Directed by William Graham
Origin stories, you can't beat them. We've already had one for The Lone Gunmen this season courtesy of Vince Gilligan and now Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban treat us to a story of the first X File, complete with flashbacks to 1990 of a young Agent Mulder and then even further back to 1952 to Arthur Dales (Darren McGavin and Fredric Lane) and his discovery of the cases and a conspiracy involving Mulder's own father. This is a real treat of an episode.
Maybe it's the lack of Mulder and Scully throughout (Duchovny is basically on supporting duties this one, there's no Gillian whilst Lane, portraying the younger Arthur Dales takes the lead for the bulk of its forty five minutes) and we're given a bunch of guest stars in charge of the show for this episode, but Travelers has a pretty troublesome reputation with fans who regard it poorly and has sometimes been branded alongside episodes such as Space, Ghost in the Machine and Teso Dos Bichos. To put it into a list alongside those tales is to do it a great disservice. Yes, there is no Scully, Mulder is seen to be wearing a wedding ring and the cast for the majority of the tale is taken up with actors who have never been seen on the show before (with the exception of young Bill Mulder and J Edgar Hoover, returning from Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man), but you can't argue with a triumph.
The script from Spotnitz and Shiban is sweeping and intelligent for the most part, Graeme Murray's production design conveys the 1952 atmosphere wonderfully, William Graham's direction is taut and the episode isn't afraid to shake its fist in anger at the communist witch hunts of the time. There is a real stench of paranoia and disgust raging at Travelers heart, and it's brilliant. Like the use of the Nazi atrocities in season three, The X Files has cleverly taken the real world and used it to tell a tale from its own mythology and has done so brilliantly.
Then there are the characters. Arthur Dales, his partner Hayes and clerk Dorothy Bahnsen, they make a great set of characters to populate the FBI scenes in this tale, so much so that you can imagine a large number of seasons featuring Dales and Hayes before the events of this episode, and a larger number of seasons featuring Dales and Bahnsen on early X Files cases after and this is at the heart of my biggest frustration at Travelers. There's nothing wrong with the episode itself, and we'll get a quasi-sequel in season six with The Unnatural, but the show never took full advantage of its own mythology's background. Dales discovers the X Files through Bahnsen and the idea that the cases came to be because of Bahnsen having no more room in the 'U' cabinet for unsolved so moved them into the more spacious 'X' cabinet is both wonderful, quirky and fun. I always liked to imagine that there was a hundred episodes worth of stories involving Dales looking into those cases and being helped along the way by Bahnsen, a 1950s version of Mulder and Scully if you will. Of course The X Files is Mulder and Scully's show, but at least one episode every season would have been cool, but the fact that no other form of media, be it comic books or novels, or even a spin-off series, came about seems like a criminal waste of what could be a good outlet for great stories told from another point of view in The X Files universe.
Okay, that's my little rant over, time to get back to enjoying the episode at hand. Even though Darren McGavin only has a small number of scenes with Duchovny, he is wonderful. He has a real graceful presence and you can see the dignity the show bestows upon him, he is after all, thanks to his role in Kolchak:The Night Stalker, the predecessor to Mulder, Scully and The X Files and after unsuccessfully courting him to play Bill Mulder in season two, I think it makes more sense for him to play a character who is essentially the father to the X Files cases themselves. Fredric Lane is also fantastic as the younger Dales, a more blue collar version of Mulder, he has an equal sense of dignity in his performance, from the straight arrow agent we meet at the start, the conflict he feels over arresting Skur in front of his wife and kids to his eventual realisation of a whole other aspect to the world he never knew existed, he is a very engaging presence and truthfully I could very easily have watched another handful of episodes with him in it. Special mention must also be made of Garrett Dillahunt. Comedically charming in Raising Hope, here he brings a sense of tragedy to Skur, a man turned into an unwilling killing machine by his government, who can't even resist the urge to kill his wife, he gives Skur a poignantly tragic dimension.
This is a gem, from beginning to end, it's insightful, it's fun, it's great to see a series like The X Files, already with a rich, complex mythology, look inward towards itself this way with style and grace, plus you got to love how a work of science fiction actually makes a link between aliens and communism without resorting to metaphor. Brilliant.