Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The X-Files - S5:E5 "The Post-Modern Prometheus"

[ S5:E4 "Detour" <<< Season 5 >>> S5:E6 "Christmas Carol" ]

This is one of those episodes - like Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose - that I've heard people laud as one of the enduring highlights of the entire series, but that left me feeling lukewarm at best upon first viewing. It's not that I hated these episodes, or even that I didn't enjoy them (necessarily), but I never considered them among my personal favorites, and to hear people speak of them so highly had always left me wondering. Re-watching them now, with the maturity and experience that I didn't have as a teenager, puts me in a better position to understand what it is about these episodes that people like, but I still wouldn't put them at the top of my favorite episodes list. This one even more so than Clyde Bruckman (which I have to admit is pretty good).

For one thing, this episode is filmed in black and white. I'm a visual artist - a photographer. Now, I'm not saying that to imply that my opinion is irrefutable, but just to show that I've given this considerable thought. I've always considered color - in both still and motion pictures - to be more interesting, as well as more beautiful, than black and white. Black and white has a sophisticated reputation, but I've always considered it vaguely pretentious, because anyone can slap a black and white filter on something and call it art (not to say that that's what's going on here). A talented artist should be able to work in both black and white and color, and I've just always been more interested in visual depictions that represent the world I actually live in - which is one suffused with color.

Another use for black and white, which seems to be one of the aims of this episode, is its ability to hearken back to an earlier period of time when available technology didn't allow for color representations of the world. But I don't share the rose-tinted nostalgia for "the olden days" that some of these artists have, and even when recreating that older era, I prefer to see it the way people did with their own two eyes - in color, just like people see the world today, not with everything artificially desaturated into shades of grey. That having been said, despite whatever motivations I may have to object to the decision to film this episode in black and white on principle, superficially speaking, the shots are crisp and clear, well-composed, and very pretty.

"The Post-Modern Prometheus" is an unveiled reference to Dr. Frankenstein, to which this episode is a loving homage. It was notably written and directed by Chris Carter. (If I weren't normally in Chris Carter's corner, I'd be a little bit suspicious of the praise this episode gets - which isn't even a mythology episode). Counting only his solo writing credits, and only for freak-of-the-week episodes, Chris Carter has had a few hits (Fire, Darkness Falls, The Host, Irresistible), and some misses (The Jersey Devil, Space, Syzygy). As far as the episodes he's directed, at this point in the series there is only Duane Barry (which I liked), and The List (which isn't as popular, but that I also liked - it has a stylistic sensibility to it, but a much more serious one than this episode). It does seem as though his talents as a director have been improving, though.

Ultimately, I just can't bring myself to like this episode, all of its critical praise be damned. It's a fine piece of art - I'm not impugning that perspective - but I think the primary problem is that the tone just feels off. And that's the worst offender, in my eyes, because I can enjoy mediocre episodes of The X-Files as long as the tone is right. And that's not to say that every episode has to be dark and serious - some of the lighter and/or more self-conscious episodes work, in my opinion (e.g., Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space', Quagmire, Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, Unusual Suspects). But some of my least favorite episodes (e.g., Humbug, The Field Where I Died) are not bad pieces of art, per se, but I just can't get into them because they have the wrong sensibility. I'm not going to say that it's anything more than a subjective judgment, but it's there nonetheless.

Take the opener, for example. A woman is gassed in her home by a monster - some kind of mutant freak - with this pop song playing on the soundtrack (Cher, I think), and it just completely clashes with what's happening on the screen. It's not like in Home, when the mutants were listening to a cheerful song on the radio while they were busy maiming and killing their victims, creating a disturbing juxtaposition. This is just discordant, and the effect isn't very appealing (or maybe I just don't like Cher). The next time it happens, the mutant dances up the stairs, and it all just has this vaudeville feeling to it. Contributing to the lighter atmosphere is the whimsical score (even excepting the Cher tracks). And combined with the theatricality of the villain (sensationalized in a comic book as "The Great Mutato"), it has a bit of the feeling of the freak show from Humbug.

And then there is the gross over-usage of fake lightning (even indoors!) for dramatic effect, which, rather than create atmosphere, just tends to take you out of the moment, and remind the viewer that he's watching a fiction. This is at its worst in a scene with a stereotypical mad scientist played by John O'Hurley (whom Seinfeld fans will remember as J. Peterman). At one point in the episode there's even a mob carrying torches and pitchforks! (Well, okay, maybe not pitchforks, but they may as well have been). And did I mention Jerry Springer's cameo? The episode ends at a Cher concert - no fooling - with the entire cast, and Mulder and Scully slow-dancing (you can almost hear shippers swooning the world over), and it's very self-aware. (I think that by Mulder's direct address to "the writer", we're meant to understand that the episode is breaking the fourth wall in order to construct a fantasy ending). It's like The X-Files celebrating, "yay, we're a pop culture phenomenon!", when I'd rather watch the sort of episodes that made the show a pop culture phenomenon in the first place.

I mean, I could take it to be a quirky but loving homage to Frankenstein, but does that make it one of the best episodes in the series? I think maybe people hold it up as a lofty beacon of what The X-Files was (or could be), because it covers the basic themes of an X-Files episode (at least a freak-of-the-week one), with a good balance of humor and human pathos, with competent writing and effective dialogue (much of this thanks in no small part to Chris Carter, who, despite being the go-to mythology guy, surely understood as well as anyone what makes the show work). Add to that the glossy, artsy sheen that the filming and the acting and the cinematography provide, and this is the episode you could show to your grandmother. It's like the hit single the band produced, but is it the best track on the album? I was always a fan of the deep cuts - the long, meandering electric jams that really get to the heart of what the music's about. Not as accessible, maybe, but I'm not exactly your mainstream, casual fan.

Memorable quotes:

Mrs. Berkowitz: You can't plant a seed in a barren field.

Scully: I think what we're seeing here is an example of a culture for whom daytime talk shows and tabloid headlines have become a reality against which they measure their lives. A culture so obsessed by the media and the chance for self-dramatization that they'll do anything in order to gain a spotlight.
Mulder: I am alarmed that you would reduce these people to a cultural stereotype. Not everybody's dream is to get on Jerry Springer.
Scully: Psychologists often speak of the denial of an unthinkable evil or a misplacement of shared fears, anxieties taking the form of a hideous monster for whom the most horrific human attributes can be ascribed. What we can't possibly imagine ourselves capable of, we can blame on the ogre, on the hunchback, on the lowly half-breed. Common sense alone will tell you that these legends, these unverified rumors, are ridiculous.
Mulder: But nonetheless unverifiable. And therefore true in the sense that they're believed to be true.
Scully: Is there anything that you don't believe in, Mulder?

Mulder: Why would you do that?
Dr. Pollidori: Because I can.

Mulder: Given the power, who could resist the temptation to create life in his own image?
Scully: We already have that ability, Mulder, it's called procreation.

Mulder: When Victor Frankenstein asks himself, "whence did the principle of life proceed," and then as the gratifying summit to his toils creates a hideous phantasm of a man, he prefigures the post-modern Prometheus - the genetic engineer, whose power to reanimate matter (genes) into life (us) is only as limited as his imagination is.
Scully: Mulder, I'm alarmed that you would reduce this man to a literary stereotype - a mad scientist.

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