At one point during "Space," the undeniable low point in The X-Files rocky first season, Mulder turns to his partner and says, "Come on, Scully, you have to admit that was exciting."
No, she really doesn't. In its best moments, "Space" is laughably bad, but those are few and far between. For the most part, it's just dull-a poorly plotted haunted astronaut episode that seems to go out of its way to make space exploration boring. You know things are bad when the episode's villain, an alien ghost that looks like the "face" on Mars, is far down on the list of offenses. Seriously, the scene where the ghost wrestles its victim out the hospital window is probably the most dynamic.
The plot of "Space," insofar as there is one, centers on the potential sabotage of NASA space shuttle missions. Mulder and Scully are called in to find out how someone could have scored the liquid fuel system valve. (I don't know if this is a real problem shuttles might have, but it makes for mind-numbing exposition on a TV show.) They eventually discover that Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Aurelius Belt (yep) has been possessed by something he picked up on the near-disastrous Gemini 8 mission. I say "alien ghost," because I don't know how else to describe it-it's basically a glowing gaseous body with the face on Mars for a head.
It might seem obvious where "Space" went wrong-hello, that episode description-but something this bad deserves to be further dissected. This was a strange diversion for The X-Files, especially for its first season, because very little of it has anything to do with Mulder and Scully. Our heroes essentially become background characters, with all of the focus on Col. Belt and Michelle Generoo, the woman who comes to the FBI for help. (Was the writer who names characters out sick that week? I see no other explanation.) Nothing about this feels like an X-Files episode, aside from Mulder's throwaway line about the government covering up the existence of aliens. It's some other series entirely-a really, really crappy one that somehow got picked up anyway.
"Space" also relies way too heavy on realistic mission control talk, which can be a great asset to science fiction but just doesn't work here. The X-Files is a series about little green men and government cover-ups, not the nuts and bolts of space travel. There's frankly nothing interesting about Mulder and Scully listening to a bunch of jargon that may or may not reflect an accurate version of how shuttles work. (I'll confess my own ignorance here.) There's also something especially jarring about the juxtaposition of detailed tech language and a cartoonish threat. One minute Michelle is talking about the sabotaged telemetry, and the next an astronaut is shouting, "There's some kind of-ghost, outside the ship!"
All of the mission control scenes feel like time fillers, because there is so little else going on. No one ever really gets to the bottom of the unearthly visitor-why it's latched on to Belt, what its ultimate mission is, why its face is the same as the face on Mars. It's as though Chris Carter spent all the time doing research and forgot to finish the rest of the plot. That might also explain some of the more ridiculous lines, including Col. Belt's "I can assure you there isn't a person in this facility that doesn't want to see that shuttle go into space, complete its mission, and come back like winged victory itself." I mean, eesh. Maybe it was the space ghost talking?
I should note that "Space" has a couple moments that are almost worth it for camp value, namely every instance of the Mars face zooming into the camera. It's not quite as fun as the effects in Season 3's "Teso Dos Bichos," which has someone off-screen throwing fake cats at Mulder and Scully, but it's still pretty silly. Alas, this episode is too much of a drag to enjoy on a so-bad-it's-good level. "Space" fails as a depiction of NASA-and as a depiction of astronaut-possessing space gas.
Well, I can only speculate as to the later, having never encountered actual space ghosts myself. But I have a hard time believing any extraterrestrial creature with the power to haunt humans would be this tedious.