Lost in the Movies: The X-Files - "Space" (season 1, episode 9)

The X-Files - "Space" (season 1, episode 9)

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 November 12, 1993/written by Chris Carter; directed by William Graham): Lt. Col. Marcus Aurelius Belt (Ed Lauter) has been all over the space program: one of its earliest pilots, an astronaut who conducted an iconic space walk, a NASA official who parried press inquiries about a Mars mission in the seventies, and finally head of the shuttle program trying to troubleshoot some technical mishaps and PR risks. Mulder, an astronaut aficianado, has followed Belt's career since childhood but there's something he doesn't know about his hero. As he floated outside his craft years earlier, Belt encountered a kind of interstellar phantom whose face resembles a tectonic feature on Mars' landscape. For decades afterwards he's been haunted by nighttime transformations in which his face becomes grayish and stretched out, a physical expression of his consciousness becoming agonizingly subsumed in another being. As a shuttle launch is aborted and a follow-up encounters grave breakdowns in orbit, Mulder and Scully must figure out what Belt is hiding from them, or rather what the monster within is hiding from him: repeated sabotage of shuttle parts leading to various setbacks or disasters, including the Challenger explosion. Mission Control communications commander Michelle Generoo (Susanna Thompson), concerned for her fiance on the present shuttle mission, is the one who set the FBI agents on this path. As a consequence, she experiences a violent car accident in which the space creature's face swoops in on her during a nighttime drive. Later, as Belt fights through his possession right before their eyes, struggling to help them despite his agony, the team finally discovers how the astronauts can make it back safely to earth. Later that night, Belt leaps to his death from a hospital room, guided by the phantom that has tormented him for decades. Mulder and Scully honor Belt at his star-draped graveside: he was a hero and villain trapped in the same body, tormented by what he encountered when he charged forward into the unknown.

My Response:
Yesterday I observed that much of the Thing-influence Alaskan ensemble piece didn't work so well for me, but that this was a minority opinion of an acclaimed episode. Today I find myself enjoying the eerie space-ghost-meets-Apollo 13 vibe of an episode that...is apparently one of the most universally despised in the whole series. Oh well; perhaps someday I'll find myself in better sync with other viewers! (I also quite liked the unpopular "Jersey Devil" episode, albeit more for direction than narrative.) The widely criticized effects are, to me, a pleasing combination of campy and genuinely creepy - that weird, morphing face is reminiscent of some of David Lynch's cartoonish yet eerie digital designs in the most recent season of Twin Peaks. Plus, Ed Lauter is perfectly cast as the possessed NASA commander. At first glance, he's got a square-as-can-be look but there's something about his features that seems vaguely "off" and "Space" exploits that uncanniness brilliantly. I also got a kick out of Mulder's boyish enthusiasm for space exploration (and Belt's legacy in particular). It's perhaps an obvious bit of background detail, but it was still nice to see the characters' personal connection to the case they're working on. Is the storytelling kind of clumsy? Well, sure; I never had any idea - and apparently neither did the writers - why exactly the mysterious spectre was motivated not only to seize an astronaut but use him to sabotage various spacecraft at completely random times. I actually wasn't really bothered by the absence of any footage from the space shuttle itself. In retrospect its utility as a cost-saving measure is apparent, but as the drama unfolded it just felt like one more gesture effectively grounding us in the tech-bureaucracy of NASA (the show keeps finding different areas of the U.S. government for its agents to butt heads with!) and keeping us from knowing too much.

Next: "Fallen Angel" • Previous: "Ice"

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