They live in the town, but they have no control over it. For three years, their lives have been at the mercy of shadowy aliens who have slowly destroyed the community, forcing its citizens to work for their enrichment. Parents fear that their children will be taken from them. Some wish to resist, but they are afraid to approach others, because they can never be sure who is on their side. Many of the political and economic leaders of the town, who should lead the resistance, have turned against their fellow citizens and sided with the invaders. Those who can escape flee the town, never to return.
This is not a plot synopsis for The X-Files, or a concept for a new science fiction film, but a description of everyday life in Rockford, Illinois, where our lives are controlled by a federal magistrate in Freeport, Illinois, a Chicago lawyer, a Kansas City desegregation “master,” and their groveling servants in the political, economic, and media power structure of this town. Here, citizens feel powerless, as their property values plummet and their hard-earned money is squandered on such “desegregation remedies” as dinners in expensive restaurants, “owl pellets,” and $10,000 worth of Legos. Parents live in fear of “controlled choice,” doublespeak for a court-ordered plan to yank their children out of neighborhood schools and bus them across town. And those who want to fight, but don’t know how, rejoice when a Republican mayoral candidate mentions personal connections between public works employees and public contractors.
Truth often is stranger than fiction, and in this case, The X-Files has nothing on life in Rockford (though interestingly, Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, has set an episode of his new show. Millennium, in our town). But if these things can happen in Rockford, a city so average that it is often used by pollsters to gauge the pulse of the country, is it any wonder that The X-Files, with its vision of government corruption and conspiracy, is one of the most popular shows on television?
Science fiction has not always been so distrustful of government, and most people probably still associate it with the technological optimism and Utopian progressivism of Star Trek. But it has always had its dark side. In fact, most science fiction of any enduring value never bought into the naive utopianism of Star Trek. The Frankenstein myth, warning of the dangers of technology and of unbridled scientific curiosity, is the most obvious example, but even the stories of a Utopian progressive like H.G. Wells—The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau—are notable for their dystopian view of technology and their skepticism of the innate goodness of man.
The earliest film version of Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau is still the best. The Island of Lost Souls (1932), featuring Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau, captured the intensity of Wells’ story, and set the stage for a generation of science fiction films with the mad scientist at their center. During and immediately after World War II, especially in the popular serials that ran before main features, the mad scientist often turned out to be a Nazi, a foreshadowing of the political undertones that have come to characterize science fiction today.
During the 1950’s, the golden days of science fiction film, skepticism about technology remained an important theme, but the political undertones of the genre became more pronounced. One of the greatest science fiction films of all time is 1954’s Them!, brilliantly (and lovingly) parodied in the 1993 film Matinee. Beginning in the deserts of New Mexico, Them! documents the battle against giant ants, mutations that resulted from atomic testing during World War II. While the main scientist in the film is dispassionate, more interested in understanding than in destruction, Them! serves as a warning against the unforeseen consequences of rapid technological advance.
But Them! also marks the beginning of the anticommunist phase in science fiction film. In the late 1980’s, the conservative establishment began parroting the ridiculous claim (first made, I believe, by Bill Buckley) that throughout the Cold War, Hollywood never made any anticommunist movies. While Them! can stand on the strength of its story, the ants can be seen as American communists, establishing cells (nests) in which new agents are trained (queens are hatched), to go forth and repeat the process until the entire country has been conquered.
In a more general sense, Them! also represents the beginning of an “Us” versus “Them” theme in science fiction. In the earlier mad scientist films, the villain, by definition, operated alone. But as the Red Scare swept the country, Hollywood played upon fears of a united communist movement, coming soon to your town and, perhaps, to your family. By the time of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the anticommunist allegory was so thinly veiled that even a Yalie could see through it.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers also provided a new twist on the “Us” versus “Them” theme. Nathaniel Hawthorne had placed the devil in the wilderness, and in movies like Them!, the threat arose from isolated areas like the New Mexico desert. With Invasion of the Body Snatchers, made at the height of the suburban exodus in America, the devil took up residence in small towns. Throughout the movie, the hero keeps repeating the mantra, “If only we could get to the highway.” To escape from the small town, where one’s neighbors are no longer what they seem—that way lies salvation. As Americans moved into suburban isolation, as the real organic community structures of small towns and cities were replaced by artificial “community organizations” like Rotary, the boundaries of “Us” began to contract, first to the family and, over time, to the individual. It is no coincidence that in Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece, The Martian Chronicles, the aliens first appear as residents of a small town. Those who have read the story, or seen the superb Twilight Zone adaptation, will recall the horror of the ending, when the truth is revealed.
Perhaps more than anyone else. Rod Serling explored the contracting boundaries of “Us.” Serling was a small-town romantic who never really felt at home in Hollywood. Longing to return to his hometown of Binghamton, New York, but feeling that he could never go back, he transferred his love for small towns and his alienation from them to the television screen. For this reason, the Twilight Zone episodes focusing on small communities are among the most terrifying stories Serling ever produced.
With the waning of the Cold War, science fiction writers had to find a new “Them.” Television shows like Twin Peaks took the fear of small-town neighbors to the extreme, while a spate of urban sci-fi/horror movies—often featuring monsters from the sewer—made it clear that the cities weren’t safe either. Even the suburbs took a beating, with one theme in particular—the happy suburban family that turns out to be a band of cannibals—predominating on both television and the silver screen.
But during the 1980’s, at the same time that President Reagan had supposedly restored trust in government and in big business, a growing distrust of their power—and especially of their collusion—began to creep into science fiction films. Sigourney Weaver may have had her hands full with the creatures of Alien, but the movie’s real enemy was the military-industrial complex that wanted to study and use the aliens for its own evil purposes.
Government, in other words, had become “Them,” reflecting a popular belief that our political leaders are at best out of touch with the average American, and perhaps conspiring against him. It was in this climate that The X-Files first appeared in 1993. The show had three strikes against it before the first episode ever aired: it was on the Fox Network; the lead actor and actress were unknown; and Chris Carter had announced that the show would feature alien encounters. Critics promptly panned it, predicting that it would not last a full season.
It is in its fourth season now, and just beginning to hit its stride. While The X-Files was never quite what its detractors claimed—a monster, alien, or freak-of-the-week program—it did cover a lot of traditional sci-fi ground in its first two seasons, and the aliens could be relied upon to show up at ratings time.
Almost imperceptibly, however, a change has taken place. FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder and his partner Dana Scully now encounter fewer and fewer supernatural or extraterrestrial forces, and an increasing number of human threats. Aliens have taken a back seat to government conspiracies. In fact, recent episodes have suggested that most—if not all—alien abductions are a covert operation of the federal government, perpetrated against its own citizens.
In one such episode, “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,'” a novelist interviews Agent Scully about alien abductions. As the story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, we are treated to the usual alien spacecraft, gray aliens with big heads and eyes, and “men in black” who show up after the encounter to intimidate witnesses. But gradually, a different picture emerges. Under hypnosis, one of the “abductees” realizes that the “aliens” that examined her were actually Air Force officers, and that her memories of the event were hypnotically replaced by—as one sinister government agent says—”the usual abduction rigamarole.” As she recovers her memory, she realizes that the alien who told her “this is for the good of my planet” was really an Air Force officer saying “this is for the good of my country.”
Mulder later finds an Air Force pilot wandering half-naked down a country road. The pilot tells a remarkable story of Air Force officers, dressed in rubber suits that resemble the classic gray alien, flying advanced surveillance craft. When Mulder asks him why the Air Force would go to such lengths, he explains, “The enemy sees an American recon plane, they start shooting. They see a flying saucer . . . they hesitate.” What the pilot never addresses, however, is the identity of the enemy. After all, the “UFOs” are flying over American soil, and the “abductees” are Americans. When one of the “men in black” later appears to Mulder, he leaves no doubt who the government considers the enemy to be: “Some alien encounters are hoaxes perpetrated by your government to manipulate the public. Some of these hoaxes are intentionally revealed to manipulate the truth-seekers who become discredited if they disclose the deliberately absurd deception.”
Similar themes run through another episode, “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.” The man in question, whom Mulder often refers to as “Cancer Man,” is the figurehead of the government conspiracy. Since the early 60’s, when he was recruited by the military to assassinate JFK in the wake of the Bay of Pigs, Cancer Man has taken it upon himself to protect the United States from the threat of communism. He murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., when King urged blacks to withhold their support (and their bodies) from the war in Vietnam. James Earl Ray, like Lee Harvey Oswald, was a patsy; Cancer Man was the elusive “Raoul.”
When Gorbachev resigns, Cancer Man thinks that his mission has been fulfilled, but that very night, an actual alien spaceship crashes in Virginia. Cancer Man reveals more about the depths of the government conspiracy when he remarks, “The timing couldn’t be worse. The Roswell story we concocted was gathering momentum. Had them all looking in the wrong direction.”
But this distrust of government was perhaps most evident in “Unrequited,” The X-Files episode that aired opposite Schindler’s List in late February. What is most remarkable about the episode is the deliberate inversion of heros and villains. During preparations for the rededication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., high-ranking military officers are murdered by an assassin who seems to be invisible. The assassin, Nathaniel Teager, turns out to be a POW/MIA from the Vietnam War, deliberately abandoned by the U.S. government. His targets are the three military officers who served on the commission which made the false claim that no American soldiers were left alive in Vietnam. Teager was rescued from Vietnam in 1995, not by the government which had abandoned him, but by a radical paramilitary organization called “The Right Hand.” When Mulder and Scully attempt to interview the group’s leader, viewers expect a confrontation, but the leader goes peacefully, claiming that someday, armed resistance will be necessary, but that day has not yet arrived. (As she arrests him. Agent Scully informs him that, although he is not suspected of either violence or conspiracy, he can be held indefinitely under the provisions of the new, post-Oklahoma City antiterrorism law.) As events unfold, Mulder becomes convinced that the only person telling the truth about Teager is the leader of The Right Hand. When Teager is killed as he attempts to assassinate the final member of the commission, it is hard not to harbor the sneaking suspicion that the wrong man died.
Discussing hypnotism with Agent Scully in the “Jose Chung” episode, the novelist marvels, “as a storyteller, I’m fascinated, how a person’s sense of consciousness can be so transformed by nothing more magical than listening to words, mere words.” Perhaps more than any other television show, The X-Files has taken those words to heart. While it reflects popular suspicion of government, it has also clearly shaped it.
Why is The X-Files so successful? Not because of any popular fascination with aliens, but because, after Ruby Ridge, Waco, Whitewater, Vince Foster, Mena, NAFTA, and GATT, Americans have every reason to believe that their government is being run with a callous disregard for their rights and welfare and for the enrichment of an entrenched ruling class. Why did millions of Americans flock to theaters to watch Independence Day, one of the worst films of all times? Certainly not because Bob Dole declared it a patriotic film, or because Bill Bennett lauded its “family values” (before going into battle, one of the “heroes” marries his live-in lover, a stripper with an illegitimate child). No, they craved the vicarious thrill of seeing the White House and the Capitol blown to bits. Every newspaper or television report on the movie mentioned the crowds wildly cheering at those scenes, and only Bob Dole, who had spent almost half of his life in the Capitol and wished to make the White House his retirement home, expressed dismay.
Government’s new role as “Them,” however, has done little to unite “Us.” The erosion of community, the destruction of bonds between generations, the rootlessness and mobility that characterize our lives today—all have served to narrow the boundaries of “Us.” While most of us distrust centralized political and corporate power, we distrust our neighbors, our relatives—perhaps even our own husbands and wives—even more. Goosebumps, the popular children’s series of sci-fi/horror books, thrives on this theme of familial distrust and paints a dark picture of where we are headed. While traditional fairy tales often cast step-parents as the evildoers, many of the Goosebumps stories present parents and grandparents as incompetent dupes of the evil forces threatening their children, and, occasionally, as the sources of evil themselves. When we can no longer trust even our loved ones, then “Us” becomes “Me” and “Them” becomes everyone else.
The X-Files may present a dark world where resistance is almost futile, but in the real world, there is reason to hope. Here in Rockford, the resistance is beginning to coalesce, and there are signs that the old order—too centralized, too arrogant, too corrupt, and perhaps too cowardly to do what is necessary to maintain power—is beginning to crumble. As citizens gather and reacquaint themselves with one another, “Me” once again becomes “Us,” and they can begin to unite effectively against “Them.” If the same thing can take place across America, then the day may come when science fiction is once again stranger than truth.