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The X-Files – Terma (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.

Tunguska and Terma borrows the structure that made the show’s early mythology episodes so effective. Tunguska is full of intriguing and compelling questions, implications that would seem to broaden or deepen the mythology. However, instead of resolving any of the major threads, Terma simply turns itself into a roller-coaster thrill ride. A cynical observer might compare the weaker mythology episodes to a shell-game: the potential of an interesting premise, lost in a shuffle designed to disorientate and catch the viewer off-guard.

It is an approach that has served the show well. Ascension avoided answering too many of the questions posed by Duane Barry, barrelling along with the momentum of a runaway freight train. Similarly, End Game did not dwell too heavily on the questions posed by Colony, instead serving as a series of high-momentum chase sequences with Mulder following the Alien Bounty Hunter to the ends of the Earth. Paper Clip moved so quickly that the viewers never wondered why the documents recovered in Anasazi were no longer earth-shattering, but merely macguffins.

Things are really heating up...

Things are really heating up…

The X-Files is very good at this sort of dynamic mile-a-minute plotting. The production team are very good at what they do. There is a sleek professionalism to these episodes that makes them easy to watch. Although filmed in Vancouver, there were few shows in the nineties ambitious enough to send their character to a Russian gulag for human experimentation. However, the cracks are starting to show. Herrenvolk demonstrated how frustrating a lack of answers could become. Terma struggles to balance a number of potentially interesting plot threads.

There are a lot of elements of Terma that might have worked well, if they had been given more room to breath. Sadly, the episode spends most of its run time trying to build up momentum towards the inevitable scene where proof narrow slips through Mulder’s fingers one more time.

Evil oil...

Evil oil…

Terma moves at a rapid-fire pace from scene-to-scene, almost as though it is afraid that lingering too long on any one sequence would give too much away. So the episode becomes a catalogue of missed opportunities. The teaser at the hospice hints at a much more interesting story – human experimentation and euthanasia in service of the state. The X-Files has managed to get any number of strong stories about the government behaving questionably, so it feels like this could be fodder for an interesting adventure.

Then again, the last time the show visited an elderly community, the show produced Excelsis Dei. However, the setting itself was not the problem in that episode. Watching the teaser in which “Aunt Jane” sacrifices herself as part of a black-oil-related experiment, it hints at a weird cousin to F. Emasculata – a story about exploitation and experimentation on the disenfranchised and ignored members of modern society. When the show did eventually opt to do this sort of “black oil in a confined space” story, it turned out to be a highlight of the eighth season.

Drawing it out...

Drawing it out…

Still, the show moves quickly along. There is nothing to see here. Then we meet Vassily Peskow, retired bad ass and generally awesome old guy. He certainly won’t be subjecting himself to any human experimentation any time soon. He is called back to action; the winter soldier finds that the seasons have turned once again; the cold warrior is thawed out. When he asks what his superior wants, the messenger replies, “He wants you to know the Cold War isn’t over.” Just in cause the audience hasn’t copped on to this yet.

Again, there is potential here. The X-Files is full of impressive older actors. Every time that William B. Davis or John Neville appear on screen, the audience knows they are in for a treat. It is an interesting twist to turn one of those older characters into a very physical presence – Terma features Peskow killing an unarmed woman with his bare hands, which is a scene that would seem exploitative if it weren’t so incredibly cold-blooded. He gets extra points for framing a horse for the murder. Talk about making use of the material at hand.

"Oh, this? This is for farming. Yes, definitely farming. Not terrorism. Never terrorism."

“Oh, this? This is for farming. Yes, definitely farming. Not terrorism. Never terrorism.”

However, the script never develops Peskow or the world around him. He is really just another iteration of the implacable assassin, as typified by Brian Thompson’s unstoppable Alien Bounty Hunter. While Peskow seems a bit more civilised than most – remarking humbly that his victim won’t know him, offering a stranger a slice of apple, riding the bus, drinking tea – he lacks the sort of personality that the Red-Haired Man (aka Malcolm Gerlach) had in Nisei and 731. Like the Alien Bounty Hunter, he is prone to get the drop on our agents, but avoids killing them.

There is a very interesting story to be told here. This is the first time that The X-Files has really focused on the Well-Manicured Man as a character. Here, we discover that he is working with Doctor Charne-Sayre to develop a vaccine to combat the black oil. More than that, the Well-Manicured Man is intimately involved with Doctor Charne-Sayre. It’s a revelation that serves to humanise the conspirator… or, at least it would, if this were handled as anything more than simple exposition.

Inject a little excitement...

Inject a little excitement…

Doctor Charne-Sayer has never appeared before the scene where she is brutally murdered. We never get to know her as a character. We never get to see her interact with anybody, including the Well-Manicured Man. Her importance is asserted retroactively, when we are informed that she was working on the vaccine and was the intended recipient of the diplomatic pouch. Although, given that information, one wonders how difficult it would be for Mulder and Scully to track down the Well-Manicured Man.

The Well-Manicured Man gets one scene in Terma, responding to the death of his personal physician and his lover. It is a nice little scene, and John Neville does good work with it. He is introduced smoking a cigarette in darkness, suggesting that he may be slipping to the proverbial shadows – evoking another iconic spook. Despite the fact that he has been established as the most civilised of the conspirators, lambasting the brutality associated with the Cigarette-Smoking Man, he is hungry for vengeance.

Hellfire...

Hellfire…

When the Cigarette-Smoking Man asked who would have murdered Doctor Charne-Sayer, the Well-Manicured Man replies, “If I knew, do you think I’d be standing here talking to you?” The Cigarette-Smoking Man appreciates the irony, given the established disdain that the Well-Manicured Man has for his methodology. “Oh, you need me now… A man of my capabilities, is that it?” It is a nice sequence that establishes the dynamic between the two, and hints at a potentially interesting dynamic for the Well-Manicured Man. How willing is he to dirty his hands?

Unfortunately, the plot never goes anywhere. The Well-Manicured Man disappears from the episode, and will not reappear until Patient X, by which time this particular matter will be forgotten. Peskow manages to completely evade the authorities; there is never any sense that the conspirators know that they are looking for him. He escapes scot free, without any risk or any tension. Peskow never appears in The X-Files again. As such, it feels like a waste of a potentially interesting set-up, an interesting opportunity reduced to a few scattered scenes of exposition.

"Don't mind me, I'm mostly 'armless!"

“Don’t mind me, I’m mostly ‘armless!”

And then there is Mulder in Russia. Again, like the idea of a storyline focusing on the Well-Manicured Man, this has a great deal of potential. The X-Files has shipped off its leads to Vancouver-as-a-foreign-country in episodes like Little Green Men or Død Kälm, but there’s something quite fascinating about the idea of Mulder as a guinea pig trapped in a Russian gulag as the victim of human experimentation. The cliffhanger for Tunguska may not be the show’s finest moment, but it is an effective hook.

One of the interesting things about Mulder as a character is that he has fairly limited direct experience of the kinds of things that he chases; he spends most of his career as an observer of the unknown. He chases the experience. Samantha and Scully were both abducted by aliens; Mulder was a witness, both times. Mulder has been protected and sheltered from horrific experiences by virtue of his family history. His father chose to offer Samantha up instead of him; he is still alive largely because the Cigarette-Smoking Man has an attachment to his family.

"They put the 'goo' in gulag..."

“They put the ‘goo’ in gulag…”

Mulder is typically sympathetic and understanding to victims of abuse and oppression, but Tunguska and Terma really throw Mulder in at the deep end. There is an argument to be made that Mulder wants to be abducted, that he wants to touch the alien, to have the sort of experience that Samantha or Scully have had. He come close at the climax of Anasazi, when he was almost burned alive in the box car. Here, Mulder is turned into the sort of victim he regularly encounters; the kind of lost soul that he tries to help.

There’s a fairly potent story to be told there, about Mulder experiencing personally something that he has only previously encountered vicariously. There is something quite harrowing about the idea of a privileged and protected rich kid from Martha’s Vineyard winding up as an anonymous number in some horrific hell hole located on the opposite side of the planet. There’s a story to be told about the agony and desperation that Mulder must feel. It would be a brutally ironic twist; this could be the closest Mulder ever gets to unearthing the conspiracy; getting swallowed by it.

"You can't handle the Truth!"

“You can’t handle the Truth!”

However, it ultimately feels superficial. Watching the episodes back-to-back, Mulder spends about fifteen minutes of the runtime in the gulag, and most of that is off-screen. The experimentation sequence is horrific, but it doesn’t seem to take too much of a toll on him, as he escapes quite quickly using a convenient truck to make his getaway, which then has a convenient brake mishap to prevent him from escaping too quickly. It feels like Tunguska and Terma barely spend any time in the gulag, which is a shame – it is a very effective and compelling setting.

However, the actual execution leaves a lot to be desired. The X-Files has a knack for getting out of potentially troublesome plot points by just cutting to the character after the danger has passed. To pick two big examples, the show never reveals how exactly Mulder got out of the box car at the end of Anasazi, or how (or why) Scully was released in One Breath. These aren’t really plot holes, in that they are leaps necessary for the plot to continue that can be plausibly intuited from the surrounding information.

Fire down below...

Fire down below…

One of the most frustrating trends in modern criticism is the tendency to suggest that every unexplained plot transition must necessarily be a “plot hole.” If you are asking how Batman managed to get back to Gotham from the other side of the planet in roughly a week in The Dark Knight Rises, it seems you missed the point of Batman. (Or simply missed all of Batman Begins.) This approach cuts a lot of the fat from The X-Files. After all, does the act-long nuts-and-bolts run-around at the start of Herrenvolk that explains how Mulder evaded the Bounty Hunter make the rest of the episode any better?

At the same time, there has to be a limit. After Mulder escapes from the gulag, he is taken in by a Russian family. After he discovers that they have excused themselves from the pool of test subjects by dismembering themselves, the husband returns with a big knife. We then cut to Krycek having a similar encounter. However, we never figure out exactly how Mulder got from “almost having his arm chopped off” to “appearing in front of a Senate subcommittee.” After all, Mulder just destroyed this family’s truck. It is not as if they could just drop him to the airport.

Militia man...

Militia man…

And yet, Russia is an interesting setting for The X-Files. There are a lot of problems with the set-up – this is the only substantial encounter with the Russia version of the Syndicate – but it is interesting to see another major power playing on the same level as the mostly American and Western European organisation that we see fairly regularly. It makes sense for Russia to be organising a scheme like this on its own – it is the world’s largest country by landmass and remains a majorly influential power-broker in the world. (It also invites fans to wonder if the Chinese have their own colonisation-related conspiracies.)

Russia and Eastern Europe seemed to be on Chris Carter’s mind in 1996 and into 1997. The country was the focus of the first big mythology two-parter of the fourth season of The X-Files, but immigration from Eastern Europe was also discussed in Gehanna, the second episode of the first season of Millennium. Indeed, the penultimate episode of that first season, Maranatha, would reveal that the Antichrist was Russian. The X-Files was obviously a show unfolding in the shadow of the Cold War, but it seems interesting that Carter would pick that moment to focus on Russia.

The truth is in here...

The truth is in here…

Then again, it makes perfect sense in context. The summer of 1996 had seen Russia’s first presidential election since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The election would serve as an effective way to measure how far Russia had come in those five years. The race saw incumbent Boris Yeltsin squaring off against Gennady Zyuganov. Yeltsin was the man who had destroyed the Soviet Union. Zyuganov was the leader of a resurgent Communist Party. It is hard to think of a more symbolic confrontation – old Russia facing off against new Russia.

The Communist Party had enjoyed a resurgence. In the legislative elections of December 1995, they took more than twenty-two percent of the vote to become the largest party in the Duma. Indeed, there was much speculation in Western press about a possible resurgence of Communism in Eastern Europe – buoyed by events like the victory of former Communist government minister Aleksander Kwasniewski in the Polish presidential elections of 1995. It is easy to see why some observers might feel discomforted, and how a palpable sense of unease might have set in.

"Sssh. I'm working on my sudoku."

“Sssh. I’m working on my sudoku.”

As Robert V. Barylski notes in The Soldier in Russian Politics, the posturing by the Communist Party in the Duma in the run-up to the election did little to assuage these international fears:

On 15 March 1996, the Comunists and their allies in the Duma passed a resolution condemning the Belovyezhskiye Accords, the December 1991 deal between Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Shuchkevich that dissolved the Soviet Union. They claimed that it was an illegal act which contradicted the March 1991 referendum in which the majority across the USSR endorse a reformed Union of Sovereign States. The Duma resolution’s purpose was to remind voters that Yeltsin had killed the Union as part of his drive to defeat Union president Gorbachev and that Yeltsin was responsible for the damage that act had done to the general economy.

While the re-establishment of the U.S.S.R. and the re-ignition of the Cold War seemed unlikely, there was still cause for considerable concern.

Mulder could take it or leaf it, personally...

Mulder could take it or leaf it, personally…

There was also understandable anxiety about certain Russian military operations. During the nineties, the Russians continued construction on an expensive and secretive military compound in the Ural Mountains:

“We can’t say with confidence what the purpose is, and the Russians are not very interested in having us go in there,” a senior American official said in Washington. “It is being built on a huge scale and involves a major investment of resources. The investments are being made at a time when the Russians are complaining they do not have the resources to do things pertaining to arms control.”

In 2003, it was reported that whatever was there was due to be operating “soon.” The Russian government had offered “non-specific assurances” that this work did not threaten the United States. Rumours suggest it is a nuclear shelter, but it does demonstrate the anxiety around Russia in the mid-nineties.

Hack and slash...

Hack and slash…

After all, it is not as if Yeltsin was a champion of liberal democracy. He considered cancelling the 1996 election when it looked like he might lose. It has been frequently (and fairly openly) suggested that Yeltsin rigged the 1996 election. Nevertheless, Yeltsin enjoyed a close personal and professional relationship with Bill Clinton during the nineties, with some observers reflecting that their friendship actually helped to solidify diplomatic ties between the United States and Russia.

The transition from communism to capitalism was not necessarily easy for Russia. Economist Jeffery Sachs had infamously proposed a “shock therapy” model to transition between the two systems. The results were mixed to say the least. Russia did not transform into a successful, liberal and financially viable nation state overnight. One-in five Russians lived below the poverty line in the late nineties. Corruption was widespread. The Corruption Perception Index was only launched in 1995, but by 1996 it had determined that Russia was considered as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Gun to her head, Scully admitted she was not overly fond of this two-parter...

Gun to her head, Scully admitted she was not overly fond of this two-parter…

Organised crime was rampant. In November 1996, around the time that Tunguska and Terma were airing, The Washington Times reported:

What is changing involves the national economy, half of which already has fallen under mob control, according to Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin. Former Director of the CIA, Robert M. Gates estimated earlier this year that two-thirds of all commercial institutions, some 400 banks (those in Moscow already control 80 percent of the country’s finances), several dozen stock exchanges, and 150 large government enterprises are controlled by the mob.

The transition away from communism had not gone as smoothly as everybody would have liked.

Ride along...

Ride along…

However, Tunguska and Terma are not that interested in dredging up Cold War ghosts, despite the reference to the conflict in Peskow’s introductory scene and the gulag setting. Instead, Tunguska and Terma seems particularly interested in how contemporary Russia reflects back on the United States of America. Tunguska and Terma are episodes very firmly fixated on American ideals and ideologies. Tunguska opens with a shot of the American flag before panning down to a Senate subcommittee. It features a right-wing terrorist militia. The story starts at Honalulu airport and ends in North Dakota.

Indeed, the Russians are shown to be mirroring the Americans here. The Russian conspiracy has taken a form similar to that of the American counterparts. The wire holding Mulder to the bed and the delivery method of the black oil may be crude, but the actual process is not so radically different from the work that the American conspiracy would conduct in its train-based laboratories featured in Nisei and 731. In Tunguska, Mulder’s fellow prisoner describes the gulag as “a place where the guilty rule the innocent.” That would make it analogous to the version of America presented in The X-Files.

"Don't worry, oil save the truth!"

“Don’t worry, oil save the truth!”

The imagery associated with the gulag certainly fits with the historical record. Apparently the portrayal was based on the work of Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – particularly The Gulag Archipelago, the novel that Solzhenitsyn considered his “main” work. The gulag featured in Tunguska and Terma fits with survivors’ accounts. For example, as recorded in Lynne Viola’s The Unknown Gulag:

“The commandant’s power was unlimited in the taiga conditions of those times,” recalled Olifer, a former special settler who had been exiled to the Urals as a child. Like the other children who held onto memories of their commandants, Olifier remembered the commandant as the supreme authority in the special settlement. His word was law and could determine whether people lived or died. But while most of these former special settlers retained childhood memories of the external trappings of the commandants’ power – military bearing, horses, whips, brutish behavior, and so on – Olifier was correct in his adult conclusions of the “taiga conditions” – lawless, ungoverned, wide-open expanses far from the reaches of Soviet power – that allowed the commandant virtually unlimited powers.

However, it is worth noting that the trappings of the gulag featured in Tunguska and Terma also evoke certain aspects of American history. In popular culture, the whip is inexorably associated with slavery – that most grotesque commoditisation of human lives. Similarly, the idea of a lawless country governed by those on horseback seems to hark back to the untamed wilderness of the American frontier.

The spy who came in from the less-cold-than-it-is-in-Russia-probably...

The spy who came in from the less-cold-than-it-is-in-Russia-probably…

In way, this reflects the state of Russia in the wake of the Cold War. In Failed Crusade, Stephen Cohen describes how American “evangelists” and “missionaries” saw Russia as “a nation ready, willing and able to be transformed into some replica of America” in the wake of the Cold War:

American financial specialists on post-Communist Russia also failed spectacularly, and for related reasons. They bought zealously into the great crusade, which for them meant “Russia’s emerging market.” They too set out to build a neo-America on the Moscow River by using the “best minds that Wall Street and Washington could muster.” Among them was the billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, who personally pledged “to direct the means for solving today’s pressing problems in the Russian economy.”

U.S. investors were as missionary in their way as the Clinton administration. “Prominent U.S. investment advisers packaged most of the Russian bond offerings,” a former Wall Street Journal correspondent reminds us, and “American stock-brokers wrote the book on Russia’s supposed industrial recovery.” Solicitations they sent to potential clients could have come from an American businessman already in Moscow: “This is entrepreneur’s heaven. There’s no telling how quickly this country … could look like the United States.” And so legions of Western profit seekers also invaded Russia “with American investors leading the charge.”

The idea was clearly to convert Russia into a functioning capitalist liberal democracy modeled on the United States. The results were not what anybody wanted, with discussions of Russia in the nineties frequently evoking less flattered chapters in American history – “the Wild-West era of early Russian capitalism.”

The Truth hurts...

The Truth hurts…

As Morris Emory Franklin III notes in Do Not Attempt to Adjust the Picture, Tunguska and Terma position Mulder and Krycek as representatives of their respective countries – suggesting that perhaps nineties Russia is not so much an ideological opposite to the United States, but a grim reflection:

Mulder becomes an unwilling test subject with his black oil inoculation, but emerges stronger, having survived his ordeal (he is also now presumably immune to the oil’s effects). Mulder is the survivor, the winner of this personal war. He is the United States after the Cold War: the last superpower. He is still at odds with his own government, unsure of his own future. As the nation faces new enemies, Mulder faces new obstacles in his search for The Truth.

Krycek is not fortunate. Like the Soviet Union, he is broken, literally and figuratively disarmed. He has collapsed into despair, returning to the underworld from which he sprang. As with the Soviet Union after the Cold War, his life becomes dictated by criminal behaviour and black market economics. The struggle he faces now, alone, turning to Peskow for help are similar to the choices faced by the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Krycek is not Mulder’s ideological opposite. Indeed, as Tunguska and Terma repeatedly note, Krycek doesn’t really have any central ideology of which to speak. Krycek is Mulder without ideology, a young and talented surrogate son of the Cigarette-Smoking Man who works in darkness.

Cancer stickin' it to the old man...

Cancer stickin’ it to the old man…

The idea that Russia is not a philosophical opponent to the United States is an interesting one. After all, one of the recurring fears of The X-Files is that one day all differences and ideologies may wind up lost – replaced by armies of clones and an alien hive mind. Russia is no longer a communist country. Instead, it has embraced the ideology and political philosophy of the United States. Tunguska and Terma seems to imply that there is little difference between the methodology and motivations of the Americans and the Russians. They are both doing the same things in pursuit of the same goal.

Is the travesty of the Senate subcommittee hearing any better than the questionable “democracy” that has taken root in nineties Russia? The Well-Manicured Man seems to “own” Senator Sorenson in a way that distorts the system, to the point where the supposedly democratic instruments of the state can be bought and sold by private interests. The experiments on the residents of the convalescent home featured in the teaser may appear more civilised in their trappings than the torture of the inmates in the gulag, but is there a sizable distinction between them?

No Russia to get to work...

No Russia to get to work…

Perhaps that is the true horror of the nineties, a creeping sameness – a sense that the only distinction that exists anymore is what side of a conflict these elites find themselves. History repeats, brutality perpetuates itself. After all, the imagery associated with the gulag harks back to the horrors of the Japanese Unit 731 during the Second World War – experimentation on prisoners, amputation without anesthetic, torture. Although the details are slightly different – the limbs are detached to avoid experimentation rather than in the course of it – it is still a haunting idea.

Despite the fact that the Soviet Union was the only Allied nation to bring the members of Unit 731 to trial and the fact that some of these experiments were conducted upon Soviet prisoners of war, it cannot escape that poisonous legacy. Indeed, it has been suggested that the Soviet Union benefited from the talents of Unit 731 in the same way that the American government benefited from its own recovered Japanese or German war criminals. There is some speculation that the relatively light sentences handed down at the Soviet war tribunals were parts of deals cut with members of Unit 731.

Still, despite the potential to be found in focusing on post-Cold War Russia, Tunguska and Terma ultimately add up to an unsatisfying two-parter. The Senate subcommittee feels like one element too many, a potentially interesting idea that descends into speechifying and exists primarily so Scully has something to do while Mulder is in Russia. (It even makes for a rather clumsy comparison between Mulder and Scully’s various prison experiences.) It all leads to a rather gratuitous sequence at an oil well in North Dakota, which serves primarily to demonstrate how large that show’s budget has grown.

With sweeping helicopters, huge explosions and lots of scenic shots, the climax of Terma looks pretty great – but it ultimately feels rather hollow. The idea of destroying the black oil using an oil well is quite clever, but it ultimately feels rather arbitrary. Why couldn’t Peskow just destroy it using equipment at the lab that he infiltrated? Why not dispose of it in a less ostentatious way? It seems weird that he would go all the way to North Dakota to find that one oil well that just happens to in the middle of a field like that.

The implication is, of course, that Krycek set all of this up. He earned the trust of Mulder and Scully and manipulated them into stealing the rock so that it might be stolen from them in turn. It is a rather convoluted and risk strategy, one prone to the random fluctuations of chance. Everything has to line up perfectly for the scheme to work out in favour of Krycek and Peskow. There’s a level of contrivance that seems forced, even by the standards of this sort of conspiracy plotline.

There have been mythology episodes that didn’t work before. The Blessing Way and Herrenvolk are both deeply flawed in their own ways. However, those joined up to episodes that did work. In particular, The Blessing Way is sandwiched between two of the finest mythology episodes that the show ever produced. Tunguska and Terma is the first time that the show has messed up an entire mythology story.

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

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