TV: The Head (Season 1)

Produced in Spain and filmed in a mix of Danish and English, The Head (2020) is a curious beast, one that looks like it’s trying to do something specific but comes across scattered and derivative. It’s set at an Antarctic research station called Polaris VI, which is closing up the summer research season and leaving a skeleton crew of minders behind for the dark winter months. The station’s summer leader, Johan (Alexandre Willaume), heads home for the shutdown, but his girlfriend, scientist Annika Lundqvist (Laura Bach), stays onsite with the maintenance crew. Her motivation: continuing important research, and preventing groundbreaking scientist Arthur Wilde (John Lynch) from hogging the credit she’s due for her contributions to the project. Three weeks before the summer crew is set to return, however, the comms at Polaris VI go out, and Johan returns with a small expedition to find a massive crime scene. Most of the staff is dead or missing; the only survivor is Maggie Mitchell (Katharine O’Donnelly), the station’s medical doctor. Since one of the missing researchers is Annika, Johan is desperate for information, so rather than wait for the authorities, he begins an interrogation of the traumatized Dr. Mitchell, who fights through PTSD-induced amnesia to piece together the tragic mystery of a what happened.

The Head doesn’t disguise its lineage as a descendant of classic Antarctica-based horror stories; indeed, the first episode depicts the winter crew’s viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing to commence their long, dark isolation, nodding to an ancestry that stretches back at least to John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” Indeed, there isn’t much new going on in The Head, which spins its variation on the whole “polar-terror bottle show” sub-genre by leveraging familiar, more recent upgrades from elsewhere: the flashback mystery techniques of Lost, the chilly procedural premise of Whiteout, the ominous, environmental dread of Fortitude. Without much novelty to set it apart, it’s largely up to execution to make it worth the watch. The production values and cinematography are great, while impressive set design and stunning, windswept scenery give the show an impressive look. The acting doesn’t really elevate things, unfortunately; O’Donnelly shows star potential, but the cast, while serviceable, is generally unremarkable, and the drama suffers from stilted multilingual dialogue. Where The Head really falls down, alas, is the overall story. It’s not a particularly long or hard fall; indeed, there’s a fair amount of structural intricacy in its amassed details, and the show does a good job generating interest and intrigue. But the mystery is more prosaic than the looming, existential build-up promises, with an ending that settles for clever after promising something more surprising and profound.

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