Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Government Isn't Our Friend: The Gospel Of "Sleepless" And "Duane Barry!"

The Good: Decent acting, Moments of character, Mood, Chris Carter interviews
The Bad: Somewhat simple plots.
The Basics: Clever and intriguing, these semi-serialized episodes of The X-Files are certainly going somewhere...

As the second season of The X-Files progressed, the producers and writers were hamstrung by a number of things. First, the X-files had been shut down at the end of the first season, so the protagonists - Mulder and Scully - were on assignments that had nothing to do with the paranormal cases they spent the prior year investigating. Second, Mulder and Scully had been split up, so every episode had to involve some level of contrivance to put the two together again. And finally, actress Gillian Anderson was pregnant - very pregnant! - and needed to be written out for part of the season.

Whatwith his prior contact, Deep Throat, dead, writers simply created a new incarnation of the informant character, X (none of these characters have on-screen names, though the first informant is referred to as Deep Throat). X sets "Sleepless" into motion. The writers make their way around the second problem by introducing Alex Krycek, an FBI agent who beats Mulder to the case in "Sleepless." As for the final problem, "Duane Barry" is the first of two parts that allows Anderson to leave the series indefinitely.

In "Sleepless," Mulder begins an investigation into a murder in the Bronx where his clue comes from his new source from deep within the FBI or the shadowy conspiracy that manipulates it. Acting on the clue, Mulder and Scully find a body with all of the secondary symptoms of being burned to death, but none of the primary symptoms (i.e. skin is not burned and there was no fire present). Mulder finds himself saddled with a new partner, Alex Krycek, who is young, ambitious, and seems to want nothing more than to help Mulder.

Soon, though, it becomes clear that there is someone forcing people to believe they are being killed in obscure ways when another body surfaces with all of the apparent signs of being shot over forty times. Mulder's source clues him in to an experimental procedure performed during Vietnam, performed to eradicate the need for sleep and it seems one of the people involved has found a new skill as a result of that . . .

In "Duane Barry," a distraught mental patient takes his psychiatrist hostage and barricades them both in a travel agency. Mulder is called in from his wiretapping work to join the hostage negotiation task force when the hostage-taker, Duane Barry, insists that he is menacing the doctor and the workers at the travel agency because he was abducted by aliens. Eager to see a peaceful resolution to the situation, Mulder joins the task force and quickly realizes that Duane Barry is not just another psychopath.

The leader of the task force admits that Duane Barry is formerly an FBI agent - and a very successful one - who dealt with hostage negotiations. Mulder begins to sympathize with Duane Barry and when Barry accidentally shoots one of the hostages, they find themselves in a race against time to end the standoff. Unfortunately, this leads Mulder to a risky exchange, during which Scully learns the truth about Duane Barry's medical condition.

"Sleepless" is a bottle episode, but it establishes pretty firmly the idea that the Federal government is not to be trusted. Chris Carter and his team seem to have a pretty keen distrust for authority positions in the government and the moment it becomes clear that the victims are all ex-marines, the viewer has a pretty good idea what direction the episode is going in. More than that, though, "Sleepless" is smart television because the villain of the episode, Augustus Cole, is more or less a victim himself.

Augustus Cole is an avenging angel of sorts and he is masterfully played by actor Tony Todd. Todd, whom I was most familiar with from his work as Worf's brother in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Sins Of The Father," is more than just a physical presence and a beautiful, deep voice in his roles, including Cole. Todd makes Cole an empathetic character with the way he is able to come to tears and lament what he is doing, independent of any moralizing from the protagonists. Todd has physical presence, but he is also able to make Cole deeply human and he's wonderful in the role.

Equally impressive is Steve Railsback as Duane Barry. Sometimes, there comes a performance from a character actor that makes the viewer just sit up and say "Damn!" Railsback's performance as Duane Barry is one such performance. Sweaty and irritable the entire episode, Railsback embodies the worst of what people fear when they hear about a mental patient. But far from a stereotype, Railsback infuses Duane Barry with a pathos. The character has a simple goal: to not be abducted by aliens any longer. He even has a plan, have the aliens take his psychiatrist instead of him. Railsback takes that concept and keeps Barry on edge, but somewhat believable throughout. And Railsback does something few actors can do: he's got murder in his eyes. Railsback perfectly portrays murderous rage in several of his scenes and the performance is frightening to watch.

As well, "Duane Barry" keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats for the simple reason that it is scary. This is an episode where the viewer sees aliens and mysterious rooms and shadowy government workers. This episode has one of the iconic images from The X-Files, and indeed in all of science fiction, when we see Duane Barry on an alien examination table restrained with his mouth wedged open in preparation for one of the procedures.

And the episode is a perfect example of how great special effects can augment great writing. Duane Barry claims that the aliens drilled into his teeth. There is a pretty amazing special effect of a laser beam drilling into his teeth - described in detail in the conversation with Chris Carter - but the effect is nowhere near as creepy as one of the lines that later describes the event. Mulder is told that Barry's dental records show tiny drill marks that are impossible to make with today's technology without chipping the teeth! Very creepy. The point here is that the special effects only augment the story, the episode is not about the effects.

Other guest actors in "Sleepless" and "Duane Barry" include Mitch Pileggi as Skinner, Steven Williams as X, Nicholas Lea as Krycek, and an utterly believable performance by CCH Pounder as the leader of the hostage negotiation team. These episodes of The X-Files are using dramatic heavyweights - even if the role made some of the actors - and it is using them remarkably well.

Because Scully is relegated to a supporting role in these episodes, David Duchovny is given the task of the heavy lifting of the episode. He plays Mulder with a sense of renewed conviction and his scenes opposite Steve Railsback allow him to play with an authority Mulder is seldom seen possessing.

These episodes include excerpts from a conversation with Chris Carter and he has some real insights into the writing and production of both episodes, adding some added value to the video.

It's not like the episodes need much more in the way of value; these are suspenseful episodes that successfully engage even the most jaded viewers of science fiction or drama in general. Anyone who wants a decent thriller will enjoy this tape.

[Given that VHS is a rapidly dying medium, a far better investment would be The X-Files - The Complete Second Season, reviewed here!
As well, those who already love The X-Files will find The X-Files - The Complete Series to be an even better buy and my review may be accessed by clicking here!
Thanks for reading!]

"Sleepless" - 7/10
"Duane Barry" - 8.5/10
VHS - 7/10

For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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