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The X-Files – Unruhe (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.

Unruhe was the first episode of The X-Files to air on Sunday nights.

The show had vacated its traditional Friday evening slot to make room for Millennium. It had been moved to Sunday evenings. Although the production team were initially quite cautious about the move, it would ultimately pay dividends for the show. The show had already become a mainstream hit, but the Sunday night slot would help to push it into the stratosphere. Airing alongside Fox’s other long-running success story, The Simpsons, the show would secure its highest ratings ever less than six months after moving into its new slot.

Photo copy?

Photo copy?

Of course, this also draws attention to another interesting facet of Unruhe. This was the first episode of The X-Files to air after Millennium hit the air. Unruhe aired two days after the pilot. The impact of Millennium has already been keenly felt on the fourth season of The X-Files in a number of ways; deadline and production issues hindered Herrenvolk, while James Wong and Glen Morgan had been drafted back to The X-Files to help shore up the fourth season. However, Unruhe seems to directly (and perhaps pointedly) acknowledge Chris Carter’s younger series.

Unruhe is an episode that would probably have been quite at home on Millennium. It is an episode that could easily have been re-worked or re-tooled for Carter’s new show – with only a few minor changes. With its serial offender, fascination with forensic psychology, and its grim reflection on mankind’s capacity for evil, it feels like an story that could comfortably have been told using Frank Black. While it serves to welcome Millennium to the genre neighbourhood, it also seems to suggest that Millennium might be a little redundant.

A walk among the tombstones...

A walk among the tombstones…

It is interesting how little emphasis Unruhe puts on the paranormal aspect of the case. Psychic photography is a fascinating paranormal hook – to the point that Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter briefly considered producing a biography of famed psyhophotographer Ted Serios – but Unruhe seems quite casual about it. Having read about the details of the case, even Scully seems a little confused about what they contribute. “I’m still not sure how you and I figure into this investigation,” she confesses. Mulder argues that the weird photograph is enough to justify their involvement. The episode itself seems less convinced.

Early in the episode, it is revealed that the first two victims were involved in a pretty serious mail fraud racket. However, that crime was actually unrelated to the abduction. Instead, Mulder insists that the mail fraud element of the case is just a red herring. “This isn’t about mail fraud, Scully, that’s just incidental,” he insists. This is true – to a large extent – of the psychic photographs. The episode even throws Mulder and Scully into conflict over the photographs, with Mulder insisting they are important, and Scully less convinced.

Snap!

Snap!

When the killer claims his second set of victims (one murdered, one kidnapped), Scully is clearly frustrated by Mulder’s fascination with the psychic photographs. “Is that what we’re looking for here, Mulder?” she demands. “More evidence of psychic photography?” To Scully’s mind, the psychic photographs are a distraction, an element that exists at the periphery of what is a grueling and horrific case – one that Mulder focuses on to the detriment of everything else.

Indeed, the psychic photography is so peripheral that even Jerry Schnauz is oblivious of it until Mulder brings to it to his attention. “This guy is obviously very good at what he does,” Mulder observes. “He’s left behind no witnesses, no latent prints. The only thing he’s left are those photos, which leads me to believe he doesn’t even know that he has that ability.” This is all but confirmed after Schnauz escapes and makes sure to take all the accessible film in the drug store with him, trying to prevent Mulder from following him.

He has an ice pick to pick with you!

He has an ice pick to pick with you!

Early in the episode, Mulder and Scully literally split up over the issue of the photographs. Mulder decides to follow the photographs as a line of inquiry, while Scully uses more conventional and rational detective work. “Where are you going to be?” Scully demands. “I’ll be back in DC,” Mulder tells her. “I want special photo to run this. I still think the answer is in here.” Scully replies, “What if it’s not, Mulder? This woman’s time is running out.”

Interestingly, it is Scully’s line of inquiry that is successful – at least initially. She apprehends Schnauz using good old-fashioned leg-work, identifying common elements that link the victims and pursuing those avenues of investigation. She captures Schnauz on her own, with no back-up or support. Of course, Schnauz escapes from custody and the photos become important. Mulder uses the photos to track Schnauz down, but a significant portion of the work Mulder does is good old-fashioned profiling.

Building on this...

Building on this…

Indeed, as much as the photos help Mulder to find Schnauz at the climax, they are something of a double-edged sword. They ultimately end up vindicating his beliefs and rationalisations. When Scully tries to talk him down at the climax, he refuses to yield. “I am on to you!” he warns the “howlers” snug inside Scully’s head. “I know your tricks! Besides, I’ve seen them, in that picture that your partner showed me. Pictures don’t lie. You saw them too.”

The photographs feel incidental to Jerry’s trauma and his pathology. It is never entirely explained why Jerry can affect the photographs. Did he have an accident as a child? Does his body have a warped electric field? Indeed, it is never explained what exactly is going on with them. Are they just Jerry’s subconscious thoughts impressed on film? If that is the case, it seems weird that his own subconscious would predict his death so perfectly when the other pictures were so abstract.

Let's see what develops...

Let’s see what develops…

Unruhe isn’t too concerned with these specifics, because the photographs are incidental. The real plot is Schnauz himself; the photos are simply an effective paranormal hook and a way for Mulder and Scully to get into the killer’s mind. “I have no further explanation for the existence of the photographs,” Scully tells the audience in her closing monologue, “nor am I confident one is forthcoming.” Unruhe is not concerned with the photos so much as it is fascinated by whether or not monsters like Schnauz can be ever be understood.

After Schnauz is captured, Scully is uninterested in any insight into Schnauz’s pathology. “It’s over, Mulder.” Mulder continues, “Well, then that photo wouldn’t be his fantasy. It would be his nightmare.” Snarkily, Scully demands, “What the hell does it matter?” Mulder replies, “Because I want to know.” Scully responds, “I don’t.” As far as Scully is concerned, such knowledge is only desirable so far as it is useful, In a way, Unruhe plays with one of the core conflicts of the show, asking about how people process answers that might make them uncomfortable.

"Of course I've had it in the ear before..."

“Of course I’ve had it in the ear before…”

This is perhaps the biggest problem with the episode, outside of some minor plotting hiccups. It seems like Unruhe is an episode that exists solely to teach Scully that she can’t look away from something that makes her uncomfortable, and does so in the most malicious manner possible. Indeed, her closing monologue makes it sound like the episode was an educational experience. “My captivity forced me to understand and even empathize with Gerry Schnauz,” she confesses. “My survival depended on it. I see now the value of such insight.”

It is a theme quite close to the heart of both Millennium and The X-Files, the idea that sometimes people have to confront uncomfortable realities in order to make the world a better place. After all, that is a large part of what Mulder does in the show’s mythology arc, forcing people to confront unpleasant truths. It is just the strange structure of the episode – with Schnauz arrested and escaping right after Scully disavows any interest in his pathology – that makes Unruhe feel like a heavy-handed (and mean-spirited) morality play.

(Pola)roid rage...

(Pola)roid rage…

Still, this feels very much like an episode that is confidently treading on ground that Millennium marked out for itself. In the episode’s “millenniumistic” closing line, Scully wonders to herself, “For truly to pursue monsters, we must understand them. We must venture into their minds. Only in doing so, do we risk letting them venture into ours?” Interestingly, this would become a key theme in Vince Gilligan’s later fourth-season episode, Paper Hearts – a script which seemed to insist that Millennium did not exclusively own the rights to homage Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon.

Which brings us back around a full circle to talk about Millennium. It is, in a way, quite difficult to talk about the fourth season of The X-Files without talking about the launch of Millennium. To be fair, Unruhe and Paper Hearts all but invite the comparison. The Pilot closed with Frank Black receiving a collection of polaroids, while Unruhe focuses on a killer who impresses his visions on to film. Millennium heavily draws from Red Dragon, so Paper Hearts casts Tom Noonan as a serial killer.

Schnauz fest?

Schnauz fest?

Although Chris Carter’s association with The X-Files was pushed to the fore during the publicity campaign for Millennium, it was clear that Chris Carter did not consider the show to be a “spin-off” or a “tie-in” to The X-Files. Asked about the possibility of a crossover in an early interview, Carter replied, “I’ve thought of it. And I think it’s too obvious a way to get ratings. And I want the show to succeed on its own terms, rather than on some kind of gimmick.”

Carter was true to his word. The first crossover between The X-Files and Millennium did not occur until the younger show’s second season, when Glen Morgan and Howard Wong were running the show. The pair had initially hoped to write a sequel to Home in time for Halloween, but the network vetoed that. Later on in the second season, Darin Morgan write a guest appearance for Charles Nelson Reilly, reprising his role as Jose Chung from Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.”

Candid camera!

Candid camera!

Carter was true to his world. Although he was planning some sort of crossover towards the end of the third season of Millennium, it never quite materialised. Frank Black would not encounter Mulder and Scully until after Millennium went off the air, appearing in a seventh-season episode of The X-Files intended to wrap up his character arc and retroactively incorporate him into the franchise. Compare this with the obvious “spin-off” antics of The Lone Gunmen, and you get the sense that Carter wanted Millennium to stand apart.

However, there is no escaping the reality that Millennium was – in many ways – a child of The X-Files. Carter has admitted that he was inspired to create Millennium based on his work on The X-Files, particularly his script for Irresistible. There are other moments in the second and third season of The X-Files where it seems like Millennium is gestating inside the elder show. The CalusariGrotesque and Revelations all seem to point towards the show that Millennium would become.

Shadow play...

Shadow play…

As Rob Shearman observes in Wanting to BelieveUnruhe focuses on the kind of real-life horror around which Millennium would frequently weave its stories. It demonstrates that The X-Files could be used as a vehicle to tell these sorts of tales:

When Mulder is keen to find out the truth behind it, and in doing so appears to trivialise the murders that they reveal, Scully is palpably so revolted by the case that she rejects him: the thought photography is of no interest to her, it’s a superficial detail measured against the brutality on display. It almost feels like an episode which is casting off the trappings of The X-Files formula, seeing them as childish concerns weighed against the brutality of real-life crime. It’s honestly as if the people in charge of Chris Carter’s production company, Ten Thirteen, are acknowledging that The X-Files is really something of a silly bauble compared to their bright shiny new series premiering that very week.

In one sense, it seems like a nice tipping of the hat – welcoming Millennium to the neighbourhood, so to speak. On the other hand, it also makes it clear that The X-Files is not going to allow itself to be fenced in by Millennium.

Jerry hasn't got a leg to stand on...

Jerry hasn’t got a leg to stand on…

Although Millennium was not a direct spin-off of The X-Files, it was very clearly linked to Chris Carter’s breakout hit. The most obvious imbalance in the relationship was that The X-Files had already proved that it could do a lot of what Millennium was setting out to do. This makes sense, given how Millennium seemed to develop from episodes of The X-FilesMillennium‘s initial limitations and boundaries were set by The X-Files.

Unruhe demonstrates this quite effectively, serving as a very unnerving serial-offender-of-the-week troy, preoccupied with ideas of evil and madness. One of the criticisms of the first season of Millennium – and one that is not entirely unfounded – is that the show adopted a serial-killer-of-the-week format with a smattering of religious imagery and iconography. The problem is that The X-Files could tell these sorts of stories, but didn’t have to tell these stories exclusively.

"Everything really wrapped up nicely. Hmm, much quicker than usual."

“Everything really wrapped up nicely. Hmm, much quicker than usual.”

The X-Files could tell stories that Millennium could not tell. Millennium did not have a format that lent itself to story about aliens or monsters or government conspiracies. Frank Black would look absurd if you tried to transpose him into a story like Teliko or Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man. One might even argue that Frank Black felt curiously out of place in his one appearance on The X-Files.

However, The X-Files could tell the vast majority of stories that Millennium could tell. While Millennium was on the air, it did not own any of its own elements exclusively. Episodes like Home, Unruhe or Paper Hearts demonstrated that The X-Files could do shows about profiling and very human forms of evil. Stories like All Saints allowed The X-Files to tell stories about demonic forces and religious prophecy. Never Again was a story about psychological demons; The Field Where I Died centred around the sorts of cults that sprang up in the lead-up to the millennium.

Constructing an elaborate excuse...

Constructing an elaborate excuse…

So the decision to broadcast Unruhe two days after the high-profile premiere of Millennium feels like a bit of a pointed gesture. Unruhe is the kind of story that Millennium would work hard to tell over the course of its first season. It is a story about the most mundane and human sort of horror, the evil that people can do to one another that exists quite separate from paranormal constructs like “demons” or “howlers.” This feels like The X-Files proving that it can do just about anything Millennium might set out to do.

In the process, it does demonstrate one of the most significant issues with the first season of Millennium. Last week, The X-Files was about a monster that ate pituitary glands and could hide in impossible spaces; this week, The X-Files is about a very human form of evil; next week, The X-Files will be about past lives and memory. In contrast, Millennium will spend a significant portion of its first season just playing that middle story on loop, adding a few novel details or twists along the way.

"Enhance. Enhance. Enhance."

“Enhance. Enhance. Enhance.”

In many respects, the decision to move The X-Files to Sunday nights to make room for Millennium seems like an odd choice. The two shows complement each other well enough that they would have made a pretty solid two-hour block, particularly given the fact that The X-Files tended to be a bit lighter and more playful, while Millennium was more sombre and morose. Putting the two shows together would make for interesting variations on themes, even if it would invite comparisons that were going to be made anyway.

Of course, keeping The X-Files and Millennium on the same night would have bumped Millennium back from 9pm to 10pm on a Friday night, which would have arguably meant a smaller potential audience and less attention. It would likely have meant a lower budget and smaller scale, as opposed to the massive press and media launch that proved such a mixed blessing in the mid- to long-term. However, Millennium always felt a little uncomfortable at the heart of a prime-time line-up filling the shoes of an elder sibling that had moved on to better things.

Just not on the cards...

Just not on the cards…

Interestingly, it seemed like the production staff on The X-Files were less than thrilled with the shift to Sunday nights. Carter confessed as much in contemporary interviews:

“I like to think of The X-Files as being abducted to Sunday nights,” he said, laughing. “Everybody resists change. Some people see Sunday as a night when they’re preparing for work the next day, and kids might not be able to stay up because it’s a school night.

“I’m hoping [the show] doesn’t suffer. I’m just hoping that [the resistance] dies away and that people come back to the show because it’s good.”

Discussing the situation with Entertainment Weekly, Carter admitted, “Friday night is a good night to be scared.” It is hard to believe this reluctance in retrospect.

I(ce pick) see you!

I(ce pick) see you!

The X-Files would quickly become a fixture of Fox’s Sunday night line-up. The schedule change would allow viewers to transition from The Springfield Files into El Mundo Gira. It would also mean that the following week Leonard Betts would be the lead-out show from Superbowl XXXI, giving the series its highest ratings ever. The End and The Beginning would bridge to and from The X-Files: Fight the Future on Sunday nights. The Truth closed the show out on a Sunday night.

Sunday night served The X-Files rather well, and Unruhe is a nice choice of episode to ease the transition. Unruhe was the second episode of the season produced, beginning something of a loose tradition where Vince Gilligan would write the first non-mythology episode of a given season. It was held back in the schedule specifically so it would be the first episode of The X-Files broadcast on Sunday night. It is a nice choice. Home would have been too provocative, and Teliko was not great.

It's what's underneath that counts...

It’s what’s underneath that counts…

Unruhe is a well-constructed episode of television, anchored in a solid script and two great performances. The episode capitalises on casting veteran character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince as Schnauz. Gilligan actually wrote the part for Vince:

“I wrote the part of Jerry Schnauz with Pruitt Taylor Vince in mind, and we got him, because he’s a big X Files fan. He and Gillian Anderson had to learn a few German lines, and neither of them speaks any German. We had to play that like, We never knew this about Scully, but she took German in college, so she speaks German fairly well. I always knew that was a bit of a stretch, but you have to just go with it,” VG says. “I wanted Scully’s final speech in German to be a little rusty, though, so that the subtitles would come up and instead of Scully saying, ‘I have no unrest!’ it should have said, ‘I am have no unrest.’ She was supposed to get the tenses all wrong, so her meaning would come across but the grammar would not be correct. That would have been more believable. But there was a miscommunication between us and our German translator, who turned it into perfect German.

“Also, if I could do it again, I would lighten up on the plot a tiny bit. Less plot and more time with Jerry Schnauz would have been fun.”

Vince is fantastic in the role, while Gillian Anderson is wonderful as Scully. Unruhe is an episode that feels like it gives the characters lots to work with and lots to do.

Even by the low standards of X-Files law enforcement, this is particularly inept...

Even by the low standards of X-Files law enforcement, this is particularly inept…

Unruhe is very much a Vince Gilligan script, filled with a lot of the elements that define Gilligan’s writing for the show at this stage of its life. The plotting is fairly loose in places. This works well in some ways, allowing for the unconventional structure where Schnauz is identified and apprehended half-way through the episode. However, this same structural quirk means that Schnauz has to escape, which seems like something the story glosses over. Ignoring gun safety issues, how did Schnauz get out of the police station?

However, there is also something very pulpy about Gilligan’s storytelling here – as with his work on Soft Light or Pusher. With his memorable stilt-legs, Schnauz a normal guy who is visually memorable in the same way that Chester’s man-eating shadow or Robert Modell’s blue wardrobe might be. Indeed, Schnauz joins the long list of Gilligan characters who are “little men who wish that they were someone big.” Literally in this case, with Mulder noting, “I’m thinking he’s either very tall, or he’s not but wants to be.”

The picture of mental health...

The picture of mental health…

Gilligan’s storytelling is also delightfully rooted in trashy horror conventions. The finalé takes place in a graveyard; Jerry Schnauz is the son of a dentist – his rambling in German as his victims are strapped to dentist chairs cannot help but evoke Marathon Man. The sequence where Schnauz attacks Scully from underneath her car is a shout out to a popular nineties urban legends about slashers who would hide underneath vehicles to slash their victims tendons. The rumour dates to 1994, well before Unruhe was written.

Unruhe is also a nice example of how The X-Files was a very nineties television show. The episode hinges on photography, even as it seems to acknowledge that the idea of film and photography might be on the way out. The drugist who takes the passport photo is elderly and decidedly old-fashioned. When it looks like his customer isn’t coming back, he declares, “Shoot.” He confesses, “I don’t get much call for passport photos, you know. The copy shop over at the mall does them cheaper.”

A sharp deduction...

A sharp deduction…

In many ways, Unruhe captures the photography industry at a pivotal moment. 1996 is right in the middle of George Fisher’s disastrous tenure in charge of Kodak. Ahead of his time, Fisher pushed for digital imagery and on-line photo-sharing, but lacked the vision necessary to fully realise these ideas. Ultimately, the advent of digital would change photography market in the United States in the late nineties and would end up eroding Kodak’s market share.

Unruhe stands on the cusp of this era. It would arguably be possible to re-write Unruhe for the digital age. Jerry Schnauz could just as easily affect hard drives and image storage. However, there is something quite suspenseful and atmospheric about a picture developing on film – an image slowly and clearly coming into focus, rather than appearing instantaneously. It is weird to live in a culture where Hey Ya! is dated by the instruction to “shake it like a polaroid picture.”

"Well, he's not in here."

“Well, he’s not in here.”

Unruhe is a very well-made episode, one that demonstrates just how valuable a writer Vince Gilligan would become for the show going forward. It is also a shrewd choice to transition the shows to Sunday night, and perhaps a pointed episode to air right after the première of Millennium.

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

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