As previously addressed by this reviewer, Family Matters is one of the few sitcoms to daringly explore the topic of bioethics. In the episode “Dr. Urkel and Mr. Cool,” Steve Urkel used gene therapy to transform himself into the cooler and more sophisticated Stefan Urquelle. By the end of the episode, however, Laura had learned a valuable lesson about how Urkel’s flaws made him who he was and contributed to his positive attributes. Though the gene therapy made Urkel cooler, it also had the negative consequence of making him conceited. One of the great dilemmas in bioethics, however, is that even flawed science can theoretically be fixed through more research. In the 24th episode of the fifth season of Family Matters, “Stefan Returns,” the series addressed this vicious cycle through a deeper more nuanced study of bioethics.
Notably, “Stefan Returns” explores these bioethical issues through the use of the Greek myths of Prometheus and Pandora. Though the myth of Pandora’s box is perhaps a clichéd metaphor, in “Stefan Returns” writers Fred Fox Jr. and Jim Geoghan use it as a perfect literary device to examine the myriad of bioethical issues present in gene therapy. Extending this device backwards through the series, in the episode “Dr. Urkel and Mr. Cool,” Urkel can be seen as a modern Prometheus.
Through the process of mapping his genetic material and inventing a “cool juice,” Urkel dared tread in the realm of the gods. Instead of returning with fire like Prometheus, Urkel transformed himself into the much cooler Stefan Urquelle. At the end of “Dr. Urkel and Mr. Cool,” however, Urkel did not suffer any punishment for his foray into the gods’ territory. Instead, he and Laura learned a lesson and life went on as usual. Almost certainly, this simple conclusion did not sit well with the writers, necessitating a deeper study.
Contrary to “Dr. Urkel and Mr. Cool,” in mythology, Zeus creates Pandora as punishment of mankind for Prometheus' theft of the secret of fire. According to the myth, Pandora opened a box, hence releasing all the evils of mankind. What makes the myth particularly relevant to the bioethical context is that, in addition to the ills it contained, the box contained Hope. Like Urkel, scientists in the field of genetics, conduct their research with the hope of bettering themselves and humankind. It is only the possible unintended consequences and the continued intrusion into god’s dominion that cause bioethical concerns. With Urkel cast as Prometheus and Laura as Pandora, Messrs. Fox and Geoghan devle into this dynamic between hope and its potential hazards.
The action opens in the Winslow’s kitchen with Laura doing Maxine’s hair for her big date. As they discuss Laura’s love life, Maxine opines that Stefan Urquelle was the perfect guy for Laura. Laura agrees but points out that Stefan was too conceited. At that point Maxine, a babe in the bioethical woods, asks the pertinent question, “Can’t Steve fix that?” Though Laura insists that she is not going to beg Steve Urkel to make her a man, as soon as Maxine leaves Laura runs to Urkel pleading with him to bring back Stefan. Notably, in the Greek myth, the gods bestow curiosity on Pandora leading to mankind's downfall. In this modern interpretation of the myth, Laura’s motivation is not curiosity, but her rabid sexual desires that lead to the downfall. To this reviewer’s chagrin, this theme is never developed in any great detail. It is impossible, therefore, to determine if Messrs. Fox and Geoghan meant to make a broader moral statement on teenage sexuality.
As the action continues, Urkel is at first reticent about bringing back Stefan, pointing out that in Stefan’s previous incarnation Laura asked Stefan to transform back into Urkel. Soon, however, he realizes that if Laura dates Stefan, she will be dating him. Notably, Urkel is led down the same bioethically hazardous path based in sexual desire. Nevertheless, Urkel sets to work and soon has a new elixir for his gene therapy. Whereas in his first experiment he used “cool juice,” this time he employs a "cool juice booster" to create “boss sauce.” In addition, Urkel has invented a transformation chamber, a large metallic port-a-potty with a gas tank in the side and covered in Christmas lights, in order to eliminate some side effects of the previous gene therapy (“It gave me a rash in personal areas”). Urkel pours the boss sauce into the tank and explains that inside the chamber “every atom of his being will be bombarded with boss sauce” turning him into Stefan. Urkel then gets into the chamber and Laura pulls a lever beginning the process. As Stefan emerges from the chamber, the audience sees he is cool as ever.
Laura leaps on him and begin ravenously kissing him. It becomes clear to the audience that, as in the myth, Stefan and his morally questionable creation could not simply be forgotten. Laura/Pandora had opened the box, begetting any and all unintended consequences.
In the next scene, Laura is waiting for Stefan to pick her up for a date. When the new and improved Stefan arrives, he instantly charms all of the Winslows. When Carl tells Stefan about Laura’s curfew, Stefan tells Carl that he will have Laura in early because he has to get up early to work at the mission. It is clear that Urkel’s tweaks have worked. Stefan is a perfect gentleman. After a subsequent date, Stefan takes Laura back to his basement. Since becoming Stefan, he has completely redecorated. Gone is Urkel’s laboratory. Instead, the basement has a couch and a fireplace. Stefan has also removed the stairs and replaced them with an elevator, covered in Christmas lights (possibly the same lights that covered the transformation chamber), that operates by remote control. Stefan then invites his personal friend Freddy Jackson to come and serenade Laura. Laura tells Stefan that she loves him. As she does so, however, Stefan’s voice switches to Urkel’s voice. Both Stefan and Laura are horrified. Soon, however, the transformation completely reverses itself and Urkel is back. Laura and Urkel desperately try to use the transformation chamber to turn Urkel back into Stefan, but to no avail. The chamber simply grunts and smokes before failing completely. Laura, grief-stricken that Urkel is back, takes the elevator away from the repugnant Urkel.
The episode ends with Urkel cursing the heavens and vowing to spend the rest of his days finding a way to become Stefan forever. The conclusion of the episode is commendable for two distinct reasons. First, Urkel's obsessive pursuit of his own ill-conceived creation mirrors the ending of Frankenstein, the other tale of a modern Prometheus. More striking, in the episode's conclusion, Messrs. Fox and Geoghan brilliantly adopt Friedrich Nietzsche's interpretation of the myth of Pandora. Nietzsche argued that “Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. To that end, he gives man hope. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man's torment.” In "Stefan Returns," Urkel’s experiments hold both evils and hope. The evils lie in the fact that once again unintended and hazardous consequences have derailed his God-challenging experiments. Notably, however, the hope of Urkel’s experiments maybe even worse. Urkel is obsessed with finding a perfect formula that will allow him to completely destroy his own naturally created being in favor of the manmade, yet superficially perfect, Stefan. The episode concludes with Urkel portrayed as the embodiment of Nietzsche’s analysis of the myth of Pandora. He is tormented by both the evils of his experimentation but tortured all the more by the hope that further experimentation promises.