Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Discovery of the X-Files

I missed the X-Files in its hey-day. The nine seasons running from 1993 to 2002 corresponded almost exactly with my teenage years. But I was too busy watching Star Trek: TNG, DS9, and Voyager, too busy reading the classics of science fiction and fantasy, or quickly paging through the latest literary addition to the Stars Wars universe. Though the literary quality of the latter, it needs to be said, went quickly downhill after Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy.

For the longest time, the X-Files lay just over my cultural horizon. Until this summer, actually. Netflix offered a free month subscription a week before its installment of a fourth season to the Arrested Development franchise went online. Watching the new episodes took an effort three or four days, which left the greater part of a month on the subscription. The X-Files was on my recommended list. Netflix had followed the path I wandered through its offerings of movies and television shows. By the infinite wisdom of a selection algorithm, I discovered the truth really is out there.

I am now almost through three seasons. The show exercises a strange sort of persuasive power over its viewers. Which speaks to its quality, since it can no longer fly on its innovative cinematographic techniques alone.

The backstory has the US government continually suppressing evidence of extra-terrestrial life. Each episode uses the pretext of an FBI investigation to chase some conspiracy theory down a rabbit hole. The name of the show is taken from the name of a supposed FBI office of investigation. The names of its only two assigned agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, have found their way into a grab-bag of references that help us navigate webs of cultural significance.

I admit I did not quite get the show until the scriptwriters used the latter part of the 2nd and 3rd season to develop Dana Scully's Catholic background. Until that point Mulder's willingness to entertain the strangest of explanations played off against Scully's rabid faith in empirical explanations. Between the two characters, the limitations of methods of scientific study were poked an prodded. The point, I take it, was to show how credulity is an attitude a person takes to the evidence, not something produced by the evidence.

With Scully's Catholic background a possibility for comparison opens up considerably. We discover Scully's willingness to believe the sorts of things faith required--but believe on faith, which means an open, questioning attitude towards the things required by faith.  Whereas Mulder believes the sort of things the Ockham's Razor allows him to believe. In the absence of definitive evidence, the simplest explanation may not be the expected terrestrial answer.

Written through the contrast between the two  is a fairly profound disagreement about the nature of human intelligence. What standard is it measured against? Measure the human intelligence against a divine standard, Scully's anthropocentric convictions follow as a matter of course. But if the divine standard is absent, Mulder's speculative suggestions become much more plausible. With a God above, the human being finds meaning within themselves. Without God, we want to look further afield. 

The genius of the X-Files is to leave the viewers to decide whether what they saw was real. (Yes, I know, aliens all but parade across the television screen.) Even when the existence of actual alien life is all but confirmed with an appearance on screen, the viewer can still take a credible repose in Scully's skepticism. Aliens might instead be the unfortunate victims of genetic experimentation. The suggestions are not always made explicit. They do not need to be. Scully's incredulity makes it possible to question what you believed you saw.

Most of the way through the third season, I am not eager to discover how the show gradually declines into mediocrity after the fifth season. 

1 comment:

Jonathan Mooney said...

The X-File is a fantastic, classic American television series. I particularly like the cinematography and the dry humour. My suggestion: keep watching until "Two Fathers" / "One Son" from season six or maybe "Requiem" from season seven. There are still a lot of enjoyable episodes to come. The funny thing about the X-File is that, despite the extraordinary variability (and generally low level) of episode quality in season one, these are some of the most charming episodes. The series really has its own flavour; I feel it's such a unique a product of its particular circumstances that could never be reproduced.