“My shadow isn’t mine… It’s like a black hole.” — Dr. Chester Banton
Mulder and Scully are brought onto a strange case involving numerous disappearances surrounded by very little evidence, causing Mulder to consider the possibility of spontaneous human combustion. But then they come across a man afraid of his own shadow, and things take a darker turn…
Radhika: Enter Vince Gilligan. Before going on to create the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan was best known to X-Philes as a writer and producer on our favorite conspiracy-laden show. And “Soft Light,” one of the final offerings of season two, is the first script Gilligan — a fan of the show — ever submitted. It turned out to be pretty decent.
A Virginia detective, Kelly Ryan — a former student of Scully’s — calls on our heroes for some help with a series of disappearances/deaths that leave little evidence behind, minus a burn mark or two. After Mulder considers spontaneous human combustion, the agents eventually trace a suspect, spotted in surveillance footage, to Polarity Magnetics. There, a scientist identifies the man from the footage as his partner, Dr. Chester Banton, a physicist who had been conducting research into dark matter. Banton seemingly disappeared after an accident five weeks earlier, which involved getting locked in a target room with an active particle accelerator.
The agents find Banton, who declares that walking into his shadow will kill them — this is the cause of all the mysterious deaths. Apparently, the accident has caused Banton’s shadow to behave like a black hole. Banton, paranoid that the government will want to use him as a guinea pig, tries returning to Polarity Magnetics in an effort to get destroyed with the particle accelerator, but learns his partner has been helping the government hunt him down. And that’s where the government steps in — Mulder’s informant X shows up, shoots the partner, and the agents arrive too late, initially thinking Banton is dead. By the episode’s end, we see Banton as the test subject inside a covert research facility… his fears fully realized. As Mulder says in the episode: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, Scully…”
Here’s another episode, like the one before it, where The X-Files lets a bit of its mythology and Monster of the Week themes intertwine. I would still classify this as a MOTW, but the inclusion of X and his dastardly deeds does blur the lines quite a bit. This is the episode where Mulder realizes not all is right with X, who again proves that he’s not the comparatively warm and fuzzy informant Deep Throat was when he tells Mulder, “Despite my loyalty to my predecessor, I’ve never made you any promises.” But X still appears somewhat willing to at least provide warnings to Mulder, because when the agent asks that they not meet again, the informant responds by telling him that it’s a dangerous time to go at things alone. Again, we see a bit of an edge to these final episodes, a bit of a hint to a bang-up season finale.
Another interesting part of this episode is the blatant reference to women trying to do their best in a male-dominated profession. When Mulder gently chastises Scully for covering up for her former student (who is later reluctantly killed by Banton and his shadow), her response is pretty firm: “She’s a woman trying to survive the boys’ club, Mulder. Believe me, I know how she feels.” It’s one of Scully’s few overt declarations of frustration with the professional world she’s immersed herself in, but it’s an important sentiment that needs to be heard.
But it’s not all dark and serious either. There’s plenty of the usual Mulder and Scully quips, albeit with a little more sarcasm than usual. And even X has one of his dry one-liners when Mulder tells him Banton’s convinced the government is out to get him: “It’s tax season. So do most Americans.”
Unlike previous freelancers for the show, Gilligan really seems to get the characters and the tone down rather well (the signs of a fan). It’s no wonder he went on to become an integral part of the series’ history.
Max: “Soft Light” is one of many episodes in the series that deals with slightly harder scientific concepts than the typical paranormal conceits that is the show’s bread-and-butter. As a science-fiction program, it’s sometimes interesting how a lot of the episodes are more paranormal excursions or horror-fests. As Radhika mentioned, the episode is the first in a storied career by Vince Gilligan for the program, and along with the terrific acting by Tony Shalhoub, generates a solid outing for viewers.
The noir aesthetics that The X-Files was inspired by and appropriated into its iconography and cinematography makes an interesting transmogrification in this episode. Chiefly, noir aesthetics deal with the interplay between light and darkness, and the scintillating shadow-world that lies inbetween the extremes. Dr. Banton’s shadow is, quite literally, the Monster of the Week, which makes this episode an almost meta-commentary on the aesthetic of the program. The shadows The X-Files uses so effectively are, by Gilligan’s hand, turned on the show to great effect. Now, I’m not sure if this was in Gilligan’s mind when he was conceiving the episode, but at the very least, the groundwork is being laid for the kind of deconstruction that would generate many an episode in the later years of the series.
This is now the second episode in a row that incorporates the cover-up or interception of individuals/events to serve some nebulous ends. Given that The X-Files‘ overarching mythology is about an even more massive cover-up involving the existence of extraterrestrials, and by the end of this season we will begin to know more about this effort in detail, this thematic thread is quite apt. X’s menacing visage is quite a “public” face to these machinations, no matter how much he tries to help Mulder out during the course of his investigations. And much like what happened (or was alluded to) to computer genius Brad Wilczek in “Ghost In The Machine,” Dr. Chester Banton becomes yet another gifted mind whose work, life, and the consequences thereof, becomes gristle for the military-industrial complex.
YES, IT’S THAT GUY
Tony Shalhoub – That’s right, that’s Mr. Monk in the role of Dr. Chester Banton. Shalhoub, who won several Emmys and a Golden Globe, for the title role on Monk, also appeared on Wings as the inimitable Antonio Scarpacci, and has generally had quite the successful run in a variety of character roles in movies and TV.