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The X-Files – Founder’s Mutation (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

In technical and aesthetic terms, Founder’s Mutation is the most modern of the six episodes to air as part of the revival miniseries.

To be fair, the other episodes in the miniseries do embrace the twenty-first century in their own unique ways. My Struggle I and My Struggle II update the mythology for the new millennium. Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster deals with themes that resonate particularly strongly now that Mulder and Scully are in their middle age. Babylon is a sincere (if misguided) attempt to engage with the current political climate. However, those episodes are decidedly old-fashioned in how they choose to tell their stories.

Title drop.

Title drop.

There are little nods towards contemporary technology in the other five episodes. Mulder’s inability to work his phone is something of a running joke, whether in his failure to snap a picture of Guy Mann in Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster or his inability to turn off his “find my phone” app in My Struggle II. Carter is justifiably proud of how My Struggle II incorporates cutting edge pseudo-science. However, none of those stories integrate new technology and new ideas as smoothly as Founder’s Mutation.

However, it isn’t just the use of technology that marks Founder’s Mutation out as the most modern of the six episodes. The episode’s storytelling and style are noticeably more contemporary than the episodes around it. Founder’s Mutation tells its story in a way that feels very much in step with the television landscape around it. More than the other five episodes in the miniseries, Founder’s Mutation feels like an episode of twenty-first century television.

Can you hear me at all?

Can you hear me at all?

One of the big challenges facing any attempt to revive The X-Files was the question of how the show would adapt to the new millennium. After all, the ninth season had largely suggested that the series would struggle to keep up with the demands of the twentieth century. The X-Files had been a cutting edge television show for the nineties, pushing towards a bold and ambitious cinematic style while also moving toward more serialised long-form storytelling. However, the nineties were a long time ago.

In some ways, The X-Files began to feel dated before it even left the air. This was particularly striking during the show’s sixth season, which marked the point at which the show’s ratings began their slow and steady decline. As the production moved to Los Angeles from Vancouver, the television landscape was undergoing a seismic shift. HBO launched The Sopranos on the same night that Fox broadcast The Rain King. Somewhat appropriately, no subsequent episode of The X-Files would match or surpass the viewing figures for The Rain King.

Eye see.

Eye see.

Even genre television went through something of an evolution that began before The X-Files came to a close. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer had launched during the fifth season of The X-Files, and perhaps represented the next logical evolution in genre storytelling. Buffy pushed its serialisation and long-form storytelling even further than The X-Files, and embraced its postmodernist tendencies with even greater relish. In some respects, The X-Files had been left standing in the dust as other television shows learned from its innovations and applied their own twists.

To be fair, there was a conscious attempt to modernise The X-Files during the eighth season, an attempt largely forced by David Duchovny’s departure at the end of the seventh season and other production realities. The eighth season of The X-Files embraced long-form storytelling, opting to tell what amounted to a single story about Mulder and Scully leaving the X-files to a new generation over the course of twenty-one episodes. The eighth season of The X-Files seemed to beckon the show into the new world.

"No, Mulder, we've been over this. Bureau policy insists I have to drive until you learn to clear your browsing history."

“No, Mulder, we’ve been over this. Bureau policy insists I have to drive until you learn to clear your browsing history.”

In contrast, the ninth season represented a reactionary shift away from those modernising touches. The mythology two-parter Provenance and Providence felt like a conscious attempt to recapture the glory and spectacle of a mid-nineties conspiracy storyline, one that felt curiously out of date in March 2002. Whereas the final stretch of the eighth season was a unified and cohesive march from This is Not Happening through to Existence, the final run of the ninth season wrapped up with a disorganised shambles of contradictory standalone episodes.

In terms of structure and style, the revival miniseries feels more like the ninth season than the eighth. The episodes largely stand apart from one another. There are recurring threads like William that bubble through Founder’s Mutation and Home Again, or the trumpets that connect Babylon to My Struggle II. However, there is also a sense of disconnect between the individual episodes. The revival miniseries is a miniseries in the most literal sense of the word; it is a very small series. However, it is too much to suggest that these six episodes are a single story.

Bleeding edge.

Bleeding edge.

Indeed, Founder’s Mutation is proof of that. Although the episode was the fifth episode of the season to be produced, it was the second to be broadcast. Home Again was the second episode of the show to be produced, and would be the fourth to be broadcast. The change in the running was announced relatively late in the process, only weeks before My Struggle I premiered in January 2016. Production of the miniseries had wrapped in September 2015, and Fox had confirmed Home Again as the second of the six episodes to air in October 2015.

This is quite a jarring change, meaning that Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster is the only one of the four mid-season episodes to be broadcast in its production order. More than that, it emphasises how firmly the six episodes of the miniseries stand apart from one another. If Chris Carter and his production team could shuffle the order so dramatically without disrupting the flow of their story or alienating viewers, it only demonstrates how episodic the stories in question must be.

Blood lines.

Blood lines.

However, it is worth considering why the broadcast order was changed. The change in the order makes a certain amount of logic in pragmatic terms; Founder’s Mutation is a lot stronger and more traditional than Home Again, so placing it immediately after My Struggle I  is a reasonable choice. That said, Chris Carter argued that Founder’s Mutation was chosen to take the second slot because of it worked as a transitory episode:

Though fans might be tempted to blame higher-ups for tinkering with the airing order, The X-Files creator Chris Carter says the shuffle was done to tell the best story possible. “Because we have a story arc that runs through the middle of the series…we were concerned that, coming right off a mythology episode [and] going right into a standalone episode, people would say, ‘What’s happened?’” he explains. “So, it actually worked out. It served Episode 2 better to replace it with 5. It created a better continuity.”

While the revival’s flow might change slightly with the reordering, “we’ve come and done what we’ve always done: we give you an amazing mix of episodes—we’ve given you thriller episodes, we’ve given you scary episodes, emotional episodes, comedy episodes,” Carter says.

Founder’s Mutation is effectively a quasi-mythology episode. It is very clearly its own distinct unit of story that can be watched and enjoyed separate from My Struggle I and My Struggle II, but it also fits comfortably within the framework of the show’s conspiracy plot line. While it is functionally a “monster of the week” show, Founder’s Mutation focuses on an investigation into a secret government-affiliated research programme that involves alien DNA.

Obligatory Scully autopsy scene!

Obligatory Scully autopsy scene!

In many ways, Founder’s Mutation is a very traditional X-Files episode. It is certainly not as shocking a departure from the core X-Files template as something like Triangle or Monday. This is an episode driven a case that Mulder and Scully are investigating, rooted in a paranormal phenomenon. In many ways, Founder’s Mutation is a much more traditional X-Files story than Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster, Home Again or Babylon. In fact, in a longer season, there is a sense that there would be quite a few episodes that looked like Founder’s Mutation.

In fact, it is clear that James Wong wants to write a very old-school and X-Files episode. All the trappings are certainly there. Early in the episode, Mulder’s conversation with Gupta is contrasted with a scene of Scully conducting an autopsy. When Mulder and Scully investigate Sanjay’s secret apartment, Founder’s Mutation opts to have them break out the old flashlights instead of simply turning on the light. In this respect, Founder’s Mutation is recognisably a traditional X-Files story hitting the iconic beats.

Obligatory flashlights scene!

Obligatory flashlights scene!

In other ways, Founder’s Mutation is an odd episode. Historically, the show separated its “monster of the week” episodes from its mythology stories. Although the Cigarette-Smoking Man would occasionally appear in episodes like Tooms, there had historically been a delineation between the standalone stories focusing on monsters and the larger story about the looming threat of colonisation. The show itself even acknowledged this divide in episodes like D.P.O., with Mulder insisting that a boy with lightning powers need not be tied to a vast global conspiracy.

There were exceptions to this rule, of course. Scully’s cancer was a mythology plot thread that was seeded in the standalone episode Leonard Betts. There were clear thematic ties between standalone stories and the mythology, with the victimisation and abuse of Oubliette flowing into Nisei or 731 while the contagious evil of Grotesque seemed to foreshadow the introduction of the infectious black oil in Piper Maru and Apocrypha. Still, The X-Files could be firmly divided between the two types of episodes. The mythology could even be packaged and sold separately.

"You must be myth-taken here."

“You must be myth-taken here.”

This is perhaps the first and most obvious example of how Founder’s Mutation feels like an episode of twenty-first century television. Shows like Lost and Fringe had seen a much tighter integration of episodic storytelling with serialisation. This is indicative of a larger change in how television is produced, with a heavier emphasis on television as a long-form medium. As Alan Sepinwall argues:

More and more — particularly on cable, but now even on many broadcast shows — dramas are being structured for marathon viewing, rather than the weekly schedule in which they originally air. Serialization was once a dirty word in network television, where researchers used to claim that even a show’s most devoted fans watched one out of every four episodes on average, and where the president of entertainment at FOX had to lie to her bosses that “24” would have self-contained episodes in order to get a greenlight. Now that DVRs are commonplace, almost nobody airs reruns anymore, and the big aftermarket isn’t in syndicated repeats but selling shows to the streaming outlets, serialization is not only accepted, but in many cases preferred.

There is a recurring sense that everything in a television show has to matter, that it all has to fit together into some vast cohesive whole. It is not enough for the individual episodes to work on their own. They have to add up to something greater. Indeed, writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have talked about how they don’t even approach Game of Thrones in terms of seasons, but as “one continuous story.”

"I think we can still fit this together, Scully."

“I think we can still fit this together, Scully.”

More than any other episode in this six episode season, Founder’s Mutation fits this mode of modern television. My Struggle I and My Struggle II are very clearly traditional mythology episodes, to the point that it doesn’t really matter that there were four standalone episodes between the two-parter. Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster, Home Again and Babylon are more traditional “monster of the week” adventures with no solid ties to the larger arc of the show, although there are thematic ties and overlapping characters.

In contrast, Founder’s Mutation is something of… well, a mutation. It is very much a mythology episode in terms of theme. It is a story about a sinister conspiracy of powerful men attempting to exert control over women’s bodies and their reproductive choices. Augustus Goldman conducted experiments on his pregnant wife Jackie and his daughter Molly. When Jackie attempts to resist, Goldman has her declared insane and takes her away from their daughter. He proceeds to lock Molly inside a hermetically sealed room.

A deer in the headlights...

A deer in the headlights…

In many respects, Goldman is typical Chris Carter antagonist. He is an abusive patriarch, a father using his privilege and position of power to abuse his family. He is very much a spiritual successor to Bill Mulder or the Cigarette-Smoking Man, but also to other characters who recur throughout Carter’s oeuvre. Goldman’s abuse of his family recalls several antagonists from the first season of Millennium, particularly Joe Bangs from The Well-Worn Lock or Mister Green from Sacrament. Goldman just does it on a larger scale.

One of the episode’s nicer visual touches is the way that Wong juxtaposes the death of the deer hit by Jacqueline Goldman with the death of Agnes. Both Agnes and the deer are killed in a collision with a car. The deer’s abdomen has been clearly torn open, while Mulder and Scully discover that the foetus has been torn from Agnes. It is a very effective visual comparison, one that underscores just how cynical Augustus Goldman and the conspirators are towards these women, how they reduce them to little more than meat or livestock.

"Baby's totally not on board with this."

“Baby’s totally not on board with this.”

Like the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Goldman perpetuates his abuse on a wider scale outside of his immediate family. The Cigarette-Smoking Man’s experiments upon Cassandra Spender were mirrored in the wider crimes of the Project, and Goldman has cultivated an entire system designed to target and exploit women. Giving a tour of the ward sponsored by Goldman, Sister Mary explains that, “They’re homeless, damaged in one way or another. Alcohol, drugs, no fathers in the picture.” His scheme is described as “insidious.”

The X-Files often struggled and faltered in its portrayal of Scully as a feminist character, most clearly in the final season when it seemed like Scully was forced to choose between her career and a family when the show made no such demands of Mulder. However, there was a very clear feminist subtext bubbling through the mythology, as powerful men conspired to control women’s reproductive rights. It feels appropriate for Founder’s Mutation to revisit these themes, as these political and social issues have not gone away.

Blood on his hands.

Blood on his hands.

To be fair, these thematic connections are par for the course. After all, The X-Files is often more cohesive in terms of theme than it is tidy in terms of plot. The difference is that Founder’s Mutation explicitly ties the work of Augustus Goldman back to the mythology. “In 1973, the Syndicate was convened to assist in a project to colonise the world by creating alien/human hybrids,” Mulder explains. “The project was ultimately unsuccessful. I doubt they ever stopped trying.” He suspects that this is ultimately “another phase of the project.”

Of course, there are obvious questions here. Mulder is explicitly referencing the mythology as it existed in the original nine seasons of the show, with the conspirators collaborating with the colonists to depopulate the planet and prepare mankind for subjugation. This does not really make sense in the context of the revelations in My Struggle I. Although My Struggle II reveals that the conspirators are still plotting to depopulate the planet, they do not appear to be using alien DNA and it is strange to describe the process as “colonisation.”

"I think we've done a good job picking up on it."

“I think we’ve done a good job picking up on it.”

That said, the line can easily be interpreted as a simplification of the more complicated status quo, and that Mulder is referring to attempts by the “elites” to reclaim the planet. Just as likely, writer James Wong was not entirely up to speed with what Carter was planning to do with the new mythology. As Wong explained, Carter largely trusted his fellow writers to do their own thing with a minimum of interference:

No, he didn’t offer a lot of notes. I had only worked on, in the past, that first, second, and fourth season, and I really didn’t follow it, at least the mythology that much, but surprisingly, or not surprisingly, there’s a whole website devoted to the mythology of The X-Files. So, knowing that I wanted to deal with William, the baby, for me that was a very emotional , interesting connection that they have that hasn’t been dealt with. So, knowing that, I went onto a website where a lot of fans have written about things that have happened, about the mythology, which episode that occurred, and all of that. So, I went through that and had a basic understanding of what’s happening. That’s how I approached it. And of course Chris read the script after I finished it, but I think I was pretty thorough in understanding that. There weren’t any outstanding notes. I don’t think I missed anything.

Even allowing for the vagueness of the reference, it is not really a big issue. Founder’s Mutation is very clearly a “monster of the week” story that is positioned within the framework of the mythology, a bridge between the two kinds of stories that had traditionally been kept quite separate from one another over the original nine-season run of the show.

Bloody disgusting...

Bloody disgusting…

Founder’s Mutation does a reasonable job of connecting with the mythology of the miniseries, at least in terms of recurring motifs. The opening shot of Founder’s Mutation focuses on Sanjay’s eye, which sets up the shots focusing on Scully’s eye that serve to bookend My Struggle II. Of course, the eye has been an object of recurring fixation across the entire run of The X-Files. Seeing is very much believing, which means that the eye imagery has held huge symbolic importance for Carter; consider the importance of eyes in the context of the black oil, for example.

More than that, Founder’s Mutation is an X-file that begins with the investigation of a strange sound that nobody else can hear. Sanjay is driven insane by the sound in the teaser, to the point that he puts a knife through his ear in order to stop the pain. Later, Mulder is affected by the sound at Sanjay’s second apartment and also at the Gilligan farm. In Babylon, Carter suggests that the trumpets from Revelation are playing and that only certain people (including Mulder) can hear them. Founder’s Mutation seems to set up that idea, at least thematically.

Ear, ear.

Ear, ear.

The idea of doing an X-Files episode based around a killer sound originated in James Wong’s conversations with Chris Carter. According to Season X, James Wong originally had a very different idea for his episode:

I wanted to this thing where there’s this reality show, and there’s a monster in the mountains. But then I talked to Glen and he was doing the monster show. So I said, “I can’t do that, there’s one too many monster shows.” There wasn’t a writers’ room per se, we really didn’t work on each others’ stories except to tell them and make sure they didn’t overlap. But I knew I wanted to do something with Mulder and Scully’s child.

That is an interesting idea, one that also hints at modernising and updating The X-Files for the twentieth century. As it stands, Founder’s Mutation is a fascinating quasi-mythology episode.

"Probable cause of death… gee, that's a tough one…"

“Probable cause of death… gee, that’s a tough one…”

Founder’s Mutation revels in making these sorts of connections, and in tying together elements of the show that have traditionally remained separate. “Mulder, how are these connected?” Scully demands. “The birds, the suicide, the kids, the genetic anomalies.” It seems like everything is part of the same puzzle, where everything fits together. There is a strong sense of connection and unity running through Founder’s Mutation. This theme runs deep; Goldman is running his project out of Our Lady of Sorrows, the hospital where Scully works.

In some respects, Founder’s Mutation feels like a direct response to My Struggle I. In revamping the mythology, Chris Carter proposed a chaotic and postmodern approach. What if there wasn’t a single overriding conspiracy theory? What if there were multiple competing conspiracies? What if there was no way to know what is true and what is not? What if every conspiracy theory could be true, but you had no way of knowing which ones were and which ones weren’t? What if some of the world made sense, but you could never know which bits?

Alien nation.

Alien nation.

In contrast, Founder’s Mutation offers a much more cohesive conspiracy. It falls back on the more traditional paranoid style of The X-Files, suggesting that there is a single overriding conspiracy and that everything is ultimately a part of it. Founder’s Mutation suggests that there is one single overarching conspiracy that serves as a thread tying it all together. There is none of the disjointed rambling and free association that made the mythology of My Struggle I so terrifying and unsettling.

In fact, it could be argued Founder’s Mutation goes even further than that. What if there isn’t just one single thread that ties together the mythology? What if there is one single thread that ties together everything? What if there is no divide between “monster of the week” stories and conspiracy stories? What if they are ultimately the same story? What if everything fits together? What if it’s not just one story now, what if it was always one story? Founder’s Mutation never quite comes out and says it, but it hints at it pretty loudly.

"You can trust me. I'm a doctor. Like Mengele."

“You can trust me. I’m a doctor. Like Mengele.”

As X-Files expert and critic Chris Knowles notes, there is an implication here that perhaps the “monsters of the week” are not as divorced from the mythology as it might seem:

Now what Founder’s Mutation is suggesting – rather strongly- that characters like Eugene Tooms and Leonard Betts may in fact be the result of direct DNA manipulation from these clandestine laboratories. 

We know that many of the “monsters of the week” were in fact engineered beings, whether you’re talking about the Eves or the Flukeman or the sleepless soldiers or the various creations of the Post-Modern Prometheus.

This is not unprecedented in the TenThirteen Universe. The series finale of Millennium (which had Chris Carter’s verbal fingerprints all over it) explained why there were so many serial killers in its universe- the Roosters faction of the Group had been programming them in order to create a problem/reaction/solution situation to increase their own power and influence.

Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That had revealed that the Millennium Group had been manufacturing serial killers, so it seems reasonable that the same logic was being applied to the mythology of The X-Files.

Rocketing through fatherhood.

Rocketing through fatherhood.

This reconciliation of a standalone story with a larger mythology is also reflected in the way that Founder’s Mutation ties the details of this particular case into the mystery surrounding William. My Struggle I largely ignored the impact of William on Mulder and Scully; Mulder’s depression and obsession were cited as the reason for the disillusion of his relationship with Scully, for example. However, Founder’s Mutation makes a point to emphasise the toll that William’s adoption took upon both Mulder and Scully.

It is a very rich piece of character continuity, one that underscores the idea that the mythology does not happen in a vacuum and that there is a sense of emotional weight carried from one episode to another. More than that, William provides an emotional focal point for the revival miniseries. As fascinating as the revised mythology proposed by My Struggle I might be, it lacks any real emotional weight. The original show grounded Mulder’s pursuit of the paranormal in his quest to find Samantha. Founder’s Mutation does something similar with William.

Mulder most foul.

Mulder most foul.

In the documentary Season X, Chris Carter described the awkward situation as “the problem of William”:

We wanted to explore the problem of William. It plays in almost every episode, some mention of it. But beyond that we have really just harkened to William and not dealt with him in any kind of filmic way.

It seems like an apt description, given the long shadow that William cast.

"I think I've seen this Twilight Zone episode."

“I think I’ve seen this Twilight Zone episode.”

When David Duchovny departed at the end of the seventh season, the production team decided that Scully should become pregnant. The pregnancy played out across the eighth season, with Scully giving birth to a baby named William. The closing shot of Existence found Mulder and Scully holding their baby together, the camera pulling back as if to leave the two their privacy. There was a sense that this was an appropriate place to leave the two characters, building their own family together.

However, it was not to be. The ninth season could not let go of Mulder and Scully. Gillian Anderson’s contract for the eighth season included a clause for the ninth season, so Scully was going to be around for the following year. David Duchovny had signed no such clause and disappeared into the ether. The result was that Scully was left holding the baby, which caused a number of difficulties for the writing staff who struggled with how best to integrate William into the series. The solution was inelegant.

Give his head peace.

Give his head peace.

Although Existence suggested that William was nothing more than a child born of love between Mulder and Scully, Nothing Important Happened I and Nothing Important Happened II rolled back on that pretty quickly. Maybe William was a baby designed by evil scientists as part of a “super soldier” project. Provenance and Providence went further. What if William was really a messiah figure destined to save the world during the inevitable alien invasion? William became a focal point of the mythology.

At the same time, there was a recurring sense that William was hampering the writing of Scully. All too often, it seemed like Scully was rendered helpless by threats to William. “My baby!” became a constant refrain over the course of the ninth season. When it became clear that the ninth season was to be the last, the plan was to transition Mulder and Scully to their own movie franchise. When David Duchovny returned to the show to plot and direct William, he and Chirs Carter saw William as a potential problem in that respect.

Nearest and beerest.

Nearest and beerest.

In William, Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz (working from a plot concocted with David Duchovny) wrote William out of the show. The child was “depowered” and given up for adoption to an anonymous couple. Mulder and Scully would never know where their child was. However justified the decision might have been in storytelling terms, it was horribly executed. Reportedly, there was some tension on the writing staff about how casually Mulder and Scully abandoned their child in service of narrative convenience.

A lot of these ideas are explored in Home Again, with Glen Morgan writing an episode that could be read as a critique of the staff’s handling of the larger William arc. Founder’s Mutation avoids delving too deeply into the particulars of that arc, although the script makes a slight allusion to Duchovny’s historic ambivalence to William. When Scully challenges Mulder whether he wonders about William, Mulder suggests that he has made a conscious effort to move on. “I feel like I’ve had to put that behind me,” he states.

"I feel like I've had to put that behind me... like my hopes for an X-Files movie franchise."

“I feel like I’ve had to put that behind me… like my hopes for an X-Files movie franchise.”

In fact, the line that actually appears in the episode was something of an ad lib from actor David Duchovny. As James Wong explains in Season X:

In the script, as a way to deflect Scully, Mulder says, “I put it behind me.” And David wanted to add the words, “Of course I do, but I’ve had to put it behind me.” I think that was a way for Mulder to express how he felt without going to the place that he knew Scully was going.

It is an interesting line, one that acknowledges Mulder’s pain in a way that sets up the heartbreaking final flashback of the episode. However, it also suggests that Mulder’s pain is perhaps more muted than that felt by Scully.

Happy never after.

Happy never after.

Founder’s Mutation is much more invested in the emotional reality of William’s absence than it is in the particulars of the mythology. His alien DNA is mentioned, as is his mysterious back story. But these elements are not introduced to paint him as a messianic figure. That luxury is reserved for My Struggle II. Instead, Founder’s Mutation suggests that William’s absence is simply a part of day-to-day life for both Mulder and Scully. Even when they don’t mention it, they are thinking about it. It haunts them. It informs their characters.

James Wong explores this idea through two quick imaginary sequences, in which Mulder and Scully dare to image what life might have been like had they opted to keep William. Scully imagines his first day of school. Mulder imagines indulging in sixties nostalgia with him. These are small touching scenes that seem to hint at a happier life for Mulder and Scully, a life beyond conspiracies and aliens and monsters. In its own way, it is an extension of the idea broached as early as Dreamland I, wondering what life would be like if they simply stopped.

The son also rises.

Son set.

Could Mulder and Scully have a happy domestic life? What if they had stayed together at the end of Existence? What if they had left the X-files to Doggett and Reyes? What if they had left The X-Files? According to Season X, this was a key theme of the miniseries for producer Glen Morgan:

I always called it “The Last Temptation of Mulder and Scully”, because they questioned: was this worth it? Should I have just been a mother? In Jim’s episode, you actually see that from Mulder and Scully. So I think that the over-arcing connector is… was this life that we chose, to investigate this stuff, worth it?

More than the continuity mythology, this is the thread running through the six episodes, or at least through Founder’s Mutation, Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster and Home Again. Has all of this been worth it? It seems like an appropriate theme for the revival.

Does not scan.

Does not scan.

There is a certain metafictional irony in all of this. As long as the production team are working on X-Files episodes, Mulder and Scully cannot truly be happy. The duo cannot live happily ever after if their story is on-going. As long as there are new episodes being produced, their stories are on-going and governed by the rules and conventions of The X-Files. Mulder and Scully will never be able to settle down and live a life of domestic bliss with their family because The X-Files is not a show about settling down and living a life of domestic bliss.

By that logic, there is an inherent cruelty to continuing to produce The X-Files. The closing images of The X-Files: I Want to Believe had Mulder and Scully in a boat rowing off into the sunset. Bringing the two characters back for My Struggle I means that the happy ending cannot be allowed to stand. After all, Mulder and Scully would still be a couple if Fox had not greenlit another six episodes of The X-Files. The two characters would have been happy forever. But the narrative rules of The X-Files prevent such a resolution.

"X" marks the spot where Scully's life came off the rails.

“X” marks the spot where Scully’s life came off the rails.

Founder’s Mutation seems to suggest that Mulder and Scully are both trapped by The X-Files, that the narrative rules of the show render any chance of a normal life impossible. Both visions of a life with William end bitterly, the illusion of an idyllic life shattered by outsider forces. However, those outside forces are couched in the iconography of The X-Files. When Scully imagines William in an accident, she runs past a big “X” in the middle of the road, an obvious allusion to The Pilot. Mulder imagines William being abducted like Samantha in Little Green Men.

Even allowing for these cruel twists, there is something endearing about these visions. Mulder’s vision of life with William is particularly striking, because it is very much anchored in imagery from earlier Morgan and Wong scripts. Mulder imagines himself building an Apollo moon rocket with William, quoting from Kennedy’s iconic “we choose to go to the moon” speech and watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mulder seems to imagine his life with William in terms of the sixties, rich in hope and optimism.

Abduction anxiety.

Abduction anxiety.

This is a recurring theme, both of The X-Files in general and of Morgan and Wong in particular. The X-Files is a show rooted in the paranoia of the seventies, and there is a tendency to contrast that with the idealism associated with the sixties. This is most obvious in the portrayal of the Lone Gunmen, with Byers’ first names given as “John Fitzgerald” in Unusual Suspects, the invocation of sixties optimism in the teaser to Three of a Kind and even the presence of the Volkswagen van in The Lone Gunmen.

However, Morgan and Wong have a particular fascination with the sixties, particularly the space race. Little Green Men focuses on the symbolic importance of the space program, lamenting budget cuts and disillusionment. The second episode of Space: Above and Beyond, The Farthest Man From Home, found West was watching the Kennedy speech that Mulder quotes here. River of Stars suggested that it was always the sixties in outer space, with the crew picking up a faint broadcast of the Batman! theme echoing through space.

No time for no monkey business.

No time for no monkey business.

It makes a great deal of sense that Mulder would imagine life with William as a fantasy evoking sixties nostalgia. The two even sit down to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey together, another wry Morgan and Wong in-joke. Earlier in the episode, another sixties/seventies ape movie can be glimpsed on television; Escape from the Planet of the Apes is playing on the background in the hospital ward. This is very much a calling card for the creative team of Morgan and Wong.

Glen Morgan and James Wong had earlier included Beneath the Planet of the Apes on a television in the background of their script for The Hand of St. Sebastian. Darin Morgan had used Planet of the Apes as a cultural (and romantic) touchstone in War of the Coprophages. During the second season of Millennium, Lara Means had used a quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey as her Millennium Group password. (Frank Black had to settle for a quote from Soylent Green.)

"When you're older, son, remind me to tell you about how Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings."

“When you’re older, son, remind me to tell you about how Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings.”

These nods towards sixties and seventies science-fiction are a nice authorial calling card for writer and director James Wong, but they also fit well with the themes and ideas of the episode. The monkeys playing on the television in the hospital ward are part of the apocalyptic fantasy of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, perhaps reflecting the cynicism of the world in which Mulder finds himself. The monkeys on the television at the end of the episode are from the “dawn of man” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyessey, representing the birth of untold potential.

There is also something very charming about the short conversation between Mulder and William while watching the film. William asks what the apes are studying, and Mulder responds that it is the “monolith.” William responds, “What’s a monolith?” Interestingly, the young child pronounces the word so it sounds like “mono-myth”, Joseph Campbell’s master theory of narrative that was a huge influence on X-Files writers like Duchovny, Morgan and Wong. Its influence is felt in Duchovny’s writing for Mulder and Morgan and Wong’s work on Millennium.

Makes me wanna scream!

Makes me wanna scream!

Explaining the monolith, Mulder tells William, “Some people think it represents our first contact with aliens. Other people think it represents the beginning of human knowledge. I… I think one day you’ll probably have your own ideas about it.” It is a sweet moment, but also a telling one. Mulder is suggesting that stories and ideas are subject to change and reinterpretation over time. Meanings evolve. In the context of the X-Files revival, it feels like a commentary on the changes made to the mythology by My Struggle I.

More than that, it reflects a philosophy of writing and reinterpretation. Founder’s Mutation and Home Again make it very clear that James Wong and Glen Morgan have very different ideas about William than Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz had. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz positioned William as a messianic figure on the cusp of an epic “chosen one” narrative. James Wong and Glen Morgan instead focus on William as an absent centre, as the Samantha at the heart of a new mythology, as a child lost to his parents.

Oh, sister, where art thou?

Oh, sister, where art thou?

In fact, even the case at the heart of Founder’s Mutation creates a clear link between the abduction of Samantha and the disappearance of William. The mysterious case of Kyle Gilligan resonates with both of those key absences in Mulder’s life. Like William, Kyle is a child with special powers who was separated from his parents and grew up on a farm. Like Mulder, Kyle desperately longs to reconnect with his long lost sister, a girl who has taken away with her father’s consent to be made the subject of sinister government conspiracies.

Kyle serves to tie Gibson and Samantha together, a great example of how Founder’s Mutation ties together the “monster of the week” story with the larger mythology. Kyle is in effect a metaphor for the traumas affecting Mulder and Scully, something the show has used in the past in episodes like Aubrey or Oubliette. At the same time, it recalls the sorts of compromises made by arc-driven shows forced to adhere to an episodic format. The first season of Hannibal did something similar in exploring the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter.

"You were pretty great on Hannibal." "No, YOU were pretty great on Hannibal." "Did anybody watch Aquarius?"

“You were pretty great on Hannibal.”
“No, YOU were pretty great on Hannibal.”
“Did anybody watch Aquarius?”

However, while the sequences between Mulder and William are affecting, it is the sequences focusing on Scully that are most effective. The revival was an interesting experience for Gillian Anderson, on a number of levels. On the most superficial of levels, it revealed that there were still horrible double standards at play when it came to popular culture. Gillian Anderson was originally only offered half of the salary afforded to David Duchovny, demonstrating that little had changed since her fight for equality during the run of the original show.

Even when the episodes aired, Anderson found herself subject to intense media double standards, with prominent newspapers alleging that the actress had undergone plastic surgery while The X-Files was off the air. It goes without saying that no such accusations were leveled at Anderson’s co-stars David Duchovny or Mitch Pileggi. Anderson denied the allegations, but the fact that this was considered public comment speaks to disheartening contemporary attitudes toward female performers over the age of forty.

"I was on Battlestar Galactica, in case anybody cares?"

“I was on Battlestar Galactica, in case anybody cares?”

However, there was also a sense that Anderson was a little more reluctant and concerned about the revival miniseries than David Duchovny or Chris Carter. When the prospect of a return to television was mooted, Anderson had a “strong negative reaction” to the idea. While David Duchovny and Chris Carter signaled a desire to do more X-Files rather early in the process, Anderson instead spoke about the miniseries as an opportunity to offer the characters and the fans a sense of “closure.”

After all, Anderson had a very different experience of The X-Files than either David Duchovny or Chris Carter. David Duchovny arrived on The X-Files as an experienced performer, with a rich and varied filmography that included all manner of work from Twin Peaks to The Red Shoes Diaries. Chris Carter came to The X-Files off the back of years working in the industry and writing within the studio system. In contrast, Anderson was relatively unknown when she landed the role of Dana Scully. It was very much her big break.

"Boy, I really wish Scully and I had more than one photo of the kid."

“Boy, I really wish Scully and I had more than one photo of the kid.”

Anderson has explained that Scully is different than her other characters, in that Scully carried over a lot of Anderson’s mannerisms and tics. This is true even of the way that Scully walks. It took Anderson a while to reconnect with that aspect of the character:

Scully walks like I walk. I think characters that I’ve played since her have had their own distinctive walks, but Scully very much has Gillian’s walk. There were vocal aspects to Scully, that I had forgotten were a part of who she was, that took some remembering and getting used to. And I guess also some mannerisms that I think I hadn’t actually realized were a part of her personality, until I really started to ask myself why I was struggling to find her again. And then remembered that I wasn’t allowing certain aspects of her to come through.

This makes a great deal of sense. Scully carried over aspects of Anderson at the age of twenty-four. It is understandable that Anderson would face a challenge in reconnecting with those aspects of herself at the age of forty-seven, more than a decade after she stopped playing the role regularly.

Mulder won't hear any criticism of Gillian Anderson.

Mulder won’t hear any criticism of Gillian Anderson.

Duchovny seemed to ease himself into the role of an older Mulder, recognising that he could “be Mulder twenty years later.” There are hints of mid-life crisis to Duchovny’s performance over the miniseries, there is also a sense that Mulder is fundamentally unchanged as a character. He is still chasing the truth, still willing to believe. Mulder is still Mulder, deep down. That feels comforting in its own way. Looking at the original run, it could be argued that Mulder never grew up. Looking at the revival, it could be argued that he still hasn’t.

Scully is different. While Mulder has remained a relative static character since the audience was introduced to him in The Pilot, Scully has been through any number of transformative experiences. Scully has transformed from skeptic to believer. She has been subject to horrific abuses. She had a child, and was left to raise that child as a single mother. Scully as she was introduced in The Pilot is a fundamentally different character than she is in Founder’s Mutation. It makes sense that Anderson’s performance would be different.

Scully is happy. The universe will not abide this.

Scully is happy. The universe will not abide this.

Indeed, Anderson’s performance over the six episode miniseries is rather different than her performance over the original nine seasons. In some respects, it is a testament to how Anderson has grown as an actor. There are hints of other characters bleeding through into Scully. Anderson seems to be channeling just a little bit of Bedelia Du Maurier into her work as Scully. Scully seems detached and disengaged from the world around her. There is a sense that she is not emotionally engaged with everything, perhaps because she cannot bring herself to be.

With the exception of her giddy enthusiasm in Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster and her emotional breakdown in Home Again, Scully seems more restrained over the course of the six-episode miniseries. Founder’s Mutation makes it clear that this is a performance choice on the part of Gillian Anderson. Within Founder’s Mutation, the emotional restraint that Scully demonstrates while working on the case is contrasted with her happiness and affection when imagining life with William.

Oh, Scully. You're just going to make it so much worse.

Oh, Scully. You’re just going to make it so much worse.

There is a clear sense that Anderson is playing Scully as a woman haunted by the choice to give William up for adoption, even in the context of stories that are not explicitly about William. Scully is more restrained and more removed than she was during the initial run of the show, because she has lost so much. In some ways, the decision to switch the broadcast order helps a little bit. Scully’s big emotional breakdown over William at the end of Home Again feels more earned after watching her performance in Founder’s Mutation.

Founder’s Mutation is very much a modern television episode in terms of how it approaches the integration of a standalone story with a larger mythology and how it weaves character continuity into the case of the week. However, Founder’s Mutation is also the most modern of the six episodes in a number of other smaller ways. Most obviously, it connects and engages with the changes to the world in the fourteen years since Mulder and Scully went on the run at the end of The Truth.

"Also: beards came back into fashion while you were gone."

“Also: beards came back into fashion while you were gone.”

There is a casualness to the contemporary references. When government agents warn Mulder against disseminating confidential files, Mulder wryly reflects, “I’m familiar with Edward Snowden.” When Mulder asks about how Scully could know an esoteric piece of exposition off the top of her head, she knowingly responds, “I’m old-school, Mulder. Pre-Google.” While episodes like Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster and My Struggle II suggest Mulder and Scully are not entirely up speed, Founder’s Mutation puts them ahead of the curve.

James Wong casually embraces twenty-first century technology in ways that seem organic rather than forced. While Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster makes a big deal out of Mulder’s “new camera app”, the early scenes of Founder’s Mutation show Mulder and Scully quite adept at navigating the world of touch-screen mobile phones. Mulder cleverly uses Sanjay’s finger to unlock his phone. Scully is already up to date. “Riley vs. California,” she states. “The Supreme Court ruled that you needed a warrant to search a mobile phone.”

Fox Mulder, boy scout.

Fox Mulder, boy scout.

Later, Scully picks through footage from the laboratory camera feeds, effortlessly using a wireless keyboard to manage the feed. When the pair arrive at Sanjay’s second apartment, the episode focuses on the dashboard camera, another modern piece of technology. On the commentary, Wong explains that this was not necessarily his design, that it was really just a piece of product placement for Ford:

This is where we sell an ad for Ford. Right there. We had to do an on-screen integration thing… which was sprung on me at the last minute. But I think we did an okay job without it being too clunky.

Indeed, the miniseries features a number of rather conspicuous product placements for Ford, most notably a quick scene of Scully parking her car (her Ford) directly after the opening credits of My Struggle II in a moment that saps a lot of momentum from the episode before it even begins. Sure, the apocalypse might be about to happen, but look at how smoothly Scully parks her car.

"Sorry, Scully. Just trying to beat my high score at candy crush."

“Sorry, Scully. Just trying to beat my high score at candy crush.”

Then again, perhaps its smoothly integrated Ford product placement is another example of how Founder’s Mutation is a consciously modern piece of television. Product placement is an old concept, dating back to at least the publication of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Wings, the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, featured a rather shameless endorsement of Hershey’s Chocolate. So product placement of itself is not necessarily something new or exciting.

However, product placement had become increasingly important (and noticeable) in the twenty-first century. This was true in cinema, as demonstrated by the way that characters in I, Robot paused to discuss the appeal of “vintage” Converse shoes while James Bond drank Heineken for the first time and Daddy’s Home was bookended by its two main characters endorsing Ford. However, it was also true in television, in large part due to changes to the medium in the years since The X-Files went off the air.

"Boy, Mulder. You sure were right. This Ford handles really well..."

“Boy, Mulder. You sure were right. This Ford handles really well…”

Changes in viewing habits are largely responsible for the increased emphasis on product placement in contemporary television. After all, the rise of TiVo and DVD (and later streaming) served to render traditional advertising much less appealing than they had previously been. As early as 2002, advertisers were acknowledging that changes had to be made:

“There’s a lot of things that are going to start to change,” said Ira Sussman, director of research for Initiative Media North America, an advertising buyer whose clients include Maybelline and Home Depot . “We’re going to have to start thinking more about the importance of product placement within programs, placing more relevant, highly targeted messages. But we see it as a glass half full.”

His research reflected a less rosy picture for the television networks, however. “We’ve found people recording programs and watching them on their own time are often not realizing what network they’re coming from anymore,” Mr. Sussman said. “That’s a real brand equity that might be lost on the networks’ part, if you’re trying to put something next to Friends but no one’s watching Friends live.”

Ford had been one of the brands to adapt quite quickly to this changing media landscape. The company signed a lucrative deal with 24 in its second season, a deal that came into force the October after The X-Files had been retired. Once again, their prominent product placement in the miniseries creates a sense of continuity between The X-Files and 24.

"... and its dashboard camera system makes it easier than ever to pull out safely."

“… and its dashboard camera system makes it easier than ever to pull out safely.”

Founder’s Mutation is also notable for its embrace of diversity. Like a lot of nineties television, The X-Files was a very white show. Most of its characters were white by default, with the exception of episodes that delved into particular subcultures like Hell Money or Teliko or Kaddish. There was very little acknowledgement of alternative lifestyles, with gay characters only really acknowledged in seventh season episodes like X-Cops or all things. In some respects, that issue bleeds through into the revival miniseries, most notably with Babylon.

As such, it is striking that Founder’s Mutation opens with two Asian characters who are explicitly homosexual. The script seems to acknowledge that The X-Files has historically struggled with such portrayals. While Mulder and Scully effortless navigate the world of smart phones and surveillance technology, Mulder is tripped up by something as simple as a gay hook-up in a sleazy dive bar. Mulder wanders into that awkward set-up obliviously, with the contemporary audience much more attuned to what is going on than he is.

"Quit stalling."

“Quit stalling.”

(It is a cheesy gag, but an endearing one. It is an affectionate riff on the sorts of “men holding clandestine meetings in restrooms” aesthetic that was obvious even in Deep Throat, playing as an R-rated parody on the title of the show’s second episode. There is also a reminder that Mulder’s paranoia is perhaps exaggerated, that people like Sanjay and Gupta know just as much as he does about being constantly watched and carefully scrutinised. Living in the closet is a very real and tangible paranoia for many people, distinct from the show’s heightened fear of fictional conspiracies.)

Even the construction of the episode  is decidedly modern. Founder’s Mutation is perhaps the only one of the six episodes that feels entirely comfortable transitioning from the classic five-act television format to the new four-act teleplay structure. Episodes like My Struggle I and Home Again occasionally feel like they are trying to cram five acts of plot into four acts of space. Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster gets around this by extending its final act over the second half of the episode. Founder’s Mutation is the only episode that feels natural, beat-per-beat.

"You see that Fox-y fellow over there?"

“You see that Fox-y fellow over there?”

It makes sense that Wong’s scripts would flow smoother than those written by Chris Carter. Carter had kept a relatively low profile following the end of The X-Files. In contrast, Wong had worked consistently in American television. Shortly before Founder’s Mutation, he had served as an executive producer and writer on American Horror Story and had provided the script for NBC’s miniseries adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby. With that in mind, it makes sense that Wong would be comfortable structuring horror for mainstream American television.

Wong is also the strongest director working on the revival. All of the writer/directors on the revival have experience directing, but Wong works at a whole other level. Morgan and Wong wrote the script for Final Destination together, but Wong was the credited director on the project. It is Wong who provided one of the most memorable and successful original horror franchises of twenty-first century. Chris Carter is an underrated director, Darin Morgan understands comedy, and Glen Morgan works well with actors. But Wong is in a league of his own.

"I'm sure we'll figure it out if we put our skulls... I mean our heads together."

“I’m sure we’ll figure it out if we put our skulls… I mean our heads together.”

Wong takes great pleasure in using modern tools and techniques. Mulder’s freakout in Sanjay’s apartment is striking, making great use of high-definition cameras to capture effects that simply would not work the same way in film. The wonderful shot of that drop of sweat hitting the wooden floor was captured using a thousand-frames-a-second camera, an effect that recalls the visual aesthetic of contemporary shows like CSI more than nineties television. Founder’s Mutation might have been the season’s most expensive episode, but it looks worth every penny.

That said, Founder’s Mutation does brush against some elements outside of the director’s control. There are lots of reasons why Chris Carter chose to return to Vancouver to shoot the revival; many members of the cast and crew live there, the place has a lot of historical and symbolic importance to the show, the costs are cheaper than Los Angeles, the terrain is diverse. However, Carter points to one aspect of Vancouver that makes it absolutely perfect for shooting The X-Files.

A drop in the ocean...

A drop in the ocean…

As Carter told the press about his decision to bring the production of the revival back to Vancouver:

It gives you a tremendous natural environment to shoot in and also a free atmosphere…. You get long, dark nights in the wintertime. “X-Files” is a show that a lot of it is night-time work, you get a moodiness, you get oftentimes a greycast that really helps the look of the show.

He is entirely correct. It is almost impossible to separate the tone of The X-Files from those grey Vancouver skies.

This'd be much more intense if it were slightly less picturesque.

This’d be much more intense if it were slightly less picturesque.

There is just one problem. Due to the challenge of lining up the schedules of everybody working on the project, the only time it was possible to shoot the X-Files revival was in the middle of summer. Shooting on My Struggle I began in June 2015, and shooting on My Struggle II ended in September 2015. This was very unconventional for The X-Files. When the show broadcast twenty-odd episodes in a year, production would typically run from late August of a given year through to April. It spanned the winter, which gave the show its dark and foreboding atmosphere.

Shooting in summer makes it harder to provide many of the details that X-Files fans take for granted. The days are longer, so it is more difficult to shoot at night. On the commentary for Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster, Darin Morgan talks about having time to kill (or improvise) while waiting for the sun to set on a given day. There is less cloud coverage and less rain during the day, which also eats away at the mood of the show. My Struggle II is the only one of the revival episodes to shoot a major scene while rain is falling.

"Don't worry. I brought my L.A. shades."

“Don’t worry. I brought my L.A. shades.”

It wasn’t just that the revival was shot during the summer, it was shot during a heatwave. As James Wong explains:

This is the first time I remember, the first summer, that it didn’t rain when I was up there. Usually it rains even in summer, and they were in a drought situation where they couldn’t water their lawns, their residence once a week. The lawns were brown, which is the first time I’ve ever seen that. I guess with the weather patterns for this year, or maybe it’s the global warming thing, I don’t know, [it] has really changed. It was crazy. It was great for me in that it didn’t rain. Any time you shoot exterior you have to wet down the street because you never know when it’s going to rain, so to make everything consistent, you automatically wet down the street, just in case it rained. In this situation, I think they frowned upon us wetting down the street anyway because there’s a water shortage. It was really weird. It’s the first time ever I worked there that we weren’t automatically wetting down every location.

Perhaps Vancouver was having its revenge on David Duchovny for his statements about the city in the nineties.

From the wreckage...

From the wreckage…

While this was undoubtedly outside the control of the production team, it did have a major impact on the revival miniseries. Founder’s Mutation and Home Again were supposed to be the big “scary” episodes, but it is hard to be scary when a lot of the exterior work takes place in the middle of the day with sunlight pouring down on the cast and crew. The confrontation with Kyle Gilligan at the climax of Founder’s Mutation looks a little goofy when shot in natural light, with bright green grass and clear blue skies. It undercuts the tension and the atmosphere.

At the same time, Wong makes excellent use of light. The first five seasons of The X-Files were shot on film, meaning that audiences have always seen Vancouver filtered through that process. The revival miniseries is shot on digital, which offers a very different palette. There is a different texture to digital photography, particularly as compared to film stock. Digital has a very “rough and ready” sensibility that does not always have the same weight and craft that audiences expect from film. However, working with digital offers its own opportunities and advantages.

Lighten up.

Lighten up.

Digital requires less light than film, and is more adaptive. Good directors understand this, and capitalise on those strengths. More than any other director on the revival, Wong understands that digital works really well with light and colour. There are a number of striking shots in Founder’s Mutation lit in red and blue; the sequence of Mulder and Scully identifying Agnes under the bridge comes to mind, as does the scene of Jacqueline Goldman pulling herself free of the wreckage. Founder’s Mutation simply looks better than any of the season’s other episodes.

While Founder’s Mutation is clearly positioned as one of the big horror episodes of the season, it is also something of a genre hybrid. Again, there is a clear sense that Wong is playing around with modernising The X-Files, that he acknowledging everything that has changed in the years since the show went off the air. While Founder’s Mutation is a story about mutant transformations and sinister government conspiracy, it is also owes a debt to the superhero genre. In some ways, Founder’s Mutation is as much X-Men as X-Files.

"Well, at least I can install my gym now."

“Well, at least I can install my gym now.”

Of course, there have been episodes of The X-Files that overlap with the superhero genre before. Episodes like Soft Light and D.P.O. play almost as supervillain origin stories, while Vince Gilligan’s script for Pusher plays very much like a template for the massive supervillain origin story that the writer would develop for Walter White on Breaking Bad. In the show’s seventh season, Rush seemed to prefigure the deconstructionist take on superheroes eventually presented in Chronicle. Nevertheless, The X-Files ended before the big superhero boom hit.

In the years since The X-Files went off the air, superheroes have become a dominant genre across all forms of media. This year alone, Batman vs. SupermanCaptain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse are among the higher profile releases. Doctor Strange is due to land before the end of the year. Deadpool premiered between the broadcast of Home Again and Babylon, and went on to become one of the year’s highest grossing films. On television, shows like Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow have built a miniverse on the CW.

"Sadly, my plans to develop a superhero team are developing slower than expected. If the past twenty-five years of comics have taught me anything, it's that they probably need more trauma."

“Sadly, my plans to develop a superhero team are developing slower than expected. If the past thirty years of superhero comics have taught me anything, it’s that they probably need more trauma.”

Founder’s Mutation hits on a few familiar beats. Mulder and Scully investigate a facility housing gifted youngsters, some of whom demonstrate remarkable abilities. Augustus Goldman is very much a Chris Carter name in the style of Divina Saxum from Antipas or Cecil L’Ively from Fire, but it is also a very comic book name. His plan to exploit gifted youngsters from his own agenda feels like a deconstructionist take on superhero patriarchs, like Grant Morrison’s Niles Caulder from Doom Patrol or Mark Millar’s Charles Xavier from Ultimate X-Men.

Kyle Gilligan has an even more obvious superhero arc. After his mother is involved in a car crash, he crawls away from her womb and into the night. When Mulder and Scully eventually track down the young man, they find that he is living in a rural farm with a family that has tried to protect him from outside forces. This is an obvious parallel with William’s fate at the end of William, but it also evokes Superman’s origin story. Kyle even has some alien DNA inside him, to make the parallel more obvious.

"The Kents? Why, they're just down the road."

“The Kents? Why, they’re just down the road.”

In terms of Founder’s Mutation as a more modern X-Files episode, it is also worth notable how much James Wong draws from the later seasons of The X-Files. Most obviously, the episode lifts two big moments from Badlaa, the infamous eighth season episode centring on a butt-dwelling Indian fakir. Both of these moments centre around Jacqueline Goldman: the sequence of a mother diving into a pool to rescue her drowning child, only to find something unsettling; and the sequence in which a tiny hand proceeds to pull itself out of an adult’s abdomen.

It is a strange point of reference for the revival miniseries. Badlaa is among the most infamous episodes of The X-Files. It is a punchline in the history of The X-Files, a monster of the week episode that looks at the template that Morgan and Wong established with Squeeze and asks… “but what if the monster squeezes inside a person?” At the same time, it makes a certain amount of sense. Broadcast in the middle of the eighth season, Badlaa was a standalone episode built around Mulder’s absence. Founder’s Mutation is similarly built around William’s absence.

A handy escape...

A handy escape…

To be fair, Wong talks about both of these scenes on the commentary and suggests that they are simply scary images that he had wanted to graft into an episode for the longest time:

This scene coming up was something that I’d been thinking about for probably ten years or something. This idea came into my head a long, long time ago, and I wanted to put it on film, where a mother dives into a pool to rescue her baby – and it would be a baby, in this case it was kind of a toddler that we found – and the baby would be kind of breathing under water. So it’s sort of a fantasy fulfilled for me.

These homages may be entirely innocent, horror writers thinking alike. At the same time, it seems strange that Carter would not have pointed out the similarity to Wong, given the butt-dwelling Indian fakir was Carter’s idea.

Water under the pool.

Water under the pool.

Still, even allowing for all of that, Founder’s Mutation feels like the most overtly modern of the revival episodes. In a way, that would seem to be the mutation to which the title alludes. Mulder tells William that he needs to come up with his own interpretations and his own understanding of pre-existing material. It seems like Mulder is arguing for the revival itself, that the show needs to reinvent itself. Founder’s Mutation does exactly that, appropriate modern stylistic touches, modern techniques, modern technology. It even builds a modern mythology around William.

However, this is nothing radical or shocking. The X-Files has always been prone to mutation. It has always encouraged writers to find something new or striking within the pre-existing templates. One of Carter’s great strengths as a producer has been his willingness to let his writers do what they want with Mulder and Scully, to contribute freely to the mythos in their own way. The X-Files has always been about mutation and evolution, to the point that Chris Carter could never have imagined where he would end up when he wrote The Pilot.

Sad Mulder.

Sad Mulder.

In scripts like The Post-Modern Prometheus and Milagro, Carter seemed to acknowledge that Mulder and Scully had evolved far beyond his original conception. Writers like Glen Morgan, James Wong, Darin Morgan, Howard Gordon, Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz all brought something new and exciting to the mix. They all wrote to their own interests and passions, which made the show seem more alive and exciting than it would otherwise be. The X-Files seemed to spend most of its life in a process of metamorphosis.

This is to say nothing of the decisions effectively forced on the production team along the way. The mythology large came about because Gillian Anderson got pregnant towards the end of the first season and the production team needed to write Scully out of the show at the start of the second year. Similarly, the character of John Doggett and the reinvention of the eighth season would never have happened if David Duchovny had agreed to sign on for a full year after his contract extension expired.

For the birds...

For the birds…

If My Struggle I suffers from trying too hard to recapture the glory days of the fifth season, Founder’s Mutation offers a welcome antidote. It suggests that the show has evolved before and that it can evolve again, that the new millennium is not such a scary place for Mulder and Scully. It is both a piece of twenty-first century television and great episode of The X-Files. It is perhaps as much a mutant and a hybrid as any of the children locked up by Augustus Goldman.

6 Responses

  1. It was interesting to see James Wong’s take on a mythology that developed mostly after he left and yet give the episode the feel of a season 1 or 2 episode. Episodes like “Eve” “Sleepless,” “F. Emasculata” and even “Red Museum” skirted the line between mythology and standalone before DPO drew the line in the sand. But as you point out, the episode is also very modern and demonstrates how the x-files could work going forward as a modern show.

    Wong also captures feminist empowerment in a way the mythology maybe tried to do but never did to this extent. Allowing the character of Jackie to exercise control over her own body and reproductive rights cleverly subverts the usual pro-life narrative. I would imagine the same conservatives claiming to be pro-life would also be very disturbed by her autonomous choice here to “free” her baby. This is much more a Morgan & Wong idea than a Carter idea. M&W’s season 4 scripts seemed to push very hard back against some of Carter’s more conservative leanings.

    • Yep. Founder’s Mutation is very much “twentieth century X-Files.” If the revival does get another season with a higher order count, I’d love to see Wong and Morgan each given two episodes at either end of the season, to set the tone coming into and going out of the Carter mythology episodes. I imagine that Founder’s Mutation would very much be the standard storytelling template we’d see in a ten- or thirteen-episode season. But with only six episodes, which include two mythology episodes and a comedy episode and an off-format episode, that impact is muted.

  2. Great points about Wong’s directing – shooting digital, the technical details of the “buzzing in the head” scenes – and his writing – many more things could be said about the structure of a script for a “one-hour” TV show and how it has changed over time. Wong certainly benefited from staying in the TV writing & directing business, as on the one hand he never got rusty in doing what he does and on the other he makes episodes that have a very modern feel. I see it helps to write these reviews a few months later with the benefit of hindsight, seeing the episode as it articulates with the others (or not) within a whole season. Also, you can incorporate much more insights about what happened behind-the-scenes thanks to the DVD/BR release.

    But on that last point, the modern feel, this is why I didn’t enjoy this episode as much as I could have. The episode had a very strong sense of pace, relentless, story beat after story beat, shocking scene after shocking scene and lots of gore (an influence of American Horror Story?). However, despite its qualities, which indeed make it more a product of the 21st century, I didn’t find here what I cherish the most in the X-Files: its atmosphere. There was little breathing space, too few scenes without dialogue where Mark Snow could shine. Kyle became the focus very late in the episode and the dénouement was very quick,
    even for an X-Files MOTW.

    Each episode of this revival has its own sort of shortcomings to my eyes, but this is arguably some of the best the revival had to offer. It helps that it has several layers of reading, for instance the whole idea of elderly white men exploiting women’s bodies that echoes the principal mythology. This and other little quips (about gays, about the conservationist views of the church) show how different worldviews Wong and Carter have. The X-Files certainly benefited from this diversity among the writers, and from Carter giving others autonomy. But I find it very awkward and careless that Mulder’s line about the “original” colonization Syndicate found its way in the final episode, which aired one day after the big reversal of My Struggle I!

    PS: Indulge me in a little bit of complacency since you quoted that bit of an interview from Wong, mentioning that he had to look on the internet to learn about the mythology since Carter gave him nothing. I have to believe he visited EatTheCorn! 🙂

    • Ha! I would be more surprised if Wong hadn’t reviewed Eat the Corn, as it’s pretty much the go-to hub for X-Files info. I think a little complacency is justified.

      I’m kinda glad I waited to review the episodes after the fact, rather than reviewing them “live.” So much better to examine the episodes in context, rather than piecemeal.

  3. I mentioned it before but I do think CC meant to use William as the new Samantha, but this time for both Mulder and Scully, all along. But this time instead of taken by force they were manipulated to give him up for adoption. My personal theory is that Cancer man orchestrated everything and he has been raising William all this years to use his powers to rule the planet. I mean how much of a coincidence is that he ‘dies’ the same episode Scully announces her pregnancy and reappears only after he is out of the picture? Spender never quite explained how he escaped his torturers and how he managed to find out how to cure him. So redeeming William from this evil upbringing by the ‘wrong father’ I think is going to be the big arc of season 11.

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