All right, the goofy idea is put off for another week because today I’m going to write about The X-Files. As you are probably aware, we’re a couple of weeks out from a 6 episode miniseries that will bring the show back for the first time in a long while – yesterday (I believe) a teaser website was launched and at least the initial signs are pretty promising. As it happens, I’m also plowing through the old series at the same time, having discovered that they’re all up on Netflix. So X-Files has been on my mind the last while and I’m going to make that our subject for the week.
The first thing is that in going back to the show for the first time in a long while, I was reminded how genuinely good it was. X-Files has since been so parodied and ripped-off (and, to be fair, the series probably outlived the really good ideas that were there at its inception) that it’s easy to forget that the original source material was actually very well done. I remember really liking first season episode ‘Darkness Falls’ when it aired and man, it’s a pretty solid hour of spooky TV. As increasingly convoluted as the show’s central UFO plotline eventually became, you watch the early stages of it and are reminded why this got people hooked.
Now, X-Files definitely came too late for me to say that the show made me want to write speculative fiction (William Gibson and Doctor Who having accomplished that mission long previously), I think it did affect the kind of stories that I generally like to write, and read. I like the overlap of the bizarre and the horrific with the very ordinary, which X-Files is all about. As much as Mulder and Scully are meant to be very talented FBI agents, they are also lacking magic powers, amazing gizmos, or prophetic destiny as they try to cope with whatever ghastly thing they run into each week. Most of the time, despite being federal agents, they’re among the least powerful players on the field and have to scramble to do whatever they can, which is sometimes just survive. Relatively ordinary people grappling with the extraordinary is another idea that has had a lasting appeal for me.
I also like (although this may be more how I feel now than how I felt then) that despite being so heavily outmatched, they don’t quit. It would be entirely reasonable for either or both of our heroes to decide that look, every time we try to investigate these crazy issues we tend to end up in deadly peril, one or both of us gets injured and, oftentimes, some government agency or other swoops in to destroy, hide and discredit all the evidence and we’re left with nothing. We quit. We’re gonna work on mail fraud or something where we won’t die and may actually make some progress. Of course, if they do that there’s no show, but it’s still admirable that neither character (even Scully, the sceptic) is willing to throw in their hand. They’re still going to try to bring the truth to light. I like that a lot.
I think probably a lot of the fiction we enjoy to today and a lot of writers working today owe that kind of debt to X-Files, (really, The King in Darkness could almost be an X-File) and a lot of the popularity of speculative fiction – pretty mainstream today – can be at least partially attributed to the success of the show. I’m not enough of a TV historian to know exactly how far to push the idea, but I do know that shows like Star Trek (original flavour) and Doctor Who were far from mainstream. Most people didn’t watch them and fans of those shows were regarded as a little odd. Lots of people watched X-Files. New episodes got hyped during NFL football. At it’s peak, it wasn’t unusual if you did know what was going on with the show, it was a little unusual if you didn’t. I think that’s a change (for which Quantum Leap and Next Generation vintage Star Trek also need to get credit) that has benefited SFF ever since – it opened the genre to way more fans than it had ever drawn in before, people who discovered the astounding, challenging fun these sorts of stories have to offer and have stuck around. X-Files (in part) brought a huge amount of attention (and therefore money) to SFF that hasn’t wandered away yet, and has continued to grow. Both for fans and for writers, that’s pretty cool, and it’s not hard to find a bunch of fiction that has a lot of X-Files in its DNA.
As well as that very broad effect, X-Files altered things for fans and writers in a bunch of more specific ways as well. The most obvious of these is the idea of the ‘shadowy government conspiracy’. I don’t think you can fairly say that this really originated with X-Files – post Vietnam America was pretty rife with sentiment that the government was up to no good – but I think the show did mainstream the idea and made it the default setting of a lot of fiction from that point onwards. The assumption now (in books, movies and TV from all kinds of genres) is that the government (usually the U.S. government, but not exclusively) keeps secrets from its populace and enacts various dastardly schemes to keep the truth hidden. Government agencies are to be regarded with suspicion. In general, the authorities are not on Your Side and may in fact be working against you.
That’s a massive change from the stories, a generation earlier, which (perhaps fuelled by post WWII optimism) tended to present governments and their agencies as solutions to problems rather than being part of the problem. Generally the government was either a Good Thing to be defended or sometimes, it was the cavalry that would come sweeping in at a key moment to help do the defending. Post X-Files, if you call in the cavalry you’re not too sure who or what they might decide needs to be swept away. How much X-Files drove that change in sentiment, and how much it was a symptom of it, is more than I can say. Either way, if you look around the fiction (and not just speculative fiction) that we create these days, it’s still the operating paradigm. Whenever The Feds show up, we’re just waiting for Cancer Man to loom up out of the background.
This is all stuff that I more or less expected as I went back to the show. I want to talk a little about one thing that has been very different. When I watched X-Files as it originally aired, my favourite character was (of course?) Fox Mulder. I know at least part of the reason that I wanted to get myself a trenchcoat was that I thought (very, very wrongly) that I would look as cool as Mulder does running around in his. So there’s that, there’s also that he’s (probably?) the show’s protagonist, so you’re supposed to like him. But I think I was also sort of primed by my own life to that point to like a character who has ideas that a lot of the people around him find strange or ridiculous, who doesn’t really ‘get along’ in the systems around him particularly well, but also tends to be right, or at least closer to right than anyone else, most of the time, and looks fairly heroic in persisting in what he knows/believes to be true in the face of nearly endless opposition. To a very limited extent, if Mulder could cope with it, so could I, and I’m sure that I liked him for that reason even as I’m just as sure that I would have stridently denied it, had you asked me at the time. I do still like the character for those reasons.
However, in coming back to the show, my favourite is now Dana Scully. In part that’s just because I enjoy Gillian Anderson’s performance so much – I could watch her somewhat resigned contempt for the people who try to treat her like a fool all day – but I also think there’s a case to be made that she’s the real hero of the show. While Mulder runs around on various lunatic schemes that have, truly, no chance for success and will probably end up with him under arrest and/or being shot, Scully doggedly keeps working away at evidence she can actually get her hands on, at trying to put together a demonstrable case of what’s going on. Mulder will run off to get a glimpse of a UFO that will (after Scully rescues him) just be another wild story; Scully is looking for something solid she can point to. It doesn’t often work, of course – the show would collapse if the central conspiracy was dragged into the light – and the evidence she’s after ends up getting confiscated or destroyed or traded in to save Mulder’s life, but her approach to things is admirable. It doesn’t matter what they know, or think they know, if they can’t prove it. Mulder just needs to know things, Scully actually wants to accomplish something by being able to prove that these things are true.
It is true that her scepticism, in certain episodes, starts to seem a little contrived after all the things the character has explicitly experienced on earlier cases. Most of the time, though, I think they pitched it about right – Scully believes that there’s a dastardly government conspiracy that has involved incredibly unethical things and bizarre misdeeds. She’s seen the rooms full of files and the mass graves (I can’t believe they did a mass graves scene, with the US government as the instigators, on network TV) and the weird medical remains. She’s just not going to say ‘and therefore aliens’ until that’s clearly supported by what she can lay hands on. For now, horrifically unethical medical experimentation is probably an awful enough story to go forward with. I guess I still tend more towards the ‘I want to believe’ sentiment from Mulder’s poster than the sceptical standpoint, but I figure Scully’s point of view is usually reasonably justifiable based on what she’s actually seen tangible proof of. Plus, of course, Gillian Anderson acts the hell out of it all. “Please explain to me the scientific nature of the Whammy.”
All right. That’s a lot about The X-Files. I could ramble on further but I’ll call it here for now. Maybe I’ll write a little more once we’ve seen the new series. I guess needless to say, I’m really looking forward to it. Thanks for reading – I hope your truth is out there this week.