Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by James Charleston
In which Scully is called in to investigate a series of mysterious deaths involving black men with no pigmentation, a case that sets off all of Mulder’s paranoia bells...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
The fourth season stands as one of the most coherent seasons of the entire series run, largely because of the direction provided by the future feature film (which dictated certain plot and character arcs) and the return of Morgan and Wong, the architects of the X-Files closure/Scully abduction arc earlier in the series. Even so, there are still some moments when the fractured logic of the third season creeps in, ignoring the larger scope in favor of mediocre storytelling.
This episode was apparently one of those examples of an idea sitting on a desk, or perhaps pinned for months to the corkboard in the writing staff workroom. Howard Gordon started with the idea of a mutant extracting melanin from victims, like a pigment-vampire, and went from there. Frankly, the idea should have stayed on the wall. Or, more correctly, it should have been tossed when it wasn’t deemed good enough in the third season.
The script was a constant struggle, according to Gordon, and it shows. There’s barely enough story to sustain an entire episode, and as a result, several other recycled elements are tossed into the mix. Eugene Tooms’ abilities to “squeeze” find themselves a new home, and some of the immigrant issues dredged up in “Hell Money” get a watered-down flavor.
Even Chris Carter had his issues with the story, demanding a full rewrite at least twice and adding his own copious notes. Character motivation was a huge issue, and as the episode plays, it still was by the end of the process. Mulder is particularly out of character in this episode, taking an adversarial stance without cause from the very beginning and making huge leaps in logic at the end.
It was Carter that suggested the overall concept of “deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate”, and the way the script hangs all over those words, the air is thick with desperation. It’s not enough that Gordon tries to give the story relevance by forcing Marita into the story, much as Deep Throat was shoehorned into “Ghost in the Machine”. Slapping some high-minded “concept” onto a story that really doesn’t call for it strains the credibility of the entire series. Why, for instance, does this episode demand a change in the opening title sequence?
The plot is incredibly simple. An apparent mutant, perhaps one of a very small albino tribe in Africa, needs to ingest the pituitary gland of other people to produce, temporarily, the melanin he needs to survive. He uses a specific type of plant seed to incapacitate said victims, and then uses a tool to crunch out the gland. And now, of course, he’s come to America, leaving a trail of dead bodies with a sudden lack of pigmentation.
Of course, what Gordon (and apparently the rest of the writing staff) never realized is that the basic plot makes no sense. The cause and effect don’t match. One could easily justify that the extraction of the pituitary gland provides Aboah with the hormones needed to regulate and produce his own melanin, even if it bruises suspension of disbelief. But extracting the pituitary gland (and thereby killing the victim) would not lead to an immediate loss of melanin throughout the body. The condition of the victims at death, then, doesn’t match the results of the investigation.
The episode starts off with relative promise, however, exploring a side of Scully’s character that is often ignored. Gordon reminded the audience that Mulder is a prodigy among profilers in “Grotesque”, enough so that Carter knew that he had a solid premise for a follow-up series. In this episode, Scully’s medical credentials are given similar treatment, or so it would seem. Scully doesn’t delve nearly as deeply as she could; some typical episodes have her engage in far more extensive medical research.
Things rapidly fall apart when Mulder casually walks in on Scully’s autopsy of one of the victims. Now, here’s where the premise and execution fall on very different paths. If Scully was brought in by the CDC to investigate a possible pathogen killing victims without a clear vector, there’s no way that the body would simply be sitting in a morgue for autopsy, for anyone to encounter. Scully would be suited up with every level of protection and the body would be behind several layers of airlocks. Instead, Mulder is able to walk in, snack on sunflower seeds, and immediately pronounce the dead man as a victim of conspiracy.
Indeed, Mulder seems to be gunning for everyone. Perhaps still musing over his family’s genetic muster, Mulder teases Pendrell about Scully’s social calendar. Dragging Pendrell into the story is a nice way to develop a character enough to later designate him as “cannon fodder”. It also serves to drop Mulder just enough information to allow him to make that gigantic leap of logic at the end of the episode.
As the episode marches on, Scully’s explanation for what happened to the victim continues to defy the overall logic presented by the episode. If Aboah is physically removing the pituitary glands of his victims, how could she possibly characterize those glands as “necrotized”? That implies that the gland was present but completely non-functional. Nor is it enough to explain how the victims could lose pigment in the space of a few hours.
Of all people, Mulder runs to Marita for answers. This is completely out of proportion to her previous appearance. The idea, one must assume, is that Mulder needed to get the story about the Teliko out of someone from Aboah’s homeland, and the only way to work that out within the story structure was to have the ambassador from Burkina Faso know who murdered the victims and why.
When it comes to the conspiracy, the concepts involved should ultimately serve “The Grand Purpose”. It should fit into the overall conspiracy, especially when key players like Mulder’s apparent informants are involved. This episode forces the idea of a conspiracy by a small African nation to cover up the apparent emigration of an “air spirit”. As secrets go, it’s not even close to the level of deception and obfuscation defined by the mythology episodes. To attach such massive importance to something so small and self-contained is transparent in its intended use.
The weaknesses of the plot and concept are so striking, even to Gordon and Carter, that details are added in an attempt to make things more substantial. As a result, Aboah gains the same ability to stuff himself into small spaces that Tooms enjoyed. Unfortunately, this is introduced into the episode in such a haphazard way that it feels as tacked on as it is. The fact that Mulder and Scully don’t even mention Tooms in relation to this situation is simply impossible to grasp.
Carter specifically added the detail of the “seed blower”, something that is truly bizarre and more than a little disturbing. There are those that actually find this to be a direct attack on homosexual black men, which is a creative way to criticize the episode, to say the least. The theory is that Aboah is representative of the gay black male, projecting his tainted “seed” through the phallic device of the blowgun/extractor, sucking out the “black” in the process of victimizing his young black male prey. It’s certainly creative, if nothing else; it also points out that the paranoid audience is able to develop a more interesting conspiracy in this instance than the writers.
With the plot in self-contradictory tatters, the final confrontation is brought about by a massive plot convenience: Mulder just happens to equate the asbestos fibers from his discussion with Pendrell with the remediation of asbestos at a random construction site. As leaps go, this is interstellar. The only satisfaction that comes out of this scene is the sight of Mulder drooling all over himself, leaving Scully to demonstrate her psychic ability.
Compared with much of the fourth season, this is a step in the wrong direction. An episode like “Teliko” might have met expectations in the first season (where it would have been passed over in favor of the Tooms episodes), but the fourth season was the series at its best. Even with 24 episodes to fill, the writers should have known that the episode wouldn’t work long before the process of pre-production forced them to make do with what they had. Thankfully, this episode is one of only a handful that falls short of the standard.
MULDER: “There’s a Michael Jackson joke in here somewhere, but I can’t quite find it…”
SCULLY: “Mulder, not everything is a labyrinth of dark conspiracy, and not everybody is plotting to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate!” (Boy, does she have a lot to learn…)
MULDER: “She’s not coming.”
PENDRELL: “Why not?”
MULDER: “She had a date. Breathe, Agent Pendrell, it’s with a dead man…”
SCULLY: “So you’re basing this theory on a folktale?”
MULDER: “It’s just another way of describing the same truth, right? I mean, all new truths begin as heresies and end as superstitions. We fear the unknown, so we reduce it to the terms that are most familiar to us, whether that’s a folktale, or a disease, or a conspiracy.”
Overall, this episode is a real disappointment. The writing is obviously a group effort, and the attempt failed spectacularly. The plot as a whole doesn’t quite come together in logical fashion, and the characters (especially Mulder) act in service of the plot, instead of the other way around. Add the several recycled elements and the over-inflated attempt to make comment on conspiracy, and the episode is a train wreck.
Final Rating: 4/10
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