Thursday, 1 March 2018

X-Files Rewatch | Soft Light

image credit: fox entertainment/dvd bash
The first X-Files episode written by the now-legend that is Vince Gilligan, ‘Soft Light’ comfortably sits in a Twilight Zone-esce narrative including murderous shadows and a complicated hypothesis surrounding dark matter and spontaneous human combustion. 

After a strange string of ‘abductions’ where the only evidence left is a strange burn mark on the floor, Richmond P. D. detective Kelly Ryan (Kate Twa) enlists the help of Scully, who taught Ryan whilst at the Academy. Mulder tags along due to the strange circumstances surrounding the disappearances whilst making sure Scully is at the forefront of the investigation. 

For a show to be centered around two characters, the focus of the unexplained is often cast upon Mulder rather than Scully. Mulder believes, Scully does not and so it goes in the early seasons. However, once in a refreshing while, character development begins to shine through and Scully can look past her skepticism and firmly rooted science and adapt to Mulder’s open-mindedness in his investigating. Obviously, Scully’s skepticism comes from a good place; she doesn’t want her, and Mulder’s work discredited with his outlandish theories. Even though we and the duo often know they are true, their superiors do not believe them whatsoever; leading to an abundance of unsolved cases. 

Scully does largely stick to her nature in ‘Soft Light’, but it’s the little things. When they are casing the apartment of the first victim, Scully automatically brings her attention to an air vent as a point of entry, when all other explanations cease to serve any function for an intruder (an apartment with locked doors and windows from the inside, security chain fastened, six floors up with no fire escape). Whilst this is a nostalgic call back to ‘Squeeze’, it’s a relief to finally see Scully looking for the outlandish theories first as opposed to Mulder. Mulder is very accommodating to this Scully, silently gleaming over Scully slowly gaining confidence over their time together in accepting these theories, whilst simultaneously acting as his foil to keep him grounded so he doesn’t go too overboard. 

Gilligan also brings Scully’s influence on women in STEM careers and within the FBI and police forces, explaining to Mulder how hard it is to break into the ‘old boys club’ without prejudice. She puts a whole lot on the line to support Mulder whilst being disadvantaged by her position as a female in a predominately male workplace and strives to help Ryan in this situation too. Mulder is one of the most empathic characters on television – certainly in the 90s – and being partnered with a strong-willed, empowering woman such as Scully helps to open his eyes to the disadvantages she still faces as a colleague. 

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Once these aspects have been established, the team eventually come across physicist Chester Ray Banton (Tony Shalhoub) when surveying the train station that one of the victims had recently traveled from. After witnessing the strange behavior of Banton on surveillance tapes, Mulder and Scully visit Polarity Magnetics after recognizing the logo on Banton’s jacket. Polarity Magnetics is a company that specializes in magnetics, but Banton used the company to fund and research his theoretical studies into dark matter and subatomic particles. 

Banton’s business partner, Christopher Davey (Kevin McNulty), reveals to the agents that Banton has been missing for five weeks after conducting an experiment with a particle accelerator. Long story short, Banton becomes trapped in the test room with the particle accelerator after a miscalculation, ultimately burning Banton’s shadow to the wall. 

Davey theorizes that Banton survived because the particles passed through him like an extremely powerful X-Ray … yeah, if you’re expecting a full explanation of what all of this means, this isn’t the place. It’s The X-Files, take this as it is because I’m no scriptwriter and certainly not a scientist. Basically, Banton’s shadow can now disintegrate people after Banton’s body was exposed to negative and positive particles. 

The remainder of the episode focuses on Banton’s struggle to come to terms with the affliction he has brought upon himself, and the lengths he is willing to go to revert the changes that have been made upon his body. He knows – and we know – that he can’t go on hiding in the dark and soft lighting forever. There is an obvious focus on shadows and diffused lighting in the cinematography, foreshadowing (ba dum tss) Banton’s and his unknowing victims’ eventual fate; psychiatric institutionalization and sudden death. No matter how hard Banton tries to Brundle-ise himself by attempting to reverse what has happened to him. ‘My shadow isn’t mine’, Banton says. Gilligan has written an episode that is almost like a darker, more sinister version of Peter Pan, minus the lost boys and immortality. 

Such as ‘F. Emasculata’, Gilligan merges a slight hint of mythology into a story that on the surface isn’t one that you’d expect to have any ties to governmental conspiracy. That is until X (Steve Williams) appears with his usual, cheery disposition. 

What is his deal, anyway? He tells Mulder ‘[he] has nothing to gain and everything to lose by helping [Mulder]’, so why offer to continuously help Mulder in the first place? Maybe it’s for X’s own agenda and his ties to the secretive levels of the government, or maybe he just doesn’t want to risk death by helping Mulder with his search for truth that could ultimately lead to nothing. Either way, he remains as ambiguous as ever. ‘Soft Light’ gives X some room to grow as a character, and to terrify Banton with the prospect of illegal (and secret) governmental experimentation if he were to be institutionalized; which he ultimately is. 

Fundamentally, ‘Soft Light’ teaches us that even a ‘fictional’ government is not to be trusted, even when the episode isn’t entirely focused on that.

• Yes, that gif of Mulder in the sunglasses is the icon I used for everything. 90s fashion boi. 

• It's weird thinking about how Gilligan got his start with this episode. At the time,  I don't think he would have believed how much he has achieved since creating Breaking Bad. Such a talent. 

• As rare as Spontaneous human combustion is, the science (or lack thereof) surrounding it is absolutely insane. Forensic investigators and scientists continuously attempt to analyze reported instances, trying to find correlations to prevent it from taking more lives. However, there never seems to be a verified pattern, other than some linked potential causes and natural explanations as to why certain people are destined to spontaneously set on fire. 

In Larry E. Arnold's 1995 book, he cited that SHC had around 200 reports of the phenomena worldwide over a period of around 300 years. 

• I'm no scientist, so here's the beginning of a 'definition' for Dark Matter via If you have the brain capacity to try and understand the rest, click the link and prepare for an existential crisis
"Roughly 80 percent of the mass of the universe is made up of material that scientists cannot directly observe. Known as dark matter, this bizarre ingredient does not emit light or energy. So why do scientists think it dominates?"

MULDER: Is this your first case, detective?
KELLY: Yes, sir
MULDER: Any idea why they gave it to you?
KELLY: No one else wanted it. Because of the lack of evidence, this is still officially a missing person case; not likely to end up on the front page of the daily paper.
MULDER: I wouldn't be so sure about that.
KELLY: Can I ask what you think may have happened?
MULDER: At first blush? Spontaneous human combustion. [MIC DROP, MULDER OUT]
SCULLY: [To Kelly] You're doing just fine.
SCULLY: [Following Mulder] Having a little fun?
MULDER: What are you talking about?
SCULLY: Spontaneous human combustion?
MULDER: I have over a dozen case files of human bodies reduced to ash without any attendant burning or melting. Rapid oxidation without heat.
SCULLY: Let's just forget for the moment that there is no scientific theory to support it.
MULDER: Okay [Walks into elevator like a boss]

BANTON: If I could control it, do you think I would let it go around killing people? All I can do is study it, try and divine its true nature before they do. 
MULDER: They? 
BANTON: The government [whispers to Mulder]; they're after me. And when they find me, they're going to do the brain suck. They've just been dying to do it. 
MULDER: 'The brain suck'? For the purpose of ... 
BANTON: For the purpose of stealing what has taken me years to accomplish. And don't think they wouldn't kill to get it. 

MULDER: He believes the government is out to get him. 
X: It's tax season, so do most Americans. 

• DAVEY: Polarity Magnetics does - or did - primarily two types of research. Mostly, we were designing mag-lev applications ... uh, people movers, bullet trains ... but for Chester, that was just the way to pay the bills for the really theoretical stuff he was interested in.
MULDER: Which was what?
DAVEY: Researching dark matter, quantum particles, neutrinos, gluons, mesons, quarks ...
SCULLY: Subatomic particles.
DAVEY: The mysteries of the universe. Theoretically, the very building blocks of reality.
SCULLY: Except no one knows if they truly exist
DAVEY: Chester was sure they did, so he bet his life on it [Davey keys into a laboratory filled with electronic equipment]. This is where it happened. Chester was working to isolate a new particle. He'd been working on it for a year.
SCULLY: This is a particle accelerator.
DAVEY: One-fifth power of the Texas supercollider in a space the size of a Wal-Mart.
MULDER: Powered by what?
DAVEY: Couple of billion megawatts. Virginia Power loved us.
SCULLY: Exactly what happened here?
DAVEY: Well, the work involved bombardment of beta particles with an alpha target. Negative against positive. Chester had everything set and had started the countdown when he realized he'd made a mistake. There was something that needed re-adjusting in the target room. Except you can't stop the countdown once you've begun. There was time to safely make the change, but I'd left the room for a minute when Chester decided to go in. I didn't realize until it was too later that the door had locked behind him.
MULDER: Look at this!
DAVEY: As far as I can tell, it burned Chester's shadow right into the wall.
SCULLY: How did he survive?
DAVEY: All I can figure is - the quanta liberated off the target have virtually no mass, that they slid right through his body.
MULDER: Like getting an X-ray.
DAVEY: A two billion megawatt X-ray. When I looked at the monitor and saw what was happening, that Chester was trapped in here, I panicked. I cut the power but it was too late. I remember looking and seeing Chester. He was perfectly calm. Almost like he wanted it to happen like he was finally going to experience the dark matter that he had theorized in some kind of physical way. As if the truth might come to him [Davey gets emotional] -- excuse me.

MULDER: Hope you know what you're doing, Scully. 
SCULLY: What do you mean? 
MULDER: Putting Detective Ryan's ambition ahead of all good sense in this case. 
SCULLY: Ambition? She's a woman trying to survive the boys' club, Mulder. Believe me, I know how she feels *YES, GIRL*
MULDER: The difference is you never put yourself ahead of your work, and that's what's happening here. 
SCULLY: Look. The fact is, we have no jurisdiction here. We were called in as a favour. 
MULDER: And as a favour, we just handed over the A-bomb over to the Boy Scouts. 
SCULLY: I'm sure all the necessary precautions will be taken. 
MULDER: And I'm sure that Robert Oppenheimer got similar reassurances from his government, the same government that Dr. Banton is afraid of. 
SCULLY: You don't believe all this paranoia about brain sucking, do you? 
MULDER: That man is scared, and it's not just of his own shadow. 
SCULLY: Mulder, as brilliant as Dr. Banton may be, he is also clearly delusional. He demonstrated just about every textbook indicator back there. 
MULDER: We've both seen the physical evidence, Scully. 
SCULLY: Look, I don't know how to explain it, but that's not our job. I don't know what else we should do. 
MULDER: I think I do. *of course*

SCULLY: Kelly?
KELLY: Agent Scully!
SCULLY: Hi [...] this is Agent Mulder.
KELLY: Hi, thank you for coming.
MULDER: You're welcome.
KELLY: I've heard a lot about you.
MULDER: [to Scully] We'll talk later *Get a ROOM*

It's nice to see what goes on behind closed doors for Scully; that she talks about Mulder to her friends. Similar to how Mulder gushes about Scully to The Lone Gunmen and people on internet chat rooms (Max Fenig). 

KELLY: Agent Scully, what are you looking at? 
SCULLY: Uh, the heat register.
KELLY: You don't think anyone could have squeezed (aayyy) in there?
MULDER: You never know (Scully glancing to Mulder). 

Look at them, with their liver-eating mutant jokes. 

MULDER: [Notices lamppost bulb isn't on] Hey Scully, can you spare a prophylactic? [Scully hands him a latex glove] *Control yourself, Mulder.*

SCULLY: Darkness covers a multitude of sins. 
MULDER: [Takes the light bulb out] Check this out. [Shines a red light on it] My newest tool in the fight against crime, $49.95 at your local hardware store. 
SCULLY: Neat trick. For your birthday, I'll buy you a utility belt. *Don't give him ideas, Scully*

SCULLY: What are you looking at? 
MULDER: In the videotape, Dr. Banton kept staring at the floor and I've been trying to figure out what he might have been looking at. 
SCULLY: Well, maybe the exposure affected his mind. Nonsensical repetitive behavior is a common trait of mental illness.
MULDER: You trying to tell me something? 
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