X-Files Flashback: ‘The Post-Modern Prometheus’

Season 5, Episode 5
Director: Chris Carter
Writer: Chris Carter

I will one day go back and revisit The X-Files episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” One of the unfortunate side effects of stumbling through all episodes in the 201 day march to the new limited series is that I’m rarely afforded the opportunity to luxuriate in the episodes, to think about them at great length. Not all episodes warrant this attention, granted, but there are little gems – usually non-mythology gems – that demand it. “Prometheus” is one such episode, that, thanks to its complicated visual influences and textures as well as its resonating themes, really needs multiple viewings to fully appreciate its best attributes.

Framed as a comic book and filmed in black and white, the episode begins as a single mother sends a letter to Mulder (because, you know, she heard him discussed on the “tee vee”) after she has a mysterious encounter with a damaged individual. Later, she woke up pregnant as happened 18 years ago with her current son. On the investigation, Mulder and Scully learn that the woman’s description of her visitor matches that of a comic book her son has created – the Great Mutato – based on a creature seen locally. They shortly meet Dr. Francis Pollidori (John O’Hurley, Seinfeld) who is conducting experiments on fruit flies with an applicability to humans. Mulder immediately suspects that Pollidori created the real Great Mutato. After Pollidori’s wife is attacked, Dr. Pollidori has an angry confrontation with his own father and kills him. The Great Mutato finds the father’s body and buries him.

When Mulder and Scully finally find the Great Mutato, he is actually an incredibly intelligent and well-spoken person. He tells his origin story: he was created by Dr. Pollidori years earlier but was raised by Pollidori’s father who toiled for years to replicate the same experiment to create a bride for the Great Mutato. An angry mob that intended to kill Mutato hears this and decides the monster is basically okay after all. Dr. Pollidori is arrested for his father’s murder, and Mulder and Scully take the Great Mutato – in a sequence widely assumed to be a happy ending manufactured for the comic book reality of the series – to a Cher concert with the rest of the townspeople. The two attacked women show up on Jerry Springer with babies identical to the Great Mutato.

The storyline of “Post-Modern Prometheus” feels intimately familiar, but that’s clearly by design. The title itself is an allusion to the original subtitle of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel, and clearly Chris Carter is drawing from that story for inspiration here. He manages to modernize it with inclusions of Jerry Springer, Cher, and an oppressive, small town mentality. The thematic content of the episode, aside from the call-backs to Frankenstein, are the portions of the episode that really make me want to go back and revisit it. There’s a lot of content out on the Internet about Carter’s intent here, particularly his fascination with Cher and her post-modern ability to change her appearance. If that was his goal, then one has to wonder what he would have made of Lady Gaga had she been around during the gestation of this episode.

My personal favorite aspects of the episode are the brilliant look and feel. The lush black and white cinematography, the complex and pause-able art direction, and the German expressionist touches are straight out of James Whale’s Frankenstein films, primarily The Bride of Frankenstein which takes a great deal of chances with cinema for the era including its off-kilter tone. Carter expertly re-purposes those expressionist touches here in “Prometheus” and creates something of a love letter to the era that feels so incredibly anachronistic. The episode was alone responsible for seven Emmy awards back in 1998, winning for the lush art direction, with Chris Carter receiving nominations for Writing and Direction, which are well deserved.

“The Post-Modern Prometheus” is an episode that fully justifies the brilliance of the “monster of the week” episodes over the mythology episodes. Carter takes creative risks and chances with these little gems that he never takes in the mythology episodes. As a result, he has created true art, something that has to be seen multiple times to be fully appreciated. Unfortunately, the engine of the 201 Days experiment keeps turning over. One day, I will go back and revisit this brilliant oddity. There’s so much more there than anyone can see on first look.

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