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The X-Files – Teliko (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

The very premise of Teliko is something that should probably have big flashing warning lights around it.

Teliko is an episode about an immigrant from Burkina Faso who celebrates his arrival by murdering within the African-American community. As such, it is the kind of story that the production team has to be very careful in handling. It could easily become a horrendously xenophobic anti-immigration story, a warning about the dangers of opening the borders to foreigners from cultures that are different to our own. And that is even before the episode decides to have the monstrous murderers turn his African-American victims white.

Top drawer...

Top drawer…

Writer Howard Gordon has navigated this sort of minefield before. Fresh Bones was a voodoo story set within a Haitian refugee camp. As such, it came with many of the same sorts of latent issues. It would be very easy to put a foot wrong, to turn the story into a collection of unpleasant and reactionary stereotypes that painted the foreign as inherently and undeniably horrific. Gordon’s script for Fresh Bones cleverly side-stepped a lot of these problems, becoming one of the strongest scripts of the second season.

While Teliko makes a conscious effort to avoid these potential hurdles, it isn’t quite as quick on its feet.

It's okay. Everybody gets a little airsick.

It’s okay. Everybody gets a little airsick.

According to I Want to Believe, the episode had a rather troubled development history. As with a lot of the early fourth season episodes, Teliko was produced under enormous pressure:

“It was way off the mark,” says Gordon. “But Chris stayed calm. He convened a meeting and I got significant notes, then we reconvened with Frank [Spotnitz] and the gang and we completely restructured the story and then I basically wrote it all over again in four days.”

The episode hurtled toward production – and one final session of self – flagellation. Gordon says, “I’d just come back from pre – production meetings in Vancouver when Chris said, in front of the whole group ‘Why are we telling this story?’ And I said, ‘Well, Chris, I don’t know. But it’s shooting, so I’ll have to get back to you on that.’

“And once again,” Gordon adds, “Chris was telling me that the episode needed one more rewrite, one more polish, to give it thematic cohesion. And that’s when he came up with the notion of ‘deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate.’ I went through the whole story that day and night with that template, that tonic chord, in mind. And it came out just fine.”

Given all the problems unfolding around the start of the fourth season of The X-Files and the launch of Millennium, Teliko turned out quite well. It’s not Teso Dos Bichos or El Mundo Gira.

Off the grid...

Off the grid…

Still, Teliko still feels quite problematic. One of the recurring themes in Howard Gordon’s work on The X-Files is the idea of the foreign as alien and threatening. Fresh Bones features an American army officer who learned voodoo while stationed in Haiti and exploits that power while in charge of a refugee camp. F. Emasculata featured a deadly disease discovered in the rain forest and brought to the United States. The infectious evil in Grotesque originated with Mostow in Russia. Kaddish centres on an insular Jewish community.

To be entirely fair, this idea of the foreign as inherently and menacingly “other” is a tried-and-tested horror trope. Gordon is not the only X-Files writer to engage with the idea. Sara Charno set horror amid the Romanian-American community in The Calusari. John Shiban’s fondness for classic horror storytelling would lead to spectacular misfires like Teso Dos Bichos, El Mundo Gira and Badlaa. It should be noted that while Gordon would make the occasional misstep, he generally worked hard to offset the problematic aspects of this kind of story.

Mulder's neck is on the line...

Mulder’s neck is on the line…

Watching Teliko, one can almost feel Gordon trying hard to compensate for the problems that come baked into this sort of story. There are some very solid and potentially insightful ideas mixed in here, as Gordon plays with the realities of race-related crime in contemporary America. “Scully, has it occurred to you that this might just be a little PR exercise?” Mulder asks. “To divert attention from the fact that young black men are dying and nobody seems to be able to bring in a suspect? The perception being that nobody cares.”

Mulder may just be talking about this case, but he could just as easily be referring to the fact that young black men are six times more likely be murdered than their white counterparts. Evidence suggests that murderers who kill white victims are more likely to prosecuted and convicted than murderers who target black victims. There is, perhaps, something quite pointed in the fact that these young victims have to be made white before the authorities care enough to properly investigate.

Everything is upside down...

Everything is upside down…

After all, Alfred Kittel comes very close being rescued, but is ultimately abandoned to his fate. He is found and ignored by a white bus driver, who assumes that kid must have been on narcotics. “What’s your problem?” the driver demands. “Are you on drugs or something? Ah, the hell with you. You can walk for all I care. Damned drugs.” Later on, the driver explains to Scully, “He was sitting right here staring up at me with these glassy eyes. Pretty much out of it.” When Scully asks if he looked sick, the driver admits, “Yeah, now that you mention it.”

There is sense that Gordon is trying to make a very serious point about how it is possible for predators to prey on these sorts of communities because society doesn’t seem to care too much about these sorts of people. Samuel Aboah can murder with impunity because no framework exists to protect these individuals. Although Scully claims to have read about the murders in the paper, one gets the sense that Aboah’s spree is not garnering the same coverage that it would if his victims were white.

He nose what he wants...

He nose what he wants…

Even the opening scene seems to exist to draw attention to the history of colonialism in Africa. The episode makes sure that the audience is aware that the official language of Burkina Faso is not local languages like Mòoré, Mandinka or Bambara. It is French. The scripts offers characters conversing in subtitles, and we also get close-ups on official documentation written in French. While the announcement about landing in JFK is in English, the toilet door is marked in French. The legacy of European colonialism is keenly felt.

The episode even closes with a nice monologue from Scully that awkward explains that racism and xenophobia are the true evils here. She reflects, “But what science may never be able to explain is our ineffable fear of the alien among us; a fear which often drives us not to search for understanding, but to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate. To obscure the truth not only from others, but from ourselves.” It is a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t feel entirely earned.

There are probably easier ways to get that past customs...

There are probably easier ways to get that past customs…

Despite that heartwarming coda about tolerance and xenophobia, Teliko plays like an anti-immigration polemic. It is a story about a foreign monster that immigrates into America, while immigration and social services work their hardest to enable and assist an obvious threat. As Nigel C. Gibson observes in The Racial Gaze and the Monstrous African:

The immigration threat is palpable. Duff is foolishly inviting an ill Aboah to bring over his extended family. If not clear to Duff, the threat of being swamped by Africans who are likely to be ill is clear to the viewer. Aboah, which means animal in Akan, is suggestive of the Ebola virus and … citizens can only protect themselves by strong borders and stringent quarantines.

When Mulder discusses the situation with Marita Covarrubias, she reflects, “In practical terms, borders are little more than lines on maps.” It’s hard not get the sense that Teliko considers this is a bad thing.

Seeing eye to eye on this...

Seeing eye to eye on this…

Aboah is able to get into the United States and enjoy protection and security despite the fact that he doesn’t seem capable of having a conversation beyond “yes”, “no” and “thank you.” His social worker works very hard to protect him from the authorities – but is completely oblivious to the fact that he is representing a literal monster. The social worker, Duff, almost gets himself killed for his trouble, and has to be saved by a white police man – and the two government agents he tried to stall earlier in the episode.

Duff is the sort of blindly optimistic and idealistic official who appears in stories like this. He plays almost like a parody of a naive bleeding-heart social worker, one who would unleash untold horror through his good intentions. He means well, but he doesn’t understand how the world works. Duff is played by the wonderful Carl Lumbly, an actor who deserves better. Indeed, between Lumbly and Zakes Mokae, Teliko is packed with wonderful guest actors who had nothing to do.

"Thank goodness they're installing reasonably spacious air vents..."

“Thank goodness they’re installing reasonably spacious air vents…”

Indeed, the major African and African-American characters are quite useless in the story. They primarily serve to enable and encourage the killing. Duff blindly protects Aboah, but it is also revealed that the Burkina Faso embassy helped to keep the death in the teaser a secret. An official covers up the death for vaguely-defined superstitious reasons; a death that would undoubtedly have helped to identify Aboah more quickly and save lives.

There is also a rather uncomfortable disease subtext that runs through the episode. The case first comes to Scully’s attention through the Centre of Disease Control and there is much talk about “a possible public health crisis.” It seems almost like Aboah is a representation of some external infection infiltrating the United States – a deadly organism that seeks only to claim more innocent victims. Even the death on the plane cannot help but evoke stories and fears around the spread of Ebola.

"I'll sleep when I'm dead," the diplomatic official thought to himself.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” the diplomatic official thought to himself.

Given the links that exist in popular culture between Africa and infectious deadly diseases, this feels like a rather questionable metaphor. After all, fear of Ebola has led to debate about the possibility of closing the borders to passengers from particular countries, even if there is some debate about how effective that move would be. (To say nothing of what it says about attitudes towards the spread of the disease.) Indeed, Australia has already closed some of its borders to slow the spread, as have a number of African and Middle Eastern countries.

All of this serves to give Teliko a rather uncomfortable anti-immigration subtext that is at odds with actual dialogue from the characters. It seems like Gordon was trying to avoid these potentially problematic aspects of a story like this, but could not quite manage it. The result is that Teliko feels rather clumsy and awkward in execution, never quite sure of exactly what it is saying and how it is saying it.

Mulder chews over the implications...

Mulder chews over the implications…

This clumsiness is compounded by some strange dialogue choices that exist to highlight some of the show’s big ideas, but in a rather forced way. As an African-American cop knocks on doors looking for Bittel, he muses, “Aboah? What the hell kind of name is that?” Similarly, when Scully receives the photograph of the first victim, she observes, “I’m sorry, I thought you said that Owen Sanders was black.” This is despite that fact that the photo shows a man with a pigment that would be unhealthy and unnatural for a member of any ethnic group.

However, even if one digs into the episode, past all the potentially problematic racial issues, Teliko plays like a reheat of Squeeze. That’s not inherently a problem. After all, Eugene Victor Tooms is an iconic character. He was the show’s first monster-of-the-week and its first non-alien returning creature. Tooms set up an effective template to which the show has always been glad to return. If something works, it makes sense to reuse it.

Eugene Victor who?

Eugene Victor who?

One can see the influence of Eugene Victor Tooms in the character of Virgil Incanto in 2shy, for example; a vampire who feeds on something other than blood. Tooms feeds on livers, Incanto feeds on fats. Here, Samuel Aboah feeds on the pituitary glands on his victims. However, Incanto was distinct from Tooms in a number of ways. Tooms was feral and animalistic; Incanto was charming and manipulative. Tooms could contort and distort his body; Incanto was really just a regular serial killer with a strange biological imperative.

In contrast, Aboah feels more like a direct lift of Tooms – in manners both major and minor. As with Tooms, the show uses contact lenses to immediately establish that Aboah is inhuman. Like Tooms, Aboah is barely capable of passing as a normal human being. Like Tooms, Aboah can squeeze himself into impossibly tight spaces – even if Teliko is ambiguous as to how he does that. Like Tooms, he is apprehended before getting out into the world again. Like Tooms, his final confrontation with Mulder and Scully takes place in the crawlspaces of a construction site.

"Yeah, but Tooms doesn't have cool paralysis darts, does he?"

“Yeah, but Tooms doesn’t have cool paralysis darts, does he?”

The similarities are striking, and quite impossible to ignore. There are a few interesting differences between the characters. Aboah cleverly stores his pituitary-extracting action kit inside his own throat. The blotches of white skin that serve to illustrate Aboah’s need are very effective. Still, they are not enough to completely distinguish the character from one of the show’s most memorable and enduring monsters.

Aboah never really comes into his own. We never learn much about him. We never get an origin story or a motive, beyond his urge to feed. Was Aboah born like this? Is he alone? Was he transformed? How old is he? How does Aboah accumulate enough money to book a flight or live in an apartment? Does Aboah have a job during the day? Does Aboah speak so infrequently because he has nothing to say, because he has limited English, or because he is operating on some primal level?

Don't look too closely...

Don’t look too closely…

Mulder speculates on why Aboah might have come to America. “Free cable,” he jokes. “I don’t know, the same reasons anybody comes to this country. Liberty, the freedom to pursue your own interests.” While this fits with the immigration themes of the episode, one wonders if that makes sense for Aboah as a character. After all, Burkina Fasa has a much higher murder rate than the United States. Surely it was easier for Aboah to feed there than it would be in the United States?

To be fair to Teliko, the episode does have a few elements that work quite well. The opening visual is very effective and attention-grabbing. The climax is suitably tense, even if we can’t help but shake the sense that we’ve seen all this before. Director James Charleston and composer Mark Snow do good work with the material. Howard Gordon knows how to structure a piece of television, and everything ticks along nicely.

Stalling for time...

Stalling for time…

There are even some nice character beats to be found here. The fact that Skinner invites Scully to work on the case is a clever touch. The idea of a potential epidemic is perfectly within her area of expertise, but it also suggests that Skinner really doesn’t want Mulder screwing up what could be a rather delicate assignment. While Skinner protects both Mulder and Scully, there is a sense that he (justifiably) trusts Scully to be a bit more tactful and reliable in dealing with something that could be quite sensitive.

Similarly, Mulder’s decision to invite himself on to the case is perfectly in character, as is his immediate skepticism about the narrative that has developed around the case. It is always nice to see Mulder’s cynicism applied to a more grounded situation – his sympathy for those who are overlooked or ignored, his righteous anger directed at systems that neglect or dismiss those they are intended to protect.

Seeds of something interesting?

Seeds of something interesting?

In the early scenes of Teliko, Mulder’s contempt for what he sees as an attempt to cover-up or conceal a spate of murders in the African-American community is palpable. He seems to bristle at the attempt to write off these killings as a disease or infection. Indeed, Mulder even seems slightly frustrated with Scully for playing into what he believes to be a cover-up. “I’m going to join the snipe hunt, if you don’t mind,” he tells Scully. “Before the body count rises.”

It is a nice character beat for Mulder, and a reminder of why Gordon writes the character so well. One gets the sense that Teliko would probably flow a bit better if this aspect were pushed more to the front, if we got to see how attempts to dismiss or belittle problems affecting immigrant communities offended Mulder’s sensibilities – a real-world example of the fantastical bureaucracy and indifference that Mulder struggles against on an almost weekly basis.

The gland of the free...

The gland of the free…

Sadly, Teliko never quite finds a solid hook or throughline. The result is a mess of an episode that hangs together reasonably well from a plotting perspective, but frequently seems muddled at odds with itself when it comes to themes and subtext. There is an interesting and provocative story to be told here; this is not it.

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

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