The X-Files: “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”

Six Degrees of Separation

by Sarah Stegall

copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Darin Morgan
Director: Rob Bowman

“Weirdness!” — Frohike

Someone please come take Darin Morgan gently by the hand and lead him away from “The X-Files”…

…to his very own series. This man deserves a forum of his own. “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is perhaps the last X-Files script we will get from Morgan, and if so, he’s going out with a bang. His twisted wit, his involuted sense of reality, and his razor-sharp perception are unparalleled not just in “The X-Files”, but in television writing in general. He is, frankly, superfluous on a show about the paranormal. Everything the man writes is *already* paranormal. To get the full flavor of Darin Morgan, I suspect you need to set him against the most banal, most suburban of landscapes and turn him loose. Since “The X- Files” is anything but banal and suburban, the effect is diluted. Contemplate, for example, the intrusion of a Stupendous Yappi into “Homicide: Life on the Streets”.

Writer Jose Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly) interviews Dana Scully for a book called From Outer Space, about alien abductions. Flattered by the attention of one of her favorite authors, Scully opens up about a recent case where two teenagers out on a date disappear, only to reappear later with tales of abduction and hypnosis. Mulder and Scully investigate, only to find the case unraveling before their eyes when Scully’s autopsy reveals a dead alien body to be an Air Force officer decidedly out of uniform, and the girl’s second hypnotic trance reveals that she was put under not by a grey skinned alien but by an Air Force doctor. Every witness who steps forward gets weirder and weirder, until we are faced with hollow-earth enthusiasts and Dungeon & Dragons burnout-cases seeking escape from their mundane lives in the arms of alien space brothers. The infamous Men In Black wear the faces of Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Alex “Jeopardy!” Trebek (what genius cast this episode?). Flashback segues into flashback, stories conflict, cross over, and reduplicate like the storylines of an old Marvel Comics cosmic makeover. Mulder emits a classic girly scream and Scully threatens a man with death if he talks about finding a dead alien body. Talk about out of character!

It works because Darin Morgan, like a water strider, has developed a knack for skating across the outer skin of reality without quite breaking the surface tension. Somehow Mulder chugging Frat-House Screwdrivers in “Syzygy” didn’t work for me, but Mulder eating five or six pieces of sweet potato pie in a row did. Perhaps it worked because it isn’t, really, Mulder. There’s a famous bit by standup comic Steven Wright that I love: “Last night someone came into my house and replaced everything in it with an exact duplicate.” In “Jose Chung”, Morgan took away Mulder and Scully and replaced them with replicas that were microscopically off, just enough to set up a standing wave of dissonance in the brain without setting off the intruder alarms. Darin Morgan’s powers of observation are so acute that he can render back Mulder and Scully, not to mention the rest of the universe, with all the right details but in subtly and disturbingly *wrong* colors.

Take, for example, the scene where Mulder finally meets Jose Chung, when he comes to plead with Chung not to publish the book. I was so sucked into this universe that it wasn’t until the episode was well over that the joke hit me–Mulder, of all men on earth, pleading with a man not to print a book about alien abductions! And I swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Darin Morgan is a dangerous man.

There were, of course, innumerable in-jokes. As long as Darin Morgan can hold a pen, David Duchovny’s “Jeopardy!” appearance will never be forgotten. Darin boosts brother Glen’s show with a character wearing a “Space: Above and Beyond” T-shirt, on a night when X-Files star David Duchovny made a cameo appearance on “Space”. The mind reels. The Cursing Detective is named Manners, after director Kim (“Humbug“) Manners. Morgan even gets in an in-joke on Fox Network and his own “Humbug”: Japp Broekker returns as the Stupendous Yappi, flogging an “alien autopsy” conducted by Dana Scully! Die-hard fans will be vivisecting this episode well into the summer. The general confusion over Clyde Bruckman’s “autoerotic asphyxiation” remark will be as nothing compared to some of the discussions generated by the Cigarette-Smoking Alien, the Alien From Another Place, and the teenagers (did they or didn’t they?).

Director Rob Bowman got in a few visual jokes of his own: the Caddy carrying the Men in Black not only looked like the Batmobile, it moved like it. Editor Heather MacDougall must have pulled off a miracle of editing to turn this disjointed and complex script into a story not only coherent but wickedly funny. Her quick-cuts of Mulder eating pie and asking questions reminded me forcibly of the endless cherry pies of “Twin Peaks”, while scenes beginning in one location and ending up in another teased our sense of place and time. (How often did the camera pull back from a close-up to locate the viewer in Another Part Of The Forest entirely?)

But in the end, the genius of “Jose Chung” springs squarely from its author. Darin Morgan doesn’t write scripts, he creates origami stories that unfold into deeper and deeper complexity, until we are jarred out of our complacent Friday night couches into a world where Greys smoke and Mighty Morphin Power Ranger villains drop from the sky to interrupt an “alien abduction”. Darin Morgan’s brother Glen invented my favorite catch-phrase on “The X- Files”: “We are not who we are”, and Darin takes the phrase literally and metaphorically to the limit in this twisted tale of abductees and conspiracies. His encyclopedic knowledge of classic films shows in his homage to “Rashomon” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.

Beneath the subtle in-jokes and the fractal geometry of the plot, however, lies the heart of this story: alienation. As Jose Chung says at the end, “Although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways, on this planet we are all alone.” In his earlier scripts for “Humbug” and “Clyde Bruckman”, Darin Morgan went below the surface of comedy to discover the tragedy of the human condition: that we long for connection but cannot quite achieve it. Those of us who cannot find a connection (meaning) somewhere end up as lost and isolated as Bruckman or Lt. Schaffer, who was unable to assure Mulder of his own existence. It is this insight that raises Morgan’s work to the level of art, rather than a light entertainment that will be forgotten in a week. He understands on a profound level that to laugh at pain is to learn to endure it, and he understands that the deepest pain is the pain of being, ultimately and finally, alone in the universe. To escape that pain, we invent what we need: aliens, lava men, and Lord Kinbote. Or Air Force officers and Men in Black with a sinister agenda.

I have only one concern about Morgan’s work: that he will begin to parody himself, that his art will degenerate into mere shtick, and what is now needle-like wit will devolve into sophomoric jibe. As long as he aims at more than merely getting attention, he will be at the top of his craft. The one thing I would hate to see is a Darin Morgan so desperate for a laugh that he sacrifices anything, even his own caustically funny vision, for a cheap laugh. It almost happened in “War of the Coprophages“, but “Jose Chung” shows his balance restored. Morgan knows us too well, and skewers our foibles too sharply, to make us entirely comfortable, but if he can retain that edge which rides on his acute observation of his fellow humans, he will be a comedy writer for the ages.

My congratulations on an excellent episode, which gets five out of five sunflower seeds. If this is farewell, Darin Morgan, it’s a really classy exit.