Work Header

I Want to Talk to the Writer: X-Files, "The Postmodern Prometheus"

Work Text:




You know, I’m not very far into season 5 yet. But I have to say: Chris Carter lost his mind a lot earlier than I remembered.

So far, Season 5 is supremely annoying to me. For one thing, I hate the Season 5 mythology, which attempts to render Krichgau’s ‘alien hoax’ theory credible despite the fact that it just can’t be made consistent with the first four seasons. “The Unusual Suspects” is sort of cute as a window into the lives of the Lone Gunmen; but if I really have to start seeing Mulder’s thing about aliens as a result of his exposure to the government’s paranoia juice, well, this show isn’t what I thought it was and neither is Fox Mulder. There is also, however, a noticeable decline in the Monster of the Weeks, caused partly by an increase in the show’s already evident tendency to repeat itself. Apart from the humorous byplay about the FBI’s bullshit “teamwork” training—and hey, I enjoyed that as much as the next person who hates being trained—there’s nothing in that episode that wasn’t already in either “The Dark” (superpredator living in old growth trees), “The Jersey Devil” (humanoid superpredator hanging out in the woods, preying on humans as its habitat is invaded), or “Quagmire” (Mulder and Scully keeping each other sane while stuck out in the woods together overnight with a predator on the loose). OK, we see the M/S relationship inch closer to romance, but that’s not enough to hang an hour of TV on. 

Then we get to “The Postmodern Prometheus.” And…

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is one of the foundational narratives of horror and science fiction, and it’s not surprising that Carter decided to take it on. This episode is obviously more influenced by the film treatments, which makes plenty of sense given the medium; the “postmodern” part, presumably, comes partly from the ‘updating’ of the story to rural America in the 1990s, but also from the way the episode folds, spindles, and mutilates its source material in classic postmodern pastiche fashion. Formally, it constantly alludes to and spoofs the early films; it’s shot in black and white, with humorously overdone effects (lightning flashes, mist, monsters lurking in the shadows, etc.), and hits all the cliches: the mad scientist, the Bride, the iconic mob of angry villagers with torches (who, in a little touch that I do appreciate, accidentally burn down the barn by not thinking first for 30 seconds about what happens when you take a bunch of lit torches into a building full of dried grass). There is also some indication that Carter actually read the novel, chiefly in the weirdly sexless relationship between the mad scientist and his wife Elizabeth, the Creature’s grief over and burial of his ‘father,’ (technically his grandfather, but whatever) and the Creature’s final monologue, in which he displays the same improbable command of the English language that Shelley’s Creature displays in his dialogues with Victor. Carter is simultaneously parodying the conventions of his own postmodern-Gothic show, as Mulder’s fascination with the paranormal drags him into the tabloid-vivant freak show of early reality TV. We get the layering on of other pop-culture intertexts in the ‘monster’s’ fascination with Cher and the film Mask. 

There’s even a nifty bit of metafiction in the episode’s last ten minutes, after the monster speaks his piece and he and the mad scientist are put in separate cop cars. Mulder is in the house looking over the albums of the ‘monster’ with his grandfather (the mad scientist’s father, who essentially adopted his son’s mutant creation), and says that this isn’t how the story is supposed to end. He doesn’t want to send the Creature to jail. He wants the Creature to escape and get to seek his Bride and basically live happily ever after. Scully tells him she doesn’t see it happening. He says “I want to speak to the writer.”

And immediately afterward, the episode shifts from parody/pastiche into straight-up wish fulfillment. The Creature and the rest of the townsfolk, who are now quite fond of him, drive out to (I assume from the use of the song “Walking in Memphis”) Memphis, where he gets to attend a Cher concert surrounded by his new best friends and gets pulled up onto the stage with her, much to his delight. (They use a Cher lookalike. I wonder how her agents handled all this.) Scully and Mulder, basking in the glow of the Creature’s happy ending, partner up and dance together, more romantically than we’ve ever seen them. The final frame of them dancing turns into a comic-book image, and voila, our postmodern romp is done.

Normally I live for this shit. So why was my initial response to “The Postmodern Prometheus” not “wow, how funny and touching and clever” but rather, “I had no idea Chris Carter started smoking that crack that early in the history of the show”?

Well, mainly it has to do with the rapes.

What the Creature is being arrested for, before we get to the fantasy ending, is (with the help of his grandfather, the mad scientist’s father) invading the homes of two women, drugging them, impregnating them, and leaving them in an anaesthetized haze for 3 days. One of these women is Mulder’s client, whose adult son Izzy was conceived during one of these attacks 25 years ago, and who has just recently experienced another. The other is the wife of the mad scientist (I should mention that the mad scientist is most deliciously portrayed by John O’Herlihy, who would make another mark on the 1990s as Seinfeld’s J. Peterman). How exactly the impregnation takes place is left vague. It must clearly be some kind of implantation, because much is made of the fact that Izzy’s mother had a tubal ligation before the second attack, and because the point is to create a bride for the Creature, which requires the grandfather to genetically engineer a similarly mutated embryo in the lab before bunging it into the women. However, I think we can assume that the Creature has also been having sex with these drugged and unconscious women, since both encounters are staged as elaborate parodies of seduction. The monster creates the mood by draping the house in circus-tent fabric (how he’s sewing all that…oh, never mind), cooking up the anaesthetic gas, putting Cher on the tape player, and sashaying down the hall/up the stairs to his victim’s bedroom. Since sex would not actually be necessary to create the Bride (that’s being done by implantation anyway), we can only assume that the Creature’s grandfather, out of pity for him, decided to help his son get laid, or rather help his son rape two unconscious women.

The ‘happy ending’ shows both women on the Jerry Springer show holding identical mutant babies. He asks them if it’s “hard to love” them. Izzy’s mom says, “What’s not to love?” For the happy ending Mulder wants—the one “the writer” obliges him with in the end—his victims have to basically be OK with what he did to them. And really, one cannot entirely shake the sense that Chris Carter is basically OK with it too. The Creature’s monologue—which happens before we head off into metafictional fantasyland—excuses his behavior by saying, well, at least you got the children you wanted. After this speech the entire torch-wielding mob, including the women he’s raped, are all misty-eyed and ready to embrace the Creature to their collective bosom. Mulder and Scully arrest him, but reluctantly; they both really want him to go free, and Carter breaks the laws of verisimilitude to make it happen.

Homina WHAT?

Now you could say, you’d have a point, look, Plaidder, you’re taking this episode way too seriously. Can’t you see it’s camp? Yes. Yes, I can see that. But the thing is, this campy storyline has been playing out all along in the mythology, where it is taken deadly seriously. In the mythology, of course, the abduction and impregnation of unconscious and unwilling women is Not OK; but the insistence with which the mythology keeps returning to these reproductive nightmares indicates that Carter is fascinated with the idea. In the next episode, Scully will find out what the consortium’s been doing with her ova, which were harvested from her without her consent during the ‘lost time’ of her abduction. Which reminds us that even though Scully has not, as far as we know, been literally raped, that season 2 abduction involved horrendous violations of her body and her will in a trauma whose aftereffects have been playing out for the past 2 seasons. And raises—for me, anyway—the question of why, having created one of the actually legitimately kick-ass heroines of TV, he then decided to build her whole half of the mythology arc around her reproductive system.