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The X-Files – Chinga (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.

Chinga is the episode of The X-Files that was written by Stephen King.

That is a pretty big deal. Stephen King is one of the most influential American writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He is a writer who has enjoyed tremendous commercial success, but who has also balanced that popularity with considerable respect of critics and academics. His work has permeated popular cultured, and sparked all sorts of analysis and exploration. While no creator of that calibre works without at least some small level of backlash, King is one of the most successful American writers by any measure.

Play time!

Play time!

Writing about King in A Century of Great Suspense Stories, Jeffery Deaver argued that the author “helped free the popular name from the shackles of simple genre writing. He is a master of masters.” As such, he should be quite a comfortable fit for The X-Files. Even aside from any stylistic sensibilities that he might share with the series, King is a creator who manages to consistently producer work that might be dismissed as “genre”, but manages to compete with more prestigious and high-profiler literature.

The X-Files did something similar in the nineties. It was a show that frequently dabbled in cult genres – it was a show that dealt with horror and science-fiction themes on a regular basis. However, thanks to the craftsmanship of those involved, The X-Files was frequently able to compete with more “serious” fare at the major awards ceremonies. Chris Carter worked very hard to prevent the show from being relegated to the horror or science-fiction “ghetto.” It was a show that could slide to high-brow to low-brow over a single act; that was part of what made it so fun.

A bloody disaster...

A bloody disaster…

So landing King was very much a coup for The X-Files. He was one of the best-selling and most prolific American writers of the nineties, with his name all over a wealth of media. All that Chinga really needs to do is exist. It would be next to impossible for Chinga to be anything but “that episode of The X-Files written by Stephen King.” Indeed, it seems almost unreasonable to expect anything more from it. The hype on Chinga was unbelievable – as one might expect from a television show that had bagged one of the most popular fiction writers around.

Chinga is a very flawed piece of television, an episode that feels too much like an early draft than a fully-developed concept. The styles of Chris Carter and Stephen King blend reasonably well, but there is a sense that neither is pushing the other out of their comfort zone. Chinga is a pretty average piece of television, a pretty average Stephen King story, and a pretty average episode of The X-Files. While not necessarily a catastrophic failure, it is hardly a fantastic success.

"Yeah, I'm sure this vacation will be completely uneventful!"

“Yeah, I’m sure this vacation will be completely uneventful!”

The script to Chinga is credited to both Chris Carter and Stephen King. This is surprising, in some ways. It is not surprising that Carter rewrote King’s script. After all, Carter has claimed to have rewritten twenty of the twenty-four third season episodes of The X-Files. It falls within the purview of the executive producer to make sure that the episode that airs fits comfortably with the episodes around it. It has been suggested that Carter heavily rewrote the two episodes either side of Chinga – both Schizogeny and Kill Switch.

Rewriting makes particularly sense when the executive producer is dealing with new writers or writers who are not particularly experienced with the medium. In some cases, it makes sense for a showrunner to basically throw out a draft credited to a particular writer and to rewrite it from scratch. “I’ll rewrite 100% if I have to,” Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies confessed in an interview. “We’re not there to experiment and we’re not there to let someone fail. You’ve got to do everything you can to make it brilliant every week.”

Yeah, World's Deadliest Swarms. Right.

Yeah, World’s Deadliest Swarms. Right.

In an interview with USA Today around the broadcast of the episode, King himself was quite magnanimous about the rewrite process:

“In a sense I was rewritten,” King says. “But everybody who works on The X-Files is. That’s one of the reasons the show is as successful as it is. They all have a unified feel that comes from Chris’ unique abilities. If he hadn’t rewritten the script, I would have felt like a geek, like the one kid in school who  was different from the others.”

In fact, it was King who insisted that Carter take credit for his work on the script. Carter would have been quite happy for Chinga to go out credited to King and King alone.

Here's Dolly!

Here’s Dolly!

It makes sense that Carter would have had to rewrite the episode. As with Kill Switch, there was an understandable sense that the author (who had primarily worked in prose) was not entirely aware of the production constraints on a prime-time television show filmed in Vancouver. As director Kim Manners explained:

“We read Stephen King’s script, which was terrific, but probably unproduceable for an hour of network television,” Manners recalls. “Chris rewrote it. It was fun to do, and I think it translated well. People either really liked Chinga or really hated it. That was another episode where it got a strong response, either positive or negative, but no one walked away and said, ‘Oh, just another episode.’”

In many respects, Chinga feels like a product of compromise. It is an episode that feels somewhat muted in what it commits to doing. It is not an embarrassment to either Carter or King, but it is unlikely to be considered a highlight of their bibliographies.

Slice o' life...

Slice o’ life…

Much like Kill Switch, Chinga is an episode that had a rather long gestation period. The origins of the episode date back to the third season of the show, when David Duchovny had appeared on Celebrity Jeopardy and lost to King – a high-profile event that the show had affectionately acknowledged in episodes like War of the Coprophages or Syzygy. According to Resist or Serve, the possibility of King writing for the show was first suggested at that point:

“Anyway,” adds Carter, “he told David that he loved the show and that he’d love to write an episode. Then one day, Stephen called me out of the blue. He said, ‘Hey, Chris, you know, I’d love to do a Millennium . Which I thought was a little strange, considering what I’d heard, but he told me that he’d wanted to do an X-Files but then decided to do a Millennium instead. I said, ‘Great!’ then he called back and said, ‘I want to do an X-Files now. I’ve got some ideas.'”

It seems like having King write a script for Millennium would have been a pretty big deal in the first season, and might have convinced Fox to promote the show a bit more forcefully after The Pilot. Nevertheless, King’s aesthetic certainly feels more comfortable on The X-Files than it would have been on Millennium. King’s horror tends towards the supernatural and the mystical, rooted in classic Americana.



It makes sense that Chinga would have been developed during the fifth season. The fourth season of The X-Files had been quite chaotic, with Carter splitting his attention between the first season of Millennium, the fourth season of The X-Files and the pre-production of The X-Files: Fight the Future. In contrast, the fifth season was more relaxed. Carter had handed over Millennium to Glen Morgan and James Wong, and there was only post-production work remaining on Fight the Future.

More than that, the fact that Fight the Future had already been written and filmed meant that the arc of the fifth season was already largely plotted. Carter had an endpoint ahead of him, so he did not have to worry so much about mapping out the future of the show. This seemed to give the writer more time to focus on things he had always wanted to do with The X-Files. He wrote and directed The Post-Modern Prometheus, an ambitious and deeply personal off-format episode. He was also able to supervise and realise scripts by Stephen King and William Gibson.

And that, kids, is why you always wear a hair net...

And that, kids, is why you always wear a hair net…

That said, the production of Chinga was not entirely smooth. The title of the episode was controversial with Fox, as Carter explained in an interview with Conan O’Brien:

They have probably tried to stop you at certain times from putting certain things on the air. Do you have problems like that because you’re Chris Carter now? Can you win those battles?

There’s lots of nervousness about blood and gore and stuff, but Stephen King wrote an episode called Chinga and the Standards people were really upset about the title. They said, “That’s a bad word in Spanish, a bad slang word.” We argued and we argued and finally they wouldn’t let us use the word Chinga, they wouldn’t let us use the name Chinga, so, uh– 

Stop saying that word. Our Standards lawyer is Spanish right now.

So we called the episode Bunghoney instead.

It is an interesting glimpse at the weird double-standards employed by Broadcast Standards and Practices. That is the type of conflict that might work its way into a Darin Morgan script.

Scully is the Maine woman...

Scully is the Maine woman…

However, despite these initial problems, Chinga feels remarkably smooth. Carter and King seem to fit together quite comfortably. There are elements and motifs in Chinga that can be traced back to one writer or the other, but they all sit together rather well. There is no glaring conflict, no obvious inconsistency. Indeed, if King’s name did not appear in the credits, Chinga might be written off as an affectionate homage to the author’s work – a story that delivers pretty much what one might expect from “Stephen King writing The X-Files.”

Chinga feels like more of a run-of-the-mill episode than Kill Switch, an episode where watching William Gibson and Tom Maddox strain against the aesthetic of The X-Files is part of the charm. There is no real question of how King’s style will have to be adjusted to fit this fictional world, because it won’t need to be adjusted too dramatically. That means that Chinga feels less like a special event and more like business as usual. Given the amount of hype and attention that Chinga received, “business as usual” was never going to be quite enough.

A cold kill...

A cold kill…

It is worth noting the uniquely Stephen King elements of the episode. Chinga is set in Maine, the author’s home state. The episode opens on a Maine license plate. Indeed, Scully even wears a t-shirt with the state slogan – “Maine: the way life should be.” King’s interest in childhood fears are reflected in the character of Polly Turner. The motif of a killer doll in King’s oeuvre is not unique to Chinga. His short story The Monkey had been based around one of those creepy old monkey-with-cymbal dolls. The image recurred in The Tommyknockers.

Chinga even contains a number of allusions towards King’s interest in the earliest history of the United States. While Carter has referenced the genocide of the Native Americans by the European settlers, King is also fascinated in the early history of the nation. Native American burial grounds feature heavily in classic King stories like Pet Cemetery or The Shining. King has repeatedly identified Salem’s Lot among his favourite of his own novels, with a title that alludes to the infamous Salem witch hunts.

Well, somebody's not getting a treat for good behaviour.

Well, somebody’s not getting a treat for good behaviour.

The Salem witch hunts are a recurring motif in King’s work, and it is no surprise that his script for Chinga alludes to them – with Melissa and Polly Turner explicitly accused of witchcraft by the local community. “That whore’s a witch sure as I’m standing here,” one soon-to-be-victim warns Scully. “She’s descended from the Hawthornes in Salem and the Englishes, too. She comes from a cursed lineage and now she’s passing it on to the whelp. God save that little girl if somebody don’t do something.”

The reference to Melissa as a “whore” also reflects another recurring theme in King’s work. The obvious point of comparison with Chinga is Carrie, the story of another young girl who is ostracised by her community and demonstrates supernatural powers. Of course, the supernatural power in Chinga comes through Polly’s demonic doll, but the similarities are compelling. Of course, Polly is not really the focal point of the community’s attention in Chinga. Melissa Turner is the one subjected to gossip and rumour-mongering.

As cold as ice cream...

As cold as ice cream…

In Danse Macabre, King’s wonderful and meandering exploration of the horror genre, the author explained that Carrie was written in the context of stereotypical attitudes towards female sexuality:

If The Stepford Wives concerns itself with what men want from women, then Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality.

It is no coincidence that Carrie’s powers manifest at puberty, or that the book opens with her first menstruation. At the same time, the local resident in Chinga seem obsessed with Melissa Turner’s sexual life.

Be a doll and don't kill anybody today...

Be a doll and don’t kill anybody today…

Most of the men in town seem to be trying to sleep with Melissa, who has suddenly found herself as a single mother and widow in the wake of her husband’s tragic death. Indeed, Buddy Riggs trying to leverage his authority as a law enforcement figure as a way to force himself into her life, and Dave the Butcher rather aggressively pursuing her despite her candid lack of interest. Jane Froelich labels Melissa as a “whore”, but nobody in the community seems too bothered by the fact that Dave and Buddy refuse to take “no” as an answer.

Indeed, Jack Bonsaint seems to talk about Dave and Melissa as if they actually were lovers “carrying on” together, a position which passively endorses Dave’s position with little regard for Melissa’s. It explains how Melissa could be a victim of slut-shaming despite her relatively chaste lifestyle. “That wasn’t really an affair,” Bonsaint is forced to confess to Scully later on. “Although Dave did make quite a fool of himself and his wife.” It is interesting that Dave’s unrequited crush seems to reflect so poorly on Melissa, but barely at all on himself. (She is a “whore”, he is a “fool.”)

Hook, line and sinker...

Hook, line and sinker…

In a way, Chinga allows King to clarify some of the ambiguity in Carrie. Some vocal critics of King’s work have argued that Carrie is inherently misogynistic in the way that it links female sexuality with monstrosity. While not entirely baseless, the reading does gloss over the possibility that Carrie is as preoccupied with society’s response to female sexuality as anything else. Chinga avoids this ambiguity by making it explicit that Melissa Turner is a victim in all of this, despite how the community chooses to portray her.

Of course, Melissa and Polly Turner represent a significant point of overlap between King and Carter. Reproductive horror has been a recurring fixation for The X-Files, dating back to first season episodes like Eve or Born Again. However, the fifth season really pushes the idea to the fore, particularly in relation to Scully.  – who witnessed the death of her child in Christmas Carol and Emily, and will endure a similar trial in All Souls. However, even outside of Scully, the fifth season is populated with creepy children – including the teens in Schizogeny and the runaway artificial intelligence in Kill Switch.

Mommy knows best...

Mommy knows best…

Chinga positions Scully at the centre of the story, encountering a woman who shares a name with her deceased sister and who has her own creepy child. Only a few episodes after speculating that her sister Melissa might have become a single mother in Christmas Carol, Scully encounters a single mother named Melissa. The broadcast episode never makes the connection explicit, but the original script alluded to it directly. “Your sister got dead,” Polly teased in an earlier draft. “A bad man shot her and she went dead.”

However, Chinga is never quite sure just how involved Scully should be in the story. There are obvious echoes of Christmas Carol and Emily reverberating through the story, but they are never quite acknowledged. This should be a story that hits quite close to home for Scully, but she remains curiously aloof and almost oblivious to the obvious parallels to her own experience. Isolating Scully from Mulder and using the name Melissa would seem to suggest this probably should be a personal case. Instead, Chinga plays as a regular monster-of-the-week.

Their relationship is on the line...

Their relationship is on the line…

Unsurprisingly, Chinga feels like one of those classic “small town with a dark secret” episodes, evoking King’s own fondness for the setting and providing another convenient point of overlap between the two writers. As seems to be the way with The X-Files, it seems as if at least some of King’s interest in eccentric small-town America is due to the fact this eccentric small-town world might soon disappear. Trying to explain his affection for Salem’s Lot among his own work, King expressed a fascination with small-town life. “They are kind of a dying organism right now.”

Perhaps this is the biggest problem with Chinga. Given the hype around it “the Stephen King episode” should be an event on a massive scale. Instead, it all feels too comfortable, too familiar. Indeed, even the premise of the evil killer doll feels like a stock horror trope. Chucky is perhaps the most ubiquitous example of a killer doll in popular culture – and the one who gets name-checked by the script – but the concept is as old as storytelling itself. There is something quite unsettling about the idea of an innocent child’s toy corrupted into something monstrous and evil.

Taking a bath on this one...

Taking a bath on this one…

The idea of a killer doll is such a classic horror staple that even Sigmund Freud offered his own take on the cliché in The Uncanny, discussing E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story The Sandman:

We find in the story of the Sand-Man the other theme on which Jentsch lays stress, of a doll which appears to be alive. Jentsch believes that a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny feelings is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one. Now, dolls are of course rather closely connected with childhood life. We remember that in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and that they are especially fond of treating their dolls like live people. In fact, I have occasionally heard a woman patient declare that even at the age of eight she had still been convinced that her dolls would be certain to come to life if she were to look at them in a particular, extremely concentrated, way. So that here, too, it is not difficult to discover a factor from childhood. But, curiously enough, while the Sand-Man story deals with the arousing of an early childhood fear, the idea of a ‘living doll’ excites no fear at all; children have no fear of their dolls coming to life, they may even desire it.

It is not a bad explanation for why the killer doll has endured so successfully and so effectively over the centuries. It reflects very adult anxieties about childhood.

Toy (horror) story...

Toy (horror) story…

Of course, the fear of children’s toys perhaps represents a more basic fear of children. In Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors, Dominic Lennard argues:

Horror’s proclivity for child villains frequently transforms children’s culture through mere association, making childish fun ironically synonymous with adult fear. However, children’s culture has itself been used to evoke the nervous difference between adults and children and the violent usurpation of adult power.

Children can be terrifying, as King demonstrated in stories like The Children of the Corn or Carrie.

Fox Mulder's day off...

Fox Mulder’s day off…

The idea that parents are afraid or disconnected from their children is a common horror motif. Millennium played with it in Monster only a few months earlier. The X-Files has touched on it repeatedly in episodes like Eve or Born Again. Teenagers were a source of fear in stories like D.P.O. or Schizogeny. While it is tempting to suggest that such anxieties are a modern invention – or, at the very least, have become increasingly common in modern times – there is evidence to suggest that society has always been wary of its children (There were moral panics about youths during the fifties and twenties.)

Chinga plays into that very basic fear quite elegantly. Melissa Turner is a mother who is pointedly afraid of her daughter. Even though the real monster in the story seems to be the doll, it generally acts as an expression of Polly Turner’s will – victimising those who are mean to Polly or those who might disrupt the Turner family dynamic. “We’re going home, Polly,” Melissa begs in the episode’s atmospheric teaser. “Please, don’t do this to Mommy.” There is a sense that Melissa is a mother struggling with a disconnect with her child in the same way as Bobby Rich’s parents in Schizogeny.

Heated family arguments...

Heated family arguments…

Here, the episode seems to pivot a little bit towards Carter. Carter is a fan of horror that explores the invasion and infestation of the family home by evil forces. With her windows nailed shut and trapped inside the house with her daughter and the killer doll, Melissa Turner feels like she escaped from an early episode of Millennium‘s first season. The idea that walls could not keep evil out – particularly evil already in the home – was at the heart of stories like The Well-Worn Lock, Wide Open and Weeds.

Despite its relatively straightforward plotting and the ease with which it fits thematically within the fifth season of The X-Files, there are some problems with Chinga. The one such problem is the issue of tone. Chinga is not quite sure how to pitch itself. Is it straight-up horror? Is it intentional kitsch and ironic? Is it trying to be silly or trying to be scary? The episode seems to bounce back and forth between tones, never quite figuring out whether Chinga wants to be one of the darkest or one of the lightest episodes of the season.

Home invasion... or liberation?

Home invasion… or liberation?

On the one hand, the episode opens with a horrific teaser – brutal violence in a supermarket that sees bodies projected onto freezer doors and patrons clawing their own eyes out. There are lots of creepy night time shots, and one scene where a character is revealed to have impaled his own head on a fishhook. At the same time, there are a lot of very silly sequences, like those featuring the life-sized doll (only fleetingly glimpsed) or characters wrestling against their own hands. These are the kinds of campy (and fun) horror touches that seem at odds with characters stabbing their own eyes out.

It doesn’t help that the plotting of the episode seems to treat Scully’s vacation as a hilarious joke – a hilarious joke where the punchline is “an entire store full of people just gouged their eyes out.” The idea of cutting back to Mulder’s attempts to entertain himself works well in theory – with Scott Von Doviak suggesting in Stephen King Films FAQ that it might be a nice inside joke referencing the difficulties facing King and Carter as a writing team – but in practice it feels like a sit-com imposing itself upon an otherwise traditional horror story.

Mapping out American horror...

Mapping out American horror…

These weird tonal shifts are something that the second season of Millennium might have been able to handle better. Morgan and Wong seemed a bit more adept and mingling killers and kitsch than Carter, embracing silliness and absurdity in a way that made it seem part of the otherworldliness of a script instead of existing in contrast to it. Chinga feels like it never entirely reconciles its grotesque elements with its more comedic elements, resulting in a script that seems to change moods every few minutes.

To pick an arbitrary example, the teaser of Goodbye Charlie features a (potential) serial killer serenading a tied-up soon-to-be-deceased acquaintance with a dodgy karaoke version of “Seasons in the Sun.” It is surreal and uncomfortable, but in a much more unsettling manner than the repeated use of “The Hokey-Kokey” in Chinga. The use of “The Hokey-Kokey” as a creepy subversion of something that should be wholesome and innocent fits well in the context of the episode, but Chinga never quite embraces the absurdity of a life-size doll forcing people to kill themselves while playing “The Hokey-Kokey.”

Burn, baby doll, burn!

Burn, baby doll, burn!

Chinga is a fairly well-constructed episode of The X-Files, in spite of these problems. There is a sense that the episode could have been so much more – if only due to the collaborators credited on the script – but it is hard to argue that Chinga represents an embarrassing failure on the part of everybody involved. Instead, it is just there – it is a story that winds up as a footnote in the canon of The X-Files by simple virtue of its pedigree. Ironically, in spite of his obvious thematic compatibility with the series, King would prove to be the least successful popular novelist to write for the fifth season of The X-Files.

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

2 Responses

  1. Chinga, a strange episode, one that I’d say is pretty good on first viewing, but does not stand up to repeat viewings at all. It’s the mark of an episode short on ideas/plot that constantly has to replay music over and over again over shots where almost nothing is happening. In Chinga’s case, it’s the hokey pokey, which like the audience, much like the mother in the episode, gets SERIOUSLY irritated at hearing it again and again. This episode reminds me of the Millennium episode: Matryoshka where they play that old timey “Till then” song over and over again, against laboriously long shots that linger for entirely too long. I’m not sure where the directors got the idea that just playing a song track repeated over an episode adds anything of value, did they think it would make scenes more meaningful? At least in the Millennium episode: Goodbye Charlie, the “suspect” sung the repeated motif song himself, and from that, we could gleen parts of character like his total sincerity, and perhaps understand we were in for a bizzare/unique episode. When song tracks are just played over scenes, it feels totally divorced from the story, and if it isn’t a song the viewer likes, it sort of poisons the viewers enjoyment of the episode.

    When I’m doing a marathon through my X-file DVDs, I always skip this episode because I’ve heard the hokey pokey enough for several lifetimes, which is a shame because some of the Stepen Kingisms are charming in this episode, like that Jules Verne lobster, or Scully wondering about getting that “I Want To Believe” poster.

    • With regards to the song thing, it is something that Glen Morgan and James Wong tend to do quite well. Wonderful in Home, How Deep is Your Love in the Thin White Line, Doesn’t Somebody Want to be Wanted in Never Again, Life During Wartime in The End and the Beginning, A Horse With No Name in Owls, Horses in The Time is Now, even Downtown in Home Again. But yep, I don’t think Carter is anywhere near as effective at that sort of thing. (Achy Breaky Heart notwithstanding.)

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