Writer Darin Morgan returns to The X-Files (1993 - 2002) with "The War of the Coprophages," another humorous installment that gazes at humanity with unblinking and unromantic eyes. In particular, the story involves the “insect mind” as it relates to cockroaches.
However, “The War of the Coprophages” also compares the relative purity and simplicity of the insect mind to the “over-developed” human mind, a biological machine which permits for non-useful responses or “reactions” to threats; responses such as paranoia or hysteria, for example.
These mad human responses are highlighted specifically in the episode’s townspeople of Miller’s Grove, MA, who display ignorance, the mob mentality, and terror in the face of the impossible: an apparent concentrated attack on the town by cockroaches.
Importantly, and humorously, all the gruesome deaths in the episode are a result not of roach attacks at all, but irrational human responses to the proximity of roaches, creatures that our eyes and minds register as “monsters.” In fact, the gory deaths in the episode have the same effect on us, as viewers, as they do the townspeople. We are not able to put aside our discomfort with the bugs long enough to take them out of the “suspect pool.” This fact gives the episode a highly reflexive quality: we are squirming in our seats at the grotesque bug swarms while the characters on the screen do approximately the same thing.
Finally, the last piece of this complex and funny puzzle is the fact that some of the roaches featured in the episode are actually outside observers of mankind, alien probes who are visiting our world…and find us with all our over-developed neuroses and psychoses on full display.
What, "The War of the Coprophages" wonders, must aliens make of this strange human species?
The tiny town of Miller’s Grove, Massachusetts has a bad bug problem. It is teeming with cockroaches, and murderous ones at that. Mulder (David Duchovny) is in town to investigate reports of UFO activity, but the roach attacks merit his full attention soon enough.
Although Scully (Gillian Anderson) scuttles the notion of swarming, attacking cockroaches, Mulder learns of a top secret Department of Agriculture experiment in town examining a new breed of roaches.
More curious than that, however, is evidence that suggests the roaches may be metallic, perhaps alien probes sent from another world to examine this planet…
In Morgan’s “War of the Coprophages,” the gorgeous and intelligent Dr. Bambi Berenbaum (Bobbie Phillips) notes that cockroaches “eat, sleep, defecate, and procreate” and yet have no sense of romance, mythology, or exaggerated sense of importance about these rudimentary biological activities.
This dialogue is a deliberate voicing of Morgan’s theme in the episode, that beings such as cockroaches see life in a clear, practical, and real way that human beings simply do not. This thesis applies as well to our treatment of insects, as the episode’s final "squashing" scene reveals in spades.
To wit, even intelligent, educated, sensitive Fox Mulder can’t overcome his irrational human programming of terror when confronted with an insect. In the end -- and even in light of everything he now believes about the cockroaches of Miller’s Grove -- he can’t resist the temptation to squash a bug.
The (defensive) violence is ingrained. It’s hard-wired. And it is absolutely, patently irrational. Mulder's head may want to offer "greetings from Planet Earth" to the possibly extra-terrestrial bugs, but his heart wants to destroy that which is different, and that which has terrified him since childhood (when he first saw, up close, a preying mantis).
Importantly, “War of the Coprophages” twice makes mention of my all-time favorite science fiction film: Planet of the Apes (1968), and in particular, the final dialogue on the beach shared between Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and Colonel Taylor (Charlton Heston). The discussion there is explicitly about destiny, and how it concretely exists, whether Taylor will “like what he finds” or not.
In the case of “War of the Coprophages,” Morgan's point may very well be that biology is our destiny.
Therefore -- to some extent, our destiny is irrationality: a fear of that which is different. We look at bugs (or any creature) across a vast gulf of suspicion and fear and can't make peace with them. This gulf is explicitly visualized in the episode during one impressive composition, which features Mulder and a police detective staring down a sink drain at an escaping bug. This shot transforms the drain into a kind of a tunnel, and so subtly suggests mankind's "tunnel vision" when viewing things which are "alien" to us.
Somehow, we are always looking at these"alien" things over a vast, irreconcilable distance...
The theme “irrationality is our destiny” plays out in other aspects of the tale as well. Mulder lies and claims that he loves insects, all in an attempt to woo the desirable Bambi. He has thus placed great importance on “winning” this attractive woman, so much so that he would betray his own core principles, and friendships (as we see in his curt telephone responses to Scully, once Bambi has arrived in the picture).
Meanwhile, Scully -- who provides a lecture on rationality to the townspeople of Miller’s Grove -- is equally irrational and unable to overcome her hard-wiring. She has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the deaths in the Massachusetts town are unrelated, and that there is no need for her to travel to the burg to check things out. But when Mulder mentions Dr. “Bambi” on the telephone, Scully races up to the scene of the crime, intensely jealous and afraid of being outclassed by the entomologist. Her hard-wiring tells her to fight for the man with whom she has invested so much love, support and time: Mulder.
Again, the inference is that we place unnecessary importance on (and mythology around) simple acts, like procreation, so much so that we don't even understand why, sometimes, we do the things that we do.
The “War of the Coprophages” also returns The X-Files to its epistolary roots (harking back to Stoker's Dracula and Shelley's Frankenstein...), by prominently featuring Mulder’s written (and voice-over narrated) summation of the tale. His computer report concerns man’s apparent inability to rise above his hard-wired fears and irrationality and Mulder is clear-headed and thoughtful in his presentation. He wonders what aliens must make of us, and our emotional, nonsensical acts. He sympathizes with the "other," which is his gift as investigator.
Then, acting emotionally and nonsensically, Mulder squashes a nearby bug with his case report file. This is a perfect Morgan-style ending to the episode. The writer often delves into nihilism and absurdity, and here he positions Mulder -- our heroic protagonist -- as someone totally incapable of growth, no matter the power of his intellect. The final destruction of the (harmless) insect by psychologist Mulder is all the evidence anyone needs that man's destiny, his programming, is most difficult to overcome.