Generation X-Files

Lately my husband I have been re-watching X-Files on Comet. (First Buffy, now X-Files – damn you, Comet!)

I have to say that X-Files has not aged as well as Buffy. Yes, we yell equally at both – just take a picture with your cell phone, you dwoob! oh wait, you can’t because they haven’t been invented yet.

Aside from that obvious thing, Buffy holds up relatively well. Kids torturing each other are relatively the same – in one episode, Willow even has a cyber-stalker – except now they can do it much faster and easier using social media. (Wouldn’t Cordelia totally be an influencer? She’d probably tell some kid to go kill themselves, and they would, and she’d end up on trial for bullying.)

X-Files has not held up so well. Scully’s fashion choices in the first couple of seasons – clothing very similar to what I was wearing at the the time, when I was trying to dress for success. The fact that a lot of X-Files America looks like British Columbia – since when did they have lodgepole pines in downtown Baltimore?

But mostly there’s the obvious misogyny of her relationship with Mulder. I call one episode Scully’s Awakening because, in frustration, she finally screams at Mulder something along the lines of, Stop giving me assignments – I don’t work for you, I’m your partner! And how come I don’t even have a desk in our office? Bingo, Scully, you finally realized that you’re being treated like shit! At the end of the episode, Mulder – realizing he’s been more of dick than usual towards her in that episode – apologizes for taking her for granted and, I think, asks if she really wants a desk. Her reply – she’s just survived being nearly killed by, and killing, a serial killer – is that sometimes it’s not about him. (Sigh.)

She never gets a desk.

And Mulder keeps telling her what to do and man-splaining at her.

Take the F*ing desk, Scully! It won’t cure your cancer but you’ve earned it.

Don’t get me wrong: the premise is genius. A little boy’s sister disappears one night when they’re alone together playing, of all things, Stratego. He grows up to become an FBI profiler of great renown. Until he gets regression hypnosis and remembers that his sister didn’t just disappear: she was kidnapped by aliens. He becomes estranged from his parents. He begins searching FBI cold cases with no reasonable explanation for clues that could lead him to the aliens that took his sister and becomes obsessed with cases bordering on and squarely in the paranormal realm (the “X” files). In the first episode, Scully, a medical doctor who took a left turn into the FBI, is assigned as Mulder’s partner. To balance his fringe theories with science and keep an eye on him for them as Mulder explores case after case of ghosts, ghouls, strange creatures, unexplored areas, alien abductions, and everything else from The Unexplained, That’s Incredible, and sometimes, American’s Greatest Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted.

These monster of the week episodes hold up really well: the cockroach episode; the trailer-park vampire episode; the episode with the guy who has a tail (an episode that shows off Duchovny’s acting talent better than any other); the one where two soldiers in alien suits who were kidnapping two kids on lovers lane actually get kidnapped by a third, real, alien; the one with the insurance salesman who sees how everyone dies; the one where the lake monster eats Scully’s dog, Queequeg (so named because he nibbled at his previous owner’s dead body). And everyone has their own version of events, including one witness who is convinced that Mulder and Scully are men in black.

There are some spooky science mysteries – I love the one with the loggers in the pacific northwest who get eaten by a bug that has been lying dormant in the inner tree rings of old-growth lumber. (In actual science news, they just discovered a super-charged virus locked in a glacier from thousands of years ago that is now melting.) And there are a number of episodes featuring serial killers (Mulder, after all, was a renowned profiler before he went off the deep end). The one-off episodes are genius.

That, despite the fact that they often put Mulder and Scully in peril. After the third time that they catch some rare disease and have to go into Level-4 quarantine and nearly die in one season, all you can do is roll your eyes and wonder why anyone would become an FBI agent if this is what it leads to. Mulder, okay, he’s an obsessed nerd who hangs around with guys in tinfoil hats (literally) – but why does Scully, who is presented as the reasonable one, with a family who loves and cares about her, put up with it? Perhaps, in her own way, she is as obsessed by the mysteries of science and religion as Mulder is with the mysteries of the paranormal. That, despite the fact that her science almost always fails to provide the explanation that Mulder’s crazy theories do. The best episodes are the ones where the explanation comes from neither Scully’s known science or Mulder’s crazy theories – but emerges from a third answer that neither of them imagined.

But these brilliant episodes are interspersed with alien conspiracy episodes which, along with being boring TV, often give David Duchovny a chance to demonstrate that writers should never assign him a scene where he cries because he sucks at crying on cue. The conspiracy episodes start and end every season – sometimes literally ending one season with a “To Be Continued” and then picking up the following season – and interrupt the middle. Towards the end of the series – and in the two stand-alone movies afterwards – they take over to the exclusion of the fun episodes, the spooky episodes, the episodes that make you wonder.

The conspiracy episodes are heavy-handed, filled with shadowy figures, deep-throats who are often tools of – and later eaten by – the conspiracy machine, all linking back to one great master-conspiracy that Explains It All. Mulder is convinced that, if he can figure it out, he will find his sister, and all will be revealed. As crazy as this sub-plot would seem if Mulder sat down next to you in a bar and started sharing it, it is real, as Scully finds out. She witnesses murders, loses a sister w ho is mistakenly killed in her place, gets kidnapped, ends up in a near-death coma, has surgical procedures done to her that give her an inoperable terminal brain tumor with no known scientific cure, and she is left infertile and convinced that somewhere out there is a daughter she doesn’t remember conceiving or giving birth to. (Ironically, Anderson took maternity leave during the show, which the writer’s covered with her character’s kidnapping. It was during this kidnapping that Scully was supposedly impregnated and gave birth.)

It’s Mulder’s obsession but Scully is the one – more often than not – who ends up suffering.

The conspiracy episodes don’t work – and I thought this during first run, not just in retrospect – because they take Mulder and Scully out of reality, out of the day to day grind of being FBI agents, of questioning people and looking at evidence, of pounding the pavement – which they do faithfully in the one-off episodes, even the really funny one-off episodes. In the conspiracy episodes, they stop being FBI agents and become people to whom reality does not apply. This is like the later episodes of Buffy where she doesn’t have a job, isn’t going to school, her friends can just take off from their responsibilities at any time – they lose their connection with what makes life real and the shows become boring and stop resonating.

At it’s heart, X-Files is a Gen-X show. Mulder was, to some extent, a latch-key kid. He’s left alone as a child and something bad happens. The night his sister disappears, they are arguing because he wants to watch the Nixon impeachment on TV and she wants to watch a movie. He becomes estranged from his family and gets a job that sounds awesome but is clearly part of a bureaucratic machine. He becomes convinced that there must be more out there – and so he keeps looking further and further away from reality.

And there are serial killers, such a Gen-X thing. When I was in junior high, there were three known serial killers operating in the remote California town where I lived – three! Nobody talked about them, but they were there, taking out kids my age. Bundy roamed freely, and a girl in my high school (in another remote Pacific Northwest town) found a victim of the Hillside Stranglers on her way to school. To make Mulder a serial killer profiler is a mark of Gen-X!

My biggest complaint about the X-Files is that it spawned a whole genre of shows revolving around conspiracies: evening soap operas where people going about their daily lives find themselves undergoing something miraculous that then turns out to be part of larger story, a conspiracy story, and if you could just figure out what lies beneath it, if you could just connect the dots, everything would be revealed, and resolved. Millennium, Lost, even, most recently, Manifest. Unfortunately, conspiracies make for boring and unrelatable TV. People will watch for a while hooked on the idea that maybe the dots will be connected and life will make sense. But when the mystery just keeps deepening, they get bored and move on.

Unfortunately, as I slog through the conspiracy episodes of X-Files to get to the next stand-alone – part of the problem is that the writing is so good that you can’t tell sometimes until you’re 10 minutes into the episode whether it’s a one-off or not (Oh dang, Krycek again!) – I can’t help but think about the conspiracies and the science skepticism that we’re facing now. People convinced that there’s a vast left-wing conspiracy to kidnap and sexually abuse children led by people like Hillary Clinton. (Please. As if.) Or that Covid vaccines are an excuse to implant us with micro-trackers or infect us with a ticking-time-bomb of a disease that will suddenly emerge all at once, allowing someone to control us (something straight out an X-files conspiracy episode).

As I look at the film (the real film, not the bowdlerized Fox version) of the mob attacking the capital, I can’t help but see my peers: other Gen-Xers, obsessed with conspiracy theories to a ridiculous degree. Look, I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person, but there is no Master Conspiracy linking them all together through the Dominion voting machines. Get over it.

Find the miraculous in your day to day of life, in the moment to moment.

Is X-Files to blame for the unmooring of Gen-X? Well, X-Files was aired on Fox TV. If you like conspiracies, you could speculate that a vast right-wing conspiracy was created to cause skepticism that could be harnessed to install deep fear and distrust in an entire generation of people whose parents left them alone in a world filled with serial-killers. Fear makes people vulnerable to misinformation, makes them easy to manipulate.

Does it all connect back to a grand conspiracy?

You decide.

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