Thursday 29 January 2009

The X-Files- It's Place in Cultural History

I think there's no doubt that the X-Files had a major cultural impact.

It was epoch making TV. You either loved it, or hated it.
And those who loved it didn't love it for the same reasons. And it has affected a generation, in terms of how we think. And perhaps brought to the forefront a lot of demons lurking on our collective psyche.

I was a teenager when it first came out. And I admit, I never missed an episode. If I had to miss one because I was at work, my Gran would tape it for me.

Why was I so devoted? Well, one obvious selling point was Gillian Anderson. Or let's be more precise, here; Dana Scully. I mean, Gillian is still hot now and back then she was as pretty as God makes them, but the character she played, pretty much everything a man really wants from a woman I guess. Intelligent and collected, yet somehow vulnerable and fragile too.
I'll admit I had posters of Gillian in PVC adorning my walls back then.

But Mulder, too. If Gillian Anderson was 'The thinking man's crumpet', David Duchovny was the thinking man's hero. Like most men, I like a good action hero, but only if he's a bit cool as well. Think Bruce Willis, or Mel Gibson in the Lethal weapon films. Arnie too. James Bond of course, tops the list. But John Claude Van Damme and Stephen Seagal? Bah!

But if you're the sort of teen who recycled the same sick note for three years to avoid PE, a hero who is a kind of rebel, but in a sort of suited, kicking against the system in a fairly non-violent, flippant, independent way but still has some good jokes and always manages to look quite cool, Fox Mulder was your man.

He's you as you'd like to be. Whereas Stephen Seagal is so NOT you as you'd like to be. And I think at that age, certainly speaking for myself, if I'd watched a film where there was a love interest between Seagal and Gillian Anderson, I'd have lost respect for my beloved Gillian. But hey, she was entitled to fall for Fox. Fox was cool.

(Just out of interest, is there anyone out there who doesn't refuse to watch films if Seagal is in them? I make an exception for that one on a plane with Liz Hurley in for one reason; Liz Hurley.)

Anyway, I digress.
I think most people know the basic premise of the X-Files, so I won't bother going into that. What I think, was revolutionary for the time was just how far they were prepared to go- at the time. We've now become used to it, used to programmes pushing those boundaries, but when I first saw it, I was actually quite amazed that here was a programme- made in the USA- basically suggesting that all the most extreme conspiracies regarding the US government were true. At the time, I had never seen a programme made in the UK that went that far about our government and actually, I'm not sure at that time it could have been made. It would actually have had difficulty getting aired.
Of course, we only had four terrestial channels back then, so mainstream TV was fairly tame by comparison with what it is today. You didn't really get TV dramas going quite that far, not in the UK.
Certainly no TV drama over here had EVER gone so far as to suggest that the ACTUAL government (as opposed to governments in a hypothetical 'near future') were actually involved in full scale mass deception, conspiracy and covert atrocities.

There were always, of course two distinct types of X-File episodes. It was cleverly done. About a third or so were dedicated to the ongoing coverup story, the grand conspiracy, linking in UFOs, Roswell, the Kennedy Assassination, Operation Paperclip, Majestic 12, pretty much everything in conspiracy theory lore, all of it of personal importance to Mulder, due to the mystery of what happened to his sister.

And then there were the others, the one offs, though sometimes these one offs spawned sequels. These could be anything from creatures from other dimensions, to alien plants, to mutant killers, to telekinesis, pretty much every area of paranormal investigation was looked at and most of the myths and urban myths of the modern world.

Of course, this was it's great success. Because some enjoyed the conspiracy theory aspect, others liked these one off stories. Myself, I was actually in the second camp, on the whole. But obviously, one got interested in the conspiracy aspect to the story.
The series had a wide enough remit to retain a wide fan base. And sometimes it offered explanations that made you think. You would go and read up on it and see if it was credible, in your opinion.

I think they worked because they only lasted an hour. You had time enough to get a sense of the creepiness of the concept before the novelty wore off, as it does with most horror films. You were left with the theme music playing contemplating 'What if?'
Eugene Tooms, of course, stands out to me as the greatest X-Files creation. Fascinating. Not sure why, but he was.
Others of these one offs stand out as well. The episode with the Chicken place that seemed eerily like Kentucky Fried Chicken and where the inhabitants all turned out to be cannibals. Ok, none of this is really plausible, but it kept you watching.

And I think perhaps, this was kind of its secret. Because it kept us involved in the main story, one that probably, we wouldn't otherwise have got into. The Conspiracy aspects. The whole 'Truth is out there' idea.
Because it kind of tacitly admitted that at the time, questioning anything was kind of something people who spent too much time in their bedrooms did. The 'Lone Gunmen' set are deliberately meant to be stereotypes, I think. That was the cleverness of it all. It acknowledged that the central premise was a bit geeky, if you like, yet the show drew in people who wouldn't have seen themselves as such.

And whether one realised that at the time, it certainly created an impact in the psyche of those who were in their formative years then. Because it brought the whole conspiracy theory ethos in front of us.

Did we buy it? Well, I think it certainly heightened general interest in those topics. And on the whole I think that has been a good thing, actually. Even though I don't believe that there are actually any aliens. But it has made people look into these things and come to the conclusion that yes, governments lie and mislead, and whilst the conspiracy theorists are often way off course, they do tap into a general sense that something isn't right with the picture we are being shown.

Ultimately, of course, the Conspiracy theory episodes were what eventually ruined the X-Files. The Conspiracy got too far fetched. I think I got turned off when they had that episode that told you the life history of the Cigarette Smoking Man. Not only had he seemingly assassinated Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but it was totally at odds with a much earlier flashback which had been much more tantalising, suggesting he had been an FBI colleague of Mulder Senior in the fifties. To me, that one episode spoilt it for me.

I guess from my point of view, I didn't take any of the alien stuff seriously, or the conspiracy theory stuff generally, but it did make me read up on what it was and why people believed it. And what one DID discover made interesting reading. Aliens, no. But plenty of real life stuff that was pretty sinister. The sheer number of German and Japanese scientists who had had their very real warcrimes absolved because they knew the right things, whilst others far less involved in the atrocities had died on the end of a rope at Nuremberg, for a start. And a lot of fairly nefarious things the US- and UK- government have done and tried to cover up. You realise that they most certainly wouldn't tell you if they had found an alien spaceship. Of course, that doesn't mean that they have found one. Knowing that they wouldn't tell you doesn't mean they haven't told you but it happened. I wouldn't publish it on my blog if I had just discovered my father was Hitler's love child, but it doesn't increase the likelihood of my father being Hitler's love child.
Nevertheless, one does realise that a lot of things which are very likely, they'd lie about and probably get away with it.

For example, I think David Kelly was murdered. And I think someone with a very big false grin might know something about it. But that's because I come from a post X-Files generation.

House of Cards I suppose was another major factor in seeing things this way, at least for many more politically minded Brits? That was out over here at a similar time. Basically, it's about a Chief Whip who blackmails and murders his way to become Prime Minister. One might think it far fetched...
Except the author, Michael Dobbs was a Downing Street insider. One can't help but wonder if some of the things he wrote about had some basis in facts.

So in this sense, for me, it didn't encourage me to believe any of the Conspiracy Theory stuff in that sense, but it did encourage me to analyse every bit of news from a point of view of 'This is a lie. What's their real objective?'
To see them as basically people, ordinary people who had got hold of power and wouldn't have much more of a clue what to do with it than anyone else, but need to convince the rest of us they do. And who are motivated entirely by greed, vanity and the desire for more power. To see them as no different to any other Dictators, except they rule with the TV screen, not the secret police.

And I think that is the basic legacy the X-Files gave to culture at large. It changed our cultural psyche from assuming that what our TVs told us was true, until proven otherwise, to treating it as no more impartial than any other source. I think it made those who saw it far more questioning than they might have been. And whilst we may look back on much of it and think it was far fetched and silly, a cult TV series of the nineties which gave us gems such as Eugene Tooms, I think it's real legacy will be it's central message;

'The Truth Is Out There'.

PS- For those interested, I've posted a bit more of my novel. Constructive criticism welcome- Most of that chapter needs rewriting. :)


Anonymous said...

I liked the X-files, though watched in mostly in reruns. During the first run I was working so many hours I never caught anything on TV.

Anonymous said...

"Mulder", thinking woman's crumpet :)

I love the X Files, but I'm a Sci Fi/Fantasy Fiend. I like Sanctuary at the moment.

"Home" S04 E02 is the one that really freaks me out too, where they keep the mum with no limbs under the bed.. eeeuuuw!

The fascination of incest and inbred deformity seems to be engrained deep in the human psyche.

Tooms was creepy but great and what a gift!

The writers of great stories know exactly what creepy horrors affect our very souls.

The usual things come to mind. Incest, Clowns, Ventriloquist Puppets, Cannibals, Alien Abduction, Conspiracy Theories, Vampires and alien/human chimera.

Great Stuff!

Anonymous said...

Oh Dear! I guess this is yet another dent in my pop cultural street-cred.

I don't think I ever saw an episode of this, though you can't avoid hearing/knowing stuff about it. Sorry, a hopeless case I know.

Anonymous said...

i used to watch this at a friend's place with a bunch of uni seniors. i hated the show though, to be honest, mainly because it bored me. i couldn't get into the glib characters, who in the face of utter strangeness somehow seemed bored themselves. but i watched anyway, mainly for the company of good friends. but i annoyed them with my constant insults of the show. this is an interesting take on it though, that it basically helped you think critically, so clearly it had a positive influence.

Anonymous said...

One of my all time fav shows! Great post...

Anonymous said...

AWESOME POST! i was (am still) a huge X-files fan.

Anonymous said...

Charles- I was lucky, it was at its best when I was in my mid teens. When I was a student, I had less time to watch TV at the time in the evening.

Sue- Me too, actually. I love Farscape, Lexx I loved too. I quite like things like space 99, but I'm not big into Star Trek. Not sure why.

There were quite a few on deformity- do you remember the one with the little siamese twin?

I just loved the bit where they made Tooms do the Polygraph and he passed every question apart from 'Are you over a hundred years old?'

The guy with the salamader hand as well!


It was groundbreaking in many ways. They are repeating it on one of the channels. Not sure which.

It was well written for the most part.

Benji- I guess they kind of got used to wierd stuff happening.

I know what you mean about watching stuff with friends though.

We had a tradition at uni called the 'Eastender Special'. Basically, I would roll a five sheeter of a joint designed to last over half an hour- hence, Eastender special, you light it as eastenders starts, its still smoking at the end.

Anyway. Class line once from my mate the Chimney Sweep 'You know Joe, I do like these Eastender specials. Thing is, I actually hate Eastenders'.

I think it did help in making one be critical. Certainly in awareness ogf how corporations and other interests pull the strings.

Bud- I think it will always have a place in my heart, definitely.

Butterfly- I think it influenced a lot of subsequent shows. But nothing else ever really came close.

Anonymous said...

I used to lurve stuff like that as a kid... but when I grew up I lost most of my patience for it... I really cannot explain why

Anonymous said...

my late husband loved this programme and had many episodes on dvd