Friday, December 31, 2010

X-Files--"Soft Light"

“Soft Light” is one of many episodes which prove either being friends with or related to either Mulder or Scully is essentially painting a target on your back. It is also one of the more interesting monster of the week episodes. That is largely due to the great character actor Tony Scaloub playing the unfortunate soul who is the target of the investigation.

Scully is contacted in an unofficial capacity by one of her former students, Kelly Ryan, who just made detective in Richmond, Virginia. She is in over her head in her first case involving a missing person with only a large pile of ashes in his apartment as a clue to go on. Scully, empathetic to Ryan trying to make it in an old boys’ club, Drags Mulder off to help. While Mulder runs rings around the novice Ryan in pointing out forensic evidence, he draws the conclusion the man is not missing, but spontaneously combusted. Such a combination must make Ryan feel really good about herself, being shown up by a nut and all.

Turns out, Mulder pretty close. The killer is Chester Banton, a mild mannered scientist who had been working with dark matter, a theoretic element which an accident proves is not so theoretical anymore. After the accident, Banton’s shadow becomes a black hole which incinerates anyone who steps on it. Banton has accidentally killed two people, including the missing man from Ryan’s case. She sends two cops after him. They get killed, too. Only Mulder seems to know how to handle the guy. He arranges for Banton to be locked up, under soft light, in a mental hospital.

Up until this point, we have seen Banton played as a bum on the run, trying to stay out of the light so he will not catch a shadow. It is the scene in the hospital when he is finally interviewed by Mulder the character starts to shine. Shaloub plays him as an eccentric beta male type. It is perfect, because he is literally afraid of his own shadow. He is also fearful the government wants to use him for weapons research, so he is also quite the paranoid madman, too.

The problem is, he is right. While Mulder contacts Mr. X for help, he uses what he learns from the agent to make a kidnapping attempt from the hospital. A couple agents of the Syndicate are incinerated by Banton’s shadow in the process. He escapes to the scene of the original lab accident, hoping to repeat it in a suicide attempt. Unfortunately, Ryan gets in his way and is killed, too. That is what you get for being friends with Scully. Banton is betrayed by his lab partner and handed over to the Syndicate for experiments before our heroes can reach the lab to save him.

"Soft Light” features many elements of the first season favorite, “Ghost in the Machine.” There, Mulder was contacted by his former partner who needs help on a case in order to boost his career. The case involves a scientist working on theoretical artificial intelligence. The result winds up murdering people, including Mulder’s former partner. Conflict arises when he puts his own career aspirations ahead of his need for Mulder and Scully’s help. In the end, the project is stolen by the government. That is pretty much what happens here, right down to Mr. X replacing Deep Throat in the role of the Syndicate associate who betrays Mulder’s trust. All those elements are transferred to different characters in ‘Soft Light,” but it is all still there, right down to a mention of Robert Oppenheimer’s guily over having created a weapon for the government.

“Soft Light” does not feel like a rip off, however. There are enough unique elements to make the episode its own, unique animal. I also find Shhaloub’s portrayal of Banton to be a neat preview of many of the emotional quirks he will eventually exhibit as Monk a decade later, albeit not for comedic effect here. It does not quite measure up to “Ghost in the Machine” for me, but it is still good.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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