1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask
The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.
Straight out of the gate, like something from The Hidden (always a positive influence), the episode is going great guns, as a vehicular police chase ends with a seemingly unstoppable and ultimately green-blood oozing Dr Secare (Simon Webb) being pumped full of bullets and dropping in the bay. This was exec producer RW Goodwin’s first directing gig on the show (he helmed nine in all), and he does a very competent job. The alien mythology has been immediately and significantly opened up in the space of minutes. There have been implants and implied experiments, sure, but a dearth of green ooze – the classic signifier of an invader from Mars – hitherto. By the episode’s end we will also be introduced to an apparently alien lifeform (a preserved foetus) and human genetic experimentation.
Mulder: He's in a delicate position. He has access to information and indiscretion could expose him.
Scully: You don't know that this isn't just a game with him. He's toying with you. Rationing out the facts.
Mulder: You think he does it because he gets off on it?
Scully: No. I think he does it because you do.
Deep Throat’s gameplay, trickling out breadcrumbs, is modelled on his All the President’s Men namesake, of course. In practice, however, there’s a woeful level of inconsistency in the degree and detail with which he furnishes Mulder information. It is – surprise, surprise – essentially whatever the writers see fit to see him see fit to yield in whichever episode he’s pressed into service. Such opportunism is expressly written in to the narrative, eliciting mystification at his methods on the parts of Mulder and Scully (“You know, from day one, this has always been on your terms. I've gone along. Been the dutiful son. But maybe this time, we can just cut out the Obi-Wan Kenobi crap and you can save me the trouble”).
Deep Throat: There are limits to my knowledge, Mr Mulder. Inside the intelligence community, there are so-called "black organizations." Groups within groups conducting covert activities, unknown at the highest levels of power.
This also applies to the extent of Deep Throat’s knowledge. In one episode (1.17: E.B.E.), he’s calling the shots at the location of the title being. Here, he is professing that he isn’t in the loop with regard to the activities of the Syndicate’s representatives (which is, of course, BS). As to the degree to which the Syndicate is aware of his utilisation of Mulder, we’ve already seen that Deep Throat isn’t operating entirely in secret (1.10: Fallen Angel), so it can only be the degree to which he is apprising Mulder where they disapprove. Still, I find it very difficult to accept the entire business with the alien foetus isn’t something the Syndicate would have got sorted long before. Even assuming they weren’t granted free access to Fort Marlene, they’d surely have blackmailed someone to enter covertly. Especially if it’s that easy for Scully to waltz in, figure out the password on the spot and then waltz out with the foetus under her arm.
Deep Throat: They won't kill him.
Scully: How do you know that?
Deep Throat: He's become too high-profile, and you've got evidence that could expose them.
Beyond the execution of Deep Throat, there’s the equal and opposite question of why Mulder is allowed to live (“If you were chased, you would have been killed. Those men are trained for that sort of business and they are trained well”). The mantra trotted out with tedious regularity is that he has become too high profile; how exactly? Why? (And no, the answer isn’t that he has a popular TV show devoted to his investigations.) It would surely be incredibly easy to dispose of him, no questions asked, given the weekly life-threatening situations in which he becomes entangled. Essentially, it’s an argument that doesn’t hold water, but it’s vital for Carter and co to sustain the series’ slender threat on a plausible conspiracy arc.
Mulder: Doctor Berube was conducting human experiments with extra-terrestrial viruses.
Deep Throat: Yes, but that's been going on for years. We've had the tissue since 1947 but not the technology.
Deep Throat: Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations. Doctor Berube was killed because his work was too successful. You're standing in the room where the first DNA transplant took, the first human-alien hybrid was created.
This is, of course, the first time we have seen an alien in The X-Files, and inevitably, it is going to be a classic, common or garden Grey, however tiny. And unsurprisingly, Roswell, having already been namechecked in 1.2: Deep Throat, Fallen Angel and E.B.E., comes up again. The idea that Roswell was a smokescreen is interesting; Deep Throat’s implies it was genuine but also a distraction from cases of greater substance – this will later be contradicted, as it’s suggested this is when the government first becomes aware of colonisation plans – but it taps into the idea that, rather than a coverup lamely identified as a weather balloon, Roswell was specifically and purposefully designed to attract attention (the reasons for which can be debated).
The alien equation will burgeon over the next four seasons (and then some more with super soldiers) to a degree even avid fans can find confusing, so necessitating conjecture and theorising. Certainly, a significant portion of the arc rejects assembly in obvious and easily assimilated chunks. Next season, there’ll be a lot more on cloning and experimentation, but also alien bounty hunters, an area that in retrospect – although thrillingly out-there at the time – feels on the cartoonish side of the foot-on-the-ground the series was attempting to maintain. Which makes it interesting that Carter, after going there, would continue returning to it.
The colonisation isn’t yet announced, but Deep Throat does stress – although, it seems there are tonnes of examples to follow by way of contradiction – that having a hybrid “living out in the real world” is “Too great a liability”. We’re (told we’re) privy to the room where the first human-alien hybrid was created (these gene-therapy hybrids will come back into play five years later, making the snuffing out of this project look rather rash). The colonisation plan always seemed rather unwieldly, and its urgency seemed to burn itself out with the destruction of the Syndicate (and yet, the 2012 invasion movie was still being floated, albeit nixed thanks to the failure of I Want to Believe in no small part). What’s notable about all this is how tangible the approach to aliens is here, distancing the show concertedly from the most recent big screen example of Grey lore – the adaptation of Whitley Streiber’s Communion.
It’s also noteworthy in this regard that the series literalism towards ET means it is not just the ultra-terrestrial hypothesis that is largely ignored, but also the future-humans one. This is mooted in everything from Left at East Gate and The Roswell Message to the more recent work of Gigi Young: that the Greys are a potential future timeline of humanity, once the transhumanist train has ridden to its final destination (one might suggest that, whether or not the idea has any validity, it could in itself be a situation of predictive programming, designed to plant the seed of “inevitability”). The X-Files generally shied away from time travel, except in a giddy (6.3: Triangle) or one-off (4.19: Synchrony) sense, making it noteworthy that it avoided the prospect wholesale. It must have crossed the production team’s radar, so there must also have been a conscious decision to avoid dipping even a toe in those waters. You may ultimately have to hitch your cart to one horse, but it’s very avoidance could be argued as suggesting the subject deserves more attention than any of the more obvious options explored by a mainstream Hollywood show.
Scully: Okay Mulder, but I’m warning you, if this is monkey pee, you’re on your own.
For those interested in the series’ adoption and adaptation of medicinal lore, much of it begins here, with the namechecking of viruses and inoculations that will take us through to the 2016 return and the predictive programming of the depopulation agenda. Such is the show’s on-the-fly approach that it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to fashion these into a coherent whole, but the experimentation on suspecting or unsuspecting humans is nevertheless at the heart of all such nefarious activities. In series lore, as in reality, this invariably involves the injection of foreign matter into the subject, but in the series, this invariably derives, at least in part, from extra-terrestrial lifeforms. The outcomes also vary. The intention in The Erlenmeyer Flask, is to prolong or sustain life – for strictly experimental purposes rather than to cure humanity of ills, obviously – as opposed to the later intent, both in the My Struggles and in the current global struggles, to cull it.
Scully: Mulder… that bacteria I had analysed... They’re saying it doesn’t exist in nature.
Carter is drawing on some actual science here, and it’s noteworthy – built into its DNA, or RNA if you like –that the series stresses all advances as having an inherently sinister underlying purpose. The translation being that you cannot trust science’s principles, so whatever it claims to be based upon and whatever its purported therapeutic outcome is, the effects are going to be flawed at best.
Part and parcel of the Frankensteinian nature of modern science is that it is built on grand deception, be that intentional or simply delusional (Scully, learning by rote, would fall into the latter camp). The series’ materialist approach to aliens finds its parallel in the prevailing societal one towards science. If science has it wrong, or further still, is lying about so much, why should this not apply to the touchstone of DNA too? Has anyone photographed the atom or the double helix? The answer is, of course, that science predicts it and science’s creations – its instruments, weights and measures – consequently confirm it. Where the truth lies may be murkier or not so defined. If transhumanist principles seek to alter our “DNA”, might we not simply be trading terms with less accepted (by the mainstream, and by science) terms as chakras (switch off a chakra, and like the manipulation of DNA, you alter the subject on a core level)?
Scully has the “Purity Control” flask analysed by a lab and receives startling results that ought to rock her foundations to the core (yet somehow, she will still be able to doubt Mulder’s instincts for the next six seasons). “Science” informs her that, rather than the usual four, the DNA sequences from the bacteria sample contain a “fifth and sixth DNA nucleotide. A new base pair. Agent Scully, what are you looking at... it exists nowhere in nature. IT would have to be, by definition... extra-terrestrial”.
Well either that or, you know, it would have to come from beyond the ice wall. What’s interesting and left hanging – except maybe by Fight the Future – is that, prior to receiving this assessment, Scully moots that “Bacteria like this... it may have existed, but not for millions of years, not since before our ancestors first crawled out of the sea”. So she may have unknowingly posited the ice wall hypothesis. It’s also notable that Mulder is watching the 1959 Journey to the Centre of the Earth as the episode opens, wherein life is found that has been officially extinct for millions of years. I can’t recall if the series picks up on Scully’s comment “They also contain something that looks like chloroplasts... Plant cells”, although it’s nicely The Thing from Another World in suggestiveness.
We’re informed the means of introducing this to a subject is via cloning a virus (an alien virus) inside a bacterium “in order to inject it into something living. It's called gene therapy and it's still highly experimental”. While this is blinding us with science, it is, loosely, the basis for gene therapy (now, whether science has that right is an entirely different matter: see above). It’s also, loosely, the basis for the current global drive to stick us with the needle (containing “cloned” foetal material in both cases). Not, in this case, to turn us into green-blooded superhumans who can withstand bullets – fast forward to later seasons’ super soldiers, although a rather different methodology and personality involved – but to have, amongst other mooted effects, an outcome of disarming our immune systems. And from thence. Yes, you guessed it.
Deep Throat: Let me tell you something you should know. In 1987, a group of children from a southern state were given what their parents thought was a routine inoculation. What they were injected with was a clone DNA from the contents of that package you're holding as a test. That's the kind of people you're dealing with!
And as per above, and as we will find out in 10.6: My Struggle II, the government or factions thereof are at very least wilfully experimenting on unsuspecting subjects by means of the safest and most innocuous of methods, the routine inoculation. The underlying ethos of the series might even be “Trust no vaccines” (just wait until they trot Duchovny out on air to get his jab). The virus concept may be something of a flim-flam of Pasteurian science, but the methodology presented by The Erlenmeyer Flask is very real.
Crew-Cut Man: I have this thing about unsecured lines.
Other observations: Lindsay Ginter makes for a suitably unlikable antagonist (the Crew-Cut Man). Mulder (or his stunt double) does some very efficient fence leaping. Great title, probably the best of the season. It conjures something far more exotic than a standard piece of lab equipment. The Erlenmeyer Flask sets the tone for the mythology arc to come, both positive and negative. Often throwing in intriguing and arresting ideas and delivered in a breathless rush of excitement and tension. But also invariably resolving (or not) itself in dissatisfying or incoherent terms. Making it appropriate they changed the title phrase. Trust No One. Including Chris Carter.