Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The X-Files: Something of a Throwback

courtesy: www.fanpop.com
Sri Lankans love The X-Files. It made childhood and adolescence for many of us, I suppose. Rupavahini and Channel Eye both aired it back in the day. I remember the order: Season One on Monday, Season Three (or Four) on Tuesday, Season Six on Wednesday, and Season Eight (or Nine) on Thursday.

But whatever the season or episode was, however ridiculous, serious, or offhanded the stories were, I watched them all. Didn't miss. Not one episode.

It's been 21 years since the show began. As old as I am now. But I didn't get to see it from the beginning. I didn't start with Episode One. I began with Season Eight.

Season Eight begins when Fox Mulder, a major character, disappears. Someone else is brought in, and for the next two years, I saw or rather assumed that he was the chief player. He wasn't.

The main theme of the story, therefore, eluded me. I didn't know much about government conspiracies back then, except for the Kennedy assassination. I wasn't too much into UFOs, which was a little strange given that children my age were sci-fi fanatics. Perhaps that's why it took some time for The X-Files to get to me. And when it did, there were questions to be asked. Answers to be looked for.

I have been reading up on it since then. I've come to the conclusion that while the divide between art and real-life is thin, it was The X-Files that made me realise just how thin it could get. I didn't know this when I started watching it. The reason why I enjoyed unraveling conspiracies of government-alien collusion, UFO hideouts, and other less-than-obvious theories wasn't that they were partly true, but because they were easy to enjoy. And easy to remember.

It took some time, therefore, to realise that while The X-Files was partly true, the series didn't only undress myth and conspiracy. It did something else. It aimed elsewhere. But at what?

The X-Files was about lies. It was also about those who lied to hide still other lies. And about friends who turned into enemies overnight. Yes, it was a dubious world we were seeing here. "Trust No One," everyone whispered, even those who gained trust and betrayed. It wasn't exactly a black and white universe, but although even the two main players weren't perfect, they were the only characters we could relate to. And this is where we began to love the show.

While the series didn't exactly provide us with answers, it left us with many questions. That didn't worry us though. There's a reason for this. The entire thrust of the show amounted to one thing: the conflict between the real and the unreal. The real was symbolised by science and in turn by the scientist, Dana Scully. The unreal was symbolised by myth, by psychology, and in turn by the psychologist, Fox Mulder. Everyone else, including that agent who I once thought was Scully's one-and-only, John Doggett, paled in comparison.

The X-Files didn't resolve doubts. It didn't need to. A work of art needn't console the human soul always, after all. It can push us. Make us ask for more. As Friedrich Engels once wrote, it is not the function of the artist to resolve every conflict on a silver platter. Doubts remain. Conflicts remain. And in this particular show, there was plenty of both.

This wasn't limited to alien conspiracies, by the way. There were other stories. There were "monster of the week" episodes, which featured mutants, ghosts, devils and demons, and, in arguably the show's most violent episode, incest. The thin line between science and fiction blurred here, even more than it did with the story's traditional, alien conspiracy arc. And we loved them all the more for this.

One thing stood out though. The scientist in Scully prevailed, while the believer in Mulder lost. Science won, speculation and guesswork did not. But there was always that one final scene, where we (almost) got to see the key to the whole story, which could explain everything that remained unexplained. That left us dangling, hooked on, and we could hardly wait until the next episode. In the meantime, we aged by 10 years. And we never noticed.

So if it didn't aim at resolving doubt, what was The X-Files really about?

Maybe it had to do with what drove it all those 10 years. While other TV series depended on plot, this one remained character-driven. To the last. Everything else was peripheral. Secondary. This meant that even if conflict remained unresolved, we still had Mulder and Scully to fall back on, to console ourselves whenever the answers being sought eluded them (and us).

This is what made The X-Files popular. Mulder and Scully. Two names.

No episode undressed conspiracy. It left issues unresolved. Questions unanswered. There were characters who left and characters who came up. By the time we reached the final episode, however, we couldn't care less. And we didn't. We just looked at Mulder and Scully, as they embraced each other, and even as the credits rolled. We waited more than five years for them to come back. They did, but it wasn't the kind of return we wanted. The X-Files: I Want to Believe failed. Horribly.

That's why the series still lives on. It hasn't left us. Never will. Mulder and Scully remain. With us. Those questions they left behind are meant to be answered, yes. But not by them. By us. It's what Engels claimed, once upon a time. Conflicts aren't meant to be resolved on a silver platter. We need to search for the truth. And in The X-Files, the truth was always out there. Perhaps that's what that remarkable show taught us. In the end.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 20 2015