Written by Valerie and Vivian Mayhew
Directed by Kim Manners
In which Mulder and Scully investigate a series of mysterious deaths at a cosmetic surgery hospital, and find evidence that points to some kind of ritual magic...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
Once again dipping into the errors of the third season, the rookie writing team for this episode made one of the most obvious blunders possible. Instead of writing an episode in which the agents are involved in solving the case, the entire staff managed to come together to “fix’ the episode so much that Mulder and Scully might as well not even be there. They resolve nothing; in fact, Mulder barely manages to trip over the cause of death.
This is another episode with a tortured history, coming on the heels of “Teliko”. The initial script was written by the Mayhews and effectively torn to shreds by the rest of the writing staff. Morgan and Wong made them start from scratch, and it shows in the lack of cohesion that plagues the episode. This point should not be lost or ignored by prospective writers: being assigned an episode without so much as a plot concept is never a good thing.
Unfortunately, that kind of process is all too common when it comes to episodic television, and it points out one of the reasons why that approach was a bad fit for the series. For that matter, the practice is not exactly smart for any series, but logic does not always enter the equation. When mapping out a season, dropping names into a slot in the schedule and telling them to write an episode, quite apart from what other writers are doing in their own slots, is a recipe for disaster.
Plot elements were tossed in as if the writing staff were contributing to a salad. Different writers contributed different aspects of the script, and like good little rookies, the Mayhews dumped all of it into the story in an attempt to make everyone happy. Of course, that was impossible; the writing staff was more than willing to challenge the censors for FOX, and when the episode is ultimately about black magic and bloody medical nightmares, the censors are going to take issue.
Chris Carter, in his infinite wisdom, fought the censors and attempted to provide the episode with a thematic hook. The last time he tried to save an episode, it resulted in tying a terrible episode to the mythology for no reason at all. This time, the episode doesn’t impact the mythology on a direct level, which is a very good thing. On the other hand, the writers explore a side of the mythology that actually begs explanation. And since the episode was written by committee, probably when the committee was very drunk, the connections are strained at best.
In short, the episode’s plot goes something like this: a man who wants to stay young forever poses as a cosmetic surgery doctor so that he can use the vain as victims in his rituals, which take place every 10 years. By killing victims whose birthdays coincide with dates on the old pagan calendar (as interpreted in the modern era), this man gains the ability to “change his face” and maintain his relative youth.
All well and good, but the process is incredibly complex and quite contradictory in some respects. The evil doctor never kills; he uses “black magic” to entrance other doctors into committing the murders. Not only that, but he manages to saturate the entire cosmetic surgery wing into a pagan symbol warehouse: pentagrams and pentacles abound. When someone comes along as a threat to his work, the evil doctor manages to “relocate” objects into the bodies of others, killing them from within.
On the other hand, there is the freaky nurse who practices “white magic”, attempting to counter the work of the evil doctor by lacing the surgical areas with protective symbols of her own. The writers swear up and down that the episode was carefully researched to ensure that there were clear distinctions made between the “white” and “black” rituals. Needless to say, when Wiccans and pagans alike blasted the writers for getting it seriously wrong, it was rather clear that there was a gap in understanding. Talking about the distinction doesn’t quite cover it.
The idea of “white” and “black” magic, however, plays very well into the overall spiritual aspect of the mythology. Even if the execution of the idea is not very strong, the forces of “light” and “darkness” have been pulling off more impressive feats throughout the course of the series. Dr. Franklyn doesn’t manage anything beyond the capabilities of more demonic figures shown in episodes like “All Souls”, and the angelic spirits are obviously manipulating events all the time. That the same battle might be waged on the human level, tapping into the same energy as the larger spiritual forces, is hardly a stretch.
Part of the episode’s allure, at least for some of the writers, had to be the “blood and guts” aspect. In a series where individuals under subtle mind control consistently do horrible things, this episode raises the bar. Seeing liposuction in action is bad enough; seeing it done very, very wrong is that much worse. After an episode like this, who would want to undergo cosmetic surgery?
Instantly, the agents come along with their own theories. Scully suggests that an addiction to sleeping and/or antacid pills might have been a contributing factor; Mulder jumps right up top of “demonic possession” and never lets go. In a sense, both are correct: the doctors being controlled are all addicted to antacid pills that make them vulnerable to Franklyn’s method of mind control. Discovering that truth, of course, is as far as the agents get to take it; the case itself is never resolved.
As if to indicate how far from perfect the episode is, there are mistakes everywhere. The art director makes sure that everything is based on pentagrams and pentacles, but when it comes to placing five marks on the floor for Mulder, the marks don’t quite line up right. Mulder take a leap to see the connection, but he misses the fact that everything in the hospital is designed around an obvious concept of “five”.
Along the way, there are attempts to comment on the cost of cosmetic surgery and the greed that drives the industry. It’s a forced moral at best, since the episode itself undermines the moral with the ultimate justification: the service fulfills a demand. If the public didn’t want the service, it wouldn’t exist. Consider that the money devoted to cosmetic surgical hospitals wouldn’t go to regular hospitals as suggested in the episode; it’s unlikely that the masses would simply send their money in that direction, when they can use that disposable income for something equally self-serving.
The writers at least manage to set the story straight about pentagrams in general; that point is, of course, undermined almost immediately when the culprit appear to be Nurse Waite, who ends up conducting rituals while naked and speaking odd words amongst her Yankee Candle collection. It’s not hard to recognize that the average “God-fearing” American is going to overlook the point about “white magic”. It also doesn’t help when Nurse Waite jumps out of a bathtub of blood in the home of Dr. Franklyn. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine where all the blood came from, and a naked woman covered in blood, trying to kill a man, seldom looks like the good witch!
All might have been forgiven if Waite stuck around long enough for her actions to be explained. This is the perfect moment to introduce an ability that strains credibility. Regardless of what Mulder says about it, it’s hard for most people to reconcile the idea of objects being “teleported” into someone’s body. Of course, from the standpoint of the mythology, this is quite possible. If super-soldiers have nanotechnology so advanced that a new body can be created out of “nothing”, then a person with advanced control over matter and energy could force objects to appear in someone’s intestines.
The identification of the “Greater Witches’ Sabbaths” seems to take some basic Wiccan lore and transform it into something a bit more arcane and sinister than it needs to be. For one thing, most of those “Sabbaths” are in fact historical festivals in so-called “pagan” cultures. If they have a significance within modern forms of paganism, it’s because of the fact that non-Christian religions in Western culture were appropriated. To casually connect them is a simplification of something far more complex, suggesting that “white” and “black” concepts of paganism would all subscribe to the same calendar.
In fact, there is a reason why this would be the case. If the mythology advocates the idea of nature being a complete, interactive organism, then certain basic concepts of astrology within paganism would be valid. It wouldn’t be a matter of “good” or “bad”; it would be a matter of how “close” spiritual influences are to the material world at a given time, based on natural cycles. The suggestion would be that these points in time have significance because the energies in play at that time would become a part of those born on such days, representing a “power source” for Franklyn to utilize.
Even after Mulder and Scully figure out what Franklyn is up to, they don’t do much with the information. Sure, they seem to be trying to use Dr. Shannon once it’s revealed that she is the last victim to be sacrificed, but to what end? To prevent Franklyn from taking on his next identity? Wouldn’t that be better accomplished by saving Dr. Shannon? The logic falls apart completely at the end of the episode because Mulder never explains why Dr. Shannon shouldn’t be saved. The suggestion is that Franklyn will get one of the doctors to do her in, but why bother? And never mind the idea of Scully bursting into an operating room with absolutely no concern for the patient, or Mulder completely mispronouncing the word Samhain!
If the agents can’t solve the case and end the killings, then the episode should reveal something of importance to them. In this situation, Mulder and Scully should have come to some understanding about the existence of something akin to “magic”, a connection between the material and spiritual that allows for some rather bizarre abilities. Rituals like the ones depicted in this episode are more about focusing and directing energies that already exist and are readily available. If a demonic force can cause someone to burn from the inside out, someone channeling the same energies can relocate objects at will.
However, Mulder and Scully learn nothing from this case, considering that they have nothing at stake. Throughout the episode, Mulder ponders over the idea of a nose job, ogling the pretty nurses who have likely undergone surgery themselves, as if the murders are an interruption to his real goal of self-improvement.. Scully might as well not even be present, since her scientific objections quickly disappear in the face of a completely non-scientific situation.
By taking the main characters and rendering them apart from the resolution of the episode, the entire effort seems more like an episode of “The Outer Limits”, and a mediocre one at that. Mulder and Scully don’t bring anything personal to the story, unlike much better episodes like “Unruhe” or “Home”. This episode demonstrates very clearly why writing by committee is usually a very bad idea.
MULDER: “I’m not a doctor, Scully, but you’ve got to be pushing pretty hard to mistake a beer belly for a bald head…”
MULDER: “Are you aware that Dr. Lloyd is claiming he was possessed during the incident?”
NURSE WAITE: “I guess it’s cheaper than malpractice insurance…”
MULDER: “Probable cause?” (Well, no, but since when does that matter?)
Overall, this episode is another example of the sins of “writing by committee”. Mulder and Scully might as well not even be involved in the plot, since there is nothing that speaks to them personally and they are not involved in the resolution. Add some serious mistakes in the depiction of modern paganism and gratuitous blood and gore, and this is a rather forgettable episode.
Final Rating: 3/10
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