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The X-Files – The Host (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

The Host and Little Green Men represent a fantastic one-two punch combination to open the second season of The X-Files. It’s very hard to think of two back-to-back standalone stories that most effectively sum up the show, capturing a lot of what makes the series so beautifully compelling and enduring. The two episodes are also quite surprising. It feels strange that Chris Carter didn’t write Little Green Men, given the importance of the premiere to the show. However, in light of that, it also feels strange that Carter did write The Host.

Working on The X-Files, Carter tends to gravitate towards “event” episodes. His name is frequently seen on episodes that push the show forward – in multiple senses. Carter is the architect of the show’s grand mythology, so his name pops up quite frequently on those scripts. However, Carter is also prone to write occasional “big” episodes of a given season. He wrote and directed The Post-Modern Prometheus and Triangle, for example, two of the more unique and distinctive episodes of the fifth and sixth seasons.

Through the looking glass...

Through the looking glass…

So, seeing Chris Carter’s name on the first “monster-of-the-week” of the new year rather than the all-important season premiere feels a little strange – particularly since The Host is an episode that seems a lot less ambitious than Little Green Men. After all, Little Green Men depicted Samantha Mulder’s abduction, revealed the show’s aliens and tried to make Vancouver look like Puerto Rico. In contrast, The Host is about an overgrown mutant worm.

And yet, perhaps that’s the point. The second season of The X-Files was a massively important year for the show. Along with the Fox Network itself, this was the year that The X-Files defined its own identity and really began to aggressively carve out a niche. The show did not make the top 100 shows of the 1993-1994 season, but almost reached the top 50 shows of the 1994-1995 season. That’s a meteoric rise, and the second season is very ruthlessly refining itself.

X marks the spot...

X marks the spot…

To describe The Host as a simple “monster-of-the-week” is to miss the point entirely. The show doesn’t exist yet another entry in a genre that the show established during its first year on the air. Instead, The Host is clearly constructed to be the monster-of-the-week episode. It’s an hour of television that is designed to get a reaction, to push buttons, to get people talking. This is an episode squarely aimed at anybody who heard the buzz over the summer hiatus and wanted to see what the fuss was about.

It works very well in this capacity. There is a reason that The Host as endured as a classic episode of The X-Files, packed with all manner of iconic and memorable imagery. Chris Carter constructed The Host as an example of what The X-Files does very well – and it’s a piece of science-fiction horror that sticks with people. It’s incredibly hard to forget. And that’s the beauty of it.

A monster mash-up...

A monster mash-up…

There are a lot of complaints that The X-Files would drag its feet in its later years – that the show would stretch out plots over years in order to wring as much dramatic tension from them as possible. The mythology arc is perhaps the most frequently cited example – a series of questions that lead to more questions that lead to more questions that lead to a couple of answers and more questions. What is so interesting about the opening of the second season – and the second season in general – is the way that it pushes the show.

Both Little Green Men and The Host push the show several steps forward, forcing the series to move onwards. Looking at the first season – particularly episodes like E.B.E. – there’s a sense that The X-Files could have spent years teasing the reveal of an alien organism. On can imagine the show playing several years of “Mulder almost sees an alien but just misses it”, eventually allowing the audience a glimpse at sweeps or as the ratings fall. Instead, Carter throws aliens into the first episode of the second season.

Up the creek...

Up the creek…

The Host is, to quote one of Carter’s on-line chats, the show’s “first real monster story.” Obviously episodes of the first season fit the description of a “monster-of-the-week” story, but the show had been reluctant to engage with the traditional “actor in a illy rubber suit” school of television science-fiction and horror. Even Shapes, the first season’s much-maligned werewolf story, seemed to have been produced at the behest of a studio (rather than a production staff) that wanted a monster story.

And The Host doesn’t do it by half-measures. Unlike the werewolf in Shapes, the monster at the heart of The Host is showcased quite frequently and quite heavily. Although it lurks in darkness, we see enough of it to know that it is not some spectre or illusion. The episode doesn’t just let the audience get up close and personal to the creature. Even Mulder and Scully are so close to it that it becomes impossible to deny. They even get to take half of it home with them.

Bloody disgusting...

Bloody disgusting…

It’s an endearingly straight-up monster story, one that hits quite a few of the familiar monster movie story beats – transcending all sorts of horror subgenres. The creature itself is imbued with a strange innocence, despite its brutality and its role in quite a few deaths. It recalls very old-school horror monsters, the sympathetic Universal horror characters like Frankenstein or The Creature for the Black Lagoon, albeit with more modern make-up.

The Host plays this angle very well, as if inviting the audience to pity the beast. The conversation between Mulder and Skinner about what to do with the creature touches on these sorts of ideas. “This is not a man,” Mulder insists, like the protagonist of a black-and-white creature feature. “It’s a monster. You can’t put it in an institution.” Skinner responds, “Then what do you do with it, Agent Mulder? Put it in a zoo?” It’s not too hard to imagine the same exchange in a pulpy b-movie about some freak or other.

The worm turns...

The worm turns…

Carter’s script doesn’t stick to this traditional monster movie mood. The Host, as the name implies, also delves into the sort of body horror that became associated with horror in the late seventies and into the eighties. The Host features several of the most memorable sequences in the history of the show, and some of them seem to push the boundaries of what The X-Files could get away with on a national network.

In particular, the creature is very clearly tapping into the sort of grotesque reproductive horror associated with Alien. And that means that The Host comes with a wealth of subtext that makes the episode even freakier than anything that appears on film. Most obviously, there’s the fact that the creature is using the human body for reproductive purposes. “This… creature, or whatever it is… is transmitting it’s eggs or larvae through it’s bite,” Scully explains.

Reality bites...

Reality bites…

It’s worth noting that the victims of the creature are all male. Indeed, The Host is notable as one of the relatively rare episodes of The X-Files that never places any female character in any real jeopardy at any point. Instead, the creature forcibly impregnates a bunch of male characters. This seems like a conscious attempt to evoke the sexual subtext that made Alien so brilliantly unsettling – the idea that the male characters are being sexually assaulted, which catches the audience off guard.

The creature’s life-cycle is almost an inversion of that of the eponymous creature from Alien. It attacks the host brutally, breaking the skin; then it emerges from the mouth. While not as overt as the face-hugger, the script draws attention to the oral element of the assault. “I’d be happy if you’d just give me something to get this taste out of my mouth,” the second victim complains after his attack. (The first victim is grabbed by the face and pulled head-first into the water.)

"I've seen Silence of the Lambs... this doesn't end well..."

“I’ve seen Silence of the Lambs… this doesn’t end well…”

As such, The Host looks and feels like a miniature monster movie. One of the stock observations about The X-Files is that it felt like “watching a movie every week” and The Host reinforces this idea. It is very much a monster movie produced for television, serving as a demonstration of what The X-Files can be. Positioning it as the second episode of the season is a stroke of genius, particularly for a young show trying to catch an audience.

The fact that Carter opted to write The Host over Little Green Men is quite telling. As much as The X-Files would come to be defined by its over-arching mythology, that sense of long-form storytelling was still only embryonic at this point in the show’s life cycle. The first season’s alien episodes don’t string together as a single adventure told in multiple installments – there’s tighter continuity between Squeeze and Tooms that Fallen Angel and The Erlenmeyer Flask.

Something smells fishy here...

Something smells fishy here…

Little Green Men might give William B. Davis more little more dialogue than he has had before and feature blue beret death squads, but it was primarily about defining Mulder’s character and quest rather than peeling back the layers on an ominious conspiracy. The government conspiracy doesn’t have a face – or any key players – at this point. It seems quite likely that Carter decided to write The Host because the stand-alone monster-of-the-week story was deemed more essential to the show – and perhaps more indicative of what it wanted to be – than the premiere.

And The Host endures as one of the most distinctive and memorable X-Files episodes ever produced. The creature featured in the episode, “Fluke man”, is quite possible the most iconic monster to only appear in a single episode of the show. Much like the show’s other memorable monster to date, Victor Eugene Tooms, the creature is instantly memorable and distinctive. (It’s worth noting how early Tooms and “Fluke man” appeared in their respective seasons, as if part of a conscious mood-setting.)

Fluke man wormed his way into our hearts...

Fluke man wormed his way into our hearts…

Indeed, The Host was included as the only monster-focused “monster-of-the-week” story on the X-Files: Essential DVD. Justifying its selection for the set, producer Frank Spotnitz pointed to its impact:

The Host, I have to say to this day is one of the most talked about episodes we ever did. It just hit on something, a primal fear that people have of something entering your body. And it’s a great urban myth, the snake coming out of the toilet bowl kind of thing. There’s the scene in the port-a-potty that people just can’t get out of their mind. That’s when we felt we had done our job well, when people had a hard time turning off the lights that night after the show. That was early season two, and we were still on Friday nights by that point. It was one of the defining moments in the history of the series, one of the ones that helped cement our audience. It creeped people out so badly.

Indeed, “Fluke man” has become so popular that he has adorned t-shirts and even launched action figures. The character has had one heck of an impact.

All that work down the drain...

All that work down the drain…

Carter himself has occasionally seemed a little skeptical of The Host. Writing the introduction to John Kenneth Muir’s Horror Film FAQ, he observed:

The Host, though a popular episode, is not perfectly representative of what The X-Files did best. The monster (played by Darin Morgan, who would go on to more glorious fame as a writer on the show) was terrifying enough, but there he was, in the very light of day, or rather the light of the sewers, for all to see. A cheap thrill.

Whether the thrill was cheap or not, it worked. It helped make the second season of The X-Files one of the most talked-about shows on television.

State of decay...

State of decay…

What’s interesting about the second season of The X-Files is how hard it works to establish and expand the world of The X-Files, and how much of that is driven as much by production necessities as by anything else. Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy was something of a production problem for the show, limiting the actress’ availability and character’s options. While a trenchcoat does so much to hide a bump, Scully could not really shoulder one half of the show in its second season.

The first season had treated Scully as the character most accessible to the viewer. The show begins with Mulder already locked away in the basement of the FBI, and intimately familiar with UFO lore and paranormal matters, but the audience follows Scully as she ventures into the world of The X-Files. Sure, Mulder gets a lot of character development and history, but we don’t delve too far into his background.

The cold light of day...

The cold light of day…

While Beyond the Sea focuses on Scully’s family midway through the show’s first year, we don’t get to meet Mulder’s family until towards the end of the second season. Although Conduit gives us some back story for Mulder, we don’t get to meet Samantha until Little Green Men. While Conduit deals with Mulder’s past trauma allegorically, the first season episode that engages most directly with Mulder’s history is Fire, which introduces an ex-girlfriend we never meet (or hear about) again.

With Gillian Anderson largely unavailable, it’s the second season that really embraces Mulder as the viewpoint character – to the point where the only episode that really engages with Scully’s abduction from Scully’s perspective is Irresistible. Glen Morgan and James Wong have described Little Green Men as an attempt to do Beyond the Sea for Mulder, which tacitly suggests that Scully’s character development in the first season had edged ahead a bit of that of Mulder.

Body work...

Body work…

While Scully is relegated to a supporting role by real-world production issues, the first block of the second season focuses almost exclusively on Mulder. Scully has adapted quite well to her reassignment at Quantico. She is a friend and a voice of reason to Mulder, an expert who may be consulted, but there’s no real arc for Scully in these episodes. It is Mulder who is driving the case, and Mulder’s dissatisfaction and discomfort that anchors these stories.

This is arguably the biggest problem with The Host. Quite simply, Mulder doesn’t work as well on his own as he does with Scully. To be fair, some of the subsequent episodes touch on this, particularly Blood. Even The Host alludes to the idea that Mulder needs Scully to balance himself, as Mulder proves completely incapable of navigating his relationship to Skinner single-handed.

Mulder survives by the Skinner of his teeth...

Mulder survives by the Skinner of his teeth…

However, there’s a sense that Carter is perhaps a little too sympathetic to Mulder’s martyrdom complex to really push the idea that. After the monster has been taken into custody, Skinner and Mulder discuss the situation. Discovering that there has been a second victim, Mulder protests, “You know, you had a pair of agents that could have handled a case like this. Agent Scully and I might have been able to save that man’s life, but you shut us down.”

While it’s a valid point, it’s worth noting that a considerable portion of The Host is devoted to Mulder dragging his feet on the case. He mopes about it being “a simple drugland body dump” and storms into Skinner’s office to complain. He has the first body shipped to Skinner as a petty protest, refusing to engage with the case enthusiastically until it is demonstrated to be something interesting to him. Had Mulder been more engaged with the case instead of indulging his self-righteous victim complex, there would have been a better chance of solving the case quicker.

Possibly not the easiest way to end up on the X-Files writing staff...

Possibly not the easiest way to end up on the X-Files writing staff…

Carter’s script never implies that Mulder’s half-assed handling of the initial body recovery may have been responsible for delays that led to the death of the second victim. Skinner, who is typically level-headed and detached, responds to Mulder’s accusations in an apologetic manner. “I know,” he concedes quietly. There’s a sense that The Host might have been a stronger episode had it been willing to leave some more ambiguity around Mulder’s effectiveness and efficiency as a solo investigator.

Still, Gillian Anderson’s limited availability shapes and defines the start of the second season in a number of ways that ultimately work out quite well for the show. Most obviously, her absence forces an element of serialisation on the show. It’s easy to imagine that – had Gillian Anderson been completely available at the start of the year – the show would have reverted back to the status quo at the end of the second seaosn premiere.

You'd be surprised how many X-Files tips come through the National Enquirer...

You’d be surprised how many X-Files tips come through the National Enquirer…

After all “Mulder and Scully investigate crazy stuff” is the format of the show, so one imagines the second season would have wanted to get back to that as early as possible, particularly given the way the season is structured as an introduction to the show for new viewers attracted by re-runs or buzz. However, Scully’s absence nixed that idea, and forced the producers to delay the reset to that premise until after Gillian Anderson had given birth.

As a result, the second season opens with an extended arc that is based around a status quo radically different from the basic premise of the show. This necessitates long-form plotting and serialisation a bit more aggressive than anything seen in the first season. It demonstrates that The X-Files is a show that can balance these kinds of stories and can shake up its status quo a bit. The closing of The X-Files isn’t a cliffhanger resolved immediately at the start of the second season; it’s a new status quo.

Somebody needs a de-worming...

Somebody needs a de-worming…

And it isn’t something that the show assures viewers will be “fixed.” While threads play out across these episodes, the driving narrative force in the opening six episodes is not the reopening of The X-Files and the restoration of the previous status quo. Episodes like The Host, Blood and Sleepless aren’t materially about trying to get Mulder back on the X-files, instead they are adventures that exist in a world where certain rules of the show have been suspended. It cements the idea that narrative elements need not be resolved immediately.

Anderson’s absence is also responsible for broadening the show’s cast a bit. With Anderson unavailable, The X-Files casts Mulder as the lead character. However, it works hard to build a supporting cast around him. The first season had struggled with the idea of recurring characters beyond the Smoking Man, with the Lone Gunmen and Assistant Director Skinner only appearing in one episode each.

Let's see what's on the slab...

Let’s see what’s on the slab…

With more focus on Mulder, the second season develops and expands these characters. Skinner features heavily in both Little Green Men and The Host, and both episodes advance the characterisation of Skinner beyond a mere administrative obstacle for Mulder to brush up against. In Little Green Men, Skinner kicks the Smoking Man out of his office, and The Host plays with Mulder’s sense of righteous entitlement by drawing attention to the fact that Skinner isn’t brushing Mulder off because he has nothing better to do.

It helps that actor Mitch Pileggi is wonderful in the role, perfectly capturing Skinner’s inner conflict. Skinner very much appears as a man following the orders and directives given by those above him, but one who isn’t willfully obstructive. Skinner seems like a character who is an obstacle because he is trying to do the right thing, rather than because he wants to screw over Mulder. This makes him more interesting than somebody like Section Chief Blevins, who seems to exist because Mulder needs a character against whom to butt heads.

Gillian Anderson's pregnancy gave the show a bit of a bump...

Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy gave the show a bit of a bump…

While Carter’s choice to write this particular episode may seem somewhat unusual, The Host does feel like a Chris Carter script. The story touches on Carter’s environmentalism and the episode’s coda even involves something of a stern warning for the viewers at home. Revealing that the creature originated in Chernobyl, Scully explains, “Mulder, nature didn’t make this thing. We did.” Carter isn’t a writer who does subtlety, and the final scene – with all its exposition about the origins of the monster – feels like an attempt to force a message into the episode.

(The Host is free from some of Carter’s more excessive philosophical monologues, but the final scene between Mulder and Scully still offers Mulder a moment of pseudo-profundity. “You know, they say three species disappear off the planet every day,” he observes. “You wonder how many new ones are being created.” It’s one of those sentiments that sounds quite nice… but tries a little to hard to give existential meaning to a man in a rubber monster suit.)

There's going to be a sh!tstorm over this...

There’s going to be a sh!tstorm over this…

The use of Chernobyl as the source of the monster is an interesting choice. On the one hand, it seems rather crass. Radioactive mutants are something of a trashy pop culture stable, with nuclear energy serving as the catalyst for all sorts of horrific creations. Gojira is about a horrific monster awakened by nuclear weapons. The Hills Have Eyes is based around mutants created by atomic testing on American soil. However, using Chernobyl as the point of origin for a radioactive monster in an American horror show feels almost crass.

Chernobyl is, after all, a real disaster that dramatically affected countless lives in Eastern Europe. It was a tragedy that was still current when The Host was released, and its effects are still felt today. Charities and volunteers are still working hard to provide aid and support for people whose lives were destroyed by those events. To use Chernobyl as the source of a radioactive mutant in an American television show feels a little exploitative.

"You mean Skinner deals with problems that aren't caused by or directly related to Mulder?"

“You mean Skinner deals with problems that aren’t caused by or directly related to Mulder?”

Then again, perhaps that’s the point. The Host is consciously designed to evoke fifties science-fiction b-movies, with its rubber monster costume, fixation on mutation and questionable grasp of biology. Those trashy horror films often came with a none-too-subtle Cold War subtext, often expressing a fear of Communist infiltration or nuclear apocalypse. As such, Chernobyl seems like a suitable point of origin for the creature.

The Host is an episode that seems to have been written to give potential fans of The X-Files exactly what they want. Carter calibrates the various ingredients carefully, and even manages to devote considerable space to teasing the Mulder and Scully relationship. As Mulder rants and raves about his lack of options, he admits, “They don’t want us working together, Scully… and right now, that’s the only reason I can think of to stay.”

"I'm working on my INNER monologue..."

“I’m working on my INNER monologue…”

It’s certainly a line that hints at a romantic dimension to their dynamic – Mulder may want to be back working on the X-Files, but partnering with Scully would be enough to satisfy him. He isn’t disinterested in Scully’s proposal that he return to Behavioural Sciences, a move would reunite him with Scully; he rejects it as an impossibility. The Host seems to suggest that Mulder’s torment is rooted as much in his separation from Scully as it is in his removal from the X-Files.

In a way, it’s the character work on The X-Files that holds up best. Mulder and Scully would become a key part of the show’s success, to the point where the show seemed unable to limp along with out them. Many of the show’s best moments had nothing to do with aliens or monsters or conspiracies, but in the quirky dynamic that exists between two dysfunctional individuals. Mulder and Scully work together incredibly well, whether one likes the idea of a romantic relationship between them or not, and The Host sees Carter playing that card very skilfully.

A story with bite...

A story with bite…

Of course, there’s a sense that Carter was being just a little bit cheeky here. While writing scenes that are clearly designed to tease the idea of a romantic bond between Mulder and Scully, he was also vigourously denying the possibility of a Mulder and Scully romance in contemporary interviews, like a 1994 interview with Starlog:

“One of the most interesting things about the show is that the characters are not romantically linked; instead, there is a great deal of [mutual] admiration and respect,” Carter explains. “When you put a smart man and a smart woman in a room, I think have immediate sexual tension. But if the show lasts five or six years, knock on wood, I think anything could happen.”

Of course, the show would inevitably involve Mulder and Scully in a romantic relationship. Conversations like this suggest that Carter always knew the development was inevitable, he was just playfully stoking fan anticipation by denying it. As such, it’s another example of how beautifully The Host sets the mood.

Fluke man lives!

Fluke man lives!

The Host remains one of the most iconic and definitive episodes of The X-Files ever produced. Along with Little Green Men, it ruthlessly and efficiently brings new viewers up to speed – offering an idea of what the show is capable of doing within the confines of contemporary television. It’s a classic episode for a reason, skilfully constructed to demonstrate the show’s strengths. It was certainly no fluke.

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

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2 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this review. It perfectly summed up the reasons I continue to rewatch this show. The Host is just as effective the 7th or so time around.

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