Who thought that placing 60% of an episode in a control room would make for riveting tv, especially when half of that time is spent observing a forgettable guest character, Michelle, tensely check her monitors, as a worried Mulder grimaces behind her?
Sure, there’s a MOTW, but it’s a … FACE. Ripped from the headlines, it’s an actual image of the moon’s surface that just happens to resemble a human countenance. Somehow the spirit behind this face followed a former astronaut, Lieutenant Colonel Belt, back to earth. He’s now in charge of the space program and when recent NASA launches are plagued with mishaps and dangerous near misses, the chief dispatcher at mission control, Michelle, seeks Mulder’s help. She thinks the space ships (including the Challenger) are being sabotaged from within NASA. Her fiancé is on the next launch and she wants to ensure his safety.
Mulder and Scully head to NASA and are on hand for the launch of the next spaceship OTC. We’ve never met the astronauts in the spacecraft. They’re just voices talking to “Houston,” Mission Control. Our investment in their safety is vicarious at best. Michelle is worried about them, so we’re supposed to be concerned too. If you want an audience to feel involved, you have to put them inside the space ship. The fact that for expository purposes, Mulder has to lengthily explain what’s happening to Scully at every turn doesn’t help. It makes her look dense and further stultifies an episode that was painfully static already.
There are some cute moments. When Mulder meets Belt, we see that he’s star struck. Belt was a childhood hero of his. Watching Mulder fawn, Scully is amused and teases Mulder that he should have asked for the man’s autograph. In these early episodes, it’s gratifying just to look at Scully’s placid, freckled face and clear eyes and to remember the loyalty and depth you felt behind her gaze, even before it was fully revealed in the plot lines.
Little things make Mulder and Scully seem closer than Chris Carter probably intended them to be, like when they ascend an escalator side by side, sharing a narrow stair or when Scully passes through a doorway facing Mulder, rather than with her back turned to him, which would be more natural. But they aren’t the only ones acting familiarly.
To me, there seemed to be a vibe between Mulder and Michelle. I thought it was curious when she ran down a corridor calling, “Mulder,” although Scully was standing right beside him. It seemed rather intimate, but only on this show would I think calling someone by their surname is akin to a caress. As for her ignoring Scully, I suppose that’s one of the series’ conceits. When you talk only to him, it comes to mean several things: that she’s only his sidekick (a conclusion she rails against in Never Again and Milagro); that this is his quest and she’s only along for the ride, which everyone senses immediately; that he’s the boss (which he is, technically), that he’s the decider (which is usually the case and there’s beauty in the tension that arises whenever she countermands) or that they are one and if it involves Mulder, then they both automatically take part (the sentiment that most closely expresses Mulder’s view).
At any rate, when Mulder reassures Michelle with his hands on her waist or she jumps up and hugs him in relief when the OTC is out of harm’s way, I start wondering if these two have known each other for more than a day. Do Duchovny and this actress have a past or something?
Unfortunately, musings like that are about as interesting as it gets. Mulder is disillusioned when Belt conceals the problems in the space program, to keep from losing government funding. He seemingly places delivering a payload above the astronauts’ lives. But once it turns out he’s being haunted by a space monster, Mulder thinks Belt can use his paranormal knowledge to get the OTC back to earth safely. This part of the plot is murky. The space monster is sabotaging the launches, but why? Does it want earthlings to stop coming to the moon?
If so, if Belt wants to be free of the monster, why doesn’t he push to stop the launches? Mulder ultimately paints Belt as a hero, but he was the one who kept putting astronauts in harm’s way, when he knew there was a mysterious force working against them. I’m as distrustful of Belt’s motives as Scully and Michelle are.
Belt says that “it” doesn’t want them to find out. But we’re left to wonder who’s not supposed to find out about what? Does the moon face not want people to find out that the government is in league with aliens? Is it trying to conceal the fact that there is alien life on the moon? If that’s the case, maybe it could keep it’s secret best if it stopped haunting people!
Belt gives the OTC orders that puts the astronauts at greater risk and when Michelle challenges him, he calls her an emotional female, who is putting her personal feelings ahead of her job. She runs off crying. To the extent that Michelle and her fiancé are supposed to be a reflection of Mulder and Scully, I don’t like the comparison.
Belt finally has a nervous breakdown and winds up in the fetal position. He’s having an attack and Scully calls for a doctor. Hey, Dana, you are a doctor. When the paramedics arrive, Scully wants to give Belt diazepam, but Mulder won’t let them, he tells Belt to focus and to instruct them on how to bring the OTC back into earth’s atmosphere without burning up. Belt says to come in at 35 degrees and change their course. It’s a solution that works, but Belt wasn’t giving them this advice when he was being possessed or before his breakdown either. It only comes when he’s near death. So, it seems to me that if he wasn’t actively sabotaging the launches, then he was still undermining their safety by withholding information. Even when he wasn’t crazed by the Space Face monster, he wasn’t a hero.
Also, I need some explanation as to how Belt knew altering the degree angle would save the OTC. It’s not that these MOTW plots ever make sense, but there should at least be quasi-logic behind them. In the end, when he’s in the hospital, Belt is attacked by the Space monster once again and throws himself out the window, prompting Mulder to say, ‘He gave himself for his country.’ Huh? First of all, he didn’t seem to be sane when he committed suicide. So, it’s not like he made a conscious effort to save the world from himself (or the demons that controlled him) by jumping. Secondly, it was never clear to me that the face demon was making him do bad things, because even when he was self-possessed and rational, he wasn’t rescuing anyone.
With Belt dead, Michelle steps into his shoes and, like him, she conceals facts of the imperiled space mission from the media. Is she going to put public relations concerns above human life, like Belt did. Her fiancé also saw something strange in space when the OTC was in orbit, will he be haunted by Space Face in the future, like Belt was? The show leaves you with these questions, but without much incentive to ponder them.
I don’t long for action in my plots, but when there isn’t much of a plot at all, movement wouldn’t hurt. I had more fun watching Tony and Roger run around NASA on I Dream of Jeanie than I did watching Mulder and Scully in Space.