“Anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take it away from him.” – Cigarette Smoking Man
In 1989, with the end of the Cold War on the horizon, The National Interest published a much discussed essay by Francis Fukuyama called “The End of History?” Fukuyama would later turn the essay into a book which came out in 1992. Fukuyama contended that after the turmoil of the twentieth century it had become clear democracy would ultimately win out as the superior form of human government and therefore humanity had reached its endpoint of governmental evolution outside of a few cosmetic changes. Fukuyama did not contend that this meant an end to events, but the essay’s title reflected the overall feeling in the United States after the Cold War: the West had won and the major existential outside threats were gone. The specific conflicts in the rest of the world did not matter to the United States nearly as much as they did when it tried to combat the Soviet Union through proxy states. This sense of victory came as a relief, but it also forced reflection on decisions made over the past decades.
In 1993, The X-Files premiered on FOX, a then lower-tier station whose only hit to date was the animated comedy The Simpsons. The premiere episode drew about 12 million viewers who watched FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate a possible alien abduction to the annoyance of the government. Scully herself was sent to spy on Mulder but soon became convinced his work investigating government conspiracies designed to cover up the existence of aliens needed to be done even if she often doubted his conclusions. Yet The X-Files, created by Chris Carter, was not interested in alien abductions for the sake of fun. Carter and his team of writers (including future Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, future The Man in the High Castle creator Frank Spotnitz, and future Homeland creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa) used alien conspiracies to examine post-Cold War reflections in America. The Cold War had been won but at what cost to the nation’s soul? The X-Files’ answer to this did not turn out to be an optimistic one.
“Sleepless,” an episode in the drama’s second season, is an early example of Carter and his writers examining what moral compromises were made during the Vietnam War. Mulder and Scully investigate Vietnam veterans who are being killed off; the connection between the veterans becomes clear over the course of the investigation: the veterans had all been experimented on during the war with the intention of removing their need for sleep. The experiments worked too well and the men had gone over two decades without sleeping, slowly losing their sanity and gaining powers. While the soldiers were antagonistic, they were also presented as victims of a military out of control, too obsessed with ideological victories to consider human rights.
In reality, the United States did give soldiers drugs during the Vietnam War in order to keep them awake for longer periods of time and militaries across the world, including the United States’, are trying to figure out how to remove the need for sleep in the short term. The extent of the experimentation is not on the level that it is on The X-Files, but the idea of making a super soldier is still prevalent in the military.
At the start of The X-Files’ third season, it weaved Operation Paper Clip, a real event, into its mythology. Mulder and Scully find out Nazi scientists were secretly brought to the United States in order to work on bonding alien tissue with human life, creating an alien-human hybrid that will become the next form of life on Earth.
Needless to say, Operation Paper Clip did not involve alien experimentation, but it did involve taking Nazi scientists and bringing them to the United States in order to work on beating the Soviet Union. President Truman tried to put strict standards on who could be brought over, but the standards were mostly ignored and many who came over were already ethically compromised.
This is far from the only time The X-Files played on Nazi imagery. In the episode “Anasazi,” part of the same series of episodes revolving around Operation Paper Clip, Mulder comes across a box car buried in the desert. Inside of it is a pile of skeletons, presumably alien skeletons, all gassed by the United States government. The similarity to images from the Holocaust is tough to deny. This type of imagery crops up again half a season later in the episode “731” when alien-human hybrids are held at a research facility against their will before being driven by truck to a mass grave and executed all at once. From the other bodies in the dirt, it becomes clear that this is far from the first time such executions took place. The purpose of the executions is not stated outright, nothing ever is in The X-Files, but it can be assumed the intent is to hide the results of human experimentation, either out of fear of exposure or fear of what had been created.
The intent is not to make the United States out to be like Nazi Germany, but to instead show how easily a sense of morality can be twisted when faced with a new threat or even a new circumstance. The factions in the United States weren’t taking these actions because they were capital E Evil like the Nazis; however, whatever the intentions, the actions ended up looking similar. The X-Files wanted to explore what lines the government, and a populace willing to look the other way, would cross in the name of security. By presenting it with the mythology of UFOs, Carter found a way to make it both involving and thought-provoking.
As The X-Files continued, its mythology began to center around a group of influential men known as the Syndicate, men who had made a deal with extraterrestrial lifeforms in the 1970s (many horrific acts, such as this deal, occurred in the 1970s in The X-Files, subtly tying in with the sense of unease around the government and military during the Vietnam War), agreeing to help them so long as the Syndicate was spared when the invasion began. At the same time, the Syndicate tried to work in secret on finding a way to stop the alien invasion, destined to start in 2012. The characters who make up the Syndicate, especially the one known as the cigarette smoking man (CSM), are mysterious in both motivation and morality for much of The X-Files’ run. Carter presents them as capable of immoral actions, sometimes even war crimes, but also keeps in mind the possibility that the work the Syndicate does is for the greater good and that it may be the last hope for a safe world. By the end of that storyline’s run, Carter made it clear that the Syndicate was incredibly corrupt, murderous, and self-centered but also entirely correct about the nature and threat of the alien invasion.
The fate of the Syndicate is similarly complicated. Eventually, the Syndicate contacts the extraterrestrials, selling out humanity since the group sees no feasible way to halt the invasion and no longer wants to risk its members’ lives by looking for a solution. It’s a spineless move, but it also comes with the revelation that each of them has sacrificed and toiled away in the years previous in order to attempt to find a way to stave off alien colonization.
The alien invasion never happens. Instead, a rival alien faction shows up and burns the Syndicate, along with all of their experiments (including the ones that would’ve made it easy for the other alien faction in invade, thus setting back the invasion), alive. In the scene in which this happens, in the excellent episode “One Son,” Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz, along with director Rob Bowman, do not hold back on the horror that the Syndicate faces. All of the members arrive at an empty air force station, the place they believe the aliens will come to rescue them and their families before taking over Earth. The large doors to the air force base open, a bright light shining through, echoing the many other appearances of the aliens. However, human shaped figures step in, all holding long sticks from which flames emerge. These figures are the rebel faction. The members of the Syndicate realize what is happening and urge their family members to go back. It’s too late, though. The rebels surround them and the Syndicate forms a tight circle; after watching six seasons of their machinations it’s remarkable to see them so helpless. The camera tilts upwards, the screen going to black. We hear the sound of fire and then screams.
This segment comes after an episode that outlines all the experimentations and murders the Syndicate had been up to in order to keep their project going. It nicely complicates the audience’s feelings for the Syndicate as the audience now also has to grapple with what they’d do in the Syndicate’s position and if the death of all of its members is a good or bad outcome down the line.
The moral crimes committed in The X-Files are rarely done out of sheer evil. There is always a reason behind them, usually one to do with security and the belief the ends always justify the means. This line of thinking is a prominent one during times of crisis in countries, just look at the Patriot Act or the current extremist responses by Republican candidates in reaction to ISIS, but The X-Files came about during a time when America was not facing an obvious outside enemy. For the first time since the 1930s, Americans could stop and reflect on the decisions the government, specifically the military and intelligence side of it, made during World War II and the Cold War. It’s not surprising the original run of The X-Files went off the air shortly after 9/11, a time when Americans put their faith back in military solutions, a time when calls for regular bombings of all of the Middle East were not uncommon. The X-Files had already hit some bumps in the road, its mythology had become overly complex and it had lost its lead actor, but it’s not difficult to see why a show that centered around questioning morally compromising decisions might not take off at a time when Americans were angry, ready to lash out.
In an ironic move, one of the last season’s episodes dealt with the NSA spying on ordinary Americans, exploring what would happen years later with the Edward Snowden controversy well in advance. Writer Todd VanderWerff wrote about how eerily accurate the episode became in hindsight. While the episode is far from a classic, it’s noteworthy how The X-Files also addressed the moral compromises the country would be making within the next decade.
Now that The X-Files has returned to television for a six-episode miniseries, and one has to think more will come considering its stellar ratings for the first two episodes, it will be interesting to see how The X-Files continues to question the moral actions of the country in a world far different from the one that existed when the show began.