by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1996 Sarah Stegall
“I tawt I taw a putty-tat! I did! I did taw a putty-tat!” — Tweetybird
Writer: John Shiban
Director: Kim Manners
Since nothing except Super Bowl Sunday is sacred in America, we find it not just bewildering but amusing when we encounter people to whom death is a solemn closure, a holy event not to be trifled with. Our own passages through life in this culture are, by and large, either ignored or loaded with debased ritual (the senior prom, Spring Break, funerals where the dead wear makeup). So when a native community is outraged enough to create an international incident when their ancestors are dug up by an archaeological expedition, we call it strange enough for an X-File. Nothing else explains Mulder and Scully’s involvement in Friday’s “Teso Dos Bichos”.
“Indiana Jones Meets the X-Files”, or so the teaser to “Teso Dos Bichos” would seem to promise us. A classic Old White Male Imperialist, Dr. Roosevelt (Alan Robertson) is in charge of an archeological expedition to the Ecuadorian highlands which uncovers the remains of a female shaman. Over the objections of the natives and of his own assistant, Dr. Bilac (Vic Trevino), he has the corpse shipped back to the Boston Museum of Natural History. After a night of drumming, chanting, and ingestion of hallucinogenic substances (did I mention Spring Break?), Roosevelt is killed by a large feline. While predictable (did anyone think the white-haired prof was going to live past the opening credits?), it at least hinted that we could look forward to a fast-paced action thriller of an X-File.
Wrong. I was not expecting Mulder to don a fedora and a bullwhip, but I did expect a lot more action and color than we got. Act One abandons the “Indiana Jones/Predator” tension developed in the teaser and takes us straight to a combination of “Cat People” and the recent best-seller “Relic”. We get the same missing bodies, blood-soaked crime scenes, prominent use of a native drug based on a vine, and a mysterious recluse, Dr. Bilac, mixed in with museum politics. Scully’s only clue to the “murderer” is a bit of intestine found in a tree. The discovery of several toilets choked with rats leads Mulder to the conclusion that some creature is lurking in the steam tunnels under the museum. Yeah, that was intuitively obvious. Mulder and Scully abandon common prudence along with the famous 6-million-candlepower searchlights as they venture underground. Why would they carry airport landing lights for two and a half years, only to suddenly find themselves with a couple of pen lights for this expedition? Still, I gritted my teeth, told myself it was due to the time restrictions of prime-time television, and waited for the confrontation with a supernaturally awesome avenging jaguar, something worthy of a pre-Columbian shamaness’ righteous anger.
I got Mulder and Scully pursued by a passel of pissed-off pussies.
The abrupt transition from international intrigue/adventure to outright farce left me gaping in disbelief. What on earth was John Shiban attempting here? We were set up for a really dynamite ending and got a wet firecracker. Tabbies on the tear, ripping through a solid wooden door? Mulder looked through a grille and we were supposed to be awed by a crowd of yowling felines. I saw a group of well fed Morrises and Garfields and Sylvesters (now, Bill the Cat might have given me a shiver). Even David Ducatnip himself couldn’t summon up an expression of fear as he backed away from that door. This was the television equivalent of the attack rabbit in “Monty Python’s Holy Grail”.
Well, the plot is a dead horse and I won’t beat it any more. I have only two final comments on the production: the acting and the cinematography. Vic Trevino walked away with this one. His Alonzo Bilac starts off controlled and rational, if concerned. He progresses through resignation and despair in a convincing and sad portrayal that caught my attention from the first. I hope to see this actor again soon. Duchovny and Anderson didn’t do anything special in this episode, but turned in workmanlike performances. The one good Mulderism I got out of this was his hopeful “Ladies first?” as he lifted the manhole cover. At least Mulder and Scully were working well together in this one. I have no complaints about the teamwork.
Dr. Lewton’s death is staged so that we hear the growling of a large animal and the screams of the victim, but never see the attacker. This is the kind of audience- cheating camera work I hate–forcing us to look away from what’s happening offscreen when it’s the center of the action. It’s not just manipulative, it’s obviouslymanipulative. It’s true you don’t want to show the monster, and most mysteries use this trick to a lesser degree, but the device was so blatant in this episode I felt cheated. Combined with “lighting” that defies the very name of lighting, plunging the entire last half of the episode into Stygian gloom, it made for a puzzling storyline and action sequences that continually disoriented the viewer to no purpose: confusion for its own sake. There was one really grand scene where music and cinematography came together, and that was Scully’s entry into Bilac’s house in the fourth act, but it was only a moment. The rest of the scene was drowned in shadow. Editor Jim Gross is a good storyteller in his own right, but there’s little you can do with total darkness. There’s stylish film noir, guys, and then there’s unexposed film.
Western culture has historically veered between contemptuous dismissal of native religion and a naive romanticism which enshrines the rankest superstition as the organic wisdom of the oppressed. Both attitudes reek of condescension, and it’s all too easy to fall into one camp or the other. In “Anasazi/Blessing Way” the X-Files showed that it can treat native cultures with respect. In this case, someone should have thought long and hard about the propriety of mocking an aboriginal culture’s most potent condemnation. “Teso Dos Bichos” took us from the majestic power of a death curse embodied in the jaguar (the most feared pre-Columbian predator in South America) to a political dispute settled by a pack of furballs.
But the real sin of “Teso Dos Bichos” is that it sets us up for an otherworldly menace and delivers a completely unbelievable “peril” which undercuts whatever tension is established in the prior 40 minutes. Sorry, but I’m not buying this one. “Teso Dos Bichos” gets one gnawed sunflower seed out of five.