“You live in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”
—Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos
One of the paradoxes of the Information Age is that as ready access to data has increased, so has a gnawing feeling that we don’t really know what is going on. Master of the paradox G. K. Chesterton would have appreciated this, of course, and some of his writing gives an inkling of what he may have made of this conundrum.
The attraction to conspiracy theories began to ramp up in the 1970s, as weird interpretations of history such as Chariots of the Gods and other books on government cover-ups hit best-seller lists. It was also when the short-lived but unexpectedly influential television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker hit the air. Featuring perpetually rumpled and cynical reporter Carl Kolchak, played by veteran character actor Darren McGavin, episodes ranged from monster encounters that wouldn’t have been out of place in The Twilight Zone to convoluted tales of secret military projects—including one memorable episode with an android that has become self-aware and has begun to make moral decisions, thanks to a scientist teaching it the philosophy of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.
The optimism of the 1980s meant that conspiracy-minded media was largely dropped aside from mainstream entertainment. But things changed in the 1990s when a series of heavy-handed government actions helped usher in a new era of paranoid television.
The X-Files, created by Chris Carter, was directly inspired by Kolchak. Carter even planned to have the reporter show up in an episode, but actor Darren McGavin declined. (Instead, he was cast in an episode as a former FBI agent with a connection to a mystery the FBI agents Mulder and Scully were investigating.) Never settling on a firm vision of what it is, The X-Files has episodes that are horror, fantasy, comedy, science-fiction, deconstruction of science-fiction, police procedural, and more. Along the way it has accrued an equally nebulous (and ultimately unsatisfying) mythology involving government conspiracies, super-soldiers, alien abductions, and more.
As a conspiracy-minded FBI agent open to the idea of the paranormal, David Duchovny plays agent Fox Mulder as a mumble-mouth weirdo, whose good looks masked a deeply strange and wounded personality. Constantly pushing the most outlandish explanations for the strange cases he investigates, he is right as often as he is wrong. He is paired with agent Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson as a woman always seeking rational explanations for the events they are confronted with. And unlike the agnostic Mulder, Scully is portrayed as a Catholic (albeit a Catholic who often struggles with her faith).
What worries us? Who are we? What makes humans unique? A lot of these sorts of questions filter through The X-Files. From the idea of a genetically-engineered future cropping up repeatedly—in the episode “Humbug” a circus “freak” warns Scully that the 21st century “will not only eliminate the Siamese twins and the alligator-skin people, but you’re gonna be hard-pressed to find a slight overbite, or a not-so-high cheekbone”— to the philosophical exploration of what it would be like to be able to see the future (but not change it) in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” to the reliability of human memory in “Bad Blood” and “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”, the show often goes places that other shows don’t. Central to the show’s ethos is Mulder’s insistence that “no one, no government agency, has jurisdiction over the truth.” The truth is out there, and we have to seek it.
But, at the risk of sounding like Pontius Pilate, what is truth? At least, what does The X-Files see as truth? That’s a bit more nebulous. Mulder is unable to trust anyone, and so his search for the truth is based on what he himself experiences and learns. He’s a closed circle, unable to form solid relationships outside of himself. Scully, on the other hand, is able to trust. Perhaps this is also why she can believe in something beyond herself. As Joseph Ratzinger says in his book Faith and the Future, “at its core, faith is, not a system of knowledge, but trust.” When her trust in others gets shattered later on in the series, her faith also suffers a beating. But Mulder, as his favorite poster says, only wants to believe. He can’t quite take the leap into actual full-fledged belief, whether it’s belief in alien conspiracies or God. He exemplifies the post-Christian, post-modern self that Walker Percy explored in Lost in the Cosmos. As a rootless seeker he doesn’t come off as more rational than Scully, but less.
Not all episodes of The X-Files reached profundity, or even tried to. For every memorable episode there are at least three forgettable ones. And there were more than a few that simply went for shock value rather than anything else. The show also began to fall into a rut after a while, and ended in 2002 with a whimper rather than a bang. An attempt to revive in 2008 with a theatrical film was also a failure. It didn’t fare well with critics or the box office, and for many fans of the series it seemed to be the definitive death-knell.
In the meantime, other shows have cropped up that take the X-Files ethos and run with it. Series from Bones to Fringe to Sleepy Hollow all owe deep debts to Carter’s creation—especially Fringe, which managed to take both the “monster of the week” aspect of The X-Files and the mythology aspect and deliver a show with a stronger over-arching plot than The X-Files ever managed to create. But none of these shows delve quite so deeply into moral and philosophical questions as the show that inspired them.
And now The X-Files are back. Surprisingly close in format and tone to the classic episodes of the mid 1990s, the two episodes released so far of the new six-episode miniseries haven’t updated much. Even the iconic opening credits remain the same. What remains to be seen is whether this newest iteration of The X-Files will go as deep as the original did at its best. As a fan, I want to believe that it will.