Friday, January 21, 2011

One Dull, One Terrifying, The X-Files Balances Out With "Conduit" And "Ice"

The Good: Character development, Tension in "Ice," Generally the acting
The Bad: "Conduit" is largely boring and predictable, "Ice" neglects character development in favor of mood.
The Basics: "Ice" is terrifying and tight, while "Conduit" is pretty much for science fiction lovers only, making for an erratic video.

Once in a while, I come to dread the simplicity of reviewing the old VHS tapes. With two episodes each, The X-Files videos sometimes paired tremendous episodes with complete lemons. "Conduit" and "Ice" is an example of one such pairing. "Ice" is a tense psychological horror with a creature of the week plot that is likely to keep most viewers guessing well into the last act, while "Conduit" is a somewhat standard alien abduction storyline with a very slight twist.

The X-Files had some truly great episodes and "Ice" might well be one of the first that truly knocked it out of the park. Following on a string of strangely similar corporate crime mystery episodes, "Ice" popped up to freak out viewers with a very straightforward frightening bottle episodes. Sadly, "Conduit" seems like one of those episodes that had a one line pitch and the writer struggled to make it into a full forty-three minute show.

In "Conduit," a young woman goes missing in Iowa while sleeping out under the stars next to her eight year-old brother. Her mother, who as a girl witnessed a UFO at the same lake her daughter disappeared from, is gratified when Mulder picks up the case and arrives to investigate. Scully is deeply skeptical about the abduction, more so when it appears that the girl is something of a wild child.

Soon, though, even Scully is doubting when the body of the girl's boyfriend is unearthed and Mulder discovers strange burns around the campsite the girl disappeared from. But none of it is as strange as her brother, who is writing ones and zeroes that he is receiving from television static, binary codes that are anything but random!

In "Ice," Scully and Mulder are sent up to the Arctic Circle to a scientific research outpost that is studying ice samples from deep in a crater. The members of the drilling team are all dead, having killed one another and the final two scientists taking their own lives while claiming "we are not who we are." The FBI agents arrive at the outpost with a geologist, two doctors and a pilot to try to determine what happened to the original expedition.

Soon, though, it becomes clear that the ice that the scientists were studying contained something living and possibly extraterrestrial. When a dog at the facility bites the pilot, it quickly becomes clear that the bite transferred something into him and when Mulder and Scully determine what it is, they struggle to maintain a quarantine to prevent it from being released upon the population at large!

Perhaps the only thing that works in "Conduit" is the character development. Viewers are reminded of the open case of Samantha Mulder, abducted while Fox Mulder was in the room with her. Mulder takes a tabloid journalism piece and turns it into and FBI case in part because he is still hunting his sister. "Conduit" does an excellent job of presenting Mulder as a man so lost in his own grief and sense of self-absorption over the loss of his sister that he will follow any clue to try to discover what really happened to her. This is played out and played up in "Conduit," with Mulder using every possible opportunity to mourn the disappearance of his sister again.

Conversely - and ironically given the overall quality of the episode - "Ice" is a plot-driven episode that does not include much in the way of character development at all. Instead, Mulder and Scully are turned against one another when one of the members of the team is murdered, leading the audience to legitimately wonder who in the group killed their fellow and what, exactly, it is that possessed the scientists. "Ice" does not belabor its decisions or cause the characters to question why they are doing anything; they are afraid for their lives and one person is contaminated with something that might drive him to kill!

The performances in "Ice" are very tight. In addition to wonderful performances by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson - who finally seem to be in their groove as Mulder and Scully - the episode features an appearance by Felicity Huffman. Long before she got work on Sports Night (reviewed here!) or Desperate Housewives, Huffman appeared on an episode of The X-Files and she gives such a strong performance as one of the doctors sent to investigate the outpost that one is forced to wonder if she auditioned for the role of Scully originally. Character actor Jeff Kober makes a similarly distinctive appearance as Bear, the pilot.

Just as everyone seems to bring their a-game to "Ice," they seem to let "Conduit" flow with little or no enthusiasm for the script. Gillian Anderson presents her usual lines of disbelief in the phenomenal with a surprising amount of boredom and detachment, as if she's beginning to wonder why Scully isn't opening up to extreme possibilities yet. None of the guest actors make much of an impression either in "Conduit."

This is not to say that "Conduit" is a complete wash; the episode is fairly clever in that it has a neat gimmick/concept. The boy appears to be a conduit and how that manifests is that he sits in front of his television writing binary codes that turn out to be snippets of music or famous images or defense department transmissions. It's a cool concept, but it doesn't go anywhere. By the end of the episode there is no greater sense of what the boy is than when the gimmick is first introduced and that tends to make the viewer feel like a tool as opposed to entertained.

The result is a wildly uneven viewing experience. On the plus side, like all of The X-Files videos, there are bonus features! Long before DVD, Fox Video decided to add some value to the VHS releases of The X-Files by including snippets of an interview with Chris Carter, the creator of the show, wherein he discusses the episodes. This is a decent little bonus and his thoughts on both episodes are interesting enough, but will likely just be appreciate by the fans.

Ultimately, I recommend this video because "Ice" is just that good and "Conduit" is not the worst hour of television by any means. But largely this will be enjoyed by fans of science fiction and horror more than general aficionados of drama in general.

[Given that VHS is a rapidly dying medium, a far better investment would be The X-Files - The Complete First Season, reviewed here!
As well, those who already love The X-Files will find The X-Files - The Complete Series to be an even better buy! That’s reviewed here!
Thanks for reading!]

“Conduit” – 4/10
“Ice” – 8/10
VHS - 6/10

For other television show reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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