Truth Stranger Than Fiction: The Postmodern Satire of The X-Files
Much of the internet fandom surrounding The X-Files, the recently resurrected 1990s cult sci-fi series, seems to revolve around the darkly comedic double act of agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (portrayed by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson). Agent Mulder is the FBI agent who has an almost child-like fascination with the paranormal and extra-terrestrial aspects of the dark, shady and often gory cases the secret X-Files unit investigates. The tagline is derived from his worldview: “I want to believe”. His colleague Agent Scully, in contrast, plays the straight man (gender neutrally used in this context), whose trademark eye-rolling scepticism accentuates the fantastical tendencies of Agent Mulder.
The tenth series of The X-Files,released this year, has received somewhat mixed reviews from critics. This is perhaps because it would always struggle to live up to the acclaim of the original series. Returning to the story fourteen years later, the X-Files unit reforms and the roles of the double act have switched, with Mulder losing faith in the occult origins of cases but Scully adopting a more open-minded approach because of her unexplainable past experiences. The running thread through the season revolves around Mulder and Scully regretting the adoption of William, a son it is implied Scully was impregnated with either via alien abduction or a strange top secret government project to create a ‘perfect child’.
One of the episodes of the tenth series is an exception to the overall lukewarm reception, and has an unusual 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster, the detectives investigate a string of murders, with Mulder following the line of inquiry against the titular Were-Monster: a man claiming to be a shapeshifting reptilian in disguise, who otherwise lives a moribund terrestrial existence. This is presumably a reference to conspiracy theorist David Icke, who promotes the idea that the Earth is literally controlled by an inbreeding caste of blood-drinking, shapeshifting reptilian beings from an opposite dimension.
The sceptical Mulder attributes the man’s claims to delusion, and Scully discovers the actual perpetrator to have been a mere animal control officer whose surgical skills made him an effective mutilating serial killer. But in true X-Filesform the Were-Monster is revealed to have been a reptilian shapeshifter all along anyway, and Mulder’s faith is restored, with both rationalist and parapsychological perceptions receiving mutual validation. It’s as if the confirmation bias of “wanting to believe” is fulfilled for the viewer.
In true postmodernist style, The X-Files frequently emphasises rational scientific explanations of the phenomena in its storylines, but includes enough paranormal and otherworldly aspects to suspend the viewer’s disbelief. With the narratives often revolving around the secrecy and dishonesty of authority, it plays into common suspicions about a world where societies are ruled by the corruption of those in power.
governments have used the War on Terror to justify an Orwellian regime, even spying on their own self-proclaimed allies in the process
To understand why The X-Files was part of the cultural zeitgeist during the 90s, particularly in the United States, we need to consider its historical context. The X-Files first aired in 1993, in the aftermath of the Cold War, and ended in 2002, shortly after 9/11 and the beginning of The War on Terror. This was at the cusp of modern digital era, in which conspiracy theories have proliferated relative to the growth of the internet. As the mid-90s were a relatively peaceful period before the post-9/11 upheaval of war, terror and suspicion, this perhaps inspired a national introspection. The high-profile threats were likes of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, domestic extremists motivated by a paranoiac antipathy towards the state.
In the two decades previous to the 90s, corruption like Watergate and the Iran-Contra Affair - where bodies including the FBI and CIA became appendages of gross abuses of power - dispelled the notion that the government was trustworthy, and cemented suspicions about cover-ups. TV documentaries pored over grainy VHS footage of alleged UFO activity occurring in the skies (in the days before ubiquitous high definition cameras), and stories abounded of alleged captured alien technology being secretly held at Area 51. Stories of abduction for experimentation by extra-terrestrial or interdimensional beings, in turn concealed by the men in black, also made a redux from the 1950s.
But in the years after The X-Files first ended, the public became aware of government corruption and maleficence on a more staggering scale. Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning revealed the cover-up of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the industrialised mass surveillance and data storing of global communications by governments. These governments have used the War on Terror to justify an Orwellian regime, even spying on their own self-proclaimed allies in the process. That is also, of course, the same War on Terror in which governments used fabricated evidence to invade countries, and where the systematic torture of innocents in black sites and the obliteration of hundreds of innocents by flying robots accompanied the expansion of the surveillance state.
All of this has been spurred on by a propaganda war and officially promoted untruths in the mass media. And yet, the vested interests of allies like Saudi Arabia – a theocratic absolute monarchy which promotes a fundamentalist ideology that groups like Islamic State are militant proponents of – remains uncompromised in the Kafkaesque name of national security.
Even without the trope of aliens and UFOs, the sinister and weird nature of global elites appears to be greater than even what our imaginations can fictionally construct. Perhaps this is why the rebirth of The X-Files has fallen flat for some. The reason they derive amusement from Mulder’s character is because, in retrospect, he seems like a stereotype of the conspiracy theorists who rant on internet comment sections. His apparent self-seriousness manifests as a subtle comedy, but may seem tedious and irrelevant to modern audiences. As a satirical postmodern exercise in absurdity, however, perhaps these critics are missing a message in The X-Files that applies now just as it did twenty years ago: while we fret and contemplate about the monsters under the bed, the real ones are running rampage all around us.
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