Season 5, Episode 15
Director: William A. Graham
Writer: John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz
The X-Files tries something a little unique in “Travelers,” an episode dedicated to the horrors – both sci-fi and political – of the 1950s. It’s an interesting shift in storytelling practices for the series, reaffirming the evil intent of the government in a different era where the corruption was a little more obvious and less clandestine as it has appeared in later episodes. Although only Mulder appears in a 1990s-set flashback, “Travelers” is a nice departure and gives us something different to chew on for a bit.
The episode begins in 1990 with two men attempting to evict Edward Skur from a ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere. Skur hides in his house until he is shot by an accompanying police officer. His dying word is “Mulder.” Later, a young Fox Mulder contacts a retired FBI agent tied to Skur in hopes of discovering why Skur mentioned his father. After some reluctance, the agent, Arthur Dales, begins to tell Mulder what he knows about Ed Skur.
The story jumps back in time to the 1950s when America was in the heat of the McCarthy-era unAmerican activities hearings. Dales and his partner have been sent to arrest a younger Ed Skur on suspicion of Communist activities. Skur is then reported to have hanged himself while in prison, but, in reality, he has escaped. Feeling guilty about arresting Skur, Dales pays a visit to Skur’s wife but encounters Skur. Skur attacks him and, as Dales is pinned to the ground, a creature begins to emerge from Skur’s mouth. Interrupted by a neighbor, Skur runs away, leaving Dales unharmed. Other agents with the government tell Dales to alter his report and pretend Skur is dead, which he does with great regret.
After being called to investigate the gruesome death of an ex-German doctor, Dales encounters Bill Mulder who warns him that Skur killed the doctor because he and two others were experimented on by the doctor. Mulder tells Dales he and his partners lives are also in danger because Skur believes them to be connected to the experiments. Dales tries to warn his partner, but it is too late: Skur has killed him using the creature that lives in his throat.
Using information obtained from Mulder, Dales tracks down the body of another man who killed himself because of the experiments. When an autopsy is performed, a live spider is found sewed into the corpse’s esophagus. Dales rushes to Skur’s house to assist him, but his wife does not acknowledge that Skur is hiding in the backyard bomb shelter. When she goes to check on Skur, he kills her. Finalky, the government (Mulder and his partner) use Dales to track down and capture Skur. Skur attempts to kill Dales, but Dales overpowers him. In the end, Fox Mulder learns his father was involved with a questionable government operation but does not know that his father pitied Skur and set him free.
I appreciated “Travelers” for its grounding in 1950s era suspense from the McCarthy hearings to the corrupt government figures like Roy Cohn to the 50s nuclear/science paranoia embodied by the creature living inside Skur and others. One of the themes of the episode is tied to the horror being “within” – literally within Skur but also within the American government. The Russians/Germans/Communists were held to be the villains of the era, but, in this X-Files outing, the horror is definitely of the American variety. It’s not a unique perspective for The X-Files to take, but it’s certainly well-rendered here in exquisite period detail, right down to the bomb shelter in Skur’s backyard.
Given the complete absence of Scully and the minor appearance of Mulder (comically made to appear younger thanks to bangs and goofy expressions), it is nice to see other actors stand out within the show. In this case, Fredric Lane gives a strong impression as the guilt-ridden Arthur Dales. His strong jaw and dimpled chin gives the perfect image of the Decent American Man who strives for honor among the thieves of the American government. He feels guilt but stoically conveys it in an accomplished performance for the veteran TV actor.
Overall, I enjoyed “Travelers” as a side bit of business. I’m a little frustrated that there weren’t more answers provided (Why did the victims’ bodies shrivel? What was the purpose of putting that creature in Skur’s throat? Was he just a killing machine? Where did the creature come from?), but such is life with The X-Files. Sometimes, there are no answers, only questions. And that’s ok too. The journey into a beautifully rendered 50s world was worth it.