Sacramento News & Review
X Marks The Spot
What The Show Tells Us About Ourselves
By Bill Bradley
At first, I was embarrassed to tell many people how much I liked the show. I was in the midst of a period in which I was wondering if it was just me suddenly becoming a purist, or if the political system had slowly but surely become the province of pod people, bankrupt and corrupt.
I'd noticed a squib description of the show in, of all things, the issue of Entertainment Weekly outlining the new TV series for the fall of 1993. It was such an odd little thing, so seemingly paranoid and offbeat.
Here was this quirky, sardonic, deadpan, ultra-smart, asymmetrically handsome FBI agent with the most unlikely name of Fox Mulder–unlike any cop I've ever known, inexplicably dressed in elegant Hugo Boss suits–stuck in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in a little office that used to hold the copying machines. And here was this calm, brilliant woman in dumpy "professional" suits, a daringly cast non-babe–on what was then the network of Heather Locklear, Fox (double meaning intended)–with nonetheless stunningly laser-like blue eyes and the far less unlikely name of Dana Scully. A doctor as well as an FBI agent, sent to spy on Mulder under the guise of being his partner. Of course, they became the Crockett and Tubbs of the '90s. Or maybe the Kirk and Spock.
In that first show, they flew out to Oregon to uncover a mystery in which high-schoolers were drawn into the forest at night to be taken into what appeared to be a UFO, experimented on and "tagged" with a microchip implant. Unfortunately for the agents, in what has become the show's recurring pattern, all their evidence was destroyed, save for that microchip, which ended up in the possession of a banally sinister cigarette-smoking man–actually, in official "X" parlance, "the Cigarette Smoking Man–who removed it to the depository of incriminating evidence at ... the Pentagon.
Darkly lit, moodily scored, well-written and well-acted, The X-Files was also absolutely nutty. It made Oliver Stone's JFK look like the work of a trusting soul.
I adored it.
In the weeks that followed, The X-Files developed a cult following, with tales of the paranormal and the paranoiac, venturing away from but always returning to a murky conspiracy involving alien visitations and elements of the military and the U.S. government. But even though it was very good from the beginning–unlike the other big TV science fiction hit, Star Trek: The Next Generation– "X"–took a few seasons to become a popular phenomenon.
Only about five million people watched it at first. Now more than 25 million a week watch its first-run episodes in this country alone. Only four entertainment series–all of them resolutely mainstream and far more accessible because you don't have to know anything in order to get what they're about–are more popular. X-Files reruns are smash hits in syndication and on cable. You can watch it every night of the week–twice on most nights if you're so inclined.
It has won numerous awards, and stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who is now sleekly coifed and Armanied, have become international icons.
And the strange little show that self-styled maverick me would never miss, but was too embarrassed at first to rave about, has become the event movie of next summer for 20th Century Fox.
Why? It's not because the show's creator, the deceptively sunny Chris Carter, has pulled back to make it more palatable. If anything, its core themes of conspiracy and coverup involving aliens, technology and elements of the national security apparatus (and now private industry), have sharpened since the show began. Here's how the theatrical trailer for next year's movie, tellingly titled The X-Files: Fight the Future, begins: "For years, the world has seen reality distorted, facts manipulated and truth hidden. But there's even more to the story than anyone has ever suspected."
Since X-F has already depicted the conspirators nefariously compiling a genetic catalogue of the U.S. population–something that may have crossed the minds of some folks at the real-life Human Genome Project–and conducting secret experiments on Americans using subliminal television signals, aerial spraying, mysteriously programmed electronic devices and a biological weapon, one can only imagine what more there might be.
"Why stop at manipulating commerce and politics?" asks one of Mulder's enigmatic informants, the now-dead character known only as X (an apparent homage to Oliver Stone's identically named composite character in JFK).
This is tremendously paranoid stuff. But it's also perfectly pitched to the tone of the late '90s, which is, on the one hand, placid and undemanding, reflecting the elite corporate, political and media consensus. On the other, it's suspicious about the present and anxious about the future. We've come to accept corruption and conspiracy as a matter of course. Up to a certain point, as many in Washington are well aware, we groan and ignore it as so much background chatter on a cultural Geiger counter.
While Stone is still pilloried by media establishment types who cling to the fiction of the Warren Commission and its "Lone gunman" scenario, three-quarters of the country believes that John F. Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy. (Three of X-F's most entertaining characters, hackers and conspiracy theorists all, are known as the Lone Gunmen.)
The 25th anniversary of Watergate earlier this year was a bust for the simple reason that most Americans believe that Watergate-level corruption and conspiracy are now par for the course in American politics. And Bill Clinton worries about not having a legacy!
This is a country that believes the fix is in.
So an overarching conspiracy run by representatives of "a kind of consortium of global interests"–older white men in designer suits who hang out in a private Manhattan club room, smoking cigars and reading the International Herald Tribune as they wait for the Cigarette Smoking Man to check in by cell phone–doesn't present too nutty a plot point for one of America's favorite shows.
And it doesn't seem odd when a contact in the Clinton circle responds to my venting about the latest outrageous wrinkle in the Washington fundraising scandal by repeating his earlier appropriation of an X-F line: "You know the policy: Deny everything."
Still, there is something more than a little disquieting about the naive old belief in One Big Conspiracy. If the fix really is in, it's not illogical to conclude that there's nothing to be done other than settle back in one's seat and root for the Mulders and Scullys of the world as they fight the future.
Of course, there's another disquieting possibility, one so conceivable that it needn't be seen as a Mulderesque "extreme possibility:" X-F may itself be part of a larger conspiracy.
Consider: The X-Files has become the franchise show of the Fox network. Fox is controlled by global media titan Rupert Murdoch, a prototypical radical capitalist and new wave robber baron staunchly opposed to the regulatory power of government.
In 1992, Murdoch claimed that his movie studio would never make a film such as JFK because it undermined popular confidence in public institutions. But in 1994, he personally approved the pilot of The X-Files, a series which does just that on a weekly basis. And now the X-F movie is the Murdoch studio's big movie for summer '98. Its media omnipresence will be hard to avoid.
Does all this seem like a mere coincidence to you? Who really tells the Cigarette Smoking Man what to do?
Just a thought.
Bill Bradley, an SN&R contributing editor, has been an adviser in a half-dozen Democratic presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. He is a regular contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and International Herald Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.