My Dad works at explosives factory and I was brought up with this stuff. The guinea pigs lived in an old ammo box. I remember playing with motor cases when I was very small and we had always the best firework displays on the estate, complete with military flares. But though I have always found them interesting and exciting, it never made me fearless about explosions.
For me explosions are obviously the best part of any film, especially the gas explosion which is the most insidious of all – that silent creeping time bomb which might strike at any point and where it seems the air itself catches blaze. There’s no way we can’t fear combustion: even when it’s tiny it’s bigger than us and the opposite of us, with our soft desperate fleshy efforts to hold all the bits of the world together as if it means anything. Explosions are the continual threat of rug-sweeping surprise in a physical world we think we have roughly under control. So indiscriminately, terrifyingly, suddenly devastating, and worst of all when we don’t expect them. They’re always a possibility, they booby trap the constructed warrens of security we roam, but they intrude on us from a different time and space.
And they can be predictable and quite manageable when you know what you’re doing. There’s something intriguing about that. A primitive beast-taming instinct is switched on by the idea of controlling this force. Imagine the satisfaction of getting through a wall with exactly the right amount of dynamite! Astonishing that it’s even possible. We can tunnel, push, kick or drill. We can build a ladder. We can take the wall down brick by brick. Or we can, you know, just light a fuse on a small red stick and watch the air catch fire. Explosions are holes blown in space. Blameless and destructive frenzies of energy, gone before you can see them, known and maligned only for their effects.
All of which is by way of introduction to this post I’ve meaning to do for some time about some of the great blow-up scenes in film and telly.
1. Terry O’Quinn as Darius Michaud in The X Files movie (1998)
Darius was called in at the beginning of the first, and vastly superior X Files movie, to dispose of a bomb hidden in a vending machine (I know, right? I’ve never used one since) at the FBI HQ. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, but… I hope you’ve still got the receipt for that ‘two man’ tent, Mrs Michaud.
MacGyver makes me think of a couple of things. One: brilliant bomb disposal scenes and far more emergency explosions than anyone should ever have to carry out. Two: my French exchange, where it turned out, to my astonishment, that all French teenagers are absolutely obsessed with the conflict-averse secret agent. He made an unusual choice of career for a man who refuses to carry a gun, but MacGyver justifies his role in the US military by dedicating his life to the disabling of existing explosives like a child engaged in an unusually risky game of whack-a-mole. This clip is great, the mulleted Prometheus preaches that great power brings great responsibility yet calmly gives us a list of required ingredients, demos the bomb making close-up and explains every detail of the chemical reaction to the flimsy woman standing next to him.
Do you think he’s like this at home? “For CHRIST’S SAKES! The door’s OPEN MacGyver!”
Finally, for now, Doctor Who. The period drama for men, as I think of it, has always had brilliant explosions of course. But they really went up a notch when they were being issued at the hand of chubby-cheeked lovely, Corners host Sophie Aldred. Her character Ace was supposed to be a bit of a tearaway I suppose, a sort of female Lister, despite sounding like she went to an all-girls school in Sussex and looking a bit like Sophie Winkleman. Ace was an absolute inspiration to girls my age, and my favourite thing about her was that she armed herself sensibly for survival in all the parallel universes. Not just armed, either, but armed with the stuff of arms itself – raw explosives. For Ace carried canisters of nitroglycerin extracted “Nitro-9” with her, wherever she went. Here’s Ace and the least popular Doctor getting up to some terrifying shenanigans on circus planets or whatever.