Now we’re talking. It’s been a tough couple of episodes, but The X-Files bounces back with a strong contender for the best episode of the first season. Like the last collaboration between Morgan and Wong, Ice is one gigantic homage to a classic horror film. (Well, two classic horror films.) Shadows took its cues from The Entity, while Ice draws heavily from both John Carpenter’s The Thing and Howard Hawk’s The Thing From Another World, both based on the John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?
However, Ice works a lot better than Shadows. Part of that is down to the fact that Morgan and Wong seem genuinely enthused and engaged with their premise, rather than simply painting by numbers. Part of this is also down to the fact that this sort of horror and paranoia is more firmly in the show’s wheelhouse than the generic “protective avenging ghost” narrative from Shadows.
Reportedly, Ice was a show made to help balance the first season’s budget – a show set in one closed-off location with a finite cast and minimum spectacle. To be fair, that location – the Alaskan research outpost – is quite an impressive set. It actually feels quite large, a linking network of corridors and offices and storage rooms. David Nutter, one of many behind-the-scenes talents to emerge from The X-Files, makes great use of the set, providing a creeping sense of claustrophobia.
After all, Ice is a show about paranoia. A lot of these early episodes have struggled to reconcile the larger themes of The X-Files with the individual stories being told. Everything’s fine when there are aliens and government cover-ups, but The Jersey Devil uncomfortably tried to apply the show’s conspiratorial mindset to local law enforcement in New Jersey, and Ghost in the Machine used shady government dealings to keep the show running a few minutes longer.
The series would eventually figure out that it could tap into the paranoia of the nineties without featuring meddling authority figures or sinister cover-ups on a weekly basis. Ice doesn’t feature any real reference to the shady government cabal, and the only real hint of mistrust of authority comes towards the end when the Alaskan research post is summarily destroyed before Mulder can collect proof. Even then, it’s decidedly ambiguous. Was it a cover-up? Or was it a smart move to contain a massive potential threat?
The flip side of that last possibility is interesting. Would Mulder have been reckless to bring samples back to civilisation with him? Given the damage that these worms caused among a relatively small team, it’s probably not a good idea to bring them back to the mainland United States, even in custody and with the proper precautions. I’d argue that Morgan and Wong tend to favour Scully over Mulder, and Ice is fascinating because it’s quite openly critical of Mulder, without making him seem out-of-character or any less likeable.
After all, Ice is written as an archetypal scientific horror story. We all know the formula: mankind discovers something they are not ready for, and pay a massive price for that presumption. It’s a literary trope best exemplified by Frankenstein, but it’s also one that has particular cultural cache in the United States following the Second World War. Ghost in the Machine dealt with it directly, name-dropping Oppenheimer, but a lot of science-fiction and horror from the forties, fifties and beyond is anchored in unease over the splitting and harnessing of the atom.
The X-Files is, in many ways, a show exploring the shadows lingering on the American psyche following the Second World War. A central part of the show’s mythology is the infamous Roswell Incident, occurring shortly following the end of the war – allowing the series to build a twisted mirror to the Cold War anxieties carrying over after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ice revels in these post-atomic horror clichés.
It makes a great deal of sense and remains true to the episode’s influences. After all, while Who Goes There? was written in 1938, but the 1951 The Thing From Another World is steeped in atomic-age subtext. The scientists are the bad guys there, their search for knowledge reckless and risky. Doctor Carrington, we’re told, worked at “Bikini”, which would seem to be a shout to Bikini Atoll, the site of US nuclear tests from 1946 through 1958. (And, not coincidentally, inferred to be the home of Spongebob Squarepants.)
“It’s been a couple of frustrating months but after a great deal of stick-with-it-ness, we’re very proud to report that as of a half-hour ago, we surpassed the previous record for drilling down into an ice sheet,” the team leader boasts in a recording, after we’ve already seen him kill himself to prevent the evil he has unleashed from reaching civilisation. What should be a joyous opportunity to advance human scientific knowledge becomes something dark and unsettling, something haunting a destructive.
In a way, Ice seems sympathetic to the military’s decision to destroy the base. In Ghost in the Machine, the inventor of the artificial intelligence notes Oppenheimer’s reaction to the application of his discovery. Apparently he “spent the rest of his life regretting he’d ever glimpsed an atom.” Given the potential for destruction unleashed by the atomic bomb – the harsh and maddening reality of “mutually-assured destruction” – can we blame people for wanting to lock that secret away somewhere deep and dark, bury it under mountains of ice? To “torch” it?
Wong and Morgan write Mulder as a man obsessed with vindication and proof, but with no regard for the consequences of his crusade. It becomes a plot point in Tombs, but it is inferred here. After all, the central twist of Ice is that Mulder’s paranoia is not the result of the worm altering his bio-chemistry. This isn’t Mulder being exceptionally suspicious or mistrusting. This is Mulder at pretty close to his base level. This is Mulder’s standard operating threshold of paranoia.
There are points in Ice where Mulder seems like a raving lunatic. “Mulder,” Scully urges, quite rationally under the circumstances, “just put the gun down and let Hodge give you a blood test.” Mulder’s having none of it. “What, so he can doctor the results? I’m not gonna let him stick a needle in me! He could be infected!” When Scully suggests they try a non-invasive examination, he shoots down that idea as well. “I’m not turning my back on anyone! As far as I’m concerned, you’re all infected!”
That’s a bit harsh, particularly given that Mulder includes Scully in that assertion. While he remains perfectly polite to her throughout the episode (even if some of his advice sounds quite threatening – “in here, I’ll be safer than you”), it’s quite clear that Mulder doesn’t entirely trust Scully. And while finding Mulder covered in blood and acting paranoid justifies any hint of suspicion that Scully might have, Scully handles the situation quite evenhandedly.
Which is what Ice comes down to. It’s about how much Scully trusts Mulder, even when she probably shouldn’t. Mulder’s faith in Scully wavers, but she is quick to rush to his defense and to take him at his word. She also works a lot better with the group than Mulder does. Mulder’s attempts to talk Bear down ends in a wrestling match in the control room; his discovery of Murphy’s body gets him locked in a storage closet. While her interactions with DaSilva and Hodge are charged, she handles them both a lot better than Mulder does.
(Note, for example, how gracefully and smoothly she deals with Hodge’s concerns about her firearm. She ensures that nobody on the base ends up with an advantage, without destroying the weapon or provoking an argument. Mulder probably would have turned the confrontation into another gigantic stand-off, only escalating the tension in the group. Wong and Morgan consistently paint Scully as a character with a lot more social intelligence and reason than Mulder. She also seems a lot more human.)
It’s worth noting that Morgan and Wong carry over a trick from Shadows here, making sure to include a reflection of Mulder and Scully among the guest cast. Hodge and DaSilva are the most heavily-featured supporting performers and – like the agents in Shadows – seem intended to mirror our duo. It’s no coincidence that the situation breaks down into a heated confrontation between Mulder and Scully and their counterparts. (Hodge, in particular, is presented just as paranoid as Mulder. However, it’s his female partner we should really be watching.)
Ice features a well-developed supporting cast. One of the great things about The X-Files is seeing all the talent involved in the show. Xander Berkley and Felicia Huffman do great work as the scientist couple teaming up on the investigation. Seinfeld recurring cast member Steve Hytner does a nice job as Murphy. Jeff Kober pops up as the first victim on the second expedition, the pilot Bear. None of these characters are particularly inspired (DaSilva is particularly underdeveloped, which becomes important at the climax), but each is defined well enough for a forty-five minute show.
Ice is just a phenomenally atmospheric piece of paranoid television. The opening scene, with an altered member of the team advising that “we are not who we are” is haunting – so much so that one suspects that Millennium‘s tagline (“this is who we are”) was intended as a bitter and cynical response. While the first season’s CGI leaves a lot be desired (one reason I’m hoping for a quality Star Trek: The Next Generation style blu ray remaster), that sequence with the worm crawling into the dog’s ears still unsettles me.
While it’s an old premise, Ice works because it really cuts to the core of what The X-Files is about, without being anchored to some expansive mythology or featuring too many of the trappings. It’s a show about uncertainty and insecurity, paranoia and lack of trust, suspicion and doubt. It’s about being trapped with people you don’t really know anything about, afraid that they might be monsters or worse. The flip side, however, is the suggestion that maybe – if you’re lucky – there will be somebody there with you too.
Of course, there’s also a lingering sense of doubt and insecurity about that. While Ice retains some of the post-Second-World-War anxieties apparent in The Thing From Another World, it’s also very much in step with John Carpenter’s eighties update. There’s a lot of emphasis on blood work and lab tests – the organism is portrayed as microscopic and invasive, transmitted through bodily fluids and capable of insidiously infecting partners and colleagues.
In short, it seems a lot like the AIDs metaphor that Carpenter consciously wove into The Thing. AIDs is a pretty important part of the social and cultural landscape of the eighties and nineties, representing an altogether more personal form of paranoia. There is a reason, after all, that they called the “AIDs scare.” For those infected, it often meant trying to hide and mask symptoms to avoid the social stigma – as Bear does here, much like Tom Hanks’ character did in Philadelphia.
For those uninfected, AIDs became an invisible plague carried by people who might appear “normal” and indistinguishable, spread in the most intimate of acts in the most personal of moments. After all, the AIDs scare gave rise to the rather terrifying “welcome to the world of AIDs” cautionary urban legend. (A tale which may have some small element of truth to back it up.) AIDs was the source of an altogether more intimate form of paranoia than the kind we typically associate with The X-Files, and Ice taps into that rather well.
Although the life expectancy of those diagnosed with HIV has increased greatly, early diagnosises seemed almost like death sentences to be carried out promptly. Anybody could be infected. Anybody could be a carrier. This wasn’t a paranoia built around the government (unless you were one of those conspiracy nuts who subscribed to the “genetically engineered” theory that went around) or men in suits or black helicopters. This was something more real and more personal. It’s a literal “trust no one” scenario, running on the assumption that you could never trust your partner to be who they said they are.
It’s worth noting that while the episode hits on the UFO mythology, it never gets too deeply bogged down in it. Obsessives might suggest a tenuous connection between the worms and the “black oil” from later episodes, but the threat could come from anywhere. The worms could just as easily originated on Earth and the story would work just as well. Indeed, those looking for suitable nightmare fuel might consider that parasites capable of influencing behaviour in host organisms actually already exist here.
Ice might be the best episode of the show’s rocky first season, but it’s definitely a hint of things to come – a flare pointing the right direction in the middle of a snow storm.
You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:
- The Pilot
- Deep Throat
- The Jersey Devil
- Ghost in the Machine
- Fallen Angel
- Beyond the Sea
- Gender Bender
- Young at Heart
- Miracle Man
- Darkness Falls
- Born Again
- The Erlenmeyer Flask
Filed under: The X-Files | Tagged: Alaska, Berlin Wall, Dana Scully, David Nutter, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fox Mulder, gillian anderson, Hodge, John W. Campbell, mulder, Shadows, Television, Thing, X-File |