Carl Sweeney kicks us off talking about our least favourite episodes, by discussing ‘Excelsis Dei’…
Considering that more than 200 episodes of The X-Files have been produced it’s remarkable how few outright duds there have been. This is not to say that there haven’t been plenty of substandard episodes. However, instalments with no redeeming values are rare. Usually, this was because David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and Robert Patrick were worth watching even when their talents were at the service of a lacklustre screenplay. Mark Snow’s scores and the production values could be counted on to be solid, especially once the series really hit its stride. Some of the least successful episodes are undeniably terrible while being distinctive and strangely fascinating at the same time (‘Fight Club’, I’m thinking about you).
‘Excelsis Dei’ is the 11th episode of season 2 of The X-Files. It is for X-Files completists only. In it, Mulder and Scully go to a convalescent home to look into the rape of a nurse by an invisible assailant. While they’re looking into the attack, further unexplained incidents occur. There are a number of problems with the episode. It handles difficult subject matter badly, is poorly plotted and ploddingly paced. Duchovny and Anderson are fine but some of the supporting performances are unnecessarily broad. The locations used are suitably atmospheric but not much is made of them. There are good ideas in the screenplay but none are developed sufficiently.
The episode was written by Paul Brown, who was also credited on the far superior ‘Ascension’. It’s difficult not to see the way that Brown writes Mulder here as a problem. It’s true that there are times during the series when Mulder loses interest in a case or a witness when there appears to be no sign of paranormal activity. Indeed, Darin Morgan’s script for ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’, one of the greatest hours of television ever, contains such a scenario. However, Mulder’s behaviour in ‘Excelsis Dei’ is unusually callous.
Mulder forms the view that Michelle Charters has concocted the story of her rape as a means of getting out of a job she hates. He ostensibly feels this way because there is insufficient evidence to support her story. This is an odd position for him to take when you consider the number of X-Files cases that end with Mulder lacking evidence but believing wholeheartedly in the supernatural event of the moment. It also jars when you think about the sensitivity Mulder shows to female victims of abuse in, say, ‘Oubliette’. Furthermore, Mulder is unconvinced by ‘entity rape’ in general. It seems an odd choice to make one of the few phenomena that he doesn’t believe in be one that involves sexual assault.
Now, if Mulder’s thoughtlessness had been developed in some way, things would be different. The episode could perhaps have ended with him reflecting on how quick he was to discard what Michelle was saying. This would have the potential to be horribly heavy-handed but could be pulled off if done skilfully. However, as no such moment occurs, we can only assume that the writer is not using Mulder’s attitude to make any kind of point and that if the viewer finds Mulder exasperating this is unintentional.
What’s also frustrating is that the character of Michelle, and the issue of her rape, are sidelined as the episode progresses. An episode built around an ‘entity rape’ is an interesting concept, and one that’s completely valid for The X-Files, but it could only succeed if treated with the utmost sensitivity. I can only conclude that it is unwise to make rape only one of a number of violent incidents in this episode. If the character of Michelle had been physically attacked but not raped, ‘Excelsis Dei’ might have been more palatable.
In fairness, there are other episodes of this show with dubious sexual subtext. Interesting debates can be had about, for instance, ‘Post-Modern Prometheus’ and ‘Small Potatoes’. What really damns ‘Excelsis Dei’ is that it is dull. Stephen Surjik wasn’t given a great script to direct but there are a couple of scenes that should have been tense. The scene where the orderly hangs from the window falls flat due to how long it takes to unfold. The same can be said of the final set-piece with Mulder and Michelle locked in the room as it floods, where Surjik’s attempts to add some urgency with frantic cross-cutting prove ineffective.
There is the basis for an interesting episode here that deals with the way people in different cultures look after their elders. Unfortunately, this notion is undermined by the clichéd representation of the character of Gung, a Malaysian orderly growing mushrooms in the basement of the care home. It is only in the final few minutes of the episode that this character is given any voice, by which point the audience is metaphorically checking its watch.
‘Excelsis Dei’ doesn’t work. It isn’t scary or exciting. It squanders interesting concepts through poor writing and indifferent execution. The same is true of other episodes of this show, certainly, but for my money The X-Files was never less impressive than here.
You can follow Carl on Twitter @csweeney758.