“These men, no. These men are trained to identify moving parts. Hydraulics, electronics. They’re trained to reconstruct those parts and the past and arrive at the present. But they can’t do that because somebody has stolen the past from them. Nine minutes of it. Nine minutes that became a lifetime for those passengers, and now for their families. Someone has got to figure out what happened in those nine minutes. Somehow, we’ve got to get them back.” – Fox Mulder
Mulder and Scully are roped into the investigation of what happened to a crashed airliner when they learn that an old friend was on that flight, potentially carrying some dangerous material…
Max: “Tempus Fugit” kicks off the spring two-parter of mythology episodes with perhaps one of the most unusual entries in the overall puzzle. Bringing back the beleaguered Max Fenig from season one’s excellent “Fallen Angel,” the cold open is a cacophony of paranoia and horror, with Max being threatened by a mysterious man, but then finding himself with bigger fish to fry as the tell tale sign of bright white lights flood the plane he is on, causing intense turbulence as he braces for another of his many abductions.
This is contrasted by the post-credits scene of Mulder and Scully at a bar, where he surprises her with a cake and waitstaff serenade, managing to remember her birthday this year (with a gift to boot!). Still, this jubilation is predictably short lived as a woman claiming to be Max’s sister Sharon interrupts them and tells them that she was instructed to find our heroes if Max didn’t survive his flight.
Mulder and Scully then head to upstate New York to a NTSB meeting where NTSB investigator Mike Millar is mapping out a strategy to figure out what happened to Flight 549. When Mulder suggests it may have been the fault of a UFO trying to abduct Max Fenig, he is soundly ridiculed by the assembled group, as usual. However, when Mulder and Scully begin a cursory field examination of the deceased passengers, they note a nine-minute deviation from the recorded time of the crash to the time indicated on passenger wristwatches. Mulder helpfully reminds Scully of what this could indicate, but she refutes this by saying that it isn’t enough evidence. Meanwhile, a mustached man locates the body of the man who threatened Max mid-flight and hides the zip gun he assembled in the plane’s lavatory.
Scully does her own bit of investigating after a passenger is found alive but suffering from intense radiation burns and uncovers that Max spent time under an assumed name working for an energy plant in Colorado, and that several letters he wrote indicated he may have stolen something from there. There is a likelihood that Max smuggled a cache of plutonium on board the flight, causing injuries to the Passenger. And in another piece of bad news, it turns out Max’s body has been recovered at the scene, under the assumed name Paul Gitney. All of this is compounded when at night, at the hotel our agents stashed her at, Sharon sees the bright white lights herself and is abducted from the scene, leaving behind a busted door and a trashed room.
Mulder and Scully’s investigation brings them to a local Air Force traffic control base, where they question a Sgt. Louis Frish about Flight 549. He denies anything unusual happened until later in the evening when he finds a colleague shot in the head and a group of armed men lead by the mustached man in pursuit of him. Frish then admits the truth, stating he was ordered to track Flight 549 and give its coordinates every 15 minutes, and that he saw the flight being tracked and intercepted by a second aircraft before he witnessed an explosion. Mulder theorizes the second aircraft intercepted the UFO that was in the process of abducting Max Fenig, and that the destruction of the UFO is what caused 549 to crash.
I’ll let Radhika handle the repercussions of this information, but let me just comment on the episode for a moment. Here we have a unique structure, in that our heroes are together for most of the running time, and that their avenues of investigation mostly went by established plane crash protocols, and that it only was when the Air Force was brought into the picture that things began to take the familiar contours of the mythology. It’s also, aside from the Max Fenig connection, the first mythology episode in a while to not have any sort of consequence or impact on Mulder or Scully. By their circumstances (Mulder being the son of a Syndicate member, Scully being a Syndicate abductee), it is hard for the mythology to not impinge on either agent in some way, so this installment always sticks out in that respect.
Radhika: Everyone dies. Or at least gets abducted. Sometimes both. That’s the moral of this X-Files episode, as evidenced by the abduction and subsequent death of Max Fenig and the soon-to-be-fatal wounds suffered by Agent Pendrell. That’s right — Agent Pendrell, so unkindly ignored by reviewer Max, not to be confused with abductee Max, gets shot in this episode, which means his run on The X-Files is about to be over.
Poor Pendrell ends up having a bit of an almost pointless cameo outside his lab, a sure sign that something terrible is about to happen, when Scully runs into him at a bar while she keeps an eye on Sgt. Frish. Tipsy and slurring, the devoted Pendrell declares he must celebrate Scully’s birthday and while he’s heading over to her with some celebratory drinks in hand, he gets shot. His fate isn’t quite sealed in this episode yet, thanks to the fact that it’s part of a pesky two parter, but things are clearly not looking good. While Mulder and Scully aren’t the ones suffering in this mythology installment, everyone around them certainly is. And it’s clear that Scully can’t even enjoy her birthday and the days surrounding it in peace.
However, it isn’t all death and sadness for everyone who comes in contact with our agents. Instead, we start to see more people witness the strange events Mulder has been going on about for years. The same NTSB investigator mentioned above, Mike Millar, has a close encounter of his own, catching sight of a UFO at the crash site and finding a shaken Sharon crying and begging not to let “them take me again.” I’ve mentioned before that it often seems like it is only the misfits and the seemingly mentally unstable folk on this show that seem to have experienced alien encounters. Max, and as we later find out, Sharon, certainly fall into this trap. But to have an authority figure, who would normally never consider the possibility of aliens, witness such an event is quite a change of pace on this show.
Of course, one of the final scenes also involves Mulder diving into Great Sacandaga Lake, finding a crashed UFO and alien body. But at this point, I’m more interested in watching non-believers running into the “truth” than I am in seeing Mulder find it before losing it again.
I feel this episode is generally stronger than its follow-up episode, “Max,” and it’s largely due to its mix of content and mood. Some of the most iconic alien abduction and close encounter imagery in X-Files history can be found here — I still get a few chills watching Max go through his abduction. And while much of the subject matter is dark, the lighthearted birthday celebration scene (not the one involving Pendrell) that reviewer Max mentioned earlier is one of my favorite Mulder and Scully scenes in X-Files history. It’s such a delight to see Scully squirm with embarrassment and to watch Mulder obliviously grin with pride at the utterly nerdy Apollo 11 commemorative keychain he has given her. Between the cancer reveal and Scully’s general angst at the direction her life has gone in this season, it is great to watch the two of them be friends and manage to keep their spirits up, even as grimmer events unfurl.
AGENT PENDRELL WATCH
So much has been said about Pendrell above that we won’t repeat too much more. But our hearts go out to him as he desperately tried to grab Scully’s attention in those final moments. With only one episode left until Pendrell is gone for good, we already feel the pain of losing our favorite lab geek.