The Good: Character, Acting, Plot, Video bonus features, Pacing
The Bad: None that I can find! (Medium)
The Basics: Two great episodes of The X-Files introduce a new alien villain in "Piper Maru" and "Apocrypha!"
Those who follow my reviews know that it is a rare thing for me to rate something with a 10/10 and declare it "perfect," especially a two-part television episode. I happily rate "Piper Maru" and "Apocrypha" with the perfect rating because this is when The X-Files got it right. In fact, in these two episodes, they get everything right and part of that is because this is the establishment of the conspiracy mythology that would follow through the remainder of the series. It is episodes like these two that would later be forgotten or mortgaged as the series went on and it's too bad; this is an intense two-parter that deserved the attention of anyone who likes great science fiction!
In "Piper Maru," a French salvage vessel finds a downed American plane on the bottom of the ocean, but the diver who finds it discovers something more down there. The diver returns, possessed by an entity whose only indication of its presence within him is a black oil that can appear in his eyes and that coats him when it eventually leaves his body. The French diver is the only member of the Piper Maru's crew to not suffer incredible radiation burns, which are killing most of the crew of the ship. Mulder gets word of this the same day that Scully learns from Skinner that her sister's case is being made inactive. Distressed by that fact, Scully reluctantly accompanies Mulder to San Diego where the crew of the Piper Maru is being treated.
In San Diego, Scully finds a medical mystery that defies her explanation and she goes in search of one of her father's friends, who might be able to tell her what the French were looking for on the bottom of the ocean. Mulder, for his part, begins to investigate the salvage company that sent the Piper Maru to the same location as the Talapis. His search takes him to Hong Kong where he finds himself faced with Krycek, the man who killed his father!
In "Apocrypha," Mulder returns with Krycek only to be driven off the road by shadowy operatives who the infested Krycek easily dispatches. Having learned of the mission in 1945 that cost a naval vessel most of its crew, Scully returns to Washington, D.C. to find that A.D. Skinner has been shot and she soon learns that his assailant is the same one who shot her sister. Mulder's search for the long-lost digital tape (which Krycek was using to sell secrets, like the one that sent the Piper Maru to the Talapis' salvage location) leads him to a meeting with the Well-Manicured Man, whose interests also lay in finding Krycek.
With everyone suddenly hunting for Krycek, the infested rogue seeks out the Cigarette-Smoking Man for a trade: his space ship for the digital tape. As Mulder and Scully hunt him for the answers they seek, Skinner's life is once more put in jeopardy, with only Scully to save him!
"Piper Maru" and "Apocrypha" do what the best two-parters do; they tell a single story, as opposed to stretching a story out for suspense over the course of two weeks. No, in this case, the story is one that is well-developed conceptually and given the freedom to develop and be properly explored. In this case, as well, the episode is one that depends rather heavily on seeing other episodes of the series. The character arc that Scully goes through in this episode only makes sense if one has seen "Paper Clip" (reviewed here!). Similarly, the importance of the digital tape is laid out in that episode, but the mission of the Talapis (which, to be fair, only occupies a passing reference in this episode, despite the vital importance of its salvage) which came up in "Nisei" (reviewed here!) helps to enrich the plot of this episode.
"Piper Maru" puts Scully in a rather defensive position from the outset, which is something she might be used to given the outrageous theories Mulder often comes up with. However, in this case, her sense of being an outsider is much more based upon actual character elements. She is deeply frustrated over the treatment of her sister's case and when it is closed, she - who has been involved in catching villains with far less evidence to go on than what was left by the killer of her sister - rails against Skinner and becomes more melancholy and withdrawn.
The treat for fans of Scully is to see how she is able to take control of the situation in "Apocrypha." In that episode, when Skinner is gunned down, she fills the power vacuum and it makes for a wonderful bit of character work where we see her in an authoritative position and she handles herself admirably. Scully's ability to take charge works and it is a shame we seldom see that side of her in the course of the series; actress Gillian Anderson seems perfectly comfortable with her character being assertive and she moves with a strength and dignity that the viewer seldom sees her with on The X-Files.
As powerful as Scully taking charge in this two-parter is the sense of something that I seldom address in my reviews of The X-Files. Part of what makes "Piper Maru" and "Apocrypha" so stark is that Mulder and Scully are running around on essentially separate missions the whole time. Mulder and Scully - largely in the "mythology" episodes - frequently seem to be working on separate things, something I've only been catching as I go through the series this time. In fact, I'm surprised by how it never registered with me before how often they are actually doing separate investigations; fans tend to think of them as partners and almost constantly together.
The serialized nature of these episodes might make it difficult for non-fans to get into them, but the truth is, anyone who loves great science fiction or even just creepy action adventure stories, will find something to like about this two-parter. It is also worth noting that the "mythology" that The X-Files created, which was populated by various alien races, never tied up all of the loose ends, which was good. However, it is seldom noted that the black oil creature in these episodes has many of the same powers (like the ability to essentially nuke people where they stand) as the unseen alien in the first season's "Fallen Angel" (reviewed here!).
Part of what lends the entire episode credibility is the quality of the acting. In addition to Gillian Anderson's powerful performance as an assertive Dana Scully, Nicholas Lea, John Neville, William B. Davis, and Mitch Pileggi all give amazing supporting performances with their recurring characters who are each given fairly juicy scenes. Davis -whose character of the Cigarette-Smoking Man - had been somewhat weakened by events early in the season, comes back with a confidence that makes his character once more seem unstoppable. Pileggi's Skinner is given a meaty part and the mature actor gives a surprisingly realistic performance while bedridden!
David Duchovny caps off "Apocrypha" with a beautiful exchange with Anderson that reminds viewers of all of the potential of the chemistry between the two characters. Duchovny and Anderson play off one another remarkably well and after an hour and a half of running around as Mulder, the more cerebral scene suits Duchovny well.
This two-parter marks the first appearance of the black oil entity and sets up a vital component of the conspiracy arc for the series.
[Given that VHS is a rapidly dying medium, a far better investment would be The X-Files - The Complete Third Season, reviewed by me here!
As well, those who already love The X-Files will find The X-Files - The Complete Series to be an even better buy, here!
Thanks for reading!]
"Piper Maru" - 10/10
"Apocrypha" - 10/10
VHS - 8/10
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© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission
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