“This is it, Mulder. What if we’re still there? If we’re still in that cave in North Carolina– that we’re not here in this apartment right now?” – Dana Scully
Reality is questioned as Mulder and Scully fight against some fearful fungi in a truly trippy episode.
Max: Penultimate or late-season entries are some of the most fascinating creatures in the X-Files oeuvre. The reasoning behind this declaration may or may not become evident over the course of this review, but hopefully it will rise up out of the swampy marshes.
“Field Trip” is one of the most compelling episodes of this season, and that is saying something when you have episodes dealing with the loneliness of immortality, single take sojourns into the Bermuda Triangle, and a soul crushing day that happens over and over again. The episode explores a good deal of the questions surrounding the nature of reality and experience, and as nice bonus dips into the aftermaths of extraterrestrial encounters and the ways we process trauma.
The episode begins with Mulder trying to convince Scully to come with him to North Carolina to investigate the deaths of Wallace and Angela Schiff after their skeletons are discovered unusually decayed after such a short period of time. Naturally, Spooky chalks this up to the so-called extraterrestrial phenomena known as the Brown Mountain Lights, but Scully remains as skeptical as ever.
Weirdness commences when they arrive in town and after they visit the local medical examiner. Mulder heads out to the field while Scully stays behind and discovers the skeletons are covered by viscous yellow substance which contained digestive enzymes and hallucinogens from a fungal growth. Our heroes are soon succumbed to this substance, victims of a network of fungi that subsist on humans and whose hallucinogenic properties are meant to pacify their prey long enough to properly digest them. To this end, we see Mulder and Scully experience these fever dreams both separately and together, which include encounters with the Schiffs, a dead Mulder (including a most unusual wake with the Lone Gunmen), and the insistence of Walter Skinner that the matter has been properly investigated.
It is these hallucinatory sequences that give the episode the punch and power that elevates it into the realm of greatness. Questioning the very nature of one’s reality has become a pop culture cliche over the last fifteen years, but when “Field Trip” aired, it was still a novel, inventive concept (The Matrix, which popularized this trope to mainstream audiences, only opened barely two months prior). What adds to this is the intelligence and expertise of our two investigators, as the audience is a party to their though processes as they interrogate their environment.
The ideas of trust and skepticism are thematic motifs of The X-Files, and they get explicit mention throughout, particularly in a very meta exchange when Mulder bemoans that “in six years, how… how often have I been wrong? No, seriously. I mean, every time I bring you a case we go through this perfunctory dance. You tell me I’m not being scientifically rigorous and that I’m off my nut, and then in the end who turns out to be right like 98.9% of the time? I just think I’ve… earned the benefit of the doubt here.” Mulder is overstating his success rate, but this is an entree into the moments when both agents have to confront whether or not they have emerged from the cave, literally and metaphorically.
Critical appraisals of the episode have sometimes focused on the nature of the logic that underpins Mulder and Scully’s decision making, linking it to the theoretical framework of abductive reasoning. Coincidental nomenclature aside (abductive->abduction, in our context alien abduction), this form of reasoning is a kind of inverse logic, where the conclusion (termed the “surprising fact”) comes first, and then a person works backward from there, combing over their experience to marshal facts that support this conclusion. The primary tenet of this logic is that the surprising fact is the most plausible amongst all over possibilities. Scully has worked tirelessly throughout The X-Files to use her scientific background to arrive at the most plausible explanation, so it is a nice turn of events that the most plausible explanation is also one that is more out there than usual. This is especially true when Mulder and Scully deduce that they are still in the cave while still “in” Skinner’s office.
The abruptness of the concluding moments of the episode does leave open the faint suspicion/possibility that they are are still stuck with the fungus (hello Inception ending), but them reaching out to each other while laying in the stretchers is one of the more moving gestures in a personal and professional relationship that has withstood so much. And in a season where experimentation was the watchword, “Field Trip” engages and electrifies the audience in ways that cement it amongst the best episodes The X-Files has to offer. And maybe that is the trick with these episodes, they have the ability to explore and comment (in surprising ways) on the big themes and interpersonal relationships that make the program such a rewarding watch.
Radhika: I am also a huge fan of “Field Trip.” I recall being enthralled watching it when it first aired, and while the “reality isn’t reality” concept has been done quite a bit since then, I still love the structure and pacing of this episode. It’s a fine hour of television — and it might even be safe to say that this is the last of the “classic” X-Files episodes we’ll ever see on this program. (Let’s face it: Things get a lot shakier in seasons seven through nine and while there are a number of episodes I still enjoy greatly in those seasons, I don’t believe they have the same redemptive qualities this season does.)
This episode combines a little bit of everything we’ve seen on the show from being lost in the woods to close encounters of an extraterrestrial kind. There’s also the wish fulfillment theme we’ve seen all season. While previous episodes have focused on the “what if” of having a normal life, this episode — via hallucinations — allows Mulder to show Scully proof of extraterrestrial life. (It’s kind of sweet that the little alien we meet is actually somewhat adorable and helpless, and that Mulder is full of cheerful awe and genuine wonder.) But the clash between typical Monster of the Week and alien subject matter causes quite a sense of confusion for the viewer and all in the best way possible. As things get weirder and weirder, even during seemingly innocent scenes, our paranoia and worry build up, giving us a perfectly suspenseful X-Files viewing experience.
Max points out the touching moment where Mulder and Scully reach for each other’s hands after the ordeal is over (or is it?), but I’d also like to point out that there are some touching moments within the hallucinations itself. Scully’s grief-stricken determination to get to the bottom of things when she assumes Mulder is dead and her own questioning of her rational mindset feels very real. When faced with the awful possibility of losing her partner and closest friend, she is ready to throw everything she has been stubborn about out the window — and that is a huge hint, hallucination or not, that Scully really has evolved more than we give her credit for. Both Max and I have groaned when Scully plays the skeptic even in this season, but she has actually become much more open-minded (which makes it all the better that she is the first of the agents to consider the possibility they’re still stuck in the caves). It’s almost a bit of foreshadowing for what we’ll be seeing soon in the season finale and upcoming premiere episodes.
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
Jim Beaver – This legendary screen presence (here playing the medical examiner) is perhaps better known today for his roles in the shows Deadwood, Justified, Supernatural, and John from Cincinnati. He’s also guested on Six Feet Under, Dallas, Big Love, and The West Wing. On the big screen, he’s been in everything from Silkwood and Sister Act to Adaptation.
David Denman – Wallace Schiff is best known for his recurring role on the US version of The Office, as well has playing Skip on Angel. He’s been in the motion pictures Big Fish, Smart People, and Fanboys.
Robin Lively – THE Teen Witch herself (portraying Angela Schiff) has been acting since she was very young, starting out guesting on Knight Rider and Punky Brewster. She had a recurring role on Twin Peaks, as well as on Chicago Hope and Doogie Howser, M.D. She is the older half-sister of Gossip Girl‘s Blake Lively.