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If You Weren't So Damn Ugly: X-Files Season 6, "Dreamland"

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It’s almost the very end of the 4th of July. Though probably nearly no one is awake and online to read this, I have decided to celebrate by finally posting on “Dreamland,” an episode that makes particularly vivid this show’s ambivalence about the U. S. Government. 

First of all, since I bitched so much about the bed trick in “Small Potatoes,” I would like to begin by saying that “Dreamland” does a much better job with a similar plot. In fact, you could almost look at “Dreamland” as a response to fan hate mail about “Small Potatoes.” But that would be kind of unfair, because although both stories involve Faux Mulders who try to have sex with Scully, “Dreamland’s” use of this device is more complicated and much more interesting. In the opening voice-over to “Dreamland Part 2,” Morris Fletcher describes Mulder as “a kid who watched too much Star Trek” (there is an adorable home-movie of the child Mulder dressed up as Spock playing with Samantha to go with this), and in fact “Dreamland” combines plot elements from two classic Star Trek episodes: “Mirror, Mirror” and “Turnabout Intruder.” (Yes. “Turnabout Intruder” is awful. But like it or not, it’s a classic.) Acting on a tip from an anonymous informant, Mulder drags Scully on a clandestine trip out to Area 51. They are stopped on the way there by some Department of Defense flunkies in dark suits who tell them they can’t go any further. While Mulder and Scully are arguing with them, a mysterious thing happens to space and time; and Mulder is horrified to see Scully getting back into the car with “him,” while he himself is now standing amongst the DOD flacks. He figures out soon enough that he has switched bodies with one of the DOD stooges, a middle-aged schmuck named Morris Fletcher whose job it is to manipulate public perception about the top-secret weirdness that goes down in Roswell, where the army keeps testing these super-advanced aircraft that do very weird things to the universe. While Scully grows increasingly alarmed at the way Morris-as-Mulder is behaving, Mulder-as-Morris tries to cope with the new life he’s been zapped into while uncovering evidence about what’s really going on at Roswell, which mostly means trying to get his hands on the flight data recorder of the aircraft whose crash has led to all these bizarre warpings of space and time. Eventually Scully forces Morris-as-Mulder to cop to the switch and drags him back to Roswell to find Mulder-as-Morris; but it appears at first that there is no way to undo the body-switch without potentially killing Mulder. He and Scully sadly part ways; but then Scully notices that some of the other damage this crash did seems to be coming undone. Turns out one of the other flacks has figured out how to reset the timeline so that the past few days just don’t happen. Scully ensures that the switch takes place; at the same moment, they are zapped back to the initial confrontation in Roswell. Mulder and Scully turn around and go home, having ‘lost’ the memory of that whole escapade. 

Here’s what makes “Dreamland” so much better. First of all, Scully is no fool. When Morris-as-Mulder stops on the way back to DC to get a pack of cigarettes, she’s alarmed. When he starts sucking up to Assistant Director Kirsch—the asshole to whom they report now that the X-Files have been disbanded—she’s highly agitated. When he seems perfectly willing to accept the end of the X-Files as a project, she suggests that he should literally have his head examined. Now with all this, it’s sort of weird that it takes her so long to believe the story that Mulder-as-Morris keeps trying to tell her about what happened; but it’s all right, because they get some good mileage out of it which is funny but which doesn’t force Scully out of character. Morris’s wife Joanne is very unhappy with him, and the fact that Mulder-as-Morris keeps calling Scully’s name out in his sleep doesn’t help matters. When Scully shows up at the Fletchers’ house looking for Morris, and Joanne gets her first look at what she assumes is The Other Woman, she just freaks. Mulder’s subsequent chat with Scully is punctuated by Joanne’s furious ejection of Morris’s stuff through the front door of the house. When Scully is skeptical of all of Mulder’s attempts to prove to her who he is—sadly, he can’t just do it with a mindmeld the way Spock does in “Turnabout Intruder”—he doesn’t even seem upset about it; he says, “You know what, that is so you,” and you can tell that even though he’s still kind of a desperate man in a desperate situation, he is genuinely happy just to be talking to her again and to see her do that thing she always does. He also seems genuinely pleased and excited at the opportunity to find the proof she’s always looking for; it’s really quite an endearing moment for him. It’s also a stroke of genius, I think—or at least non-idiocy—that Scully finally accepts the fact of the switch when Mulder-as-Morris is being hauled away by the other DOD goons to be locked up for swiping the data recorder. He’s screaming out to her that she’s got to believe him, she’s got to help him, and as she watches him be dragged off, you can see her thinking, OK, the voice itself is different but that it unmistakeably the well-known sound of Fox Mulder yelling my name at a moment of crisis.

And then the way she plays Morris-as-Mulder after that is just a thing of beauty. She tries out a few little subtle things to test her new hypothesis; and then when he thinks he’s making some headway—he’s bought a waterbed for Mulder’s apartment and has managed to get her onto it—she gets him to handcuff himself to the bedpost and then pulls her gun on him. The resulting exchange is justly famous, including the immortal line, ” ‘Baby’ me again and you’ll be peeing through a catheter for the rest of your life.”

But I think to me the most interesting thing about “Dreamland” is watching Mulder try to navigate Morris Fletcher’s life. This is where the “Mirror, Mirror” thing comes in. Mulder gets to find out what life is like on the dark side: same suit, same employer signing the paycheck, totally different attitude toward life, the universe, and everything. Morris is, to put it bluntly, an asshole; and so is the part of the government that he works for. Mulder-as-Morris is more respectful of Joanne than Morris himself has been for the past decade or so; all the comedy about Scully as the homebreaker is preceded by Mulder’s touching if doomed attempt to convey to Joanne that she really doesn’t need to be as hurt as she is by Mulder-as-Morris’s apparent estrangement from her, because it’s not her fault that he’s “not the man she married.” Though Joanne misunderstands this speech completely, she responds to Mulder’s earnestness and his sincere desire to stop causing her pain—which of course makes the arrival of Scully on the doorstep that much more painfully funny. My other favorite Moment of Contrast is when Mulder-as-Morris asks the other DOD flacks how to reverse the effects of the crash, and they just look at him and say, “Who says we can?” Because they are not about consequences, these particular government stooges. You make the mess, you cover it up, you pretend it never happened, and when the ill effects start materializing, instead of trying to fix the problem, you just go around eliminating witnesses. And there’s Mulder looking back at them in shock, as if to say, “I guess I knew that this is how you bastards operate but it’s really kind of a punch to the gut to actually see you in action.”

There are other things I appreciate about this episode—for instance, the fact that it takes a tiny step towards remedying its cliched depiction of Native Americans by body-switching a fighter pilot and an octogenarian Hopi woman, so that Mulder has to spend his time in jail next to a saintly-looking old lady who also chain smokes, curses, won’t shut up about previous aeronautical and sexual exploits, and is referred to in exasperation by Mulder as “Grandma Top Gun.” True, it’s only because she’s ‘really’ a young white guy, but at least we get to see a Native American actor doing something a little different on this show from the otherwise relentless benevolent mysticism. And I love Morris's interaction with the Lone Gunmen. He's so pleased to see his propaganda out there in the real world doing its job; it's the one moment in the story where you can almost not totally hate the asshole. But my favorite part of it, and also the most complicated, is the little farewell between Mulder-as-Morris and Scully, before they know that the curse can be reversed.

Scully’s come out there to tell him the bad news, and it’s painful for both of them. He takes it well enough, but you can see how much it hurts him. He tries to lighten the mood by asking what’s going on back at the Bureau with Morris-as-Mulder. Scully tells him that Morris-as-Mulder is Kirsch’s new “golden boy” and that she’s been fired. Now, Mulder’s upset to find out he’s stuck in Morris’s body; but he’s REALLY upset to find out that Scully’s been fired. He launches into a whole thing about how this can’t happen, there must be a way to fight it, they have to recognize how valuable she is and how this is unfair—in other words, he stands up for her in precisely the way that he spend Season 5 *not* doing. She’s so touched by this that she says, “I’d kiss you right now if you weren’t so damn ugly.” She seems not to know how to handle their parting; she wants to touch him, but his being in Morris’s body is so weird, and in the end she only manages a pat on the shoulder. Mulder calls her back and gives her a handful of sunflower seeds, taking one back before she leaves. I tell you, crusty and cynical and old as I am, I nearly shed a tear.

Because here’s the thing. In my youth, I might have been pissed off at Scully for being shallow enough to be so put off by Mulder having a different and, let’s face it, less appealing body. But I no longer see a bright-line distinction between body and soul, the way I did back then. Mulder-as-Morris will inevitably become a different person than Mulder-as-Mulder would have been; and Scully already knows she hates Morris-as-Mulder’s guts. So Scully feels at this moment that she is losing her Mulder forever; and she’s right. We’re not just brains in vats or spirits rattling around in fleshly husks; your body and your soul interpenetrate, and when something transformative happens to your body, then your soul changes too. This doesn’t mean that your ‘inside’ is a simple reflection of your ‘outside,’ in the crass way that, for instance, Disney films use grotesque physical appearances to indicate evil (except for Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and Hans in Frozen, for which reason among others they are my two favorite Disney movies ever). It means that who we are—what we think of as our interior—is unavoidably shaped by the experiences we have through our bodies, and we can never be truly independent of them.

The episode, I should point out, uses an unusually non-realistic convention to represent the body switch: when everyone else is seeing Morris, we the viewers are actually seeing Mulder, and vice versa, so that the viewers at home see the ‘real’ person inside instead of the outside. (The exception is when we see either Mulder or Morris reflected in a mirror.) So we don’t see the physical differences that Scully is reacting to. When I first watched "Dreamland" I wasn't sure whether this was a good idea. On rewatch I think it was. Apart from giving the viewer more of what they want--which is to see the Mulder *they* know in all these sticky situations--it simultaneously exploits and challenges our prejudices about inside and outside. If you think back to "Small Potatoes": If we had been able to see that it was Van Blundht and not Mulder in that scene in Scully's apartment, there would have been universal icking-out amongst the viewers at home--but because it's Duchovny playing Eddie-as-Mulder, and therefore it superficially LOOKS like Mulder and Scully finally getting it on, it plays to most viewers as a kind of forbidden yet delectable fantasy moment. In "Dreamland," you keep wondering why, for instance, Kirsch's secretary is so giggly and hot over this sleazebag, and then you have to remind yourself that to her, this sleazebag looks like David Duchovny. If one day a thing happened and all of a sudden everybody's outside looked as good or as bad as their inside, how many people would be pushing their romantic or sexual partners aside in disgust? Television is a medium that absolutely would dry up and blow away if it weren't for our idiotic desire to keep looking at people we find superficially attractive--a desire we have a hard time countering even when we know it's leading us to misjudge and mistreat people. Keeping the actors with the 'right' characters gratifies that desire while reminding us how unrealistic it is. 

It would have been kind of interesting, now I think about it, if they could have handled Duchovny's departure from the show this way--by body-switching him into another character, so that he could be replaced by a different actor but we could still have the character. But I guess that would have been a little too Doctor Who. Anyway, I digress. My point is: with Mulder in Morris's body and living his life, and with Scully fired from the Bureau, they can't have the relationship they used to have any more--which, close as it is, was always completely wrapped up in their work together. 

So it’s really a very painful situation for both of them; and I think Duchovny and Anderson, as well as the writers, really handled it well. And the way she has to leave—not ripped away by the forces of evil, as happened in season 2, but just defeated by the asshole conspirators who infest the same government bureaucracy to which she has dedicated her life and her career—is tragic because it’s real. We all have people who were vitally important to us at one time, and then circumstances made it impossible to continue the relationship, and we still grieve over it. 

So, hooray for “Dreamland”—and in general for the beginning of Season 6, which is a vast improvement over the beginning of Season 5. The role reversal is dead! For now! Only, alas, for now!