Season 1

1x08 Space

Air date: 11-12-93
Writer: Chris Carter
Director: William A. Graham
Editor: Heather MacDougall
Director of Photography: John S. Bartley, C.S.C.
Documented Phenomenon: Astral entity, Possession

Episode summary / Points to consider / Production analysis

WXDL 11 News report from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in 1977 as they celebrate the first close-up transmissions of Mars from the Viking Observer Spacecraft. The photos themselves reveal some surprising geological information about the planet, including the presence of large amounts of water, locked in Mars' polar ice caps. This has led to speculation that Mars once sustained life, while particular interest is centered on a strange land formation which resembles a sculpted human face. The significance of this is downplayed by Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Aurelius Belt, the Viking Orbiter Project Director. Privately though, Belt seems strangely troubled by the geological anomaly, to the extent that it even causes him nightmares. He dreams of when he was performing a space walk in orbit and something came towards him, something that now seems to revisit and possess him back here on earth.

Back now in the present day, the Space Shuttle Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida is preparing for a shuttle launch, monitored by Houston Mission Control, where Colonel Belt is now the Chief Administrator, the shuttle is literally seconds from lift-off when the procedure is suddenly aborted due to a systems failure.

Two weeks later in Washington, Mulder and Scully are preparing to meet with someone from NASA through unofficial channels. Their mysterious contact is Michelle Generoo, the Mission Control Communications Commander for the Space Shuttle Program, based at Houston. She apologizes for the cloak and dagger manner in which they meet but she is highly suspicious that there is a saboteur at work inside NASA. She tells them of the recently aborted shuttle launch, and how they narrowly avoided having the shuttle explode on the launch pad. She shows them something that was sent to her in the mail: an X-ray analysis of one of the shuttle's valves with scoring marks on it, marks which would never normally be there, and which are virtually impossible to create outside of using launch pad temperatures. She has come to Mulder and Scully as it remains unexplainable how and when anyone could have made those marks. She has more pressing reasons to get to the bottom of this mystery: there's another launch window the next day, and her fiancé is the shuttle commander on the mission.

Mulder and Scully travel to Houston Mission Control the next day. Scully is rather bemused by Mulder's awestruck reaction at being at the center of NASA's space activities, and he behaves almost like a smitten fan when he meets Colonel Belt, hero of the Gemini Space Mission years ago. While Scully pursues a line of questioning with the Colonel, Mulder is clearly uncomfortable at subjecting a childhood hero of his to such suspicions. Belt refuses to stall the shuttle launch to allow a proper investigation to take place, as he feels that the NASA preparation schedule is so rigorous as to render any act of sabotage virtually impossible.

Independently, the agents show the X-ray report of the marked titanium valve to some scientists on-site who are mystified at how the valve came to be scored. Again, it seems that the space agency's safety precautions preclude the chance of any sabotage, though the scientists are baffled at the provenance of the report, seeing as it wasn't commissioned by them.

Much to everyone's relief, the second shuttle launch is successful, passing off without incident.

The agents are checking out of their hotel when Michelle comes to them in a panic. Communication has been lost with the shuttle. Mulder and Scully follow her in their car on a dark, rainy night back to Houston. Michelle suddenly veers off the road and into a ditch when the ghostly face seen on the surface of Mars looms at her from out of the mist of rain. Her car is overturned but she is uninjured.

They make it back to Mission Control where the astronauts are in a bad way, the temperature in the shuttle rising fast. The powerlessness of the Houston control center to rectify the shuttle's problems seems to be emanating from the center itself. Mulder, Scully and Generoo rush off to see who is interfering with the data banks, but only find a confused scientist who can't understand why the center's transmissions are being jammed. Unable to find out why they have no control over the shuttle, Belt is faced with the difficult decision of letting it maneuver by itself, running the risk of stranding the astronauts up in space. He gives the order, and communications with the shuttle are shut down completely. Fortunately for all concerned, when the shuttle's astronauts re-establish contact, they've been able to rectify their temperature problems themselves. Now it's up to Houston to figure out a way of getting them back down to earth safely.

Again, privately, all of these events seem to be taking their toll on a haunted Colonel Belt, though he's able to resume his poise and get through a press conference with confidence. The fact that he lies to the assembled press corps seems to shake Mulder out of his slavish devotion to his boyhood hero though. That night, Belt dreams of his space walk again. In doing so, his face contorts into that of the Mars rock face which then floats out of his body and out above the city of Houston.

At Mission Control, the astronauts on board the shuttle report that something outside the ship seems to be bumping them, trying to get in. Whatever it was, it seems to have precipitated an oxygen leak. A ghostly stream has been detected outside the shuttle, something which also happened to Colonel Belt's Gemini mission all those years ago. Michelle has her hands full with this latest catastrophe so Mulder and Scully go off to find the missing Belt. They find him, looking decidedly unwell, in his hotel room. They bring him back to Mission Control, seeing as he has first-hand knowledge of the problem. He still insists that the astronauts deliver their payload, the mission still standing despite their diminishing luck. Michelle sees this as a death sentence and runs off, upset.

Scully sides with her on this one, believing that Belt is losing grip of the situation. She suspects that there is a saboteur, seeing as too many things have gone wrong, and that Belt knows all about it. And so Mulder and Scully start going through NASA records, looking for any diagrams or schematics that might indicate that Belt knew of any sabotage. Scully finds the proof - the same X-ray report that mysteriously was sent to Michelle was actually ordered by Belt himself, meaning that he knew all along that the valve had been tampered with. The evidence seems to indicate that Belt also knew of the defect on board the Challenger years before, a launch that ended in disaster.

Meanwhile in outer space, the astronauts are in a state of panic when they find their ship being besieged by some kind of astral entity. The news of this sends Belt over the edge. The once-proud astronaut is now a gibbering wreck, who has managed to scrawl "Help me" on a notepad on his desk before collapsing outright. Before he gets taken off to hospital, Mulder is able to get Belt to focus long enough to tell him that re-entry for the shuttle is impossible as he has deliberately sabotaged its silicon tiles. From what he says though, it appears that Belt was unable to prevent himself from doing this damage as he is possessed by some other-worldly apparition which doesn't want man to invade its space. Momentarily, they see the Mars face appear on Belt's, and Michelle recognizes it as the one that ran her off the road.

Michelle is now tasked with getting a damaged space shuttle back down to earth with only 30 minutes' worth of emergency oxygen on board. In a moment of lucidity, Belt is able to tell Mulder and Scully to change the shuttle's trajectory if it wants to stand a chance of making it down without burning up. A 2 minute radio blackout causes real tension at Houston as they're not sure whether the shuttle got their message about the trajectory change. Mercifully, they did, and the shuttle makes a safe landing. At the subsequent press conference, Michelle follows Belt's lead and says that the shuttle enjoyed an incident-free orbit.

In hospital, Belt feels the Mars entity trying to free itself from his body, so he pulls himself out of bed and throws himself out of the window, plunging to his (and presumably the entity's) death. Mulder believes that the rational part of Belt was trying to alert Michelle to the dangers when he could, his instincts trying to save the astronauts while conversely trying to kill them at the same time. We rush up into space, hoping to unlock its doors, he says, whilst not knowing what lies behind them, and indeed, whether or not, they want us there in the first place.

Episode Summary / Points to consider / Production analysis

  • Space enjoys (if that's the right word) the distinction of being most X-Files fans' unanimous choice of the series' very worst episode. Although it has an interesting conceit at its core (by venturing into unchartered territory, we run the risk of antagonizing whoever or whatever might live there), its pedestrian execution pretty much ensures that this is a dull exercise altogether. Robin J. England
  • It is never very clear what the extraterrestrial astral entity is supposed to be. It is implied that the entity or entities are from the Mars of millions of years before, and then the implication is never further developed. Was the entities sabotage of the shuttle to prevent human's discovering the former existence of life on the red planet? Does the entity generally not want humans to explore space itself? The broad strokes of Space and its astral spirit, weaken an otherwise interesting concept. Matt Allair
  • Marcus Belt has to be one of the most underdeveloped characters created by Chris Carter. He has almost no back-story. In fact, all that he knows of him is his expertise as an astronaut, and that he has problems sleeping. If a wife or an adult had been introduced into the episode who was concerned about him, it might have given the audience a reason to feel more invested in his fate. Robin J. England
  • There is one bit of potential for some enjoyable character interaction, and that's Mulder's star-struck attitude to being at Space Control in general, and meeting Colonel Belt in particular. Scully treats his starry-eyed awe with bemusement, but little is actually made of this. Indeed little is made of Scully herself - she's basically just along for the ride in this episode, even seeming at a loss as to what to do in the midst of Colonel Belt's medical emergency. Robin J. England
  • The shuttle crisis is resoundingly free of tension. We are never shown the astronauts who are in jeopardy (Michelle Generoo's fiancé only makes a fleeting appearance at Colonel Belt's funeral at the end). If the show's budget could have been stretched to build a small cockpit, we would have been able to see the astronauts reacting to the apparition appearing outside their ship, and their failing supply of oxygen. It's a method that served Ron Howard well in the 1995 film Apollo 13 and its absence is clearly felt here. Robin J. England

Episode Summary / Points to consider / Production analysis

Space is an excellent example of an episode written to serve budget limitations rather than serve the story. Even Chris Carter and other producers have acknowledged a disappointment with the episode. The inspiration for this episode was the famous "face on Mars" that was first spotted when the Voyager space probe started sending photographs from the red planet. Budgetary constraints and an eight-day shooting schedule meant that the scenes set in space had to occur off-screen, something which was not conducive to generating tension. As previous episodes had overshot the production budget, the idea of using stock NASA footage was to save money. However, constructing the large control room proved to be prohibitively expensive, in fact making Space the most expensive episode of the first season. The set itself was an empty room in a public building, used for theater presentations. Robin J. England / Matt Allair

Ironically, in spite of the episode being one the least liked by fans and Ten-Thirteen Production staff members; it is a favorite of production manager Louisa Gradnitzer. By this episode Graeme Murray was brought in to assist. The 'J.S.C. Simulator Corridor and Hanger' location was found in Richmond at the Canadian Airlines Operation Center, permission was granted to film during their work day. The simulator's operations manager allowed the crew to fly the simulated mock 737's and 747's. Generator operator, Bill Dawson, assisted as crew members 'piloted' voyages. Finally, Director Graham sought out the opportunity, yet production was due to move to another location. The crew was forced to wait while the director took his turn. Matt Allair

The J.S.C Mission control room location was found in Vancouver at Robson Square Conference Center. The amphitheatre was infrequently used which featured a sloped floor that could be used to fashion rows of 'prefab' computer terminals. Construction ordered over fifty computer terminals prefabricated with plastic for a one-time situation only. Director William Graham used his room at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver for the '1973 Pasadena bedroom' sequence, during Belt's flashback of the entities possession. Every precaution was taken to ensure minimal disruption to the neighboring tenants. To visually simulate Belt's plunge to death, a construction crane was used to drop a camera. The Wall Center, a hotel and office complex that was under construction at the time, arranged for the use of the crane, by the end of the evening's shoot, the bar at Sutton Place - The Gerard Lounge, provided nightcaps to the crew. Matt Allair

Ed Lauter, who plays the unfortunate Colonel Belt, must be one of the hardest working character actors in the business. Since his debut in 1972's The Magnificent Seven Ride!, he's notched up over 170 feature film appearances, and just as many guest spots on shows like Streets of San Francisco, Kojak, ER and CSI. Originally a stand-up comic before making the transition to films, he has appeared in such standards as the 1976 remake of King Kong, Cujo, Death Wish 3, Born on the Fourth of July, True Romance, Leaving Las Vegas and Sea Biscuit. Both he and co-star Burt Reynolds are the only cast members to appear in the 1973 original version of The Longest Yard, as well as the recent 2005 remake. Robin J. England

Susanna Thompson, who plays Michelle Generoo, is another veteran of numerous TV series including Star Trek: The Next Generation and NYPD Blue. She also played a Borg Queen for several episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. She seems to have cornered the market in playing dead wives, having played Harrison Ford's spouse who is killed in a plane crash in Random Hearts, and Kevin Costner's ghostly wife in Dragonfly. She is a trained Aikido master. Robin J. England

Episode synopsis, review and production notes: Robin J. England
Additional review and production notes: Matt Allair
Page Editor: Red Scully

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