This might be a case for Mulder and Scully
Radio might be the most intimate medium but TV is the most sociable; a convivial presence in every living room we’ve ever known, ready with gossip, information, comfort or distraction. In The Friend in the Corner we return to significant TV shows to find out what they did for us, and how they pulled it off.
The Friend in the Corner: The X-Files
Straight-arrow medically qualified FBI agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is assigned to partner up with (and spy on) wildcard agent Fox ‘Spooky’ Mulder (David Duchovny). Mulder, who studied psychology at Oxford and was once a star serial killer hunter, has gone rogue within the FBI, opening up the ‘X-files’: cold cases shelved for being too weird or esoteric. Initially sceptical of Mulder’s paranoid investigations, Scully begins to suspect that ‘the truth is out there’.
I can distinctly remember watching The X-Files on TV at some point in the mid-’90s and thinking that the clothing was classically stylish. However else we might view the series in the future, at least the characters’ outfits - dark business suits, with ties for the men - were anonymous enough that they wouldn’t date.
They have, of course, dated. Noticeably. There were still shoulder pads in the early ‘90s - in fact they were so ubiquitous as to be functionally invisible to me at the time - and everything is about two sizes too big, including Gillian Anderson’s hair. And I don’t think I’ve been in a meeting with someone wearing a tie for at least a decade.
The X-Files is just very ‘90s all round. It is primarily concerned with conspiracy theories around UFOs and alien abductions, conspiracies that have their roots in the Cold War: in weather balloons and spy planes, NORAD and Area 51. This was a culture that had spent 50 years being habitually paranoid; governments did not trust the people, people did not trust each other. The main plot engine of the series has one arm of the government (the FBI) investigating another ( intelligence organisations that guard the secrets of contact with aliens). This has echoes of the intra-agency wars of the ‘60s and ‘70s: Nixon’s use of the CIA to distract the FBI, MI5 hunting Russian moles in MI6. Even the one-off stories that aren’t part of this wider UFO narrative often have stories that originate in Cold War conspiracy and cover up.
And there were more immediate cultural influences too. 1991 saw the release of both The Silence of the Lambs, in which a female FBI agent had to seek the help of a weirdo in the basement for help profiling serial killers, and JFK, in which a government agent unravels a high-level conspiracy perpetrated on the American public.
It’s also evident now that The X Files could only have been made before the Millennium. If Mulder and Scully had had an internet connection a lot of those X-files would have been cleared up with a couple of seconds of Googling.
Where did you watch it?
In the living rooms of various shared houses through the ‘90s. It landed on BBC2 on September 19th, 1994, smack in the middle of that channel’s Imperial phase; it came after Lucinda Lambton looking at vernacular architecture, a rerun of The World At War, and Rab C. Nesbitt, and was followed by Harry Hill’s Fruit Fancies (his first TV show!). I don’t think I lived in a house in that period where BBC2 wasn’t the default channel.
What kind of friend was it?
A slightly unreliable one, much like the quixotic Fox Mulder himself.
The show itself has the weekly format that is required for all comfort watching. The agents get drawn into an odd case, usually somewhere out the pine forests of north western North America. Mulder spouts a bunch of theories about cattle mutilation/trickster gods/archaeoacoustics from back issues of the Fortean Times. Scully scoffs scientifically. Weird stuff proceeds to happen, proving both of them wrong in different ways. Eventually the case comes to a close while remaining unsolved, and then a final twist before the end credits shows the audience more than the FBI ever imagined.
Rewatching the first season for this piece I was startled by how terrible the performances and script-writing were in parts. But as the series became a cult hit, it grew in confidence. The budgets visibly expand, the lead actors find their feet, and you start to get standout episodes, including Darin Morgan’s ‘Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose’ and ‘Jose Chung's From Outer Space’.
The X-Files had more than a tinge of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks; both featured deadpan FBI agents, occult underpinnings, northwestern US settings and odd locals. (Duchovny appeared in Twin Peaks as Dale Cooper’s fellow FBI agent.) And, like Twin Peaks, The X-files presaged the changes that were about to happen in narrative TV, as weekly networked shows gave way to bingeable content. Along with other ‘90s sci-fi shows like Babylon 5, it had an overarching storyline (in this case, alien visitation) that spanned multiple seasons. Vince Gilligan (the producer of Breaking Bad) and Frank Spotnitz (Man in the High Castle) are both X-Files alumni.
This proved to be a mixed blessing, introducing a narrative puzzle that becomes more pronounced as time goes on. The more Mulder finds out, the more he has to discover things he doesn’t know. Conspiracies for him to unravel are desperately improvised, as are ever-more preposterous reasons why he is allowed to continue. The show began with the admirable habit of keeping everything as obscure and mysterious as possible, but the continued run made that mystery harder to maintain. The overarching narrative grew increasingly convoluted and confusing, over-complicated and under-developed. In the end, these attempts to keep the show interesting gradually exhausted the audience’s ability to be interested.
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Why did you watch it?
In ‘Jose Chung's From Outer Space’, Jose Chung, a science fiction writer, is interviewing Scully about an X-file. Under his curious, intelligent enquiry the story becomes a hall of mirrors. Apparent alien abductions are revealed as staged distractions from other abductions, which are then revealed as government experiments. An Air Force pilot is shown as doubting his own existence, and is then removed from the story entirely. The episode ends with Mulder pleading with Chung not to write his book, saying ‘When presented in the wrong way in the wrong context, the incidents and the people involved with them can appear foolish, if not down right psychotic.’ Well, yes. Quite.
We’re supposed to take all the alien stuff seriously, but it's far too foolish for that. (There was a lot of snickering from the cheap seats while I was rewatching it.) The show is strongest when it leans into the pleasurable weirdness and uncanny silliness of cryptozoology and parapsychology. It is in the monster-of-the-week stories that The X-Files still stands up, where the foolishness and the mystery can exist side by side. The bizarre horror of Eugene Tooms squeezing through air ducts to extract people’s livers, the icky creepiness of the killer clone children of Eve, the sad weariness of Peter Boyle’s sublime performance as the doomed insurance salesman and clairvoyant Clyde Bruckman.
You could probably trace Mulder and Scully’s roots all the way back to Holmes and Watson, but there were even closer antecedents in the investigation of the weird and abnormal: Steed and Mrs Peel in The Avengers, Lumley and McCallum in Sapphire and Steel. There were also space-alien shows like Gerry Anderson’s UFO and the ‘60s conspiracy series The Invaders (which BBC2 had recently rerun). This kind of thing - and sci-fi in general - had become increasingly rare on mainstream TV in the late ‘80s; it was all gritty ‘realism’ and luxury soaps.
As a nerd I felt underserved, especially after a golden era of weirdness in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. On my bookshelf I had The Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britain, Colin Wilson’s The Occult and Swiss extra-terrestrial obsessive Erich Von Däniken. I had heard of Kenneth Arnold and listened to Tim Dinsdale speaking about the Loch Ness Monster. Arthur C Clarke had invited us into his Mysterious World, and Steven Spielberg had visited E.T. upon us. The X-Files was a welcome return for the haunted generation, and we didn’t realise how much we had wanted it until we got it.
The X-Files made its subject matter mainstream. Just as you might be able to draw a line backwards from The X-Files to Cold War paranoia and hippy esoterica, you can probably draw one forwards to Q-Anon and conspiracies about the Deep State. We live now in a thoroughly post-Cold War, post-9/11 and post-Edward Snowden world, where many people distrust authority and prefer to construct their own ersatz realities online.
Behind Mulder’s desk is a poster of a flying saucer with the legend ‘I WANT TO BELIEVE’. Belief implies the irrelevance of proof, but the ‘want’ suggests a lack of faith and a need for evidence. The evidence can never be enough to disprove the belief, but the belief can never find enough evidence. This all prefigures the liar’s dividend of internet falsehoods. If it becomes impossible to distinguish lies from facts, why bother with the truth at all? It’s much easier to believe what you wanted to believe all along.
For more on the weird world in which Gen X grew up: