The X-Files: Roadrunners

Sit down if you're reading this and are a fan of The X-Files, because I'm going to utter a heresy. I love series 8 of The X-Files, although to be frank I'm the only person I know who does. What I love most about it is the way it returns to some of the core X-Files themes after the off-the-wall episodes of the past couple of seasons, and also that Mulder is mostly absent, which gives Scully a chance to shine in her own right. This is what The X-Files would have looked like if the FBI had fired Mulder and put Scully in charge, complete with flat objective description and being clear when she can't explain stuff, and it's glorious. I know, right? You're all looking at me the way we look at Americans when they have a go at making tea.

Roadrunners also incorporates a number of my favourite things: a cult, isolation, and links ot a number of urban legends. It's also an episode where Scully gets implanted with something, yet again. I suspect that probably in 2023 USA these themes would make this episode less comfortable viewing than it was when first broadcast in 2000, but it's sufficiently unreal in that it doesn't reference any real cult or mass shootings, so may still be viewed as an uncomfortable harbinger of the horrors that lurk in society. I haven't run with the theme but this is definitely one of those X-Files where the American dream goes horribly wrong.

Literally as soon as the guy gets on the bus and we see the other passengers we know we're in some fairly scary country (and I mean country in both senses, believe me the dangers of cities are as nothing to the weird shit in this show). There are of course numerous urban legends relating to buses or coaches and strange things happening to them or to the passengers, and they're international, perhaps because of the way coaches take us from one place to another so are related to transitions. We have the legend of three people dressed in old-fashioned clothes getting on the No 375 bus to Fragrant Hills in Beijing during Ghost Month, who turn out to be ghosts, of course, followed by the complete disappearance of the bus (I know, sounds like an X-File in itself). It's even stated to have happened on a particular date in 1995 to give it that urban legend aura of reality. THen in Philadelphia there is the mysterious bus that only ever appears to those in the grip of complete despair. Exactly like the bus in Roadrunners the driver doesn't speak, and neither do the other passengers. The journey goes on until you come up with a solution to your problems. Of course in Britain we don't have anything so subtle, and so we have the urban legend of the London bus numbered 7 which first appeared in 1934 and charged at a man's car, who was forced to crash to get out of the bus's way. The witness accounts state that the bus appeared out of nowhere and was empty, but most mysteriously, wore the livery of a bus company which had folded the previous year. Since then the bus has caused hundreds of accidents along the same stretch of road, always appearing at 1.15am. Here in Birmingham we don't have urban legends about buses, we have the number 11 which both is a legend, and which nobody quite believes if you've ever travelled on it.

The coach in the X-Files picks up a passenger in a desert area, who then witnesses something extraordinary. The subsequent investigation brings Scully to the area, and she gets involved in the strange events.

Significantly in urban legend terms, the episode is set in Utah and there was (or is) current for many years an urban legend which the Mormons think originated with them, of children being abducted from theme parks during the days out which are one of their customs. It has even been repeated in ward newsletters as a warning to parents to keep an eye on their kids. Brumvand recounts in The Vanishing Hitchhiker, how he first came across the legend in Utah and was genuinely surprised when his students gave him examples of the same legend appearing elsewhere. Roadrunners rather turns it on its head in that the kidnapping is of an adult who is taken to a religious group who give as their purpose at first that they are just a small group of people trying to keep away from the modern world (this sentence includes just about every red flag you could ever wish to see). There is also the reversal in that rather than the religious group being the victim of the kidnapping, they are the perps. And finally, of course, kidnapping/abduction is such an X-Files core theme.

A further influence is the neo-Western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), which I haven't seen but is apparently about a community in which the whole town has become corrupt. It also has the travel theme because the stranger in the film gets off  at the town from a train which has stopped there for the first time in four years. Personally, speaking as a city person, it also has a strong avoid-the-country-because-it's-scary vibe.

Despite what I said above about series 8 showing Scully in such a good light, this episode was deliberately written to show Doggett in a good light by saving Scully, and it also does that superlatively. I particularly like that the show has created a cult which is clearly Christian-based but so extraordinary that it couldn't cause offence by suggestions of it depicting an actual religious group.

I don't personally have any criticisms, although I have read that this episode was deliberately intended to be horrific so some viewers may not like that aspect. I would note that the reviews have always been very mixed indeed, and while I have tended to focus on the urban legend aspect because it interests me, there have been criticisms of the role of John Doggett (honestly he speaks about five times, the poor man can do no right), and that there is no apparent reason for the cult's bizarre behaviour. I assume this last criticism is from people who have never come across a cult, and Scully explicitly comments that she doesn't understand the motivation for their beliefs and behaviour.

It's almost like this is the X-Files.