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The X-Files – Born Again (Review)

Born Again is a very bland episode of The X-Files that really suffers from being broadcast this late in the season. Indeed, the first season of The X-Files seems almost obsessed with life after death and reincarnation – we’ve already had episodes like Shadows, Lazarus and even Young at Heart. We’re three episodes from the end of the season, and we’ll still find room for one more “vengeance from beyond the grave!” story before we close up shop. Born Again isn’t bad so much as it’s just bland.

I don’t hate Born Again. In fact, it’s the episode that I remember least from this first season – the only evidence I had that I had seen the episode before came from a vague creeping feeling of familiarity while I was watching it. Even now, as I sit down with my notes to type a review, I’m not sure I can tell you that much about it.

It's only a paper giraffe...

It’s only a paper giraffe…

That said, it’s possible that my sense of familiarity stems from the fact that Born Again feels like a re-heat of ideas and premises already tackled by the show. Writer Howard Gordon has been quite honest about Born Again, confessing to Cinefastique that it’s a little too familiar:

“‘Born Again’,” said scripter Howard Gordon, “is not one of my favorites. After ‘Ghost in the Machine,’ it’s my second least favorite. Just mundane. We thought the idea of reincarnation hadn’t been done yet, and there were parts of it that I think were interesting, but I don’t thing it was well executed on any front. It was a pretty classic back-from-the-dead revenge tale, and not done particularly interestingly. And it had elements that were repetitive to one of my previous shows like ‘Shadows.'”

Personally, I think he’s a little harsh on Ghost in the Machine, which is very flawed – but still has moments of surreal brilliance. Born Again, on the other hand, sort of exists as a vacuous space towards the end of the season, an additional forty-minute hurdle between the viewer and The Erlenmeyer Flask.

Oh my gawd!

Oh my gawd!

It’s worth noting that the problem with Born Again feeling derivative isn’t solely down to the fact that we’ve seen reincarnation and life-after-death already. The real issue is that even the other tricks used here feel like second-hand hand-me-downs. For example, Eve did a much better job with creepy children than Born Again does. And – to be entirely fair – there’s nothing wrong with a television show returning to the same well, even within the same season. For example, Beyond the Sea is the possibly the season’s strongest episode despite covering similar ground. There’s a strong argument to be made that many of the best X-Files “monster-of-the-week” shows are very formulaic.

The real problem with Born Again is nothing to do with the fact that we’ve seen all this before. It’s that the execution is just tired. There’s an interesting debate to be had about what is the worse fate for an episode of television. Is it better to be so mediocre as to be completely forgettable, or to be so terrible that you are forever engrained in the back of the mind of any soul unfortunate enough to catch that hour of television.

Creepy kid is creepy...

Creepy kid is creepy…

Born Again isn’t the worst episode of the season. It isn’t even close. It can’t measure up to Space or to Fire in terms of cringeworthiness. It’s unlikely to offend anybody in the audience, and nobody is likely to joke about how bad it was. Instead, Born Again seems like an episode that will be forgotten until the viewer attempts another re-watch of the show, perhaps even musing “that sounds familiar” as they read the episode summary.

I’ll admit to getting a giddy thrill out of “so bad it’s good”, and that I’m much more excited to watch an interesting mess than a by-the-numbers adventure. While I’d argue that neither is “good”, I am a lot fonder of Gender Bender or Ghost in the Machine than I am of Born Again. That said, I’m willing to forgive ambitious failures for at least having the courage to attempt something big and bold. I might think that Space is a terrible piece of television, put part of me kind of respects the fact that Chris Carter thought this was a good idea and just ran with it.

Bringing the agents into the fold...

Bringing the agents into the fold…

That said, it’s hard to hate Born Again. It’s an episode late in the first season of a new show. It’s fairly reasonable to assume that – with the possible exception of the season finalé – we’re currently in uncharted waters. It’s hard enough to imagine twelve or thirteen episodes of a first season of a new show, let alone fret about the possibility of episode twenty-two. This first year is far from perfect, but there’s an endearing energy to it – a sense that we’re watching this production team making it up as they go along, and doing a much better job than anybody (probably including themselves) could have expected.

It’s a common problem with many first seasons, particularly those running to twenty-something episodes. All the good ideas have been used up at the start of the year, and the crew haven’t become comfortable enough that the ideas are flowing freely. Born Again has the feeling of an episode that was hurriedly assembled in order to get a script in front of the cameras. Actor Brian Markinson concedes that the production was a bit haphazard. “At that time I didn’t even have the opportunity of really reading the whole script,” he admitted of his audition. “They were only releasing sections of it because it had not yet been completed.”

Running interference...

Running interference…

Similarly, Gordon himself has suggested that Born Again was not the result of a high-energy creative process, of ideas spilling out on to the page in front of him. “The impetus was desperation, I believe,” he told The Truth is Out There. He also conceded that the hour felt “a little too cop show-y” for his taste. And, to be fair, as an episode that seems to have been assembled rather quickly in order to meet the show’s first season quota, Born Again works quite well – even if it feels like an assortment of vaguely familiar supernatural clichés.

There are elements of Born Again which feel like they could have worked as part of a stronger episode. Creepy kids are a horror stand-by for a reason, even if Born Again never really gets us to care too much about the domestic drama at its core. A mother confessing that her daughter is “troubled”, and that she has always suspected that something was fundamentally wrong should be powerful drama. Instead, Born Again seems more interested in the generic police procedural elements.

Alone in the dark...

Alone in the dark…

Similarly, the “death by bus door” scene is a pretty horrific way to kill a secondary character, but it’s a shame that we really aren’t too invested in Feller at all. He’s a generic crooked ex-cop, a crudely drawn archetype who very clearly exists so that the script can do horrible things to him. Watching a character get dragged to their death should be unsettling, but it just falls flat, like so much else in the episode – a good idea that doesn’t work in practice.

The origami animals also feels like they should be a little creepier than they turn out to be. Like creepy children, sculpture is something that can often be unnerving or unsettling. That said, it does seem a little weird that Mulder has to helpfully define origami as “Japanese paper folding” for those watching at home. (It’s quite similar to the sequence in The Erlenmeyer Flask where Scully becomes stupid so we can learn how DNA works. This was just before Jurassic Park was released, I suppose.)

Not-so-candid camera...

Not-so-candid camera…

The only creepy image from the episode that actually works is the static image of the diver at the bottom of the fish tank. I’m a sucker for on-screen horror featuring on-screen horror, and the notion of developing something grotesque and unsettling in a digital medium is a very clever way of updating the classic “ghost in the picture” horror trope. After all, The X-Files was arguably best putting its own spin on classic horror storytelling, playing with these familiar storytelling devices.

After all, there’s an old folklore belief that the eye preserves the last image it sees before it dies. It’s also quite common for horror films to have photos reveal creepy phantasms or serve as sinister foreshadowing. The idea that a murdered man’s last sight should burn itself on to a VHS tape is quiet a clever gimmick, years before The Ring was released. The choice of a model diver sitting at the bottom of a fish tank is suitably creepy, and the sequence where Mulder develops the footage is surprisingly effective.

Hardly arresting drama...

Hardly arresting drama…

Still, that’s one effective hook and sequence in a single forty-minute episode. Everything else about Born Again feels fairly paint-by-numbers. The show can’t even seem to ratchet up suspense at the act breaks. Mulder closes out the first act by declaring “that little girl saw a ghost.” We’re on The X-Files. Seeing a ghost (or realising that somebody saw a ghost) is not a strong enough beat to cut to commercials. (In fact, it would be more surprising if she hadn’t seen a ghost.)

Similarly, there’s a sense that Duchovny is phoning in Born Again. The script doesn’t do him any favours, but there’s never a sense of any enthusiasm radiating from the actor. At one point, Scully asks, “So where does that leave us?” Mulder replies, “One short step away from proving the pre-existence of the human soul.” It’s not clear from the line reading whether Duchovny is playing this seriously or sarcastically – whether Mulder is having fun at Scully’s expense or standing on the verge of some massive breakthrough. If the lead actor can’t bother to care, why should we?

This will surely end well...

This will surely end well…

Born Again isn’t terrible, but it’s pretty far from “good.” It’s an episode that seems to exist solely because Fox asked for twenty-four episodes instead of twenty-three. It’s inoffensive, but it’s also forgettable.

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

 

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