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THE X-FILES RE-OPENED: 1.13-Beyond the Sea

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I adore Beyond the Sea and for a long time I would tell anyone who asked me, and even those who hadn’t, that it was my favourite episode of The X-Files. Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong, directed by David Nutter and featuring a mesmerizing guest performance from Brad Dourif, it’s amazing to note that Beyond the Sea was an episode of the show that 20th Century Fox were hesitant about Ten Thirteen producing.

An amazingly personal story and the first chance the series gave Gillian Anderson to show what she was really made off, if, like me, and many others, you believe that Gillian Anderson is one of the best actresses working in the world today, then Beyond the Sea is a chance to see the actress show what she was really made off in the early days of her most iconic role.

In many ways Fox seemingly always had a problem with the actress in the early days of a show that would become its most iconic and profitable of the 90’s, or at the very least their most iconic and profitable live action series, which is always kind of ironic given how famous and frequently seen many of those Mulder and Scully promotional images where during the period. Chris Carter had to fight hard to cast her in the role, and even when the show was up and running, the network still had problems with her to the extent that allegedly the character of Phoebe Green in Fire was intended as a possible replacement.

Not that Fox had a problem with the series giving Anderson a showcase of her acting talents, but they did have a problem with the script for Beyond the Sea, and in the end Carter had to put his foot down with his network bosses and basically tell them that the episode would be produced. As it was a Morgan & Wong script, the writing was damn well perfect and would see them reunited with their Ice director David Nutter. This combination of writers and director saw the show deliver one of its most suspenseful episodes and would, once again, see the series deliver something sensational.

If Ice was an exercise in sci-fi suspense that owed a debt to John Carpenter’s The Thing, then Beyond the Sea would be a tip of the hat to a movie that Chris Carter had mentioned in interviews when talking about his inspirations for his hit series, as well as his lead female character; The Silence of the Lambs.

The 1991 movie, which won numerous Academy Awards, was about the hunt for serial killer Buffalo Bill, but Jonathan Demme’s movie was more interested in the relationship at the heart of the movie between FBI student Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who helps the FBI in their hunt for Bill.

Beyond the Sea would prove unique in X-Files canon by placing Scully front and centre, as well as having its two lead characters swap points of view, with Mulder effectively in the role of skeptic and Scully as believer. The role reversal was beautifully handled and brilliantly played by both lead actors and was done incredibly naturally in the context of the story and the series would return to this character change in several other episodes throughout its run, namely Revelations and Orison, episodes dealing with religious themes, as well as season five’s key mythology two-part story Patient X and The Red and The Black.

At the heart of Beyond the Sea is a script from two writers who genuinely get the characters of Mulder and Scully and who, even when dealing with a character reversal such as this one, which could come across as gimmicky, feels genuine and real to who both of them are.  The moment when Mulder asks “why now?” on her change of beliefs and Scully breaks down when he suggests that it might be because of her father is a beautifully played moment, and feels honest in a way that the show has only really hinted at until now in its scenes between our two heroes.  Morgan and Wong’s genuine understanding of the show’s iconic pairing made many of their scripts in seasons one, two, four, and most recently ten, genuine highlights and much of their writing was never afraid to touch on moments between our heroes that could be considered genuine. From Mulder’s awkwardly sweet reunion with Scully in One Breath to that truly memorable uncomfortable silence in Never Again, any the time the words “written by Glen Morgan & James Wong” appear on the screen, you know the level of character development and interaction is going to be sensationally good and more real than one would have any right to expect in a supernaturally flavoured crime procedural.

Realising the mega talent they had in Gillian Anderson, they allow the show’s leading lady to run with the material she has been given. The script gives Anderson a chance to go to town with deep, emotional complexities that the show has only hinted at until now, and which would prove a wonderful preview for the dramatic twists and turns the show would take on as the series continued over the course of its currently ten season run. From her portrayal of grief, to anger at Boggs after Mulder is shot and wounded, to her quiet dignity in the episode’s final scene between herself and Mulder, it’s a genuinely brilliant piece of acting from someone who was clearly destined to be one of the best actresses in the world.

Cleverly, Morgan and Wong have Mulder get wounded in the line of duty halfway through the narrative, thus leaving Scully to not only go the rest of the episode’s investigation alone, but to have to deal with Luther Lee Boggs separately, effectively the episode going the route of Silence of the Lambs by having its leading lady deal with an incarcerated serial killer.

Brad Dourif's guest performance in Beyond the Sea would be one of the most memorable of the entire series.
Brad Dourif’s guest performance in Beyond the Sea would be one of the most memorable of the entire series.

Oh yes, Luther Lee Boggs. Of course, this being The X-Files, we have a serial killer with a three-part name, joining the ranks of Eugene Victor Tooms, Donald “Donnie” Pfaster, Robert Patrick Modell and John Lee Roche, and is played to absolutely disturbing perfection by Brad Dourif. A cult figure due to his wide range of appearances in genre movies and award-winning fare, from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Mississippi Burning, to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and his famous vocal performance in Child’s Play,  he would also go on to appear in Chip Johanessen’s masterful’s first season Millennium episode Force Majeure, a very different role to the intensity displayed through Luther Lee Boggs.

Although one can see how the episode takes the basic set up of The Silence of the Lambs, it runs with it much differently. Yes, Scully’s encounter with a jailed serial killer takes her into some intense character driven drama, the thrust of the story is much different, and the hint of the supernatural makes it a markedly different type of horror compared to the real world chiller of Buffalo Bill. If the episode is giving Gillian a chance to excel, then with Brad Dourif they have given her a masterful performer to go up against. Their scenes have an intense level of drama and brilliance that one may expect from television nowadays, but coming from 1994, this was very different to what was going on in television everywhere else, from its claustrophobic prison setting to the intensity of their encounters, its amazing to note that Dourif was never nominated for an Emmy.

Although there are times when a performance like this could threaten to go over the top, Dourif keeps things controlled and incredibly disturbing, his heavy, laboured breathing, his bulging eyes, his delivery of subtle hints that come true, thus getting the audience to question if Mulder or Scully are right, as well as the masterful sequence where he divulges to Scully how he came about his “abilities”, where the episode uses startling black and white photography and sound design, all of which feels almost has a David Lynch flavour, watching the episode as an eleven year old, the performance, coupled with the chilling sequences depicting the kidnapped couple that Boggs is helping save with his “talents”, was the most intense performance I think I had ever seen in a film or television show.

The episode overall became one of my all time favourites after first viewing, and my tape recording of the episode (I recorded every episode and watched them over and over and over again because I was obsessed) was one of the most viewed episodes in my personal collection. The possibility that there is no supernatural element going on, and that every viewing of the episode makes you question that possibility, coupled with the fantastic writing, cinematic direction and superb performances, makes it a truly essential episode of the series.

Its mastery is evident right from the opening scene. In the space of two minutes it is so easy to fall in love with the scene where Scully interacts with her parents. Don Davis and Sheila Larken are wonderful. The scene is humorous, charming and there is one small, beautifully played bit of awkwardness when Bill Scully asks his daughter how her job is. That Bill Scully is dead moments later and Don Davis only appears for the briefest of moments, we immediately get the relationship between father and daughter. The series would bring him back for a devastatingly powerful cameo in One Breath, whilst Sheila Larken would appear frequently throughout the show with her wonderfully dignified performance as Margaret Scully, and whilst this is the only time they both appear in the show together, that subtle moment when Margaret raises her eyes to Bill, indicating him to ask their daughter about work, has a lovely beauty to it that is the perfect combination of writing, acting and character development, just like the episode as a whole. It feels very real.

I adore Beyond the Sea so much. With its fantastic story telling and stand out acting, it could almost be the perfect episode to introduce newcomers to the show. Scary, emotional and with the most perfectly played final scene, in the history of The X-Files it’s a masterpiece and one of the best forty five minutes of television ever produced.

Possibly the geekiest man in all of Ireland, I have consumed too many television shows, movies, books and comics to know the difference any more between being geeky and not geeky. Very proud of my geekdom, it brought me together with my one true love, and if that’s not a great reason to be geeky, I don’t know what is. Could also beat anybody in an X Files trivia contest. True scientific fact.