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I think we’d all like to know what’s in that rock.

The X-Files
4.8: Tunguska

The usual two-part caveat applies here, of avoiding reaching a definitive appraisal before one has seen the finale. But obviously, I have, and obviously, it doesn’t live up to Tunguska. Actually, that’s something of an understatement. Nevertheless, much of this episode is really good, throwing in not-quite-ancient mysteries and reteaming Mulder and Krycek to engagingly conflicting effect. Plus, it throws in some simple-yet-starkly iconic imagery for the cliffhanger.

If Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man was borrowing from recent historic fiction for its lack of inspiration, Tunguska’s most obvious port of call is the previous year’s Outbreak. And also 12 Monkeys. In both cases, though, the arc thread makes such references seem less shameless and more germane and justified. Most amusing is the latter, whereby a customs official behaves in such a twat-tastic fashion in response to the presence of a sealed canister, not only attempting to open it but then also dropping it, butter-fingers-like, on the floor, that it would be quite reasonable to mistake this for an Airplane! outtake (it riffs, of course, on the samples scene at the end of 12 Monkeys).

The other also provides a decent take on the “hazmat suit-protected but nevertheless infected” sequence found in Outbreak (there, Kevin Spacey succumbed). A NASA scientist (Malcolm Stewart) drills into a sample of rock found in a diplomatic pouch scored from Honolulu airport, only for it to spawn black oil, surely the best, most effective use of the idea thus far, as tiny worms of the stuff ooze up his suit and induce a comatose state.

Mulder: You speak Russian, Krycek?

Both sequences find director Kim Manners delivering some charged, effective suspense, and the episode as a whole is strong on the “action” aspect that can often seem like the tail wagging the dog in these mythology tales, going nowhere fast. Admittedly, there’s a familiar odour when Krycek and Mulder book a flight to Russia… and promptly bundle out of the back of a truck into a Vancouver forest (and the less said about Krycek “suddenly” swearing in Russian, the better). The opening of the episode too feels like a “Haven’t we done this enough already?” as Scully prefaces a flashback and opts to keep schtum about Mulder’s whereabouts before a Senate Sub Committee, reading from a prepared statement about a “culture of lawlessness” within the government itself.

But there are numerous nice touches here. Like Mulder and Scully donning SWAT gear for a raid, only to find Krycek is one of the suspects involved. And then dropping the ex-agent in to Skinner (packing some abs), who promptly gut punches him and handcuffs him to his balcony in the freezing cold.

I was half minded to ponder whether David Simon was inspired by this when dealing with one of The Wire’s less credible episodes, namely Omar’s escape from a high rise. Here, Krycek is understandably alarmed when an assassin or worse infiltrates the Skin Man’s apartment; when said man pokes his head on the balcony, there’s no Krycek to be found… because he’s hanging over the edge, promptly pulling the assassin over the top too. It’s a great little spitballing scene From Carter and Spotnitz, creating a vibe that this is a show able to stray from the routine.

As for Mulder’s genuinely now-get-out-of-that ending, well it couldn’t live up to the set up any more than the Season Two finale, but the signs are perhaps there in that the gulag is never too too credible, and Alex’s double-crossing ways (“This man is not your friend”) would only have been a surprise if they didn’t surface.

Krycek: There’s no truth. These men, they make it up as they go along. They’re the engineers of the future. They’re the real revolutionaries.

Alex gets perhaps the best speech in the episode, though. Upon being captured, the “invertebrate scum-sucker whose moral dipstick is about two drops short of bone dry” expresses bafflement that Mulder lacks the necessary cynicism. He’s telling it fairly similarly to Well-Manicured Man himself a season earlier, when he says there’s no truth, and that the elite are “the engineers of the future”. Further still, “They’re the real revolutionaries”. He’s nevertheless sucking on fumes in his view that you can actually harm them (“You destroy the destroyer’s ability to destroy”), but he’s way ahead of Mulder’s curve.

Mulder: June 30, 1908. Tungus tribesmen and Russian fur traders look up into the south-eastern Siberian sky and see a fireball streaking to Earth. When it hit the atmosphere, it created a series of cataclysmic explosions that are considered to be the largest single cosmic event in the history of civilization. Two thousand times the force of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

Of course, this also revolves around a certain mysterious incident in 1908. While the show ultimately wants to run with the standard meteorite explanation – the sample rock found derives from a meteorite dug up in Antarctica quite possibly from Mars, which is over four billion years old – and Mulder “legitimises” that it was a fireball, he’s quite open about the nature of the incident being up for debate:

Mulder: It's been speculated that it was a piece of a comet, an asteroid, or even a piece of anti-matter. The power of the blast levelled trees in a radial pattern for 2000 kilometres. No real definitive evidence has ever been found to provide a satisfying explanation of what it was.

Indeed. Other popular theories included a weapon (an earlier, more advanced DEW?), a Tartarian massacre, or even a Tesla test transmission. The only disappointment of Tunguska is that, with such fertile possibilities, it topples face first into the gulag and has trouble getting out again.

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