Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Case 02, File 09: Firewalker

AKA: Volcano Walk With Me

It's finally time to get the band back together. Up until now, Mulder and Scully have been going about their business separately, with Mulder off having adventures and Scully hanging around doing nothing a 7-8 months pregnant woman couldn't do, and then of course Scully went off to get abducted, so we've been without our central relationship for over 1/4th of the season. And I'm so glad to have it back, that I wasted the entire opening paragraph on talking about it.

Our plot opens with a malfunction in the Mount Avalon volcano research center, cutting off communication and leaving the group on the ground with only one way to check up on shit up there: The titular Firewalker, a volcano research robot. But all they spot from its camera is the corpse of one of the scientists, before a mysterious shadow disables the camera. One of the lead scientists (named Pierce) thinks that's a little on the weird side, but he's terrified of the project getting defunded, so he can't go through proper channels. So he goes to Mulder. Obviously.

Mulder and Scully decide to go check it out, despite's Mulder worrying that Scully isn't ready. When they arrive, all they find is the station trashed, all the research destroyed and the remaining scientists acting weird, saying it was the work of the team's brilliant, but mercurial, lead scientist Trepkos. Pierce, being the sentimental sort, wanders on out to check on the equipment out in the field, and is immediately found and dispatched by Trepkos.

Our heroes (and scientists) discover Pierce's body, and Scully advocates getting the hell out of dodge, while Mulder begins throwing himself into Trepkos' remaining work, which talks about a previously unknown organism, possibly silicon based rather than carbon. The situation gets a little more urgent when one of the scientists has a fit which ends with a weird plant thing bursting out his neck. Ew. Post-autopsy, Scully declares that the weird plant thing is actually a weird fungus thing and that any or all of them could be exposed, thus cancelling the ride out.

"So, that's one of our scientists dead...I think it's safe to say things aren't going great up there."
Mulder isn't super interested in hanging around the lab waiting to see what happens, so he heads out to the volcano to look for Trepkos, accompanied by one of the other scientists. But, no sooner has he arrived than Trepkos shoots the scientist with a flare gun and burns the body. Thus we discover what's been really going: The fungus is a silicon based organism from deep in the volcano, that infected the entire research team, sans Trepkos, who bolted when they started acting wonky, due to the fungus affecting their brain.

Scully finds this out the hard way (after discovering that the fungus is harmless is not ingested immediately upon it bursting out of the neck) when the last surviving scientist handcuffs them together and begins to show signs of imminent fungus explosion. Scully, being the rational sort, locks the scientist in a room with her on the other side, and lets the fungus do its thing. Mulder arrives with Trepkos, and he and Scully jet out, leaving Trepkos behind to brood as the government destroys his research.

Firewalker isn't a great or even particularly good episode, but it's definitely got its moments. It's one of those peculiar episodes that spends a great deal of time spinning its wheels while building to big moments. To the episode's credit, those moments are suitably spectacular, but that just leaves the episode as a whole as kind of a letdown. Still, its not bad, and maybe after the emotional roller coaster ride that was the last few episodes, maybe a bit of a comedown is necessary.

"What do you think the odds are it's going to jump out and start singing Hello My Baby?"
The aforementioned big moments all center around the fungus bursting from somebodies neck, and those moments are pretty awesome. Sure it's pretty transparently being pulled from the famous Chestburster sequence from Alien, but if you're going to steal, steal from the best. They're also usually well paced scenes on their own merits, with the final sequence where O'Neil handcuffs herself to Scully is definitely a standout, and Gillian Anderson sells her character's controlled panic (God it's good to have her back).

The problem is those moments are strung on a plot that isn't that interesting. The X-Files is incredibly fond of taking a small group of characters and trapping them with an unknown threat outside, and that's the basic setup here. But while episodes like Darkness Falls or Ice had a series of interpersonal conflicts to keep the moments between the monster rearing its head interesting. Firewalker doesn't really have that. Its characters are too thin and their relationships too vaguely sketched to have anything interesting going on between them.

Ironically the only character who gets something close to a fully realized character is the one who doesn't interact with any of the others in any real way until the third act, Trepkos. The other characters spend the entire episode talking about him, which might be why they're all so thin. Of course once Trepkos arrives, all he really does is drop a giant ball of exposition about what's going on, but those are the breaks.

This leads straight into another problem where we don't know what's going on until the episode is nearly over. We get vague hints about the fungus being silicon based, but up until the thing actually bursts out of Tanaka's throat, we have no idea what it's going to be, and from that point up until Trepkos gives Mulder the lecture, there's basically nothing. I think the episode might have benefited from trimming down some of the characters talking up Trepkos in order to weave that stuff more into the narrative, rather than waiting for Trepkos to show up to drop a huge exposition bomb.

"I recently converted to the religion of the God Emperor of Mankind, so I believe in solving all my problems with fire."
But that's minor stuff. I think that lack of character engagement might be the biggest problem. It means the episode lacks any real stakes. Mulder and Scully are rarely in any real peril, and by the time we've established what they might in danger from, the episode is nearly over. So the vast majority of the episode is hanging on the secondary characters who, as stated above, just aren't interesting enough to hang an episode on. Neither is the mystery of what's going, but that's barely even worth talking about.

It sounds like I'm really down on this episode, but I'm not, at least not totally. It's a well directed episode, mostly well acted, the effects look great and (I've said this before, but I'll say it again) it is damn, damn, DAMN good to have Scully back. I've not been giving this reviews grades, but if I did, Firewalker would probably be a C+, maybe leaning up to a B-. It's not great, but it's serviceable in a pinch. With a little better script, the cool effects used for the fungus deaths could have been in service of a much better episode.

Case Notes:
  • The cold opening is reasonably cool, but it gives us too much distance from the action for it to really land.
  • Trepkos is a dick to the reporter in the video Mulder and Scully watch for basically no reason. Conclusion: Trepkos is just a dick.
  • The scientist (Pierce? Is he an old racist dude who goes to Community College?) who brings Mulder and Scully in tells them that he thinks Trepkos might have gone crazy. That seems like the sort of thing that would be pertinent to bring up earlier.
  • And he wants to take a damage survey upon arriving, rather than look for the team. Are all the scientists on this project dicks?
  • I'm extremely curious as to why Mulder doesn't announce himself when he enters the lab. I guess so we could have the scene where Ludwig attacks him with the pickaxe.
  • Good job from the hair and makeup team making the the scientists look as messy and disheveled as possible.
  • Man, Pierce goes out really suddenly and without much in the way of reaction from the plot as whole. Even the team, who supposedly knew him pretty well, seem to react like "Oh well."
  • The idea that the fungus in this episode is Silicon based is floated early, but I'm not certain what it matters. Just as an excuse to make this more X-Files-ey?
  • Scully has only been back on the job a day, and she's still not taking any shit.
  • Hearing about how Trepkos thought his meds were polluting his brain and his girlfriend was polluting his body makes me think he was about 90 percent of the way to "Precious bodily fluids" levels. How come no one stepped in again?
  • Mulder listening to a recording that suggests that someone's desire to find the truth has eclipsed their ability to see it is so pointed I'm surprised Mulder didn't comment on it.
  • Okay, not gonna lie the effects used to create the fungus bursting through the guy's neck (before, during and after) are pretty effective and very creepy. Good concept writers, I approve.
  • Scully jumps on board the "Silicon based lifeform" train pretty fast.
  • Scully is pretty sure that the fungus becomes harmless unless inhaled immediately, but isn't that like, the opposite of how fungi usually work?
  • Good lord, Trepkos monologues a lot. Did they like Whitford so much they just decided to let him keep talking for the entire time he's on screen?
  • Trepkos acts like the fungi will wipe out humanity if he lets it leave. This isn't The Last of Us motherfucker, it becomes harmless pretty quick. Scully manages to thwart it with a fairly sturdy door.
  • Also good? The scene where O'Neil attacks Scully. Decently intense, solidly scary, probably the best scene in the episode.
  • Wait, if the entire group was infected at the same time, why did each of them have such wildly varying incubation periods? Or am I overthinking it?
  • So...the only thing Mulder and Scully accomplished by coming up here was getting Pierce killed, right? Like, everyone who was gonna die, died anyway?
Current Celebrity Watch:

Nothing here this time, but we hit the jackpot in the next column.

Future Celebrity Watch:

Well let's get the big one out of the way: Bradley Whitford, who plays Trepkos, will go on to a not unreasonably amount of fame 5 years from this episode's airing when he starts playing the White House Chief of Staff on The West Wing. He's actually pretty good here, which is good, because he's saddled with giving the huge exposition ball at the end of the episode. He puts enough effort into his lengthy monologue that it actually sounds like something a human would say. But that's not all: Leland Orser who plays Ludwig would go on to a fairly major role on ER as the Chief of Surgery (I've never seen it, but 61 episodes is major role, right?).

Also? Shawnee Smith who plays O'Neil went on to play Amanda in the Saw series (I never saw past the 3rd one, but she's a major character, right?) as well as playing Charlie Sheen's ex-wife on Anger Management, a show that somehow managed to wrack up 100 goddamn episodes in 2 seasons while no one was paying attention. She's also in a band with Missi Pyle, but seriously, 100 episodes in 2 seasons. And finally (I told you this was a big week for this section), the guy who plays the TV reporter in the opening scenes is David Kaye, a well known voice actor who's appeared in...well like 1,000 things, but a lot of Transformers stuff.

Audio Observations:

Nothing this week.

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