My Discovery of the X-Files

23 June 2013

I missed the X-Files in its hey-day. The nine seasons running from 1993 to 2002 corresponded almost exactly with my teenage years. But I was too busy watching Star Trek: TNG, DS9, and Voyager, too busy reading the classics of science fiction and fantasy, or quickly paging through the latest literary addition to the Stars Wars universe. Though the literary quality, it needs to be said, went quickly downhill after Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy.

For the longest time, the X-Files lay just over my cultural horizon. Until this summer, actually. Netflix offered a free month subscription a week before its installment of a fourth season to the Arrested Development franchise went online. Watching the new episodes took an effort three or four days, which left the greater part of a month on the subscription. The X-Files was on my recommended list. Netflix had followed the path I wandered through its offerings of movies and television shows. By the infinite wisdom of a selection algorithm, I discovered the truth really is out there.

I am now almost through three seasons. The show exercises a strange sort of persuasive power over its viewers. Which speaks to its quality, since it will no longer fly on its innovative cinematographic techniques.

The backstory has the US government continually suppressing evidence of extra-terrestrial life. Each episode uses the pretext of an FBI investigation to chase some conspiracy theory down a rabbit hole. The name of the show is taken from the name of a supposed FBI office of investigation. The names of its only two assigned agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, have found their way into a grab-bag of references that help us navigate webs of cultural significance.

I admit I did not quite get the show until the scriptwriters used the latter part of the 2nd and 3rd season to develop Dana Scully's Catholic background. Until that point Mulder's willingness to entertain the strangest of explanations played off against Scully's rabid faith in empirical explanations. Between the two characters, the limitations of methods of scientific study were poked an prodded. The point, I take it, was to show how credulity is an attitude a person takes to the evidence, not something produced by the evidence.

With Scully's Catholic background possibility for comparison opens up considerably. We discover Scully's willingness to believe the sorts of things faith required--but believe on faith, which means an open, questioning attitude towards the things required by faith.  Whereas Mulder believes the sort of things the Ockham's Razor allows him to believe. In the absence of definitive evidence, the simplest explanation may not be the expected terrestrial answer.

Written through the contrast between the two  is a fairly profound disagreement about the nature of human intelligence. What standard is it measured against? Measure the human intelligence against a divine standard, Scully's anthropocentric convictions follow as a matter of course. But if the divine standard is absent, Mulder's speculative suggestions become much more plausible. With a God above, the human being finds meaning within themselves. Without God, we want to look further afield. 

The genius of the X-Files is to leave the viewers to decide whether what they saw was real. Even when the existence of actual alien life is all but confirmed with an appearance on screen, the viewer can still take a credible repose in Scully's skepticism. Aliens might instead be the unfortunate victims of genetic experimentation. The suggestions are not always made explicit. They do not need to be. Scully's incredulity makes it possible to question what you believed you saw.

Most of the way through the third season, I am not eager to discover how the show gradually declines into mediocrity after the fifth season.

Comments (2)

Richard Greydanus's picture

Richard Greydanus

Thursday, June 27, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Not quite. I think Scully's

Not quite. I think Scully's Catholic influences are portrayed as restraining her, in ways very unlike Mulder, to think about more mundane things. It's a crass empiricism that regards Catholicism as merely offering an otherworldly perspective on supernatural things. The broad Catholic tradition is probably better characterized as a tradition of interiority, one which encourages adherents to reflects on the limitations of their mental and physical resources because it hems the adherent in on all sides by the presence of divinity. So Scully is open-minded about matter of faith and very reticent about speculate in scientific matters. She knows what she doesn't know (faith) just like she knows what she knows (science). Her Catholic background plays the role, I would argue, of engendering her anthropcentrism, in much the same way a Catholic background can be seen to engender Descartes 'I think, therefore I am' and Augustine's 'When I err, I err.'. And let's not forget, Copernicus' great revolution was precisely to break the anthropocentrism of the medieval period.

Richard Greydanus's picture

Richard Greydanus

Thursday, June 27, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Most Catholic reflections of

Most Catholic reflections of on interiority take a more 'spiritual' route. I teach a class on religion and science, so I spend most of my time thinking about the 'spiritual' and the 'material' in tandem, which sheds a bit of a different light on things. This entry on 'Personalism' in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides the basic contours of the tradition. Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, is a major figure in the tradition.