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Is it too late for a game of Stratego?

The X-Files
2.16: Colony

Suddenly, after all that reticence and innuendo, The X-Files dives headlong into aliens, cloned aliens, cloned hybrids and alien bounty hunters. Yes, we’ve seen the toxic green blood and the spike to the back of the head before, but 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask looks positively conservative next to the series’ first expressly designed two parter. The result, for all its gestures towards sensitivity and reflection, is the show at its pulpiest. That wouldn’t be a problem if it had devised a clear path for its ninety-minute TV movie format, but as End Game proceeds, it becomes clear they’re making this up as they go along.

Colony, though. A Chris Carter teleplay from a story by Carter and David Duchovny. Yes, this was the first time Duchovny’s creative itch was scratched on the show, and he could be found contributing mythology ideas all the way into the final season. Not so sure his first idea was such a doozy, though. I mean, sure, Brian Thompson doing a (decently impassive) Terminator impression – he even appeared in the first one, and has the budget-Arnie look down in a similar way to Jerry Doyle as a B-Bruce Willis in Babylon 5 – complete with taunting synths is an effective way to set out your store. But an alien bounty hunter? Was that really the route you wanted to go down, Chris, upon reflection? Because it suddenly reveals a very different canvas for the show, one from which there’s no retreat, so it will inevitably be required to double down. There isn’t just a shadowy (Grey) alien force bent on colonisation, there’s a shadowy (Grey) opposition force who want to prevent them.

Neither of the “Grey” elements are explicit at this point. I’m not certain it’s ever explicit that the alien bounty hunters are (although it makes sense to infer as much). I definitely have a cognitive dissonance imagining Thompson as a Grey beneath all that shapeshifting, though. I have enough of one making the leap to his being a really good actor whenever he’s inhabiting all those different forms (most particularly in this one as Tom Butler’s CIA Agent Ambrose Chapel, a name cutely nicked from The Man Who Knew Too Much, both versions).

Colony succeeds for the most part because, like many two-parter openers, it is setting up questions and threads, rather than failing to pull them together. Much of the proceedings are powered by a The Terminator meets The Hidden motor, of the Bounty Hunter potentially being anyone and the tension of our knowing this while our heroes are oblivious.

However, many of the criticisms Rob Shearman makes of these two episodes in wanting to believe are absolutely fair, much of it down to the characterisation of our agents and the need for them to be pushed around in their perceptiveness or lack thereof by the demands of the plot. This time, it’s Scully who is making all the sound comments and reaching the correct conclusions while Mulder, having forsaken his getting wise to the ease with which he could be manipulated in 1.17: E.B.E., is blown every which way. Even before he meets his alleged sister.

This kind of thing – our agents, primed to consider far-out options, entirely fail to consider and most importantly give voice to the possibility of the actual explanation for reasons of prolonging suspense that has the counteractive effect of inducing irritation in the viewer – is by no means isolated to this two-parter, but it’s a good example of it repeatedly getting in the way of coherent characterisation and motivation. Scully sees some twins/clones in the opening minutes and later seems surprised at the reveal of twins/clones (the reason is, of course, that she has to be, in order to express admiration for the seamless work the effects team have done).

Mulder will marginally redress the balance in End Game – although that brings with it even more problems – but he appears here remarkably swift not to say anything that might interrogate his sister’s tale. He also leaves Scully nursing suspicion of Ambrose Chapel (“He’s the real thing, Scully”). Now, admittedly, he doesn’t know there’s a shapeshifting bounty hunter in their midst, and his wanting to believe is working overtime, but he frankly comes across as a bit witless. It isn’t as if Chapel’s story is about aliens (it consists of some bafflegab about clones being used as agents to “essentially destroy the country's immune system”; there’ll be more about actual immune systems “next week”). It’s only when Scully waves her corroded shoe under his nose that he gives a little ground.

Along with all this – likely at Duchovny’s behest – there’s considerable opening up of Mulder’s family life. This is the first time we see dad William (Peter Donat) and mum Teena (Rebecca Toolan), and there’s some decent pencil work here in sketching their outlines; he’s the cold, distant father who won’t even hug his son, the guy from whom Fox can never earn approval. She’s the warm, emotionally susceptible mother, for whom the return of her daughter is quite the shock. Both function as they’re intended to, while Megan Leitch is excellent casting as Samantha, inherently sympathetic such that, if you are going to force Mulder to swallow a whopper, at least it’s from someone halfway legitimate.

There’s no doubt some of the implausibles here need to be the case – Colony is structured to pose as many puzzles and questions as possible, so revealing too many suspicions too soon would puncture that bubble – but at the same time, it feels that in order to cut to the chase of the plot, a whole chunk of emotional content is being missed. Generally, I’m not too cut up about this, as the series has a tendency to wallow in the shallow end of that pool circuitously (2.8: One Breath). But this is, as Mulder announces in a typically constipated voiceover, all about how his belief that his sister’s disappearance was ET related sustained his life mission. It’s too big to deal with in terms of efficient plot mechanics (which is largely Samantha’s function here). But more of that with End Game.

In part, Carter manages to integrate some grounding elements amid all this ’80s sci-fi action material. The investigation is instigated by one of the “Gregor” clones (Dana Gladstone) being stabbed at an abortion clinic (not the first time the series has suggested no good can come from abortion clinics, although perhaps with this in mind he throws in Linden Banks’ “militant right-to lifer” priest and then has him avow he wouldn’t take such action). Meanwhile, rather than taking a back seat to all this carnage, Skinner reacts entirely appropriately to the discovery of the body of Agent Weiss (Andrew Johnston, previously seen as a different character in 1.2: Deep Throat) “stuffed in the trunk of a car in front of a house that you sent him to”.

Colony was Northern Exposure veteran Nick Marck’s only gig for the series, and he keeps it moving, although he can’t disguise how it’s all joins structurally. It never feels that Carter’s really ironed this one out, and he’s hoping that, as long as he charges onwards, no one else will notice. The prologue of Mulder at death’s door will be the kind of thing, again, the series uses as a crutch, and eventually getting to that point in the narrative will inevitably be a let-down. The cliffhanger is a good one, though, as it’s always useful to keep the Mulder/Scully doppelgänger trope ready in a drawer. And the payoff is at least not a cop out.


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