The X-Files and The Monsters of That Week: Beyond The Sea
So, over here in Guignol Land, I’m handing over a new series to my delicious and delightful co-writer over at No But Listen, Kevin! An X-Files fanatic, he wants to counter my attempts to make through lost with a classic series that actually still stands up, with a deep-dive into the best episodes that The X-Files has to offer. Without further ado, enjoy his first entry into this series!
The X-Files is a cultural phenomenon, a show that is nearly thirty years old but has maintained a level of popularity bigger than the shows that supposedly helped kill it off in the first place: no-one talks about 24 anymore, and most people (myself included) still don’t know how to feel about Lost.
The main reason The X-Files is still such a big deal (despite its many flaws) is how it popularised and arguably perfected the monster of the week format. Through this structure, the show could morph into any shape it wanted, whether that be horror, thriller, farce, some horny nineties erotica, and some of the most brilliantly meta episodes of television ever made. In order to celebrate just how brilliant The X-Files is (and because I just finished a full re-watch and still need a fix of that paranormal good stuff), I’m going to be co-opting this blog for a few weeks to write about the best (and worst) monster of the week episodes this show has to offer.
Season one of The X-Files is predictably strange and somewhat experimental. The writers, actors, and directors were still figuring out what the best version of the show looked like, and Beyond the Sea is our first glimpse. While there is more traditionally great MOW in season one (the Tooms episodes, for example, and the brilliant Ice) Beyond the Sea is the first episode where the show ripped up its own rule book.
The premise is one of the season’s more complex, as it puts Scully in the position of the believer for the first time as she and Mulder investigate claims that a serial killer that Mulder put away, who is currently on Death Row, has a psychic connection to another killer who has been abducting and killing teenage couples. The Death Row psychic killer (how long before that’s a rapper’s name?), Luther Lee Boggs, is one of the most memorable human villains of the show: mainly because he is played by the sickeningly talented Brad Dourif.
A typical MOW at the beginning of the show’s run introduces a threat – a mutant, crazy-making worm, a grouchy AI, Victor Tombs – and has it kill people brutally, with Mulder and Scully always a step behind until the very end where Mulder sees something that reaffirms his faith in the paranormal while Scully sees practically nothing so as to keep her place as the sceptic.
Beyond the Sea is the exact opposite of this. Thanks to Mulder’s history with Boggs, he is convinced that the murderer is trying to buy more time before his inevitable execution. Mulder’s openness to extreme possibilities is nowhere in sight, even proving (to his own satisfaction, if no one else’s) that Boggs is a liar with the help of a torn off piece of his New York Knicks t-shirt. This state of affairs leads to the episode’s masterstroke: having Mulder and Scully switch roles.
One of the reasons that Beyond the Sea is so important to the show’s mythos is that this is the episode that truly launched Dana Scully as an all-time great character. Scully is ostensibly the audience surrogate, the rational, real-world anchor to all of Mulder’s crazy theories (which usually turn out to be true, because they wouldn’t have much of a show if he kept on being wrong). You would think that Scully would become grating at some point, obtuse despite all the amazing things going on around her, but that reputation is misleading. Scully believes in lots of extreme possibilities – the only consistent denial is that aliens exist and that they are coming to take back the planet; that takes seven seasons for her to even start to think about changing her mind on.
Beyond the Sea is the first episode of the show to cross that line of her belief. Up until this point, Scully has been consistently challenging Mulder’s work, but her guard against the paranormal comes down due to the untimely death of her father. This leads to one of the eeriest scenes of the entire show: after falling asleep on the couch after her parents have left, Scully awakes to find her dad sitting on a chair across from her mouthing something that she can’t hear. The phone rings and her dad disappears. The call is Scully’s mother, telling her that her dad has just died. What would it take for a woman of science to entertain the idea of the paranormal? What would it take for any skeptic? It would have to be something personal, and a visitation – indeed, a death omen – would be enough to shake up even the strictest of skeptics.
It’s this pursuit of clarity that fuels Scully in this episode, enough to take Boggs’ promise of further contact with her deceased dad seriously. It’s a smart and very well-crafted episode, but its greatest achievement is that it starts a tradition of episodes of the show based around the strength of Gillian Anderson’s performance as Scully. These acting showcases are the reason that Scully is, more often than not, the show’s most popular character. She is us, only smarter, she’s Mulder’s anchor, only better, and she’s the show’s greatest achievement, and may she live forever.
Beyond the Sea is a classic monster of the week because it showed us how eclectic The X-Files could be, and there is so much more to come. I hope you’ll join me for the good, the bad, and the extra-terrestrial.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Everything is Scary)