“Salvage” (season 8, episode 9; originally aired 1/14/2001)
In which the man, he is made of metal
The best thing about “Salvage” is also what makes it a rather weak episode of The X-Files. The series has always been something of an anthology show with Mulder, Scully, and now Doggett tying all of these stories together. That means that sometimes, the regulars take a back seat to the adventures of the guest characters by necessity. But it’s rare to have the guests take over to the degree that they do in this episode. Insofar as Scully and Doggett solve the case or fix the problem here, it’s that they’re there to see the craziest shit happen, and for the most part, they’re incidental to the story. It’s as if the show has grafted an X-Files structure onto somebody else’s story, like Scully and Doggett have been dropped into the middle of an Outer Limits story about the limits of revenge.
Actually, that’s sort of what happened. “Salvage” is very loosely based on Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which is, according to Wikipedia, best classified as a “Japanese cyberpunk film.” And you can sort of see the bones of that story here. There’s the man who becomes more machine than man and loses his humanity to said machine. There are those who made him the way he is, who come in for punishment. There are the few remaining attachments to his old way of life, like a wife who still loves him and friends who still miss him. And there’s the pitiless forward momentum of the story, where it becomes obvious that he probably should stop his killing spree but can’t because of the darkness pushing him forward. And then, in the middle of all of that, are Scully and Doggett, who fit into the story only because this is an episode of The X-Files, and they’re supposed to be there.
What I like best about this is the way that Jack Forbes animates Ray the metal man’s anger and slow realization of how impossible it will be to ever get revenge for what happened to him. It was just an accident, after all, and the other man who was changed into a metallic version of himself was disposed of. (Exposure to the barrel somehow made Ray into a metal man as well, and I’m not entirely clear on why that happened, probably intentionally so.) He strikes out in anger at anyone who might bear the blame for his condition, but there’s no villain to punch, no bad guy to kill. He is simply a monstrosity, and there’s nothing to be done about it but take his own life in a car crusher. It’s surprisingly soulful stuff, especially once he reconnects with his wife, and the moment at the end where he realizes that the guy he’s dragged out into the street to kill for what happened to him is just an accountant is potent and moving, which is not exactly what I was expecting from an X-Files episode about a metal man. (Visions of next season’s super-soldiers were dancing in my head.)
The worst thing about this is that it was just a mistake, just an accident. In a lot of X-Files episodes dealing with experimental science, the scientists deserve the punishment that the monster metes out on them on some level. It’s one of the most familiar tropes of horror fiction, and the series has used it to aplomb. But by making Ray into something that came to be because of an awful accident, the show is able to create some degree of pity for him, while still making his appearance utterly terrifying for those he’s killing. (It doesn’t hurt that many of the scenes where, say, an old friend hits him with a car and the car crumples around him are so much fun and filled with some nice effects.) If this were somehow an episode that focused solely on the guest characters, I’d wager that it wouldn’t be too bad, hitting a sort of nice level of base competence and keeping us surprisingly interested in the grand tragedy of Ray Pearce, metallic man.
But this isn’t that. This is an X-Files episode, and most of the scenes with Scully and Doggett investigating the case are just boring. There’s nothing wrong with boring, but in a show that’s in its eighth season, a story that feels particularly by the numbers can be deadly to whatever is going on. The investigative aspects of this episode are simply a snore. That’s probably to be expected by any show in the middle of a 20-plus-episode season, and every season of The X-Files has had an episode or two that has felt by the numbers. What makes the disparity so apparent in this episode is that the stuff going on with Roy is more interesting and more vital than what’s going on with Scully and Doggett.
There’s some fun to be had with Robert Patrick having played a deadly metal man before, and Gillian Anderson will always bring her all to even the dumbest of stories (as we’ll see in the next episode). But by and large, you could do this story without the FBI agents, and that’s the worst kind of X-Files episode of them all. This has become more apparent in season eight, because the show could coast on the chemistry between Anderson and David Duchovny in the weaker episodes of previous seasons, and that’s simply no longer the case. Patrick and Anderson are building a nice sort of chemistry between them, but it’s much more workmanlike than anything that existed between Anderson and Duchovny. These two feel like respectful co-workers, where Mulder and Scully felt like a coupling that should have had epic poetry written about it. The show has found some creative ways around that discrepancy in the first handful of episodes, but it proves too much to overcome in such a rote mystery.
This is really too bad, because I might have enjoyed this more if the show had drawn a connection between what was going on with Ray and the regular characters. There were opportunities to build that relationship, but the show mostly eschewed them in favor of keeping the two halves of the episode apart from each other. There’s still a little fun to be had in Scully trying her damnedest to be the new Mulder, and I do enjoy the tips of the cap to Terminator 2 (one of my favorite movies). But there’s a potentially great episode about what it means to need revenge but never having a chance to get it, and it’s being held back by formula. That’s too bad.
- I did really like that last shot at the junkyard of Ray consigning himself to the scrap heap. So many X-Files episodes end with hints that the monster lives to fight another day. It’s kind of nice to have an episode that takes the opposite tack.
- The makeup effects that looked like a metal skeleton slowly poking out from underneath Ray’s skin were pretty great, too. This was a nice looking episode, even if the story was a little limp.
- That’s Scott MacDonald as Curtis—the guy that Ray pulls from his car by grabbing his head like a bowling ball. He played Burley on Carnivále, another show I’ve covered for TV Club Classic.
“Badlaa” (season 8, episode 10; originally aired 1/21/2001)
In which there is a guy who crawls into and out of people’s butts
God help me, but I kind of enjoy “Badlaa.” I know it’s an episode that has a reputation for being intensely bad in the fandom, and I know that it’s absolutely disgusting, hard to watch, and not terribly well plotted. But if we’re going to talk about a genuinely bad episode against a boring episode (like, say, “Salvage”) then I’m going to beg you to give me a bad episode every single time. I would rather watch this episode several times than I would some of those season seven outings where everybody seemed like they would rather be just about anywhere else. “Badlaa” might be filled with bad ideas, but it carries those bad ideas off with style. It also brings Mulder back into the story in the most preposterous way possible (probably preparing us for his inevitable return), and it features a great guest star in Deep Roy as the aforementioned guy who crawls into and out of people’s butts. It is magnificently bad television, and that has to count for something, right?
I think the foremost problem with “Badlaa” is one of power creep. Not only can the character played by Roy crawl into and out of the corpulent, killing them, but also using their corpses to spirit his way across international lines (among other things), but he can also make people think he looks like a normal janitor and cast all other sorts of illusions to distract from the fact that he’s a legless guy who wheels himself around on a little cart. The beggar was based by John Shiban on stories of Indian fakirs with tremendous power, and he’s identified within the episode by an old pal of Mulder’s as a Siddhi mystic. But there’s no real connection between those powers and the fact that he transports himself around by crawling inside of people and operating them like a puppet (apparently?). Because the latter automatically becomes the most memorable thing about the episode, it gets harder and harder to take the former seriously. The character starts to feel like a combination of 500 better X-Files monsters—a Flukeman here, a Pusher there.
But there’s something that works about this episode all the same. Unlike in “Salvage,” Scully and Doggett affect this story, with Scully’s increasingly outlandish theories pushing more and more of a wedge between the two of them, even though she’s ultimately correct. Roy may not have much of a character to play—he’s basically the scary, foreign “other”—but I enjoyed the way he seemed to get an almost vicarious thrill about all of the crazy shit he was doing. The other guest characters are a little weak, and it’s strange how the episode ends up boiling down to two boys discovering that it would be best if they were friends. But the episode isn’t afraid to go for the big, gross-out moment, and while that wouldn’t work every week, it’s a mode the show can play in every once in a while and be successful.
I’m also into how this episode reminds me of just how much of a pre-Sept. 11 show The X-Files was. This is decidedly an episode made in a time when the American economy was still ascendant (though the seeds of the recession that would strike the country in full swing post-Sept. 11 attacks were already being planted). It was an episode made in a time when having a scary Indian mystic who crawls into people’s butts was something that didn’t come across as xenophobic or racist because nobody was all that terrified of any of the sorts of metaphorical implications the story could unlock. It was just meant to be a good, spooky story about a guy who could do some crazy shit (sometimes literally), and even if it ended up being over-cluttered, there’s a weird innocence to the whole thing and its portrayal of a hegemonic superpower that sows destruction across the world but doesn’t much notice what it’s doing in the moment. There’s something almost quaint to the thing, like it was made in a time much longer ago than 12-and-a-half years ago, a few months before the world came crashing down. You can even hear a little of that mild condescension in the famous epithet fans directed at this episode: the butt genie episode. It doesn’t really describe a goddamn thing that happens here, and it’s more or less missing the culture being misappropriated here (though fakirs—never mentioned by name here—are Muslims), but it’s a fun thing to say, isn’t it?
The episode also digs into Scully’s attempts to be Mulder, which have evidently been causing some degree of strain on her. I liked that the episode nodded toward his presence by bringing in his old friend who knew so much about the mystics (and doesn’t have any reason to, as he’s just a dabbler in this kind of research), but it’s the final scene—which should be completely ridiculous but isn’t, thanks to Anderson’s work—that hammers home just how hard it is for Scully to pretend to be Mulder. It goes against every bone she has in her body, but here she is, making the kinds of leaps of logic her former partner would and simply hoping for the best. I don’t really buy that she would jump from thinking that a legless Indian man would be rolling around D.C. and killing people to figuring he was getting revenge for a chemical spill that killed his son—it seems like a leap she makes out of nowhere—but I enjoyed watching her disappear right up into one of Mulder’s fever dreams.
I, in no way, am going to argue for “Badlaa” as a misunderstood classic or anything of the sort. I don’t think I can even give it a grade that would tip it over into “recommend” territory. It’s a messy episode, and it’s got way too much going on in it to ever be wholly successful. And if you’ve got a weak stomach, it’s probably not the episode for you. But there’s something that works in the center of this one, and I was surprised by how much of it I found involving and how much I enjoyed some of the gross-out scares—like the beggar’s hand poking up out of the fresh incision Scully had made in that one guy’s distended stomach. “Badlaa” feels at times like it’s trying to be seven or eight episodes at once, but it manages to get away with having more of those episodes make sense than it has any right to. And in Roy, it has a charming, smiling monster who never once speaks but creates an eerie atmosphere all his own. The sequence in which he makes the boy’s mother believe that her son has drowned, then reveals himself as he drowns her, is incredibly dumb, but the moment when she turns over her son’s body and suddenly sees the face of the beggar is nicely creepy, as is the sound of those squeaky wheels echoing through the airport bathroom. I don’t blame anyone who thinks “Badlaa” is a catastrophe, and I’ll probably never watch it again. But I’ll take a catastrophe over a boring story executed blandly any day.
- It turns out that the beggar has popped up on a bunch of lists of best monsters of the week in the series’ run, including one from TV Guide. I wouldn’t go that far, but hey, maybe?
- That first scene of the fat businessman first pissing off the beggar, then later sitting on his hotel bed and leaking blood all over, is a pretty great cold open. I absolutely want to know what’s happening by the end of that little sequence.
- Man, that last scene is crazy and ridiculous and stupid, but Anderson makes it all work with her tears. I believe you, Scully! I believe everything you say!
Next week: Thanks to Zack for filling in last week when I should have dropped in, and “thanks,” I guess, for leaving “Badlaa” to me. Next week, Zack greets Mulder again in “The Gift,” then heads underground for “Medusa.”