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The X-Files – Detour (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Detour is a wonderfully traditional little episode in the middle of a somewhat eccentric season.

Although it lacks the off-kilter improvisational madness that drove much of the fourth season, the fifth season of The X-Files is a rather strange beast. With The X-Files: Fight the Future already filmed, the show was somewhat limited in what it could and couldn’t do in the fifth season – preventing the series from doing anything as dramatic as throwing Memento Mori into the middle of the run. Nevertheless, the fifth season features a variety of experimental and off-format episodes. Stephen King and William Gibson contribute scripts while Darren McGavin pops in as a guest star.

The woods are alive...

The woods are alive…

Detour was broadcast between Unusual Suspects and The Post-Modern Prometheus. Unusual Suspects was an episode headlined by the Lone Gunmen, while The Post-Modern Prometheus was broadcast in black-and-white as an homage to James Whale’s feature film adaptation of Frankenstein. As such, Detour feels like a rather conventional and old-fashioned episode, with Mulder and Scully encountering something strange in a rural setting, getting trapped in the wilderness, and encountering a monster threatened by the expansion of civilisation.

The beauty of Detour is that the episode’s decidedly traditional aesthetic feels out of place and almost novel amid all the off-format episodes surrounding it. Detour represents something of a literal detour – away from the more eccentric episodes of the season and towards something more familiar and safe. This allows Detour to have the best of both worlds – it feels at once traditional and quintessential, but also distinct from everything happening around it. Detour is a refreshingly old-fashioned episode of The X-Files, a reminder of just how much fun the show could have in its comfort zone.

Back to nature...

Back to basics…

Detour is the kind of story that The X-Files has always done very well. Sending Mulder and Scully off into a remote location with a cast of expendable supporting characters can be counted on to deliver all the requisite X-Files ingredients. It allows for a nice unconventional setting, creates instant stakes, and it allows Duchovny and Anderson to play off one another in a rather spectacular fashion. Five years into the show’s run, it is easy to take that central dynamic for granted, but Duchovny and Anderson really do light up the screen together.

It is hard to imagine The X-Files becoming as popular as it had become without the chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson. This is not a slight on Robert Patrick, who would join the cast following Duchovny’s departure. However, there is an argument to be made that Duchovny and Anderson worked so well together that their bantering had become an essential part of the show. Removing it or replacing it would change the fundamental nature of what the show was.

A walk on the wild side...

A walk on the wild side…

By this point in its life-cycle, The X-Files was as much a show about Mulder and Scully as it was about two agents investigating the paranormal. The show had made a pretty convincing case of that during the early episodes of the second season, when it was suggested that the eponymous investigations were very much secondary to the combination of the two lead characters. This was a decision that paid dividends, in that it made it quite easy to invest in Mulder and Scully. However, it also made it difficult to imagine The X-Files without Mulder or Scully.

A lot of Detour is carried by the bond between Mulder and Scully, with even the framework of a “teamwork seminar acknowledging the dynamic between the two lead characters. In many respects, Detour feels like an episode consciously modelled on Quagmire. The sequence where Scully sings Mulder to sleep with her rendition of “Joy to the World” in the middle of a dark and deadly forest recalls the “conversation on the rock” at the climax of that episode, albeit without the same level of insight and introspection.

The great green yonder...

The great green yonder…

It is no wonder Gillian Anderson cites the sequence as one of her favourite experiences working on The X-Files, right behind writing and directing all things during the show’s seventh season. It is a memorable moment in the relationship between the two leads. It reinforces the idea that Mulder and Scully are more than just partners, they are two people who have each other even when they have absolutely nothing else. It is pathetic, and a little sad, but always heartwarming.

In way, the sequence almost plays as a metaphor for why the relationship between Mulder and Scully is so important to The X-Files. That scene literalises a lot of the core ideas about The X-Files. Mulder and Scully are alone in a dangerous and dark world where it seems like they cannot trust what they perceive. They have no support, no resources. All that Mulder and Scully ever have in that long dark night is each other. In a way, Detour is an entire episode building to that closing scene of The Truth. It is just a shame it lacks the nuance of Quagmire.

The earth literally bleeds.

The earth literally bleeds.

To be fair, the script does try to offer some probing conversation during the scene. “Have you thought seriously about dying?” Scully asks. This leads her to an observation about her cancer only loosely tied to the themes of the story (describing the “injustice” of sudden change and “struggle” to survive), but also to Mulder’s deliciously bitter zinger, “Yeah, once, when I was at the Ice Capades.” However, the really deep personal question follows quite promptly. “Who did you identify with when you were a kid?” Mulder inquires. “Wilma or Betty?”

However, there is nothing here quite as probing as Mulder’s desire to become a peg-legged Ahab, coupled with Scully’s unresolved issues with a father she nicknamed Ahab. Between Quagmire, Never Again and Gethsemane, the writers really pushed the idea of Mulder as a distant father-figure to Scully. The show tends to back away from the more uncomfortable implications of that going forward. Still, there is a sense that Frank Spotnitz is aiming for the sort of light quirky character-centric charm of Quagmire, focusing on the fun of Mulder and Scully doing fun stuff.

Ride along...

Ride along…

In a way, this makes a great deal of sense. With everything going on around the fourth and fifth seasons, it has been a while since Mulder and Scully have enjoyed this sort of space. Indeed, the episode that aired directly before Detour did not feature Gillian Anderson at all – due to her absence filming the movie. Mulder and Scully had been separated in Gethsemane and Scully spent most of Redux I and Redux II in a hearing or confined to a hospital bed. Detour is the fourth episode of the new season, so it makes sense that Mulder and Scully should get to hang out.

Detour is almost gleeful in the way that it teases shippers. Despite the writing staff’s prior reluctance to commit to the idea of a romance between Mulder and Scully, the fifth season really plays up their sexual chemistry. Perhaps because the kiss in Fight the Future had already been filmed, the show feels a lot more comfortable with the idea of Mulder and Scully as a couple with a romantic or sexual interest in one another. Even the ending of The Post-Modern Prometheus features the two dancing together to the music of Cher.

A cheesy celebration...

A cheesy celebration…

There are certain fans who speculate that Mulder and Scully were quietly knocking boots for an extended period of the run before the show explicitly acknowledged it; if the viewer subscribes to this theory, the fifth season seems a likely starting point. “I must remind you this goes against the Bureau’s policy of male and female agents consorting in the same motel room while on assignment,” Scully observes early on. One suspects the Bureau would be even less comfortable with said agents drinking wine and eating cheese together in that room. (“Partay!” Mulder declares.)

The actual case at the heart of Detour feels almost incidental. The script takes the greatest pleasure in celebrating the dynamic between Mulder and Scully, treating it as a very deep and abiding bond. Their real-life experience of trust and teamwork is contrasted with the buzzword-driven pop psychology of the teamwork seminars attended by Kinsley and Stonecypher. Kinsley and Stonecypher joke about building a tower out of furniture, while Mulder and Scully are forced to consider building a tower out of bodies.

"Don't worry, I've seen Predator. I'm sure this'll work out grand."

“Don’t worry, I’ve seen Predator. I’m sure this’ll work out grand.”

That said, as much as the plot at the heart of Detour might seem superfluous, it is still very much in tune with the show’s core ideals. According to Resist or Serve, Frank Spotnitz was inspired by a classic horror film:

The episode had its origins, says the X-Files; co-executive producer, during a recent re-viewing of the film Deliverance . He recalls, “The idea of being stranded in a hostile environment is very interesting to me and so is the idea of something moving in the brush that you can’t see. I wanted to insert Mulder and Scully into the story in an atypical way. I just ran with that.”

This makes sense. The majority of Spotnitz’s work on The X-Files is confined to the mythology. However, his last standalone episode – Our Town – very consciously riffed on another classic film, Bad Day at Black Rock.

Down the hole...

Down the hole…

Detour is very much a standard X-Files plot. It is the tale of a weird and exotic part of America that finds itself under threat from the forces of what Mulder describes as “encroaching development.” This is a tale of a very ancient and very powerful force buried deep within the American wilderness, a force that finally finds itself confronting the expansion of civilised society. “Civilization is pushing very hard into these woods. Maybe something in these woods is pushing back.”

There is a sense that the search party exploring the woods is completely out of their depth. Mulder notes that the predators in the wilderness are using the age-old tactic of “divide and conquer”, but the teams still splits up at the first opportunity. While Mulder is eager to continue the search, Scully provides the voice of reason, “We weren’t prepared for this. We have no way of telling them where we are. We don’t have any food. Michelle had our only water.”

Teamwork!

Teamwork!

In the end, it is suggested that the monsters lurking in the Florida woods are Spanish conquistadors who have discovered the Fountain of Youth. They are monsters who very pointedly pre-date the existence of the United States. Indeed, Detour even has Kinsley point out that many of the trees in this wilderness pre-date even the arrival of the conquistadors. “Hey, Stonecypher!” he beckons. “Take a look at this. This tree was here twenty years before Ponce De Leon landed.”

In the grand scheme of things, the United States is still a relatively young country. The European settlers are still relative newcomers in what some deemed “the new world.” It is an idea that The X-Files has touched upon repeatedly, most notably in scripts by Chris Carter. Darkness Falls featured a primordial evil awakening in the American wilderness. Anasazi suggested that aliens have been a part of North American history longer than even the European settlers. Quagmire longed for the days when people could write “here be dragons” on maps.

"Don't worry. We've already filmed the movie. We're safe."

“Don’t worry. We’ve already filmed the movie. We’re safe.”

This is a recurring motif in The X-Files. A product of the reflective and introspective nineties, The X-Files frequently seems sympathetic to its monsters. They might be killers, but they are frequently driven to violence in response to external pressures. More often than not, the show suggests that the monsters are themselves victims of globalisation and expansion. These strange creatures embodiments of a weird and eccentric America that is rapidly disappearing in the era of internet access and mobile telephones.

These monsters inhabit the quirky and surreal places in the American landscape that are rapidly being torn down and re-developed. “All right, let’s shoot this next one real carefully, Marty, ’cause this is where they’re gonna put the Blockbuster,” one of the contractors quips in the cold open. In a way, a reflection of the death of small-town American in the wake of the development of the interstate highway system and the development of large homogeneous shopping malls.

Yes, Scully. Mulder just abandoned you to a teamwork seminar.

Yes, Scully. Mulder just abandoned you to a teamwork seminar.

It is no coincidence that the threat of alien colonisation in Herrenvolk was articulated as a fear of “hegemony.” For all the prosperity that globalisation has brought to the United States, The X-Files remains quite skeptical of the concept. In Gilligan Unbound, Paul A. Cantor identifies globalisation as a source of recurring conflict on The X-Files:

In The X-Files globalisation creates clashes between people representing principles that are fundamentally opposed, for example, the principle of scientific rationality and the principle of religious faith – fence principles that cannot easily be reconciled and that often do lead to a fight to the death. To the extent that The X-Files is tragic, it deals with tragedies of nonassimilation, of people (or creatures) who feel that they would have to sacrifice their identities, especially their cultural identities, in order to fit into a community at heart alien to them. Like tragic heroes, they would in fact rather die than abandon and betray the ways in which they differ from the ordinary people around them. Time and again in The X-Files, the monstrous alien must be destroyed, and in particular be prevented from reproducing, or it might penetrate and overwhelm the mainstream community. The show tends to portray the community as fundamentally exclusive, unwilling to assimilate the alien into its ranks.

Cantor suggests that The X-Files is fundamentally a tragic narrative about the cost of globalisation – the death of all these quirky and eccentric spaces in North America. The predators in Detour are locked in a dispute over territory, simply trying to protect their little corner of the world from the advancing forces of civilisation and development.

Red eyes in the morning...

Red eyes in the morning…

“You should be sad to see the demise of an ecosystem that’s lasted a thousand years,” one of the contractors insists in the teaser. “We all should be.” One gets the sense that the episode agrees with him. Episodes like Humbug have mourned the passing of these odd little hamlets into history, as everything unique and different is torn down and rebuilt according to recycled blueprints and familiar plans. For all the harm that these predators cause, Detour seems almost romantic in how it approaches them.

It is quite heartwarming to believe that the world is not yet fully known to us; that there are still mysteries lurking in shadows. Even in a heavily “settled” and “civilised” state like Florida – home to Disneyland and retirement communities – there are still unknowns waiting just out of sight. “Mulder, we’re in Western Florida,” Scully protests early in the episode. “The closest thing to primitive down here is living in a beachfront retirement condo.” Mulder replies, “Those woods are as old as anything in the south and there’s eight-hundred square miles of them.”

Running rings around them...

Running rings around them…

At the start of the episode, a father is taking his son hunting in the woods. He seems almost nostalgic for the brutality of ages long past. “Our ancestors were hunters, too,” the father explains. “But most of us have lost those instincts. That’s why we need a little help.” It seems that he respects and understands the wilderness, perhaps explaining why Detour is careful to assure the audience that he survives the experience. At the end, his wife assures their son, “He’s going to be okay. He’s going to be fine.”

In fact, the predators in Detour turn out to be fairly non-lethal. Despite their aggressive response to the intrusion into their territory, it seems like Mulder and Scully are able to save a significant portion of the victims. When Mulder and Scully stumble across the predators’ lair, they find the most of the victims still alive. As such, it seems like Detour is making a conscious effort to play down the threat posed by these creatures. Their victims could have died, but it seems that most of them survived. (In contrast, two-thirds of the predators are killed.)

Barking up the wrong tree.

Barking up the wrong tree.

It is interesting that the predators are explicitly identified as Spanish conquistadors who had been sent to Florida to search out the Fountain of Youth. The Fountain of Youth is arguably one of the oldest folktales told by the European explorers who arrived in North America:

But the name linked most closely to the search for a fountain of youth is 16th-century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who allegedly thought it would be found in Florida. In St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S., there’s a tourist attraction dating back a century that purports—albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way—to be the fountain of youth that Ponce de Leon discovered soon after he arrived in what is now Florida in 1513.

There is something quite endearing in the way that Detour suggests that the Fountain of Youth might actually exist buried somewhere in the American heartland. Over four centuries later, it is still waiting to be discovered. This would make it all the more tragic if the Fountain of Youth were paved over and replaced with a Blockbuster Video.

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

Of course, the legend itself is just a legend. Historians have suggested that the association between Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth is rooted in Ponce de Leon’s fascination with the Bahamian Love Vine. In The Horizons of Christopher Columbus, Arna Molander suggests that a mistranslation could have been at the root of all this:

Locals, who brew “stiff cock tea” from the milky fluid filling those hollow vines, have long esteemed it as an aphrodisiac. Woodrow Wilson believed Taino servants brewing a “brown tea” in Puerto Rico may have inspired Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth. Perhaps this adventurous conquistador mistook the natives’ “vid” for “vida” in transforming their “fountain vine” into an imagined “fountain of life.”

There is even some debate as to whether Ponce de Leon ever actually looked for the Fountain of Youth, or whether that was just a retroactive addition to accounts of his journey. Still, like all good stories, it grows in the telling. Hopeful souls among us might find comfort in the thought that the Fountain of Youth – like the truth – might still be out there.

Caving under pressure...

Caving under pressure…

Still, for all the romance, Detour presents the wilderness as a terrifying place. After he is rescued, Mulder recalls seeing the inscription “ad noctum” written in the cave. He explains, “It means ‘into darkness.’ The Spanish Conquistadors used to carve it on the posts that they would lash the natives to as a warning.” Not only does Mulder get to suggest that there is an inherent darkness at the heart of America, he also gets to allude to the atrocities of slavery that were part of the nation’s history from the very beginning.

For all that The X-Files admires the wild, it also seems quite cautious. Episodes like Detour and Darkness Falls suggest that the American wilderness is governed by rules alien and hostile to mankind. Even those humans who respect and appreciate nature cannot be protected from it. The wilderness is relentless and unfeeling. Appropriately enough, it is wild. For all that The X-Files paints a romantic picture of these spaces in the American landscape, there is a sense that perhaps they are best left alone.

Call of the wild...

Call of the wild…

In this respect, The X-Files is playing into a dichotomy that has long existed – the sense that the world can be divided into the world as controlled by mankind and the world that exists beyond our control. As David R. Klein argues, this is a decidedly western construct:

Western civilization has its roots in the city-states bordering the Mediterranean Sea, where separation of the urban dweller from nature was considered a desirable outcome of civilization. Wilderness became antithetical to the development of Western society. Wilderness was an obstacle to human dominance over nature but, as humans increasingly became separated from the natural environment, familiarity with it was lost. Thus, wilderness, which had nurtured humans throughout their evolution into the Stone Age, was now abandoned by civilized man and was relegated to the realm of the unknown, engendering the fear and foreboding that humans so typically ascribe to the unknown.

There is a sense that “wilderness” exists as a concept quite separate from mankind. It is a domain over which mankind has little control or authority. This is why the wilderness proves such an effective setting for horror films and scary stories. It is, paradoxically, the environment from which mankind developed, but which has become alien.

Now you see me...

Now you see me…

This is arguably particularly true in the context of North America. In Wild Politics, Susan Hawthorne argues that the very idea of “wilderness” – and certainly much of the language and labels associated with it – are rooted in the North American experience. She suggests that there are historical reasons for this:

Not surprisingly, the development of the idea of wilderness occurred in North America, which during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was becoming rapidly “humanised.” In Europe and Asia this shift had occurred much earlier, so the change was more difficult to detect. In North America, the two worlds, “humanised” and “wild”, still existed, but the latter was fast disappearing.

So much of the history of the United States is built around the idea of “taming” and “subjugating” that wilderness – of building up civilisation on top of the wild continent. The United States is a relatively young country, and so it makes sense that it should have a particular fascination with parts of the countryside that have yet to be “humanised.”

"Next time, let's do a city break..."

“Next time, let’s do a city break…”

Detour is a solid and fun little episode – a very reliably old-fashioned episode of The X-Files at a point where the show had been becoming more and more adventurous and experimental. It is an enjoyable “back to basics” episode amid a stretch of episodes that are very much about playing with and subverting the expectations of the show.

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

2 Responses

  1. This episode is a really good example of the different characterization of Mulder and Scully by different writers. Intersesting that you compare this to the scene on the rock from Quagmire. I think a key difference is in Quagmire, there is palpable contempt that Scully still had for Mulder. “You are Ahab” was not a compliment or even a flirtatious barb. She had a legitimate point that he was likely to get everyone around him killed. The dialogue from the scene in Quagmire is just as intimate but coming from two very different people. In Detour there is a tenderness between them, which you rightly point out, is there to tease the shippers. I like to think of the Redux trilogy as a turning point for Mulder, after which he can allow himself to be wrong and for there to exist other people in the universe, especially Scully, and her points of view. Post Modern Prometheus does a slightly better job carrying this forward but Detour doesn’t. More importantly,you’re right, the themes from Never Again and Gethsemane are not just completely abandoned by this episode but it’s almost as if Spotnitz is hitting the reset button and starting over with a more shipper-friendly dynamic. That said, I was always neutral on the shipper debate and I’m ok with where it ended up but there would be less forceful ways to get there than the route taken by this episode and much of seasons 5 and 6. “The Red and the Black” and “Closure” and even “Unnatural and Je Souhaite” do a decent enough job selling this.

    • Thanks Jason!

      I’m shipping agnostic as well, although I lean more towards the “$%!# or get off the pot philosophy.” If you’re going to do it, do it. Don’t tease relentlessly for three seasons.

      I’ve actually pulled some Spotnitz quotes for my season six reviews where he admits that they decided to ramp up the “shippiness” of the relationship for the fifth and sixth seasons, but with no idea where they actually wanted to take it.

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