The X Files Revisited: 8.04 Roadrunners
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The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. And then in 2016, it returned for six new episodes, a mix of mythology and case of the week stories that brought Mulder and Scully back the FBI. From the brilliant Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster to the frantic mythology cliff-hanger in My Struggle II, it was largely viewed as a success and there are hopes that season 10 is just the first of more. In the lead up to the revival, The Digital Fix reviewed the pilot episode and then carried on throughout the series, covering the best and most significant episodes of the show including the first movie The X Files: Fight The Future. Our revisit of the eighth season continues with this gruesome story that puts Scully in mortal danger...
Like the previous episode Patience, Roadrunners marks The X Files' return to dark, gruesome horror that was seemingly rare in the last two seasons. It's not to say that that was all bad - season six had numerous classic episodes - but with the show going through a quasi-reboot, the return to its gloomy origins feels like a good move. The fourth episode sees Scully out on her own (seemingly not learning to trust Doggett after the events of their first case), entering a backward community in the middle of Utah while investigating the bludgeoned body of a 22-year old backpacker whose spine was as degraded to that of a ninety-year old.
While I feel for Scully, she certainly doesn't come across in the best light so far this season; when Doggett has come across as engaged, supportive FBI partner she has been nothing but dismissive and confrontational. Deciding to follow a grizzly murder away from all trappings of civilisation and pregnant, this episode sees her make an almighty, almost-fatal mistake. It's a bold move to cast Scully in this light but with seven years of history the audience is behind her still. Furthermore, it makes Doggett work for his role on The X Files and saving her from the insidious cult at the end of the episode, he absolutely proves it.
The episode taps into the vibe of previous classic episodes; the horror lurking in the backward community harks back to the terrifying season four episode Home and the cannibal-cultists of season two's Our Town. After a backpacker flags down a bus on a Utah highway, he encounters a cult of people who bludgeon one of their own to death. It is a creepy opening; something is 'off' the moment he enters the bus but his screams as the community surrounds him and the scene fades to black is unsettling.
When Scully arrives alone (fobbing off Doggett by saying the case isn't a big deal and getting him to look into old cases), she drives into the ramshackle community and her uneasiness is apparent. The local man offers her gas but it quickly disables her car, forcing her to seek a phone and a way to escape. But the phone lines are dead and she has no choice but to take the offer of a room, keeping her gun close to her as she plans her next move. The whole community carries a sense of decay, shadowy prayer meetings behind locked rooms and the severe lack of technology suggesting there is a dark reason why they are shut away from the rest of the world. Trapped, Scully is asked to help a local 'stranger' - the backpacker from the start of the episode - and makes a gruesome discovery.
There is an effective build up to Scully's isolation and Gillian Anderson takes centre stage for much of the episode, starting keen and eager to follow Mulder's path and solve this mystery alone and then building the frustration and unease as she finds herself stuck without contact with Doggett. By the time she examines the backpacker and discovers the nasty wound in his back and the worm-like creature sliding up his spine, you know (as does she) that she has made a mistake and will likely be the next victim. The scene as she tries to pull the creature out is disgusting; while we have seen similar creatures in sci-fi stories (there is even a striking similarity to season one's Ice) it is effectively done. Her efforts to help the man are futile - giving up her gun without realising he is already being controlled by his host - and before she can make her desperate escape the community swarms in and murders the backpacker, removing the creature from his corpse and closing in on Scully. She screams that she is pregnant but it is too late; she put herself and her baby in this situation and now there is no hope.
Except of course for Doggett. I continue to enjoy Robert Patrick's take on his character; he is a keen investigator, linking the loss of Scully and the backpacker to four other similar bodies found in the area over the years. And he is quick to rope in the local police force even as he continues his lone search for his partner. There is real tension as he drives into the town while Scully lies writhing with pain in the bed as the creature worms its way up her spine. Not fooled by the lies of the two locals, he rushes in to save Scully and is forced to cut the creature free before it can reach her brain. The zombie-like people smashing their way into the bus as he tries to save Scully makes for a gruesome, tense climax to the episode.
What I really liked is that after the creature has been killed and the cult-like community have all taken a vow of silence, Scully isn't immediately coddled by Doggett. She apologies for going off alone but he doesn't let her off for her actions. He might need to prove himself to the audience (and I think already he has) but for Scully, she needs to earn his trust. It's a nice role-reversal for Scully. She might be trying to take Mulder's role but it isn't without some serious mistakes on her part.
The story of a parasitic worm infecting a host has been done in everything from The Thing to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and this isn't the first time The X Files has attempted this story. But it is still a strong entry - a gruesome, chilling tale that puts Scully's life in danger partly through her own actions and allows Doggett to become the hero. There were a few moments that made me squirm and for a good horror story, that's a sign of success. The X Files has returned to its darker roots and it's all the better for it...