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The X-Files – Medusa (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

Medusa is an odd episode of the eighth season, precisely because of its normality.

Medusa was produced directly before This is Not Happening, the episode that marked the return of David Duchovny to the show as a regular; he would remain a regular for the rest of the season. When it came to the broadcast order of the season, the episodes were shuffled around slightly. Medusa aired directly before Per Manum, an episode which featured an appearance by David Duchovny in flashback. Whether the season is watched in broadcast or production order, David Duchovny’s name appears in the opening credits from the next episode until the end of the season.

"I want to take his face... off."

“I want to take his face… off.”

Medusa marks the end of the short-lived “Scully and Doggett era” of The X-Files. This is the last point in the eighth season (and also the last point ever) that Doggett and Scully have a show to themselves. The ninth season introduces the characters of Monica Reyes and Walter Skinner to the opening credits. Of course, it is interesting to wonder whether there ever really was a “Scully and Doggett era.” Certainly, the eighth season took its time to let Scully and Doggett get comfortable with one another between Within and Via Negativa.

This puts Medusa in the very strange position of having to close out an “era” of the show that essentially spanned four episodes: Surekill, Salvage, Badlaa and Medusa. This is the eighth season’s last example of “business as usual”, which seems all the more unusual that business has only recent approached something resembling normality.

He's practically just skin and bones...

He’s practically just skin and bones…

Medusa is written by Frank Spotnitz, still splitting his attention and time between The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen. In fact, Spotnitz has somewhat disowned Medusa as his least favourite of his own episodes:

I don’t know what my single worst episode would have been. I guess the least favorite of the ones I wrote was Medusa, the subway episode in Boston. I think the concept just wasn’t clear or compelling enough to sustain the hour.

Spotnitz is perhaps a little too harsh on himself here. Medusa is not a classic or a standout episode, but its relatively simplicity works to its advantage. There is a clarity of purpose to the story.

Going deeper underground...

Going deeper underground…

In The Gift, Spotnitz very cleverly attempted to lend some continuity between the eighth season and the seven earlier seasons by drawing on a bunch of recognisable X-Files tropes. The Gift unfolded in a small town with a dark secret that was couched in imagery associated with slavery and the appropriation of Native American culture. The Gift shrewdly used this framework to tell a parallel narrative about Mulder and Doggett investigating the same case separated by months.

Medusa is not as ambitious, but it adopts a similar approach. The story structure is classic X-Files, with our two agents investigating a strange (and hostile) phenomenon in a relatively remote location. The show was particularly fond of this template in its early seasons, providing the basis for episodes like Ice, Darkness Falls, Firewalker and Død Kälm. However, the show never quite tired of the formula. As late as the fifth and sixth seasons, Mulder and Scully would find themselves trapped in isolated locations with monsters for stories like Detour or Agua Mala.

Trained for this...

Trained for this…

In this case, the remote location is the Boston subway system. A mysterious death draws Scully and Doggett into an expedition to the oldest subway system in the United States. It is amazing to think that it took the show eight seasons to come up with the idea of setting an episode in a subway; they are delightfully evocative locations, large man-made tunnels the run beneath urban centres. Subway tunnels are in many respects the circulation system of the modern urban environment, but are also largely alien to the people who use them every day.

There is something quite powerful about the subway as an idea. The subway suggests the hidden forces pulsing beneath the surface of the city, the logistical realities that are invisible at street-level while remaining essential. With trains moving like clockwork, at least in theory, they provide a steady rhythm to life in the urban environment. Free from concerns like traffic jams and gridlock, the subway perhaps offers the heartbeat of the modern cityscape; it shuttles people around like blood transports oxygen and nutrients.

"Deadly. I finally get a proper torch."

“Deadly. I finally get a proper torch.”

Unsurprisingly, the subway has become a focal point for urban mythology and folklore. The twenty-first century has seen an explosion of “urban explorers” who chart these mysterious frontiers that lie beneath the roads and skyscrapers. These sorts of strange urban environments lend themselves to The X-Files, a show which is fascinated with exploring what lies beneath in a figurative sense. So much of The X-Files is about digging beneath the facade of history to unearth the betrayals and truth therein; these subway tunnels serve as an effective metaphor.

The X-Files suggests a hidden truth buried beneath familiar narratives, an alternate history of the United States in the wake of the Second World War. Those who explore these subways and tunnels do something similar; they unearth aspects of the urban environment that are often hidden and overlooked. In some cases, such explorers discover their own secrets. After all, the New York subways system rather famously included a line that was reserved exclusively for the use of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It all comes off the rails...

It all comes off the rails…

This is exploration as excavation. In journeying beneath the surface, such explorers journey back in time. Tracks branch like history itself, with abandoned stations pregnant with possibilities. In Brooklyniana, Walt Whitman reflected on the closed Atlantic Avenue Tunnel:

The old tunnel, that used to lie there under ground, a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten, with all its reminiscences; of which, however, there will, for a few years yet be many dear ones, to not a few Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and promiscuous crowds besides. For it was here you started to go down the island, in summer. For years, it was confidently counted on that this spot, and the railroad of which it was the terminus, were going to prove the permanent seat of the business and wealth that belong to such enterprises. But its glory, after enduring in great splendor for a season, has now vanished—at least its old Long Island Railroad glory has.

There is something appealing about this exploration of forgotten and lost spaces, of mysterious tunnels and faded alternatives. Medusa has a very rich and evocative setting, as Doggett finds himself leading a team into the complex series of tunnels running directly beneath the city of Boston.

A healthy green glow...

A healthy green glow…

The subway setting is perhaps the most effective part of Medusa, even if the episode never properly capitalises on the possibilities of such a story. On a purely aesthetic level, the subway setting allows for lots of atmospheric shots of Doggett waving a gigantic flashlight around a dark space with no idea about what is waiting for him. The tunnel sequences are suitably tense, particularly when the team wanders into a disused section of the track full of scaffolding and plastic sheets. There is a sense that the team is wandering into an urban catacomb.

There is something slightly frustrating about Medusa, a sense that the script never quite exploits its more interesting elements as well as it might. This is perhaps most obvious in the episode’s casting. Medusa features one of the best ensemble “monster of the week” casts of the eighth season, but it gives veteran actors like Ken Jenkins, Penny Johnson and Judith Scott very little to work with. Stories like Medusa hinge on the group dynamics of the isolated team, but the group surrounding Doggett seem much less interesting than the groups in Ice or Firewalker.

"What has two thumbs and doesn't care how many people die as long as the trains run on time?"

“What has two thumbs and doesn’t care how many people die as long as the trains run on time?”

Still, there is something quite charming about how blunt and straightforward Medusa is. The episode is incredibly linear and populated by supporting characters with incredibly (bordering on comically) transparent motivations. Perhaps the best of these is Deputy Chief Karras, the obstructive bureaucrat played by Ken Jenkins with an endearingly blunt approximation of a Boston accent. Karras is a character with a single-minded fixation on getting the trains running on time; his character would need considerable work to achieve a second dimension.

Indeed, his introductory scene has Karras repeatedly provide a deadline for Scully and Doggett. “It’s you guys better kick it in the ass,” he advises the two agents. “The afternoon rush starts in five hours. Do what you’ve got to do but this line is going back in operation at 4pm.” Later in the same scene, he repeats himself, “The question is can you get me the killer or an explanation in less than five hours? Because hell or high water, the subway reopens at 4pm sharp.” Just in case the audience didn’t get that Scully and Doggett were working on a deadline.

How Karras managed to keep the trains running on time is the real X-file here.

How Karras managed to keep the trains running on time is the real X-file here.

Of course, more cynical viewers with actual experience of Boston’s public transportation system would find this portrayal hilarious. The Boston subway has been described as “reliably unreliable”, with residents petitioning for more consistent service as recently as 2015. Boston Magazine described the decade running from the mid-nineties into the twenty-first century as “a decade of calamities” for Boston public transport. The website BadTransit.com launched in February 2001 to document the unreliability of the service.

With all of that in mind, Karras’ obsession with punctuality and reliability seems absurd. Given that the Boston public transport had a reputation for delays and inconsistencies – a city where “you never know if you’ll wait two minutes or two hours for your ride to arrive” – it seems strange that “we found a guy with half of his skin eaten off” is not just cause for a few delays on the service. The choice of Boston as the setting for Medusa adds a delightful layer of irony to Karras’ single-minded pursuit of railway efficiency.

A fork in the track...

A fork in the track…

There is, perhaps, some symbolism attached to the character of Deputy Chief Karras. The title of Medusa is taken from Greek mythology, and the name “Karras” is Greek in origin. It turns out that “Karras” is the Greek name for “Carter”taken from “karro” for “cart”, with the occupational suffix “-as” applied. In essence, Medusa is the story of a man named “Carter” who is struggling to make sure that the trains are all running on time. Medusa has, perhaps, a hint of skepticism about the creative demands on the eighth season.

“These guys were just doing their job,” Scully reflects of Karras at the end of the episode. “Keeping the trains running.” That would seem to be a rather cynical reading of the eighth season of The X-Files, as the production team try to keep everything ticking over in the face of impossible demands. Managing the production of a weekly television involves demands that are as much logistical as they are creative; it is all about deadlines and schedules, time and resources. Carter himself compared television production to “stoking the fire in a runaway train every day.”

"She's dead... wrapped in plastic."

“She’s dead… wrapped in plastic.”

As with The Gift, Spotnitz incorporates some of the show’s large themes into the standalone story. The Gift incorporated explorations of the dark side of American history and Native American mysticism into a monster of the week show, themes that had been largely reserved for the mythology from the end of the second season onwards. In Medusa, Doggett and Scully find themselves at the heart of a cover-up and conspiracy that seems decidedly more banal and lower-key than any involving the Cigarette-Smoking Man.

Over the course of the episode, it turns out that Deputy Chief Karras knew that something was killing people on the subway, but covered it up for his own purposes. With the destruction of the conspirators in Two Fathers and One Son, the show moved away from epic stories of human corruption and collaboration. The eighth season mythology is more preoccupied with alien supersoldiers than human weakness. While Medusa doesn’t actually do anything with the revelation of Karras’ cover-up and conspiracy, it is a nice example of continuity to what came before.

"It burns! No, really!"

“It burns! No, really!”

Medusa benefits from a clarity and consistency. The storytelling and characterisation might be a little too blunt for Medusa to measure to Ice or Darkness Falls, but the story works much better than something like Badlaa. Characters like Deputy Chief Karras and Lieutenant Bianco might have very one-dimensional characterisation and motivation, but that means that the audience always knows what they want. Badlaa felt like it contorted around the fact that John Shiban had some nice images and ideas; Medusa actually works as a narrative.

There is something nice about having a very linear and logical story at this point in the season. The eighth season of The X-Files marks something of a transition for the show; it is a point at which most of what the production team and fans thought they knew about the show was turned upside down and things would never be the same again. The opening and closing stretches of the eighth season capitalise on this sense of transition to tell dynamic and exciting stories that feel fresh and unique. The biggest issue with the eighth season is the middle stretch of the year.

He's no green recruit.

He’s no green recruit.

The simple fact of the matter is that John Doggett and Dana Scully do not work as well together as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The eighth season works best when it acknowledges this fact, allowing the characters to play off Mulder’s absence and to define themselves in the new context of the show. However, the stretch of episodes in the middle of the season finds the production team trying to slot the two characters into a dynamic similar to the established dynamic between Mulder and Scully. It is like forcing a round peg into a square hole.

The early stretch of the eighth season works so well because it carefully stresses that Doggett cannot replace Mulder, and he would be foolish to try. It seems like the show forgets this in the middle stretch of the year, as it attempts to return to familiar X-Files formulas. Episodes like Surekill and Salvage only emphasise that Doggett is not Mulder. Those would be two middle-of-the-road cases in the sixth or seventh seasons, carried by the chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. In the eighth season, they are a reminder of Duchovny’s absence.

He's been terminated...

He’s been terminated…

As with The Gift, Frank Spotnitz uses a very familiar and recognisable X-Files template to tell a story that feels more particularly suited to this moment in the show’s history. Recognising that the best way to avoid comparisons between Mulder and Doggett is to separate Doggett from Scully, Spotnitz cleverly avoids hanging Medusa on the chemistry between the show’s two leads. Instead, the script counts on Robert Patrick and Gillian Anderson to carry their scenes separately without the spectre of David Duchovny hanging between them.

Given that this would be the last episode of the eighth season produced or broadcast without David Duchovny, this decision makes sense. This is the last opportunity for the production team to celebrate Robert Patrick (and the character of John Doggett) without having David Duchovny (and the character of Fox Mulder) crowding out the episode. Medusa works very well as a showcase for the Doggett and Scully partnership, with Scully demonstrating her resolve and Doggett demonstrating his integrity.

"I hear the train a-coming'..."

“I hear the train a-coming’…”

As with a lot of the eighth season, Medusa emphasises Doggett’s decency and modesty. The production team seem to believe that the character’s best chance of endearing himself to fans is to downplay his own virtues. When one of the team asks what Doggett is doing on their expedition, Doggett replies, “I’m just a good shot.” When Scully decides not to venture into the tunnel because of her pregnancy, Doggett stresses that he doesn’t have the experience to headline this. “I’m just tag along here. This is your thing. You’ve got all the experience.”

Despite his admittedly manipulative introduction to Scully in Within, the eighth season has never questioned Doggett’s credibility or integrity. In fact, Doggett seems to have a tendency to arrive at the last possible minute and save the day, serving as the closest thing that The X-Files has to a “big damn hero” in episodes like Roadrunners, Redrum and Improbable. Doggett might have his own issues tied into the death of his son, but the show stresses that Doggett is a well-intentioned straight-shooter with his heart in the right place.

Subway or the highway...

Subway or the highway…

Medusa showcases this low-key heroism. Even after Lieutenant Bianco tries to kill him, Doggett takes pity of the wounded man. “Please, Agent Doggett, don’t leave me,” Bianco pleads. Even though it might make sense to leave and return with a rescue part, Doggett instead decides to lug the (not exactly petit) officer back to the surface on his back. At the climax, Doggett throws himself into a high-stakes stunt to prevent the spread of the organism responsible for all the flesh-eating in the episode. “We got people on the train. They could get infected.”

Of course, this heroism would not be out of character for Mulder or Scully, even if Mulder would be a bit more sarcastic about it. However, Medusa is structured to position Doggett as the hero of the piece, to emphasise the risks and choices that he makes on his own terms while isolated from Scully. It feels like an appropriate sentiment, given that Doggett’s time as substitute lead on The X-Files is coming to a close. Doggett gets to give up the spotlight with the grace and dignity that make the character so compelling.

Green for go...

Green for go…

Even with all of that, the episode stresses that Doggett does not see himself as the centre of the show. He is not a usurper, despite what certain vocal sections of fandom might believe. “They’ve got you to thank,” Scully advises him in the episode’s closing scene. “And not just for saving their butts.” Doggett politely deflects the praise. “No,” he replies, downplaying his role in the whole affair. “You figured it out. I was just your eyes and ears.” This sort of modesty could easily seem cynical or disingenuous, but Robert Patrick does great work.

Medusa marks a point of transition for the show; it is the last episode before David Duchovny returns and The X-Files becomes perhaps the most serialised that it has ever been. Time is passing; perhaps too quickly, perhaps not quickly enough. One of the bigger issues with the eighth season concerns the somewhat elastic nature of time across the year. After all, Scully’s pregnancy would seem to impose a relatively tight nine-month timeframe upon everything that happens between Requiem and Existence.

A pregnant pause?

A pregnant pause?

Spotnitz himself has argued that the internal chronology of the eighth season makes a great deal of sense:

The timeline criticisms, in particular, take Spotnitz by surprise. “I saw that on the Internet. And I saw we got a jeer from TV Guide. That was completely and wholly unearned,” he maintains. To set the record straight, “in [the season finale] Requiem last May, Scully says she’s pregnant. And in [this season’s opener] Within/Without, it’s very clearly the very next day. There hasn’t been an ellipses of six months, in terms of the progress of Scully’s pregnancy.” For those keeping track of the math, three months will have elapsed between episodes 14 This Is Not Happening, and 15, titled DeadAlive.

Those are all fair points, but the chronology issues are not confined to the gap between Requiem and Within.

Shooting holes in that theory...

Shooting holes in that theory…

In The Gift, Doggett suggests that Mulder disappeared “last May.” However, Medusa takes place in “the middle of winter.” In fact, Deputy Chief Karras makes a crack about getting people home to watch Survivor II, which would suggest that the episode takes place at the end of January at the earliest. That means that Scully has been pregnant for at least seven months at this point. Assuming that there is no significant gap between Medusa and This is Not Happening, the final stretch of the eighth season takes place while Scully is at least ten months pregnant.

It is not a major problem by any stretch. After all, it is very hard to consistently measure time within a fictional universe that is probably flowing either faster or slower than the production or broadcast season around it. Certainly, the production team had enough to worry about that they could miss an off-hand reference from a one-shot guest character in a stand-alone episode. Still, it serves as proof that perhaps not all of the trains were arriving on time. Some of them would be arriving a month late.

It's all going swimmingly...

It’s all going swimmingly…

Medusa is not the strongest episode of the season, but it does feel like an appropriate episode upon which to end this weird subchapter of X-Files history.

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