Saturday 28 May 2022


(The final instalment of ‘Mutants Are Our Future’ arrives with yet more PLOT SPOILERS.)

After ’X-Men’ and ’The Tomorrow People’, ’Scanners’ (David Cronenberg, 1981) features a titular new generation with great telepathic powers. Except in this case the trope’s transposed to the body horror genre. The initial scenario has a remarkable similarity to the opening of ’Tomorrow People’, if Jedikiah had got to Stephen first. But from there it shifts to X-Men, with the mentor/good mutant/bad mutant central trinity of Professor X/Cyclops/Magneto replaced by Dr. Paul Ruth/Cameron Vale/Darryl Revok.

But of more interest to us is the setting, which is far from the sticky-back-plastic Futurism of ’Tomorrow People’. It starts out in the smooth sheen of a fast food outlet before panning out into a shopping mall. And from there locations remain urban-on-default, metropolitanly anonymous. The HQ of ConSec is about as corporately bog-standard as the company’s name, the sort of building which stands fifteen stories tall but is so ubiquitous you pass by without noticing. And over here the liminal space of a train station - all steel, plastic and plexiglass. It’s the settings which don’t conform to this anti-aesthetic which stand out, such as the bare bricks of the Doctor’s warehouse base.

There’s a practical necessity behind this, given away in the end credit for ‘the Canadian Film Development Corporation’. A Toronto native, Cronenberg had filmed there (and in nearby Montreal) simply because it was cheaper. Not only was home to hand, tax breaks were to be had.

This was part of a general phenomenon, called Hollywood North, where film production was induced to go North, much in the way manufacturing was heading south to Mexico. Just two years earlier Toronto had become the third largest film production centre, after New York and Los Angeles.

Cities had effectively become interchangeable anyway, the same urban architecture the same streets with the same brand-name stores. Why go to New York, when you could just shove in some stock footage of the Statue of Liberty at the start, shoot the rest somewhere cheaper and save some bucks?

Ironically, ’Scanners’ seems to have arrived here from the opposite direction. A film overtly set in Canada risked looking provincial to international markets, so they chose to cut down the local references as much as possible. And yet, however it was hit on, this featureless look did so much to set the mood. An anti-aesthetic has its own aesthetic, deliberate or otherwise.

Added to which are the performances. The style is ‘dry’, with dialogue undynamic to the point of stilted. There’s a similar distancing effect to watching a dubbed film. Again, it’s unclear how deliberate this is. Cronenberg is not exactly an actor’s director, and other films of his (particularly from this era) feel much the same way. But it’s noticeable that two key early scenes are a public lecture and a corporate board meeting, habitats where undynamic dialogue can feel at home. The film also has long sequences without music, merely ambient sounds.

Okay, but why make a film in this anti-style? While both ’X-Men’ and ’Tomorrow People’s faith in the kids of tomorrow may have been informed by Sixties counter-culture, ’Scanners’ is specifically about what it calls “a Scanner underground”. Hippies had given themselves the nickname ‘heads’. (As John Basset McCleary has said “the counterculture seldom called itself hippies.... More often, we called ourselves freaks or heads”). And, living up to their name, had shown a proto-New Age interest in mind powers. We see some of the Scanner underground sit in a circle around a shining light.

It turns out what’s turning people into Scanners is a pregnancy drug, Ephemerol, their powers an unintended side effect. Most commentators see the influence of the real-life Thalidomide scandal here, and they’re doubtless right. But there also seems a reference to the CIA’s role in spreading the take-up of LSD in the counter-culture, by being so keen for test subjects. (A story so eulogised by Ken Kesey.) And LSD was forever being feted by hi… sorry, heads for being mind-expanding, if not mind-blowing.

Except of course that by 1981 the counter-culture was going if not gone - and that’s exactly the way it’s portrayed. While corporations have remade the world in their image, the last of the Scanner underground are secreted in a safe house, hiding behind outwardly normal suburbia. These aren’t homo superiors about to inherit the earth, but scattered, isolated and afraid. At that corporate conference, there’s a disparaging reference to “dolphins and freaks”.

Most commonly in popular culture, the later hippie underground (from ’68 on) gets divided into hawks and doves, the ones who had the good grace to admit defeat versus those fanatical bomb-planting Weathermen. And people are forever trying to map Professor X/Magneto to Martin Luther King/Malcolm X, or essentially similar variants, which they in turn map to reasonable moderation/incendiary extremism.

And indeed there’s a brief clip of a younger Revok still institutionalised, spouting aggressive psychobabble and sporting a third eye drawn on his forehead. Which can’t help but recall that other great negative exemplifier of the Sixties, Charlie Manson, with his similarly placed swastika tattoo.

But this film seems closer to the trajectory of the two ex-Yippies, Jerry Rubin versus Abbie Hoffman; one becoming a Wall Street hotshot, the other staying a radical campaigner even as the public eye left him. By taking over Ephemerol production and eliminating his competition by rather literal means, Revok essentially becomes a capitalist - joining them to beat them. (It’s said of him: “We were the dream, he’s the nightmare.”) While Vale starts out the film as a vagrant, foraging for left-overs.

(For all that, 1981 may still seem a strangely late date to be dealing with such a theme. Perhaps this reinforces how rooted the trope is in that era. Or just how provincial Toronto then was.)

The film is exceptionally wooly about what these Scanner powers actually are, culminating in the gloriously absurd insistence they can hack computer networks because both have a “nervous system”. On the other hand, despite the Eighties being so much his era Cronenburg was in many ways a throw-back. Though not to the Sixties, but before. He’s like one of those old-style science fiction writers who saw their job as chewing their way through ideas. And his ‘body horror’ is more often physical manifestations of mental states.

So the downside of possessing these powers, soon dismissed in ’Tomorrow People’ as mere teething troubles, is never let go of here. Even ’Carrie’ assumes the problem all comes down to social acceptance. Here being a Scanner brings its own intrinsic problems, but neither is this the cautionary tale, the Do Not Enter sign, so common in SF. Being a Scanner is a crisotunity on about every level.

Regular doses of Ephemerol are required just to keep the crazy clamour of thought voices at bay. (Meaning Ephemerol somehow both grants your powers and limits them. But never mind.) Scanning and being scanned are inherently painful, a nosebleed if you’re lucky, if you’re not - in the film’s most infamous scene - your head blowing clean off. While the powers often seem inherently empathetic, you may feel others’ pain even if you were the one who caused it.

And if minds can meet and probe one another, what does that say about the self? Identity confusion seems perpetual, with a frequent motif a flickering inter-cut between faces. In the first ’Tomorrow People’, Stephen is excitedly told “you’re becoming one of us.” Here, encountering another Scanner, Vale equally excitedly proclaims “I’m one of you.” To be met with the confused reply “you’re one of me?”

Hippy culture was deeply conflicted between individualist egoism (“don’t lay me down with your rules, man!”) and collectivism (communal living and so on), and this is embodied by the central conflict. Revok’s scheme is to wipe out all the other Scanners so he might be in control. While the Scanner underground, in their group-mind seance, intone…

“Scan together
“And our minds will begin
“To flow into each other
“Until they become one
“One nervous system
“One soul
“One experience
“And frightening
“So frightening to lose yourself
“To lose your will
“To the group will
“To lose yourself
“To the group self
“ the group self
“The power we can generate
“We who focus our scans
“Together is fantastic

…even the good guys accepting the duality of the process.

Formally, the film’s main innovation is to turn the central trinity into a family. Of a particular kind. If the X-Men are an honorary family, non-siblings who look after one another anyway, here we have the opposite relationship, a feuding family, as if out of a Greek tragedy. They find that Dr. Ruth was both Vale and Revok’s father, and they have spent the film as feuding siblings. When Revok can’t persuade Vale to join him, he decides to instead psychically absorb him, blackly declaring “you’re going to be with me, no matter what. After all, brothers should be close”. In the final twist, it’s Vale who absorbs him.

And one reason why so many stories keep events within the family is that it more easily allows us to frame the drama as warring aspects of one bifurcated mind. And this is all over ’Scanners’, as in the scene where Vale argues with the artistically inclined Scanner inside a giant model of his own head. It’s not particularly clear how things go after the credits, or what “we won” means. But we can assume the plural term counts, that “we” are the Scanners in general, that Vale usurps Revok’s role and maintains Ephemerol production, but without intending to press his charges into any kind of programme. If Revok’s philosophy is “join ‘em to beat ‘em”, Vale joins him in order to transcend him.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ruth and ConSec’s security head Keller are similarly bifurcated, Dr. Ruth rejecting what Revok has become and in denial of his own role in it, Keller scheming with him. Culminating in the scene where Dr. Ruth soliloquises his mistakes to himself, as Keller assassinates him. As the hippies liked to say: “it’s all in your head, man.”


  1. I'm sorry this series has reached its end. I've really enjoyed it. Surprised to see no references to Sensorites or Ood!

    1. Thanks! Though be warned there may be a sequel. Which may venture further back in time.

      Both Sensorites and Ood were encountered aliens, whereas mutation/evolution/psi powers was the point of triangulation.