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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

It’s humanity versus cephalopods in an eerie but soggy Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS
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“8” is far from the worst episode of this new Twilight Zone season. (So far, that’s still “Ovation.”) But for me, it may end up being the most disappointing. I’m a fan of the films of this episode’s co-directors, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, whose films Spring and The Endless glory in the visual possibilities and the inherently mind-bending wonders of science-fiction and horror. Plus, “8” is credited to Glen Morgan, one of The Twilight Zone’s producers and one of the primary creative contributors to The X-Files.

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“8” also has a premise with a lot of potential. Set at a remote arctic base—staffed by scruffy scientists tasked to study deep sea predators “previously unseen by humans”—the episode stars Joel McHale as Dr. Orson Rudd and Nadia Hilker as Channing Carp, who have a secret agenda outside of just exploration and research. The NYBY Science Station is also hosting a visitor from China: the non-English-speaking Ling (Michelle Ang), who can only communicate with the crew via a translation app. When the team stumbles on a huge octopus unlike any they’ve never encountered before, this eclectic group—which also includes a few techs and grunts who have no particular emotional attachment to exotic undersea creatures—differ over what they should do about a potentially dangerous beast.

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This is a classic science-fiction/horror setup, reminiscent of The Thing—and of all the movies and TV shows that have ripped off The Thing. But though the episode is blessedly short (a welcome trend this season), with a suitably eerie look and score, its story never really develops much beyond the introduction. Morgan and the directors drop in a few moments of bloody monster-movie violence; but most of “8” consists of the characters merely talking about the choices in front of them, rather than acting on any of their arguments.

Frankly, that chatter is often pretty clunky, too—and not in a “let’s pay homage to the corny old B-pictures” way. I don’t know if Joel McHale is just ill-suited to the mostly serious role he’s being asked to play here, or if even the most extraordinary actor couldn’t handle stiff lines like, “You’re investigating the physical mechanisms of this octopus?,” or, “We’re both trying to take from this animal what we don’t have.”

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The central debates among Rudd, Carp and Ling—and between all three of them and the cohorts who just want to kill this tentacled interloper immediately—are at least interesting. The more high-minded scientists agree that it would violate the deeper purpose of their mission if they destroyed a creature that could be the only one of its kind. Ling even waxes poetic at one point about how humans and octopuses had common ancestors millions of years ago, and how this particular breed of cephalopod they’ve captured may have evolved as humans did, developing its own intelligence.

Illustration for article titled It’s humanity versus cephalopods in an eerie but soggy iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: CBS
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But just like Rudd and Carp, Ling ultimately reveals her own ulterior motives. The stealthy NYBY partners have made a deal to deliver the octopus to medical researchers, who hope to revolutionize pain medicine and develop life-saving drugs. But Ling? Her associates back home want her to isolate the part of this animal’s genetic material that’s similar to humans, to see if they can mutate our future generations to live in the oceans and on the land.

These are all cool ideas. But we only really hear about them—and in the least exciting way possible. Benson and Moorehead only occasionally get to show what they can do as visual stylists.

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To be fair, one of the moments in “8” where the imagery really pops is the ending, which is equal parts beautiful and chilling. The big twist in “8” is that Ling was right: This super-octopus snuck into the facility on purpose, to study the humans’ overlapping genetic code. Cue Jordan Peele with the outtro, talking about how humanity may have paved the way for the Earth’s true dominant species. Also cue an absolutely gorgeous climactic shot of a sea monster floating and glowing, ready to spread the secret of its kind’s next evolution.

Still, given the talent involved with this episode, it’s a shame it mostly feels flat. Even the richer sociopolitical subtext—that these strange octo-things may triumph just because they don’t spend all their time arguing instead of working together—mostly stays below the surface, too sodden to punch through.

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Stray observations

  • This episode’s press kit easter egg: “In a moment, they’re going to send a man down thirty fathoms and check on a noisemaker. Someone or something tapping on metal.” That’s from the episode “The Thirty-Fathom Grave.” Of course it is!
  • It’s a nice touch, featuring actual Rod Serling narration on an old TV documentary the crew watches. I couldn’t nail down exactly what was being shown, but he was the voice of several Jacques Cousteau TV specials.
  • Did you spot Tim Armstrong from the punk band Rancid, playing the bearded tech Larry—the one who’s perhaps the most skeptical about the octopus? True to Armstrong’s past, his character even listens to a little ska at one point.
  • Next: “A Human Face.”
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Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.

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