The X-Files: “Genderbender”

Sex to Die For

by Sarah Stegall

copyright © 1995 by Sarah Stegall

Written by Larry and Paul Barber
Directed by Rob Bowman

Watching this episode of “The X-Files” is a little like catching and eating soap bubbles on a summer afternoon: pleasant, pretty, but not very filling. The surface is iridescent with color, style, and flash, but the center is empty. Given that Mulder and Scully themselves account for a fairly high level of hormones, “Genderbender” is curiously asexual, almost virginal. From “The Creature From The Black Lagoon” to “Rocky Horror Picture Show” to “Species”, alien sex is a minor but important theme in science fiction. Indeed, bug eyed monsters carrying off scantily clad maidens account for a large number of early pulp covers. Hammer Films made a fortune mixing terror and sex. Yet this episode’s attempt at dealing with one of humankind’s most basic streaks of curiosity misses fire on several levels.

The opening scene, set in a disco (to the strains of Mark Snow’s score for “In the Line of Duty: Street War”), introduces us to the lonely, hollow sexuality of singles bars and pickup joints. A rather dowdy Marty (played as a female by Kate Twa) entices a handsome stranger by merely holding his hand in hers. Later, breathless after fantastic sex, he chokes to death on his own blood as his aorta ruptures. Watching with the clinical detachment of a coroner, Marty changes from a woman to a man (Peter Stebbings): the perfect disguise. Mulder, already alerted to three similar deaths, is called in by a Maryland police detective (Mitchell Kosterman). He and Scully link the killer to an isolated religious sect called The Kindred, the last people on earth one would expect to be involved in something as lewd as a sex murder. The cult turns out to be less than wholesome, however: there are no children, and the sect’s humorless demeanor comes across as threatening and sinister. After one member “dies” before their eyes, Mulder explores an underground catacomb filled with womblike niches, where he finds the “dead man” not only alive (albeit in suspended animation) but transforming into a female. Scully, meanwhile, nearly falls under the pheromone- induced spell of Brother Andrew (Brent Hinckley), surely one of the homelier Lotharios around.

The Kindred themselves are one of the most interesting features of this episode. Director Rob Bowman, in his X-Files debut, makes excellent use of the lowering skies of British Columbia to imbue a simple, Mennonite-style farm with menace. You might call them the anti-Amish, about as far from the earthy peasants of “Witness” as you can get. Mulder calls them “the Addams Family gets religion” and he might be right. They give new meaning to the term otherworldly, especially after they disappear overnight, leaving behind only crop circles and a bricked up catacomb entrance.

Writers Larry and Paul Barber had an excellent opportunity here to exploit the uneasiness and ambiguity inherent in our reaction to androgyny–our sense of self is fundamentally wrapped up in our sexual identity as male and female. (What is the very first question asked about a newborn baby?) We get a glimpse of the fear and anxiety surrounding the question when Mulder questions one of Marty’s surviving victims (Nicholas Lea* ), who is more afraid of the implications when his date turns out to be a man than he is of the attempt on his life. But before you can exploit those hidden meanings, you have to bring out the most fundamental emotion of this case: lust.

There was no juice in this grape at all. Not once did I get any idea of the attraction exercised by Marty. While I can understand that Bowman was trying to show us unemotional detachment in Marty, to whom this is all an experiment, we should at least have gotten some idea of what made these men and women have sex with a stranger literally at first sight. A sexual predator exuding this level of sheer animal magnetism should have burned right through the screen, at least when seen through his/her victim’s eyes.

The contrast between the uninhibited sexuality exploited by Marty, and the Kindred’s rigid repression, could be an interesting study in social attitudes toward a very powerful drive. At least, until we discover that the Kindred may be extraterrestrials, a twist that seemed duct-taped onto the end of this episode like a tail on a faltering kite. Was it necessary to imply that these folk were of inhuman origin? Why not just have them disappear mysteriously, perhaps into their underground cocoons? It is not really necessary to drag aliens into every episode of the show, and to do so feels phony and forced.

Artistically, this was a visually alluring piece, from the throbbing lights of the disco to the serene and timeless Kindred farm set in its misty hills. Mark Snow’s haunting, eerie trumpet theme underscored the peculiarity of the Kindred. Bowman’s use of horses in the barn scene to convey nervous apprehension, both of the watching agents and the furtive Kindred, is very well done. The Vancouver woods once more act as a metaphorical boundary between our world and the otherworld, as Mulder the Map-Impaired gets lost. But since the depth of this piece was so shallow, the minor flaws show up too clearly: a cheesy underground “catacomb” that looks like a recycled Star Trek set, what looks like aluminum siding on the Kindred farmhouse. One minor breach in credibility in the service of plot rather nagged at me: it is against Bureau policy for agents to surrender their weapons (or their ammo, which amounts to the same thing) except at gunpoint. The Kindred may cite any religious law they like, but last time I looked, Massachusetts was still US territory and subject to Federal law. Mulder and Scully should NOT have surrendered those weapons; it really added nothing to the plot to have them do so and could have been omitted without damage.

Although stylishly designed and at times wonderfully lit, the episode fails to engage much more than cursory attention because the plot just falls apart. I lost interest early on in the sexual aspects, and the dragging in of the alien plot device at the end really seemed like the classic deus ex machina. All in all, I cannot rate it higher than two sunflower seeds out of five.

* That’s right, trivia fans. Nicholas Lea, alias Agent Alex “Ratboy” Krycek, first appeared in this episode in a totally different role. Kate Twa, the female version of Marty he was kissing, turns up again as Agent Kelly Ryan of “Soft Light”. And even Detective Horton of the Maryland police (Mitchell Kosterman) made a repeat appearance in “Sleepless”, which introduced Krycek! I watch this series with a permanent feeling of deja vu.