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The X-Files – Alpha (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

After a couple of misfires in the first few seasons, The X-Files had most steered clear of “classic” monsters. The first season had struggled with werewolves and ghosts and cryptozoology in Shapes and Shadows and The Jersey Devil respectively. 3 had been the show’s first “true” vampire episode, and had ended up as a bit of a mess. Perhaps it indicated that The X-Files was not a show that did “traditional” monsters particularly well; or maybe it was just a sign that the creative team were still figuring out how to make the show.

There was some evidence that the show might have been getting better at this sort of thing. In the fourth season, Elegy had been a (mostly) effective traditional ghost story. In the fifth season, Bad Blood had demonstrated that it was possible to make a good episode of The X-Files about vampires. Perhaps it was time to try another werewolf story. After all, the budget on The X-Files was bigger than it had ever been. There would likely be no better time to tell a classic werewolf story. Sadly, Alpha is anything but a classic werewolf story.

Hungry like the wolf...

Hungry like the wolf…

Alpha is the second episode of The X-Files to be written by Jeffrey Bell, following on from The Rain King earlier in the season. Arriving in the middle of the season, there is a sense that the episode was scripted rather hastily and haphazardly, as the team scrambled to meet the deadline. According to The End and the Beginning, there were major changes happening to the script even as the episode went into preproduction:

Spotnitz also came up with the idea of Mulder’s online ‘romance’ with the canine expert Karin Berquist. But by that time it was January 2, and preproduction on 6×16 was schedule to begin January 21.

In a classic case of  X-Files-ian brinkmanship, Bell started writing the script from scratch, while just about every other member of the writing staff massaged his hastily produced pages at one time or another. Indeed, Alpha was still being rewritten right up to the start of shooting on February 2.

To be fair, there are times when that sort of pressure can bring out the best in the production team. Memento Mori was well-received, despite the fact it was cobbled together at the last minute. Even earlier in the same year, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban had to crank out Monday under tremendous time pressure. At the same time, Alpha feels very much like a rushed episode.

Plain, simple Detweiler...

Plain, simple Detweiler…

This is obvious even in the way that the plot of Alpha simply refuses to hang together. To be fair, it is entirely possible for a great episode of The X-Files to fudge matters of internal logic or consistency – Gilligan’s scripts for both Pusher and Unruhe are rather… loose in some areas, but are great pieces of television. However, Alpha doesn’t fudge its internal logic so much as it refuses to acknowledge the possible existence of any internal logic. There is no sense that the world of Alpha might exist in the cuts between scenes.

Consider the introduction of Doctor Ian Detweiler directly before the credits. It is immediately apparent to the audience that Detweiler is the werewolf, if only because his surname rather clumsily evokes “Rottweiler” and the fact that he has the ability to magically appear behind the giant crate that contained the werewolf. (Did he also back clothes in that crate?) It seems odd that Mulder is not immediately suspicious, given his tendency to jump to even crazier possibilities than the viewers at home.

The wolf among us...

The wolf among us…

However, the introduction of Doctor Detweiler makes no sense outside of the nice visual because it invites the audience to wonder about the logistics of what exactly happened. Did Detweiler ship himself to America in that crate, like Reg Spiers or Tyrion Lannister? Did he change back into human form inside that crate (which was locked from the outside) during the day and just sit there? Who locked him in? How does anybody who worked with (or funded) Doctor Detweiler on the expedition think that he got back?

Surely Mulder could easily figure out that Detweiler “materialised” on either side of the Pacific Ocean while the wan-sheng dhole was shipped by boat? After all, shipping himself by boat likely took a lot of time. Did nobody notice that Detweiler disappeared from the face of the earth for the time that the wan-sheng dhole was in freight? More than that, how do the logistics of the scene itself work? Did were!Detweiler kill the guards and escape, only to sneak back behind the crate so that he could make a dramatic entrance?

Indulging his base(ment) impulses...

Indulging his base(ment) impulses…

There are a lot of logical issues like that running through Alpha. For example, it seems like Detweiler is not really confined by small matters like geography when it comes to ending each act with a brutal fatality. Did Detweiler escape from the docked ship, travel all the way to Bellflower California to murder Jake Conroy and then return back to the ship? That seems a little convoluted and forced. The rest of the episode operates according to similar rules. Detweiler is where the script needs him to be and does what the script needs him to do.

More than that, how exactly does the relationship between Detweiler and wen-shang dhole work? Is Detweiler in control? We see him in human forms several times during the night, suggesting it is not a simple lunar transformation. We also see Detweiler stalking his prey and transforming for the kill, so is the transformation voluntary? Has the transformation affected Detweiler’s personality and made him more animalistic, or was he always this much of a jerk and his new powers allow him to indulge some preexisting sociopathy?

Give the man a hand...

Give the man a hand…

Alpha completely avoids any exploration of Detweiler’s character and his transformation. To be fair, it could be argued that these sorts of questions are so familiar to fans of werewolf cinema that they are practically clichés, and that indulging in stock werewolf tropes might have been dull or repetitive. However, what is the point in telling a werewolf story if you aren’t going to touch on the big themes and ideas suggested by this particular subgenre of horror fiction? What is the point in doing a “werewolf” episode if you ignore these things?

It is worth pointing out how spectacularly Alpha messes up even the most obvious of beats for a werewolf story. Reflecting on his experiences filming the episode, guest star Andrew J. Robinson lamented, “They didn’t give me a morphing shot! It’s unheard of! How can you make a film about a werewolf and not having a morphing shot? Even Lon Chaney had a morphing shot!” Robinson might be affectionately mocking the episode, but he has a point. Alpha misses a lot of what makes these stories so fun and exciting.

A veteran investigator...

A veteran investigator…

It is also unfortunate that Alpha so spectacularly wastes its central guest star. In keeping with the sixth season’s ruthless exploitation of the move to Los Angeles to leverage even bigger guest stars, Alpha drafts in veteran character actor Andrew J. Robinson to play the villain of the piece. As with Bruce Campbell or Michael McKean, there is a sense that Robinson is one of those cult performers that the production team like so much – recalling the casting of actors like Ken Foree, J.T. Walsh or Michael Berryman in the third season.

Robinson is perhaps best known for his performance as Scorpio in Dirty Harry. The actor did tremendous work as the thinly-veiled Zodiac analogue. He was also the star of the first Hellraiser film, although most people forget that “Pinhead” did not show up until the sequel. At the time that Alpha was in production, Robinson was coming off a spectacular seven-year recurring stint on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as the enigmatic tailor/spy Garak. The character is highly regarded among franchise fans.

"Well, it was certainly considerate of him to wear pants..."

“Well, it was certainly considerate of him to wear pants…”

As that resume would suggest, Robinson is very good at playing creepy and unsettling characters. The actor has an uncanny knack for delivering a creepy one-liner. While he tends to play characters with a more subtly sadistic streak than one expects from a werewolf, Robinson does seem like the perfect character to cast as a villain on The X-Files. (In fact, had the show not killed them all off, he would have made a great conspirator.) However, the script for Alpha does Robinson no favours.

Quite simply, Detweiler is not a menacing character. He is not unsettling. He is just blunt and thuggish. There is no mystery as to the identity of the werewolf, which means that the script’s refusal to acknowledge it or confront it until Mulder makes the accusation feels ill-judged. Detweiler is a very blunt baddie. When he overhears a local law enforcement official arguing for the use of deadly force against the wen-shang dhole, Detweiler informs the officer, “You kill that dog, and I’ll kill you.” Robinson might just be the show’s most wasted guest star.

I know, Scully. I feel the same way...

I know, Scully. I feel the same way…

It is also interesting how Alpha approaches its central monster. As with Shapes, the episode makes a weird decision to avoid rooting what is transparently a werewolf in traditional European folklore. In Shapes, the show rather bluntly shoehorned the Native American legend of the Manitou into a shape that rather closely resembled the archetypal werewolf myth. It walked like a werewolf and howled at the moon like a werewolf, but it seemed like most of the cast insisted on referring to it as something else entirely.

Similarly, Alpha suggests that Detweiler is not a werewolf. He is a “wen-shang dhole” from China, a mythical creature with magical powers. To be fair, Alpha is just a little less culturally insensitive than Shapes. Rather than completely re-writing a belief from another cultural tradition, Alpha simply invents a new belief from whole-cloth. There does not seem to actually be a “wen-shang dhole” in Chinese mythology, and Jeffrey Bell would recycle the phrase for That Vision Thing on Angel.

The script has no bite...

The script has no bite…

It is interesting to note that “dhole” are a species of hunting canid from East Asia that typically resemble foxes more than the wolves suggested by Alpha. Although they are not particularly well-known outside of Asia, they are quite familiar to the locals of the region. As Jonathan Harris explains in Wildlife Conservation in China:

Doubtless the least well-known large mammal species in all of China, the dhole, also sometimes called the Indian or Asiatic wild dog, is one of the world’s three species of large-sized, pack-forming canid (the other two being the African hunting dog and, of course, the wolf). By living in packs, these animals are able to subdue prey many times their own size, and thus earn the enmity of local people (because such large animals often include domestic livestock). In fact, there are few species that elicit more universal scorn and condemnation from the average Chinese who bothers to have an impression than the dhole, which although it causes very little actual damage (in part due to its rarity), is never ascribed any of the more positive qualities occasionally attributed to tigers or other dangerous predators, but instead generally regarded as a kind of criminal of the animal world – sneaky, untrustworthy, and unclean.

There is very little of Alpha that actually suggests a dhole rather than the more traditional western depiction of a wolf. It might be argued that Alpha does portray were!Detweiler (and Detweiler in general) as “sneaky” and “untrustworthy” while avoiding any of the tragedy associated with more conventional werewolf stories, but that feels like a tenuous connection at best.

He really chewed that guy out over the wen-shang dhole...

He really chewed that guy out over the wen-shang dhole…

The decision to root the wen-shang dhole in Chinese mythology rather than European or North American mythology rather weird, particularly since there is nothing particularly East Asian about the creature or the plot – beyond some of the music cues employed by Mark Snow to signal the creature’s arrival. That said, Alpha does portray the creature as a very traditional X-Files monster. It is presented as one of the last of its kind in an increasingly globalised world, a mythical creature with nowhere left to hide.

“You went to China looking for that animal and you may have tracked it as you claim but the rest is far from the truth,” Mulder advises Detweiler. “You found the wen-shang dhole, but you never caught it. It caught you.” In a way, Alpha is a spiritual companion to Teso Dos Bichos in more than just quality. Both episodes are stories about American characters who attempt to exploit something foreign and mystical only to end up biting off more than they can chew. (It is a recurring X-Files motif – see Fresh Bones and Arcadia for two more examples.)

Giving him paws...

Giving him paws…

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Alpha is the way that it seems to invert one of the cornerstones of the werewolf story. Detweiler was attacked and bitten by a werewolf, but the narrative of Alpha never portrays him as a victim. Instead, Detweiler is treated as almost predatory; Detweiler hunted the wen-shang dhole. At best, the creature infected him in self-defense and Detweiler is consumed by his obsession. At worst, Detweiler could even be complicit in the exploitation of the creature. He certainly doesn’t seem too sad at his current state.

Alpha is also notable for the way that it makes an effort to play into some of the recurring themes and motifs of the sixth season, albeit in a manner that is not entirely successfully. In a way, Alpha is the most typical X-Files episode to this point in the season, opening with Mulder in the basement pursuing an odd case that he believes to be rooted in the paranormal. Barring a repeated short sequence in Monday, Alpha is the first time the show has been down to the basement since Mulder and Scully were reassigned there at the end of One Son.

Spiked...

Spiked…

Despite the return to the status quo represented by One Son, Alpha is the first episode since the big mythology two-parter that really feels like a typical X-Files story. The previous three episodes could easily have been set before Two Fathers, with only slight tweaks to filming locations or dialogue. Agua Mala had Mulder summoned to Florida by Arthur Dales; Monday had the duo caught in a time loop by coincidence; Arcadia had them working undercover much to Mulder’s frustration. Alpha has Mulder actively seeking out an X-file.

To be fair to Bell’s script, Alpha tries to acknowledge this. The episode ends with Mulder receiving a replacement “I Want to Believe” poster from Karin Berquest, filling the last space on the wall left by the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s arson attack in The End. The scene at the end of the episode where Mulder receives the poster is the biggest emotional beat of the episode. Director Peter Markle is clearly aware of the importance of the scene, and frames it very well. The problem is that the moment never feels earned.

Keeping him posted...

Keeping him posted…

This is a huge gesture of goodwill from the character of Karin Berquest, a long-standing contact of Mulder’s who he never mentioned before but who conveniently happens to be an expert witness in this particular case. However, Karin has never been mentioned before and will never be mentioned again. It is not as if the audience believes that Mulder will think about Karin every time that he looks at the poster. Alpha tries to attach an emotional weight to the poster which the episode cannot support.

Far from representing an important or organic development, the gift is designed to minimise any sense of change or growth. The “I Want to Believe” poster from Karin is not something by which Mulder can remember her; it is the missing piece of a long-standing set that had to be reconstructed after the show moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles. The addition of that exact poster to that exact space is not something new or meaningful or weighty, it is just a way of making sure that the new set is as much like the old set as possible. It is the antithesis of change.

"Whenever I look at it, I'll think of... what's her name?"

“Whenever I look at it, I’ll think of… what’s her name?”

It might work better if Mulder and Karin shared more time together. One of Mulder’s defining character traits is his sensitivity toward vulnerability, and Karin seems like precisely the sort of character to which Mulder might respond. She is dysfunctional and isolated, and clearly reaching out in her own unique way. As with Melissa in The Field Where I Died, it makes sense that Mulder would forge a bond with a woman like that. As Glen Morgan suggested in his discussions of The Field Where I Died, Mulder is desperately looking for somebody he can help and even protect.

Unfortunately, Alpha lacks the focus to develop a meaningful and insightful relationship between Mulder and Karin. In a way, this is typical of the problems with Alpha. The episode attempts a lot of things that the series has done before, but without any energy or excitement. Any of these elements might work if the script found a unique approach or dug a little deeper, but all of this is covering familiar ground. It feels cursory and almost shallow. As with Detweiler, Karin feels like a sketch rather than a character.

His bark is worse than... Actually, maybe not.

His bark is worse than…
Actually, maybe not.

Space that might have been given over to Karin is allocated to the impact of Karin on the Mulder and Scully dynamic. Once again, Alpha plays with familiar sixth season themes – but doesn’t add anything new. With the possibility of a deep emotional connection between Mulder and Karin, Scully finds herself cast in the role of jealous third wheel. It seems weird that the show would return so frequently to that dynamic, when episodes like The End and One Son had demonstrated that it was not an approach that flattered or suited the character.

Scully’s reaction to Karin seems particularly extreme. Her response to Diana Fowley is at least predicated on the possibility of a sexual or romantic relationship between Fowley and Mulder, not to mention Fowley’s long-term history and arguably stronger compatibility with Mulder. More than that, Fowley is a character who merits suspicion and skepticism, even before the Lone Gunmen uncover her past in One Son. In contrast, the intimacy between Mulder and Karin is asexual in nature – the bond of old friends who have just met for the first time.

Don't worry, David, we're almost there...

Don’t worry, David, we’re almost there…

As such, Scully’s reactions seems incredibly knee-jerk and disproportionate. “She is the one who told me about his case,” Mulder observes. Scully immediately replies, “Oh, so you two are chummy?” That’s not passive-aggressive at all. When Mulder explains that he met Karin on-line, Scully rather dismissively replies, “On-line…” It seems weird that Scully would be so dismissive when the internet has proved invaluable to the duo as an investigative tool. It really seems like Scully is barely concealing her jealousy.

“Well, I question her motives,” Scully bluntly states at one point in the episode. “You’re suggesting that this case was a way to get me out here, to meet me?” Mulder asks, drawing attention to her possessiveness. “I’m flattered, but, no. I don’t know this woman. I’d go out on a limb and say there’s no way in hell she has anything to do with those four people being dead.” Scully responds, “She’s enamored of you, Mulder. Don’t underestimate a woman. They can be tricksters, too.” It would be a terrible line from any character, but it is particularly tone-deaf for Scully.

Scratch that...

Scratch that…

Alpha is very clearly and consciously playing up the idea of Mulder and Scully as a potential romantic couple, and pushing Karin into the middle of that robs the character of a lot of the potential she might have outside of that context Even the early scenes in the episode seem to write Mulder and Scully as a stereotype of a married couple. He explains that cryptozoologist pursue “animals that aren’t supposed to exist like Sasquatch and the Ogopogo and the Abominable Snowman and…” Scully cuts across him, like an apologetic wife, “Don’t mind him. He’ll go on forever.”

To be fair, the problems with Alpha do extend beyond a messy script. Director Peter Markle is decidedly workmanlike in how he approaches the material. There are a lot of steady shots and dutch angles, for example. Markle seems reluctant to get ambitious or adventurous. The terrible CGI used for were!Detweiler is glaring because Markle cannot come up with a clever or exciting way to shoot it. The transformation sequence in the teaser to The Beginning looks more like a werewolf transformation than anything in Alpha.

Karin cares...

Karin cares…

This does raise an issue with The X-Files at this point in its life-cycle. The early years of The X-Files had a tremendously talented selection of directors. R.W. Goodwin, David Nutter, Rob Bowman and Kim Manners were among the best directors working in television. Even Chris Carter had demonstrated a unique visual style with episodes like The List, The Post-Modern Prometheus, Triangle and How the Ghosts Stole Christmas. However, by this stage of the show’s life, those talented directors were drifting away.

David Nutter had left in the third season, directing some of the first season of Millennium before moving on to an impressive run of network pilots. R.W. Goodwin had opted to remain in Vancouver at the end of the fifth season. Rob Bowman had directed The X-Files: Fight the Future, but there are three episodes directed by him after this point. Kim Manners would remain on the show until the very end, and Chris Carter would still direct an occasional episode, but there are a lot less distinctive and definitive directors from this point out.

Shining a light on some underlying problems...

Shining a light on some underlying problems…

The final few seasons of the show do have a weaker writers’ bench than the “peak” years, but there is also a sense that the show never properly groomed up and coming directors. Perhaps the most interesting directors in the final few seasons are those branching out from other areas of the show. Vince Gilligan moves from the writers’ room to the directors’ chair, David Duchovny steps behind the camera, Michelle MacLaren would spend two years as a producer before directing.

All three do great work, but none of them makes the same impression on the look and feel of the show as R.W. Goodwin, Rob Bowman or David Nutter. Vince Gilligan’s two efforts are efficient, but seem to exist as practice for his directorial work on Breaking Bad. David Duchovny proves quite adept, but only directs three episodes. Michelle MacLaren is the best new director to join the show since Kim Manners, but she only directs a single episode before moving on to defining work on series like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.

Mulder's directing this conversation...

Mulder’s directing this conversation…

It is perhaps a subtle indicator of a show in decline. Alpha is an episode with a terrible script, but it might have at least looked interesting directed by David Nutter. (After all, say what you will about 3, but it looked stylish.) Ultimately, Alpha is a dull disappointment of an episode. It is limp and lifeless, in a way that suggests perhaps Mulder and Scully returned to the basement a little too early.

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

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