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Alpha

"Alpha" wasn't spectacular and it wasn't flashy, but it held my interest for the full hour. In the end I was impressed with the performances, the story and the execution.

So here's what happens in this poignant tale of a homicidal dog and the people who track it:

It's a clear, quiet night on the Pacific Ocean and the Chinese freighter T'ein Kou is creeping its way toward the California coast. Two thrill-seeking crewmen travel into the ship's hold to examine a mysterious dumpster-sized metal box. The cargo inside is angry -- very, very angry -- so it's safe to say this isn't a shipment of fake dog poop.<

One of the crewmen shines a flashlight through a slot in the box and his beam settles on a set of glowing vermilion eyes. The creature attached to those eyes doesn't appreciate a high-powered flashlight beam shined into its retinas, so it lunges at the open slot. Startled, the crewmen jump back. The dumpster shakes as the beast within unleashes its homicidal fury. The violent rocking stops and concerned looks cross the crewmen's faces. Thinking the animal has killed itself they decide to do something Very Dumb. They unlock the dumpster, open the reinforced lid and peer inside. Anyone who's watched a horror movie knows you never, EVER do something like this.

The scene cuts to the next day. The T'ein Kou safely docks in San Pedro, California and the local police arrive at the request of the ship's captain. Two crewmen have disappeared and the tazmanian devil housed in the dumpster hasn't moved in a long, long time. The captain and two police officers are met in the ship's hold by Ian Detweiler, the perturbed owner of the formerly-snarling "cargo." Detweiler isn't happy with the state of his dumpster -- blood is pooling around its edges. The captain unlocks the metal crate and Detweiler peers inside. Piled in a corner are the two missing crewmen. Their throats have been ripped out by something with powerful jaws and pointy teeth.

Powerful jaws and pointy teeth always attract the attention of Mulder (see "3" for an example), and this case is no different. A few days after the T'ein Kou gnawing incident, Mulder is studying pictures from the crime scene while relaxing in the chaotic coziness of the X-files office. Slowly, the office is taking on its previous look: photos and papers are strewn on the desk and across the walls. The only thing missing is the "I Want to Believe" poster (hint, hint). Scully drops in to see what Mulder is up to and Mulder explains the details of this new case. According to the police report the "cargo" in the metal dumpster was a dog and that dog is suspected in killing the two crewmen. But that's not the reason Mulder is interested: the crewmen were found locked inside the dumpster, which means the dog is a canine Houdini. Scully scans the report and sees that the cause of death is recorded as a bite. Her "Sceptic Alarm" sounds and she explains that people don't die from dog bites, they die from the blood loss or infection resulting from the bite. If the creature were a shark or a velociraptor then maybe the report would be correct, but a dog couldn't inflict this kind of injury. Mulder tosses her pertinent forensic evidence aside -- he has a source who assures him a dog is the culprit. Wanna guess who's right?

While Mulder and Scully prepare to investigate, the killer puppy is stalking its next victims in Bellflower, California. A customs agent has retired to his modest home in the suburbs but his peaceful evening is disturbed by his spooked golden retriever. The man opens the back door and sees the silhouette of a wolf-like creature on the opposite side of a fence lining his yard. He drags his dog (Jo-Jo) inside then rushes toward the fence to shoo White Fang away. Apparently his shooing did the trick for when he reaches the fence the dog has disappeared. Returning inside, the agent finds Jo-Jo lying beneath a desk in the living room. Jo-Jo is non-responsive, probably because she's been killed by the wolf standing in the doorway. Jo-Jo's owner has little time to mourn the passing of his beloved dog because the wolf has designs on turning him into a hamburger patty. The creature's eyes light up and sadistically snarls, showing off a lovely set of blood-stained teeth. The wolf lunges, the man screams and it's a good bet there'll be one less customs agent reporting for work in the morning.

Mulder and Scully take the red-eye to California and arrive at the T'ein Kuo just before 8 a.m. Down in the ship's hold they meet with Jeffrey Cahn, the investigating officer from Animal Control. Based on the lack of dog poop present on the ship, Cahn has determined that the dog has left the vessel. This keen piece of evidence is the extent of his information. Ian Detweiler, the perturbed owner of the dog, approaches and frantically tells Mulder and Scully that someone has stolen his "specimen." Detweiler is a cryptozoologist, which means he spends his time tromping through remote areas looking for animals thought to be extinct. In a haughty, tweed-wearing, academic demeanor he explains that the dog in the box was a Wanshang Dhole (pronounced "Dole") -- an asian dog believed to be extinct for 150 years. Mulder's synapses fire and he rattles off a series of facts about the Dhole that impresses Detweiler. Before the men can settle in for a lengthy discussion on extinct creatures an officer announces that a dog attack has been called in from the nearby town of Bellflower.

The agents travel to the home of Jake Conroy -- the customs agent attacked the night before by the snarling beast. The bite marks left on Conroy match those of the crewmen on the Chinese freighter, so the agents know they're dealing with the same animal. Once again, the cunning dog has performed a magic trick -- the house was locked, yet the dog managed to escape. Hearing this, Mulder intuitively knows they're dealing with more than just a dog; this bugger has the ability to think and plan. Scully does her best to contain her scepticism and asks, if such a creature exists, how do they find it? Mulder could have used this opportunity to break out his Sherlock Holmes impersonation, saying: "Elementary, my dear Scully. You find an animal of this sort by enlisting the help of a human who thinks like an animal." Had he attempted this impersonation it's likely Scully would have broken his nose with a right hook. Nonetheless, Mulder and Scully are off to see a woman who thinks like an animal.

In a remarkable twist of fate, this animal-thinker lives nearby. Karin Berquist is a reclusive canine expert who spends her days in a poorly-lit home. Mulder and Scully are shown to Berquist's study, where they wait for her to arrive. Scully scans the room and sees that Berquist and Mulder have something in common -- tacked to a wall is the rare "I Want to Believe" poster. Before Scully can properly tease her partner, a sickly woman enters with a trail of dogs in tow. The dogs rush toward chairs and pillows and obediently settle themselves as the woman -- Berquist -- draws the shades and further darkens the already murky room. Seeing that Berquist is uneasy with their presence, Mulder quickly asks her about the intelligence level of canines. Berquist claims that canines are smarter than humans. Additionally, they don't murder, they only kill when necessary. Scully inquires about the Wanshang Dhole and Berquist curtly says the Dhole has been extinct for 150 years. With that, she departs and she takes her doggies with her too. Alone in the office, Scully asks Mulder how he knows Berquist and he sheepishly explains that they met online. Berquist is the source who first tipped him to this case. Scully's look clearly says "My partner is a dork."

Later that night, an animal control officer searching for the missing Dhole stumbles on a picked-over dumpster. An animal digging through trash isn't unusual, but it's rare when it hides evidence from an investigation (unless they work for the LAPD). Amidst the piles of rotten food, the officer finds the missing, severed hand of Jake Conroy -- the customs agent attacked the previous night. As the officer looks at his gruesome find, a dog skitters across the concrete, darting into a nearby building. The officer follows, entering into a subterranean hallway. The lights are dim, the shadows are long and a heavy mist hovers over the floor. This is clearly a place where nasty stuff happens, but the officer disregards the signs and continues his search. He's startled when a man appears behind him. The man is obscured by the room's mist. As the human form approaches it starts to shrink and crouch. Suddenly it morphs into a wolf. The now-familiar vermilion eyes shine and the Dhole's snarls echo through the dank room. The Dhole lunges and turns the officer into a crime scene.

For those of you scoring at home that's Dhole: 4, Investigators: 0

The dreary crime scene's misty corridors and dark walls attract Mulder and Scully with the same power as the Deathstar's tractor beam. For some reason they can't avoid places that are poorly lit. Creepy settings aside, the duo visits the subterranean hallway the next morning, where they're met by Jeffrey Cahn. Cahn's restrained demeanor has disappeared -- the most recent victim was a friend of his and now he's ready to trade tranquilizers for bullets. He rushes off just as Karin Berquist walks in. Berquist must have been feeling saucy when she woke up because she's ventured outside to lend Mulder a hand. Scully walks off to analyze the crime scene and Mulder and Berquist discuss the case.

Mulder explains that the Dhole's four victims were all stalked, which is an odd trait for a canine. Dogs don't kill for sport, Berquist says, their motives are direct. In this case the Dhole is killing for the sake of killing, which makes it unpredictable. Detweiler approaches, butting into the conversation without introducing himself to Berquist. Mulder ignores this social faux pas and learns from Detweiler that he and his tracking party originally snared the Dhole with tranquilizers. Hopefully, if he caught it once he can catch it again. Berquist obviously dislikes Detweiler -- her heightened doggy senses finger him as a bad man. Thankfully, she doesn't resort to other dog identification methods.

Detweiler walks off and the scene shifts to a nearby construction site. Officer Cahn is standing beside his jeep, speaking with another officer via radio. Something is watching Cahn. It slinks behind wooden structures, darting closer toward the unknowing officer. The creature sprints forward and Cahn spins around, sensing something approaching. The creature is Detweiler. His eyes are wild and his words make his message very clear: "If you kill the dog, I kill you." You have to admire a man gets to the point, even if that point is psychotic.

The rantings of a crazed cryptozoologist matter little to Mulder and Scully. The agents' attention is focused on evidence Berquist gathered at the crime scene. Entrenched in Berquist's perpetually-dark study, the Dog Woman shows Mulder and Scully computer-enhanced copies of the Dhole's paw prints. Canines have four toes but the Dhole has a fifth. Mulder is enthralled by this development, so enthralled he touches the computer mouse Berquist's hand rests on and guides the arrow across the screen. Berquist looks thoughtfully at the spot where they're touching. Scully cranes her neck and notices that Berquist is paying verrrry close attention to Mulder's hand. Mulder, however, has no clue. He's too absorbed in the possibilities of this creature having a prehensile toe. Berquist snaps back to reality and says that a fifth toe could potentially explain the Dhole's ability to enter and exit closed buildings. Scully goes on the attack, cross-examining Berquist: The previous day Berquist doubted the existence of the Dhole, yet here she is, saying it can go in and out of buildings and kill people at will. Berquist quietly counters, explaining that Chinese myth paints the Dhole as an evil trickster. Scully's lips purse and she promptly leaves the room.

Mulder finds his partner waiting in the car and she's noticeably ticked. Scully believes Berquist lured Mulder to California so she could meet him. The whole thing is a warped version of "You've Got Mail." Mulder, the clueless wonder, doesn't believe it.

At 9:21 p.m., Detweiler arrives at the Riley Animal Clinic. A lovable St. Bernard named Duke flips out when the anal cryptozoologist enters the reception area. The keen St. Bernard is dragged out the door by his owner and Detweiler gets down to business. With the fervor of a junkie, he asks James Riley, the veterinarian, for tranquilizers. Being a doctor gives Detweiler access to such things, so the vet hands over the heavy sedatives. Detweiler rushes out.

Riley, the vet, walks into his clinic's examination room to close for the evening. He greets his canine patients, checks the secured rear entrance and flips off the light. Suddenly, the caged dogs wildly yelp and bark. Riley sees the Dhole approach. The beast's eyes glare and his angry snarls are a clear indicator he's hungry. The vet scampers off, successfully escaping the room and locking the Dhole inside.

Animal control arrives and a team of officers storm the examination room. A four-legged creature zips across the floor and the officers fire, hitting the target. Unfortunately, it's not the Dhole -- it's Duke the St. Bernard. How Duke found his way into the examination room is a mystery unto itself -- he was taken away by his owner when Detweiler arrived.

Mulder and Scully reach the clinic and learn that the Dhole wasn't captured. Inside, Riley is almost finished tending to Duke. The big dog's prognosis is good, but Riley's outlook for a long, happy life isn't likely. Scully enters the building and hears screams from the examination room. With her pistol drawn, she rushes into the exam room. Duke is still on the operating table but Riley is now on the floor, his throat ripped from its rightful place. Mulder and Scully rush out to call the paramedics. Once they leave, Duke magically morphs into the Dhole. The cunning puppy jumps from the examination table and heads into the night. He's ready to boogie.

Scully is ready to do some boogying of another kind. Alone, she visits Berquist at her home and calls her bluff. Scully knows that Berquist has Lupus -- a disease that makes her sensitive to light and keeps her confined to dark places. Scully also knows that Berquist has a thing for Mulder. In her polite, no-nonsense way, Scully basically says: "I'm on to you Wolf Woman! One wrong move and I'll turn you into a steaming pile of Alpo!"

While Scully grills Berquist, Mulder digs around the veterinarian's office. He finds the prescription receipt for Detweiler's tranquilizers. Mulder gets in touch with Officer Cahn and asks that he meet him at the clinic. Cahn hops in his Jeep, but his trip is cut short by the ill-tempered Dhole sitting in the back seat.

For some reason, the Dhole doesn't finish Cahn off. The officer is taken to the hospital where Mulder visits him the next morning. Mulder walks into Cahn's room and is surprised to see Detweiler sitting beside the bed, watching over the unconscious patient. Mulder hauls Detweiler to his feet and lays into the smarmy cryptozoologist. Using his uncanny paranormal skills, Mulder has put the pieces together. He knows Detweiler morphs into the bloodthirsty Dhole when night falls. He also knows the tranquilizers he obtained from Riley's clinic were meant to stop the killing, but they obviously didn't work. The truth coming from Mulder's mouth wrinkles Detweiler's face. If the sun were setting, Mulder would be a good candidate for Fox's next installment of "When Animals Attack." But the sun is up and Detweiler's only recourse is to walk off.

In the hospital hallway, Berquist (doing her best "Annie Hall" impression with a big floppy hat and loose-fitting clothing) confronts Detweiler, telling him she won't protect him any longer. Mulder spots the pair and Berquist rushes off.

Witnessing the hallway pow-wow between Berquist and Detweiler, Mulder realizes it's time to confront the Dog Lady. He travels to her dark abode and she admits she looked forward to meeting him, but she also had an interest in the case. From the beginning she knew a dog couldn't commit a premeditated murder, but she didn't realize that Detweiler was the killer until she met him. Her love for canines kept her from sharing this information. She believed the Dhole -- Detweiler's Dhole -- was the last of its kind. Killing it would eradicate the species. But now she sees that the Dhole as an animal is gone. Detweiler is possessed by a trickster spirit -- the Dhole is a manifestation, not a real animal. Now that he's not on the endangered species list, Berquist says Detweiler has to be put down. Finding him should be simple because his behavior is territorial. It's likely he'll return to Cahn's hospital room to eliminate the threat.

Based on Berquist's conclusion, Mulder and Scully stake out Cahn's room. Scully continues to doubt Berquist's intentions, but Mulder adamantly insists Berquist is right -- Detweiler will come back to finish the job he started the night before. At 2 a.m. Mulder realizes he's been duped. Detweiler's threat isn't Cahn, it's Berquist. She's the one who knows what he truly is, so she's the one he'll pursue.

Unfortunately for Berquist, Mulder's discovery comes a little too late. While doing her nocturnal chores, Berquist sees the Dhole zip across her yard. She methodically walks to her study and arms herself with a tranquilizer gun. The Dhole appears in the doorway. Berquist stands in front of a window, clutching the gun. The Dhole's eyes flare, its teeth gnash.. Berquist's expression hardens and she sets the gun down. "Come on dog," she says, "come on." The Dhole lunges. Glass shatters as both dog and Dog Lady explode through the window and fall two stories to the ground.

Mulder and Scully arrive moments later and they find two dead humans in Berquist's yard. Detweiler is impaled on a fence and Berquist is lying in a heap a few feet away. The Dhole is done.

Sometime later, back at the X-files office, Mulder quietly mulls over the Dhole case. He's angry with himself; he unconditionally believed Berquist yet he didn't even know her. Scully, in her rational way, tells him to let it go. As she walks out she hands him a packing tube that arrived in the mail. The package was sent to Mulder from Berquist Kennels and inside is a tightly curled sheet. Mulder unfolds the item and tacks it on the wall behind his desk. He settles into his chair, looking at the freshly-hung "I Want to Believe" poster. It's a quiet moment but it represents a redemption of a sort. Mulder and Scully have reclaimed what was rightfully theirs: the poster is the final piece.

And there you have it: a simple story of a murdering dog, a reclusive canine expert and the desire all of us have to make a connection. Only the X-files could mix these radically different ingredients.

Note: This review originally appeared at Ontap.com. It's reprinted here for archival purposes.



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