Thursday, 6 January 2011

The X Files: Tithonus

My best friend and I were completely obsessed with The X Files as teenagers - I can still remember the excitement of going round to her house (she had Sky) to watch 'Ascension' (the Scully abduction episode) and all the pictures of David Duchovny lovingly cut out of the Radio Times and stuck onto my tin pencil case. I stopped watching The X Files back in season 4, but my wonderful brother bought me the whole lot for Christmas last year and I've been watching my way through them (I'm currently up to the early part of Season 8, which I'd been putting off due to its reputation. So far, there've been two really good episodes, which is two more than I was expecting).

'Tithonus' is a sixth season episode in which Scully is put with a new partner and sent to investigate a crime scene photographer who is suspicially quick to the scenes of murders. Spoilers follow for the episode and for the story arc of the show as a whole, up to season 8.

It turns out that the photographer literally cheated Death - as in, made Death miss him and take someone else instead - and has since become immortal. Within the episode itself, direct references are chiefly to the idea of Death as a personified figure who comes for dying souls, which is a pretty common idea, but not especially common in Classical literature (souls tend to fly down to Hades, or whizz off to the Styx to be transported by Charon and so on. Thanatos, Death, appears every now and again but not often). However, the title of the episode is a direct Classical reference to the mythical figure of Tithonus, and it's Tithonus' story that is really important to understanding what the episode is about, which is not cheating Death, but enduring life.

Tithonus was a Trojan prince who was taken off by Eos/Aurora, goddess of Dawn. She asked Zeus to grant him immortality but forgot to specify eternal youth as well, so Tithonus lived on but continued to age. Eventually he ended up wrinkled and shrivelled, shrinking until he fitted into a basket. For a more literal representation of this myth, we need to turn to Doctor Who and the episode 'Last of the Time Lords', in which the Master makes the Doctor's body reflect his actual age of 900 years or more (and very silly it looks too). The X Files does not actually go all the way with this myth on this one; Fellig, the photographer, has aged but stopped somewhere around 65, rather than continuing to age throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is, however, apparently immortal and in addition, he has acquired the ability to see when someone is about to die, which is how he's always first on the crime scene.

The Doctor, showing his age.

What really makes this episode interesting to me, and why I think the title's emphasis on immortality rather than death is important, is how the episode ends. Fellig escaped Death in the first place by distracting Death's attention on to someone else, and has been chasing deaths ever since because he believes that if he looks Death in the face, he'll be able to die. He's desperate for this to happen because no immortal character in fiction ever actually wants to be immortal, for one reason or another. Being very very long-lived is OK, and evil characters often want to be immortal, but anyone who actually acheives it will end up miserable because everyone they loved has died and, in extreme cases, because living to the end of time and the universe is quite boring, as Red Dwarf's Inquisitor and Star Trek: Voyager's Q2 can testify. Lord Voldemort may be the exception that proves the rule, but he died before he got really bored of everything.

At the end of the episode, Fellig sees that Scully is about to die. Scully being the hero, of course, he finally manages to look Death in the face and dies instead. What's really interesting about it is - does this mean that Scully is now immortal (though not ageless)? It would be easy to dismiss it as a TV plot-hole, except that it does rather beautifully fulfil a throwaway line from season 3's 'Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose'. Clyde Bruckman could see how people were going to die (as opposed to Fellig, who just sees that it's about to happen). He implied that Mulder would die of auto-erotic asphyxiation, which may or may not be a joke, and when Scully asked how she would die, he said 'You don't.' (In practical terms, of course, his statements about their deaths had to be open to interpretation because the writers had no way of knowing whether or not they might eventually want to kill either character off, or how). Since Bruckman had formed a strong crush on Scully at the time, we all assumed he was either trying spare her feelings or didn't want to think about it, but it was a nice, spooky little idea thrown out there. 'Tithonus' plays into this idea perfectly - if Fellig distracted Death from Scully and died instead of her, Scully is now immortal, though she will still age, proving Bruckman right.

Of course, this idea is never referenced again and Scully certainly doesn't seem to think she's immortal. But it does make rather more sense of all those narrow escapes and improbable survivals that are part of the package for all science fiction TV heroes! Any time, for the rest of the series, Scully manages to survive something that really ought to be fatal, we can just tell ourselves 'oh, well she would, wouldn't she, she's immortal'! This might have the less beneficial effect of removing all sense of dramatic tension any time Scully's in danger - but luckily she spends all of season 8 pregnant, and the baby isn't immortal, so that puts a hefty sense of danger right back in.

All in all, this is two throwaway references in a nine-year long show that we probably aren't meant to read too much into. But I can't help thinking that by calling the episode 'Tithonus' and drawing attention to the 'immortality' aspect of the storyline, knowing how much fans have enjoyed discussing Clyde Bruckman's enigmatic statement, the writers were having a little fun and providing a possible solution to that particular conundrum. If it comes with an excuse for their heroine's frequent improbable survival, all the better!

Some pictures of John Simm and David Duchovny. Just because.


  1. The only possible exception I can think of to immortal characters getting bored would be Jack Harkness. I'm only halfway through season 1, so that may change. He also makes a comment about being fried by the Cyberwoman that, when he thought she was going to kill him, he felt really alive. But generally he seems to enjoy life and makes the best of his inability to die.

    Classical literature did have Hermes as psychopomp, guiding the souls of the newly dead to the Underworld. But it was all a bit vague, really, and he wasn't responsible for the actual dying bit, just what happened after.

  2. I wasn't sure about Captain Jack (Harkness - the other Captain Jack is still quite keen on the immortality thing). Possible spoilers for you - I'm pretty sure he asks at some point if he'll ever be able to die, implying he wants to eventually. And there is an implication - which no one is quite sure how seriously to take - that he will die and, in fact, we've seen in (that's in Doctor Who new series 3).

  3. But isn't there also a very strong implication that he's the Face of Boe? Of course, as I understand it, his timeline is a real mess. As near as I can tell, he served in WWII twice, first when he met Nine and Rose and then after he'd been an actual companion (and I have no idea which of those is the one who fell in love with the lady with the fairies).

    I was also thinking a little bit about Thanatos, who sort of corresponds with the modern Grim Reaper. That's certainly how he functions in the Alkestis and Homer uses him similarly to bring Sarpedon to Hades.

  4. Yeah, Thanatos works - it's weird he doesn't turn up more often really.

    The implication that Jack is the Face of Boe is what I was referring to - have you seen Doctor Who series 3?

  5. No not yet. I'm way behind. Comes of being in Germany and having a wife who totally dislikes anything that smacks of SF. But now that the oldest daughter is in Northern Ireland, I have hopes for catching up on New Who. Anyway, if Jack is the Face, he's going to live for a very long time.

  6. You should also check out Gulliver's Travels, where Gulliver is abruptly disabused of his speculations on the advantages of living forever - the immortal Struldbugs have all the problems of old age, including senility, and due to language change are unable even to communicate with their juniors after a couple of centuries. Rather oddly, the TV adaptation starring Ted Danson altered this, making the only disadvantage blindness.

    I've always looked on Captain Jack as a sexed up version of Captain Scarlet - although I actually find the puppet's acting a bit less wooden than Barrowman's.

  7. Actually, if Captain Jack is the Face of Boe, then he probably qualifies as a Tithonus figure.

    I had to look up Captain Scarlet (I know the Thunderbirds), and I wouldn't be surprised if Scarlet was an influence on the development of Jack. He's a terrible Marty Stu, but he gets away with it better than most (say, Wesley Crusher, for example). My biggest problem with Barrowman is that, while his American accent is fine (not surprising, since he grew up in the US), he pronounces certain words the British way and it jars. Also, he looks too much like Tom Cruise.

  8. I've never seen Captain Scarlet I'm afraid, I'm a Thunderbirds girl!

  9. I've only seen the first season of Torchwood so far, and I'm still trying to work out why Captain Jack's computer password should be Rhea Silvia.

  10. I didn't know that! (I haven't seen much Torchwood). Weird... oh, I've just had a thought but I think it would spoil series 2. You guys are going to have to tell me when you've see series 2 of Torchwood and 3 of Doctor Who so I can explain what I'm on about!

  11. I've seen all of the David Tennant Dr. Who except for "The Waters of Mars" but haven't seen anything of the new Doctor except for the Christmas special.

  12. I don't want to spoil it for DemetriosX, who hasn't seen series 3 yet :)


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