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The X-Files – Schizogeny (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.

Schizogeny has a pretty terrible reputation among some (or even most) fans of The X-Files.

During The A.V. Club’s coverage of the show’s fifth season, Todd VanDerWerff suggested that it “just might be the very worst episode of The X-Files.” Andrew Payne described the killer tress as the series’ “worst monster of the week.” Moving away from any sort of objective coverage, The X-Files Wiki lists the fact that Schizogeny is “generally considered by fans to be one of, if not the worst, X-Files episode” at the very top of “notes” section on the episode. It is fairly safe to say that Schizogeny is not well-liked.

The woodsman...

The woodsman…

And there are a lot of very valid reasons for this. There is a lot about Schizogeny that is not good; more than that, there is a lot that is just plain terrible. The writing is clumsy, the plotting is hazy, the special effects are jumbled, the dialogue is awkward. It is very difficult to tell what is going on at certain points in the story, and a truly woeful central performance from Chad Lindberg as Bobby Rich does not help matters. Schizogeny is not a classic episode of The X-Files, by any stretch of the imagination.

However, it is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests.

Go climb a tree...

Go climb a tree…

While it is certainly not a season highlight, there is some debate to be had about whether Schizogeny can be classed as the weakest episode of the fifth season. Both Redux I and Emily are similarly clumsy in execution, but with fewer interesting ideas to buoy them up. Even if one accepts that Schizogeny is the worst episode of the fifth season, it does not seem so bad. It is not as blatantly racist as other frontrunners like Excelsis Dei, Teso Dos Bichos, El Mundo Gira or Badlaa. It is not as boring as Space.

Schizogeny might not make any real sense and might not know how to execute any of its ideas, but at least it has some ideas. Any discussion of Schizogeny must concede that the episode is an unholy mess, but there are some ideas here that are worth exploring. One suspects that Schizogeny was only a few drafts away from a functional and working script. It might even have been a single casting choice away from being a perfectly serviceable instalment of the show. While the flaws are glaring and deep rooted (ha!), there is a seed of a good idea here.

A smashing success?

A smashing success?

Of course, it is worth documenting the many problems with Schizogeny – just to be clear on the matter. On a most basic level “doing an X-Files episode about killer trees” is a fundamentally risky proposition. It is a concept that could easily go horribly wrong, on a purely practical level. “Killer trees” is a cool concept, and one that establishes an effectively Gothic mood or tone. However, actually trying to realise “killer trees” on the budget and schedule of a weekly television show is an ambitious undertaking. It is just not one that Schizogeny can actually accomplish.

So the actually portrayal of the monster attacks in Schizogeny become a nightmare. “Killer trees” could easily look ridiculous if the episode tried to show too much – the flailing branches striking out at victims could look as ridiculous as the prop cat paws attacking Scully in Teso Dos Bichos. So director Ralph Hemecker adopts a minimalistic approach. We see very little of the killer trees in action. The murders are shot and edited in such a way that the audience is not confronted with the image of tentacle-like tree branches murdering guest characters.

A hole heap of trouble...

A hole heap of trouble…

It is a sensible approach, but it comes with its own problems. Because Schizogeny is so reluctant to actually show killer trees, it is very hard to follow an episode that is – in a large part – about killer trees while being incredibly reluctant to show killer trees. The opening sequence suffers greatly. While it is clearly meant to convey “Phil Rich is murdered by his own orchard”, the fact that the episode is so minimalist means that it becomes “Phil Rich trips up on an exposed root and falls into some mud.” As opening sequences go, it is hardly riveting.

Of course, it seems like this approach is a lose-lose proposition for the show. When the show consciously edits around the killer tree branches, it looks cheap and confusing. When the show does actually show a killer tree branch murdering Linda Baiocchi, it looks cheap and terrible. There is none of the gonzo depravity that Sam Raimi brought to The Evil Dead, for better or for worse. It’s not quite as unworkable as the cats in Teso Dos Bichos, but it comes quite close. So there is a flaw that was perhaps baked into Schizogeny from the start.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

Other problems are more a result of execution. The script was written by Jessica Scott and Mike Wollaeger, their first produced teleplay. The duo would go on to enjoy a long career writing for television – primarily in the young adult genre, a leaning that is suggested by the focus of Schizogeny. However, their inexperience shines through. Cinefantastique suggested that Carter did a very heavy re-write job on Schizogeny, but it seems like he did not have the same time to devote to it that he had to work on Chinga. The result is a confused and muddled script.

The problems with the script are both macro and micro – the story is populated with large and small choices that seem ill-advised and ill-conceived. To pick one small example, it seems very weird to have Mulder visit the pathologist while Scully conducts an interrogation; their roles would work better reversed. It is a simple mistake, but one that points to larger misunderstandings about how The X-Files works best. A flawed episode can generally coast on strength of the chemistry between the leads (cf: the sixth season), but Schizogeny seems to lack a basic understanding of the show’s dynamics.

Calling a spade a spade...

Calling a spade a spade…

There are larger problems with the script, as evidenced by the fact that the climax is resolved by contrivance. Ramirez, a local woodsman who seems to do nothing but wander around the orchard at all hours of the day and night carrying his trusty axe, walks into the scene to kill Karen before wandering off again. “It’s done now,” he quotes from the big book of gothic clichés. “No more.” The audience thank him for his service. It is a rather inelegant solution to a climax that is already absurd – Mulder is literally stuck in the mud.

The show also runs into problems with its characterisation of Bobby Rich. Bobby is a pretty important character to the narrative. He appears in the teaser, serves as the red herring and eats up a tremendous amount of screentime. However, he is more of a cliché than a character. The focus on Bobby plays into the fifth season’s interest in horror relating to children, but Schizogeny paints Bobby as a collection of teenage stereotypes. He doesn’t feel like a real character so much as a broadly-drawn impression of what a teenage might be like.

Into the woods...

Into the woods…

Bobby is saddled with horrific dialogue. When Mulder repeats that old urban legend about Kennedy saying “ich bin ein Berliner” – albeit confusing a “berliner” with a “weiner” – Bobby responds, “Who’s Kennedy?” Wearing a leather jacket, Bobby drives a pickup and looks moody. Mulder helpfully translates one of the posters on his wall as “I am an outsider”, just in case the script was too subtle on the point. Scripts like this underscore just how good Howard Gordon was in a nuts-and-bolts way. D.P.O. is a much more convincing portrait of teenage outsiderdom.

However, the problems with Bobby run beyond the script. Chad Lindberg turns in an absolutely terrible guest performance. He seems to be going for something approaching low-key naturalism – he mumbles his lines, has difficulty making eye contact with the rest of the cast, shrinks away from the camera – but his performance is at odds with everything else happening around him. This is an episode about killer trees in Michigan. The script is unclear enough without forcing the audience to strain to make out what Bobby is saying at any given moment.

It's a dirty job...

It’s a dirty job…

The result is a character who just doesn’t work. Chad Lindberg is put in a ridiculously oversized leather jacket, which looks like something left over from a fifties movie. When Scully pulls him out of science class, the character is playing with a comb. He is a caricature of a nineties teenager. Lindberg tries to compensate by pushing Bobby in the opposite direction – making Bobby quiet and withdrawn to the point that he is hard to see or hear in certain shots. The result is that Bobby vanishes completely into his oversized leather jacket.

At least actress Sarah Redmond commits to the craziness of the script. Redmond is not given the most dignified of roles, but she goes all-in on it. Redmond is asked to play a reverse-gender version of Norman Bates, and manages to avoid failing spectacularly. Again, the episode hinges towards the absurd, but Redmond plays into it. Playing the role of her character’s disembodied father, she hunches her shoulders and droops her head. It was never a role that was going to be particularly kind to a performer, but Redmond does what she can.

Sharin' is Karin...

Sharin’ is Karin…

So, by any objective measure, Schizogeny simply does not work. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some interesting ideas here. Most notably, Schizogeny is a very old-school horror story. It is a very traditional and old-fashioned tale. Unlike a lot of the series’ environmental horror episodes, Schizogeny is not rooted in contemporary concerns. Perhaps that is why the attempts to capture Bobby’s teenage sensibilities fall so flat; they are an attempt at contemporary relevance by a script that is much more interested in traditional horror tropes.

In many ways, the basic plot of Schizogeny feels like it could be a grim fairy tale. Adults and children wander into a mysterious orchard where the trees come alive. The supernatural violence provides a nice way for the story to deal with more real and deep-rooted traumas concerning children. The killer trees and the avenging haunted landscape are an expression of unspeakable sins. “You see, there are all sorts of crimes,” Matthews teases. “Not just the ones you might find reason to investigate.”

The lifeblood of the community...

The lifeblood of the community…

Schizogeny looks and feels like a gothic horror. The trees in the orchard even form gothic arches to encase these paranormal events. In her discussion of Southern Gothic in A Good Rose is Hard to Find, Margie Burns suggests that the gothic landscape is but a reflection of deeply-buried horror:

These loci, darkened little inner rooms of the psyche, actually signify their dialectical reverse, turned like a chevril glove inside our: what they actually express is not something “interior”, but an exteriorisation – a pushing away, a shunning, in which the pain and horror of real events are dislocated into imaginary gardens.

In Schizogeny, the killer trees in the orchard are presented as an expression of the trauma that Matthews experienced at the hands of her father. The abuse that Matthews suffered is deep-rooted, and has grown out in a variety of horrific ways. It is not subtle, but then again this sort of horror is seldom subtle.

Smile!

Smile!

In his biography of Poe, writer James M. Hutchisson talks about the “surface elements” of gothic horror that frequently recur within the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. He cites “gloomy, claustrophobic interiors and decaying exteriors, reincarnated lovers, clairvoyants, premature burials and even putrid bodily decay” as examples of the form. While not every example is included with Schizogeny, the episode runs quite thoroughly through the checklist. It is very clearly pitching itself as something of a gothic horror.

While Schizogeny unfolds in rural Michigan, it could easily be transposed to the more traditionally haunted locales of New England. New England is famed for its apple orchards, and there is a sense that a lot of Schizogeny could have been inspired by the work of New England horror writers like Poe or Lovecraft. Even the strange man who wanders through the story with his trust axe feels like a character who escaped from an older horror story. The mysterious and menacing foreigner seems out of place in a nineties horror narrative; he seems like a relic of something older.

Tree's company...

Tree’s company…

As goofy as the concept of “killer trees” might seem, it is an effective metaphor for this sort of story. After all, anthropomorphised trees are a fairly common literary motif. Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders provides an early example in its opening pages. The motif recurs in the fiction of Cynthia Ozick. Trees imbued with personality and agency can even be seen within American cinema. The provide a suitably uncanny interlude in The Wizard of Oz, before becoming a rather memorable set piece in The Evil Dead.

While realising that horror on the budget of a nineties television show might have been ambitious, it is an image that fits rather well within the gothic milieu. The idea of a landscape infected and corrupted by mankind’s evil makes for a a haunting metaphor. Like the bleeding ground in Detour, the bleeding trees in Schizogeny suggest a connection between nature and the monster of the week. Here, the trees are presented as the literal life-blood of the community. Phil Rich is stressed out because the trees might not produce fruit, that all his toil will be for nothing.

Combing the community for suspects...

Combing the community for suspects…

In a way, Schizogeny hits on some bit themes of The X-Files. The episode alludes the recurring question of just how the European settlers have reshaped the American landscape. The people of this community have poured their lives into these orchards, their own emotions and sins feeding the soil. As Detour reminded viewers, trees tend to live quite a bit longer than humans; imagine all that they have seen in that time. The community has built their orchard, but without any awareness of just what they have invested into it.

Walking back to the car, Mulder muses, “The orchard man said that the blight that plagues this town was caused by a man – implying a connection.” Of course there is a connection. The landscape is shaped and moulded by man. One of the recurring concerns of The X-Files is the idea that the eccentric spaces within America are being eroded and remodelled by the settlers. Mulder clarifies that the connection exists “between the people of this valley and their livelihood: the trees.”

"I would like to axe you a question..."

“I would like to axe you a question…”

The orchard man suggests that there is a symbolic link between the community and the fruit that the orchard produces. Matthews’ father abused his daughter, and soured the fruits of the orchard. His death seemed to feed the soil. After he was murdered, the orchard began producing fruit once again. “We spoke to someone who thinks it does,” Mulder tells Matthews. “Someone who worked for you father? According to the orchard man, your father’s death brought about the end of a blight affecting the trees.”

There is a sense of culpability in all this. It feels almost as if the entire community has been tainted by this sin. Schizogeny does not develop the idea as well as it might, but it seems to suggest that the local community might have been passive complicit in this father-daughter abuse. The ground was poisoned, and a terrible seed was planted. Nobody speaks these things aloud, but they bubble away under the surface. There are terrible things buried in the ground, but that is where the horrors take root.

Putting the "psycho" in "psycho-therapist"...

Putting the “psycho” in “psycho-therapist”…

Early in the episode, it is implied that the local community might be looking for an easy and comfortable solution to the death of Phil Rich. When Mulder asks Bobby about the allegations, Bobby replies, “So what the hell am I supposed to do about it? They want me to confess so they have someone to blame.” It seems like the local community is not particularly interested in problematic or uncomfortable truths. As with so many of Schizogeny‘s interesting ideas, the script never develops it as well as it might – but the idea is there.

Schizogeny plays into the idea of local mythology and folklore. Even before Mulder has latched on to the theory about killer trees, Scully suggests that Phil Rich could have drowned in a hole that was filled by “a recent rainstorm.” When Mulder replies with sarcasm, Scully clarifies, “They say it rained four-hundred inches a day.” That seems like a pretty tall tale. Mulder is immediately cynical. “Now that sounds like an exaggeration, don’t you think?” he teases. Again, it seems like a story that plays up the mysticism of the area.

There's a hole in this theory...

There’s a hole in this theory…

When Mulder and Scully confront Karin Matthews about the stories that the community tells about her father, she does not seem surprised. “My father was a powerful man,” Matthews explains. “Powerful men are prone to inspire this kind of fantasy.” Of course, it turns out that Matthews engages in her own mythologising and storytelling. Not only is she haunted by the memory of her abusive father, but she also projects that trauma on to Bobby and Lisa. Nobody – not even Matthews – directly acknowledges her trauma. Instead, they tell stories around it.

This gothic sensibility – the idea of unspoken atrocities within a tightly-knit community that are reflected in a stark landscape – casts Schizogeny as a very traditional horror story. Even the cinematic references in Schizogeny are decidedly old-school. When Lisa hears two voices talking in Karin Matthews’ home, it turns out that both are coming from Karin. Like Norman Bates, Karin has abducted the remains of a deceased abusive parent and taken on the personality and mannerisms of that monster.

Phil him in on the plot!

Phil him in on the plot!

The obvious shout-out to Psycho might be a little on the nose, but it does help to contextualise Schizogeny in light of modern gothic sensibilities. As Jerrold E. Hogle argues in History, Trauma and the Gothic:

This fear of primal-but-long-hidden childhood abuse has consequently been reconfigured/distorted into four main tracks in its recent Gothic manifestations: the suggestion of an extreme maternal dominance that may haunt both children and their abusers, from Robert Bloch’s Psycho and the Hitchcock film of it to Alejandro Amenábar’s transformation of The Turn of the Screw, The Others (a 2001 haunted-house film that displaces real murders of children by their mothers and the controversies over their causes in the 1990s); the rooting of teenage or adult violence in more original child abuse not just by the mother, but by the father and the culture, the driving force in Graham Joyce’s novel The Tooth Fairy and recent Gothic films such as Anthony DiBlasi’s Dread or Nick Murphy’s The Awakening; the continuation of the Bad Seed fear that children may come into life, prior to nurture, as inherently traumatised (“possessed” by pre-sexual, power-hungry and death-orientated drives, as Freud has suggested) and thus as traumatisers of others as though they were “little Satan”, the stuff of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Richard Donner’s The Omen and their many adaptations or sequels; and the idea that childhood trauma may either prompt or release an early capacity for transcendent vision that can lead, on the one hand, to the child opening up abysmal depths of mental illness in his or her family’s or culture’s past and, on the other, to his/her exercising a quasi-supernatural power to save him/herself from violence and guilt rooted in early abuse, a frequent subject for Stephen King in novels ranging from The Shining in 1977 to Lisey’s Story in 2004.

Schizogeny does manage to hit on a couple of these themes, albeit in a rather clumsy and haphazard fashion. While the execution doesn’t really work, the core ideas are interesting.

Here's daddy!

Here’s daddy!

Schizogeny also touches on some of the recurring themes of the fifth season. The fifth season of The X-Files is particularly fascinated with horror relating to children or teenagers. Generally – but not always – this horror tends to focus on Scully. The fifth season really builds on groundwork laid by the fourth season in pushing the idea of Scully as a maternal figure. Scully becomes a mother in Christmas Carol and Emily, and reenacts the loss of her daughter in All Souls. She encounters a woman who shares her sister’s name in Chinga, but with her own demonic child.

However, the fifth season’s interest in children extends beyond even that. The Post-Modern Prometheus is a horror comedy fascinated with the process of creating life. Schizogeny seems to hint at a disconnect that exists between parents and their children. It is quite clear that Phil Rich did not enjoy a happy and meaningful relationship with his stepson, and confronts Patti Rich with the possibility that her son may have murdered her husband. Her relief on discovering that this is not true suggests that – at least on some small level – she considered it to be possible.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

Schizogeny fits quite comfortably among these episodes. Like Mind’s Eye later in the season, the warped parent-child relationship at the heart of Schizogeny is between a daughter and her father. Here, the abuse plays out when Karin Matthews finds herself possessed by a nightmare version of her father; in Mind’s Eye, Marty Glenn is haunted by visions fed to her from her father. These episodes feel like a continuation of themes established in Aubrey, where adult daughters have difficulty escaping from past traumas. Horror perpetuates.

Discussing the awkward relationship between Phil and Bobby Rich, Patti reflects on how complicated these relationships can be – how these dysfunctional relationships are firmly rooted in earlier dysfunctional relationships in something of a grim self-perpetuating cycle. “It’s hard to tell what starts these things. Phil could be stern – just like his own father was to him. But I never saw him raise his hand.” In many ways, The X-Files is a show about the nineties, and it makes sense that it should explore how different being a parent in the nineties must seem.

Branching out...

Branching out…

Then again, Schizogeny is an episode that opens with a hard-working father coming home, only to find his teenage stepson listening to rock music and playing video-games. It is not the most nuanced of commentary. Schizogeny would be a much stronger episode if any of its characters felt more like characters and less like plot or thematic devices. Nevertheless, there is a sense that Schizogeny attracts a disproportionate amount of hatred. It may not be the best episode of The X-Files, but it is certainly not the worst.

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

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