Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"Unrequited"

The X-Files - Season Four
Airdate: February 23, 1997
David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson
Created by Chris Carter
Teleplay by Howard Gordon & Chris Carter
Story by Howard Gordon
Directed by Michael Lange

Yesterday we talked about how changes in scheduling meant that there has been no follow-up to everything Scully went through in "Memento Mori". There was no scheduling change with this episode. However, if you pay close attention to the captions at the beginning of each episode, you'll notice that this episode took place before "Memento Mori". I don't pay close attention to those captions, but fortunately, Rob Shearman did, and he helpfully mentioned it in "Wanting to Believe", the unofficial guide to the series that I use as a reference.

On the one hand, that's a pretty good explanation for there to be nothing in this episode about Scully's cancer. She doesn't know she has cancer yet, because "Leonard Betts" hasn't even happened yet. On the other hand, this explanation completely misses the point. We know she has cancer, and we're expecting that to have some real consequences. Slipping in an out-of-continuity episode is a fig leaf which allows the producers to convince themselves that they haven't utterly dropped the ball by introducing a major story element they weren't prepared to deal with. But it doesn't alter the fact that this is precisely what they have. At best, it looks careless and sloppy. At worst, it shows real contempt for both the characters and the audience.

That having been said, I actually quite like this episode, but it is by no means without its problems. But I'll come to that in a minute. This episode has a neat hook, a good villain with a somewhat sympathetic agenda, it has interesting themes relating to the national disgrace which was the Vietnam War. Best of all, these things are all related. The villain is Nathaniel Teager, a Vietnam veteran who was abandoned by the government. He was officially listed as dead, but this was part of a cover-up to conceal the fact that the government knew he was being held as a POW. Rescued by a right-wing militia style organization called The Right Hand in 1995, he's after revenge against the generals who abandoned him and other POWs who have never come home. The hook is that he can become functionally invisible, a trick Mulder speculates he may have learned from his Vietcong captors. I'm very happy with all of that, and pretty happy with this episode over all.

But take a look at the structure. The teaser is in effect a flash-forward. When we get into Act One, we backtrack considerably, and it takes most of the rest of the episode to get us back to where we started. I was reminded of "What Kind of Day Has It Been", the Season One finale of "The West Wing", which opens with an assassination attempt, backtracks, and then gradually brings us back to the same point. But in "The West Wing", when we get back again to where we started, everything we see has taken on new layers of meaning thanks to everything that happened in between. That's not what happens here. This just takes a gripping scene from the climax and presses it into double-duty as the teaser. It's a cheap, pointless stunt, and it looks lazy.

But even worse, the teaser establishes the idea of invisibility very well. We see Teager fade away from before Mulder's eyes. But then we back up once Act One begins, and we have to watch Mulder and Scully slowly work out what we already know. This was avoidable. The teaser is tense and compelling even without explicitly establishing the Teager's invisibility. Tracking someone through a crowd of people is not easy at the best of times. That way, we wouldn't spend most of the episode waiting for the story to catch up with us. When we finally get back to where we started, the image of Teager vanishing before Mulder's eyes could have been added, confirming what were up until that point only suspicions. I'm not a writer, but I think that would have worked better.

There's one last point I wish to make. The script establishes that the people Teager is killing are the same people who could be compelled by subpoena to bust open the cover-up, and it is suggested that someone in the government, perhaps in the military, wants Teager to succeed, and that the FBI were only assigned to the case because they couldn't possibly stop Teager anyway. That's a neat idea, to be sure. It suggests that someone in a position of power knows about Teager's invisibility and is in fact relying on it. The problem is that Mulder was put on the case. If you want the FBI to make every effort to stop an assassin, but ultimately to fail because the assassin has the unexplained ability to become invisible, Mulder is literally the last person you'd want on the case.

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