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The X-Files – The Post-Modern Prometheus (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

The Post-Modern Prometheus is a decidedly strange little episode.

As the title suggests, it is a stunningly indulgent piece of television. Written and directed by Chris Carter, The Post-Modern Prometheus is an off-beat adventure shot in black-and-white, stylistically referencing everything from James Whale’s Frankenstein to the work of Cher to the iconic dance sequence from Risky Business. The script is chocked full of literary and cinematic references, stitching them together in a way that suggests the monster alluded to in the title of the episode.

Once upon a time...

Once upon a time…

There are more than a few moments of awkwardness in the script. As with Small Potatoes, there seems something a little awkward about a comedy episode that treats a serial rapist as the jumping-off point for a wacky comedy adventure. (“This is a very serious crime,” Mulder asserts at one point, but the script never seems too bothered by it.) There is something quite knee-jerk and reactionary about how The Post-Modern Prometheus plays into the stereotype of scientific development and research as morally questionable by default.

And, yet, despite these fairly sizable problems, there is a lot to love here. It has been suggested that Carter considers The Post-Modern Prometheus as a deeply personal work – it is not hard to see why. The Post-Modern Prometheus is a story obsessed with the act of creating – whether through biological reproduction or scientific experimentation or even by way of storytelling. It is an episode engaging with a story that has long since slipped out of the control of its creator, and which is free to evolve and develop in infinite directions.

Drivin' to Memphis...

Drivin’ to Memphis…

There is a joy and energy to The Post-Modern Prometheus that almost compensates for the more unpleasant aspects of the script. There is a lot of fun to be had here, whether listening to the creature singing along with Cher or simply watching Mulder and Scully dance as they provide a monster with a (literal) storybook ending. There is a sense that The Post-Modern Prometheus was written almost entirely without cynicism, an incredible celebration of Chris Carter’s own thoughts on storytelling and mythmaking.

The Post-Modern Prometheus is perhaps too deeply flawed to be the classic that it desperately wants to be, but it is a fascinating and bold piece of nineties television that demonstrates just how much enthusiasm and verve The X-Files could bring to proceedings when it wanted to.

It is never a happy mob...

Basement dwellers…

It is very hard to imagine Carter getting away with an episode as self-consciously stylised as The Post-Modern Prometheus earlier in the run of The X-Files. Would Fox have broadcast a black-and-white hour of prime-time television for a less successful show or producer? In his interview with The Archive of American Television, Carter confesses that he was able to produce The Post-Modern Prometheus as a result of the show’s success:

You had had the good will and trust of the audience, you had the good will and trust of the network and studio. We actually had the trust of – and the appreciation of – the Academy. That episode was nominated for a directing Emmy.

It would have been very easy for The X-Files to rest on its laurels at this point in its run. There is an adventurousness and excitement to The Post-Modern Prometheus that demonstrates that The X-Files is still a young and vital show. This is not a series that will let itself become a familiar and formulaic “institution.” There is no auto-pilot at this point in the show’s life. This is not Law & Order or CSI.

Two-faced...

Two-faced…

Carter is a producer who has generally tried to leverage his success into trying new things, rather than adhering strictly to formula. His work on The X-Files had convinced Fox to give him complete control of Millennium, hoping for another breakout hit. Instead, Carter used that complete control to produce a very esoteric piece of television – one that feels like the work of an auteur. Even during the final season of The X-Files, as everything else fell apart, Carter was still writing and directing ambitious and exciting scripts.

While the episode is largely beloved by fans, it is easy to image casual viewers being confounded by The Post-Modern Prometheus. Did viewers who had missed the introductory sequence worry that their televisions had stopped picking up colour? To do a full hour in black-and-white, in the style of a thirties horror film, would be ambitious for any television show. It is particularly ambitious when the show is trying to promote a massive blockbuster movie and is considered one of the hippest and trendiest shows on television. Still, there are problems.

Nothing to report...

Nothing to report…

The X-Files is fundamentally a nineties television show. That is part of the show’s DNA. It is apparent every time that a picture of Clinton appears on the wall of Skinner’s office and the gradual shrinking of Mulder and Scully’s mobile phones over the course of the series. The show is a product of its time, reflecting a society living in the aftermath of the Cold War and trying to figure out what happens at the point that some historians had described as “the end of history.”

However, that nineties-ness shines through in some deeply uncomfortable ways – particularly in issues of race and sexuality. In Gender Bender, Mulder seemed to believe that killers who could swap genders were more common than bisexuals. A product of its time, The X-Files had some very questionable attitudes towards rape. Episodes like Small Potatoes and The Post-Modern Prometheus are the most obvious examples, but prison rape jokes in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, Unusual Suspects and Bad Blood still feel deeply uncomfortable.

Here comes the science...

Here comes the science…

The Post-Modern Prometheus is an episode built around a string of rapes in a small town by a mysterious and monstrous figure. However, the episode plays this as quirky comedy. The attacker strikes by dropping a fumigation tent over the house and then by gassing the woman in question so she is rendered unconscious. This process is played as a quirky “weird” touch, with playful music on the soundtrack as the fumigation tent covers the windows of the house. This occurs even after The Post-Modern Prometheus has explained what this is leading towards.

For most of the episode, the audience is led to believe that the strange monstrous creature – “the Great Mutato” – is a serial rapist. This leads to awkward dissonant moments like an otherwise fun homage to Risky Business that finds the Great Mutato dancing through a house singing along to Cher’s cover of The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. The sequence ends with the Great Mutato ascending the stairs towards the bedroom. Nevertheless, The Post-Modern Prometheus plays this all as silly comedy.

That's serious in-tent...

That’s serious in-tent…

Indeed, the script is quick to suggest that women assaulted and impregnated had always really wanted children anyway. Before her attack, one of the victims is arguing with her husband. “Elizabeth,” Doctor Pollidori advises his wife, “you know how I feel about children. They’re mewling little monsters.” Elizabeth remains unconvinced by his rhetoric. “But I want children,” she bluntly states. No sooner has Doctor Pollidori departed than the familiar fumigation tent is draped over the window.

“What we did was wrong,” the Great Mutato confesses, “but in our trespasses we gave you a loving son.” The closing montage of The Post-Modern Prometheus ends with the townspeople forgiving the Great Mutato, and the mothers of the children going on The Jerry Springer Show to boast about how much they love their children. “What’s not to love?” Shaineh asks, rhetorically. There is a rather unpleasant subtext to all of this. If these women wanted children, was it really such a horrific crime to give them children? (The answer: Yes. Yes, it was.)

What a question to Spring(er) on her...

What a question to Spring(er) on her…

To be fair, Carter’s script seems to realise that it might have a bit of difficulty giving a serial and organised rapist such a happy ending, so the last act reveals that the Great Mutato is not in fact a rapist. In fact, there was no literal rape at all. Instead, a character – who has conveniently already been killed off by this point of the episode – instead conducted medical procedures on the unconscious women to give them children. The Great Mutato is, at worst, an accomplice in a metaphorical and allegorical rape narrative.

Of course, this glosses over the true horror of what the Great Mutato’s grandfather did to those women. One of the big central themes of the show’s over-arching mythology has been the idea of women having their reproductive processes exploited by powerful men. Since Nisei and 731, the show has repeatedly underscored the horror of men dictating women’s reproductive options to them. Scully was abducted and experimented up, with any possibility of having children destroyed by the procedures conducted upon her.

A black-and-white issue...

A black-and-white issue…

What is the difference between what the Great Mutato’s grandfather did to Elizabeth and Shaineh (and countless other anonymous women) and what the government did to Scully after they abducted her in Ascension? It seems that The Post-Modern Prometheus is suggesting that somehow this crime was less of a crime because at least Elizabeth and Shaineh (and countless other anonymous women) got to have children at the end of it. Airing the week before Christmas Carol, it is hard not to look at The Post-Modern Prometheus as an episode reflecting on Scully.

The idea of Scully as a maternal figure has been floating at the edge of the narrative since towards the end of the third season. Early in the first season – in Jersey Devil – Scully confesses that she is not necessarily “cut out” to be a maternal figure. However, later episodes like Revelations tie Scully’s faith into maternal instincts. The fourth season reinforces this idea, confronting Scully with perversions of maternity in Home and Leonard Betts, before explicitly revealing that Scully is infertile in Memento Mori.

Oh, mother...

Oh, mother…

The show really commits to the idea of Scully as a potential mother from here on out. It becomes more overt in Emily and Christmas Carol, but The Post-Modern Prometheus foreshadows this change. In conversation with Scully, Shaineh makes it clear that – at least in the world of The X-Files – reproduction is a miracle that in not necessarily bound by the laws of basic biology. Trying to explain to Scully why the case is so odd, Mulder points out, “Misses Berkowitz had a tubal ligation two years ago.” Shaineh insists, “You can’t plant a seed in a barren field.”

The Post-Modern Prometheus arrives just past the half-way point of the series. As such, it seems a suitable point of transition for Scully’s character. Over the remaining run of the show, Scully will develop a more maternal sensibility In Emily, she will encounter a daughter who was not born by natural means. Later in the show’s run, Scully will find herself defined as a mother while Mulder is never similarly defined as a father. There is a clear turning point in how The X-Files approaches Scully as a female character, and The Post-Modern Prometheus is a key part of that.

Barnstorming success...

Barnstorming success…

This transition in the show’s portrayal of Scully is not necessarily for the better. As Lacy Hodges notes in Scully, What Are You Wearing?, this decision pushes Scully into a much more traditional role:

… the series is also uncomfortable with her ability to reproduce—it is as a mother that Scully presents the most troubling aspect of femininity. Scully-as-mother is intertwined with issues such as alien technology, female sexuality, heteronormative familial structures, and maternal responsibility. Scully’s desire for motherhood evolves throughout the series and mirrors her change from rational scientist to intuitive pseudo-Mulder. The series’ depictions of mothering and reproduction support the theories of essential and intensive motherhood, reaffirm naturalized gender stereotypes and heteronormativity, and connect women to the monstrous and the alien.

As with the portrayal of Scully’s sexuality in episodes like Never Again, there is a sense that the show is employing a double-standard. Mulder is never redefined as a father figure in a comparable way. (Outside of Scully’s daddy issues.)

Bad and mad...

Bad and mad…

There are other unsettling aspects of The Post-Modern Prometheus, most notably the script’s portrayal of Doctor Pollidori. Despite the fact that his father conducted experiments upon members of the community without their consent, Doctor Pollidori is very much the villain of the piece. Tellingly, the episode ends with Pollidori locked in the back of a police car while the accomplice of a serial rapist gets to enjoy a private concert from Cher. Even before he is explicitly identified as the villain, Pollidori is still presented as a deeply unpleasant man.

The Great Mutato offers a fairly succinct summary of how The Post-Modern Prometheus treats Pollidori. The Great Mutato refers to Pollidori as “a spiteful, hateful man of science incapable of the deeper sentiments”, reinforcing the stereotypical idea that scientists are ruthless and amoral – out of touch with the world around them. While Pollidori’s father does not understand the science that he is using, it seems that the script is more sympathetic. It seems that his heart was in the right place when he drugged all those women and impregnated them without their consent.

A lot to chew over...

A lot to chew over…

It could be argued that The Post-Modern Prometheus simply inherits this attitude from its source material. After all, Victor Frankenstein was hardly the posterboy for responsible scientific research. At the same time, the final text of Frankenstein does suggest Victor is at least remotely sympathetic. That said, Anne Kostelanetz Mellor suggests in her biography of Mary Shelley that it was Percy Shelley who softened the portrayal of Victor in the finished text:

Percy Shelley consistently read Victor Frankenstein sympathetically. As his review of the novel concludes, Frankenstein was not a perpetrator but only “the victim” of evil. Throughout the original text, Mary Shelley stressed Frankenstein’s capacity for self-deception, while Percy, sometimes as blind as Frankenstein himself, softened or eliminated his errors.

Nevertheless, The Post-Modern Prometheus seems rather awkward in its portrayal of good and evil. Despite his sophistication and education, Pollidore is undeniably and incontrovertibly “evil.” Despite their tendency towards mob violence and hostility towards what is different to them, the stereotypical town people are ultimately and undeniably “good.” It is not a particularly nuanced moral viewpoint.

Mobbed under...

Mobbed under…

It feels almost as if The Post-Modern Prometheus is picking sides in the culture wars of the nineties, engaging in some of the stock anti-intellectualism that was becoming quite popular in contemporary American culture. This trend was perhaps best typified during the 2000 Presidential election campaign, when reporters assigned to cover the Al Gore camp would complain that they had ended up with “the government nerd.” This climate was the backdrop of Aaron Sorkin’s blistering rebuke of anti-intellectualist politics in the year years of The West Wing.

Of course, anti-intellectualism was hardly a new idea. Richard Nixon had rather infamously scored points against Adlai Stevenson by describing him as an “egghead.” Richard Hofstadter won the Pullitzer prize in 1964 for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, charting a rich tradition of anti-intellectualism that extended back further than the founding of the country. However, it seemed like the culture wars of the nineties pushed anti-intellectualism back to the heart of American public debate and discussion.

They don't seem convinced...

They don’t seem convinced…

As Todd Gitlin argued in The Renaissance of Anti-Intellectualism, the last decade of the twentieth-century saw a conscious and clear resurgence of anti-intellectual attitudes:

By the 1990’s, “elitism” had become an all-purpose epithet, used by neoconservatives against the “new class” (consisting of all political intellectuals with the exception of themselves), but also by hard multiculturalists against “the neo-Enlightenment project,” by relativists in general against objectivists in general. Populist resentment flourished even as (and, perhaps in part, because) populist egalitarianism of an economic stripe was dwindling.

The counterculture had introduced suspicion of professionalized rationality — swelling the reputation of “alternative” medicine and elevating herbs and homeopathic, chiropractic, and osteopathic treatments to alternatives to plodding old Western therapies. Hofstadter had made much of the distinction between critical intellectuals (suspected, sometimes justifiably, of being ideologues) and expert intellectuals (“on tap, not on top,” in the terms of the early atomic scientists), but thanks to the postmodern mood of the intervening decades, many experts had come to be tarred with the same brush as ideologues. College students were heard to complain that certain professors were excessive in their vocabularies. Even in the classroom, “boring” became an epithet of choice.

A central force boosting anti-intellectualism since Hofstadter published his book has been the bulking up of popular culture and, in particular, the rise of a new form of faux cerebration: punditry. Everyday life, supersaturated with images and jingles, makes intellectual life look hopelessly sluggish, burdensome, difficult. In a video-game world, the play of intellect — the search for validity, the willingness to entertain many hypotheses, the respect for difficulty, the resistance to hasty conclusions — has the look of retardation.

There was a very clear tendency away from intellectual and academic pursuits, with politic rhetoric and debate moving more towards pandering and glad-handling.

Sing when you're winning...

Sing when you’re winning…

This anti-intellectualism was very clearly political in nature. In fact, quite a few observes point to the “Republican Revolution” of the mid-nineties as a major part of the sudden emergence of this reactionary mentality:

When he became the House Speaker in 1995, Gingrich worked vigorously to cut budgets in areas with Democratic constituents–and he knew that by the time he came to office most scientists were supporting Democrats. The speaker took aim at research organizations such as the U.S. Geological Survey and National Biological Survey and dismissed action on global warming. He even abolished the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which served as the main scientific research arm of Capitol Hill. Gingrich claimed that OTA was too slow to keep up with congressional debates; agency defenders argued that the cut was fueled by partisan dislike of an agency perceived as a Democratic stronghold. Indeed, several years prior, OTA had published a report harshly critical of the predominantly GOP-backed missile defense project, the Strategic Defense Initiative.

By the mid 1990s, the GOP had firmly adopted a new paradigm for dismissing scientists as liberals. Gingrich believed, as Nixon did, that most scientists weren’t going to support him politically. “Scientists tend to have an agenda, and it tends to be a liberal political agenda,” explains Gingrich’s close associate former Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), the former chairman of the House Science Committee. In 1995, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), then-chairman of the House committee dealing with global warming, called climate change a “liberal claptrap.” In interviews with The Washington Post in 2001, Texas Republican Tom DeLay dismissed evolution as unproven, said that we shouldn’t need an EPA because “God charges us to be good stewards of the Earth,” and denigrated scientific Nobel Prize winners as “liberal and extremist.”

This is the sort of approach that would lead to “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” becoming an acceptable barametre for political elections.

No flies on him...

No flies on him…

It would be crazy to suggest that Chris Carter is anti-intellectual. Carter is exceedingly well-read and wel-cultured, and undeniably proud of that fact. A quick look at the list of works referenced by The X-Files in general (and Carter’s scripts in particular) demonstrate a television show that is very proud of its intelligence and its sophistication. Talitha Cumi is not only the big third-season finalé, it is also a gigantic homage to Dostoyevsky. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” not only references Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

The X-Files is a show that is quite literate and quite proud of that fact – the writers generally take a great deal of pride in the research that they do, and the series regularly plays with ideas like postmodernism and self-awareness. At the same time, some of the show’s recurring motifs are problematic. Over the course of the fourth season, Carter seemed to acknowledge the difficulty of telling conspiracy theory narratives in the wake of the Timothy McVeigh trial. There are parts of the show’s narrative that could easily become difficult or troublesome.

Buttering him up...

Buttering him up…

Richard Dawkins rather famously attacked The X-Files for being “anti-science” and for embracing superstition and irrationality. His criticisms were rather broad and general, argued with only the most casual engagement with the source material. However, The Post-Modern Prometheus does suggest that some of Dawkins’ observations might have had some weight. In the context of larger attitudes towards science and research, some of the portrayals of scientists in The X-Files could feel ill-judged.

The Post-Modern Prometheus is a story about two pop culture stereotypes. On the one hand, the small town is populated with broadly-draw reactionary hicks who don’t take kindly to outsiders. On the other hand, Pollidori is a stereotypical mad scientist who believes himself to be God. Neither portrayal is particularly nuanced or sophisticated, but The Post-Modern Prometheus eventually decides to just throw its lot in with the stereotypical small-town hicks, even after they turn on Mulder, start looting and allow themselves to get worked up into a lynch mob.

“Here we go again.”

It is a shame that The Post-Modern Prometheus is so fundamentally flawed, because it really is an enjoyable episode. It is a gleefully “off-format” episode of The X-Files, featuring a soundtrack from Cher and shot in black-and-white so as to evoke the work of director James Whale. It is a shame that the DVD and the recent HD remaster both broadcast the episode in standard wide-screen; it might have perhaps been truer to the inspiration to keep the episode in the classic 4:3 format.

It is no secret that Carter himself is very fond of the episode. He has described it as the episode “most personal” to him. In an interview after the end of the series, Carter described talking about the fifth season as emotional – “especially” discussing The Post-Modern Prometheus. Frequent collaborator Frank Spotnitz has identified The Post-Modern Prometheus as Carter’s “all-time favourite” episode. It is an episode that is memorable and fun, but also one that speaks to ideas that were likely of interest to Carter.

A comic tragedy...

A comic tragedy…

One of the interesting things about the production of the fifth season is the sense that Carter was pulling out all the stops. In fact, as Frank Spotnitz recalls, The Post-Modern Prometheus was originally written to support two pieces of stunt casting:

It’s got another funny story behind it. Separately, Roseanne Barr and Cher both came to Chris and said that they were big fans of the show and would like to be in The X-Files. So we thought about it and came up with this really offbeat story about a monster and his mother. And this monster loves Cher. As it turns out, when we were ready for production, neither Roseanne nor Cher were available. So we had to cast someone else as the mother, and we got a Cher stand-in. It’s a very strange and specific tone that is struck in the episode. It’s shot in black and white, and is a homage to the classic James Whale Frankenstein movies. It’s very sweet and touching. It’s one I remember working on over and over again, editing it down to the frame, to make sure everything was as perfect as it could be. And I never got tired of watching it.

There was also some stunt writing taking place behind the scenes, with Carter drawing in scripts from popular authors like Stephen King and William Gibson. With The X-Files: Fight the Future filmed in the gap between the fourth and fifth seasons, due for release between the fifth and sixth, there was a sense of The X-Files at its zenith.

Millennium reference!

Millennium reference!

However, the show had radically and dramatically changed in its five years on the air. With the departure of Howard Gordon at the end of the fourth season and the second departure of Glen Morgan and James Wong, the show’s writing staff had experienced a complete turn-over. Carter’s early suggestions about doing five seasons before spinning the show off into feature films were no longer viable; Fox had made it clear that they wanted both an X-Files television show and an X-Files movie franchise at the same time.

Chris Carter had created a pop culture monster, and there is a sense that The Post-Modern Prometheus is wryly and undeniably aware of this. The episode is fascinated with the idea of creation – whether literal procreation, scientific experimentation, or storytelling. Is it possible to breath life into something that is not a literal child? Is it possible for that thing you created to evolve into something more radical and dynamic than even you imagined? A monster stitched together from a variety of influences that is still something new and beautiful?

Scully lightens up...

Scully lightens up…

The fifth season represents a turning point for the show. It is half-way through the run. However, it is also a milestone that Carter had set in early interviews – he had hoped to transition from five seasons into a movie franchise. Asked about whether there was ever a plan to set a definite end-date for the show, Carter explicitly and instinctively jumps to season five:

No, the reason… We went to season five and we did the movie. Actually, at the end of season four, I could have left, and I might have opted to. My contract was up, and I could have left, and it would have been a successful show. But it was clear that Fox was going to—because it was a powerhouse for their schedule and for their network—the show was going to go on, and it would have gone on without me. And I had made a pledge to the actors that I would stay with the show as long as they did. And that kept me going, so there was not an end point imagined, which was a result of the fact that Fox was not going to end that show anytime without a reason to end it. And I think that it’s a luxury for the creators of Lost to be able to have an end point, and to have a network that supports it. I’m sure the network is not happy about it, because it is a business first, and entertainment second. And they get to put one before the other, which is a luxury that I didn’t actually have or imagine.

A lot of Carter’s script-writing around this point in the run seems informed by this idea – that The X-Files will not end, that it will just keep unspooling. Carter has created something that turned out rather differently than he may have intended, but which is still ultimately a product of his vision and his work. It might mutate and evolve and change, but it is still The X-Files.

Shades of grey...

Shades of grey…

The Post-Modern Prometheus is very clearly a self-aware commentary on the show. With its framing and its black and white cinematography, it draws attention to its own hyperfictionality. “When Victor Frankenstein asks himself ‘whence did the principle of life proceed?’ and then as a gratifying summit to his toils creates a hideous phantasm of a man he prefigures the Post-Modern Prometheus,” Mulder observes. “The genetic engineer whose power to reanimate matter – genes into life – us – is only as limited as his imagination is.”

In a way, Carter himself is the Post-Modern Prometheus. With his crop of white hair and his tendency towards melodramatic (and occasionally self-important) monologuing, Pollidori could be seen as the author affectionately mocking himself. Pollidori creates life from lifelessness, using just his imagination to animate matter. Carter does something similar on a weekly basis. As Mulder suggests, Carter’s power over the duo is limited only by his imagination. And budget. And Broadcast Standards and Practices. But it starts with imagination.

Cooking up a storm...

Cooking up a storm…

It is telling that Mulder is able to re-write the story by engaging in criticism of it. Mulder seems almost aware of his existence as a character in a story, pointing out why the current situation would make for an unsatisfactory resolution. “This is all wrong, Scully,” he insists. “This is not how the story is supposed to end.” He clarifies, “Doctor Frankenstein pays for his evil ambitions, yes. But the monster’s supposed to escape to go search for his bride.” Mulder has an epiphany. “Well, where’s the writer? I want to speak to the writer.”

This is not just a story about science run amok. It is about a story that is out of control. The Great Mutato is a force of nature that intrudes into people’s homes, much like a television broadcast. Celebrating the power of storytelling, the Great Mutato boasts that art has allowed him to experience so much more than his own personal existence. “In your homes I went places I’d never dreamed of. With your books, and your records and home media centers, I learned of the world and of a mother’s love that I’ll never know.”

Sleeping on it...

Sleeping on it…

The oddness of The Post-Modern Prometheus affords Carter the opportunity to offer some commentary on The X-Files itself, drawing attention to the fictional nature of the series. “I got your name off the TV,” Shaineh tells Mulder in her letter. It is interesting to see The Post-Modern Prometheus engage with Mulder’s new-found skepticism, skepticism that was suggested in Redux II, but has not really been explored. In the smalltown diner, Mulder is celebrated as a believer, but becomes an object of hate and ridicule once he denounces his belief.

When Shaineh suggests that she might have been abducted by aliens, Mulder reather clumsily replies, “Well, I don’t think this has anything to do with alien abductions. I don’t even know if I believe in that stuff anymore.” It is a moment that draws attention to the absurdity of Mulder’s sudden loss of faith. He can appear in an adaptation of Frankenstein, but he can’t believe in aliens? Shaineh responds with the same skepticism as most fans confronted with Mulder’s sudden dramatic reversal. “Oh, come on. Really?”

“… and that was before I told them I planned to research stem cells.”

After all, The Post-Modern Prometheus is an episode about how all stories are true – in their own way. A delightfully postmodern approach to the material, one foreshadowed by the writers of The Simpsons on The Springfield Files earlier that year. “The following tale of alien encounters is true,” Leonard Nimoy assured viewers. “And by true, I mean false. It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies, and in the end, isn’t that the real truth? The answer… is no.” It seems that Mulder might actually disagree with that sentiment.

When Mulder talks about small town mythology, Scully objects. “But common sense alone will tell you that these legends, these unverified rumors are ridiculous.” Mulder rather smoothly replies, “But nonetheless, unverifiable, and therefore true in the sense that they’re believed to be true.” That would seem to be a very flexible (but romantic) definition of truth, but one in keeping with the big ideas of The Post-Modern Prometheus. Everything is true. Even the lies. Especially the lies.

We are all stories...

We are all stories…

This is what makes Mulder such an interesting character, the heart of his appeal. Mulder is a believer – not just in aliens or conspiracies, but in general. That is the very core of Mulder’s character, on the most fundamental of levels. “Is there anything that you don’t believe in, Mulder?” Scully asks. Although the show has set up an awkward character arc to build towards the release of Fight the Future, the response seems quite obvious. The answer… is no. (Well, except for ghost rape or religious prophecy, but we don’t talk about that.)

Appropriately enough, The Post-Modern Prometheus is a story about a monster who seems to only understand the world through popular culture. His only understanding of love comes from watching Cher in Mask. Similarly, the episode itself is stitched together through homage and reference. Like the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it feels like The Post-Modern Prometheus is constructed out of transplants from other narratives and stories; a Frankenstein story constructed in the same manner as Frankenstein’s monster.

Make yourself at home...

Make yourself at home…

James Whale is the most obvious influence here. Carter is a great director – arguably a better director than a writer. While The Post-Modern Prometheus is limited by the time and financial constraints of television, Carter does create a loving homage. Highlights include the first scene with Pollidori, as he is shot from low angles while lightning flashes outside, and the murder of Pollidori’s father, shot in silhouette. The hair and costume of the journalist are also noteworthy, clearly intended to capitalise on the black and white format while referencing Whale’s style.

Carter has always been a fan of Frankenstein, as evidenced by his work on the show. There have been quite a few references to the book over the course of the run, but perhaps the most obvious came in Colony and End Game, with Carter constructing a framing sequence that had Mulder chasing a monster in the Arctic. It is clear that Carter’s fondness for the story extends even beyond Whale. The emphasis on the neighing horse at the climax seems almost like a shout-out to Young Frankenstein.

Monstrous...

Monstrous…

However, Frankenstein is not the only ingredient of note here. The Post-Modern Prometheus also contains a framing sequence that consciously evokes both Cinderella and Superman. It opens with a comic book, recalling Richard Donner’s Superman, but it closes with a storybook, like Cinderella. As noted earlier, at one point, the Great Mutato stages his own affectionate imitation of Risky Business in one of the victims’ houses. He is also a fairly massive fan of the musician Cher.

The Cher element of the plot is interesting. Three Cher songs are heavily featured in The Post-Modern PrometheusGypsies, Tramps and Thieves, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore and Walkin’ in Memphis. Two of those three are cover versions – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore was originally recorded by the Walker Brothers, and Walkin’ in Memphis was originally a Marc Cohn song. The episode also features footage from the movie Mask, which was an adaptation of a true story.

No news like bad news...

No news like bad news…

The Post-Modern Prometheus ties Cher into the postmodernity of the story, incorporating references to Cher’s reiterations and reinterpretations of old standards into Chris Carter’s reiteration and reinterpretation of old standards. The Post-Modern Prometheus is a gloriously self-aware piece of work; even the works of art that it appropriates and adapts are appropriations and adaptations themselves. The act of reiterating these ideas time and time again is more than simply remixing or remastering – at some point, it becomes something new and compelling.

The Post-Modern Prometheus also provides a nice opportunity for the show to play up the romance between Mulder and Scully. Carter had initially been quite loudly opposed to the possibility of a romance between his two leads, but the fifth season sees the show loosen up a bit. The series moves away from suggesting Mulder is a possible father figure for Scully, and starts properly teasing the sexual tension between them. Mulder and Scully share a motel room and a bottle of wine in Detour. Mulder gets jealous of Scully’s romantic interest in Sheriff Hartwell in Bad Blood.

On the road again...

On the road again…

The closing image of The Post-Modern Prometheus finds Mulder and Scully dancing together, a sketch of their smiling faces capturing the moment for posterity before the book is closed on the story. It is no surprise that this will always be actor David Duchovny’s favourite image:

There’ll be an ending image, but by the sheer fact that it’s a self-conscious ending image, I think it’ll be overloaded and won’t work. My favorite image of the show’s seven years is the end of the black-and-white episode, where they had us slow-motion dancing. However it ends, to me, that’s my favorite.

It is a very memorable and distinctive (and uplifting) image. It captures a lot of the appeal of the fifth season in general and of The Post-Modern Prometheus in general – a sense of fun and playfulness that really celebrates the fact that The X-Files is at the peak of its popularity and success.

Cher-ing a moment...

Cher-ing a moment…

The Post-Modern Prometheus is a flawed and indulgent little episode, but those are perhaps part of the charm. The fifth season of The X-Files would see the show at the absolute height of its popularity, with a massive audience waiting with baited breath for a feature film release. It was the best possible moment for Carter to produce something like The Post-Modern Prometheus, an episode that speaks to both the show’s popularity and its sense of adventurousness. It is a little clumsy and unfortunate in places, but its enthusiasm is almost infectious.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the fifth season of The X-Files:

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2 Responses

  1. I don’t normally comment on X-Files related stuff, but I do want to bring up that the actor who played Mulder did bring up that he believed this was the shows best episode.

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