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The X-Files – Fearful Symmetry (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.

Fearful Symmetry is an embarrassing mess of an episode. It’s ambitious, but it’s clumsy and over-wrought. It aspires to great things, but is instead completely banal. For a show featuring an invisible elephant, that’s no small accomplishment.

Tyger, Tyger...

Tyger, Tyger…

One of the nice things about the early seasons of a given television show is the freedom to experiment. Before a formula has been entrenched, before an “average” episode has been firmly defined, there is an incredible freedom to think outside the box. It’s possible to take massive risks and fall flat on your face, because there’s a learning curve at play. Once you settle into a groove, things become a bit more familiar and a bit more rote, and the boundaries of what can and can’t be done are established.

Of course, all of this presupposes that there is time for a show to grow and experiment. In the modern television landscape, it seems like fewer shows get the chance to find their feet. In 2012, almost two thirds of new shows didn’t get second seasons. Indeed, The X-Files seemed lucky to survive its first year. Had it aired on a more popular network, it would likely have been cancelled. Looking at Chris Carter’s subsequent shows, it seems entirely reasonable to suggest that The X-Files was the right show at the right time.

An elephant graveyard...

An elephant graveyard…

The X-Files remained very experimental for most of its run. The fifth, sixth and seventh seasons gave us an entirely black-and-white episode (The Post-Modern Prometheus), an episode that is effectively four long takes (Triangle), and a crossover with Cops (X-Cops). The show has been very willing expand out its world view, giving focus to supporting characters like Skinner (Zero Sum, S.R. 819), the Lone Gunmen (Unusual Suspects, Three of a Kind) or even the monster of the week (Hungry).

However, it’s hard to argue that the show didn’t find its groove in its third season. The third, fourth and fifth seasons saw The X-Files hitting its stride – as if the show had figured out what the essential ingredients were for making a thrilling episode of The X-Files. The move to Los Angeles in the sixth season forced the show to adapt to a new way of working, and the show never recovered from the departure of David Duchovny at the end of the seventh.

Behind bars...

Behind bars…

However, the first two seasons of The X-Files were very much about the show figuring out what it wanted to be. The last three episodes represent an astonishingly strong run of episodes that set the template for the years ahead. Fresh Bones is a beautifully-executed stand-alone horror, while Colony and End Game really push the boat out when it comes to the show’s over-arching conspiracy narrative. These episodes were overwhelming successes, and very much set the tone for the show ahead.

However, the show also fell quite flat at times during those first two seasons. For a young show, lessons about how what doesn’t work can be as informative as lessons about what does work. A massive failure like Fearful Symmetry would have been much more embarrassing had it occurred later in the show’s run. One of the biggest problems of the show’s troubled eighth season is the way that it feels like a competent first season – lots of misses, some hits, and a sense that the production team are re-learning the ropes.

"Well, at least we have that nice tiger-skin rug we always wanted for the visitor's centre..."

“Well, at least we have that nice tiger-skin rug we always wanted for the visitor’s centre…”

In many respects, Fearful Symmetry feels like a companion piece to those troubled episodes late in the show’s run. Like Badlaa or Fight Club, it’s an example of an episode that really should not have made it through the writers’ room. It takes an incredible amount of ambition or desperation to think that a show can make “invisible killer zoo animals” work as a concept. Just like it takes a similar amount of ambition to think the show can make “butt-dwelling Indian fakir” or “two Kathy Griffins” work.

The central premise of Fearful Symmetry is something that sounds so incredibly ridiculous it’s hard to imagine that anybody thought it might work. Even the basic concept of the episode feels like a massive cop-out, as if the series is aware of the logistical difficulties of working with wild a television production, but wants to think of the easiest way to tell a story within those constraints. “What if we don’t have to see the animals when they are outside their cages?” is the easiest possible answer.

Talk about exposure...

Talk about exposure…

It’s an absurd premise. The episode all but admits that in the first scene with Mulder and Scully, as Mulder dismisses any number of vaguely plausible explanations for what happened. “Well, if somebody would have seen it, Scully, we wouldn’t be here,” he assures her. “If I was a betting man I’d say that it was…” He trails off, letting Scully finish the thought for him. “An invisible elephant?” It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd. It’s nonsense that exists to allow The X-Files to do a show about rampaging animals on the production budget of a television show.

To be fair, it’s not the most absurd premise with which the show has ever played. This is show which invited us to believe that a liver-eating stretch monster could be the avatar of urban decay in Squeeze and Tooms. Colony and End Game feature alien clones of Mulder’s sister, hunted down by a shape-shifting bounty hunter. Many of the show’s best-loved episodes take absurd ideas and run with them. However, Fearful Symmetry starts with an absurd story point dictated by production necessity. It needs to be careful. Fearful Symmetry is not careful.

"We're Byers and Frohike. Thanks for watching."

“We’re Byers and Frohike. Thanks for watching.”

There’s almost an endearing social consciousness to the script, which explores the idea of animal captivity. The X-Files is a show that is as much about contemporary America as it is about aliens and monsters, and Fearful Symmetry is reflecting back a very public concern of the mid-nineties. The opening sequence, featuring a rampaging elephant, is clearly intended to evoke the much-publicised case of Tyke the Elephant, who went on a rampage in Honolulu. Mulder alludes to an “elephant rebellion”, which mirrors some the rhetoric around the case.

Similarly, Sophie the gorilla can’t help but conjure up images of Koko, the famous “talking” gorilla. A gorilla who learned sign language, Koko was something of a sensation in the eighties and nineties. Sophie can sign “over 600 words using American sign language. She understands over a thousand.” Much like Koko, we’re told that “Sophie desperately wanted a baby.” Although Koko was just as difficult to mate as Sophie, Koko had been give a kitten to help her satisfy those maternal instincts.

An artist's depiction...

An artist’s depiction…

The episode is fixated on animal rights. Although animal rights had movements (like PETA) had existed and garnered attention during the seventies and into the eighties, these organisations really engaged with the mainstream into the nineties. In the United Kingdom, the number of vegetarians “peaked” in the nineties, undoubtedly assisted by various meat scares. The Independent named animal liberator Peter Singer as its first “thinker of the nineties.”

Fearful Symmetry feels like an episode of The X-Files anchored in the nineties. This is to be expected. After all, The X-Files is a show that was produced during the decade and anchored in its sensibilities. There’s an argument to be made that The X-Files helped to chart the lacuna between the Cold War and the War on Terror. However, Fearful Symmetry feels a little too specific in its references, dating itself far too casually and too readily.

I guess we're not going to the zoo...

I guess we’re not going to the zoo…

During a video conference call with Mulder, Frohike quips that the call is costing the tax payer “almost as much as Bill Clinton’s haircuts”, a reference to the oft-repeated 1993 urban legend about how Clinton’s haircut caused delays and issues at Los Angeles International Airport. Mulder even throws in a casual reference to “MTV Sports”, the Emmy-winning sports anthology that ran on MTV from 1992 through to 1997. The X-Files is a product of the nineties, but it’s interesting how Fearful Symmetry dates itself so heavily.

Fearful Symmetry is essentially an issue story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an issue story. Indeed, it’s something of a staple of the science-fiction genre – using allegory to offer commentary on contemporary concerns. Things that would be difficult to discuss directly can be broached metaphorically and allegorically, raising philosophical concerns in abstract terms that help to divorce them from the moment.

Monkey business...

Monkey business…

It’s worth noting that, at this point in the second season, it seems like The X-Files is rather actively positioning itself as a science-fiction. Colony and End Game featured shape-shifting aliens and the threat of colonisation. Here, we have invisible elephants abducted by aliens building their own version of Noah’s ark. Død Kälm will feature premature aging, a science-fiction staple. Soft Light will give us a miniature black hole. The show arguably wouldn’t embrace the trappings of science-fiction so enthusiastically again until the sixth and seventh seasons.

Even Mulder’s attempt to account for the events of the episode feel like they were lifted from a dodgy B-movie. “I don’t know where they’re being taken but there’s obviously some problem getting them back,” he explains. “Due to what is probably an astrological variation, a trouble with the time-space continuum – these animals that are being taken from locked cages are being returned roughly two miles westsouthwest of the zoo.” The problem isn’t the theory (although it’s worth stressing this is a man who doesn’t believe in “entity rape”) but the language used.

Up against the wall...

Up against the wall…

There’s a clumsiness to Fearful Symmetry. The story in incredibly earnest, but irritatingly non-committal. It’s a story which doesn’t really offer a compelling argument about any of the issues that it raises, but paints everybody involved as completely two-dimensional. For example, the issue of animal abuse in zoos is made fairly straightforward by presenting Ed Meechum as a two-dimensional thug, and having him engage in practices that are outdated and backwards. He’s such an obvious villain that he might as well have a mustache to twirl menacingly.

At one point, Meechum is shown beating the elephant. At another point, he shoots a tiger. Never mind that the tiger is attacking a person, and its death is tragic but justifiable. The script gives Meechum a pithy one-liner to remind us that he is a jerk. “They don’t all talk and draw pictures,” he quips, just so we know that he is a bad guy. Later on, he traps Mulder in a room with giant angry gorilla, just in case we had any doubt about his character.

The hunt is on...

The hunt is on…

Fearful Symmetry dodges a lot of the thorny issues by dismissing Meechum as a relic or a holdover from an earlier era, the embodiment of “an old, nonprogressive zoo policy” – the forties are explicitly cited. “This is still going on?” our agents ask dumbstruck. While these sorts of abuses do still occur, the focus on Meechum’s barbarism allows the episode to avoid broader questions about mankind’s relationship with animals.

Is the issue of cruelty and abuse the only criticism that exists of keeping animals in captivity? For example, is keeping an animal like Sophie in captivity justifiable even if the cage is gilded? The show is so busy reveling in Meechem’s obvious villainy that the show never really explores the issue. Fearful Symmetry just offers a bunch of broad statements that everybody can agree on, never delving into the subject matter in any real depth.

Unbearable...

Unbearable…

Similarly, the characters at the opposite end of the spectrum are no more complex. Lang is portrayed as an obnoxious self-righteous radical whose arrogance undermines any legitimate point that he may have. As much as Meechum is presented as a two-dimensional abusive animal trainer, Lang is portrayed as a stock animal right activist, embodied all the clichés that have become associated with PETA and the animal rights movement. It doesn’t help that Lang and his associate die standard horror movie deaths-by-stupidity.

It’s particularly strange since one of the deaths seems to explicitly violate the episode’s premise – an abducted tiger is not deposited a few kilometres from its cage, but right outside it. And then it somehow manages to get out of the zoo into a construction site. One would hope that there are a few more safety mechanisms that exist for an escaped carnivore than the bars right in front of its face – if a tiger cage is opened, an entire city should not have to fear. Or did the aliens abduct it, return it to kill the guy with the video camera and then abduct it again? Or can it work doors?

A cagey beast...

A cagey beast…

It seems trite to complain that The X-Files makes no sense from a storytelling or structural perspective. The show generally tends to work better on mood or theme than plot mechanics or rules. After all, these are stories about phenomena that don’t follow hard-and-fast rules, so it’s easy enough to excuse a logical gap here and there. However, there’s very little in Fearful Symmetry to encourage fans to make that logical leap.

To be fair, the episode has some interesting ideas – even if it never quite develops them. Fearful Symmetry fits quite easily within the framework of Carter’s environmental interests. The X-Files would return time and again to the difficulties in mankind’s interactions with nature, in episodes like Darkness Falls. It was an example of how Carter was connected with the environmental issues of the nineties.

Our animal nature...

Our animal nature…

Fearful Symmetry is particularly ham-fisted in how it tackles the theme. Mulder’s closing monologue reads like a civics lesson. “Could this be a judgement on a global rate of extinction that has risen to 1000 times its natural rate in this century?” he asks. “An act of alien conservation of animals we are driving hard toward oblivion? And if so, might it follow that our own fate and existence could finally be dependent upon the conservatorship of an extraterrestrial race?” The show’s monologues were seldom subtle, but Fearful Symmetry feels particularly painful.

The episode feels like it is dripping with pretension. The title is an allusion to a William Blake poem, with the episode even featuring scenes set at a construction site named “Blake Towers.” All of this referencing seems a little awkward and heavy-handed. There is fertile ground to be explored here – after all, The Tyger touches on religious themes and philosophical questions that Fearful Symmetry brushes against rather lightly. There’s a sense that there is a more interesting episode buried somewhere in here.

Gorilla in our midst...

Gorilla in our midst…

In some respects, Fearful Symmetry could be seen as a companion piece to Red Museum, another of the troubled episodes of the show’s second season. As with Red Museum, Fearful Symmetry is an episode that trades on the show’s alien mythology without tying directly into the over-arching conspiracies. (After all, the conspiracy is somewhat hazily defined at this point.) It’s a show that exists half-way between the monster-of-the-week stories and the still-developing mythology arc.

These episodes afford the show a bit more freedom in its portrayal of the aliens inhabiting the universe of The X-Files. In particular, it allows the show to more acutely stress the religious aspects of the aliens. In Red Museum, the aliens were worshiped as deities that would herald an era of great change. Here, the aliens are suggested to be constructing their own version of Noah’s Ark, preserving species endangered by mankind’s recklessness.

A smashing intro...

A smashing intro…

While The X-Files would never delve into issues around religion as deeply as Millennium did, but The X-Files would continue to incorporate religious subtext into its grand alien mythology. Still, Fearful Symmetry and Red Museum represent the more obvious examples of this approach before the show’s sixth or seventh seasons. In some respects, this could be seen as the show marking out ground that it would cycle back to after the government conspiracy had largely played itself out.

That said, given the quality issues with Red Museum and Fearful Symmetry, it is easy to see why the show moved away from this approach in the immediate term. After all, government conspiracies and stories about power and authority are much more compelling explorations of the post-Watergate era. Still, the religious themes never entirely go away – the alien civil war plays almost like a war in heaven, with crashed ships falling like angels – and the show would return more thoroughly to those themes in its later seasons.

Eye see...

Eye see…

(There’s also a nice line from Byers about the fact that there is “lots of strange lore” around the local zoo – cementing the idea that The X-Files is really about the excavation of all these provincial little towns with their strange stories and unique legends. It seems that every part of American has its own mythology, its own history and traditions and legacy. The X-Files is a show that seems dedicated to exploring precisely that sort of “strange lore.”)

Fearful Symmetry is a mess of an episode. It’s a host of half-developed interesting ideas, wrapped in a core idea that really needs a bit more finesse or skill to apply. It’s a failure, a miscalculation, an error in judgement. It’s a reminder that this is only a show in its sophomore season, and there are still lessons to be learned.

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

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8 Responses

  1. There’ve been several science fiction shows in this decade (The Event, Stargate Universe) where my reaction was a resounding “meh,” but where I wondered what would’ve happened if the networks had been more patient with them – there were the bones of a good show buried under all the “meh.”

    The original Stargate is probably my favorite show of all time, but even I will admit that season 1 was pretty uneven and that it didn’t really hit its stride until the third, maybe even fourth season. Ditto Star Trek TNG where most people think it didn’t really get good until season 3, after Roddenberry was no longer in control. X-Files too, then (I’ve only seen it wildly out of order on reruns)? Makes me wonder how many potential X-Files, Stargates and Star Treks are dying before they reach their full potential.

    • Yep, The X-Files has a solid first two seasons. There are some very high highs, but some really long and deep sloughs. (The second season is in the middle of one at this point.)

      However, the third season is just phenomenal – like the third season of The Next Generation or the fourth season of Deep Space Nine, it’s a moment where everything clicks. And the logic seems to be “do more of what worked in the first two seasons, just better.” And it pays off. It wouldn’t be possible without those two rocky years behind it.

      This is part of why I worry about any science-fiction franchise returning to television. Would the networks give it the time it needed to develop properly? To do the experimentation that is an essential part of growth?

      • Agreed. The third season established the show as one of the greatest series ever and is my overall favorite of the nine seasons due to great and most consistent mythology, Darin Morgan and other standout MOTWs.

  2. This is without doubt one of the silliest episodes, though nowhere near as terrible as Fight Club. For one thing, you have to admit that the teaser is gloriously fun, as is the sight of Scully conducting an autopsy on an elephant while standing inside it!

  3. Looking back, from our 20 years hence view, that opening teaser is hard to believe wasn’t done using CGI. The glass breaking and the other stuff being trampled/blown out of the way isn’t the best, but the elephant running straight at the semi truck and it running past… you wouldn’t even attempt that today without CGI, but this episode is around the same time as Jurassic Park and it spent millions making CGI look like that. Quite an amazing practical effect.

    Almost makes the episode worth it.

    • It’s not a bad solution to “we want to do a wild animals episode on a tiny late-season budget.” I actually think the tiger and gorilla sequences are what really let the episode down, though.

  4. I don’t get the comparisons to Red Museum. While you don’t know it’s a mythology episode from the get go, that becomes clear once you realize what’s going on is part of the purity control experiments and the Crewcut Man is there to cleanup. I think a more apt comparison is that Fearful Symmetry is like Gender Bender. These aliens aren’t connected to the mythology at all and it doesn’t work because we know it’s never going to be followed up on.

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