Written by Chris Carter
Directed by William Graham
In which Mulder and Scully stand around and watch as a NASA shuttle mission is nearly sabotaged by a guy under the control of...oh, forget it...
Synopsis - Analysis - Memorable Quotes - Observations
"Don't make me tell you again...stop checking out Scully's chest!"
As the episode begins, we see a flashback to a 1977 report on the images taken by the Viking Observer mission, specifically the so-called “Mars Face” photograph. The director of the Viking Orbiter Project, Lt. Marcus Aurelius Belt (yep, he insists on using all three names) explains to a reporter that the apparent face is nothing more than a trick of light and shadow.
However, in the present day, Belt is awakened from a nightmare in which he is reliving a spacewalk from his career as an astronaut. He remembers calling out that something was coming at him from space. As he lies awake in bed, the movement of light and shadow on his ceiling appears to shift and flow into a form similar to the Mars Face…which then rushes down to attack him.
Soon after, the latest shuttle mission is aborted due to a system failure. Two weeks later, Mulder and Scully await the arrival of an informant from NASA. Just before the agents are prepared to give up, a woman named Michelle Genero, the Mission Control Communications Commander for the shuttle program, arrives with the news that there may be a saboteur in the program. She explains that the most recently aborted mission was due to the failure of an auxiliary power unit valve.
Michelle further explains that the material of construction is so strong that a human being could not have caused the deeply grooved scoring within the valve. Someone sent her a copy of the material analysis showing the damage, but she doesn’t know who it might have been. Whatever the case, her interest is personal, because her fiancee is the shuttle commander for the mission.
The next day, at the Houston Space Center, Mulder and Scully discuss the possible reasons for sabotage. Mulder mentions that it makes a highly visible terrorist target, that NASA’s budget overruns are unpopular with some, and there are even those who believe that the failures are the product of government cover-up of alien civilizations.
The agents are taken to meet with the person in charge of the shuttle program: Colonel Marcus Aurelius Belt. Belt turns out to be one of Mulder’s childhood heroes. Scully shows Belt the copy of the material analysis they received from Michelle, but Belt insists that the damage was not a form of sabotage. When it’s clear that Belt doesn’t want to pursue the matter, Mulder asks to stay and watch the liftoff. Belt reluctantly agrees.
Mulder and Scully also ask one of the equipment contractors about the malfunctioning valve. The contractor makes it clear that unless something specific goes wrong, they don’t check the equipment beyond the minimum requirements prior to launch. They give their recommendations to Belt, and he goes from there. None of the contractors ordered the material analysis. It makes it seem as though Belt might have intentionally kept the damage quiet…something Mulder hopes is untrue.
The next launch attempt appears to be successful, to Mulder’s pleasure, but Michelle soon stops at their hotel to inform them that there’s been a communications problem (apparently phones don’t work in Texas). As Mulder and Scully follow Michelle back towards Houston, in foggy wet weather, Michelle is suddenly attacked by the Mars Face. Her car overturns. Mulder and Scully manage to get her out of the car, and she tells them about the face she saw.
They continue to Houston, ignoring Michelle’s injuries, and find out that things have gotten worse. Belt is nowhere to be found. The shuttle has been unable to rotate into the proper position, so the cabin temperature is rising to dangerous levels. Some kind of interference is preventing auto-activation from the ground. The agents and Michelle search the data bank room for whatever or whoever might be causing the problem. When nothing can be found, Mulder orders a lockdown on the building.
Belt finally arrives, and decides that the shuttle pilot should attempt rotation manually. That requires cutting contact with the ground, since that’s where the problem is originating. Michelle objects, but Belt insists. After a supposedly tense moment, communications are restored when the pilot regains control.
A little later, Belt gives a press conference, informing the press that the shuttle mission has been progressing smoothly and without incident. This shocks Mulder for some odd reason. Mulder confronts Belt, who basically complains about the lack of media interest in the successes of the shuttle program. Mulder asks about the possibility of sabotage again. Belt more or less waves off the question.
The night, Belt returns home, and gets drunk on vodka, straight from the bottle. He passes out, and again relives his spacewalk experience. This time, however, instead of forming in the light and shadow over his bed, the Mars Face erupts and forms from Belt’s features, ultimately leaving Belt’s body and rising into the night. Soon after, the shuttle reports that something is knocking on the hull of the shuttle.
At the same time, Mission Control discovers that the oxygen tanks for the shuttle have been compromised. Michelle frantically orders the techs to determine how long the oxygen will last, and orders someone to once again find Belt. Mulder and Scully find him in his office, looking like hell. By the time he manages to return to Mission Control, the carbon dioxide in the cabin is building up. Belt orders the men into their suits, so they can use their emergency oxygen systems. Belt then orders them to continue the mission, against Michelle’s objections.
As they try to console a terrified Michelle, Mulder continues to have faith in belt, even as Scully begins voicing her doubts as to Belt’s sanity. Seemingly out of nowhere, Mulder demands to see as much information as possible on the recent NASA failures, even though it’s tens of thousands of documents. Still, they are taken to the bookshelf where they are all sitting in 3-ring binders.
As Mulder and Scully more or less immediately find evidence of previous sabotage, something appears outside of the shuttle cabin. Belt begins having a nervous breakdown. Mulder also determines that Belt was the person who ordered the material analysis for the Challenger incident investigation. Michelle runs in to tell them that Belt has collapsed.
They find Belt having a fit under his desk, and when they try to help him, he goes into a seizure. Even though the man is dangerously close to having an aneurysm, Mulder plays “focus on my finger” and gets Belt to tell him why the shuttle cannot simply return to Earth. Belt somehow sabotaged the silicone tiles on the fuselage. Belt babbles about the ambiguously vague “they”, who don’t want “us to know”. As it screams that “it lives in me”, his face distorts into the Mars Face again. Then he begins to go into cardiac arrest.
Michelle returns to Mission Control and orders the shuttle pilot to bring the shuttle down. As Belt is being taken to the ambulance, Mulder questions him about how to save the shuttle from burning up. Somehow, a change in trajectory is all it takes. Mulder rushes to tell Michelle, and she sends the shuttle the revised trajectory just before communications are lost. After a very long wait, the shuttle reports that it has managed to land safely. Everyone is rather pleased with themselves.
At a later press conference, Michelle winds up telling the press that the shuttle completed its mission without incident. Belt is watching, and his face begins distorting again. Belt flips out, and tosses himself out the window. Later, Mulder tells Scully that he believes Belt was possessed by something from space, and killing himself was the only way to stop what it was from killing more astronauts. Scully sticks with the “severe dementia” diagnosis. Mulder sticks with his hero regardless, and along with Scully, attend Belt’s military funeral.
Over the history of the series, the episodes that ultimately failed were the episodes that regarded the main characters as observers more than investigators. Other episodes failed because the characterizations of the main characters were out of touch with what had come before, or just plain wrong. Imagine, then, an episode where you get both…and then add some uninspired direction to the mix. Oh, and terrible acting by the supporting cast!
Mulder, as Chris Carter portrays him in this episode, seems to lose most of his distrust in just about anything besides himself and Scully, all because of some hero worship. After seeing him gush over and excuse every action that Belt makes, I’d hate to see him meet one of his baseball idols, that’s for sure. It takes Mulder just about forever to remember why the agents were involved in the first place, and by the time they figure out the obvious, Belt is blurting out a confession and turning into a marshmallow.
Scully doesn’t fare much better, because her character is reduced to a complete and utter idiot. At least Mulder is given something to do, even if he approaches this apparent golden moment with not one quip or evidence of good humor. Scully basically stares around the room, wondering what’s going on. Why a medical doctor with a degree in physics, able to write a thesis on Einstein’s relativity, needs Mulder to explain something that is painfully evident is beyond me.
As if that isn’t bad enough, we’re subjected to Belt, who is perhaps one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen. The man chews over his dialogue like he can’t seem to remember what the heck he’s saying. And that’s not too surprising, considering some of the dialogue. Some of those lines were more painful than the endless sequences of stock NASA footage.
Perhaps the most damnable thing about this episode is that it might have worked, as a concept. In essence, what we have here is the possession of an astronaut in the late 1960s by a non-corporeal alien intelligence from Mars. This ought to fit beautifully with the overall mythology, had it been dealt with well. After all, the black oil is supposed to have originated on Mars, and the black oil virus is nothing more than a medium for a non-corporeal intelligence. It fits!
Even if the Mars Face creature was not an intelligence linked directly with the black oil, it could easily have been some kind of sentry or servitor specifically left to ensure that humanity was contained for the purposes of colonization. If the Syndicate learned about the planned colonization prior to 1973 (but not much earlier, based on what we’ve seen), then the late 1960s fits the timeline. The Syndicate could have placed Belt in control of the space program to ensure that manned spaceflight never reached past orbit, and that only limited information would reach Earth following that point.
Unfortunately, this episode came at a time when the series was too young to think that far ahead…or at least have the chance. This episode was also supposed to be an attempt to keep costs down, hence all of the stock footage and the small number of sets. In every respect possible, this episode went wrong, and much of the failure lies in the writing. This hit or miss track record would continue for Chris Carter right up until the end of the series.
(Did you actually expect to find something here?)
- It’s hard to believe this was one of the most expensive episodes of the first season, given all that stock footage that this episode is peppered with…you know, the footage that just about puts one into catatonia…
- Even the overdubbing on this episode is terrible!
- Ah…the first real appearance of the long-winded, overly complicated Mulder speechs! Those explanations for NASA sabotage are classic Chris Carter excess!
- Nice wall mural…I like starscapes…
- Gotta love those incredibly fake NASA signs all over the places…especially on the golf cart!
- So when NASA orders a press blackout, they jam all radio frequencies for miles? What the heck were they thinking when they came up with that?
- Shouldn’t Dr. Scully know that you’re not supposed to move someone with possible head/spinal injuries unless there is an imminent danger? Not to mention calling 911, taking the victim to a hospital, etc…
- Scully must be taking stupid pills, what with Mulder explaining the patently obvious to her every 15 seconds…
- If NASA is actually run anything like we see in this episode, it’s no wonder they don’t know the difference between “feet” and “meters”!
- That “ghost” effect over the shuttle was extra-cheesy…
- Cool shot of Belt’s POV while falling to the ground, though!
Overall, this is one of those episodes that starts off with an interesting concept, and then proceeds to absolute bury it under incredibly poor writing, tedious direction, and minimal action. Mulder and Scully might as well have taken the week off, for all they actually show up here. A perfect example of Chris Carter at his worst.
I give it a 1/10.
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