Last week, Lost in Translation looked at adaptation that weren’t really adaptations. This week, a look at the flip side of that, an non-adaptation that is an adaptation. With works that are trying not to look like an adaptation, the main reason for the changes boils down to one thing – lawyers.
Sometimes, a license just isn’t available for one reason or another, but a studio has an idea that comes from, in one way or another, the unavailable original. To get the work produced, the studio has to scrub the identifying elements out of the final product. Sometimes enough gets removed. Other times, lawyers get rich arguing over how much of the remains is too much. Let’s take a look at a series that had a dispute over how much got filed off, Mutant X.
Marvel Studios in the late Nineties wasn’t in the prime position it is in now. Marvel Comics had licensed out several of their top selling titles for movie rights, including X-Men and Spider-Man, leaving the company with very few A-listers. Previous attempts at using these A-listers had mixed results – The Incredible Hulk ran for several seasons, but the Captain America TV movies had problems. Meanwhile, the X-Men had a good run as an animated series, leading to improved sales of the X-titles. But Fox had the movie rights for the X-Men and related characters, with a movie due for 2000.
Thus, Mutant X, a non-X-Men series. While Fox had the rights to the X-Men name, Marvel’s mutant line included other titles, including Mutant X and The New Mutants. Characters did drift between the titles and guests from one title appeared in the others, mainly to establish that the new titles were in the same continuity. Fox got wind of the attempted end run around the licensing agreement and sued. The result – the logo for the Mutant X TV series had to be changed and the show could not mention the X-Men or related characters nor use costumes or code names. This, though, triggered a second lawsuit, this time between Marvel and Tribune Entertainment, the distributor, over the allegation that the comic company encouraged the distributor to treat Mutant X as an X-Men spin-off. Even Fireworks, the Canadian production company that worked with Marvel Studios to film Mutant X was sued. The real winners in all this were the lawyers.
The tumbleweed of lawsuits aside, the end result is that the /Mutant X/ TV series could not even have a hint of being an X-Men clone in it. The goal for Marvel Studios, Fireworks, and Tribune Entertainment was to not adapt the comic while still drawing in people who read the comic. The licensing agreement and the settlement meant that the name X-Men could not be used, nor could the characters or likenesses. That still gave Marvel wiggle room. The comic titles The New Mutants and Mutant X weren’t mentioned in the agreement or the settlement, and that is a large loophole to push a TV series through. Never mind that both were spin-offs from the X-Men comic; the names were available, and that was enough to try to lure in an audience familiar with the X-titles.
The core cast of the TV series featured five characters. Leading the Mutant X team and movement is Adam Kane, played by John Shea. Adam, who didn’t get a surname until season 2, was a genetic wunderkind, having graduated from university in his teens. He was hired on at Genomex right after graduation, where he worked on trying to correct problems in the DNA of patients. His research led to the creation of “new mutants” – people with superhuman powers and abilities. However, when Genomex became an arm of the GSA, he left, forming Mutant X. One of Adam’s first recruits is Shalimar Fox, played by Victoria Pratt. Shalimar’s genetic code has been spliced with that of a cat, giving her quick reflexes and enhanced senses. Along with Shalimar is Jesse Kilmartin (Forbes March) who can manipulate his body’s density. During the pilot episodes, Adam recruits the telempathic Emma deLauro (Laurent Lee Smith) and the lightning projector Brenna Mulwray (Victor Webster). Heading the opposition, Mason Eckhart (Tom McCamus) ran the secretive GSA, using Adam’s genetic research to both build his own private army of new mutants and to cure his own condition. Eckhart was briefly replaced as the major villain by Gabriel Ashlocke (Michael Easton), who was Adam’s first patient, the first and the most powerful of the new mutants.
With that cast, how does Mutant X differ from X-Men? Let’s start with Adam, who is in the Professor X role. However, Adam differs from Xavier in three critical ways: Adam is not a mutant himself, instead having high intelligence; he does not need a wheelchair; and he is not bald*. Adam does not run a school; he has Sanctuary, a high-tech hideout from where he organizes an underground railroad for new mutants to escape the clutches of the GSA. The powers of the new mutants express in four different general streams. Ferals, like Shalimar, have animal genetics spliced into their own DNA, giving them enhanced reflexes, strength, and senses. Elementals, like Brennan, are capable of producing and projecting various forms of energy, including lightning, fire, and light. Telempaths, including Emma, are psionic, capable of reading and manipulating minds; the name given to this type of new mutant is to avoid problems with telepaths like Jean Gray and Professor X. Moleculars, like Jesse, can change their body at the atomic level. Every new mutant, save one, falls into one of these categories. The exception, Ashlocke, Patient Zero, had all the abilities.
Thus Shalimar wasn’t Wolverine nor Wolvesbane. She healed faster, but no “healing factor” was ever mentioned. She didn’t grow claws nor change form. Shalimar was good at mixing it up hand-to-hand with her wire-fu. Likewise Brennan wasn’t Storm; he didn’t control the weather, just shot lightning. Jesse wasn’t Shadowcat; he could both phase through objects and become so dense bullets bounced off him. Emma, well, she wasn’t Jean Gray, despite the red hair and telempathic abilities; she didn’t have telekinesis, and her mental contact was more based on emotion than thought, at least in the first season. And the Double Helix, Mutant X’s plane, was definitely not the Blackbird.
So, if Mutant X is not X-Men, what is it? At its core, the show is a syndicated action series featuring superpowers and wire-fu fight scenes. As the seasons progressed, the show explored each character’s past and the nature of being a new mutant. Several episodes showed the Mutant X team working to protect new mutants from the GSA while others showed the team protecting the general populace from new mutants. There were even episodes where the main characters’ own powers threatened to hurt or even kill them. Sure. some of these themes appeared in X-Men, but themes are universal. X-Men used them but didn’t corner the market on them. It’s how Mutant X explored the themes that matters.
Mutant X did deliver on being an action series. Budget and effects limitations restricted how often powers could be used. Flashier powers, including Brennan’s lightning and Jesse’s body manipulation, required more work and money than the more physical wire work that Shalimar needed. Part of the problem is that Fireworks, the production company, is based in Toronto. As mentioned last week, Toronto is better known for being a double for American cities for police procedurals and mysteries, not for science fiction. Things had improved since Captain Power, though, in part because the city was in competition with Vancouver for film and television projects. Mutant X had the advantage of being set in the near future, so no major effects were needed.
Despite being a syndicated series filmed in Canada, the show did pick up a following. In Canada, Mutant X aired on Global, owned by CanWest, the same company that owned Fireworks’. In the US, the show was syndicated in an era predating the cable and Internet streaming onslaught. People tuned in, at first because of the potential of being related to the recently released X-Men movie, then because of the characters and situations of the show itself. The following may not have been able to sustain a traditional network show, but fans were shocked when the show did not continue after the third season. Fireworks and its library of TV series was sold to new owners who weren’t as interested as making shows as they were in getting the series already made. Marvel, though, hasn’t disowned the series; Mutant X is now an alternate universe from the main continuity.
Mutant X was not X-Men. Similar themes appeared, but shadowy government departments hunting underdog protagonists and protagonists rail against bigotry against minorities are universal. The shows writers worked to give Mutant X its own mythology, one that wasn’t based on anything seen in Marvel’s main continuity. The result is a TV series that can stand on its own and compete with other shows. Mutant X reached beyond its limitations, both budgetary and legal.
* For added fun here, John Shea played Lex Luthor on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starting with a head of hair and becoming bald during the series run.