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The X-Files – F. Emasculata (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 wonderful thing about the second season of The X-Files is the spirit of experimentation. There’s a sense that the show is consciously pushing itself to try new things, to figure out what works. Watching the second season of the show, you can see the series’ outline beginning to take shape, even if it’s not full developed yet. The third season of The X-Files would seem a lot stronger and more cohesive, but it was building off the lessons learned during the second season.

Sometimes those experiments worked well. For example, the first stretch of the season demonstrated that the show could do an arc spanning multiple episodes. Colony and End Game established the foundations of the larger “colonisation” mythology even beyond “the government knows about aliens and they sometimes abduct people.” Episodes like Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug demonstrated that the show could do comedy stories and step outside its comfort zones.

Has everybody caught the Ebola bug?

Has everybody caught the Ebola bug?

Of course, there were a few narrative dead-ends as well, a few experiments that did not work as well as they might. Most notably, the tail end of the season leans rather heavily on science-fiction high-concepts. The elements introduced in Colony and End Game work well enough, but shows like Soft Light and Død Kälm feel almost like episodes of some other science-fiction anthology show. Still, there’s a sense that the show is trying to figure out what exactly it wants to be.

F. Emasculata is a wonderful example of that spirit of experimentation, effectively tapping into nineties health scares within the framework of a conspiracy thriller.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

There have always been concerns about the damage that a pandemic could do to modern civilisation. Perhaps it’s the cultural memory of the Black Death, or anxiety over epidemics like the Spanish Flu, but the fear of a pending disease epidemic never seem too far from the public consciousness. Pop culture has an affinity for apocalypse-by-the-way-of-deadly-virus, informing works as diverse as The Stand, 28 Days Later and even the second season finalé of Millennium.

Although the specific cause of the epidemic is subject to change, the fear never quite goes away. In the mid-nineties, Outbreak spoke to anxieties about the Ebola and Marberg viruses; over a decade later, Contagion reflected the public’s growing concerns about avian and swine flu. The tune may change slightly, but the dance moves remain the same. Broadcast in April 1995, F. Emasculata stands of proof of how Chris Carter had his finger on the pop culture pulse at the very least.

You're done in, mate...

You’re done in, mate…

Like the meat scare that runs through Red Museum and Our Town, F. Emasculata reflects very contemporary concerns. The Ebola virus was on the tip of everybody’s tongue in 1995. In 1992, Richard Preston had published Crisis in the Hot Zone in The New Yorker. Preston expanded the article in to a novel-length thriller, The Hot Zone, in 1994. Laurie Garrett also published The Coming Plague the same year.

These viral thriller narratives were very popular on film. Although Ridley and Tony Scott’s planned adaptation of Crisis in the Hot Zone never made it to screen, Outbreak was released in early March 1995. The film proved a hit, topping the box office for three weeks and earning almost $190m back on its $50m budget. May would see the broadcast of Robin Cook’s Virus (alternatively Formula for Death), a television movie produced for NBC.

Keen on quarantine...

Keen on quarantine…

The World Health Organisation itself has acknowledged the impact that Ebola had on popular consciousness during the middle of the nineties, acknowledging that public perception even had a practical impact on official policy:

During the early- to mid-1990s, Ebola virus was portrayed as a global threat, a fierce predator emerging from tropical areas in Africa and spreading rapidly to the rest of the mobile and interconnected world. Therefore, cases of infection with Ebola virus required rapid international notification and response. Films and books, such as The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett, The Hot Zone by Richard Preston and the movie Outbreak starring Dustin Hoffman, all created fear about Ebola haemorrhagic fever in western populations.

Interestingly, some of these versions portrayed the Ebola virus as if it were an active agent going out on the attack, transmissible through air or touch, with no treatment available until a “high tech” scientist discovers a vaccine or other cure – otherwise everyone died. One of the key elements in these stories is the sense of scientific heroism, of individuals committed to discover, identify and conquer this virus. Panic, violence and competition are often portrayed as the common human responses to outbreaks of viral diseases. I’ve been told by staff at WHO that the perception that the 1995 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo “was going to spread to the rest of the world” was one of the factors that built political momentum leading to the revision of the International Health Regulations in 2005.

Even if the horror of an Ebola epidemic in the United States was never realised, it is easy to see why Ebola captured the public’s imagination.

Puncturing the public consciousness...

Puncturing the public consciousness…

It is a stunningly deadly disease, that kills in a very visceral fashion. It had been re-discovered in the Ivory Coast in 1994 “after 15 years of epidemiologic silence.” It is worth noting that – in that particular instance – there was only one reported infection – and the infected individual was treated and cured. Perhaps the fact that this report helped to spur such a public panic underscores the idea at the centre of F. Emasculata. Perhaps the panic caused by a scare can be just as threatening as the disease itself.

There was an outbreak in Zaire around around the time that F. Emasculata was broadcast, resulting in at least eighty-six deaths. However, it’s quite clear that the episode would have been in development long before the outbreak occurred. In the years since the scare, the natural reservoir of the Ebola virus has been successfully identified – the virus is reported among fruit bat populations between human epidemics.

Boared to death...

Boared to death…

Of course, Ebola was not the only health scare to grip the American public in the nineties. The X-Files engaged with anxieties around HIV and AIDS in episodes like Gender Bender or 3. It is interesting to note the contrast between AIDS and Ebola, as Susan D. Moeller notes in Compassion Fatigue:

In many ways, however, Ebola is not like AIDS at all. AIDS is a slow virus; there is a long span of time, probably years, in which a symptomless individual can infect others. Ebola works quickly. By the time a person is contagious, he is typically very ill. Among humans, an epidemic of Ebola seems to last a finite, fairly short period of time. If a virus is too immediately deadly it has less of a chance to spread, so Ebola appears to compensate by reducing its virulence over a period of months. AIDS does not. Since the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine identified the Ebola virus in 1976, fewer than 800 people have died. In that same span of time, according to the WHO, rabies, considered the most deadly virus known, has claimed 627,000 lives. And AIDS has killed one and a quarter million people.

Ebola is a lot faster and more dynamic than AIDS or HIV, even if it is – statistically speaking – responsible for fewer deaths. The speed of infection and the grotesque (and relatively immediate) symptom lend themselves to these sorts of thrillers.

Tabling this discussion for later...

Tabling this discussion for later…

That said, portrayals of Ebola and HIV often trade off the same imagery and iconography, as Corinne Squire observes in AIDS Panic:

The Hot Zone constellation also displays a set of social biases that repeat, in an overt way, the concealed stereotypes driving AIDS panic. Crisis in the Hot Zone suggests that cutting down the rainforests is causing viruses to spread out of the dark and steamy reservoirs of infection that once contained them. Exploding populations and increased contact between previously separate groups are also indicted. Here viral panic turns disease into ecological vengeance and the ecosystem into Frankenstein, and sets up the rainforest, the African and the prostitute in uneasy equation. These speculations recapitulate early AIDS mythologies about sexual excesses, cross-species and cross-race contact, and dark Africa.

Although the diseases themselves may be very different, there are similarities in portrayals and attitudes.

Cashing it in...

Cashing it in…

It’s clear that fear about these sorts of diseases had worked its way into the zietgeist. These disease and infections narratives hit on some pretty primal fears about the natural world and the perils of globalisation, and comfortably allowing for some public skepticism about those in authority and charged to protect people. Given these are themes that The X-Files enjoyed tackling, it made sense for the show to tell its own story exploring these themes.

It is worth pausing to acknowledge that F. Emasculata was just one of a glut of “epidemic” and “plague” narratives to hit the market place in 1995. Due to the time that it takes to push a story into development and shepherd it to the screen, these moments of pop culture synergy cannot always be dismissed as mere “trend hopping.” It seems more reasonable to suggest that most of these ideas develop in parallel, drawing from the same inspirations and influences to produce a similar end result.

Bodies of proof...

Bodies of proof…

After all, these “twin” projects have long been a source of pop culture fascination – with Volcano and Dante’s Peak, Deep Impact and Armageddon, and Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down all opening in close proximity to one another. Fans and critics will likely continue to argue about the similarities between Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for years to come.

While there have been allegations of theft and espionage concerning these sorts of projects in the past, it remains plausible that some instances are simply the pop culture equivalent of multiple discovery – the same idea occurring to different people operating independently. Sometimes this process seems organic. Sometimes it doesn’t. Who could have seen the development of two movies based on the life of writer Truman Capote in 2006? Certainly not producer Douglas McGrath.

Boiling it down...

Boiling it down…

In an interview with Cinefantastique, Carter denied that F. Emasculata had been influenced by any of the other high-profile “virus outbreak” projects:

“We sat at Starbucks one day and came up with the story idea,” Carter said. “Neither of us had seen Outbreak or read The Hot Zone. When we started working on the story, I went to see Outbreak, and I thought, ‘People are going to draw their obvious comparisons,’ but I was determined to do something that’s better than that movie.”

Given how Ebola had worked its way into the national consciousness, this seems quite plausible.

Panic is contagious...

Panic is contagious…

F. Emasculata is directed by Rob Bowman from a script by Chris Carter and Howard Gordon. This is really the perfect cocktail to produce an episode like this. Bowman is a director with a remarkable sense of pace and movement. If The X-Files is going to do a slick high-stakes thriller, Bowman is really the perfect director to bring that to screen. F. Emasculata moves with incredible speed – yet another example of The X-Files boiling down a blockbuster movie into a forty-five minute episode.

Chris Carter’s environmentalism and social conscience reflect themselves in the script. As with Darkness Falls, there’s a clear sense that mankind is completely unprepared for the horrors waiting for them in nature – as if the entire planet has developed an immune system that would strike back at those so quick to exploit it. As with Carter’s scripts for Young At Heart and The List, there’s a sense that American prisons are cesspools of corruption, packed with people who can be oppressed and victimised with nobody to speak for them.

"That's not right at all..."

“That’s not right at all…”

Howard Gordon would find great success after The X-Files as a producer on 24 and Homeland. Gordon is a writer who works very well at crafting edge-of-your-seat countdown thrillers, creating a sense of incredible tension as our heroes race against time to save lives. Gordon’s recurring themes of body horror also play through F. Emasculata. Like Firewalker, this episode gives us a parasitic organism that “births” itself by exploding out of its host.

F. Emasculata exists in the sort of grey area that seemed to fade away after the second season. It’s an episode that feels like it belongs to part of the larger government conspiracy narrative, but one that doesn’t tie in directly to threats of alien invasion or colonisation. From the third season onwards, the conspiracy plot line would get a lot more focused, moving with a sense that Carter and his colleagues at least had a clear direction (if not quite a destination) in which they wanted to move.

He caught some bugs...

He caught some bugs…

These sorts of plots were quite common in the first couple of seasons, as The X-Files hadn’t yet rigidly defined the “monster of the week” and “conspiracy” shows into two distinct categories. After all, in the first season, The Pilot, Deep Throat, Fallen Angel and E.B.E. cannot be said to play into a larger sweeping narrative of alien colonisation. Episodes like Ghost in the Machine, Eve, Soft Light and even Young at Heart were stories that did not involve aliens, but still revolved around sinister government conspiracies involving familiar players.

With the third season, it seemed like characters like Mr. X and the Cigarette Smoking Man became confined much more rigidly to plots about aliens. The appearances of these sorts of characters became “a big deal”, signifying that the episode was “important.” (Although, to be fair, both Mr. X and the Cigarette Smoking Man appeared in Wetwired, a third season episode that consciously felt like a throwback to the first and second season.) Other characters like the Well-Manicured Man and the First Elder never appeared outside of conspiracy episodes.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

So F. Emasculata is positioned at a rather odd place in the show’s history. While Colony and End Game have given shape to the mythology, the show hasn’t fully embraced the division between “regular” episodes and “mythology” episodes. F. Emasculata (like Soft Light directly following it) sits in that middle-ground. However, while Soft Light feels a bit awkward about its attempts to connect a “monster of the week” story to elements of the show’s larger mythos, F. Emasculata does this quite well.

Part of this is down to how comfortably F. Emasculata fits within the thematic confines of the mythology. While it is a chase story about a deadly contagion, the episode uses that to ask questions about the managing information. The X-Files is a show about trust and public interest. As one might expect of a series with the tagline “the truth is out there”, the show’s default position is that the public have a right to know about what their governments do in their name. F. Emasculata examines this idea critically.

Phone home...

Phone home…

In particular, the conversation between Mulder and the Cigarette Smoking Man harks back to their encounter in One Breath. Mulder champions the public’s right to know about the deadly virus that has been released. Sitting comfortably in Skinner’s office once again, the Cigarette Smoking Man suggests that the government exists to make the sorts of tough choices that the public could never face. The Cigarette Smoking Man argues that keeping these sorts of secrets from the electorate is a public service.

“Why weren’t we told the truth?” Mulder demands. The Cigarette Smoking Man is rather pragmatic in his response. “We didn’t know the truth. What we knew would only have slowed you down.” He adds, “In 1988, there was an outbreak of hemmoragic fever in Sacramento, California. The truth would have caused panic. Panic would have cost lives. We controlled the disease by controlling the information.” Mulder clings to his ideological position. “You can’t protect the public by lying to them.” His adversary retorts, “It’s done every day.”

A light in the darkness...

A light in the darkness…

Although later episodes would reveal the Cigarette Smoking Man to be a massive hypocrite and a pretty black-and-white villain, episodes like One Breath and F. Emasculata do a lot to flesh his character out. The Cigarette Smoking Man ceases to be an anonymous phantom, and instead becomes a man with his own warped ideology and perspective. It’s a nice way of developing and expanding one of the show’s most iconic characters.

It is worth noting that F. Emasculata allows that the Cigarette Smoking Man might be correct. While Mulder seriously considers leaking the information anyway, Scully agrees that revealing the disease to the public could do more harm than good. “If this gets out prematurely,” Scully reflects, “the panic is going to spread faster than the contagion.” While the whole crisis is subsequently covered up, and all evidence is destroyed, F. Emasculata accepts that perhaps there are occasions when a government may be justified in lying to its people.

A pig-headed scientist...

A pig-headed scientist…

It could also be argued that F. Emasculata also foreshadows the show’s larger mythology in some other – undoubtedly coincidental – ways. As Michelle Bush observes in Myth-X:

It is interesting to note the metaphorical similarities between the beetle F. Emasculata and its deadly parasite and the Grays and the virus. Both act as symbolic hosts to an organism that becomes lethal when introduced into a human host.

Then again, this is a recurring image in The X-Files – the idea of parasitic predators that kill their hosts while birthing. Gordon’s script for Firewalker includes a similar idea.

Face-to-face...

Face-to-face…

In a way, the fixation on this particular type of body horror could be read as part of the show’s anxieties about infection and corruption. The black oil and the virus here both infect a healthy body and corrupt it to serve their purpose, perhaps reflecting the show’s paranoid narratives. After all, the show’s sinister syndicate has infiltrated and corrupted the entire apparatus of American (and global) governance. In delightfully on-the-nose metaphors, the conspiracy becomes the black oil (or the corrupting virus) infiltrating the body politic.

What is relatively unique about the paranoia in F. Emasculata is that the villain isn’t really the government, although the government does enabled and abet this corruption. The real villains of F. Emasculata are the fictional pharmaceutical company Pinck Pharmaceuticals – “one of, if not, the biggest manufacturer of drugs in America.” This is an episode that is anxious about the operating practices of big business as it is about government abuse of power.

It'll never catch on...

It’ll never catch on…

Coming into the nineties, large pharmaceutical companies found their practices under question. In 1992, for example, the American Medical Association published guidelines for an ethical relationship between physicians and industry. Under particular scrutiny was the conduct of pharmaceutical research in prisons, as Allen Hornblum noted in Acres of Skin:

“From the early years of this century, the use of prison inmates as raw material for medical experiments became an increasingly valuable component of American scientific research. Postwar American research grew rapidly, as prisoners became the backbone of a lucrative system predicated on utilitarian interests. Uneducated and financially desperate prisoners ‘volunteered’ for medical experiments that ranged from tropical and sexually transmitted diseases to polio, cancer, and chemical warfare.”

It has been estimated that – by the seventies – up to 90% or pharmaceutical research was being conducted on prison inmates. One of the more infamous examples included exposing the reproductive organs of prisoners to massive amounts of radiation, with a minimum amount of disclosure.

I'm sure he's tickled Pinck to have Mulder looking at a large corporation...

I’m sure he’s tickled Pinck to have Mulder looking at a large corporation…

Here, prisoners become unsuspecting subjects of a sinister experiment. Of course, due to inefficiency and reluctance to share information, this ends up putting the rest of the population at risk. While there are sinister plots at work, F. Emasculata also suggests that ineptitude is just as responsible for the ensuing crisis. Neither the government nor the pharmaceutical company provide Mulder or the U.S. Marshalls with the necessary information, exacerbating the situation.

Still, F. Emasculata stands out as one of the rare examples of a sinister conspiracy conducted by a private corporation within The X-Files. When Doctor Osbourne refers to “the company” in nebulous and abstract terms, it seems almost like The X-Files is evoking Alien – another narrative about a sinister corporation seeking to harness a terrifying biological organism for their own sinister purpose. (The way that the disease “bursts” out of its victim also evokes the iconic film series.)

"In hindsight, I should probably have let you open those damn body bags..."

“In hindsight, I should probably have let you open those damn body bags…”

Although the series did dabble in the complex relationship between private corporations and public governance at a few points in its run, The X-Files was always more interested in the government as a primary source of corruption and moral decay. Informed by events like Watergate and Vietnam, the show was fascinated by the failures of those swore to protect and serve the public. One wonders whether a version of the show produced today would be more interested in questions of corporate culpability.

Even outside of these interesting elements, F. Emasculata is a fantastically produced piece of television. It’s worth noting that F. Emasculata does a much better job using children to raise the dramatic stakes than The Calusari did. At several points in the story, the show places young children in danger – a child playing with toys, or another taking a bus journey alone – in sequences that should feel like emotional manipulation. However, F. Emasculata moves with enough momentum that these sequences never feel as exploitative as they might.

"I really want to solve this prison break, badly..."

“I really want to solve this prison break, badly…”

Much like F. Emasculata straddles the show’s “monster of the week” and “conspiracy” classifications, episode also blends genre. It’s part epidemic thriller, part political intrigue, part mystery, part prison break adventure; all within forty-five minutes. The episode moves with enough confidence and energy that there’s never any time to question too much of what is going on. F. Emasculata is a chimera of a story, but one where the parts fit together very well.

The episode benefits from a strong supporting cast. As One Breath demonstrated, William B. Davis is more than capable of holding his own in dialogue-heavy scenes, so it’s nice that he gets another one here. Charles Martin Smith is great as Osborne, even if he never seems too bothered that Scully is directly responsible for his infection. Dean Norris also pops up. In a nice piece of pop culture symmetry, Norris gets to play a federal agent who raids an R.V. in the episode of The X-Files that aired directly before Vince Gilligan’s first broadcast script.

"Got a warrant?"

“Got a warrant?”

F. Emasculata fits quite comfortably within the experimental atmosphere of the show’s second season. It’s an example of The X-Files trying something new and ambitious, but also carrying it off surprisingly well.

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

2 Responses

  1. Do you read season 10?

    • I’ve read the first ten or so issues. Quite like it, even if I think it spends too much time trying to declutter and resurrect the “golden age” of the show’s grand alien mythology. But the character voices are strong.

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