Bottle Up and Explode

Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"We're not who we are. We're not who we are."-Mr. Campbell (Sonny Surowiec)

An inherent advantage to the bottle episode format is the tension added by the claustrophobic surroundings and the fact that, for whatever reason, the characters cannot leave the place the episode is set. At some point I'm sure we will discuss how this can become a contrivance and a disadvantage to a bottle episode, but when handled correctly, that claustrophobic feeling can make for a very tense episode of television, which is what The X-Files tended to aim for in its heyday. The show is so iconic at this point and so influential to what has come since (the subject of the next installment of this column, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is just one show that almost certainly wouldn't exist without this show as a forebear) that it is strange to think of how simple and minimalistic the set up is compared to other shows.

The X-Files only has two cast members, which is all it needs. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) wants to believe in the paranormal and has a disappeared sister that explains his deep need for there to be more than meets the eye to the world around him. His partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is a die-hard skeptic who refuses to believe in anything that can't be definitively proven. Together, they are assigned to examine FBI's caseload of unexplained phenomena. It's a simple premise, yet one with almost boundless potential. "Ice" is the show's eighth episode and perhaps the first excellent episode the show turned out. Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by David Nutter, "Ice" is an episode that showed the potential of the series to do inventive, clever episodes that were also really scary.

That being said, "Ice" is far from original. The show acknowledges this fact in a deeply unsettling cold open in which a bleeding man named Campbell tries to send a message to the world from a remote arctic station in Alaska before being viciously attacked by Richter. The two fight before pausing, looking at each other desperately, and turning their guns on themselves. The name Campbell is a reference to John W. Campbell Jr. the sci-fi writer whose short story Who Goes There? Has been made into two pretty excellent films: The Thing From Another World and its John Carpenter directed remake The Thing. Richter is a reference to W.D. Richter who wrote the screenplay for the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

With tribute paid to the source material it borrows heavily from, "Ice" proceeds to tell a deeply unsettling story about a remote, freezing outpost and the people isolated there with a force that can possess them and turn them against each other. As I stated earlier, The X-Files­ only has two cast members, and so even in a bottle episode it was essential to populate the world with a few guest stars, if only so the body count can be ratcheted up. This episode could not have a better guest cast, with Xander Berkeley of 24 fame, Felicity Huffman, and Steve Hytner (who Seinfeld fans will recognize as Kenny Bania) as the scientists accompanying Mulder and Scully and Jeff Kober (who plays two incredibly creepy characters on Buffy, a psychotic vampire and a mystical drug dealer) as the pilot who flies them all up to the arctic outpost they must investigate. It seems the entire drilling crew stationed at the outpost died violently, and so the group must investigate what happened to turn this very successful scientific drilling mission into a bloodbath.

Just like in The Thing, the trouble all starts for our heroes with a dog, who attacks Kober and bites him. A cursory examination of the dog reveals some creepy black spots, and something crawling under its skin. This is soon revealed to be a parasite that feeds on the hormones secreted during violent aggressive behavior and thus causes its host to become insanely violent in the process. The pilot is obviously infected and soon dies from exposure to the parasite. What is less obvious is whether anyone else is infected, and when another member of the group winds up dead, it's clear someone else is carrying the parasite.

The most obvious symptoms of the parasite are irritability and hostility, which are exactly the emotions everyone locked away together with a potential alien parasite would feel. The pilot is dead and a snowstorm means rescue isn't coming anytime soon. Even if it could, it is quickly pointed out that if someone is infected, the parasite could spread to the general population, infecting a metropolis within days and heralding the end of the world.

This is pretty much the perfect set up for an edge of your seat hour of television and the stellar cast plays the understandable paranoia perfectly, perhaps none better than Duchovny and Anderson, who already have great chemistry as Mulder and Scully. It is clear that the two already deeply respect one another and want to trust their new partner, which makes it all the more suspenseful when they are forced to distrust each other. The episode's arc, if it has one, is the journey of these two from trust into paranoia and slowly back toward being able to trust one another.

The episode uses its constraints to the show's advantage, making great use of the small outpost and all of its nooks and crannies. The shadows and the off-screen spaces in the episode are used to increase the feelings of claustrophobia that already pervades the episode, and the worm-like parasite is just as creepy and gross as it needs to be to carry the episode's horror vibe. Unlike the other two episodes we have covered for this column so far, "Ice" came about out of budgetary necessity, the most frequent reason for a bottle episode. After spending a lot on effects and location shooting for the show's first several episodes, it was necessary to do a low cost hour to keep things chugging along. Unfortunately, "Ice" still managed to go over budget, probably due to the fight scene in the cold open and the computer effect that generates the parasite (this episode was filmed in 1993, when CGI was still terrible and very expensive).

However, cost-effective or not, "Ice" is a great episode of television. It utilizes the cramped space to add to the tension its paranoid plotline already generates, and it gives us some solid steps in the development of the show's central (and only) relationship. If The X-Files was going to survive (and considering it was airing on Friday nights, it is doubtful that Fox had much faith in that this early in the run), it needed to have a compelling relationship built between Mulder and Scully. That this episode manages to test the boundaries of that relationship so well while also telling a story this intense and gripping is a testament to the skill of the people behind this show.

The episode ends with Mulder hoping to return to the site to do more research into the parasite, which he believes to be an alien life form trapped in the ice for millions of years. Scully, on the other hand, has found the limits of her scientific curiosity, and begs him to just "leave it there" in the ice. This debate all comes to naught though, as the shady government that populates the world of this show has already torched the outpost to keep all evidence of the parasite from seeing the light of day. No real progress has been made, and a few lives have been lost. Yet what matters most as the credits roll is the fear we have seen in Scully, and the trust that she and Mulder have developed for one another. That trust will probably get them through some very tough situations in the years to come, and not all of them will be as cramped and claustrophobic as this one.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

10/23: "Older and Far Away," Buffy the Vampire Slayer

11/6: "17 People," The West Wing

11/20: "A Night In," Porridge

12/4:"The One Where No One's Ready," Friends

Tags: The X-Files
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