way out.
As villains go, Lukesh is passable; according to Wikipedia, he was inspired by Norman Bates in Psycho, but apart from a nagging mother, the guy doesn’t seem that much different from a dozen other psychos the show has thrown at us through the years. (That said, his brief confrontation with Reyes at the police station is chilling.) The scenes with him and his mother at their apartment are creepy enough, but the real problem with the character is that his special ability to jump between dimensions is never clearly defined. We don’t need specific step-by-step instructions, but some basic rules would be nice. Why is Doggett in our reality? He must’ve been dragged through by Lukesh, but why? Why does the other Doggett make our Doggett disappear? Reyes theorizes it’s because the same two people can’t exist in the same dimension simultaneously, which, fine, but what actually happens to our Doggett? Does he pop up in the other dimension and have his own set of adventures? But the end of the episode has Reyes unplugged paralyzed Doggett’s life support (at that Doggett’s request), and apparently resetting everything back to that first scene with them in her apartment. How the hell is that possible? What does it even mean?
A high concept needs rules to work. Not a ton of rules (too many rules and the concept feels overly designed), but at least a sense that this is something that doesn’t simply exist at the whim of the narrative. We need the illusion coherent in order to invest in the results, and “4-D” never manages that. Instead, it gets bogged down in Reyes’ struggle to prove her innocence, and everyone’s general unsureness about what’s going on. The fact that Lukesh used the other Reyes’ gun to shoot Doggett presents a theoretically interesting plot point, but since Reyes is the main character of the episode, she can’t ever be in serious danger of getting arrested for long; besides, the idea of her shooting Doggett is so ludicrous that no one takes it seriously after a few glares and tense words. Probably the most effective scenes are the ones between Reyes and the paralyzed Doggett as they try and figure out what’s happening, because of the difficulties in communication between them (Doggett uses Morse code at first, then a typing button), and the strangeness of their circumstances. Reyes finally accepting paralyzed Doggett’s wishes and turning off his life support is theoretically powerful, because even if he isn’t our Doggett, he’s still a good man dying in a world that isn’t his own. But given that bizarre reset ending, even that fails to have any meaning. It’s just a mess, made all the uglier by the fact that it could’ve, and should’ve, been better.
- It’s kind of clever that the episode starts with a stake out and then there’s that stake out later on. It’s less clever that the man with crazy science powers gets taken out with a simple headshot. (I mean, it was a well-aimed headshot, but still.)
- “God I enjoyed you.” Lukesh is a really fun guy!
- I’m still mostly indifferent to Cary Elwes on this show, but his sniping at Skinner about “keeping the lines of communication open” was funny.
Next week: Todd holds the conch long enough to talk about “Lord Of The Flies,” before reminding us all to “Trust No 1.”