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The X-Files – War of the Coprophages (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

It is very odd to describe any Darin Morgan episode as “underrated.” And yet, despite that, War of the Coprophages feels like the underrated Darin Morgan teleplay.

Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose had appeared towards the start of the season, featuring a powerhouse guest performance from Peter Boyle. Both Boyle and Morgan would win Emmys for their work on that episode, and Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose is perhaps Morgan’s most conventional script for The X-Files or Millennium. In contrast, Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is perhaps the most adventurous and gonzo episode of The X-Files ever produced, coming at the end of the season and relentlessly (but affectionately) mocking the show’s core iconic mythology.

Down the drain...

Down the drain…

In contrast, War of the Coprophages sits in the middle, literally and figuratively. It is positioned almost precisely in the middle of the third season, with Morgan writing the screenplay in an exceptionally short period of time. It isn’t a truly exceptional example of a monster-of-the-week episode in the way that Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose was, but it also isn’t as off-the-walls and bizarre as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” It doesn’t feel like it has as much to say about death as Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, nor as much about life as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.”

And yet, in its own way, War of the Coprophages as an incisive and well-constructed commentary on The X-Files as a television show while allowing Morgan to tackle his recurring themes about society and humanity, and whether the world is what we would like to think that it is.

Bug hunt...

Bug hunt…

Morgan is one of the writers who put his own stamp on the series in a way that managed to both mark his scripts as the work of one individual writer and also hit on many of the core themes and ideas of The X-Files. In some respects, The X-Files often felt like a collection of slightly different shows nestled within one another – with the stronger voices on the writing staff each writing their own slightly askew version The X-Files. They were all recognisably the same show, but each had a particular and undeniable flavour.

If one wants to test this hypothesis, they need only look at the last episodes scripted by particular writers, many of which serve – in their own small way – as a sort of series finalé for that particular version of the show. The final line of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” seems to sum up Darin Morgan’s take on the show, with his re-write on Quagmire serving as a coda. Glen Morgan and James Wong departed the show with Never Again, an almost funereal story. Vince Gilligan’s Sunshine Days was arguably a more effective series finalé than The Truth.

Making my skin crawl...

Making my skin crawl…

So Darin Morgan writes his own little pocket version of The X-Files, a show that exists within the larger collective of The X-Files, sitting alongside the version of the show written by Carter or Gilligan or Spotnitz or Gordon. Certain themes and ideas recur across Morgan’s scripts, familiar concepts that are probed and explored across his work on The X-Files and Millennium. (Incidentally, the same is true of the other strong voices in the writers’ room – Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad seems seeded through the show, for example.)

Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this “pocket show” is the way that Morgan’s scripts tend to have their own recurring characters and actors. For example, all of the episodes written by Morgan feature the actor Alex Diakun. (He even appears in one of Morgan’s two Millennium scripts – the character of Jose Chung appears in the other.) War of the Coprophages is Morgan’s only X-Files script to exclude Diakun – although the script does suggest him as a casting choice for Ivanov.

Well, that's not hygienic...

Well, that’s not hygienic…

Darin Morgan’s episodes seem to exist as a world unto themselves, chained together by internal references and recurring characters. Queequeg was adopted by Scully in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose; the animal reappears here, and ends up eaten in Quagmire. The Stuppendous Yappi provides a link between Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Sometimes the links are not as overt. The anonymous teenagers played here by Tyler Labine and Nicole Parker reappear in Quagmire.

Morgan’s scripts tend to meditate on some pretty heavy themes about life and death, fate and choice, loneliness and longing. Morgan is an exceptionally cynical writer, even if he masks that cynicism behind a cutting sense of humour and playfulness. Under Morgan’s pen, Mulder and Scully’s cases are frequently little more than distractions that help to deflect attention away from a larger sense of isolation or existential despair. Mulder and Scully stare at the sky and hunt government conspiracies so they don’t have to worry about more personal concerns.

On a bit of a roach roll here...

On a bit of a roach roll here…

War of the Coprophages is about crap. Literally, metaphorically, figuratively. It’s pretty obvious to jump to the cockroaches, since they provide the memorable images (they are great guest actors) and plenty of unsettling scares. However, the bulk of War of the Coprophages is about crap. It’s about the crap that brought these cockroaches into the country, the crap that people get scared about, the crap people tell themselves to get by.

Crap permeates War of the Coprophages. More than that, War of the Coprophages is a story about how people tend to elevate and promote crap. We’re told that Doctor Eckerle is investigating alternative fuel; he’s studying “methane gas… methane derived from manure.” Eckerle is constructing an engine that will run on manure. Indeed, the episode’s climax features a confrontation in a laboratory filled with manure, ending with Mulder and Scully completely covered in crap.

Talking crap...

Talking crap…

Morgan even works a “crap” joke into the final act. As Mulder and Scully are covered in animal waste, Sheriff Frass deadpans, “You looked pooped.” Given that the word “frass” refers to “debris or excrement produced by insects”, this is a poop joke from a poop joke. Since the insects in War of the Coprophages eat manure, the frass in question is just extra-concentrated fecal matter. (In fact, most of the deaths in War of the Coprophages, from Eckerle to the stoner to Doctor Newton, are caused directly or indirectly by crap.) To say nothing of the “Chocolate Droppings” Scully eats.

The teenagers are shown to be getting high on manure, Darin Morgan making a sly reference to urban myths about “jenkem”, which created their own moral panic in the mid-nineties. Despite the fact there have been no reports of kids actually doing it, The Weekly World News really ran with sensationalised reports of the practice in the mid- to late-nineties. Naturally, as the characters get high on crap, they start talking crap – with one stoner explaining how the experience allows a person to “see reality as it – you know – really exists.”

Talk about a party pooper...

Talk about a party pooper…

This elevation of crap is nothing new. “Did you know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped the scarab beetle and possibly erected the pyramids to honor them, which may be just giant symbolic dung heaps?” Mulder asks Scully. This being a Morgan script, it is impeccably researched. As Natalie Angier observes in The Beauty of the Beastly:

One researcher suggests that the ancient Egyptians tradition of mummifying their kings and burying them in pyramids was modeled after the burial of a beetle larva in a dung ball. Just as a beetle rises from dirt to a new life, so, the Egyptians believed, their Pharaoh would be reborn from his interred cocoon. The great Pyramids of Giza may be thought of as glorified dung heaps.

The Pyramids of Giza are the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that remain standing today, built to almost perfect proportion without the use of advanced tools or technology. That’s a delightfully Morganian touch, crafting a beautifully cynical connection between mankind’s greatest accomplishments and… dung heaps.

A charge between them...

A charge between them…

Indeed, War of the Coprophages suggests that the majority of human civilisation is all just crap, perfectly in keeping with Darin Morgan’s world view. “Everything about insects is fascinating,” Doctor Berenbaum tells Mulder. “They are truly remarkable creatures. So beautiful, and so honest.” She elaborates, “Eat, sleep… defecate, procreate. That’s all they do. That’s all we do, but at least insects don’t kid themselves that it’s anything more than that.”

Humanity likes to believe that everything is ordered and logical – that the world makes sense that civilisation is something that separates them from the animals. As the exterminator muses at the start of the episode, “By evolutionary standards, they are nearly flawless creatures but creatures nevertheless. Possessing only a simple nervous system, their behavior is dictated solely by responses to environmental stimuli. Unlike us, they are incapable of thought, of… self-illumination.” However, War of the Coprophages doesn’t seem too convinced of that self-illumination.

Pest house...

Pest house…

After all, despite the well-documented facts that cockroaches could survive nuclear war, society seems very delicate. The small community featured in War of the Coprophages is named “Miller’s Grove”, in a shoutout to the community of “Grover’s Mill” featured in Orson Welles’ iconic War of the Worlds broadcast. Recalling the (perhaps not quite widescale) panic caused by Welles’ radio broadcast, the town of “Miller’s Grove” is quickly swept in paranoia about the possibility of killer cockroaches.

After one death, rumours start accumulating. Before anybody knows what has happened, the news media is fanning the flames. “Police have also disaffirmed the rumor that these deaths were the result of an outbreak of the Ebola virus, somehow being spread by infected cockroaches,” a reporter states, as people in hazmat uniforms walk around behind her. Despite this assurance, the authorities do little to calm people. “Police are asking that if you see any cockroaches, don’t panic. Simply notify the authorities and evacuate the area immediately.” Don’t panic, just run.

Shedding light on the matter...

Shedding light on the matter…

Before anybody knows what has happened, there is widespread looting and chaos. People begin to believe in all sorts of conspiracy theories. Is the government running a covert experiment? Do the cockroaches have Ebola? Are the cockroaches aliens from outer space? Things unfold so quickly that everyone is swept up in what is happening. Mulder breaks into a government lab. Doctor Newton asks if he needs to evacuate his family.

One of the better gags reveals that most (if not all) of the deaths are entirely explicable and rational. Scully is able to solve most of the mysteries without even leaving her house. However, nobody wants to listen to logic or reason. It’s much easier to get caught up in the excitement and the panic and the heat of the moment. For all that mankind might claim to be evolved and reasonable, we are really just a collection of impulses and uncertainties.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

War of the Coprophages is notable as Darin Morgan’s only script to centre on Mulder. Morgan tended to favour Scully over Mulder, and Scully gets many of Morgan’s best lines and best scenes. She is the centre of Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and the narrator for a significant portion of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” At the end of Humbug, it is Scully who has the quick heart-to-heart with Dr. Blockhead about the future of mankind.

While the script has some interesting things to say about Scully, it is most interested in Mulder as a character. War of the Coprophages is largely driven by Mulder, with Scully spending most of the episode on the phone from her home – although she does get involved in the final act. What’s interesting is that War of the Coprophages plays with audience expectations by casting Mulder in the role normally played by Scully. Scully is normally the one to advance multiple incorrect theories before the end of the episode. Here, Mulder is repeatedly and thoroughly wrong.

"Okay, my bad..."

“Okay, my bad…”

Mulder isn’t only wrong about the cockroaches. War of the Coprophages lays pretty heavily into his general belief system. Both Doctor Berenbaum and Doctor Ivanov attack some of the more underlying assumptions of Mulder’s crusade – as if illustrating how absurd and irrational Mulder’s entire world view is. After all, his theories hinge on so many grand assumptions that they represent an incredible logical leap.

Scully lands the first punch. “Mulder, I think the only thing more fortuitous than the emergence of life on this planet is that, through purely random laws of biological evolution, an intelligence as complex as ours ever emanated from it,” she observes. “The very idea of intelligent alien life is not only astronomically improbable but at it’s most basic level, downright anti-Darwinian.” This feels very much like X-Files 101, the most “Scully” position possible. Morgan is simply setting a theme for the hour ahead. What if Scully’s position was actually considered and made sense?

This is what's in store...

This is what’s in store…

“Well, it’s my theory that UFOs are actually insect swarms,” Doctor Berenbaum reflects later on. “I don’t know if you know anything about UFOs, but all the characteristics of a typical sighting are shared with nocturnal insects swarming through an electrical air field… the sudden appearance of a colored, glowing light hovering in the night sky, moving in a non-mechanical matter, possibly humming. Creating interference with radio and television signals.  Then suddenly disappearing.” That’s much less romantic than Mulder’s visions of aliens, but more rational.

Doctor Isanov is even more to the point in ridiculing Mulder’s belief that aliens would be in any way similar enough to mankind to make meaningful contact. “Anyone who thinks alien visitation will come not in the form of robots, but of living beings with big eyes and gray skin has been brainwashed by too much science-fiction,” Isanov observes. It’s no wonder that the conversation ends with Mulder and Isanov sharing a rather disillusioned glass of whiskey together, as if Mulder is commiserating.

Pooping all over Mulder's ideas...

Pooping all over Mulder’s ideas…

Duchovny does some wonderful work here. Duchovny is an actor who can occasionally slip into auto-pilot during some of the show’s more uninspired moments, but he is a phenomenal performer when he sets his mind to it. War of the Coprophages is a delightfully eccentric showcase for Duchovny, who is very clearly enjoying playing outside the show’s usual framework. In particular, his defeated little head nods as Berenbaum and Isanov skewer his beliefs are played beautifully, as is Duchovny’s deadpan delivery of Mulder’s particularly off-the-wall hypothesis.

More than that, though, War of the Coprophages seems to suggest that Mulder’s beliefs are just a way of dealing with his own existential listlessness. He first appears in his car, staring up at the sky longingly. He ponders, “Look, Scully, I know it’s not your inclination but… did you ever look up into the night sky and feel certain that… not only was something up there but… it was looking down on you at that exact same moment and was just as curious about you as you are about it?” Mulder just wants a connection, a personal one.

"Sorry, company-mandated monologue. They call it part of the extermination experience."

“Sorry, company-mandated monologue. They call it part of the extermination experience.”

In a way, War of the Coprophages almost plays like a funhouse mirror to Never Again. Glen Morgan and James Wong would return to The X-Files in the fourth season, providing four explosive and cynical scripts that really tore at the show in an engaging and exciting manner. Never Again was their last script, adopting a somewhat downbeat view of the relationship between Mulder and Scully. It seemed to suggest that Scully had been completely and inescapably drawn into Mulder’s world, to the point where even her personal life was an X-File.

Both War of the Coprophages and Never Again find our heroes outside the framework of the show. Both feature our two leads “relaxing” outside the confines of their day-to-day work. In War of the Coprophages, Mulder is in Miller’s Grove because his apartment is being fumigated and he apparently has nowhere better to go; Scully even explicitly mentions that his mother lives nearby. In Never Again, Scully tries to branch out and develop an interpersonal relationship while Mulder takes some overdue vacation time.

Don't get Frass with me, kid...

Don’t get Frass with me, kid…

In both episodes, these personal moments develop into X-files, often by sheer coincidence. In War of the Coprophages, Mulder just happens to be talking to Sheriff Frass when the report of the dead exterminator comes in. In Never Again, Scully just happens to pick the one guy at the bar with a tattoo that talks to him. In both cases, the story skirts the line between paranormal and simply eccentric.

Both War of the Coprophages and Never Again initially appear to be paranormal events, with the episodes subsequently throwing doubt on that implication. In War of the Coprophages, the cockroaches are likely just cockroaches and the deaths are likely unfortunate coincidences. In Never Again, Ed Jerse initially appears to be the victim of a sentient and psychotic tattoo, but it is finally suggested that he is just a severely unbalanced individual who cracked under immense personal pressure.

Here comes the science...

Here comes the science…

Still, the key point is that both episodes suggest that our two leads have no life outside The X-Files. Even their personal diversions wind up getting tangled up in their work. Mulder cannot drive into a small town without stumbling across something resembling an X-file, and something he actively tries to contort into an X-file. Similarly, Scully cannot go on a date without finding herself drawn into her own private X-file.

The two scripts play as inversions of each other. War of the Coprophages is twelve episodes into the third season; Never Again is twelve episodes from the end of the fourth season. One centres on Mulder while Scully has the night off; the other focuses on Scully while Mulder takes a holiday. Darin Morgan’s script treats Mulder’s lack of a personal life as a wry comedy; Glen Morgan and James Wong’s script plays Scully’s lack of a personal life as a bitter tragedy.

A cold reception...

A cold reception…

Both War of the Coprophages and Never Again play with the dynamic between Mulder and Scully, strongly hinting that the duo are meant for one another. However, both are somewhat cynical in their approaches – neither portraying an especially healthy relationship. Both episodes see the lead character engaging in a potential romantic relationship with a guest cast member, only to wind up right back with their partner at the close of the hour. The implication is that Mulder and Scully are together not because it’s a healthy dynamic, but because all they have is each other.

(Never Again draws a rather vehement reaction from the portions of the fan community who support the idea of a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully – the so-called “shippers.” It is easy to see why they would react so strongly to an episode that essentially suggests that Scully’s relationship with Mulder is downright toxic. War of the Coprophages doesn’t seem to provoke the same response, possibly because it’s not as confrontational, and possibly because it’s really funny. Unlike, to pick a completely unrandom example, Szyzgy.)

Just a regular household chore...

Just a regular household chore…

Here, Mulder repeatedly bothers Scully on her evening off, drawing her into the case that he is investigating. This leads to hilarious (and awesome) sequences of Scully cleaning her gun or washing her dog or eating ice cream while casually dismissing Mulder’s latest theory. What should be Scully’s quiet evening at home winds up with her researching cockroaches and directing postmortems as Mulder engages in his own adventure. She winds up falling asleep with the phone in her hand so she can be ready when Mulder calls.

More than that, War of the Coprophages underscores how completely and utterly Mulder and Scully understand each other. When Scully answers the phone, she doesn’t need to ask who is calling. Who else would be calling? When Mulder offers his latest theory, Scully is not phased in the slightest. “I’m not going to ask you if you just said what I think you just said because I know it’s what you just said.” It’s an eccentric and heartwarming dynamic.

A lot on the line...

A lot on the line…

However, things get a bit more complicated when Doctor Bambi Berenbaum is introduced. Mulder loses signal as cockroaches burst from the wall, screaming in panic. On the other end of the phone, Scully is understandably concerned. However, as soon as Doctor Berenbaum appears, Mulder cuts the conversation short. “Mulder!” Scully shouts. “Mulder!” Mulder offers a quick “got to go” before hanging up. When Scully rings him again to check in – obviously worried he may be dead – Mulder offers a terse “not now” before hanging up.

Mulder’s obvious flirtation with Doctor Berenbaum adds an understandable friction to the relationship with Mulder and Scully. Mulder calls Scully to talk about how awesome “Bambi” is, while Scully reacts in a decidedly defensive manner. “Her name is Bambi?” she asks repeatedly. It is perhaps rather telling that Scully eventually decides to make her way down to Miller’s Grove not after Mulder’s panicked encounter at the cockroach house, but after that phone call about how great Doctor Berenbaum is.

Pillow talk...

Pillow talk…

Anderson does great work here, underplaying Scully’s defensive and dismissive attitude towards Doctor Berenbaum. There are a number of wonderful moments that might easily have gone too far. Scully sarcastically mouths “Fox” to herself after Berenbaum explains, “Fox told me to wait out here while he checked inside first.” Similarly, after Bambi offers her own theory for what happened, Scully wryly replies, “Yeah, that would explain everything.” Scully even gets in a number of passive-aggressive jabs at Mulder after Doctor Berenbaum walks off with Doctor Ivanov.

As War of the Coprophages leaves Mulder and Scully covered in animal dung on what was meant to be their night off, passive-aggressively sniping at one another, Morgan seems to suggest that this is a somewhat dysfunctional relationship. It might be the best that either of them is able to manage at this point, but it is not harmonious or healthy by any stretch. In a way, this feels like Morgan playing with the show’s conventions and structures, critically evaluating the assumptions the show takes for granted.

That said, two federal agents investigating a cockroach infestation probably doesn't help to calm the local community...

That said, two federal agents investigating a cockroach infestation probably doesn’t help to calm the local community…

(Indeed Morgan spends a significant amount of his writing deconstructing and examining The X-Files. Humbug twisted the whole idea of “monsters” on its head by sending Mulder and Scully to Gibsonton in Florida, a town inhabited by circus freaks. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose wondered how Mulder and Scully could become so used to the death that the show doled out so frequently. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” would effectively ridicule and undermine the show’s central alien conspiracy narrative.)

Morgan lightly foreshadows a few of the themes that he will develop further in Jose Chungs “From Outer Space.” The script is somewhat cynical about Mulder’s quest to discover alien life. Within the narrative of the show, Mulder betting on a certainty. Still, there’s something just a little blindly optimistic about a vision of aliens that are close enough to humanity that communication and discussion is feasible. After all, if we panic about cockroaches, one of the oldest species on this planet, imagine how we’d react when confronted with something completely alien.

Alien creatures?

Alien creatures?

Morgan laughs at the idea of life similar enough to humanity evolving on some other world in a way that would make contact like that possible. To Morgan, via Scully, even the existence of life on Earth is a random fluke; the result of a series of incredible coincidences. The universe cares little for human hopes and optimism. This cynicism is even visible in the teaser, as the exterminator reflects on mankind’s position relative to cockroaches. “Compared to the roach, we are gods… and must therefore act accordingly.” Acting “accordingly” means crushing underfoot.

Indeed, the episode cleverly juxtaposes aliens and insects, demonstrating how questions of scale are often simply a matter of perspective.  The suggestions that the aliens Mulder is chasing could simply be clouds of tiny insects and that Mulder sees the faces of aliens in insects serves to suggest how small life really is – how humanity seems to have issues when it comes to matters of scale, making small things seem much larger and more significant than they really are. Civic order in the town of Miller’s Grove is undermined by creatures only an inch or two in length.

Those must really bug him...

Those must really bug him…

Director Kim Manners does great work here, playing as well off Morgan’s teleplay for War of the Coprophages as he did off the script to Humbug. In particular, there’s a wonderful shot of Mulder staring up at the stars after the opening credits, only for a grasshopper to land on his windshield. With the stars in the distance and the grasshopper up close, for a moment it seems like the grasshopper is truly giant and alien. Instead, it’s just something that is closer.

Interestingly, War of the Coprophages returns to many of the ideas suggested by Blood, the first story that Morgan sold to the show. Although the story was developed into a teleplay by Glen Morgan and James Wong, it retained a trace of Darin Morgan’s stylistic quirks. A story with a series of logical explanations for what occurred, but no clearly-defined over-arching conspiracy, Blood feels quite similar to War of the Coprophages in a number of ways.

THEM!

THEM!

Both stories feature a small town in the grips of paranoia – a community under siege from its own fears. “Things like this aren’t supposed to happen here,” Sheriff Spencer assured Mulder in Blood. Here, Sheriff Frass almost arrests Mulder because he is a stranger talking on a mobile phone. When Mulder says he is sitting and thinking, the Sheriff demands, “Sitting and thinking? And talking on the phone? Who with, your drug dealer?”

Both Blood and War of the Coprophages are episodes that seem critical of Mulder’s paranoia. The X-Files is a show about anxiety and uncertainty. With the exception of Scully, the show generally suggests that Mulder is right to trust no one. There are big conspiracies at work, and subtle plots to undermine small communities and innocent people. Mulder generally isn’t paranoid so much as he is careful. With Blood and War of the Coprophages, Morgan dares to ask whether such paranoia is inherently a good thing.

Chewing it over...

Chewing it over…

After all, the community of Miller’s Grove winds up working itself into a frenzy about an imagined threat. This paranoia has a very real cost. It pushes Doctor Eckerle over the edge, but it also has wider implications. Scully witnesses a a mob looting a local store. Sheriff Frass reports five fires overnight. “Plus eighteen auto accidents, thirteen assault and batteries, two stores were looted, thirty-six injuries all total, half of them from insecticide poisoning.” It would appear that paranoia does have a cost.

Both Blood and War of the Coprophages cleverly put Mulder in a position of authority, trying to manage outbreaks of paranoia and uncertainty. They effectively force Mulder into the position of a government agent denying a conspiracy or cover-up. Mulder becomes exactly the sort of authority figure he resents, assuring everybody that there’s nothing to be afraid of. This is a very nice bit of character work.

At least they have each other...

At least they have each other…

The focus on Mulder allows Morgan to have a bit more fun with the show itself. In a way, it seems appropriate that War of the Coprophages and Syzygy should be positioned so close together in the season, airing either side of the season’s midway point. If Syzygy felt like Chris Carter doing his best Darin Morgan impression, War of the Carpophages seems like Darin Morgan is affectionately (and perhaps teasingly) playing with Carter’s stylistic quirks.

The episode is book-ending with heavy philosophical monologues questioning the human condition, one delivered by an exterminator and another by Mulder himself. After finishing his little speech about cockroaches, the exterminator receives a question about the creatures. He replies, simply, “Look, buddy, I just kill them.” It’s a delightful moment of humour that undercuts a deliciously overcooked introduction.

Opening the doors of perception...

Opening the doors of perception…

Similarly, the episode ends with Mulder providing one of his typical “summing up” monologues that poses tough questions about the universe and existence. Morgan cleverly juxtaposes Mulder’s philosophising against the image of Mulder snacking on cookies as he writes, while also providing a nice gag where his word processor gets stuck in the middle of a particularly heavy thought. Mulder applies some percussive maintenance, and picks up his deep thought where he left it off.

Indeed, right after the opening credits, Mulder gets a suitably romantic and flowery speech about the lure of the idea of alien life, only for Scully to cut him down to size almost immediately. It’s a delightful little sequence, and there’s a sense that Morgan is playing with the conventions of the show, and the sort of style most associated with Chris Carter. That The X-Files‘ conventions and stylistic quirks were so established that they could be toyed with and subverted in this manner is another indicator of how far the show had come by its third season.

Our primary suspect...

Our primary suspect…

In keeping with the meticulous research that Morgan does when drafting his scripts, Doctor Berenbaum was named for a real-life expert in insects whose work he consulted. It is also worth noting that War of the Coprophages may have been partially inspired by true events, as Marion Copeland notes in Cockroaches:

War of the Coprophages is set in Miller’s Grove, Massachusetts, perhaps because of a real-life ‘Attack of the Mutant Madagascar Cockroaches’ that took place in Natick, Massachusetts in 1974. The US Army natick Laboratory had carried out secret experiments on the effects of radiation on a host of Madagascar hissing roaches, disposing of them by bagging them in plastic garbage bags, throwing in some carbon tetrachloride, and hiring a local dump company to haul them off to the Natick and Randolf town dumps. Someone must forgotten that carbon tetrachloride melts plastic but has no ill effects on the cases of cockroach oothecae. Soon neighbouring homeowners were reporting infestations of what they called ‘turtle bugs’, a euphemism that did not keep their neighbourhood from being dubbed ‘Cockroach Corners’ – or do much for resale values.

Perhaps this offers another thematic connection back to Blood. In an interview with Cinefantastique, Glen Morgan recalled how his brother had been inspired by the strange sight of government employees releasing radioactive insects into the wild.

Down the sinkhole...

Down the sinkhole…

Morgan actually wrote the teleplay for War of the Coprophages in a week, which is quite astonishing considering his normal rate of work. Morgan will admit that he is a somewhat “slow” writer, but this isn’t really a problem. The writing bench on the third season of The X-Files was deep enough that it could support a member of staff who could only write two or three full teleplays in a year. If a writer is producing three scripts that each have a legitimate claim to being the best script of the year, then their workload is more than sufficient.

To be fair, even this undersells Morgan’s contributions. Morgan wrote three full episodes, extensively re-wrote at least one other, and also served as a “story editor.” The third season has a tone that feels like it can traced back to his influence. He may not be the most hyper-active or prolific writer in the show’s history, but he is no slouch. By all accounts, working on the third season of The X-Files was incredibly draining for Morgan, and resulted in him stepping back from the show the following year. Still, he made quite a mark.

Filing this as a classic...

Filing this as a classic…

War of the Coprophages sits between two other more popular and well-remembered Darin Morgan scripts, each of which would be credible choice for “best episode of The X-Files ever produced.” As a result, the show seems to get lost in the mid-season shuffle a bit, despite the fact that it is a very clever and well-produced forty-five minutes of television. In a way, this is perhaps a testament to the quality of the third season. If something as wonderful as War of Coprophages can get a bit lost in the shuffle, it says something about the average quality of the series.

War of the Coprophages is an absolutely beautiful piece of work.

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

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4 Responses

  1. Very nice review!

    This is one of theearliest episodes I have a defenite memory watching firsthand, mostly because I was then and am now terrified of insects. though I have to disagree with the exterminator that cockroaches are so impressive – spiders, ants and (shudder) wasps build things. Cockroaches are just hardy slackers.

    • Ah, but their hardiness is part of the appeal!

      Actually, I have half-formed memories of watching this when I was eight or nine, and having nightmares about it. I don’t think I realised this was a comedy until I came back to it years later, when I was like, “Now I get it!”

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