There’s open-ended and then there’s makes-no-sense. If the answer to its mystery was merely vague, this episode might have a different reputation. That being said, I by no means dislike it. “Gender Bender” is a guilty pleasure for me. It’s not among the general Phile favorites, in fact, it’s almost universally panned. But one thing is certain: even if you don’t like it, you’ll be thinking about it afterward if only because you’re too confused to move on. Besides being a puzzle, “Gender Bender” actually has an interesting premise. After all, sex is scary. People are at their most vulnerable physically, emotionally and psychologically during sex. At the very least, this episode serves as a sort of Public Service Announcement: Find out their name first, please.
This may have been an early attempt by The Powers That Be to make the show sexy, and in that respect it does fail. I know I first watched this at a very innocent age 14 but it took me a while to catch on that Scully is aroused. Somehow, the face on aroused Scully just doesn’t convey, well, arousal. She looks more like a child who lost her dolly than a woman lost to passion. I realize it’s because she’s trying to fight the feeling off, but still. On top of that, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to show the evil villain running around in women’s underwear. It… well… de-villainizes him. The club scenes too are laughable in retrospect. The introduction of Nicholas Lea is their only saving grace.
Let’s admit the truth. The alien angle feels like a cop out. It falls out of the sky like a UFO over Roswell. You feel cheated not because you don’t see it coming, but because when it does come it doesn’t make any sense. The end isn’t one of those moments where you look back, smack your forehead and cry, “Of course!” a la The Sixth Sense. Now, I’m going to admit that I’ve cheated a little and read another draft of the script in which Mulder suspects that The Kindred are alien long before the end of the episode. It still doesn’t work. Truth be told, this episode would have played out better if aliens had nothing to do with the matter. Lethal sex is scary enough on it’s own. This episode takes place in the early ‘90s when AIDS was still all over the news. The concept of sex with a stranger proving immediately fatal would have grabbed an audience all by its pretty lonesome. No EBEs required.
The implication is that these aliens don’t have sex. They have no children. Whatever transformation Brother Aaron goes through in the barn must be a form of self-reproduction. Or rather, since they can regenerate by changing sexes, there’s no real need to reproduce at all but only regenerate. The Kindred are the same as they were 100 years ago. If The Kindred merely suffered from a genetic mutation that required an almost religious abstinence and separation from the world on their part, isn’t that enough of an X-File? That would explain their resistance to outsiders. Their self-imposed isolation is then merely a self-sacrificial attempt to protect the rest of society. Now that’s some angst. It also would make Marty a more evil villain by contrast, taking vengeance on a world that he can’t be a part of. Instead, we see too little of Marty in his (original?) male form. As a matter of fact, we’re never formally introduced to Marty’s male form and that’s a shame. And that brief monologue doesn’t serve to make him either a pathetic or a villainous creature.
The true star of this episode is all that Vancouver rain. The atmosphere the rain inadvertently creates is what keeps this episode afloat. It’s also what makes us think we should be afraid even when the plot doesn’t make sense. Mulder’s scenes in the tunnels also make for more visual fun. Surely whatever is missing in the story got added to the cinematography under the skillful hands of Rob Bowman who, by the way, made his directorial debut on the show with this episode.
And the Verdict is…
If “Beyond the Sea” (1×12) proved that The X-Files could be emotional, “Gender Bender” certainly doesn’t prove that it can be sexy. (For that matter, The X-Files did best when it stayed away from sex in all but the vaguest of terms.) I do like the fact that this is a low-tech episode. Whether because of budgetary concerns or not, it forces the audience to pay attention to the story and not the gizmos. (CSI, please take notes… and then pass them around when you’re done.) It also forces the investigators to do some real legwork and not rely on leads too easily gleaned from an obviously made up national network of information. (Still looking your way, CSI.) Most of all, the atmosphere created by the deft hands of Mr. Bowman is enough to make us feel that something darkly exciting is happening. Vancouver isn’t too shabby either.
Maybe Chris Carter, in his defense of this episode, was right about the value of an open-ended ending. Despite the nitpicking I’ve done here, I actually like “Gender Bender”. In fact, it’s the first X-Files episode I can remember actually sitting down and watching. Up until this point, I had only seen glimpses. This was the summer FX started showing reruns and my dad had it on. When it ended, I remember standing in front of the TV going, “What does it all mean?? What in the heck kind of show is this?” with my face the perfect picture of perplexity. Frustrating? Sure. But hey, it made me want to keep tuning in. I certainly tried not to miss an episode after that. I wanted to know if The X-Files was really that weird.
So if you have yet to watch it, don’t let confusion ruin the experience, rather embrace it. And if you’ve already dismissed it, tune back in, relish the randomness and let disappointment roll off you like water down Scully’s trenchcoat.
In other news: Your mother’s warnings about having sex with strangers? All true.
Mulder and Scully relinquish their guns to a group of people of which one is probably a murderer. Are they already doped up on pheromones??
If the aliens can be physically aroused by as well as arouse humans, why can’t they just have sex with each other for fun if not procreation? They must have the hormones to enjoy it after all, or can assume them, anyway. Why can they enjoy sex with us but not with each other? I could keep going…
If we can’t be sure that human’s can produce pheromones, can humans contain them either? How is it that extraterrestrials secrete animal hormones mixed with human DNA? Why don’t the pheromones kill during sex rather than after? Again, I could keep going…
We know that their genderbending has something to do with regeneration, so do they just keep alternating between their male and female forms for all eternity? One gets tired so they bring in the other version off the bench?? Are these just the forms they take while on earth or is this like Star Trek where all aliens are humanoid? Still going…
Our first, last and only X-Files crop circle. Amen.
“It’s hard to imagine this day and age someone having sex with a perfect stranger.” Really, Scully??? Is it now? Because I seem to remember a certain episode in Season 4…
How about those early ‘90s morphing techniques, eh? That shot where Marty/Martina turns his head to morph looks like it came straight out of the music video for Black or White.
There were some plot points that made more sense in the previous version of the script. For instance, the aliens needed some material that was much easier to mine on earth’s surface. Hence, The Kindred were known for making stoneware pottery with clay they mined themselves. This clay was only found locally, but I guess whatever planet they were from had a shortage. That’s logical, I suppose.
Scully: So, what is our profile of the killer? Indeterminate height, weight, sex; unarmed, but extremely attractive?
Scully: There’s something up there, Mulder.
Mulder: Oh, I’ve been saying that for years.