To Serve Man
by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall
Written by Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Rob Bowman
I am beginning to wonder if there is, indeed, a conspiracy behind “The X-Files” after all: this is part of a campaign by Chris Carter and his crew to make vegetarians of us all. From “Red Museum“, with its tainted beef, to “Our Town” with its suspect chicken runs a direct line, a connection that gnaws at our cultural taboos about adulteration of food and the eating of forbidden fruit. Or in this case, forbidden meat.
Mulder and Scully are assigned to a routine missing- persons case which catches Mulder’s eye because of the association with so-called foxfire phenomena: the Ozark lights which spirit away travellers and leave large scorch marks. Once on the scene, however, it becomes clear that something more ominous is going on. More than 100 people have disappeared from the area within the last 50 years. Suspicion centers on the town’s chicken-processing plant, whose motto, “Good People, Good Food”, looks more sinister with every passing moment. The employees are developing a brain disorder so rare that the odds of two people in the same town having it are incalculable. Reluctantly, and to Mulder’s delight, Scully develops a “sick theory”: their missing man was recycled into the local chicken-feed operation, and his disease is now loose in the chicken-eating population. As it turns out, the answer is even worse than that: he wound up as the main course at the town potluck.
There are very few “universal” taboos in human cultures: incest and cannibalism come to mind. Both address the purity of the group, either moral or physical. While some cultures can accept incest among members of a privileged group–such as the ancient Egyptians– they forbid it among the general population. NO culture endorses the indiscriminate eating of one another for food. From the myth of Atreus, who served his brother the stewed bones of his own sons, through the horrific tales of the Donner Party and Alferd Packer, to Jeffrey Dahmer, the taboo against eating human flesh runs deep and strong. Even cannibal cultures enforce the prohibition: you never eat one of your own. The very basis of cannibalism is either the absorption of magical powers (for strength, wisdom, longevity, etc.) or the reinforcing of the distinction between “them” and “us”: we are people, and therefore not food. Those guys on the other side of the hill, however, are not People, and therefore can be served with croutons. In “Our Town”, it is the crossing of this line, not the threat posed by Mulder and Scully, which signals the end for the community. Once the distinction between friend and food breaks down, with the murder and stewing of Doris Kearns, whatever societal norms are built on it must fall, and chaos ensues. This is symbolized in the murder of the paterfamilias, Mr. Chaco (Joe Milford), the ultimate authority figure in the community.
The town’s motivation for cannibalism is neither hunger nor solidification of the group identity, despite what the title “Our Town” might imply. The motivation is as old as the knowledge of mortality: the town members are holding off not just death but old age. As Mulder discovers early on, not everyone in this town is what they appear to be (surprise!): the youthful granddaughter of the plant’s founder is actually only three years shy of her fiftieth birthday. The old man himself is nearly a century old, yet appears to be no older than sixty. Clearly the fountain of youth has been found, but the price of a drink is pretty stiff. Wisely, writer Frank Spotnitz does not “explain” their success in staying young through either a magical or biochemical explanation; to inquire too closely into this premise would snap our fragile suspension of disbelief.
Director Rob Bowman paces the episode well, with some snappy dialogue and some excellent cinematography. I particularly liked the scene in the X-files office, where Scully’s face is reflected in the video monitor where we see an abduction survivor (Hrothgar Matthews) raving about his experience in the woods near Dudley, Arkansas. Scully’s skeptical expression is an interesting counterpoint to Mulder’s bland acceptance of every word the raving mental patient is spewing. In fact, nearly all of Mulder and Scully’s interaction in this episode is strong and effective: I love the scenes when they are discussing the case, tossing theories back and forth, working out the details of this jigsaw puzzle like two halves of the same mind.
Nevertheless, the episode is seriously flawed in several places. Dr. Dana Scully develops superhuman powers, as she manages to extract a substantial slice of brain tissue from a body without the bother of opening the skull. Mulder, who presumably dives to the rescue of a wrecked truck driver, is as dry as a bone in the next scene–does he carry a Ronco dry cleaning kit in the trunk of his car? Since the heads of all the victims are kept in Chaco’s souvenir case, it is hard to see how their diseased brain tissue could make it into the stew the town shares, and thereby infect them. In Chaco’s interview with Mulder and Scully, the old man indulges in long- winded non-sequiturs that no experienced interrogator would tolerate.
But the worst mistake in this episode is the most clichèd: the abduction–again–of Dana Scully. I categorically refuse to believe that a young, well-trained, fully alert and armed professional law enforcement officer could be taken out by a man we later learn is in his nineties. I was so angry to see this damsel-in-distress theme trotted out yet again that I lost interest in the story line. Repeatedly putting a beautiful woman in jeopardy is sadistic. Worse, Scully didn’t even put up a decent fight as she was being dragged to the beheading stake. By now Mulder should be damned sick and tired of going to his partner’s rescue. Certainly I’m tired of seeing it: it demeans the character of Dana Scully. Chris Carter has gone to great lengths to show Scully as a full partner to Mulder: I hate to see them becoming equals in ineptitude. While I can understand Spotnitz’ desire to engage Mulder or Scully personally in this story, more fully drawing the audience in, I cannot condone yet another let’s-rescue-the-silly-twit storyline. I hope Friday night was the last time we see this.
It’s time for some changes. We’ve seen cannibalism on the X-Files several times before, when Mulder and Scully tracked down the “Jersey Devil” and the far more interesting Eugene Tooms. We’ve seen Scully in danger too often already. We’ve seen human bones in “Aubrey“. We have seen the foggy, wet woods of Vancouver more often than I can count. We are also beginning to get too many repeated faces. I like Robin Mossley, but he was Dr. Ridley in “Young at Heart”, a lab technician in “Irresistible“, and now Dr. Randolph in “Our Town”. So far this season we have seen the police officer in “The Erlenmeyer Flask” come back in “3“, the neighbor lady in “The X-Files” (pilot) come back as the director of “Excelsis Dei“, and the mother of “Eve” come back as a daughter in “Excelsis Dei”. We’ve had three actors from “Genderbender” alone recur: Nick Lea came back as the infamous Agent Krycek, Mitch Kosterman repeated his performance as a police detective, and Kate Twa returned last week as Lt. Ryan. I’m expecting Doug “Tooms” Hutchinson to pop up at any moment. When it becomes more fun to play spot-the-retread than to guess at the mystery, it’s time for some fresh meat.
While we can’t expect miracles of invention every week, we can expect a new twist on an old story, something to make this show unique. There was nothing particularly new or, I’m afraid, interesting, in “Our Town”. This re-make of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” earns only two sunflower seeds out of five.