The X-Files Reconsidered

by Farrah Bostic on July 29, 2010

When The X-Files first came on the air, my then-boyfriend was a fanatic.  In truth, he was an enormous lover of television – he’d have ER viewing parties (perhaps because he sort of resembled Anthony Edwards, and what 20-something dude wouldn’t love the implied-blowjob-in-the-shower scene from Season 1?).  On Fridays he would get out of work earlier than usual – he tended to want or get the closing shift at the bar – come over to my place and we’d order Chinese food and watch The X-Files.  So romantic.

In fairness, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ned & Stacey were also shows we watched together (though he called the latter “Sid & Nancy“).  Basically, the dude liked to watch a lot of television, not all of it good.

So The X-Files became something of a ritual.  And at the time it was groundbreaking television, combining police procedural with science fiction, developing season-long, and series-long story arcs.  The “Monsters-of-the-week” broke up the Mytharc stories, exploring mutants, secret technology, and horror/occult themes. As most people are no doubt aware, [if you have never watched television, then SPOILER ALERT] the Mytharc originated with the abduction of Agent Fox Mulder‘s sister, Samantha, and culminates in a government conspiracy, led by a group of mysterious men sometimes referred to as the Consortium, to cover up the coming colonization of Earth by extraterrestrials.  Part of this mythology includes the sacrifice of children by the Consortium to the Colonists, the abduction of women (including Mulder’s partner Agent Dana Scully), and experimentation with alien-human hybrid DNA.

And if I ever wondered just how nerdy I could get, I think those last two sentences say everything that needs to be said.  Sigh.

Okay, so what’s my point? The X-Files has been off the air now for eight years. What can be said about this show? I think, perhaps, nothing new.  There is plenty of fan-fiction and analysis of the themesscience and philosophical implications of the show available from both fans and scholars.

When The X-Files first aired, I found the Mytharc to be both dull and frustrating.  The agents never seemed to get closer to the so-called truth, the elements of the Mytharc only got more complicated, and I discovered that I much preferred the guy made out of cancer, or the town of witches, or the one with Charles Nelson Reilly.  I found the Mytharc boring and felt it got in the way of the fun episodes.

But on second viewing, the monsters-of-the-week feel like a distraction from the important stuff.  17 years after the show began, I want to believe – I want to understand the conspiracy, track the Mytharc, understand what the Consortium is trying to do, who the Colonists are, who the good guys and the bad guys are.  I don’t care if Scully & Mulder get it on; I want to know what happened to Samantha, where Scully was taken, and so on.

The show banks on post-WWII American paranoia and ambition – a shadow government importing Axis power scientists to experiment on humans and aliens alike.  Smoke-filled rooms (smoke courtesy of Morley cigarettes and the Cigarette Smoking Man) and vague proclamations, hidden vaults of evidence and medical files, conspiracy nuts who are good with computers intercepting data… I love all of it.  The show seems to suggest that most of the American government is black budget funded, buried in obscure sub-committees and managed by the military and private contractors. Oh, hahhahaha, so naive.

To be sure, there are elements of these characters, Scully and Mulder, that drive me crazy.  They never take evidence with them; the evidence is always destroyed the moment they leave the room.  Mulder believes in everything mainstream science seems to contradict; Scully believes only in already established science and concludes “there is no such thing…” as, well, just about everything Mulder believes in.  The truth is not somewhere in the middle; the truth, it seems, is capable of encompassing both versions: the readily available government conspiracies, the humdrum cover-ups of ill-conceived social and medical experiments, the simple espionage – all of that can live, in this Mytharc, comfortably alongside something larger, something literally out of this world.

That, I suppose is the genius of the writing behind the show – that there are lies we are willing to believe, and lies we refuse to believe, and worse, truths we refuse to believe.  Hitler’s Big Lie, has a corollary – the Big Truth.  The Big Lie is the lie so big no one would believe that anyone could make up such a thing, and the bigger it is, the more prone people are to believe it.  The Big Lie is so powerful that even when it is debunked, traces of it remain.

The Big Truth on the other hand, is so enormous and fantastic that it is impossible to comprehend in its entirety.  Its enormity makes it necessary to believe rather than know. Every hint at an element of the Big Truth is easily dismissed out of hand as a fantasy, a fairy tale conspiracy theorists tell their children when they tuck them in at night.  In The X-Files’ universe, Scully is willing to believe at first, then work to debunk, the Big Lie; she often distracts Mulder by pulling him into confronting the Big Lie. But what Mulder is interested in is the Big Truth.  And as it turns out, the Big Lie, as enormous and pervasive as it might be, is much easier to deconstruct, than the Big Truth is to construct.

And that is what makes it so damned interesting.  The X-Files give you bits and pieces of the Big Truth, assembles parts of it for you, permits other parts to dissemble under the pressure of competing narratives, lets other parts dissipate entirely, and never gives you anything really conclusive.  It tests your faith, your willingness to believe in the Big Truth without all the proof.  Which of course, you’d have to be crazy, or Fox Mulder, to do.

It would be easy to draw parallels between the Big Truth and religion, wouldn’t it?  I’m not going to do that (even if the show did by returning Scully to her faith), because they are not the same.  The concept of a universal, all-encompassing power balancing the scales of good and evil, creating life and taking it away, performing miracles and making some feel fear and awe, others feel love and forgiveness… this is an easy story to believe. It’s also an easy story to disbelieve.  One death in the family, one ‘Act of God’ drowning or collapsing a poverty-stricken city, one or more waves of genocide and war… these pieces of ‘evidence’ are equal in their power to prove or disprove the existence of a God.

It’s easy for the casual viewer of The X-Files to borrow this construct in examining the Mytharc. But the story Chris Carter and his team provided us had, at its heart, a much more challenging premise:  that all of these things, awe and fear, love and forgiveness, death and disaster, genocide and war, are the acts of men acting in their limited perceptions of their own self-interest.  They included in this men from other worlds, but even the Colonists were, after all, just men.  And because Shakespeare is always laughing at us, the phrase that popped into my head just now is, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”  Yeah, I am a nerd.

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