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The X-Files – Shapes (Review)

Shapes feels like something of a companion piece to Shadows. Both are very traditional horror monster stories, feeling a little dated and out of place among the more modern paranoia of The X-Files. Shapes might carefully avoid using the word “werewolf”, instead dressing up the classic movie monster in loose fitting Native American mythology, but it feels like an attempt to pay homage to one of the definitive Hollywood monsters. Unfortunately, like Shadows, it winds up feeling a little stale and tired, a little too familiar and cliché.

It’s a werewolf story that lacks bite.

Chew on this...

Chew on this…

As director David Nutter conceded in an interview with Cinefantastique, Shapes was the direct result of network interference. Like with Shadows, it seems like the network wanted to hedge its bets with its new horror television show, and try to feature more traditional horror monsters:

Noted director David Nutter, “The network said, ‘We need a monster show, the masses want a monster show. ‘ So that was a monster show for the season.’

The fact that Shapes arose from network demands perhaps explains why everything about it feels so rote and generic – so tame and safe.

Mulder goes on the reservation...

Mulder goes on the reservation…

To be fair to Nutter, who also had the misfortune to be saddled with Lazarus only a few episodes ago, Shapes looks quite impressive. The first season of The X-Files features all manner of disappointing and embarrassing special effects, across a wide range of episodes. Dodgy special effects can be seen in good episodes (the attack of the green pixels in Darkness Falls) and bad episodes (assault by space face and blur man in Space). It’s too much to argue that the effects diminish the show – given the constraints the show was working within, the results were stunning – but they do often feel like after-thoughts.

As such, it’s a surprise that the monster here works as well as it does. A lot of that is down to the choice to shoot it as a practical effect – it looks like a stunt man in a suit. Given the monster is intended to satiate the network’s desire for an old-school traditional creature feature episode, using a traditional method to bring the beast to life is an commendable approach. Nutter seems to realise the limitations that he is working with, and so he cuts skilfully around the creature. The result is that the animal attacks are quick and savage, often blurred or out-of-focus. It makes the whole thing look a lot more professional than it might otherwise.

A beast of a man...

A beast of a man…

However, the show’s concession that it might not be able to fully realise a werewolf on the meager budget apportioned by Fox is a mixed blessing. The animal attacks are shot effectively, but the attacks are also spaced rather far apart in the episode’s runtime. The result is an episode that lacks momentum. It seems to exist primarily as a collection of talking head sequences, with a subplot that might involve some sort of man-beast.

This would be fine if the talking head scenes worked, but Shapes suffers from a desperate need to seem relevant. The very next episode, Darkness Falls, won an Environmental Media Award for raising awareness on the important issue of illegal logging. In The Truth is Out There, Carter concedes that the episode “was not designed to push a message about conservation.” The fact that it wound up feeling topical was the result of the show riffing off the popular imagination, rather than some conscious effort to offer life lessons. In contrast, Shapes tries too hard.

He'll sleep it off...

He’ll sleep it off…

The decision to focus on Native American folklore is interesting, and fits with the general trend in this second half of the season to explore monsters rooted in a time before the United States existed as a dream, let alone a political entity. The first half of the season fixated on post war anxieties. Even The Jersey Devil opened with a flashback that only went as far back as 1946.

The second half of the season seems to be toying with ideas much older. Lazarus riffs off Depression-era folk legends Bonnie and Clyde, but other stories reach further back. Miracle Man shamelessly played out the Passion of the Christ in Tennessee. Darkness Falls suggests a horror waiting in the American wilderness. It seems like the show is expanding its view of American history, reaching beyond the horrors and guilt associated with the Second World War.

The episode lacks teeth...

The episode lacks teeth…

Given that the treatment of the Native American communities casts a dark shadow over the United States, an episode built around life on a reservation provides an interesting prism through which the viewer might glimpse the legacy of events long past. Instead, Shapes handling of Native American culture seems trite. As Karen Backstein argues in Flexing Those Anthropological Muscles:

The soon-recurrent paradigm emerges in which Mulder, initially regarded with suspicion by “the Others”, eventually wins their trust, not lease through his willingness to dispense with ‘Western’ scientific and rational belief systems that clash with values rooted in magic, ritual, and folklore. These beleaguered peoples serve to justify and elevate him, to set him apart as something special. In Shapes, Mulder is immediately accepted by Ish, the character most in touch with traditional Indian culture – immediately distinguishing him from agents of the past.

Importantly, the difficult racial issues are tidily resolved both through the elders’ acceptance of Mulder, in some ways suggesting a different and newly emergent FBI, and the episode’s conclusion that, in fact, the initial killing was not a ‘hate crime’ but a justified attack on a supernatural creature. Shapes, in spite of its political allusions, remains little more than an atmospheric werewolf tale with Native American trappings.

It seems like the episode is teaching Mulder a “very special lesson”, and the ease with which he – an agent of the government – is able to integrate himself with the tribe feels a little too much like wish fulfillment, glossing over the fact that Mulder is an employee of the federal government that has treated these Native Americans so poorly.

Mulder goes Native (American)...

Mulder goes Native (American)…

Instead, Mulder is embraced very quickly, and shown to be more in touch with Native American beliefs than most Native Americans. Indeed, the stereotypical tribe elder, Ish, seems to exist to validate Mulder. “I sense you are different, FBI. You’re more open to Native American belief than some Native Americans. You even have an Indian name – Fox. You should be ‘Running Fox’, or ‘Sneaky Fox.'”

Mulder is a white man who comes to an Indian reservation to help them handle a problem from their own mythology. His presence is validated by the oldest members of the tribe, and – after receiving a few harsh rebukes from the younger members of the community – Mulder is able to set things right. Not only does he catch a killer, he also defuses a potential racial conflict between the reservation and the Parker ranch.

Shadow play...

Shadow play…

This is compounded by the somewhat awkward way that the episode bungles the Manitou myth to make it fit within the European werewolf archetype. James Ninness argues in Macabre Rising: Tales of Man, Myth and Monster that the creature here more closely resembles a Wendingo than a Manitou. In The X-Files Book of the Unexplained, Jane Goldman lays into the presentation of the monster here, pointing out how far it strays from the Native American belief:

For many natives, calling a crazed, man-eating beast ‘Manitou’ is like calling Charles Manson ‘God’. So what gives?

The confusion – for both natives and Westerners – surrounding the concept of shape-shifting can be traced back to the impact of Christianity on native culture. When the missionaries, including the notorious Jesuits, the ‘Shock Troops’ of the Vatican, arrived in North America from Europe, they immediately began to try to mould native beliefs to their version of Christianity. The colonisers split Manitou, the all encompassing neutral power, into a ‘good’ Manitou (meaning ‘God’), and a ‘bad’ Manitou (meaning ‘the Devil’) so as to make their sermons more relevant. Consider the fear-driven Western version of the people-who-turn-into-animals myth, throw in the now bastardised definition of Manitou and you get Westerners telling tales about Werewolf-like evil Manitou roaming native reservations. You get “The Legend of the Manitou.”

So Shapes ultimately sabotages itself, becoming an example of the sort of Western-ised faux-mystic portrayal of Native American beliefs that has become so popular in American popular culture.

Scratch that theory...

Scratch that theory…

The decision to have Mulder integrate so completely and seamlessly into the community becomes particularly frustrating in light of this. Shapes isn’t actually about Mulder coming to understand Native American tradition and culture. It’s about appropriating Native American tradition and culture so that it fits comfortably inside recognisable Western-ised archetypes.

Shapes ultimately feels shallow, and cynical – its decision to play up stereotypes about Native Americans feeling particularly unsettling in light of how heavily it claims to respect their culture. Sheriff Tskany is introduced as a strong character with a justifiable suspicion about outsiders. He isn’t interested in playing into stereotypes for the benefits of his guests, he just wants to do his job.

No claws for concern...

No claws for concern…

When Mulder pries into local beliefs and customs, Tskany is having none of it. “Look, I’m not a Park Ranger here to answer all your questions about Indians,” he insists. It feels like a justifiable rebuke to a character who is probably more interested in shape-changing myths than he is in the community itself. I don’t mean to imply that Mulder is oblivious to historical injustice or anything so bold, merely that Mulder is a character more interested in the freak element of a crime than the human side of the equation.

Refusing to indulge his desire to treat Native American culture as a curiousity is a perfectly justifiable decision, and Tskany’s indignant response is perfectly fair. Unfortunately, in light of the episode that we get, it seems that Tskany’s refusal to answer all of Mulder’s “questions about Indians” is a sarcastic concession that the episode actually has very little to do with Native American history or culture or mythology. It’s just a convenient setting for a generic werewolf story.

All fired up...

All fired up…

The show would return to Native American culture as part of its mythology. Some of these episodes do a much better job at treating the United States’ history in dealing with the Native Americans with respect and consideration, even if most appearances retain some small sense of exploitation – some hint that the show is only really interested in Native Americans as a gateway to mysticism or magic or any other spiritual storytelling devices that Chris Carter was so fond of using on the show.

Shapes also gives us a bit of background on The X-Files itself, as Mulder reveals that Shapes is tied to the history of the unit. Naturally, the X-Files are a post war creation, even if their remit extends further back. “The very first X-File, initiated by J. Edgar Hoover himself in 1946,” Mulder explains. “During World War II, a series of murders occurred in and around the northwest, seven here in Browning alone.”

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

If The X-Files is a show concerned with history, this is the first time we see the show engaging with its own internal fictionalised history – the reopening of an old X-File, the return of an old monster that never really went away. The show has already engaged with popular counter-culture history. Mulder is quite fond of referencing Roswell or the Kennedy assassination. The Jersey Devil is built around a popular folk myth dating back over two-and-a-half centuries.

However, this is something different. This is the show providing its own internal history, as distinct from preexisting counter-culture history. In the next episode, Darkness Falls, Mulder will pick up on another fictional investigation – one that began in 1934. In the episode after that, Tooms will see the show engaging with its own history more directly – offering a sequel to an aired episode, the reappearance of a monster we’ve already met. It’s quite interesting, and helps flesh out this world inhabited by Mulder and Scully.

Hungry like the wolf...

Hungry like the wolf…

Shapes feels like a misfire, and a waste. It seems misguided and miscalculated, a cynical use of Native American history and culture as set dressing on a traditional werewolf story. This might be forgivable if the werewolf story were interesting, but the whole thing feels rather dull. It’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it’s more like a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:

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