Season 5, Episode 5: “The Post-Modern Prometheus”
Original Airdate: November 30, 1997
Boy! Are there a lot of supernatural pregnancies on this show. Which shouldn’t surprise me, I guess, I mean first of all I’ve seen it before and second of all it is a show that draws heavily on the popular alien abduction mythologies—you know, the ones where ladies get taken away and knocked up with alien babies. Supernatural pregnancies are scary if you’re scared of humans being wiped out not by a big explosion but by biology, by the dilution of the species. If you’re convinced that a mutant or an alien-human hybrid is going to be, somehow, better than you are.
“The Post-Modern Prometheus” is not an alien abduction story, but it does have a few supernatural pregnancies to dole out. Much like “Small Potatoes,” it does so under the soft sweet lights of romance, offering a story of redemption and goodwill and a mutant who just wants to be understood. Written and directed by Chris Carter, the episode is a tribute to Frankenstein, shot entirely in black and white and featuring just a whiff of that old Darin Morgan charm.
In a small town somewhere, possibly Indiana, a woman named Shaineh watches Jerry Springer. Shaineh has a child named Izzy, an 18-year-old boy whose father is unknown. What Shaineh knows is that 18 years ago she was knocked out for three days, and when she woke up, she was pregnant. What Shaineh also knows is that it’s happened again. Just before passing out, she saw someone with a “gross face and lumps all over his head,” a description that matches The Great Mutato, the lead character of a comic book created by Izzy. Scully’s ready to file this one under Healthy Imaginations, at least until Izzy and his friends take the agents to a field, lay out a peanut butter sandwich for bait, and draw a lumpy-headed figure out of the woods.
Further investigation leads our agents to Dr. Pollidori, a local professor engaged in the completely typical business of genetic modification. John O’Hurley plays Pollidori with a little evil and a lot of swagger, a nice riff on the mad scientist. In the episode’s second-most Darin Morganesque touch, O’Hurley proudly displays a photo of one of his creations: a fly with legs growing out of its mouth. “Why would you do that?” asks Mulder. “Because I can,” declares Pollidori. It’s a crazy person’s answer, but a moony-eyed Mulder can’t help but muse on it. “Given the power, who could resist the temptation to create life in his own image?” he wonders.
Pollidori’s self-righteousness dovetails nicely with Carter’s riffs on small town life and the country’s growing obsession with fame—the irresistible temptation to boost one’s own image up on high. The way “Post-Modern Prometheus” sees it, everyone’s trying to be a god of some sort. In the episode’s first-most Darin Morganesque touch, Mulder visits the local diner twice, each time getting a very different reaction from the fickle public. The first time, after the local paper has reported that the FBI is there to investigate a monster, everyone smiles at him and the waitress is eager to comp his check. “Is it true that Jerry Springer’s coming to town?” she asks. The second time, after the paper has reported that the agents think the monster may be a hoax, Mulder’s reception is cold, and the waitress is eager to dump hot coffee on his lap.
The Great Mutato is eventually revealed to be one of Pollidori’s failed experiments, an exceptionally unattractive man who has a deformed face and a healthy obsession with Cher (thanks to her role in Mask). Mutato was rescued from the scrap heap by Pollidori’s father, a farmer who raised the mutant as his own. Upon realizing this, Pollidori murders his father and frames Mutato, leading those pitchfork-ready townspeople to the farm to burn it all down.
Despite their guns and badges, Mulder and Scully do very little to prevent this. In fact, the agents do very little investigating in this episode at all. Mulder does a little philosophizing, and Scully calls the Bureau a few times, but for the most part they are bystanders to Carter’s fairytale. Mutato tells his story to the town that has come to kill him, explaining that he got so damn lonely that his father tried to make him some friends via animal-human hybridization—knocking out a few lucky townswomen and impregnating them with weird science in the hopes of creating a suitable mate for Mutato. The camera finds the results of the experiment in the crowd—the local reporter, who moves like a hen; the three friends who now suddenly look like a pig, and a goat, and a horse.
This is all pitched as sweet, as the mutant just trying to live his life. And while I’m a strong supporter of mutant rights, the fairytale loses a bit of its dust for me when you add the part about women being knocked out and then knocked up. The alien-human hybrids of the mytharc have generally been portrayed as good, but the project that created them has always been portrayed as a shady underground thing full of abductions and cancer. Compare that to “Post-Modern Prometheus” and suddenly, the episode’s hazy setting takes on a different tone. Did Carter create this gauzy, maybe-not-100%-real world so that he could dodge the show’s primary position regarding women and hybrids? So that for once, supernatural pregnancy could seem like a lot of fun? I mean, super-wrong and punishable by arrest, but c’mon!
From a canonical perspective, it’s completely plausible that “Post-Modern Prometheus” never really happened. In the final moments of the episode, when both Pollidori and Mutato (together standing in for Dr. Frankenstein, creator of things that should not be created) have been packed off into squad cars, Mulder hits the meta, hard: “This is not how the story is supposed to end,” he insists. “The monster’s supposed to escape to go search for his bride…I want to speak to the writer.” Then there is a cut, and a shot of cars driving, and Mulder and Scully with Mutato in the backseat, and then the whole town is at a Cher concert, where Mutato is pulled on stage and Mulder and Scully dance together.
It’s nice, it’s so nice, but it’s not real. The way they turn and smile into the light, the way Scully takes Mulder’s hand—this is the biggest fantasy at all. The happy ending that we wish they could have, in that same ideal world where a town would accept a mutant. The same one where I am meant to not be bothered by the fact that the Mutato and his keeper assaulted women. It is a funny thing, to have an episode like this make one feel more cynical, but then that’s the sting of the supernatural pregnancy. I fear it not because I fear another species’ domination, but because of the havoc it wreaks on this show’s storytelling.