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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

X-Files Case Report: "Conduit"

"I want to believe."

At this point in the series, we've already seen the poster in Mulder's office that would become one of the iconic props of The X-Files, the one with the flying saucer on it and the slogan in big letters at the top. That poster always struck me as slightly odd, in the context of Mulder's office: it states "I want to believe", but as is very clear from the outset of the series, Mulder already does believe. But it turns out there's one thing that Mulder isn't sure he believes or not, a thing which is one of the most important aspects of his character. It is whether or not his sister is still alive and will one day come back to him.

"Conduit", our fourth episode, is the second to deal with alien abduction as its subject. Here, though – quite strikingly, as in comparison with the pilot – it's not nearly as clear, from the way the episode frames its events for the viewer, that abduction is really what's happened. There are odd things that happen, to be sure, things that probably can't be explained without resorting to alien abduction hypotheses, but at the same time, we don't see strange beings carrying out abductions, as we do in the pilot. The evidence is much more circumstantial, which makes for a generally creepier episode.

The story takes place in Iowa, where a family is camping beside a lake when there are bright lights, loud sounds, and sudden enormous heat. When the effects subside, the teenage daughter is missing, and the young son has started to show some very strange signs of having been, well, messed with a bit. For one thing, he is spending hours in front of a teevee that is tuned to no channel, claiming to be receiving signals from the television, which he is translating as sheet after sheet after sheet of paper of 1s and 0s. It turns out that the 1s and 0s encapsulate almost totally random pieces of data and information – bits of music, detail from Da Vinci drawings, and the like – and the sheets of binary also turn out to be something else, in one of the episode's best "surprise" moments. All this leads Mulder to suppose that the boy is a "conduit", being used by aliens for some purpose.

Of course, Mulder believes that the girl has been abducted by aliens, and of course Scully is unwilling to commit to that hypothesis with the evidence at hand. The missing girl is a juvenile delinquent, and she has been known to hang out with a local biker gang, leading most people to suppose that she has simply run off with them. Things take a dark turn, however, when the girl's boyfriend's body turns up, and when NSA agents turn up, claiming that the boy has somehow gotten hold of classified information.

Mulder is particularly driven in this episode, insisting on continuing the investigation into the girl's disappearance when all evidence seems to have run dry. His motivation is quickly made clear, as this episode begins to flesh out the great driving force behind Mulder's work: the abduction of his sister when he was a child. The episode ends with Scully listening to a tape of a hypnotic therapy session Mulder once underwent, which concludes with the interviewer asking Mulder if he believes that his sister, Samantha, is alive and will come back; Mulder replies, as the final credits begin, "I want to believe."

This episode is very well written and directed – the production values of even the early episodes of The X-Files are superb – but I did find the episode marred by something that probably wasn't its fault. The first five seasons of The X-Files were filmed in the Vancouver, with locales around that city doubling for whatever locale the episodes were set in. Usually this worked out fine, but there were times when it really didn't. Now, I don't expect that Lake Okoboji will be familiar to anyone who doesn't have some kind of connection to Iowa, but it amused me – and, unfortunately, undermined the episode a bit for me – to see Iowa's Lake Okoboji stood in for by a Vancouver-area lake, surrounded by very tall pines and hills higher than you'll find pretty much anywhere in Corn-belt Iowa. This had the effect of ejecting me from the story a bit, but I'm not sure what the producers really should have done – made up a different locale, perhaps.

The next episode will be the first of a bunch from Season One that I have never seen before. We'll see what happens. I, too, want to believe!

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