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X Marks the Spot: The X-Files and the conspiracy sphere

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The X-Files all but defined the 1990s. As a television show, it was not only a cultural phenomenon for the majority of its run, but it also set a template for the serialized storytelling that is dominating the current landscape. Beyond that, however, it also defined the decade by helping, for good or ill, to crystallize the conspiracy sphere through its mythology. Creator Chris Carter and the writing team were not only influenced by historical events, real-life government coverups, and claims of alien encounters, but they also influenced, or perhaps created a rallying point for, a growing mistrust of the government, which saw a propagation of conspiracy theories on a level never before experienced, which only grew through the popularity of the internet.

The X-Files revival miniseries is here, so now this quintessentially 90s phenomenon must adapt its mythology to the post-9/11 conspiracy sphere. The show never got to tackle the World Trade Centre attacks, and what came after, when it was cancelled in 2002, as it was just too soon to confront such horror (although the show’s spin-off The Lone Gunmen eerily prophesied a similar event in its pilot episode). The show worked well through its historical influences in its heyday but in the first episode of the revival, “My Struggle,” Carter appears to have thrown every conspiracy theory of the past fourteen years at the wall, with mixed results. Much like the conspiracy sphere itself, the mythology of The X-Files is in constant flux, always expanding and contracting to include or expel notions and concepts as it adapts to the times.

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What is the conspiracy sphere? It is the large web of intrigue that encapsulates all of history and includes everything from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to the Apollo moon landings, the Roswell UFO crash, and Area 51. All of these events and more (all interchangeable) can be linked to each other as one vast conspiracy by a group of people, most often either the US government ,the Illuminati, extra-terrestrials, or all three working together. Real historical events, circumstantial evidence, and wild conjecture get worked up into an enormous lather, to the point where it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. This uncertainty, very real for some, a thought exercise for others, became common currency in the world of The X-Files with its far-reaching global conspiracy, split allegiances, and extra-terrestrial machinations that stretched as far back as the dawn of humanity.

Chris Carter has always been vocal about the influence the conspiracy sphere has had on the The X-Files; cases of alien abduction (“Pilot”), government cover-ups (“Deep Throat”) and allegations of supposed black-budget projects like The Philadelphia Experiment (“Dod Kalm”) were all inspirations for the show. But it is in bringing these elements together with verifiable historical secrets such as Operation Paperclip (“Paper Clip”) and MKULTRA (“Via Negativa”) that The X-Files became a link in the chain of the conspiracy sphere. The show garnered a fanbase of mostly Generation Xers, who as a culture had a growing mistrust for government and authority and many were undoubtedly active members of the conspiracy sphere, while the investigations of Mulder and Scully would either reinforce the theories of this fanbase or even spark new connections. This iteration of the conspiracy sphere is formed out of the post-Roswell era, which would provide a legacy to not only the world of The X-Files but to Generation X as a whole.

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However, after 9/11, public opinion swung back the other way. There became a need to trust authority again, to put our collective will behind the power that represented us, to again make sense of the seeming randomness of world events. With the cancellation of The X-Files in 2002, the show never got to gain the historical perspective on these events like it had for the Cold War that immediately preceded it. Only now, in 2016, can Mulder and Scully confront the dark side of the new millennium. In the past fifteen years since 9/11 the new trust given to authority has been abused, with Draconian methods of global surveillance, “enhanced interrogations” and the prosecution of anyone who reveals governmental misconduct. It appears The X-Files has become relevant again.

The first episode of the new series, “My Struggle,” features Joel McHale as Tad O’Malley, a right-wing conspiracy theorist in the Alex Jones mould, whose belief in an extra-terrestrial plot involving the United States government brings Mulder and Scully back in from the cold. This character is an interesting addition to The X-Files mythos as he represents how the conspiracy sphere now presents itself; as far more right-wing, aggressive and popular, as the internet has made conspiracy theories big business. The main difference is in these larger-than-life personalities who, while not absent during the 1990s, are far more prominent than before. While millennials should be taking The X-Files’ tagline of “Trust No One” to heart like their Generation X predecessors, the online conspiracy theorist says “Trust no one, except me.”

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The idea of Mulder siding with a right-wing internet pundit is problematic to say the least. In the world of The X-Files, Mulder usually turns out to be right, so for him to agree with everything O’Malley says appears to legitimize the darker elements of the conspiracy sphere, those that manipulate opinion for monetary gain (although this point is raised many times during the episode). On one hand it feels like Carter’s reach is exceeding his grasp as he makes a big leap toward relevance in this new paradigm, but on the other, the real-world events that occurred in the last fourteen years must absolutely be addressed by the show. For some, the explanation that has been provided is misguided, but it wouldn’t be The X-Files if it didn’t engage with the conspiracy sphere.

One of the major ways this presents itself is in the long duologue shared by Mulder and O’Malley, wherein the series’ mythology seems to have evolved yet again. In the first nine seasons, a plan for alien colonisation of the planet was in full effect to reach its end in 2012. Since that hasn’t happened, the mythology has been redrawn to suggest that everything Mulder and Scully believed regarding the conspiracy was a lie to hide the real truth, that it was all a smokescreen by the power elite who, rather than being in cahoots with a malignant alien force, have retro-engineered extra-terrestrial technology in order to subjugate and oppress the world. It would be misguided to throw out everything that occurred in the previous seasons of the show, but this isn’t the first time The X-Files has seemingly reversed its stance on its own mythology.

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In part one of season five’s opener, “Redux,” Defence Department whistle blower Michael Kritschgau (John Finn) conducts a similar speech to that of Mulder and O’Malley in “My Struggle,” itself reminiscent of one delivered by Donald Sutherland in JFK. This one recasts what Mulder had seen and learned up to that point about the existence of alien life, as nothing but a ruse on the part of the government to hide their real agenda. Again, this goes back to the role of the show within the conspiracy sphere. Kristschgau draws out and represents one of the many alternate theories about extra-terrestrial phenomena; disinformation. This aspect of the conspiracy sphere suggests that the government wants the public looking for UFOs and little green men while they operate in the shadows, conducting their real agenda in secret, an agenda that seems to be coming to bear in the new series.

This monologue in “Redux” can be taken as a companion piece to the duologue in “My Struggle.” In fact, the theories expounded in the new episode are a continuation of Krtischgau’s, only this time accepting the existence of extra-terrestrials as part of the plot, albeit in a way that the show hadn’t imagined until now. As the conspiracy sphere changes, so must The X-Files, presenting not so much a counter-myth but a sideways glance into a world only a little unlike our own.  After the events of “Redux,” Mulder soon learned that Kritschgau’s “hoax” was in fact all too real, so the proof of this conspiracy will be in the final episode of the revival when Carter, if his track record is anything to go by, will switch gears with a new spin on what came before. Thinking back on the events of “My Struggle,” they feel awfully familiar; Mulder is drawn into a vast web of intrigue by a charismatic outsider, only to see pieces of the whole before they are taken away just as quickly, leaving him with nothing but the burning desire for the truth which, as always, is still out there, somewhere in the conspiracy sphere.

 


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