X-Files Flashback: ‘The Unnatural’

Unnatural

Season 6, Episode 19
Director: David Duchovny
Writer: David Duchovny

People seem to love David Duchovny’s The X-Files directorial debut “The Unnatural.” I’m not sure why. The episode was obviously a labor of love for Duchovny given his personal obsession with baseball, and the feeling of a minor league baseball game is lovingly recreated in ways that only a baseball obsessive could accomplish. But the episode’s mixture of race relations and alien mythology layered with a comic tone felt incredibly forced and unnatural to me (pun intended). Where comic episodes have soared previously, “The Unnatural” comes across as a great idea that needed the guidance of a more sure hand.

We open with a friendly baseball game played between all-white and all-black teams. I say “friendly” is that is the tone convey despite scripted lines referring to the black players’ “nappy hair.” After the black team’s best player (Josh Exley, played by Jesse L. Martin) hits his 61st home run, the Ku Klux Klan rides up looking for Exley. After a brief skirmish, one of the Klan members is knocked from his horse and de-hooded, revealing an alien. We jump back to present day where Mulder is researching old baseball scores in government archives when he stumbles on a picture of Arthur Dales, the shape-shifting alien, and Exley in Roswell. Mulder pays a visit to Dales but is greeted by his brother, also named Arthur Dales (Frederic Lane taking over for Darren McGavin). Dales reluctantly shares a backstory about meeting Exley, learning he was an alien, and holding him as he died after being murdered by the shape-shifting alien. As he dies, he bleeds human blood rather than the green ooze typically associated with aliens. Back in the present, Mulder teaches Scully how to hit a baseball.

As I’ve mentioned before, Duchovny’s love for baseball can be evidenced throughout the episode from the loving recreation of the opening game, to the well-constructed shots of late night team bus rides, to the ending where he grins wildly as he teaches Scully how to hit a ball. If you’re going to write about something, then the general rule of thumb is to write about something you love. Duchovny was smart to focus on this topic for his first solo outing as writer/director. Where he goes wrong is in nearly everything else. First, the idea of an alien remaining on Earth to play baseball doesn’t work visually. There’s a scene halfway through the episode where Dales discovers Exley in his true form that is meant to be played for comic relief, but it’s incredibly silly. Worse, the comic juxtaposition of an alien hiding himself as a black man while his hunter manifests as a Klansman is borderline offensive.

In his own world, Duchovny may truly believe that the game of baseball can span intergalactic species, but it’s a particular fantasia that only he would share. His love of the game is certainly on display, but it doesn’t justify a jaunt into alien mythology. In the end, while he and Scully hit balls into the night sky, each ball becomes a star. It’s a cheap, cloying touch that puts an inappropriately sweet note on an inherently sad tale of racism and murder. It would take a more experienced director to fully pull it off.

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