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The X-Files – Tunguska (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 show’s conspiracy plot line is rapidly approaching critical mass.

It is quite clear at this point that while colonisation might have a schedule, Fox had just thrown Chris Carter’s out the window. The X-Files: Fight the Future looms large on the horizon. Indeed, Tunguska is credited to Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, who would end up writing the screenplay for the feature film over the Christmas break. However, while Carter had originally conceived the movie to put a cap on the television series, Fox wanted it to tie more aggressively into the series. It would not be the end of the journey, but a middle chapter.

Flagging the danger...

Flagging the danger…

As such, the larger conspiracy plotline that had been gathering momentum since the end of the second season spends two years largely spinning its wheels to keep the feature film relevant. The film was written midway through the fourth season and shot in the gap between the fourth and fifth seasons. So, there is a lot of stalling required. To use the “cancer” metaphor that is cleverly (and almost subconsciously) woven through the fourth season, the central conspiracy plotline seems to go into remission for a while.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Indeed, the stalling allows the show to take stock and to devote space in the mythology to more personal stories like Tempus Fugit and Max or Christmas Carol and Emily. However, it also means that episodes like Herrenvolk, Tunguska, Terma and The End felt like attempts to buy time – offering the illusion of dynamism and change while only inching the plot along.

Wired up...

Wired up…

To be fair, Tunguska seems to acknowledge this. Captured by Mulder and Scully, he mocks Mulder’s pursuit of “the truth.” Ever the cynic, Krycek bluntly informs Mulder, “The truth, the truth! There’s no truth. These men, they make it up as they go along.” It seems like Krycek could be posting about the writers on some anonymous internet message board. It’s no wonder that the episode treats him so harshly, with Mulder repeatedly slapping him on the head (and mocking his new haircut) and Skinner beating him to a pulp while leaving him chained up on the balcony. Maybe he’s on to something.

Alex Krycek seems to spend most of the episode acutely aware of the fact that he’s trapped in a television show designed to torture him. He even gets into the spirit of it. After murdering an agent of the conspiracy, Mulder has to smuggle him out of Skinner’s apartment. “You put me up here, man, I’m looking forward to seeing you get me out.” It sounds like Krycek is taunting the writers as much as Mulder. They’ve written the show in a very particular direction, and now that direction is changing to make way for the looming feature film.

Putting the "ah!" in "gulag!"

Putting the “ah!” in “gulag!”

Of course, the episode cheats in that particular instance. Despite Krycek openly acknowledging how difficult it will be to smuggle him out of crime scene, the episode has that happen between the takes. Mulder insists that Krycek not talk to anybody on the way out, and then we cut to the continuing wacky adventures of Mulder and Krycek. It’s effective storytelling – after all, a sequence of Mulder and Krycek evading the police would be fun, but would eat into the run time – but it also seems a little convenient.

Then again, perhaps it wouldn’t have meant sacrificing too much. A lot of Tunguska feels like an exercise in stalling. There is very little here that we don’t already know. The black oil is evil. The government is working against Mulder and Scully. Human experimentation is taking place. There are no seismic plot twists here, no earth-shattering revelations. It is nice to see the Well-Manicured Man again, living a suitably upper-crust existence that includes breeding horses – an appropriate past time for a man involved in a scheme that may reduce the bulk of the human race to chattel.

"Well, that's not carry-on..."

“Well, that’s not carry-on…”

To be fair, Tunguska and Terma imply a link between the government’s sinister human experimentation and the black oil – suggesting that members of the conspiracy may not be as wholeheartedly committed to colonisation as Talitha Cumi implied. This is arguably a much more important as thematic development than it is as a plot point. After all, the plot complication revealed in Patient X and The Red and the Black ultimately has a much more significant impact on how the mythology eventually plays out than any of this politicking.

Still, Tunguska and Terma develops the themes hinted at in Colony and End Game, further developed in Herrenvolk. The real threat is not colonisation or extermination, but homogenisation. The conspiracy and the colonists seek to impose a singular vision upon mankind – a pervading sameness, a world of clones, a colony modelled on those maintained by the bees that recur through the fourth season. It is a very nineties anxiety; a world devoid of difference. It is a world where everybody looks the same, thinks the same, acts the same.

Cock(roach) of the walk...

Cock(roach) of the walk…

Appropriately enough, given the themes of Tunguska and Terma, this is a logical anxiety stemming from the end of the Cold War. “There’s no more enemies,” one of the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s lackeys declared in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, after getting word of Gorbachev’s resignation. Somewhat sensationally, Francis Fukuyama described the end of the Cold War as “the end of history”, suggesting that liberal democracy had vanquished all of its challengers. There were no more worlds to conquer, no more ideologies to defeat.

The sole remaining superpower, the survivor of an extended political and economical knock-down brawl, the United States stood triumphant; a colossus astride the planet. The X-Files hits on the dark side of this triumph. With no external threat to focus attention, and no other major political ideology in opposition, the nineties provided an interesting opportunity to explore the United States. The fear of homogeneity expressed in the conspiracy arc can be read as an anxiety about a world governed by one guiding political and dominant moral ideology.

"Road trip!"

“Road trip!”

As Michael Valdez Moses notes in Kingdom of Darkness, this is a recurring motif in Chris Carter’s work:

In Carter’s shows, the Cold War ends not in the triumph of freedom over tyranny but merely in the victory of one absolute and despotic power over its rivals. The end of history would appear to offer not the coming to consciousness of human freedom, but the endless reign of what Nietzsche famously called the “coldest of all cold monsters”, the final victory of the sovereign state that seeks only to increase its power at the expense of the individual.

It is interesting to note that post-Cold War Russia seemed to be percolating in Carter’s consciousness at this point. The fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium are populated with episodes about the former Soviet Union into the nineties.

"You can't handle the Truth!"

“You can’t handle the Truth!”

The show’s colonisation subplot follows attempts by the colonists and the conspirators to impose unity upon the world, to render everything the same and to destroy all difference. However, The X-Files seems to suggest that such unity is all but impossible. Indeed, neither the conspirators nor the colonists have a single consistent identity. The may appear like vast and nebulous monolithic entity from the perspective of outsiders, but the show gradually chips away at both groups, revealing schisms and agendas and divergences.

Patient X and The Red and the Black reveal that the aliens operate in a much more nuanced and complicated context than it may originally have appeared. Tunguska and Terma suggest that while the majority of the conspiracy is working to assist colonisation, there are elements within hoping to subvert and undermine this plan. Jeremiah Smith’s reluctance to go along with colonisation in Talitha Cumi suggests there are similar schisms among the colonists. These groups cannot impose order and consistency within their own ranks, what hope do they have imposing it upon the world?

"You know, this isn't even the strangest thing that we've found coming through here..."

“You know, this isn’t even the strangest thing that we’ve found coming through here…”

The opening sequence at the airport demonstrates how fruitless all of these efforts inevitably are. One of the constant themes of The X-Files is the idea that these ambitious schemes and plans are often undone by the most mundane and banal of factors. In this case, the conspirators cannot even organise for diplomat travelling with some very important (and very suspect) material to slip through customs. The darkly hilarious sequence is familiar to anybody who has ever been subjected to a “random” screening, pointing out that even the conspirators can’t bypass Customs.

It’s a nice sequence, even if it does feel a little contrived – how difficult can it be for the men who control the Senate to book a private flight and sneak it past Customs officials? It also serves as a nice connection to Nisei and 731, with the delegate explaining that he has travelled from Japan via the Republic of Georgia – as if to assure the viewer that this two-parter will build on the international flavour of those earlier episodes. However, like the alien autopsy video that jump-starts Nisei or the abortion clinic attacks that spark Colony, the sequence also demonstrates how this vast and sinister conspiracy seems to intrude into the everyday world. Something this big cannot be controlled.

These militia men don't know S.W.A.T....

These militia men don’t know S.W.A.T….

As with Nisei and 731, Tunguska and Terma stress how difficult it would be to realise that conspiracy theory about a “new world order” and a “one world government.” After all, elites do not generally cede power and prestige, even to each other. In Nisei and 731, the Japanese government put its own self-interest ahead of that of the global effort; here, the Russians conduct their own secret research and actively sabotage American attempts to accomplish the same objective. The vaccine that is crucial to the survival of the entire human race becomes another patriotic football.

In the grand scheme of things, it shouldn’t matter whether Russia or the United States develops the vaccine first. This is the fate of mankind in the balance. There will never be a more logical time for these two states to cooperate in service of the greater good. However, old habits die hard. Petty interests endure. In Terma, the Cigarette-Smoking Man accuses the Well-Manicured Man of being “so foolish as to put the project at risk for the sake of [his] personal pleasures”, but is this sort of patriotism any less indulgent under the circumstances?

Barbed comments...

Barbed comments…

As interesting some of these elements may be in theory, the execution itself feels very rote. A significant of Tunguska and Terma feels stitched together from earlier, stronger episodes; in many ways, it is a fusion of the two two-parters from the middle of the third season. As with Nisei and 731, Mulder and Scully interfere with travelling diplomats; a sinister assassin targets foreign operatives; there’s a focus on another player in this international conspiracy, this time it is Russia instead of Japan. This time, their diplomatic meddling results in a dull senate subplot.

As with Piper Maru and Apocrypha, there is a focus on the black oil; indeed, Tunguska and Terma offer the Mulder/Krycek buddy comedy that Apocrypha only dared to tease. There, Krycek was hijacked by the black oil before he could even hop on the plane back to the United States. Here, Mulder finds himself saddled with the duplicitous schemer for most of the episode.  Tunguska works hard to keep Mulder and Krycek together, with the plot making a number of convenient leaps to justify their unconventional team-up.

If there's one guy you want around in a crisis...

If there’s one guy you want around in a crisis…

After all, it seems weird that the government would just leave Krycek’s silo – the one that until recently had a giant freakin’ space ship in it – unguarded and unsupervised. It turns out that Krycek is lying about being liberated by the militia, so did the Russians happen to find him? Similarly, Krycek’s use of a Russian swear word seems just a tad convenient. He obviously has his motives, but if Mulder had not heard it or had chosen to ignore it, Krycek would be stuck in a car by himself for a week or so. (Which, of course, seems a terribly irresponsible place to leave an unprincipled psychopath who has demonstrated the survival skills of a cockroach.)

Still, these contrivances can be forgiven, because there’s something oddly charming about a bro-mantic adventure featuring Mulder and Krycek. The X-Files has played up hints of homoerotic tension between the duo from Krycek’s first appearance in Sleepless, and the show doesn’t disappoint here. Indeed, a significant portion of Tunguska seems to exist to tease on-line fans. A shirtless Walter Skinner welcomes Mulder and Krycek into his apartment for roughhousing! Mulder and Krycek in prison together! It feels like Carter and Spotnitz are having a great deal of fun with this unlikely team-up.

Inject a little action!

Inject a little action!

While Krycek is a character whose continued survival seems to get more and more unlikely with each passing episode, Tunguska and Terma demonstrate the appeal of the character. In many ways, Krycek serves as a dark mirror to Mulder. He is Mulder without his principles, without his integrity, without decency. He is a man dedicated to dismantling and destroying the show’s central conspiracy, but is motivated more out of revenge than out of any desire to see justice done. Tunguska and Terma plays up this doubling. Krycek is to Mulder as Russia is to the United States in the wake of the Cold War, to pick one example.

However, the most provocative contrast occurs early in Tunguska, where it is revealed that Krycek has joined a right-wing militia planning “the next Oklahoma City.” These sorts of self-titled “patriotic” organisations became more and more popular in the nineties, as mistrust of the government festered. These groups believed that the government was lying to the public, and the power needed to be claimed back from a secretive elite that was exploiting the citizens. These groups believed many of the things that Mulder believed, and were arguably an expression of the same paranoia that drove The X-Files.

They really dropped the ball on this one...

They really dropped the ball on this one…

This caused understandable issues for The X-Files. Although the show would deal with these sorts of organisations, it was quite slow to do so. Mulder and Scully had first encountered such a group in The Field Where I Died earlier in the fourth season. In contrast, writer Stefan Petrucha and artist Charles Adlard had already written two arcs of the tie-in comic book featuring similar groups. Given how The X-Files prided itself on having its finger on the popular pulse, there was a palpable hesitation to engage with this movement. This hesitation was entirely understandable.

The trial of Timothy McVeigh was unfolding between 1996 and 1997. The terrorist’s original defense strategy would have argued that the Oklahoma City Bombing was “necessitated” by the actions of the government. Although his legal team steered McVeigh away from that defence, he did insist on screening Waco: The Big Lie for jurors, a documentary alleging that the truth about what happened at Waco had been covered-up by the FBI. In letters from prison, McVeigh wrote about Waco as part of a larger conspiracy, “the cumulative picture” that ultimately motivated his actions.

Containing herself...

Containing herself…

With all of this going on around it, The X-Files was occasionally in a precarious position. In The Unauthorised Guide to the X-Files, published in 1997, Carter spoke of the difficulty of controlling his narrative:

“Am I putting ideas into people’s heads? … Other groups out there right now who’ve made big news are saying they don’t trust the government. I don’t want people to confuse what I’m saying with that political agenda. And it’s weird – a lot of people contact me saying they are or were ‘in the loop.’ There’s an enormous number of conspiracy theorists out there, and they’re trying to get me to tell their story.”

That spectre haunts The X-Files through the nineties – the implication that the show is grounded in the same sort of mistrust and paranoia that extremists like McVeigh would use to justify mass-murder.

How U.N.-American...

How U.N.-American…

Indeed, Carter was still discussing McVeigh while promoting the release of Fight the Future to Der Spiegel in 1998:

“The series is neither about paramilitary groups nor does it propose revolutionary tactics” Carter says. “It only suggests to the audience to question authority and not to trust any institution.”

Here, these sorts of paramilitary groups are revealed to be a particularly banal sort of evil. They are dealt with quickly and promptly, exploited by Krycek to serve his own ends.

Nananana... Ratboy!

Nananana… Ratboy!

And yet, despite all this, Tunguska and Terma lack the same weight and memorability that marked the two two-parters from the third season. While the production values are as solid as ever, and the story features a number of tense action sequences, there is nothing in Tunguska or Terma that compares with Mulder jumping aboard the train in Nisei or the attempted assassination of Skinner at the end of Piper Maru. Tunguska ends with Mulder in peril, but he’s the show’s lead. Given that Carter recently refused to kill off Frohike, Mulder is probably pretty safe.

These problems are compounded by the decision to build the two-parter around the Senate subcommittee hearing investigating Mulder and Scully. The fact that the guest credits appear over the raid on the militia suggests that the Customs sequence in Honolulu was originally intended to air as the teaser, rather than the subcommittee sequence that occurs mid-way through Terma. That would have been a much more effective hook for the episode, the kind of intersection of the mundane and the horrific that the show does so well.

The conspiracy really could take more precautions with this stuff...

The conspiracy really could take more precautions with this stuff…

There are a lot of reasons why using the subcommittee investigation as a framing device for Tunguska doesn’t work – for one thing, it seems rather arbitrary that this case is the one that gets Mulder and Scully pulled in front of a subcommittee. After all, being subpoenaed to appear before the Senate is a pretty big deal. It really shouldn’t feel like an afterthought in an already crowded episode. More than that, it seems to exist primarily to give Scully something to do while Mulder has wild bro-mantic adventures with Alec Krycek.

Maybe if Terma had simply ended with the summons, the subplot have worked better; it certainly would have provided more dramatic storytelling opportunities, with the potential for the sort of shady backroom deals that the show does so well. Instead, Tunguska and Terma reduce these sequences to mere filibustering, leaving lots of room for monologues that tells us things we already know. In what looks like a moment of wry self-awareness in the teaser, Senate Romine interrupts Scully, “This is not a soapbox, Ms. Scully.” However, this does not stop Carter and Spotnitz.

Long-term parking...

Long-term parking…

It is a shame, because Fritz Weaver is a pretty great guest star. He demonstrates that success has not really changed The X-Files. The show is not using its “special guest star” tag to lure in big recognisable mainstream names. As with episodes like The List in the third season, there is a sense that Carter is carefully casting cult actors that he wants to work with. A veteran actor with a wide range of experience across a wide variety of genres, Weaver is probably best known for his work in science-fiction television. It is disappointing to see the actor reduced to little more than a talking head.

Tunguska also marks the third appearance of Laurie Holden as Marita Covarrubias. As with Teliko, there is a sense that Mulder and Covarrubius have settled into their roles a little too readily and comfortably. Given how Mulder’s informants tend to end up dead, he seems curiously unconcerned about having Scully find her address through FBI channels. One imagines that anything Scully types into a Bureau computer must be flagged at this stage. Mulder proceeds to hassle her in the middle of the night, without so much as a second thought.

Eyes without a face...

Eyes without a face…

Then again, he seems curious disinterested in why Covarrubias is assisting him. “Why are you helping me?” he asks, a perfectly justifiable question even if he hadn’t shown up uninvited at so unsociable an hour. “Because I can,” she replies. “Because there are those of us who believe in you… believe in the search for the truth.” Mulder really is unbelievably trusting. It is worth pointing out that he trusted Krycek from the first time that they met and well past the point where any reasonable person would have noticed that bad things tend to happen when Krycek is around.

That said, the fourth season has yet to really define Marita Covarrubias as a character. Deep Throat fairly comfortably slotted himself into the role of a father surrogate to Mulder, and that is before he received character development in E.B.E. Mr. X was established more immediately. His first appearance in Sleepless had him warning Mulder about his paranoia. In One Breath, he straight-up executed a man in the basement of a hospital. In contrast, Marita Covarrubias doesn’t really have any discernible personality. Which is a shame, because Laurie Holden is great.

What with dropping Krycek off with shirtless!Skinner and a late night visit with the new Deep Throat, it seems like Tunguska is trying really hard to ship Mulder with anybody who isn't Scully...

What with dropping Krycek off to shirtless!Skinner and a late-night visit with the new Deep Throat, it seems like Tunguska is trying really hard to ship Mulder with anybody who isn’t Scully…

Tunguska also builds on the publicity around the famous Allan Hills 84001 meteorite. Although the rock had been recovered in the Antarctic in 1984, it made news in August 1996 when it was revealed that it might prove the existence of life on Mars at some distant point in the past:

In examining the martian meteorite ALH84001 we have found that the following evidence is compatible with the existence of past life on Mars: (i) an igneous Mars rock (of unknown geologic context) that was penetrated by a fluid along fractures and pore spaces, which then became the sites of secondary mineral formation and possible biogenic activity; (ii) a formation age for the carbonate globules younger than the age of the igneous rock; (iii) SEM and TEM images of carbonate globules and features resembling terrestrial microorganisms, terrestrial biogenic carbonate structures, or microfossils; (iv) magnetite and iron sulfide particles that could have resulted from oxidation and reduction reactions known to be important in terrestrial microbial systems; and (v) the presence of PAHs associated with surfaces rich in carbonate globules. None of these observations is in itself conclusive for the existence of past life. Although there are alternative explanations for each of these phenomena taken individually, when they are considered collectively, particularly in view of their spatial association, we conclude that they are evidence for primitive life on early Mars.

In the years since, enthusiasm has been tempered somewhat. There have been non-biological explanations offered for every piece of evidence proposed in August 1996. Nevertheless, there was a lot of excitement about the idea in the mid-nineties.

Rocking the world...

Rocking the world…

To be fair, the idea of life having been carried around the universe on a meteor is not a new idea. After all, Glen Morgan and James Wong had speculated on Space: Above and Beyond that random bits of Earth-based life might be floating through the cosmos in dislodged pieces of rock. Nevertheless, this announcement made such speculation vital and urgent. It captured the public imagination. Featuring an alien life form discovered inside an ancient piece of rock, Tunguska makes explicit reference to “fragments of meteorite found in the ice fields of Antarctica.”

While it’s a nice idea, it does invite all sorts of speculation about the black oil. Given that it appears to be sophisticated enough to build and maintain space ships, why was it cruising through space inside a rock? Perhaps it is a less-evolved variety, explaining the catatonic state of Sacks once it gets inside of him. Or perhaps it is simply traumatised by its experiences. After spending that long in a rock hurdling through space before smacking into a planet, who could blame it for wanting some quiet time?

Smear campaign...

Smear campaign…

However, it does seem like Tunguska contradicts Mulder’s observations about the black oil back in Apocrypha. In Apocrypha, Mulder suggested that the oil was simply a medium through which the alien presence navigated, suggesting that the organism was something altogether more unworldly than some ambiguous black goop. While it’s easy enough to hand wave the potential continuity issue – who the hell knows what the black oil really is? – it feels like some of the mystery is lost if this is its default (rather than simply a convenient corporeal) form.

Tunguska is a mess of an episode, one running to stand still. It’s an example of how the mythology is trying readjust its pace in the wake of everything happening behind the scenes, but it never quite works as well as it might.

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

One Response

  1. Have you ever tried watching the mythology episodes only, back to back, and ignoring all the MOTWs?

    I’ve been doing this and I’m frankly amazed. It all flows so smoothly, the events from all episodes dove-tailing nicely with the other one.

    I’ve always considered this two parter to be confusing (where did Krychek come from? Why’s the oil at the airport? What are the Russians doing?), but it’s all pretty clear when you watch the myth-arcs sequentially.

    Watching the show this way has really given me a new appreciation for Carter and the writing team. I thought the show’s myth arc peaked with Nisei (and mildly revived with Tempus Fugit/Max), and thought it devolved into melodrama/family-drama, but in hindsight, and watching everything sequentially with no MOTWs to interrupt the flow, I think this is actually a really brilliant miniseries within a series.

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