Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The X-Files - "The Post-Modern Prometheus"

Season 5, Episode 5
Original Airdate: November 30, 1997
Writer/Director: Chris Carter
Executive Producers: Chris Carter, R.W. Goodwin
Cast: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, John O’Hurley, Chris Owens

It’s impossible to choose a “best” episode of “The X-Files” because there are legitimately too many great ones to choose from. More than that, many of the great episodes are scary, some are funny, and others are fantastic mind games. Others are all of the above. Even masterworks like “The Sopranos” and “Seinfeld” have that one episode that can stand as a representation of everything the show can accomplish, but that’s not so with “The X-Files.” The stories, and voices of its writers, are just too varied to allow one hour to represent it. The only other show I can think of off the top of my head like that is “The Twilight Zone,” which puts this program in good company. I chose “The Post-Modern Prometheus” not because it is the show’s “best,” but it’s because it is my favorite.

Each episode would involve FBI Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigating the unexplainable. Mulder is a true believer in alien abduction, vampires, demons and the forces of evil. Scully, despite being proven wrong in almost every episode, continues to be cynical. The unexplainable occurrence here involves a version of the Frankenstein monster who breaks into women’s houses and inseminates them over the course of several days (he uses termite tents as a way to ensure he’s not caught). Oh, and he has a Cher fetish. Yes, that Cher. If you didn’t grin from ear to ear reading that summation, then there’s just no talking to you. Yes, this is one of the lighter “X-Files,” feeling much more like a fairy tale than a horror movie.

Writer/Director Chris Carter (also the show’s creator) chose to shoot in black-and-white as an homage to James Whale’s two Universal “Frankenstein” films. And indeed the skies are painted grey like in those films, and villagers with pitchforks serve a big purpose in the climax. But there are also numerous nods to Mary Shelley’s original novel, beginning with the name of the episode and in several lines of dialogue (yes, I know Mulder gives us the wrong ending to the novel…shut up!). Despite most of the episode’s characters being, uh, a few watts short of a working lightbulb and mainly obsessed with getting on “The Jerry Springer Show” (Springer has a cameo), the episode is one of the smartest of the series. Every time I revisit the show after a few months or years, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the intricacies of the dialogue, and how the writers never shy away from allowing their two protagonists to sound smart (really, really smart), even if some of the language goes over the heads of viewers. Big words are more and more of a “no-no” in today’s television landscape, and that’s such a shame because, looking back on the literacy of shows like “The X-Files” is almost like visiting a foreign planet (ugh, I’m so sorry for that pun, but not sorry enough to erase it).

The subject matter and the tone of “The Post-Modern Prometheus” prove just how versatile the series can be and what kinds of chances it was willing to take on a regular basis (I did mention the Cher fetish, right?). The black-and-white was a brilliant decision, and Joel Ransom’s work as cinematographer is absolutely sterling. The world is gorgeous to look at, and Gillian Anderson has never looked lovelier than here.

One thing that I don’t think “The X-Files” gets enough credit for is its inherent humanity. For a show that is, at its base, about scares and little green men, a lot of screentime and effort is taken to develop its one-off characters who may or may not survive ‘til the end of the hour. Similar horror shows treat them simply as monster bait, but here the writers genuinely attempt to make us care about these victims…and in the case of this episode, its monsters as well.  In the final act, the monster (Chris Owens, later to play Jeffrey Spender) gets a chance to explain his actions and the horrors he has apparently acted out to his “victims.” The scene is beautifully written and staged, but the kicker is what comes next. Carter ends the episode set to Cher’s cover of “Walking in Memphis,” with the monster actually getting to attend a Cher concert, where Cher (be still my heart) embraces him and takes him onstage with her. Totally unrealistic? Sure, but who cares? This is a fairy tale, and no one wants realism in one of those. Bonus points for letting Scully smile, which is something which doesn’t happen often enough in the show’s 202 episodes.

Yes, 202 episodes (plus two movies). It’s shocking how consistently great the show was during its entire run. The final few seasons got a lot of criticism while still airing for not being up to the standards of earlier episodes, but re-examining them today with fresh eyes reveals that the show remained great up until the very end. Episodes like “Roadrunners,” “Via Negativa,” “Daemonicus” and “Improbable” easily stand with the best “X-Files.”

“The Post-Modern Prometheus” just eeked its way past “Home,” “Triangle,” “Bad Blood” and the Darin Morgan installments to be the first “X-Files” episode I wrote about, though I’m sure several of the above will have their own columns soon. The fantastic thing that allowed “The X-Files” to last so long and work so well in different tones and genres was that it could be about anything just so long as it was something we, as human beings, cannot understand yet. Yes, that involved a lot of darkness, but it had a lot of hope as well. It is also one of the shows that made me want to be a writer.

“The Post-Modern Prometheus” is available on DVD, iTunes, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime.

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