Sunday, February 19, 2017

Case 02, File 23: Soft Light

AKA: This Watchmen Fanfic Kinda Goes Off The Rails

There are a lot of reasons to like a specific X-Files episode. An interesting character, a cool concept or even just a fun effect. Less often cited are genuinely great performances, outside of our two leads. Oh a lot of people give solid work (Tony Todd in Sleepless or Brad Dourif in Beyond the Sea), but they're usually paired with a great script, so they don't have to carry the whole episode. There are, as you may have guessed, exceptions.

Soft Light kicks off with Dr. Chester Banton trying to meet a friend of his at a hotel, but his shadow accidentally slides under the door behind him and a guy who steps into it disintegrates. Mulder and Scully are called in by Kelly, a cop who Scully taught at the FBI Academy, who doesn't want her superiors to know that she called in the FBI. Mulder makes the connection between the mark on the floor where the guy disintegrated and the door, and discovers some fingerprints on the nearby lightbulb, which he matches to one found outside another victim's house.

They eventually connect the deaths to the local train station, and stake the place out. Kelly sends in two cops to check out a suspicious dude hanging around, who turns out to be Chester, who accidentally disintegrates them both. Whoops. Mulder and Scully spend some time watching security cam videos and identify Chester by his acting weird and head over to Polarity Magnetics, the place on his jacket. His boss tells our heroes that he was in an accident where got bombarded with...dark matter, I guess? I dunno, I didn't follow the explanation at all.

Kelly is pulling the "Mulder Face" here, the face people get when Mulder floats his first theory.
Anyway, they track Chester down to the train station and capture him, where he tries to explain that his shadow disintegrates people, but also rants about how the government is tracking him. Mulder and Scully get the boot by the local PD and Mulder calls X for help, who denies involvement. But, surprise, he shows up and grabs Chester, who kills his men and escapes, heading back to the lab. 

He's briefly confronted by Kelly, who is killed by his shadow because the episode needs to wrap up. He tries to get his old boss to help him, but surprise! His boss is in on it with the government, and X shows up, killing his old boss, and apparently helping Chester, but it turns out he captured him and the episode ends with Chester in X's clutches, being experimented on.

I am of mixed feelings about Soft Light, which I guess means it averages out okay? It has some good points, and a killer performance at its center, but it's an episode I've always been kind of lukewarm towards. I normally haven't had the need to examine that, since I could just be lukewarm towards it, but now that I'm doing these reviews, I gotta unpack that feeling, so away we go.

"And right here is where Chester got vaporized. Dr. Osterman got vaporized two rooms down, if you want to check that out."
If I had to guess, I'd say that the execution doesn't really live up to the premise. The idea of a black hole living in someone's shadow and sucking in people is a neat one, but the visual presentation of it is almost universally lame (with Kelly's death being the absolute nadir). I don't know what the original concept for the episode was, but I feel like there were other places that "Killer shadow" could have gone, that wouldn't require the episode to stop in the middle for a technobabble tsunami.

That's the other issue with the episode, the script is quite slow moving. The story requires the episode to stop multiple times, either to explain the psuedo-science involved or to have Mulder discover some fingerprints somewhere, and the episode never really builds up a good pace as a result. There's a brief moment where it looks like it's going for a The Host style twist, where they have Chester captured and have to figure out what to do, but he escapes immediately, rendering it pointless.

The big point in its favor is Tony Shalhoub as Chester, and he is indeed very intense. He doesn't get as much screen time as you might expect though (he gets less screen time and fewer monlogues than Tony Todd in Sleepless and MUCH less than Dourif in Beyond the Sea) but when he's there, he's magnetic. I almost wish the episode could be shifted to give him more screen time, since Kelly isn't a very interesting character (and pulling a person from Mulder or Scully's past is so season 1).

"Just you wait! I'm gonna break out of here, and then I'm gonna win a bunch of Emmys!"
There are some other interesting elements, besides Shalhoub's performance; The premise that Scully is so supportive of Kelly because they've both suffered from institutional sexism is an interesting concept, but it doesn't get brought up until the third act and gets painfully little pay. And I actually really like X's bit here, proving how different he is from Deep Throat in that he's willing to out and out betray Mulder, but similarly he doesn't wander in until the half hour mark.

Maybe that's the reason I've never been totally sold on this episode. It has good elements, but it never feels like it's utilizing them properly. The mystery is well formed and engaging, but it's solved very early and the episode has nothing to do. I guess I'll usually take an episode that has fewer good points but uses them more efficiently over an episode with a powerhouse performance that doesn't give it room to breathe.

Case Notes:
  • The cold open of this episode is very intent on giving you basically nothing to go on, other than the dude getting vaporized, but it works pretty well in my estimation.
  • One of the characters being a friend from Mulder or Scully's past is pretty season 1, to be honest.
  • Mulder and Scully have a pretty great call back to Squeeze, with Scully glancing at the heat vent and Mulder commenting that you "Never know" if someone could fit in there.
  • I want a gif of Scully and her buddy's reaction to Mulder suggesting spontaneous human combustion.
  • "Let's forget, for the moment, that there's no scientific theory to support [human combustion]." "Okay." I love this show so much.
  • Mulder and Scully are flirty this episode. I get the feeling Vince Gilligan shipped them pretty hard.
  • Scully acts like spontaneous human combustion is a crazy idea, but does she remember the dude who could light things on fire with his brain in the first season?
  • The scene with the two cops getting vaporized in the alley requires a lot of contrivances to set up, but whatever.
  • The show goes up and down on how smart and observant Mulder is, but he's on fire this episode.
  • Why would a magnet place be researching Dark Matter? Or am I overthinking it?
  • I know very little about the physics that they discuss in this episode, but I am 90 percent certain they're full of shit.
  • The way Chester got turned into a dude with a person eating shadow is EXACTLY how Jon got turned into Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. Like, to a T.
  • Chester needs to learn how to say the words "Hey, don't step in my shadow, bad things will happen."
  • You know, for an episode based around light and shadow, this episode doesn't do a whole ton with its lighting. Maybe one or two shots.
  • Chester's rant about his shadow being a black hole makes very little sense to me, but he'd probably have more credibility about it if he walked back the "Brain suck" stuff.
  • Chester's condition reminds me a lot of Lucius the Eternal from Warhammer 40k, in that it seems pretty impossible on its face, but also invites you to try and think of a dozen workarounds.
  • It's a neat concept, but the visualization of someone getting disintegrated by Chester's shadow looks silly, and Kelly's death is when it's at its silliest.
  • Okay, the shot of Mulder in the hallway where X's shadow appears is a solid shot, doing a lot with very little.
  • Between the funeral and the final shot of Chester in X's clutches, this episode has a pretty dark (no pun intended) ending.
Future Celebrity Watch:

As mentioned above, our central performance is played by Tony Shalhoub, who sort of straddles the line between current and future celebrity. At the time the episode aired he was already a regular on Wings and was several years past appearing in Barton Fink. But he wouldn't appear in Galaxy Quest or MiB for several more years and 7 years away from Monk, so I went with Future.

Behind the camera, our writer today was Vince Gilligan, a very talented writer who would do a lot of work for The X-Files and go on to create a little show called Breaking Bad. Told you Hank being in the last episode would be funny.

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