The New York Times
It Just Looks Paranoid
Pretend for a minute that you're an alien, sent to Earth to assess its suitability for takeover. Right away you'd notice that the black earthlings and the white earthlings tend to live apart; that they both worship particularly large earthlings in open-air stadiums and that earthlings residing outside the crowded urban centers broil sacrificial meats on little outdoor altars. Eventually you'd pick up on smaller, possibly more significant things -- Sunday evening, for example, and how in many households as the hour of 9 approaches, the eating utensils are quickly and ceremoniously cleansed and stored and the younger offspring are clothed in loose-fitting cotton garments and then made to lie dormant in darkened chambers, while the elders and the proto-elders (many of them adorned with bits of metal on their teeth) drift into their communications centers, as if in answer to the eerie whistling music now emanating from their cathode-ray scopes, and for the next 60 minutes or so remain motionless, enraptured, while contemplating images of other earthlings engaged in negotiations with. . . aliens just like you, with the same long spatulate fingers, the same greenish ichor coursing through their cooling systems! In such a case, you'd probably conclude that you had arrived too late, and that the earthlings had already been colonized.
Such a weekly visitation does in fact take place in 90-odd countries all over the globe. The force behind it is the Fox television network and the producers of ''The X-Files.'' In five seasons, this offbeat sci-fi series has more than doubled its ratings, and is now watched by almost 20 million households (making it television's third most popular drama), not counting those who also tune in to the nightly reruns of old episodes on the FX channel. But mere television-watching isn't the half of it. As Andy Meisler, author of Volume 3 of ''The Official Guide to the X-Files,'' one of a half-dozen or so reference books spawned by the show, has said, ''You sometimes get the feeling that the actual show is just an excuse for all the other stuff.'' The other stuff is the stuff that cults are made of.
There are now more than a thousand Web sites devoted to ''The X-Files,'' many of them emitting the ozone whiff of spaciness that pervades the show -- which is essentially about a shadowy department of the F.B.I. devoted to investigating extraterrestrials and paranormal occurrences. Among the sites are dozens specializing in ''fan fiction'' -- short stories that invent new plots and scenes for the show's two main characters, the F.B.I. agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder -- and even a feverish subgroup preoccupied with getting these two, whose relationship on screen is famously platonic, into bed together. There is also a Web site that collects sound files from the show that, when played backward, turn out to reveal hidden meaning. ''Mulder, why can't you just accept the facts?'' for example, in reverse becomes: ''Sky of fruit baskets with the 8-year-little-old'' -- an unmistakable reference, if you go in for this sort of thing, to Mulder's younger sister, Samantha, who, in one of the show's key events, is mysteriously abducted.
The show's creators, meanwhile, have not neglected to churn out paperback novels, a series of young-adult books, CD-ROM's, posters, postcards and assorted tchotchkes. And they hope to extend the franchise still further with a feature-length film (opening later this week) that will supposedly expand on plot developments introduced in this season's last televised episode but also make perfect sense to first-time viewers -- if there are any left.
For 13 weeks this spring, the X-Files Expo, a sort of roadshow and revival meeting, wended its way across the country, drawing throngs of the faithful and, not incidentally, priming them with clips from the film in a portable, Dolby-equipped theater. The atmosphere was more than a little reminiscent of the fervor surrounding ''Star Trek'' and its many conventions and big-screen spinoffs, yet unlike ''Star Trek,'' ''The X-Files'' has accomplished the transition to cultdom while the show itself is still being shown in prime time -- it's a cult without any apparent tinge of campiness or rerun quaintness.
Almost from the beginning, a good deal of critical ink has been spilled in an effort to account for the popularity of ''The X-Files,'' which began simply as a chiller in the tradition of Darren McGavin's old supernatural detective story, ''Kolchak: The Night Stalker.'' Much of the attention has centered on the so called ''mythology'' of ''The X-Files'' -- roughly a fifth of the 117 episodes so far, which constitute an intricate and ever-evolving serial tale of U.F.O.'s, alien abduction, unsavory biological experimentation and government conspiracy and cover-up at the very highest levels. The secret of ''The X-Files,'' or so the argument goes, is that the mythology taps into the most authentically anxious parts of our post-modern Zeitgeist -- our fear of government and cancer (which are practically interchangeable), along with our ongoing fascination with the notion of extraterrestrial entities. The program's creator, Chris Carter, has said: ''The show's original spirit has become kind of the spirit of the country -- if not the world. There is a growing paranoia. With the Berlin wall down, with the global nuclear threat gone, with Russia trying to be a market economy, there is a growing paranoia because, as somebody once said, there are no easy villains anymore.''
For the very same reasons, however, you could make a compelling case that at no time in recent years have Americans been less paranoid, especially about their own Government. We're fearful these days not so much of political plots as of random evil -- the sort of unpredictable violence perpetrated by rogue states, by weapon-toting militias with only a handful of members, by our children even. The show touches on these threats, but only glancingly, and then to suggest that they're really manifestations of some vast meta-force.
Rather than probing our deepest fears, ''The X-Files'' cleverly reintroduces into our lives something like the feeling of paranoia without the content, a pleasantly creepy frisson that awakens us to all those thready webs of coincidence; they don't mean anything exactly but they're pretty cool all the same. If ''The X-Files is about anything, it's really about nostalgia -- for a time (which may never have existed, really) when a belief in global conspiracy held out the promise of a universe that could be comprehended. That the ''The X-Files'' culties themselves don't necessarily believe that life is one dark plot was reinforced for me when I caught up to the X-Files Expo in Miami. ''Please,'' one visitor to the expo, a middle-aged airline pilot, said when I asked him if he believed in government conspiracies. ''Just look at what's going on in Washington now. What makes you think they could get their acts together sufficiently to accomplish anything?''
This was in April, at the expo's halfway point. The publicity material had promised sites that were appropriately spooky -- airplane hangars, abandoned military bases and the like -- but the Miami expo took place in the Coconut Grove Convention Center, a windowless, nondescript hall that more often plays host to gatherings of gun and knife sellers and people taking the postal exam. For atmosphere there was a dry-ice machine pumping out fog, and a sound system loudly recycling Mark Snow's ''Twilight Zone''-inspired X-Files theme song: woo woo woo woo WOO woo.
The exhibits consisted of a pretty skimpy prop museum (wardrobe items mostly: Scully's trench coat, Mulder's sleeveless sweatshirt), and a number of stations where you could have your picture taken with a camera that supplied a digitalized background, so that it looked as if you were sitting right in Mulder's basement office, say, or standing on a lonely, spooky stretch of blacktop and experiencing an interval of what the show calls ''lost time.'' (''I'm going to use this for my Christmas card,'' one guy told me.)
I did encounter a couple of authentic weirdos at the Miami expo -- a man in the autograph line, for example, carrying what looked to be a fetus in a jar -- and I spoke to a University of Miami undergrad who told me he was pretty sure that all the Governments in Europe had recognized the existence of extraterrestrials. I also talked with a young man, a student at Miami Dade Community College who was wearing a Hebrew-lettered ''X-Files'' cap of his own design. ''This is a show I can relate to,'' he told me ''Sometimes I'll just see an episode and I'll be saying, 'That's me!' Like the episode about the cockroaches -- anybody who knows my character knows about me and cockroaches. I also see a lot of Mulder in me. I used to think maybe I wanted to be a physicist -- that was when I was watching 'MacGyver' -- but now I think I might want to join the F.B.I.''
Most of the crowd -- a preponderance of high-school and college-age kids, but lots of grown-ups too -- was clean-cut and normal-seeming. As far as I could make out, the chief distinguishing characteristic of the expo attendees, the only thing setting them apart from the rest of the citizenry, was their detailed, encyclopedic knowledge of ''X-Files'' mythology. They were extremely curious about the black oil, for example -- that strange toxic sludge that may just be the squeezings, in effect, of the Tunguska meteorite, or may be a petroleum-based form of shape-shifting alien intelligence. And many were alert to the show's Sophoclean subtext -- the vexed question of Mulder's true parentage. (Nobody knew what to make of the faceless, speechless creatures who turned up on recent episodes, torching would-be abductees with flame throwers.)
In truth, the ''X-Files'' mythology, which has evolved accidentally, and partly in response to real-life exigencies (Scully's disappearance during Gillian Anderson's brief maternity leave, for example), defies mastery. Not even the show's writers fully understand it. The narrative momentum is as much backward as it is forward, continually revisiting old themes -- Samantha's disappearance, U.F.O. sightings, government experiments with tissue obtained from smallpox vaccinations -- and uncovering additional layers of duplicity. You can't even be sure any longer who's dead and who isn't. That icepick-like device that used to dispatch unwelcome aliens, causing gook to seep from behind their ears, seems in retrospect to have worked only temporarily; and the Cigarette-Smoking Man, fatally wounded a couple of months ago and exiled to a shack in Quebec, is now back in Washington, plying his evil trade.
The new movie, it is said, will tie up a great many loose threads and resolve some longstanding difficulties, but let's not hold our breath. The show's constant revisitation of its own material makes the reruns as valuable and as timely as the new programs. (It's not uncommon, in fact, for an ''X-Files'' episode to score higher in the ratings the second time around.) And except for Mulder, no one is really interested in getting at the heart of things anyway. The true ''X-Files'' conspiracy is not about who will rule the world; it's conspiracy for its own sake -- a Penelope-like web constantly unraveling and then reknitting itself -- and for the sake of making an otherwise random universe seem much more weird and interesting.
Chris Carter, who is 41 and who edited a surfing magazine before getting into television, grew up in Southern California, and among his formative experiences, he has said, were horror movies, programs like ''The Twilight Zone'' and ''The Night Stalker'' and the televised Watergate hearings. We probably could have guessed. ''The X-Files'' is in a way a melding of 70's politics and special effects. Carter's genius has been to show us what paranoia looks like, and it turns out to be the best-looking thing on TV. Rain-slicked blacktop, looming trees, lots of ice and fog and mist. (Until recently the show was shot in Vancouver, making use of the principle, first discovered by the producers of ''Twin Peaks,'' that the Pacific Northwest is automatically strange and sinister-seeming.) ''The X-Files'' spends more on production values than do most other hourlong dramas, and spends it in particularly original and inventive ways. It's darker, shadowier and filmed from more unusual angles than most movies, let alone television shows.
Even the villains, those nameless middle-aged men who not only manipulate our Government but also in effect run the solar system from a mysterious, dark-paneled club on West 46th Street (it looks a lot like the Council on Foreign Relations, actually), are revealed as much by how they look as by what they do. The better the haberdashery (as in the case of Well-Manicured Man, as he's known), the more heinous the deeds. They all have a faintly jowly, Nixonian cast to them, come to think of it -- even the possibly well-intentioned fellow known as Deep Throat.
And it should be noted that originally, the most creepy of them all, the deeply vile Cigarette-Smoking Man, didn't speak. He didn't need to. The sight of him taking a drag on one of his ever-present Morley's, inhaling so deeply that his eyes squinted, and then letting the smoke leak from the corner of his mouth in snaky gray-blue tendrils, was proof enough of his cancerous soul. He lit up for the first time, we discovered last year, in a self-congratulatory moment after successfully engineering the assassination of J.F.K. (He was also, not surprisingly, behind the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rodney King riots.) And after kicking the habit for a while, he went back to the weed when his attempt at making a legitimate go as a freelance writer, under the nom de plume Raul Bloodworth, predictably came to naught.
What ''The X-Files'' really demonstrates, you might say, is what the world would be like if global politics were more like office politics, where the bad guys are always the suits, and if the cosmic set designer had been the sort of person who watched a lot of 70's TV and read a lot of Whitley Strieber. It's a darkly beautiful world, lighted by periodic explosions and fireballs, where even the bees and the trees and the ground underfoot may be less than benign, and it's a world that seems to fairly thrum with energy, however unearthly, and possibility.
For all its hipness, though, ''The X-Files'' also has an old-fashioned noirish quality. The gadgets are far from cutting-edge, and the sci-fi elements -- flying saucers, poltergeists, giant sewer-dwelling worms and the like -- are the stuff of drive-in movies. The show transports us out of our confused post-cold-war era to a time when the various ills of the world come from somewhere else, and are so large and so pervasive and so vague that they defy understanding. In this mythic realm, conspiracies and government evil-doing become not the object of outrage, except among a chosen few, but merely a fact of life, no more alterable than the weather.
If the world of ''The X-Files,'' with its all-encompassing conspiracies, is strangely comforting, it is also enervating. Many of the people you encounter literally have no wills of their own. They respond robotically to signals received by mysterious bits of metal implanted in their necks. Others are animated not by passion, for the most part, but simply by power or the quest for knowledge. Scully and Mulder aren't just cool; they tend to operate at a lower emotional temperature than any characters I can remember, either on television or in movies and books.
It's not simply, as has so often been noted, that they have shown no sexual interest in each other (except in an episode last season when Eddie Van Blundht, a geeky janitor who had an extra layer of dermis and could change his appearance at will, turned himself into a Mulder duplicate and, after plying Scully with a bottle of wine, succeeded in awakening her interest: ''I really feel like I'm seeing a different side of you tonight!'' Scully said). Scully and Mulder don't seem lastingly keen on anyone else either (though Mulder, we gather, does have a fairly serious interest in pornography), and their relations with everyone tend to be almost clinically flat and empty of affect.
Mulder is practically a zombie (Scully has lately, in response to a cancer scare, manifested an occasional semblance of an inner life), and he leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that this is the price that being a believer exacts. It's a little like becoming an artist -- you have to give up everything else. Think of the sexless, pasty-skinned Lone Gunmen, the obsessive conspiracy theorists who turn up occasionally to furnish Mulder with a crucial bit of microfilm: they seldom go out except at night.
This theme of loneliness and disconnection may be the hidden message of ''The X-Files,'' in fact -- the show's real secret: that true belief, of whatever sort, requires too much self-surrender, and chances are that any belief will be mistaken anyway. (The alien-cover-up story, the script reminds us from time to time, may itself be a cover-up -- a hoax designed to distract us from what is really going on.) The truth is not, as Mulder would have it, ''out there,'' but rather right here, on our television screens. ''The X-Files'' has taught us that it's more entertaining, and probably more epistemologically sound, to believe in everything and in nothing at all.
Charles McGrath, editor of The Times Book Review, has written for the magazine about Saturday-morning television and prime-time dramas.