Thursday, January 12, 2017

Case 02, FIle 19: Dod Kalm

AKA: No, No, No, Benjamin Button Goes The OTHER Way

Alright, first review of 2017. Let's do this.

The X-Files is a show of ideas. Some of them are big ideas, some of them are small ideas, but what's always set it apart from other shows is how weird and unique some of the concepts they came up with were. But that uniqueness can be a double edged sword; In order to find cool and interesting new concepts, The X-Files had to experiment. And, well, some experiments fail.

Dod Kalm (I am not digging out my international keyboard program for one letter, so deal with it) opens with a Navy Ship being abandoned by a bunch of strapping young sailors, but when they're found less than a day later, they've all aged into old men. Mulder decides that he's going to investigate this, but the army is blocking her and Scully from looking into it, leading Mulder to think that it's related to the Philadelphia Project.

Mulder decides that jurisdiction is for suckers and heads off to Norway to track down the ship, but find that everyone there is too afraid to take them out, aside from one conveniently American captain named Trondheim. When they get out there, they find the ship in an advanced state of decrepitude, and the dead crew almost mummified and the Captain of the vessel alive, but barely and incredibly aged for a dude who's supposedly 35. Oh and some mysterious figures steal their boat and leave our cast marooned there.

Mulder and Scully discover that the ship had a group whalers on board (they were the ones who stole the boat) and the now-marooned whaler Captain (who mysteriously hasn't aged) kills Trondheim's first mate before getting captured. But when Mulder and Scully wake up, they discover they've aged a lot overnight. After some investigation and debate, Mulder and Scully discover that the cause is something contaminating the ship's water supply, while Trondheim is told the same thing by the Whaler captain, who also tells him the only way to survive is by drinking the ship's sewage water (ew) which gets constantly filtered.

"I won't stay here and get eaten by the glowing bugs!"
"Wrong episode!"
This leads to our major conflict: There's only so much water, and Mulder is aging quickly, so Trondheim wants to let him die, but Scully won't hear of it. So Trondheim, being the sensible sort, locks himself in with the water, which ironically means he's trapped in there when the ships hull ruptures and drowns. Things look grim for our heroes, but the Navy arrives in the nick of time to save them, even though the boat sinks soon after, leaving Scully without any answers as to how it happened.

There's a lot of problems with this episode, but they all come back to the central one; The central conceit is mind bogglingly lame. Trapping the cast in a closed off location and giving them an outside and unknown peril isn't a bad plot structure to use (indeed, both Ice and Darkness Falls use it to great effect) but they have a tangible threat, with real, well established internal conflicts tearing the trapped group apart. Making rapid aging the peril sucks all the tension out of the episode, and leaves it adrift...hey, like the boat.

"Aw...I thought when they said the ship bleeds, something cool was gonna happen."
Part of the problem is that aging isn't a very punchy threat. I can see it working in concept, but in practice it just winds up being a generic ticking clock with no visual component. Yeah, Mulder and Scully are visibly aging, but once they get to a certain point, any age added on there is just more of the same, and what little tension there is just sort of melts out the door. It doesn't help that the method they come up with to stave off the aging is pretty dull.

Of course, with an episode based around premature aging, comes old age makeup, and here's where we encounter another one of our problems: Old age makeup is extremely hard to do right, and if you do it wrong, it looks like garbage, and given that X-Files episodes are produced on a mediocre budget in a limited timeframe...well let's just say the odds of doing it right are low. Scully's looks acceptable, not great, but decent enough. Mulder on the other hand looks completely terrible, easily one of the least convincing old age makeups I've seen, and it's so much more prominent than Scully's, it winds up sinking huge chunks of the episode.

"Help! I'm about to be the victim of a lost writer looking for third act tension!"
Without much in the way of a plot, all the script and actors can do is wander around looking for a purpose. The last minute damage to the hull is briefly set up (they mention that the ship has severe rust), but forgotten under the bigger plot and thus Trondheim suddenly drowning feels sudden, like they wanted to punish him for betraying our heroes. Perhaps if that was better established, it wouldn't feel like it comes out of nowhere to raise the stakes.

It's not that there isn't any good in it: I think both Mulder and Scully do some good acting (although I'd like to know who told Duchovny that he should express old age as constantly shaking his head) and the finale monologue from Scully is actually quite moving, and in need of a better episode, it just doesn't have anywhere to go. I'm not saying that every episode has to be a thrill a minute roller coaster ride, but even the most sedate episode needs something to grab you, something to care about (One Breath is really excellent at this) and Dod Kalm just doesn't have anything to engage you.

Case Notes:
  • The cold open for this episode reminds me of the one from Darkness Falls, in that it's working very hard to keep any of the characters from talking about what's going in anything but incredibly vague terms.
  • Mulder's version of asking Scully for her help looking at the sole survivor is to just hand her her clearance and tell her to meet him later.
  • The explanations Mulder floats for why Lieutenant Harper has aged suddenly are much more interesting than what it turns out to have been.
  • I suppose I should mention that it is extremely not the FBI's job to track down missing Navy ships.
  • Of course the one Captain they find willing to take them where they want to go is American. Saves you from having to find an actor who can do a convincing Norwegian accent.
  • I remember the (incredibly lame) explanation for why people are rapidly aging in this area, but I don't recall if they ever explain what was fucking with the radar.
  • The old age makeup may be crap, but the corpse effects are definitively not.
  • The episode doesn't have a lot in the way of plot or action, so it's about 80 percent dialogue from the 15 minute mark onward.
  • I had 100 percent forgotten the whaler was in this episode, which is bad because he's pretty pivotal.
  • Incidentally, the pirate whaler is entirely unhelpful, when it's actually in his best interest to be helpful. How does he expect to get off the ship if he kills everyone?
  • I'll give it this, the ship set looks pretty good.
  • When you boil it down, the way that Mulder and Scully figure out to save themselves is drinking from the toilet. Gross.
  • I'm not convinced this episode is a lost cause, but it needs stuff to actually, you know, happen in order to be engaging. There is painfully little event in this episode after they get on the ship.
  • If you want to know how little event there is in this episode, you should be aware that a supposedly tense scene revolves around Scully carefully pouring the liquid from a sardine can into a jar.
  • All the work Scully went to collecting the garbage sources of water came to naught. It's more than a little sad actually.
  • Trondheim dies with so little fanfare that I felt that he probably lived in an early draft of the ship, or perhaps more to the point, the writers probably just left him locked in there and forgot about him.
  • The closest this episode comes to real emotional moment is Scully talking about her experiences in One Breath and monologuing about the Norse version of the end of the world. Making this episode more like a tragedy and less like a lame horror flick might have worked better.
  • Mulder and Scully were curled up together when the Navy found them. Awww.
  • As is appropriate for an episode about dying of old age, this episode just kind of drifts off.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Our friend Trondheim is played by John Savage, whose best known role is probably Corporal Pushkov in The Deer Hunter. He also had a minor role on the James Cameron headed show Dark Angel which is...not a good show, it does not hold up, even a little bit. And if you think I'm stretching the definition of Celebrity, wait'll the next column

Future Celebrity Watch:

Vladimir Kulich, who played the Whaler Captain, would go on to have minor roles in Angel, Ulfric Stormcloak in Skyrim and, perhaps dearest to my heart, Buliwyf in The 13th Warrior. Incidentally, The 13th Warrior is, by most definitions, a terrible movie, but it's one I kind of unironically dig anyway.

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