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.
Every once in a while, there is a misfire. This is especially true when producing a genre television series churning out over twenty episodes a year. Inevitably, some of those episodes will fail; a few will fail spectacularly. Such is the way of things. It is hard to think of a twenty-odd episode season of anything that managed to maintain consistent levels of brilliance for a full season. All you can really hope is that the eventual and inevitable misfire is mostly technical.
Teso Dos Bichos is a terrible episode of The X-Files. It is a terrible episode of television in general. However, it is terrible in ways that are mostly banal. This isn’t a failure of overreaching ambition, like Fearful Symmetry. It isn’t a missed opportunity, like 3. It isn’t even a racist and sexist nightmare, like Excelsis Dei. Instead, Teso Dos Bichos is just bad television. It is an episode that probably didn’t work on paper, containing elements that were unlikely to work on film either.
Given how strong the third season has been, there’s a desire to brush past Teso Dos Bichos, and pretend it simply did not happen.
Teso Dos Bichos is the second script credited to writer John Shiban. Shiban is a bit of an enigma as far as X-Files writers go. He is functional and efficient. He goes on to become quite prolific. He is loyal, remaining with the show until the bitter end. At the same time, he is never spectacular. He frequently collaborates with writers Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz, two other long-term veterans of the series. Gilligan and Spotnitz have their own unique flavours; however, Shiban never seems that distinct.
Perhaps the defining feature of Shiban’s writing is a willingness to go for the jugular. He is very clearly a horror fan, with a deep and abiding affection for the genre. However, he is a writer who is not too concerned about distinguishing between “cheap” scares and more profound forms of terror. Shiban is a writer who knows horror well and will use just about any lever he can find to make the audience feel uncomfortable.
After all, for all its many faults, it is hard to argue that Shiban’s rather infamous Badlaa does not make for awkward and unsettling viewing. Some horror writers would shy away from “butt-dwelling Indian fakir”, worried about the unfortunate implications of that sort of horror story. Shiban, on the other hand, will roll up his sleeves and jump right on in there. This was even evident in his script for The Walk, which casually kills off a child at the half-way point to make sure the audience is paying attention.
Shiban’s traditional and rather base horror tendencies are on full display in Teso Dos Bichos. At its core, the episode is a collection of classic horror tropes, fashioned clumsily into a single story. There is a disturbed burial ground, an ancient curse, some mysticism involving indigenous people, a sense that the American characters are being punished for their imperialism. There are animal spirits and bits of dead rats and overflowing toilets. There is a tribe to the sewer, and a high attrition rate among the supporting cast.
It has all been done before, and it will all be done again. Often, it has been or will be done better. To be fair to Shiban, there is a sense that he is trying to say something vaguely interesting. After all, Teso Dos Bichos appears to update “the curse of the pharaohs” for a new generation, as a bunch of grave-robbers are punished for disturbing the tranquil (and well-deserved) rest of the dead. Much like in The Mummy or countless other horror stories, imperialist archaeologists face the wrath of the deceased.
It is something of a timeless story. It was particularly popular after the First World War, when a number of prominent discoveries were made by British explorers in Egypt. Rumours quickly circulated about a “curse” befalling those who would disturb the tombs. However, it has been suggested that the idea can be traced back even earlier to the nineteenth century. Similarly, these beliefs still hold sway today – there were rumours of a similar curse affecting those who opened the tomb of Simón Bolívar in 2010.
In particular, the fascination with the desecration of Egyptian tombs by British explorers plays on imperial anxieties. Even the dead in foreign lands find themselves subject to the will of colonial forces. In You Nasty Thing From Beyond the Dead, Hannah Thompson reflects:
Popular interest in Egyptian archaeology emerged in parallel with Euopean imperialism in the Middle East, and both reached a peak in the decades after World War I. As a result, imperialist and scientific thought gradually overrode concerns over the treatment of the dead, particularly the ancient dead buried in imperial colonies. When archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the undisturbed tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922, there was no question that the tomb would be opened, the contents removed, and the mummy removed from its sarcophagi, and closely studied.
Teso Dos Bichos touches on similar ideas, albeit with American archaeologists rather than British explorers. Excavating in South America, a bunch of explorers conspire to take some ancient remains back home with them, to put in a fancy museum.
Nobody actually calls it imperialism, or acknowledges that this is being done because the Americans have a right to claim the cultural treasures of other groups. Instead, the museum staff claim to be “protecting” the culture and heritage of these indigenous people by flying their possessions around the world and putting them out of reach of most of the country’s inhabitants. Describing the urn to Mulder and Scully, Doctor Lewton states, “It was among the antiquities we rescued last month.”
When Bilac points out that the indigenous people are a little sensitive about foreigners “disturbing” a sacred relic, Doctor Roosevelt will hear none of it. “We’re not disturbing her,” he insists. “We’re saving her.” It is very much the traditional narrative of the imperialist – arguing that some cultures need protection and oversight; protection and oversight that conveniently happen to overlap with the desires and objectives of the larger power.
The fact that Teso Dos Bichos names the explorer “Roosevelt” is not a coincidence. He evokes Teddy Roosevelt, infamous explorer and man of the people. However, Roosevelt was also among the most imperial of presidents, as Lewis Samuel Feuer notes in Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialist Mind:
Of all American presidents, Theodore Roosevelt most felt an imperialist vocation, which he applied resolutely and coherently in America’s international decisions. True, he tried to avoid the word ‘imperialism’, substituting instead the more neutral word, ‘expansion.’ Indeed, he claimed during the electoral campaign of 1900: ‘There is not an imperialist in the country that I have ye met.’ But this was a tactic of campaign linguistics, and in every respect Roosevelt held to an imperialist standpoint that was shared to varying degrees by a group of ‘intellectuals’ with whom he was closely associated, including Henry Cabot Lodge, the first Ph.D. in the United States to devote himself to a political career, and Captain Alfred T. Mahan, the theorist of American sea power; the brothers Henry and Brooks Adams contributed their fears for the future of Western civilisation.
It has been suggested that Theodore Roosevelt aspired to create an American empire. He aimed to expand America’s sphere of influence and impose the country’s will upon the world. Dropping his name into an episode of Teso Dos Bichos is hardly subtle.
Then again, little of the episode is. Almost every moment of Teso Dos Bichos is horrible laboured and patronising. It is an incredibly condescending piece of television. Shiban’s heart may be in the right place, but it lacks the raw bite or power of Fresh Bones – a much more effective criticism of cultural appropriation and exploitation. There is never a point where the viewer is unclear about how Teso Dos Bichos feels about the business of international archaeology, rendering the plot somewhat trite.
These problems are not helped by the stereotypical portrayal of the indigenous people. The X-Files had a mixed track record when it came to the portrayal of various ethnic groups outside the mainstream. Fresh Bones very cleverly navigated a potentially problematic premise. Hell Money explored the Chinese American community with a great deal of care. The show deserves a great deal of credit for these nuanced portrayals.
In contrast, The Calusari portrayed Eastern European immigrants in a rather stereotypical light. In Shapes, the show opted to tell a Native American werewolf story by stripping any uniquely Native American aspect out of the story. The teaser for Paper Clip was steeped in generic Native American mysticism, to the point where the teleplay clumsily ascribed particular spiritual beliefs to the wrong tribes.
Teso Dos Bichos is not interested in the indigenous population as anything more than a storytelling short cut. Their wants or desires do not exist, except to generate a conflict that allows Teso Dos Bichos to play with a variety of horror movie clichés. We learn nothing about them, or what they believe. Instead, they serve as a way to shoehorn a mysterious “jaguar spirit” into the episode. They are afforded no agency or character.
It is no surprise when Teso Dos Bichos ends with a final shot implying that these are somehow “cat people.” All the episode has established about them to this point is the fact that they are mystical and that they like cats. So that closing shot of a local elder with cheesy cat eyes feels almost obligatory. It feels like Teso Dos Bichos is exploiting indigenous South American culture just as much as the American characters in the story.
It doesn’t help that Teso Dos Bichos is a production nightmare. The idea of doing a horror story around cats is interesting. After all, everybody knows that cats are evil – the prospect of cats organising that evil on a massive scale is too horrifying to consider. There’s a long line of cat-based horror-stories. Teso Dos Bichos includes a shout out to the movie Cat People with the character of Doctor Lawton, named for the producer of the 1942 horror film.
However, that was a feature film, working on the budget of a feature film and with the production schedule of a feature film. Given how difficult it had been to manage the cockroaches during the production of War of the Coprophages, it is surprising that nobody pointed out how crazily ambitious an episode featuring an army of evil cats might be. Coupled with the revelation – during production – that Gillian Anderson was allergic to cats, there was no way that Teso Dos Bichos was going to work.
To be fair to Kim Manners, the director works as hard as he can to salvage the material. However, he cannot perform miracles. It is hard to wrest drama out of the site of Gillian Anderson wrestling with an obviously fake cat. No amount of shaking the camera or using night-vision will mask the fact that Teso Dos Bichos was shouting around the cats rather than with the cats. Similarly, some inventive sound mixing helps to sell the idea of a sinister cat army, even if most seem more bored than malicious.
Nevertheless, production issues notwithstanding, there is only so much that can be done with a script as clunky as this. Even Duchovny seems embarrassed to be reading from it. His delivery of the groan-inducing final monologue feels like the actor is simply waiting for the end credits to roll. You can almost feel his frustration with the puns, as if he has to force the words from the script out of his mouth.
“The icons from that world represent forces that cannot be tamed or collected in a museum,” Mulder tells us, as Duchovny seems less than amused by the word play. “The true curse that struck the museum was the failure to understand that there are powers that should not be disturbed… That some things are better left buried.” It is often quite easy to gauge how engaged Duchovny is with a particular script, and it seems that he had correctly identified Teso Dos Bochos as a misfire.
Still, episodes like Teso Dos Bichos seem almost inevitable when the production team has to turn out twenty-four episodes in a season. There are only so many workable ideas a writing team can generate in that much time, and only so much attention they can give those ideas in the time allotted. It would be great if the production team had enough time to fully develop every idea, or the freedom to leave a slot empty, but that is not how television works. Something needs to go out on the air in the slot allocated.
Teso Dos Bichos seems like a third-season episode drafted when the show was at its lowest ebb. It was scheduled after the February sweeps, when fatigue was inevitably setting in. This is the point in the second season where the show was producing episodes like Fearful Symmetry or Død Kälm. Everybody is tired, but the end of the season is not yet in sight. This is the point where the writing room seems to be running on coffee and takeout.
Modern television has a bit more freedom. It is now possible for network shows like Hannibal to produce thirteen episodes in a season and call it a day. Chris Carter was asked if he envied modern showrunners:
Are you jealous of series that are on now that have contained thirteen episodes and then get to go off the air for a year?
I think it’s why there is so much good television right now, because it actually promotes a creative approach rather than what I would call a mercantile approach to storytelling.
How would the show have ended up differently if you weren’t tasked with creating two dozen episodes every year?
It’s hard to say. I think the pressure actually does have certain beneficial effects and it certainly makes you better at your job because you have to become a very good problem-solver and live with your solutions. If you have too much time to noodle and to change your mind, you can get caught in not only a time-consuming process, but an expensive one as well. You don’t have those luxuries of time and money and financial budgets.
Carter raises a very valid point. That incredible schedule was just part of the show’s DNA. It is hard to divorce that from the show. If the second season had thirteen episodes, Gillian Anderson would have had a minimal role for more than half the year.
More than that, though, the third season doesn’t really have eleven episodes that could be “trimmed” as fat. Syzygy and Teso Dos Bichos are pretty crappy hours of television, but trying to whittle the third season of The X-Files down to a thirteen episode block would mean losing a lot of good television. Then again, the sixth and seventh seasons would be greatly improved by trimming them down to thirteen episodes with more production time.
Still, all of this is hypothetical. One might as well try to imagine what The X-Files would be like without Anderson or Duchovny. There is no way to know. The X-Files was a standard network television drama, producing more than twenty episodes a season. Some of those episodes sucked. Some didn’t. Occasionally, you got Teso Dos Bichos, but you also ended up with Pusher, Hell Money and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.”
That seems a fair price.
- The Blessing Way
- Paper Clip
- Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
- The List
- The Walk
- X-tra: (Topps) The Pit
- War of the Coprophages
- Piper Maru
- Teso Dos Bichos
- Hell Money
- Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”
- X-tra: (Topps) #14 – Falling
- Talitha Cumi