The X-Files: “Ice”

Trust Someone

by Sarah Stegall

copyright 1995 Sarah Stegall

Writers: Glen Morgan and James Wong

Since its first broadcast in the fall of 1993, “Ice” has been one of the more intriguing and troublesome of “The X-Files” episodes. At once obviously derivative and fiendishly original, its real focus is on the relationship between Scully and Mulder, as mirrored in the relationship between the scientific team of Dr. Hodge and Dr. DaSilva (Xander Berkely and Felicity Huffman). The catch phrase from this episode, “We are not who we are”, has echoed down the seasons with an increasing resonance as we encountered the strangers-behind-the-masks in “Shapeshifter”, “Irresistible“, and “Colony/Endgame“. Issues of trust and faith are central to “The X-Files”, and never more so than in this early and revealing episode.

When it first aired, “Ice” was part of a younger, considerably less sure-of-itself show. Except for the seminal “Conduit”, viewers had had little insight into the characters of Mulder and Scully, and even less into their personal relationship. The first time I saw it, I was disappointed with the imitative plot, but the texture and richness of the characterizations gave it a depth unusual in television prime time.

By now, virtually everyone is aware that “Ice” borrows heavily from John W. Campbell’s Cold-War era classic short story, “Who Goes There?”, which was subsequently made into two movies, both called “The Thing”. With minor variations, the story is the same: an alien menace frozen in the polar ice for thousands, perhaps millions of years, is accidentally uncovered by a research team. The organism invades its host, turning the victim into a stealth killer while retaining the outward human form. It becomes impossible to tell who is friend and who is foe, even by reliance on that oldest of human skills, intuitive understanding of another human being. The puzzle becomes a race against time to flush the alien killer from hiding before all the humans are killed off one at a time. Granted that it is a familiar story, there is an artful subtext here that transcends the contrivance.

From the riveting opening sequences, where a fight to the death becomes a mutual suicide pact between two desperate men, this is a very tight story of paranoia and trust. We have seldom seen so claustrophobic a setting in which to work out the dynamics of a relationship. For Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, this is the first real crisis testing their professional and personal relationship. Kudos to Glen Morgan and Jim Wong (may their shadows never grow less) for a subtler script than would appear on the surface. Two absolutely legendary scenes in this episode define the X- Files team’s alliance and their interdependence better than anything else in the first season shows.

The first scene, where Dana Scully and Fox Mulder are caught up in the paranoia of the situation, has them actually holding guns on one another. In most professional law enforcement relationships, this would be the end of this partnership. Few law enforcement agents could ever again work with a partner who had aimed a loaded weapon at them. In this excruciatingly intense scene, anger, fear, and something deeper than mere disappointment wash across David Duchovny’s face to show us the struggle taking place within Fox Mulder. At last we see him really giving way to an emotion connected with his partner. Significantly, it is Agent “Trust No One” Mulder who lowers his weapon first. After those first few moments, he never again believes Dana Scully is infected by the alien organism, although clearly she believes he is. For such an innately suspicious man, it is a remarkable act of faith. In the same scene, Gillian Anderson gives us a highly emotional Agent Scully, struggling courageously to maintain her calm and her reason in the face of overwhelming fear. Remember, Mulder is supposed to have had several years of confronting the highly unusual and the downright spooky: Dana Scully is still getting used to the idea that this is not all some weird practical joke of Mulder’s. When the mortal danger of her situation finally sinks home, her normal cool facade falls away. We see her true qualities begin to shine through: courage, determination, her trust of science, and most of all a commitment to justice. She will not, for example, make Mulder an involuntary guinea pig if there is some other way. At risk to herself, she goes in alone to his holding cell to try to reason with him.

The scene between Mulder and Scully in the holding cell is incandescent. Scully’s barely masked terror, Mulder’s anger at and absolute trust in her, are two of the high points not of the scene or even the episode, but of the series. This is a crucial moment in the character’s lives, when they will lose or re-establish the trust that binds them as investigators and as friends. I remember that on my initial viewing, I was astounded at the depth Anderson and Duchovny achieved with so few lines, such a short scene. If I had not been an admirer of the show until then, I would have been afterwards. Their mutual physical examination radiated a repressed sensuality that spoke of the unacknowledged attraction between the two, while witnessing a fundamental trust that words could not have accomplished. It was a superb combination of writing and acting, the first indication (to me) that this show had extraordinary staying power.

Interestingly, it is the team which does not question one another, Dr. Hodge and Dr. DaSilva, which is flawed at the heart. From the outset these two present a united front against the government agents they distrust, yet as the crisis deepens their fragile alliance, built on cynicism and a shared enemy, begins to fragment. Yet until the very last, Hodge is willing to trust Dr. DaSilva more than anyone else. His basic mistake is that his allegiance is based on the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend; Mulder and Scully’s partnership is based on faith in one another. Like mirror twins, each pair reverses the image of the other.

I think of the scene when, after re-establishing their belief in one another, Mulder and Scully stand in the doorway of the holding cell, clearly a team, clearly together again as partners and friends. Like paired electrons, Scully and Mulder spin in opposite directions yet are tightly bound in their mutual (if eccentric) orbit around their search for truth. It takes enormous energy to pull them apart, and the result is likely to generate both heat and light.

If it had had a more original script, this would have earned five sunflower seeds out of five. As it is, the mounting tension, taut writing, excellent characterisations, and outstanding acting earn it four sunflower seeds out of five. I think this one is destined to be a classic.