The X-Files: “Duane Barry” & “Ascension”

Where, Oh Where Has My Little Girl Gone?

 by Sarah Stegall

copyright © 1994 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Chris Carter/Paul Brown
Director: Chris Carter/Michael Lange

I’ve started and scrapped this review three times. “Duane Barry”/”Ascension” is a very difficult arc to get a handle on. While there are problems with pacing, direction, and content, there are moments–defining moments–in this two-part series that characterize “The X-Files” more sharply than anything else that has appeared in the series so far.

Someone needs to remind Chris Carter that when you begin, literally, with a scream, it’s hard to go anywhere but down. You’ve shot your load before the opening credits, and the rest of the evening is a long, slow slide into numbness. “Duane Barry” opens on a screech, jumps to a quiet, tense interview, rebounds to a hostage standoff, and never really gets its feet under it. “Ascension” opens with bewilderment and goes nowhere at all. The uneven pacing of this story may have something to do with the fact that it had different writers and directors for both episodes, but some overall conception should have prevailed.

I was never convinced of Duane Barry’s bona fides. He struck me as a deranged man, whose story was wholly untrustworthy. When dealing with someone so divorced from reality as a brain damaged psychotic, even direct evidence in the form of scars and assorted implants does not “prove” his story. We still have to rely on his testimony, and what he thought he saw may not have been what was really happening.

Steve Railsback is a good actor, but if not reined in he tends to spit his lines through clenched teeth. He had some good moments: during a couple of brief scenes, he showed a shy geniality and an almost childlike bafflement, but he needs a firmer hand from a director than he got. I kept contrasting his performance with William Sanderson’s beautifully restrained, superbly paced spin-out-of-control in “Blood”.

I am very reluctant to criticize David Duchovny’s performance in these two episodes; he is carrying a hell of a load in Gillian Anderson’s virtual absence. In “Little Green Men” and “Ice”, he has shown us that Mulder can show strong emotion believably. Parts of “Duane Barry” show his intensity, his command of nuance and implication, his sharp grasp of understatement and control. Having said all that, however, I have to say he disappointed me in this story. I know Fox Mulder is not given to hysterics, but there comes a point when you have to pull out some stops. Like Sam Spade says in “The Maltese Falcon”:

“When a man’s partner has been killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him, he’s your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

When Mulder found Scully’s necklace, when Duane Barry (the only witness to her whereabouts) died, I needed to see some reaction from him. Consider the resonances of this story for Fox Mulder: the only person in the world whom he trusts has been snatched away from him, while he is powerless to do anything about it–just like his sister. A normal man would be driven half mad with guilt and anger and fear. Mulder either looks sleepy or puzzled. Duchovny neither raises nor lowers the temperature, right up to the last scene. Is he looking for Dana Scully in the stars, or figuring his income tax? From his face, you could never tell. I sincerely hope that when he is finally reunited with Dana Scully, he does more than simply nod at her. I don’t mean a clinch, but we will need emotional closure of some kind on this subject, or else I will have to conclude that Mulder is just going through the motions out of a sense of duty.

Mulder’s furious attack on the recalcitrant Duane Barry, in which he may well have killed a bound and helpless suspect (or at least contributed materially to his death), is too little, too late and way out of character. Furthermore, I think that putting David Duchovny in extended scenes against Steve Railsback was a mistake. The difference in acting styles between the two men are exaggerated: Railsback roars and Duchovny whispers. It’s a risky move that, frankly, didn’t pay off.

I suppose I must say something about the swimsuit scene in Act One of “Duane Barry”. Very well: David Duchovny looks wonderful. He moves with the lithe and sinewy grace of a stalking cheetah. As a woman, I was deeply appreciative; as a critic and reviewer, it added nothing to the story. Let’s move on.

I cheered when Deputy Director Skinner re-opened the X- Files. I am glad we can get back to “normal”; I miss the slide shows. How typical that he did it in a fit of pique, rather than as an administrator who saw, finally, the value of those extreme possibilities. I must give writer Paul Brown credit, however, for not making Walter Skinner a hopelessly evil bad guy. This scene was one of the best of the entire story, showing Skinner as a frustrated, hard-nosed cop who cannot seem to get a grip either on the slippery characters he’s up against or the obsessed agent before him. In fact, this time around he was more human than Mulder.

Sam Spade could at least track down the Fat Man and miscellaneous shady characters: Mulder has nothing and no one to go on. There are no clues left to investigate. There is no action he can take. Scully and Krychek are both missing, the Senator cannot help, and Plot Device — excuse me — his mysterious informant is again speaking in Zen koans. Chris Carter has led Mulder and us into a dead end. Even in as cerebral a show as “The X-Files”, it’s mighty risky putting your lead character in a position where he merely waits on events.

I give this two-part series three sunflower seeds out of five: two for the story and one for the Speedo scene.