The pilot of The X-Files is a funny thing to re-watch in 2014; a hopeful first stab at something that would turn into a nine-season cultural touchstone. This week is The X-Files’ 20th anniversary, but once it was a show that might or might not have gotten off the ground. Like any pilot, its story doesn’t stay totally consistent; parts of the reality it implies end up flickering in or out of focus. Like any pilot, it’s heavy-handed with its characterization, making sure we don’t miss the memo that Mulder is the One Who Believes In Paranormal Stuff, and Scully is The One Who Definitely Doesn’t. One thing it does establish fairly early on is that the supernatural and/or alien phenomena it discusses really are out there; this isn’t going to be a show where the entertainment lies in debating what “really” happened. There’s some pretty incontrovertible evidence: lights from the sky, comatose people moving as if controlled by another power, plenty of textbook abduction stuff. In fact, the alien stuff seems so incontestable that it almost undermines the other element of the show it establishes: Scully’s skepticism in the face of Mulder’s conviction. How can she remain so insistent that there’s an alternate explanation for what she’s seeing? Fear, most likely; the shock of encountering for the first time something she had been convinced was impossible. You can see it in the scene when she’s undressing in her hotel room (another thing that wouldn’t make it past the pilot; Scully’s later character would rarely be subjected to unnecessarily titillating scenes) and finds a mark on her lower back that feels scarily similar to the marks they’ve been finding on mysteriously ill teenagers. Even if she doesn’t believe Mulder’s theory of what they represent — evidence of alien abduction and/or medical experimentation — she is ready to entertain in that tense moment that they mean something bad. She knocks on Mulder’s door, half-naked and terrified, and asks him to check it out. There’s a long beat before Mulder cheerfully declares the marks to be mere bug bites, but in the seconds in between, you can see it: the possibility of belief, and how belief is indivisible from fear.
The first time I saw The X-Files was with someone I was dating. It was his suggestion that we try picking out episodes on Netflix Instant. At his behest, we skipped around at random and chose episodes on a whim. We were intrigued by the “monster of the week” episodes, and totally bewildered by the mythology ones. When we broke up, we still lived in the same city with the same group of friends, and let ourselves maintain orbit around each other more so than we probably should have. And by we I mean I, since I was the one who had broken things off and was responsible for setting boundaries. I did an okay job at that — I never slept with him again — but I did let him show me one more X-Files episode. We watched “X-COPS,” which wasn’t just a “monster of the week” episode but a wacky one, where the viewer is meant to derive more enjoyment from Mulder and Scully being put in a zany context than any real thrill of fear or intrigue. The production of the episode, meant to mimic the real show “COPS,” was gritty and shaky, filmed poorly in low lighting. When imagined through the lens of an ostensibly real video camera, The X-Files didn’t seem as mysterious or bewitching; when translated into the “real world,” they seemed a little goofy. When the episode ended, my ex looked over at me. I’m not sure what he thought would happen, but whatever it was, it didn’t. What could have maybe felt special or magical in the dark didn’t have the same appeal with the lights on.
We broke up for a lot of reasons, but I think when you get down to it, the most fundamental thing was that he truly believed that with enough effort, it would work, and I didn’t. Why ignore the evidence, I felt. I’m making you unhappy, you’re making me unhappy — there’s an obvious rational conclusion to be drawn here.
It wasn’t the first or last time I decided the evidence suggested that I walk away. The first time was probably when I was seventeen. I had known my best friend since the third grade, and by the end of high school we were inseparable: she gave me a ride to school in the mornings; held my hand as she walked me down to the school nurse when I was sick; organized the only surprise party I’ve ever had, in which she and some other friends bought me pizza and rolls at Bertucci’s. We talked on the phone in the afternoons even though we had just spent all day at school together and took hour-long naps in her bedroom, arms draped over each other. We slept chastely, clothes on. She kept her Bible next to her bed, duct-taped together from use, and I was mystified and fascinated by her faith. Such dogged belief in the face of so much contradicting evidence! I chose to admire it rather than being put off. Plus, it created a comforting guard rail; surely mid-afternoon cuddling and wearing each other’s clothes could only go so far with someone who believed abortion was literally murder. I felt secure in the knowledge that she would never call my bluff.
“How long have you known you were bisexual?” she asked one day. We were in my bed; she spoke into my shoulder with her arms around me. I don’t remember what I told her. Months later, I found a folded-up note in my locker, which was not unusual; it was unusual that it concluded with “What I’m trying to say is I love you.” I folded it back up immediately and hid it between the outer case and inner body of my graphing calculator and went to class. I never told her I had read it; it would have required admitting something was real that I wasn’t ready to believe in, a version of myself I wasn’t ready to believe was possible.
“I don’t get it, though,” a friend said when the show came up in conversation. “How is Scully still not convinced after all that time? The show is like eight or nine seasons, right? It doesn’t seem like it would make sense.”
“You don’t get it,” I said, more harshly than was necessary. “It’s more complicated than that. A bunch of stuff happens, like in Season 2, it’s about more than just her not believing him.”
“Oh, okay,” my friend said, chastened and hurt, I think, by my tone. I was often unnecessarily abrasive then, prone to snapping at people I cared about even when they were being perfectly kind. I was also prone to drinking wine alone in my kitchen and coming close to falling asleep while driving because I was working three jobs and sleeping a few hours a night. I was quick to tell people they were wrong, but looking back on this case, I don’t really understand where I was coming from. My friend was right; it didn’t make sense.
I kept up with The X-Files. For most people watching it while it had aired, I understood what the draw had been — will this be the episode where Scully and Mulder finally act on their tension? If not, will it be the one where an important piece of the increasingly convoluted alien puzzle is revealed? But honestly, I didn’t really care about either of those things. I liked the “monster of the week” episodes as much as the mythology ones, and I never jonesed for a Scully/Mulder kiss.
“Which one do you like best, David Duchovny or what’s-her-name?” my roommate asked. “Which one do you want to make out with?”
I was offended by the question, a little — both because of what I felt it implied about my sexual orientation and my reasons for engagement in the show. I’m not sure what I said. “Neither,” maybe, or “both.” Later that same year, Gillian Anderson would reveal in a real-life interview that she had dated women too. I was both thrilled by the sudden visibility of a new queer role model and, somewhere deeper in my reptile brain, upset at the reminder that Anderson is an actor, that Scully is just a role. We all have different things we need to believe, I guess.
I moved 850 miles away into a one-bedroom apartment with wood floors and heat that I wasn’t allowed to adjust. I had everything I owned boxed up and nowhere to be, so I spent all day unpacking for four days straight, and watched almost all of Season Five, adhering to their correct chronology for the first time. Scully lay pale and wan in a hospital bed; she traveled to Maine to battle a demonic doll; she made eyes at Luke Wilson; she danced to Cher. Her belief in an objective rational truth, and in her own ability to discern it, never wavered — or if it did, it was on her own terms, in a church rather than an abduction survivor’s meeting. She kept me company while I prepared myself for a new stage of life that I imagined would be sober and pure, almost monastic: writing and reading in my tiny apartment in my snowy new state, drinking tea and keeping a cozy, careful house. I had no plans to reach out, test new hypotheses, engage in irresponsible experimentation. I did not intend to have any experiences outside the range of what I had previously proven to myself I was comfortable with or could understand. Scully and I both convinced ourselves that this was possible, that it had ever been a possibility.
Of course that wasn’t how it worked out in my tiny new-hatched life. I started seeing someone who wore her grandmother’s old fur coats and taught me how to make a “brutal hammer,” which she said was just a shot of vodka poured into a glass of red wine. I could put several of them down pretty quickly. I sent her a drunken email explaining how I wasn’t looking for anything serious; she stopped calling me after I refused to stay the night for the last time, which was totally fair. Later, I ended up sleeping at the apartment of a poet in my MFA program, sharing a twin mattress on the floor. We slept chastely, clothes on. I insisted we were friends and nothing more, even when I began staying over more often than not, and the nights I slept at my own apartment we stayed up late on the phone from opposite sides of town. Despite the mounting evidence, I maintained my skepticism for as long as I could. Like Scully, I refused to believe, and for much longer than was reasonable. Like Scully, I was wrong.
It’s worth mentioning, maybe, the outliers — the times that Scully does want to believe. The best example, I think, is “All Things” — an episode which actually has nothing to do with aliens or even Mulder, or really anything important about the show. In it, Scully finds out that a former lover is very ill and dying. Scully is a medical doctor (take one drink) and is convinced that there must be a way to cure him, a medical approach not yet considered. Through a sort of fever dream of confusing plot points — seeing people down alleyways, having strange visions, visiting with some women who I’m convinced are lesbians who practice ear candling — she comes to believe that some sort of mysterious new-agey process is worth trying. Her faith pays off; her former lover recovers, and Scully is given a moment of perspective that never reappears in terms of the show’s long-term continuity. It is, in my opinion, one of the very worst episodes of the show. It’s also the only episode that Gillian Anderson directed herself. That doesn’t make it a good episode, but it’s maybe notable that for the woman who spent years inhabiting Scully’s imaginary psyche, this was the direction she most wanted her to go in: to give in to totally ungrounded and objectively sort of silly ideas for once, and to be rewarded for it.
I know my love of The X-Files is something about me that invites eye rolling, something I talk about often enough to trip over the line from “thing I enjoy” to “noticeable quirk.” I tried to explain to my friend at a bar what the big deal was, why I keep thinking about this show. “It’s like, at first the show is all about how Mulder is obsessed with finding paranormal explanations, and Scully is the voice of reason. But then all this alien stuff happens right in front of them, and Scully gets abducted even, but in later episodes she still doesn’t believe. I mean, it gets pathological. Mulder is the guy who believes what he maybe shouldn’t, but the real thing about the show is that Scully has this fatal flaw too, where she takes skepticism to a level that’s clearly really personal and irrational.”
“Huh,” he said. “I like that. That was what always bothered me about the show, that her skepticism didn’t make sense after a while.”
I considered. “Maybe it’s not even in the show, really. I don’t know if the show is aware of that. But I am.”
“I’m not sure it’s really in the show either,” he said, careful, kind.
“Quagmire” is one of the more literal “monster of the week” episodes in that it revolves around an actual monster. “Big Blue” is supposed to be a sort of B-grade Loch Ness Monster, a legendary creature that lives in a rural lake and maybe occasionally eats a drunk fisherman. Mulder and Scully are at each other’s throats; Scully has been pushed to a limit with what she’s willing to humor, and just can’t stop pressing Mulder to see that there’s nothing paranormal here to find, that his puppylike belief is unfounded. It all comes to a head when the boat they’ve taken out onto the lake to look for the monster is sunk, and the two are trapped on a rock in the middle of the lake in the pitch black night. Scully calls Mulder out on his irrational want to believe, on the ways in which it’s hurting his life and his relationships.
“…you’re like Ahab. You’re so consumed by your personal vengeance against life, whether it be its inherent cruelties or mysteries, everything takes on a warped significance to fit your megalomaniacal cosmology… It’s the truth or a white whale. What difference does it make? I mean, both obsessions are impossible to capture, and trying to do so will only leave you dead along with everyone else you bring with you.”
The thing is, though, these things are true of Scully, too. By the time this episode occurs, she’s gone missing for months and returned with a chip in her neck; she’s seen her own father’s ghost appear before her and she’s been saved from death by supernatural forces more times than I can count. Scully’s own quest for a consistently “real” world in which nothing ever defies belief and definitions of possible and impossible never shift and academic understanding trumps real experience is also an insane and unhealthy one. But in the world of The X-Files, Scully has no one to call her on this the way she does for Mulder. There’s no Starbuck to her Ahab.
The other reason “Quagmire” is important is — spoiler alert, I guess — that for once, Scully is right. “Big Blue” isn’t a plesiosaur or an unheard-of monster; it’s just a giant alligator. There’s no X-File here. But in the course of their investigation, in addition to several humans, the giant alligator manages to eat Scully’s beloved Pomeranian. There are a lot of things we’re meant to take away from that episode, I think — something about the dangers of having a crusade, the importance of having good friends, an exploration of speaking difficult truths to people we love. But I think there’s a harsher and less obvious truth: just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it doesn’t have sharp teeth; deciding you don’t think it’s real doesn’t take away its power to destroy.
My current partner — the one who’s the real thing, the Lone to my Gunmen — doesn’t like The X-Files. I was mildly horrified by this at first, and tried to make a case for the show by playing the episodes that make pretty good TV regardless of your feelings on aliens and tin foil hats. Now, I think it’s probably for the best. The X-Files appeals most to those people who are interested in the intersection of (dis)belief with obsession, and I’m much healthier and happier with someone who’s never tried that particular drug and who won’t indulge me if I go looking for a fix. The legacy of The X-Files in our real lives is a contradictory one — that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, but also that your obsession won’t save you. The problem with framing the show as a seven-season (I’m not really counting seasons eight and nine for reasons that should be obvious) battle of wills between Fox “Belief” Mulder and Dana “Skepticism” Scully is that they’re both wrong. The real takeaway of the show isn’t which one is proven right, but the concessions that both of them end up having to make to their worldview, how dangerous both their obsessions are.
One of the small, eerie pleasures of the show are the creepy title cards that show before episodes, the most famous of which is “The Truth Is Out There.” Less well known is “Deny Everything.” It’s probably meant to reference government conspiracy, but who knows; it’s deliberately obscure. It always strikes a chord with me, like a personal challenge: how much can I deny, if I put my mind to it? I bet you’d be surprised. One of the most cryptic (second only to “Ei Aaniigoo Ahoot’e,” which means “The Truth Is Out There” in Navajo) is “E pur si muove,” which upon looking it up turns out to be Italian. It means “And yet it moves.” It is said to be attributed to Galileo after he was forced to recant his theory that the Earth moved around the Sun. A modern translation might be “It doesn’t matter what you believe; these are the facts.”