Chris Carter, creator and resident keeper of the top-secret mythologies first revealed in the 1990s TV show The X-Files, was talking about “finding yourself suddenly on the cutting edge, which is an exciting but ultimately dangerous place to be.” This is because, as the longtime SoCal surfer told me on the phone from Hollywood, “you know that incredible energy you’re riding can’t last. It is going to disappear and turn up in another place, except you don’t know where.”
Where the energy goes is something Carter, the now-58-year-old son of a Bellflower construction worker who grew up idolizing Sandy Koufax and rode his board in a “goofy-footed” stance, thinks about a lot, especially these days, as he awaits the airing of his six-episode “reboot” of The X-Files, which will hit the virtual boards at 10 p.m. on Fox this Sunday night. (Read Matt Zoller Seitz’s review here.)
Fans have coveted this moment for years, likely dating to the series’ final flicker in 2002, although many will tell you the program had been running on fumes since 1999. Expectations are understandably high. Episode for episode, there have been more consistent, more literate, less silly programs than The X-Files. But few have managed to burrow into the subconscious like the show’s extraterrestrial-themed “mythology” segments, or so successfully lure the viewer into its ever-more-ominous orbit of nightmare. The X-Files’ “mythology” might play as an expressionist Jungian cartoon — heavily shadowed digital pulp — but at its best, mining the ample paranoid vein of what Carter calls “predictive science-fiction,” it holds its creepy own with such exalted examples of the form as 1984, and some of Philip K. Dick. (Note to fans: I always skip the “monster of the week” episodes, so nothing of them here.)
In the larger cultural court, The X-Files has often been singled out, for better or worse, as a key pump-primer of the conspiratorial mind-set. This is hard to dispute; the show has done more than most to put quotation marks around the word truth. Truths like 9/11 “truth,” vaccine “truth,” and who knows how many other internet-borne neo-veracities have emerged from the general air of suspicion convincingly mainstreamed in The X-Files. However, to characterize The X-Files simply as a top-of-the-line Alex Jones enabler would do a disservice to the pain that haunts the Brian Wilson–inflected sector of Chris Carter’s sun-blasted surfer-boy heart.
“The truth? I’m not sure I can conceive of any absolute truth,” Carter says. “In my personal experience, the truth is slippery, manifold, open to interpretation, and ever-changing. That makes it so hard to pin down. The only thing is to keep looking. Maybe that’s the only real truth.”
This is the rabbit warren in which Carter places his two classic creations, Mulder and Scully, the unlikely pair of FBI agents portrayed by the dreamy dreamer David Duchovny and the sternly rational but schoolboy-crush-ready Gillian Anderson, who together form the sexpot Tracy and Hepburn of paranormal truth-seeking. There is an almost sadistic pleasure to be taken in watching them attempt to negotiate the gauntlet set in place by the show’s oppositional maxims, the soaring, hopeful “I Want to Believe” pitted against the harsh, undercutting practicality of “Trust No One.” It is a modernist duality that shrinks the eye of the needle, especially if you really want to arrive at the Promised Land embodied by The X-Files’ overriding but quite possibly chimeric mantra, “The Truth Is Out There.”
X-Files mythology is filled with every matter of Joseph Campbell mumbo-jumbo, but what really made it work as a perfect 1990s paranoid passion-play were the show’s roots in actual time and space, or, as they call it in the movies, “real events,” more or less. As Carter told me, “the fears and motivations expressed in the show were grounded largely in the residual paranoia of previous decades, the Kennedy Assassination, Watergate.” By the 1980s, an outlier portion of this still-developing atmosphere of governmental distrust had coalesced — quite copacetically for a youngish would-be television producer with a yen for Ray Bradbury stories — around the alleged crash of a spaceship near Roswell, New Mexico, in July of 1947.
How Roswell, a relative nonentity among other early flying-saucer events, rose to ultimate prominence as the Ur-UFO tale by the turn of the century is a long, contentious, fascinating saga. Suffice it to say that Carter took the then-bare bones of Roswell’s evolving legend (dark, stormy night; spaceship crash; recovery of dead alien bodies; ruthless government cover-up of the event; subsequent corrupt dealings between interplanetary robber barons) and articulated a new, acutely aware slice of American mythology. His Roswell is a reconfigured bump in the night full of permeable dimensions, quivering alien Jell-O-bots, and a vicious cabal of controlling overlords who want nothing less than to expand their globalist interests beyond the stars and make sure no one else gets a piece of them. The selling out of your species is nature’s greatest crime, Mulder and Scully realize, to their eternal horror, something only Goldman Sachs could come up with.
“We built from the early controversy about Roswell and the stuff around it,” said Carter, who has a B.A. in journalism and spent much time taking notes at UFO conventions during the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when topics like what was “really” going on at Area 51 were first discussed. For Carter and the story he wanted to tell, the timing was perfect. It was a time of runaway paranoia, a crescendoing reaction toward authority spurred by events like Waco, Oklahoma City, and all the rest that have led to a thick layer of persecution complexes from every side of the aisle.
Carter calls Steven Spielberg his “movie hero,” but, born on the back end of the boomer generation, he never could quite buy into the warm and fuzzy aliens who deplaned from the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His vision, he allows, is “darker.”
It is a darkness that fit the times and still assaults the soul in the best of the X-Files’ “mythology” episodes. The frozen fetus in “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” the gassed aliens in the buried boxcar in “Anasazi,” the periscope of the atomic sub poked through the ice at the top of the world in “Endgame,” the curl of death from the black-lunged hell of the Cigarette Smoking Man that spreads throughout the room — these are the images that fill the subconscious folklore of disillusioned American anxiety, right there with the psyche test in The Parallax View and Laurence Harvey saying, “Twelve days of Christmas, isn’t one loathsome enough?” in The Manchurian Candidate.
But, of course, that was then, and this is now — a now that includes the aftermath of 9/11 and a thousand more takes on the dystopic future of the Republic, the red and blue pills of The Matrix included.
Could the X-Files reboot keep pace with all that? Sure, the fans wanted it. They couldn’t wait to hear that funky little graveyard-whistle theme music again. For many 20- and 30-somethings, The X-Files filled the function that programs like The Twilight Zone, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and the short-lived, Roald Dahl–hosted Way Out did for earlier generations. You never forget your first scary show. Others were curious to know how Mulder and Scully (still hot!) were getting along as they edged toward middle age, their highly fraught personal relationship still hypothetically in the balance.
But what of the bigger mythological questions, the creeping sense of fear, the stalking eschatology, the feeling that everyone you met had been abducted at some time in their life, including you? Had Carter found his perfect moment back in the verging cultural claustrophobia of the 1990s, and is it gone now? Is this just a belated victory lap, and no more?
Not at all, Carter said. “So much of what we were talking about has come to pass. We live in a total surveillance culture. The amazing thing to me is that government has admitted it is spying on you, and no one has raised much of a fuss. Even with the revelations of Edward Snowden, people give up their privacy willingly.”
After all, said Carter, “The truth is still out there; it just gets harder and harder to find, which is why you have to keep looking.”