Sunday, August 19, 2012

The X-Files 1-20: Darkness Falls

Straight horror has never been a major genre on American television, and attempts to make it so have resulted in everything from certain episodes of The Twilight Zone to American Horror Story, but never a major hit.  But horror has been far more successful when hiding beneath the veneer of science-fiction or other genre stories.  Early episodes of Star Trek revolve less around science-fictional concepts and more on strange foreign monsters that exploit our vulnerabilities and anxieties.  The same is true of the first season of The X-Files, which certainly has the show's distinct conspiracy theory flavour, but as often goes in for conventional horror plots.

"Darkness Falls" is one of these episodes.  It follows the classic template of isolating a group of broadly-drawn characters in an isolated environment, a literal cabin in the woods, and surrounding them with mysterious monsters that pick them off one by one.  The monsters are ancient insects represented by green bugs that look for all the world like blips in the video, probably because they more or less are.

This scene is another obvious horror movie staple, where one of the victims struggles to start their car.  The bugs have a bit more of a scientific rationale than your average movie monster, but they're not exactly unprecedented -- horror movies exploiting our fear of insects go back a long way.  The formula more or less works, and if the resultant episode of television is never really good, it at least holds the attention effectively.

What makes "Darkness Falls" distinct is the amount it commits to the woods as a setting.  The plot revolves around a conflict between forest rangers and a group of ecoterrorists[1], and in addition to this there's a lot of ecology and quasi-ecology relating to the setting.  Nature is not merely an isolated neutral setting -- it is the enemy itself.  At night the investigators and company huddle around artificial light, using technology as a refuge against the dangerous forces of nature around them.  The woods seem complicit in the violence perpetrated by the insects, mostly in their imposing length (preventing an escape even with all day to travel.  Later on we learn that they emerged from an ancient tree that was recently logged, with a green ring highlighting their former home.

Technology, on the other hand, isn't really trustworthy either.  Automobiles in particular are a source of vulnerability -- the forest rangers' car is easily sabotaged by rice and other natural substances in the gas tank, and even the much-vaunted Jeep can't take Mulder and Scully out of the woods fast enough.  And of course there's the above-mentioned "car won't start" stock scene, featuring the death of the stock character who doesn't believe in these irrational monsters.  Repeatedly we see the insects entering through the wholes in cars -- the vents and fans and cracks.  These reflect the chinks in the invincible armour of technology.  In the end, where the government promises to exterminate the insects with gas, there's a distinct sense that this technology too will fail.

This is basically a microcosm for the larger dialectic between science and nature in The X-Files.  On the surface, scientific rationality (usually embodied by Scully) is proved wrong all the time in its refusal to accept folk wisdom and urban legend.  This is seen in this episode both by the failure of technology and the first casualty's dismissive attitude towards the threat.  But at the same time science is often the only means of combating the threat of the unknown -- the only reason that Mulder and Scully learn enough to survive is because science gives them a way to know the threat.

"Darkness Falls" tries to strike a similar balance in the political side of the episode, in the struggle between the hippie ecoterrorist and the burly park rangers.  The X-Files naturally has an anti-authority bent, which would lend it to sympathize with the rebel disrupting the system, but on the other hand its heroes are law enforcers, and in most plots end up trying to banish the strange from the normal workings of society.

Because of this tension (if I wanted to be fancy I could call it another dialectic) this episode can never fully come down on either side.  A large part of the plot pivots around Mulder trusting the outsider, but this sympathy doesn't extend so far as to agreeing with his goals.  On the one hand, the "monkeywrenchers"' ideas are reinforced by the plot, as it's illegal clear-cutting that frees the killer bugs in the first place.  But their actions are also what stops everyone from being able to escape, which is reinforced -- in the usual TV irony -- by the end of the episode, when the "terrorist"'s Jeep is laid flat by one of his own caltrops and he's caught by the insects, hoisted by his own petard.  The episode suggests that the monkeywrenchers' concerns are valid, but their means of resistance is wrong.  That's a common refrain in mainstream television, but it's unsatisfying here, and a useful contrast could be drawn between the more agressive tactics the show condemns and Mulder and Scully's ineffectual attempts to work within a system they know is corrupt if not downright evil.

"Darkness Falls" seems to be very deliberately modeled on a classic from earlier in the season, "Ice".  Both episodes involve Mulder and Scully trapped in an isolated natural environment with a group of guest stars and an insidiously small monster.  It's obvious that at this point the series is trying to revisit its successes and move towards more of them -- the following episode, "Tooms", does this more directly.  But "Darkness Falls" doesn't quite live up to "Ice".  It replaces paranoia-driven conflict with ideological bickering, and by moving out of an alienating science-fictional setting (the arctic research station) it seems far more dated today.  Even without the tacked-on element of environmental politics, it would be a less effective episode: the green bugs are just less intriguing and less scary than the bacteria of "Ice".

Still, if it's a fairly middling X-Files episode, that just means it can tell us more about the series as a whole.  Throughout its first season, The X-Files was balanced precariously in the middle of sets of opposites -- between nature and science, authority and subversion, and (on a more formal level) between episodic and serial structures.  All of these come across in "Darkness Falls", despite its status as a stripped-down horror movie expressly for entertainment.  It's precisely through a median episode like this that we can see the distinct X-Files approach forming.

Next week: "The walls are absolute.  There is nothing I can do."

[1]Even the word "ecoterrorist" sounds embarrassingly 90s, and this episode's attempts to shoehorn an environmental politics debate into the usual formula is very awkward.  Still, it's nice to remember when the scariest terrorists were hippies who might mess with your car.

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