The Questing Beast
by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1996 by Sarah Stegall
Scully: “You’re so consumed by your personal vengeance against life, whether it be its inherent cruelties or its mysteries, that everything takes on a warped significance in your megalomaniacal cosmology.”
Mulder: “Scully, are you coming on to me?”
Writer: Kim Newton
Any television show that combines dinosaurs and fishing gets my undivided attention. If nothing else had happened in “Quagmire”, the juxtaposition of the noble art of angling with John Bartley’s lyrical shots of a beautiful mountain trout lake would have gotten several sunflower seeds from me. Married to an episode which deftly combines good characterization with a simple yet bent plot, we get a story that ranks in the top of the third season of The X-Files.
Mulder drags the very reluctant Scully and her dog, Queequeg (inherited from “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”) into yet another hare-brained monster-of-the-week story that had all the groan potential of The Invisible Man. People near Huevelman’s Lake in the Blue Ridge Mountain section of Georgia are disappearing under circumstances that revive long-simmering rumors of a prehistoric monster living in the remote lake. Naturally, we get a high body count of people (and pieces of people) supposedly falling prey to a water- dwelling Loch Ness type creature, which Mulder alternately compares to a plesiosaur and a bull shark. The only real question surrounding this premise is what took Ten Thirteen so long to get around to the inevitable Nessie-episode. Yet writer Kim Newton (“Revelations“) weaves enough clever sleight-of-hand into this otherwise highly predictable story to make it fresh. Moreover, she allows us to once again engage with the heroes on a familiar emotional level.
Newton’s triumph in this story is her ability to restore much of the camaraderie between Mulder and Scully that leached out in the third season. In a single episode, she allows the warmth and humor that illuminated the first season to seep back into the show. The now-famous Conversation on the Rock opened up more of Fox Mulder than any episode this season except “Grotesque“. Newton gave Gillian Anderson plenty of material to work with in showing Scully the Materialist broken by the death of her dog. In fact, Scully’s grief for Queequeg exceeds the grief she has been allowed to show previously for her partner, her father, and her sister. David Duchovny did a wonderful job of dropping Mulder’s boyish mask, allowing him to acknowledge his own fear and vulnerability. In his “peg-leg” speech, Mulder admits to a painfully clear understanding not only of his own obsessive behavior but of how it has warped his life. This kind of revelation is more intimate than a kiss, and more interesting. The only flaw in this otherwise wonderfully fresh look at the partnership was Mulder’s hard- hearted reaction to Queequeg’s death, as if he is not just unwilling but incapable of relating to Scully’s heartache. This is out of character for the normally sensitive Mulder.
I loved Chris Ellis’ Dr. Farraday, and his annoyance at Mulder and Scully for trivializing his research by using it to justify their Big Blue theory. He is concerned about the extinction of frog species not just locally, but worldwide. Frogs, like canaries in a coal mine, warn us by their deaths that something has gone terribly wrong in the ecosystem that supports them. When frogs die, we should pay attention. Given that the frog holocaust Farraday worries about is a real problem, the irony of his face-off with Mulder was not lost on me: Mulder is focused on a lone survivor of a species whose own ecosystem failure killed them millennia ago.
And this is a story about survival: not just the survival of Rana sphenocephalus, or Big Blue, or even our own species. It is a look at what it takes to be a survivor. The answer is surprising, as it rejects the archetypal mold of the hero as lone gunman, standing up single-handed to adversity and overcoming it. That frontier hero mold must give way in these latter days to the urban hero who knows how to cooperate and who knows how to forge alliances. Mulder not only admits he is lost, but asks for directions (a new heroic paradigm indeed). A Boy Scout leader who strays from the group ends up as a floating corpse. When Ansel Bray goes off to photograph Big Blue alone, he gets gobbled up. The message here is clearly that the loner is doomed, and the only safety is in community, union, partnership.
The in-jokes here are subtle enough not to distract the novice viewer from the storyline, but strong enough to amuse the old-timers. Those of us who recognized Stoner, Chick, and the newest Dude from Darin Morgan’s “War of the Coprophages” are wondering where they will turn up again. The very name of the monster, Big Blue, may be an inside reference to Duchovny’s own dog, Blue. And of course, the echoes in names like “Farraday” (for the physicist), “Ansel” (for the photographer), and “Millikan” (for casting director Rick Millikan) are funny and clever. When the sheriff tells Mulder and Scully that a fisherman has had an arm torn off, I was forcibly reminded of “Beowulf”, and saw echoes of it in Mulder’s lone excursion into the forest after the beast.
But the beast itself is the best in-joke of all, because the real punch line of “Quagmire” is that Mulder, in fact, finds and kills a survivor from the Age of Reptiles. We forget, in our search for the more dramatic and less familiar T. Rexes and Nessies, that their cousins are still here, still surviving, and still hungry. The alligator he shoots is no less a lake-dwelling monster than a plesiosaur would have been. And I will confess that the alligator came totally out of nowhere, for me. It’s beautiful. The giant alligator supports Scully’s materialistic worldview, yet does not destroy Mulder’s own vision of his Questing Beast, his symbol of hope that there is more to the world than appears on the surface.
This script had its rough places, and more than a few leaps unsupported by anything but drifting fog: where the hell did that rock in the middle of the lake come from, and how did that boat sink in water shallow enough to wade in? The point is not that we can’t fill in the holes, but that we should not have to. Despite its many-faceted beauty, the Conversation on the Rock is more or less dropped out of nowhere into this story. And the final shot, of Big Blue breaking the surface, was so de trop that I have erased it from my taped copy of the episode. But all in all this quirky X-File, with its ruggedly beautiful setting, clever twist, and strong characters, earns four out of five sunflower seeds from this reviewer.