"Young At Heart"
A note to all government sponsored mad scientists: look, we get it. You need test subjects. Human test subjects. Orphans are great and all, but they're so damn tiny, and you disappear a dozen of 'em, somebody's going to notice. Death row inmates seem like the perfect solution, right? They're for the chop anyway, and it's not like anybody's gonna get too concerned if the corpse of a serial killer winds up with one too many thumbs.
Here's the thing, though: you have to plan for success. One of these days, the implants are actually going to take, which means if you aren't careful, you're going to have a psychotic murderer with the ability to, oh I don't know, punch holes in steel. Or live forever. And this person, they're probably gonna remember your name.
"Young At Heart" has Mulder and Scully called in on what at first appears a standard issue, if particularly vicious, jewelry store robbery; but it turns out the thief, who murdered a store clerk, has left a note for Mulder about foxes and hen coops. A note written in a style and handwriting that connects back to a five year old case involving another series of armored car heists and a man named John Barnett. The case has bad memories for Mulder; while they caught Barnett eventually, the final sting operation cost the lives of a hostage and another agent, two deaths for which Mulder blames himself. And now it looks like Barnett's back. Only thing is, Barnett died in prison.
We mentioned Twin Peaks already, but if we're going to deal with X-Files influences, you can't overlook the importance of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. A short lived spin-off of two successful tv-movies, Kolchak followed the adventures of the title character, a down-on-his-luck reporter played by Darren McGavin, as he traipsed about Chicago foiling the schemes werewolves, robots, and soul-selling politicians. The series' biggest fault (apart from the fact that the last four episodes were godawful) was that the city of Chicago was so ridiculously crammed full of supernatural entities that Kolchak couldn't pop his head out the door without running into one. X-Files took the model–protagonists looking for proof of the unknown in the face of a apathetic or openly hostile public–but tweaked it by giving the two leads ample excuse to stumble over fresh horrors. The X-files are a source of endless possibility; once you establish that it's Mulder and Scully's job to hunt down psychic serial killers and fluke-men, suspension of disbelief gets a considerable boost.
Or it should, anyway. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told Chris Carter this. The first season is rife with old colleagues, former nemeses, and ex-flames, and one almost expects the season finale to reveal that our heroes were the recipients of a particularly convoluted gypsy curse involving coincidence and flies-to-honey metaphors. "Young At Heart" has the double whammy of yet another old Mulder foe, as well as a former boss who first lectures Mulder on his weirdness, and then–gasp!–gets murdered. Seriously, if you've worked, known, or had the misfortune of being born in close proximity to either Fox or Dana, your best bet is to suicide as painlessly as possible. If you don't, the writers will find you, and they'll make you pay in the name of dramatic expediency.
This could be overlooked if "Young" was any good, but it's not, really. It's sloppy, poorly edited–there are close-ups that suffer from severe parallel dimension syndrome–and the first half hour is content to stumble its way through a series of thoroughly unexciting investigation and stalk scenes. Mulder, of course, starts to suspect Barnett might still be alive, Scully is skeptical but not completely close-minded, some weird stuff happened back in Barnett's prison on the night he supposedly died, more notes are passed, etc. Mulder gets a freaky call from Barnett, who threatens to kill the people Mulder cares about, so Fox gives Reggie a call–only, he doesn't actually bother to tell Reggie that he just talked to Barnett. Instead, he jabbers on about his and Scully's interview with a prisoner who claims to have seen Barnett alive, giving the not-quite-deceased more than enough time to sneak into Reggie's bedroom and, well, ensure that he's not a recurring character.
The episode picks up some in the last ten minutes, though not nearly enough. We meet Dr. Ridley, the man whose experiments in curing progeria and reversing the aging process created the new Barnett. The scene where he explains, in Scully's living room no less, the nature of his experiments and their flaws, has a nice, intimate feel, and Deep Throat's brief appearance at a pub to tell Mulder that the government is interested in negotiating with Barnett for Ridley's files gives the plot a solid twist. Really, that's what the ep should've been about, not all this killer-out-of-the-past malarkey. Too much of "Young" doesn't go anywhere, from Barnett's admittedly cool but not particularly important lizard hand to Mulder's whole "I followed the book and people died!" crisis. Personally, I'd rather FBI agents err on the side of caution when it comes to shooting people holding human shields, but that's just me.
—I'm going to steal a page from Noel's Buffy coverage and give up on the grades for now. It seems needlessly restrictive, and I don't think I did a particularly good job with them last week.
—So, once again somebody breaks into Scully's place? She needs a dog.
—I'm probably just a heartless bastard, but the two attempts at backstory for dead people here–the agent's kid playing football, Reggie's unfinished mystery novel–seemed reeeeeeally forced.
Hey, cool, my first mythology episode.
Man, remember when these didn't automatically blow? There was a good two or three years when I actually thought it was all going to pay off eventually, and watching "E.B.E.", it's easy to remember why. After a series of brief scenes showing the arrival and crashing of a U.F.O. and climaxing with a trucker having his very own Close Encounter on a highway in the mid-west (check out the embarrassing CGI and crummy day for night shot), my expectations were not high; but that changed when Mulder and Scully arrived at the site where the truck lost power. Mulder plays tricky games with stopwatches and Geiger counters while Scully is her usual, disbelieving self. It's a fun sequence, and their conversation, with Scully bouncing off increasingly far-fetched rational explanations for what happened and Mulder just going about his business, is a good example of how their chemistry works. It doesn't seem tedious–at least not yet–because the characters have enough mutual respect that their back-and-forth never feels hectoring or forced. After all, whether Scully agrees with her partner or not, she'll put up with an awful lot for one his wild goose chases.
Case in point: "E.B.E." has the two agents getting bounced around by local police and the usual shadowy government figures, to the point where they actually have to make an effort to ditch the surveillance on them before they can travel across country in search of the missing truck from the episode's opening. The paranoia-is-real argument reaches near absurdist heights here, from Scully finding that the pen she briefly lent to a stranger is full of tracking and bugging equipment, to Mulder discovering from Deep Throat that he's being listened to in his own home. This leads to a brief remake of the final scene of The Conversation with David Duchovny standing in for Gene Hackman as he tears the place apart–only this time, there's actually surveillance equipment to be found, hiding in the side of a supposedly innocuous power outlet.
Uncertainty abounds, and it turns out even Deep Throat is muddying the water. After initially providing Mulder with documentation on the downed U.F.O., he then breaks into Mulder's apartment to give him what at first looks like hard proof; a genuine photo of a flying saucer. Mulder is immediately convinced, but Scully doesn't buy it–she points out a few flaws in picture, as well as reminding him that Deep Throat might not be completely trustworthy. (This is the first time Mulder has mentioned him to her, by the way.) Despite such awful lines as, "The truth is out there. But so are lies," Mulder listens to Scully's doubts and gets the pic checked. And it is a fake. As always with X-Files, there are layers within layers.
Deep Throat isn't a complete write off yet, as Jerry Hardin gets one of his best moments on the show after Mulder and Scully finally track down their truck. Turns out that it wasn't transporting the downed U.F.O., but the U.F.O.'s pilot, an Extraterrestrial Biological Entity, or E.B.E. Mulder manages to track down the thing's cage, but before he can look in the window, Deep Throat appears. The thing is dead, he says, because there are rules. Years ago, a secret conference of the world's major powers decided that any surviving E.B.E.'s discovered were to be immediately killed. It's here we finally learn what drives DT to give Mulder information: his guilt over killing an E.T. decades earlier. The E.B.E. that Scully and Mulder were hunting is long gone, and with it, any hard proof of its existence, but another piece of the puzzle has been revealed, whatever picture it might someday show.
But is this another one of DT's clever dodges? As Mulder tells him, "I'm trying to decide which lie to believe." Part of what made all the conspiracy mongering so fun in the early years–and part of why it collapsed so thoroughly as the show went on–is that constant unease of never knowing exactly where anyone stood. Deep Throat's story is completely plausible, and it could be the god's honest truth. It could also be a total lie, told for sympathy and distraction and nothing more. You can't know for sure either way, which makes for an uneasy gray area; maybe the cat's dead, maybe it's not, but until you get a hold of that box, you'll never know, and the box keeps moving. Sometimes it even changes shape. Sometimes you wonder if there's a box at all.
"E.B.E." is an occasionally clunky but generally fun ep that, in addition to all the chasing around and betrayal, introduces the trio of Frohike, Langly, and Byers, the geniuses behind "The Lone Gunman," an independent newsletter specializing in the stories that the regular news doesn't want you to hear. The three would become hugely important recurring characters, up there with Cigarette Smoking Man and Skinner, and they represent a brief look into the uber-geek world that not even Mulder is quite crazy enough to inhabit. (Although they do think he's a bit out there; as Byers says, "That's why we like you, Mulder. Your ideas are weirder than ours.") Given the ultra-sincerity of much of the series, it's nice to have some characters with a light touch, especially seeing how they bounce of Scully. (Her response to Frohike's "She's hot" was just gold.)
—Hey, Scully got to be right for once!
—Scully: "I think you give the government too much credit." The real world? Yes. The X-Files world? Not so much.
So, you've got this gift. If you touch people, you make them better. You fix them somehow. You don't know how this works, and you don't know why, but you've got a dad who's into that old time religion, and he says it's all God's work, and God's way, and heck, that's as good a reason as any. You're still a kid, you follow his lead. When he takes you to the aftermath of a car crash, opens up an occupied body bag and tells you to do your thing, you don't question it. You say the words, and you lay your hands on the burnt and bloody corpse, and you fix him. Except, all you really do is bring him back to life; he's still burnt, still disfigured. And you have to wonder, are there consequences? Does doing the Lord's work mean you have the Lord's judgment?
Religion is a subject that would come up again and again on The X-Files, particularly in connection with Scully's faith. That faith is only mentioned in passing here, though, and most of the Jesus stuff, the tent revivals and the scripture quoting, is ultimately Scooby-Dooed out of existence by the end of the "Miracle." The episode raises a few interesting issues–most importantly, how strong faith can turn on itself, and how not believing can often bring with it the same blindness of the most passionate devotions–and has a fairly memorable presence in Leonard Vance, the dead man brought back to life whether he wanted it or not. But for all its seriousness, there's a sense of routine to many of the concerns addressed, as though Catholicism were simply another MotW, looked into, briefly grappled with, but ultimately left to its own devices.
But hey, at least there are no relatives or ex-partners involved. When Scully gets called in to investigate a series of deaths connected to a faith healer, Mulder tags along for the ride. Calvin Hartley is running a tent revival that promises to heal the sick and feeble through the power of his son, Samuel, but the pair have had a string of bad luck lately, as everyone that Samuel lays hands on winds up dead. Sheriff Daniels (Robert Urich lookalike R.D. Call) thinks it's all a scam, and wants Scully to autopsy the bodies; but Hartley's people keep blocking any study of the corpses, convinced by Vance that's it's a sacrilege.
Still, the Sheriff is convinced of Samuel's guilt, and when the young man is found at a local bar, he's ready to drag him off immediately. Scully and Mulder have a chat with the faith-healer, and find someone in deep spiritual crisis. Convinced that his gifts have been corrupted by his sin, he confesses to the murders, but not before noticing Mulder has "pain," and correctly identifying that he's in mourning for a lost sibling. This leads to three or four scenes of Mulder seeing a creepy little girl in red off in the distance, but never being able to track her down. The girl is eerie enough, but the subplot feels tacked on, although Mulder's final comment about people wanting to believe so much that they'll see anything made a decent capper.
"Miracle" skirts around its various premises without ever really engaging them. Mulder and Scully debate what Samuel's gift, if any, could be, with Mulder on the side of "manipulation of electromagnetic energy." There's talk about belief, and Samuel's internal struggles are compelling, even if the kind of goofy Christ-imagery is not. (Also goofy, Sam's post-mortem appearance in Vance's bedroom with a slight case of outlining.) The fact that Calvin Hartley turns out not to be an intentional charlatan was a pleasant surprise, and the episodes two big villains, Vance and Sheriff Daniels, are interesting. Vance's rage at being needlessly resurrected is believable, although one has to question what took him so long to get around to his revenge. It's a curious kind of revenge, too, given the level of collateral damage. A bit more time with him would've been nice, just to understand the kind of man who would engineer such an elaborate scheme.
And then there's Daniels, the sort of cynic whose lack of faith is made all the stronger by a situation that practically cries out for it. His wife is an arthritic confined to a wheelchair, and if Samuel Hartley's claims were true, if he really could cast out sickness and infirmity, it would ease her suffering; but Daniels can't accept this and becomes all the more convinced at Hartley's guilt. For Mulder, the visions of his sister represent his inability to let go of all the questions he can't answer. For Daniels, a blind hatred of an innocent, a hatred so intense it leads him to arrange that innocent's beating and death, represents his inability to accept that there are any questions at all.
Really, this one left me flat. After the high stakes of "E.B.E." and the general incompetence of "Young At Heart," "Miracle Man" is a checklist episode, with a largely predictable story that hits all the middle-of-the-road marks right down to the stinger ending. Of course Samuel would rise from the dead. You don't get the full Jesus for your buck if he doesn't.
—The Exorcist is one of Scully's favorite movies. Awww.