The X-Files inspired many imitators. Some understood why it was an entertaining science fiction anthology (see Fringe), while others saw it as a great paranoid thriller (see the doomed one-season-wonder Nowhere Man) — there was also plenty of garbage (see Baywatch Nights). But no major network television drama in the years since appears to have grasped the show’s peerless command of American democracy’s terminal decline, nor that decline’s roots in the country’s post-WWII supremacy as a military power.
The X-Files reflects the power dynamics currently eroding U.S. civic life better than many of today’s prestige cable dramas, but it hardly seems fair to compare it to the current era of peak TV. As cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson once put it in the introduction to an X-Files coffee table book, the show is “a final, brilliantly inbred expression of the Age of Broadcast Television.”
Nevertheless, season two of HBO’s The Wire is a pretty instructive comparison: After 12 episodes of trying to build a case against an international trafficker in narcotics and human beings, beleaguered Baltimore police lieutenant Cedric Daniels receives the crushing news that their target, “the Greek,” had been a protected FBI counterterrorism informant all along. It’s a revealing tragedy, a manifestation of all the institutional mendacity and indifference guilty of immiserating Baltimore’s city streets.
It’s also just plain accurate. Will we ever know, for example, everything that counterterrorism informant, Russian mobster, and former Trump real estate associate Felix Sater has used to barter his way through the corridors of power? Where is the full accounting of all the rot that savvy operators like Sater, Whitey Bulger, and others, have spread throughout our justice system?
The Wire could only zoom out on these national-scale bureaucratic outrages a handful of times, but understand that this treacherous shit happened to Mulder and Scully like every other week.
Scully’s whole assignment to the x-files — as a medical doctor who doesn’t share Mulder’s controversial ideas or louche approach to bureau protocol — is framed as a clever staffing gambit to neutralize his work. That the gambit fails can largely be attributed to Scully’s personal integrity (and, sorta implicitly, her Catholic martyr’s approach to career advancement).
The show’s protagonists are repeatedly maneuvered, manipulated, and made into unwilling bloodhounds for the shreds of evidence that their privileged adversaries hope to suppress. Episodes like this (across the quality scale from “The Erlenmeyer Flask” to “Herrenvolk” to “Soft Light”) made a virtue of the narrative stasis typically demanded of episodic television. It built off the same punishing monotonous rhythm that shows like Giligan’s Island had to conform to, telling within that constraint a Sisyphean tragedy about the principled resistance to power and its consequences.
The subversive genius of The X-Files comes not from the pat observation that many of America’s most vaunted institutions are corrupt, but that we are all complicit, compromised as taxpayers, wage slaves, enlisted men and women, government scientists, and so on. Moral action and insubordination become synonymous when one simultaneously works for the enemies one hopes to undo — and reciprocally all those callous deceptions and cold betrayals that come with managing such unruly ‘human resources’ become codified as routine acts of executive-level decision making. Apology is Policy.
At the heart of the series’ sprawling conspiracy plot, the actual high crimes are ultimately secret medical experiments, conducted on unknowing citizens for self-serving aims. Technically, it’s not illegal to hide the truth about aliens. Performing covert science experiments on the public, on the other hand, is a pretty clear human rights violation: one suffered by each of the show’s major protagonists and many of the individuals they meet.
In Season 2’s Red Museum, an entire community of ranchers in Wisconsin is covertly exposed to an unknown substance in their beef cattle — which, of course, Mulder believes is extraterrestrial — while a nearby cult of vegetarians is used as the test’s control group. In Season 3’s Wetwired, an entire Maryland town is hypno-programmed into a murderous paranoid frenzy via devices installed in their TVs by a shadowy cable industry cut-out.
In real life, the entire San Francisco Bay Area; Minneapolis; St. Louis; Winnipeg, Canada; Dorset, in southwest England; the subways of New York and more were targeted for the covert release of airborne bacteria as part of the U.S. Army’s biological warfare testing program. Thanks in some small part to that military assistance, one of the bacteria used, Serratia marcescens, has evolved from a relatively nonpathogenic microbe to a significant cause of in-hospital infections (and some deaths), one that’s increasingly resistant to antibiotics. In November of 1950, the CIA reportedly ran its own bioweapons test on New York city’s subway system exposing an unknown number of commuters to LSD, according to an FBI report and a former researcher at Fort Detrick named Dr. Henry Eigelsbach.
Inmates at California’s Vacaville prison, the Georgia state penitentiary and other state prison systems also became test subjects in the agency’s classified research into potential mind control and truth serum drugs. The CIA’s MK/ULTRA program is justly infamous now, part of the paranoid popular culture and the subject of Netflix documentaries and an ongoing lawsuit in Canada, but the scope of its inhumanity, particularly towards imprisoned black men and recovering drug addicts has barely been reckoned with. To cite one horrifying example, the then-director of Lexington, Kentucky’s Addiction Research Center, Dr. Harris Isbell, working with the CIA through a Navy cover, subjected seven ‘volunteer’ inmates to LSD for 77 consecutive days.
We know next to nothing about the successor programs to MK/ULTRA, Projects OFTEN and CHICKWIT — except that they were supposedly terminated in 1973 and that 130 boxes or so of documents exist on them, somewhere, compared to the 7 boxes that investigative reporter John Marks liberated on MK/ULTRA via the Freedom of Information Act in the late 1970s.
This is what having unchecked black budget operations gives you. This is the world to which Mulder and Scully’s weekly adventures held up a mirror.
Cloaked in the genre trappings of science fiction and supernatural horror — like the pointed political commentaries of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone decades prior — The X-Files is arguably the only American television show to have taken seriously the fundamental contradiction between government secrecy and participatory democracy.
Ask yourself: What TV show holds a candle to The X-Files on political acuity? The West Wing? A Capra-esque fantasy in which a sitting U.S. president would use the 25th Amendment on himself because he’s too stressed out over his daughter’s kidnapping? This is a policy nerd’s vision of how politics might be, not a historian’s assessment of how it is.
What about the neocon jingoist hypotheticals of 24? Or its slightly more left-of-center cousin Homeland? Do you feel safer 15 years into the War on Terror? What about Scandal? A show built on the hot take that maybe PR flaks and crisis managers are actually, secretly, ‘the good guys’? Scandal is a show that recklessly mixed soap opera conventions and contemporary politics until pretty soon one character tortured another on-screen while saying “YOLO.” How about Commander in Chief? Or Madame Secretary? Hillary lost. Designated Survivor? LMAO.
All of these shows (even and especially the darker ones) are nothing but wish fulfillment and escapism despite trying much, much, harder to seem plausible.
Polite discourse in America exists under the shared misconception that the wave of post-Watergate congressional investigations into Cold War abuses of government power — the Rockefeller Commission, the Nedzi and Pike Committees, the sweeping Church Committee investigations — somehow fixed the problem.
Here was a real concrete outcome: Frank Church lost his senate seat, bested in his next election by a campaign coordinated by the National Conservative Political Action Committee and funded by military contractors. Congress did not ban the CIA assassination programs that so shocked the American public and the world, when they were brought to light in the 1970s. Legal authority was left to a series of executive orders that were eventually radically reinterpreted by one U.S. Army judge advocate general acting under the first President Bush.
To the extent there has ever been a reprieve from the incessant, parasitic swelling of the U.S. national security state, it came during that interregnum between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a rare decade when deficit hawks had a slight edge on the warmongers. There have been ebbs and flows, but few reversals.
Somehow, The X-Files managed to get this version of American history on commercial airwaves. It situated its conspiracy plot not in popular paranoid delusions about freemasonry, or the Illuminati, or ancient lizard beings, but in the Faustian bargain that the United States made with the Axis powers after the second world war — absorbing their intelligence networks and scientists and letting their corporate collaborators mostly roam free. One of the show’s senior-level conspirators, Conrad Strughold, takes his name from a Nazi physiologist Hubertus Strughold who never went to jail for his human experimentation, but instead worked for the Air Force and NASA and got an aerospace medical award named after him for 50 years. Imported war criminals from Imperial Japan’s infamous biowarfare and chemical experimentation division, Unit 731, make a critical appearance in one of the show’s best installments from Season 3.
At some point, Mulder and Scully’s beleaguered boss, FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner, is nearly killed by a mysterious assassin they soon learn is a Nicaraguan mercenary with an Iran-Contra scandal pedigree. So many minor details on the show, even comedic beats, tend to pair adroitly with the historical record. Much like Watergate burglar and CIA agent E. Howard Hunt, the show’s iconic Cigarette Smoking Man is an aspiring author of pulpy political thrillers.
The show understood that dangerous far right movements were also trading in conspiracy narratives and deliberately positioned Mulder against them by having him infiltrate a NeoNazi group, in one underated episode, as basically a caricature of his anti-government self.
Critics of the shows later seasons tend to pay short shrift to what an achievement all this is — sometimes casting Chris Carter as a George Lucas-like figure who ultimately ruined his own creation through narcissism and hubris. The comparison is only skin-deep though. Unlike Lucas, who owned Star Wars outright, Carter has had very little control over what Fox does with The X-Files since the very beginning; he really could have only played ball or walked away when his four year-contract ended. He has been a compromised figure, not unlike AD Skinner on the series itself, working as best as he can to protect his team from the uglier, more powerful forces hovering just above them in the org chart.
You’ll notice that I haven’t even bothered to reach for the heavy artillery yet. You are, of course, aware of that The New York Times published a series of stories last December about the Pentagon’s secret $22-million-dollar UFO investigation program. Thanks to the newspaper of record, we now know that the U.S. Navy collected mid-wave infrared targeting data, advanced 3D radar signatures, and multiple professional eye witnesses to a bizarre series of aerial phenomena in November of 2004 off the coast of San Diego.
It’s not just, as Marissa Brostoff put it in N+1, that “Mulder was right.” It’s that Chris Carter was right. The zen surfer child of Watergate, with the best stable of writers he could come up with, created a horror anthology based on the maxim that “it’s only as scary as it is believable” — and in doing so, more often than not, told the truth.
The results speak for themselves. In March of 2001, a goofy X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen, articulated a fully formed 9/11 conspiracy theory six months before 9/11 even happened. Even season nine — universally recognized as a terrible slate of television — managed to call out the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program, a full decade before Edward Snowden.
Today, critical make-or-break moments in U.S. politics, just as they so often happened on the show, are repeatedly swayed by anonymous leaks and shadowy hacks: mysterious figures with opaque motives operating outside the normal checks and balances that we were taught to revere in civics class.
“My power,” as the Cigarette Smoking Man once taunted Mulder, “comes from telling you.”
Hour for hour, the 218 installments of The X-Files constitute of the best political education you can receive on how power is used and abused in American life, without stooping to engage with nonfiction or deigning to read a book.
In my ‘head canon’ version of The X-Files’ final run (the one I use to console myself after the welcome, but decidedly mixed, revival seasons), the Russian cabal introduced in Season 4’s “Tunguska” and “Terma” have not only survived the death of their western rivals, but thrived. Whatever separate peace they have brokered with the extraterrestrials appears to be the order of the day, as they slowly undermine and balkanize their old foes in the ‘free world’ while plucky, but outgunned FBI agents try vainly to figure it all out.
Whatever invasion scheme had been coordinated by the alien ‘Colonists’ and their western ‘Syndicate’ collaborators — with their weird experiments into bees, smallpox, and genetically modified corn — has decayed into full-scale hubris. It appears to be responsible for the collapse of bee populations worldwide.
And, lastly, the wealthy cadre running their mysterious secret space program in the show’s belated 10th and 11th seasons are there too: building their upscale doomsday bunkers; competing in their own privately funded space race; and generally striving to transcend their corporeal forms with blood donations from teenagers.
If you want to get a pretty good approximation of how these stories might play out, all you have to do is read a newspaper.