The X-Files at its best celebrates that “the truth is out there”—objective, weird, and always slipping from our complete grasp. At its worst, the show makes heroes out of cranks and confuses power for politics.
Over the course of nine seasons and a miniseries now airing on FOX, the show portrays two FBI agents investigating bizarre events. The dour, imaginative Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) partners with the second best sci-fi heroine that has ever been, the calming, rational, and courageous Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson).
There are basically two—and in fact incompatible—kinds of X-Files episodes, with two distinct approaches toward the truth that is “out there.” There are the show’s conspiracy episodes: Is our world controlled by evil cliques manipulating reality and hiding the truth? Then there are what fans call the monster episodes: Is human life by its nature given to evil, good, and in between; to weirdness and wonder, harboring some truths that, happily, remain beyond us?
The show can’t decide. Thus does X-Files mythology unravel into “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” From such a tale, one may yet learn something—about the idiot.
The mythology-building conspiracy episodes chronicle Mulder’s quest to know whether there are aliens meddling on Earth. The possibilities: Yes, and it’s being covered up by the government and an oligarchic cabal, the Syndicate. Or: No, but the government and Syndicate are covering up their own military operations, abductions, and medical experiments. Either way, a nefarious human conspiracy exists. Situated between the fall of the USSR and the War on Terror, the iconic 1990s series searches for an enemy in hidden forces.
The Syndicate’s power is what politics looks like to many. The conspiracy story arc insinuates a belief in human power (over humans, at least). Because so many bad things happen, this must be their fault, whoever they are. The X-Files expresses a common feeling that behind the way things are stand people who could solve our problems if they just stopped being evil. They give Scully cancer, and a computer chip Mulder steals from a Pentagon vault cures it.
There is no genuine politics in The X-Files. There are occasional conflicts within the Syndicate about strategy. There is bureaucratic bunk to deal with from the FBI. There is no display of human beings deliberating together about what is best for the community and deciding how we will pursue it. There are shadowy groups, Men in Black, and DoD agents committing all manner of evil, but there is no statesman or leader from the community gathering it to face the threat. Our heroes are outsiders peeking in, confusedly, at power.
We see here the assumption that F.A. Hayek critiques in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945) that rational order requires centralized, conscious control. The crackpot reasons the other way: If he can discern a pattern in disparate facts, intention must lurk behind it. Conspiracy theorists are not very good at abduction (i.e., abductive reasoning to the most likely explanation), because where they see a pattern, they perceive agency.
The over-diagnosis of human agency is the flipside of the overestimation of human ability.
For those convinced that political and economic macro-patterns are caused by some nefarious clique, we have good news and bad. The good news is they aren’t. The bad news is no one controls these patterns. No, wait. That’s good, too; but because modernity fetishizes expert oversight, it might cause some anxiety. The X-Files’ aliens symbolize this anxiety: there may be impersonal, irresistible, globe-threatening forces that even our Syndicates cannot control.
As Paul Cantor argues, the series portrays a post-nation-state, globalized world where governments are increasingly impotent and irrelevant. True enough, but these globalizing forces usually appear, when spoken about on the Left, personified (for example, “the military-industrial complex,” “global capitalism”) and incarnated in particular people (for example, Dick Cheney, the Koch brothers), as they are in the series.
For Kathryn Olmsted, the show
reflected the anxiety of the 1990s: the government is a conspiracy; Americans think they can uncover this conspiracy; the plotters always foil them. Self-consciously post-Dallas, post-Watergate, post-Iran-contra, and post-cold war, The X-Files combined the Kennedy assassination, Nixon’s Whitehouse horrors, Tuskegee, Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Roswell into one gigantic government plot against the people.
Conservatives might be tempted to see this as an anti-Left theme. Tom Piatak believes the show expresses “a world-view far closer to paleoconservatism” than Hollywood usually allows, because it asserts “that the government cannot be trusted.”
On the Left and the Right, a healthy distrust and vigilance about government—which liberty requires—can shade into the crank fallacy of misplaced agency. The X-Files depicts cranks quite accurately—they have quirks, can’t lead healthy lives, often suffer from mental problems—but also heroically. The X-Files portrays cranks accurately except it wants to vindicate them.
A crank is passionately skeptical about what the many believe and what the authorities say. A couple of unexplained facts are enough to convince him that what seems true to most everyone is false. By the same token, a crank is passionately gullible about alternative accounts. Once he has dismissed the received wisdom, nearly any narrative connecting a few facts, any possibility not disproven, appeals to him.
So, a crank holds an epistemic double standard: Cartesian doubt about the likely story, naivety about alternatives.
René Descartes warns us about a group of people who shouldn’t practice his method of extreme skepticism. Though smart enough to imagine possible worlds where the likely story is false, they lack the discipline to think carefully, so they don’t end up discovering the truth.
For Descartes, the world is almost entirely composed of these people, plus one other group not fit for his method: those who know they are less wise, who should take the word of others (like him) who are disciplined and smart. In The X-Files’ conspiracy world, we must either become cranks or listen to the experts. This leaves no room for politics.
As Descartes hints, the experts promise technology and medicine can undo (what are the limits?) the curse of Adam—labor, aging, and death. Politically, modernity promises technology and centralized force can undo the need for politics, the curses of disagreement, aggression, scarcity, and inequality.
If knowledge is power, as the scientist and politician Francis Bacon predicted, science fiction routinely reminds us that we are neither adroit enough to wield it precisely nor wise enough to foresee its consequences. In good sci-fi, the human problems, despite any fantasized techno-scientific advances, persist. Communities always need prudent and courageous people. Character is still destiny.
As in The X-Files, there is a class of experts with power in the 1979 movie Alien and its superior sequel, Aliens (1986). Scientific, military, and corporate establishments vaguely coalesce in “the company” sponsoring the ship Nostromo’s voyage. Its motivations of greed, power, and intergalactic humanitarianism can’t be disentangled. Its logo reads, “Building Better Worlds.”
When a large, slimy, quick-breeding insect attacks, the experts—confident they can contain the best movie monster that has ever been, and alchemize knowledge of it into more power and even better worlds—prove incompetent. The situation requires on-the-spot prudence, leadership, and courage, arriving in the form of Signourney Weaver’s Ripley (the best sci-fi heroine that has ever been).
The 2002-2003 television series Firefly and its movie sequel Serenity (2005) also portray experts with political, economic, and technological power. Having put down a rebellion, Serenity’s Alliance develops medical technology to remove all aggression, but it backfires—some people lie down to die pacifically, while others grow monstrously aggressive. The Alliance has done something terrible but not on purpose. It simply underestimated the human spirit and overestimated its ability to order communal life.
Contrast those with the Edward Bellamy-style utopianism of some of the genre’s landmarks, where science fiction shades into political fantasy, with superior humans of the future or superior beings from space demonstrating that the author’s ideology would cure us of politics. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), “Your problem is not technology,” the Christ-figure Klaatu (Michael Rennie) tells the greatest living man, Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), “The problem is you. You lack the will to change.” Predictably, peace (and an overwhelming police force) is the answer. Picture the U.N. with a shock-and-awe, intergalactic gun-control policy.
Likewise, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets accomplishes peace and plenty by using 20th century liberalism and 23rd century technology. However, because Kirk (William Shatner) routinely violates Federation policy, the show seems unwittingly to reassert politics, the need for prudent leadership, and the consequence of character.
On this question, X-Files mythology looks like a film negative of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The X-Files preserves but reverses the problems. Instead of an expertly run world beyond the messiness and conflict of politics, its world is drawn by and for people who confuse politics with force and deception.
The saving grace of the series, though, is that its monster side predominates. Curious about an unexplained event, an ironic Mulder floats a pet theory he knows to be unlikely and drags Scully into an investigation. Scully’s scientific skill comes in handy, as does her talent for sprinting in high-heels with gun drawn. Fun and often meaningful, the monster episodes make the series great. They, unlike the Manichean conspiracy episodes, reveal our human realm as containing good and evil and in between, the accidental and the intentional, the bizarre, the terrifying, and the pitiable, the noble, the adequate, and the stupid.
In “Humbug,” Scully and Mulder investigate a murder in a carnival sideshow community. Celebrating human nature in its variety and universality and calling technology into question, the episode concludes in best sci-fi mode:
BLOCKHEAD: Twenty-first century genetic engineering will not only eradicate the Siamese twins and the alligator-skinned people, but you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a slight overbite or a not-so-high cheekbone. You see, I’ve seen the future, and the future looks just like him [pointing at an Apollo-like Mulder]. Imagine going through your whole life looking like that! That’s why it’s left up to the self-made freaks like me and the Conundrum to remind people.
SCULLY: Remind people of what?
BLOCKHEAD: Nature abhors normality. It can’t go very long without creating a mutant. Do you know why?
SCULLY: No, why?
BLOCKHEAD: I don’t either. It’s a mystery. Maybe some mysteries are never meant to be solved.
Both types of episode usually conclude open-endedly, but the conspiracy ones leave us shrill, robbed of the truth, anxious about hidden forces. The monster episodes leave us content with the truth remaining “out there,” equanimous about reality resisting our mastery.
The show’s conspiratorial side exalts the ideologues and cranks who see power everywhere and politics nowhere. But don’t let this depress you. The monstrous side of The X-Files rewards viewing, over and over again.