Analyzing the Title of The X-Files

The first and most superficial meaning of the show’s title refers to the cases that Special Agents Mulder and Scully work during the series. Within this diegetic framework (that is, within the fictional world of the show), the X-Files are a collection of FBI “cold cases” that have not been closed because they contain one or more elements that lack plausible, rational explanations. As such, the X-Files are quite literally the mysteries being investigated.

images-114

Nicknamed “Spooky” by his fellow FBI agents and given a windowless basement office to signify his marginalized status, Agent Mulder is the keeper of these X-Files. His role in the series is to serve as the voice of credulity. He’s the one who gives the series its first catchphrase, “I want to believe.”

The series is launched in the pilot by Agent Scully’s new assignment as Mulder’s partner. The pairing makes sense because Scully’s training as a medical doctor gives her the enlightened rationality that Mulder seems to lack. If Mulder is too gullible, Scully is a skeptic. Also, even though Scully is putatively the junior partner with less experience in the Bureau, her FBI supervisors make clear to her that her job is not only to work with Mulder to close X-Files by finding rational explanations for them, but also to keep an eye on Mulder personally and to report back to the supervisors about his questionable activities.

So, the agents’ job is to research and to close these X-Files, but of course the logic of the series quickly reveals itself. Mulder and Scully are confronted with some answers but not all, and most episodes end by maintaining the insolvability of the mystery in question. The X-Files can never be fully closed because the “truth” of each case never allows itself to be read.

Another way to read the title of the series is to see the X as representing “ex-“ the Latin prefix for “out of” or “from.” As a prefix, ex- can also mean former. As a preposition, the word ex often means “without” or “excluding.” Tying this back to the internal logic of the show, these then are files that are outside or not included in the main body of files. They are outliers, both literally and figuratively. This descriptive way of looking at the X-Files then also makes a clear allusion to the show’s obvious antecedents in American television. Both “Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits” presented similar types of episodes that explored the supernatural, the creepy, and the weird. Not surprisingly all three of the shows have titles that refer to their status as being somehow outside normal experience or existing in a some sort of a liminal space. The “twilight zone,” for example is neither day nor night but always in between. Again, I haven’t been researching the show, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, cites these other shows as influences on his own series. In fact, I’d be surprised if he didn’t.

Continuing this idea of the X-Files belonging to a liminal space, the X in the title is also the Greek letter chi that is often representative of a crossing over or a transition. We see this in everyday usage on road signs that say “Xing” rather than spelling out the word “crossing.” In that sense, the title of the series suggests that it offers place of transition or crossing over for its characters and its audience.

Finally, as a label for the series, this title possesses a final key virtue: it is at once familiar and unfamiliar (which, by the way, is precisely Freud’s recipe for the uncanny). For now, we can just observe that we know what files are. They’re boring, mundane collections of information. Whether on the computer or in manila folders in a big metal cabinet, most of us probably have to deal with files at work all the time. But we don’t initially know what the X stands for, so this adds a dimension of mystery to the title and makes it all the more memorable.

Further, our experience of the show corresponds directly with this initial hit from the title. The X-Files follows the basic pattern of a police procedural with federal agents, the structure of each episode is familiar. A crime or other mysterious event happens, Mulder and Scully go to investigate, they find clues, begin to structure plausible solutions, etc. Yet the discoveries these detective figures make are often unexpected and sometimes defy explain within the normal limits of modern rationalism.

That this standard-issue, late 20th-century rationalism itself has an ideological agenda is where the show begins to venture into conspiracy theory. We tend to imagine that at least as far as science and technology go, we live in a post-ideological world, but The X-Files clearly wants to challenge this notion. Still, I’ll leave that can of worms on the shelf until a future post.

(Re-)Watching The X-Files

Thanks to Netflix streaming services, I’ve recently been re-watching The X-Files in order from the beginning. I have an abiding interest in conspiracy theories so the show is a natural fit for me. However, while I enjoyed the numerous episodes I saw back during the show’s original run from 1993 to 2002, my life at that time wasn’t such that I could watch anything too religiously. So I missed a lot.

images-113

For the most part, the episodes worked as stand-alones since this era when shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were first pioneering their ideas of multi-season story arcs, a bold move back in the 90’s, before the advent of Netflix or Hulu or other “on demand” television providers. It’s true that shows were released on VHS tapes but these still had nowhere near the social currency currently enjoyed by DVD boxed sets in the 2000’s, and they lacked the commentary tracks, alternate takes, and other special features now routinely available on DVD.

The release of shows in DVD boxed sets marked the potential for endless re-watching, but binge-watching a series doesn’t seem to have gained quite the popularity it currently enjoys until shows started appearing via online streaming. As few as five or ten years ago, you still would have had to swap out the DVD in your machine every hour or two. Now you don’t even have to buy anything, just subscribe to an inexpensive monthly service, and if you do nothing but keep watching, Netflix streaming will run episode after episode of a show one full season at a time, and it even conveniently edits out the opening credits so you don’t have to sit through those repeatedly.

Instead, you can stare in full spectatorial wonder without so much as touching your TV’s remote or the screen of your iPad from sunrise to sunset. Or perhaps, as is more commonly the case, from sunset to sunrise, when you groggily turn on your side and hope to catch a short nap before the world expects you as a civilized person to make your first dignified appearance for the day.

I’m not much of a binge-watcher, but clearly the current technology has opened new frontiers in sleep deprivation and social catch-up-ism. Miss the first season or three of that show everyone seems to be gabbing about at the water cooler? No problem. Just bluff your way through a cursory chat and then power through the requisite material over the weekend. Just like with Wikipedia and Shazam, we’ve never had such rapid ability to fake and amass cultural literacy. There’s really no excuse anymore for not watching everything.

Personally, I tend to watch shows and films like I read books, slowly to savor them and to give some attention to detail. For me, the joys of analysis always overmatch our contemporary drive for sheer consumption. I recall a few terms back when I had an undergrad boast to me that his Netflix queue showed that he’d watched over 10,000 films, but I wasn’t overly impressed by this factoid since he had a hard time performing a decent critical analysis of any of the stories or novels we read in class. Shoveling massive amounts of media into your head doesn’t mean you’re actually digesting it,, which is why I have a bit of a hard time watching things that don’t satisfying my interpretive impulse.

Fortunately, only half way through the first season I’m already finding The X-Files holds up. Yes, the clothing and hairstyles are a bit dated. And the technology is occasionally quaint, like when Scully gets paged at dinner and needs to find a pay phone or when Mulder develops old-fashioned rolls of film in a chemical bath or gets lost in the woods and can’t call anyone for help or look up his location on GPS. But these are minor details. The central premise of the series and various phenomena and conspiracies taken up by the individual episodes are still as rewarding and intriguing as they ever were.

I’m taking notes as I go and plan to use episodes along the way to launch into broader discussions here. For example, the pilot starts with the reliable and rational Scully first receiving her assignment to work with conspiracy-minded Mulder. Her exchange with the FBI bosses and her subsequent initial encounter with Mulder warrant some closer scrutiny. Similarly, the second episode, about a missing Air Force pilot, contains the series’ first truly uncanny moment and it’s something I think could serve as the basis for a larger exploration of Freud’s notion of the unheimlich.

Not that all my planned posts will be so densely theoretical, diving into psychological or philosophical esoterica. Not at all. It’s television after all. It’s meant to be entertaining. So you can count on me to also explain why I think The X-Files could be looked at as the anti-Scooby Doo. See, fun!

Finally, this particular post launches a couple new categories for my blog, “television” and “conspiracy theories.” I’m hoping the introduction of both these topics will prompt me to blog more regularly. Next time I write about The X-Files, I plan to start by examining its trio of catch phrases: “The truth is out there,” “Trust no one,” and “I want to believe.” Evocative statements, but what does each of these really mean?

The Revitalization of Heroic Fantasy

A week or so ago, I read a blog post about how epic fantasy is a big waste of time. The author of Pop-Verse argues, somewhat convincingly that 1) “The motherfuckers are too long,” 2) “They are … stylistically similar/identical,” and 3) “They don’t really say anything.” He has a point. After having recently stayed up late to watch the incredibly disappointing, low-budget fantasy picture Deathstalker (1983), a Barbie Benton vehicle with only a few giggling breasts and taut frolicking buttocks to (almost) redeem it from the cinematic dustbin, I’m tempted to agree. Maybe heroic fantasy truly is inherently lame.

MV5BMTQ0MTAxMjIyMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzEzOTQyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_

The tropes of arrogant adventurers, wily wizards, and damsels in distress were already tired by the time they found themselves being recycled into Victorian retellings of dragons and heraldry and deeds of daring-do, and they grew little less tedious even when spilling forth from the pens of literary giants like Tolkien and Eddison and Branch Cabell. Their novels are readable, even admirable, but these days their magic is accomplished primarily through a deliberate leap of faith, a willing suspension of contemporary expectations for rousing storytelling. The novels ultimately seem quaint and charming rather the compelling and vital.

images-106

After a brief infusion of surging hot blood provided by Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories during the 1930’s, these well-worn romances grew even more wearisome in the hands of rank imitators sucking their way through the insufferable 70’s. Writers like Brooks and Donaldson churned out trilogy after trilogy and could find nothing new to bring to the genre. Indeed, even in the hands of relative innovators like Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny, or under the marvelous ministrations of self-conscious prose stylists like Fritz Leiber and Avram Davidson, the fantasy tale continued to wane inexorably through the closing decades of the twentieth century. Personally, I enjoyed the familiar terrain of David Gemmell’s Deathwalker novels and the titillating arabesques of Cole and Bunch’s Far Kingdoms, but neither could finally breath fresh life into the corpse of heroic fantasy.

The genre might have been gracefully buried there. We might have happily reread Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Alexander Dumas’s musketeer novels and been spared the misery of reading any more such lackluster modern recountings of ersatz Arthurs, leftover Lancelots, and make-believe Merlins. Worse things could have happened. But fantasy wasn’t dead. Dungeons & Dragons had inspired the imagination of a new generation. And the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering left a generation poised for the young adult fantasies of Harry Potter and Eragon. The message to other writers was clear… there may be a dragon slumbering on the top of it, but there’s gold in them there hills.

Then along came the new century, and along with it there emerged some truly powerful new voices in heroic fantasy. George R.R. Martin, despite is overly allusive middle initials, proved himself a powerhouse of fresh ideas in fantasy. He dispensed with Victorian pieties, brought Machiavellianism to Middle Earth, and put sex and violence back where it belongs as central to the genre. Has there even been a more wonderfully complex character than Tyrion Bannister this side of the Bard himself?

images-105

The HBO adaptations of Martin’s Westeros leave me a bit over-heated. Not that I mind attractive flesh bouncing bountifully for my viewing pleasure, but it’s a bit distracting from the considerable storytelling virtues I found when reading Martin’s novels. I loved the shifting perspectives, the fully imagined world with serious interpersonal struggles and deadly political challenges. The series still has those elements, to be sure, but it also devotes a fair number of scenes to bawdy spectacle. Far be it from me to complain. The series is a thoroughly enjoyable hit, and it has TV junkies plowing their way through massive novels they might never have attempted. I’m just saying, the novels are better than the series. And we can leave it at that. The problem with porn, even of the soft-core variety, is that once a sex scene is over you have a hard time finding your way back to the main story. The intrusion of one’s own physical desires creates a barrier to the continued suspension of disbelief and the object of entertainment risks becoming ridiculous. Or worse, tedious.

images-104

The other contemporary fantasy writer that has me very excited about the resurgence of the genre is Joe Abercrombie. While he has not (yet) been graced with a television series (or even a film) to launch him into the mass-media stratosphere, his novels bring to high fantasy the same sort of gritty realism that Martin’s do. But there’s even something extra to Abercrombie. Much as I love Martin’s epic scope and wonderful way with characterization, he never quite captures the perverse gallows humor of the genre in quite the way Abercrombie manages. After all, there’s a lot of blood and shit to be spilt on the way to slaying dragons and topping fairy kingdoms. Abercrombie shows how it’s done.

944073

Do yourself a favor and start with Abercrombie’s 2007 debut The Blade Itself, a title taken from the Homer quotation, “The blade itself incites deeds of violence.” You’ll never feel yourself in more sympathy with a crippled turned government torturer. These are fantasy novels that push the limits of the genre and reveal again the hidden depths of social significance that first made Malory and Tennyson meaningful.

Review of Valhalla Rising

valhalla-rising-01

To say that Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009) is a quiet film is not to say that it lacks impact or even action.  There’s not as much action as a typical Hollywood film-goer has been trained to expect, but when violence erupts on screen you can almost feel the blows against your own flesh. Yet, I would still say the film is quiet. As the protagonist, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen utters not a single line of dialogue during the film’s entire hour-and-a-half running time, and very few of the other actors say much more than that.  But even without much dialogue this film speaks volumes more than lesser films manage with their empty banter and their relentless if barely coherent plots.

Some will complain that this film doesn’t have enough of a plot, but again that all depends on what you’re used to seeing on the screen.  Valhalla Rising satisfies itself with a simple and almost plodding story. Ultimately, this film isn’t very concerned with that bare-bones plot; it has other things in mind.  The story, such as it is, follows Mikkelsen as One Eye, a stoic warrior who escapes from slavery as a gladiator and joins a somewhat confused Viking Crusade that sets sail from the Scottish Highlands and ends up in “Hell.”  Mute and half-blind, One Eye proves himself adept surviving through barbaric times with only his brawn, brains and unflinching willingness to use brute force against just about anyone and everyone.  But again, the action that strings this film into a somewhat puzzling story doesn’t begin to describe the visual experience of watching it.

This film compels with its beautiful cinematography.  Under a hypnotic soundtrack, we are stunned by shot after shot of the emerald green highlands, gorgeous evening skies, underwater blues and reds, bare skin speckled with crimson blood, hair matted with mud.  I suspect the problem for most viewers, and the reason this film hasn’t garnered more attention, is that Valhalla Rising is neither fish nor fowl.  The violence is far too shocking and graphic for those who enjoy art-house films but the pace is far too slow and the plot too confusing to hold the interest of those looking for action.  This movie seems sort of like Conan the Barbarian as filmed by Ingmar Bergman, if you can imagine such a thing.

For those who can stomach it, this film offers wonderful rewards, but it’s not for everyone.  After two viewings I’m still pondering One Eye’s final enigmatic action.  Personally, I found Valhalla Rising mesmerizing and powerfully moving.

Four out of five stars.

Science Fiction Summer Course

My online science fiction class at Marylhurst University (LIT215E/CMS215E) has gotten off to a lively start with another batch of great students this summer.  I teach this class pretty much every other year, and I’m always finding ways to tweak the syllabus.  This time around our main texts are Robert Silverberg’s excellent Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964 which we’re using in tandem with Volume One (the 2006 issue) of Jonathan Strahan’s annual Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year series.  These two volumes provide us with a nice variety of science fiction stories across the last century of the genre.  While we can’t read every story for the class, these two books allow us to hit most the high points in the Golden Age from Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke to some of the standout newcomers to the field, like Ian McDonald and Paolo Bacigalupi.  We also read just three novels: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which started it all; H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898), which isn’t my personal favorite of his works but which introduces the important SF theme of alien invasion; and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Dispossessed (1974), which helps us tackle both utopian themes and feminist/gender themes.

To give the students time to read Frankenstein, our first week’s discussion taps into a discussion of the two most culturally prominent SF franchises by reading David Brin’s somewhat dated but still relevant 1999 article “‘Star Wars’ despots vs. ‘Star Trek’ populists”.  I like this piece especially since it allows even those students without much interest or experience with SF to jump right into the fray.  Also, I’ve found people tend to feel pretty passionate about both of these franchises.  We also do a bit of work exploring the line between SF and contemporary technology by reading an interview with noted futurologist Ray Kurzweil and a slightly paranoid rant against the merging of humans with machines by Eric Utne.

This time around I’m also including a lot more films than I have in the past.  This seems important since at least in film and television SF seems to have become accepted as virtually mainstream, whereas SF novels are still somewhat consigned to the genre ghetto except when authors who are already considered “real writers” employ SF tropes in their “serious” work.  This is the only way to account for the different cultural reception of Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin for example.  Yes, Le Guin has achieved broad literary acceptance, but this is often presented as being “in spite” or her being an SF author.  Okay, I know, I know, saying that genre writing isn’t “serious” literature amounts to fighting words in some circles, but the (perhaps) disappearing divide between “high” and “low” art is probably an issue for another blog post.  Scratch that – it’s an issue for a series of blog posts.  I’ll get on that.

So, anyway, we’re watching the following films:

  • Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), dir. Robert Wise
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), dir. Stanley Kubrick
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), dir. Nicolas Roeg
  • The Matrix (1999), dir. Andy and Laura Wachowski
  • A Scanner Darkly (2006), dir. Richard Linklater
  • Children of Men (2006), dir. Alfonso Cuarón
  • Moon (2009), dir. Duncan Jones
  • Hunger Games (2012), dir. Gary Ross

I know I’ve probably opened up a whole can of space worms by publicizing my selections here, but before you reply with your own suggestions (which I welcome), just remember that this list is not supposed to represent the “best” of SF film.  It’s merely a collection of some interesting films that span a lot of years (skewed toward the present, admittedly).  I also wanted to touch on a wide variety of themes and trends in SF.

As always, I’m reading and viewing alongside my students as the term progresses.  No matter how many times I read Frankenstein, I always find new things to ponder.  I’m also excited because as I wrap up my current project on Edgar Allan Poe, I’m starting to consider attempting a longer academic work about science fiction.  Specifically, I think it might be interesting to perform psychoanalytic readings of Golden Age stories and novels.  I plan to take copious notes this term and see where this idea leads me.

Review of Ready Player One

Ready Player One

Okay, so everybody’s trying to write genre-busting novels these days, but Ernest Cline’s first novel Ready Player One gives us a maniacally magical mash-up of dystopian cyberpunk science fiction, rousing action-adventure with a rag-tag circle of heroic friends fighting against the sort of dastardly evil villains you love to hate, and an expertly tangled mystery in the form of an old-school puzzle-based treasure hunt.  It’s Charlie & the Chocolate Factory meets Hunger Games in the Star Wars universe.

Seriously.   And we’re not done yet.

Take what you’re imagining now and add in a joyful mix of 80’s pop culture references from New Wave music to John Hughes films to the earliest beginnings of Dungeons & Dragons (played with paper and pencil and polyhedral dice) and videogame arcades where you played Joust for a quarter a game until your hands were tired and your pockets were empty.

Yeah, I know, what I’ve just described seems like an awful lot for a debut author to pile onto his plate, but what Cline serves up is a heaping helping of cross-genre goodness.  Ready Player One is truly special.  If you have even the slightest latent streak of 80’s nerdiness or techno-geekiness, I guarantee you’re going to love this book.

Set in a dystopian future not too different from the one we’re heading toward with our perfect storm of economic ruin, climate change, and accelerating digitization, this novel portrays a world where everyone lives in the used up real world but escapes as often as possible into an immersive virtual world called OASIS that’s like a cross between Facebook and the Matrix.  When James Halliday, the multi-billionaire co-creator of this virtual realm, dies he leaves his fortune to whomever in the world can first find and solve a complex series of puzzles he’s hidden in OASIS.  Halliday’s clues are cryptic but they set off a global treasure hunt that has our plucky heroes, led by trailer-park orphan Wayne Wade, competing not only with countless other would-be billionaires but also with nefarious corporations who see an easy chance to use their greater resources to cheat the game and claim Halliday’s fortune.

This baby’s got a tractor beam stronger than the Death Star.  Once you’re sucked into its orbit you won’t put it down until you finish it.  You’ll forget to eat, sleep, bathe or walk the dog.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll stomp your feet and scratch your head.  But most of all you won’t want it to end.  This novel is a delight from start to finish and not only because you want to figure out the puzzles but because you need to see what happens to these characters who have started to feel like your own band of best friends.

No joke.  I first read this thing about a year ago and when I picked it back up to recommend it as my favorite paperback novel of 2012, I got pulled back in and had to force myself to lay the book aside so I could write this for you.  So, are we done here?  You’re going to read this book, right?  Good.  Because I’m eager to read this one again right now.  And maybe this time through I’ll even be able to solve the secret puzzle hidden in the text for real world readers.   Cline even promised a tricked out DeLorean to the first person who solves it.  Sure, the contest was a gimmick and the prize has already been won, but this novel is awesome, so even if you don’t get to take home your very own Back to the Future car, you still win!

Five out of five stars. This was my favorite novel that came out in paperback during 2012.