They say if you’re going to copy an idea, you should copy from the greats. I was never a fan of The X-Files, but that had more to do with the night it was on than anything else. Conceptually, it was right up my alley. There were other shows that came later that I think were direct descendants of The X-Files, and I liked all of those that I’d seen. Torchwood and Fringe come to mind, but I believe Warehouse 13 was another. The bottom line is, while I wasn’t a fan, I certainly appreciated the appeal and the ideas the show was pulling from. Visitors from Down the Street is not the Crusade episode I’d use to illustrate what the series was about, but it is a damned good piece of entertainment and a wonderful homage to Mulder and Scully, complete with Lyssa having red tentacles to match Scully’s hair. So, what can we say about a series that spends an hour living in the skin of another?
I loved it. I usually speak about the episodes off the cuff when I write about them but this time, I did a little research after watching and was happy that I caught many of the references. Not all, but enough to be happy with myself. For instance, not being a fan, I failed to pick up on the date/timestamp at the start of the episode, and I totally missed the Y on the door, to parody the X that Mulder would use in The X-Files. Having never seen Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’, I failed to grasp the meaning behind the double mask. I did notice that Durkani had a name very similar to Duchovny and the cigarette smoking man was mirrored as well in the character of Kendarr. I was surprised to see him whip out an actual cigarette, thinking that his constant playing with a tentacle was all we’d get to represent the way the Smoking Man always held his cancer stick. I noticed early on that Durkani was the believer and Lyssa was the skeptic, like our earthbound counterparts. And the end line of “the truth is…” “… out of fashion” was delightful. Like many gerne quotes, you don’t have to be a fan to know that one!
As far as real world conspiracy theories go, this also picked up on some and I don’t know if I was happy that I knew each, or embarrassed. The Face on Mars was something that I remember well, so when the episode mirrored that with Mt. Rushmore, I understood what they were doing there. Equally, I was a big fan of the Roswell crash and studied it in detail when I was younger, so the bodies of the creatures with hair on their heads was a very obvious reproduction. Even the swamp gas for a blimp was something I picked up on. Again, I’m not sure I should be happy about that, but I wrote each down and found they all get referenced on the superb Lurkers Guide to Babylon 5. I missed nothing!
Story-wise, one thing I really appreciated was that the tables were turned on the all too common idea of Earth being visited by aliens. This is a chance for us to be the aliens and it was refreshing, and funny to boot. And while Star Trek had a holodeck to get away with it, I never thought a B5 series could do an effective Film Noir parody, yet I was truly happy to watch this story unfold. (Well, I say effective but perhaps that’s slightly generous; I don’t know if hiding up against a glass pane will really hide anyone, but it was still great to watch anyway.)
“It’s a remarkable ship…” says Kendarr, but I wondered how he’d know. The ship was kept so dark, I had to wonder if they just mirrored night-mode to allow people to rest easier, but I wouldn’t expect it on the bridge! (Man do I love the 2009 reboot of Star Trek for making the Enterprise so bright.) The Excalibur should not be in total darkness if they want to get things done. Speaking of issues with the ship, I actually really liked the bit with the smell from the waste pipe. Oh, it was gross, and one wonders why Gideon wouldn’t realign it until it could be fixed, but it spoke of a real ship with real problems and that was fantastic. Ok, Kendarr might be right that it’s a remarkable ship, but it still has flaws. And perhaps Gideon does too. When Matheson mentions that the idea of disrupting the culture of an entire people might be viewed poorly by some, Gideon says “Screw ‘em.” Gideon did not like being a pawn in a game so he broke the Prime Directive to make his point. At the same time, he let the audience know that the Prime Directive doesn’t apply to this show; that’s another show we can parody at another time!
Early in the episode, Gideon talked about things he missed from Earth and at the end of the episode, he gets to enjoy them again, wearing a Hawaiian shirt (which makes me question his packing choices), drinking an iced tea, and enjoying the breeze on his face. Ironically, that’s exactly how I spent my evening before writing this. Sometimes, things just line up perfectly. ML
The view from across the pond:
As soon as a proper old-school flying saucer turned up I knew we were in for a fun episode. I only ever watched a couple of episodes of The X Files, but despite that it was easy to figure out what was happening here. Durkani and Lyssa are alien versions of Mulder and Skully, and although I don’t think I ever saw the cigarette smoking man, I read enough sci-fi magazines at the time to get the reference when Kendarr lit up at the end.
Even as somebody with only a vague knowledge of The X Files, I didn’t feel excluded from the episode, and I don’t think it would matter even if a viewer didn’t understand the references at all. The episode still works as an exploration of alien conspiracy theories. The tables might be turned, with the aliens convinced that we have been visiting them, but it’s still basically that same idea: one group of people are convinced that there have been aliens among them, while the government covers it up. But that’s not the end of the story, because there is a very clever twist: the government has been deliberately fabricating the evidence to generate the conspiracy theory, as a tool to keep people in line. This episode of course refers to the Roswell “conspiracy”. I’m going to pick my words carefully here, but let’s just make a general observation that it can be very useful to have the media distracted by silly conspiracy theories that take the focus away from elsewhere.
There are also references to other alien conspiracy theories, and this is far more my area of expertise than The X Files, so I appreciated all that stuff, particularly the amusing use of Mount Rushmore as a parallel for the face on Mars, a trick of shadows in a low resolution image that triggered the tendency of the human brain to interpret patterns in objects as faces (known as pareidolia). Of course it never made much sense, as the “face” was absolutely enormous and facing upwards (that’s where the reference breaks down, because Mount Rushmore from space is the top of a row of heads), and subsequent photographs of the “face on Mars” proved that it was simply a very boring mountain range. The first of those reached us in 1998, so this was a topical reference when the episode was made.
I suppose we have to acknowledge that this is a bit of a silly episode, and it reminded me a of a couple of episodes of The Outer Limits that functioned as pilot episodes for different series. It felt like we were watching another show altogether here. The very slight B-plot didn’t add much, and we could have done without the sight of the waste disposal pipe spilling its contents all over the floor. The punchline of Gideon going on vacation in a transport tunnel, complete with sunglasses, really summed up the weirdness of this episode.
“You know what else I miss besides real coffee? Wind.”
Ah, no baked beans available on the Excalibur either then? I could never quite get over the incongruous sight of aliens with rubbery tentacles wearing business suits either. But it all worked quite well as an exploration of government manipulation, and perhaps should make us all stop and think about the power of the media to distract us from the real issues with trivialities. That’s how bad news gets buried on busy news days. I’m not sure if I liked Gideon’s attempt to derail the conspiracy at the end, bearing in mind that the government policy might be a bit sinister, but is also proving effective in keeping the peace. That’s why Trek gave us the Prime Directive. Gideon’s actions might just have started a war.
“Once my people find something to blame, that something usually ends up dead.”
That “something to blame”, thanks to Gideon, is now the entire government. RP