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The X Files: Teso dos Bichos (1996)
Personally, if someone digs me up in 1000 years, I hope there's a curse on them, too
When people think of the worst episodes of The X-Files, it's pretty much a given that this is going to be listed among them. Episodes that sideline Mulder and Scully to talking heads automatically tend to be thin in substance; this was largely where "Space" failed back in season one. To that episode's defense, it aired very early in the series's run, and despite being poorly executed, it tossed around some relatively unique ideas. This episode fails because it's just crap.
And even then the premise could have worked, had it been approached from a comedic angle. Having aired amidst Darin Morgan's trinity of episodes, which were all quite hilarious in their own regard, it's quite surprising the writers opted not to do this. Instead the case is approached with the same level of seriousness as any standard monster-of-the-week, which is unfortunate because the case itself is utterly silly.
War of the Coprophages, which aired several months earlier, was also founded on a ridiculous premise, but succeeded as a send-up of classic sci-fi and also a self-parody of the series. There is no such attempt at cleverness in Teso dos Bichos. An artifact is stolen, a curse is invoked by means of some hallucinogenic concoction, employees at a museum die under mysterious circumstances, and the culprit leaves behind a trail of dead rats. The script initially sets us up to believe we're dealing with a p'd-off jaguar or some relative of the animal kingdom. Wrong.
Instead we're treated to a legion of housecats with sticks up their arses. Perhaps the writers were treated to some of Dr. Bilac's yaje in pre-production. Either way the result is an episode that should never have made it onto the screen, especially at such a peak era of quality in the series. Even episodes from the much-derided final seasons don't quite sink to this level of garbage. 3/10.
Lost: Pilot: Part 1 (2004)
"There's a certain gargantuan quality about this thing... "
If we've learned anything about islands in historical fiction, it's that they're a hoarded wealth of intrigue, danger, suspense, spirituality and sensuality. From the economically-concerned survivalism of Robinson Crusoe to the web of love and retribution in Shakespeare's The Tempest, they are one of the commonest but most captivating plot devices. They are apart from civilized society. They are home to exotic fauna and foliage. Not all of that fauna and foliage is happy to have visitors. Murder and crime are more easily accomplished without the constraints of civilized society. I think you can connect the dots.
Lost is the brainchild of J.J. Abrams, who created the espionage thriller Alias and college drama Felicity before that. Based on his resume we can already predict character development and long-term plot arcs will be the standard. Add in that this two-part pilot was the most expensive ever produced for ABC (resulting in the truly ironic firing of former chairman Lloyd Braun, who had greenlighted the project in the face of dwindling network ratings), reportedly costing anywhere between $10 and $14 million. That this show was even given a second thought speaks volumes about the amount of faith the network put into it, as it easily could have been a colossal disaster.
Fortunately that faith was well-invested, because not only is the premiere of Lost viscerally and sensorially astounding, but it's also compelling, chronicling the plane crash and miraculous survival of 48 passengers (with fourteen being regular cast members). As if in real life, the individuals remain innominate until the situation demands their introduction.
We meet Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox, Party of Five), a spinal surgeon from Los Angeles who gets dropped in the middle of a serious crisis, risking himself to save the lives of others wounded in the crash. A more enigmatic but equally important character is Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly), who despite being out of her element is driven by a strong will and versatility. The scene where an anxious Kate stitches up Jack's wound is one of the most iconic of the series' run.
Few of the other characters are given little more than a fugitive introduction. There's the washed-up rock star Charlie Pace (Dominic Monhagan, The Lord of the Rings), whose shadowed eyes belie his comic disposition. There's a very pregnant woman named Claire Littleton (Emilie de Ravin, The Hills Have Eyes), who seems oddly cheery in spite of all the turmoil. There's an older man played by Terry O'Quinn (Millennium, The X-Files) who seems to be of importance but has little to do in this episode. More curious is an Asian couple (Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim) alienated not only by their lack of English but also antiquated gender roles. A Middle Eastern man named Sayid (Naveen Andrews, The English Patient), a foul-mouthed redneck (Josh Holloway), and a larger-than-life guy you just want to hug (Jorge Garcia) all beg stories to be told, while a pair of bickering siblings, the unnerved Boone (Ian Somerhalder, The Vampire Diaries) and the comparatively bitchy Shannon (Maggie Grace, Taken) are decidedly less inspiring. Rounding out the cast are the overprotective father Michael (Harold Perrineau, The Matrix trilogy) and son Walt (Malcolm David Kelley), and a soundless but sharp woman (L. Scott Caldwell) who Jack brings from the cusp of death.
It's awfully odd that all of these survivors would be so cushioned in the fall so as not to wind up with more than mere flesh wounds, but odder still are the grotesque noises heard in the jungle at night. From the get-go it is clear that there is something not quite right with the island, and while ABC's decision to split the pilot into two halves may not do its story total justice, it certainly serves as an engaging doorway into a storyline bound to be riddled with mysteries. A more comprehensive outline of the plot will follow in my review of Part 2.
The X Files: Pilot (1993)
No one here but the FBI's most unwanted...
"The following story is inspired by actual documented accounts," reads a title card as the debut episode of The X-Files begins. I always find this tidbit interesting because never again to my recollection did the show try to pass itself off as true-to-life. But that is just one thing that sets the pilot episode ever so slightly apart from the remainder of the nine seasons that would follow it.
The X-Files is a show I treasured and revered in my childhood, and even though (especially in retrospect), the series was never the most consistent, either narratively or qualitatively, the level of detail and depth that went into the characterization of its two protagonists was - and arguably still is - unrivaled. David Duchovny (Twin Peaks, Kalifornia) played FBI pariah Fox "Spooky" Mulder for the show's first seven seasons, returning as a recurring character in the final two. His deadpan manner and inclination toward the bizarre rendered him an iconic personality, balanced only by the collected, self-possessed rationale of parter Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Throughout the majority of the show Scully's scientific persuasion would complement Mulder's unrestrained pursuits of the unknown.
MULDER: Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials? SCULLY: Logically, I would have to say "no."
Such is the template that the pilot episode follows. Yeah, we get a bunch of omnium-gatherum about aliens and metallic implants and abductions of teenagers in the woods in Oregon, things that would become revenant staples of the series throughout its run, but these were all MacGuffins - plot devices that strengthened and, at times, disarmed the agents' relationship. While this episode establishes a baseline for a very convoluted mythology arc that would unwind over the course of several years, at its heart it's a character study. Looking through the back-catalog, the episodes that rank highest in the minds of fans typically were.
Although Scully is assigned to the Oregon case as a means of debunking Mulder as part of a sinister conspiracy, her steadfast loyalty and probable attraction to him render this effort not only futile, but dangerous (this fact would be reflected in a high-stakes plot line that would unravel in season two). Taken aback by what she considers pure bullshit, Scully counters his contentions. She adamantly dismisses the involvement of extraterrestrial presence in the case, yet perhaps in the episode's best scene, frightfully runs to Mulder's motel room after coming across two red pustules on her back, closely resembling the symptoms of the purported alien abductees. Underneath that hard exterior lies a permeant fear of the unknown: why admit the possibilities of such ethereal terrors when it is so much easier to deny? This is a concept the writers would play with at intervals throughout the show's lifespan.
At the episode's end it is revealed all the evidence and paperwork filed for the case has mysteriously vanished. In the final scene a shadowy cigarette-smoking man is seen stashing the implants away in a warehouse. Perhaps this is the show's scariest particular - that in spite of the enormity of the stakes of all involved, in the end there is still nothing to show. That a government can maintain such a citadel of unbridled power and use it against its own people without forbearance. The details of this episode aren't particularly essential, but the set-up it establishes would be a continuing factor in the years to follow.
The X Files: Excelsis Dei (1994)
"Good. Because I put it back in that drawer with all those other videos that aren't yours."
"Excelsis Dei" is a better-than-average episode that could have easily been a season two gem if not for a muddling storyline. Dana Scully finds the case, creepy settings are abound, ghosts and invisible rapists are on the loose, and the script is rounded out by an excellent guest cast. Unfortunately, Paul Brown's story is a little too ambitious for these high spots to beggar the myriad plot strands that undermine them.
It doesn't help that this comes on the heels of a particularly confusing mythology episode. Like "Red Museum" before it, "Excelsis Dei" dabbles in a lot of unsettling social themes: rape, abuse of the elderly, abuse of women, the encroachment of immigrant cultures - and twists them into a bizarre knot of conjunction and happenstance. A nurse at the Excelsis Dei convalescent home (Teryl Rothery) is strapped to a bed and violated by an unseen presence. A male Asian nurse (Sab Shimono) dispenses presumably illicit pills to residents that have invigorating effects. A creepy mushroom garden is found in the facility's basement. An elderly woman wheels the corridors conversing with ghosts. But where does it all come together? As one might imagine, this episode makes for some great imagery. The drab grays and greens of the building's snaking corridors lends to the eerie quality of the script. The scene where Mulder and Nurse Charters hall-surf out of a flooded bathroom is particularly delightful. Also, Gillian Anderson has some great lines of dry humor. Although there aren't a whole lot of intimate character moments between the two agents, their chemistry continues to shine.
Unfortunately this episode leaves the viewer with too many questions and too few answers. We don't know whether or not Hal Arden traveled out of his corporeal boundaries to rape Nurse Charters. We don't know how the magic mushrooms evoke the presence of spirits (or are they simply hallucinations?). Where is Leo dragged off to in act four? Ambiguity can and has worked in plenty of episodes of The X-Files, but it's hard to excuse a script that fails to offer answers to any of its questions. Still, "Excelsis Dei" is creepy and enjoyable. 6 of 10.
The X Files: Ice (1993)
Before anyone passes judgment, may I remind you, we are in the Arctic.
"Ice" was an episode that aired way back when The X-Files was still a fledgling series, and perhaps more so than any other episode at that time, proved what a powerhouse of actors and writers 1013 had in their arsenal. After a rather average stretch of standalones, "Ice" delves into the paranoia and un-solidified trust between Mulder and Scully. Paranoia had always been a driving force behind the scripts of early episodes, but not until this one did it really hit home run. In a script that puts Mulder and Scully at each other's gunpoint, the intensity of its scenes are thicker than the crystalline phase of water it's named after.
Morgan and Wong's premise is straightforward: a research team in Alaska is found dead, ostensibly having done each other in, and the FBI is called in to investigate, with the assistance of a doctor, toxicologist, professor and pilot. When a vicious dog attacks the pilot (Jeff Kober, who I always forget isn't actually Steven Tyler), and causes him to behave in a quarrelsome manner, it's clear that something out of the ordinary is going on.
Although the basic plot of "Ice" is not far removed from John Carpenter's classic horror film "The Thing," the addition of Mulder and Scully and the first real test of their partnership make for some memorable moments. The real crux of the dilemma is that everyone is a potential candidate for infection (of an acetylcholine-hungry arctic worm that coincidentally bears similar qualities to the black oil from later seasons). Scully's barely masked horror and Mulder's instinctive inclinations do not keep them from being potential suspects; they realize this. Ironically it is the team of Hodge (Xander Berkeley of 24) and Da Silva (Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and Transamerica) who falter in their unquestioning trust.
Perhaps even more so than the web of mythology arcs that dominated the show's later years, "Ice" is really what the heart of The X-Files is all about. Trust, vulnerability, friction, the fear of the outsider on the inside. This script would serve as an archetype for a countless number of subsequent episodes ("Darkness Falls," "Firewalker," "Dod Kalm," "Agua Mala" and so on and so forth). All of those varied in quality, but it can be confidently stated that none matched the cutting intensity of this seminal predecessor. This is widely regarded as one of the series's finest hours, and with a plot that still provides chills (pardon the pun) some seventeen years later, it's not hard to comprehend why. 10 out of 10.
The X Files: Shapes (1994)
They told me that even though my deodorant's made for a woman, it's strong enough for a man.
"Shapes," like fellow early episodes of The X-Files such as "The Jersey Devil," takes a page out of existing folklore and spins it on its head. In this case it is the Algonquian legend of the Manitou that is the topic du jour. The Manitou, traditionally speaking, is viewed as a spiritual being that can take the form of animals or other objects, guiding the world without directly interacting with it. This incarnation of that legend is far less benign, and could either be accused of being an insolent mis-portrayal or a blatant lack of attention to detail, but it's probably best not to factor in the original legend at all and take the episode at face value. This is sci-fi, after all.
Many fans tend to disregard this episode because of its rather thin plot, but in doing so overlook its surprisingly thicker facets. Right from the teaser David Nutter's color-rich direction immediately sucks the viewer into the foggy gloom of "Montana." Nutter directed several of the highly-regarded "classic" episodes from the show's first three seasons, and the same magic touch of those is entirely present in "Shapes." The bleak, mountainous imagery perfectly suits the paranormal overtones of the plot, and the funeral of Joe Goodensnake is just off-kilter enough to leave a memorable impression. Although I can imagine the early Spring climate may not have made filming this episode (or the following week's "Darkness Falls") a bundle of fun, it certainly made for some riveting atmosphere.
That's not to mention the work of a highly-competent guest cast featuring Twin Peaks alumni Michael Horse as Sheriff Tuscany, a figure caught in the social rift between the government and the Trego reservation, and Jimmy Herman, whose presence as the spiritual Ish is very reminiscent of the late, great Floyd Westerman's (who would first appear in the recurring role of Albert Hosteen the following year) and offers some orphic insight into Mulder's character. His monologue is truly a cool moment.
Unfortunately, despite all of this momentum, "Shapes" is still a werewolf episode, and because of that it's disappointingly but expectantly short on surprises. While this isn't the best episode of the first season, it's far from the worst, and it still amazes me how much better this is than later, similar efforts such as "Alpha." So I'll give it a 6 out of 10. Unessential, but not without its moments.
The X Files: The List (1995)
A woman gets lonely sometimes she can't wait around for a man to be reincarnated
"The List" is a competent but ultimately less-than-memorable episode from the early part of season three. Although it holds its own as a relatively straightforward revenge drama, the episode is perhaps most notable for its adroit direction, helmed by Chris Carter himself, who had previously proved to be a capable cameraman in last season's "Duane Barry." Much like that episode, this one profits from tightly-packed claustrophobic settings: the corridors of a prison that appear to be as humid as a rainforest, a dark house with a similar ambiance that, instead of cell bars, is caged in Venetian blinds. Certainly in terms of look this is one of the most impressive excursions in the series up to this point.
Unfortunately the story doesn't quite live up to the visuals. More specifically, everything that happens in the teaser more or less spells out what's going to happen in the next forty-something minutes. Neech Manley (who, though seen only scarcely, is played powerfully by the late Badja Djola), a prisoner on death row, vows to return from the dead and seek retribution to five men who have wronged him. When a prison guard inexplicably turns up dead in Neech's cell, Mulder and Scully are called on to solve the case.
The problem is they never really solve anything. This is one of those infamous episodes (though far from the more egregious offenders) that relegates Mulder and Scully to audience members instead of participants. So while both provide insightful theories of their own to the nature of the crimes, neither of them walk away having learned anything (On a side note, if anyone can paraphrase that loquacious discussion at the end, please let me know just what the hell is going on!). Poetically speaking the script is as much of a prison as the plot's environs - we know, since this is of course The X-Files, that we probably haven't seen the last of Manley and that five men probably will end up dead by the episode's end. In the end it's all a matter of getting from point A to point B.
So what we end up with is an impeccably-acted, exquisitely-directed hour of television that's just a bit too linear to stand up to the upper echelons of the series's catalog. That this episode immediately follows "Bruckman," widely regarded as the pinnacle of the show's nine-year run, doesn't do it any favors. Still, "The List" is enjoyable, nice to look at, features a better-than-average cast, and gets better with repeated viewings. Carter would write better episodes as the series progressed, but in terms of aesthetics, this may be very well be his opus. 7/10
The X Files: Hell Money (1996)
How many dishes do you have to break before your boss tosses you in an oven?
With episodes like "Irresistible" and "Grotesque," The X-Files proved it could weave together some fairly interesting stories without steadfastly adhering to the canon of paranormal activity. "Hell Money" is one such episode and perhaps in this regard strays farthest from the status quo. The script, after all, isn't quite so interested in exploring the foreign on an extrasensory level than it is on a cultural level, with the Chinatown of San Francisco serving as an effective and mystical backdrop. Much of the dialogue is daringly, although brokenly, presented in Cantonese and coupled with subtitles, a convention that, though in the modern television world has been made common practice with such culturally-inclusive programs as Lost, was a far more courageous move in 1996.
The premise is interesting enough: a Chinese-American mafia operates an organ-bidding lottery that has been murdering its defectors. When the corpse of a living man is discovered in a crematory oven, the talents of Mulder and Scully are summoned to the case.
It is a shame then that this episode so easily falls between the cracks of the Clyde Bruckman's and Jose Chung's of season three. More shameful is that it falls victim to the exact same problem as the previous episode (though, very thankfully, to a CONSIDERABLY less extent). "Hell Money" does not feel like an episode of The X-Files, and curiously enough it has nothing to do with the absence of paranormal occurrences. Instead, it is the relative absence of Mulder and Scully in the resolution of the crimes.
The arguable protagonist of the script is Detective Chao, played by B.D. Wong. Chao is an amiable enough character to interest the viewer's attention but it becomes rather apparent early on that he has a personal stake in the case. Although this stake determines his fate by the episode's end, his dilemma is unique in that he is clearly caught in the rift between two cultures, one reflecting the plight of the immigrant and the other the requisite of universal justice. The racial tensions presented in this episode, though touched upon, are never fully explored in-depth.
Lucy Liu appears as the daughter of Mr. Hsin, a luckless participant of the lottery. Known primarily for her more abrasive roles in Kill Bill and Charlie's Angels, it's interesting to see Liu in a gentler, more diffident performance.
Ultimately, "Hell Money" is an intriguing, albeit thin, look at human savagery in a culturally-bound setting, playing out similarly to a procedural drama (much like writer Jeffrey Vlaming's earlier offering, "2Shy"). As such there is not a lot of breathing room for either Mulder or Scully. Despite the occasional red herring, there is not much in the way of paranormal manifestation, but the underlying plot is competent enough to compensate for this. Though not one of the more memorable excursions of its particular year, "Hell Money" is certainly one of the more overlooked. 6 out of 10.
The X Files: Duane Barry (1994)
Krycek, have you got your notepad? ...Grande, two percent cappuccino with vanilla.
The X-Files proved in its first year on the air that is was capable of doing drama, suspense, and intrigue all relatively effortlessly. Despite the ever-looming cancellation reaper following mere steps behind, the show managed to continue into a second season, largely thanks to its excellent finale "The Erlenmeyer Flask," which saw the death of a rather critical character and opened up new doors with the termination of Mulder and Scully's tenure on the X-Files. Although the hunger of the writers and the producers that drove the first season carried on, they too knew that the show could not continue without the actual X-Files to propel it forward. Thus, a critical turning point was required to get the agents back on track. This can be seen as that turning point.
"Duane Barry" is a curious affair in that despite its explosive script there is quite little in the way of explosive action. Steve Railsback plays the titular character and does so to the hilt. A former FBI agent who has been out of commission for thirteen years, Barry believes he is a multiple alien abductee, and escapes a mental institution with his unwilling psychiatrist as part of a plan to prove the veracity of his claims. This leads to a standoff at a travel agency, where the majority of the episode takes place, in which Mulder is called in to do damage control.
The episode primarily serves as a tension-builder for the next episode but is notable in its own right for its proficient guest acting and directing. CCH Pounder is impeccable in her role as Agent Kazdin, who in a world of justice would have been destined to become a recurring character. Railsback is equally competent as the crazed gunman with just enough humanity to reel you in. Chris Carter makes his directorial debut, with some assistance from vet David Nutter, and captures the claustrophobic hostage setting without flaw.
"Duane Barry" would serve as the precedent for various mythology elements in the years to come, in the form of implanted chips and human testing (it's interesting how similarly this was replicated in the "Within/Without" episodes). It also showed that the series was unafraid to raise its stakes by jeopardizing the fate of a main character. As a standalone and as a small part of a big whole it is an essential X-File and remains a classic. And who could say no to Mulder in a speedo?
The X Files: Salvage (2001)
What are you saying, Ray Pearce has become some kind of metal man? Because that only happens in the movies, Agent Scully.
Somehow I was able to tell fairly quickly that this was a Jeffrey Bell episode. Bell's relatively shallow scripts, hackneyed plots, and unfortunate tendency to fall into what has been coined the "cool idea trap" that plagued Chris Carter in his early episodes "Space" and "Fire" all resonate right from the teaser. Last season's "The Goldberg Variation" was the exception that proved the rule.
If you view "Salvage" purely as an homage to the Terminator franchise, perhaps you will see greater value here. Even so, I spent most of these forty-something minutes thinking about how much I'd rather be watching Terminator than this. At least character breadth was to be found there.
Wade Anthony Williams is a talented actor, and I enjoyed his run as Captain Bellick on Prison Break, but his central character here is, quite literally, lifeless. It's hard to sympathize with a character who rarely has any non-tacit responses and murders innocent people. Like "Surekill" before it, this episode allots too much time for the monster-of-the-week and precious little for Scully and Doggett, whose relationship had been the driving force between the first third of this season. Furthermore, Scully's breakneck inclination to jump to paranormal explanations lacks any believability and, even at this point in the series, undermines her scientific sensibilities.
It is also unclear who is really to blame for the metal-man's predicament. If his co-workers can truly be exonerated it is rather silly that one would be so trigger-happy upon his arrival at the salvage yard. His final line doesn't help.
There are enough decent special effects and subtle in-jokes regarding Robert Patrick's role in Terminator 2 that make this worth a view. Like the previous episode, however, there's too much filler and not nearly enough killer to make it worth a second.