“There is something down there and I am not going to risk bringing it up here before I figure out what it is!” — Dana Scully
Doggett and Scully are called in to investigate when a series of bizarre deaths in the Boston subway system raises eyebrows.
Radhika: Back to the Mulder-less world we go in “Medusa,” a Monster of the Week episode that succeeds at atmospherics, like much of this season, but is generally kind of a mixed bag of plot holes and mediocrity. I commend the effort, including the work done on the subway tunnel set, suspiciously clean as it is, but there’s just not enough “oomph” in the episode for me.
An undercover cop is found with part of the flesh on his face and body stripped away in the tunnels of the Boston subway system. Doggett ends up becoming part of a team, including a CDC representative, that goes to investigate underground, while Scully guides them from a distance. While underground, one team member suffers what appears to something akin to a chemical burn, while Doggett gets knocked around by a man (seen in the teaser) who displays symptoms similar to those on the dead officer. The team eventually finds multiple bodies wrapped in plastic in the tunnels.
Eventually it’s just Doggett and a lieutenant with the transit police searching through the tunnels. Turns out the lieutenant, who starts emitting a green glow, is infected by whatever contagion is down there. And Doggett gets exposed too. An analysis from teams on the surface indicates that the water in the tunnels contains medusas, bioluminescent and microscopic sea creatures. When Doggett encounters a boy in the tunnels, who does not seem to be covered in any kind of green glowing substance, Scully figures out that sweat (which the boy lacks due to less developed sweat glands) triggers an electrical reaction that leads to the spreading of the weird, corrosive contagion. The subway has meanwhile started running again, thanks to the transit police’s rude and impatient deputy chief, and Doggett uses a gun to connect the third rail to a major leak from the bay, which destroys all the medusas.
Merely writing out that brief summary up there reiterates how I feel about all the loose plot points and holes in the plot. The story starts out promising enough, and gruesome enough as well with the imagery of the stripped away flesh, but as it continues, it just keeps getting weaker. The random boy living in the tunnels is a poor plot device meant to encourage Scully’s scientific understanding and I found the conclusion as a whole a bit rushed and convoluted. The story doesn’t hold together particularly well, though at least The X-Files team tried a bit?
As I mentioned earlier, the atmospheric elements of the episode are pretty enjoyable at least, even though I flinched at the grotesque imagery. And there are moments — the paranoia and tension — that remind me a bit of X-Files of yore, like “Ice” and “Darkness Falls” (perhaps the latter moreso because of the glowing green elements).
In a completely random aside, though, before I turn the analysis over to my partner, I have to say that this episode really highlighted how formal and rigid the Doggett/Scully dynamic really is. The two of them almost always address each other by the title of “Agent” — “Agent Scully,” this and “Agent Doggett, that” — and while I’d normally take the excuse that they were largely communicating in front of other law enforcement and health officials in this episode, it does feel somewhat unnatural after years of hearing Mulder and Scully casually toss each other’s last names around no matter what situation they were in. If anything, we’re right in the middle of a fairly “cold” era of The X-Files.
Max: If I have to be honest with myself as I am writing this part of our review, then I really should echo the sentiments of my partner (how’s that for formality???) and concur that the episode really falls apart as the episode’s running time presses on. This is a serious problem, particularly for a story that continues to use the threat of the afternoon commuter rush as a source of tension. I always have pointed to “Medusa” as an exemplar of the underrated nature of this season, so upon rewatch it is disconcerting to be picking apart the episode to this degree.
24, a show that Fox would begin to air later that year — of whom episode guest star Penny Johnson would join the cast of — would turn the act of being up against the clock into a cottage industry. Here though, the pacing is off and disjointed. All the pieces are here, but they fail to work properly as an engine of gripping storytelling that Radhika and I know The X-Files is capable of. Still, I would wholeheartedly recommend the episode for its surfeit of atmospheric delights. I’m a big mass transit nerd, so any bit of pop culture taking place in the subways (think The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the Argentinian film Moebius) is a big draw for me. Sometimes the tunnels and tracks of these systems are likened to a living, pulsating organism as trains ferry riders to their intended destinations — a nice metaphorical device.
Another strength of the episode is its use of that wonderful narrative technique in The X-Files‘ toolbox — interdepartmental scuffles. It wouldn’t be an episode of our beloved show if we didn’t have a whiff of a conspiratorial cover-up, although Anderson here doesn’t sell her justifiable outrage as successfully as she has done in other outings (see “F. Emasculata” and “The Pine Bluff Variant“). And that may be a result of the novel but strange editorial decision to have her stay behind in the metro control room while Doggett ventures into the tunnels as her eyes and ears. As a result, she is removed from the action and we lose a source of tension. At this point in the season she has not yet informed her partner of her pregnancy, but staying behind out of a sense of safety for her unborn child would be the only justification for her decision character-wise.
My plan is to continue to recommend the episode to fellow fans and other individuals despite its obvious faults. The dangers are a credible threat to our heroes, with enough tension and atmospherics to get anyone through the hour. There are issues, but what the hell, I still enjoy it dammit.
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
Ken Jenkins – Playing Deputy Chief Karras here, Jenkins is an accomplished actor probably best known to most of us as Dr. Bob Kelso on Scrubs. (At least one of us felt like we were watching an angrier version of Kelso on the screen in this episode.) Jenkins has appeared on numerous series and in various movies over the years.
Penny Johnson – Seen here as Dr. Hellura Lyle, Johnson played Beverly Barnes on The Larry Sanders Show. She was Sherry Palmer on 24, was Kasidy Yates on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and is also known for being on Castle. A small handful of film credits accompany her many roles on TV.
Brent Sexton – Playing Steven Melnick in this episode, Sexton may be best known these days for his role on The Killing, as well as shows like Life and Deadwood. He has guest starred on a number of other series and been in a few films as well.