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Archive for September, 2007

Culture Magazine: The X-Files: A Delicate Modernism

The X-Files: A Delicate Modernism
Culture Magazine
Kevin Johns

[Original article here]


“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
– John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
The truth is out there.
– Agent Fox Mulder

More than any other series, The X-Files epitomized 1990s television. Over the course of its run the show won 16 Emmys, dozens of additional industry awards, and made superstars out of its leads David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Though their careers may have tapered off recently, there was a time when Duchovny and Anderson were two of the most recognizable faces in popular culture. The show influenced dozens of other series, spawned toys, comic books, video games, and novels, and was the focus of several fan conventions. It was the first television series ever to be released on DVD, and it was a big part of my identity throughout my teenage years.

Every single Sunday night I would curl up under a blanket on the couch, turn off the lights, and fall in love with the show over and over again. When the film X-Files: Fight the Future came out, I made myself an FBI badge, pinned it to my only black suit, hand-cuffed a three foot tall blow-up alien to my wrist, and headed to the movies. Needless to say, I was an unabashed X-Phile.

Perhaps the best example of my devotion to the show is the ouroboros tattooed to my calf, which is based on the tattoo that Scully got in the brilliant Glen Morgan and James Wong scripted and Rob Bowman directed Season Four episode, “Never Again.” It was a subtle, quiet episode, and one of the few that explicitly explored Agent Scully’s personal life. The skin on my leg, where the ink of the tattoo seeped into my flesh, feels different than the rest of my body. As Scully notes in the episode, you know that a tattoo is there even when you can’t see it. That tattoo will be with me for the rest of my life, and so The X-Files will always be with me as well. Some little part of me, even if it’s just a patch of colour on my leg, will always be tethered to Mulder and Scully.

And yet, the show seems so distant to me now, like a dusty memory stored in the attic of my mind. The X-Files is a relic from before those towers came crashing down in New York City and the entire world changed for the worse. It is a work of art from a simpler age.

When the Republicans are in power, North America’s popular consciousness has to spend its sleepless nights fretting over war, racism, imperialism and genocide. When the Democrats are in charge — when the President is a silly saxophone-playing liberal whose worst transgression is cheating on his wife — the people do other things at night. They stare into the stars and they dream about worlds other than their own and enemies who threaten a united humanity, not any one nation state.

Suggesting, however, that The X-Files was simply a television series about aliens pigeon-holes the show into a box that it is far too expansive to ever fit inside. The X-Files often failed as an extended science fiction narrative, but it excelled as a filter through which explorations in genre fiction of all kinds could be presented. Its conceptual format was significantly more important than its overarching story. The unwavering presence of the disbelieving and sceptical muggle, Scully, validated genre fiction and geek culture in a way that allowed it to transgress beyond the segregating walls that traditionally demarcate the borders between the cult and the mainstream. The X-Files was able to move so far into the centre of pop culture that it was able to actively define it for much of the 1990s. The feminism presented through Scully’s powerful presence, and the metrosexual feminization of the metaphysically sensitive heroic male lead, Mulder, engaged and moulded a culture where conservatism had been pushed to the margins – at least for a time.

The surprisingly sustained hipness of the show’s cultural positioning gave the impression to many that North America had entered a new era of television. Some went so far as to describe the show as post-modern. These commentators, however, were mistaken in their choice of post-modern harbinger. By the mid-nineties post-modernism had most certainly made its way onto television, but it was in the form of Joss Whedon’s seminal series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not The X-Files. In fact, when compared to BTVS, The X-Files is revealed as downright modernist.

The show’s tagline, “The Truth is Out There,” had been fully absorbed into the cultural lexicon a few seasons in, and it was a clear marker that what we were dealing with was modernism. The very notion of “truth” being a stable, graspable concept, “out there” just waiting to be discovered by Mulder and Scully, is utterly rejected by post-modern thought. Through the lens of post-modernism, “truth,” like all language, is a construct that is easily destabilized and extremely vulnerable to slippages in meaning. The post-modern intellectual framework constantly questions notions such as truth with a depth of interrogation that the modernists had not yet developed.

The atrocities of WWI had thrown “Truth” into question for the survivors of the war, the early modernists. The concept of a clear, knowable and unifying “Truth” had been fractured by the bombs of war and drowned in the mud of the trenches. “Truth” had become “truth,” something broken and lost, scattered throughout culture. It was difficult to find, but, for people such Woolf and Jung, it was still there if you just looked hard enough, or if you were able to recognize the invisible strands of consciousness that connects all things. These were people for whom truth still had metaphysical implications despite the destruction of a World War.

As The X-Files entered its later seasons, the metaphysical implications of the word “truth” slowly but surely came to the forefront of its storytelling. In “Existence,” the final episode of Season Eight, Scully says to Mulder, “From the moment I became pregnant, I feared the truth about how and why. And I know that you feared it too.” Mulder replies, “I think what we feared were the possibilities. The truth we both know.” “Which is what?” asks Scully. Mulder leans forward and kisses her, finally solidifying their romantic relationship. In this case, “truth” serves as a signifier for the romantic feelings for each other that have always bubbled just below the surface of the two characters.

A year later, in the last scene of the series finale (titled, of course, “The Truth”), the preternatural implications of “truth” were made even more apparent. Mulder and Scully are huddled together in a motel room, sharing an intimate moment that recalls aspects of a similar scene in the show’s pilot, nine years earlier, when Mulder first told Scully about his sister’s abduction. In this final episode, Mulder tells Scully that, “The truth is still out there,” while gently holding her crucifix pendant. The sub-textual truth/god conflation that the show had always assumed was finally made blatant in these closing moments.

The omnipotent God of Christianity outlined in the Bible may have been declared DOA by Nietzsche, but a certain optimistic spirituality (perhaps best characterized by the New Age movement) remained dominant. Throughout the 20th century, growing numbers of people stopped going to church, but still considered themselves spiritual beings. WWI had ushered in a break from the regimented doctrines of the church, but many people had not yet abandoned their personal relationship with god and spiritualism. The X-Files creator and executive producer, Chris Carter, can certainly be considered one of these individuals, a practitioner of a delicate modernism.

Carter’s ideological leanings, while clearly imbedded in the superstructure of The X-Files from the beginning, were more directly on display in the second television series that he created for the Fox network, Millennium, which ran concurrent with its sister show for three seasons. Millennium presented a world where good and evil were tangible forces, constantly at battle. It was a universe where demons and angels made regular appearances. The protagonist, Frank Black, lived in a giant yellow house that served as both a symbol of goodness and a bunker — an ad hoc middle-class barricade — against the increasing tide of evil spreading through society. While BTVS was exploring the ambiguity of good and evil through complex stories that refused to offer Buffy (or the audience) any easy truths, Frank Black was functioning in a universe where morality was still a black and white issue. While Buffy was discovering new definitions of family and sexuality, Frank Black was desperately clinging to the dream of a stable heterosexual nuclear family, a norm that was falling ever further from his reach.Millennium served as a desperate cry for old-fashioned goodness in the face of coming evil that would culminate with the turn of the century. Like a parent trying to prepare a child for the strife of adulthood, the show explicitly told its audience, “This world of ours is going to change significantly in the next few years, and the changes will be for the worse.” Of course, Chris Carter’s warning soon proved absolutely prophetic.

As the twin towers crumbled, so did a culture where modernist television shows like Millennium and The X-Files could exist. What is the truth about September 11, 2001? What is the truth about the war in Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction? These questions cannot be answered with any singular truth because we now live in a world where truth is undeniably a construct. The X-Files functioned under the premise that the men in power were withholding the truth from the American public. Television viewers in the new millennium know that the men in power don’t hide the truth, they construct it. At a time when America could go to war based on a “truth” that is universally acknowledged as strategically manufactured, no one had time for a show like The X-Files. By 2002, the show, now in its 9th and final season, had become a stale cultural artefact that characterized everything about a decade that – only a few years later – had already become a distant memory.

More and more, The X-Files is taking on a new role in my identity formation. When I look at my DVD shelf, and I see all those seasons lined up next to each other, I am reminded of a time when I was more naïve and the world seemed a much better place. I now think of Mulder and Scully’s quest for the truth, and I yearn for a time when my deepest fears were characterized by green-grey men with big eyes, not an increasingly disintegrating world stage where incomprehensible conflicts are waged using unthinkable methods. When the windows of the two towers shattered that September morning, so too did the delicate modernism upon which The X-Files had balanced for nearly a decade. Chris Carter’s admirable belief in the beauty and power of truth led to the production of a work of art that defined a decade that I will never forget, but that I can also never return to.

Image Manipulation By Alain Poirier

This article belongs to the Identity Issue.
This article belongs to the Best of Issue.