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The X-Files – Space (Review)

And so we go from what is possibly the strongest episode of the first season to what is definitely the worst. Space is a colossal failure of an episode, with even writer and creator Chris Carter conceding that it was “one of our most unloved episodes.” However, none of these spectacular failures occur for any particularly interesting reason. It’s the wrong idea with the wrong script with the wrong director, and a result that can’t even claim to be “so bad it’s good” like so many of the series’ other lesser hours.

At best, it’s a cautionary tale, a firm establishment of what The X-Files isn’t. Like The Jersey Devil, it’s an indicator that maybe Chris Carter should have been focused more on show-running than writing. Even factoring in the quite decent pilot, Carter is hardly batting a thousand here. However, it also offers some small measure of proof that – despite show’s fixation on extraterrestrials and UFOs – The X-Files is not really a show about space.

... and the stars look very different, today...

… and the stars look very different, today…

To be entirely fair, there are a few reasons that Space has the potential to work. After all, as a core premise, “Mulder and Scully investigate strange goings-on at NASA” is a pretty compelling hook. Carter even makes a succinct (albeit blunt and exposition-filled) summary of how this whole story fits in the context of The X-Files as an adventure into the nineties zeitgeist:

Well, if you were a terrorist, there probably isn’t a more potent symbol of American progress and prosperity. And if you’re an opponent of big science, NASA itself represents a vast money trench that exists outside the crucible and debate of the democratic process. And of course there are those futurists who believe the Space Shuttle is a rusty old bucket that should be mothballed. A dinosaur spacecraft built in the 70’s by scientists setting their sights on space in an ever declining scale.

And we thought we could rest easy with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Not to mention certain fringe elements who accuse our government itself of space sabotage. The failure of the Hubble Telescope and the Mars Observer are directly connected to a conspiracy to deny us evidence.

Evidence of what?

Alien civilizations.

Oh, of course.

Okay, that exchange should set the “Chris Carter dialogue” alarm bells ringing, but it’s a pretty effective summary of why The X-Files – a show about paranoid America in the nineties – might be interested in NASA and the space shuttle program.

The truth is out there...

The truth is out there…

It’s effectively a blunt attempt to justify the decision to make Space, and the fact that it’s so heavily front-loaded suggests that Carter knew what a misfire he had created. This is a show about monsters that can squeeze through airvents, killer computers and parasitic mind-altering worms. Mulder and Scully might grope at a pseudo-scientific explanation, or terrify a viewer with real-world comparisons – that brain-eating amoeba mentioned in Darkness Falls? totally a real thing – but the show was more horror than science-fiction.

So the attempts to entrench Space in plausible-sounding mission control techno-babble falls a bit flat. Mulder and Scully need to be investigating dilapidated buildings, the dark wilderness or other horror locations. Trapping them in an over-lit (and overly expensive) mission control set kills any real tension. There’s a sense that Mulder and Scully have tuned into a more boring television show for the week, watching on the sidelines as sub-par soap opera antics play themselves out.

Watching from the sidelines...

Watching from the sidelines…

It’s not that sidelining Mulder and Scully is a bad thing. The X-Files is a pseudo-anthology show, so it makes sense that the duo would be sidelined occasionally. This can result in great television – Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose never forgets that the duo exists, but it’s driven by a phenomenal guest character and a magical guest performance. Sufficed to say that Space really lacks any of this.

I’m reluctant to blame guest stars Ed Lauter and Susanna Thompson, both credible genre actors with a solid track record behind them. The script just does them no favours. Thompson plays a character defined by the fact that she really misses her husband. Lauter plays a character named Colonel Marcus Aurelius Belt who is effectively haunted by a dodgy special effect and and some crappy editing. Neither performer was going to turn in gold-standard work here.

Ed Lauter realises it's probably a bad idea to sign on to anything without reading a script...

Ed Lauter realises it’s probably a bad idea to sign on to anything without reading a script…

Let’s talk briefly about special effects. Like the techno-babble inside mission control, the reliance on crappy special effects betrays a misunderstanding of what The X-Files is about. The X-Files is a horror show, not science-fiction. It is not competing with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Watching these early episodes, it really jumps out at me how truly terrible the special effects are. The CGI worms from Ice are an obvious example, as are the glowing green pixels from Darkness Falls.

(Being entirely honest, it’s special effects like that which make me long for a large-scale Next-Generation-style HD remastering. The swarm in Darkness Falls looks terrible, so it’s going to look even worse upscaled. Can you imagine how bad Ghost-of-Mars-face here is going to look when the production team try to upscale the effect? Just throw the effects out, and do some non-cost-prohibitive replacements. Being honest, the show is a lot less effects-driven than any of the Star Trek spin-offs that seem to be getting the loving treatment.)

"Yay, we're going to be on The X-Files..."

“Yay, we’re going to be on The X-Files…”

However, these dodgy special effects don’t meaningfully detract from the parent episodes. Yes, they have aged terribly. Yes, they are cringe-inducing. But would any fan fail to recommend Ice to a newbie looking for a solid X-Files fix because the special effects are a bit ropey? Those are two of the stronger episodes of the season, even with the concession that the effects have not aged well. That’s because the special effects are very much secondary.

The X-Files is about horror, and – as such – most of the early episodes get away with pushing the monster to the edge of frame. Not so much Space. The strange face and body outline are a big deal here because the episode pushes them both very much to the fore. Such a big deal is made of this strange entity and of ethereal face, and they are shot of plainly and bluntly, that the fact that they suck is a lot more detrimental than some dodgy worms in a treatise about paranoia or glowing green circles in an environmental cautionary tale.

A nice healthy jog is good for the circulation...

A nice healthy jog is good for the circulation…

Director William Graham, who has bee working in television since the fifties, can’t seem to generate any real enthusiasm or energy for the material. He shoots the god-awful special effects straight-on, rather than trying to conceal even one of the episode’s major weaknesses. Graham seems to have a decidedly “old school” approach to television direction – his credits including episodes of Ironside. It’s something that would be used (relatively) effectively when the show brought him back to direct Travelers, but it really doesn’t work here.

When the script manages to muster up some excitement by suggesting sabotage inside mission control (one of the episode’s stronger horror beats – the “call from inside the building” moment), Williams inexplicably cuts to our trio running across a large room towards a large stairwell in a scene that lasts several seconds too long. It feels almost laughable – “look how much space NASA have, geddit?” – and undercuts the tension in what might have otherwise been the one burst of energy in a tired episode.

It's a bit of a car crash...

It’s a bit of a car crash…

To be fair, there are some half-decent ideas here, but Carter’s script rather promptly smothers anything potentially interesting about it. Space also manages to provide some helpful forewarning about Carter’s ability to end a mystery in anything resembling a satisfying manner. Written before the show’s central mythology even got properly going, Space provides ample evidence that resolving stuff is not Chris Carter’s strong suit. It’s handy to know that eight-and-a-half seasons before we get to The Truth.

Seriously though, Space just sort of ends. The day is saved. Everyone claps in mission control, because we’re now in a Ron Howard film without the charisma or tension. There’s still the dangling plot thread of the big floating Mars face and whatever happened to Belt up in space. Seeing as how he has about a minute-and-a-half to wrap that up, Carter promptly throws the character out of a hospital window and just sort of calls it a day.

Giving fans the finger...

Giving fans the finger…

So, what was that all about then? Don’t worry, after some terrible slow-motion stock footage of what it must look like when somebody zooms in real close on Google Maps, Mulder is handy to provide the answers in that rather convenient not-actually-resolving-anything manner that Carter does so well. “Something had possessed him,” Mulder tells Scully, a bit of a strain from what Mulder actually knows. (As opposed to what the episode has actually shown us.) “Something he must have seen out there in space.”

The episode leaves several questions unanswered. Why Colonel Belt? Was it be design or chance? If it was chance, the aliens were lucky he rose through the ranks so fast. Or perhaps they “pushed” him towards his senior position? Does the government know that Belt was infected, since they are so keenly interested in aliens? Why is sabotaging this one mission two decades after infecting Belt so important to the alien, or has this creature been responsible for a string of NASA failures and disasters?

Everything is under (mission) control...

Everything is under (mission) control…

That last question, hanging in the air, has some pretty stark implications. It would imply that Belt was responsible for the Challenger disaster in the world of The X-Files, an extraterrestrial “inside man.” It’s a pretty bold suggestion, given the impact that the Challenger disaster had on the American psyche, becoming a national tragedy. The X-Files offers a grim alternate history of twentieth century America – with the Cigarette Smoking Man claiming responsibility for assassinating JFK and MLK – but Space seems unwilling to commit entirely to that.

Instead, it’s left out there – suggested but not even explicitly implied. After all, one imagines that implying the then-still-recent Challenger accident was the work of sinister aliens rather than a horrible accident was bound to cause some measure of discomfort to the viewer if state outright. So Space feels like an episode that lacks the courage of its own convictions, unwilling to follow through on anything it might want to say.

In NASA/Trek, writer Constance Penley mounts a defense of Space, arguing that it serves as a brutal condemnation of NASA:

In my favourite episode, agents Scully and Mulder discover why the Challenger blew up, the Mars Observer disappeared, Galileo’s antenna got stuck, and the Hubble’s lenses were misground: they were all sabotaged by a former astronaut, now a high-up bureaucrat at NASA, whose body was taken over by an alien on one of the late sixties space flights. Why are aliens sabotaging every NASA attempt to go into space? “They” don’t want us out there, of course – it’s theirs! The X-Files taunt to NASA seems to be, “If you keep on covering up or downplaying your mistakes, we’ll create our own ingenious reasons for this sorry record.” Or, “Our fictional alibi (the aliens did it) to account for all the NASA screw-ups is no more outrageous than the excuses you’ve contrived.”

Penley would have a fair point if Space were willing to even heavily imply these things. After all, I’m not entirely convinced that Space is intended as a criticism of NASA’s standard operating procedures. Mulder begins the episode as a massive NASA fanboy, and there’s little indication that his opinion has changed by the time the credits roll. He is sympathetic to Belt, rather than reacting with contempt to the man. He portrays the Colonel as a victim rather than a criminal.

Instead, Space feels almost like a defense of NASA. It’s interesting to think about what the public is interested in when it comes to space travel. Lou Friedman argues that the public is more interested in the science of space than in the bureaucracy and operating procedures at NASA, something that Carter might have done well to remember here. Of course, NASA’s difficulty with its image is something of public record.

Three months following the airing of Space, The Simpsons would air Deep Space Homer, a rather cynical piece where NASA decided to court the public be recruiting low brow “relatable” astronauts. I’m surprised we haven’t seen a reality television show yet. The viewing figures for shuttle launches trended down over time, reaching an all-time low in 1993 and 1994, the time that Space and Deep Space Homer aired.

It is an exaggeration to argue that the public dislikes NASA, or objects to it, or anything as bold. Indeed, polling suggests the public has an abiding affection for NASA – they just have no interest in increasing the organisation’s budget. This was in the nineties, a time of economic prosperity – when the nation arguably had the money to better fund the organisation. Given the current financial climate, the decision of the Obama White House to encourage commercial space flight at the expense of NASA seems fiscally sound.

NASA is a hot topic, and something which provokes strong reactions. Some would argue that the organisation has done the best that it could with the budget apportioned to it – and that detractors have unrealistic expectations of what space travel is really like. Others would argue that NASA has never been too interested in courting public approval, and has felt cushily entitled to public spending without feeling the need to provide interesting results. After all, private interests are attracting more attention now by pushing for colonisation of Mars than NASA has in quite some time.

There’s no ambiguity about where Space‘s sympathies lie. It’s very much pro-NASA, to the point where the show’s normally paranoid edge feels dulled. Mulder earnestly describes NASA as “true American heroes”, despite the fact that one assumes they’d have to be complicit in his vast government conspiracy. Colonel Belt lets rip with a bitter rant about how the public has abandoned the shuttle program:

Heroes? We used to make headlines when we did our job right. Now they bury them in the back of the paper. Name me two astronauts on the last shuttle mission. You make the front page today only if you screw up. They only know your name if you’re the unlucky SOB sitting on 500 tons of dynamite. That’s what they’re really waiting for.

Hey, you! Viewer! It’s all your fault we’re not in space! Carter portrays NASA in a sincere and respectful manner, entirely sympathetic. Which seems a little weird, when the FBI is crawling with corrupt conspirators. I do love the implication that perhaps the massive government conspiracy just assumes NASA isn’t worth their attention. I imagine a cut scene with the Cigarette-Smoking Man boasting, “We’ll just cut funding again.”

Even outside these writing and direction problems, Space suffers because it looks and feels like filler. In an irony that would laughable if it weren’t heartbreaking, Space had been written as a budget-saving show, in the tradition of Ice. The idea was to integrate stock footage (yay!) to minimise costs. However, due to the elaborate sets, the show went on to infamously become one of the most expensive episodes of the season. And this is despite the terrible stock footage inserts (yay! grain footage and dubbed dialogue!) and the horrible special effects.

Space is just a terrible episode, primarily because it seems like – nine episodes in – the show has forgotten how to make an episode of The X-Files. The fact that it is written by the show’s creator is especially troubling.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:

3 Responses

  1. After reading your reviews of The Lone Gunmen, I feel like that show should’ve had a NASA episode, with Langly, Byers, and Frohike determined to root out corruption at NASA and restore it to its 1960’s glory. Only they tragicomically discover that the conspiracy bypassed NASA as a waste of time, and up dealing with banal bureaucratic incompetence rather than the grand conspiracy they were expecting to confront.

    • That would certainly fit with the recurring sixties motif of The Lone Gunmen, in contrast to the seventies vibe of The X-Files proper.

  2. Reading this with the benefit of hindsight is a bit of a different experience, now that we know the field of commercial space travel has just descended into one big ego-stroking competition between a bunch of rich billionaires. Even Mars One turned out to be a bust.
    You almost wish that Elon Musk *was* actually possessed by a Mars face. But alas, he’s just a common or garden fool.
    None of this sabotages (I swear that wasn’t intentional) this review, which is excellent as ever.
    Nor does it lift up Space, which is… the opposite.
    More like Space: Below and… uh… Within? Sure let’s go with that.

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