The X-Files makes the 90s feel foreign

Published on 2022-04-16 by DistractedMOSFET

Hey there Internet. Recently I have been watching the X-Files, for basically my first time. I had seen a few episodes in the past and obviously was aware of the show and it's popularity and influence. For those who aren't: the X-Files is an american science fiction drama series that started in 1993 and produced over 200 episodes. It was a big hit and is referenced regularly even today. What I want to talk about is how the show feels like it comes from a very different world.

Cultural differences in space and time

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" is a quote I've heard a lot in my life although in a shortened form, but never before have I felt this way about the 90s until watching this show. Some of the reasons for that are straight-forward such as depictions of people smoking in office settings. Depicting a man's office cubicle as having a bikini model calendar really stood out as a thing I wouldn't even consider someone doing. But there's a deeper and more subtle difference in this show. It doesn't simply have small antiquated details but rather is inherently built out of an old worldview.

The show starts with one FBI investigator, Agent Dana Scully, being told she will be assigned to work with Agent Fox Mulder. She has heard of Mulder by reputation. He is considered a brilliant psychological profiler, and was a rising-star for the bureau, but has become a subject of tension and concern in the department. Mulder believes in paranormal origins of unexplained phenomena, and has taken up the X-Files, a fictional designation for cases to mark them as unsolvable and low priority. Scully has a medical background; she is a woman of science and is very grounded and skeptical in her thinking. As such, the director is pairing her with Mulder, not only to temper his unusual lines of inquiry, but it is implied they want her to work towards building a case that the X-Files are not worth investigating at all, and that Mulder is spending bureau resources on his paranoid delusions.

David vs Goliath, but about conspiracy theories

This tension really is at the heart of the show, not just between Mulder and Scully, but between Mulder and almost everyone else. Mulder is a thought-deviant, who doesn't fall within the boundaries of the orthodox worldview. And generally episodes feature someone on at least one occassion expressing humour or strong disapproval of Mulder's theories or implied lines of reasoning. Mulder is in conflict with the rest of society, constantly. The only exceptions are the victims of paranomal phenomena and hobbyists who report them. They are the true believers, those who believe "The Truth Is Out There", and the show depicts them usually as the sympathetic underdogs in this cultural conflict.

And this cultural conflict the show is built around feels completely unusual today. People don't feel like there's one "undisputed world view" and a weird fringe. In fact a major worry is that too many people believe in paranoid and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, or assign far too much weight and importance to largely perceived but meaningless issues. Everyone simply rolls their eyes at Mulder, but today his sort of behaviour represents a serious social disease that is regularly seems comparable in harm as things like problem gambling. Imagine a show that affirmed someone's alcoholism as moral and downtrodden.

They're here

I feel like a modern work made in response to the X-Files would not make use of the same sort of "the rare truth-seeker against the world" mentality, but rather would have to engage with the fact that most of what is "out there" is most certainly not the truth, but rather dangerous thought-entities that wish to make you their host; our own real-world alien body-snatchers.