The television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 was absolutely genius in its premise: a man and his homemade robots watch b-movies and make fun of them in real time. If you are a fan on the show, you may have felt compelled to repeat the concept. However, if you are also like me and have trouble enjoying the world, you may want to replace the humorous riffing with politically charged cultural analysis. This might mean watching rom-coms such as The Back-up Plan and The Change-Up and interjecting every gooey scene with biting feminist critique. For others, it might mean subjecting themselves to blockbuster war films and commenting on the vilification of Arab people and culture. For me, it means watching episodes from that other great 90’s TV series, The X-Files, and noting the insane subtexts about colonialism and, you guessed it, indigenous peoples.
The X-Files‘ mythology relies heavily on government conspiracy and only briefly with Indians, namely the Navajos (Diné, represent!), who figure into a brief three episode story arch. However, one could argue that the overall mythology, with its alien colonization, small pox vaccination conspiracy, and hybrid alien-human species, has American anxieties about colonialism written all over it.
The one-off episodes, often of the creature feature variety, are also a bountiful source for cultural texts about race and modernity. One such episode is “Detour” from season five, which I would like to go through with you and pick apart for its possible subtext about the fate of indigenous peoples in the wake of “civilization”. This is where the MST3K concept comes in. If you have Netflix instant or the fifth season on DVD, you can heed my comments as the drama unfolds in real time before your eyes. If you have neither of these things, it may actually work better, because unlike Joel Robinson and his robot friends, I do not have witty retorts for every scene, only well-placed explanations of underlying narratives.
“Detour” begins with two contractors staking out the coordinates for a new swamp. The scruffier one, obviously not happy with his job, says “The sooner they pave over the swamp the better.” The older, more intellectual one responds,“It’s not a swamp. You’re standing in a forest with indigenous plant and animal species you’re obviously too ignorant to appreciate”, and later further admonishes him with“You should be sad to see the demise of an ecosystem. We all should be.”
This establishes the age old conflict between the destructive forces of progress and the demise of the natural world, whose passing is seen as tragic but inevitable. Note the reference to the destruction of indigeneity—it’s important.
The scruffy contractor’s pole gets stuck in bloody soil matter. As he looks closer, two piercing red eyes flash open, and the contractor is pulled into the earth. Something invisible starts chasing the dweeby contractor through the brush. He hides behind a log, but Then! In the ground beneath his hand he sees the outline of man’s face camouflaged with the earth. The piercing red eyes open and screaming ensues.
The creature so far has been established as a small invisible man that exists in and of the earth with small glowing red eyes that open to terrorize. We may not be far enough along to say this is with all certainty, BUT, this “creature” is much like the Indian in the American imagination: people of the earth who have disappeared, also prone to attacking explorers and having “red” features.
Cut to the title intro. Here we all try our best to whistle The X-Files theme, written by the inimitable Mark Snow.
The next scene begins with a father and son hunting possums and discussing the loss of animal instincts in the human being. Dog starts barking over the bloodied work shirt of one of the contractors. Father tells his son to run home with the dog as he loads the gun. As the boy runs home, two shots ring out.
Mulder and Scully in the back seat while two FBI squares talk about team building activities.
Mulder explains his absence from past team building conferences with a snide, “Around this time of year I usually develop a severe hemorrhoidial condition”. They run into a road block and Mulder steps out for air. A distraught woman comes up and asks him if he knows anything about her husband, the hunter from the previous scene. Mulder goes off into forest to see what the situation is.
Well, isn’t he a charming devil?
The male FBI square calls the female FBI square over to a tree stump and pointing to a tree ring time line tells her this tree was here even before Ponce De Leon landed!
Note the amazement that stuff existed in the North American continent before Europeans arrived. We are made to believe that anything before exploration is part of some far-far-away past, which works into the larger narrative that Euro-American presence here is the normal and the thousands of years of indigenous presence are something to be regarded with disbelief.
Mulder converses with a red-headed woodsy cop type, Michelle, who believes the contractors and the hunter are victims of an animal attack. However, the tracks she finds cannot be identified as “man or animal”. Intrigued by the case, Mulder tells Scully he won’t be making it to the team building conference.
The detail about the tracks further develops our picture of the creature as something or someone that while human-like exists outside civilization. If we wish to continue our theory that this monster is a metaphor for Indians, the ambiguity of human/animal status fits rather well into a discourse that often collapses Indian identity with the natural world.
Mulder searching pictures of African animal attacks on his computer. Scully comes in with mini bar liquor and cheese. She attempts to address the sexual tension with a reference to the FBI rule that male and female agents are not to consort in hotel rooms while on assignment.
Mulder changes the subject to native animal species of North America. Because there is no animal that will let the weak behind in order to go after the strongest (as the creature in the forest did), Mulder is convinced that they are instead dealing with a “primitive culling technique”. Scully responds by saying, “The closest thing to primitive down here is living in a beach front retirement condo.” However, Mulder reminds her that the woods are as primitive as anything in the South and so vast there is no telling what could be living there.
Mulder associates primitive with a vast landscape and Scully establishes civilization as private property. There is the idea lurking behind their exchange that civilization is artificial and the woods somehow more authentic because they exist as part of nature. In the same way the creatures, which use the primitive culling technique, are more authentic or rather more animal-like, more predatory and instinctual because of their association with a landscape that is seen as unknowable.
As he heads out the door to investigate, Scully tells him they need to communicate better and he responds with a cute smile and witty reference to team building. Scully, fraught with longing, shakes her head and finishes off her drink.
The mom of Lewis, the young boy whose father disappeared is in the backyard where the dog is barking angrily at something. Visibly creeped out, she goes back to the house only to find the back door locked. Lewis hears his mother shouting to be let in and runs to the stairs and is greeted by floating red eyes. Cue African drum music! The boy barely escapes out the doggie door and into a commercial break.
Mulder, Scully and Michelle investigating the house. Mulder finds some tracks by the back door and does some analysis: there are five toes present but the print shows only the ball of the foot. People walk heel to toe; this thing walks on the balls of its feet. When asked how he knows how to analyze tracks Mulder says, “My dad and I were Indian guides, I know these things.”
Ding, ding, ding! We got Indians on the brain!
Mulder, Scully, Michelle and her radar gun assistant head into the forest to track down the maninal. As they stroll, Mulder tells Scully he thinks these creatures are fighting back against encroaching development. “Civilization is pushing very hard into these woods. Maybe something in these woods is pushing back.”
Here, Mulder presents the tragedy of nature and by association indigenous “creatures”, who cannot co-exist with civilization and respond to its coming with violence. Again, civilization is defined solely as American style development/destruction of “pure” “natural” landscapes and anything that resists such development is categorically uncivilized.
Suddenly something appears on the scanner that is invisible to naked eye. It starts to run and meets up with a second creature. The agents follow and then split up to follow the creatures as they head in different directions. Cue tribal drum music!
Things are about to get primitive!
After running for a bit, the two red-heads stop and feel really creeped out. As they start to re-trace their steps, we see a wooden face in the bark of a foregrounded tree. Wait for it, wait for it… The glowing red eyes open! All of a sudden, Michelle disappears into the ground. Scully waves her gun around, yelling for help, and there is ominous rustling all around.
Mulder appears and then explains everything in his shouty serious voice: the creatures separated them in order to take the strongest. After deciding to leave the woods, Mulder and Scully discuss how the creatures might be able to appear and disappear from the scanner. Scully notes that perhaps like ticks, the creatures can control their body heat and hibernate for years at a time before feeding. This reminds Mulder of an old X-File: 30 yrs ago Point Pleasant, VA was terrorized for a year by “primitive looking men with red piercing eyes”.
Looks like our manimal metaphor for indigenous people has just been denoted to insect, a blood-sucking insect at that. More interesting is the fact that these “primitive looking men” are not new. Places all across America are haunted by the people it is killing in their march towards an ideal of progress.
The camera foregrounds to a figure hiding behind a tree. Suddenly, the agents are under attack. Mulder charges the figure and we get our first clear look of a hunched, naked man with stringy hair, pronounced brow, crazy eyebrows and a green wooden skin. As the radar gun guy tries to flee, he is dragged down to the ground.
As Mulder retreats from the brush he warns, “Its smarter than us, at least out here. “ Then, Mulder gets taken down as well. Scully runs over shooting and appears drive off a half-invisible “primitive” man.
Scully hitting two rocks together trying to start a fire. To an injured Mulder, she says, “You were an Indian guide, help me out here.” Mulder responds, “Indian guide says: maybe we should run to the store and get some matches.”
Mulder’s comments in this scene and the one before reveal his ultimate vulnerability as a failed Indian. Indians are expected to know everything about the land and how to start fires in some pre-modern way, prerequisites this Indian can surely not meet.
Now the sexual innuendo starts. Mulder hints at getting naked together in a sleeping bag to keep warm. Sex makes Scully think of death and she rambles on for a bit about the struggle for meaning in life before snuggling with Mulder and singing “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.”
Mulder awakes to Scully picking berries before she falls into a hole full of swinging, bloodied, unconscious bodies. A red-eyed menace lurks in the corner. Mulder throws down his gun and then himself. The invisible man charges and Scully empties her clip. The creature has been killed and as it lies dead on the floor, its form become material and the viewer can note its prominent brow and large nose. Scully, obviously shaken, mutters, “There has to be a scientific explanation for this.”
Explanation: The only real Indian is a dead Indian.
Mulder and Scully building a tower of corpses to get out of the hole. But the FBI is here to save the day, and everyone is rescued, including the father from the hunting scene.
Despite their brief fight back, the creatures of the woods must die and the white people are saved.
Standing by the tree ring time line, Mulder muses on the phrase “ad noctum”, which was seen carved into the wall of the cavern he just escaped from. The phrase, which means “into darkness”, is one the Spanish would carve onto the posts where they lashed Natives. Mulder poses that perhaps the creatures are conquistadors who found the fountain of youth and now zealously defend their territory.
In the interest of explaining everything away, what I thought were indigenous people become some kind of zombie colonizers. This is an interesting twist that seeks to make the Spanish colonizer into a beast, their cruelty to indigenous peoples becoming another indication of their pre-modern violence. Perhaps this story is trying to be not only about the necessary of destruction of native peoples in the wake of civilization but also the transfer of rule from crazed Spaniards to the righteous inheritors of the country now called America.
To seal this theory Mulder argues, “After 400 years in the forest don’t you think they would have adapted perfectly to their environment?”
This is a strange comment given that other Europeans have been moving into North American forests for just as long, but they have not managed to adapt perfectly to their environment as evident in the agent’s vulnerability in the forest.
Mulder realizes Scully might still be in danger and dashes back to hotel room to rescue her.
Scully in the motel room bathroom. A couple of menacing pan shots ensue, with no pay-off. Mulder bursts in and tells Scully they got to going. Wind pipe music plays as Mulder scans the room. The door shuts and camera pans to the bed. Waiting in the dark space under the bed are, of course, the glowing red eyes. They turn to face the camera and that’s a wrap.
Join me next time for a post-screening discussion of what we just watched!