X-Files Flashback: ‘Young at Heart’

Young at Heart

Season 1, Episode 16
Director: Michael Lange
Writer: Chris Carter, Scott Kaufer

The best sequence in The X-Files sixteenth episode, “Young at Heart,” comes somewhere around the halfway point. Dana Scully sits in her apartment recording her thoughts for her on-going series of reports on Mulder’s cases. As she works, she hears a noise come from another room. Ignoring it, she continues to work. Then, another noise. This time, the sound of something resembling a creaky door. This time, Scully reaches for her gun. Background music appropriately amps up the tension. She approaches the darkness. Then, a quiet knock at the door. The camera pulls back into the darkness to reveal a shadowy figure, waiting. As Scully answers the door, the figure retreats through an open door. The tension is over.

If the episode were filled with more moments like this, then “Young At Heart” might have a better reputation than it does. As it stands, it’s an innocuous, slightly dull episode that, again, goes light on the supernatural and heavy on the medical and police procedurals.

The core story involves the unexpected return of John Barnett, here played for various reasons by two actors (Alan Boyce and David Peterson), a nemesis of Mulder’s who was responsible for several deaths until apprehended by Mulder. A moment’s hesitation and an insistence on following the rules by Mulder causes Barnett to kill two other people – one another FBI agent – before being apprehended. Barnett blames Mulder for his capture and insists that, despite a life sentence (they kind of gloss over exactly why Barnett never received the death penalty) and a recorded death, he will seek revenge. Flash-foward to modern day, and Mulder begins to receive notes that resemble the handwriting and M.O. of Barnett, who should be dead. Haunted by the possibility, Mulder drags Scully into an investigation with Scully adopting her usual skeptics stance and Mulder completely convinced that Barnett has returned from the dead.

He’s right, but not completely…

Barnett was an unwitting volunteer to a series of experiments performed on prisoners by the amoral doctor Joe Ridley. Ridley was previously stripped of his medical license for using progeria patients in search of a “fountain of youth” serum that would reverse the aging process. Barnett turns out to be Ridley’s only successful subject, the big difference being that Ridley replaced Barnett’s bad right hand with salamander cells. This modification to the experimentation apparently helped Barnett survive will giving him a grotesque, slimy claw of a hand. Barnett continues to taunt Mulder, killing another FBI agent in the process, before he is shot by Mulder during a cello rehearsal that Scully was scheduled to attend. Barnett dies on the operating room table, taking with him the location of Ridley’s secret formula.

So, even for an episode of The X-Files, this episode felt unsteady and ill-conceived from the beginning. it doesn’t help that it becomes something of a variation of the last episode, “Lazarus,” where a figure from Scully’s past becomes a threatening force. As with Scully in “Lazarus,” “Young At Heart” gives some character color to Mulder, diving into his early days as an FBI agent when he was less sure of his abilities. Those scenes were indeed effective given Mulder’s half-annoying, persistently cocksure attitude. But the real faults come in the Frankenstein’s monster of a plot where the pieces don’t really seem to fit together. It’s a Mulder character study. It’s a police procedural free of supernatural details. It’s a horror film. And finally it’s a medical drama about progeria and experimentation. Honestly, the bit about the salamander cells and hand regeneration felt completely out of left field and only devised so that the filmmakers could focus on the regenerated hand, something that fits more in line with traditional X-Files storytelling.

Plus, given the filmmaking skill of the earlier scene in Scully’s apartment, the climax at the concert hall felt completely flat and underdeveloped. The scenes here could have been extended to encompass some tense and carefully plotted cat-and-mouse games as the killer hunts for Scully. And, for a few minutes, it appears the filmmakers are headed in that direction. Until, that is, Barnett pops out of nowhere and shoots Scully nearly point blank (she’s of course wearing a bulletproof vest). It’s moments like these where a more cinematic approach would have greatly enhanced the material. Instead, “Young at Heart” gives us a guy dying on a table with a frog hand.


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