Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Kim Manners
In which Mulder and Scully learn that Max Fenig has been killed in a mysterious plane crash and labor to uncover the truth behind the incident, even as the conspiracy seeks to hide it...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
With the feature film script more or less nailed down by the time “Momento Mori” was filmed, Chris Carter and the writing staff was in an odd situation. There were still about 30 episodes left before the events of the film, with at least 10 mythology episodes among them. But the mythology was effectively at a point where the film was the next logical step in the story, following Scully’s bout with cancer and Mulder’s crisis of personal faith. With that struggle coming at the end of the season, what else was there to expound upon?
The answer was actually quite simple. The first season had provided a strong foundation for the mythology without intending to do so. The concepts of conspiracy and paranoia were laid down in episodes like “Fallen Angel” and “E.B.E.”, classics that defined how tangled the lies could become in a world where perception is constantly questioned. Those episodes defined Mulder and Scully as heroes of the paranormal fringe underground, the voice of a collective people victimized by apparent aliens and the government that hid their existence.
This becomes one of the rare two-part episodes to deal with something outside the normal confines of the mythology. Instead of being front and center, the mythology lurks in the background, giving context to the events that play out on a more personal level. When dealing with the epic questions of the mythology, Mulder and Scully’s errors in judgment seem hard to grasp. In this story, they are revealed as flawed individuals, prone to basic mistakes when things begin to spiral out of control and conception.
At the heart of the story is the character of Max Fenig. Max was a one-off character in the first season, embodying the kind of person that Mulder might have become without the right fosterage. It’s easy to say that Mulder’s career was on track long before he became obsessed with the paranormal, but it ignores the fact that Mulder was always haunted by Samantha’s abduction. He simply didn’t have a way to channel that obsession into anything other than his work, which until Cancer Man stepped in revolved around hunting down serial killers like the kind that could have abducted Samantha.
Once Mulder recovered his memories of the abduction, his path could have easily led to the same kind of doomed plane ride that Max takes in the beginning of “Tempus Fugit”. At the end of the second part of the story, “Max”, Mulder ends up on a similar flight under similar circumstances. That’s quite intentional. Mulder and Max have both been used by the conspiracy, and both are threatened when they come too close to the truth.
The tragedy of Max Fenig’s final moments stands at the center of the story, and that mystery unfolds rather slowly over the course of the two-part arc. Stripped of most of the Byzantine misdirection of the mythology, Carter and Spotnitz turn in some of their finest work. Sure, there are some logical errors, and there’s a penchant to escalate situations to the point of absurdity, but thematically this is a very strong tale with some subtle commentary on Mulder.
The beginning of the episode takes the deepening relationship between Mulder and Scully another step forward. Mulder has clearly taken it upon himself to treat Scully better than he has in the past, perhaps all too aware that he can no longer take her for granted. In a rare depiction of the agents out of the office on an apparently slow day, Mulder revels in the chance to celebrate Scully’s birthday. There’s the impression that Scully has a great deal of personal support from other agents, who likely see her dedication to duty as inspiring. This is a far cry from the usual depiction of the two agents, who have become all too familiar with professional isolation.
They are contacted by a woman claiming to be Max’s sister, and sure enough, within a few hours, Mulder is making himself look like a fool in front of a room full of NTSB investigators. One can see Mulder’s credibility collapse by noting Scully’s expression; she knows the exact moment that Mulder becomes a joke. Millar, the lead investigator, chides Mulder on his lack of respect for the victims, and when the crash site is finally revealed, it’s hard for the audience to disagree.
Before Mulder’s claims can become too offensive, the writers make it very clear that the crash was not an accident. The conspiracy has been accused of spending the lives of thousands for their unknown purpose, but this episode brings that concept home in a rather unsettling way. As Mulder puts it, someone could have intentionally brought down the plane, killing everyone on board, simply to eliminate one man who was a threat to long-term goals. It’s hard for people to relate to victims of supposed alien abduction, but it’s all too easy to imagine a plane crash.
The writers also toss in the same nine-minute of missing time that Mulder and Scully experienced in the very first episode, which places the events in context of the larger mythology. In “Pilot”, it was suggested that the abductions were taking place as part of the overall conspiracy, and as other episodes would later confirm, the “missing time” is an effect that takes place due to the space-time displacement caused by the engines of conspiracy UFOs. However, in this case, it is noted that other groups with “UFO” technology fall into the same category.
This confirms Mulder’s suspicions, but also leaves him with a misconception. It’s easy for Mulder to assume from this and other evidence that the conspiracy is relatively simple: governments hiding the existence of alien incursions while using recovered technology to advance their own power agenda. The truth is far more complex, of course, but at the level at which Mulder operates, that’s the easiest way for him to reconcile the evidence.
It doesn’t take long for the writers to introduce some scripting oddities. It’s quite clear that the plane crash effects and location were expensive, and for the most part, it was worth the money. But that forced some simplifications in the storytelling. For some odd reason, the writers have Rebhun, the men sitting next to Max, survive the plane crash, only to die off screen. Even worse, the explanation for Rebhun’s death, a key clue to the mystery, doesn’t make sense.
Rebhun wasn’t exhibiting any burns from radiation in the teaser, yet he was the only passenger to exhibit those symptoms. If an encounter with a UFO was the cause of Rebhun’s condition, as Mulder suggests, then other passengers around the emergency door would have had similar cellular damage. Scully theorizes that Rebhun was affected by whatever Max was carrying, but if that were true, then the effects should have been obvious long before the crash. Nothing explains how Rebhun could go from perfectly healthy in the moments before the crash to terribly burned by radiation only hours later. None of the evidence connects.
As the investigation continues, so does the casual brutality of the conspiracy. Oddly, this brutality is selectively applied. The conspiracy seems to consider Mulder and Scully enough of a threat to ensure that certain key witnesses are coerced or eliminated, and yet, two very important people are left untouched. It should have been easy for the conspiracy to find Sharon, knowing Max from Mulder’s initial comments, yet she is left to her own devices. Equally puzzling, Millar is bothered more by his personal feelings about the crash than the threat of any reprisal. If the conspiracy was worried about the truth getting out, why not eliminate Sharon and take control of Millar from the beginning?
Because of the methods of the conspiracy, Mulder is able to piece the puzzle together. Millar knows that the plane was not shot down, but that something pulled open the emergency door in a manner that should be impossible. Frish was under the impression that a military fighter shot down the plane. Mulder can only come to one conclusion based on the evidence. At that level, at least, the writers do a fine job of breaking the scenario into logical pieces.
The ensuing chase scene is actually rather silly, and it takes an enormous amount of time to play out. It’s not clear how the conspiracy became aware of Frish’s location. If someone was still working on the inside within the NTSB team, then they should have known that Millar was becoming a threat as well. If not, then they shouldn’t have been able to intercept the agents and Frish so easily.
Beyond that, Mulder doesn’t use his head while being chased down the runway. He’s rushing down across and down runways in the middle of the rain, with red and white lights on the sides of the landing strips. In other words, the contrast is more than enough that Mulder could cut his lights, effectively disappear from view, and still navigate using the surrounding lights. This is especially true once the plane comes overhead and blinds the drivers in the pursuing cars!
This exercise does keep Mulder and Scully far away from the crash site, however, which allows Millar to have a sighting. The sighting itself provides a key piece of information. The design of the UFO is the usual triangular shape, but it doesn’t have the smooth surfaces of the conspiracy’s design. Instead, it has the shape later associated with the Rebel UFOs. This makes perfect sense when taken in context with the information revealed in “Max”.
As that episode would reveal, the abductions of Max and Sharon were related to stolen technology that they had taken from the conspiracy. The conspiracy had recovered that technology from wreckage of previous Rebel UFO crashes, and evidently, the Rebels wanted to take the technology back before the conspiracy could reverse-engineer it. As “Dreamland” later confirmed, the conspiracy was still working out the details of practical propulsion. The Rebels, coming from a future time, would have identified the optimal time and place to recover the technology.
Sharon was taken for that reason, and it seems that the Rebels were looking for the piece lost when the original UFO was destroyed mid-flight. That’s why she was there for Millar to find. The UFO ignored Millar because he wasn’t one of the three people known to be in possession of the power source components.
In the grand tradition of two-part stories, Mulder and Scully find themselves separated as Mulder runs off to find evidence of alien involvement in the current crisis. It doesn’t take long for Mulder to track down the likely crash site for the downed Rebel UFO, and with his usual penchant for self-preservation, he elects to dive solo in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, the writers dump Scully into a truly horrible plot device. She’s smart enough to know that Frish needs to be hidden. Locking him in someone’s office is the right move. Taking him out to the local bar is not. There’s no logical reason for Scully to take Frish out into the public, especially a place where government employees frequent and anyone could be a card-carrying member of the conspiracy.
Of course, if she doesn’t take Frish there, then she can’t run into a drunk Pendrell, and he can’t become the latest unexpected victim of the agents’ struggle to uncover the truth. What makes the situation even more ludicrous is the astonishingly stupid decision by the conspiracy to shoot Frish dead in the middle of a crowded bar filled with off-duty agents! But then, Pendrell couldn’t become a victim as easily, so the conspiracy has to become asinine to make sure that happens.
The episode ends on the requisite cliffhanger, with Mulder finding UFO wreckage at the bottom of the ocean, complete with a little “grey” alien body. This is something of a complication, but it fits within the mythology easily enough. The Rebels utilize the “bounty hunter” clones on their UFOs, and as seen in “The Unnatural”, the shape-shifting clones ultimately have the “grey alien” physiology in common. While the cloned “hunters” usually look like Brain Thompson, that could have more to do with the fanatical beliefs of the Rebels than their actual appearance.
Even while veering into illogical territory and aspects of the mythology, the story remains grounded within the mystery of Max Fenig’s death. That very human story is at the heart of the tale, and it’s rather clear that Mulder is driven to understand and validate the experiences of a man that could have been, in another life, himself. At times, it feels like the writers couldn’t decide whether to leave the story at the personal level or expand it onto a larger canvas. Perhaps they felt that the audience was expecting something more epic, and tried to fit into the mold they created for the sweeps two-parters since the second season.
Whatever the case, this episode (and the story itself) ends up feeling at odds with itself. It’s quite possible that this story could have been condensed into a single episode. Such a choice would have forced faster pacing, something that the episode could have used. It also would have forced the writers to cut out some of the padding, like the unnecessarily long car chase. This is also taken in context with “Momento Mori”, the kind of story that could have used two episodes to unfold. Even so, the episode is an interesting look into the effects of the conspiracy on a smaller scale, something that would become more and more rare as the series marched on.
MULDER: “It’s just something that reminded me of you.”
SCULLY: “What, an alien implant?”
MULDER: “Two, actually. I made them into earrings…”
MULDER: “I think we all share the same goal here, sir, and that’s to find out what caused that plane to crash.”
MILLAR: “And if any of the capable men and women find Doctor Spock’s phaser or some green alien goo, we’ll be sure to give you all the credit.”
SCULLY: “You sure know how to make a girl feel special on her birthday…”
MULDER: “Claimed steadfastly, ignorance becomes as acceptable as the truth.”
BRUCE: “Have you worked at this depth before?”
MULDER: “Not exactly.”
BRUCE: “What exactly is your experience?”
MULDER: “Once, I got a quarter off the deep end at the ‘Y’ pool…”
Overall, this episode is an interesting throwback to the first season, when the conspiracy was less defined. There’s a deliberate parallel being drawn between Max and Mulder, and that dynamic stands at the heart of the episode. Unfortunately, the writers sometimes force the story into unnecessary directions, especially in the final scene with Scully and Pendrell. Even so, this is a unique mythology event, dealing more with the personal cost of the conspiracy than the epic scale of it.
Final Rating: 7/10
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