X-Files: Only for a pre-9/11 World


Scully: Why would somebody want to sabotage the Space Shuttle?

Mulder: Well, if you were a terrorist, there probably isn’t a more potent symbol of American progress and prosperity. And if you’re an opponent of big science, NASA itself represents a vast money trench that exists outside the crucible and debate of the democratic process.   — “Space” broadcast date November 3, 1993.

The sci-fi cult classic X-Files turns 20 this week. The show has been off the air for 11 years but its popularity more than persists with a fan base we’re guessing falls squarely into the X-Gen range. And that’s okay. It was a show of a certain zeitgeist, but that zeitgeist is pretty much gone. In no way is that better conveyed than in the above quote by super sleuth Fox “Spooky” Mulder. In our world today — exactly 12 years from the 9/11 attacks — it’s painfully clear that the World Trade Center, not the Space Shuttle, was the potent symbol of prosperity for terrorists, and that the Pentagon was an equally acute expression of American empire — if not, too,  a “vast money trench that exists outside the crucible of the democratic process.” It still is.

President Clinton & a burning Waco in 1993
President Clinton in front of a burning Waco (1993)

The show’s solid but underwhelming premiere aired on September 10, 1993,  just months after the horrific federal siege and killing of 76 men, women and children at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. For many of us it was the first witness to the militarization of federal authority (FBI/ATF), and a horrifying peek behind the technicolor curtain so carefully weaved by the New Frontier Baby Boomerism of the Clinton Administration.

Nothing seemed real and the X-Files’ writers were happy to indulge that mistrust and cynicism with a fictional Washington forever machinating against America’s interests, culminating in an alien conspiracy in which the monsters worked directly with powerful bureaucrats to take over the world. When Mulder declared “the truth is out there,” we wanted to believe, too, at least one Sunday night a week.

But in our post-9/11 reality, we know now that evil exists, not in the form of E.T, but in the hearts of men. After 12 years of war and its reverberations, not to mention the expansion of domestic surveillance and security used to spy on and control ordinary Americans, the prevailing militarization of police and drone technology, and the criminalization of everything, those little green men are the least of our worries.

If anything, the paranoia we found quaint in ’93 has been realized in ’13. Edward Snowden may be “Mr. X” to Glenn Greenwald’s Mulder, as Bradley Manning sacrificed doubly to be Julian Assange’s shadowy informant. But none of them were able to escape to the mountains or the bowels of the Hoover Building to chase ghosts and urban legends another day. Manning is in prison, Snowden is a “guest” in a country led by a former KGB agent, Assange will be arrested the minute he steps foot out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London, and Greenwald, an American expat in Brazil, will likely never travel again without some sort of degrading harassment from the DOJ, TSA or any of their cohorts in international law enforcement.

Of course agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder wouldn’t last the pilot episode in today’s media landscape. First, Scully’s elegant, humbly brilliant heroine has long been replaced by the sleek, aggressive automaton perfected by Angelina Jolie and Milla Jovovich. Scully is not skinny enough, not suitably muscled nor motivated to kick everyone’s ass, including her partner’s. She wears a gold cross but doesn’t preach. She loves her daddy, a rear admiral, and calls her dog Queequeg. Mulder is gangly, not overtly steriodal or sexualized. He’s goofy, says things like “no one, no government agency, has jurisdiction over the truth” with no trace of irony, and above all, drives a corny Buick and is not prone to shooting everything in sight. In fact, he gets shot at more than anyone else.

Second, the audience today is too jaded for the quirky naïvete that guided Fox and Dana and the commitment both had to “the truth”, albeit preferring opposite paths to get there. The yin and yang here was an easy chemistry that worked, but it wasn’t a sledgehammer. And while we loved the subsidiary characters, they too, wouldn’t survive the modern critique — they’re not sufficiently cool in that totally conformist way in which “eclectic” and “non-conventional” types are portrayed today. Still, we loved the “Smoking Man,” that elusive shadow with a past, head of “the Syndicate,” rodent-like, sick and gray. We abided Supervisor Skinner, alternately gutless and hardboiled, but empathetic in the clutch.

The Lone Gunmen

And of course The Lone Gunmen fleshed out and sometimes carried the show, making us laugh with their awkward but earnest early-Internet enterprises (saving Susanne Modeski from the goon squad was every fanboy’s fantasy). But face it, while they would absolutely dig Wikileaks and Anonymous, Frohike, Langley and Byers look impossibly passé against the hipster narcissism of today’s tech savvy (and largely soulless) geekdom.

It was all Clinton-era fantasy, and it was great while it lasted.  Chris Carter did a exceptional job of blending irony with honesty, intelligent scripts and delightfully drawn characters who never seemed to loathe their audience or insult its intelligence. But let’s be frank, the post-9/11 audience has seen so much, on and off the screen, outside the government and within, it renders the prospect of aliens, pod people, psycho killers, poison bees, black oil cancer, sewer monsters and stolen baby sisters  – all fairly un-scary. In the end, great writing and the two superb leads couldn’t save the X-Files from its sad obsolescence in the Hollywood sci-fi milieu.

So we tip our tin foil hats to another time, where we all seemed a bit younger of heart, and our imaginations were still untainted by war abroad and the ever- encroaching security state at home. There was no Patriot Act in the X-Files, and while the FBI had robo-cop SWAT teams back then (recalling Waco), they still didn’t look like this.


In fact, if Scully were drawn for the screen today, she would look more like this:





And we can guarantee she wouldn’t be a surgeon.


Mulder had one thing right when he said, “fear. It’s the oldest tool of power. If you’re distracted by fear of those around you, it keeps you from seeing the actions of those above.” Now that’s one to file away and save for later, because in another 20 years, it’ll mean the exact same thing.




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  • thegoodolddays

    know what i miss? those quirky, crazy, tin-foil underpants-
    wearing conspiracy theory nuts. you know the ones….they’d
    talk all kinds of crazy about the government controlling
    their lives, reading their mail, listening to their phone
    calls, starting wars for fun and profit. what nutjobs!
    half of ’em in the various militias, too!!

    too bad fast ‘n furious v.1.0a backfired when that fbi
    informant actually somehow managed to blow up a federal

  • Paul

    Look up the pilot Lone Gunman episode on youtube. It revolves around a plot to fly an airliner into the World Trade Center. Watch it and wonder.

  • I'm actually OK with Scully 2.0

    • Kelley V

      I was waiting for that :)

      • El Tonno

        The correct saying is "I would check her X Files, if you know what I mean"

    • goldhoarder

      Oh yeah.

  • Richard Estes

    X-Files was a fabulous show, utilizing understatement and suspense to great effect.

    • El Tonno

      Some of the episodes were into plain silliness (not the worst ones) and some into pointless supernatural horror but the best were those that rattled the attic of your mind as it brought out things you might have read about. Illegal medical tests, false flag operations, mind control test runs, enormous coverups, burial of important cases under legal crud, convenient lone gunmen, aliens in cold storage. In between, you could admire news about OJ Simpson, Clinton bombings, Whitewater, the Clipper chip, Oklahoma bombings, various mobster cases that I forget about, the Kevin duo loose on the Internets and in your phone switches. Great times.

      Now I have to rewatch .. the one where the a mysterious telecom guy installs an innocent looking box on the telephone pole …

      • Kelley V

        generic telecom company in your neighborhood, up on the pole, never forgot that one …

  • It was all Clinton-era fantasy, and it was great while it lasted. Chris Carter did a exceptional job of blending irony with honesty, intelligent scripts and delightfully drawn characters who never seemed to loathe their audience or insult its intelligence.

  • Jay

    I remember well going to see the first x-files movie. The opening scene revolved around the government purposely blowing up a building in order to hide evidence. It seemed abundantly clear to me at the time that it was a blatant attempt to question the OKC bombing narrative.

    It seemed that immediately after the movie, the media fawning over the show ended, and it was deep-sixed fairly quickly.

    For years I thought that opening scene's lucidity had done in the franchise. Then I watched the movie again. I don't see how I failed to read between the lines of the movie the first time I saw it — An alien race has been working with corrupt corporate and government officials. The aliens claimed they were going to colonize earth and had secured the cooperation of the corrupt officials by promising them that they would get to be administrators of a puppet regime controlled by the aliens. BUT the aliens make a move that reveals their true agenda, which is to totally exterminate humanity. Only then do some of the corrupt officials allow Mulder to find the clues he needs.

    This is the warning to all of us. We are not being duped by neo-colonialists, but by out and out murderers. There is a reason this show went from being hot to not in a few short months.

    • J.Clifton

      Good thoughts overall, but one can also argue that the show had been on for 5 seasons by the time the movie was released, and its subsequent fade out may have merely meant the narrative had run its course as a series. Duchovny said himself that he thought his 'believer' Mulder character was 'done' by the end of season six, and Scully had so evolved from the hardboiled skeptic by that time as to make the original contrast between them obsolete. But the struggle of the franchise to make movie sequels ib the decade that followed is a clear testament to how the post Patriot Act had changed the landscape.

  • I actually miss the decade that the X-Files was in – the police and federal services actually adhered to our civil rights somewhat… :(

  • Max Power

    The recently-ended series Fringe was very much a modern sequel to the X-Files. The title credits from the final season looked almost like a Ron Paul campaign ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhXpVxlBdmY

  • Mark

    As a late comer to X-Files, only catching the last few episodes then getting the boxed series a couple years back, I don't think if could be made today; the same with Perry Mason. The idea that the government is somehow the enemy and/or inept every week would not be tolerated. The plethora of shows, CSINCISETC, has recast what is permissible. Heroes only exist in government employ. To permit, in the case of Mason, a show that made the DA and police look like fools, week after week after week, can no longer exist. Not only are today's shows only to glorify the government they'd
    make Hamilton Berger look like Ally McBeal.

    • Kelley V

      Those are great points. In X-Files, the "rogues" were the good guys. Now if anything, shows/movies portray the govt as the good guys with a few "rogues" that need to be liquidated from time to time.

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  • Another blast from the past equally intriguing:

    “Dark Skies” that died an early death. It finally made ti to DVD, yay.

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  • As I’ve written in the past, these Pentagon plans are part of the Air-Sea Battle strategy. The idea is to have enough US bases and Air Force capabilities peppered throughout the region so that China would be too surrounded to safely attack in the event of a conflict.

  • Look up the pilot Lone Gunman episode on youtube. It revolves around a plot to fly an airliner into the World Trade Center. Watch it and wonder.

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