Lost in the Movies: The X-Files - "Fire" (season 1, episode 12)

The X-Files - "Fire" (season 1, episode 12)

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 December 17, 1993/written by Chris Carter; directed by Larry Shaw): "Fire" is both a literal and figurative title for this episode, as Mulder contemplates re-igniting a passionate romance with Phoebe Green (Amanda Pays) while they both track down a mysterious arsonist. Phoebe is an old flame from his Oxford days, now working for Scotland Yard and alongside the Marsdens (Dan Lett and Laurie Paton), an aristocratic family that has been threatened by the killer before. As is often the case with The X-Files, mystery is eschewed in the opening minutes. We meet our villain (Mark Sheppard) as he's impersonating a gardener, apparently using a combination of telekinesis and rocket fuel-doused clothing to light a man on fire in the driveway of his own country estate. Later, this young man insinuates himself into the Marsdens' milieu by posing as the caretaker of the Cape Cod estate where they'll be staying. This also doubles as a clever way for him to "paint" their entire home - in rocket fuel. When the Marsdens attend a soiree in Boston, their childrens' hotel room goes up in flames and "Bob" the caretaker (stepping in for a driver he himself has killed) is on hand to rescue them and make himself a hero. His goal seems to be impressing Mrs. Marsden, an echo of Mulder's own struggle to navigate Phoebe's overtures and manage his own desires...but, also, it turns out, an echo of Phoebe's own behavior (Mulder discovers she's been carrying on an affair with Mr. Marsden). Heartache gives way to a hotter sensation as Mulder and Scully finally figure out who "Bob" is (a Brit named Cecil L'Ively), and race to save the Marsden boys and capture Cecil after he torches himself and, miraculously, survives (and even begins to regenerate his skin). Kept in a high-security isolation chamber, the human flamethrower is last seen in "Fire"'s closing minutes, severely burnt but still able to grin as he asks for a cigarette.

My Response:
There's a lot that works in "Fire," including Mulder's uncomfortable chemistry and a growing sense of Scully's attraction towards him. We also get more Mulder backstory, not just his relationship with Phoebe but also his fear of fire; when will Scully get some history of her own? (I do have some idea of what's in store, given an upcoming Twin Peaks connection.) The direction is often effective, making good use of Sheppard's diabolical intensity and Pays' saucy tease, and incorporating interesting work by guest stars Lynda Boyd (as a bar patron hitting on "Bob" before he torches the tavern) and Duncan Fraser (as arson expert Beatty, who harbors an almost unnerving fascination for his subject). Shaw and series DP John S. Bartley manage to photograph the fire in arresting, alarming ways - the shot of rocket-fueled flames rippling across a ceiling is particularly striking. On the other hand, the plot feels nonsensical and forced at times; why does L'Ively recklessly torch a bar (sexual discomfort is offered as an excuse but this is a hell of a risk to run when he's plotting a much longer con just down the street); why doesn't anybody suspect the oddball caretaker, the one stranger in the Marsdens' vicinity, until it's too late; and why is Mulder, of all people, the one to run upstairs in the end when he's already failed at this task? (There's an attempt to make this gesture a response to being wounded in love, but I'm not sure they've done enough work to earn that quasi-death wish.) Much of the episode spins its wheels to keep characters from advancing too quickly, which works well as interpersonal drama but less so as investigation. Despite the drawbacks, the atmosphere makes for an enjoyable experience. Coincidentally, today was an appropriate time to watch episode 12, as I'm planning to re-visit Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return in a few hours. Gotta light?

Next: "Beyond the Sea" • Previous: "Eve"

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