“What do you know of the right thing to do? You– who would risk exposing the entire project for a game? A game!” – Alien Bounty Hunter
“I hit a home run tonight.” – Josh Exley
We reach back to 1947, the year of Jackie Robinson and Roswell, to hear a charming tale of saucers and strikeouts…
Max: One of my favorite books is The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover. In it, the eponymous main character operates a paper-pencil-and-dice fantasy baseball league, which becomes an allegory for life itself, with all the attendant hopes and dreams, heartache and failure.
For some (like Mulder), baseball — in its elegance and statistical perfection — takes on a kind of spiritual metaphysical aura. As he says, “It’s like the numbers talk to me, they comfort me. They tell me that even though lots of things can change some things do remain the same.” America’s favorite pastime does have its own kind of beauty, which David Duchovny puts to use as he writes (and directs) “The Unnatural,” a story of one extraterrestrial biological entity that became so enamored by the game that he abandoned his people to grind out an earthly existence slugging to the stars.
Riffing on established mythology, we begin when Mulder comes across an old news item from 1947 with a photo of Arthur Dales, an Alien Bounty Hunter, and one Negro Leagues player named Josh Exley. Turns out though that this Arthur is the brother of our Arthur Dales, and he spent the summer of 1947 protecting Exley, a rising star who had the Yankees taking notice of his skills a little after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for their crosstown rivals the Giants.
Coming into contact with the paranormal seems to run in the Dales family, so it comes as no surprise to us when he discovers that Exley is in fact an alien, Pursued by forces both mundane (the local KKK) and cosmic (the Alien Bounty Hunter) and marked for death by both, Exley desperately wants to live to play the game he fell in love with. A touching friendship emerges as well between Exley and Dales, as the Roswell Grays, Exley’s team (natch), travel all over creation to play the greatest game on Earth. Unfortunately for Exley, his past catches up to him, as the ABH finally intercepts his target and dispatches him with the familiar stiletto weapon. Only miraculously, he bleeds red human blood instead of the usual toxic green extraterrestrial variety.
For several seasons, Duchovny wanted to take a shot at writing an episode of the series, but didn’t feel he had the requisite talent until the sixth season, and Carter agreed to slotting him in for a late-season installment. He and Carter pitched around a baseball themed episode for years, and with home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa fresh in viewers minds, Duchovny struck upon the initial concepts that would make their way into “The Unnatural.” Sadly, Darren McGavin suffered a stroke midway through filming, and had to be replaced by M. Emmet Walsh, with the brothers explanation hastily provided to fill in the gaps.
We spoke last time about how time has changed our perceptions of the episode, and here is no different, albeit in a more positive fashion. “The Unnatural” definitely resonates with me more now than it has over the years, particularly in regards to the connections that Duchovny draws between the experience of African American ballplayers of the era and the feelings amongst some of them of not belonging, of being outsiders, aliens, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
While the episode takes a light touch and prefers not to be heavy-handed on this issues, Jesse L. Martin’s terrific performance as Exley reveals a warmth and depth that is quite infectious. We as viewers become just as invested and attached as Arthur Dales, and when the ABH confronts Exley about exposing the project, we hurt just as much as Exley does. The only problematic thorn I can see is that in his “Pinocchio”-like quest to be a “real boy” (read: human), Exley’s character may undercut the racial component of the episode.
“The Unnatural” concludes with a ball grounds rendezvous between our heroes, as Mulder gives Scully a late (or early) birthday gift of batting lessons. Radhika may cringe at the sight of such a blatant moment of shipping, but I’m sure even she can’t deny the charm and chemistry on display. These two have been through the ringer, as we’ve mentioned countless times before, so seeing them just enjoy each others company is a refreshing change, away from the problems of global conspiracies, cancer, and overdue XXX bills. A memorable and undersung delight.
Radhika: There are a few reasons “The Unnatural” shouldn’t have worked, and I’m sure there are at least a few people the episode doesn’t appeal to, but something about it always draws me in and has me smiling by the end. Part of that is definitely the Mulder and Scully scene, which for me is a highlight of a long friendship (flirtatious or not) and one of those few scenes where we get to see these wonderful characters have genuine fun without an Alien Bounty Hunter or Cigarette Smoking Man crushing their spirits. I do think that some of the Mulder and Scully dialogue, especially in their earlier scene, is really just more “David and Gillian” than anything, but it’s forgivable in this instance — because I really do love seeing those characters in more pleasant circumstances.
The episode can be a little overly earnest with characters almost caricatures at times (i.e.: Josh Exley comes across a bit like the magical black man, though it mostly feels okay since he’s an alien trying to be a likeable enough human being). But the performances really help: We have actors like Duchovny and Anderson having fun and Jesse L. Martin playing his part with genuine warmth. It almost doesn’t matter that this is a weirdly non-X-Files-like X-File; it feels like one of the more welcome experiments of a fairly unique season.
I also appreciate that Duchovny seemed to take his writing and directing duties pretty seriously; the episode is lovely to look at and flows rather nicely, even when heavy-handed symbolism sneaks its way in. And Mulder has more of a diminished role here, which clearly gave Duchovny time to focus on his non-acting role this time around. (As much as I love Gillian Anderson, I much prefer this to her attempt at writing and directing, coming up in season seven…)
Even though Exley doesn’t make it at the end, I love that this story doesn’t fill you with the doom and gloom typically associated with the series’ alien-related plots. Weaving the Alien Bounty Hunter and Arthur Dales into the episode helps provide a connection to the series, while the parallels to well-known stories like “Pinocchio” give the episode with a universal appeal — and the viewer is ultimately left with a sense of hope and wonder. While this could feel trite elsewhere, it feels truly special within the realm of The X-Files universe, and I think that’s why a good number of viewers have such a soft spot for “The Unnatural.”
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
Jesse L. Martin – Alien Exley himself, Martin got his first real recognition when he originated the role of Tom Collins in the hit Broadway musical RENT. Besides continuing his theatre work to this day, he played Det. Ed Green for almost a decade on Law & Order. He’s guested on Smash and Ally McBeal, and can be currently seen in the CW show The Flash.
M. Emmet Walsh – When he isn’t playing one of two identically named brothers, Walsh is racking up over 200 film and television credits, including Serpico, The Iron Giant, Blade Runner, and in this year’s Calvary. On television he’s been in Damages, Frasier, and a voice on Adventure Time.
Traditionally, the credits end on a shot with the words “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.” However, in some instances new text emerges.
In a bit of whimsy, the tagline here is a pun that references both the baseball and fairy tale themes running through the episode. Play ball!