The X-Files: “Excelsis Dei”

Surf the Halls

by Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 1994 by Sarah Stegall

Written by Paul Brown
Directed by Stephen Surjik

Like many viewers, I have been waiting for an episode that lets Dana Scully take a case, and allows her own investigative powers to shine. So when Mulder walks in at the beginning of “Excelsis Dei” and finds her in the middle of a case, I was thrilled. Agent Scully goes to bat for a nurse (Teryl Rothery) who claims to have been raped by an invisible entity. Mulder is immediately skeptical–there’s a rare turn- -pointing out that while they have several X-files on “entity rape”, none have been substantiated. Well, something happened to Nurse Charters, because she is badly beaten. She accuses a nursing home resident of attacking her; in Scully and Mulder’s interview with the accused at the nursing home, he actually flashes both agents. Shortly afterwards, he dies and an orderly is pushed–or falls–out of a window. Both agents now smell a rat, and the investigation focuses on the treatment administered the residents by the genial Dr. Grego. The residents of the nursing home are showing a surprising amount of progress in ‘recovering’ from Alzheimer’s, a disease with no known treatment or cure. Slowly the Team pieces together a scenario which includes experimental drugs, Oriental medicine, shamanism, and the spirit world.

Scully goes as far afield in her search for an explanation as Mulder does, only down a different road. Since this is Dana Scully’s case, she goes after the extreme possibilities on the scientific frontier: sick building syndrome, environmental toxins, an experimental drug with bizarre side effects. Scully even gets to rescue Mulder.

Gillian Anderson really shines in this episode. She gives us a delightful Agent Scully: her dry humor when Mulder gets defensive about his porno stash, her detached compassion for the rape victim, her dogged determination to pursue the case after Mulder is ready to go home. Agent Scully has her hands on a mystery and won’t give up until she has it flat under a microscope. Her focus is intellectual–could there be a fantastic cure for Alzheimer’s here?–rather than emotional, a stunning departure from TV’s usual treatment of female characters. And how good it is to hear her cool, precise voice at the end of the episode, wrapping up the case but not the puzzle.

David Duchovny continues to invest Mulder with self- depreciating humor. Mulder as skeptic is refreshing and hilarious: “Are you telling me that house is haunted? Because if you are, you’ve been working with me too long.”

Director Stephen Surjik confuses us with camera angles a couple of times–why are the corridors in this building so much longer than the building itself? But he achieves some wonderful effects: the ‘ghosts’ following Dana Scully down a deserted hallway made my hair stand up. Nitpick time: A 10 foot square bathroom, even granting some air space at the top for Mulder and Charters, would hold more than three and a half tons of water. Long before it filled, that bathroom floor would have collapsed into the basement. But I loved it anyway. When the door finally bursts, Mulder goes hall surfing with Nurse Charters, a wonderful scene.

But the script, by Paul (“Quantum Leap”) Brown, takes several left turns without signaling: why does Nurse Charters in almost the same breath claim both to have been raped by an invisible entity and by a living man–is she asserting that Hal Arden can travel out of his body? This is a confusing plot point that should have been clarified. Brown still managed a couple of surprises: I was flatly astonished when Mulder uncovered the body of the hospital orderly composting away in the mushroom farm. Ultimately, we are left with too much mystery in this story. Nothing ties together the ghosts (hallucinations?), the rape, the deaths of the orderlies, the experimental drugs, the mushrooms. We are left not with ambiguity, not with double meanings, but with no plausible explanation at all! These mysteries, while intriguing, have only their locale in common. We don’t buy the coincidence, but no other explanation is offered, not even a theory.

Agents Scully and Mulder, although hip and urbane, are basically detectives, and the detective always functions as the restorer of order. They are out to discover the truth, which implies not just a truth to be discovered (and, we hope, revealed to the audience) but a systematic universe in which we may seek causes of effects and reasonably expect to find them. These truths may not be material Mulder and Scully can take into court, but they have to satisfy us, the viewers. One can take the business of the unresolved case too far. Taken to extremes, we risk losing any sense of an explainable universe. In Friday’s episode, we are left adrift in chaos. This is supposed to be entertainment, not existentialist philosophy. The audience demands more.

This episode could have gotten five sunflower seeds out of five, but it left us with too many questions and lacked that special frisson rippling down the spine that characterizes the best episodes. I give it three sunflower seeds out of five.