“Sir, if you had ever been beaten by the police or had your home burned to the ground for no other reason than being born then maybe you would understand why he ran and why you would run too.” – Marcus Duff
Our heroes investigate the kidnapping of four African American men in Philadelphia, and they are confronted with ghost stories from Africa.
Max: The unique privilege of critically reassessing one of your favorite television programs is the ability for your opinions on particular episodes to grow and mature. This is certainly the case with “Teliko,” an episode I usually treat with little consequence as an almost clone of “Squeeze,” with the contorting Samuel Aboah being a paltry successor to Eugene Victor Tooms. Only now do I see the episode’s rich underplayed critique of the plight of native Africans, which was especially timely when this episode first aired.
AD Skinner assigns Mulder and Scully to this case because he believes Scully’s medical expertise could help uncover what has happened to a group of kidnapped African and African American men. They start to show up again, dead from what the CDC believes to be some kind of pathogen. Mulder queries his new informant Marita Covarrubias about what the United Nations knows about a passionflower native to West Africa that appeared on the autopsy of one of the victims.
What ties these victims together is a man by the name of Samuel Aboah, a refugee from an unnamed African country that has been trying to gain American citizenship with the help of a social worker named Marcus Duff. Mulder and Scully encounter Aboah when he runs from his apartment during a canvass of the building, after a teenaged African American resident of it goes missing. Duff is adamant that Aboah has nothing to do with the investigation, and demands that he be released. However, before that happens a cursory medical examination uncovers that Aboah has no pituitary gland. This bizarre medical anomaly stuns Scully, and Mulder’s spooky sense starts to tingle.
Mulder is told by a diplomat of Burkina Faso of the legend of the Teliko, nocturnal spirits of the air that have haunted Africans of many stripes for centuries. While Aboah isn’t supernatural, the lack of a pituitary gland forces him to acquire required hormones (including those for skin pigmentation) from other individuals on a daily basis. Like Tooms and Virgil Incanto before him, Samuel Aboah’s homicidal spree comes from a biological imperative to survive at any cost. This spree ends when Scully shoots and captures Aboah, although she is not sure he will live to stand trial without a treatment for his hormone deficiency.
The plight of African refugees was a hot topic in 1996, what with both the United States’ military intervention in Somalia and the internecine conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda still fresh in the minds of many. Honorable people much like Marcus Duff saw a continent in conflict, getting torn apart, and did everything in their power to provide relief and comfort for those who came to America to begin again as well as reach back to their native lands. As Duff, Carl Lumbly essays a man who is fighting a war on two fronts, as he sees not only what is happening to his brothers overseas, but also to African Americans at home still smarting from the legacies of slavery and segregation. This makes what Samuel Aboah does particularly heinous, as he preys on those who in different circumstances would’ve been right there with him in Africa.
And this is what makes “Teliko” a more complicated episode than the one I remembered in my head for all these years, and certainly better at tackling topical issues of race and refugees than season two’s plodding “Fresh Bones.”
Radhika: So I think this is where Max and I are going to differ a bit instead of mutually gushing or hating on an episode. While “Teliko” does tackle race a little better than previous episodes have, especially the aforementioned “Fresh Bones,” I still find aspects of it a little problematic — and I think this is one of the reasons I was always a bit lukewarm toward the episode, “Squeeze” comparisons notwithstanding. There is still an overall sense of exoticism, a problem in just about every internationally flavored episode of The X-Files (even the better ones) — and maybe there’s really no other way around that when you have episodes like these, which are meant to highlight weird folk tales and things we’re not particularly accustomed to in day-to-day American life. Exoticism may just prevail even in the best-intentioned writing.
But while that’s something I’m willing to forgive in things like Victorian novels and Tintin comics, which I still love despite some modern-day criticisms, I find it harder to overlook in a more modern-day production. Because while The X-Files was maybe willing to confront themes that other programs weren’t, 20 or so years ago wasn’t so long ago that certain portrayals couldn’t be more progressive.
In the case of “Teliko,” I just feel the combination of music and the general weirdness surrounding the monster just highlight the “otherness” of the characters a little too much. Yes, Mark Snow does use the African chanting sounds in other episodes as well, but it just feels so unsubtle in the context of this episode. The ambassador who finally provides some context about the apparent ghastly legend is kind of a bumbling idiot who barely proves to be any kind of use. And the attempts to shoehorn the idea of the deaths being covered up, while noble, were just a bit too clumsy for my tastes. (It also all contributes to a pretty awesome tagline for the episode, to be mentioned further in this post, but the episode also isn’t particularly good enough to warrant such a great tagline, so that’s annoying.)
I do like the final confrontation between Mulder and Scully and our villain — it’s classic X-Files with flashlights and Mulder getting hurt, and the general feeling of tension and high stakes. But the overall episode, while a little more interesting to watch than I remember, is just too muddled for me to give it much love. A for effort and noble intentions, C for execution, I’d say.
YES, IT’S THAT GUY
Carl Lumbly – A dependable presence on television since the 1980s, Carl played in this episode the social worker Marcus Duff. His most notable role is in the J.J. Abrams’ show Alias, playing SD6/CIA agent Marcus Dixon, and he was the lead in the 1990s sci-fi show M.A.N.T.I.S.. He’s done guest work on Battlestar Galactica, ER, The West Wing, and most recently in Southland. He also provided the voice of J’onn J’onzz in the Justice League cartoon series.
Traditionally, the credits end on a shot with the words “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.” However, in some instances new text emerges.
These words were spoken by both Mulder and Scully, and I’m sure the latter two greatly benefitted many a SAT verbal score. They describe the lengths people go to in order to cover up inconvenient truths or things that fear them.
AGENT PENDRELL WATCH
Agent Pendrell, resident lab geek who crushes on Scully, reappears in “Teliko,” helping our agents figure out what’s going on with this particular case. While Pendrell is able to make the connection of a plant to West Africa, it’s not his work that stands out most in this episode — no, it’s the torch he carries for Agent Scully. Disappointed when Mulder turns up to speak to him, Pendrell asks if they should wait for Scully. He nearly stops breathing — a fact Mulder notices — when the response is that she had a date. Lucky for Pendrell, Mulder explains it’s just another date with a dead man, since Scully’s just busy performing an autopsy.