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The X-Files – The Unnatural (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.

Let me get this straight: a free-spirited alien fell in love with baseball and ran away from the other non-fun-having aliens and made himself black, because that would prevent him from getting to the majors where his unspeakable secret might be discovered by an intrusive press and public and you’re also implying that…

You certainly have a knack for turning chicken salad into chicken spit.

– Fox Mulder and Arthur Dales discuss the merits of The Unnatural

Swing and a hit...

Swing and a hit…

By the time that the sixth season of The X-Files was coming to an end, David Duchovny was restless. The actor had been a series regular on the show for six years, spending five of those years in Vancouver. Duchovny had been quite candid about his frustrations, sharing his anxieties with the press and the production team. It was Duchovny who had forced the show to move from Vancouver to Los Angeles, hoping to spend more time with his new wife and family. Duchovny had signed a two-season extension to his contract at the end of the fifth season.

It was no secret that Duchovny was eager to spread his wings. While Gillian Anderson only had a handful of non-X-Files credits on her resume that overlap with her time on the show, Duchovny was working furiously to build a career beyond the role of Fox Mulder. Perhaps the most successful of his extra curricular activities was a wonderful three-episode guest stint on The Larry Saunders Show, but the actor also headlined films like Playing God and Return to Me.

Play ball...

Play ball…

However, working on The X-Files did provide Duchovny with an opportunity to develop his interests and to expand his skills. Duchovny had been actively involved in the plotting of the show since the production of Colony during the second season. Duchovny developed the story for that mythology episode with Chris Carter, adding a lot of elements that would become essential to the show as it evolved. Duchovny came up with the idea of the Alien Bounty Hunter and was quite active in defining the Mulder family dynamic that would play such a major role in the show’s future.

Duchovny remained involved in the plotting of show. He would plot Anasazi and Talitha Cumi with Chris Carter, the second and third season finalés. Those also shaped the series’ central conspiracy arc as the show marched forward. He would also plot the episode Avatar with Howard Gordon, the first episode of The X-Files to really focus on a member of the supporting cast outside of Mulder and Scully. Duchovny’s creative voice was a pretty major part of The X-Files long before he decided to actually write his own script.

Mulder goes by the book...

Mulder goes by the book…

In the sixth and seventh seasons, there are obvious points where Duchovny seems increasingly frustrated with the show. There are episodes where it really seems like Duchovny simply is not engaged with the script in front of him. To be fair, it is incredibly tough to headline a show for seven seasons; it is inevitable that fatigue and exhaustion might set in. It seems like Duchovny’s work on The Unnatural and Hollywood A.D. provided the actor with an opportunity to recharge his batteries and to re-engage with a show that was simultaneously a source of frustration.

In hindsight, it seems strange that it took so long for Duchovny to put pen to paper. The Unnatural is Duchovny’s first “written by” credit on The X-Files, but it is also his first creative credit since the end of the third season. That is quite a considerable gap. However, Duchovny proves himself quite a skilful writer, one with a keen understanding of the show and how it is meant to work. The Unnatural is an episode that is clearly written with a lot of love and affection for both its source material and for the show itself.

"You look like you've seen a ghost..."

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost…”

In an interview during the highly fraught seventh season, Duchovny acknowledged that writing and directing for The X-Files was a way to keep himself interested in the show:

It’s the seventh year. I’ve come to terms with the fact that there’s really not going to be anything for me to play. It’s a little distressing, but I do have the writing and directing, which is an amazing opportunity I thank Chris and Fox for.

Duchovny is generally quite candid in interviews around the show. He tends to be quite honest in how he feels about it any given moment. It is not as if his departure at the end of the seventh season came out of nowhere.

Baseless fears...

Baseless fears…

At the same time, it is quite clear that writing and directing meant a lot to him. The Unnatural is not a curiosity or an accident. Duchovny would write and direct Hollywood A.D. during his final season on the show. As much as Duchovny seemed exhausted and frustrated by the role of Mulder, he clearly retained a great deal of affection for the creative opportunities afforded to him by The X-Files. While Duchovny would be an unreliable series lead during the eighth and ninth seasons, he would remain an active participant in the creative process.

When Duchovny finally disappeared from the show completely in the ninth season, he was still willing to return in a “behind the scenes” capacity. While Chris Carter and the production team struggled to convince Duchovny to appear in front of the camera, he did receive a story and direction credit for his work on William. It seems like Duchovny’s frustrations with The X-Files were perhaps rooted in the role of Fox Mulder rather than in any larger problems with the show itself.

"The shippers are going to love this..."

“The shippers are going to love this…”

Discussing Duchovny’s writing credit on The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, director Michael Watkins observed that writing allowed Duchovny to reconnect with the series that had turned him into a household name:

David wrote one episode last year called The Unnatural. That was his first directing assignment. I thought he did a lovely job. For David to write on the show is a chance for him to reinvest his creative juices. Both Chris and David have great shorthand with the show. I can’t think of two people who are more easily acclimated at writing what goes on here. It’s fun when he’s on the set and participating, because he’s there all the time. He takes it seriously — not that he doesn’t take everything seriously, because he is a wonderful actor. But when your words are being performed, you take them even more to heart. Having him there made the dialogue of directing all the more interesting and detailed.

With all that in mind, it makes sense that The Unnatural should be such a romantic episode. For all that his interviews might make him sound cynical, Duchovny has a great deal of affection and enthusiasm driving him.

"There's an Art to this..."

“There’s an Art to this…”

However, The Unnatural was not just Duchovny’s first full script for The X-Files. It was his first time directing an episode. Writing and directing the same episode is an ambitious exercise under any set of circumstances. It is particularly daunting when this is the first time that the person involved has done either. On top of all that, David Duchovny was the full-time regular lead on the show and would be appearing in a supporting capacity over the course of the episode.

It is truly a credit to Duchovny that The Unnatural works at all, let alone that it turns out as a season highlight. There are any number of memorable and striking visuals in The Unnatural. The sequence where Dales discovers Exley’s true nature is one of the most distinctive shots in the history of The X-Files. Then again, Duchovny makes sure that the climax of the episode features an alien on a rearing horse. Even if the final shot of those baseballs turning into stars is a little hokey, the episode has earned it.

Shades of grey...

Shades of grey…

Duchovny decided to direct his script in order to preserve the integrity of his work, to make sure that his vision was properly realised:

Duchovny’s decision to direct The Unnatural grew out of his occasional frustration with the show’s storyline and his lack of control over his character, something he acknowledged an actor “has to give up” in a television series. He saw directing as a way of protecting his script. “Directing is a part of the writing process. It’s the completion of the writing and making sure that your vision gets carried through all the way. I guess I’ve been disappointed in the show’s execution. It’s a little like music. You can tell somebody this is how this should be and this is how it goes, and they nod, and you figure, ‘We’re on the same page, we’re speaking the same language,’ but it never works out that way. It doesn’t. So you just go, ‘For better or for worse, I’m going to be the guy that executes it all the way. I’m not going to leave it up to somebody else.’”

Duchovny’s decision to write and direct The Unnatural (and to write and direct Hollywood A.D. the next year) paved the way for Gillian Anderson to write and direct all things a season later.

I'll admit I'm a little disappointed that not one of them is smoking a cigarette...

I’ll admit I’m a little disappointed that not one of them is smoking a cigarette…

Beyond its writer and director, The Unnatural is an interesting episode in many respects. It is primarily a flashback episode, with a lot of the action unfolding in Roswell during 1947. This is not anything particularly novel or new. The fifth season had been fond of jumping around in time, providing an origin story for the X-files in Unusual Suspects as the first episode produced in the season. Duchovny even includes the character of Arthur Dales in his script for The Unnatural; Dales had anchored Travelers, the McCarthy-era flashback episode broadcast during the fifth season.

Even outside of Unusual Suspects or Travelers, the series was fascinated with the history of the United States. Deep Throat made it clear that the aliens at the heart of the show were more deeply embedded than it might initially appear. Anasazi revealed that they had been visiting North America long before the European settlers arrived. The X-Files: Fight the Future suggested that the colonists were the original inhabitants of the planet. More to the point, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip rooted the show’s conspiracy in the legacy of the Second World War.

Time for reflection...

Time for reflection…

So the treatment of United States history in The Unnatural is not surprising of itself. The X-Files is a show that is frequently interested in exploring the secret history of the United States – from Operation: Paper Clip to Project MK-ULTRA. Negro League Baseball fits quite comfortably with the show’s historical interests. Its peak coincides roughly with the end of the Second World War, and is an aspect of American history that is frequently overlooked in discussions of the era.

Interest in the history of Negro League Baseball had built during the late eighties and exploded during the nineties. For example, 1994 saw the publication of The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues and The Negro Leagues Book. It also saw the founding of NegroLeagueBaseball.com. The fascination with African American baseball players in the middle of the twentieth century was very much a part of the popular consciousness when Duchovny wrote The Unnatural.

Knocking it out of the park...

Knocking it out of the park…

However, what is particularly interesting about The Unnatural is the fact that it represents a surprisingly nostalgic and romantic vision of the past. The X-Files tends to deconstruct and subvert traditional narratives of American history. To The X-Files, the end of the Second World War was not a triumph for western liberal democracy, but a point at which something toxic took root in the American government. So it is quite surprising that The Unnatural is positively idealistic in its depiction of the history of baseball.

The Unnatural proposes baseball as a sport that is completely colour-blind. When the Ku Klux Klan show up during the teaser to harass an African American athlete, it is the white players who stand up for their colleague. Baseball seems to be the great equaliser – a sport that can bring together people of different races and social classes in their love for the great game. The Unnatural even suggests that professional baseball might advance the cause of integration. When the Ku Klux Klan show up, they suggest the Yankees want to integrate African American players.

"We have some issues with the direction of major league baseball. Is there somebody here to whom we could address our concerns?"

“We have some issues with the direction of major league baseball. Is there somebody here to whom we could address our concerns?”

Of course, this is an incredibly romantic version of history. In reality, the integration of baseball was the result of politic pressure rather than something that evolved organically from within. The high-profile recruitment of Jackie Robinson is cited as a huge moment for the sport, but it was largely made possible by outside factors:

In 1945, Isadore Muchnick, a progressive member of the Boston City Council, threatened to deny the Red Sox a permit to play on Sundays unless the team considered hiring black players. Working with several black sportswriters, Muchnick persuaded the reluctant Red Sox general manager, Eddie Collins, to give three Negro League players—Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams—a tryout at Fenway Park in April of that year. The Sox had no intention of signing any of the players, nor did the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago White Sox, who orchestrated similar bogus auditions. But the public pressure and media publicity helped raise awareness and furthered the cause.

Other politicians were allies in the crusade. Running for re-election to the New York City Council in 1945, Ben Davis—an African-American former college football star, and a Communist—distributed a leaflet with the photos of two blacks, a dead soldier and a baseball player. “Good enough to die for his country,” it said, “but not good enough for organized baseball.” That year, the New York State legislature passed the Quinn-Ives Act, which banned discrimination in hiring, and soon formed a committee to investigate discriminatory hiring practices, including one that focused on baseball. In short order, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s established a Committee on Baseball to push the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers to sign black players. Left-wing Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who represented Harlem, called for an investigation of baseball’s racist practices.

Understandably, this aspect of baseball history tends not to attract attention. Films like 42 seem to suggest that the impetus for change sprang from within the sport, and that it served to usher in a new era for African Americans. The Unnatural seems to play into this historical narrative, demonstrating its relative innocence and idealism.

"Nobody'll notice. How often do you think they check these things anyway?"

“Nobody’ll notice. How often do you think they check these things anyway?”

The Unnatural is an ode to baseball. It is very clearly romantic and nostalgic about the sport, representing a rare occasion on The X-Files where a chapter in American history is treated with respect and veneration. The Unnatural demonstrates an almost religious awe for baseball, as suggested by the decision to close out the story of Josh Exley with a rendition of the gospel song Come And Go With Me To That Land. The hymn expresses the belief in a life ever-lasting after this one – suggesting that Exley might find peace in a world beyond this one.

Baseball is a very potent symbol of American pride and idealism. Even more than American football, baseball holds a very important place in the national consciousness. Despite trends in television viewership, baseball still holds the title of the “national pastime.” Appropriately enough, given the origins of the sport, baseball in America is quite akin to cricket in the United Kingdom (and former colonies of the United Kingdom); it is very hard to explain the appeal of the sport to outsiders, despite the pride of place it holds in the national identity.

"Well, this is familiar."

“Well, this is familiar.”

Unsurprisingly, then, baseball has become the focus of a national nostalgia. Films like The Natural and Field of Dreams suggest a spiritual quality to the sport, an idealistic yearning for a simpler America. Robert Elias wonders in Baseball and the American Dream:

Is baseball nostalgia simply natural or has it been generated to serve some social function? Each year, thousands of Americans make a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York (site of the Baseball Hall of Fame) and Dyersville, Iowa (site of the Field of Dreams filming). In his study of those sites, Charles Springwood found that a nostalgia for a lost America motivated far more visitors than a quest for baseball history. Springwood believes that this kind of nostalgia has “help[ed] to stimulate a neo-conservative discourse… packaged in doctrines of urban-rural tension, family values, race, gender and nationalism.” Reflecting on this phenomenon, Bill Brown reminds us that the 1980s was an “era when remembering became … a newly commercialised endeavor (the boom in the business of collectibles, the boom of the video-cam industry)….” As our historical consciousness continues to deteriorate and as our memories atrophy, “the more the cultural industries thrive… [and the more that] baseball [becomes] newly visible as an object of longing.” Springwood’s “geography of baseball nostalgia” demonstrates the role baseball plays in helping “to legitimate a longing for the past… [and perhaps even a] nostalgia for longing itself – the longing to long, the feeling that feeling as such will enable us to feel some alternative to the numbness of the everyday.”

Given the recurring tendency of The X-Files to treat “the numbness of the everyday” as an expression of nineties existential angst, The Unnatural seems a rather romantic piece of television. It does not subvert or deconstruct baseball in the same way that Elegy peeled back the curtain on the romantic image of the American bowling alley.

"Well, grey is kinda white... right?"

“Well, grey is kinda white… right?”

After all, The Unnatural is explicitly about storytelling and mythmaking. This is not a surprise. David Duchovny has a degree in English, and stopped just short of earning his PhD in American Literature. At one stage, it seemed like he was destined to pursue a life in academia, before he decided to focus on acting. Duchovny has repeatedly cited his appreciation for and fascination with the work of Joseph Campbell. With all of these influences at work, it makes sense that Duchovny would be interested in telling stories about stories.

The Unnatural suggests that baseball is nothing but an elaborate national fairy tale, and that there is nothing wrong with that. Early on, Scully catches Mulder “reading the box scores.” He explains, “It’s like the Pythagorean Theorem for jocks. It distills all the chaos and action of any game in the history of all baseball games into one tiny, perfect, rectangular sequence of numbers. I can look at this box and I can recreate exactly what happened on some sunny summer day back in 1947. It’s like the numbers talk to me, they comfort me.”

A prckley piece of history...

A prckley piece of history…

In many ways, The Unnatural feels like a weird folk tale. It seems like the kind of urban legend that might percolate in tiny communities, the kind of tale that gets told in quiet little small-town bars about that fantastic local ball player who was more than he appeared. The teaser presents Josh Exley as an incredibly talented ball-player who made a conscious effort to avoid local attention. When a fellow player suggests that he could be a famous man, Exley responds, “I don’t want to be no famous man. Just want to be a man.”

Of course, Exley is not exactly a man. He is an alien. He is an extraterrestrial visitor from outer space, one of the iconic grey aliens that have been flirting around the mythology of The X-Files since the teaser of Duane Barry. However, Exley is an alien that has taken the form of an African American so that he can play baseball without any fear of being discovered. The episode is layered with metaphors and symbolism, but the central storyline is a classic fairy tale. Exley is an alien who wants to be human.

"You know, racists always have such professional-looking printer services..."

“You know, racists always have such professional-looking printer services…”

This ultimately lead to the bittersweet ending of the fable. The Alien Bounty Hunter shows up and executes Exley for refusing to conform. When the Bounty Hunter insists that Exley show his “true face”, Exley retains his African American visage. At the end, Arthur Dales is left cradling the baseball player. Exley urges Dales to abandon him. “Get off me. Our blood is like acid to you people. Arthur, get away. Don’t touch it.” He is referring to the toxic green blood that has been part of the mythology since The Erlenmeyer Flask and had been set up earlier in the episode.

However, Dales discovers no green blood coming from Exley’s wound. When he holds his fingers up, they glisten red. “It’s just blood, Ex,” he urges. “Look. It’s just blood.” The tragic ending of The Unnatural becomes almost uplifting. It is the story of an alien who wished so hard to become human that he somehow magically transformed. Josh Exley’s humanity was so overwhelming that his body went through some form of alchemic change. The Unnatural is very much The X-Files by way of Pinocchio. Disney’s Pinocchio.

The blue and the greys...

The blue and the greys…

The script is absolutely layered with metaphor and symbolism. The most obvious concerns Exley’s choice of skin colour. Karen Backstein notes in Flexing Those Anthropological Muscles:

Throughout the episode, the blacks are equated with aliens, these “Others” never allowed to fit in or to feel safe. A particular image encapsulates the sense that under such conditions one must maintain both a public and a hidden identity: Arthur Dales, after napping on the team bus, wakes and glances back at the sleeping Exley. To his shock, Ex’s reflection in the window shows not a man but an alien visage. Dales approaches slowly, peering closely at the glass, when Exley wakes. “What’s wrong? You’ve never seen a black man before?” he asks, in a tone that clearly implies Dales should back off.

This is not the first time that The X-Files has connected its aliens to vulnerable and “othered” groups. Anasazi likened the aliens to holocaust victims; Nisei and 731 compared them to humans deformed by experimentation.

Feeling a little burnt out...

Feeling a little burnt out…

The script for The Unnatural has a great deal of fun with its status as an allegorical fable. At one point, Mulder and Dales discuss the use of the word “alien” to describe people like Josh Exley. Dales proposes that every great player (if not every great person) is an alien in their own way. “See, none of the great ones fit in,” Dales explains. “Not in this world, not in any other world. They’re all aliens, Mulder until they step between the white chalk lines; until they step on the outfield grass.” Exley is an alien who is ultimately alien to his own people.

The same logic applies to Exley’s transformation. There is no Scully character in 1947 to demand a rational explanation for the transformation, so Dales proposes a metaphorical justification. “What is it to be a human, Fox?” he wonders. “Is it to have the chemistry of a man?” The question is rhetorical, as Dales provides an answer, “Of course not. To be a man is to have the heart of a man. Integrity, decency, sympathy: these are the things that make a man a man and Ex had them all had them all, more than you or I.”

"Why, yes. I have been sitting at this police station for five years waiting for this exact call. Why do you ask?"

“Why, yes. I have been sitting at this police station for five years waiting for this exact call. Why do you ask?”

Duchovny’s looser metaphorical approach to storytelling allows for a story that is driven as much by symbolism as internal logic. When Exley explains that his people do not believe in “fun”, the script offers a sly explanation. “See, there’s something you got to understand about my race,” Exley tells Dales. “We don’t have a word for laughter. We don’t laugh. I don’t know if you noticed in between all that fainting you was doing but we have very tiny mouths, so no smiling either.” It is a lovely little detail in a script packed with lovely details.

After all, what is the point in all these sci-fi trappings if they don’t serve as storytelling tools? What is the point of shape-shifting aliens if they can’t provoke meditations on human nature. “Agent Mulder, do you believe that love can make a man shape-shift?” Dales asks Mulder. “I’m not talking about women. I’m talking about love. Passion. Like the passion you have for proving extra-terrestrial life. Do you believe that that passion can change your very nature? Can make you shape-shift from a man into something other than a man?”

Game for anything...

Game for anything…

Perhaps reflecting his deep-rooted interest in storytelling and mythmaking, Duchovny is arguably more engaged with the themes and symbolism of The Unnatural than its character work. The episode hinges on Mulder’s sudden fixation on baseball, something to which the show has never seriously alluded outside of the opening scenes of Home. Even there, it seemed like Mulder’s affection for baseball was more of a nostalgia for a romantic small-town existence that simply never existed.

The plot of The Unnatural begins with Mulder dragging Scully into work on a Saturday, under the pretense of examining “New Mexico newspaper obituaries for the years 1940 to 1949” while “looking for anomalies.” It turns out that Mulder has developed a sudden insatiable interest in New Mexico baseball, and is simply reading the box scores. It seems a little bit weird that he would drag Scully into the basement simply so she could carry books for him to read the baseball scores.

Well, at least the cone probably tastes nice...

Well, at least the cone probably tastes nice…

Discussing his scripting of The Unnatural, Duchovny admitted that his approach to storytelling was not character-driven. Mulder and Scully were really just tools to enable the story that he wanted to tell:

“That stuff is not so important to me. I don’t think of Mulder as a character. I think of him as an opportunity to tell a story. I don’t really believe in character — I believe in situations. I believe people’s character comes out of their responses to situations, but I don’t believe that that character exists before the situation exists. As a writer, I think all that stuff about character is bullshit. Screenwriting is storytelling; you put a figure in a story and have him react the way you want to tell your story. When people get outraged and say, ‘Oh, Mulder would never do that!” Well, yeah, he would, it’s written right here. I’ve got it in writing. Look: Mulder wears a dress. Says right here that he would do that. But people don’t get that. Read Mamet on character; he’s very smart on that.”

To be fair, The Unnatural does close on a lovely character scene between Mulder and Scully. However, Duchovny’s approach to characterisation does perhaps explain why he was such a major force in defining the mythology.

"You know, as a law enforcement official, I probably should have been more alert."

“You know, as a law enforcement official, I probably should have been more alert.”

Duchovny might also have proved so in tune with the mythology because he seems to share a lot of storytelling sensibilities with Chris Carter. Carter is a writer who loves weaving big themes and symbolism through his work; the central mythology of The X-Files is effective an extended metaphor for the history of the United States during the Cold War and the legacy of that history. Carter’s script for Milagro opened with a writer literally ripping his own beating heart out of his chest.

Duchovny’s preference for allegory and theme fits quite comfortably with Carter’s aesthetic. It makes sense that the two would collaborate on the teleplay The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, and that their collaboration would produce “The Last Temptation of the Mulder.” However, Duchovny is also a bit looser and more relaxed than Carter. Duchovny seems a bit more willing to play around and joke with the show than Carter does, with The Unnatural shrewdly playing into the themes of the show’s mythology even as it argues for its own irreverence.

Batter up...

Batter up…

The framing sequences with Mulder and Dales spend a lot of time pointing out that The Unnatural is not a mythology episode in the same way that Two Fathers and One Son was a mythology episode. It is a much smaller piece. Mulder is brought into the story by a guest appearance from the Alien Bounty Hunter, latching on to the idea that this might be tied into the show’s over-arching conspiracy. “I don’t really care about the baseball, so much, sir,” Mulder states. “What I care about is this man in the picture with you. I believe to be an Alien Bounty Hunter.”

Dales openly mocks Mulder’s fixation on the continuity of The X-Files. He responds, “Of course you don’t care about the baseball, Mr. Mulder. You only bothered my brother about the important things like government conspiracies and alien bounty hunters and the truth with a capital ‘T’.” Dales points out how weird and all-consuming the pursuit of a vast conspiracy against mankind must become; how little room it must leave in life for the things that are actually fun and enjoyable.

"Nobody makes me bleed... my own blood, I guess?"

“Nobody makes me bleed… my own blood, I guess?”

Again, there is a sense that Duchovny’s characterisation might be just a little bit too loose here. Dales’ conversations with Mulder hinge on the fact that Mulder does not pay proper attention to the importance of baseball. “What you fail to understand in your joyless myopia is that baseball is the key to life,” Dales advises. “The Rosetta Stone, if you will.” However, baseball does mean enough to Mulder that he is willing to pour through the FBI archives on a Saturday afternoon with Scully. It seems like Dales’ threshold of proper baseball commitment is pretty damn high.

Still, the conversations between Mulder and Dales are charming. They mirror the discussions taking place in on-line fandom at the same time. Dales offers a defense of baseball’s irrelevance that also works as a defense of the much-maligned “X-Files Lite.” Mulder is cast in the role of the traditional fan too caught up in continuity to enjoy light-hearted fare like Triangle or The Rain King. “Okay, so was Ex a man who was metaphorically an alien or an alien who was metaphorically a man or a something in between that was literally an alien-human hybrid?”

"Fits right in your lap..."

“Fits right in your lap…”

Dales mocks Mulder’s criticisms of his storytelling. “You’re just dying to connect the dots aren’t you, son?” he asks. “Look, I give you some wood and I ask you for a cabinet. You build me a cathedral. I don’t want a cathedral. I like where I live. I just want a place to put my TV. Understand my drift?” Not every story needs to have the outward appearance of importance. “Trust the tale, Agent MacGyver not the teller. That which fascinates us is by definition true. Speaking metaphorically, of course.”

Duchovny’s script plays with the idea truth in the same way that those written by Darin Morgan or Vince Gilligan might explore the concept. Duchovny suggests that the search for truth at the heart of The X-Files has little to do with “the project” and more to do with broader existential concerns. Duchovny mocks the po-faced approach to searching for the truth, swapping out the iconic motto “the truth is out there” from the opening credits with a more cheeky and playful “in the big inning.”

Shining some light on the matter...

Shining some light on the matter…

At the same time, The Unnatural is undeniably rooted in the big themes of The X-Files and its central conspiracy. The Unnatural plays into the recurring fear of conformity that echoes through The X-Files as a whole. The series’ central conspiracy is fascinated with clones and duplicates and copies. In Herrenvolk, Jeremiah Smith explained that the objective of the conspiracy was “hegemony.” There is a creeping fear globalisation and “sameness” at the very heart of the show.

However, that fear of conformity has found particular resonance in the sixth season. In Terms of Endearment, Mulder and Scully faced a demon who was desperately hoping to life a “normal” life. In Arcadia, Mulder and Scully went undercover to infiltrate a planned community that had raised a tulpa to enforce conformity across the local residents. In The Unnatural, Josh Exley finds himself trying to escape the shackles of orthodoxy that seem to govern the culture of the alien colonists.

Don't be a prick about it...

Don’t be a prick about it…

After all, the alien colonists are the ultimate gobalising force. Through the black oil and cloning, they seek to build a world where everybody is ultimately the same and where there is no room for individuality or difference. “They don’t like for us to intermingle with your people,” Ex explains to Dales, glossing over the whole part where the colonists use mankind to birth an entirely new race of alien creatures. “Their philosophy is we stick to ourselves; you stick to yourselves. Everybody’s happy.”

This is entirely in keeping with the central ideas of the show’s mythology. The colonists have always been presented as racist fascists. The Erlenmeyer Flask introduced an alien foetus as “purity.” The conspirators have been repeatedly and thoroughly linked to the Nazis, with the show even trading in holocaust imagery. The Unnatural rather shrewdly ties the colonists into the history of racism and segregation in the United States, creating a continuity of racially-motivated hatred and violence.

Subject matter close to his heart...

Subject matter close to his heart…

The Unnatural features relatively little Mulder and Scully. Frank Spotnitz has suggested that Duchovny’s work behind the camera contributed to his complete absence in Three of a Kind and his relative absence from The Unnatural. Asked about the possibility of Duchovny directing a seventh season episode, Spotnitz explained, “When we did The Unnatural, we had to lose him for an episode as an actor, so I’d hate to do that again, especially if this turns out to be the last season.”

However, Duchovny was lucky enough to land two very impressive guest stars to carry the episode. Jesse L. Martin is superb as Josh Exley. Duchovny had managed to convince the actor to free up some time from his recurring stint on Ally McBeal. Martin is a wonderful actor in general, but he brings an easy-going charm and humanity to Exley that helps felsh out the character. It would be easy to reduce Exley to a stereotype or a stock character, but Martin makes him feel like a real person rather than a walking metaphor or a piece of talking symbolism.

"It was nice of the bounty hunter to pose. That was a good night had by all."

“It was nice of the bounty hunter to pose. That was a good night had by all.”

M. Emmet Walsh steps into the role of Arthur Dales – an Arthur Dales, at any rate. Duchovny had hoped to bring back Darren McGavin in the role that he originated in Travelers and Agua Mala, but McGavin suffered a stroke after three days of filming. Walsh was drafted into the episode at the last minute, with Duchovny improvising a script change that made this Arthur Dales out to be the twin brother of the established character. “Our parents weren’t exactly big in the imagination department when it came to names.”

To be fair, there really was no way around casting a replacement actor in a role called “Arthur Dales.” The fact that the flashback sequence had already been shot and that Frederic Lane had already been hired meant that there was no way to introduce a completely new character. The climax of the episode hinges on the narrator’s memory of Exley dying in his arms, so there was no way to have another character narrate a second-hand story and maintain the impact. Just pretending this was the same Arthur Dales would have been an insult to Darren McGavin.

"Names run in the family. Like comic alcoholism."

“Names run in the family. Like comic alcoholism.”

Walsh is a veteran character actor, and he does great work in what is a relatively thankless role. Duchovny had a lot of praise for Walsh stepping in at such short notice:

“It was intimidating because I was asking him to do so much so quickly,” Duchovny recalled. “He came in the day after he got the script, and he had tons of what I thought would be fun dialogue if you had a couple of weeks with it, but he only had a day. I felt bad for him to come in and make the stuff work, because it was written kind of floridly. It’s very hard to ask an actor to inhabit that way of speaking after a day, but Emmet was great. You somehow believe that he and Darrin McGavin could be brothers. They’re both kind of cantankerous. Emmet made a mistake in the dialogue that I kept in because it was so funny. ‘ I think My Best Friend’s Wedding was in theaters then. He had a line in the script, ‘I was chasing aliens while you were watching My Favorite Martian,’ and he said, ‘You were watching my Best Friend’s Martian.’ That cracked me up.”

Walsh manages to make his version of Arthur Dales subtly different than that played by Darren McGavin. Although it made sense to retire the characters with Darren McGavin, it is a shame that this is his only X-Files appearance.

A team player...

A team player…

The only real problem with The Unnatural is minor. The most distinctive and memorable image of the episode is the sight of Exley as a grey alien swinging his baseball bat in his room. The problem is that the script has already explicitly confirmed that Exley is an alien by this point. To be fair, it was a foregone conclusion from the moment that the Ku Klux Klan member was exposed in the teaser, but the effectiveness of the image is undercut by the fact that Mulder and Dales have already throughly discussed exactly what Exley is and the implications of that reveal.

It is a very minor problem, but it feels like Mulder and Dales talk about Exley’s alien nature just a little bit too early in the episode. Not only does the audience know for certain that Exley is an alien at a point where Dales is still uncertain, but the characters in the framing sequence have explicitly confirmed it. The nature of The X-Files means that the audience would always be one step ahead of Dales, but it seems like The Unnatural is just a little too pragmatic for its own good. Putting the discussion of Exley’s nature upfront undercuts his later encounter with Dales.

I think Duchovny has a hit here...

I think Duchovny has a hit here…

Then again, it does seem like Duchovny is aware of all this. In the framing device, Dales rather conspicuously identifies his baseball figurine as “Rosebud.” He urges Mulder, “This little fellow goes by the name of Pete Rosebud. If you keep pumping coffee money into him he’ll tell you a story about baseball and aliens and bounty hunters.” It is an obvious reference to the central mystery employed by the framing device of Citizen Kane, a film where the flashbacks are motivated by curiosity as to the identity of “Rosebud.”

Duchovny’s decision to reveal Exley’s nature straight away seems like a conscious choice to avoid writing a clumsy predictable twist into the story. The entire point of Dales’ story to Mulder is that this is not a mystery to be solved, but a fairy tale to be enjoyed. “Mr. Mulder,” Dales urges at one point, “maybe you’d better start paying a little less attention to the heart of the mystery and a little more attention to the mystery of the heart.” It is corny and cheesy, but The Unnatural is charming enough that it works.

"I feel safer already."

“I feel safer already.”

The fact that The Unnatural commits so completely to its romantic and nostalgic (and cheesy) atmosphere helps to cover up any number of minor plotting problems. What is the Alien Bounty Hunter doing in that photo that Mulder found? It certainly doesn’t fit with any incident in the story, does it? Was the Alien Bounty Hunter just waiting at that police station for a call about Josh Exley for goodness knows how many years? The internal logic in The Unnatural is fuzzy, but it really doesn’t matter. This is a fairy tale, after all. Fuzzy is part of the charm.

The Unnatural is a minor classic. It is one of the strongest episodes of the sixth season, and a triumph of the more experimental and adventurous atmosphere of the production. It demonstrates that Duchovny is more than just a leading man, offering the actor a change to spread his wings and develop his skills. It is an episode that feels new and fresh, vital and romantic. It is a fantastic piece of work.

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

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9 Responses

  1. Great post! I didn’t even notice time passing as I read it. This is definitely one of the best episode of the series, a poignant one at that.

    • Thanks Sahar. It’s a rather underrated episode, all said. And very much something Duchovny cares a great deal about.

      • Agreed. Do we know yet if Duchovny is having anything to do with production and/or writing the new six episodes?

      • We know he’s not writing or directing. Not sure about producing, and don’t think he has any story credits.

      • Someone **points to self** has not been keeping up with X-Files rumors 😛 Thanks for the heads up! How do you feel about the revival?

      • Interested. Cautious, but intrigued.

        I think that the revival has the luxury of recruiting the three best writers who worked on the series to tell stories that are entirely their own, and that the limited run of episodes is a very smart way to bring back a show that obviously has a much smaller production team and writers’ room. I’m sad that the writing team has been resurrected without bringing back at least one of the show’s classic directors, and it’s a shame there isn’t a Vince Gilligan or David Duchovny episode, but Carter producing and Morgan/Morgan/Wong writing and directing is so close to a dream team that it seems petty to complain about it.

        As much as the show’s themes of surveillance culture are as relevant now as they ever were, I’m interested to see how it translates other aspects. For example, it was very serialised as nineties television shows go; it is rather unserialised as modern shows go. Which storytelling approach will it adopt? How will Carter’s themes about faith and belief map in a post-9/11 world? Given how the original show drowned in its own continuity, how will it deal with its history? How will it deal with the legacy of those final two seasons that most casual viewers (and a lot of fans) have probably forgotten at best and cruelly dismissed at worst? Will it wallow in nostalgia or find something new to say?

        If I were to rank revivals in order of potential greatness, The X-Files would rank just behind Twin Peaks. If I were to rank them in terms of my own personal interest, The X-Files is way out front.

        (Plus there are some other reasons for me to be excited, which I can hopefully share at some point before the revival begins.)

      • Have you been keeping up with rumors, spoilers, and trailers?

      • No too much.

        Been watching (and loving) trailers. Avoiding spoilers as much as I can, but I see a lot of “[character/actor] is back!” headlines wherever I go.

      • It’s tough to respect the rights of people who don’t want spoilers at the moment… Hopefully we will figure out how to create a web that caters both to those who want to know and those who don’t!

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