Saturday, March 12, 2016

Case 01, File 16: Young At Heart

AKA: The Curious Case of Benjamin Salamanderhand

The X-Files' desire to maintain its connection to the larger conspiracy arc occasionally leads them to try and put elements of it into their Monster of the Week episodes. That's neither a good thing nor a bad thing, it's just a thing, though it does occasionally lead to some odd results. The most notable of these odd results isn't going to come up until mid Season 2, but this one has some oddities of its own.
The plot of Young At Heart kicks off fairly sober, at least by X-Files standards. Years ago Mulder put away a robber named John Barnett who delighted in murdering his robbery victims. He was only caught after killing an agent because Mulder failed to shoot him, because it was "Against regulation," which is really funny to me for a variety of reasons.

Anyway, after a brief cold open depicting Barnett in prison being experimented on, notes start being left at the sites of robberies, apparently written by Barnett despite the fact that he supposedly died 2 years ago. After a brief runaround, involving Mulder's old partner (because we're still in the "Old partner" phase) Mulder and Scully wind up finding out from a prisoner that Barnett was still alive on the night he died.

So Mulder and Scully go digging further and find out that the doctor who treated Barnett got disbarred years ago for inhumane experiments on progeria patients (progeria makes you age fast, look it up if you'd like to know more, I'm on a schedule). Meanwhile Barnett kills Mulder's old partner (because, with the exception of whatshisface from Squeeze, none of the old partners live through their episode) and stalks Scully, but backs off when the Doctor who experimented on him shows up.

Oh come on, we're THIS close to an Orange is the New Black crossover.

Said Doctor spills all the beans: He's found a way to reverse the aging process, but it's killed everyone he's used it on except Barnett, and Barnett has stolen his research, hence why the authorities have been hesitant to deal with him. But Mulder was born with zero fucks to give, so he and Scully lure Barnett into a trap, Mulder shoots him despite the presence of a hostage and the episode ends with Mulder musing aloud about how the research will eventually be found. And apparently reaffirming his devotion to giving the middle finger to regulations.

Young at Heart is the third in a series of painfully average X-Files episodes that make me wish my integrity was a little lower and I could just skip them, or at least lower my review effort level. It's not that these episodes are bad or even particularly uninteresting to watch, but there's just not a lot to review or analyze in them. Still, the next episode is good, and I got more material than I was expecting out of Lazarus and Gender Bender, so away we go.

The hook for this episode I suppose is that both the supporting hero and the villain knew Mulder from his pre-X-Files days. That's not a bad hook in theory (it's somewhat similar to Beyond the Sea, but without the focus shifting to Scully at the midpoint, and even more similar to Season 4's Paper Hearts) but it's undercut by the fact that...well there's nothing TO Barnett.

I'm just surprised a ruthless criminal would bother with penmanship lessons.

This episode has never stuck out enough that I really remember details of it, so on this watch I tried to get some identifying characteristics to Barnett. A character trait, a unique piece of background, hell I'd take some ability he has. But there wasn't anything to latch onto. He's a one dimensional "Psycho villain" lacking only a mustache to twirl. All there is to Barnett is an intense desire to punish Mulder and a weird salamander hand.

Which makes it even weirder that the episode spends so much time on him and his quest to hurt Mulder. He actually doesn't get a whole ton of screen time, but the focus of the episode is unquestionably on his conflict with Mulder and like his character as a whole, there's just nothing to it. He doesn't have much of a plan or long term goal other than "Kill Mulder's friends and send him nasty notes about it," and there doesn't even seem to be much reason for him to be gunning for Mulder specifically. Yeah, they make a big deal out of Mulder's speech in court helping put him away, but he shot 2 guys in front of a bunch of FBI Agents and a security camera, odds were he was going away till half past the rapture anyhow.

And that's a shame, because Barnett's quest to be mean to Mulder is hogging up all the screen time, leaving the reverse aging thing without any room to breathe. It's already pretty weak as far as X-Files stuff goes (more psuedo-science than paranormal) and all of it that's there gets jammed into two scenes that basically act as exposition dumps. I wish we'd gotten more screentime from Dr. Evil, since he's actually a conceptually interesting character, but he only gets 1 scene. Hell, the most visually interesting element of the episode, Barnett's salamander hand, feels forced in to make the episode more interesting.

I was going to add a screengrab from later in the episode, but I wound up pausing on this shot and I HAD to use it.

But I did say the episode is average, instead of outright bad, so what's good about it? Well Duchovny is pretty committed to his performance in this episode, which gives the admittedly weak revenge plot a bit of a boost. It's also got some occasionally well directed sequences, such as the opera house sequence, even if the editing does render it kind of moot. I guess I like the two Barnett's performances as well? They're not Brad Dourif by any means, but they'll do in a pinch. I guess it's a problem with the downsides are huge structual issues and the upsides are minor enjoyable bits scattered throughout the episode.

Honestly, I haven't got too much more to say about this episode. The next few episodes are when things start to get interesting again, but this episode might be one of the weaker of the season. It's shakily paced, and not particularly well written, and it doesn't even have an interesting monster. Hopefully the Lone Gunmen can make the next episode a little more fun.
Case Notes:
  • I feel like if you're gonna do weird illegal experiments on prisoners, you should probably lock the door so that anyone doesn't just wander in. Also, maybe keep your subject from screaming? Just a thought.
  • Scully is totally weirded out by the fact that they have to do some actual police work.
  • Henderson the Handwriting Expert is fun. I feel like she never shows up again, which is disappointing.
  • Hey, Mulder's tragic backstory with Barnett involves him following regulation too closely and people die as a result. I guess that explains why Mulder never followed regulation again.
  • This isn't relevant to anything, but I love Scully's outfit in this episode.
  • You can tell it was a different time since no one thinks it's weird that not one but two random grown ass men are watching an elementary school football team practicing.
  • I feel like Barnett's lawyer should be objecting in the courtroom flashback more. A lot of these are pretty leading questions. He finally objects when Mulder starts yelling about Barnett deserves to die, but he could have been earlier.
  • Old Barnett isn't in this episode much, but he's pretty effective when he is. Bit of a shame.
  • "He was hip to the trace" might be one of the best things Mulder has ever said.
  • Mulder's description of Reggie sounds a lot more interesting than the character we got on screen. Ah well.
  • Progeria is so rare, I find it kind of incredible that they had enough people for Dr. Ridley to be doing his research in secret.
  • I don't know much about medicine or genetics, but saying that someone has become "Genetically susceptible" to a disease feels off. I could be wrong, if so, I'd love to hear from a reader who knows better.
  • I wrote the last note midway through the conversation about what's been done to Barnett, and the rest of the conversation makes me feel silly for questioning the science of any of it, given how absurd the rest of the science is.
  • Also, Scully is just rolling with the explanation. Usually when the monster shows up, she tries to deny it, but here's she just like "Fuck it, reverse aging and salamander hand it is."
  • I only realized this after the fact, but  they totally gloss over how Barnett escaped and got a hold of Ridley's research.
  • Mulder gets angry with Deep Throat because the government is bargaining with Barnett who is, "A murderer." And while that's true...Jesus dude, do you know the government has made deals with?
  • Also, I had totally forgotten that Deep Throat is in this episode.
  • They're passing out a ton of different pictures for what Barnett could look like, but they fail to mention "Also, he's got a really creepy looking salamander hand." I mean, he's wearing gloves, but you might want to mention it.
  • Barnett taunts Mulder with the fact that shooting him wouldn't be by the book, apparently unaware that Mulder threw the book out years ago.
  • The final shot, in the train station of the locker where Barnett stashed the research, feels like it's from a completely different episode, for reasons I can't really nail down.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Nothing this week, and I'll be honest: I'm reaching with our next one.
Future Celebrity Watch:

Agent Henderson is played by Christine Estabrook, who was the real estate agent in the first season of American Horror Story. She's also been on a bunch of shows, most of which I haven't seen (most notably Mad Men, which I will get to). And she was on Desperate Housewives, because I'm pretty sure every the entire cast of Desperate Housewives is eventually going to show up on The X-Files.

Audio Observations:

I actually have one this week: The music they use when Barnett is sneaking up on Scully is either a recurring piece of music, or so similar to another piece they use occasionally (notably in Die Hand Die Verletzt) that it feels like it's a recurring piece. It's the creepy music with the chanting in the background. It's a solid piece, so I can see why they keep using it.

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