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The X-Files – Død Kälm (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

Død Kälm is probably the most explicitly “science-fiction-y” premise that we’ve had in the show’s run to date. And by “science-fiction-y”, I don’t necessarily mean “anchored in any meaningful science.” After all, the amount of sense that Død Kälm makes is questionable at best. Instead, the term “science-fiction-y” means “most likely to pop up in a pulpy science-fiction television show.”

The past few episodes have seen the show on a bit of a science-fiction kick, with clones and colonists and invisible abducted zoo animals. However “accelerated aging” is such a science-fiction staple that it feels like The X-Files is enthusiastically embracing science-fiction conventions at this point in the second season.

Old school...

Old school…

One of the wonderful things about The X-Files is the versatility and variety that comes baked into the show’s premise. If you asked most viewers to classify the show, they’d like describe it as a “horror” show. This is an accurate description, in many respects. The show does feature monsters and nightmares, playing with standard horror clichés and trading in shocks. However, this is a very narrow view of what The X-Files is or can be. The show had a remarkable flexibility. It can be comedy, drama, urban fantasy, thriller, even blockbuster.

During the show’s early years, it marked out these areas of potential interest, ripe for exploration. Die Hand Die Verletzt demonstrated the show could do comedy, a notion cemented by Humbug. Episodes like One Breath and Irresistible demonstrated that it was possible to produce an episode that downplayed the supernatural or paranormal elements. Little Green Men even added a little international flavour to the show, with scenes set in Puerto Rico. (The production team had briefly considered setting Fresh Bones in Haiti.)

Washed up...

Washed up…

Still, the tail end of the second season sees the show reveling in traditional science-fiction. To be fair, there was always a strong science-fiction element to The X-Files. After all, Scully’s job was to explain the show’s strange phenomena in vaguely scientific terms. The long-running mythology concerns an alien invasion of Earth. There are shape-shifting aliens and crashed spaceships and cloning and all manner of fun. The X-Files always had some measure of science-fiction trappings.

However, the final third of the season embraces science-fiction a bit more readily and more heavily than it had before. Colony and End Game transform the show’s mythology into an epic space opera glimpsed from the cheap seats – they cement the idea that the narrative at the heart of the show’s conspiracy is one steeped in science-fiction tropes like cloning, experimentation, alien cultures, invasion. However, these episodes only mark the beginning of this late-season science-fiction surge.

Mapping it out...

Mapping it out…

Fearful Symmetry features aliens making elephants invisible and engaging in conservationism. Soft Light features a character who becomes a walking black hole. This is to say nothing of the way that Anasazi ties the show’s alien mythology into the theory of “ancient astronauts” and hints quite heavily at a “chosen one” narrative for Mulder – reinforcing the tropes associated with epic science-fiction that were introduced in Colony and End Game.

And then there’s Død Kälm. The episode sees Mulder and Scully piling in the make-up – apparently three hours’ worth – as some strange phenomenon ages them dramatically. Accelerated ageing is a staple of episodic science-fiction television. The original Star Trek gave us The Deadly Years, while Star Trek: The Next Generation produced Unnatural Selection and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine offered Distant Voices. It’s a familiar science-fiction trope, popping on shows like Stargate SG-1, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Fringe and Babylon 5.

Unfriendly waters...

Unfriendly waters…

If one were particularly cynical, one could argue that “accelerated ageing” episodes are perfect awards fodder – they allow the make-up team on a particular show to demonstrate their technical proficiency in a manner that is a little more prestigious than standard genre make-up work. As Andrew Sarris cynically noted in The Primal Screen:

Unfortunately, the best way to win awards in Hollywood is to plaster a young face with old-age make-up. Artificial aging, however grotesque it may seem to the bored camera, is an infallible sign of “character” for those who confuse the art of acting with the art of disguise.

Aliens are standard genre fare. Making an actor look convincingly old? That is something that has a bit more artistic cache. After all, Bad Grampa was able to take home an Oscar nomination for its make-up work. It is worth pointing out that Død Kälm did not pick up an Emmy nomination for its make-up work.

Savage behaviour...

Savage behaviour…

Still, regardless of any motivation, it does seem like  Død Kälm pushes the boat out (ha!) on just how far The X-Files can wade into the realm of the science-fiction genre. To be fair, some first season episodes do wade into the genre – Ghost in the Machine featured a sentient computer, Eve was about cloning and Darkness Falls centred on killer bugs that had awoken after millennia of hibernation. However, there is a leap from those premises to the events in ColonyEnd Game or Død Kälm. Not only do Mulder and Scully rapidly age, they also convenient reverse age too.

Creator Chris Carter seems to get noticeably cagey when attempts are made to classify the show as science-fiction. Discussing the show’s science-fiction trappings retrospectively, Carter has confessed, “I never thought of it as a science-fiction show to begin with.” He has admitted attempts to “resist the horror and science fiction labels” frequently assigned to the show. Carter himself describes the “science-fiction” label as “a limiting label.” It is hard to argue with Carter, based on the evidence.

Mulder should be old hat at this by now...

Mulder should be old hat at this by now…

The X-Files found more Emmy success than more overtly genre shows, a fact producer Frank Spotnitz credited to the way it “attempted to not feel like a genre show.” On the commentary for End Game, episode involved cloning and shape-shifting alien assassins, Spotnitz discusses this issue. Discussing the show’s reluctance to provide definitive answers, Spotnitz explained:

Interestingly, later we find out this is not Samantha, that this is a clone of Samantha, and so everything she says here may or may not be true and that’s again sort of classic X-Files strategy – raise more questions than you answer, even when you answer questions be as ambiguous as you possibly can. Part of that was Chris’ concern that the show not seem too sci-fi and too ridiculous because if you say a lot of this stuff straight and without elaboration or, you know, ambiguous dialogue it risks seeming kind of silly. So scenes like this made all of us, I think especially Chris, a little nervous because they just veered on straight science fiction and the truth is we never saw The X-Files as a science fiction series, believe it or not, we saw it as a show that incorporates science fiction elements but was really more of a mystery, or in these two episodes more of a suspense thriller.

This makes a great deal of sense. After all, any attempt to articulate the complex and convoluted mythology of The X-Files inevitably feels over-burdened and weighed down. If one looks at the plotting of the mythology of The X-Files, the show is just as fantastical or science-fiction-y as an Star Trek spin-off. The show just avoids describing itself explicitly in those terms.

The production team will undoubtedly make it up to them...

The production team will undoubtedly make it up to them…

Still, the last stretch of the second season is one of the points where the show finds itself brushing up against the limits of this approach. Despite all the pseudo-scientific techno-babble that Scully might offer about oxidation and rust, this is an episode where Mulder and Scully are aged dramatically and then conveniently returned back to normal in time for the very next episode. This is the closest that The X-Files would come to doing a stock science-fiction show in its first few years.

The show itself wouldn’t return to such an overtly sci-fi premise until the fifth season at the earliest, and not in any long-term capacity until the sixth or seventh seasons. Again, as with Fearful Symmetry before it, this feels like an attempt that was either made with an incredible amount of ambition or out of sheer desperation. In some respects, it feels like the kind of episode to which the show would return when exhaustion kicked in around the seventh season.

Tide of blood...

Tide of blood…

On its own terms, Død Kälm is a perfectly serviceable episode of television. While by no means as effective as Fresh Bones, the last collaboration between writer Howard Gordon and director Rob Bowman, Død Kälm works quite well. The atmospheric setting – the same ship the production had used in End Game – helps, as does Bowman’s cinematic direction. Howard Gordon is collaborating with partner Alex Gansa again, and the result is an episode of The X-Files that is competent, if not exceptional.

Død Kälm suffers from being a very standard and formulaic episode of television. The show’s arc is easy enough to predict. With one prominent guest star teaming up with Mulder and Scully to investigate an atmospheric location housing a strange phenomena, it seems inevitable that Trondheim will end up butting heads with Mulder and Scully. His betrayal of the duo seems almost as inevitable as his death by irony when sea water floods the compartment where he has barricaded himself.

Cruise control...

Cruise control…

Trondheim never feels properly developed as a character. He seems to exist as a plot complication, to help the episode reach its forty-five minute run time. He seems genuinely sad at the loss of his colleague, but he has no hesitation at betraying everybody else on the ship to safe-guard his own survival. It’s a stock trope that lends itself to these sorts of “high-pressure isolation” episodes, but it doesn’t do anything to humanise or develop Trondheim beyond a convenient obstacle. It is a waste of veteran actor John Savage in a forgettable role.

At the same time, Død Kälm falls back on what has become a stock ending for The X-Files. Mulder and Scully are trapped in a horrific situation with no means of escape… only for some wing of the government to arrive at the last minute and save them. It was played entirely straight in Darkness Falls, where a rescue team finds a partially-cocooned Mulder and Scully just in time. It also contributed to the climax of End Game, where Mulder is found on the ice before he freezes to death.

Drinking it all in...

Drinking it all in…

To be fair, it’s  easy to understand the appeal of such an ending. After all, it underscores just how powerless Mulder and Scully are in the face of these sorts of threats and problems. In many respects, The X-Files can be read as an existential horror story about how completely helpless people are in the face of the forces at work in the world. The fact that Mulder and Scully cannot save themselves helps to underscore how serious the threat is. (And, in both End Game and Død Kälm, Scully’s notes do help a little bit.)

However, there’s a problem with doing that sort of ending too often. Eventually, it becomes a bit of a cop-out – a cheat that allows the show to wrap without any significant closure. It’s like the script reached the page count limit, and the staff decided to add “… and then they were rescued.” The problem isn’t the ending itself, the problem is that the ending has been used three times within the last season-and-a-bit, and two times within the last three episodes.

(Comparatively) young gun...

(Comparatively) young gun…

Still, there are interesting ideas here. It’s nice that Scully essentially gets to be entirely correct. Although Howard Gordon’s scripts always seemed to favour Mulder as a character – much like Glen Morgan and James Wong tended to favour Scully – it is nice that Gordon’s scripts were willing to let Scully be correct. Although Scully’s theory here isn’t necessarily more rational than Mulder’s outlandish speculation in other episodes – she just substitutes pseudo-scientific techno-babble for Mulder’s folklore and mythology – it’s a nice touch.

Gansa and Gordon’s script also effectively underscores the body horror of the “accelerated aging” story. The physical decline of those trapped on the ship is explicitly compared to the process affecting the ship itself. “The organic equivalent to rust would be rapid premature senescence,” Mulder reflects – drawing attention how both the ship and the characters are undergoing the same process. Trondheim notices red fluid leaking. “Captain Barkley said the ship was bleeding,” Scully offers. Of course, it’s actually rust… but is there that much practical difference?

Interest is off the charts...

Interest is off the charts…

As such, Død Kälm underscores the idea that the human body is really just a biological machine, with meat instead of circuitry. What is happening to Mulder and Scully is pretty much exactly what is happening to the boat – their own biological decay completely inseparable from the decay of the vessel that houses them. This idea of the human body of a biological machine pops up in a number of Howard Gordon’s scripts, becoming a recurring motif. Gordon’s scripts occasionally straddle the line between living and non-lining.

His scripts tend to elevating something inanimate to consciousness or reducing people to something inhuman. Ghost in the Machine is the story of a consciousness that develops without an organic body to house it. His last solo script for the series, Kaddish, is about a golem sculpted from lifeless clay and imbued with a make-shift consciousness. Sleepless is about attempts to turn ordinary soldiers into soulless killing machines. Grotesque is about human bodies that become clay sculptures. (That’s ignoring the explicit body horror of Firewalker and F. Emasculata.)

Stop or my grandmom will shoot...

Stop or my grandmom will shoot…

As with a lot The X-FilesDød Kälm also draws attention to how so much of twentieth century history is defined by wars and conflicts. The X-Files is a show that explores America in the wake of the Cold War, but it is also fascinated with the legacy of the Second World War and the way that the national identity was altered and shaped by those events. Død Kälm is a story about a ship lost at sea, one of the oldest horror clichés in existence, dating back to the Mary Celeste and the Flying Dutchman and beyond. However, it’s explicitly interested in missing military ships.

After all, the Bermuda Triangle would seem an obvious reference for Død Kälm, to the point where Scully evokes it by name. However, the show is much more interested in theories and cases spawned from military history and legacy. It is a military vessel that disappears, prompting the investigation. When Mulder provides a history of the region, he cites a long list of missing navy vessels that went missing while passing through.

Rats on a sinking ship...

Rats on a sinking ship…

“On December 12, 1949, a Royal Navy battleship disappeared between Leeds and Cape Perry,” he tells Scully. “The sea was calm, the weather sunny. In 1963, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, a fleet of Soviet minesweepers left from here for Havana. All six vessels vanished without a trace.” It is telling that the disappearances only began during the Cold War, and that they took place in the only open channel for the Soviet navy into the Atlantic. One suspects that paranormal phenomena are not the only things that could account for the disappearances.

There’s a sense that The X-Files posits an alternate universe where mundane horrors can be described in fantastical terms. After all, the conspiracy storyline offers an alternate history of America in the twentieth century, where various failures and errors in judgment are accounted for as part of a vast faceless conspiracy involving aliens and colonisation. Mulder makes repeated reference “the Philadelphia Experiment”, a Second World War conspiracy theory that similarly disguises the mundane with the fantastical.

In this day and age...

In this day and age…

It’s cited as a top-secret experiment that was conducted, violating the laws of physics and enabling ships to travel impossible distances in a short amount of time. The reality was most likely much more mundane, with the ships moving through a channel concealed from the Germans during the war in the Atlantic. However, the myth – which began in the fifties and was spurred on by a 1984 science-fiction film – is much more attractive than the probable reality.

One of the nicer Cold War allusions of Død Kälm is the fact that the USS Ardent was commissioned in 1991. The decaying USS Ardent captures a peculiar sense of nineties ennui, the feeling that the United States had vanquished its military opponents and that ships like the Ardent would be unlikely to worry about being destroyed in combat or naval warfare. Instead, the ships would survive long enough to be decommissioned, rusting and decaying. It’s an image that captures the gap between the Cold War and the War on Terror that The X-Files occupied so skilfully.

Talk about a wrinkle in time...

Talk about a wrinkle in time…

Død Kälm is a solid, if unspectacular, episode – one that feels a little too formulaic and too familiar. It’s a script that feels like it could easily have been ported over from any other episodic science-fiction television show, losing some of the flavour that is unique to The X-Files.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of The X-Files:

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7 Responses

  1. This was another good episode. You have inspired me to watch The X-Files! It has been sitting in my queue on Netflix for a while now. I am on S01E10 so far. Taking me back to good times when I was teen in that late 90s. Thanks 🙂

  2. Again with the Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot references!

  3. The most amazing thing about the Royal Navy battleship that disappeared between Leeds and Cape Perry would be the question of how it ever got to Leeds in the first place, since it’s way inland with no access to the sea.

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