In “Founder’s Mutation,” agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate a horrific and violent suicide at Nugenic Technologies.
The investigation leads the duo to the company’s founder, Dr. Goldman (Dr. Savant), who is a self-professed “champion of the unborn,” and demonstrates a remarkable obsession regarding children with genetic deformities.
As Scully and Mulder soon learn, Dr. Goldman -- who has ties to the Department of Defense -- is hiding a secret about the deformed children in his clinic.
Some of them are no mere accidents of nature, but actually human/alien hybrids genetically engineered to one day replace humankind.
Goldman’s history with these children extends to his own family, and his own son and daughter. Scully and Mulder seek to find out the truth about Goldman’s children from his institutionalized wife, even as the case awakens feelings of guilt in Scully about her son with Mulder, William.
In the spirit of Robert Frost (1874-1963), “Founder’s Mutation” -- the second episode of The X-Files Revival -- very much concerns the road not taken, at least for Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson).
On a surface level, this installment written and directed by James Wong concerns all those qualities we want and desire in an episode of this beloved genre series.
To wit, “Founder’s Mutation” features some connection to the overall mythology or Mytharc (alien/human infants), but boasts a monster (or two..) of the week by featuring a pair of adolescents with telekinetic and other psychic powers. The episode is also creepy as hell, thanks in large part to a prologue that ends with an unlucky soul committing suicide with a letter opener “by way of the ear canal.”
“Founder’s Mutation” is also tightly written, frightening, and both surprising and funny, especially regarding Mulder’s rendezvous with an informant that goes awry.
Yet as much as “Founder’s Mutation” nails all the technical and narrative components that we expect from The X-Files, Wong’s tale achieves greatness on the basis of its character revelations. In particular, we are given a new window into the viewpoints of Mulder and Scully.
And what we learn is devastating.
I referenced Robert Frost above -- as well as his poem, The Road Not Taken (1916) --and yet this episode of The X-Files is a story -- much like that poem -- that Mulder and Scully “shall be telling with a sigh,” as they reflect on their choices, decisions, and indeed, mistakes, in life.
Those choices involve William, the son they had together, and whom they gave up for adoption.
That adoption occurred because Mulder and Scully were worried that William was in some kind of mortal danger as long as he was close to them and the conspiracy. In other words, as parents Mulder and Scully made a self-less decision to put their son’s life ahead of their own.
But what they lost in that decision is heart-breaking, and “Founder’s Mutation” focuses on the road not taken -- the road sacrificed -- when they gave up their only child.
On two occasions in this installment, we see Mulder and Scully day-dreaming, essentially, of an alternate universe; one where they raised William. Where they were a family.
Scully imagines taking her young son to school, and picking him up there in the afternoon. She imagines comforting him when he is hurt. Her dream is all about being with her son, day-to-day, seeing him grow, and care-taking him when life is hard, or hurtful.
Mulder’s daydreams are no less heart-wrenching and they affected me, the father of a nine year old, deeply. Mulder imagines the first occasion he watches 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with his young son, and their ensuing talk about the meaning and mystery of the Monolith while eating from a bowl of popcorn.
Later, on a golden afternoon, they launch toy rockets together.
But of course, nothing gold can stay, to continue my Frost comparison, albeit from a different poem.
These are fantasies, not memories.
This paradise-like world of family bonds exists only in the imagination of the day-dreamers. Mulder and Scully’s boy is now 15 years old, and Mulder and Scully don’t know him.
Even if they find him, they can’t get back the time lost.
Mulder and Scully are thus haunted by the road they didn’t travel; the road they didn’t take, fifteen years earlier. This character aspect of “Founder’s Mutation” elevates the tale beyond mere “science run amok” story, because it reveals how a particular investigation impacts Mulder and Scully on a personal and human level.
These scenes are also beautifully photographed. In fact, the scene involving Mulder and William outside, preparing the rockets, is one of the most beautiful visuals I have seen on TV in quite a while. It feels like a moment of stolen time.In the composition above, you can see the sun casting its gold light upon the characters, but its position, low in the frame, also suggests an impending end to daylight. This moment is here now, but will soon be gone...
What may prove even sadder than the path not taken is the fact that Mulder and Scully have not, apparently, meaningfully discussed their grief or mourning over William with one another.
Scully pointedly asks Mulder if he ever thinks about William. He responds in the affirmative, but suggests that he tries not to think about the past, or linger on such things.
The episode’s final scenes suggest that the truth is somewhat different than what Mulder shares. He dreams of those sunny days, while he and his son reach for the stars. Meanwhile, in reality, he sits alone in a dark kitchen, his back to us, clutching a snapshot of his son as a baby.
That's all he is left of William.
What I also find admirable, and very rewarding, about “Founder’s Mutation" is the high level of interconnection between the story and imagery. Playing on the television in Scully’s hospital ward, at one point, is a significant scene from Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971).
Now Planet of the Apes (1968) has been visually referenced in The X-Fileson at least two occasions before, in “War of the Coprophages” and “Sein Und Zeit,” so this is a nice call back in terms of series history to the best damned science fiction movie ever made.
Beyond that surface level, however, consider the plot of Escape from the Planet of the Apes. The movie finds two endangered parents, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) giving up their baby, Milo, for adoption by circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban).
In other words, these simian parents have made the same choice that Mulder and Scully make, vis-à-vis, their child. To protect their son, they give him away, losing him forever.
So this is clearly a case in which a visual allusion reflects on the story being told.
The visual and in-narrative allusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey also helps us learn and understand “Founder’s Mutation” better.
Kubrick’ film concerns the development, evolution, or perhaps creationof a new species here on Earth. That growth is forced or impelled by the alien presence of the Monolith. First, apes impacted by the alien instrument evolve into men.
And then ages later men, like David Bowman (Keir Dullea), will ultimately become another species too, the so-called “Star Children.”
If I understand it correctly -- and no guarantees on that! -- a founder effect or mutation in science is the loss of genetic variation that happens when a new population is established by a very small number of individuals originally from a larger population. Those individuals -- parents, essentially -- have genetically initiated alterations in DNA that are passed down to all their children.
Those terms are very fancy ways of describing what occurs in 2001: A Space Odyssey, aren’t they? An ape, impacted by an alien object, evolves into a new species: man. And man, similarly, becomes another species too (The aforementioned Star Children).
In this episode of The X-Files, alien DNA is being used to create children of a new parent species too, a parent species of a new breed. That’s what Molly and her brother are, a new race separate from humanity; a branching off point from homo sapien for homo dominus, or some such thing.
Again, it’s rewarding that The X-Files explores a genuine scientific concept (fist theorized in the 1940s) and then explores it thoroughly, while also alluding to another work of art (2001) where the idea gets so memorably dramatized.
When you delve into the imagery and ideas of “Founder’s Mutation,” one can see how cleverly all the moving pieces fit together. Wong has constructed his episode like a steel trap, with all pieces interrelated and strengthening the others. One visual reference (Escape from Planet of the Apes) is about parents and the sacrifices they make, just as one aspect of the episode involves Scully and Mulder’s similar sacrifice.
Another visual reference is to the genetic process of change or mutation (spurred by aliens?) as seen both in 2001: A Space Odyssey and in Dr. Goldman’s laboratory/clinic.
There may also be some carefully coded social commentary here, though it is handled lightly and respectfully. Dr. Goldman very much appears on the surface to be “pro-life,” wanting to save all of his “children.”
But while those children are indeed alive, they are kept in cages as subjects of experiments. Their quality of life is miserable. They are prisoners, with no freedom, and no destiny but to be used. This idea is a reflection of some of the concepts I discussed here yesterday, in my review of “My Struggle,” namely the loss of individual liberty.
Again, one must consider the comparison or contrast carefully presented by the episode.
Mulder and Scully gave their “different” child, William, a chance at a real-life when they gave him up for adoption. They have lost him and may regret the road not traveled. But their son is safe, and free.
Goldman, who is a champion of the unborn but not apparently the already-born, uses the children as fodder. They are his to do with as he pleases. He sees them as property.
The discussion here is not even vaguely partisan, either pro-life or pro-choice. Instead, “Founder’s Mutation” asks the viewer to consider quality of life, and weigh its importance in the grand scheme of things. Because we live in such hyper-partisan times, some will insist the message here is either pro-life or pro-choice. Yet, as usual, The X-Files goes far beyond easy labels and black-and-white answers to nuanced questions.
It asks us to think, and consider our own faith, point-of-view, and grasp of the facts. It asks us to search for meaning, even as Mulder and Scully search out that meaning on screen.
Going in, based on the strong critical buzz, I was expecting a sturdy “monster of the week” type episode this time out. But “Founder’s Mutation,” with its focus on Scully and Mulder’s road not taken, proves itself far more emotionally resonant than such a generic description suggests.
And that, to quote Frost a final time, makes "all the difference."
Next Wednesday afternoon: My review of "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster."