Witnessing an animal being killed or dying on-screen must surely rank as one of the most depressing and distressing things that one can put on film, so it goes without saying that Fearful Symmetry has a lot going against it in terms of fun and entertainment when it presents two scenes where an animal dies, not to mention also containing an autopsy on an elephant.
So far, season two of The X-Files has really delivered the goods, and whilst there have been one or two problematic episodes, nothing in it up to this point has been on the level of Space of Shapes (although I can hear many readers shouting out 3 as I write that sentence). Fearful Symmetry is not as equally bad as the two episodes from season one I mentioned, but it is the first instalment of the season where the show somewhat falters in its story. It’s not as dull as those episodes, but coming off the back of an incredibly impressive run of episodes, it does feel like a damp squib.
Of course it might be too much to ask an episode to compete with the action packed drama of the last two episodes, and nor should you, but opening up with a very impressive teaser sequence (filmed by Rob Bowman, no less), Fearful Symmetry plods along in its story of animal cruelty and alien abduction, but it never really gels the tone its going for. It really wants to be Gorillas in the Mist meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind by way of Michael Crichton’s Congo (good book, but take my advice, NEVER watch the movie version), but never quite gets there, although it does have a seething anger to it that is powerful, it’s just a shame Steve De Jarnatt’s teleplay can’t make the narrative engaging to go with it, despite having a fantastic opening sequence.
It really wants to be tragic and to tug at our heartstrings, and the visual of Amy the gorilla dying in the final moments with her owner and protector Willa (House of Cards and 24 actress Jayne Atkinson) by her side, a prison sentence in front of her, is a very distressing one, but it never quite hits home altogether the way its clear everyone involved wants it to.
Telling a story of animal rights is a noble one and I do have to give it a A for effort, but it just goes in every direction you expect it to and offers up nothing memorable outside of its production values and visual effects. Atkinson, a very fine actress, does her best, as does everyone, but there’s just not enough here to make it truly memorable outside of the fantastic teaser or the elephant necropsy.
Fearful Symmetry is not that highly regarded an episode, nor is Dod Kalm, primarily due to its not very convincing ageing make-up. Yes, it’s true the prosthetic work is not the best, but this reviewer has no problem in admitting that I actually rather adore the episode despite that.
Very underrated in terms of its writing, it sees Howard Gordon reunite with Alex Gansa for what looks as if it’s going to be another Ice or Firewalker, but goes in a much more interesting direction, at least in terms of the threat involved. Yes, Mulder and Scully are stuck in an isolated environment, but the threat here is not worms, or bugs or fungus, but ageing.
Guest starring John Savage (Dark Angel, The Deer Hunter) as well as Vladmir Kulich (The Beast from the fourth season of Angel), there is a dank, depressing atmosphere to this one that I rather love. Yes, it’s maybe not an episode to go to if you want forty-five minutes of light entertainment, and yes the ageing effects weren’t even convincing in 1995, but there is an emotional charge here, especially in its last third that is hard to not find powerful.
Amazingly the episode was conceived as a way to give everyone a rest after several weeks of filming intense, large-scale episodes and instead the script that Gordon and Gansa wrote would end up being one of the season’s most difficult productions. Written to take advantage of having access to a decommissioned Canadian Forces Destroyer, the difficulties that must have taken place do feel as if they’re there on film. It feels dank, and depressing in a way the series had never been before, and it touches on philosophical themes ruminating on death and the end of the world through the use of Scully’s journal, a technique that is superbly written by Gordon and Gansa and delivered by Anderson. A pen dropping to the ground in slow motion has never felt so emotional or as powerful.
Mark Snow’s music is incredibly haunting as always and at this stage is such a fabric of the show that its hard to imagine the show without it, whilst many of the story’s twist and turns are superb. When Savage’s character Trondheim betrays everyone by stealing the water that’s keeping everyone alive for himself, his eventual death is such a dark slice of irony its hard to know whether to be disturbed or cheer for it.
There is a richly cinematic form of claustrophobia running throughout that if one didn’t see the credits at the start of the episode, one would know instantly that the episode was directed by Rob Bowman, who manages to bring such a cinematic touch, one can see how he would end up calling the shots on the series’ first feature film later down the way.
Of course, this is only the nineteenth episode of the season so we know our heroes are not going to die at the end of the episode and yet, there is such a rich feeling of death running throughout that for one brief moment it’s hard to think that maybe, just maybe they’re not actually going to make it this week. Of course they’re rescued at the last-minute and the ship takes on water and sinks shortly after so no explanation will be given, which could come across as lazy but just adds to the somewhat haunted charge of the story.
I can see why the episode is not very well liked, and actually understand it totally, but there is just something about it that I adore. Maybe its a contrary thing, maybe it’s because I just love it for the smaller things that I love it for, but when Scully tenderly closes Mulder’s eyes as he is too tired to keep going, or when Scully talks about hearing “the wolf at the door” as she too begins to feel exhausted to the point of death, it’s hard not to get a lump on a throat. It’s beautifully dark stuff and as such I have no qualms in saying that it’s an underrated X-Files masterpiece just waiting to be rediscovered and reappraised.