If you’re looking for a treatise about the 2016-2018 reboot of The X-Files, which trashed both the human drama and the invention of the original 1993-2002 series, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Reboots have become the bane of popular entertainment on the screen, most notably in superhero comic epics, which play fast and loose with their invented histories. Often this reflects a turnover in writers and producers. But in the case of The X-Files and Twin Peaks (in a 2017 sequel) their original creators, Chris Carter and David Lynch, failed us. There is nobody else to blame.
In Dangerous Purpose is about the series that captured our imagination and, for all its faults, had something important to tell us. In its final seasons, and even the second movie spinoff, I Want to Believe (2008), it seemed to be pointing in an entirely different plan than that unfolding years later in the reboot. We deal here with what was, but also what should have been.
The rest is relegated here to an appendix.
(Editor’s Note: The Appendix is included at the end of Part 4.)
[Kipling] was farther from being [a Fascist] than the most humane or the most “progressive” person is able to be nowadays…. No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is no “law,” there is only power. I am not saying that this is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold.
–George Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling”
Tragedy is not the hard part. The hard part is when you don’t quite succeed and you have to keep on fighting. When you must keep going on and on and on in face of really hopeless odds, of real temptations to despair.
–Cordwainer Smith, “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul”
It is August 19, 1953, at Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital. As the tape rolls on an old RCA Victor recorder, a sailor dying of radiation sickness cries out for justice to a team of investigators. We don’t know what agency they represent, except that it isn’t the Navy. But as we are soon to learn, it is who these people are that matters.
“I’m the last man who knows who killed the men aboard that submarine, who knows it was a suicide mission — but I’ll burn in hell before I tell the murderers who sent us there,” the sailor tells them.
“That’s why we came here all the way from Washington, sailor, to hear your story, to make sure that justice is served,” replies one of the investigators. It is Bill Mulder, the future father, eight years down the road, of Fox Mulder; and his concern for the sailor seems sincere.
The young Bill Mulder appears in the first scene of “Apocrypha,” second chapter of a two-part episode of The X-Files that begins with “Piper Maru.” It is best remembered for introducing what was later called the Black Oil to the X-Files mythology, and the dying sailor’s story is that it was this “enemy” rather than a lost atomic bomb that doomed him and nearly all his fellow crewmen. We see flashbacks of panicked sailors and the captain — black oil leaking from his mouth, nose and eyes after they knock him out.
“Whatever it was, we were sent to guard it,” the sailor tells Bill Mulder. “Before it slithered away, back to where it came from, back into the sea, back into who knows what.”
Bill Mulder has heard enough, but we know that it is not because he considers the sailor’s story incredible. Quite the contrary. He reaches to switch off the recorder, but the sailor grabs his hand.
“That thing… is still down there!” he protests. “The Navy will deny it… but you’ve got to make sure the truth gets out. I can trust you to do that, can’t I, Mr. Mulder?”
Bill Mulder says nothing, but glances — as does a second investigator — towards a third man, who is lighting a cigarette. He may be 40-odd years younger, and played by a different actor than the familiar craggy-faced William B. Davis, but there is no mistaking Cancer Man.
“You can trust all of us,” Cancer Man assures the sailor as he takes a puff.
Cancer Man was surely not the mover and shaker in 1953 that he later became. Yet Bill Mulder seems helpless against him — or, more precisely, against the idea he represents: that there is no moral law, only power. He knows that he is betraying the dying sailor, but can see no way out.
Decades later, Cancer Man and the kind of political expediency that he embodies are unchanged. A French expedition has investigated the site once visited by the U.S. submarine Zeus Faber, and the French sailors have met the same fate as the Americans. One has been possessed by the Black Oil, and the rest are dying of radiation sickness. As he visits their death ward, Cancer Man is pitiless:
CANCER MAN: Have the bodies destroyed.
DOCTOR: But.. but sir…these men aren’t dead yet!
CANCER MAN: Isn’t that the prognosis?
Yet the prognosis for humanity may have changed — because of Fox Mulder and his partner Dana Scully. As we are told years later, Fox may not even be Bill Mulder’s biological son — but he is the son Bill hoped for. A poster on his office wall reads “I Want to Believe.” But what he wants to believe in is not just the paranormal, but the possibility of truth and justice and decency.
This is true even in the standalone episodes that have nothing to do with the alien invasion or the Conspiracy. Roger Ebert realized this in his review – one of the few favorable ones – of the second X-Files movie, I Want to Believe. The plot involves a criminal conspiracy by a group of mad doctors, and a parallel story of Scully’s ethical dilemma over whether to use an untested experimental treatment on a boy dying of a rare brain disease. But as Ebert argued:
What I appreciated about “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” was that it involved actual questions of morality, just as “The Dark Knight” does. It’s not simply about good and evil but about choices. Come to think of it, Scully’s dying child may be connected to the plot in another way, since it poses the question: Are any means justified to keep a dying person alive?
The stakes in I Want to Believe are believable and relevant to our everyday world. But the moral consciousness of the film is also at the heart of the X-Files mythology, in which the stakes are anything but everyday and the very survival of humanity hangs in the balance.
Fox Mulder is a man obsessed, a man who believes that his sister Samantha was abducted by aliens – the same aliens who seem intent on invading Earth – years before. In pursuing that obsession, however, he risks becoming as callous as those he struggles against to find whatever truth is out there.
Yet there beside him is Scully. For all her skepticism about aliens and the paranormal and conspiracies, she is absolutely essential to his quest — because only she can enable him to hold on to his own humanity. Their relationship is one that begins on a cool professional level that only gradually evolves into romance, and yet it was the moral focus of the series from the start.
The X-Files was widely regarded, especially in its first season, as nothing more than an exercise in supernatural horror and the exploitation of UFO mythology and conspiracy theories. Yet it was also an ethical exercise, an ongoing story that focused, as Ebert reminded us, not just on good and evil but on moral choices.
Whether by accident or design, series creator Chris Carter wove together elements of serial and episodic narrative, the alien invasion scenario, the roles of friends and enemies of Mulder and Scully (Walter Skinner, Cancer Man and others) family relationships and family ties, into what was at its best an integrated vision that is relevant to our times. In the universe of The X-Files, people matter; their choices matter.
In “Piper Maru,” Scully is able to reach out to Johansen, the retired Naval commander who in his youth led a mutiny against the seemingly insane Captain Sanford aboard the Zeus Faber. Johansen never saw the Black Oil; he doesn’t know that it wasn’t radiation from a lost atomic bomb that doomed his men (“The madness we planned to unleash on the Japanese…we ended up setting it loose on ourselves.”). At first, he denies knowing anything about the Zeus Faber incident, let alone having been part of it.
But then he changes his mind, and we sense that it isn’t only because he was friends with Scully’s father, or that Scully herself played as a child with Johansen’s son Richard — since killed in a Gulf War training accident. It is because her honesty and humanity have touched his heart that he can finally unburden himself of the guilt that has haunted him for decades.
“I knew mutiny was our only chance for survival,” he tells her. “But I also knew, by sealing that door, I was sealing the fate of the men I locked behind it… When they opened that door, those who weren’t dead were dying. There were 144 men on that boat, only seven of us had survived. Whatever killed them, I was allowed to live, to raise a family, to grow old. None of us ever got an explanation why.”
But the dialogue between Johansen and Scully speaks, not just to the fictional incident of the Zeus Faber, but to the all the true crimes of the Twentieth Century, committed out of a pitiless struggle for power:
JOHANSEN: We bury our dead alive, don’t we?
SCULLY: I don’t know if I understand.
JOHANSEN: We hear them every day, they talk to us, they haunt us, they beg us for meaning. Conscience… it’s just the voices of the dead, trying to save us from our own damnation.
In The X-Files, Earth is threatened with an alien invasion that would mean enslavement at best and extermination at worst for the entire human race. Conspiracies at the highest levels are devoted to concealing that threat, and even cooperating with the aliens if no means can be found to forestall them. It is the ultimate expression of social Darwinism, of the conviction that nothing matters but force.
Although it revolves around fears for the future, The X-Files is shaped by the past — a century in which tens of millions were slaughtered and hundreds of millions enslaved in the name of one cause or another, from ideological fanaticism to religious frenzy and outright racism. It was a century in which even the leaders of the democracies were not always able to rise above the temptations that consumed their adversaries.
Franklin D. Roosevelt thwarted entry of Jewish refugees into the United States when there was little doubt of Nazi plans for the Holocaust, sanctioned the internment of innocent Japanese-Americans, and – even before the atomic bomb – ordered incendiary bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities that cost more innocent lives than the nuclear blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With Winston Churchill, he approved the devastating and militarily pointless fire bombing of Dresden.
Some of the crimes that followed have been incorporated into the background of The X-Files. There really was an Operation Paper Clip that brought Nazi scientists to America to work on military projects, lest they fall into the hands of the Soviet Union, Among them were not only Werner von Braun, but Dr. Hubertus Strughold (1898-1986), who pioneered space medicine with the Air Force and later NASA.
Strughold had been involved in fiendish medical “experiments” on prisoners from Dachau, although there were only whispers of this until after his death. By 1993, when Carter launched The X-Files, the truth about him was out there – and the process of stripping him of various honors had begun. The naming of Conrad Strughold, ultimate leader of the conspiracy, can’t have been a coincidence, any more than the naming of an X-Files episode “Paper Clip.”
Similarly, Japanese scientists used human beings, including Allied prisoners of war, in biological warfare research during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. The project was carried out in large part by the notorious Army Unit 731 under the direction of Major (later Lieutenant General) Ishii Shiro. The episode “731” took its name from that unit, and played on the revelation that its researchers were indeed spared punishment as war criminals in return for sharing their knowledge with the U.S. military.
The fate that humanity faces in The X-Files is no different, really, from the kind that some humans have inflicted on other humans in the past, and continue to even today. The mind-set of Cancer Man and the other shadowy adversaries Mulder and Scully face is no different from that of the men who have sanctioned such true crimes. As in the real world, the struggle against their Machiavellian expediency often seems futile.
At the end of “Apocrypha,” the truth is literally buried — in an old missile silo, to which Cancer Man has consigned the bodies of the French sailors, along with a UFO that was the actual goal of both the French mission and the American one 50 years earlier. Yet Mulder and Scully remain defiant, even as they are led away by military police working for Cancer Man.
SCULLY: We saw bodies in there. Men with radiation burns!
CANCER MAN: You saw nothing.
MULDER: You won’t get away with this! You can’t bury the truth!
Only the truth is buried – for now. In a parallel story, Scully can find no justice in the death of her sister Melissa, slain by Cancer Man’s henchmen five months earlier in a botched attempt to assassinate Scully herself. When Assistant Director Walter Skinner tries to keep the case open on her behalf, he gets a bullet in the gut for his trouble. And Skinner’s assailant – who was also one of Melissa’s – is captured, but murdered himself before he can talk.
Yet Mulder and Scully carry on, with almost superhuman courage and perseverance – armed only with the conviction that there is, after all, some sanction greater than power. It now seems clear that we shall never see the completion of their journey, evidenced by the failure of I Want to Believe to reach an audience large enough to justify further sequels. But we can still learn from that journey.
Part One: The Game
1. The Stage
I’m the only one who knows where the show is going. I keep it in my head. That way they can’t fire me.
— Chris Carter, Entertainment Weekly, May 10, 1996
There is no truth. These men just make it up as they go along.
–Alex Krycek, in “Tunguska”
Before all else, The X-Files was a television series, a commercial venture like any other. It is important to start with how it relates to the conventions of television narrative. There are two primary forms of narrative for series involving continuing characters: the serial and the episodic.
Serial narratives follow the lives of the characters rather than merely events of a particular episode. In daytime soap operas, the characters lives are followed so closely that it may take a week to show what happens to them on a single day. On nighttime serial drama, the sequential development of characters and their relationships may leave out days or even weeks, but remains essentially continuous.
In episodic television, there is minimal attention to the personal lives of characters – except, of course, in situation comedies and family dramas. There was never an overall story arc in All in the Family or The Simpsons. In the latter, the characters don’t even age. In shows as diverse as Gunsmoke and Mary Tyler Moore, the action in each episode is unrelated to that of any other, although some things change – like Festus replacing Chester, or Ted Baxter getting married.
In early police procedural shows, event was everything. “I carry a badge,” Joe Friday said on Dragnet, and that was about all we ever learned about him. He was a cop, and he investigated cases. Period. We knew nothing about his personal life – not even whether he was, or ever had been married. Episodes of Dragnet could be shown in random order, and nobody would know the difference.
Blends of the serial and the episodic are more common today. Law and Order, as producer Dick Wolf puts it, may share the DNA of Dragnet, but we know more about Lenny Briscoe than about Joe Friday – even if we never see him on screen when he isn’t on the job. On NYPD Blue, however, the personal lives of Andy Sipowicz and other New York cops are as much a part of the story as the crimes they face each week – no way could the episodes be shown out of order and make dramatic sense. It is much the same with later series like Castle, where there is a continuing relationship between mystery novelist Richard Castle and detective Kate Beckett – with the adolescence of Castle’s daughter Alexis and the personal lives of other supporting characters being part of the story.
The X-Files, however, tries to have it both ways, cutting back and forth between serial and episodic narrative – the mythology and stand-alone or monster-of-the-week episodes. The serial drama is advanced only by mythology episodes; in the stand-alones, Mulder and Scully might just as well be Joe Friday and Bill Gannon from Dragnet – or, more to the point, Carl Kolchak on The Night Stalker, one of Chris Carter’s models, with a female partner.
Carter’s decision to adopt this strategy was sound, given the circumstances. When he shot the pilot, there was no way of knowing whether The X-Files would be picked up as a series; and when it was put on the Fox schedule, there was no way of knowing whether it would survive the first season. Carter had to hedge his bets, taking his cues from both The Night Stalker and previous alien invasion stories, most notably The Invaders.
Things weren’t as clear in the first season as later. There was little rhyme or reason to what were only later called the mythology episodes. These seemingly involved entirely different species – the invisible aliens of “Fallen Angel” and the hermaphrodites of “Genderbender,” for example, as opposed to the Colonists (as they came to be called) who eventually emerged as the canonical aliens.
Even after that, there were all sorts of glitches and discontinuities – the devil in the details – and because there were long breaks between mythology episodes, viewers were left hanging. We are still left hanging in I Want to Believe, the stand-alone X-Files movie that makes only the most oblique references to the revelations of The Truth – the series finale that set a date for the alien invasion and the end of the world as we know it.
We can believe that Mulder and Scully know more than they let on to us; the same applies to the revelations of any number of series episodes: they must know who Deep Throat was, for example; Mulder witnessed his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Jeremiah Smith in “Herrenvolk” clearly had plenty of time to tell Mulder his “long and complicated story,” but we never heard it and Mulder never spoke of it.
But there are also things that Mulder and Scully may know no better than we. How did Alex Krycek escape from the missile silo where he was imprisoned at the end of “Apocrypha,” and how did he hook up with that terrorist group when he reappeared in “Tunguska?” For that matter, how did he end up in a Tunisian prison between “Amor Fati” and “Requiem?”
It is the same with Marita Covarrubias, Krycek’s partner in crime in “Requiem.” Introduced in “Herrenvolk” as Special Representative to the Secretary General of the United Nations, and seemingly on Mulder’s side, she later turns out to be a confidant of Cancer Man, then of Krycek, then their victim, then by turns ally again to each of them, and finally… we don’t know. Who was the real Marita?
Jeremiah Smith: did he die at the end of “Herrenvolk?” Was it really him or just one of his clones who turned up in “This Is Not Happening” years later? Then there’s the strange case of Gibson Praise, the boy genius whose activated alien genes give him telepathic powers: he is targeted by the Syndicate for murder and then exploitation, but how did he end up in a school for the deaf in “Within” and “Without,” after being trapped with a molting alien at a nuclear power plant in “The Beginning?”
Mythology episodes repeatedly teased us with revelations that were never followed up. What became of the mute children and the bees Smith showed Mulder? The former were never seen after “Herrenvolk,” while the latter vanished after being heralded as carriers for the Black Oil virus in Fight the Future. And what became of the Alien Rebels after they barbecued the Elders in “One Son?”
In some episodes, there were incidental details that kept us up to date. There were references to Tunisia in “S.R. 819,” “One Son” and “Requiem” that suggest long-term Syndicate connections to that country – the headquarters of Conrad Strughold in Fight the Future. Diana Fowley, we learned in “One Son,” had made frequent trips to Tunisia between 1991 and 1998, and Alex Krycek had been jailed there at the behest of Cancer Man in the teaser for “Requiem.”
“Vienen” reminds us of the continued threat of the alien Black Oil virus, even after the immolation of the Syndicate Elders (except, it would seem, for Strughold) in “One Son.” So does a snatch of conversation in “Biogenesis,” as Cancer Man sits in on what Andy Meisler described in The End and the Beginning, official guide to the sixth season, as a “high-level government meeting:”
FIRST MAN: …final preparations for mass destruction on a scale that can only be imagined.
SECOND MAN: Well, what can we do to stop it?
FIRST MAN: There appears to be nothing we can do to prevent it. It becomes a question of managing the crisis. Otherwise, we are facing annihilation ourselves.
Because references to the mythology were nearly always kept out of the stand-alone episodes, however, we were left in the dark as to what their latest revelations really meant to Mulder and Scully. We were left wondering how Scully could have remained a skeptic for so long, after all they had been through together, after all they had seen together with their own eyes.
Beyond that, we have to wonder why they considered the stand-alone cases worth pursuing, if the world was threatened with doom from an alien invasion. Scully might still be skeptical about psychic child molesters, but she had learned the Truth about the alien threat by the time of I Want to Believe. We can only assume she and Mulder and Scully had talked the subject to death over the six years that passed since the TV series ended, and had nothing to more to say.
Because of the glitches, because of the gaps – most doubtless accidental, but some likely due to Carter simply changing his mind about the direction of the show – there were episodes that were brilliant in themselves, yet seemingly led nowhere. Carter and his writers had to keep coming up with reasons for Mulder and Scully not to find out the truth, especially in the later seasons when the mythology was being reworked.
There were really bad stand-alones. “Teso dos Bichos,” was widely ridiculed as the “Killer Kitties” episode. But the Killer Kitties didn’t compromise the series; once they were gone, they were gone. When the mythology episodes went bad, however, they could be ludicrous enough to make the whole mytharc look silly.
In “Travelers,” we were taken back in time to 1952, referencing a case that came to Mulder’s attention only in 1990. It seems that his father was involved in horrible medical experiments that had to do with implanting flesh-eating little monsters into the chests of unwitting victims, who were turned into unwilling serial killers as the creatures emerged from their mouths to suck the juice out of their prey. Anyone who tried to expose this was branded as a Communist – the Red Scare, remember?
But the script is ham-handed – conflating Senator Joseph McCarthy with HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee), making fallout shelters a fad of the fifties rather than the sixties, and pretentious use of J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn as players in the story. The little monsters are out of a cheesy horror film, and their creation didn’t make a bit of sense. What could possibly have been the point of the experiments? What could they possibly have to do with the mytharc?
In “Closure,” we were offered a resolution to the mystery of Samantha Mulder’s abduction that seems arbitrarily tacked on to “Sein und Zeit,” an episode that seems to have been conceived as a stand-alone about a horrific child murderer. Only it segues into a story about how some of his victims were saved from their torturer by “walk-ins” who whisked them away, body and soul. Samantha was supposedly saved from the tender mercies of Cancer Man in the same manner. But the denouement is offensive to anyone who knows the sad truth about what happens to victims of child abuse in the real world.
Considered strictly as cases, the stand-alone episodes not only had nothing to do with the mytharc but nothing to do with each other. They might as well have been episodes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. We encountered feral humans, a mutant who can squeeze down chimneys, vampires and werewolves, demons and genies, sea monsters and more. We responded to these creatures as if they are not part of the same universe as the mythology.
Yet while the stand-alone episodes almost never advanced the main story of The X-Files, they often advanced the story of the characters and their development – not only Mulder and Scully, but other principals like FBI Assistant Director Skinner, the Lone Gunmen and – in the later seasons – newcomers Alvin Kersh, Monica Reyes and John Doggett. The best of them also turned on moral and even philosophical themes, rather than just the latest monster of the week.
In the stand-alones, too, however, there were problems of continuity. In “Avatar,” Skinner faces divorce from his wife Sharon. But when he is accused of murdering another woman with whom he had a one-night stand, the story turns on not only the efforts of Mulder and Scully to clear him, but on the relationship between him and Sharon, who has also been targeted by his enemies. Finding her unconscious at the hospital after an attack on her, he confesses his love:
I had to tell you, Sharon, before anything else happens. I’m not signing those [divorce] papers … for a lot of reasons, most of them I’m just realizing myself for the first time. (pauses) Some of the things I’ve seen – the violence and the lies that I’ve witnessed men inflict on one another – I could never tell you that. Not that I ever stopped believing in the work, but there were contradictions that I, that I couldn’t reconcile, which meant shutting down part of myself just to do my job. (pauses) I never told you what I should have told you … that what really got me through each day was knowing that I’d be sleeping next to you that night. Knowing that I had a reason to wake up in the morning.
Yet, while she seemingly revived, and asked him to listen to her, she was never heard of again after (apparently) telling him where to find her assailant and mete out his own justice. We have to assume that she had actually died, and that Skinner was listening to a Succubus possessing her body – a concession to the monster-of-the-week formula that here undermines the emotional impact of the story.
Skinner refused to discuss the case with Mulder, and never mentioned Sharon again; the only change we saw in his personal life was that he had moved into a new apartment at the time of “Tunguska.” To drop Sharon from the series after his poignant bedside soliloquy is dramatically criminal. We were told that she alone made his life worth living – and then she was cast aside as if she had been nothing but a walk-on.
If Carter ever really kept a Bible of the mythology, he certainly never had a rulebook for the stand-alone episodes. In “All Souls,” for example, it was established that a demon can’t enter a church. But in “Signs and Wonders,” a minister turned out to be a demon. Again, there were two dissimilar versions of vampires in “3” and “Bad Blood;” and different kinds of werewolves in “Shapes” and “X-Cops.”
Glitches like that didn’t undermine the show. The inconsistent monsters of the week were few and far between; they never really bothered us. What did bother us were the episodes that aren’t true to the characters. In “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” for example, the big problem wasn’t the silly ghosts, but the characterizations of Mulder and Scully. The episode took place 1998, but it seemed more like 1993 – and a distorted 1993 at that, as in this exchange between Scully and one of the spirits:
LYDA: Oh, you poor child. You must have an awful small life. Spending your Christmas Eve with him… Running around chasing things you don’t even believe in.
SCULLY: Don’t come any closer.
LYDA: (coming closer) I can see it in your face… The fear… The conflicted yearnings… A subconscious desire to find fulfillment through another. Intimacy through co-dependency.
Perhaps this was intended as a spoof, like “José Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,’” a send-up of the mythology that was nevertheless true to the mythology in a backhanded way, and – more importantly – true to Mulder and Scully. Yet in the best episodes, whether mythological or stand-alones, what we watched for, what we remembered, were the revelations of the characters – not only Mulder and Scully, but other key players like Skinner.
Episodes like “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” were tactical blunders, but there were also strategic blunders. Among the worst was Fight the Future (1998), the first X-Files feature film. Coming after the end of the fifth season, which had achieved record ratings of nearly 20 million viewers, it was meant (among other things) to be part of the transition to a new production locale. David Duchovny, newly married to Tea Leoni, put on the pressure to move production of the show from Vancouver to Los Angeles.
The very success of the series may have proved its undoing. It was going to be hard to duplicate the signature dark look of The X-Files in Southern California. Moreover, Chris Carter was running out of ideas: he’d never expected the series to go beyond five seasons, after which he had hoped to follow up with a series of films. But now the first film had to somehow fit into the series while also appealing, so it was hoped, to a broader audience.
It would have made more sense to have filmed a stand-alone. Instead, Carter chose to make The X Files’ big screen debut a mythology episode – more elaborate than he could afford to do on TV, with spectacular effects like the bombing of a federal building (à la Oklahoma City) and the creation and destruction of an alien base in Antarctica. But too much of the actual story was sound and fury leading nowhere – including the rescue of a drugged Scully from the alien base without her ever realizing she was there.
In trying to make the film more appealing to a general audience, Carter alienated his core audience. If the 20 million people who watched the fifth season had shelled out to see the movie, it would have grossed a lot more than $80 million. With the seeming exhaustion of the original mythology, which had culminated with revelations about the Black Oil virus and the use of mutant bees to spread it – there is internal evidence that details of the film were changed in line with developments in the fifth season – the TV series was thrown out of gear.
Carter’s strategy had been to reveal details gradually during crucial mytharc episodes. It was in these episodes that we learned about the hybrid clones, the black oil, the Elders and all the rest. It was a successful strategy, but one that could be pursued for only so long. Carter admitted as much at Comic Con that year, when one fan recalled him having told his student group during the third season (1995-96) that “you sort of had a plan in your head that were going to go about five years and then wrap it up and everything.”
“Well, it changed because of the movie,” Carter responded. “And it changed because of the popularity of the show. And it changed because Fox didn’t want the show to end.” Carter’s original scheme was surely never as detailed as J. Michael Straczynski’s for the five-year science fiction epic Babylon 5, but it may have dictated pacing of key revelations and how to turn these revelations into stories. By 1997, however, when he had committed to the movie, he was running out of material for the mytharc as originally conceived. In an on-line chat, Carter’s executive producer Frank Spotnitz confirmed this:
In recent years, doing these big two part episodes, we’ve done so much mythology that it’s become increasingly difficult to stake out fresh ground.
Andy Meisler’s The End and the Beginning reveals that Carter and Spotnitz decided in September 1998 to eliminate the Syndicate and “relaunch the series in a fresh mythological direction.” But their failure of imagination led only to a disastrous turn that began with “Two Fathers” and “One Son,” a two-part episode that came off as a clumsy attempt to transition between the old mytharc and the new – whatever that was going to be.
Carter and company had already stumbled in Fight the Future and its bookend TV episodes, “The End” and “The Beginning.” We were subjected to such inept scenarios as a mind-reading child who was somehow never brought in to read the mind of a prisoner who could have blown the conspiracy, alien monsters who emerged full-grown from human bodies without using up the “digestive” material – and can travel cross country without being noticed – and a tiresome re-run of Mulder and Scully’s exile from the X-Files four years earlier.
The reassignment of the X-Files to Jeffrey Spender and Diana Fowley in “The Beginning,” after they had been reopened at the end of Fight the Future, was deus ex machina – only with Cancer Man yet again playing God: Spender and Fowley couldn’t possibly have achieved this on their own, although Spender later took the credit-blame. Climactic revelations about the nature of the alien virus actually confused the issue rather than clarifying it.
Marking time as the new mytharc was developed were episodes fans dubbed “X-Files lite” for their lack of real substance. “Dreamland” was especially problematic as it touched on the mythology, being set at Area 51. As comedy, the two-parter was a brilliant exercise, from the Mulder–Morris Fletcher mirror scene to Julia Vera’s turn as Granny Top Gun. But because it was played for laughs, we could never be sure whether to take the mytharc elements seriously – notably the Area 51 commander who doesn’t know whether he’s working with alien technology.
Ratings began to erode during the sixth season, presumably due to disappointment with both the “lite” episodes and the mythology two-parter “Two Fathers”-“One Son,” in which Carter and Spotnitz were in such a rush to pursue their “fresh direction” that continuity with the established mytharc was sacrificed.
That “fresh direction” never caught on with the core audience. Ratings for the series declined year by year, with only the last two episodes reversing the trend. Carter wanted to follow up immediately with a second film, but a legal wrangle between him and 20th Century Fox led to a six-year delay – a delay that turned out to be fatal to any hope that the quest of Mulder and Scully would be fulfilled, based on the poor box office of I Want to Believe.
Just as it would have made more sense for the first film to have been a stand-alone, it would have made more sense for the second to have been a mytharc. Yet even if we never see Mulder and Scully reach the end of their journey, the journey itself has been unforgettable, and the four seasons that followed Fight the Future were by no means entirely wasted. Some of the greatest episodes were yet to come, even if The X-Files as a series seemed to have lost direction.
The X-Files was a show that took risks, and inevitably failed at times – but succeeded more often than it failed. It was like nothing else on television, before or since, although there have been attempts to replicate its appeal with series like Fringe, which featured an FBI unit devoted to investigation of the paranormal. It told stories like none ever told before on the small screen, told them in a manner and style that had never been seen before, and created characters like none who had ever appeared before.
One of the startling things about The X-Files is the literacy of its scripts. Where else have there been soliloquies like Skinner’s in “Avatar,” or allusions to Dostoyevsky and Goethe and Yeats? It may have had something to do with the fact that David Duchovny was a literary type, but the series at its best attracted and nurtured good writers and good writing.
James Wong and Glen Morgan wrote some of the classic episodes of the first few seasons, including “Ice,” “Eve,” “One Breath” and “The Field Where I Died.” Darin Morgan excelled in black comedies like “Humbug.” John Shiban, he of the killer kitties, went in to script much better episodes like “The Pine Bluff Variant” and “S.R. 819.” Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and even William B. Davis went from acting to writing without breaking stride in “The Unnatural,” “all things” and “En Ami.”
Carter himself, Vince Gilligan, Howard Gordon and Frank Spotnitz were uneven as writers, but still turned out such memorable scripts as, respectively, “Duane Barry,” “Je Souhaite,” “Sleepless” and “731.” Spotnitz became Carter’s favorite collaborator, with series credits that include “Tunguska” and “Terma.” They wrote most of the episodes for the last two seasons, and worked together again on I Want to Believe, a screenplay that was a lot better than most reviewers gave it credit for.
There is the eerie cinematography, dark and spooky, and not just in the remote locales of the episodes – consider the FBI hearing room in “Gethsemane,” “Redux I” and “Redux II” with its dim lighting and claustrophobic atmosphere (emphasized by overhead shots): the very definition, in visual terms, of a star chamber.
The series’ visual imagination goes well beyond signature elements like the waving flashlights introduced in the pilot. Who could ever forget the eerie sight of experimental subjects bathed in greenish light in their aquarium tanks in “The Ehrlenmeyer Flask?” Serial killer Luther Lee Boggs, haunted by the shades of his victims as he is led to the gas chamber in “Beyond the Sea?” The menacing forest in “Darkness Falls,” where little green mites are actually scarier – and deadlier – than little green men.
Then there is the imaginative use of guest stars, as with Peter Boyle in his Emmy-winning performance as a clairvoyant insurance salesman in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” Just as memorable were Brad Dourif as Boggs in “Beyond the Sea,” Lili Taylor as a blind woman with a psychic tie to a serial killer in “Mind’s Eye,” Steve Railsback as Scully’s abductor in “Duane Barry” and “Ascension,” and Veronica Cartwright in her recurring role as multiple-abductee (and ex-wife of Cancer Man) Cassandra Spender.
Chris Carter seemed to have an instinct for making a virtue out of necessity. The story line that was devised to work around Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy in 1994 was the first example. But even more impressive was working around the possible cancellation of the show and the certainty of David Duchovny’s staged departure in 2000. That led not only to “Requiem” as either a final or a transitional episode, but to the casting of Robert Patrick as John Doggett – Carter could have opted for a pale imitation of Mulder but instead chose the un-Mulder.
Among the other virtues of The X-Files, one could mention the haunting opening theme – six notes that are instantly recognizable around the world — and incidental music by Mark Snow, most memorably “Scully’s Theme” for “Within.” This was supplemented with well-chosen source music for several episodes, such as Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” in “Ascension,” and a poignantly romantic Tchaikovsky barcarole in “Trust No 1.”
Beyond all that, the real strength of the series was that it could accommodate any number of stories and story lines. There is a strong element of soap opera in the best sense, for example, in the relationships of Mulder and Scully with their families – which in turn impact on their own relationship. Family secrets, like those in many a daytime soap, shake their foundations.
Strictly in terms of episodes, The X-Files allows, not only mytharc and stand-alone episodes but tragedy and comedy, mystery and romance, science fiction and fantasy on a number of levels and in different combinations.
There is the black comedy of “Humbug,” for example, centering not only on the monster of the week – surely one of the most bizarre ever – but the dwarf trailer park manager who is miffed at Mulder’s careless assumption that he must be a circus performer, and makes fair play of his turnabout dialogue:
NUTT: Well, then why should I take offense? Just because it’s human nature to make instantaneous judgments of others based solely upon their physical appearances? Why, I’ve done the same thing to you, for example. I’ve taken in your all-American features, your dour demeanor, your unimaginative necktie design…
(Mulder looks down at his tie.)
…and concluded that you work for the government. An F.B.I. agent.
(Mulder looks at Scully, who arches her eyebrows in surprise.)
But do you see the tragedy here? I have mistakenly reduced you to a stereotype. A caricature. Instead of regarding you as a specific, unique individual.
MULDER: But I am an F.B.I. agent.
(He holds up his badge. Nutt smirks a little and takes out another paper.)
NUTT: Register here, please.
Who could forget the darkly comic turn of “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” with Peter Boyle as the insurance salesman who can tell from one glance how and when a person will die? The dialogue between Bruckman and the newlyweds he is trying to sell a life insurance policy is priceless:
HUSBAND: You see, the thing is… we were really hoping to buy a boat.
BRUCKMAN: Mister Gordon, uh, as a young husband, I think you’re going to find that your new responsibilities to your family take precedence over your recreational needs.
HUSBAND: But this is a really good boat.
BRUCKMAN: You don’t get it, do you, kid? Two years from now, while driving down Route 91… coming home to your wife and baby daughter… you’re going to be hit head-on by a drunk… driving a blue ‘87 Mustang. You’ll end up looking worse than sixty feet of bad road your body slides across… after flying out your front windshield.
HUSBAND: Mister… you really need to work on your closing technique.
Contrast that with the grim finale of “Drive,” in which a government project for ground radio transmission has had an unexpected side effect – producing a hum that affects the internal pressure of the brain and causes the victim’s head to explode unless he’s moving at high speed. Scully figures out a way to deal with the problem, and is waiting for him as Mulder races at 90-plus miles an hour with one of the victims in hopes of saving him. Only….
(End of the highway. It dead ends into the rocky Pacific coast. Scully stands next to an ambulance holding a VERY evil looking enormous needle in her hand. Escorted by the CHP motorcycles, the station wagon approaches.)
SCULLY: Get ready!
(The wagon passes the ambulance and stops at the very end of the road. Scully runs up to it, but slows when she sees the blood splattered on the back window. Mulder gets out of the car and walks to the edge of the beach taking off his tie. Scully watches him as he crumples the tie in his hand and stares out over the water.
Or with the moment of truth in “Mind’s Eye,” when Mulder finally figures out just why it is that Marty Glenn, who was born blind after the murder of her mother, keeps confessing to a series of other murders she not only never committed but never could have committed:
MULDER: I think that during that time … as you lost one sense … you gained another. That somehow … a connection was formed between you and your mother’s killer.
MARTY: What connection?
MULDER: You see through his eyes. You always have. You don’t want to, you just do. And because of that you feel responsible for his actions, but you’re not. And you’re sitting here in prison for crimes you didn’t commit. It isn’t going to accomplish anything, Marty.
In “Eve,” an especially chilling episode of the first season, Carter played a variation on The Bad Seed in the story of two little adopted girls, raised a continent apart, who share a deadly secret.
Although “Eve” was officially a stand-alone episode, it was Deep Throat who told Mulder about the Litchfield Project – a Cold War program to produce super-intelligent telepathic children. Was this perpetrated by the same people who were working on alien DNA? We never learn that, but we do learn that it went horribly wrong – as we see first-hand in the scene at a psychiatric ward to which Deep Throat has secured access for Mulder and Scully.
SCULLY: Did you work for the Luther Stapes Center for Reproductive Medicine in 1985?
EVE 6: 1985?! I’ve been tied up like this for two years and for what reason? For no reason, I did nothing. I’m just me. They made me. But did they suffer? No. No. I suffer. I suffer! They keep me alive for the Litchfield Project , they come in… they test me, they poke me… to see what went wrong. Sally knows what went wrong.
(She is almost spitting out the words. She points to them as best she can with her hands tied.)
EVE 6: You and you. You have 46 chromosomes. The Adams and the Eves … we have 56. We have extra chromosomes. Number 4, 5, 12, 16, and 22. This replication of chromosomes also produces additional genes. Heightened strength. Heightened intelligence.
MULDER: Heightened psychosis.
EVE 6: Saved the best for last.
Carter meant The X-Files to be scary, but the typical monsters of the week like the Flukeman in “The Host” were never as scary as this. And the twins we know as Teena and Cindy, apparently victims of some horrible criminal conspiracy? Mulder and Scully want to believe that they are the innocent tykes they seem, even if they are products of the Litchfield Project. We wanted to believe it, until we learned the terrible truth – after which we prayed that Mulder himself would learn it in time.
There was the outraged reaction – a perfectly normal reaction – of the trucker and his wife when Mulder grabbed the girls and they screamed for help. Who wouldn’t believe that it was an attempted kidnapping of two sweet little girls? And just when we thought the story was over, there came the fadeout at the asylum that sent chills down our spines:
The lab-coated woman goes to the cell doors.
EVE 9: Hello Eve 8.
EVE 10: We’ve been waiting.
EVE 8: How did you know I’d come for you?
EVE 9: We just knew.
EVE 10: We just knew.
This is what we watched for: the sense of the uncanny, the dedication of Mulder and Scully to pursue the truth wherever it led, the reversals of expectations, the shock of discovery. This was what kept us watching, this was what haunted us, and haunts us still.
2. The Stakes
There is a war raging… … a struggle for heaven and earth. Where there is one law: fight or die. And one rule: resist or serve.
–Alex Krycek, in “The Red and the Black”
It all goes back to H.G. Wells. There were other alien invasion stories before The War of the Worlds (1898), but Wells’ novel set the dominant pattern. Forty years after it first appeared, Orson Welles transplanted the action from England to New Jersey in a Halloween radio adaptation, and the story was later adapted three times for the screen and even for a short-lived TV series.
Welles and Hollywood may have taken liberties with the details of the story, moving the action from England to the United States and updating the technology. But they preserved the grim Darwinian essence of the original: faced with an invasion by a more advanced species, humanity doesn’t stand a chance. Only the Martians’ weakness to infection by Earthly diseases saves us.
Darwinism was new to public consciousness when Wells wrote his novel. Thomas Henry Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” had carried the day for the theory of evolution not long before in a debate with Bishop Wilberforce. Yet Huxley was hardly a Darwinian in the sense used pejoratively today. In an 1893 lecture, “Evolution and Ethics,” he argued that while human life might have emerged out of some blind and amoral cosmic process, humanity need not remain a cog in a cosmic machine:
Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest … but of those who are ethically the best.
Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin made a similar argument in Mutual Aid, which put the case that ethical behavior is itself the greatest survival value. But others seized on Darwin and the “struggle for existence” as a handy justification for things they already believed in – like a ruling class at home and imperialism abroad.
If they could no longer claim that God was on their side, they could claim that Nature was. Might made right, and the mighty were the “fittest,” were they not? Of course, they never dreamed that there could be others in the universe mightier than themselves, who could claim the same justification. The irony of the situation was hardly lost on Wells in the first chapter of The War of the Worlds:
The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.
And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
In genre science fiction – the kind written, published and read by dedicated writers and fans as opposed to the occasional sf works by outsiders that are picked up on by the general public – the invasion story has taken any number of turns since Wells.
Some are grim, like Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951); others comic like Fredric Brown’s Martians Go Home (1955). Both have both been adapted for the screen, although poorly. Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955) has fared better, but chances are that few of those who have seen one or more of the movie versions have even heard of the book.
Genre science fiction likes to build on ideas, and in that sense the greatest post-Wells invasion epic may be David Gerrold’s still uncompleted The War Against the Chtorr (1985-) in which Earth is invaded by an entire alien ecology a billion or more years older than our own. Gerrold works new variations on the tropes of Wells, Heinlein and others, and one of the most frightening things in his series is that nobody knows for sure whether there is a true intelligence behind the invasion – or it is simply a mindless cosmic plague.
But genre science fiction, beyond the kind of space opera exemplified by the E.E. “Doc” Smith serials of the 1930s that influenced Star Wars, rarely has much to do with the sci-fi that we see on the large screen or small. The mass audience wants Independence Day, not The War Against the Chtorr. The Arrival, a more imaginative and ironic film, in which the alien invaders are adapting the world to suit them by accelerating global warming, found a limited audience.
In any case, any possible influence by genre sf on the invasion story as seen on screen has long since been eclipsed by the mythology of alien visitors or invaders that began with the first headlines about flying saucers in 1947 and later metastasized into an elaborate belief system that involves not only contemporary UFO abductions and cover-ups of alien visitation, but the bio-engineering of the human race by aliens 300,000 years ago, ancient astronauts fathering the first human civilizations and so on.
For true believers, the Grays are the tip of the iceberg. There are also the Aryans, Reptoids, Mantids and others. Some are living among us, but invisible because they live at a higher “frequency,” whatever that means. New Age channelers claim to dispense advice from aliens as well as spirits of the departed, and tell us that the Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece was manned by visitors from the Pleiades. Not that true believers agree on everything. One thing they can’t seem to agree on is whether the aliens are here to save us or destroy us.
Genre sf writers like Gerrold carefully develop their ideas. Chris Carter is more like a pack rat, ransacking popular culture for whatever ideas he can use while throwing in a few of his own. Just as the monster of the week scenarios use Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-5) as their inspiration, the alien invasion mytharc takes its basic premise from The Invaders.
David Vincent (Roy Thinnes, later to guest star on The X-Files), was a prototype for Fox Mulder. He would find new evidence of the invasion each week – but could never convince the authorities and never had more than a handful of supporters. One reason was that the Invaders (human to all appearances) would simply dissolve when they were killed – an idea Carter picked up for his shapeshifting hybrid clones.
Although he doubtless had a general idea of where the mytharc was going by the end of the first season, Carter never seems to have been bothered by the details. An alien fetus (Purity Control) that appears in “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” for example, suggests that the Grays at least can reproduce in the same way we do. But in the first X-Files movie, Fight the Future, we get a chest burster like the one in Alien (1979) – except that it somehow emerges full-grown without using up its host.
In “The Beginning,” we learn that the reptiloids who emerge from human hosts are nymphs that molt into adult Grays. But where does that leave Purity Control, the fetus used by the Syndicate as a source of DNA for research on an alien hybrid? Consigned by Cancer Man to a Pentagon storeroom (with others like it) at the end of “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” it somehow turned up again in “One Son” at a lab controlled by the Elders, and was seemingly the only one of its kind – the Alien Rebels send an agent to retrieve it at any rate.
Mulder had his first close encounter with one of the Grays in “Little Green Men,” which offered a flashback of Samantha’s abduction – as it actually happened or just as he remembers it, with effects inspired by Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But, given what we were told of the Colonists later in the series, it hardly seems likely that one would have initiated first contact in response to a message on the Voyager spacecraft. As Deep Throat had already told Mulder in his namesake episode, “They’ve been here for a long, long time.”
Yet was also Deep Throat who later gave Mulder the impression that the aliens were only occasional visitors rather than invaders. In “E.B.E.,” he outlined what must have been the first version of the Mythology: that the world’s great powers, after Roswell, had signed a secret treaty binding them to execute any aliens who fell into their hands. Deep Throat himself carried out one such execution in Vietnam, he told Mulder, and he was haunted by guilt over it.
Then came the revelation that the government was actually working with the aliens. There soon followed “Duane Barry” and the scenario of alien abductions being part of a program of collaboration, rather than random acts as in UFO mythology. There might be attempts to resist the invasion, as witness research on a vaccine to the Black Oil – but humans executing aliens? Not likely.
We have to assume that Deep Throat was lying about that; he’d lied to Mulder before. In a commentary on the Colonization set of X-Files DVDs, Frank Spotnitz had it that the men who became the Elders didn’t find out about the invasion until 1973, and only then offered up their children as hostages to the Colonists. But that was long before Deep Throat came up with the story about the secret treaty and the executions.
“Little Green Men,” oddly, was a throwback to the occasional visitor scenario – with the Blue Berets assigned to enforce that long-ago treaty. But even after that there were glitches. In Fight the Future, for example, the Elders make much of the Black Oil virus having “mutated” to gestate alien monsters instead of merely taking control of its human hosts. But the Black Oil from the Texas cave was actually a far older version than that in “Piper Maru” and “Apocrypha,” or that used for research on a vaccine by the Russians in “Tunguska” and “Terma.”
Perhaps Carter realized that there was a problem, for in “Vienen,” only the mind-control version of the Black Oil was encountered by Mulder and Agent John Doggett at an oilfield in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet another question never addressed was why the Oil is highly radioactive in some episodes (“Piper Maru”) and not in others (“Tunguska”). Further confusing matters, it was claimed in series finale “The Truth” that the Black Oil itself is sentient.
Another mystery arose from the revelation that all humans have alien DNA, even if it is inactive in most of them. So why does the virus sometimes merely switch on what appears to be junk DNA, as with Gibson Praise and his telepathic powers, and later with Mulder himself in “Biogenesis,” instead of transforming them into aliens?
One can poke all kinds of holes in other ideas from the mytharc. Those hybrid clones have green blood, yet their skin is the color of human (Well, Caucasian) flesh, rather than greenish. Why can they be killed only by a stiletto (dubbed a plam by fans) to the back of the neck? Why should their successors, the super-soldiers – who can recover from being decapitated or even put through a garbage truck compactor – be vulnerable to magnetite? In DC Comics, at least, it took an exotic substance – kryptonite – to threaten Superman. It’s not that Carter never had any good ideas. It’s just that he could never seem to tell the difference between his good ideas and his bad ones.
At least he was consistent about the replicants, which can’t be said of his treatment of the Alien Rebels, who first appear in “Patient X” – using the Colonists’ own control chips to draw former abductees to mass assembly points and then torch them. Their faces are mutilated, all their orifices sewn shut – to protect them from the Black Oil, we are told. In “Two Fathers” and “One Son,” they wear Mission Impossible masks to disguise their faces. Yet in “One Son,” the Rebels reveal that they too can shapeshift. In any case, Fight the Future had already shown the Black Oil entering a Texas boy through his feet.
There were efforts at scientific plausibility in some episodes, as recounted by Anne Simon in The Real Science Behind the X-Files (1999). Simon cites such examples as the pathogenic worms in “Ice,” the fungal infection in “El Mundo Gira,” the particular kind of cancer that Scully suffers in “Memento Mori,” and – most memorably – the use of chimerical hybrid cells to create the fake alien in “Gethsemane.”
But Simon was dubious about the “virus” in the Black Oil – about which she had evidently never been consulted when it was first introduced. Nor did she have anything to do with or say about the hybrid clones, the green blood, the shapeshifting or the plam. She could have told Carter that it was absurd for half-brothers Fox Mulder and Jeffrey Spender to have the same DNA. Chances are that she would have thrown up her hands at the way Scully did superficial stem cell research online in I Want to Believe – and then proceeded to inject stem cells into a boy dying of a rare brain disease without any experience or benefit of clinical studies.
With the borrowings from UFO-New Age mythology, it’s practically chapter-and-verse. The very first case that Mulder and Scully investigate together involved abductions in Bellefleur, Oregon, with the familiar elements of power failures and lost time – and ended with Cancer Man hiding the evidence in that storage room at the Pentagon.
We soon learned that Mulder was drawn to the X-Files by recovered memory of the abduction of his sister Samantha in 1973. Over the years, further abductions – including those of Scully and Mulder themselves – figured in the unfolding story. So did alien implants, secret experiments with human-alien hybrids, and the whole apparatus of the conspiracy.
X-Files fans have worked doggedly to make sense of all this. Mike Marek, in particular, has posted timelines for the Conspiracy and events of the series generally. These timelines offer a wealth of detail, but tend to gloss over the inconsistencies and contradictions. Carter himself has offered explanations that are sometimes confusing and inconsistent, and authorized tie-in books that seemed to take these for granted.
During the later years of the series, the mythology became even less plausible. The hoary Erich von Daniken theme of Ancient Astronauts is raised by Scully’s discovery in “Biogenesis” of an alien spacecraft covered with religious inscriptions – incredibly, even a rubbing of one of the inscriptions has magical powers.
That was followed in the final season with “Provenance” and “Providence,” where an alien-worshipping cult inspired by a similar spacecraft kidnapped Scully’s child as an offering to the gods. In the series finale, “The Truth,” we were told that the invasion had been set for Dec. 22, 2012 – the very date for the end of the world supposedly set in the Long Count Mayan calendar, and widely embraced by New Age kooks. There had been allusions to what seemed to be the same date in “Red Museum” and “Patient X.”
One can readily understand why secular humanists like Carl Sagan pilloried The X-Files for pandering to such stuff. Yet while the logic of the mytharc cannot stand up under close scrutiny, its human meaning seduced us from the start and kept us watching to the end. The real story was never about the truth, but what that truth meant to those who sought it – or fought to conceal it while exploiting it to their own ends. The X-Files is an epic of good versus evil, courage versus cowardice, hope versus despair.
3. The Relevance
My name is John Fitzgerald Byers. I was named after our 35th president, and I keep having this beautiful dream. In my dream, the events of November 22nd, 1963, never happened. In it, my namesake was never assassinated. Other things are different, too, in my dream. My country is hopeful and innocent; young again. Young in spirit. My fellow citizens trust their elected officials, never once having been betrayed by them.
— Byers opening soliloquy for “Three of a Kind”
A lot of consideration… yeah a lot… don’t think you’re not expendable, no… he never once said I was doing a good job… all my hard work… nobody ever stuck up for me.
— Muntz, thinking out loud in “Talitha Cumi”
Galen Muntz was a nobody with a barely articulate grievance that leads him to shoot up a fast food restaurant in “Talitha Cumi.” He thought the world was against him, and there are lots of people today who feel like him, even if most – unlike the perpetrators of mass shootings like those at schools in Columbine and Newtown and a movie theater in Denver – never give violent expression to their sense of betrayal.
Byers was a somebody, one of the conspiracy buffs, along with Melvin Frohike and Richard “Ringo” Langly, who made up the Lone Gunmen. He was the least geeky of the three, having once worked for the Federal Communications Commission; he sported conservative suits and a neatly-trimmed beard. Yet he was the one who articulated the mythology of a generation.
And it is a mythology. We have no way of knowing whether the history of America would have been better had Kennedy lived. It might even have been worse – Stephen King devoted a chilling alternate reality novel, 11/22/63, to that idea. But most people would rather believe the myth: not only that Kennedy’s Camelot was real, but that it was betrayed by evil forces, by dark conspiracies in high places.
Until the Kennedy assassination, conspiracy theories had been the province of the radical Right, as witness a campaign against fluoridation of water as a Communist plot. But they have since been eagerly embraced by the Left, from rival Kennedy assassination scenarios to theories that the CIA invented the AIDS virus to commit genocide against black people, or that 9/11 was a hoax perpetrated by President Bush. On the Right at the not long afterwards, it was an article of faith that President Obama was a secret Muslim out to destroy the country, and a common belief that gays are already doing so.
This sort of thing goes beyond the knowingly false smear campaigns engineered by candidates but assigned (with plausible deniability) to cut-outs supposedly beyond their control. Tens of millions of Americans believe in conspiracy theories, and these theories are fueled by an overwhelming sense of betrayal – a sense that we have been betrayed by the government, by Wall Street, by elitist technocrats, by sinister forces of all kinds.
Byers spoke for many Americans: “I have everything a person could want: home and family …and love,” he says of his dream. “Everything that counts for anything in life … I have it.” We saw images of his home and wife and children he longed for on the screen. “But the dream ends the same way every time. I lose it all.” And the images of happiness and fulfillment turned into a bleak vista of a desert.
The X-Files, of course, posits betrayals and conspiracies even more monstrous than those promoted by the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11 theorists. At first glance, they seem to have one thing in common with their real-world models: a conviction that the conspiracies are virtually perfect and their perpetrators virtually unassailable. Never mind that thousands of people would have to have been involved in planting explosives in the World Trade Center, and all the related operations and cover-up – without a single party to the conspiracy snitching.
Conspiracies of this kind have come to series otherwise more realistic than The X-Files. Castle began with Kate Beckett living with the tragedy of her mother’s murder long before she met Richard Castle. But then it comes out that her mother was the victim of a contract killer, who is himself killed before he can tell who he was working for – but it was somebody really high up, seemingly beyond the reach of the law. In The Mentalist, a former fake psychic, Patrick Jane, serves as a consultant to the California Bureau of Investigation. Jane is haunted by the murder of his wife and daughter by a serial killer called Red John. At the end of the third season, he has seemingly managed to snare his nemesis – and shoots him to death at a shopping mall. But the producers couldn’t leave well enough alone: it turns out that the man he shot wasn’t Red John after all, and that the “real” Red John is some all-powerful figure who can’t be touched by the law.
Considering how so many real-life conspiracies have unraveled, from Watergate to “secret” renditions of terrorist suspects, it’s hard to give credence that sort of conspiracy, let alone the theories floating around out there – including those about Roswell, hidden UFOs, alien abductions and the like that became the stock-in-trade for The X-Files. But Carter managed to turn a lemon into lemonade by portraying his conspirators believably in all their venality and mutual mistrust as well as their amorality and brutality. The only things that unite them are fear, and a will for whatever power the aliens will suffer them.
“All you want is to be part of it, is to be one of the commandants, when the process begins,” Jeremiah Smith taunted Cancer Man in “Talitha Cumi.” The same could have been said for the First Elder and Conrad Strughold and other members of the Syndicate. We first learned of the Elders in “The Blessing Way,” the second-season opener in which the Syndicate was obsessed about the whereabouts of a legendary Majestic-12 file (said to have been compiled by a dozen government agents investigating Roswell) with secrets of the Project.
From the first time we saw them, in their smoke-filled room on West 46th Street in New York, we could tell that these were haunted men – haunted by the fear that the truth might out. We soon learned that they didn’t even trust each other, and with good reason: Cancer Man was lying to the rest about having contained the problem, and the Well Manicured Man regarded him as reckless. That was the only reason he approached Scully to warn her that she had been targeted for death: too many murders – first the Thinker, who hacked the MJ file; and then Mulder, presumed dead in a buried train car in New Mexico – would attract too much attention.
Victor Klemper, a Nazi doctor who had apparently retired from the Syndicate to tend to his orchids, had something against the Well Manicured Man. What that was, we never learned, but after giving Mulder and Scully the secret of the Strughold Mine, where medical records of millions of Americans were stored, he made a point of phoning the Well Manicured Man while he was at a meeting of the Elders. Only, he claimed that the only thing he told Mulder was “that you were the most venal man I’ve ever met.”
Alex Krycek, who killed Mulder’s father and Scully’s sister – the latter in a botched hit intended for Scully herself – became too much trouble for Cancer Man, who targeted him with a car bomb. Only Krycek escaped and, like Klemper, had the audacity to call Syndicate headquarters to taunt his nemesis: “If I so much as feel your presence, I’m going to make you a very, very famous man. You understand?”
Cancer Man, the Well Manicured Man and the First Elder always seemed to be jockeying for position, and there was no love lost among them. Cancer Man himself is targeted for assassination by the First Elder in “Redux” – only to survive in hiding and be brought back in “The End,” when it appeared that his services were needed. The Well-Manicured Man was killed by a car bomb shortly thereafter in Fight the Future. Some dialogue that was cut from the movie but appears in the novelization (in italics here) bears on his relationship to Conrad Strughold and the First Elder as well as to the immediate crisis facing them:
STRUGHOLD: We’ve been forced to reassess our role in Colonization. Some new facts of biology have presented themselves.
FIRST ELDER: The virus has mutated.
WELL-MANICURED MAN: On its own?
CANCER MAN: We don’t know. So far there’s only the isolated case in Dallas.
STRUGHOLD: Its effect on the host has changed. The virus no longer just invades the brain as a controlling organism. It’s developed a way to modify the host body.
WMM: Into what?
STRUGHOLD: A new extraterrestrial biological entity.
When Strughold announces that the Colonists will be informed of what has been discovered in Dallas:
WMM: In hope of what? Learning that it’s true? That we are nothing more than digestives for the creation of a new race of alien life forms!
STRUGHOLD: Let me remind you who is the new race. And who is the old. What would be gained by withholding anything from them? By pretending ignorance? If this signals that colonization has already begun, then our knowledge may forestall it
WMM: And if it doesn’t? By cooperating now, we’re but beggars to our own demise. Our ignorance lay in cooperating with the Colonists at all.
STRUGHOLD: Cooperation is our only chance of saving ourselves.
Carter himself compared the Elders to the leaders of Vichy France, but perhaps a more apt comparison might be to the Judenraete: Jewish municipal administrations of the ghettoes. Their work, and that of the Kapos – Jewish police in the concentration camps – was shameful and futile, and they surely knew it. Right-wing zealots knew it when they falsely accused liberal activist George Soros of having taken part.
If Kapos were in denial, so were the Elders. Even Strughold, the capo di tutti capi, revealed this in his evasively bland assessment of the crisis over the mutation of the virus: “The geometry of mass infection presents certain conceptual reevaluations for us.” The dynamic of denial and slow panic among the Elders could make something pitiful and even tragic of what would otherwise be mere power struggles.
Even before Fight the Future, the Elders had shown moral cowardice in “Patient X” and “The Red and the Black,” where the Alien Rebels have challenged the Colonists by incinerating gatherings of their abductees – first in Kazhakstan and then in the United States at Skyland Mountain, the very place from which Scully had been taken. The Elders didn’t have any idea what was actually going on, but their greatest fear was that it would make them look bad to the Colonists:
SECOND ELDER: What the hell is going on? This is our own backyard …
FIRST ELDER: This is no good. I don’t like being kept in the dark on this.
WELL-MANICURED MAN: Someone’s going to great lengths to sabotage our work.
SECOND ELDER: Who?
WMM: One way or another, we’d better find out before it’s determined we’re unable to handle this ourselves … to put a stop to it … before the Colonists intervene.
When the Well-Manicured Man did find out, and brought his fellow Elders a sample of the vaccine obtained from Alex Krycek, he evidently expected to sway them. With the vaccine in hand, and the Alien Rebels on the move, he saw a way out for mankind. One of the Rebels had fallen into the hands of the military, and he might hold the key. But the other Elders were afraid to act:
WMM: Do you see what this means? Resistance is possible. We have the weapons and the magic in hand.
FIRST ELDER: We don’t know the vaccine works.
WMM: It will. And if it doesn’t, we have a new alliance to be made.
FIRST ELDER: Side with the resistance?
THIRD ELDER: Suicide.
FIRST ELDER: They’ll squash us as they do them. We must turn the rebel over.
In Fight the Future, the Well-Manicured Man didn’t get a break from Strughold when he arrived late for the Syndicate meeting in London because he was seeing to a grandson’s broken leg – and when he met with Mulder to give him a vial of the vaccine for Scully, his fate was sealed. The callousness of the Elders was often veiled in weasel words. In “Paper Clip” the First Elder suggested summoning their military allies: “I think it’s time to call our friends, who will handle this matter more satisfactorily.”
In “Redux I,” Cancer Man complained about having been “left out of the loop” by the First Elder, who he believed was running his own operation against Mulder through FBI Section Chief Scott Blevins. Just what the First Elder’s game was remains murky, but when he decided he’d had it with Cancer Man, he dispatched Quiet Willy to take him out with the laconic pronouncement: “You can proceed now.”
There was evidently more than one loop in the Conspiracy, and any number of people may have been left out of any number of loops. Michael Kritschgau, in the Gethseame-Redux three parter, sincerely believed that the alien invasion story was just an elaborate hoax devised to cover up a Nazi-like program of human experimentation.
There may have been yet other loops, as witness episodes like “Eve,” “Wetwired” and “The Pine Bluff Variant” that involve conspiracies unrelated to the aliens. As in the real-life irony of post-World II “Operation Paper Clip” (recruiting Nazi scientists) and “Operation Keelhaul” (sending Russian refugees back to the Soviet Union), the left hand may not have known know what the right hand was doing – and strange as it may seem, this adds an element of realism to The X-Files.
But the Elders knew exactly what they were doing. In their betrayal of humanity, in their betrayals of one another, they ended up betraying themselves, when all but Cancer Man were incinerated by the Alien Rebels in “One Son.” FBI Assistant Director Kersh, who has learned about that but is baffled as to the whys and wherefores, presses Mulder for an explanation, and here is what he gets:
MULDER: They burned themselves. With a choice made long ago by a conspiracy of men who thought they could sleep with the enemy. Only to awaken another enemy.
The theme of betrayal in The X-Files also resonated with another kind of real-life betrayal, more subtle but potentially more devastating: the betrayal of a country’s or a civilization’s own people and its own allies in the name of expediency.
Many of the original viewers must have recalled scenes of the fall of Saigon in 1975, when Vietnamese who had supported our cause tried to cling to the runners of departing helicopters because they were so desperate to escape the vengeance of their country’s new Communist rulers. Even if it was wrong from the start to have fought the Vietnam War, it was shameful to betray our allies in such a manner.
We have seen the same kind of thing happening in Iraq, where during the Second Gulf War some of our soldiers or their families had to buy their own body armor because the government refused to supply it – even though it had plenty of money for no-bid contracts ladled out to cronies of the administration. Families of National Guardsmen sent to Iraq had to beg for food because combat pay was so low. Of course, if you were a mercenary for Blackwater, you got better equipment and better pay.
As in Vietnam, we fell into a morass while trying to defend “democracy,” when the evidence was that most Iraqis didn’t care about democracy – Sunnis and Shiites alike “voting” with guns and bombs. It has been the same with Afghanistan, where the Taliban ended up in power. Our allies – notably the Kurds in Iraq – may suffer for it. Only, if they try to emigrate here, they’ll be treated like lepers.
Meanwhile, there is the increasing betrayal of American principles of liberty and justice – the secret prisons, the “renditions,” the kangaroo courts, the promiscuous use of terrorist lists and wiretaps supposedly directed only at the country’s enemies but in fact ensnaring a million or more ordinary citizens. There has even been talk of using drones in the United States itself as well as abroad to take out U.S. citizens deemed to be terrorists without the government having to produce any evidence. One senses the same cynicism behind all this as in the Vietnam War, with obsessive body counts that were supposed to demonstrate the war was going our way.
The Cold War ended in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the only thing some of our leaders seem to have learned from it is the Communist doctrine that the end justifies the means – a doctrine that condemned millions upon millions to death and slavery. There are voices today that argue it would be not only expedient but morally justified to use nuclear weapons indiscriminately against Iran and other Muslim nations to win the war on terror by exterminating millions.
Long before 9/11, science fiction writer Lois McMaster Bujold saw the folly and the evil of this: “Any community’s arm of force—military, police, security—needs people who can do the necessary evil, and yet not be made evil by it,” she wrote in Barrayar (1991). “To do only the necessary, and no more. To constantly question the assumptions, to stop the slide into atrocity.”
The real trouble with the idea that the end justifies the means is that, somehow, the means too often become the end. George Orwell saw that, “The object of persecution is persecution,” he wrote in Nineteen Eighty-four. “The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” And, he might have added, the object of betrayal is betrayal.
In 1964, when the Vietnam War was just ratcheting up, there was a movie called The Fall of the Roman Empire. It was the last of the big budget historical epics of its time, and had a stellar cast – James Mason, Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer and Sophia Loren. It was a box office failure, and hasn’t been available on DVD until just recently.
Perhaps audiences considered the movie too dry, despite spectacles like a chariot race. Or perhaps the theme was too abstract, and too disturbing. For the whole point of the movie is that what doomed the Roman Empire wasn’t the barbarian invasions, but the Empire’s betrayal of its own principles, its own people and its own allies – including friendly Germans who had fought for Rome and sought refuge within the Empire.
Chris Carter may never have seen The Fall of the Roman Empire, or Ridley Scott’s later variation, Gladiator (2000). And yet we can read the same sense of betrayal into the saga of The X-Files. If there is any lesson to be learned from the series that applies to the our real world, it is that nothing secure – from a family to a civilization – can be built in a foundation of betrayal, in which you can indeed “trust no one.” That foundation also led to civil wars, and combined with plague, paved the way to Rome’s downfall.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2.