Do we need The X Files?

The TV phenomenon about strange phenomena has taken international hold of paranoid minds. It could be a conspiracy. John Lyttle asks ...

John Lyttle
Sunday 05 May 1996 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Paranoia is too valuable a commodity to waste. One of the late 20th century's last great natural resources, it needs to be harnessed. Exploited, if you will. And that's exactly what the television series The X Files does. As we all prepare to meet up in the year 2000, our belief in political institutions dead, our love of God dying, our feeling of community strangled, our sense of powerlessness growing with every frenetic day, along comes this strange phenomenon about strange phenomena to repeat everyone's favourite Sixties mantra in a Nineties tone: just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean that they aren't out to get you.

They are lying to us about UFOs. They are injecting us with laboratory- engineered germs.They are burying the facts about ghosts, goblins, ghouls, missing links, demonic possession, firestarters and shape-shifters, about worlds beyond and worlds within. They just don't want us - we, the people - to know.

Who are they exactly? Three series into the television hit of the decade, anxious global audiences are no nearer to the truth we are assured is "out there". And neither are the by now iconic FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), high priest and priestess of...

I was poised to write cult. But that would be wrong. Obsessions that were once pure lunatic fringe - how many Weird Events and Paranormal Happenings compilations have you browsed through in the local bookshop's remaindered bin? - and the stuff of American supermarket tabloids ("I gave birth to alien's baby!"), The X Files have been ushered triumphantly into the mainstream.

So The X Files grabs a BAFTA for viewers' most popular show. Mark Snow's theme music ripples up the Top Ten all over Europe. Three spin-off books - The Official Guide to the X Files, The Unofficial X Files Companion and The X Files Book of the Unexplained - ride the best-seller lists. The audio-book, Ground Zero, is required listening. The videos, The Unopened File, and Tooms, are sell-through champions. The X symbol T-shirt colonises every dancefloor in the land. And tonight, not one, but two episodes are screened on BBC2 for true believers and Johnny Come Latelys. "Shadows" at 10pm and "Ghost in the Machine" at 11.25pm, a switch from BBC1 and a fleeting, temporary return to the channel whose ratings it vastly inflated (nudging close to 9 million viewers) and whose fearfully proper demographics it dramatically broadened.

And what demographics. The BBC imagined the spot X would mark the hip and the media-smart up for a shot of post-Twilight Zone pulp. Hadn't Twin Peaks blazed the way? But the Files did the voodoo: everyone got on board, from dreary ex-hippies who knew it all along - just because you're paranoid etc - to their contemporary, E-popping, beef-avoiding equivalents, losing their religion and looking for a new one; from the supernatural anoraks to the conspiracy theorists (the Titanic never sank, JFK was shot by Jackie O, the oil companies are sitting on water-based fuel for cars, Elvis is alive, well and thin), on to your Mum and Dad, worried about how damn fast the world is going to hell, on to those of us who enjoy jumping out of our skins courtesy of a superbly scripted, acted and directed piece of entertainment.

What is it that The X Files proves, exactly? Part of the programme's protective charm (based on "real-life claims", it boasts) is that its conspiracy theories invite further conspiracy theories, invariably of the pop cultural kind.

All right, then. The X Files represents a backlash against the hard-nosed, bottom-line Eighties and Nineties. That sense of permanent insecurity, of being outside an unheeding system, that the poor and displaced have always felt, we now all feel, the middle classes particularly, as the previous certainties of employment, of family, of our fixed place, erode. Eighties materialism promised much and delivered a nervous breakdown, so, of course, The X Files deals in the immaterial, or, to punch the point home, the Not Material. The X Files is - the word is unavoidable - spiritual. That's why Dana, the forensic pathologist and voice of reason, seems the silly one rather than Fox. Her clinging to paltry logic in the face of his "faith" that there are Things Bigger Than The Both of Them ill serves her, as does her slavery to all-mighty science.

Hasn't science either failed us - what, no cure for Aids? - or frightened us with implanted embryos, genetic alteration, cryogenics? The X Files is the creaking door we pass through to leave behind a rationalism that no longer appears enlightened but sinister. Science certainly scared the Unabomber; a serial killer who took his - and the series' - ambivalence about technology to the ultimate extreme. The Unabomber demanded that we abandon our failed society and embrace Mother Nature: that we deliver ourselves from the concrete to the abstract. The X Files hasn't any one answer, but it fields many "alternatives" to our tired and jittery reality: angels, vampires, imps, seers, cannibals, and big-eyed, big-headed bugs who'll take you back to their place and force you to have sex.

This is, after all, the age of alternatives (alternatives spring up when we no longer have choices). Alternative medicine: global pollution is the cause of irritable bowel syndrome. Alternative life styles: be a psychic healer. Alternative beliefs: join the Scientologists and discover how inter-planetary war created mankind.

Alternative is, of course, another word for escape. The X Files is triply escapist. The programme simultaneously allows the viewer to discharge free-floating angst and provides a reason, and target, for that angst. They. Them. It. Kafka's "authorities" run riot, mysterious branches of government grown rotten, men without faces who monitor our every move, and keep us, individually and collectively, from "the truth", who stop us from fulfilling our Grand Destiny. That's what Fox believes. That's his "faith". Why, didn't Watergate break the day his sister was abducted by strange lights in the sky? Surely, there must be a connection? Aren't we disciples of chaos theory, primed and ready to see underlying patterns in what was previously dubbed random? Ah, but they wanted it to seem random. Covering their tracks...

Well, we don't have communism to point the finger at any more. Capitalism - the system - is what we have left to blame for our dissatisfactions. The right-wing nuts who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma certainly did. The left-wing Militiamen of Montana certainly do. But this makes The X Files sound political. No. The X Files is instead of politics. It's not merely that Dana and Fox are invariably thwarted - all those cases and never one shred of evidence worth going public with - it's the cases themselves. Scully and Mulder don't want to wake you up to, and be responsible for, say, CIA involvement in the illegal overthrow of Chile's President Allende, or even the budget deficit. They want you to wake up to, and be responsible for, the Loch Ness monster, for liver-eating mutants who live for hundreds of years, for Bigfoot. Which is no responsibility at all.

What The X Files promotes is not, as some kinder critics suggest, "a radical agenda". The X Files promotes the very powerlessness it pretends to challenge. Even for what they are, Dana and Fox's investigations are too often exercises in futility. How can one defeat something that can't even be named? You can't. It isn't worth trying. You can't be criticised for that. Blame them.

Which means, naturally, that all one can do is believe all the harder. And, incredibly, people do. Just as there are those who think that the so-called Roswell autopsy footage of crashed and crushed aliens is authentic, so some read The X Files as documentary, rather than as a canny and occasionally compulsive metaphor for where we are now. The lunatic fringe has taken over the asylum.

The X Files merges more than the mainstream and marginal. It collapses fact and fiction; that's the tradition it comes from and adds to, despite creator Chris Carter's declaration that the programme is based on "real- life claims". When The Night Stalker and Sapphire and Steel covered precisely the same terrain in the Seventies, they didn't ask to be taken seriously. Dealing in exactly the same material, neither does Stephen King (spontaneous combustion, psycho-kinetic ability, haunted computers, ancient spaceships revived). He knows how to work that walking-under-ladders feeling without it becoming a fact - and a creed. Uri Geller doesn't.

But Uri looks set to inherit the earth, along with the little green men and the guys from covert operations. The X Files is their double-bluff. The series says it is on our side, but its paralysing fatalism acts as propaganda for Uri and friends, acknowledging our fears while keeping us in check. It's the Trick that is out there, not the Truth. Or does that come across like a ... conspiracy theory? Doctor, doctor, please, please, tell me - do I sound paranoid? Oh God, I really ought to call in Fox and Dana... Only I can't call them, can I? ... But I must .... Only I can't, can I? ... But I must ....

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