5×05: The Post-Modern Prometheus

“Why would you do that?” – Fox Mulder
“Because I can.” – Dr. Francis Pollidori

Our heroes venture to rural Indiana on reports that a local woman claims to be impregnated by a hideously deformed monster. Naturally, Mulder cannot pass something like this up…

The Post-Modern Prometheus

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Max: In what is the most audacious and bold experiment of The X-Files to date, Chris Carter penned and directed a loving homage to one of the most enduring monster stories of all time, that of Dr. Frankenstein and his woefully misunderstood creation. Titled from the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s original 19th century novel that originated the tale, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” takes its most direct inspiration from the classic 1931 film adaptation of the Frankenstein novel directed by James Whale with Boris Karloff portraying the monster. Shot entirely in quite breathtaking black and white (like the 1931 film), the episode blends the expressionist pathos of the film with a uniquely 1990s comedic sensibility. It may not be the strongest episode of the series, but it does not fall flat either as a reinterpretation of the Frankenstein mythos or as an episode of the series.

The Post-Modern Prometheus

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Summoned by homebody Shaineh Berkowitz (who heard of him on The Jerry Springer Show, natch), Mulder is asked by this woman to look into her encounter with a beast of a creature that has apparently left her pregnant, despite the fact that she had her tubes tied years ago. Stumbling on a comic book in the bedroom of Shaineh’s son Izzy, Scully (along for the ride, as usual) notices that the creature looks suspiciously like that of the primary character of the comic book. Mrs. Berkowitz informs Scully that the comic is a creation of her son, which leads Scully to conclude this as case of overactive imaginations. Izzy however, protests that the creature that he dubbed The Great Mutato is in fact real, and proceeds to lay a trap for him that leads to a close-but-no-cigar encounter with the creature, that becomes the talk of the whole town.

Following leads to both a local farmer and his scientist son, Mulder and Scully do their usual dance about the merits of the case and the true nature of the unfolding events (which includes a rather humorous barb when Scully asks her partner if there is anything he doesn’t believe in). The scientist, a Dr. Pollidori, has all the hallmarks of a classic mad scientist, utterly devoted to his work (if not his wife) and salivates over its potential to change the world.

The Post-Modern Prometheus

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

That work, as we would eventually discover, includes the bizarre creature known as The Great Mutato, who Pollidori regards as a massive mistake. Taken in by Pollidori’s father, the farmer, The Great Mutato is cared for and loved, as he takes solace in the music of the one and only Cher, and the times he is allowed by Old Man Pollidori to roam the houses of townsfolk. Of course this being a Frankenstein tale, it isn’t long before the pitchforks and lanterns come out, but The Great Mutato explains the situation to the angered masses, and Izzy is the first person to think that he isn’t a monster after all.

There is surprisingly a lot to unpack in this episode, and its breakneck kineticism is something we haven’t seen since the great comedy experiments of season three. All of the usual thematic material of the Frankenstein story comes to bear in this episode, but there are also traces of everything from The Elephant Man to Mask, the film that starred Cher where she played a mother with a similarly deformed son, and her acceptance of the son in the film is what so endeared The Great Mutato to the singing sensation. Underneath all that Mutato makeup is actor Chris Owens, who you know played a young CSM in two episodes last season and will be back to play another role later this season. There is also a good deal of the Tim Burton film Ed Wood in this episode’s camp stylings, from the melodramatic acting to the look of the androgynous reporter who keeps the townsfolk posted about the thoughts and activities of the two federal agents in their midst.

Speaking of Mulder and Scully, they share an affectionate dance at the end of the episode when they take The Great Mutato to see his idol in concert. Cher, sadly, was unavailable to film the scene so they had to rely on an impersonator to “sing” us off into the credits.

Radhika: It’s not just the black and white appearance or the ubiquitous presence of Cher’s catalog that makes “The Post-Modern Prometheus” stand out. The film, which is also reminiscent of 1974’s Young Frankenstein for obvious reasons — including ever-present thunder and lightning used to comedic effect — also pays homage to another art form, the comic book.

The Post-Modern Prometheus

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

The episode opens with a comic book and the aforementioned closing dance shared between Mulder and Scully also slowly morphs into a frame from a comic book, after we’re given an ending that Mulder demands from the writer (Izzy) of The Great Mutato’s story. The episode, as a whole, is an homage to the art of storytelling, and the level of storytelling here certainly is masterful. Being that The X-Files is born from a tradition of fantastic tales, it’s only fitting that at least one episode eventually mirrored comic books and Frankenstein movies, even if the tone of those stories is generally rather different than that of the average X-Files episode.

But The X-Files always has a touch of darkness, and one element of darkness goes beyond that of a simple monster story: This is yet another comedic episode where a character is essentially raping women. (The Great Mutato impregnating women without their knowledge is something we’ve seen to a degree in “Small Potatoes,” an episode I also ultimately enjoyed.) I don’t think the fact that these women desired children is a good enough reason to make it “okay.” And yet, I somehow don’t hate the episode for it. Is this because the fantastical elements are enough polish and shine for me to get swept away by the story? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s because at the heart of the cinematic fantasy, there is still a tale about loneliness and the horrifying mistake of creating a creature stuck with an existence the average human being wasn’t meant to endure.

As a woman, watching this episode through a lens I may not have had as a preteen fan of the show, I almost feel I should be more resolute about condemning this element of “The Post-Modern Prometheus” and other episodes with similarly problematic leanings. But the world of The X-Files is a mixed-up mess and it’s not as though these troubling characters are truly rewarded anyway — after all, we can’t forget that the happier ending Mulder asks for isn’t the actual ending of the story. It’s simply an act of wish fulfillment. And while I don’t condone The Great Mutato’s actions, erudite as he is in explaining his condition, I don’t blame Mulder for wishing things had been simpler and happier for the creature all along.

The Post-Modern Prometheus

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Nonetheless, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” remains quite an accomplishment for late-nineties network TV (albeit for a program that had an actual film in the works). The actors seem to revel in doing something new, the humor and references — a product of their time with Jerry Springer references and all — blend well into this fusion of classic storytelling techniques. It’s a special episode at the end of the day, and I smile when I think about how The X-Files often managed to defy expectations — and do it well — instead of just sticking to the formulas that made it the sci-fi classic it is today.

YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS

John O’Hurley – Playing mad scientist Dr. Pollidori, O’Hurley is best known for playing the similarly eccentric J. Peterman in Seinfeld. He’s also guested on programs ranging from Frasier, Mad About You, Boy Meets World, Weird Science, and Melrose Place. O’Hurley’s voice can be found on several cartoons, including Buzz Lightyear and Phineas and Ferb. He also hosted the perennial game show Family Feud from 2006 to 2010.

Jerry Springer – For a certain population, Jerry Springer’s talk show was a gateway drug to trailer trash and other sordid debauchery. The 56th Mayor of Cincinnati (!) has also dabbled in acting on Married… With Children and Space Ghost Coast To Coast. He also managed to play a fictionalized version of his talk show persona in the feature film Ringmaster.

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2 thoughts on “5×05: The Post-Modern Prometheus

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Season 5 | Apt. 42 Revisited

  2. Pingback: Scoring a Quest: The Music of The X-Files | Apt. 42 Revisited

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