Aliens Are Overrated

The best X-Files episodes weren’t about extraterrestrials.

Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews The X-Files: I Want To Believe.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files: I Want To Believe

Since The X-Files series finale in 2002, the United States invaded two countries, the Red Sox won the World Series twice, and Barack Obama went from a no-name state legislator to the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. A lot can happen in six years, and even one-time X-Files fans may have a hazy memory of the show’s conspiratorial mythology: that an extra-governmental syndicate has made a deal with an extraterrestrial race bent on colonizing the planet. In recognition of this fact, 20th Century Fox and producer Chris Carter resolved that the second X-Files movie, which opens Friday, should ignore the show’s framework. The X-Files: I Want To Believe is a self-contained film that even neophytes can understand.

Although Fox decided on a standalone story for practical reasons, disregarding the show’s mythology is one of those sound business choices that might also have made artistic sense. Granted, some of the multipart episodes, in which agent Fox Mulder slowly uncovers what the syndicate is up to, were fantastically entertaining. But over the years, the show’s narrative arc became messier rather than deeper, as the writers piled conspiracy upon conspiracy. By the time the first X-Files movie came out, in 1998, not only were there multiple alien species, but there was alien infighting. The little gray aliens want to colonize Earth, and some of the shape-shifters are helping them out, but the rebel shape-shifters are on Mulder’s side. Or are they? Either way, with six years’ distance, the whole syndicate concept seems hopelessly naive. The old white guys in the military-industrial complex can’t handle state-building in Afghanistan—we’re supposed to believe they can coordinate an alien invasion?

As the X-Files mythology became increasingly grandiose, it was the show’s standalone episodes, in which Mulder and partner Dana Scully investigate crimes unrelated to the impending alien invasion, that kept the show vital. Freed from the constraint of furthering the extraterrestrial plot, the writers explored more earthly phenomena: folk legends (Jersey Devil, Loch Ness monster), superstition, and the power of rumor. These “monster of the week” episodes, as they came to be known, were remarkably varied in tone, delivering horror at one turn and comedy the next. At their worst, they were like CSI: Freak Unit, with Mulder and Scully chasing grotesque mutants through sewers, then running back to the lab to portentously examine bits of flesh under a microscope. At their best, however, they were incisive character studies that tried to explain why the paranormal is so enticing, why someone might want to believe that the truth is out there.

In “Pusher,” a standalone episode from Season 3, Mulder and Scully investigate a man who can impose his will on others, convincing them to commit suicide with a few mellifluously spoken words. It’s a hokey idea, but it doesn’t require quite the same suspension of disbelief as the alien plots. And ultimately the episode is less about Pusher’s supernatural power than his very average existence. Pusher isn’t a larger-than-life menace like the conspirators in the mythology episodes; he was “an average student,” who went to “an average community college” and did “an average stint in the military.” His gift, it turns out, is the result of an operable, though malignant, brain tumor. Forced to decide between living but losing his power or going out in a blaze of paranormal glory, he picks the latter. As Mulder says rather pityingly at the end of the episode, “He was always such a little man. This was finally something that made him feel big.” 

Just as Twin Peaks was superficially about talking logs and psychic dreams but more essentially about small-town betrayals and the trauma of incest, the X-Files standalone episodes, beneath the paranormal apparatus, were really about sad sacks acting out. In Season 4’s “Small Potatoes,” Mulder and Scully encounter a short, pudgy, balding janitor who can shape-shift at will. More campy than villainous, he seduces the women in his neighborhood by impersonating their husbands, then takes on Mulder’s appearance and tries to woo Scully. The changeling janitor causes mayhem, but it’s clear that he means no harm; he’s just eager to be someone else—someone better looking and more successful. At the end of the episode, he’s locked up in a reformatory, wearing a hat that reads, “Superstar.” “My court-appointed therapist makes me wear it,” he tells Mulder. “She says it’s meant to bolster my self-esteem.”

Taking its cue from the standalone episodes, I Want to Believe focuses on a pedophile priest who thinks God has granted him psychic powers. He fits the profile of a great X-Files character, but he’s not a fully developed personality, just a conduit for the rather trite question the movie seems intent on asking: Would God speak through a sleaze ball?

The new film also makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. At one point, Mulder and Scully earnestly debate what the psychic priest might have meant when he uttered the ever-so-cryptic phrase “Don’t give up.” For longtime fans, the movie’s consistently high-serious tone will be a particular disappointment. TheX-Files lasted for so many seasons in part because when it wasn’t concocting conspiracy theories, it was willing to poke fun at itself. Within the standalone category, there were lightly comic episodes like “Small Potatoes” but also overt self-parodies, which popped up once or twice a season.

Mostly written by Darin Morgan, the self-parody episodes sent up Mulder and Scully’s almost-romance, the stark contrast between his paranoia and her skepticism, and the very concept of alien abduction. They also painted a devastating portrait of lonely UFO spotters who insist we aren’t alone. Indeed, in Morgan’s scripts the phrase “we are not alone” sounds more like a plea than a statement.

War of the Coprophages,” a parody episode from Season 3, presents Mulder and Scully on a rare night off. He travels to Massachusetts, where there have been “widespread accounts of unidentified colored lights hovering in the skies.” She stays at home, cleans her gun, then her dog, and eats ice cream out of the carton. When Mulder becomes convinced that alien cockroaches are killing the citizens of a small town, he calls Scully to consult. She supplies plausible explanations for each bizarre death—anaphylactic shock, a brain aneurism—which, of course, turn out to be wrong. The cockroaches are aliens. This is all played for laughs, with Mulder running after insects and falling for an entomologist named Bambie. But there’s a melancholy streak to the episode as well: It’s supposed to be their night off. Mulder’s quest to find something “out there” is, in this instance, a transparent desire for companionship. Scully’s skepticism is no less pathetic. At least Mulder has a calling—all she can think to do in her spare time is clean her gun.

The most famous self-parody among X-Files fans is the brilliantly convoluted “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” Author Jose Chung interviews Scully about a supposed abduction that happened in a small town, and he tracks down a series of self-proclaimed witnesses. Every one, of course, has a slightly different version of what happened: There was no abduction (just a couple of kids who made up a story after an awkward sexual encounter); the “aliens” were actually military personnel (in alien suits); a real alien abducted the two kids (plus the guys in alien suits). Morgan’s teleplay portrays the UFO spotters not as misunderstood truth-seekers but as losers motivated by loneliness, boredom, and delusions of grandeur. One of the witnesses, Rory Crikenson, claims that men in black are trying to suppress his alien-themed screenplay. Another, Blaine Faulkner, wants to be abducted so that he won’t “have to worry about finding a job.”

Characters like Crikenson and Faulkner, absent from I Want To Believe, were so effective because they were eerily familiar: They were the sort of people who would have tuned into The X-Files. Recall that for its first three seasons, the show aired on Friday nights, which means fans either were giving up part of their weekend plans or didn’t have any to begin with. If the conspiracy episodes were an escape for viewers who weren’t much enjoying the mid-’90s “holiday from history,” the standalones held up a mirror to a lonely audience. Unfortunately, even these once-devoted viewers probably won’t much enjoy I Want To Believe, which has neither the incisiveness and humor of the standalone episodes nor the grand framework of the alien mythology but has grandiosity in spades.