What makes great television? There’s so little of it from which to choose (most TV being of extremely poor quality or value) that one would expect the answer to be fairly simple.
But it’s not.
TV is a highly subjective medium. Great TV could be anything from a compelling subject matter well rendered, to groundbreaking technical achievement, to superior writing and acting. You might be riveted to your chair or rolling the floor with laughter. So, even though great TV is a rarity, it can be a number of things to different viewers.
Having said all that let me state that the X-Files’ third episode of its sixth season, entitled “Triangle,” is great television. Not because of any one thing in particular, but because of how the total package comes together. It is a non-exceptional story exceptionally well told, well scripted and well acted.
Special Agent Fox Mulder impulsively goes into the Bermuda Triangle when satellite photos reveal the re-emergence of the World War Two passenger ship the “Queen Anne,” presumed sunk since 1939. Special Agent Dana Scully, with the curious trio known as the “The Lone Gunman” in tow, goes after him. Ultimately, they rescue Mulder from drowning as the result of a sudden storm that engulfs the area.
Nothing exceptional there. But, that’s just one part of the story. The other takes place on the Queen Anne during 1939. Somehow, (it IS the Bermuda Triangle) Mulder finds himself transported back in time, unbelievably in the middle of a twisted story of Nazi intrigue, atomic bomb technology, and British defiance at the beginning of the Second World War.
Maybe a little odd (it IS an X-File episode), but nothing exceptional there either. Rather, it is the way 1013 Productions in general and series creator (as well as writer/director for this episode) Chris Carter in particular welds these two interesting but benign storylines together that makes “Triangle” an Emmy award caliber show.
The nature of space and time, a theme the X-Files has toyed with occasionally throughout its first five seasons, is the central theme here. When Mulder boards the Queen Anne it is 1939. When Scully and the Lone Gunmen catch up to the “ghost” ship it is 1998. Mulder serves as the needle and thread that ties the two spacetimes together. Chris Carter uses this thread to weave a unique story that seamlessly moves back and forth through time, as if the events are occurring simultaneously.
Carter uses several unique technical effects that all work very well in telling the story. First, there’s a “letterbox” style visual format, as if this were a widescreen production. This gives the viewer a sense of unreality, calling attention to the fact that a camera is capturing the action. That activity itself, however, ironically achieves a terrific suspension of disbelief because the entire episode is shot in virtually continuous takes, with only a half dozen edits or so during the hour-long run. There are also several 360 degree camera pans that establish the effect quite clearly that this is not shot on a TV set, it's apparently the real thing.
The juxtaposition of this unreal reality ties in nicely with the constant switching of the present into different vantage points of spacetime. The overall effect is to produce a roller coaster ride of building tension that rests not on the climax of either of the storylines, but on the experience the viewer has of being shifted through dual present moments happening some sixty years apart.
The highlight of the episode actually comes rather early on when the Lone Gunmen approach Scully to inform her of Mulder’s rash lone escapade to locate the Queen Anne. In what is virtually a continuous, unedited shot, the following takes place with Scully as the vortex around which all action occurs. Scully never stops moving throughout the scene:
1) Scully learns of Mulder’s venture into the Bermuda Triangle from the Lone Gunmen. We learn that a storm hit the area while Mulder was alone at sea.
2) Scully walks down a crowded hallway into Assistant Director Skinner’s office. She charges past his secretary into his office, firmly requests his assistance in locating Mulder by using his connections to request the use of special military imaging equipment to locate Mulder at sea. (The storm has blocked the conventional satellite imagery the Lone Gunmen were able to acquire.) Skinner, forbidden from contact with Scully and Mulder due to previous events in the series, listens to the details, but refuses to help.
3) Scully leaves exasperated. Back in the crowded hallway. People coming and going, very busy. She gets into a packed elevator, the camera following, uninterrupted. It moves to the next floor. Scully exits into a different hectic hallway. She quickly moves to Assistant Director Kersh’s office. Again, she barges in. As she begins to explain the situation she notices that Kersh is meeting with the infamous Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM). She realizes her mistake in revealing anything in front of him, tries to exit smoothly, only to have Kersh remove a piece of paper she has been carrying with the type of surveillance technology needed to locate Mulder written on it.
4) Scully leaves feeling foolish, growing frantic. Back into the hectic hallway, she tries to reach Mulder by cell phone. She races down the hallway, catching an elevator just inches before the doors close. No luck with the cell call. She is growing angry. The elevator seems to be taking too long. Finally, she exists and goes to the X-Files office, currently inhabited by Agent Jeffrey Spender. She threatens him if he doesn’t do what he can to get her the technology she needs to locate Mulder. Spender exits the office. Meanwhile, the phone rings. Picking it up, she speaks briefly with CSM, trying half-heartedly to disguise her voice, who thinks she is another FBI Special Agent with whom he is acquainted. When CSM realizes it is someone else, Scully hangs up the phone and leaves. The phone rings again. She ignores it, continues back to the elevator, running into Kersh’s secretary, who informs her the Agent Spender went directly to see Kersh.
5) Scully runs to the elevator, feeling stupid and angry. She is alone now. Her cell phone rings. She tries desperately but cannot clearly hear who is on the other end. The doors open. She sees Kersh, Spender, and CSM in yet another busy hallway. She escapes back into the elevator, still trying to hear whoever is on her cell phone. Shortly, the elevator doors open again. Skinner is standing there, with all kinds of activity happening behind him.
6) Skinner enters the elevator. It is he who was trying to reach Scully on the cell phone. He surprisingly gives her the surveillance information she requested. The doors open. They are back on the floor where CSM and the others were previously. To put on a front, Skinner immediately turns cold. He sternly tells Scully if she ever approaches him again he will have her thrown out of the FBI.
7) Back in the elevator. Scully goes down to the parking garage where the Lone Gunmen drive up in a VW bus. They whisk her away with the information she needs to track down Mulder as someone comes running toward the bus from behind. Fade to commercial.
What is incredible is that all this complex action, the different crowded hallway sets, the elevator stuff, the moving in and out of offices takes place with only one possible (but not noticeable) edit. It is practically live TV, exceptionally well timed and executed by the 1013 production folks. Gillian Anderson as Scully does as wonderful job of slowly building in anger and frustration in sync with the scene. Nothing is out of place. Everything has a purpose and plays well off of all that goes on before. This is definitely one of the best television scenes I’ve ever watched.
But there’s more. The X-Files is infamous for using certain dates and times throughout its episodes associated with various birth dates of the cast and crew. 1013 Productions itself is named for Chris Carter’s birthday, October 13. Well, if you time the above diagrammed scene beginning with Scully’s first spoken line to the commercial break, the entire sequence comes to EXACTLY 10 minutes and 13 seconds! To accomplish all of this and then do it in the 1013 motif is astounding.
Though this is certainly its highlight, the rest of the episode is of superior quality as well. Except for Mulder, who serves as the thread between the past and present, most of the major actors have 1998 roles and 1939 roles. CSM, Spender and Skinner play Nazi’s aboard the Queen Anne, speaking decent German without subtitles. Kersh portrays a Jamaican crewman.
There’s a great fight scene in the 1939 ballroom as the Nazi’s and British struggle for control of the ship. This is choreographed with a nice swing music score that is only a portion of composer Mark Snow’s terrific music for the episode.
Toward the end, Carter makes generous use of wipes and split screens to contrast yet fuse the past and present. As Scully and the Lone Gunmen investigate the ghost ship, we see action taking place in the same areas of the ship in the 1939 version of events. At one point, the 1939 Scully and the 1998 Scully cross the halves of the split screen over to the other side. They pause for a moment to look back, not seeing one another, but just staring back down an empty hallway with perhaps an uncanny sense of déjà vu.
“Triangle” brilliantly fuses the real and unreal, the past and the present into one exciting force. In doing so, it presents some of the cleverest television I’ve seen in recent years.
Copyright © W. Keith Beason, 1999
[Return to KeithStuff X-Stuff]
[Return to KeithStuff Homepage]