Paranoid? The X-Files Are Here to Help
At times of unease, we turn to sci fi, so it’s no surprise that The X-Files is back for six new episodes, spreading its odd gospel of old myths in alien clothing.
There had been subdued chatter about it for years, furtiveness and innuendo, the periodic teasing of desires by those in charge, and some desperate speculation by fans, legions of sci-fi aficionados, the “X-Philes” for whom the The X-Files remains the paragon of television. This Sunday evening, one of the most culturally important and rabidly popular shows in history—it spawned two feature-length films and a mélange of comic books and video games, nabbed 16 Emmys and 5 Golden Globes, and had potent influence on shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost—will be resurrected for a 6-episode appeasement of millions of appetites.
Created by Chris Carter and inspired primarily by The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales from the Darkside, and Twin Peaks, The X-Files aired from 1993 to 2002. It boasted a whopping 202 installments split between self-contained “Monster of the Week” episodes and those that followed the show’s increasingly convoluted “mythology” (an abuse of the term), about a nefarious government coven in cahoots with extraterrestrial imperialists—those “little green men” you hear so much about, although they’re actually alabaster, sometimes silver—who planned to dragoon our planet. The only two souls who stood between us and our vassalage to sinister ETs were FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), who believed he’d witnessed the UFO abduction of his sister when he was a teen and whose lifework was to chase down all species of the paranormal in a maniacal quest for the truth, and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), scientist, medical doctor, career skeptic, and heroine of redheads everywhere.
Scully was misnamed after Frank Scully, a pop author who wrote, if that’s the word, a preposterous book called Behind the Flying Saucers, published in 1950. The book was responsible for inaugurating the tropes held dear by conspiracy theorists and abduction nuts everywhere, the very tropes that led to The X-Files: alien ships crashed in desert climes, tiny ET corpses, government cover-ups by shady agents. Put another way: Scully was no Scully. It didn’t seem to occur to Frank Scully and his unemployable ilk that if ETs were bright enough to navigate through the innumerable dangers of the cosmos they weren’t dumb enough to crash in the arid nothingness of New Mexico.
The X-Files was, like most sci-fi and horror fare, patently ridiculous: any one of the events in any one of the episodes was enough to leave a person permanently stupefied, and yet Mulder and Scully traipsed from one adventure to another with an ever renewable aplomb. But to those of us with a hankering for mystery and conspiracy, with an itch for the unknown, for expert storytelling and production, it was also patently irresistible. When the series ended in 2002 after nine seasons, it was the longest aired sci-fi series in U.S. television history (although for many of us, The X-Files ended when Duchovny fled the series after season 7; it was like listening to Queen without Freddie Mercury: you recognized the sound but the spirit was all wrong).
The show’s outrageous success both confirmed our unkillable need of the supernatural and spread on a mass scale new editions of very old myths. The motifs were the same but the faces had changed as civilization advanced: not angels but aliens, not radiance from heaven but radiation from flying saucers. When the old gods stop working we craft new ones. By one avenue or another, we will indulge the occult. An intimation of the sublime is precisely what The X-Files tapped into. Mytho-religious in its very DNA, its narrative fabric, and also in its quasi-heroic quest for transcendence or deliverance, the decades-old UFO craze is not only for the crazy. That’s what Mulder and Scully became to millions: heroes hunting the truth glimpsed in the extraordinary.
Easy to deride for their naïve sincerity, the Fox Mulders of the world are performers of our collective id: the paranormal throbs within the ancient structures of our psyche. We downright demand that aliens and monsters give sound and scent and shape to our inky inwardness, which is what Jung meant by suggesting that the archetypes of the human unconscious will, one way or another, find manifestation. Our creature myths and alien yearnings are the astonishing stories we tell ourselves in order to stave off the crush of the quotidian, in order to seek the holy. Jung called the UFO phenomenon another instance of our desire for “salvation from above.” True-believer Fox Mulder manages to be so alluring despite being so convinced by every brand of hocus-pocus because in The X-Files, the hocus-pocus is real.
Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott, writing in 1994, the year after the show premiered, believed that “like The Twilight Zone, The X-Files expresses a national unease”; it also, he wrote, “reflects the end of the millennium, the flip side of the New Age,” and there he was summoning Jung, who surmised that UFO hysteria, like all religious hysteria, happens near the close of an epoch. What’s more, said Wolcott, “nothing is put to rest on The X-Files. The open-endedness… indicates not only the untrappable nature of these forces but the show’s refusal to pronounce final judgment.” Except that the show does pronounce final judgment, and that’s what career rationalist Richard Dawkins, grumpily missing the point, once objected to in The X-Files: the judgment is always on the side of the otherworldly and paranormal.
The hunting of monsters, I’m sad to say, is a mostly male pursuit, as old as the Paleolithic, and so the obsessive quester must be Mulder and not Scully. The testosteroned thrill and peril of stalking beasts remains encoded in male memory. Some of us have found that, contrary to stereotype, women are much more sensible than men—throughout the 1950s, all of the originators of the UFO “contactee” bunk were men—and so Chris Carter made Scully the embodiment of sober female reason, the rationalist charged with trying to mitigate the recklessly boyish passions of Fox Mulder. Her character has been credited with prompting women to enter the sciences, and no further evidence is needed for how fiction can tweak civilization for the better.
Carter once quipped that The X-Files succeeds because Mulder loves Scully and Scully loves Mulder, and that’s no feat of simplification. “All the world loves a lover,” said Emerson, but part of the allure of The X-Files was exactly because, for the majority of the series, Mulder and Scully were not lovers, not erotically entwined. Their love for one another was ironclad but uncontaminated by the hormonal havoc, the emotional jolt and mess of sex. Romantic suckers, we watched each week for seven years wanting, hoping to see them hug or touch, titillated, emboldened when they did, rooting for a romance to rescue them from monster-hunting hazards, from their respective obsessions. We wanted normality and calm for them, as we do for anyone we care about, but of course normality and calm meant an end to their jaunts, and thus an end to the show, to their very existence: our hope was self-mutilating. When Mulder pressed a tender kiss into Scully’s lips one New Year’s Eve, in the episode “Millennium” from season 7, some of us wept with giddy relief.
Duchovny and Anderson are unobtrusively beautiful, and this is paramount to our abiding affection for their characters. (It’s well-nigh impossible to watch, say, Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman and not be diverted, unconvinced by their aggressive beauty: they both look CGI-ed into immaculate existence.) Mulder and Scully don’t remind us of our neighbors, no, and they are similar to no one we’ve ever met before—no Everyman and Everywoman—but they are exceedingly likable, charismatic, and, somehow, despite their eccentricities, exceedingly normal: in their sensibilities, in their reverence for the truth. (The opening sequence, with its iconic echoing whistle, concluded with the mantra “The Truth is Out There.”) Although Duchovny is a poor on-screen crier, he has impeccable comedic timing: the most charming episodes of The X-Files are the silly, ludic ones, those in which Duchovny and Anderson don’t balk at mocking their characters, their absurdist enterprise, the often unmanageable tangle of their plotlines.
Before moving to Los Angeles in season 6, the series filmed in Vancouver— wooded, rheumy Vancouver, such gray days, the nights an extended sentence you must serve—and the crew, seeking the show’s original mood, returned to Vancouver to film the 6-episode reboot. Why the deathless appeal of this show and its characters? The series played upon our common dread of the unknown and the frustratingly unknowable, but it also played upon our troublous knack for embracing conspiracy, our suspicion of corporations and government, our spiritual thirst for the extraordinary. That’s part of why the show remains in demand today, because the quest of Mulder and Scully is a proxy for our own impotent spiritual longing, because their dramatic travails and tender commitment to one another are exactly what’s missing from our own dull lives.
In the late ’90s, the show asserted our myriad anxieties at the end of the millennium (remember, if you will, the nonsense of Y2K). Now the world looks rather different from how it did when the show concluded sloppily in 2002, not long after the incineration of World Trade. The atrocities on 9/11 frightened us into relaxing our distrust of government; we looked pantingly to our elected leaders for reassurance, for bodyguarding against a real-world enemy who had drawn a bull’s-eye on open society. But, true to form, we’re once again abuzz with distrust. The paranoia at work within The X-Files has become more pointed, more pressing: Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s surveillance state, Julian Assange’s international disruptions via Wikileaks, drones like vultures overhead, the technological leaps taking place in every nook of our culture, the near-constant threat of terroristic mayhem, both in our streets and online. In other words: it’s the ideal time for the resurrection of The X-Files—no other show was as smart or stylish at expressing our most irksome insecurities and our ceaseless ambitions for truth.