The X-Files #69: José Chung's From Outer Space

"I didn't spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage."
ACTUAL DOCUMENTED ACCOUNT: Accounts of an alien abduction vary wildly as an author researching the event discovers.

REVIEW: The ultimate Darin Morgan episode, José Chung is a Rashomonian comedy that plays on the show's natural ambiguities to deliver memorable (but not too memorable, as in, I remembered some of it differently, which is pretty perfect) scenes and characters caught up in one of the X-Files' stock plots. It's Rashomon, but in hyper-drive, with a big dose of Morgan's impertinent pokes at the show's tropes and reputation (the joke about closure, the way the leads are described as robotic mandroids, etc.). And though quite funny, it's something the episode builds to. It doesn't start there, but instead creates an accumulation of layers each more ludicrous than the next until you can't tell what's absurd from what's "true". If truth can even exist in this reality (but see The Truth nonetheless).

The meta-textual nature of the script, which uses various witnesses to at once illuminate and obfuscate what really happened, is used to very good effect. José Chung's conclusion, that we may not be alone in the grander sense, we really are alone in our heads, in our perceptions. And it plays with the idea that while some characters are actively brainwashed in this story (the girl's recursive double-hypnosis is pretty amazing), we've all been, each of us, brainwashed by media to expect certain things, or to describe events using pop culture, thus integrating that imagery into our memories. Lord Kinbote, the monster from the Earth's core, is quite clearly a Harryhausen cyclops; the girl remembers pleather costumes from bad sci-fi; and even directorially, the episode tries to bring up references like the opening of Star Wars (as with every Darin Morgan episode, there's an amusing "no it isn't" reveal). The theme is very much the reliability of memory, and even Scully's POV, which is presented as the most objective, must, per force, be biased. What she leaves out is probably as important as what she leaves in, and her fannish adoration of Chung as a writer would also have an effect on how she represents herself and her work. Did he sense she was holding out? Is that was his line about her nonetheless being a federal agent was all about? Mulder at first refuses to talk to Chung because he feels fictionalized accounts only hurt the search for truth, either by ridiculing abductees and truth-seekers (which this episode indeed does) or by implanting brainwashing images into the zeitgeist, as we discussed. The subtext gets complex and fascinating.

But this isn't some dry thesis, it's incredibly entertaining as well. The Men in Black - one of whom looks just like Alex Trebek, the other, Jesse "The Body" Ventura - alone are worth the price of admission, angry debunkers of UFO sightings who drive into your garage and harangue you about the simple truths of astronomy. I would have loved to see these guys again. There are aliens getting abducted by other aliens. Scully's account omits all the swear words, which makes one particular character speak in bleeps and blanks (allowing herself a few off-color comments as well). And then there's the alien autopsy Scully performs, which is then turned into a sensational video, hiding the "important finding" of a zipper. Well, at least the Greys in the story were real... real men in suits, but real. The Cigarette Smoking Alien is later revealed to be an Air Force pilot caught up in brainwashing experiments. He feels like he's trapped in a Philip K. Dick novel. If he even existed (he has his own doubts) since the diner's fry cook only remembers Mulder eating a whole pie on that night and no one else (a victim of brainwashing himself?). And it's a lot of fun just to see Mulder and Scully as angry MiBs themselves, slapping nerds around (and in Mulder's case, letting out a girlish yelp at the sight of an alien body). The tragedy here is that this is Darin Morgan's last episode, but at least he went out with a bang.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE: Probably the most reasonable version of events would have the military using "alien abduction" to cover their brainwashing experiments. So this is NOT the group that abducts and surgically modifies people, but it does use a version of that modus operandi (though likely connected, since one experiment will help the others succeed). In this case, the abducters dress as Greys, though the brainwashers themselves simply plant post-hypnotic suggestions to make the abductee remember an entirely alien experience from that point on. So who is Lord Kinbote, the third and entirely unconvincing alien? The "Greys" see him, as does one of the more looney-tunes witnesses, but given the pilot's intense mental issues, this is probably a memory implant too. In fact, no account of these events can be trusted because memory-altering techniques exist. Even Scully forgets an encounter with the MiBs, though it's clear SOMEthing happened in her room because her bucket of ice is still in the room (albeit as water), as is Mulder himself. We do know an aircraft was found with a dead crew, their bodies planted at the site, since they were in fact rediscovered there. So we can definitely chalk this one down to NOT ALIENS, though that may be the Scully in me talking. What if the hoax is perpetrated by aliens brainwashing humans to make it seem like 1) alien abduction is a ridiculous myth, and 2) that their own government is responsible for these events?

REWATCHABILITY: High - A complex comedy that has many things to say about the X-Files' usual themes. Peel back one layer, you'll find another. A top notch "offbeat" episode.


American Hawkman said...

Pound for pound, I think this is the high water mark of the series.

Siskoid said...

Yes, though impossible without the rest as context. Which means we can fob this one off as an example to people who wonder if they'd like the X-Files.

snell said...

Detective Manners was based on frequent series director Kim Manners, who was apparently quite the potty-mouth on the set. Hence the "blankety-blanks."

I can't believe I'm saying this, but perhaps it's just as well Darin didn't write any more episodes--how much deeper down the rabbit hole can you go before you get lost completely? At least we get a couple of Millenniums from him...

Anonymous said...

There was an actual Jose Chung who kept pestering Chris Carter with ideas, so this episode was sort of the revenge on the real Jose Chung.

Then Jose Chung appeared on an episode of "Millennium" that spent most of its time skewering Scientology.

Siskoid said...

There was NOT an actual José Chung, because he was a prank perpetrated on Carter by the writing staff. But you're right, the "character" had a life before the episode.

Anonymous said...

Well hell, that's what I get for believing Usenet circa 1998. Sorry!


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