"Firewalker"
Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by David Nutter



In which Mulder and Scully find themselves trapped at a volcanic monitoring station with an unknown contagion and a raving madman on the loose...

Synopsis - Analysis - Memorable Quotes - Observations


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Synopsis

As the episode begins, scientists at the California Institute of Technology Volcano Observatory in Pasadena race down the hall. One of the scientists, Pierce, is alerted to the fact that the Cascade Volcano Research Team has requested an immediate airlift, and has failed to check in since sending the transmission. Pierce goes to the control room for the project and checks the video feed coming from a remote robot camera within Mount Avalon, where the research team is supposed to be.

The robot, called “Firewalker”, cannot be controlled, and is sitting in a single position where the temperature is more than 130 degrees. As they check the video and turn the camera, they see one of the research team, a man named Erikson, dead on the ground. Then a shadow moves across the image, where there should be no life. Before they can swivel the camera to see what’s causing the shadow, something destroys the camera.

Later that day, Pierce shows Mulder and Scully a videotape of a news report on the Firewalker Project. The project is meant to control the robot, which can take samples from deep within volcanic caves, withstanding incredible temperatures. The mastermind of the project, Daniel Trepkos, claims that the samples might unlock the secrets of Earth’s origin. Trepkos, in his statements, sounds a wee bit mad.

Everyone agrees that Trepkos has a brilliant reputation. Pierce explains about the distress signal, and then begins playing them a tape of the final video feed. Mulder is shocked when the shadow appears, and Scully agrees that it had to be something alive. Mulder wonders why Pierce wasn’t on-site at the time, and Pierce explains that he left the project when he and Trepkos had a serious argument six weeks earlier. Pierce is mostly concerned about the expensive equipment on-site, and keeping the situation under wraps.

Scully agrees that they should go investigate, which pleases Pierce. A plane is already waiting. Mulder, however, is concerned about Scully coming along, considering her recent experiences. Scully assures him that she’s ready to return to the work, despite Mulder’s worries.

The agents and Pierce arrive at the site by helicopter, deep within the Cascades. Immediately, it’s clear that the satellite dishes and transmission tower have been sabotaged. Pierce is dismayed, and decides he must do an immediate inventory of the equipment. Mulder and Scully are far more interested in the status of the research team.

Mulder and Scully split up when they find that the research facility is without power. It’s clear someone wanted the place to be unusable. As Mulder walks into one of the labs, a man with a climbing pick takes a swing at Mulder’s head. Mulder fights with the man, eventually subduing him as Scully runs in, gun drawn. The man quickly identifies himself as Jason Ludwig, the robotics engineer, and explains that he was trying to protect himself from Trepkos.

Ludwig takes them to a living area, and restores the power while explaining how Trepkos had been acting erratically in recent days. He tells the others that they can come out of hiding, and two other researchers emerge. One is an Asian man named Peter Tanaka, who appears to be ill. The other is Jesse O’Neil, a young woman who appears to be extremely agitated.

Jesse assumes immediately that the agents are there to rescue them. Ludwig explains that Trepkos killed Erikson. Jesse claims that Trepkos was manic-depressive when Scully asks what might have triggered Trepkos to begin acting strangely. Jesse also explains that she’s a graduate student, and that Trepkos brought her along for her thesis. She kept as many of Trepkos’ notes as she could recover, after he tried to destroy them. Mulder notes that one of the papers has the words “new life form”.

As Pierce continues his inventory, he hears someone in the woods around him. At the site, Mulder notes how everyone is acting a bit paranoid. Scully figures that it must be from the isolation and extreme situation. Mulder, however, knows that Ludwig lied when he said he attacked because he thought Mulder was Trepkos. They agree to find Pierce and see what he says about his colleagues. Meanwhile, without warning, Trepkos (his face burned black on one side) strangles Pierce with a wire, and then snaps the man’s neck.

The research team finds Pierce’s body, and after they secure it in a freezer, Scully suggests that they request evacuation. Mulder, however, wants to stay. He believes that Trepkos found evidence of a silicon-based life form. Scully disputes the possibility, explaining that all life on Earth is carbon-based. Mulder doesn’t think that Trepkos destroyed his notes; rather, he thinks that one of the others did, to hide the evidence. Scully, however, thinks that the team is simply suffering from severe post-traumatic stress, and that they need to be evacuated as soon as possible.

Shortly, Scully visits Jesse in her room. Jesse is clearly upset about something, and she explains to Scully that she really wants to leave. She found out that Trepkos stopped taking his medication. Apparently she was also sleeping with him, because he stopped coming to her as well. She only came because of him, and now she just wants to go home.

Meanwhile, Mulder listens to recovered tape recordings by Trepkos. Trepkos describes finding trace evidence of a new, or very old, form of life. He also describes his desire for the truth as dangerous, perhaps even destructive. It sounds as though Trepkos is going insane.

Suddenly, there is a tremor, and as Mulder comes to find out what’s happening, he notices that Tanaka looks extremely ill. Mulder suggests that Tanaka let Scully take a look at him, but Tanaka refuses. But then he collapses to the floor, so Mulder and Ludwig insist. Scully’s not sure what Tanaka is suffering from, so she insists that a Medevac team come to retrieve Tanaka. Mulder and Ludwig take Tanaka towards the landing site on a stretcher, while Scully tells O’Neil what’s happening.

As Mulder carries the stretcher, he notices something bulging the skin of Tanaka’s throat. As he and Ludwig bring Tanaka outside into the night, Tanaka rolls off the stretcher and runs into the woods. Mulder and Ludwig give chase, until Tanaka falls off the top of a small ravine. Mulder notices that Tanaka is writhing, and stops Ludwig from going down. Under the beam of Mulder’s flashlight, Tanaka’s neck suddenly explodes, ejecting a cloud of powder as a six-inch plant-like protrusion rips through the skin, killing the man.

Back at the station, Tanaka’s body is placed in isolation so Scully can study it. She determines that it’s a kind of fungus, developed from a spore that reached reproductive maturity. Sand was found in the lungs, the waste product of a supposed silicon-based organism. When Mulder mentions that Trepkos was right, the others are startled to discover that their leader knew what they were dealing with.

Scully wonders if Trepkos might have become infested with one of the spores himself, since fungi often contain chemicals that affect behavior. Worried that any of them, or all of them, could be infected, Scully suggests they remain on-site. Jesse is very upset by that, and walks out as Mulder informs Search and Rescue that the site is under quarantine due to possible unknown biological contagion.

Scully sends Ludwig to check on Jesse, and then attempts to speak with Mulder confidentially. As Ludwig listens, Mulder tells Scully that he intends to find Trepkos. He wants Scully to stay behind and figure out what they’re dealing with. Mulder encounters Ludwig and Jesse whispering to each other, and he asks Ludwig for maps to help him negotiate the area where the final Firewalker video was taken. When Mulder admits that he’s looking for Trepkos, Ludwig insists on being his guide.

Mulder reluctantly agrees, allowing Ludwig to take him into the caves. But before they can get very far, Ludwig is shot in the back with a flare. Trepkos steps into view, demanding that Mulder surrender his gun. Then, as Mulder watches, Trepkos douses Ludwig’s body with gasoline and sets him on fire. Mulder watches as something moves under the skin of Ludwig’s neck.

Meanwhile, Scully determines that when the spores are released as the fungus erupts from the throat, they can only survive for a very short period of time. She assumes that everyone is now cleared from possibility of infection, and tells Jesse this through her locked door. Unfortunately, inside the room, Jesse is watching as something pushes on the skin of her throat.

Trepkos takes Mulder to Firewalker, and mocks Mulder’s reasons for remaining at the site. Trepkos explains that after the first descent, Firewalker took a sample of something that looked like a rock. Trepkos told him to pulverize it for analysis, and Erikson breathed in the spores that were released. Trepkos was busy working on what was discovered when Erikson died from the emergence of the fungus. The rest of the team, however, was standing close enough to be infected themselves. Trepkos explains that the fungus is a kind of parasite, and has taken over the team so it can spread. He destroyed the equipment to keep any of the infected from leaving.

Realizing that Scully is in danger from Jesse, Mulder forces Trepkos to let him rush to her aid. Back at the site, Scully is still working on identifying the spore when the power goes out. She checks the breaker box, and finds Jesse waiting for her. Jesse attacks her, grabbing her handcuffs, cuffing them together. Only then does Scully see the bulge at Jesse’s neck. Scully struggles with Jesse, attempting to break the chain before Jesse’s throat erupts. Finally, she pushes Jesse into an isolation room, closing the door over the chain. Jesse’s throat explodes with the isolation room.

Mulder arrives, and Scully explains that she’s safe. Trepkos is close behind, and he looks on Jesse’s body with remorse. Mulder calls for evacuation for himself and Scully, knowing that Trepkos doesn’t want to return to civilization. Scully is shocked, but she follows Mulder’s lead. The two of them are placed in a month-long quarantine, and are found to be free of fungal contagion.

Military personnel scour the site of all information and specimens, and effectively shut down research on the Cascade volcanoes. Trepkos and Jesse are assumed dead, and their bodies are never found. Firewalker is recovered, but its data systems are completely destroyed. Mulder’s report is the only remaining record of the events that took place.


Analysis

This episode serves as a kind of coda to the X-Files shutdown/Scully abduction arc, indirectly referencing the aftereffects of the entire ordeal. Mulder and Scully are back together, but Scully has to have been back for only a few days, based on Mulder’s concern about bringing her back into the field. So this is literally the first case since her return, highlighting the fact that her well-being is nagging at the back of Mulder’s mind.

One immediate problem with that concept is the timing. Everything’s fine until the end of the episode, when Mulder’s journal reveals that the events took place beginning on November 11, 1994. This makes absolutely no sense. Considering that “3” took place sometime in November, and encompassed at least three days. That leaves no more than a week for Scully’s return, the events of “One Breath”, and Scully’s subsequent release from the hospital.

Now, there’s no question that the modern HMO does everything possible to get patients released as soon as they are conscious, but it defies all rational thought to accept that Scully would be back on the job within a week of mysteriously turning up at the hospital in a nearly-terminal coma. At the very least, she would be undergoing a full range of medical tests to evaluate her condition and attempt to pinpoint the trigger for her recovery. It’s likely that she would have been in the hospital for at least the rest of the year, if not longer.

Even if some degree of suspended disbelief is granted, and Scully’s return to work is considered reasonable, it’s still far too soon for her to be engaging in anything quite so strenuous as the situation in this episode. After all, her immune system was completely wiped out only a week earlier! If she is truly recovered to the point of being able to deal with this kind of activity so quickly, that ought to have raised some questions about the speed of her recovery.

The answer, of course, is that the implant in her neck has repaired the damage to her system. Why this is not discovered in the course of her medical care, one cannot say. There is a level of inconsistency with regards to the implants that boggles the mind. Yet, at the same time, there are subtle (if unintentional) clues to the nature and efficacy of the implant in episodes like “Firewalker”.

This episode, though, is really about Mulder. His concern for Scully is countered strongly by his obsession with finding the truth about the paranormal. More importantly, Mulder is faced with someone he can understand all too well. Trepkos is Mulder taken to the next logical step, a man so consumed by his obsessions that they ultimately destroy him and everyone around him.

Considering the lesson that Mulder was supposed to have learned in the previous episode, this is extremely timely. This is especially true in light of Mulder’s almost immediate regression into his usual single-minded pursuit of the unknown, undefined truth. It’s interesting to see him face a living example of what he might become, to hear Trepkos warn him about the pitfalls of pursuing the unknown without concern for the cost.

This is a point that is so utterly lost on Mulder in the ensuing seasons that it’s almost difficult to reconcile that it was emphasized so clearly during this early part of the second season. In a sense, this gives the entire second season the feeling of an unofficial (and perhaps unintentional) theme. If the first season was about Scully’s initial conversion to Mulder’s crusade, then the second season is all about the cost of that crusade. Mulder is more than willing to place everyone in jeopardy to follow Trepkos’ path to discovery, except for the fact that Scully’s recent experience keeps him somewhat grounded.

Beyond the exploration of Mulder’s character, there is nothing new happening in this episode. The plot is almost a complete retread of “Ice” and “Darkness Falls”, with only minor variations to keep things interesting. While it makes the episode more than a little predictable, since one can immediately tell that the entire research team is being affected by something unknown, it raises an interesting question.

One of the major points of the mythology is the idea that both human life and the alien “black oil” virus came to Earth via a meteor from Mars. The virus spread into the ecosystem, eventually settling within the medium of petroleum deposits. While this is a rather simplistic version of the story, which could and should have been fleshed out in more detail, it does raise the question of whether or not the virus, in perhaps some mutated form, spread into other mediums to other organisms.

Just from a logical perspective, if the Purity virus came to Earth at the same time as the beginnings of life on Earth, one wonders how the two organisms managed to remain separate and distinct. It’s true that Purity seems to have insinuated itself into the DNA of Earth’s biosphere, so that it could control and utilize life as necessary, but the basic premise of evolution would suggest that Purity would have eliminated any rival primitive life in favor of itself…as per it’s desire to homogenize life itself.

However, that interpretation of Purity’s arrival on Earth is confined largely to “The Truth”, and doesn’t quite make sense for several reasons. It makes far more sense for Purity to have arrived well after life on Earth emerged, dispersing throughout the biosphere in a non-sentient form as a result. Plant life would have been immediately affected. Much of that plant life would eventually become oil deposits, if Purity arrived early enough in Earth’s history, while other parts of the biosphere would have evolved differently.

The results are variations on a theme. The worms of “Ice” are clearly related to Purity, but ultimately work on a different vector. Similarly, the fungus of this episode retains some parasitic qualities, but only in the most rudimentary manner. Like the form of Purity encountered in Texas in “Fight the Future”, the fungus operates on the animal level until infection of the host is complete.

Regardless of whatever connections may or may not exist regarding Purity and the fungus of this episode, it’s clear that the producers were looking for something that would shock the audience with its graphic nature. This is a fairly memorable “creature”, though it’s telling that many remember the effect of the fungus but can’t place the episode. Perhaps that sums things up about as well as anything.


Memorable Quotes

MULDER: “We’re not exactly proper channels…”

MULDER: “No…there’s more than that…something they’re not telling us.”
SCULLY: “Based on what?”
MULDER: “Based on when Ludwig tried to play tee-ball with my head…”

TREPKOS: “That’s not why you’re here. You still believe you can petition heaven and get some penetrating answer. If you found that answer…what would you do with it?”


Observations

- Trepkos is played by the talented Bradley Whitford, who has been a character actor for many a year...and can be seen prominently on “The West Wing”...

- Scully looks so damn hot with the tousled hair and the glam-red lipstick!

- Nice foreshadowing with the containment chamber door...

- Am I the only one that thinks Jesse would be really cute if she wasn’t fungal and crazy?

- You’d think Scully would have noticed Tanaka’s hacking and Jesse’s twitching a little sooner...

- Once again, Scully’s hair shows it’s mutant properties by changing completely in the middle of a crisis!

- On the long shot of Tanaka just before the explosion, the fungus distends the skin of his neck severely...in the very next close profile, it still hasn’t begun to emerge...

- This is why I don’t like mushrooms!

- If Ludwig knows his way around the caves so well, why does he just seem to wander around aimlessly when he and Mulder finally arrive there?

- And why the heck would they wear several layers of clothing into a blistering hot volcanic cave?

- Since when does sulfur not hurt you when you breathe concentrated amounts of it?

- I always wondered if you could kill someone with a flare gun...at least you’d be able to find the body quickly...

- Why didn’t Mulder or Scully think to subject the others to a physical as soon as Tanaka died? I think a large, moving lump in the throat would show up pretty damn fast!

- The effects makeup on Jesse is a little too obvious in the low-lit shots...

- You’d think Scully would know if a hammer like that could break the chains of her handcuffs!

- If the door to the contamination chamber was loose enough to allow the chain of the handcuffs to close within the door, then there would have been more than enough room for the spores to expel right onto Scully when they exploded out of Jesse...

- Jesse moves around an awful lot after she’s dead!

- If Scully thought she lost too much time during her abduction, I bet that month-long quarantine really pissed her off...

- If the access points to the volcano are now sealed off by engineers, where are all those gases going to vent?

Overall, this episode was competent enough, but the idea of placing Mulder and Scully in a “bottle episode” in some remote location is beginning to feel repetitive. More than that, this episode doesn’t go far enough in addressing the aftereffects of Scully’s harrowing abduction experience and near-death.

I give it a 5/10.


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