Okay, time to get back up to speed again with this here blog business. This time we shall have a look at episode 16, “Critical Mass”, which was written by Ian Austin. Ian essentially came in at the last minute on a freelance basis to pick this one up as things changed in terms of staff, and we’re very grateful for him to be doing that at such short notice and for turning in what I think became a pretty decent episode. What we have here is a return to the kind of mythology themes in terms of the Millennium Group and the science they’ve been dabbling in. This time around it’s nuclear physics and biology that perhaps evokes such past episodes as “Sense and Antisense”, “Matryoshka”, and “Bardo Thodol”. That was the kind of target in terms of a tone to evoke, and I think it succeeds in that regard, by and large.
The idea basically began in the writers’ room with the teaser of Peter Watts standing and shooting someone in what would turn out to be a type of mercy killing before we cut back with a “48 Hours Earlier” thing and play out the story leading up to it. I think I mentioned back in the blog for “Muse” that we chose not to use a similar structural device there because of later episodes that would be using it, and one of those was “Parturition”, and another was this episode.
One thing that changed about the teaser, and indeed the episode overall, was that the victim of the mercy killing, the scientist, was originally named Seymour Holmes. That was then changed to an Asian man named Shiro Ishikawa. The reason for that was partly because it we had already had a character with the surname of Holmes back in “Ondraedan Ende”, and partly because there was a certain image that we wanted to evoke that would be kind of reminiscent of episodes like “Bardo Thodol”, or even episodes of The X-Files like “Nisei” and “731”. In some ways that’s a bit shallow, but it all helps to convey a sense of visual style and atmosphere which is always something we’re in search of given that the episodes aren’t ultimately shot and produced.
When we pick up with Act One, there is a deleted scene that originally opened the act where Peter sat in a bar and drank a bottle of beer. This got cut, largely because it didn’t quite seem in character for Peter to me, and partly because it was a little redundant. Instead, we pick up on Peter exiting his apartment and go straight to the moment where Cain arrives in the car to get hold of Peter. It’s then that we se Trepkos sitting in the back waiting for him. This always seems like a nice place to play out a scene between a villainous character and someone like Peter, in the back of an expensive car in motion. I think that’s a very good choice of location.
The following scene, meanwhile, where Peter approaches Frank in the Quantico parking garage, was originally scripted to take place in a bar with Frank sipping a scotch rocks. Again, that wasn’t the kind of thing I thought we should be seeing Frank doing, and wouldn’t feel right, so it was switched to the dark subterranean parking lot of all good conspiracy thrillers. It’s what Frank then notices in the photo which leads us on to the angle about nuclear research. The subsequent scene in the library is thus a means to an end, a way of getting Frank and Peter onto the next step of the investigation in as painless and least laborious way possible.
When we eventually get to the nuclear plant itself, it’s perhaps one of the weaker parts of the episode. You could argue that the guard just seems to let them in a little too easily and then fills them in on stuff that, by all rights, he shouldn’t really know. He’s a bit of a plot device in that regard, and the whole scene requires just a little stretch of the imagination overall. The act out then picks up on Ishikawa from the teaser for the first time, running through the woods and being pursued by the two Trenchcoat Man. Originally these were scripted as twins wearing white suits, but that would have taken away a level of believability to some degree, would certainly have made for difficult casting, and felt overall a bit too Matrix like for Millennium. So we just gave them matching trenchcoats and matching guns, which retained the flavour of menace of twins without overdoing it.
Act Two then brings us up on Locke and introduces him to the narrative for the first time. I always say that these scenes where one character or another is brought on to the case are the hardest to sell and the hardest to make interesting and new, and that’s the case here again where it’s just another phone call. Fortunately we move on pretty quick so you don’t get much time to notice.
After a bit of exposition, we get to another weak point in the episodes, which is Locke’s source named Walmak. This was probably the most difficult thing to make work in the story. There needed to be a way for Locke to get a bit closer to some answers and further the investigation, so you just kind of have to accept that he’s one of the ones who’s been experimented on and that he also happens to be an existing street source of Locke’s.
After the morgue scene, there is then a scene that was added in late on just to show Peter going back to his apartment and picking up his gun. That just allowed us to touch on the teaser a bit and remind us where this is going, and also served to explain the point where Peter got hold of his weapon, and that he hadn’t just been carrying it around with him the whole time as a matter of routine.
Trepkos then gets a chance to make a fairly long speech, and although some people could criticise this for showing and telling a bit too much, I quite like the idea of him testing Peter, and the idea that he’s putting him through this to see which way he will ultimately turn, and whether Trepkos will thus be able to trust him to be a part of his more shady side of the Millennium Group. That does well to explain why he keeps involving Peter but giving him so little to go on, which explains bits about past episodes such as “Forty Days and Forty Nights” and “Who We Are” by extension.
The act-out then contains another little reference to Danny, who X-Files fans will remember as the forever unseen guy who would always get Mulder and Scully whatever they needed in terms of phone traces, addresses and license plates etc. It’s a neat little touch to just use the name again, just as a treat to those that recognise it.
At the top of Act Three we meet Susan Dellinger who is kind of the overlord at the power plant. I had kind of been looking for a role to put Wendie Malick in for some time, because I think she’s one of those strong, slightly older female figures that never come in wrong, so the character of Dellinger just seemed a perfect opportunity to use her. She’s an authority figure, slightly on the wrong side of things, but also a match for people like Locke who come to quiz her. She then grudgingly takes Frank and Peter to see Ishikawa’s lab, and it’s then that we play a scene that was originally scripted to occur much earlier, back when Peter first showed Frank the photo of Ishikawa to bring him onto the case. It’s the part about these residues on Ishiakwa’s lab coat, which I believe Ian bases at least in part on genuine research, which originally occurred when Frank spotted it in the photo. I just found that very hard to believe though, that Frank could detect something like that just from looking at a photo, but it was a strong scene with interesting background, so I wanted to keep it in the episode. Moving it to this point allowed us to do that by virtue of the lab setting and the microscopes and so forth contained therein.
As the investigation then progresses, Locke talks with Frank and Peter about the executions in the woods. These of course involve gunshots to the back of the ear, which is a reference to Season 3 where this was the execution method of choice for the Millennium Group. I think it’s nice to bring that back in here, not as some huge revelation of massive significance, just as a little bit of consistency.
Locke then goes off to re-questions Dellinger, while Frank and Peter finally catch up with Ishikawa at his cabin in the forest. Originally, the act ended when Peter and Frank where standing outside at the door, but I decided to stay with this for a bit longer because, for one thing, Act Four was coming in a bit long while Act Three was a bit short, and for another it allowed us to maintain a level of tension and give Ishikawa some more substantial dialogue slightly earlier, rather than confining him almost exclusively to the last act. Also, the arrival of the Trenchcoat Men outside cocking their guns was also provided a slightly more threatening act-out.
At the top of Act Four we get a fairly heavy chunk of exposition, so you could criticise it in that regard, but we keep up tension by cutting back outside to Locke and the Trenchcoat Men as they edge closer. The endgame in terms of action is then the pursuit through the forest, with Frank and Peter trying to get the dying Ishikawa away, while the Trenchcoat Men pursue them and Locke in turn pursues the Trenchcoat Men. I think that provided for a suitably dramatic ending. That eventually takes us back to the point of the teaser, which is made just fresh enough by intercutting it with shots of the pursuing men in between parts of what we’ve already seen. Then, by the time Peter comes to shoot Ishikawa, hopefully we know understand it in way we didn’t back in the teaser. That’s always the aim with structures such as this, and I think it achieves that goal in this episode, which I’m pleased about. I also like the way the Trenchcoat Men just see that they’ve not been successful and walk calmly away, rather than ending with some big shootout or something. I think, in a way, it’s even more sinister that they say nothing and walk back into the night.
There were then just a couple of scenes added at the end of the episode. Instead of ending in the forest, we go away to Peter and Frank taking the body off to the incinerator, while Trepkos and Cain resolve their side of things. The Trenchcoat Men then get their first little bits of dialogue, but Trepkos ultimately hasn’t gotten what he wants. He wanted Peter to want to give Ishikawa over to his cause, but he ended up choosing what most of us would consider the path of righteousness. So he tells Cain to give the Trenchcoat Men what they’re owed, and we all know what that means. I like that little ending, with Cain calmly taking them out and shooting them.
We then end with Frank and Peter overlooking the incinerator as Ishikawa’s body burns within. I thought we were owed that final location, since we’ve been told it’s the necessary final step, and it just allowed us to linger on the emotional impact this has had on Peter, with the final lines suggesting that ultimately, while it might weigh on his conscience, it’s something that he can live with.
Overall, I think “Critical Mass” thus achieves most of the things it sets out to. You could perhaps say that the actual plot of nuclear research could have been made slightly more central, but it’s a difficult balance to strike, and I think this does well to focus it down on an individual character in the form of Ishikawa as a kind of Oppenheimer-like scientist. I touches on all the things about the Group, Peter and Trepkos as well, so overall I consider it a success for the mythology style episodes. I’m also very grateful to Ian once again for coming in at such short notice to pen this one for us, and I think he did a great job with it.
Next up will be “One and Many”, this season’s Lucy Butler episode, and we’ll rehash that a little bit before going on to just one more episode before the two-part finale. Until then, thanks for reading and sticking with us.