Sunday, December 08, 2013
In “Trash,” Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the crew of Serenity cross paths once more with treacherous Saffron (Christina Hendricks), the duplicitous criminal who nearly conned them into a pirate’s space trap some time earlier (“Our Mrs. Reynolds.”)
In exchange for rescue from a dead moon, Saffron offers to share with the Firefly’s crew the treasure from the heist of a life-time, or “the perfect crime.” In particular, Saffron claims to know the exact location and security codes of the Lassiter, the first laser gun, and thus a valuable antique. The ancient gun now is on display in a private collector’s home on the planet Bellerophon, one of the central planets. If Mal and the others can steal the Lassiter, it will fetch a high price on the black market.
Malcolm and his team plan the caper -- which involves disguises, a futuristic gated community of sorts, and an automated drone garbage system -- but everyone is nervous about working with Saffron, a criminal know that they will double-cross them without thought…
Like “Ariel,” “Trash” is a great Firefly (2002) caper story, but one made even better by the presence of Christina Hendricks’ Saffron -- “a brilliant, evil double-crossing snake” in Mal’s words -- as an uncertain ally.
As the end of the episode reveals, everyone is playing everyone else in “Trash,” and so the episode is a con within a con within a con. The twists and turns are brilliantly orchestrated, especially when Saffron lives up to form.
Structurally, “Trash” is intriguing because it opens after the caper’s end, with Mal sitting naked on a rock in the arid desert. He says “Yep, that went well,” and the suggestion is pretty clearly that he’s been had or tricked again; that he’s failed.
As the remainder of the episode leads up to this denouement, however, we start to see that our assumptions about Mal’s presence there (and his tone…) are not correct. On the contrary, he is undeterred and un-phased about being stripped of his clothes. And for once, “the job” actually did go well.
The most delightful revelation in the course of “Trash” is that Inara (Morena Baccarin) -- who has been vocally upset with Mal and the plan involving Saffron -- is actually in on the secret, and is present at the end to procure the Lassiter. It’s nice to see Inara so expertly playing her role in an under-handed crime plan.
I wrote some about Saffron (and Hendricks) in “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” but she is the most charismatic -- in my opinion -- of all Firefly’s villains for the mere fact that she is such a talented chameleon. She changes approaches or strategy depending on who she is in the room with, and seems to make that shift as easily as she breathes. Here, Saffron is able to trick Mal again, by once more showing a vulnerable side. He knew that moment would come and planned for it, but the fact is that Saffron again gets the better of Mal. This makes Mal either an easy mark, or Saffron a positively exceptional con-artist. Whatever the truth, the moments Mal and Saffron share are wonderful, tense, and charged with sexual tension.
I would have loved to see a second season of Firefly for many reasons, but not the least of which is the return of Saffron. It would have been great to see her return one more time, or even join the crew for a time. Could you imagine a ship with both Jayne and Saffron among the crew?
In “Trash,” we do learn some more about Saffron’s background, but these facts don’t fully illuminate her, or make her transparent. We learn that she is the mark’s wife, and that he has been searching for her for six years. He calls her “Yolanda,” but Saffron also goes by the named Bridgette. Thus there’s the sense in”Trash” that we may know one chapter of Saffron’s life, but not necessarily the most important one, or the truth of things. We also learn that Saffron ran off with an associate of her husband, and that the associate mysteriously died soon after. Saffron claims she didn’t kill him, but the problem is that we simply can’t trust a single word that she says.
If Saffron gets her comeuppance in “Trash,” then Jayne (Adam Baldwin) gets his as well. Thanks to River (Summer Glau), Simon (Sean Maher) learns the truth of what happened on Ariel, and gets Jayne on his medical bay…where he can threaten him with bodily harm. Showcasing his essential decency, however, Simon never harms Jayne. Instead, he shows simply and effectively that he is -- and always will be -- better than Jayne. He shames him, and Jayne, for all his flaws, is still susceptible to being shamed.
Next week: “The Message.”
Saturday, December 07, 2013
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Trail to the Unknown" (October 18, 1975)
In “Trail to the Unknown,” Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) at last begins to explore many of its long-gestating plot-lines.
The episode continues the story of the World War II plane stolen by the human astronauts, but it also connects Bill, Judy and Jeff with Ron Brent, the astronaut from 2109 who landed on the planet of the apes years two decades before they did.
Here, we meet the older Brent and see his wrecked spaceship in the desert. Unlike Bill, Judy and Jeff, however, he has never tangled with the apes. Instead, Brent has built a life for himself, of sorts, in the arid Forbidden Zone for twenty years. From this point forward, however, Brent is a series regular, and helps the other astronauts protect the primitive humanoids.
In “Trail to the Unknown,” Bill, Judy and Jeff move the endangered humanoids to “New Valley” in an attempt to escape Urko’s patrols. Urko is still in search of the warplane the astronauts stole in “Screaming Wings," and will stop at nothing to re-acquire it.
The astronauts come across Brent in the Forbidden Zone, and he leads them to a spot in the valley where the astronauts can, using their recovered laser drill, build a pueblo for the primitive humans.
I don’t know if cancellation was in the air at this point and so there was a push to start resolving plot lines, but the creators of Return to the Planet of the Apes demonstrate in "Trail to the Unknown" their willingness to move beyond the status quo that dominated early episodes. In recent programs, for instance, we have seen the Under Dwellers become allies with the astronauts, the return of Judy, and the coup attempt by Urko (and Zaius’s response). Here we meet Brent, a character hasn’t been mentioned since the very first episode of the series.
What’s nice about this is that the overall narrative finally has some momentum, and the series seems to be regrouping and heading in a fresh direction. By episode’s end, the astronauts -- now teamed with Brent--have built a defensible home for the humanoids. They also use the plane to destroy a land bridge, preventing Urko from bringing in his heavy artillery.
Overall, “Trail to the Unknown” is an impressive episode of the series, and one that shows real growth in terms of the overall narrative.
Next Week: “Attack from the Clouds.”
In “Mind Games,” Shung (Tom Allard) becomes obsessed with Christa (Shannon Day), and uses his crystal blade and a stolen “peace” pendant to control her mind.
This mind-control comes at an unfortunate time, however, as Annie Porter (Jenny Drugan) is spending time with Christa, learning to survive in the jungle and use a bow-and-arrow.
The Porters rally to save Christa, even as Shung takes control of her mind…
“Mind Games” is another fun, though not inspired, episode of the 1990s Land of the Lost. Annie, Tasha and Christa have a sleep-over while the “boys” re-shingle the tree-house roof, and once more Shung makes trouble.
For some reason, this week Shung is obsessed with Christa -- though I can’t blame him -- and sets about making her his slave. Christa struggles to break free of his influence, even as he tells her “I own you…I am your master now!”
Why does Shung care, one might ask. Good question.
The episode also concerns Annie’s training to survive in the land of the lost, which is a good idea given the circumstances. She could end up like Holly or Christa -- alone in a hostile world -- and so it makes sense that she should be trained in using a bow and arrow. The only sexist thing about this plot-line is that no one suggests Kevin learn to take care of himself in the same way. It’s just assumed that he is capable of doing so.
Two other moments stand out in “Mind Games.”
In the first, Christa swings on a vine and performs a spot-on Tarzan yell. She swoops in to save Stink quite adroitly, but the yell -- and the vine -- represent clear Tarzan allusions. The reference fits since Christa is a human child raised alone in the wild.
Secondly, the end of the episode finds Mr. Porter playing a 1990s hand-held video game unit.
This toy represents yet another modern luxury in this iteration of the Land of the Lost. The Marshalls had virtually no such modern items in the 1970s version of the show, but the Porters have a boom-box, a video game console, a car, a video camera and more.
This wealth of conveniences makes the new show seem more like an extended camping trip than a legitimate stranding in another pocket universe. I just hope, at some point, the series acknowledges that the car will run out of gas, and the video camera and video game unit will run out of battery power…
Next week: “Flight to Freedom.”
Friday, December 06, 2013
I still vividly recall the summer of 1984, and the reviews and chatter about Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. In particular, there was much talk about how on earth George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could possibly “one-up” their previous cinematic blockbusters.
This was actually a popular parlor game of the age. First came Jaws (1975), then Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters (1977), then Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Between them, Spielberg and Lucas were responsible for the most successful and beloved genre pictures of the age, and they seemed to keep upping the ante in terms of action, special-effects, and sheer spectacle each time at bat.
Next out of the gate came….Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)....
To this day, both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas relentlessly talk the picture down.
It was “too dark,” they insist.
Or it was a silver-screen reflection of their personal troubles and bad mood at the time. Lucas was undergoing a bitter divorce, for example.
Spielberg even calls Temple of Doom his “least favorite” Indiana Jones film.
However, Spielberg and Lucas aren’t alone in their condemnation of the film. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has also been termed racist, culturally inaccurate, a wrong-headed defense of colonialism, anti-woman, and even compared to “child abuse” in term of its impact on young eyes. It is one of the films, along with Gremlins (1984) that caused the M.P.A.A. to develop the PG-13 rating, after all.
And one mustn’t forget, either, that some movie reviewers were certainly out there looking for Lucas or Spielberg -- or two for the price of one -- to stumble and fall from their perch as princes of Hollywood.
All the critical arguments against Temple of Doom are debatable, of course, but all the intense and varied criticism of the film tends to obscure the fact that this 1984 film stands as the finest and most creative of the Raiders of the Lost Ark follow-ups. Temple of Doom is a film that thrives on its own unique (sinister…) energy without feeling the need to re-hash familiar scenes or re-introduce “repertory” characters for reasons of nostalgia or sentimentality. Instead, the movie is lean and mean, relentless and driving. Delightfully, it also picks-up on Raiders' leitmotif of Indiana Jones as a man conflicted over his path or destiny. Should he pursue "fortune and glory" or do what is right?
In fact, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom remains defiantly and audaciously a picture in which -- as the title sequence explicitly warns audiences -- “anything goes.”
Not many sequels or prequels can live up to that billing, but Temple of Doom is a thrill-a-minute, non-stop action masterpiece, that -- like its predecessor -- pays homage to Hollywood tradition and history while simultaneously blazing a new path. Buoyed by both outrageous humor and Hellish visions straight out of a nightmare, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a screwball comedy/horror/fantasy/adventure film, and one finely tuned to produce audience gasps and guffaws in equal measure.
“Fortune and Glory”
In Shanghai in the year 1935, a business transaction between American adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and the local gangster Lao Che (Roy Chaio) goes awry at the Club Obi Wan. Indy escapes with his life, but also with a ditzy nightclub singer, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), and his eleven-year old Chinese side-kick, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) in tow.
The trio escapes from China aboard a small cargo plane, only to learn that it is the property of Lao Che. When the pilots bail out of the low-in-fuel plane over the Himalayas with the only parachutes, Indy, Willie, and Short Round evacuate the craft in an inflatable raft.
After a harrowing landing on a mountainside and a race through choppy river waters, Indy and his friends realize that they have arrived in India. An old man (D. R. Nanayakkara) leads them to Mayapore, a village where the sacred Sankara or Sivalinga Stone has been stolen by a “re-awakening Evil.” The stone’s absence at its shrine has caused the river bed to dry up, and crops to wither on the vine.
The same evil -- which makes its home at distant Pankot Palace -- is also responsible for abducting the village’s children and making them slaves.
At the request of the villagers, Indy, Willie, and Short Round make the long and dangerous trek to Pankot Palace, and soon realize that the Maharajah is the puppet of a sinister Thuggee leader, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).
This menacing individual has acquired several Sankara Stones, and is seeking the last one, which he knows is buried deep within the surrounding mountains. When he possesses all the stones, this Thuggee believes he and the Goddess Kali will dominate the world. Mola Ram also controls his minions through pure terror, ripping out the hearts of human sacrifices with his bare hands.
When Indy and his friends are captured, Jones is forced to drink the “Blood of Kali,” a potion which apparently turns him evil. Short Round is able to save his friend from this “Black Sleep,” and a re-awakened Indy commits himself to freeing the slaves, recovering the Sankara Stone, and destroying Mola Ram…
George Lucas receives a great deal of criticism because he often attempts to recreate or pay homage to Hollywood and movie history, even when that Hollywood and movie history happens to be controversial.
For instance, Lucas was widely panned for featuring aliens that speak “Pidgeon English” in The Phantom Menace (1999). In some sense, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom showcases the same brand of political incorrectness (or perhaps, more accurately, tunnel vision). Specifically, much of Temple of Doom is modeled directly on the popular 1939 Hollywood effort, Gunga Din. That film from director George Stevens is revered by many, but also derided by others as being insensitive to Indian culture and history.
Gunga Din depicts the story of an Indian camp worker, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) in 1880. He aspires to serve in the British Army, and along with three British officers, he investigates a British outpost at Tantrapur that has mysteriously fallen silent. It turns out the facility has been attacked by the Thuggee, and late in the film, the Thuggee leader orchestrates a trap for Gunga Din and his friends at a temple of gold. Gunga Din dies in the battle, but is remembered, finally, as being worthy of a British uniform.
To put a fine point on the matter Gunga Din depicts the British Army in India as heroic and righteous, Indian culture as savage or heathen, and suggests that the highest aspiration of the Indians should be to serve the Queen.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom purposefully apes this world view. It features a “cavalry comes over the hill” moment in which the heroic British soldiers -- occupiers? -- dispatch the Thuggee. Similarly, the depiction of Kali as Evil in the film does not square with Hindu beliefs regarding the God as a deity of empowerment. And the much criticized-dinner scene at Pankot Palace does not accurately reflect Indian cuisine, to say the least.
On one hand, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom could be said to trade in stereotypes, but on the other hand, the film is set in 1935 and, to a great extent, it makes that date feel absolutely “real” by mirroring the Hollywood world view of that age.
It would be weird, to say the least, to see Indiana Jones -- a man of the 1930s -- evidencing 1980s beliefs and opinions, and that simple fact seems to be lost in the complaints over the film’s Western-centric approach to a non-Western culture. Who can argue truthfully that a 1930s serial on the same topic wouldn't take the same approach as this film? So if we stop to view Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a time-specific “fantasy,” there’s no reason to be offended by the specifics its “imaginary” world. In other words, the film doesn’t take place in real India, in 1980. It takes place in 1930s Hollywood-ized India. That's a crucial distinction.
One can even state for a fact that Lucas and Spielberg were influenced by Gunga Din because of similar visual flourishes. Most notably, both films open with a similar shot...of an over-sized gong. Thus, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's game is not to offend, but to pay tribute, as noted above, to movie history.
Another example of 1930s films providing an influence on the aesthetic of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom also occurs in the opening sequence. Here, Willie Scott sings Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," and wanders off-stage (through a dragon's head stage prop...) into an "alternate world" of chorus-line dancers.
Notably, this kind of fantasy setting was featured all the time in the films of Busby Berkeley (1895-1976), such as Gold Diggers of 1937. There, for instance, a tune called "All's Fair in Love and War" segued into a bizarre musical "number" outside of the film's traditional back-stage narrative. Overall, the film was grounded in reality, but then it veered suddenly into a weird, expressionist dance number that didn't preserve the realism of the stage itself. The audience was carried into an abstract world beyond the confines of normal narrative structure.
The same approach is mirrored here. We leave "the real world" of the Shanghai Club, and travel into a Busby Berkeley dance number of dancers, glitter, and music. Then we slip back into the real world, and the filmmakers offer no commentary about the detour.
My point here is that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom deliberately evokes again the voice, feel and world-view of the 1930s in terms of presentation and structure. The over-arching idea here, as it is in terms of Gunga Din, is to re-create a "lost world" for audiences: a world of Hollywood movies circa 1935 - 1940. It is wrong to perceive the film as taking place in the "real" world. It takes place, instead, in the world of Hollywood; of movie serials and musicals.
|Gold Diggers of 1937: "All's Fair in Love and War."|
|Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: "Anything Goes."|
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has also been criticized frequently as being anti-woman in nature because Willie Scott screams in the movie…a lot. There is a simple and clear response to this argument.
Raiders of the Lost Ark featured a brilliant, capable female lead in Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Marion could out-drink, out-fight, and out-think many an opponent. The makers of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thus found themselves in the position of either presenting a female character that would be dismissed by critics as a “pale copy” of Marion, or going in a new and original direction. They chose the latter approach, but were clearly in a can't-win situation. If they re-did Marion, they'd be criticized. And we know they were also criticized for choosing a different path.
But once more, it is fruitful to examine Willie Scott and her role. If one looks at the details of the story, Willie’s aversion to danger isn’t representative of any anti-woman stance, but reflective again of the time period, movie history, and even the character's situation. She’s a pampered American singer who, after living the good life in Shanghai, suddenly finds herself riding elephants, handling snakes, and crawling through bug-infested caves.
Hell, I might find myself screaming in the same situation…
Another way to put this: Is the depiction of Marcus Brody as a hapless ninny in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also sexist because it portrays a man as incompetent and incapable? If the answer is simply that Marcus functions within that story as comic relief, then we must, in good conscience, apply the same answer to Willie Scott in Temple of Doom.
Similarly, it's easy to see that Willie Scott in Temple of Doom screams approximately as much as Fay Wray did in King Kong (1933). Once more, we must accept the premise, then, that this Lucas film is deliberately evoking a time, a place, and a world-view; that of the silver screen in the 1930s.
|Two movies, two different women: Marion Ravenwood is capable and tough.|
|Two movies, two different women: Willie Scott...not capable or tough. At all...|
I don’t intend this review to be a point-by-point rebuke of critics of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but some of the criticisms do seem truly absurd. Those who claim that the film is equivalent to “child abuse” because of the scene of Mola Ram ripping out a victim’s heart seem to have forgotten the conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark, wherein a man’s head explodes on screen, and two other men are melted alive on camera, their flesh transforming into bloody puddles.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a darker film than Raiders, but one can’t really argue in good faith that there is actually more on-screen gore in the 1984 film than its predecessor. The heart scene, actually, is fairly bloodless, despite the action that occurs there.
And the point must be: is the darkness justified?
I would argue that it is. That the sheer darkness of Mola Ram's world view is the very thing that turns Indy from mercenary to savior, that turns him away from fortune and glory so he can reunite grieving families. Jones experiences the darkness of the Thuggee world view in himself when he drinks the black sleep potion, and so realizes how horrible Mola Ram's reign could be.
From a certain point of view, Temple of Doom actively concerns the idea that you can't run away from the darkness; that you must stay and fight it where it lives. The film features very little in terms of globe-hopping, and thus Indy must face the consequences of all his actions.
|Isn't this actually gorier..|
My affirmative case for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom involves the fact that the film knowingly and meaningfully attempts to separate itself from Raiders of the Lost Ark in virtually every way. It doesn’t return to Africa and the Middle East, but spends its time in the Far East and South-East Asia. As I wrote above, it doesn’t “globe-hop” to the extent that Raiders did either, instead settling in one major location after the first action scene or set-piece. Similarly, the characters are not reruns, but new people with individual voices.
In virtually every way imaginable, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thus escapes Raiders of the Lost Ark’s gravity well, and thrives as its own unique story.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is also the last Indy picture that features Jones as an occasionally mercenary, occasionally narcissistic individual. As this film opens, he bargains with Lao Che for a relic he has successfully recovered. Significantly, Indy doesn’t even discuss putting that relic in a museum. No, this is a transaction: the relic for payment, for a diamond, specifically. The details of Indy’s deal with Lao Che suggest that the original vision of the character -- as a man fallen from faith -- stands. He’s a hero, but he’s also a man with foibles.
In fact, it is this film that originates the phrase “fortune and glory” in the saga, and it is clear that Jones has competing interests in taking down Mola Ram. He wants to free the children, and defeat the Thuggee “evil,” but Indy is also in search of the “fortune and glory” that comes with the recovery of the Sankara Stones. It’s clear that he is in this quest, at least partially, for himself…out of avarice. This Indiana Jones is more Fred Dobbs (from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ) than in later installments, and this is the mode that I, personally, prefer.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, while staking out original characters, new locations, and a new “grounded” structure in one main locations, nonetheless adds meaningfully to Raider’s leitmotif about the Third World providing the First World with a new sense of spirituality and belief. Here, Indy learns for himself the power of the Sankara Stones, and once more finds that “magic” can exist in the technological, on-the-verge of war world of the 1930s.
What this means is that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom tells a new story in a way that one can nonetheless recognize as being “of a piece” with Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Perhaps the simplest reason to laud Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is that it remains one of the most exciting action pictures ever made. In terms of the one-upmanship I discussed in my introduction, Temple of Doom actually one-ups itself, moment after moment, scene after scene, throughout its entire running time. The opening set-piece in the Club Obi Wan is a perfectly-balanced presentation, one that escalates into a bizarre musical number, one ingredient at-a-time.
The escape from the plane in an inflatable raft, the mine-car chase, and the final battle on a suspension bridge are similarly unimpeachable in terms of imagination, choreography, and execution. These set-pieces are sustained ones -- lasting for several minutes each -- and just when you think they can’t get any more frenetic, brawny, or exhilarating, Spielberg cranks everything up another notch.
In these moments, "anything goes," and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's creators do the seemingly impossible. They one-up their already impressive blockbuster history.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Before Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston collaborated on the hit series Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013), they worked together on this fast-paced and inventive early sixth season installment of The X-Files (1993 – 2002).
“Drive's” premise determinedly (if wickedly…) apes the hit action film Speed (1994) and Mulder even references the Jan de Bont movie in the episode’s dialogue. But because this is The X-Files, there’s a major twist in the tale, and “Drive” functions as more than mere rip-off.
In Speed, as you will recall, a mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) placed a bomb on a metropolitan bus, and that bomb was triggered to detonate if it fell below a certain speed-threshold, 55 miles-per-hour. This effectively meant that any rescue or de-fusing attempts had to be completed while in the bus remained in motion.
In “Drive,” however, the “bomb” is not aboard a vehicle. Rather it is a physical “vibration” inside a passenger’s very head. Any slow-down in terms of velocity is still deadly in this scenario, but it will result in a cranial explosion. In Speed, the bomb could be stopped by catching the bomber, or defusing the device. In “Drive,” it’s a race to outrun a sound vibration…an impossible task.
What’s perhaps even more unusual about “Drive” is the nature of the passenger or victim: Patrick Crump. He’s a racist jerk and a pain in the ass. He complains about the “Jew F.B.I.” for instance, and marks Mulder as one of “them.” But despite the character’s paranoia and bigotry, Cranston succeeds in making Crump a sympathetic (if ignorant…) human being, and so the episode’s tragic ending carries unusual and unexpected weight.
“Drive” is fast-paced, intense, and literally explosive -- as it should be -- but the genuine surprise here is how much the denouement at water’s edge will impact you in sheer emotional terms.
Against all your better judgment, you’ll find yourself routing for Crump to survive, to out-pace the deadly signal causing him so much pain. The visual reveal that he doesn’t survive is also a great one. Very little is spoken, but a blood spatter on a car window tells the audience everything it needs to know…
Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) have been re-assigned from the X-Files by Kersh (James Picken Jr.), their new supervisor at the F.B.I. Instead of working on cases involving the paranormal and supernatural, the duo is assigned to question farmers about the purchases of fertilizer on the west coast.
While in Nevada, Mulder sees a strange case on the news, and inserts himself into it, over Scully’s objections.
In particular, a highway chase in Elko turns strange when a passenger in a speeding car dies under mysterious circumstances. Specifically, her head explodes. Now the car’s driver, Mr. Patrick Crump (Bryan Cranston) suffers from the same affliction as his wife, Vicki. He hijacks Mulder and makes him drive west at over fifty miles-an-hour because only the sensation of speed can relieve the pressure in his head.
Meanwhile, Scully investigates a top-secret Navy project called “Seafarer” that may have caused the Crumps’ odd condition…
Mr. Crump’s strange malady in “Drive” is caused by a Navy project called “Seafarer,” and like many of the best X-Files episodes, the narrative and mystery here boasts a basis in fact. Specifically, a project called “Sanguine” was proposed in 1968, and then again in 1975, but as “Seafarer. In 1982, the same project was actually implemented in Wisconsin, but called “Project ELF” (for extreme low frequency).
The notion underlying all these projects was the creation of a transmitter facility which could communicate with nuclear submarines submerged in the ocean following World War III or other nuclear detonations. The transmitter remains controversial, however, because the effects of high ground currents on the environment and surrounding electromagnetic files are not known.
“Drive” plays with this tantalizing premise, and suggests that ELF waves impact “the inner ear,” unbalancing internal pressure to the point that human heads could -- a la The Fury (1978) or Scanners (1981) -- simply explode. But where those rated-R horror films featured full-on exploding heads, “Drive” takes a different tact, perhaps because of TV limitations. Here, the heads explode off-screen like popping zits, and we see the sudden spurting of blood, but not flesh literally blowing apart. This visualization is remarkable effective, and sickening.
Amusingly, “Drive” also functions as something of a character-piece. The episode suggests that the ill-informed conspiracy theories of a knucklehead like Crump could, in fact, be accurate on some occasions. He reflexively suspects that the government has “done this” to him, and in fact he’s right. Even a broken clock is right two times a day, and in this case Crump’s paranoia, as Mulder notes, is entirely justified. Of course, he is not the government’s “guinea pig” as he fears and suspects, but rather the collateral damage of the government’s pure incompetence. The Seafarer project suffered an unexpected power surge. Nobody was out to get Crump, in other words, but nor was anybody protecting him.
Mulder and Crump clearly don’t like each other very well, or understand each other much, but their mutual situation -- trapped in a speeding car with death just moments away -- allows them to bond on simple human terms, and that’s where “Drive” really excels. Nobody deserves to suffer in the way that Crump does, and Mulder does everything within his power to save him. This episode is about showing humanity towards someone who, quite frankly, can be horrible to deal with.
In fact, the episode’s final act carries so much emotional weight because we have become thoroughly invested in Crump’s plight, and the episode teases us with the possibility of a fix...a cure. Scully plans to meet Mulder at the coast, by the sea, and will insert a long needle into his ear to relieve the pressure. This act will render him permanently deaf, but it's a trade-off he’s willing to make. Accordingly,“Drive” lures us into believing there’s still a chance that Crump could yet live.
But then, Mulder drives by in the episode's closing moments, and we see that scarlet blood spatter on the window of his car. He was moments -- maybe just feet -- away from saving his ward.
“Drive’ succeeds on the principle of “you stop moving, you die,” and speeds towards its conclusion with purpose and pathos. I wonder too, if the “you stop moving, you die” edict applies to Crump's life. He’s a man who has been cut no breaks in life, and hates everybody ahead of him in the “line.” Every day he has to keep trying -- keep moving -- or he and his wife fall further behind in the race of life.
In “Drive,” Crump runs up against something that makes him run even faster, but it’s a race he can never win. There's something very human about that predicament, which is why what happens to Patrick Crump matters to Mulder. It matters to the rest of us too.
Next week: "Monday."