If you’ve been with me since at least “Quagmire” (3×23), you’ll know that I’ve asserted for a while now that more than sci-fi, more than paranormal fantasy, The X-Files is really a romantic literary adventure at heart. Here we have two heroes who are, erm, heroic… not because they’re faultless, but because like their predecessors in the great romantic tradition, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, they refuse to give up their idealistic and foolhardy quest out of some antiquated sense of honor; their audience of fans being forced to waffle between nodding in admiration and shaking their heads in exasperation.
My arguments may ring flat to some but if you won’t take it from me, take it from series creator Chris Carter who wrote and directed this milestone episode giving us clear look into his personal predilections.
“Mr. Carter said he hoped the episode would remain true to the original story’s [Frankenstein’s] romantic roots. ‘I have always been a fan of romantic literature,’ he said. ‘In creating Mulder and Scully, I knew they could be likened to romantic heroes.’” [Editor’s Note: Told. You. So.]
Chris Carter based “The Post-Modern Prometheus” on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus), which is probably one of the most famous examples of literature produced during the Romantic movement. As an unusual of a departure as this episode is, it’s familiar theme, man elevating himself to the place of God through genetic manipulation, shouldn’t surprise us much.
It’s not hard to see where the Frankenstein motif has left its mark over much of the series already. From individual episodes back in Season 1 like “Young at Heart” (1×15), to the alien-human hybrid story arc encased within the larger, ongoing mythology, to the personal woes of Scully who has had her ova stolen and experimented on in the name of… well, in the name of what we’re not sure of yet.
If these fears and nightmares seem a little melodramatic, do The X-Files a favor and remember that this was the 90’s and we weren’t that far removed from Dolly the Sheep. The Human Genome had been mapped, cloning had become a reality, and not too far under the surface we all wondered just how far down the rabbit hole these new powers would take us. Could mankind be trusted with the God-like ability to remake life in its own image?
There’s a practical protection against such a danger: defining what it is, what it means to be human.
It’s not an unfamiliar subject to broach. Heck, Star Trek: The Next Generation basically tried to define humanity every other episode. (Yet another example of how 90’s progress and paranoia led to pop culture perfection.) And even aside from the pressure of rapidly progressive science, myths of synthetic humans largely predate the advance of technology. Besides Frankenstein, there’s the myth of the Golem, not coincidentally a myth also addressed by The X-Files in “Kaddish” (4×12). And not to belabor the point, but why else did the Tin Man want a heart, the Scarecrow want a brain and the Cowardly Lion want courage if not to become human rather than merely humanoid?
All that is to say that what “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is really saying is that to be “human” isn’t merely to meet a genetic requirement. After all, we share so much of our genetic material with the lowly Drosophila. No, humans are required to be humane; we’re made in the image of God and we’re supposed to act like it. Here all these freaky looking townsfolk are hunting a mutant monster only to find out that not only are they uglier on the inside than he is on the outside, but the monkey really is their uncle. Literally.
Sometimes I’m amazed at what The X-Files makes it possible for us to enjoy without guilt. Here’s a tale about rape and animal-human hybrids, and somehow, that’s OK.
Maybe that’s because the whole episode is a Fractured Fairy Tale from start to finish. It starts and ends as a conscious piece of fiction being deliberately framed in comic book format. The gorgeous black and white cinematography, undoubtedly a feather in the cap for Director of Photography Joel Ransom, sets this episode apart as something other than an X-File and something more akin to Chris Carter’s personal fan fiction. There are also the repetitive shots, or as Chris Carter likes to call them, “visual quotes”, peppered throughout the episode, giving a disorienting sense of déjà vu to the entire story. And best of all, the wide-angle lens shots exaggerate even the most mundane moments eliminating all traces of the real world eeriness that The X-Files is famous for. It’s not a loss, it’s a welcome departure; pure escapism in a show that’s already fantastical in content.
This one was originally written for Cher and Rosanne Barr who both expressed interest in appearing on The X-Files. Rosanne Barr who was originally supposed to play Shaineh Berkowitz and Cher who was supposed to play… Cher. But at the last minute, schedule conflicts ruled out this potential clash of the titans and substitutes had to be found. I think it’s a good thing in the long run that Chris Carter didn’t get the famous guest stars he wrote the story around (except for you of course, Jerry Springer). They would have only been a distraction. This way the “The Post-Modern Prometheus” itself gets to shine.
The question is, who do we owe its success to? You’d think it’d be obvious and yet Mulder and Scully take over the script from Chris Carter, quite literally. Interestingly enough, they’ve already done it figuratively, recreating the show in their own image despite, or perhaps because of, their creator’s best intentions. It’s all quite meta, no?
Speaking of intentions, I saw that look cross your face, David Duchovny. Mulder and Scully came this close to making Shippers everywhere collapse in spasms of geeky bliss during that final scene. As it is, there may have been embarrassingly girly squeals rising from a in front of a little television near the Everglades somewhere. I have read that there was an actual kiss filmed, but who knows if the footage still exists or if it will ever see the light of day.
That’s OK because ultimately, I didn’t need it and I still don’t. I can honestly say that’s the most purely joyful moment of television I’ve ever been graced to witness.
The quote above from Chris Carter was surreptitiously stolen from here: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/11/19/arts/tv-notes-x-files-tries-frankenstein.html
Not to be blasphemous, but Marc Cohn’s original version of “Walking in Memphis” is actually my favorite. Speaking of which, does anyone remember when it was featured on VH1’s Pop Up Video? I’m aging myself, yes?
Composer Mark Snow has absolutely outdone himself. For reals. The whole score is a vaguely circus-like dream.
The looks on Scully’s face this entire episode… you can watch it with the sound off and it’s still hilarious. Her face says it all.
Recurring guest star Chris Owens is back for his 3rd appearance on The X-Files, this time as a monster that doesn’t smoke.
The Great Mutato wants to create someone just as miserable as he is so they can be miserable together. How… touching.
For once, there’s no need for Chris Carter to reign in the purpleness of his prose. It works to this episode’s fantastical advantage.
I could touch on why, yet again, Cher is presented as the sacred mother to all the outcasts and misfits of the world. But then, that’s been done.
Scully: [Reading in a deadpan voice] Dear Special Agent Mulder, I’m writing to you for help. Several years ago I had an experience I cannot explain. I was lying in my bed when I felt a presence in the room. Though I was awake, I felt that something had taken control over my body. I don’t remember much else, but I woke up three days later pregnant with my son Izzy. [Exchanges a look with Mulder] That was eighteen years ago but now it happened again. I was in bed and could swear I heard Cher singing (the one who was married to Sonny). [Exchanges another look] Then the room got all smoky and I saw some kind of monster. He had a really gross face with lumps all over his head. I was too scared to scream then I got all groggy and conked out for three days. Guess what happened when I woke up. I got your name off the TV. Some lady on The Jerry Springer Show who had a werewolf baby said you came to her house. [Yet another look] Well, I got her story beat by a mile, so maybe you’ll want to come see me too. Sincerely, Shaineh Berkowitz.
Mulder: Scully, do you think it’s too soon to get my own 1-900 number?
Mulder: I’m alarmed that you would reduce these people to a cultural stereotype. Not everybody dreams to get on Jerry Springer.
Scully: Mulder, I’m alarmed that you would reduce this man to a literary stereotype, a mad scientist.
Mulder: You may have been right, Scully.
Scully: What, that these people could be reduced to a cultural stereotype?
Mulder: This is all wrong, Scully. This is not how the story’s supposed to end.
Scully: What do you mean?
Mulder: Dr. Frankenstein pays for his evil ambitions, yes, but the monster’s supposed to escape to go search for his bride.
Scully: There’s not gonna be any bride, Mulder. Not in this story.
Mulder: Well, where’s the writer. I want to speak to the writer.