The X-Files first great two-part episode, “Duane Barry”/”Ascension” plays a lot like a 1990s action thriller, with a tense opening act involving a hostage negotiation, and a final act that gets down to business with picturesque locations, and impressive physical stunts.
That description, however, only begins to scratch the surface of this two-part epic, a legitimate X-Files classic.
This is also the story-line, for instance, that forwards significantly the series’ ongoing subplot about alien abduction (first introduced in the pilot), and ends on a cliffhanger involving the disappearance of Scully (Gillian Anderson).
“Duane Barry”/”Ascension” also features a brilliant and twitchy performance by guest star Steve Railsback (Lifeforce ) as the title character, Barry. Although the character is only featured in this two-parter, Barry has become, in the minds of many X-Files fans, a critical and unforgettable part of the series’ background tapestry. Let’s just say the actor leaves an impact on the series, the characters, and the audience.
One aspect of this two-part episode that works exceedingly well, too, is its finely-inscribed sense of ambiguity.
I’ve written in some length about the “twin” world-view/lens/realities of Mulder and Scully, the whole believer vs. skeptic dynamic. Delightfully, the Duane Barry incident remembers that dynamic, and explores it more deeply than ever before.
In fact, this is a story of ambiguities within ambiguities, realities within realities. Duane Barry is either an alien abductee or a serial liar, and his abductions are either fabrications, or real. But going deeper, those abductions may be, in fact, not alien in nature at all, but the result of military experimentation. When critics and fans remember and celebrate The X-Files, it is in part for this careful layering of details; this intelligent writing that artfully permits two ideas or theories -- or even more – to be operative at the same time.
Most TV shows are lucky to get in one good idea per hour. The X-Files routinely gets two-competing world views into each installment, and that’s a creative legacy worth cherishing.
In “Duane Barry,” Mulder (David Duchovny) and his new partner, Krycek (Nicholas Lea) are called in to help the F.B.I. with a hostage negotiation crisis in Richmond, Virginia.
An ex-military man and sanitarium resident, Duane Barry (Railsback) has captured his psychiatrist at gunpoint and taken hostage all the employees of a local travel agency. Mulder’s presence is needed because Barry continues to obsessively discuss his alien abduction experience, and claims that the aliens (who have been taking him since 1985…) will soon send him instructions about the next rendezvous.
Scully (Anderson), however, learns that Duane Barry suffered a crippling gun-shot wound years earlier, and that this catastrophic injury may have made him a serial liar subject to delusions and even hallucinations.
When Barry is finally taken into custody by the F.B.I. , however, new medical information is presented. The dangerously unstable Barry seems to possess implants in the very places he claims: his gums, his nasal cavity, and his abdomen. And his teeth appear to be drilled via a technology not yet known to medical science…
Scully examines one of the removed implants, and finds out that it possesses a bar-code, and is therefore, essentially cataloging and tracking Barry. Then Barry escapes from custody and captures Scully. With the F.B.I agent as his captive, he heads to Skyland Mountains for a rendezvous with his frequent abductors.
Mulder and Krycek pursue Barry, but Mulder suffers a betrayal, and is not able to reach the mountain apex in time to save Scully from an apparent alien abduction.
Like so many of the best X-Files stories, “Duane Barry/Ascension” takes real life cases of psychology and history and re-shapes those sources into a fresh tale. Here, there are two inspirations.
On one hand, Duane Barry and his strange brain injury (which are believed to account for his violence and confabulations) is based on a real life case of the bizarre.
And on the other hand, this is the first X-Files episode to delve seriously into almost all facets of “abduction” literature and lore.
In the first case, Duane Barry’s head injury is based, very loosely on the notorious case of Phineas P. Gage (1823 – 1860), a railroad construction foreman who survived a dreadful work accident. In particular, Gage’s left frontal lobe was destroyed when an iron rod smashed through his skull. Gage was thus at the center of the famous “American Crowbar Case,” and many accounts indicated how this individual’s personality was changed -- for the worse – following his dreadful accident.
Today, however, many of the accounts of Gage’s personality change have been debunked, suggesting that the change, post-accident was not as pronounced as many psychologists and neurologists apparently believed at the time.
In the case of The X-Files, writer Chris Carter uses the device of a traumatic brain injury not unlike Gage’s to dramatize the tragedy of Duane Barry. He was one a man who had it all: a wife and children, and a job in the F.B.I. after a noble career in the military. Then Barry had that gunshot accident, and everything changed…his very personality changed. He lost his whole life, right down, finally, to his freedom and sanity. He has been deteriorating ever since, slipping into a permanent state of paranoid psychosis.
Scully and Mulder each view Duane’s journey differently, but what one comes away with after watching the two-part episode is that Barry is a man who has suffered horribly and lives for some kind of release, some kind of affirmation regarding his unique journey. But, in typical X-Files fashion, there can be no third party affirmation of the truth, only a collection of details which can be read one way or another. By one reading, he’s a lunatic and liar who is being experimented upon by the military. By another, he’s a legitimate alien abductee.
That latter reading -- alien abduction – permits “Duane Barry”/”Ascension” to recount many stages of the “typical” abduction experience or “narrative.” In particular, “Duane Barry”/”Ascension” details “the capture,” in which an abductee is taken from his or her home to an alien spacecraft, “the examination,” in which medical procedures are performed on the abductee against his or her will, “the tour” (reflected in Barry’s discussion of seeing children aboard the ship…) “the loss of time” (recounted by Barry), and “the Return,” a post-abduction moment of disassociation and confusion.
I’m not saying that I believe in alien abduction, but The X-Files’ dedicated approach to the subject matter is -- as I liked to say when I wrote An Analytical Guide to TV’s One Step Beyond and tried to find legitimate validation for the paranormal stories there -- accurate in terms of the literature on the subject.
In terms of how this abduction material is vetted, The X-Files’ visual style is really cemented in this two-part installment, thanks in part to the impressive directorial debut of Chris Carter. There are many shots here originating from a low-placed camera as it probes into a new or different environment (like Duane’s house at the start of the first episode), and so the resulting psychic impression is of an on-going exploration. The low-angle portends some kind of menace, as if the locale is outsized (and the audience is small, or under-sized), and gliding motion suggests a reconnaissance into danger and the unknown.
There’s also a visual sense of mystery and sub-textual connection afoot here. Late in the story, for instance “Duane Barry” cuts from an alien medical tool drilling Duane’s teeth (in flashback) to the F.B.I. drilling a hole in the wall at the travel agency. The underlying question is this: do the two shots suggest a contextual connection? Is the government behind both drilling attempts? And therefore, is the choice of cuts/editing suggesting that hidden connection?
Similarly, the episode reflects Mulder and Scully’s uncertainty about Barry by giving us flashbacks that reveal alternate “truths.” In some flashbacks, we see the alien greys congregating around Barry. In others, we see military men. At one point, he says both forces are in cahoots. Again, discerning truth isn’t easy, and again, we must grapple with the notion of an opaque world.
I also appreciate how -- at least subtly -- Carter’s choices of techniques and compositions suggest “how” we should best view Barry: sympathetically. When Barry is shot by the F.B.I, the screen goes to black, and when an image re-emerges, it is a foggy, blurry P.O.V. from the suspect’s perspective. In other words, we are in his shoes…betrayed in a sense, by Mulder, who gives up his convictions and adopts Scully’s viewpoint when he should probably know better. Whether Barry is a liar or an abductee, he is not entirely responsible for his actions. The first-person subjective shots transmit that notion and makes us wonder how it must feel to “be” Barry.
The story’s set-up, “Duane Barry,” with its intense one-on-one confrontations between Mulder and Barry, and the high-stakes of the F.B.I. snipers is superior, in my estimation, both in style-and-substance to the final act, as depicted in “Ascension.”
It’s not that “Ascension” is poorly-done, only that all the real and important character information and story substance is included in the sterling “Duane Barry,” leaving “Ascension” to tie-up everyting. It succeeds, I would conclude, but mostly on the basis of action tropes: spectacle and tension.
In particular, the set-piece at Skyland Mountain that finds Mulder aboard a racing sky-tram is a technically-magnificent piece of work, brilliantly edited. First, the episode evokes tension when Mulder refuses to heed the technician’s advice to slow down, and presses the gas pedal, so-to-speak…beyond all reason and sanity. Each time he does so, Mulder threatens to make the tram jump its cable at the next tower…an eventuality that would send him plunging to his death. This is nail-biting stuff, as Mulder accelerates, decelerates, and races to retrieve Scully.
Then, the episode unexpectedly moves to pure spectacle as Mulder climbs out of the sky-tram, and attempts to climb down a tower. I’m sure I was merely fooled by excellent stunt-work, but it really looks as though Duchovny is clinging to the top and side of the sky-car. The amazing thing is that this sequence on The X-Files – a low-budget TV episode – totally outshines a similar sequence in the James Bond film, Moonraker (1979). There, obvious rear projection screens and stunt doubles ruined the illusion of Bond (Roger Moore) hanging on for his life on a Buenos Aires tram. The scene in “Ascension” eschews optical trickery and obvious stuntmen, and emerges an action sequence of considerable (and superior) impact.
In terms of characters, much happens in this two-part episode, obviously. Skinner re-opens the X-Files. Scully is abducted and disappears…setting up a multi-season plot-line, essentially, involving the tests performed on her. Mulder learns that Krycek is actually Judas, and meets with Deep Throat’s replacement, X (Steven Williams) in person for the first time.
Yet as I wrote above, beyond all the great intrigue and surprise twists, these episodes work so splendidly because Railsback invests Barry with so much humanity…and madness. His scenes are unpredictable, energetic, and dangerous-seeming, primarily because of the character’s lack of stability. Accordingly, both Scully and Mulder seem imperiled by his presence in a real and intimate way. The key to Railsback’s performance is that the audience both loves and hates him simultaneously; both wants to see him captured, and see him (and his beliefs…) vindicated. That’s not an easy tight-rope for an actor to walk, but Railsback gives an accomplished, pitch-perfect performance.
“Ascension” also introduces fully another shade of Scully’s character: her Catholic faith. Mulder returns Scully’s crucifix and necklace to Mrs. Scully (Sheila Larken) upon her disappearance, and asks “if she was such a skeptic, why did she wear that?” This fascinating dimension of Scully -- her ability to embody both “faith” and “science”-- is examined in many future stories.
Next week: “3.”