Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Case 03, File 12: War of the Coprophages

AKA: Kafkaesque on the Shore

Darin Morgan is one of those X-Files writers who is really really excellent in a way that's very hard to quantify if you're not an X-Files fan. I've heard him compared to Larry Charles for Seinfeld, but Charles is important because he wrote a huge number of episodes, Darin Morgan only wrote 5 (and one of them was in the new season). But he made an indelible mark on the show in those 5 episodes, to the point where the show was still imitating him seasons after he stopped writing for them, and even the least of his episodes is a stone cold classic.

Our story this time around kicks off with a guy in Massachusetts calling an exterminator to help him deal with some roaches, which goes about as badly as it possibly can when the exterminator collapses, covered in roaches, and dies. Mulder, who had been hanging out outside of town watching for UFOs, catches wind of this from a local cop, and after some phone discussion with Scully, goes to check it out and decides he wants to hang around and figure it out, despite Scully suggesting it was just an allergic reaction to the cockroaches.

Meanwhile, a group of teenagers are getting high when one of them starts seeing roaches burrowing into his skin and elects to get them out via straight razor, which goes about as you'd expect. Scully attributes this death to delusional parasitosis (hallucinatory bugs in skin) but Mulder finds a cockroach shell made of metal that shatters when he grabs it. Back at the police station, the medical examiner dies on the toilet, also covered in roaches, but Scully once again attributes this to normal phenomena (an aneurysm) and Mulder decides to check out a house nearby that's being run by the department of agriculture.

There, after breaking in, he finds the house intentionally infested with roaches by a woman named Dr. Berenbaum, or to go by her first name, Bambi. She gives Mulder some insect information and tells him she thinks UFOs are insect swarms (it make sense). Mulder retires to his hotel and, mid-Scully conversation, finds that another guy who died covered in roaches, although this time Mulder thinks the guy just saw some roaches and scared himself to death. Scully however is tired of being a voice on the phone and decides to join the action.

I love Queequeg. That is all.
Mulder manages to find a roach corpse in the hotel room and, after a consultation with Dr. Bambi (who thinks it's a robot, natch) Mulder goes to meet a robotics expert named Dr. Ivanov who specializes in insects (who lives in the same 1,000 person town, natch) and they shoot the breeze about sci-fi, how aliens wil and the fact that the robot cockroach is beyond anything he can make.

Home stretch: While all this is happening, Scully shows up in town to find everyone going nuts and gets immediately totally fed up. She also discovers that the guy who originally called the exterminator (remember him) is working on alternative fuels. He's also been showing up in the background and has been going gradually crazier. So when Mulder confronts him at the fuel plant, he fires a gun at him, blowing the place up, and the episode ends with the roaches gone and Ivanov and Bambi walking off into the sunset together, bonding over insects and sci-fi, while Mulder voice overs.

War of the Coprophages is easily the least of Darin Morgan's original episodes, but that doesn't mean it isn't a fantastic episode. It may lack the deeper themes of Bruckman or Jose Chung, but it's not really trying to have them. If those two episodes are like a perfectly put together season of BoJack Horseman, funny but also dark and emotionally engaging and draining, Coprophages is more like a really excellent episode of Pysch; Simple, but mostly just an excuse to hang out with characters we've grown to like and have a good time.

No offense Bambi, but I'm fairly certain this is how most giant insect monster movies start.
Part of me wants to complain that the episode has a plot problem, a sort of 30-goto-10 loop of "Mulder finds a dead body, discusses it with Scully, discuss with someone in town, repeat till time limit. And yeah, that's an issue in theory, but the episode manages to coast along on that wavelength, a fun if a bit a slow tone. And since the episode spends most of its time dismissing the idea that the cockroaches are dangerous, the episode never really needs to ramp up the tension. I normally like episodes that escalate, but this one works because it doesn't.

Or, it kind of doesn't, which leads me to my one and only complaint about the episode, which is the scientist who goes crazy at the end. He's established, I guess, but he only has about 3 minutes of screentime total, so when he shows up at the very end it feels abrupt, and his presence is mostly to increase the intensity of an episode that doesn't need an increase. I get that they needed a climax, but they either needed a different one, or they needed to establish the guy better.

But that's not really enough to be a major problem, since the episode is so fucking funny. There's a reason why Monster of the Week just replayed the best lines of this episode, since every line of this episode kills. Having most of Mulder and Scully's dialogue consist of them bouncing ideas back and forth and shooting the breeze seems like it wouldn't work, but the script makes it work like gangbusters and them on the phone is a unique use of their innate chemistry, one that the season 5 episode Chinga would borrow, to lesser effect since Darin Morgan's grasp on how to make The X-Files run is unparalleled.

"Okay. This day has been weird enough. This might as well happen."
It's Morgan's grip on the show that makes the episode run, since he manages to not only write what is probably the funniest script in the series' history, but also manages to include some thoughts on sci-fi, aliens, the way panic spreads and naturally, the history and nature of cockroaches. It's not super subtle about including these themes, mostly just having the characters muse out loud about them, but it works, fitting in with the easygoing tone of the episode.

If I'm having trouble reviewing this episode, it's because it's hard to come up with relevant stuff to say about it. It's funny, really funny, but that's about the size of it. It's got a few really standout lines, at least one genuinely frightening scene (the bit with the cockroaches burrowing into the kid's skin) but that's about all I can say about it. I likened this episode to a really good episode of Psych above, but as much as I love Psych, I'd never do a blog reviewing it, because I'd just run out things to say.

Case Notes:

  • The exterminator in the opening waxing lyrical about the history and nature of the cockroach is both amusing and unnerving in equal measure
  • On that note, it's very similar to an early scene in Men in Black. Wonder if the writer is an X-Files fan?
  • The shot of the exterminator crawling across the floor with the cockroaches scared the piss out of me as a kid, and it still kinda freaks me out to this day.
  • Mulder and Scully's phone conversations are some of the best parts of this episode, and I love how Scully is just doing random things in the background (cleaning her gun, washing her dog). It feels natural, and it plays off their chemistry well.
  • The interaction with the cop is kinda overly confrontational (Mulder is talking to someone on the phone so he must be talking with his drug dealer?) but it's funny all the same.
  • I can't quote lines from this episode in the case notes, because I will never stop.
  • The scene with the kids doing drugs is some fairly generic "Stoned" dialogue, but the image of the roaches burrowing into the kid's skin is the freakiest thing in the episode.
  • Mulder's first instinct once he finds out the Department of Agriculture is doing experiments at a nearby house is to break in. Oh Mulder.
  • That is two times a character waxes lyrical about the nature of cockroaches, which would normally be a strike against the episode.
  • I really just cannot get enough of Mulder and Scully's banter in this episode. Darin Morgan really does get what makes their relationship engaging and watchable.
  • Dr. Bambi is such a believable insect nerd. "Hung like a club tail dragonfly," is a stone cold classic of a line.
  • The bit with the insect robot walking across the hall is such a great way to open a new scene.
  • Dr. Ivanov's scenes is pretty expository, but it's still fun and I love how hurt Mulder looks when he Ivanov makes the crack about being "Brainwashed by too much science fiction."
  • The roach crawling across the screen is a gimmick, but it's a good one.
  • I remain very amused by the scene in the gas station, it's a good way of showing how the panic is spreading, even if the bit with everyone freaking out at the candy is just looking for a button to end the scene on.
  • Scully is kind of catty this episode. The shipper in me likes seeing her jealous, frankly.
  • I want to say that Bambi and Dr. Ivanov walking off together is cheap, but it works really well.
Future Celebrity Watch:

This is pushing the definition pretty hard, but Tyler Labine, who plays one of the stoners (no idea which one) is currently on Voltron: Legendary Defender as Hunk. I don't watch it, but I have some friends who follow it religiously.

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