The X-Files: “The Erlenmeyer Flask”

Trust No One

by Sarah Stegall

copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall

“Trust no one….” —Deep Throat

Writer: Chris Carter

Director: R. W. Goodwin

At last we have Chris Carter’s personal philosophy spelled out for us literally in the tagline: it’s a cold world out there, one where enemies wear a friendly face and even a friend can be suspect. “The Erlenmeyer Flask” opens with a car chase straight out of “Bullitt”, follows with police beating a suspect a la Rodney King (complete with ineffective taser shot), and includes such ripped-from-the-headlines story elements as the Human Genome project, and toxic blood overpowering a paramedical team. Chris Carter mixes elements from “Bladerunner”, ” The Fugitive”, and “Apocalypse Now” to draw a dark and forbidding picture as the first season of The X-Files comes to an end. Unfortunately, the end result is sometimes as confusing as it is delicious.

A waterfront car chase ends with a suspect being shot right before he leaps off a pier into the harbor, leaving traces of green blood behind. Mulder is awakened that night by Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin), who tells him only that Mulder should look into it. Mulder and Scully are left to bumble around awhile trying to figure out what, if anything, they are supposed to be searching for. The murder of a research scientist finally lands them a real clue when Mulder stumbles across an Erlenmeyer flask labeled Purity Control. Scully reluctantly agrees to have it analyzed (giving us a truly immortal line from her: “Mulder, I’m warning you. If this is monkey pee, you’re on your own.”). She and the research microbiologist whose help she enlists are stunned to find themselves looking at cloned viruses containing what appear to be DNA sequences which include a fifth and sixth base pair. The microbiologist tells Scully that such material, “by definition, would have to be extraterrestrial.” At last, after two years of looking, Dana Scully holds concrete evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life in her hands.

At this point, one would expect Mulder to be more than a little interested in this discovery, but instead he is tracking down the fugitive Dr. Secare (Simon Webb) from the first act. Why Mulder would be pursuing a human being when Scully has the proof in her hands he’s been looking for escapes me, but he doggedly pursues the human fugitive, on a trail which leads him to a warehouse full of DNA research tanks and their human occupants. We discover that the fugitive used to be in one of these tanks when Deep Throat finally appears to Explain It All To Mulder and Scully and urge them to put together the evidence which will expose this experiment in alien/human hybridization. Of course, he waits until the tanks are taken away by the secret “black ops” organization he has somehow failed to warn Mulder about: thus Mulder must endanger his life by searching further for Dr. Secare, and Scully must go back to the lab to secure evidence she didn’t know was in jeopardy.

If it seems I am a little down on Deep Throat, there’s a reason. There are some wonderful story elements in this episode, important pieces of the puzzle Mulder has been working on for years. This episode is clearly intended to be a seminal story, one from which many other storylines will branch. All the elements are here, the images are right, and there is a certain (erratic) flow to the story line. Some of the elements are too pat, too convenient: Mulder’s discovery of the most crucial clue, the Purity Control flask, being the most obvious. But ultimately, everything lurches along because Deep Throat is playing puppet master not only with Mulder and Scully, but with us. I was ready to shoot Deep Throat myself by the second act. His cryptic clues and elusive hints were clearly designed to mislead and tease the audience, not to inform Mulder. There is no reason for him to be so ambiguous, so mysterious. Scully’s anger at Deep Throat “yanking your chain”, as she tells Mulder, started echoes in my own head. At some point the man has to step forward and speak plainly, but when he finally gets around to it, it is too late. The evidence is gone and the fugitive is in hiding. By now matters are so far deteriorated that Mulder is taken hostage and Scully must acquire and then give away the only solid evidence she has ever held–an actual alien fetus.

We get a strong, exceptionally well done Dana Scully in this episode, one who works as hard as Mulder, in her own field, to solve the mystery. Her growing fear and astonishment as her research uncovers the grotesque beauties of alien-DNA hybrid cells reflects the challenge to her world view that Dana Scully is undergoing, a challenge she meets with proper humility. One wonders if Mulder would ever tell Scully that his stubborn adherence to a particular tenet of faith may possibly have been flawed, as she does in Act Three. As it is, I was hoping to see more of her reaction to the discovery of the alien fetus; even after she had to trade it for Mulder’s life, she would remember having found it, seen it, held it in her hands. What would her reaction be to this tremendous discovery? Surely she would be shaken to her core, but we get no hint of her response. Her subsequent behavior would seem to indicate a substantial memory loss on her part. Still, her concern for Mulder, her forthright courage in infiltrating a top secret installation to steal his ransom, and her outspoken distrust of Deep Throat give Dana Scully more depth and power in this episode than we will see again for a while. It is a wonderful characterization, as it usually is when Carter writes the script.

The visual beauty of this episode, due to cinematographer John Bartley’s magical use of muted color and shadow, makes this a dark feast for the eyes. The indelible image of the men at the clandestine lab at 1616 Pandora Street, sleeping in their green amniotic fluid like grown fetuses awaiting rebirth, is worth the rest of the entire episode. But the gritty realism of the opening car chase, the darkness that makes Mulder’s own front yard a menace as he speaks with Deep Throat, and the exotic beauty of the alien DNA cells on the computer screen, take the viewer into a world of surreal if serene imagery that plays with our heads far more effectively than the sometimes contradictory dialogue. And Mark Snow’s music is given even more of a role than usual: there are two minutes in Act Four, when Scully discovers the alien fetus, where there is no dialogue at all, only Snow’s evocative and compelling score to give an otherwise mundane discovery scene suspense and terror. I must mention the wonderful scene at the end of the episode, where Mulder calls Scully and tells her the X-Files are closed. His voice choked with unshed tears and anger, Duchovny gives us a Mulder who has been shocked out of his customary cool by this blow. It was totally human and believable.

There are some marvelous minor touches here. We finally get to hear the voice of the elusive Danny, Mulder’s inside informant in the Bureau. The number 1056 crops up once again on a key, reminding us of Chris Carter’s birthday (October, 1956). Mulder dials up Danny by punching out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the telephone. Of course, classical mythology students will recognize references to the myth of Pandora’s box and the Promethean myth (Zeus Storage) as Scully finds concrete proof not only of extraterrestrial life but of a research project tampering with the stuff of life itself.

The death of Deep Throat was a surprise, but doesn’t compare with the closing of The X-Files, a truly risky move on Carter’s part. The constituent parts of this episode are stunning in many ways, advancing the mythos of the X-Files significantly. The imagery is classic X-Files, setting new standards for a show already miles beyond standard TV fare. Intelligent, well-written, and thoughtful, it nevertheless has too many seams showing and too weak a beginning to warrant a top rating. This episode gets four out of five sunflower seeds.