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The X-Files (Topps) #32 – Crop Duster (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.

Crop Duster feels rather generic.

That is a shame. After all, John Rozum’s script hits on all sorts of big themes related to The X-Files. It is a story about a small community that has its own secrets, haunted by the legacy of sins long past. The paranormal evil at work in the rural community of Kelly in Kentucky ultimately masks a more mundane story about human violence and betrayal. There is a sense that the basic ingredients of Crop Duster should add up to more than a disposable one-shot. Unfortunately, they don’t.

Alien bodies...

Alien bodies…

To be fair, part of the problem is that Crop Duster feels rather familiar. The story of a small town affected by government experiments has already been the focus of the second season episode Blood, Darin Morgan’s behind-the-camera creative credit on The X-Files. That same season, Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard used a similar plot for A Dismembrance of Things Past, the second issue of the monthly comic book series and highlight of their run on the title. Both comics were about small communities seeing things that weren’t there.

So Crop Duster feels pretty familiar, even based on that plot summary. It is a fairly rote X-Files story. However, there is nothing wrong with a rote and familiar X-Files story. After all, the tried-and-tested “put the cast in a secluded location and unleash a monster” plot worked for at least eight of the show’s nine seasons – from Ice through to Medusa. Something like this is all about execution, about using a stock story set-up to tell a story that is interesting and compelling in its own right, in such a way that it justifies the attention lavished up it.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

There are certainly interesting ideas in Crop Duster. It is tempting, for example, to read Fred as a grim reflection of Mulder. In Remote Control, Rozum teased out the idea that Mulder was running in circles and that he would never be able to grab hold of the truth he pursues so aggressively. Similarly, the truth seems to elude Fred just as easily. “I tried catching one as proof, but every time I got near one of the damned things, it would disappear,” he reflects to Mulder and Scully, perhaps hinting at the sad life that Mulder could have ahead of him.

Crop Duster never quite holds on to that idea. As Mulder and Scully dig deeper into the local community, they discover that Fred is not simply a kindly old man haunted by imaginary monsters. He is an abusive alcoholic who victimises his wife, Irene. It turn out that the two are not happily married, and are instead trapped in an abusive and dysfunctional relationship. While it might be tempting to point to Never Again here, it is quite clear that Fred is not simply a potential ghost for Mulder to confront.

The harder they fall...

The harder they fall…

Instead, it seems like Crop Duster might be another sort of X-Files story. It might be the tale about the mundane monstrosity of small secretive communities like this – a twisted reflection of stories like Our Town or Home or The Gift. The little green men might simply be window-dressing for what is a much more mundane and grounded blue-collar drama about cycles of violence and abuse. Crop Duster looks like it might resonate with the themes articulated by scripts like Aubrey.

After all, it is no coincidence that Fred’s visions and his anger are rooted in the same cause. He worked at a plant with poor safety regulation, and that had a very negative impact on his mental and physical health. While the story of a chemical plant drugging an entire town with something like LSD is obviously incredible, the tale of a town destroyed by the closure of a major industrial hub is all too realistic. The drama is all too human. “My cousin’s been an S.O.B. ever since got laid off at the plant,” the sheriff confesses. “I’m only surprised that Irene didn’t do this earlier.”

Short stuff...

Short stuff…

There are a lot of interesting directions in which the story might move. The little green men could be a metaphor for that unspoken trauma. The X-Files is frequently a show about the death of quirky and eccentric spaces in America, and Crop Duster treats its monster as a stand-in for damage done to an otherwise idyllic rural community. There is a great story to be told here, and Crop Duster hints at taking some big X-Files ideas and pushing them in a clever and resonant direction.

Instead, Crop Duster just feels mundane. It never seems entirely sure what to do with these elements. It seems like the abusive relationship between Fred and Irene simply exists to give the story its big conclusion. Rozum’s script is very heavy on the exposition, with lots of dialogue telling the reader what is happening rather than simply depicting it on the panel. It has been a problem with Rozum’s scripts since Thin Air, but the writer has worked quite hard to get it all under control.

Pushing on...

Pushing on…

Crop Duster seems engaged and interested in the least compelling parts of the story. It is more fascinated by the legwork and the investigation than it is by the world around Mulder and Scully. It would be quite easy to convey all of the plot information in short-hand, leaving more room to develop both Fred and Irene; instead, the script offers lots of long and detailed dialogue about the particulars of this specific case. However, the case is a fairly archetypal X-Files story, so it seems like the emphasis in Crop Duster is entirely incorrect.

This is a shame, as Rozum is clearly quite comfortable with the world of The X-Files. For all that Crop Duster is saddled with needless exposition, Mulder and Scully feel more organic and comfortable than they did back in Thin Air or Night Lights. When Scully points out that the tiny clothes found by Fred might easily have come from a doll, Mulder is rather quick to quip back in response. “So what you’re saying is that our suspect is about a foot tall, made of plastic and comes with kung-fu grip?”

Goblins...

Goblins…

Similarly, Rozum understands the sort of government skulduggery that underpins The X-Files so well that the back story for Crop Duster feels organic and logical. The X-Files (and, sadly, the real world) is littered with horrific  abuses committed upon unsuspecting populations. However, this feels like it should be a vehicle for the story – a way of making a deeper or more meaningful observation. Instead, Crop Duster presents the readers with a bunch of familiar X-Files iconography, bundled up and repackaged.

Crop Duster has all the ingredients of something special, but it never quite amounts to much.

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