Thursday, February 11, 2016

Case 01, File 14: Gender Bender

AKA: Livin' in a Kindred Paradise

Well THAT was a step down from last episode.

Ahem. Script and story are such an odd thing, especially in a TV show. A good one can't carry a movie through bad direction or terrible acting, but a bad one can sink an entire movie or episode. For the most part, unless they're exceptional, most audience members won't even notice the script. To quote Sunset Blvd. "Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along." I bring this up because this is a prime example of an episode that collapses due to a bad script.

So this episode gets off to a flying start when a couple head off from a club to bang, and one of them changes gender post-coitus, while the other has a brain hemorrhage and dies. Mulder and Scully are called in, like ya do, and Mulder says that it's the latest in a series of deaths, all of which had victims who had high levels of pheromones.

Okay from here the plot gets kind of wonky, so you're gonna have to bear with me a moment. Mulder says that the first of the deaths happened in a town well known for a religious group called The Kindred, who are basically the Amish. Mulder and Scully head off to investigate them because they don't have any other leads. Anyway, when they arrive in Amish town, they find them kind of creepy and not particularly forthcoming with information.

They also just leave 70 year old pictures of themselves lying around, so they suck at the whole "Incognito" thing.
So after one of the Kindred dudes collapses choking at the table, Mulder and Scully get kicked out of Amish town, but sneak back in, because the list of illegal shit Mulder pulls in the series is long and varied. Mulder discovers a weird underground cave system where the dead guy is buried in mud and changing, while Scully winds up talking to one of the Kindred guys, who initially tells her about a friend of his who left and is responsible for all of this, but then just winds up making out with her, because they all can do the pheromone thing.

Okay, home stretch. So Mulder breaks up Scully's pheromone induced date rape, and they get kicked out of Amish village again. Meanwhile the killer (who is named Martin, details man) seduces another guy but gets interrupted in the middle of it by a cop. Martin flees again, but the victim gets a look at him changing gender again, and tips our intrepid heroes off while in the hospital. They wind up at a hotel where one of the victim's credit cards has been used, and corner Martin, but the Kindred show up out of nowhere and disappear with Martin. And when Mulder and Scully arrive in Amish town to find him, all the Amish have gone, leaving only crop circles.

My memories of this episode were vague going in, but I was braced for a Space level snoozefest. From that standpoint, I was pleasantly surprised. Oh it's still not a very good episode, for reasons I'll go into later, but it's got its moments, which is more than I was expecting. So maybe that'll be the case for all of the episodes I remember being bad. I doubt it though.
"Hey girl, you turned on by my terrible 90s fashion?"
I talked about scripts at the beginning of the article so that's an obvious place to start, because it's the weak link in the entire episode. As you might be able to tell from my overlong summary, the episode's plot is a mess. I can't find a ton of information about the writing of the episode, but it feels like the script began life as several completely separate scripts that were mashed together, not particularly well either.

The best parts of the episode are the faux-Amish segments. They have the most consistently creepy sequences and the best general atmosphere. The scene where the Kindred confront Mulder and Scully in the woods is easily the best of the episode, and the scene at the dinner table could have been, with a little more thought, a classic X-Files scene. I don't know what an entirely Kindred focused episode would look like (maybe a more Amish Our Town?) but I'd like to see it.

The sex plot is so disconnected from the Kindred plot, and such a small part of the episode, that when it shows up, it feels abrupt. The sex subplot is loud, with bright lights playing and a lot of animal passion. The Kindred segments are quiet, with downplayed colors and a sense of quiet dread. In a full feature movie you might have enough room to make those two things contrast, but in a 42 minute episode, all they really do is undercut each other.

"And I been milkin' and plowin' so long that even Ezekiel thinks that my mind is gone!'
Some of the sex subplot might be forgiven if it had been going somewhere interesting with it, or if it had some interesting thoughts on its mind, but it just doesn't. Despite a brief mention of AIDS by Scully, and the fact that Martin literally changes his gender post-coital, issues of gender and sexuality never come up. The closest we come is the sequence where one of the Kindred (his name escapes me, but wikipedia informs me it's Andrew) talks about Martin discovering his power, which can come across as a metaphor for discovering one's sexuality if you squint, but it gets dropped and never comes up again.

But if the sex subplot feels abrupt, it's nothing compared to the alien bits. The underground bits with Mulder are so out of step with the rest of the episode that I genuinely don't know why they were included, even if the cave does have a pretty cool looking design (I think I sense a bit of Giger influence). Worst of all, the alien bits contribute to the incredibly lame non-ending, which doesn't explain anything, especially why the aliens don't look or act like the aliens we see later in the series (still nailing down that mythology huh?)

There's a lot of other problems with the script that I could go on about, mostly some shaky pacing and an incredibly ineffectual villain, but I'm not really interested in talking about it anymore. Gender Bender is an episode that is significantly less than the sum of its parts. Remove the aliens and/or the sex stuff and you might be able to structure an episode around the Kindred stuff. The rest just drags it down.

Oh and about the transgender stuff...I'm not even going to try discussing it. It was a very different time and what was acceptable then is probably not acceptable now. But I'm not really qualified to talk about it so I'm not going to try.

Case Notes:
  • This episode wastes no goddamn time. I mean, we're like half a second in and then the loud rave music kicks in.
  • The cop Scully is talking to is super flippant about the guy who died
  • Scully is pretty knowledgeable about horses talking to the dude outside the feed store. I dunno if they ever address that, or if it was just convenient to the script for her to know.
  • Mulder and Scully just do not have much luck in the woods do they?
  • The bit where Mulder crumples the map up and kicks it after they get lost cracks me up to this day.
  • I can't imagine this is anyone's favorite episode, but I'm 90 percent certain M. Night Shyamalan watched this episode religiously when writing The Village.
  • There are moments, like the scene in the woods or the kind of creepy dinner scene, that shows that this episode could have been pretty good with a more focused script. The direction is pretty solid throughout.
  • Mulder just straight up decides he's going to snoop around on private property. Never change Mulder, never change.
  • The caves look like a rejected H.R. Giger set. That's not a complaint, I love Giger and while the tunnels aren't exactly Alien level good, they look pretty solid.
  • You know, for all that the Kindred talk about their non-violent practices, the one Scully talks to basically date rapes her. That's uh...that's pretty awful.
  • Scully gets on board with the 'Changing sexes' thing pretty fast. I think the experience she had with the Kindred guy made her feel like something weird was going on. She reverses that stance in the next scene, so never mind I guess.
  • The sequence where Martin talks to one of his victims is such an obvious exposition dump, that it only becomes clear on later viewings that it doesn't actually explain shit.
  • I said this above, but I really cannot overstate what a huge letdown the end of this episode is.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Nothing interesting, although the actor who played Brother Andrew, Brent Hinkley, also had a small part in Ed Wood, which is one of my all time favorite movies.

Future Celebrity Watch:

One of the victims is played by Nicholas Lea, who some of you might know as playing a character named Alex Krycek in a little show you might remember called The X-Files. Amusingly, the actor who played the detective who calls Mulder and Scully in, Mitchell Kosterman, also reappeared a couple times in later episodes, although never anywhere near the Krycek level.
Audio Observations:

The music they're playing the opening club scene sounds so generic I'd swear I've heard it somewhere before. Perhaps it's a rights free, serial numbers filed off version of a song from that era.

This also marks the first appearance (or at least the first appearance I've noticed) of a recurring piece of suspenseful music The X-Files will use a lot.

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