X-Files Flashback: ‘Firewalker’

Season 2, Episode 9
Director: David Nutter
Writer: Howard Gordon

“Firewalker” is an example of the show going back to the same well one too many times. I could practically imagine the writers’ room debating the episode, potentially remarking that it felt a little familiar until someone says, “Not really. This time, it’s in a volcano!” Setting aside, the theme of isolation and the Ten Little Indians-inspired narrative within “Firewalker” have been seen before in “Ice” and “Darkness Falls.” It’s not that “Firewalker” is a particularly bad episode, but it just feels too familiar thanks to the law of diminishing returns to be a fully successful episode.

The title “Firewalker” refers to advanced exploring technology employed by a research team investigating the interior of an active volcano. Lead researcher Daniel Trepkos (Bradley Whitford, sporting a white Rambo-esqe headband) hopes to find hidden clues to explain the origin or continued evolution of life – or something like that. When associated scientists at the California Institute of Technology see one of their researchers dead on Firewalker’s camera covered by a shadowy figure, they call in Mulder and Scully to join a second expedition to determine what went wrong. Upon arrival, Mulder and Scully find the rest of the research team sequestered inside their facility. One of them suffers from a mysterious and persistent cough and later seems to suffer from a massive protrusion within his neck. They attempt to evacuate him to a hospital, but he escapes into the woods and falls down a steep ravine. Watching from a distance, they witness a giant phallus rip through and protrude from his neck. Kind of like Aliens.

Over the course of the episode, Mulder finds Trepkos who confirms that the phallus protruding from his former college is a new type of spore, a parasitic spore that needs a human host to thrive before exploding spore cells into the air. If the cells do not immediately find a human host, then they die, a fact proven by Scully’s advanced research. The remainder of the team was apparently infected once the first researcher died, and Trepkos has been trying to kill them to stop the spread of the infection. The last remaining infected researcher – Jessie O’Neil (Shawnee Smith of the Saw series) – mysteriously handcuffs herself to Scully in an attempt to ensure the spread of the spore. Scully manages to somehow lock O’Neil in a containment chamber and shut the door between them with the handcuffs magically not blocking the closing of the door. O’Neil’s throat explodes into a cloud of spores, but Scully remains unharmed. Mulder calls in the Feds who place them in a month-long quarantine and seal the research facility and tunnels leading to the volcano. Trepkos is never heard from again.

Aside from the familiarity of the episode, the events in “Firestarter” don’t make a great deal of sense. First, Trepkos seems to be some sort of Colonel Kurtz-type character, but he’s never given enough screen time to become a fully fleshed out presence, which is a shame because Bradley Whitford looks hilarious in his white Rambo headband. It’s also not exactly clear how he was able to journey as deep into the volcano as Firewalker was to disable it. And then there’s the problem of the spore itself. It’s described as a parasite, but O’Neil’s actions at the end of the episode make no sense when compared to the first suffering researcher we see. That man ran into the woods to avoid infecting others. O’Neil cuffs herself to Scully to ensure the spore’s spread. Why? Plus, the spore is a complete rip-off of the chest-bursting alien from the Alien franchise. From the phallic shape to the skin-ripping birth, it’s such an exact copy that I half expected it to jump out of the body and start singing “Hello Ma Baby! Hello Ma Honey!

Aside from that, “Firestarter” is an average, entertaining episode completely devoid of originality. It probably makes a nice bridge from Scully’s disappearance to another deeper or more relevant to the overall mythology episode. I just wish they hadn’t so quickly aped earlier, better episodes.

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