Sunday, November 05, 2023

30 Years Ago: The X-Files: "Ice" (November 5, 1993)

The X-Files episode “Ice,” which first aired thirty years ago, on November 5, 1993, is a sterling tribute to one of the science fiction genre’s greatest short stories: Who Goes There? (1938) by John W. Campbell.  

That novella is set in Antarctica and involves a group of scientists who discover an alien ship and pilot that have been trapped frozen in the ice for twenty million years.  When thawed out, the extra-terrestrial pilot is revealed as a dangerous shape-shifter, one who can “hide” in human and other biological forms.  

In the end, the alien invader is barely stopped (with just a half-hour to spare…) before it can escape isolation and reach (and contaminate...) the rest of Earth’s population.

“Who Goes There?” has been re-imagined several times throughout film and television history.  The Thing from Another World (1951) starring James Arness was one such effort, though it eliminated the shape-shifting nature of the alien menace and replaced it with a humanoid plant, a so-called “carrot.”  

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) proved a more faithful adaptation of the original story, and is perhaps the most well-known version today.  It inspired the 2011 prequel.  

On television, Doctor Who (1963 – 1989) featured a 1976 serial called “The Seeds of Doom” which involved the discovery of an alien plant pod in Antarctica's ice from 20,000 years ago.  That seed was the heart of a planet-devouring vegetable monster called a “Krynoid.”  

And on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999), a race of shape-shifters or "Changelings" called the Founders proved detectable -- like the Thing -- only by blood test in episodes such as the third season finale, “The Adversary.”  The blood test was featured in the original novella and proved the most popular (and perhaps most effective…) sequence in the Carpenter film.

The Thing (1951)

The Thing (1982)

Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom (1976)

“Ice,” written by James Wong and Glen Morgan and directed by David Nutter, remains a notable variation on the Campbell theme, one bolstered by some unique, even trademark X-Files twists.  

In fact, this episode might be Exhibit A in terms of my theory about the series as a whole; that it deliberately re-purposes commonly told tales in the genre and then imbues them with new meaning and relevance for the 1990s.

From Campbell’s source material all the way to "Ice" we see a similar location (an ice-bound installation), a similar threat (an alien) and even the presence of a dog as an infection vector.  But “Ice,” uniquely, develops in an original fashion because in The Thing, for example, there aren't many close relationships on the line.

Instead, the story has been interpreted frequently as a comment on man’s alienation from his fellow man  

Nobody trusted anybody in The Thing because nobody really liked or even knew anybody else.  Hidden inside a man's skin, the Thing was indistinguishable from man.  What does that say about man?

It's alive!

The X-Files deliberately explodes that artistic conceit by landing two sets of dedicated partners or allies into the paranoia blender and then diagramming the manner in which close-relationships contend with the possibility of individual infection.  The responses are either burgeoning independence (Scully) or total abandonment of personal will in favor of the stronger personality’s will and desire (Da Silva). 

In a way, The X-Files amplifies the horror of The Thing.  It’s one thing to face a shape-shifter in a battle to the death when there is no one you really care for to worry about on the battlefield.  But in “Ice,” Mulder and Scully have one another to fight for, and must face the very real possibility that one of them could die or be permanently infected.  They are more "connected" individuals than many we meet in various versions of the Campbell story.

Are you who you are?

I am who I am.

In “Ice,” Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) join a team of scientists including Dr. Hodge (Xander Berkeley), Dr. Da Silva (Felicity Huffman), and Dr. Murphy (Steve Hytner) to investigate the deaths of a government research team at a base in Alaska.  

The team had been digging deep down into an icy shelf believed to be a prehistoric meteor impact.  Without warning, however, the members of the expedition began murdering one another, reciting the mantra “we are not who we are.”

After a helicopter pilot named Bear (Jeff Kober) flies the team to Alaska, Mulder and Scully discover that the previous team had found core samples containing strange alien worms frozen in the ice…from 250,000 years earlier.  

At least some of these worms have thawed out in the base, and discovered that human beings make for perfect hosts.  

While living on the excretions of the hypothalamus, these parasites also cause extreme paranoia and aggression in their prey….

Who do you trust?

An almost unbearably claustrophobic and tense hour, “Ice” is a deliberate nod to Who Goes There? and The Thing, but also a tale, ultimately, about territoriality.  

The episode’s climax reveals that two worms cannot exist in the same host…or they will kill each other.  Similarly, the episode-long tension between Mulder and Hodge -- each looking to assert leadership -- nearly imperils everyone.   Both men believe they are right in their belief-system and engage in a kind of paranoid “pissing” contest, trying to swing the allegiances of the other team-members to their viewpoint.  

There’s even an amusing scene here where the men must strip down naked to check each other for signs of parasitic infection.  Mulder jokingly reminds everyone that they are in the Arctic, a not so-subtle joke about penis size. 

But joke or no joke, the matter of which man possesses the “biggest dick” -- to state it inelegantly -- is  a sub-text in this particular tale.  Once you make the thematic connection, it’s intriguing to see how the “territoriality” theme mirrors the infection theme.  A terrified Bear asserts control of the situation early on, since he is the only person capable of flying the plane, and he stakes out a command position early.  Simultaneously, he is the first infected by the alien organism.   Power and infection are definitively linked.

Then, after Bear dies, the battle of wills moves over to Hodge and Mulder.  Soon, nobody is certain which of them, if either, is infected. In the end, we learn that neither man was infected, only that each was driven (by adrenaline? by testosterone? by ego? by all three?) to attempt to take charge of the situation.  

Why were they so aggressive, if neither was actually infected?  Is it simply the human condition?

Why can't these two get along?

Why can't Mulder and Hodge?

Just remember, we're in the Arctic...

The underlying social commentary, then, seems to concern man's capacity for self-destruction, particularly if he doesn't get his way.  This quality impacts even the usually sensible (and sensitive) Mulder.  What complicates this issue of territoriality, and what is explored rather fully in “Ice” is the notion of allies, friends and subordinates in such a dynamic.

Dr. Da Silva is Hodge’s ally, but treated like a subordinate, and Scully is Mulder’s ally and equal.  Neither woman is truly impartial or on the side-lines,  but Hodge bullies Da Silva to see things his way, and acts in a borderline abusive fashion in his treatment of her; thus keeping her in line.

Scully -- recognizing the weight of evidence against Mulder at one point -- backs Hodge over her partner.  She never gives up on Mulder, and finds way to protect him, but she is able to weigh the facts…and the facts seem to go against Mulder's perspective. 

Unlike Da Silva, however, Scully is not cowed into making a decision by either Mulder or Hodge.  Instead, she studies the available facts and makes a logical decision, to Mulder’s dismay, since her choice doesn’t favor him in the short term.  Scully thus becomes the de facto leader because she is able to bridge the gap between parties.

Scully’s behavior in “Ice” is another key development in the fledgling series. This week, Scully must face the difficult possibility that Mulder, because of infection, has become a murderer and a psychopath.  One thing I love about The X-Files is that this possibility doesn’t impact Scully’s affection, feelings, or loyalty for Mulder.  She wants to protect him and wants to heal him, but to do that, she must first make certain he doesn't represent a danger to everyone.  She uses science and wisdom to do so, again showcasing her finest human qualities.

Given all this dramatic material, it’s probably fair to state that what “Ice” truly involves is relationship dynamics in a difficult situation, where no clear chain of command can be respected or even determined.  

Going further, "Ice" involves the way that men sometimes behave in a crisis. Who do you choose to follow?  Why does someone, like Mulder, choose to lead?  

The elegant quality of this thematic dynamic is, as noted above, that it mirrors so beautifully the nature of the aliens of the week.  There can’t be two big worms (another phallic symbol…) vying for the same “command” post, or else hostility, anger, and violence will result.

Location plays a crucial role in “Ice’s” success as drama and as horror.  The episode feels like a pressure-cooker because after the first act, it never leaves the claustrophobic outpost interiors.  All versions of “Who Goes There?” are set in icy environments, and that sets up an imposing, endless sense of isolation.  Not only is there terror inside the various “Thing” outposts, but terror outside as well.  

The frozen environment will kill you too, just not as quickly as an alien invader.  

In other words, a person can’t just run outside and catch a bus to escape.  The Arctic or Antarctic installation in all these production is thus a trap within a trap.  Escape is simply not possible.  The "monster" must be reckoned with, no delay, no negotiating.

As a title (and phsyical substance...) “Ice” is also a contrast or counter-point to the hot, passionate, aggressive behavior we witness among the dramatis personae here.  It may be well below zero outside the outpost, but inside temperatures and tempers continue to rise.

In terms of X-Files series continuity, “Ice” raises the concept of Panspermia: life from elsewhere in the cosmos taking root here.  That’s a concept which would come to play a crucial role in the series’ sixth season. 

Furthermore, “Ice” seems to set the narrative template for later tales such as “Darkness Falls” and the second season entry, “Firewalker.”  The former is set in an isolated forest; the latter in a live volcano.  But both stories, like “Ice,” involve ancient life-forms awakened in the present, with the promise of deleterious impact on the human race. 

In the final analysis, "Ice" succeeds because, like "Squeeze," it develops the relationship between Mulder and Scully in a clever way  The episode also intelligently re-configures a horror standard, and even offers a healthy dose of social critique. For the seventh episode of a first season, such depth is simply astounding.

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