The X Files Revisited: 4.04 Unruhe
The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. Now eight years after the second movie The X Files: I Want To Believe, the show is returning for six new episodes in 2016. Here at The Digital Fix, we are going to work our way through each season, reviewing some of the big episodes – and both movies – across the years in the build up to season ten. With 202 episodes, there is simply too much to cover every episode; instead we'll pick the story highlights of each year. Unruhe doesn't top any 'best of' lists but it certainly a strong entry in The X Files season four...
The great thing about The X Files is its ability explore the strange and bizarre, myths and legends and adapt them into great storytelling. It isn't always successful - take season one's Shapes, which attempted a werewolf story with a Native American twist but didn't quite achieve it - though it is always willing to try something new. Unruhe delves into the idea of psychic photography or 'thoughtography' as Mulder defines it. Sounds utterly ridiculous right?
But actually, Unruhe manages to use that idea to tell a well-crafted and suspenseful tale that while not regarded as the greats of season four, still garners a lot of appreciation. It is a suitably creepy tale with an image - the woman screaming in the photograph surrounded by a swirl of skulls - that stuck with me since its first broadcast. And while it is another episode that sees Scully become the next potential victim, it really works because of the very real horror at play.
The pre-title sequence is a classic red herring scenario. A woman rushes through the rain into a local pharmacy to get her passport taken while her nervous boyfriend sits in the car, watching a passing police car with suspicion. But he isn't the real threat; he becomes the first victim with an ice pick to the temple. A mysterious figure in a bright yellow mac and hood brushes past the woman, drugging her and abducting her as she collapses outside in the rain after discovering her dead boyfriend in the car. And 'The X Filesy bit? That will be the photograph the pharmacist took of the woman, showing her screaming, reaching out with wide eyes as those skulls swirl past her.
Naturally the photo attracts Mulder's attention and soon he and Scully are investigating the kidnapping case. Scully is quick to explain away the photo with a rationalised explanation that the photo paper in the pharmacy was both out of date and damaged by a heater below the boxes. At this stage, Mulder's belief that the photo was a psychic projection by the woman's abductor, a 'thoughtograph' is absurd if a little disturbing.
Like a number of episodes of The X Files, there is little supernatural element at play; it is another story that feels like a precursor to modern shows like Criminal Minds. And while the events that take place are chilling, there is little that cannot be explained way as the disturbed actions of a mentally disturbed mind. The woman is found wandering the highway, lobotomized while a second woman is soon abducted, a secretary of an accountant murdered with the same ice pick. The only clue is the first victim's mutterings of 'unruhe' which Scully, a fluent German speaker, means unrest, a phrase that will become more apparent as the story progresses.
It is after the second abduction that things really get interesting, turning the episode from just engaging story to a tightly woven episode. Failing to find further evidence of psychic photography, Mulder takes the photo back to a lab at DC where the image is twisted to reveal something quite terrifying, the skulls and the face of the abductor, twisted into the image like a spectre, long legs making him a demonic figure. Scully meanwhile takes centre stage, tracking down the foreman of a building site who was watching the victims from his place of work. The timely call from Mulder suggesting that the killer has unnaturally long legs leads to the sudden realisation that the foreman wearing stilts is the abductor and a frantic chase through the building site sees Scully apprehend him.
Pruitt Taylor Vince plays a disturbing if somewhat sympathetic character in Gerry Schnauz, the abductor of the two women. A man suffering with schizophrenia, his attempts are as much about wanting to save people as the suffering he causes. He sees the howlers in their heads, like his own, and the lobotomies are his way of correcting that. Unfortunately that leads to a lot of bloodshed along the way.
Kicking up a gear, the policeman taking Gerry's prints off a photo which shows himself shot in the head, realising too late what is happening before Gerry takes his gun and kills him. His escape allows him to track down the woman who caught him; Scully. In this episode Scully is a rather strong character, leading the investigation and tracking down the killer but Gillian Anderson continues to find ways of balancing that strength with vulnerability. We have seen Scully disturbed by cases before - see season two's Irresistable - and the same sense of unease is here too, leading to her own drugged-induced abduction as Gerry emerges from under her car and taking her by surprise.
The supernatural element arises again as Mulder discovers a photo which shows the same disturbing image of Scully as the original victim, screaming, wide-eyed and reaching out for help as swirls of skeletons surround her. Knowing her potential fate it is easy to feel disturbed. If Gerry 'saves' Scully, she won't die but she will become a shell of the person she once was.
And yet she remains strong to the very end, even when she is bound to the dentist chair in Gerry's lair. "I have no unrest. I don't have to be saved." she tells her abductor in German as he waits in the shadows, trying to connect to his own German heritage and remain sympathetic to his actions even with the danger she faces. The most terrifying thing about her abduction is the idea that there is no way to appeal to Gerry; he believes Scully has howlers inside her head and he has to save her no matter what she says.
The final scenes are rather tense as Mulder frantically searches for Scully, using clues in her photograph to find the trailer in the graveyard where she is being kept. The final twist - Gerry taking a photo of himself that shows his dead body - is a dark one; Scully breaks free, Mulder rushes in and shoots her abductor and he ends up becoming the image he psychically created on film.
"For truly to pursue monsters, we must understand them. We must venture into their minds. Only in doing so: do we risk letting them venture into ours?"
Scullys final voiceover as she types up the case is very season one in tone and perfectly sums up the chilling nature of this episode. Getting into the minds of monsters is something not uncommon on today's TV but yet again it is shows like The X Files that really led the way...