Written by Howard Gordon and David Greenwalt
Directed by Jim Charleston
In which Mulder and Scully investigate the unusual and seemingly foretold death of a scientist, only to find that the old man connected to the case might be from the future...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
Time travel episodes are, as a rule, a messy proposition. On the one hand, they are an easy way to take the status quo and introduce major changes without long-term consequences, since time travel can lead to an “alternate universe”. Just as often, however, writers find it hard to make the time travel concept work within a scientific basis, and when they can, the resulting dump of exposition is almost impossible to deal with. Shows like “Buffy” can make it work, more or less, but as the Trek franchise has aptly demonstrated, time travel can be a blessing and a curse in the exact same moment.
This particular problem was at the center of the plagued writing snafu that became “Synchrony”. The trials and tribulations surrounding this episode have become something of legend. As the story goes, Howard Gordon (already reeling from a number of lackluster and poorly conceived episodes, even from his point of view) had no idea what to do with his next assigned episode. Chris Carter, perhaps already aware of the issues in the writing staff, pulled David Greenwalt into the mess to help Gordon brainstorm an idea. Several meetings later, they still had no clue what to do.
Gordon read a science article on developing quantum theories of time travel, and from there, the course was set. Unfortunately, quantum physics is a subject that even quantum physicists have difficulty understanding, so taking those concepts and developing them into a one-hour drama had some inherent problems. Considering that Gordon has a reputation for having good ideas but limited ability to translate them into a workable story, it’s not surprising that the script was still being worked over by the entire writing staff, even as the episode was shooting.
Oddly enough, the episode still manages to hang together well enough to make a certain amount of sense, even if the main concept is glossed over in a major way. The episode is also rather important when taken in context with the rest of the mythology, since it is this episode that essentially lends credence to the idea of Purity coming from a point in humanity’s near future. The episode itself speaks to what is best termed a “possible future”, rather than something set in stone. Nichols came back in time and changed how events would play out, but the result is rather clear: his research would be carried on by Lisa and applied in a different context.
The episode doesn’t get into the topic very far, but the Nichols compound (essentially a catalyst for instant cooling) was supposed to be mated with advances in wormhole theory to create “time travel” technology. Of course, this is something of an extreme application of such technology. The same advances would first result in a more mundane example of overcoming the natural boundaries of space-time: faster than light (FTL) travel.
What marks the difference between the conspiracy prior to the end of the series and the period of 2002 through 2012 is the level of available technology. During the time period of the series, experiments in FTL travel are still ongoing. The downside, as seen in episodes like “Deep Throat”, “Max”, and “Dreamland”, is the lack of control over the energy unleashed by manipulation of space-time. There are radiation effects (something apparently unavoidable) and, once those are dealt with, fluctuations in the containment of “warped space-time”, causing unusual properties to emerge in natural matter.
The Nichols compound, as seen in this episode, causes something of a runaway reaction. When active, it cools to the point of rapid cellular cryogenics: people are frozen solid. But when the compound is broken down, it causes rapid and uncontrolled increase in temperature. How a compound could exhibit such properties is problematic at best (especially something so simple as the molecule shown on screen), but the logical conclusion is that a refined version of the compound could be developed to operate within a more useful temperature range.
In the future that Nichols is trying to avoid, the compound is never fully refined, and the use with FTL technology (which, by the physics of space-time, is the same tech that would ultimately allow time travel by wormhole) is limited. Humans inject the compound initially so that they are shielded from the effects of FTL travel, and then must continually dose themselves to avoid the rapid heating that comes as the compound breaks down. Hardly what one would call practical, but apparently good enough for humanity to use regularly, since they have nifty little injectors to carry their lifetime supply.
One would think that Lisa would remember what happened and why, and would therefore take the research into another direction. If the Nichols compound results in rapid, non-destructive cooling of organic matter, then wouldn’t it also be useful as a general coolant, under the right circumstances? The logical conclusion would be that the FTL drives in the UFO vessels used by the conspiracy and the Rebels from 2002 – 2012 would have utilized that technology.
It’s also not a stretch to consider that a larger craft, like the large vessel seen in “Fight the Future”, would need much more of the Nichols compound to operate. The “mothership” was under the ice in Antarctica for hundreds of thousands of years, and there’s no reason to think that the Nichols compound would have broken down under conditions that would keep it at a fairly constant and low temperature. (The necessary stability of the compound, required for something that would have to withstand enormous heat and radiation effects, would suggest a long shelf life.)
As seen in many episodes, the biological activity of the Purity virus is proportional to temperature. Cold temperatures inhibit the progress of the virus. The Nichols compound used to control the FTL drive on the “mothership” would be a natural cryogenic agent for storing those exposed to Purity and “stored” in the remains of the vessel, as seen in “Fight the Future”. This also provides an explanation for Scully’s apparent death and survival; the initial warming would have broken down the compound, and the resulting heat generated would have killed her, except for the fact that she was exposed to the subzero temperatures of Antarctica. The temperatures would have balanced out long enough for the healing technology of her control chip to kick in, thus flushing out her system as though the Nichols compound had never been there.
Having a possible impact on the mythology, however unintentional or speculative that impact might be, doesn’t entirely excuse the weaknesses of the story as a whole. The elder Nichols’ medical use of the compound is never explained, even though it is critical to understanding the final act. For that matter, it’s never made clear how a person uses the time travel technology, only that it’s possible. It’s also rather annoying that the timing and context of Scully’s thesis on relativistic and quantum physics is never addressed; the title doesn’t cover nearly as much ground as the supposed content would suggest.
It’s also interesting that this episode represents one of those moments when Chris Carter let his natural instincts fail him. Like the prospect of a true Mulder/Scully romance, Carter wanted to avoid a story on time travel, citing the difficulties in making it work. And like the Mulder/Scully romance, Carter would have done well to keep avoiding it (at least until someone could do it correctly). The episode is often saved by the incredulous wit of the two agents, as they try to maintain something of a straight face while dealing with a plot that doesn’t seem to come together (perhaps ironically, demonstrating how the two characters best show their affection for one another).
Another example of a major flaw is the depiction of how quickly a person’s temperature rises when the Nichols compound begins to break down. When Dr. Yonechi was revived, it took seconds for his temperature to rise from 106 to hot enough to blister skin from the inside to combustion. That’s a rather large range to cover in seconds, which suggests a massive escalation in heat rate. When Lisa was being revived, however, it took a long time after her temperature hit 106 for her to be placed in the bath, more than the time it took for Yonechi to combust.
For all that, there is an interesting moral to the story (it wouldn’t be a Gordon episode without one). The elder Nichols explains that time travel must be avoided because time travel has allowed humanity to know everything about its past. It’s hard to see how that would be a terrible thing, but it would actually be very damaging. Society rests on the foundation of convenient tradition, and part of that tradition is a version of history that reinforces those traditions. American society requires a certain mythical view of the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. Time travel, as Nichols describes it, would shatter these myths, and the world would be faced with the truth about its heroes and human nature.
But there’s also the small issue of practicality. In the timeline of the mythology, time travel is limited, because it takes certain technology and a desire to alter and control events to make it worth the effort. Subtle changes require very minor incursions throughout the timeline, almost like surgical strikes to history. There’s the natural urge of competing powers (the conspiracy against the “Rebels”, in this case) to counterstrike, and thus something of a “cold war” scenario erupts. It’s more about the possibility of massive changes to the timeline, not the actual tweaking of events. That makes the application that the elder Nichols mentions far less likely.
When all is said and done, this isn’t the worst episode of the series, or even the worst episode of the season. It’s simply sloppy, and as a result, it represents the unfortunate waste of a concept that could have been put to better use. Instead, it was another underwhelming episode for Howard Gordon, who openly admits that this was a disaster of a script-writing process. Taken from that perspective, it’s actually impressive that the final product was more coherent than some of the more polished episodes that come to mind!
MULDER: “He goes on to tell a pretty convincing narrative and to give a rather detailed description of the old man.”
SCULLY: “What was he wearing…a long black robe and carrying a scythe?”
MULDER: “Well, not when campus security picked him up…”
MULDER: “The security officer who’s now in the morgue has a body temperature a little south of Frosty the Snowman.”
SCULLY: “If he’d lie for you, what makes you think he wouldn’t lie to you?”
SCULLY: “And if you sister is your aunt and your mother marries your uncle, you’d be your own grandpa.”
Overall, this episode is something of a mess. Critical plot points are completely missing, leaving only enough dialogue to speak to their absence. While the implications of time travel in this episode are interesting, it’s hard to see how this method is as practical as suggested. Episodes like this are the reason for Gordon’s decidedly mixed reputation as a writer, since once again, a big idea doesn’t translate very well on the page.
Final Rating: 5/10
Back to Season 4
Back to Reviews