TV discussion

Twenty Years of The X-Files: The Post Modern Prometheus

It begins with colour, a comic book declaring that “somewhere in the land, a monster lurked” before turning into gorgeous black and white photography for the duration of the episode.

The X-Files episodes had dabbled with black and white before, most notably in mythology episodes like “Piper Maru”, and the masterpiece that was “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”, but only for certain stretches. Chris Carter had opted to go all out and film an entire episode in monochrome.

Complete with a gorgeous score from Mark Snow and a narrative that pays tribute to everything, from James Whale-directed Universal horror movies of the 1930’s, to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, to the complete back catalogue of Cher, “The Post Modern Prometheus” debuted on the Fox Network twenty years ago and has remained a firm favourite with fans since, even if there are certain aspects of the episode the prove a little more problematic than at first glance.

It’s easy to see why the episode is so beloved, it has the hallmarks of an episode from a television show that is endeavouring to go out for fan favouritism; it stands out visually, it’s comedic, it’s got a degree of high concept that the show was staring to experiment with more exponentially, while delivering a final scene that has made its way into a plethora of tribute videos on You Tube celebrating the chaste and wonderfully played relationship at the heart of the show.

Being a Carter-directed episode means that it fires on all visual cylinders. For all the criticism that The X-Files key architect gets from fans (mostly shippers, it has to be said) for his writing, his direction is stunning, delivering the goods on a visual level that is practically unheard of from a television showrunner doing double duty; from the black and white photography on this, to the breathtaking use of long takes in “Triangle”, to the alien abduction sequences in “Duane Barry”, to the regression hypnosis sequence in “The Red and the Black”, Carter is not someone to rest on his laurels when it comes to directing his own episodes of the show.

While “Duane Barry” and “The List” (a run of the mill stand alone elevated by the visuals alone) had a lot going for it, “The Post Modern Prometheus” marks the first of several Carter-directed episodes that really went for it visually; Carter would follow it with the likes of “Triangle”, “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” and “Improbable”, all episodes that would see the show deliver the visual goods, along with more complex than they seem narratives.

Carter being Carter, the story isn’t just a simple case of a monster  on the loose, but instead opts to throw in deeper themes on genetic engineering, mad scientist stereotypes, a society obsessed with tabloid talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show (you can tell we’re in the late 90’s here because he even makes a small cameo via the television sets within the episode), as well as an ending that almost serves as a meta commentary on television writing and our inability to accept endings that are served to us (“I want to speak to the writer”).

Not to mention doing all this while throwing in a Cher soundtrack which just heightens the comically surreal atmosphere throughout.

Carter has  ever been someone to do things by half, and the same goes for when he delivers X-Files scripts that are on the side of comedic. The one time he positively delivered something that was “fluffy” for lack of a better word, it ended up being “Triangle” and he ended up filming each act in one continuous take, while his first attempt at doing something on the lighter side of things was season three’s highly divisive “Syzygy” (which this reviewer will admit to loving wholeheartedly for its snide, Mulder and Scully interaction), which threw in intense conversations about astrology and planet alignment.

Dotted throughout “The Post Modern Prometheus”, on top of the jokes and references to “mad scientists” and Jerry Springer, are intense dialogue driven scenes on genetics and flies growing arms out of heads, complete with use of thunder lighting sound and visual effects that immediately transport one back to many a Universal horror movie, but with dialogue that pushes it beyond the realm of hokey horror clichés.

Of course, the episode is fondly remembered for more than just the themes and visuals and Carter’s ability to marry complex narrative to high concept fun; given that The X-Files is a show famous for its fans of adoring shippers, the episode features one of the show’s most iconic and enduring images, that of Mulder and Scully dancing the night away in the final scene, before dissolving into a gorgeously drawn comic book image of the two of them.

Accompanied to Cher’s Walking in Memphis, it’s an image that could very easily be a perfect one to actually end the show on, although it would mean not resolving the show’s entangled mythology or devious plot threads, but on an emotional level it does everything one would hope and dream of with regards to its two iconic lead characters.

Of course, Carter being Carter, even this is prone to being something worthy of further exploration, coming as it does as a meta commentary from Mulder anguished by the case’s downbeat ending where The Great Mutato (Chris Owens, previously the young CSM and future Jeffrey Spender) is denied a happy ending due to the actions of Dr Pollidori (Seinfeld’s John O’Hurley), demanding to talk to Izzy, the writer of the comic book exploits of Mutato, in order to get a happy ending.

It does mean that the final moments are potentially fake, but then again, is the episode real at all? It may sound like a stupid question, coming as it is about a fictional television drama about the supernatural, but in fact the entire episode has such an air of fabrication to it that it’s likely that the entire episode is in fact a work of fiction within The X-Files universe, and as such, given that it begins and ends with the flip of a comic book page, that it’s really Izzy and his comic book’s interpretation of the events that happened when Mulder and Scully were there.

None of this happens to destabilise the episode, in fact it simply makes it all the more fun and ripe for exploration, but it does take the sting of the idea that the final scene is not real because how could any of it be real.

There is the issue that the episode makes light of the fact that Mutato and his adoptive father, Old Man Pollidori (Lloyd Berry), have been sneaking into the homes of the townsfolk’s women and impregnating them, which the episode brushes aside with a happy ending sequence involving The Jerry Springer Show (admittedly Vince Gilligan’s fourth season masterpiece “Small Potatoes” also has a similar queasy aspect to it), but it doesn’t take away from many of the episode’s successes, and never feels like anything but surreal fun.

When The X-Files returned for its tenth season, and will do so again for its eleventh early next year, it was a chance for television to show that there was still room for a show that could do stand alone tales brilliantly in an era when epic, ongoing serialisation, has become the norm. Of course, The X-Files had its own mythological threads going on around it, its supporting cast and ongoing story arcs, but never fully became a serial in the traditional sense, allowing itself to be left open for wonderful bouts of story telling that could be compulsively entertaining and daringly experimental.

“The Post Modern Prometheus” is a prime example of how television, when it does a show that can be characterised as procedural or one with an established formula, can transcend the snobbery that such a show can not be daring, or brilliant. The X-Files was a series that delivered its best, not to mention its most beloved work, when delivering stand alone tales, many of which would see the show push visual storytelling to brilliantly imaginative places. There are so many episodes to name, but “The Post Modern Prometheus” is without a doubt one of the best examples of it.

Despite being the show’s originator, Carter is someone who is frequently the most criticised, especially by the show’s most hard-core shippers who bemoan his story telling methods when it comes to the show’s central relationship, and yet so many of his episodes are the ones that contain the most fan favourite moments between the heroic duo at the heart of many fans most favourite element of the show, and with this he gave them the most shippiest moment in the show’s record-breaking run.

It also happens to be one of the best ever episodes too and after twenty years still represents the show at its very best.

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