X-Files: Only for a pre-9/11 World
Scully: Why would somebody want to sabotage the Space Shuttle?
Mulder: Well, if you were a terrorist, there probably isn’t a more potent symbol of American progress and prosperity. And if you’re an opponent of big science, NASA itself represents a vast money trench that exists outside the crucible and debate of the democratic process. — “Space” broadcast date November 3, 1993.
The sci-fi cult classic X-Files turns 20 this week. The show has been off the air for 11 years but its popularity more than persists with a fan base we’re guessing falls squarely into the X-Gen range. And that’s okay. It was a show of a certain zeitgeist, but that zeitgeist is pretty much gone. In no way is that better conveyed than in the above quote by super sleuth Fox “Spooky” Mulder. In our world today — exactly 12 years from the 9/11 attacks — it’s painfully clear that the World Trade Center, not the Space Shuttle, was the potent symbol of prosperity for terrorists, and that the Pentagon was an equally acute expression of American empire — if not, too, a “vast money trench that exists outside the crucible of the democratic process.” It still is.
The show’s solid but underwhelming premiere aired on September 10, 1993, just months after the horrific federal siege and killing of 76 men, women and children at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. For many of us it was the first witness to the militarization of federal authority (FBI/ATF), and a horrifying peek behind the technicolor curtain so carefully weaved by the New Frontier Baby Boomerism of the Clinton Administration.
Nothing seemed real and the X-Files’ writers were happy to indulge that mistrust and cynicism with a fictional Washington forever machinating against America’s interests, culminating in an alien conspiracy in which the monsters worked directly with powerful bureaucrats to take over the world. When Mulder declared “the truth is out there,” we wanted to believe, too, at least one Sunday night a week.
But in our post-9/11 reality, we know now that evil exists, not in the form of E.T, but in the hearts of men. After 12 years of war and its reverberations, not to mention the expansion of domestic surveillance and security used to spy on and control ordinary Americans, the prevailing militarization of police and drone technology, and the criminalization of everything, those little green men are the least of our worries.
If anything, the paranoia we found quaint in ’93 has been realized in ’13. Edward Snowden may be “Mr. X” to Glenn Greenwald’s Mulder, as Bradley Manning sacrificed doubly to be Julian Assange’s shadowy informant. But none of them were able to escape to the mountains or the bowels of the Hoover Building to chase ghosts and urban legends another day. Manning is in prison, Snowden is a “guest” in a country led by a former KGB agent, Assange will be arrested the minute he steps foot out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London, and Greenwald, an American expat in Brazil, will likely never travel again without some sort of degrading harassment from the DOJ, TSA or any of their cohorts in international law enforcement.
Of course agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder wouldn’t last the pilot episode in today’s media landscape. First, Scully’s elegant, humbly brilliant heroine has long been replaced by the sleek, aggressive automaton perfected by Angelina Jolie and Milla Jovovich. Scully is not skinny enough, not suitably muscled nor motivated to kick everyone’s ass, including her partner’s. She wears a gold cross but doesn’t preach. She loves her daddy, a rear admiral, and calls her dog Queequeg. Mulder is gangly, not overtly steriodal or sexualized. He’s goofy, says things like “no one, no government agency, has jurisdiction over the truth” with no trace of irony, and above all, drives a corny Buick and is not prone to shooting everything in sight. In fact, he gets shot at more than anyone else.
Second, the audience today is too jaded for the quirky naïvete that guided Fox and Dana and the commitment both had to “the truth”, albeit preferring opposite paths to get there. The yin and yang here was an easy chemistry that worked, but it wasn’t a sledgehammer. And while we loved the subsidiary characters, they too, wouldn’t survive the modern critique — they’re not sufficiently cool in that totally conformist way in which “eclectic” and “non-conventional” types are portrayed today. Still, we loved the “Smoking Man,” that elusive shadow with a past, head of “the Syndicate,” rodent-like, sick and gray. We abided Supervisor Skinner, alternately gutless and hardboiled, but empathetic in the clutch.
And of course The Lone Gunmen fleshed out and sometimes carried the show, making us laugh with their awkward but earnest early-Internet enterprises (saving Susanne Modeski from the goon squad was every fanboy’s fantasy). But face it, while they would absolutely dig Wikileaks and Anonymous, Frohike, Langley and Byers look impossibly passé against the hipster narcissism of today’s tech savvy (and largely soulless) geekdom.
It was all Clinton-era fantasy, and it was great while it lasted. Chris Carter did a exceptional job of blending irony with honesty, intelligent scripts and delightfully drawn characters who never seemed to loathe their audience or insult its intelligence. But let’s be frank, the post-9/11 audience has seen so much, on and off the screen, outside the government and within, it renders the prospect of aliens, pod people, psycho killers, poison bees, black oil cancer, sewer monsters and stolen baby sisters – all fairly un-scary. In the end, great writing and the two superb leads couldn’t save the X-Files from its sad obsolescence in the Hollywood sci-fi milieu.
So we tip our tin foil hats to another time, where we all seemed a bit younger of heart, and our imaginations were still untainted by war abroad and the ever- encroaching security state at home. There was no Patriot Act in the X-Files, and while the FBI had robo-cop SWAT teams back then (recalling Waco), they still didn’t look like this.
In fact, if Scully were drawn for the screen today, she would look more like this:
And we can guarantee she wouldn’t be a surgeon.
Mulder had one thing right when he said, “fear. It’s the oldest tool of power. If you’re distracted by fear of those around you, it keeps you from seeing the actions of those above.” Now that’s one to file away and save for later, because in another 20 years, it’ll mean the exact same thing.