The X-Files: “War of the Coprophages”

War of the Coprophages

by Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 1996 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Darin Morgan
Director: Kim Manners

Much has been made of the idea of “The X-Files” as “the first interactive TV series” (pace Babylon 5 fans), with viewers’ reactions being made public on the Internet with an immediacy and visibility new to Hollywood. In turn, Chris Carter has admitted in interviews to not only reading the ‘Net but catering to it somewhat, with both direct and indirect references insinuating themselves into episodes. What no one seems to question is whether this is A Good Thing.

Television has been an interactive medium — albeit a slow one — for decades. The advent of Nielsen ratings quickly provided a measuring stick whereby the popularity of shows could be assessed. Producers promptly learned that daytime soap viewers wanted more bedroom scenes. They learned that television audiences liked weddings and funerals on prime time TV, and sweeps months became as predictable for sudden romances and deaths as season finales became predictable for cliffhangers. But if you give viewers what they think they want, you will bore them silly. “The X-Files” has succeeded in a jaded medium by surprising us every week, not by giving us what we expect. Or even what we say we want. I hope that is not changing.

Mulder goes to Miller’s Grove, Massachusetts, to investigate reports of UFO activity and finds a town cowed by cockroach attacks. Three people have recently died and the only links among them have been the presence on the body of hundreds of cockroaches. Among growing panic in the town, Mulder confronts artificial roaches, a factory making fuel out of dung, and an attractive entomologist named Bambi (Bobbie Phillips). Scully, worried about Mulder, gets caught up in a fleeing crowd and winds up covered in dung with Mulder.

The episode is obviously a parody, and is filled with moments both brilliant and farcical. Fans will be hurling one-liners culled from this episode at one another for a long time to come, and much of the dialogue will likely wind up in signature files for months on end. But these moments, charming as they are taken individually, add up to less than a whole. Darin Morgan has a lovely collection of beads, but no string to tie them together with. There is no strong narrative shot through with tragedy to ennoble a story such as the magnificent “Humbug” or the excellent “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose“. While it is illogical to imagine that Morgan can hit a home run at every at-bat, it is not too much to expect that he stick to the fundamentals–a plain tale told plainly. I loved the idea of a war between native Earth cockroaches and invaders in the guise of Blattaria (cockroaches); a fight to the death carried on under our noses (or in them) without our being aware of it. I wish we’d seen more of this war, one in which our most despised house guest/pest becomes an ally in the defense of the planet. Instead, we have what could have been an intriguing story about intergalactic war sinking under the weight of its excrescences.

“War of the Coprophages” reads like a fanfic, a story written by a fan about his or her favorite show. As such it incorporates some of the worst excesses of that genre: indulgent self-references, sophomoric humor, and shallow characterization. Writer Darin Morgan leaves no pun unturned, no sight gag ignored. He cannot resist the sly in-joke, and there are several times when he should. If he cannot dazzle us with brilliance and subtlety, he is not above bathroom humor. Or insult: Mulder’s parting remark to Scully, “You smell bad”, is just mean-spirited. This is desperation, not wit. Morgan’s script caters so closely to fan discussions of Scully’s dog, Mulder’s love life, and the relationship between the two that the story, what there is of it, falls between the cracks of this domestication. It’s as if Morgan decided to give us what we said we wanted over the last two and a half years, just to show us that it isn’t really what we want. Fans ask for more humor–we have had three comedies in eleven months. Fans want to see Fox and Dana’s personal lives–well, now we have, and they’re boring. We got the return of Scully’s dog, we got the personal phone calls in the middle of the night, we got David Duchovny wandering around in various states of undress, and we got Scully acting jealous. Is this “The X- Files” or a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie?

I don’t want to sound as if nothing could please me. I have asked, no–begged, for more of a relationship between the two characters on whom this show rests. This silliness was not what I meant. I don’t want the personal relationship to be the center of the episode. The best “relationship” episodes have also had dynamite stories: “Tooms”, “One Breath“, “Irresistible“, “Beyond the Sea”, “Anasazi”. The trouble with “Coprophages” was only partly with the individual elements of the story: much of the problem was the overall tone. There is a fine and dangerous line between black humor and sophomoric smirking. The tongue-in-cheek approach is funny once, amusing twice, and tedious a third time.

This is no denigration of Darin Morgan’s talent: his genius lies in setting up scenes where the payoff is either a visual cue (Scully scavenging “bug” candy in the ruins of the store) or a line that in and of itself is not funny (Mulder’s “Not now!” works because of all the phone calls that preceded it). Morgan’s special gift is his genius for comedy-by-denial: by setting us up to expect one thing (“So this thing is following me around because it’s programmed to respond to movement?”) and delivering the unexpected (“No. It likes you.”). This cognitive dissonance, as I mentioned in my “Humbug” review, is the foundation of comedy, a psychic tension set up by anticipation versus actuality, a tension which is dissipated in laughter. And only Darin Morgan, I suspect, could give us Bugs from Outer Space and not make us wince. I find it hard to believe a writer as talented as Darin Morgan has only one string to his bow. Surely a mind this twisted could cook up some memorable straight-ahead X-Files: where are they?

Technically, the episode was up to the usual high standards: Gillian Anderson shows a gift for understatement to rival David Duchovny’s, with an added undercurrent of mischief (“Her name is Bambi?”). Duchovny’s wonderful comedic timing and native deadpan served him well with punch lines like “Greetings from Planet Earth”. Director Kim Manners kept the pace tight, perhaps breathless. His staging of the panic in the store was marvelously cartoonish. His low-level shots of the toy-like insect robots of Dr. Ivanov (Ken Kramer) lent menace to what would otherwise have been amusing little automatons. And any director who can get actors to sit still for creepy-crawlies, and who can get roaches to do tricks, has gotta be some kind of wunderkind.

I was wondering what Mulder’s foray into romance would do to the series –thankfully, I can say that it will have no effect whatsoever. I have read any number of fanfic stories wherein Mulder acts like a college kid with social disabilities; this is the first time I have actually seen him played this way. Duchovny usually plays Mulder as a worldly, highly sexualized, sophisticated, but obsessed adult. Yet despite his obvious interest in Bambi, Mulder did not radiate the repressed sensuality he usually glows with. There was none of the much-vaunted sexual tension between Mulder and anybody else. How is it possible that a line like, “What are you wearing, Scully?”, which would have given me fits of insomnia in the first and second seasons, is now only good for a laugh? Maybe it is because of the loss of that understated tension in the third season, maybe it was because any tension built up in “War of the Coprophages” was diffused by laughter. But Mulder went literally cheek to cheek with Bambi and…nothing. It’s a cute moment, but it is only a moment. It does not reverberate for hours or days afterward in the mind, the way scenes in “Tooms”, “Beyond the Sea”, or “Irresistible” did. The chemistry just is not there. And for once boy, am I glad.

Overall, this episode threw in everything including the bathroom sink, yet fails to achieve a coherent line. The in jokes ultimately distract from the story, and turn it into one long series of “skits”, rather than a consistent plot. This episode gets three roach-proof sunflower seeds out of five.