The shooting of a Native American draws Mulder and Scully into mystery involving lycanthropy, the phenomenon that opened the X-files.
FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder travel to a remote town in Montana to investigate the killing of a Native American man, Joseph Goodensnake, by local ranch owner Jim Parker. The killing initially appears to be motivated by a dispute over the ownership of a tract of land, although Parker claims that he had fired upon a monstrous animal rather than a human. Parker's son Lyle bears scars that appears to lend credence to his father's story.
At the scene of the shooting, Scully reasons that at the short range from which Goodensnake was shot, it would have been impossible to mistake him for an animal. However, Mulder finds tracks leading to the area that appear to change from human to something more animal in nature. He also finds a large section of human skin nearby. Scully dismisses his theory. She believes that the Parkers knowingly killed Goodensnake, but neither agent believe the pair would have skinned him—and the body was not reported to have been skinned. The matter is complicated by the difficulties Mulder and Scully have with dealing with the Native American population, stemming from the experience of the locals with the FBI at the Wounded Knee incident in 1973. Goodensnake's sister Gwen is also bitter that her neighbors are too frightened of native legends to confront his death.
Despite these misgivings, the agents find a seeming ally in Sheriff Charles Tskany, who permits Scully to make a cursory examination of Goodensnake's body, but forbids a full autopsy. Upon investigating the body, they discover that he has elongated canine teeth, similar to those of an animal, and bears long-healed scars similar to those borne by Lyle. Mulder shares with Scully his belief that the case is connected to the first X-File officially opened, in 1946, concerning a series of savage maulings which Mulder believes are the work of werewolves. Scully dismisses this theory and instead credits the belief to clinical lycanthropy. Goodensnake's body is cremated in a traditional ceremony, while the agents watch from a distance. Lyle Parker rides to near the funeral pyre site to try to pay his respects, but is chased away by Gwen.
Later that night, the elder Parker is attacked on his front porch and ripped apart by an unseen animal. During the investigation the next morning, Scully finds Lyle lying naked and unconscious in the nearby forest. Ish, one of the elder men of the reservation, explains to Mulder the legend of the manitou, a creature which can possess and transform a man, and which can pass to a new host upon the death of the original. Ish believes he had seen the creature in his youth, but was too frightened to confront it. An examination of Lyle Parker reveals his father's blood in his stomach, making it clear that he has in fact become the manitou's new host, though not before he is released from hospital. Scully drives him home to the Parker Ranch and he becomes ill, locking himself in the bathroom. That night Mulder and Tskany hurry to the Parker ranch, quickly finding themselves in violent confrontation with the monster. Mulder shoots it dead, only to see it transform back into Lyle. As they agents leave, they learn that Gwen has disappeared, whilst Ish cryptically warns that he will see the agents in "about eight years".
- This episode's development began with Fox suggesting The X-Files do an episode which featured a more conventional Monster of the Week than the series had previously used. Director David Nutter noted, "The network said, 'We need a monster show, the masses want a monster show.' So that was a monster show for the [first] season." (Cinefantastique, Vol. 26/27, No. 6/1, p. 50)
- At the time of writing this installment, Marilyn Osborn had developed a friendship with Co-Executive Producers Glen Morgan and James Wong. Recalled Morgan, "She wanted to write [....] She was very new and we had to have a lot of patience with bringing her along." (Cinefantastique, Vol. 26/27, No. 6/1, p. 50) Morgan and Wong subsequently rewrote Osborn's script. (X-Files Confidential, p. 70)
- When making their contributions to the writing of this installment, James Wong and Glen Morgan had been wanting to create a story that explored Native American mythology and proposed the real-life concept of the Manitou. They conceptualized the Manitou as being similar to a werewolf, in order to attract fans of that genre, but attempted to make the episode feel distinctive, in the fashion of the series, by taking a slightly unusual approach to that concept. (The Truth Is Out There: The Official Guide to The X-Files, p. 144) The word "werewolf" is consequently never mentioned in the episode.
- In a potentially humorous scene that did not make it to the final version of the episode, Scully tries to drive away a cow that is blocking the agents' car. Her efforts to shoo the animal away include waving her arms and yelling, "Baseball glove! Leather purse!" (The Truth Is Out There: The Official Guide to The X-Files, p. 144)
- This episode's script went through four drafts. These were dated 3rd, 10th, 11th and 15th February 1994. The shooting script, which was compiled from these various drafts, includes the scene wherein Scully struggles to shoo a cow away.
- The American Indian reservation in this episode was filmed in Bordertown (a muddy, classic western "town" which had been built specifically for filming), situated at 224th Street, in Maple Ridge. This municipality was outside the restrictions of the studio zone, incurring extra costs which frustrated some members of the shooting company. One person who was consistently happy with the location, though, was Frohike actor and First Assistant Director Tom Braidwood, as he lived within a ten-minute drive of Bordertown. (X Marks the Spot (On Location with The X-Files), p. 46)
- David Nutter had multiple challenges in directing this episode, such as being tasked with showing only glimpses of the Manitou. "The main crux for me on that show," he commented, "was to create an atmosphere that would make it as different as possible from other episodes." (X-Files Confidential, p. 70) Nutter also strove for authenticity while filming the episode's Native American ceremonies. "We made it as real as possible, because you can't make this stuff up," he stated. (The Complete X-Files: Behind the Series, the Myths and the Movies, p. 49)
- The production of this outing challenged the production crew in general. Art Director Graeme Murray recalled, "We were trying to re-create this big-sky Montana ranch country in Vancouver [....] It was one of those shows where you just try and get it done on schedule and on budget." (X-Files Confidential, p. 71)
- Prior to filming in Bordertown, loads of gravel were dumped onto the site's muddy streets to ensure ease of access for vehicles, equipment and people. It began to rain two days before the filming and, by the time the production crew arrived, the gravel had been absorbed into the mud. Each member of the crew wore boots, equipment repeatedly became stuck in the mud, and movement of vehicles was also hampered. "It was like filming in a mud bath," noted Location Manager Louisa Gradnitzer. (X Marks the Spot (On Location with The X-Files), p. 46)
- Lighting was of extreme importance in the filming of the funeral fire scene. The on-screen attendees were lit in such a way as to make it obvious they were close to the large fire. ("The Truth About Season One", TXF Season 1 DVD special features)
- Scully mentioning her father's death in this episode harkens back to "Beyond the Sea".
- This episode reveals several facts about the early history of the X-files, including Mulder's note that the "very first X-file, initiated by J. Edgar Hoover himself, in 1946" dealt with a Manitou.
- Executive Producer Chris Carter was impressed with this outing. He enthused, "I thought Jim and Glen, in rewriting Marilyn Osborn's script, did a terrific job of giving us a good sort of meat-and-potatoes werewolf story by calling it a manitou [....] I thought it was very well directed by David Nutter." (X-Files Confidential, p. 70)
- Co-Producer Paul Rabwin was highly pleased with the episode's sound effects, particularly those used for the manitou. "It's one of the shows where I feel post-production had a huge effect," he remarked. "The sound on that one was tremendous." (Cinefantastique, Vol. 26/27, No. 6/1, p. 50)
- Glen Morgan was ultimately disappointed with this installment. He admitted, "When we were finishing 'Shapes,' I said, 'This is really good; I like it.' When I saw it aired, I said, 'Kind of a letdown. I don't know why.'" (X-Files Confidential, p. 73)
- This episode achieved a Nielsen household rating of 7.6, with an audience share of 14. This means that roughly 7.6 percent of all television-equipped households, and 14 percent of households watching television, were tuned in to the episode. It was viewed by 7.2 million households. (The Truth Is Out There: The Official Guide to The X-Files, p. 248)
- Cinefantastique (Vol. 26/27, No. 6/1, p. 50) scores this installment 1 and a half out of 4 stars. "Although the local colour is interesting [...] 'Shapes' is drearily predictable," the magazine complains, "with the werewolf, or 'Manitou' glimpsed even before the opening credits." Cinefantastique criticizes Scully citing a mountain lion as having been responsible for an attack, when it was in fact quite clearly (at least to the viewer) the installment's Monster of the Week. "The episode's primary interest comes from David Nutter's direction, and John Bartley's cinematography," the magazine continues, "especially in a scene where Mulder and Scully search through the pitch-dark ranch house [....] The funeral scene is also beautiful to look at." Cinefantastique implies it deems it predictable for the dim lighting in the ranch house to be due to the building's electricity having gone out but pointed to Michael Horse's "good performance" as Sheriff Tskany as another highlight of the episode. (Cinefantastique, Vol. 26/27, No. 6/1, p. 50)
- The X-Files Magazine (The X-Files Magazine Volume 1, Issue 19, p. 48) comments about this episode, "There is nothing foolish about Marilyn Osborn's story, even if it adds little or nothing to the lycanthropy legend. Indeed, despite David Nutter's efficiently directed werewolf scenes, the creepiest moment comes right at the end, when Ish tells Mulder they'll be seeing each other again "in about eight years..."
- In his reference book Wanting to Believe: A Critical Guide to The X-Files, Millennium and The Lone Gunmen, writer Robert Shearman rated this installment 1 out of 5 stars. He critiqued, "Whatever sense of importance you try to attach to 'Shapes', it's a bog standard werewolf idea, without twists or insight or the least freshness to offer. Early on, Scully tells Mulder it's clear he's been expecting every clue he's so far uncovered – and so have we. Of course we have. We know the hackneyed genre. The difference is that Mulder continues to act puzzled for the next half-hour by what the investigation turns up, whilst the audience can happily chant out every thudding predictable turn of events [....] An American Werewolf in London [...] [and] Teen Wolf [...] were better [....] There are some nice directorial flourishes from David Nutter. I like the way the funeral pyre dissolves to the lit cigar of the man who killed the person being cremated. The werewolf transformation scene is quite convincing too. But the script is witless and overwritten, the acting (especially from Renae Morriseau, as Lyle's aunt) one-dimensional and pompous, and the overall pace is turgid."
Cast and Characters
- Mulder actor David Duchovny and Michael Horse – who, in this episode, plays Charles Tskany – had both previously starred in the early 1990s television series Twin Peaks. This episode marks the second time a Twin Peaks alumnus appears on The X-Files, after Don Davis starred as Scully's father, William, in "Beyond the Sea".
- Some of the Native American characters who appear in this episode were played by actual Native Americans. David Nutter offered, "I actually went down to a part of [downtown] Vancouver [...] where they had assembly every week for the Native Americans." ("The Truth About Season One", TXF Season 1 DVD special features) These American Indians were, according to Nutter, "playing with the drums and so forth." He cast them for this episode's burning ceremony. (The Complete X-Files: Behind the Series, the Myths and the Movies, p. 49) Nutter did this in the belief that the ritual was a part of the show where he "thought they could actually help give a lot of authenticity." ("The Truth About Season One", TXF Season 1 DVD special features)
- Ty Miller as Lyle Parker
- Michael Horse as Sheriff Charles Tskany
- Donnelly Rhodes as Jim Parker
- Jimmy Herman as Ish
- Renae Morriseau as Gwen Goodensnake