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The X-Files – Per Manum (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

Per Manum marks a very serious shift in the eighth season of The X-Files.

It marks the point at which the show becomes more serialised and more tightly interwoven on an episode-to-episode basis than it had been at any point in the past. There are several “monster of the week” stories populating the final third of the eighth season (most obviously Vienen, Empedocles and Alone), but the last eight episodes of the season are more tightly interlocked than any other eight episodes of the show. Perhaps the closest comparison is to the opening nine episodes of the second season, but even the majority of those were stand-alones in a new status quo.

Things past...

Things past…

With Per Manum, the show reengages with the two big central mysteries driving the mythology of the eighth season. The closing moments of Requiem featured the disappearance of Mulder and the revelation of Scully’s pregnancy, establishing them as a driving force for the future of the show. Of course, nobody knew what form that future would take when Requiem was written and filmed. However, it is interesting how little forward momentum the eighth season has on these plot points. Two-thirds of the way through the season, neither is closer to resolution.

Of course, that is not to suggest that the production team have forgotten about Scully’s pregnancy or Mulder’s disappearance. One of the stronger aspects of the eighth season is the way that these details are woven into the plots of episodes where they are not even explicitly acknowledged. Mulder’s disappearance informs Scully’s unspoken reluctance to trust Doggett in Roadrunners; Scully’s pregnancy explains her decision not to go into the subway tunnels with Doggett in Medusa. Still, there is no linear sense of progress by this point of the year.

Hold it there...

Hold it there…

This is probably because these two plot threads cannot necessarily be explored in increments. Within and Without suggested that Mulder was being experimented upon from the comfort a spaceship; short of Scully and Doggett hijacking a space-shuttle, there is little they can do to affect his return but wait. Similarly, Scully’s pregnancy has a natural time limit imposed upon it; short of inducing labour, there is little she can do to affect the outcome but wait. As such, these are not the most dynamic plot points, but they work quite well in the context of the eighth season.

The first two thirds of the eighth season are spent waiting and anticipating, reflecting on strange absences and unexpected presences. The final third is spent rushing towards the finish line. Per Manum marks the transition point.

Don't turn this into a competition, Doggett...

Don’t turn this into a competition, Doggett…

Of course, Per Manum was actually produced much earlier in the season. The episode was filmed between Via Negativa and Surekill. By that logic, it should have aired either late in December or early in January. Indeed, it seems like that might have originally been the intention. Asked about the identity of the father early during the production of the eighth season, Gillian Anderson observed, “I have confidence, and possibly inner knowledge, that the fans will get to see how Scully got pregnant… before Christmas.”

There are also some internal clues about where Per Manum is meant to fall in the arc of the season. Doctor Kiryum suggests that Scully is fourteen weeks pregnant at this point, which seems hard to reconcile with everything happening around the episode. The Gift suggested that Requiem took place in May 2000, while Medusa was set in late January 2001 at the earliest. Those are a very long fourteen weeks. Of course, the internal timeline makes more sense if Per Manum is slotted in production order.

Not bad for a woman at least seven months pregnant...

Not bad for a woman at least seven months pregnant…

Had the season aired in production order, Per Manum would have marked a transition between the first and middle thirds of the eighth season. It would have existed at the end of a run of episodes exploring the show’s new status quo and just before a run of traditional “monster of the week” episodes built around the investigative team of Doggett and Scully. Indeed, the episode would have worked quite well in that context, given how much emphasis the script places on Scully learning that she can trust Doggett.

After all, so much of the first third of the season had been spent on Doggett struggling to earn Scully’s respect and validation. The awkward dynamic between them was explored in Patience. Although Scully made a magnaminous gesture of having a desk placed in the basement for Doggett at the end of the episode, she embarked upon her own adventure in Roadrunners. Over the course of Invocation and Redrum, emphasise was put on Doggett’s personal life and his own privacy. In Via Negativa, Scully retreated to hospital while Doggett worked his first case alone.

Office etiquette: don't bring up your work colleague's abduction experiences, it's just rude.

Office etiquette: don’t bring up your work colleague’s abduction experiences, it’s just rude.

The issue of trust is a major part of Per Manum. Met with obfuscation and half-truths, Doggett complains to his partner, “I’m just trying to do my job, only it gets hard to do if the person you’re working with is keeping secrets and telling lies.” Later in the episode, Skinner insists that Scully has to trust Doggett. “You gotta tell him, Scully,” Skinner warns Scully. At the end of the episode, Doggett is welcomed into the circle of trust; he is made aware of Scully’s pregnancy. This provides a nice transition between the dynamics portrayed in Via Negativa and Surekill.

Shifting the broadcast order of the episode changes its context and its meaning. One of the interesting aspects of television narrative is the way that things like broadcast order emphasise the existence of continuity as an external factor. This was perhaps most obvious during the fourth season, when the positioning of Leonard Betts and Memento Mori radically changed the implications of Never Again without altering a single shot or line of that episode. Continuity (and meaning) are often imposed from outside a story.

By Zeus!

By Zeus!

So Per Manum means something radically different when repositioned between Medusa and This is Not Happening. The episode takes on a whole different context and serves a whole different purpose. Instead of transitioning between the opening act and middle acts of the season, it transitions between the middle and final acts. Per Manum is suddenly about marking the end of the standalone “monster of the week” stories in the middle of the season and committing to a loosely serialised narrative that will run from here through the end of the year.

Of course, the decision to move Per Manum around in the broadcast order is not about structuring the arc of the year. The production team pushed Per Manum back from late December 2000 to late February 2001 because it is an episode that features David Duchovny. Given that Mulder’s disappearance had garnered so much attention and publicity, it was smart to bring Mulder back just in time for Sweeps. (In fact, three of the four Sweeps episodes feature Duchovny. Cleverly, they build to the actual return of Mulder in This is Not Happening.)

A labour of love...

A labour of love…

Whatever the reason for the change in the broadcast order, Per Manum represents a shift in the season around it. Every episode between Per Manum and Existence credits David Duchovny in the opening credits. Mulder is back, even if his appearances in Per Manum are restricted to a handful of flashbacks. This is setting the stage for the return of flesh-and-blood Mulder in This is Not Happening and his resurrection in DeadAlive. This marks the point at which the eighth season ceases to be about “the search for Mulder”, and plays its hand.

The eighth season is built around two central pillars. The disappearance of Mulder tends to attract the most attention, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, Mulder’s absence is keenly felt in every episode leading up to this point; it is impossible to watch The X-Files and not notice that Mulder has vanished from the show, even if his absence is not explicitly acknowledged in dialogue. More than that, David Duchovny’s high-profile lawsuit against Fox and Chris Carter garnered headlines by fueling behind the scenes drama. People were talking about Mulder.

"Miss me?"

“Miss me?”

However, the other pillar of the eighth season is Scully’s pregnancy. That attracted considerably less attention for a number of reasons. While Mulder’s absence was conspicuous in the first two-thirds of the season, Scully’s pregnancy was underplayed. Episodes like Roadrunners and Via Negativa would reference it in a line or a stray scene, but entire shows would go by without an acknowledgement or a visual clue. Indeed, it seemed like Scully was more preoccupied with the search for Mulder than the miracle of her pregnancy, focusing the audience’s attention.

Per Manum marks the point at which that begins to change. Mulder’s disappearance is not the season-long arc. It is resolved two-thirds of the way through the season, and then emphasis shifts to the real focus of the eighth season. Per Manum suggests that the eighth season has to be examined in the context of Scully’s pregnancy; it is something that is suggested by the redesigned opening sequence, but Per Manum makes it almost explicit. David Duchovny returns, but in an episode that is less concerned with Mulder’s disappearance than with Scully’s baby.

This is fertile ground for development...

This is fertile ground for development…

In fact, Per Manum suggests that Mulder’s disappearance needs to be explored in the context of Scully’s pregnancy rather than vice versa. The final scene between Doggett and Scully suggests that the real reason that Scully wants to find Mulder is because she does not want to raise the child alone. When Doggett asks why Scully never told him about her pregnancy, she explains that she didn’t want to be taken away from the search for Mulder. She almost breaks down, causing Doggett to comfort her. “I told you I’d help you. I said we’d find him.”

The flashbacks threaded through Per Manum reveal that Mulder and Scully tried to have a baby at some hazily-defined point in the past using the ova that Mulder recovered during his “funky poaching” in Memento Mori. The attempt at in vitro fertilisation failed, which has led many commentators to dismiss Per Manum as something of a “shaggy dog” story. However, that overlooks how big a deal the attempt itself is; Mulder and Scully wanted to have a child together, which adds a lot of context to Scully’s pregnancy and Mulder’s absence on a character level.

Pretty Duff, if you ask me...

Pretty Duff, if you ask me…

As Frank Spotnitz explained, those flashbacks were less about conveying essential plot-related information and more about context:

The reasoning for bringing up the in vitro angle at all, Spotnitz explains, was twofold. “One is that [Scully’s barrenness] was a thread of The X-Files’ mythology that had never been sewn up. Back in season 4, we saw Mulder with the harvested [ova] that they’d taken from Scully; but we’d never had an opportunity to address it until now. The other reason was that we have this bombshell with Scully’s pregnancy, but we have no emotional context for it. So it felt good to show the audience the back story for Scully and Mulder, leading up to this news that she was indeed pregnant.”

The X-Files had conditioned viewers to treat Scully’s pregnancy as a plot-driven mystery, so the frustration is understandable.

A woman alone.

A woman alone.

Of course, the episode refuses to outright confirm that Scully is pregnant with Mulder’s child. The identity of the baby’s father was cause of considerable speculation on the part of fans and journalists, with Carter playing deliberately coy in interviews. The actors seemed just as confused:

Even Gillian Anderson is somewhat baffled by the latest X-Files plot mutation and ready to be shocked. “I assumed I knew what put her in this predicament,” Anderson says, “but lately I’ve been proved wrong. I don’t know what is going on. Which is nothing new.”

In interviews during the eighth season, Anderson would repeatedly stress just how ambiguous the production team were about the details of the character’s miraculous pregnancy. She stated, “I do know who the father is and Scully sure knows, but who knows – it could change by the time we shoot it!”

"You know, you really should get them to install better lighting down here. It's not good for your eyes, you know."

“You know, you really should get them to install better lighting down here. It’s not good for your eyes, you know.”

There is something just a little frustrating about all this. One of the more frustrating aspects of the mythology was the stubborn insistence on obfuscation rather than clarification, and there are points during the eighth season where it seems like the production team have learned nothing from the first six seasons of the show. Ambiguity can be exciting and interesting, but the audience occasionally gets tired of being misled and manipulated. The insistence on playing games about the identity of the father feels just a little bit too much.

While the season is plotted to keep the identity of the father concealed, the thematic structure of the season makes it clear that Mulder has to be the father. The revelation that Scully’s pregnancy is more important than Mulder’s disappearance is the key here, it suggests that Mulder’s disappearance needs to be read in the context of Scully’s pregnancy; that Scully’s pregnancy is the axis point around which the rest of the season must pivot. This becomes clearer as the season marches on, but Per Manum is the first episode to suggest that this is the case.

All the best agents have daddy issues...

All the best agents have daddy issues…

As such, Mulder becomes the absent father at the heart of The X-Files. Mulder’s disappearance has little to do with supersoldiers or colonisation, and more to do with the show’s central themes about masculinity and family. The X-Files is populated with patriarchs who abused and abandoned their families. Fox Mulder is the child of a broken home, his sister surrendered by a father complicit in the greatest betrayal of the twentieth century. Scully’s relationships are still defined by her father. The Cigarette-Smoking Man shot his own son.

This theme of failed patriarchal priorities plays out in Per Manum as well. Duffy Haskell is introduced as a loving husband and father-to-be tending affectionately to his (unmarried) partner as she goes through labour. The implication seems to be that they are a couple, although Doggett notes that he “can’t find any documentation that the two of [them] were even married.” In a way, then, Duffy Haskell serves as a twisted reflection of Mulder; he is a trusted male figure who exists outside a traditional heteronormative bond with a pregnant woman.

Birthing pains...

Birthing pains…

However, it is revealed that Duffy Haskell betrayed Kath McCready. The teaser finds the character abandoning his wife in her hour of need. Her last word is “Duffy.” A little over half-way through the episode, it is revealed that its was not simply an accidental failure on the part of Haskell. In the words of John Doggett, it turns out that Haskell is “a piece of work.” It seems that he was using his position as “President of the Ohio Mutual UFO Network” to find and exploit vulnerable women.

Haskell’s conduct is all the more tragic and cynical because he is employing a structure intended to assist victimised and exploited women. The Mutual UFO Network was introduced back in Nisei and 731 as an organisation that had been created to support and encourage women who had been abducted and experimented upon. It seems that Haskell was corrupting an institution that was supposed to be a safe space where they could get away from that abuse and that manipulation.

Pregnant with meaning.

Pregnant with meaning.

This is simply a reiteration of core themes dating back to at least the second season of the show. As Kubek argues in You Only Expose Your Father, the first two seasons of the show compared Deep Throat and Bill Mulder as failed fathers:

The links between the government of secrets and the paternal are revealed further in the second season, with the development of Mulder’s relationship with his own “real” father. Initially a cold and unknowable figure, Bill Mulder, like Deep Throat, is first humanised and then killed in the climactic episode of the season. Also like Deep Throat, he is revealed as complicit in sinister government conspiracies and remorseful about that complicity. Bill Mulder’s guilt is a central point of The X-Files’ attack on partiarchal culture, for it focuses the viewer’s suspicion on the site of the individual subject’s indoctrination into the Symbolic Order – the family.

This is, perhaps, a little bit too simplistic. For all that The X-Files seems to subvert traditional family values, the eighth season does end with Mulder and Scully forming something resembling a traditional family unit. However, those themes are still in play.

Baby troubles...

Baby troubles…

One of the strengths of the eighth season is the fact that it cuts back on a lot of baggage that had built up around the mythology over the first seven years of the show. The feminist themes of The X-Files were frequently explored in the context of powerful white men sitting in expensive chairs in darkened rooms, exploiting and abusing the bodies of women for their own ends. That aspect of the conspiracy is gone, but Per Manum still nods towards it. The “previously” section includes Scully’s line “I was taken by men…” and the major parties to this plot are all male.

However, the eighth season makes it a lot more intimate and personal. The mythology and conspiracy becomes a lot more alien, in a literal and figurative sense; this allows the story to focus on the more low-key elements of the story. Duffy Haskell is not attending meetings in a fancy gentlemen’s club; he is very much working on the ground in a mundane capacity. The show’s anxieties about fatherhood and paternal abandonment are not focused on Mulder’s father, but on Mulder himself.

Madre mio...

Madre mio…

“You have become your father,” the Well-Manicured Man advised Mulder back in Paper Clip. It sounds like an innocuous obsevation, but it plays out as an accusation that haunts the show’s narrative. Bill Mulder was not a good man, even if he was a better man than many of his contemporaries. Fox Mulder became his father when he traded Samantha to the Alien Bounty Hunter in End Game. Fox Mulder became his father when he sat paralysed in fear and decided to do what he could to save those he cared about in One Son.

The eighth season suggests that Fox Mulder might become his father if he allows himself to be absent from the life of his own son. Bill Mulder was emotionally distant from his son, but the eighth season suggests that Fox Mulder might be literally absent. Bill Mulder ended up a mysterious enigma to his son, as explained in Roland and Aubrey, and there is a changed that Fox Mulder might never know his own son. That is the context of Mulder’s disappearance in the eighth season. It represents an abandonment of Scully and her unborn child.

Alien birth...

Alien birth…

This emphasis makes certain creative choices at the start of the ninth season particularly frustrating. The eighth season is fundamentally about how Mulder cannot be an absent void in his son’s life, how he must not become his father in this most important matter. The ninth season had to find a way to write Mulder out of the show, but way that was ultimately chosen undercut a lot of the core themes and the big ideas of the eighth season; most notably that Mulder needed to be a better father than his own father had been.

Per Manum very much signals the end game of the eighth season by revealing that Mulder and Scully wanted to have a child together. Although the episode never states that Mulder wants to be involved in the child’s life beyond providing sperm for Scully’s conception, it is quite clear that creating life together would fundamentally change the dynamic between the two. Scully chooses Mulder as her donor for a reason, a man who she believes that she will see every day and who acknowledges that things cannot be the same after the choice.

The outside, looking in...

The outside, looking in…

There is something quite normative about the eighth season, which builds to the idea of Mulder and Scully as a normative family – mother, father and child. For all that The X-Files has criticised and subverted the family unit, the show still seems to treat it as aspirational and desired. As Lacy Hodges points out in “Scully, What Are You Wearing?”, the show’s portrayal of Scully’s maternal arc can be problematic:

In addition to gender implications, the series’ portrayal of motherhood also implies a compliance with rules of heteronormativity. As she becomes more and more “feminine,” Scully also falls more and more in line with heteronormative gender ideals. As noted, the characterization of Scully in the early seasons of the series is as a “masculinized” woman—her hair is cut short and distinctly non-feminine, her wardrobe is sensible and non-form fitting, she is defined by her scientific rationalism, and she explicitly rejects a “normal” life of dating. As the series progresses, Scully’s attitude and appearance become feminized, and she becomes increasingly less asexual. Scully’s evolving femininity accompanies her evolving maternal desires. While she and Mulder are not romantically involved when she attempts to adopt Emily, they are much more personally involved with each other than in earlier seasons (in which Scully was not at all maternal). Similarly, by William’s birth, they are clearly romantically involved and are shown as a cohesive family unit (Existence) but, once Mulder leaves (thereby destroying the heteronormative “family”), Scully again loses maternal ability. Motherhood, the narrative implies, requires heteronormativity and a clear expression of “femininity.”

In a way, this could all be seen as part of the more generally conservative tone of the eighth season, as reflected in the abandonment of a subversive colonial conspiracy for a more firmly delineated alien invasion narrative. The decision to tie Mulder’s disappearance into Scully’s pregnancy essentially turns the eighth season into a tense thriller about whether Scully will be a single mother.

Of course the aliens use Apple. You've seen Independence Day, right? You can't connect an Apple to anything on Earth, but it plugs right on into an alien spaceship.

Of course the aliens use Apple. You’ve seen Independence Day, right? You can’t connect an Apple to anything on Earth, but it plugs right on into an alien spaceship.

There is, after all, something a little awkward about how uncomfortable Per Manum seems to be about non-traditional pregnancies. Over the course of the episode, it is revealed that fertility clinics are secretly conducting grotesque scientific experiments upon young women. Scully receives in vitro therapy from a doctor who is revealed to be part of the conspiracy against these expectant mothers. The suggestion is that those doctors are literally putting alien babies into women who want to conceive.

The use of the company name “Zeus Genetics” evokes imagery related to “Zeus Storage” from The Erlenmeyer Flask. Is in vitro fertilisation just the next iteration of those bodies grown in vats? There is something rather knee-jerk and reactionary about the portrayal of fertility therapy in Per Manum, tying it back to the Frankenstein motif that runs through the show’s central mythology. The X-Files is a show that has always been wary of scientific advancement, and Per Manum doubles down on that anxiety as it relates to fertility and reproduction.

"No, not a 'partner' in that sense."

“No, not a ‘partner’ in that sense.”

In keeping with the somewhat conservative themes of the eighth season, it seems that there is only one “right” way to have a baby. Scientific advancements in assisted reproductive technology have long fueled horror and anxiety. As Markus P. J. Bohlmann notes in Monstrous Children and Childish Monsters:

With conception taking place in a laboratory, wombs are seemingly separated from the body and are therefore horrific, capable of unstoppable generation and incubating unnatural fetuses. The threat of multiples is more likely with ART and these broods would result from infertile women who, if nature had its way, would not reproduce at all. These offspring are half human/half science, fulfilling the monstrosity definition of defying categorisation and embodying “inhuman possibilities that threaten to overrun humanity with something terrible.”

The potential for a brood leads to the positioning ART as animalistic, echoed in the media coverage of in-vitro patients. Photographs of mothers of extreme multiples – most famously, octuplets in the form of “Octomom” Nadya Suleman – circulate in popular media as people gawk at bellies seemingly swollen to the point of pursting. These women are referenced as having “litters” and positioned as freaks of nature, “conjuring anxieties about the inhuman lurking in new reproductive technologies that move us away from sexual reproduction to embryo or zygote implantation.” This reinforces fears of techno-babies as inhuman threats, and positions women who would undergo ART as being even further removed from natural womanhood, and therefore even more monstrous.

This fear plays out in Per Manum, when sinister doctors conspire to put babies that are literally alien inside women who desperately want children. Given the firm delineation that exists between “human” and “alien” (reflecting the divide between “within” and “without”) in the context of the eighth season, that is a powerful image.

Walk tall. That's the only way he knows how to walk...

Walk tall. That’s the only way he knows how to walk…

Of course, this adds a lot of uncomfortable context to some of the stand-alone “monster of the week” stories running through the season. Scully’s pregnancy informs a lot of the body horror populating the eighth season, but Per Manum‘s connection between in vitro fertilisation and literally alien babies harks back to stories like Roadrunners and Badlaa. In those stories, hostile and alien organisms made the human body their home. It seems like the eighth season is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of “unnatural” pregnancy.

After all, one of the core ideas of Per Manum is that Scully should be thankful that her attempts at in vitro fertilisation did not work. Had those attempts succeeded, it seems quite likely that Scully would be carrying an alien fetus rather than her biological offspring. “Never give up on a miracle,” Mulder suggests in the episode’s final line, which offers a pretty solid indication of where the eighth season is going. It seems that Scully was correct to put her faith in a “miracle” of old-fashioned sexual reproduction rather than relying on assisted reproduction.

Embracing the future...

Embracing the future…

This is a very conservative approach to women’s reproductive choices, but it is very much in keeping with how pop culture tends to approach the issue. As Kelly Oliver argued in Motherhood, Sexuality and Pregnant Embodiment, film and television have long been anxious about advances in reproductive technology:

New technologies bring new anxieties about both men and women becoming irrelevant for reproduction, and more anxieties about the dissociation between heterosexual sex and reproduction. For example, Baby Mama and Miss Conception resolve anxieties about new reproductive technologies by assuring us that despite the odds against it, ‘‘good old-fashioned’’ heterosexual sex is at the origin of life. In Baby Mama, both Kate and Angie get pregnant through heterosexual sex, even though Angie was supposed to have been artificially inseminated to act as Kate’s surrogate, and Kate is menopausal. And, in Miss Conception, Mia (Heather Graham), unbeknownst to her, is already pregnant from sex with her boyfriend. Judging from pre-release plot descriptions, the forthcoming film The Switch (formerly The Baster) will recuperate the biological nuclear family even though Jennifer Aniston’s character believes she has used sperm from an anonymous donor. These films reassure us that men have not become obsolete in reproduction and that the nuclear family is still the ideal family. In addition, romance trumps technology as babies are conceived from passion, even as ‘‘accidents,’’ rather than scheduled medical procedures. These films assuage fears raised by new technologies about the possibility of reproduction without sex. They idealize heterosexual sex at the origins of life.

Anxieties about in vitro fertilisation and assisted reproduction technologies are not restricted to horror films or science-fiction stories; these attitudes play out in dramas and romantic comedies as well. It is, in some respects, disappointing to see The X-Files play into these stock depictions; it feels a little reactionary.

Shades of grey...

Shades of grey…

Per Manum also touches upon the eighth season’s strange position. It is at once the culmination of everything that came before and the start of something new. It is perhaps the last season of The X-Files as fans know and love it, but it could also be the first season of an entirely new show. One of the interesting aspects about the appearances of David Duchovny in The Gift and Per Manum is the way that the show frames them as flashbacks. Both The Gift and Per Manum are built around a “secret history” within The X-Files itself.

Of course, The X-Files is obsessed with the idea of “secret history.” Mulder and Scully spent the bulk of the first six seasons uncovering a secret history of the United States dating back to the end of the Second World War and beyond. Rather than demonstrating a linear understanding of history, The X-Files suggested that the past (and the truth) is revealed in fragments and jumbles, with the audience (and the characters) forced to contextualise those shards into a cohesive narrative.

Introducing Knowle Rohrer, the rural juror...

Introducing Knowle Rohrer, the rural juror…

Frank Spotnitz has conceded that the reliance on flashbacks during the early eighth season was due to the confusion about the future of the show during production of the seventh season:

In the absence of pre-existing context for season 8’s dramatic surprises, the writers relied instead on flashbacks tailored to fit this year’s narrative. “Had I known there would be a season 8, I would have preferred to salt in all of the clues about these flashback episodes last season,” says Spotnitz of how he dealt retroactively with fitting in Mulder’s illness and Scully’s. “But there really is no way to unravel these mysteries in my mind, and make use of David in the time that he was available to us, without having some flashback episodes.”

It demonstrates the extent to which production realities can dictate creative direction. At the same time, the use of these flashbacks and revisions does suggest something interesting.

A jarring revelation...

A jarring revelation…

In keeping with the larger themes of the eighth season, the show turns that fascination with secret history inwards. The eighth season repeatedly suggests that there is a secret history unfolding beneath the surface of the previous seven seasons of the show, one never acknowledged or admitted. In what might be the show’s most inelegant piece of retroactive continuity, Within suggested that Mulder had been secretly suffering with a brain illness since The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. During The Gift, Doggett uncovers a secret X-file.

In Per Manum, the show reveals that Mulder and Scully contemplated having a child together. This was something to which the show never alluded before. Of course, there is a reason for that; nobody writing the seventh season knew that the eighth season would even exist, let alone that it would be a season based around Scully’s pregnancy. The use of retroactive continuity is an obvious “patch” designed to make the season arc work, grafting eighth season narrative over earlier continuity.

Reflecting on the horror...

Reflecting on the horror…

It works – within limitations, of course; trying to actually place the flashback scenes of Per Manum in the context of a particular episode or point in time is a nightmare with no logical answer. However, it suggests that so much was happening behind the scenes on those earlier seasons. One of the more interesting aspects of the seventh season was the way that the romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully was treated as a mystery. Whereas the fourth season had invited fans to speculate about the bees, the seventh asked them to wonder about Mulder and Scully.

It was quite clear that the dynamic between Mulder and Scully changed in the seventh season. The most overt references were the kiss in Millennium or the teaser to all things, but the basic dynamic between Mulder and Scully seemed to subtly shift over the course of the season. Episodes like Rush, The Goldberg Variation and The Amazing Maleeni seemed to feature a couple of flirtatious lovebirds rather than a pair of purely professional FBI agents. The relationship played out in the background, becoming part of the show’s own “secret history.”

Mellow yellow...

Mellow yellow…

Dating the flashbacks in Per Manum is difficult. Certainly, the script seems to suggest that they took place during the seventh season of the show. This does not make a great deal of sense, perhaps explaining why there was no on-screen reference to time. In terms of basic continuity, Mulder has known that Scully was infertile since Emily at the very latest; it would make sense for Per Manum to unfold before that point. Similarly, Per Manum makes Mulder seem like a douche if he agrees to become Scully’s father while knowing he has a terminal illness.

It makes a lot more sense to place the flashbacks at some point between Memento Mori and Christmas Carol, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, Mulder knows about Scully’s infertility by the time of Emily. More than that, Scully was very much engaged with issues related to motherhood during the fourth and fifth seasons of the show, so it fits thematically. It also means that Mulder only kept his theft of Scully’s ova a secret for a few months rather than a few years. The flashbacks in Per Manum fit easier in the context of the fourth or fifth season.

There is also a sense that placing the flashbacks in the context of the fourth or fifth season fits with the larger aesthetic of the eighth season. The eighth season has largely been preoccupied with recapturing the mood and tone of the early seasons. The emphasis on horror rather than comedy and the darker colour palette are two of the most obvious indicators, but there are lots of other nods to Vancouver-era continuity; Within takes the show back to Gibson Praise, while This is Not Happening marks the return of Jeremiah Smith.

That said, Kim Manners’ approach to the flashback sequences does suggest that they probably took place during the sixth or seventh seasons. In a very clever touch, the flashback sequences seem to lighten up a great deal; this emphasises how dark the eighth season is in relation to the relatively bright sixth and seventh seasons of the show. Even Scully’s costuming reflects this shift. In the “present day” sequences, Scully is dressed in black as if in mourning; in the flashback sequences, she wears brighter colours. Her hair also changes.

The flashback sequences are not the only aspects of Per Manum that hark back to the show’s history. The eighth season is very much a “back to basics” season in many respects, a clear attempt to start over. When introduced to Scully, Haskell explains that he has a long history with the X-files unit. He explains, “I contacted you about my wife about eight years ago because she was an alien abductee.” Haskell becomes a character who is simultaneously new and old. He is new to The X-Files, but known to the X-files. “That was before my time here,” Scully informs him.

Scrapping the somewhat convoluted mythology continuity allows the eighth season to get back to iconic and distinctive conspiracy imagery. A lot of the eighth season harks back to the first year of the show, to a time before the central conspiracy storyline had coalesced into a single linear narrative; instead, it is packed with haunting and ethereal imagery. The use of “Zeus Genetics” provides an obvious contextual link back to “Zeus Storage” from The Erlenmeyer Flask, and Per Manum picks up on the “alien embryo” imagery without the weight of colonisation.

In The Truth About Season Eight, Chris Carter explained that a lot of the ideas and themes of the eighth season developed as a result of the production team going back and reengaging with the show’s own history:

We actually sort of started playing with the idea that this was an alien baby, something we’d discussed way back when in seasons one and two as a way to deal with Gillian’s actual pregnancy. Now it had come forward in the show and had become part of the show.

It provides a nice sense of continuity between the first and eighth seasons of the show, without a lot of the stuff that had happened in between. If this was to be Mulder and Scully’s final year, that felt appropriate.

Appropriately enough given the body horror and reproductive themes of the season, the eight season borrows quite heavily from the Alien films. To be fair, The X-Files always had an abiding affection for that classic science-fiction horror. Indeed, the revelation of the colonists’ true nature (and their reproductive cycle) in The X-Files: Fight the Future was one gigantic homage to the lifecycle of that most iconic horror movie monster. One suspects that the limitations of a weekly television budget prevented the show from paying homage more frequently.

Nevertheless, the eighth season approaches the imagery and iconography of Alien with a renewed vigour. Within and Without literalise this connection, with the production team actually using set dressing from the original film in the series. The parasitic creature (and its fatal method of “rebirth”) in Roadrunners and the grotesque male rape followed by male pregnancy in Badlaa both evoke the aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s classic horror film. However, Per Manum sets its sights on an altogether more modern iteration of the Alien franchise.

The sequence where Scully finds the room packed full of grotesque failed embryos at Zeus Genetics feels like a shoutout to the scene in Alien Resurrection where Ripley discovers a room populated with her own failed clones. Indeed, the colour scheme of the scenes is quite similar; although Zeus Genetic is sterile and white in contrast to the industrial greys of Auriga, the embryos and clones are both portrayed as suspended in transparent vats and lit in shades of yellow.

This seems thematically appropriate. Per Manum is the story of a bunch of pregnant women who give birth to monstrous aliens, a theme close to the heart of the Alien franchise. However, Alien Resurrection took that theme to its logical conclusion, with Ripley embracing her role as mother to the monstrous hybrid unleashed at the climax of the film. Alien Resurrection took the franchise back to Earth, literalising its core themes. The eighth season of The X-Files also brings things back down to Earth, refocusing the narrative on its core ideas.

Per Manum is also notable for the introduction of Adam Baldwin as Knowle Rohrer, which is one of those great Chris Carter names. Per Manum is largely driven by Gillian Anderson, but the narrative also finds a great deal of material for Robert Patrick. Between the introduction of Knowle Rohrer and Joe Farah, Per Manum emphasises that John Doggett still has a life outside of the X-files at this point in his career. It provides a nice point of difference between himself and Scully. Doggett is not yet as isolated as Scully has allowed herself to become.

One of the interesting tensions of the eighth season is the question of whether the show’s mythology will reassert itself. After all, the conspiracy storyline was one of the show’s most iconic narrative elements; it makes sense that any attempt to breath new life into the show would involve reviving the mythology. Per Manum plays with that idea, with Carter and Spotnitz packing the episode full of recognisably “mythology” touches. It marks the return of abduction lore, human experimentation and alien babies. Knowle Rohrer appears to be just the latest iteration of Deep Throat.

Per Manum seems to suggest that the mythology is going to be reborn in some form or another. One of the great twists of the eighth season is the idea that the conspiracy is not to be reborn; that the alien colonists are preemptively smothering the last remenants of the old conspiracy before they can reestablish themselves. What looks to be a rebirth of an old and established order turns out to be the death throes of an institution well past its prime. It is something upon which the show touched in Requiem, but it makes sense to include it here.

To be fair, the mythology of the eighth season would become quite problematic when the production team tried to port it forward into the ninth season. There are a lot of reasons for this, not all of which are down to the creative decisions made by the writing staff. However, there is something quite clever about the character of Knowle Rohrer as he appears in the eighth season of the show. He initially appears to be a simple repetition of the archetypal informant in the mold of Deep Throat (or maybe Marita Covarrubias), but he is something more subversive.

There is something quite ironic in the fact that Adam Baldwin was cast in the role of Knowle Rohrer after he auditioned for the role of John Doggett. In fact, the actor credits his work on The X-Files for landing him the part in Firefly:

My manager called up and said I had to meet the guys from X-Files. I’d auditioned for the Robert Patrick role, but I guess I was wrong for it. Wrong age, wrong type, or just too tall for Gillian Anderson. They liked the audition, though. They brought me back for something else, so Joss [Whedon] had seen my work on the network.

Of course, casting an actor who auditioned for the role of Doggett in the role of a subversive character strangling the last vestiges of life out of the mythology could arguably be seen as another symbolic expression of the show’s anxieties around Doggett.

Per Manum is a fascinating and powerful episode. It is also one that marks a point of transition, towards the most concentrated run of mythology episodes in the entire nine-season run of The X-Files.

2 Responses

  1. “One of the more interesting aspects of the seventh season was the way that the romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully was treated as a mystery. Whereas the fourth season had invited fans to speculate about the bees, the seventh asked them to wonder about Mulder and Scully.”

    Yeah, I like to think that the earlier seasons were about two oddball characters challenging the dominant order by interrogating it and exposing its hidden violence. In the later seasons, however, the tables get turned, and it is Mulder and Scully who become the objects of interrogation. Beginning in Season 6, the question shifts from, “What is wrong with the United States that it allows horrible things to happen to its citizens?”, to, “What is wrong with Mulder and Scully that they refuse to have a ‘normal’ heterosexual relationship?” The second question not only distracts from the first, it implicitly “others” the oddball characters, aligning the audience with the heteronormative mainstream. In other words, we go from identifying with Mulder and Scully and being suspicious of the dominant order to identifying with the dominant order and being suspicious of Mulder and Scully.

    In the face of this scrutiny, the response of the characters is not defiance but almost apologetic capitulation. The seventh season teases us with the question, “Are Mulder and Scully really that odd, or might they be a ‘normal’ heterosexual couple after all?” The eighth finally reassures us that, yes, any perceived oddness on Mulder and Scully’s part was just an illusion, and they are, in fact, more than happy to do what mainstream, heteronormative, patriarchal society expects them to do. Namely, have heterosexual sex and make babies.

  2. One point that this review kind of slides over is the tension between heterosexual and queer reproduction. You mention the anxiety over reproductive technology, but Scully isn’t just going for the technologised form of pregnancy; she’s also (seemingly) opting to have a child by her friend rather than her heterosexual romantic partner. It’s a choice made by many queer women: asking their male friends to be sperm donors so that they can have children outside of a traditional partnership. At this point in the series, we still don’t know exactly what Mulder and Scully’s relationship is (Are they already lovers? Asexual romantic partners? Friends with benefits? Or are they still a queerplatonic couple?) but there is at least room to imagine them and their relationship as non-heterosexual. “Per Manum” thus raises the possibility of Mulder and Scully forming a queer family, only to shut it down again. In the end, Scully will not be allowed to have children until she embraces heterosexuality.

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