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The X-Files – Young at Heart (Review)

Continuing on from Lazarus, there’s something about Young at Heart that feels very rote, very paint-by-numbers. It’s as if the show has worked so hard to define itself in the first half of the season that the second half of the first season has been dedicated to settling into routine. As far as Chris Carter scripts go, Young at Heart is roughly on par with Fire, and nowhere near as bad as Space, although that’s damning with faint praise. At this rate, Carter should begin to turn out episodes worth watching at some point in the fifth season.

Featuring yet another blast from the past, more gratuitous use of Deep Throat and reckless placing of Scully in danger, Young at Heart feels more like it was assembled from a rough blueprint of what an episode of The X-Files should look like, rather than because it was a story worth telling.

Keep it handy...

Keep it handy…

Truth be told, I don’t mind the fact that Mulder and Scully have pasts outside the X-Files. While the episode hardly hinged on it, I don’t mind Mulder’s suggestion in Beyond the Sea that Boggs was exploiting Scully as a way to get revenge on the man who helped catch him. However, it’s beginning to feel like the world of The X-Files is populated by a few dozen people at most, and there’s nobody in major law enforcement that our heroes haven’t either slept or partnered with in the past.

Squeeze featured an old colleague of Scully’s. Ghost in the Machine introduced us to Mulder’s old partner. Beyond the Sea guest starred a killer Mulder helped put away. Lazarus centres around Scully’s ex-boyfriend. Fire introduces us to Mulder’s old flame. None of these become recurring characters, either, suggesting some on-going link between Mulder and Scully and a world outside the X-Files. Instead, most are carted in as a cheap way of making what would otherwise be a one-shot character a little bit more interesting.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

And so Young at Heart introduces us not only to a killer that Mulder helped put away, who has (this being The X-Files) been resurrected from the dead and sworn brutal revenge against the man who locked him away, but also to yet another old partner of Mulder’s. Reggie Purdue might as well be walking around in a body bag, because it’s immediately clear where the episode is going. Introduce somebody Mulder cares about, kill him off, generate personal conflict. It’s extremely lazy writing, but particularly because Ghost in the Machine already did it earlier this season.

That said, I do kinda like Reggie, even if I’m far to wary of genre clichés to care about him enough that his death pays off. It’s nice to see that not everybody in the Bureau treats Mulder as a pariah, and it’s always slightly surreal – and slightly fun – to see Mulder getting along with a fellow agent. It’s corny as all get-out, but that introductory scene where Mulder is chanting “Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!” is just on the right side of goofy fun, giving us a brief hint of the type of enthusiastic geek Mulder might have become had he not grown up to be a cynical geek instead.

Eye see you...

Eye see you…

Reggie himself seems an affable sort. While he’s clearly not entirely on board with the whole X-Files thing, I like how his first response to weird evidence isn’t outright denial. Instead, he seems positively excited that he’s found something strange enough to go in Mulder’s filing cabinet. “It’s going to blow your mind,” he teases Mulder when he gets evidence from a robbery.  “I’m telling you, Mulder, this is going to blow… your… mind.”

There’s a sense that Reggie might actually be a half-decent guy who enjoys his work in the same way that Mulder does, and it’s not too hard to imagine Reggie and Mulder sharing crazy work stories while drinking beers together, Reggie relishing the absurdity of the X-Files without being threatened or condescending towards them.

Post-game analysis...

Post-game analysis…

In a way, these little interpersonal interactions work a lot better than the clumsy character beats that Carter uses later in the episode – I care that Reggie seems like a good friend to a guy who needs more good friends, not about some unfinished mystery novel. Young at Heart also gives us the cynically manipulative scene of Mulder attending a little-league game to watch the son of a dead agent play. These are very lazy ways of signposting that these people are people with lives, and it all feels very clumsy – in the same way that even introducing Reggie feels clumsy.

After all, Mulder is a paranoid loner. If he has a friend with whom he can drink beers and watch games and trade stories, then he ceases to be that vaguely creepy washed-up golden boy working out of the building’s basement. Mulder doesn’t get to be a character with a lot of friends – well, with a lot of normal friends at any rate. So it’s quite obvious, from the moment that Mulder and Reggie are in any way affectionate towards one another, that Reggie is going to die.

Surgical precision...

Surgical precision…

Again, lazy writing. Young at Heart already features the return of a criminal Mulder helped to put away. It’s already personal. In case we don’t get that it’s personal, Chris Carter’s clumsy heavy-handed dialogue is here to spell it out to us. “I’ll get you, you son of a bitch!” Mulder yells out in the parking lot outside a little league game. In a completely superfluous court flashback (given we’d already been told about it), Mulder lets rip from the witness stand. “This is a man with a wife and two small children…  and you, you shot him without hesitation, without conscience, without an ounce of humanity. Which is why you should die like an animal, you son of a bitch!”

Everything in Young at Heart is so clunky and horrible, without a hint of grace or finesse. Just in case the viewer hasn’t figured out what Barnett is doing, he helpfully makes a point of taunting Mulder over the phone with awkward exposition. That is truly the worst form of taunting. “Your new friend, Ridley?” he asks. “Don’t grow too fond of him… huh? He’s going to die soon like the rest of your friends.” Barnett is just a terrible antagonist. David Petersen actually has screen presence as the older Barnett, but Alan Boyce is just horrifically cheesy as the younger version. Then again, considering the lines he is given…

Taking a stand...

Taking a stand…

The dialogue is really cringeworthy, particularly when the script tries to do banter. Consider this exchange between Mulder and a hand-writing analyst:

This guy a friend of yours?

Yeah, I play golf with him every Sunday. What do you think?

You just brought this in ten minutes ago.

You’re slipping, Henderson.

Ten minutes may be enough time for you, Mulder. Of course, I wouldn’t know that from personal experience.

Carter shares a script-writing credit with Scott Kaufer, so it’s hard to know who to blame, but Carter has always had something of a tin ear for dialogue.

The world is a stage...

The world is a stage…

To be fair, there is nominally a point to Young at Heart, and it seems like it might make a decent first-season episode. It’s based around exploring Mulder’s attitude towards authority and his somewhat reckless disregard for the rules. After all, we’ve heard a lot about how promising Mulder was as a young agent, and it’s hard to believe that – even if you discounted his conspiracy theories – our fast-and-loose Mulder could ever have been on a trajectory upwards.

So Young at Heart suggests that there was a time that Mulder played by the rules, and that there is a reason why he doesn’t play by the rules any more. The most logical explanation from a character point of view would suggest that Mulder’s rule-breaking streak would be the result of disillusionment with the “official channels”, the suspicion that the rules have been put in place to fence him in, by those who have the most to lose from his crusade. That would make a great deal of sense, based on what we’ve seen of Mulder – linking his contempt for rules with his mistrust of authority.

I have to admit, if I were experimenting on inmates, the psychopathic murderers would be the last ones I would choose to make borderline immortal...

I have to admit, if I were experimenting on inmates, the psychopathic murderers would be the last ones I would choose to make borderline immortal…

Instead, Young at Heart gets all daytime soap opera on us. It turns out that Mulder used to play by the rules, until playing by the rules got a fellow agent killed. “An agent died because I screwed up,” he succinctly explains. Reggie takes Scully through the play-by-play, explaining that – at one point – Mulder has the perfect shot at Barnett and his hostage. But he didn’t take it. “Because it’s not by the book,” Scully explains. “Mulder never forgave himself for that,” Reggie concedes. On the witness stand, asked about the shot, Mulder explains, “Well, it’s against F.B.I. regulations to unnecessarily endanger the life of a hostage.”

So, as a result, Mulder doesn’t play by the book – with the episode’s climax putting him in the same position and forcing him to pull the trigger. It’s fairly by-the-numbers storytelling. Except that it feels just a little bit uncomfortable. This isn’t about Mulder not filing proper paperwork or typo-ing a warrant. This is actively endangering the life of a hostage. Yes, there are cases when it will be a mistake, but there are also cases where not following the rule would be a mistake. What if the FBI had talked Barnett down? What if Mulder missed and shot (or killed) the hostage?

Hostage of fortune...

Hostage of fortune…

It’s easy to understand the contempt for some of these rules and regulations – there’s a whole reason why “got off on a technicality” is such a dirty phrase in police procedurals – but Young at Heart never makes a convincing case for why this rule is so stupid or so unworthy. At the end of the episode, Mulder and Scully have a terrible “what have we learned” exchange that treats “the book” with nothing but disdain. “Mulder, I know what you did wasn’t by the book,” Scully begins. Mulder replies, “Tells you a lot about the book, doesn’t it?” That skepticism doesn’t feel earned in this case.

The only other defining feature is the way that it plays off the same sort of post war concerns as Ghost in the Machine, Eve and Fallen Angel, teasing the possibility that post war United States has been tainted by war crimes committed by the Axis powers during the conflict. It opens Ridley experimenting brutally on prisoners, for his own sadistic purpose. We’re told that Ridley was nicknamed “Doktor Mengele” by his colleagues. We’re told that he hid from the authorities in Central and South America, echoing many war criminals.

Tough call...

Tough call…

It all feels rather clumsy. Fallen Angel and Eve were hardly subtle, but the comparisons felt like more than mere afterthoughts grafted on to an otherwise mundane script like so many salamander cells. Everything about Young at Heart feels so slapdash and rushed. Even Mulder’s ominous closing narration seems like it was jotted down on a napkin between takes in the sound booth, with Mulder actually saying, “Somehow, I feel like we haven’t heard the last from John Barnett.” Ugh.

The same is true of Deep Throat’s increasingly obligatory cameo. I can see why Carter felt the need to get rid of Deep Throat – even if the show almost immediately replaced him. Deep Throat is becoming an awkward storytelling crutch, a tool for the writers to connect dots that they can’t be bothered working to connect. This isn’t the first time that Deep Throat’s appearance has felt superfluous and almost rote, but it’s notable in an episode full of this sort of paint-by-numbers storytelling.

Home invasion...

Home invasion…

The same is true of the lazy “putting Scully in danger” and “creating suspense from a body shot of a Federal Agent who knew she was a target” sequences. The first season put Scully in danger a little too often for its own good, as a means of raising the tension whenever the occasion called for it. Scully deserved better, and while the show has done a lot of wonderful stuff with her character so far this year, it’s frustrating that “Scully in peril” seems to be a nice storytelling short cut for the writers.

Just as contrived and convenient is the hostage taken by Barnett in the theatre. Shots have just gone off in the lobby, and this musician is still hanging around. More than that, though, she isn’t suspicious enough to notice the man with the gigantic gun storming down the aisle after her? (And, of course it’s a damsel in distress, because Mulder’s martyr complex wouldn’t be heightened if he’d grabbed the pianist.)

Only the bad die both old and young...

Only the bad die both old and young…

Young at Heart is a lazy episode, cobbled together from reheated left-overs and familiar plot points that were already becoming tired and worn out. A nice reminder that making a decent episode of The X-Files involves more than just serving up recognisable tropes and characters.

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

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