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The X-Files – Beyond the Sea (Review)

Ah, Beyond the Sea. My favourite episode of the first season. Maybe my favourite episode of the first two seasons, although I’ll confess that my opinion is prone to change. I’m in good company. Darin Morgan points to it as his favourite episode. Chris Carter has (again and again) singled it out as the best episode of the show’s first season – a piece of television that works “on every level.”

It’s easy to point out all the exceptional stuff in Beyond the Sea. Gillian Anderson is phenomenal, as we’ve come to suspect from spending half a season with her. David Duchovny is quite happily relegated to a supporting role, willing to allow his co-star room to breathe. Brad Dourif is sensational. Glenn Morgan and James Wong’s script is phenomenal. David Nutter’s direction is absolutely top-notch.

However, what always struck me about Beyond the Sea was just how incredibly confident and casual it was. It was bold and clever and provocative, but it was also tight and controlled. It’s brilliant, but it never feels like this isn’t a level of craft the show can’t consistently hit.

We are the dead...

We are the dead…

There’s an argument to be made that modern police procedurals owe more to The X-Files than they do to classic police shows. Shows like Criminal Minds and CSI seem to have picked up a lot of their structure and rhythms from The X-Files‘ monster-of-the-week episodes. The evolution of such procedurals is arguably more rooted in Carter’s X-Files than in Law & Order or NYPD Blue.

It has been argued that CSI is a “clear descendent” of The X-Files. Part of this influence is stylistic, with The X-Files striving for a cinematic look that CSI would accomplish by recruiting directors like William Friedkin and Quentin Tarantino. Part of it structural, with many of the plot beats in a given CSI episode mirroring the nature of twist and reveals in an X-Files monster-of the week. Part of it is procedural, with scenes like the photo enhancement sequence in Shadows serving as prototypes for the miracles done by the lab in CSI.

A killer inside...

A killer inside…

However, part of the charm of The X-Files was the way that it was able to push all these structural components to the background. Beyond the Sea is dominated by its emotional storyline and superb performances, but there’s a perfect procedural plot ticking away behind all this – almost unnoticed. It’s like clock work, with Nutter and Morgan and Wong working hard to make it look effortless.

Lucas Jackson Henry is very much kept at the periphery of Beyond the Sea, allowing the story to focus on Luther Lee Boggs and Scully. However, this minor character is still developed – he’s given a psychology and a pathology, a personal history. The sequence where he kidnaps the teenage couple at Makeout Point could easily be reimagined as the teaser of an episode of CSI or Criminal Minds.

Filing it away...

Filing it away…

Rather pointedly, though, it isn’t the teaser here. The teaser is based around Scully. These important structural elements, the mechanics of a procedural, are all handled with such precision and skill that they can be safely pushed into the background without missing a beat. This is something that takes a lot of work and skill, but Morgan and Wong treat it as simply the foundation of the story that they want to tell, and Nutter keeps it from distracting the audience away from the real meat of the show.

That’s a superb level of craftsmanship, so skilful that it’s easy to overlook. In many ways, The X-Files inspired an entire generation of television. The talent who cut their teeth behind the scenes on the show is phenomenal, with many of the show’s producers, writers and directors having a massive influence on the revolution in broadcast television over the last decade or so.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

Howard Gordon has admitted that working on The X-Files taught him a great deal about producing television, and was a massive part of his work on Homeland and 24. Morgan and Wong went on to create the short-lived Space: Above & Beyond, produced the best season of an X-Files spin-off with the second season of Millennium, and then spearheaded the Final Destination film series. Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad, working with a lead actor who appeared in a supporting role in one of his episodes of The X-Files.

The show’s directing talent was top-notch as well, with the show’s cinematic style owing a great deal to talent behind the camera. The first season features the gradual introduction of many of the directors would help define the show’s visual style – many of whom would work more steadily in the seasons ahead. David Nutter, who directed Beyond the Sea, was among the directors who worked on the groundbreaking HBO/BBC miniseries Band of Brothers and the HBO/etc. miniseries The Pacific.

Love/hate, eh?

Love/hate, eh?

His approach to the episode, allowing room for Brad Dourif and Gillian Anderson to work, is a major part of why Beyond the Sea works so well. Nutter knows better than try to cheapen the episode with jump scares or heightened melodrama. Instead, he opts to create an unsettling and uncertain atmosphere. The budget on the first season of the show was quite tight, with many of the effects dating quite terribly. Nutter’s low-key approach to the episode’s supernatural elements and emphasis on the personal drama are a large part of how Beyond the Sea works.

And it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, underneath the superlative character work and the brilliant performances, Beyond the Sea lays a wonderfully efficient blueprint – one that the show would use quite well in the years ahead. There’s a procedural flow to the episode, but one that never dominates. Instead, the story centres on the human element, foregrounding the personal conflict and trusting the audience to keep up with the “connect-the-dots” forensic procedural playing out in the background. The X-Files never gets enough credit for this efficiency, probably because the efficiency is – as with so many reliable things – understated.

All the news that's fit to pint...

All the news that’s fit to pint…

After all, nobody is really too bothered about the structure and flow of Beyond the Sea. There’s too much wonderful stuff happening out in front. Beyond the Sea is a sensational piece of television, one produced with a disarming confidence from a show less than a year old. Indeed, the episode hinges on audience familairity and investment in the tropes of a show that is less than a year old. Beyond the Sea only really works if the audience is so invested in the Mulder/Scully believer/skeptic dichotomy that the reversal is brutally effective.

Beyond the Sea is the first real glimpse we’ve had into Scully’s background, outside of casual references to her academic performance and the occasional appearance of a friend or ex-boyfriend. We’ve never really had a sense of where Scully came from. In contrast, the show has already delved so deeply into Mulder’s personal and professional history that heaping an ex-girlfriend and pyrophobia on top if it felt excessive in Fire.

Hello Clarice... I mean, Dana...

Hello Clarice… I mean, Dana…

Whereas Fire dropped these plot elements in from out of nowhere, Beyond the Sea is developed from a throwaway line in The Pilot, as Glenn Morgan explains:

“In the pilot, Scully mentioned that her parents didn’t want her to become an FBI agent. We found that interesting. So many people want their own lives, and yet need their parents to accept that life, and we thought it seemed to be a common phenomenon around us. So we put it into the story and hoped it would connect with people. And we thought maybe Scully’s parents lived in Washington. And if they live in Washington, what could her father do? It was kind of obvious to us he was in the government and we put him in the military. Then we thought, ‘OK, he has to be a higher rank, a Navy captain’s kind of neat. And we just worked backwards from that.”

Not only does this give us a bit of back story on Scully, and context for who she is, it also allows Scully to feel a little bit more real – a little more complex.

Do you see?

Do you see?

Morgan and Wong are, as I’ve discussed before, probably the strongest “Scully” writers on the show. Most of the best writers on the show can work well with both leads, but it’s like being ambidextrous – they still tend to favour one character over the other. Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa have already established themselves as the go-to writers for Mulder, and Morgan and Wong have carved out a niche for themselves with Scully. Indeed, David Nutter also seems to work well with the character – he directs the second-season Scully stand-out Irresistible.

In a way, writing for Mulder on The X-Files – while not without its challenges – is easier than constructing a show around Scully. The X-Files is a show built around Mulder’s perspective. Mulder’s worldview lines up almost perfectly with that of the show, and the narrative is going to side with him most of the time. More often than not, Mulder gets to be right, no matter how crazy or reckless he is.

Ghost dad!

Ghost dad!

Scully has a much tougher time of it, and Morgan and Wong seem to have honed in on the character’s biggest problem half-way through the first season. Scully is going to be wrong quite often on The X-Files. Carter has claimed that he originally planned for the show to be more “balanced”, but it didn’t work out that way:

My intention, when I first set out to do the show, was to do a more balanced kind of storytelling.  I wanted to expose hoaxes.  I wanted Agent Scully to be right as much as Agent Mulder.  Lo and behold, these stories were really boring.  The suggestion that there was a rather plausible and rational and ultimately mundane answer for these things turned out to be a disappointing kind of storytelling, to be honest.

There may have been a few token occasions where Scully got to be correct (the first half of Darin Morgan’s War of the Coprophages comes to mind), but they were very much the exception that proves the rule. Only a fool would wager on Scully being correct at the start of a given episode.

Treating it as unusual...

Treating it as unusual…

More than that, though, confronted week-in and week-out with the strange the surreal, there’s every indication that Scully’s stuck-in-the-mud skepticism might grate with the audience, might seem illogical, might reduce her to a figure of fun – a cardboard cutout of a rational skeptic in an irrational universe. To be fair, this is mostly just a problem with the perception of the show. Later episodes tended to handle this quite well, with Scully conceding the irrational existed, but preferring the rational. (And the eighth season up-ending her role as skeptic by casting her as the Mulder to Doggett’s Scully.)

Still, there’s an obvious problem there, and Beyond the Sea tackles it head on. How can the show justify Scully’s skepticism? How can it explain her steadfast refusal to embrace the weird and wacky world she has wandered into? Wong and Morgan hit upon a rather clever idea. Mulder’s believe is powered by a pathological need to believe, one deep-rooted in his own personal history. “I want to believe,” his poster informs us, but it’s something much deeper that pulls Mulder in that direction.

Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past...

Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past…

Morgan and Wong suggest a similar force might be pulling Scully in the opposite direction. What if Scully needs not to believe? “Dana,” Mulder asks, at the end of the episode, after Scully hasn’t been able to work up the strength to comfort Boggs in his hour of need. “After all you’ve seen, after all the evidence, why can’t you believe?” Scully bluntly answers, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid to believe.”

That fear is reinforced by the episode’s ending – Scully’s refusal to visit Boggs despite his promise to convey a message from her father. She’s committed now. From here on out, should Scully decide to embrace the paranormal, she’d have to accept that she missed one last opportunity to say goodbye to her father. She’s invested in her skepticism, just like his sister’s abduction means Mulder is invested in his faith. If Mulder stops believing, he loses any hope of finding his sister. If Scully starts believing, it means she let go of her father.

A touch of clothe...

A touch of clothe…

There’s an argument to be made that this weakens Scully as a character – that it makes her rationality flawed and irrational. In a way, given the way The X-Files works, her rationality is inherently flawed and irrational. The show doesn’t work on the same physical laws that Scully holds as sacred, and her unwillingness to follow the scientific method – she is singularly unwilling to revise her hypothesis despite quantifiable and variable evidence to the contrary – is irrational behaviour.

However, it also develops Scully and allows her become more than just a two-dimensional strawman skeptic. Like Scully’s religious faith, already hinted at in her ever-present crucifix and her involvement in religious life (she is a godmother), it adds nuance and depth to Scully as a character in her own right. Instead of existing as a foil to Mulder, Scully is her own character. She is just as vital and developed as Mulder is, just as multifaceted and complex.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

So Beyond the Sea suggests that Scully’s skepticism might be as self-serving as Mulder’s faith. She repeatedly denies any significant investment in Boggs’ theories, but she’s clearly captivated by him. “Oh well, there’s plenty of room in that cold, dark place for liars, Scully,” Boggs warns her coldly after she claims that she doesn’t believe him. Beyond the Sea doesn’t seem too preoccupied with whether Scully believes Boggs – it’s quite clear that, on some level, she does. It generates more tension on whether she can accept that she believes Boggs.

Near the end, while steering clear of directly acknowledging his visions, she seems to reject Mulder’s theory that Boggs was orchestrating the crime. “I believe,” she begins, choosing her words carefully, “that if you had orchestrated this kidnapping, Lucas Henry would have been aware of the danger you warned me about. He never would have crossed that bridge. So you saved Jim Summer’s life. But you saved mine as well.”

Top drawer...

Top drawer…

And yet, while she can admit that logic and rationality don’t explain everything, she stops short of investing her faith in Boggs. In that powerful, ambiguous ending, she refuses to attend Boggs’ execution. The look of despair and heartbreak on Boggs’ face – as he realises that the one person in the world who thinks he might be redeemable for his sins has bailed out on him – is positively heartbreaking. Brad Dourif is phenomenal.

In the final scene, there’s something a little bit desperate about the way that Scully tries to rationalise her rejection of Boggs. “If he knew that I was your partner, he could have found out everything he knew about me. About my father…” It seems tenuous, at best. While she’s right that he could easily have made up that story about any teenage girl, or even found out about the song, there are other facts that are harder to reconcile. Was his nickname for her written down in some dusty old file somewhere? Or did he just guess really lucky?

Still hasn't found what she's looking for...

Still hasn’t found what she’s looking for…

Beyond the Sea hinges on Gillian Anderson and Brad Dourif. Dourif is one of the great character actors of his generation, one of the best “creepy” performers working in Hollywood. While he has been involved in some very questionable productions, his work is generally of a very high quality. Dourif plays Boggs with a wonderful ambiguity – he doesn’t make Boggs a victim, or overly sympathetic, but keeps him somewhat pitiable.

There’s a palpable desperation underscoring Boggs, and a refreshing sense of uncertainty about his “channeling.” How much (if any) is real? How much is just hamming it up for the benefit of those watching? Is he receiving information precisely as he claims, or is he just trying to rationalise a gift? Dourif does sensational work here, and he’s able to slip effortlessly between the voices speaking through Boggs, giving Nutter the freedom to frame the scene as he sees fit without having to worry about cutting or editing to mask a weaker performance.

Lives on the line...

Lives on the line…

Anderson is also phenomenal here. Anderson is probably the stronger of the show’s two leads, and the show tends to reward her with more experimental fare. Scully-centric episodes tend to take the character a lot further outside her comfort zone than Mulder-centric episodes do to Duchovny. It’s worth noting that Anderson was only twenty-five when she took the role. Her work is absolutely superb.

Of course, Beyond the Sea prompts comparisons to The Silence of the Lambs. It makes sense. A pretty young female FBI agent finds herself dealing with an incarcerated sociopath to help find a kidnapper and murderer before more innocents are murdered. The proximity of Beyond the Sea to The Silence of the Lambs probably doesn’t help – it aired less than two years after The Silence of the Lambs became the first horror film to win Best Picture, the first film to be released home video prior to winning that award and the first film to win the “Big Five” major categories since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975.

Interview with a psychopath...

Interview with a psychopath…

To be fair, there are worse influences for a horror thriller television show to have. The Silence of the Lambs wasn’t just terrifying – it was smart. It inverted the tendency to treat female characters as fodder for sociopaths and psychopaths, with Clarice Starling serving as a major influence on an entire generation of lead female characters. Scully is a direct descendent of Starling, to the point where Jodie Foster’s guest appearance in Never Again feels like a passing of the torch.

Carter himself has been quite candid about the influence of The Silence of the Lambs, admitting that he “studied that movie pretty carefully”, and even pitching the show as “a cross between Silence of the Lambs and Unsolved Mysteries.” Talking about the genesis of the series, he confessed, “I had just seen the Silence of the Lambs, so I’m sure that inspired me.”  Carter has been somewhat cagier on the similarities between Scully and Starling. He has denied any direct influence of Starling on the creation of Scully, but has also admitted, “It’s not a mistake that Dana Scully has red hair like Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.”

Let's not get Boggs-ed down in the similarities...

Let’s not get Boggs-ed down in the similarities…

As such, doing an episode with Scully riffing so heavily on The Silence of the Lambs this early in the show’s run is probably a nice way to just get all that out in the open – to admit the massive influence that the movie had on the show. The X-Files has never been shy about acknowledging its inspirations. Darren McGavin, for example, popped up in a recurring role as the man responsible for opening the X-Files, being the division’s father, just as Kolchak: The Night Stalker had been the show’s ancestor. Paper Hearts pits the Will-Graham-influenced Mulder against Tom Noonan, the first Francis Dolarhyde.

Besides, the similarities aren’t too distracting. Boggs is no Hannibal Lecter, and Dourif knows better than to try to reduce him to a halfhearted Anthony Hopkins impression. (Although it is interesting that the first season of Hannibal provided its own Hopkins!Lecter stand-in with a back story remarkably similar to that of Boggs – murdering his family on Thanksgiving.) Boggs plays different sorts of mind-games, and never projects the same air of calm control as Lecter. Indeed, Boggs is clearly coming apart at the seams.

We salute you...

We salute you…

Morgan even conceded the similarities in an interview with Cinefantastique:

“They said it was too much like Silence of the Lambs,” said Morgan, “so in order to not do Hannibal Lecter, this kind of cool intellectual, we had this manic high-strung cracker. I was directly trying not to write Hannibal Lecter.”

The differences are clear enough.

"Hello Dana..."

“Hello Dana…”

Mulder is pushed to the background here, but Morgan and Wong continue to give us the sense that Mulder is… not really good with people. After Ice saw him making friends fast, here he doesn’t seem to know how to deal with Scully’s obvious emotional loss. He initially tries to be understanding, but he’s also quite self-centred. When Scully admits to her crisis of faith, that she lied to the police report, Mulder doesn’t try to comfort her. Instead, he practically attacks her as she’s already on the verge of breaking down.

Instead of recognising that Scully is dealing with some pretty heavy stuff, Mulder finds a way to make her decision to lie on a police report about what she saw all about him. “What you’re really saying is that you didn’t want to go on record admitting that you believed in Boggs! The bureau would expect something like that from ‘Spooky’ Mulder, but not Dana Scully.” To Mulder, everything is about Mulder. Even his partner’s issues with the loss of her father all boil down to poor little ostracised and victimised Mulder.

Burying the hatchet... into his victim's skull...

Burying the hatchet… into his victim’s skull…

(In a nice little scene later on, Mulder gets quite snippy when a mobile phone starts ringing during a tense moment. “Turn off that phone,” he sternly advises his agents, as if a ringtone just went off in a cinema. “Turn it off.” Inevitably, Scully has to point out that maybe people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. “Mulder, it’s you.” Duchovny plays the scene wonderfully, presenting Mulder as a character who really can’t – despite his best efforts – relate to others all that well.)

Beyond the Sea stands out as the strongest episode of the first season, and show that proves what The X-Files is capable of when it sets its mind to it. It’s an exceptional piece of television, but what’s really striking is the sheer level of craftsmanship involved in putting the episode together. As elegant and as beautiful as it is, the best thing about Beyond the Sea is that it’s not a fluke or a flash-in-the-pan. It offers a template and even a blueprint about how to make an episode of The X-Files that works.

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

2 Responses

  1. I think this is the best X-Files episode review I have ever read so far.

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