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The Post-Modern Prometheus TXF

The X-Files is a supernatural procedural television series created by Chris Carter.  The program aired on the FOX television network in the United States from 1993 to 2002.  The series follows FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as they investigate obscure cases, known as the “X-Files,” involving unexplained phenomenon.  The series centers on a serialized plot, but often features stand-alone episodes.  The fifth episode of the fifth season, titled “The Post-Modern Prometheus” (1997), is a stand-alone episode which appropriates the story of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.

Episode Summary Edit

The episode opens on the image a comic book titled “The Great Mutato” featuring the picture of what appears to be a two-faced ghoul.  The book flips Disney-storybook-style and, in the place of “Once Upon a Time,” are the words: “Somewhere in the Land a Monster Lurked ...” This unusual opening, backed by quaint yet creepy music with a circus-like quality which invokes the feeling of a world just a little off from reality, signals the regular audience of the series that this will not be just any average episode, even for The X-Files.   

The cartoon images of the comic book fade into live action video.  A group of boys in their late teens struggle to start their car in order to depart on a road trip.  Just as they finally get the engine going and load up to set out, Izzy’s mother, Mrs. Berkowitz, comes out of the house and threatens to prohibit him from going on the trip (to a comic book convention) in light of the unreliable vehicle.  She quickly gives in, however, and watches as the boys’ car putters away down the small-town street.  That night, Mrs. Berkowitz sits alone at home and watches television in disbelief as Jerry Springer interviews a woman about her “werewolf baby.”  Unbeknownst to her, an assailant creeps into the house, accompanied by Cher’s “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” and sets off a gaseous anesthetic.  As the intruder peers around the door-frame into her room she glimpses a hideous, deformed, lump-covered face with two mouths.

When Mulder and Scully are called to investigate, it is revealed that Mrs. Berkowitz lost consciousness for three days and later discovered she was pregnant, despite having had her tubes tied two years previous.  Furthermore, this is how her son, Izzy, was conceived eighteen years ago.  She insists that a monster was in her home preceding her mysterious impregnation.  The agents discover the “Great Mutato” comic, the title character of which matches Mrs. Berkowitz’s description of her assailant.  Mrs. Berkowitz informs them that Izzy is the author.  Izzy insists that the Great Mutato is based on an actual monster which has been seen by many people in the town.

Before long, Scully and Mulder spot a glimpse of the allusive creature themselves. As they pursue the monster through the woods the agents meet a curmudgeonly old reclusive farmer who sends them to see his son, the arrogant geneticist Dr. Pollidori, whose experiments involve altering the genes of fruit flies.  Pollidori leaves town to give a lecture in Ingolstadt, and meanwhile his wife, Elizabeth, is too assaulted and impregnated. Pollidori's father is seen by the audience, but not by any of the characters, at the scene of Elizabeth's assault wearing a gas mask. Pollidori, who seems to quickly understand what has happened, subsequently confronts and kills his father.

Ultimately, Mulder and Scully discover the creature in the basement of the farm of Dr. Pollidori’s father.  The townspeople, led by Pollidori, descend on the farm to kill the monster.  The agents abate the angry mob and all listen as the creature explains that he was created by Dr. Pollidori and later taken in by the doctor’s father as a son.  Pollidori’s father wanted to create a mate for the creature so he would no longer have to be alone, and the impregnation of Mrs. Berkowitz and Pollidori’s wife were the results of his efforts. The monster states that Izzy was the failed first attempt at such a creation, but the details of their efforts are unclear. He says that Pollidori's father attempted to learn his son's science in order to create a mate for the creature, but it is not explained whether the creature himself was the father of the children or if they were rather the product of some kind of genetic engineering. Given Pollidori's field of science, the latter seems likely. Similarly, beyond the fact that Pollidori in an expert in a particular gene that, as Scully explains, "has something to do with growth and development," the methods employed by Pollidori in his creation remain a mystery. 

Though they feel great sympathy for him, the agents must arrest the creature for violating the two women.  The creature has found comfort in the music of Cher, and especially in her film Mask, in which she portrays the mother of a severely deformed young man who falls in love with a blind girl. The episode ends with them taking the creature to see a Cher impersonator, where he sits amongst the crowd without being ostracized.  Interspersed with images of the creature singing along and dancing to “Walking in Memphis” are Mrs. Berkowitz and Elizabeth holding their newborn babies, which are miniature versions of the two-faced creature, as they are interviewed on The Jerry Springer Show.  Springer asks: “Is it hard to love these babies?” To which Mrs. Berkowitz replies: “What’s not to love?” As Scully and Mulder dance together, the picture freezes and they morph into comic book images.

Major Themes Edit

Scientific Hubris Edit

Dr. Pollidori is the counterpart to Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein in this narrative.  Mulder notes that Shelley’s protagonist “prefigures the post-modern Frankenstein, the genetic engineer, whose power to reanimate matter –genes– into life –us– is limited only by his imagination.”  Drawing heavily on the image of Frankenstein popularized in early film adaptations, Pollidori is cast in a highly negative and unsympathetic light. Depicted as arrogant and egotistical, his aims are clearly motivated by a desire for glory without regard for the consequences of his actions.  When explaining his work to Mulder and Scully, he shows them the new species of fly he has engineered, which has legs growing out of its mouth.  Mulder asks him plainly, “Why would you do that?” His reply is simple: “Because I can.”  Furthermore, Pollidori puts his scientific endeavors above all else, when Elizabeth confronts him with her desire to have a child, he responds, “What do you want, a baby or a Nobel Prize?”  Through the character of Pollidori, the story questions the legitimacy of scientific creation for its own sake and channels Shelley’s narrative in drawing attention to the importance of scientific integrity.  In being recast as a geneticist, Pollidori becomes the symbol of a very modern scientific field.  This is just one of many examples of how the Frankenstein narrative lends itself to continued evolution through modernization.  By updating the story, the storytellers are able to highlight the timelessness of Shelley’s scientific themes.   

Parenting Edit

The role of parenting is very present in this incarnation of the Frankenstein story.  After their first encounter with Pollidori, Scully insists that, were it even possible, no scientist would employ Pollidori’s methods on a human being.  Mulder questions her, “Given the power, who could avoid the temptation to create life in his own image?”  Scully quickly answers, “We already have that power, Mulder, it’s called ‘procreation.’”  This exchange, along with the pregnancies which result from the attempts to create a mate for the creature, position this narrative squarely in the thematic realm of reproduction and parenting. Pollidori, just like Victor in the original text, is clearly the "bad" parent.  When Elizabeth voices her desire to have children he viciously spouts, “You know how I feel about children.  They’re mewling little monsters.”  At the end of the episode, when the creature pleads for Pollidori to create a companion for him if he is able, the doctor, voicing the fears of so many unwanted children, responds “I don’t know how to re-create you.  You were a mistake.”  Also like the novel, Pollidori’s father, just like Victor’s, offers an example of a loving parent which the doctor is either unable or unwilling to follow.  However in this story Pollidori does not have a healthy relationship his father, but his father loves and accepts the creature without regard to his physical appearance.  Mrs. Berkowitz is also an example of a loving and accepting parent throughout the episode, repeatedly showing concern for her son Izzy and defending him despite his apparent inadequacies.  In the end, by embracing their “monstrous” newborns, she and Elizabeth both represent a model of a loving mother for the repulsive creature that is absent in the novel and that the creature is denied in both the original story and seemingly most of its re-tellings, including this one. 

Social Acceptance Edit

A major theme in this narrative is the concept of social acceptance and its denial to individuals who do not fit into the commonly accepted notion of normal.  The creepy circus music, which is used throughout the episode, tends to back the town and the townsfolk, who are largely depicted as thoughtless, lacking the ability to think as individuals, and quickly devolving into an angry mob with little provocation.  Conversely, the creature is often accompanied by Cher singing of topics such as loneliness (“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”), and otherness (“Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves”).  The choice of music signifies that, though the creature might be physically “freakish,” the people of the town are truly the unnatural ones who are thus paired with the freak-show music while the creature is instead paired with lyrics that speak to his efforts to find a place in the world that has shunned him.  When Scully suggests that the agents are being duped by people of a rural class who are seeking to find some kind of recognition and purpose through the “self-dramatization” of their lives, Mulder retorts that he is “alarmed that [she] would reduce these people to cultural stereotypes.”  Later, following Mulder’s comparison of Dr. Pollidori to the Victor Frankenstein of Shelley’s novel, Scully gets him back by responding that she is “alarmed [he] would reduce these people to literary stereotypes.” All this talk of stereotypes has more significance than simply being comic fodder, the people of the town have reduced the creature to the stereotype of what Pollidori calls his “repulsive physiognomy.” The X-Files as a larger narrative is set up to explore the ideas of acceptance through the character of Mulder, who approaches the world with what many, including Scully, would consider an overly-open mind.  This episode is an example of how the show explores the balance between a healthy skepticism and an open mind.  Scully argues that monster myths are employed by societies to avoid facing the reality of human evils, this episode seems to suggest that, sometimes, people might rather use monster myths as a mode of justifying the exclusion of “freaks” from society. The end of the episode presents a version of the narrative in which the monster is included in a joyous participation of social interaction. The image of the creature pumping his fists and dancing to "Walking in Memphis" might seem quite far-fetched, but the un-real quality of the scene conveys the fact that the ideal of social acceptance for all is far from realized, and thus remains a fantasy.   

Significance As Adaptation Edit

“The Post-Modern Prometheus,” as suggested by its title, is highly aware of its place as an adaptation in a long line of adaptations.  Not only is the Frankenstein novel itself referenced by Mulder, but many allusions and Easter Eggs referencing the long adaptation history of the novel can be found throughout.  Examples include the fact that Pollidori is leaving to deliver a lecture in Ingolstadt, which is where Victor attends school and creates his monster in the original text; the name of Pollidori’s wife, Elizabeth, which is the name of Victor’s love as well; the angry mob scene and Mulder’s calm statement, “it’s alive,” which respectively mirror and counter (in delivery) James Whale’s 1931 adaptation. The name of Pollidori himself is an obvious reference to John William Polidori, who was present when Mary Shelley told her first incarnation of the Frankenstein tale, and who is credited with writing the first vampire story in English. More significant than these details, however, is the obvious fact that the episode is filmed in black and white and that violent thunder and lightning seem always ready to strike at the most dramatic moments, despite the fact that it is only seen to be raining near the very end of the episode.  The intent is clearly to employ a very stylized technique in order to harken back to the classic films of the 1930s. Furthermore, the explicit reference to the film Mask and the very concept of including a comic book adaptation of the story in progress within the episode signal that this narrative is highly attuned to appropriation and adaptation as a literary process, and one in which this series is highly invested. The episode is darkly comic and absurd in its feel. Beginning and ending with the comic book imagery, it is depicted in a less realistic vein than most episodes of the series.  Finally, the episode title seems to allude, not only to the subtitle of the original novel, and not only to genetic engineering as the field of the post-modern Frankenstein, but to the fact that this narrative is being told, in true post-modernist style, as metafiction.