Cult sci-fi shows, no matter how good they are, rarely elicit blog posts from me. The X-Flies episode Babylon though, which aired tonight in the UK, is different. It focussed on events after a terror attack in Texas, and it was decidedly controversial.
For those who didn’t watch it (and are, for some reason, reading this) the show opened with a young Muslim man praying and going about his morning, before heading to pick up a friend (also male, young, and who spoke Arabic). They head to a building holding an art exhibition, and walk inside. The shot remains on the outside of the building momentarily, before the entire thing goes up in an explosion.
My immediate thought was that this would be a very interesting episode. Mulder and Scully would race to clear the names of our two Muslim victims, besmirched by a racist media who assumed they were suicide bombers. Over the course of the episode, they would find out how the ‘monster of the week’ — presumably with some kind of spontaneous combustion power — was responsible. There would be lots of opportunity to challenge stereotypes, and ultimately give a wholesome message, wrapped in the slightly quirky bundle fans have come to love.
I was sort of right.
There were plenty of stereotypes. The two Muslim guys weren’t falsely accused of being suicide bombers though, they actually were suicide bombers. And instead of a race to clear names, there was a race to find a ‘terror cell of dedicated Muslims’ somewhere in Texas, before more attacks were carried out. It was a plot that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Homeland — and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
Homeland, that is, if magic mushrooms were involved. The only way, it seemed, to find the terror cell was for Mulder to get high and have a literal religious experience (which in this case means line-dancing, mixed with Biblical re-enactments). Because, reasons.
The frustrating thing was, the overall aim seemed to be an intent to quash bad stereotypes. The racist characters were almost over the top enough to come across as ridiculous, and there were a few choice words from Scully and others that made for good lines. To cap it all off, in the closing minutes of the show Mulder and Scully have a semi-enlightened conversation that, it was clear, was meant to act as the ‘racism is bad, we should be looking to the root of the problem’ message.
It all missed the mark though.
Not only that, but the tone of the episode was all over the place. The seriousness of the issues of terror attacks and xenophobia, were heavily undercut by the comedic value of Mulder’s aforementioned trip, and the would-have-been-funny-in-any-other-episode inclusion of Agents ‘Miller’ and ‘Einstein’ — younger doppelgängers of Mulder and Scully.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m a huge fan of the less serious episodes; the completely tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-monster from a couple of weeks ago was my favourite episode in a long time. But that worked because the entire episode was meant to be a lighthearted look at human nature. Babylon, by contrast, tried to add off-the-wall humour to an episode about a terrorist attack.
It’s a shame, really. The show spends so little time in the ‘real world’ that, on the occasions that it does, it should really try harder to give a better quality of story. It was, as one tweeter put to me, a ‘wasted opportunity’.
It’s not like this was the show’s first foray into story lines with a serious message. To varying degrees of conspicuousness, the writers over the years have put in themes of, amongst other things: environmentalism, humanitarianism, and gender equality. And that’s ignoring the general theme throughout that being open minded and accepting of ideas and values alien to you (if you’ll pardon the expression…) is objectively a good thing.
It’s always going to be difficult to write serious plot lines into an entertainment show — I understand that, and that they tried isn’t my issue. My problem is that everything about this episode screamed laziness, and when you’re tackling issues as charged and as weighty as racism, that is something you have absolutely no right to be.