Hot on the heels of the lackluster “Space” comes an episode that marks a serious improvement: “Fallen Angel”. This is a terrific episode, one that establishes a surprising amount of background for the mytharc that would come to dominate the series.
In eastern Wisconsin, a police officer is patroling a rural route out in the middle of the woods when he sees a large fire in the distance. Meanwhile, a military air-traffic monitoring station is tracking something that is traveling very fast and on an erratic flight path. This something disappears from their screens in eastern Wisconsin, and the commanding officer immediately places a phone call to his superiors that they have a “fallen angel”. Something has crashed in those woods. Our intrepid cop is investigating, but we see POV shots of something stalking him, and the last thing we see before cutting to the credits is the cop’s death screams.
When we return, Mulder is already on the scene, trying to infiltrate what is now a military operation in the woods there. Through flashbacks, we see how he learned of the crashed aircraft: Deep Throat told him. Mulder is taking on considerable risk, as he is going far off the FBI’s standard jurisdiction and methods. He gets in close enough to get a look at what’s happening, and it’s quite clear that this wasn’t an Iraqi jet crashing (the cover story put out, which is pretty silly, as Mulder points out – an Iraqi jet over Wisconsin?!); he takes photos of what is no airplane we’ve ever seen. But of course he’s discovered and captured, and his camera is confiscated and his film destroyed. (Yes, we’re still pre-digital cameras here.) A somewhat bad-ass military officer threatens Mulder with everything under the sun after putting him in some kind of ad-hoc lock-up, which is where Mulder makes the acquaintance of a guy named Max Fenig.
At first glance, Max is an obsessive hippie-type of UFO enthusiast, wearing a baseball cap with the NICAP logo (National Investigative Committee of Aerial Phenomena). Max has been tracking this case, and it turns out that he’s part of an underground UFO community for whom Mulder’s work is legend. Max also has some issues of his own, though; poking through the trailer which Max drives around the country pursuing UFO reports, Scully notices that he is taking very power anti-psychotic medications. Is Max Fenig for real? Or is he a crank whose UFO experiences are simply a result of pre-existing psychological conditions? Well, this is The X-Files, which means that our answer is…a bit of both.
I was also interested by the depiction of the alien itself. We never see “it” directly; there are shots from its point of view as it moves very quickly across open spaces, very near to the ground, and in long shots, the alien is only “visible” as a transparent distortion of the air that quickly moves by. Very early on, The X-Files was clear to establish that its aliens were not all of one stripe. They weren’t all “grays” with the big heads, giant eyes and tiny slits for mouths. Sometimes they were something much more menacing.
“Fallen Angel” establishes a good many tropes that will be part-and-parcel of the show’s UFO-based mytharc over the next seven seasons: government awareness of the UFO threat; possible government encouragement of the UFO threat; Mulder’s status as a possible hero figure to shadowy groups that wish to investigate the UFO threat; military involvement in operations to keep the whole thing secret; and the very fact that Mulder is not as rogue an element as he might think himself to be, but that he and Scully are themselves pawns in some larger game they cannot understand.
“Fallen Angel” ends with Mulder and Scully on the receiving end of harsh criticism from an FBI higher-up, who is this close to pulling the plug on the X-Files project altogether, when he is called off the attack by none other than Deep Throat himself. This is where questions start to pile up on top of questions: just who is Deep Throat? What is his interest in supplying Mulder with information? Why is he seemingly encouraging Mulder and at the same time acting as an obstacle? When the FBI guy protests, Deep Throat says: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” It’s a fairly chilling end, because someone we’ve been led to see as an ally of Mulder’s is now claiming to be an enemy.
It’s hard not to look back on “Fallen Angel” (and, I suspect, a lot of the early mytharc stories) in light of the fact that the mytharc lost a great deal of focus as the show went on several seasons past its shelf life. But at the time, “Fallen Angel” stood out as a major early turning point in the mytharc, and now it stands out as a major early episode in terms of its sheer quality.