The X-Files: “Soft Light”

I’m not sure how this review never got posted; I wrote it back in 1995 but found recently that it never got put up. So here, in honor of Throwback Thursday, is my 1995 review of the episode Season 2 episode, “Soft Light”.


The Dark Half

Written by Vince Gilligan

Directed by James Contner

The Greek hero Theseus, just to show he could do it, boasted that he could steal the Queen of Hell out from under Hades’ nose.  Instead, he found himself stuck in a Chair of Oblivion, unable to move, helpless and aware, a proud man brought low by his own arrogance.  I could not help but link the final image of Friday night’s episode to this karmic fate, where the helpless Dr. Banton finds his worst nightmare coming true as the secret government he fears straps him into a chair to imprison his shadow, his very soul.

In Friday night’s episode, “Soft Light”, Dana Scully responds to a call for help from a former student, and Mulder comes along to help.  (The student, Lt. Kelly Ryan, is played by Kate Twa, whom we last saw as the “female” version of Marty in “Genderbender“.)  Lt. Ryan is investigating the disappearance of several missing persons; in every case, their last known location is marked by strange scorch marks.  Mulder and Scully track down the man responsible for these disappearances:  a physicist, Dr. Chester Banton, whose bungled experiment has turned his shadow into anti-matter. Its touch can “unzip electrons from their orbits” and reduce anyone it contacts into smoking embers in a flash of blue- white Promethean fire.

“Soft Light”, by newcomer Vince Gilligan, was so rich a vein of parable and allegory I could mine it for a week.  This episode brings together many symbols–the story of Icarus, the mystical imagery of “dark matter”, the foolhardy opening of Pandora’s Box–but I’ll stick to the most obvious, Carl Jung’s concept of the “shadow self”.  The shadow self, or anima, is where we stash our fears, our anxieties, our destructive impulses.  Far from being a “silent partner”, it is an active part of the personality, reflecting our repressions into our dreams.  In “Soft Light”, this conflict detonates when a highly intellectualized man loses control of a fundamental part of himself, which becomes an independent and murderous shadow-twin.  His flight from direct light is almost instinctive, a flight from self-revelation.  He even goes through the classic denial phase:  “My shadow…it isn’t mine.”  Oh, but it is, and he cannot eschew his responsibility merely by saying, “I didn’t mean it”.  “Soft Light” is built of the elements of classic tragedy:  a proud man ruined by his own actions.  After all, what kind of arrogant disregard for the laws of nature does it take to walk blithely into a particle accelerator already in countdown mode?  It was this timeless theme of blind conceit and tardy regret that kept me watching even after the suspense dissolved in the second act.

There are some rather serious structural flaws in this episode.  The first is the violation of the cardinal rule of movin’ pictures:  show, don’t tell.  We do not see the lab accident that transformed Dr. Banton; instead, we get a lab tour conducted by his partner, Dr. Chris Davey (Kevin McNulty).  This is a much less dramatically effective device, although the “punch line” of the scene, the shadow burned into the wall, gives us a nice little payoff.  There are several instances where plausibility is sacrificed to melodrama:  why on earth doesn’t Banton tell people his shadow is dangerous? The Margaret Wyznecki storyline was a waste of time.  There was never any explanation given of her connection other than the method of her death.  We never even discover what Banton was doing at her house.  The only reason I can see to include her is to give Mulder a way to discover the train ticket in the wastebasket, which leads him to the train station.  This could have been accomplished without dragging in a red herring the size of Moby Dick. Tony Shalhoub’s portrayal of the rather one-dimensional Dr. Banton was good as far as it went, but did not show us much expression or range.

The question posed in the teaser is “What has happened to Dr. Chester Banton to turn his shadow into a deadly weapon?” This question gets answered fairly early, and no question of similar importance arises to keep the tension up.  After Mulder and Scully discover what happened in the accelerator, the rest of the piece is a chase sequence interrupted by further illustrations of the shadow’s lethal power.  Only once does Mulder act, as opposed to reacting:  when he figures out where the escaped Dr. Banton is heading.  And before he and Scully can catch their quarry, we find that Dr. Banton has, indeed, crossed into the power of the dark side, as he kills Lt. Ryan rather than explain to her what he intends.  After that, his fate is sealed and even the twist at the end cannot save him.

The omniscient ending is another weakness we could have avoided.  “The X-Files” rarely takes us away from Mulder and Scully’s point of view; in this case, the audience winds up knowing more than Mulder and Scully.  We are usually with the team every step of the way; we discover clues as they do.  The ending of “Soft Light” took us farther than Mulder or Scully. Done too often, this kind of thing can breed contempt for the heroes in an audience.  It’s a mistake to let us get too far ahead of them.

I applaud some stunning sequences:  Mulder’s lightning response in shooting out the lights to drown Banton’s deadly shadow in darkness; the whole peephole conversation in the accelerator, which echoes the peephole in the opening teaser; the scene in the accelerator where we see Davey ‘s body disappearing in a blink of electrons, leaving his companion shadow burned into the wall next to the shadow of the man he betrayed.  Little touches stood out:  Mulder’s ultra-cool shades, the exchanges between Mulder and Scully, Scully’s remarks on women surviving the boy’s club.  Mark Snow gave us what must be the best score we have had from him all season: lyrical, dynamic, and evocative.

I have complained about Mr. X, the ubiquitous plot device whose presence, feeding Mulder information from the shadows, weakens Mulder as a character and dilutes his victories.  But tonight Mr. X emerges as a complete character in his own right, and very satisfyingly.  He is no longer just a pipeline for information, but an active mover of events.  Steven Williams gave us some memorable reactions:  when X refrains from shooting Banton, wondering, as we do, whether the “shadow” will escape when its anchor dies; his malevolent stare through the peephole of the accelerator; and finally, his ambiguous “I didn’t kill him” to Mulder.

The poignancy and the tragedy of this episode’s final image evokes, as good tragedy always does, pity and fear: Banton is trapped forever in a seat in Hell he helped create. The tear that rolls down his cheek tells us that he is very well aware that he has become an instrument of death.  Theseus was eventually rescued by Hercules, but I am afraid demigods are in short supply these days.  This final image earns writer Gilligan and director John Contner extra marks for sheer pathos.

Fewer plot holes,  tighter structure, and better pacing would have made this a better episode.  As it is, it’s average.  I give this one three sunflower seeds out of five.