by Sarah Stegall
copyright ©1996 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Chris Carter and Frank Spotting
Director: Kim Manners/Rob Bowman
“These guys, they make it all up as they go along.”–Alex Krycek
When a neglected billboard becomes weathered and forgotten, the laminated advertisements begin to peel away randomly, revealing layers of wildly conflicting scenes, contrasting colors, and contradictory messages. It becomes a collage of warning and inducements; on a rainy night it is caught in the flare of passing headlights, leaps into view for a startled, confused moment, and disappears into the void. The next night’s rain will change it even more, so that the “message” is never the same twice. This lesson in entropy works as a metaphor for The X-Files, where half- hidden messages and smeared clues turn out to be parts of a completely unexpected and confusing narrative. “Tunguska” and “Terma”, the latest layers of The X-Files to be pasted up for us, offer strong and confusing messages, sometimes opposed and sometimes complimentary.
Part one of a two-parter, “Tunguska” leaps right off the television screen. It’s a rip-roaring episode with the fast pace and wide-eyed wonder of first season episodes like “Fallen Angel”. I was on the edge of my seat throughout most of the hour. Dana Scully at loggerheads with Congress, Mulder forced to cooperate with the man he hates most on earth, and Skinner caught between two loyalties–what’s not to like? The first half of this two-part story rocked, with the nearly complete family reunion including Agent Pendrell (Brendan Beiser), the Well-Manicured Man (John Neville), Deep Blonde (Laurie Holden) and the Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis).
The Oilien from “Piper Maru”, one of the most innovative forms of alien life conceived so far on the X- Files, turns up again in a mysterious rock being smuggled into the USA in a diplomatic pouch. At the same time, Mulder and Scully orchestrate a raid on a bomb-making operation reminiscent of the Oklahoma City bomb plot, spurred on by information being leaked to Mulder from someone inside the plot. That insider turns out to be the hated Alex Krycek, supposedly rescued from his imprisonment in the missile silo by the conspirators he is betraying. He tells them of the diplomatic pouch, and winds up chained to Skinner’s balcony for his pains. He is forced to kill the pouch carrier, who comes looking for him, even as the researchers cutting up the rock at NASA/Goddard unleash the deadly alien. Mulder consults Deep Blonde for a bit of help from the UN, and takes Krycek with him to Siberia looking for the origin of the rock. They are surprised and imprisoned, and Mulder is exposed to the alien being living in the rocks mined from a giant impact crater in the Tunguska wilderness. And this is only part one!
But after the intense setup of “Tunguska”, “Terma” was a bit of a letdown. Following a fast-paced first act in which Indiana Mulder escapes from a Russian gulag, hijacks a truck, and wrecks it, he miraculously smuggles himself back to Washington. I actually wondered if we’d dropped a reel of film somewhere when Mulder walked into the courtroom. Then we stall out completely in the third act, where we get action without information, busy-ness onscreen for its own sake. The last act of “Terma” felt rushed: the dizzying travel from Florida to New York City to North Dakota to Canada and back to DC in the space of a few minutes gave me motion sickness. I got lost very quickly–Scully flew to the refinery (how did they know to find a refinery? how did they find out about the blue truck?) but ran back in minutes to find Mulder? And how is one old Russian man in black able to go wherever he wishes, even into the heart of the Well- Manicured Man’s stronghold?
This has happened before, notably in “Piper Maru/Apocrypha”, where a brilliant opening softened into a confusing ending. The payoff was less than I had hoped for. Possibly part of the this is due to the late introduction of Comrade Peskow (Jan Rubes). Characters introduced halfway through a two hour story are confusing. It seems to be a pattern with Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz that when they collaborate, brilliant bits of action and dialogue are loosely glued together in the second half. I needed more glue in the last few minutes of “Terma”.
The now-revealed background of Ratboy, and his fate, are the most shocking revelations I’ve seen all year on The X-Files. I’ve seen some comments on the “violence” of the first half of this story, where everyone short of Dana Scully takes a punch at Alex Krycek. I thought it was a hilarious self-parody, and closer to the “violence” of the Three Stooges than to Clint Eastwood. Unfortunately, Krycek’s ultimate fate at the hands of the one-armed men turned this comic relief on its head. I was horrified at Ratboy’s impromptu amputation, and felt deep pity for him. Applause to Nic Lea for a fine and harrowing performance that had me wondering from moment to moment just how deep Krycek’s plans were laid. Right now I would be more afraid of Krycek than the Cigarette-Smoking Man, if I were Mulder.
I am also left with a most disturbing question. The implications of Comrade Krycek’s actions are that he is either a mole planted long ago in the Cold War (and frankly, he’s a bit young for that to work for me), or that he never really got rid of the Oilien, and ol’ Diesel Bob is still running things. If Krycek, whose actions in “Terma” were all in the alien’s interests, is still under its influence, what are we to think of Agent Mulder? Is he still carrying around some “vermiform colonists” attached to his pineal gland? Still more unanswered questions, and we are left to guess–or imagine–the reasons for our torture.
But as always, the sheer visual impact of The X-Files carries us along past these dramatic potholes. The artistic care lavished on this show exceeds any reasonable expectation. Outstanding special effects once again make visible the implausible, as black leech-like worms crawl in and out of people’s orifices, and globs of oil coagulate and become mobile. The scenes with Mulder and Krycek in the gulag were as stark and bleak as anything out of Solzhenitsyn, and the scene where Mulder is reduced to one of a long gray line of men was rendered almost in black and white, a high-contrast take on a twentieth century hell. The show is always a study in stark opposites: the contrast between Scully’s clean, brightly lit cell and Mulder’s medieval dungeon, the gritty realism of Mulder digging under a fence with his fingernails versus the ultra-sterile environment of the exobiology lab. (However, ignorant as I am of world geography, I did expect to see Siberia and Canada deep in snow in late November.)
These sweeps-month specials are not mythology ‘arcs’, they are a collage, in which deeper layers bleed through to stain upper layers, in which we get a glimpse of buried and interconnecting themes through the peepholes allowed by Carter and his writers. This layer of the composition revealed many loyalties being tangled and re-aligned. Skinner is forced to choose between allegiances, and the Smoking Man now has more than one enemy to contend with. He has been betrayed by Deep Throat, X, Bill Mulder, possibly the Well-Manicured Man and certainly by Alex Krycek: no wonder he’s paranoid. In contrast, Mulder is aided by his loyal partner, by his boss, by complete strangers in Tunguska, by beautiful blondes at the United Nations, even by his enemy Krycek. Scully is developing Mulder’s siege mentality, and has so far mastered the Art of Not Answering Questions (raised to the Olympic competition level by Fox Mulder) that she is now manipulating Congress itself. “Terma” is, if nothing else, an interesting study in character revision.
The first half-hour of “Tunguska” was tense, well- paced, and pretty conventional: we could have seen a police raid on “Homicide: Life on the Streets” at any time. But the last half hour of “Terma” was an expressionistic montage of quick cuts, circling cameras, allusion and self-reference. The increasing abstraction of The X-Files may work against it. No one who missed “Piper Maru” or “Apocrypha” will understand the significance of an oilwell head or a refinery. So much of what the audience understands must come from a special language developed over seventy episodes, that newcomers, and many long-time viewers, will be left bewildered. I’ve already fielded many questions from new viewers who are intrigued but lost. We need more pointers in these deep woods, more clues from this eroding billboard.
“Tunguska” gets five out of five sunflower seeds for its taut storyline and excellent direction; “Terma” gets three for its confusion and its head-spinning editing/directing. That gives this two parter an averaged rating of four out of five sunflower seeds.