“In these strange times” is becoming one of those endlessly repeated platitudes that are becomes such a staple of journalese, something that we type out in lieu of anything else, that fills a hole rather than saying anything and belies the morbidity of a media largely resigned to simply delivering tautological reiterations of the current state of affairs ad infinitum. Place this term alongside “truth to power” and countless others in the crypt, seal it off and force yourself to look elsewhere, perhaps even challenge your audience. A challenge for the ages.
I’ve assigned myself the task of writing something after simply stewing in my own juices for a little too long. The problem with quarantine so far is that is has exacerbated the proliferating anxieties of constant communication that were already ever present outside it. Ubiquitous connection isn’t necessarily the blessing we might assume as soon as it becomes necessary to stay physically separate from one another; indeed, it’s in this scenario that the sheer effect of networked technology on my consciousness has twitched at the back of my mind, insect-like. Psychic pressures, the ever-present feeling that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to, creeping unease that I’ve just become too familiar with this screen, these buttons, this mindless action that I couldn’t even recall without its attendant task, the world closes in through its possibilities rather than restrictions. While the various plans I’ve had regarding projects have still stayed with me, the fragmented, frayed ends of my brain have struggled to articulate them for varying stretches of time.
To mitigate this, my newfound love of the X-Files has been an immense help, a love that has grown increasingly after I resolved to systematically watch through every episode [Currently making my way through season 3]. The fondness I have for a lot of these stand-alone stories and, yes, the alien conspiracy story arcs, by this point knows no bounds and I can’t see myself tiring of it. There has been some rough points, a standout worst episode so far is perhaps 3 at the centre of season 2, an attempt at pulling off this somewhat questionable sexy contemporary vampire shtick that was somewhat popular at some point in the 90s. The result is 45 minutes that feel horribly disconnected from the show around it, a Mulder who seems to have become an entirely different and much more baffling character for one episode only, something that only succeeds in coming off like a tacky exploitation film in tone. That this mediocre interlude stood out as much as it did is largely testament to the success of the show around it, and that it’s sandwiched in between a particularly moving three episode arc centred on Scully’s abduction [perhaps another reason 3 fails is due to her conspicuous absence from proceedings].
Watching the x-files today it comes across as something of a catalogue of concerns, fears, and notably technological developments. Early on, in the first season, a story involving a killer computer presents what seems for all the world like a kind of fictional Apple/Microsoft, and later on we increasingly begin to note the presence of the early internet, season 3’s 2shy even explicitly addressing the then novel fears around online dating. Many of these early 90s tech focused narratives are interesting to see today partly because of how quaint they sometimes seem, addressing these developments as supplementary experiments rather than immanent features of social life, the internet gradually appearing and developing with the show as it tried to keep abreast of the contemporary moment it occupied. Even more interesting than this is the way these technologies intersect with the central paranormal and supernatural elements of the show. Very early on in the first season, the notion that new technologies are “alien” is presented literally through Mulder’s theory that the government is trialling new military craft using UFO technology. Later on, however, this is complicated, where computing and the genesis of the internet become introduced both as tools for investigation, and portals through which unsavoury new threats may slither into our lives.
The paranormal in the x-files is always something explicitly there but never fully there, it lingers at the centre of Mulder’s belief and Scully’s scepticism, her faith and his atheism. Whereas at the show’s beginning this dualism seems a simple one, and the issue of faith not yet a glimmer in Chris Carter’s eye, it unravels in fits and starts not only during the alien conspiracy arcs, but throughout the succession of stand-alone episodes, perhaps more so. By the time we reach season 3, we’ve already seen them switch roles, perhaps evidence that both may not be as assured in their beliefs as they first appear, indeed that they both hold contradictory views. This hasn’t yet reached some kind of ultimate apotheosis, but it strengthens the conceit of the show immeasurably, and lends this dual characterisation the justification it deserves. The question arises, at least in my mind, what separates the paranormal from the normal, the supernatural from the natural? In a basic sense, the supernatural is nature that we haven’t explained yet. It makes me think of the point Mark Fisher makes in The Weird and the Eerie, where he says “In many ways, a natural phenomenon such as a black hole is more weird than a vampire”. If not in weirdness but in abjection this finds itself reflected in the 2nd season episode Irresistible, in which the central horror is revealed and/or accepted to be no alien or monster, but a man, a death fetishist digging up corpses who progresses to murder. Scully’s sheer horror in confronting this is one of the notable times her scepticism and scientific demeanour fails her, and one of the first times of a few until this point where the show has endeavoured to tackle the immediate emotional weight of the circumstances Mulder and Scully find themselves investigating. In this instance, as in others, even when the monsters and aliens are real, flesh and blood beings, when in the midst of uncovering US government conspiracies, that it’s not the extraterrestrial or paranormal events themselves but the powerlessness and suffering of their victims that disturb or unsettle.
Duane Barry is an astounding episode of television when it comes to this, in both its simplicity and its potency. Even shorn of the other episodes in this story arc, the hostage situation here serves to lead us into an exploration of trauma and the re-visitation of childhood horror build on in future episodes, and as both Mulder and Scully grapple with the weight of family action and responsibility, the past weighing on the conscience of the present. The past becomes an alien, a horrible parasite as much as a source of comfort, and the disorienting, dehumanising process of abduction is mirrored in the unveiling of truth as falsehood, of their own subjectivity as a lie. The show is at its best when shifting around the co-ordinates of what natural or real implies, whether it’s in the form of the episode humbug, something of a love letter to outsiders and freaks and a genuinely funny outing, or the constant questioning of beliefs and knowledge. “The truth is out there” we are assured at the beginning of nearly every episode, and yet the meaning of this remains consistently obscured, whether we are talking about the truth of conspiracy, the truth that lies behind the closed doors of power, or the truth of what is scientifically verifiable, a naturalistic truth.
Part of this ambiguity in the x-files, partly facilitated and necessary to the set-up of the show, reminds me, though it is a very different piece of work, of the ambiguity of Twin Peaks, which in its case ended up leading to its own demise. The previously mentioned X-Files episode 3 feels so off precisely because, with Scully briefly out of the picture both Mulder as a character and the writing of the show seem to be spinning off their axis, unsure of where to go. In the case of Twin Peaks, this was a far more extensive sensation, coming to bear after the unveiling of the killer around halfway through the second season [the episode itself a masterstroke of uncoupled horror that shouldn’t be overlooked]. The central conceit of the show done away with, many of the plot-lines thereafter feel like Peaks desperately trying to find new land, rediscover itself somehow, resulting in some of the only moments where the show feels hackneyed and weightless in tone. There are some hits here and there but many of the new characters read more like straightforward and played out caricatures than anything prior. The irony here is that it’s leading up to the shows final moments, and its infamous cliffhanger, that it becomes wholly compelling again. While the show had failed again and again trying to right itself, introduce such quaint oddities as “coherent narratives”, it was with its final lurch into untrammelled, fractured and abstract structure that it went somewhere again.
The X-Files is, in some ways, a more standard show, but also the kind of show that doesn’t particularly get made anymore. It’s structure, wherein the standalone “monster-of-the-week” style episodes provide the glue for the periodic story arcs to hold together rather than the other way around, is something unthinkable for prestige TV with all its seamless singular narratives running the course of a season. There is a sense, and this is where similarities with Peaks and its soap opera structure emerge, in which both shows at their best emphasise, rather than trying to smooth away, the cracks and mould lines in the medium. This provides the pretext for their moments of failure, but also their enduring success, in which this hour to hour shift and lack of faith to the coherent narrative structure demanded of them prove something that could only be done via television. Perhaps its better, rather than to attempt a kind of melding of mediums into a smooth entity, to accentuate the broken, weird qualities of television as a medium. If the perhaps indulgent but largely unapologetically brilliant return of Twin Peaks a few years ago demonstrated anything, it’s that there’s nothing particularly wrong with being a television show.