Sunday, January 31, 2016

X-Files: Signs of Promise

Much has been written about the greatness of The X-Files—how the original series revolutionized television, laying the foundation on which much of today’s prestige TV is built. It was, also, a deeply spiritual show—probing belief, faith and the supernatural in ways really unheard of on television at the time. And when Fox announced that it was going to bring Mulder and Scully back to the small screen for a six-episode season, I was pretty excited.
I was underwhelmed with the first episode of the new six-episode season, “My Struggle:” So much to set up, so little time. But “The Founder’s Mutation”—though far more graphic—hinted that Fox’s new iteration of this legendary show may have some fangs yet. Indeed, it may even be more ambitious than the first.
The new world in which Mulder and Scully inhabit is an even more difficult to have faith in much of anything. “I only want to believe,” Mulder says in the opening episode. “Real proof has been strangely hard to come by.” Forget probe-happy aliens or contortionist monsters: So far, the show’s big bogeymen have been all-too human. And so far, it seems, their evil is rooted (as it often historically is in the show) in a certain desire to play God.
Dr. Augustus Goldman in “The Founder’s Mutation” is just such a man. In the episode’s opening minutes, he seems to be akin to an aloof cult leader, or perhaps even a distant god. He’s called “the Founder” in near reverential terms, and he seems to speak through a proxy—a prophet, if you will, in a suit and tie—informing the Founder’s underlings that he (the Founder) is displeased with their work. But that’s all the Founder’s spokesman will volunteer right now, leaving the minions frustrated and confused.
“We need more than just pronouncements from above,” one exclaims. “We need direction!”
But gods don’t work that way. It’s only when one of the scientists working for him, hearing voices inside his head, kills himself (with a highly disturbing letter opener to the ear) that Goldman is at all touched by the world he helped create. And even though the scientist is well insulated, Scully and Mulder eventually find a way to talk with the guy through a bit of intercession—provided by, perhaps significantly, the Catholic Church. Or, more specifically, by Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital at which Scully has worked a number of years.
Now, a quick step back to the episode’s title—”The Founder’s Mutation.” A founder mutation is a critical component of evolution, according to Mulder. Evolutionary theory is based on the idea that life is a product of such mutations. Most are discarded by nature. But a few beneficial ones hang on and are passed to a new generation, and it’s that process that pushes evolution along. The doomed researcher wrote the phrase on his hand right before he killed himself, and it’s interesting that throughout the episode, we see pop-culture allusions to our own mutative development: An old Planet of the Apes movie plays in the background at a hospital. Mulder watches the opening scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where early, hairy proto-people discover the black monolith (tellingly mispronounced as “mono-myth” by his … son. More on that later).
But the episode’s name may have a deeper meaning. I’ll just let Entertainment Weekly’s great Jeff Jensen explain further:
“Founder’s Mutation” doesn’t just evoke evolution, but the concept that humanity, corrupted by sin, represents a deviation God’s original design. It turned out that Dr. Goldman was one of Our Sorrows’ biggest donors; he was underwriting the maternity ward. In return, Our Lady fed him patients/test subjects for his work — specifically, children born with genetic abnormalities. Sister Mary characterized the pregnant women in their care as “unfortunate or damaged” as a result of drugs, alcohol, or bad choices with bad men. “Desire is the devil’s pitchfork,” she said. And later: “But as long as there is an innocent child involved, we’ll provide for each and every one [of these women.]” In an episode in which several of the characters Mulder and Scully encountered were basically some coarse, corrupt, or cautionary tale analogs of themselves, Sister Mary represented a bad, backward formulation of Scully’s religious faith.
This makes it ever-so interesting that Catholicism serves as an intermediary between the investigation and, to this point, the unreachable Dr. Goldman. Interesting, but troubling. While the new iteration of The X-Files clearly plans to challenge a bevy of institutions, I don’t want to see the Church demonized or for Scully lose her Catholic faith. It’s intrinsic to her character and, by extension, critical to the success of the show. The fact that she’s respectful both of empirical fact and spiritual hope makes her a bit of a role model, I think, to Christians like me.
But we’ll see how those themes develop as the series goes on. It appears that The X-Files has big aspirations, and it could be the most interesting philosophical/theological romp since Lost. Here’s to hoping, anyway.
(A postscript: What’s up with Scully and Mulder’s kid? I would’ve written them off as simply wistful thoughts of what-might-have-been, but the fact the child’s story arc in both Mulder’s and Scully’s alternative world turned seriously creepy may suggest otherwise.)

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