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The X-Files: Fearful Symmetry

Case: None of the animals at Fairfield Zoo have ever carried a pregnancy to term. But the animals are disappearing and coming back invisible, then reappearing and promptly dropping dead, with evidence that they’ve been pregnant. Also, some people have died.

Destination: Fairfield, Idaho

You can see how everyone behind this episode thought it would be a good idea. It’s a twist on the standard alien abduction story that is the heart and soul of The X-Files. It reinforces the connection between abduction and people messing with women’s reproductive systems that may or may not be significant for Scully. And it has an elephant in it! How can that not be awesome?

For me, though, this episode just doesn’t work. It seems to be throwing a lot of ideas at the screen without really knowing how they fit together and, because it’s loosely connected to the Conspiracy arc, there’s even less closure than usual. The use of Sophie the gorilla and her sign language is nice. The aliens (or whatever was behind all this) obviously assumed the animals would not be able to communicate with their human keepers and Sophie foiled that – not that it did her much good. But overall, the episode doesn’t quite work – not least because, although a man is killed during the elephant’s return, there’s no really clear evidence of a crime (beyond abducting zoo animals) for much of the episode, so one wonders how Mulder has convinced the FBI to send them there.

The title comes from William Blake’s well known not-quite-rhyming poem ‘The Tyger’, the first (and most of the last) verse of which is,

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The poem, from Songs of Experience, is an opposite and companion piece to ‘The Lamb’, from Songs of Innocence, and holds up the danger and terribleness of the tiger against the innocence of the lamb, asking if the same creator made both. It’s an interesting choice for an episode that shows both the danger of animals (not coincidentally, a tiger kills an activist) and their gentler side, particularly the focus on a child crying as the elephant Ganesha dies and poor Sophie’s desperate attempts to save herself. The scene with Sophie and Mulder locked in a container together is probably the strongest of the episode; Sophie is clearly dangerous, especially considering how upset she is, and the scene is quite tense. But she’s not really a vicious personality and she doesn’t hurt Mulder too badly. Then, of course, Mulder once again sees an alien abduction no one else witnesses. Obviously.

The problem is that the episode seems a bit confused about what it’s trying to say. Is the abduction of the animals supposed to be a metaphor for their captivity by humans? Should we agree with the animal activists and consider zoo-keeping no better than alien abduction? But we feel sorry for Willa when her funding is withdrawn and Sophie seems reasonably well off at the zoo, telling Willa she loves her. Or, as Mulder muses at the end, is the episode suggesting that we’re so rubbish at looking after the planet and ourselves that we need alien zoo-keepers to save us and the animals? The church sign that reads, ‘Man has no pre-eminence above a beast: for all is vanity. Eccl 3:19,’ and which Mulder and Scully drive past at the end seems to suggest the point of the episode is that we are no better than animals, and the aliens are coming for us all. Possibly.

There’s nothing especially awful about this episode, but there’s nothing especially outstanding about it either. It's just sort of... there.

Other Thoughts

- Just what was the animals’ mysterious invisibility when they’re returned all about?! I don’t understand that bit at all.

 - I like to think that Scully is deeply, intensely bored during Mulder’s thoughts-over at the end. Or maybe she’s thinking about what to have for dinner while he muses over God and humankind and aliens and animals. Perhaps she’s having pizza.


Mulder: Next thing you know, they’ll be doing it on MTV Sports. Mulder eerily predicts the existence of Channel 4’s Inside Nature’s Giants (2009-2012) and National Geographic’s forthcoming Animal Autopsies – Spooky indeed! This is probably a more interesting X-File than the case in the episode.

Mulder: Where's Langley?
Byers: He has a philosophical aversion to having his image bounced off a satellite.
I don’t know if this was down to actor availability, but I love it.

Final Analysis: You can see good intentions, but an episode that makes me vaguely want to watch the Quantum Leap one where Sam leaps into a gorilla is probably not a roaring success. Two out of four invisible elephants.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


  1. Good thoughts on a not good episode, Juliette. I can’t believe I didn’t really remember much about this episode. It has an elephant autopsy that involves Scully standing in its gutted carcass, for crying out loud! How could I forget that? Plus, Mulder gets beaten up by a gorilla!

    My favorite quote from this one is Willa responding to Mulder’s alien abduction theory, “I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” Indeed.

    Of course, the conservatorship bit is sort of interesting coming on the heels of ‘Samantha’s’ revelations in ‘End Game’ that her alien brethren are waiting for the humans to wipe themselves out so that they can then take over the planet. It almost makes sense that they’d be harvesting the animals to potentially repopulate the animal kingdom, just in case whatever we do to wipe ourselves out takes out the animals, too. If it’s all the same aliens, that is.

  2. Yeah, this is one of those episodes that, as you put it so well Juliette, is just there. I'm not sure what the message is meant to be and, whatever it was, it gets lost in translation of this weird, weird episode.

    Even Mulder and Scully seem off this time out. For some reason, they just don't click the same way they have been in recent episodes. Or, maybe I'm just projecting.

  3. They did seem a bit off here - the script was a bit bland I think, which didn't help.


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