Monday, June 13, 2011

In "Tunguska" And "Terma," Mulder And Scully Find A Variant Of The Black Oil Creature!

The Good: Good character work, Freaky acting, Decent special effects
The Bad: Story gets a bit convoluted here.
The Basics: When Krycek reappears, so does the Black Oil (sort of), and The X-Files's mythology gets a little skewed.

The X-Files had a slow arc to greatness and a pretty long collapse for its decent. This is a belief I held for some time, but never realized just how derailed the show became until I had the opportunity to watch the episodes closely repeatedly. As I am going through the entire series again, I think that I might have found the precise moment the show began to derail and that is in the fourth season two-parter "Tunguska" and "Terma."

"Tunguska" and "Terma" mark the return - sort of - of the Black Oil organism that was first seen in "Piper Maru" and "Apocrypha" (reviewed here!). The thing is, the properties of the entity in this particular episode are both more clear (as in its origin) and much more convoluted. Outside the special effect that defines this creepy organism, there is little that links the creature in these episodes and the prior two. And while I can respect not giving all of the answers right away, the plot of this episode ends up making no real sense with a cursory examination of the events.

In "Tunguska," a diplomat is stopped in New York City with a pouch that is opened by customs. It appears to possess the black oil and the diplomat is appalled when it attacks a custom's agent. Elsewhere in New York, Mulder and Scully make a raid on a small group of domestic terrorists that Mulder has been clued in on. One of the leaders of the raid is none other than Krycek, rescued from the missile silo by this militia. When Mulder is content to let Krycek rot, the former FBI agent lets Mulder know that the bombs they recovered in the raid are only ones that he told Mulder about.

While Scully investigates a second diplomat and his meteorite containing the black oil alien, which has left a scientist in comatose condition, Mulder turns Krycek over to Skinner, who keeps him at his apartment in protective custody. Protective custody is a relative term and Krycek ends up throwing an assailant off the balcony of Skinner's apartment and he and Mulder flee to Russia in the attempt to find the source of the meteorite fragments that are being smuggled into the U.S. and divine the purpose of their arrival in the U.S.

In "Terma," Mulder remains a captive of the Russians who have infected him with what his cell neighbor calls the Black Cancer. When a nursing home patient in Boca Raton, Florida attempts to euthanize herself, she inadvertently exposes the U.S.'s attempt to find an inoculation to the same organism, which appears to be the point to smuggling more of the organism into the U.S. As Mulder attempts to escape the facility in Russia and exact revenge upon Krycek, Scully testifies in front of a Senate subcommittee.

Held in contempt of congress, Scully formulates the connection between the diplomatic pouches, the deaths and the organism that has left a scientist comatose. As she threatens to expose this to the Subcommittee, the Cigarette-Smoking Man and the Well-Manicured Man hunt their Russian counterpart who has arrived to thwart their plans.

This is where the mythology of The X-Files begins to go astray. Things that the careful viewer can easily understand is that this organism is not the same one as the prior Black Oil creature. The Black Oil in the prior two episodes had been living under the sea in the body of a World War II American pilot. The Black Cancer comes from a meteorite. But outside that, the entity seems more or less identical. It can be divided and recombine, it absorbs into the host body and is visible in the same way when the victim blinks. This version, however, leaves its victim paralyzed instead of allowing the entity to control the body. Okay, we can live with all of these discrepancies because this incarnation appears to be an ancient version of the same organism (the exact number of thousands of years old the entity appears to be is mentioned in the episodes, while it appears the previous creature came in a spaceship to Earth in the 1940s). But why the entity reacts so differently within the hosts is not satisfactorily explained in this episode.

Far more problematic is what the episodes reveal about the conspiracy that defines the mythology of "The X-Files's" larger story. In the fourth season premiere (reviewed here!), the viewer is told that this conspiracy is about alien colonization and it is implied that the colonizing aliens will use bees and plants to spread themselves. This makes sense with an organism like the black oil or cancer. What makes less sense is the nature of the actual experiments.

In Russia, prisoners are being used to try to find a vaccine to the Black Cancer. This makes no sense considering that the Russians already have a vaccine, as illustrated in the second part. I can buy the whole idea that the Russians and the shadow conspiracy in the U.S. are using the primitive "black cancer" entity as opposed to a fragment of the "black oil" creature if for no other reason than it makes sense that if this creature has some form of hive mind, those working with it can't exactly ask for a sample to try to inoculate themselves against the thing. But why the shadow conspiracy members - specifically the Well-Manicured Man - allow their allies in the Senate (which is used, rather annoyingly, interchangeably with "Congress" in these episodes) to begin an investigation makes no sense. After all, they are trying to keep their equivalent experiments quiet. The only way the episodes make any real sense on the plot front is that Krycek has arranged to import the meteorite fragments in order to expose the shadow conspiracy. After all, the shadow conspiracy people don't need to import the rock and the organism inside; they already have it in Boca Raton.

If this sounds like a lot of nit-picking or overly complicated untwisting of the events of the episode, you're realizing my problem with it. "Tunguska" and "Terma" are terribly unclear in the broad strokes of the episode. The nature of the entity in this two-parter is not explored well enough to make it clear and the fact that none of the characters who encountered the black oil entity compare it to the black cancer entity here is utterly ridiculous. In other words, it has the feel of the writers and producers making up the storyline as they went along, which is largely what is happening. Unfortunately, these two episodes feel exactly like that; assembled on the fly without a respect for the larger storyline.

Moreover, in terms of the plot, because the two-parter begins with Scully testifying to the Subcommittee, the viewer spends much of the time simply waiting for her to get back to the beginning!

What the episode does have is character. Krycek ascends to the level of real villain and there is something wonderful about how his intense and well-conceived plan still ends up turning out badly for him personally. It also eliminates all doubt that Krycek is a badass whose initial appearance of being a green FBI agent was a clear and troublesome cover. Just as Krycek comes into his own as a lethal and advanced mind in the conspiracies of The X-Files world, the Well-Manicured Man and the Cigarette-Smoking Man both become more developed as they expose some of the deeper plans of their organization.

Skinner is given only a few brief scenes in "Tunguska" and "Terma," but here he again proves himself a strong, if torn, ally to Mulder and Scully. Rather satisfying for those who are fans of The X-Files is the moment when Skinner encounters Krycek and has the chance to deck him, whatwith Krycek nearly killing him in the prior season.

But, of course, Mulder and Scully move much of the episode and in this two-parter, the pair are separated as they often seem to be. Scully illustrates an incredible loyalty that is nothing short of loving for Mulder in these episodes, risking her career and ultimately admitting the existence of an extraterrestrial life form on Earth. Similarly, Mulder's outburst in the climax of the episode is a reciprocal act of love and protection, preventing Scully from being discredited for the scientific evidence she has uncovered to back up her assertions.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny give decent performances, Duchovny especially as he makes the viewer believe he is being tormented, infected, and pretty well beaten up. But ultimately, this is not an outstanding two-parter, even though it is part of the essential The X-Files if for no other reason than to explain how Krycek got out of the missile silo and . . . .

[Given that VHS is a rapidly dying medium, a far better investment would be The X-Files - The Complete Fourth 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!]

"Tunguska" - 7/10
"Terma" - 5.5/10
VHS - 5/10

For other television episode or DVD set reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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