The X-Files Newbie Recap: “Hell Money” & “José Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'”
"The only things you were abducted by were your rampaging hormones, you punk!"
A Christmas shopping bender and one family birthday ‘do later, I’m so zonked I’ve only done two episodes. Apologies in advance, especially cos there’s no way I’ve done the baffling delight that was “José Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” justice. Send help.
This episode starts as it means to go on: with a guy being cremated alive—just in case you were having a nice, carefree evening over there.
Our heroes are called to Chinatown in San Francisco, where eleven men of Chinese descent have been killed in recent weeks. The men are all immigrants and, it turns out, participating in a creepy lottery game where they get to sell their organs on the black market. They take hallucinogenics so it seems like traditional Chinese spirits are removing said organs; in reality, it’s an unscrupulous doctor selling the tissue to make bank. [Sideshow Bob shudder here.]
Our guest stars for the week are B.D. Wong (hurray!) and a super young Lucy Liu, back when she was apparently going by Lucy Alexis Liu, bless her wee face. Onward.
After the recovery of the aforementioned body in the crematorium, Mulder and Scully start sniffing around. The man who was killed, Johnny Lo, was shown in the opening scenes returning to his apartment to find Chinese characters painted onto the door, and strange figures in masks waiting for him inside. The night watchman who had the misfortune to discover Lo mid-cremating also claims to have seen strange figures in masks. Detective Chao from the San Francisco PD (this would be B.D. Wong) assists with translations. There are characters painted on the surface of the cremation chamber which translate to “ghost”. Chao can’t translate the characters on Lo’s apartment door, but after visiting a traditional medicine shop in Chinatown they learn that it means “haunted house.”
On their travels, they also dig up fragments of “hell money.” Chao explains that this is used to appease ghosts during the Chinese Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. According to traditional belief, this is a time when the gates of hell are opened and spirits roam the earth. Hell money staves them off, but the worst spirits of all can’t be bought.
The figures in ghost masks are spotted again in a local graveyard, milling around a freshly-dug grave. Mulder examines the scene and discovers another body in the grave. When Scully performs an autopsy, she notices surgical scars all over the victim’s body. There are also traces of sterile ice, which is used to transport human organs for donation. The two of them go back to Chao and, in quite the show of dickishness, ask him if he’s covering for an organ smuggling ring in Chinatown. They’re actually right on this point but, dare I say, very demonstrative with their cultural assumptions when they tackle him on it. Chao wryly informs them that while he may speak the language, to his own community he’s as white as they are given he’s essentially working for the ~enemy. While they’ve been suspecting him of sitting round twiddling his thumbs, he’s dug up a name for the person who laid the carpet in Lo’s apartment. When they visited the scene, they discovered fresh carpetting laid over a sizeable blood stain. They go to speak to a Mr Hsin about it. This Mr Hsin is Lucy Liu’s character, Kim’s, dad. Kim has luekemia but in the absence of any money or insurance, her dad has taken to participating in the organ lottery ring to pay for her treatment.
Hsin—who’s wearing a fresh bandage over one of his eyes—speaks to Mulder and Scully but claims not to know anything. Our heroes go to leave. Chao speaks to Hsin in Chinese for a few moments before they leave, sparking Mulder’s suspicions again.
Unfortunately, Chao comes home to find the characters for “haunted house” painted on his own front door. Inside, the ghosts are waiting. They attack him and he ends up in hospital, but by the time Mulder and Scully arrive he’s disappeared. Meanwhile, Mr Hsin receives a visit from the guy running the organ smuggling ring. This dude isn’t named in the episode but the internet tells me he’s called the Hard-Faced Man. I could also have called him Mr Wong from Wayne’s World (2, if we’re being precise), but let’s go with the canonical term. He reminds me a lot of the CSM with his stony face and smoking habit and utter lack of scruples. Hsin wants out of the twisted lottery game, but the Hard-Faced Man warns him that he has outstanding debts. In the next room, Kim overhears part of the conversation and becomes concerned.
After Chao’s disappearance from hospital, Mulder and Scully pay Kim a visit. Her dad isn’t there when they arrive. She tells them about her illness and says she’s worried her dad has gotten involved in something messy. Mulder shows her a wooden token he found in their apartment earlier. There’s a character painted on it, which Kim says could be taken to mean “wood” or “eye.” Scully also finds a HLA work-up for organ donation. Putting this together with Hsin’s eye patch earlier, they twig what’s going on. They head to the hospital where a nurse tells them that several Chinese men have come in for HLA work-ups, only for their doctor to claim they’ve left the area when a suitable match comes in. Mulder and Scully get the name of this “doctor” and hightail it over to the given address, which happens to be where the organ lottery game is going down.
Inside, Chao has already come to confront the Hard-Faced Man. He’s told to watch himself, given he is on the gang’s payroll and has been covering the whole thing up. Chao ignores them, knocks over the lottery pot and shouts that the game is fixed. A general melée ensues. Unfortunately, Hsin had already drawn the short straw that evening and is being prepped for surgery as they speak. Mulder and Scully are upstairs, weeding through jars of eyeballs (oy), when they hear the ruckus and come down. Chao’s already burst in on the Hard-Faced Man, who’s just preparing to operate on Hsin. He shoots him in the shoulder before Mulder and Scully arrive. The Hard-Faced Man warns Chao that he should have killed him.
Scully interrogates the Hard-Faced Man later. He tells her that he was merely offering the victims “hope”. Death, he says, is a transition and not to be feared, but life without hope is worse. Scully bristles and says he’s going to jail for a very long time. Unfortunately however, she’s then called out into the hall by Mulder. Chao didn’t show up for a hearing that morning and no one can find him. This would be because he’s been abducted by the ghost figures, and is at that very moment being cremated alive. Joyous.
What a bleak episode. Not a bad one at all, but the subject matter was so grim. I’m not informed enough to deduce whether real-life smugging rings operated in San Francisco in this manner (though I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if they did), but it’s a rather chilling reminder of the lengths to which people will go in desperate times. The episode offers an interesting commentary on the experiences of immigrants. Hsin at one point wonders aloud to Kim if her illness is a form of punishment for their having left their homeland and family. Meanwhile, Chao, a second-generation (I assume) Chinese-American, is ostracised by the community for attempting to assimilate. There’s a sense of being damned no matter what you choose, with a multitude of shady characters hovering in the wings just waiting to prey on belief and superstition to trick and coerce sad, uncertain people.
This is another episode where the culprits and horrors are all too terribly human—the “ghosts” are just terrible people in masks, but the fact they’re able to take advantage of people’s deepest beliefs to make it all seem reasonable makes it all the more unsettling.
At least the next one’s a comedy.
José Chung’s “From Outer Space”
Darin Morgan’s take on the alien abduction myth, in which “Reynard Muldrake” is described as a ticking time bomb of insanity and a 50s B-movie monster unwittingly inspires a cult. In other words, this is as gloriously bizarre as Morgan gets, though it’s unusual in that it seems to have some relevance to the wider mythos? The other episodes he scripted were more standalone, but this one implies that at least some of the alien abductions are engineered by the military as part of a bizarre foreign policy ploy. Honestly, I’ve heard stranger things.
Anyway, the episode revolves around one particular abduction in Washington state. A young couple named Chrissie and Harold are spirited away one night and no one can quite figure out what the hell happened. The detective assigned to the case is (ironically) named Manners but swears a lot, so half is dialogue is literally “bleep” or “blankety blank”. Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek play Men In Black who rock up to people claiming to have seen UFOs and tell them in no uncertain terms that what they actually saw was Venus. Mulder may or may not eat a lot of sweet potato pie. There’s even more tremendous one-liners than usual. I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m enjoying it.
Scully relates the tale to the author José Chung, who’s attempting to write a non-fiction sci-fi book. She’s a fan and he’s kooky. Before we begin, in the opening scene, Chrissie and Harold are taken by two aliens—actually dudes in suits—when a red monster appears from nowhere and starts clawing at them like Godzilla. The plot in this one is so convoluted that I don’t really know how to describe it, so I’m going to pluck out the most relevant parts and condense the rest and hope it somehow makes sense to all y’all.
Right, so, when the investigators first looked into the abduction they thought it was a date rape. Mulder then requests to put Chrissie under hypnosis. She talks about missing time, hearing voices in her head, the usual alien abduction spiels and Scully chalks it all up to cultural osmosis. Chrissie also claims the aliens told her that what was happening was for the good of her country, which makes Mulder suspicious. A bystander named Roky comes forward, claiming to have witnessed the abduction. He writes a manifesto recounting the story of what happened. He is then visited by two “Men in Black” who tell him in vaguely menacing tones that he’s scientifically illerate and he saw Venus, not any aliens. Roky knows these men were real because “normally”, if two strangers drive into his home, he tells them to get the hell off his property but this time he didn’t. Bum-bum-bum! Roky’s a Republican, by the way, in case you couldn’t already tell. The Men in Black say something about Jimmy Carter and he takes offence.
Roky’s manifesto includes a reference to the third alien, the red monster thing. He calls it “Lord Kinbote”. Kinbote lives near the Earth’s molten core, which presumably accounts for his deep red hue. Mulder reads the manifesto, listens to Roky’s testimony and decides his account corroborates Harold’s. It doesn’t, however, corroborate Chrissie’s, so Mulder has her re-hypnotised. Now, instead of aliens, she sees men in air force uniforms. One of them asks if the red monster had a Russian accent. Reds in the soup, lads. Reds in the soup.
To further complicate matters, a local dude named Blaine Faulkner then claims to have found an alien body. When Scully autopsies it, she discovers it’s an air force officer in a suit. They ID him as Major Robert Vallee. For some reason, they’ve let Faulkner film the autopsy, the video of which leaks out to the press and appears on the Stupendous Yappi’s show. (Yappi!!!) Mulder discovers a naked guy while driving one night. Naked guy turns out to be Vallee’s partner, Robert Sheaffer. Mulder takes him for food and Sheaffer expounds on the elusive nature of reality before mentioning Lord Kinbote and being dragged out by military personnel.
Mulder goes back to the motel. Jesse Ventura’s inside, and so is Alex Trebek.
There’s some sleight of hand and the next morning he and Scully wake up in the same room with precious little recollection of what happened. They get a call from Detective Manners. A downed plane has been “discovered” and the air force is using it to explain away the UFO sightings. The bodies of Sheaffer and Vallee are dragged from the wreckage and everyone looks at each other awkwardly, wondering what to do.
And that, my friends, is basically it. Scully wraps up her account to an exasperated Chung, saying apologetically that it may not have much of a sense of closure but it DOES have more than some of their other cases. To be fair, that’s true. Best not to get your head in too much of a tizzy unless it’s absolutely necessary. Chung heads off to write. Mulder then pays him a visit and demands he refrain from writing the book as it will only further discredit his line of work. He claims Chung’s publishing house is linked to the military/industrial complex and insinuates it’s all a conspiracy. Nothing new there. Chung tells him to get out, and is inspired by this brief encounter to describe Mulder (under a pseudonym) as the ticking time bomb of insanity mentioned above. For her part, Scully—AKA Diana Lesky—is noble of spirit and pure at heart but “remains, nevertheless, a federal employee.” Mulder watches a Bigfoot video and possibly…faps. Chrissie devotes herself to improving the world and Harold is brutally rebuffed when he attempts to throw pebbles at her window. Quoth Chung as the episode draws to a close, “although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways on this planet, we are all alone.”
O…K. Make of that what you will. Entertaining and energetic and delightfully stupefying, but utterly impossible to make sense of. Having untangled my poor brain cells, here are some loosely assorted thoughts:
- Based on Sheaffer’s inane babbling to Mulder after being found on the road, the military ARE engineering some alien abductions as a foreign policy move. Basically, if the enemy believes in UFOs, they’ll hesitate if they see an unidentified aircraft in their territory. This’ll take just long enough for the US to drop a bomb on them, or something, and everything goes back to normal. Apparently the Germans broadcast images of the Virgin Mary into French territory in WWII. Who knew.
- Anyway, this would lead me to believe that at least part of the alien mythos is self-aware bullshit cooked up by the military, completely separate and distinct from what’s going on with ACTUAL aliens in covert intelligence.
- But then what the feck was the red monster thing? Were they seeing things? Is it some kind of metaphor for ye olde communism paranoia?
- My head really, really hurts.
- Mulder, while interrogating Harold early on, says he’ll probably be raped in prison. This seems mean-spirited and entirely out of character.
- Jesse Ventura was doing full WWE heel and it was fabulous.
- I never knew what Alex Trebek looked like until now.
- “The only things you were abducted by were your rampaging hormones, you punk!”
- Scully believes Chung’s “The Caligarian Candidate” is one of the greatest thrillers ever written.
- Scully being this gracious and complimentary of anyone is extremely weird.
- The opening shot is almost certainly a Star Wars reference.
- Lord Kinbote speaks in Shakespearean English.
- Blaine, describing Mulder and Scully: “One of the ‘men in black’ was disguised as a woman, but I wasn’t buying it. Her hair was red but a little too red, you know? The other one, the tall lanky one, he was so blank and expressionless he didn’t even seem human.” Mulder also apparently yelped when he first saw the alien body which turned out to be Vallee in a suit.
- While writing about ~Reynard Muldrake, Chung observes that some people become so obsessed with the quest for truth (I’m paraphrasing) that they are no longer capable of sustained, normal affection or interaction with fellow humans. This seems depressingly foreboding in Mulder’s case.
- Sheaffer’s spiel reminded me of way back in episode 2 or 3 where they found those air force guys who were all screwed up from the G-force in alien crafts. Remember when Scully thought the government had a right to keep its secrets secret? Sigh.
- That episode was also the first recorded incident of Scully saving Mulder’s ass, which has become an all but everyday occurrence.
- Detective Manners: “They found your bleepin’ UFO” // “You really bleeped up this case” // “You bet your blankety-blank bleep I am”
- What I wouldn’t give to have had Chung interview Skinner and ask for his two cents on his single most ludicrous crime-fighting duo. Think of the possibilities. “Skinner, reclining in his seat, sighing heavily and polishing his glasses with thought and care. ‘Son, if you only knew the things I’ve seen’ ‘I was in ‘nam, and it ain’t got nothing on this shit’ ‘When I started working here, I had hair. It was a troubling time'”
I’m going to bed. Three episodes next week and we’ll finish S03 just in time for the holidays. Gird yer loins!
Grace Duffy is a pop culture devotée and sometime film critic currently catching up on her classic sci-fi. You can read more on her Tumblr or catch her frequent TV liveblogs on Twitter.
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