Friday, November 15, 2013

1x09: Space

It seems to me the best blogs, the ones that last, are frequently the ones that are rooted in obsession.  You know, one day you look at the X-Files and you see something more than you did the night before. Like a switch has been flicked somewhere.  And the show that was just a show is suddenly the only thing you can think about.

Oh Sweet Zombie Jeebus, Space. There are very few episodes of TXF that I actively dislike, but this is one of them. It's even more painful coming after an episode like Ice, which I really enjoyed.  But I promised - every episode of The X-Files in chronological order - and I will deliver. But we're going to do this one quick-like-a-Band-Aid because otherwise I may have an aneurism.

As we go forward with these reviews, I'm going to keep the following themes in mind:

1. The show is as much about Scully's journey toward becoming a believer as it is about the paranormal events she and Mulder encounter.
2. Scully is only a skeptic when viewing things from a clinical distance; when the shit hits the fan, she acts on Mulder's crazy beliefs because she knows it will keep her alive.
3. Mulder isn't right nearly as often as he thinks.
4. The evolution of the Mulder/Scully relationship - not just the romantic involvement that eventually occurs, but their dynamics of trust and distrust, the changing ways they view each other, and the friendship that grows over time.
5. Assault on a federal officer never seems to lead to jail time.
6. Mulder is kind of a dick.
7. Hotels, car rental places, and apartment landlords must be crazy to rent to FBI agents.
8. The enormous top-secret government conspiracy actually really sucks at keeping things quiet.
9.  There are some serious homoerotic undertones in this show.
10. The X-files department is super toxic to anyone who comes close to it.
11. Mulder and Scully are both terrible at their jobs.
12. Local law enforcement is protrayed in an extremely negative light.
13. This show is white-washed as fuck. And almost all the non-whites are villains or stereotypes.
14. Bathtubs are scary, terrible places that should be avoided at all costs.

I reserve the right to add more items to this list as the series progresses and you can't stop me!

Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, California

A reporter tells the audience that NASA has a nerd boner over the discovery of water on mars, but that they're denying the famous Mars Face is evidence of an alien civilization.  An astronaut, Marcus Aurelius Belt, whose name is the best thing in this episode, comes on to explain it's nothing but a natural formation.

Later, Belt tucks himself into bed and starts having a nightmare about his time in space, where he sees something coming at him. He wakes with a start to see the Mars face floating on the ceiling above him; he screams as it comes at him.

Shuttle Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Florida
Present Day

After the opening credits, we're treated to a series of really crappy stock images of a shuttle launch.  We hear radio communications of a bunch of random launch procedures, that don't seem to mean much, and then cut to Houston Mission Control, where an older Belt is standing in the control room. We get a lot more crappy stock footage as they count down to liftoff, and then abort at the last possible second due to system failure.

Washington, DC
Two Weeks Later

Mulder and Scully share a bag of sunflower seeds as he tells her there's some cloak-and-dagger shit going on at NASA, and they're apparently here to meet someone. One of the control room people from Houston shows up - Michelle Generoo -

and tells them she thinks there's a saboteur inside the space program - apparently that system failure that caused the launch to abort was the result of physical tampering with one of the valves, and if they hadn't aborted, the shuttle would have exploded on the launch pad. She wants M&S to help because of their "expertise in unexplained phenomena", as the valve was made of titanium and no one can explain how it was damaged. She has personal reasons for wanting to get to the bottom of this - her fiancee is a shuttle commander whose mission is due to launch the following day.

Houston Space Center
Next Day

 M&S are riding in one of those adorable Austin Powers airport golf cart things, discussing who would want to sabotage the shuttle: terrorists attacking a symbol of American progress, anti-science extremists who resent all the money NASA receives, futurists who think the shuttle is too archaic for modern use... and "certain fringe elements" who believe the government is hiding evidence of alien civilizations.

They're on their way to meet Belt, and Mulder gives Scully some brief background info on how Belt nearly died on the Gemini 8 mission. They go into his office, and Mulder turns into a gushing fangirl about how as a kid he stayed up all night to watch Belt's space walk. Belt is clearly less than comfortable about this.

To be fair, this is the exact same face I would have upon meeting just about any member of TXF crew or cast.

Anyway, Belt denies that there's any evidence of sabotage (the official reports say it was simple mechanical failure) and is unwilling to postpone the next launch. Mulder practically vomits with excitement when Belt grants them permission to watching the lift-off from Mission Control.

Later, M&S show the photo of the damaged valve to some tech guy who can't believe what he's seeing. He tells them there are a shit-ton of safety measures in place, and people making sure everything's in order before launch... and that ultimately the final go-ahead is given by Colonel Belt (who has been listening this whole time from a balcony above them). They walk away, wondering if maybe Belt knows more than he was saying.

We're treated to a bunch more shitty stock footage and NASA gibberish as Mulder and Scully watch the launch from Mission Control. This time the launch is successful, and Michelle is quite relieved her fiance didn't get blown to pieces.

Cut to Mulder and Scully walking down the hall of a fairly swanky hotel, where Mulder is still high on the joy of watching a large phallic object explode powerfully and thrust into space. (Could we call this #9, please?) Just as he's about to pass out from all the excitement, Michelle comes running up behind them and says they've lost communication with the shuttle.

They hop in their rented car and follow Michelle through the dark and stormy night. While M&S discuss the possibility of sabotage, Michelle gets run off the road by a HIDEOUS FLOATING FACE SO SCARY OMG.

That was sarcasm, in case you couldn't tell. Also, at least this time it was someone else's car that crashed, which must be a pleasant change of pace for our dynamic duo.

Mulder manages to extract her from the wreckage of her vehicle, and she's kind of hysterical, saying something came at her in the fog and she has to get back to mission control.

They make it back to the control room and Michelle hops on the headset. Mulder explains to Scully (and therefor to us) that the maneuvering system on the shuttle is down and they can't rotate it away from the sun to keep cool, so they're getting slowly roasted up in space.

Michelle and some tech argue about telemetry and how they can't remotely operate any of the shuttle systems from the ground... as if someone is blocking their signal. She and our intrepid agents head for the data banks, where the jamming must be coming from, and all the lights go out. Mulder nearly shoots some tech geek in the head, who was just trying to do his damn job, thank you very much (#11); the lights come back on

Please don't kill me, Mr FBI Man, I'm just here to fix the computer.

and what the hell was the point of this scene? They go in a room, the lights go out, nothing happens, the light comes back on. They don't learn anything, and they don't even learn that they didn't learn anything. They just go barging in with their guns drawn and then stand there with egg on their faces when nothing happens. It's like the writers realized they had to fill 3 or 4 more minutes of air time and shoved this scene in for no reason. Mulder says he doesn't want anyone coming in or out of the building without proper clearance... but isn't that pretty much routine? This is freaking NASA. It's not like they're just going to open the door for Snidely Whiplash because he says "please." Everyone in that building already HAS proper clearance, and obviously a pretty good knowledge of shuttle design and launch procedure. So it basically has to be someone who already works there, who thus already has proper clearance, and who thus wouldn't be barred from entering the building. It feels like everyone's being incredibly dense around here. #11

The trio goes back to mission control and Michelle and Belt argue about... something. It's all spacey-wacey shit we don't really care about

but boils down to: Belt wants to do something that could cut them off from the shuttle completely, and Michelle doesn't want him to do that thing. They do Belt's thing anyway.  The thing works and suddenly everyone's all happy.

Considering that, like the rest of us, Scully had no idea what was going on in this scene, her smile
seems a little less than genuine.

Mulder, Scully, and Michelle watch from the sidelines as Belt holds a press conference, talking amongst themselves about how Belt's actions could have killed everyone on the shuttle. Belt, meanwhile, tells the press that the shuttle has "performed magnificently" and makes no mention of the little potentially deadly snafu... totally tarnishing Poor Mulder's view of his boyhood hero. After the press conference, Mulder chases him down and asks why he lied, and Belt says something about how astronauts don't make the news anymore unless they fuck up, but he's going to bring the shuttle back to earth.

That night, Belt has more nightmares about being in space, and then his face starts turning into the Mars Face.

A white ghostly figure pulls itself out of his body and goes floating out the window and up into the sky... and the shuttle astronauts report that something really weird just happened. We hear over the radio at mission control that something is banging against the side of the shuttle. They've got an oxygen leak. Michelle, Mulder, and Scully enter and Mulder explains (to Scully and to us) that the same kind of thing happened on Belt's mission. The shuttle has 30 minutes of backup oxygen, but after that, shit's gonna get real.

M&S go to Belt's apartment, since he's the one who'll know best what to do, and drag his ass out of bed to get to the control room. He gets on the radio and tells the shuttle crew to hop into their spacesuits and then vent the excess CO2, and use their emergency oxygen systems while they deliver the payload.

What the fuck is this payload they keep talking about? It's been mentioned a few times, but I don't think we ever figure out what it is or where they're taking it or why. All we know is that Belt's super determined that it gets done, because apparently if they fail, Congress with shut down NASA. Seems like a mission that important could have been explained just a wee bit to us, the viewing audience, so we'd understand what's at stake here.

Michelle runs crying into the hallway, because Belt is about to get her fiance killed, and M&S take the opportunity to discuss with her whether Belt is the saboteur or not. Mulder still thinks Belt is the only one who can save them. He's also being uncomfortably familiar with Michelle...

He doesn't move his hands for this whole scene. She's got a fiance, dude, who's ABOUT TO DIE.
Boundaries, Mulder. Boundaries. #6

which I find a little weird. Hands on her shoulders would have been a bit more professional there, Moose.

Mulder and Scully have a tech guy lead them through files on the Hubble Telescope, Mars Observer, Shuttle Challenger, and the current Orbiter mission looking for proof that Belt knew about sabotage.

Meanwhile in Mission control, the shuttle crew delivers the payload, which is shitty stock footage of, like, a satellite or something, maybe?

and then see a ghost outside the ship. Belt starts to scream.

Back in the file room, Scully finds a copy of the same photo that was sent to Michelle - sent by Belt himself, who knew about the faulty valve. Mulder has found a file on the O ring that failed in the challenger dated January 21, 1986 (which is the day I was born, which is kind of weird)... and the analysis was ordered by Belt a week before the shuttle blew up.

Michelle comes in and says Belt's collapsed; they find him curled up under his desk, crying, screaming that something is tearing him apart. He keeps screaming and thrashing as the EMTs get him on a stretcher, and it takes way too long for Scully to remember her medical training and give him some diazepam.

Mulder holds up a finger in front of Belt's face and tells him to focus - focus his breathing, his pain... Belt gets all calm, like he's been hypnotized or something.

God this scene is awful.

Can you hypnotize me to believe this episode never happened?

Belt says the shuttle can't survive reentry because the fuselage is damaged, which he knows because he couldn't stop "them" and "they don't want us to know." It or they or whatever has been living in him since his mission in the 70s, and his face starts morphing into Mars Face again. Michelle appears far more shocked that it's the face she saw in the fog than the whole "alien ghost thing has possessed my boss and is trying to murder my fiance" thing.

Belt goes into cardiac arrest just as a tech shows up to tell them the shuttle is out of oxygen and is now on emergency backup.

Michelle goes back to mission control to talk the shuttle through reentry, which is a stupid thing to try given that she was standing RIGHT THERE when Belt was talking about how reentry will kill all of them. As if sensing this, Belt (who is still with Mulder outside his office) says they have to change the reentry trajectory to 35 degrees.

M&S run to mission control and tell everyone they have to change the trajectory; Michelle sends the info to the shuttle but they're not sure if it was received before transmission blackout (which I guess is a thing that happens upon reentry?).

TL;DR There's like 2 tense minutes where no one knows if the shuttle crew is still alive, but then they are and everyone's happy.

Once again, so happy that something she doesn't understand has been successful or whatever.

Later, Belt is in his hospital room watching a press conference in which Michelle is lying through her teeth about how nothing at all went wrong on this totally routine shuttle mission. Belt does the face morph thing again, then rips out all his IVs, fights with the Mars Ghost Face whatever and finally flings himself out the window to his death.

Back at the X-files office, Mulder is reading a newspaper article about Belt's death. (Actually, he has like 6 copies of the same paper spread out all of the table, which is really weird.) Scully comes in and they attempt to give the audience some sort of explanation for what the hell we've been watching for the last 44 minutes but it's something like, "Well, that was weird." They manage to snag some good seats for his funeral, where Michelle is sitting with some dude we're supposed to figure is her fiance. The minister delivers some line about his soul rising to the heavens, higher than he could ever go as a man, and I guess we're supposed to feel a pang of sorrow over this great hero or something, but all I feel is gratitude as the credits finally roll.

This may be the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

So, let's go over WHY I hate this episode, shall we? First things first, we get way too clear a picture way too early of the "Mars Face" monster. One of the best and creepiest things about this series is that they rarely give you a good long look at whatever is running around eating people, and when you finally do see it, you're so afraid of it already that it almost doesn't matter what it really looks like. But in the first 2 minutes of this episode, we got a long look at the truly horrible (even for the 90s) CGI of the Mars Face, and thus we no longer feared the unknown. I really hate that kind of audience hand-holding, too - most of the time we're supposed to puzzle it out alongside Moose and Squirrel, but in this episode we already knew who the monster was and were just waiting for them to figure it out... which they never actually do.

Second, there is just so much shitty stock footage and NASA jargon that we the audience can't understand and thus don't care about, all of which could have been cut to make more room for story.  TV episodes have a finite running time, usually between 42-48 minutes for an hour-long program, and this episode wasted far too much time showing stock footage that already looked outdated when it aired. I can forgive stock footage in location establishing shots, because those are usually very brief, but this was just too much.

Third, the pacing. We had a bunch of scenes that didn't go anywhere (looking at the data bank blackout here) and even the scenes where stuff does happen seem incredibly long (it took like 5 minutes to get Michelle out of her overturned car). See above re: finite running time.

Fourth, characterization seems off in this episode. I totally buy that Mulder was a space nerd as a kid, but Scully says early in the episode that she didn't really care and seems to not know one damn thing about NASA or how any of this shit works. Mulder explains to her several times what the control room staff are talking about, which is mostly for the audience's benefit but also makes Scully kind of look like an idiot. Here's a little writing tip: when half the dialogue of your show is so jargon-specific that you need one character to act as an interpreter for the audience to follow along, you're doing it wrong.

M&S also can't seem find their asses with both hands; they spend 90% of the episode convinced it's a human saboteur when Mulder at least should have been suspected a space monster or something from the very beginning.

Finally, the fate of the shuttle crew seems to be the central element around which the whole plot revolves: will they survive, who sabotaged their shuttle, etc. The problem is, we never actually see the shuttle crew and thus feel no emotional connection to them.

BLARG. It's over. Next week we'll be watching the far-more-bearable Fallen Angel and then we get to watch Eve, which is just awesome, so things are looking up.

Firsts: Mulder fangirls out, I'm happy an episode is over


  1. Ah, I am so sorry you had to go through this episode again XD. In my opinion, this is easily the worst show in the series. As you said, it was just full of faults on a technical level (writing, pacing, etc.).
    I have also always felt that it just did not have the same "feel" as the rest of the series. The random Mars... space ghost... thing... just makes no sense. The writers themselves said once (from a behind the scenes segment, I do not recall which one) "It is only as scary as it is believable." TXF has always succeeded at pulling you in, making you believe in what you are seeing. Whether through science or just good writing, every monster and conspiracy leaves you saying "huh, that could happen."
    Except for this one. They don't even try to explain it.
    Dam you Mars space ghost!

  2. Yeah, I've never really understood anything about this episode, and I'm really into the Space Race and all that. Thanks for suffering through it for us!

  3. I always skip this one... I just can't watch it