Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The X-Files - "Darkness Falls" (season 1, episode 20)

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The X-Files - "Darkness Falls" (season 1, episode 20)


Welcome to my viewing diary for The X-Files. Every day, except Saturday, I will offer a short review of another episode until I finish the first season. Future entries will cover the remaining seasons, breaking to review the feature films where chronologically appropriate, and eventually reach the recent miniseries. I have seen very few X-Files episodes, though I was utterly fascinated with the concept as a child, so for the most part this will be a first-timer's perspective. There will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 15, 1994/written by Chris Carter, directed by Joe Napolitano): A huge crew of loggers vanishes in one of the few limited, isolated areas of Olympia State Park where they're allowed to cut down trees (as long as they're not old-growth). Mulder volunteers for the case and, as Scully quickly deduces, it's not because he believes that the suspected eco-terrorists are responsible for the disappearances. The agents trek into the woods with Park Ranger Larry Moore (Jason Beghe) and head of security for the logging company Steve Humphreys (Tom O'Rourke), eventually running into one of the anti-logging guerrillas, Doug Spinney (familiar character actor and eventual TV lead Titus Welliver). Sure enough, they come across bizarre phenomena like a cocooned cadaver attached to a tree and an illegally cut old-growth whose inner rings reveal a bizarre substance from several hundred years ago. Doug tells them that he saw one of his friends devoured alive by a strange swarm of insects, who avoid light but attack in darkness, and eventually they all realize that a volcanic explosion must have trapped these ancient parasites inside a tree...until they were released by the shady avarice of the logging company.

This realization comes too late to save the stubborn Humphreys, who hikes back to the crew's wounded vehicle and is killed. Doug notes the irony of both Humphreys' and the loggers' deaths at the hands of a force of nature released by their own disrespect for nature, but a similar irony will eventually consume Doug too. The radical environmentalist, true to his word, attempts to rescue the other three survivors in his Jeep (Mulder allows him to take the cabin's gasoline, condemning himself, Scully, and Moore to submit to a nervous night in the dimming cabin as the generator runs low). However, he drives across his own spiked traps ("talk about shooting yourself in the foot," Moore mutters) and is swarmed when he exits the car to discover the flat tire. Surprisingly, there is no real escape for Scully, Mulder, or Moore either. They only survive the episode, with Scully still comatose and Mulder looking extremely battered, because rescuers arrive before the cocoons have entirely consumed their bodily fluids. A scientist (David Hay) tending to them tells Mulder that the government will eradicate the pestilence from the woods, but Mulder has his doubts. As the official reminds him, failure isn't an option - should these swarms migrate, they could destroy the human race. If ever there was a time to truly want to believe, this is it.

My Response:
I was happy to see Napolitano's name in the credits again, having really enjoyed how he handled "The Jersey Devil," another tale of woodland terror (albeit one set in a surrounded patch of wilderness along the otherwise metropolitan eastern seaboard, rather than - for the second episode in a row - the deep forestry of the Pacific Northwest). Apparently, however, this was an extremely troubled production with Napolitano going AWOL after a fight with his assistant director and, sadly, never directing for X-Files again. I'm not sure who shot what but there's an effective sense of tension on display in "Darkness Falls," at times due to claustrophobia as the agents, the ranger, and the eco-terrorist huddle inside the cabin, and at times due to the sprawling openness of the landscape, whose broad distance and natural majesty intimidate the puny human characters in their attempt to survive.

The teleplay for the episode is also compelling. A neat surprise for me during this season has been how frequently The X-Files highlights the ambiguity of its protagonists' relationship to their own institution - and how others perceive them (particularly Mulder) as ambivalent allies or enemies given their place in the system. While "Darkness Falls" essentially punishes the environmental activist for his militancy, it harbors far more implicit sympathy for him than for the logging company security chief - and once again, it stresses Mulder's connection to fringe characters who share his passion and deep knowledge. This episode echoes "Ice" in its emphasis on a small, tense ensemble isolated on a far-flung frontier with a parasite intent on killing them, but I appreciated this more thanks to its ability to traverse a real, tangible landscape rather than isolate itself inside a soundstage. And the fact that the characters very nearly die, and show immense wear and tear as the episode closes, is also an effective creative decision. For a one-off "monster-of-the-week," episode 20 carries a lot of weight.

Next: "Tooms" • Previous: "Shapes"

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