"The Unnatural" is the 19th episode of the sixth season of the American science fiction television series The X-Files, which first aired on April 25, 1999, on the Fox network. Written and directed by lead actor David Duchovny, the episode is unconnected to the wider mythology of The X-Files, and functions as a "Monster-of-the-Week" story. "The Unnatural" earned a Nielsen household rating of 10.1, and its first broadcast was watched by 16.88 million people. The episode received positive reviews from critics, and was well-liked by members of the cast and crew, including series creator Chris Carter and co-star Gillian Anderson.
The series centers on FBI special agents Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Anderson) who work on cases linked to the paranormal, called "X-Files". Mulder is a believer; although the skeptical Scully was initially assigned to debunk his work, the two have developed a deep friendship. In this episode, Arthur Dales (M. Emmet Walsh), the brother of a previously recurring retired FBI agent with the same name, tells Mulder the story of a black baseball player who played for the Roswell Grays in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 under the pseudonym "Josh Exley" (Jesse L. Martin). Exley was actually an alien with a love of baseball. Exley is later tracked down by the Alien Bounty Hunter (Brian Thompson) and executed for betraying his people.
Among other things, the episode was inspired by the history of baseball in Roswell, as well as the infamous 1947 Roswell Incident. Jesse Martin was offered the lead guest role as Exley after Duchovny noticed him in a production of the musical Rent and an episode of Ally McBeal. Originally, Darren McGavin was cast as Arthur Dales, but after he suffered a stroke, he was replaced by Walsh. Many of the outdoor baseball scenes were filmed at Jay Littleton Ballfield, an all-wood stadium located in Ontario, California. The episode has been critically examined for its use of literary motifs, its fairy tale-like structure, and its themes concerning racism and alienation.
In 1947, a mixed group of black and white men play baseball in Roswell, New Mexico. Suddenly, a group of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members arrive on horseback, seeking one of the players: Josh Exley (Jesse L. Martin), a talented black baseball player. Men from the team fight back against the KKK, and when the mask of the clan's leader is taken off, the leader is revealed to actually be an alien.
In 1999, FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) look through Roswell newspapers from the 1940s. Mulder spots an article showing a young Arthur Dales (Frederic Lane)—the original investigator of the X-Files division who had previously appeared in the fifth season episode "Travelers" and the sixth season episode "Agua Mala"—Josh Exley, and the shape-shifting Alien Bounty Hunter (Brian Thompson) who has assisted the show's antagonists throughout the series. Mulder seeks out Dales in Washington D.C. but finds that he still lives in Florida. Instead, Mulder meets Dales's brother (M. Emmet Walsh), who is also named Arthur.
In flashback, Dales tells Mulder about first meeting Exley in 1947. Dales (portrayed as a young man by Frederic Lane), a member of the Roswell Police Department, has been assigned to protect a hesitant Exley. Dales travels with Exley and his teammates on their bus, and one night sees that the sleeping Exley is reflected in a window as an alien. The next day, during a game, Exley is hit by a pitch and starts making utterances in a strange language before returning to his senses. Afterwards, Dales notices that a mysterious green ooze appeared where Exley's bleeding head had rested.
Dales decides to investigate Exley's hometown of Macon, Georgia, and discovers that a boy with Exley's name had vanished about five years previously. That night at the hotel, Dales hears noises from Exley's hotel room and breaks in, only to find Exley in his true form as an alien. Exley tells Dales that he was forbidden from intermingling with the human race but fell in love with the game of baseball and remained on Earth. Meanwhile, the Alien Bounty Hunter, who has been pursuing the renegade alien ever since he deserted his alien heritage, takes Exley's form and murders a scientist who is investigating the green ooze that Dales found. After learning of the attack, Dales warns Exley that he is now wanted by the police, and Exley goes into hiding.
The narrative returns to the events at the start of the episode. The KKK leader is revealed as the Alien Bounty Hunter, who has arrived to assassinate Exley. The Bounty Hunter demands that Exley revert to his true form before he dies. Exley refuses and the Bounty Hunter then kills him. However, Exley miraculously bleeds red, human blood. Back in 1999, Mulder invites Scully to hit baseballs with him on an empty field.
"The Unnatural" was the first episode of the series that Duchovny wrote by himself. He had previously co-developed the stories for the second season episodes "Colony" and "Anasazi" - both with series creator Chris Carter, and received teleplay credits for the third season episodes "Avatar" and "Talitha Cumi". As The X-Files entered its sixth season, Duchovny decided that it was an appropriate time to try writing a full episode. Before then, he had felt that he did not have the skills necessary; he said, "I didn't have the surety, the confidence in my mind, that I could write a teleplay ... It took me to the sixth year of the show to actually sit down and write one of my ideas." In late 1998, Duchovny met with series creator Carter and they agreed that Duchovny would write a late-season installment for the series.
While both Duchovny and Carter had wanted to write an episode about baseball for several years, Duchovny first conceived the basic premise for "The Unnatural" during the home run race in 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa when he read a newspaper report about Joe Bauman. Bauman was a baseball player who, despite hitting 72 home runs during the 1954 season—at the time, a record for a professional player—never made it to the Major Leagues. Duchovny immediately connected the story of Bauman, who played for the Roswell Rockets, with the 1947 Roswell Incident, saying "I just made the association ... What if this guy was an alien? and I just started working on that idea." Duchovny later said that "these happy chronological coincidences" facilitated the development of the story. Duchovny worked on his idea alone, later admitting that he was satisfied that he did not receive any help.
Duchovny decided to make the lead guest character black and set the story before the integration of the baseball leagues, inspired by Jackie Robinson, the first black player who was accepted into the Major Leagues in the 1940s. After Duchovny finished his first draft, Carter added additional plot points, such as the inclusion of the Alien Bounty Hunter and retired FBI agent Arthur Dales. The episode title is a play on the novel and movie The Natural. The tagline that appears in the opening credits for this episode is "In the Big Inning", which serves as a pun on the phrase, "In the beginning".[nb 1]
Jesse L. Martin was the first actor considered to play the part of Exley. Duchovny had first noticed Martin in a production of the musical Rent, and noticed him again during a guest appearance on the Fox legal comedy-drama Ally McBeal. Watching the latter performance, Duchovny decided that Martin had the "right feel" for the lead role. Duchovny later noted that he had little involvement with the casting process since a majority of the characters in the episode were recurring.
Originally, Darren McGavin was set to reprise his role as Arthur Dales; the character had previously appeared in the episodes "Travelers" and "Agua Mala". Two days after filming began, McGavin suffered a stroke, forcing Duchovny and the producers to remove from the episode the few scenes he had shot, rewrite the script to explain his absence, and replace his character with M. Emmet Walsh. Because many of the scenes featuring a younger Dales had already been shot, Duchovny was forced to give Walsh's character the same name as McGavin's character; this was justified in the episode as a quirk on behalf of the two brothers' parents. The two scenes that were filmed with McGavin included the sequence in which Mulder asks Dales whether all great baseball players are aliens, and a scene in which Mulder asks Dales why he joined the FBI. McGavin, who eventually recovered, later allowed the scenes to be included on the sixth season DVD as bonus features. Executive producer Frank Spotnitz later called it a "great sorrow that" the show had to replace Darren McGavin because the series' producers were "huge fans" of his role in the 1972 film The Night Stalker and television series of the same name.
Actor Frederic Lane had previously appeared in "Travelers," playing the younger version of McGavin's character. Since McGavin was written out of the episode, Lane played the younger version of Walsh's character. Los Angeles Dodgers radio announcer Vin Scully, whose name was the original inspiration for Dana Scully's name, played the baseball announcer in this episode. The announcer was initially unable to appear owing to budgetary issues, but later agreed to record his part for free. Daniel Duchovny, David's brother, appeared in this episode in a minor role as a bench jockey.
"The Unnatural" was the first entry of the series to be directed by Duchovny. While Duchovny was working on plot points with Carter, the two agreed that the episode would serve as Duchovny's directorial debut. As the episode did not heavily feature his character, since it is framed as a flashback, Duchovny was able to focus on pre-production. This narratological method also gave Anderson a minor respite from her work. While Duchovny later expressed gratitude that "The Unnatural" enabled him to get a feel for directing, he also experienced severe anxiety during the production process because of the stress of both writing and directing. However, when the episode was finished, Duchovny was pleased, calling the results "great." He later noted that his stress was largely uncalled for because the episode would have been made even "if [he] just showed up and drooled for 24 hours a day."
The first five seasons of the series were mainly filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, but production of the show's sixth season was based in Los Angeles, California. Jay Littleton Ballfield, an all-wood stadium located in Ontario, California, was used as the setting for the Roswell Baseball Stadium. The show's producers advertised in local newspapers and on local radio for fans to attend the game dressed in 1940s clothing. During filming, a raffle was held between takes, and signed copies of the The X-Files movie, soundtrack, and film poster were given away. The scene featuring Mulder teaching Scully how to play baseball was filmed at Cheviot Hills Park in Los Angeles. The park was later used in the eighth season episode "Three Words" and the ninth season episode "Lord of the Flies".
Costume designer Christine Peters crafted the episode's baseball uniforms after visiting Sports Robe, a Hollywood costume house. Dena Green from the hair department gave extras haircuts so that they would be in the style of the 1940s. Car coordinator Kelly Padovich rented two 1947 model Flexible buses for the Roswell Greys on-bus scenes, as well as various other 1930s- and 1940s-era cars. Researcher Lee Smith worked with the Baseball Hall of Fame to ensure the accuracy of the statistics used in the episode. The props department developed from scratch the Peter Rosebud Bank that Dales shows Mulder; it was one of the most expensive props of the season. The score by Mark Snow, the show's composer, was recorded with musicians rather than synthesizers for the first time in the series' history; slide guitar player Nick Kirgo and harmonica performer Tommy Morgan assisted Snow with the music.
Near the beginning of the episode, Mulder uses one of William Blake's "Proverbs of Hell" from his 18th century book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in an argument with Scully: "The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Sharon R. Yang, in her essay "Weaving and Unweaving the Story," writes that Mulder is using affluent literature to "justify his passionate dedication to questing for knowledge in arcane areas scorned by mainstream intellectual authority". In addition, Robert Shearman and Lars Pearson, in their book Wanting to Believe: A Critical Guide to The X-Files, Millennium & The Lone Gunmen, argue that the episode functions as a fairy tale, and that its conclusion is an example of a happy ending; Exley bleeds red blood as he lays dying, granting the alien his wish to become human. In addition, the two mused that the meta nature of the episode is similar to the way fans of the series reacted to new episodes of The X-Files.
Ideas of racism and segregation also permeate the episode. Sara Gwenllian-Jones in her book Cult Television argues that, throughout the entry, "the blacks are equated with aliens," turning them into a certain type of "other" that is "never allowed to fit in or feel safe". Gwenllian-Jones highlights the scene in which Dales, late one night on the team bus, wakes to see Exley's sleeping body being reflected as an alien in a window as an example of the racial comparison. She points out that, despite coming to Earth, Exley has moved from one segregated society—that of the aliens—into another. She points out that Exley, after revealing his true form to Dales, says that "my people guard their privacy zealously. They don't want our people to intermingle with your people". This quote expresses a similar sentiment to the segregated mentality of the 1940s.
"The Unnatural" originally aired in the United States on the Fox network on April 25, 1999, and was first broadcast in the United Kingdom on Sky 1 on July 4, 1999. In the U.S., the episode was watched by 16.88 million viewers, and ranked as the 17th most-watched episode of any series on network TV for the week ending April 25. It earned a Nielsen household rating of 10.1, with a 15 share. Nielsen ratings are audience measurement systems that determine the audience size and composition of television programming in the U.S. This means that roughly 10.1 percent of all television-equipped households, and 15 percent of households watching television, were watching the episode. In the U.K., "The Unnatural" was seen by 870,000 viewers, making it the channel's second-most watched program for that week after an episode of The Simpsons. On November 5, 2002, the episode was released on DVD as part of the complete sixth season.
The cast and crew of the show were complimentary towards the finished episode. Carter said, "I think that David, a person who has a very intimate understanding of the show, made the best of his opportunity to tell a very different kind of X-File, and expand the elastic show that it is." Anderson was also pleased, saying, "I was proud of David for writing the script. I thought it was wonderful. He was kind and gentle and respectful and humble, and always tried to do his best."
Initial reviews were positive. Eric Mink from the New York Daily News, in a pre-premiere review, said that it "ingeniously grafts classic X-Files story elements and wry, self-mocking wit onto a delightfully fresh premise". The Lexington Herald-Leader's review mostly positive, complimenting the clever writing and noting that the "show was full of visual delights". Sarah Stegall awarded the episode five points out of five, praising Duchovny's analysis of "bigotry from two angles" and his ability to tie the "ongoing X-Files conspiracy arc ... into a comic tragedy like this". Stegall also called Duchovny's direction "innovative and interesting", and applauded a transition scene, in which the camera apparently moves through a television screen, as "a wonderful visual metaphor for The X-Files itself".
Paula Vitaris from Cinefantastique gave the episode a largely positive review, awarding it four stars out of four. Vitaris was complimentary towards the episode's exposition, and wrote, "above all, 'The Unnatural' is about the power of storytelling. We don't really know if Dales' story is true or if it's the liquor-fueled ramblings of a broken-down man, but in the end, this is irrelevant." Melissa Runstrom from Michigan Daily called it a "charming independent story," but that it "seems to say more about the human condition than about any extraterrestrial plot". Tom Kessenich, in his book Examinations: An Unauthorized Look at Seasons 6–9 of the X-Files wrote, "In his entertaining debut as an X-Files writer/director, Duchovny took us down a very familiar path this season: [humor]. But unlike some previous navigators, Duchovny stayed on course, made sure we saw all of the spectacular landmarks along the way and, when we reached our final destination, I found I thoroughly enjoyed the ride."
Recent reviews have also applauded the episode. Shearman and Pearson rated the episode five stars out of five, describing it as "[a] delightful ... comic fable". Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club awarded the episode an "A–" and wrote that it "works because it takes this very silly idea and proceeds to take it seriously." He criticized the program for its "corniness" and its reliance on the "magical black guy" stereotype, but concluded that "The Unnatural" was successful "because it embraces this side of the show’s profile [that] could do something sweet and lovely and moving". VanDerWerff also complimented Martin's performance, calling his acting "terrific". Cynthia Fuchs from PopMatters wrote that Duchovny's directing debut was excellent.
Since its debut, the episode has been ranked as one of the best episodes of The X-Files. Kessenich named it one of the "Top 25 Episode of All Time" of The X-Files, ranking it at number six. The Vancouver Sun listed "The Unnatural" on their list of the best standalone episodes of the show, and said that the story was heartbreaking. In addition, the scene featuring Mulder teaching Scully to play baseball was well received by critics. Shearman and Pearson wrote that it "is especially delightful, and gives this sentimental episode an extra warm glow." Jean Helms of The Mobile Register named it one of the "Top 10 X-Files Clips We'd Like to See in the Official Video of Bree Sharp's 'David Duchovny'". Vitaris called the scene "one of the most charming finales in an X-Files episode" due to its "utterly endearing" qualities and its "unspoken subtext".
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