The X-Files: “Dod Kalm”

Grow Old Along With Me

by Sarah Stegall

Copyright 1995 by Sarah Stegall

The language of television is unique. It is only tangentially related to the language of literature, and even less so to the language of science. Thus to critique “The X- Files” on the basis of “scientific inaccuracies” is a little like blaming a violin for not being a Ferrari. The appropriate forum for its critique is not science but art, and commercial art at that. Although “The X-Files ” transcends its genre an astonishing amount of the time, frankly we are lucky when it only hits the middle ground between brain fodder and aesthetic delight. “Dod Kalm” hits this middle ground squarely. It uses the visual language of film–the shadow on the wall, the murky darkness of the abandoned hold, the colors of corrosion and decay–to tell what is, alas, a muddled and confused story. It falls short because it does not aim high enough.

The rescue of a lifeboat full of young US Navy sailors suddenly aged beyond their years draws Mulder and Scully into an investigation of a spot in the North Atlantic off Norway famed for mysterious disappearances. In Norway, the only skipper who will take them to find the missing USS Ardent is an American-born fisherman named Trondheim (John Savage). Having found the missing ship by the simple yet effective expedient of crashing into it in the fog, Mulder and Scully, plus the skipper and first mate, climb aboard. There they find the crew not only dead of old age but mummified as well. We quickly discover that this “ghost ship” in fact harbors several survivors, some of whom steal Trondheim’s trawler. This strands everyone aboard the rusting hulk of the Ardent with a murderous pirate, a mysteriously aged captain, and a menace that attacks their very cells.

It is Scully who does most of the problem-solving in this episode. While Mulder ponders bizarre military experiments and mythology, Scully looks for explanations in chemistry and oceanography. She sets up a lab (no doubt cannibalizing the ship’s sickbay equipment) and begins researching possible causes for the crew’s sudden deterioration. Her work takes on new urgency once it becomes plain that whatever killed the crew is now affecting them.

At which point in this intriguing tale I was violently thrown out of the story by the single *worst* makeup job I have ever seen onscreen. Usually a poor makeup job or special effect would not be worth commenting on, but in this case the makeup effects were central to the story line and could not be overlooked. I spent far too much time trying to figure out what the makeup was supposed to be telling me: they were diseased? aged? dehydrated? A special effect which shouts for attention, good or bad, is out of proportion and should be cut back. For example, a man as lean as David Duchovny will become thinner with age, with his ears and nose becoming more prominent as the fat beneath the skin fades away. Duchovny at 80 may have jowls and wrinkles, but his face will not be *thicker*. It is a testament to Duchovny’s skills that despite the handicap of a concrete mask we could still see the twinkle in Mulder’s eye and the humor in his soul. Gillian Anderson fared a little better: she looked faded and worn and dried out. Her movements in particular had the stiffness of old age. She came across as a tough, no-nonsense old lady still sharp enough to solve the mystery and still tender enough to sacrifice herself for Mulder.

John Savage’s Trondheim was particularly good. My sympathies were with him from the beginning, drawn into a danger he didn’t sign on for, suddenly stranded by the theft of his boat, and shocked by the murder of his first mate. His emotions at the burial-at-sea were touching and real. It’s hard to take a character from being the “good guy” to the villain of a piece without resorting to cliche or contrivance, yet Savage showed us a very human, very believable man being stripped down through layers of anger and fear to the bare bones of desperation. His final acts of betrayal are all the more painful because we understand how he got there: there is a very real sense of “there but for the grace of God…” The final irony of his death, drowned while hoarding the last of the safe water, was a little heavy-handed but was still poetic justice. I would rank John Savage as one of the top guest stars to grace “The X-Files” this season.

Trondheim dies alone and unmourned because he lost faith in his fellow man. Scully and Mulder face the unknown dangers before them together, each relying on the strengths of the other. When Mulder wakes Scully for her turn standing watch, their exchange is brief but significant. “Would you like a few more minutes, Scully?” Mulder asks. Behind that simple phrase, and the intonation Duchovny put in Mulder’s voice, I suddenly felt the long nights on stakeout together, the hours of research and argument they have shared, the constant companionship of their office, their work, their lives. They sounded like an old married couple, like a team that knows one another as closely as the fingers of one hand. The scene between Mulder and Scully, where he tries to convince her to drink the remaining water, gives us further insight into Dana Scully. For a moment you can see the wheels turning, as she almost accepts Mulder’s offer. She knows, as we do, that she is choosing life at Mulder’s expense, albeit with his blessing. By refusing the water, psychologically she refuses life without Mulder.

But for sheer poignancy, nothing this season, not even “One Breath“, matches the last scene on shipboard: Mulder’s last words, “I’m so tired” (the first admission of weakness from Fox Mulder in a long, long time), Scully’s gentle touch on his face, her vigil at his side long after he has passed beyond her help, her final bleak acceptance of Ragnarok (for death *is* the end of the world for the one who is dying)–and that riveting final image, when the rescuers find them side by side, head to head where they lay down to die together, were as powerful and affecting as anything I have ever seen on this series. Those few minutes made up for the confused plot line and the cheesy makeup. Since this is a weekly melodrama, we cannot kill off our heroes, so there is a last-minute Deus-ex- machina rescue, but it doesn’t really detract from the power of that final image.

This script had many problems, including a muddled blend of attempts to “solve” the mystery, each less satisfying than the last. Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa wrote four of last season’s episodes, including the widely praised “Fallen Angel” and the universally despised “Ghost in the Machine”. This script reflects that imbalance, teetering back and forth between the eerie and the mundane. Of course the basic plot was derivative of “Star Trek” and other shows–there is not much originality in television and we cannot expect miracles every week. Still, we may expect that, like “Ice”, a well- worn idea may be given an abrupt twist or some spin we do not anticipate. Unfortunately, Gordon and Gansa threw out more red herrings than a Norwegian trawler and still left us empty- handed at the end. I was more satisfied with Scully’s “giant sea battery” explanation than the tainted-water idea. If not very scientific, it had the charm of poetry and the Grand Image about it. For sheer size, it was the best idea floated Friday night.

But the superb art direction and top notch acting salvaged much of the show. I will never forget the silent lifeboat full of unmoving survivors, the ghost ship drifting through the fog, the bleeding hull, or the gracefully floating corpse of John Trondheim. Art Director Graeme Murray, Director Rob Bowman, and the cast saved this episode from complete failure. Once again, Mark Snow’s cold-steel score (which sounded amazingly similar to the music for the game “Myst”) added both menace and beauty to the production.

I think as time goes on, this episode will grow on the audience. Despite major flaws, it had redeeming features. We had the language for a beautiful story here: the “Flying Dutchman” meets the “Bermuda Triangle”, the image of the deathship, the silent menace working in our heroes’ own bodies at a feverish pace. What we did NOT have here was a workable story. To beautifully execute a flawed program is still to fail.

With a more tightly plotted script and better makeup effects, “Dod Kalm” could have been a top rated episode. I’ll give it four sunflower seeds out of five, for the superb artwork, acting, and editing.