The Truth Is Still Out There
The Truth Is Still Out There
The X-Files and 9/11
Abstract and Keywords
Chapter Nine discusses the impact of 9/11 on American popular culture. At the time, media experts predicted that 9/11 would transform film and television forever and lead to a new wave of patriotism. Pundits argued that anti-government shows such as The X-Files had been made irrelevant by 9/11 and would be relegated to obscurity. The chapter argues for the relevance of The X-Files to 9/ll; the series had anticipated the spread of global terrorism, and its spin-off, The Lone Gunmen, had even eerily predicted details of the 9/11 attacks. The chapter examines “The Truth,” the last episode of The X-Files, and treats it as a critique of the emerging War on Terror. It then shows that later films such as The Dark Knight and television series such as 24 did not cease to be critical of government in the wake of 9/11, but instead followed the model of The X-Files.
What does this science fiction have to do with anything?
—Special Agent Kallenbrunner, “The Truth”
From the beginning it was difficult to separate the significance of the events of 9/11 from the significance of the media representation of them. The impact of what happened that day was bound up with the fact that it largely took place on live television, with the whole world watching. The terrorists who planned the attack no doubt were counting on media coverage to magnify its impact and thus to achieve their sinister purposes. With the media rushing to cover such a shocking event, their commentary quickly turned into meta-commentary, as they began to discuss not just the event itself, but also how they were covering it. Within days, if not hours, of the event, media commentators began speculating about how 9/11 would affect American popular culture. At times, the talking heads on television seemed concerned as much about the cultural impact of 9/11 as about its political, economic, and military implications.
The End of Irony?
Under the stress of a profoundly traumatic event, the media experts were understandably tempted to make apocalyptic pronouncements. Soon a consensus seemed to emerge: after 9/11, American popular culture would never be the same again.1 Cynicism about America was out; patriotism would return to movies and television. The mood of the moment was crystallized in a Time magazine article by Roger Rosenblatt entitled “The Age of Irony (p.278) Comes to an End” (September 16, 2001). In words that resonated throughout the mediasphere, Rosenblatt powerfully argued that “one good thing could come from this horror”: Americans would wake up from three decades of insisting that “nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously.” In opposition to a postmodernist attitude that “nothing was real,” the events of 9/11 would serve as a reality check for Americans: “The planes that plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were real. The flames, smoke, sirens—real.” From this perception, Rosenblatt went on to predict a return to patriotism: “The greatness of the country: real.”2 Rosenblatt's eloquent rhetoric struck a responsive chord in America, especially among those who had long felt that movies and television were letting down their country, failing to offer images embodying its traditional values and instead debunking its icons of national greatness. The heroic responses to the 9/11 crisis by firefighters, police, military personnel, and ordinary citizens were genuinely inspirational and, many commentators argued, would serve as new and invigorating models for American popular culture. Many predicted that the traditional all-American hero would soon be returning to movie and television screens.3
The events of 9/11 certainly had an immediate impact on television. In the first few days following, broadcasting schedules had to be hastily reshuffled. For example, the Fox Network cancelled a showing of the movie Independence Day (1996) advertised for September 15. The movie's trade-mark shot of the White House exploding was exactly what Americans did not want to see so soon after witnessing all-too-similar disasters in the real world.4 Late-night talk show hosts such as David Letterman and Jay Leno were candid about their reluctance to go ahead with their normal comedy routines at a time when the nation was more inclined to grieve than to laugh.5 To focus on a trivial reflection of a very serious situation: the wacky family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle (2000–2006) had to retool. Since its beginning the show had featured a subplot involving Francis (Christopher Masterson), the oldest son in the family, being exiled to a military academy. The show mercilessly satirized this institution as fascist, with a particularly repellent commandant named Edwin Spangler (Daniel von Bargen), a grotesque caricature of an authoritarian personality. When the sitcom began its third season on November 11, 2001, it took only a week for the show to find a way for Francis to flee the military school and head to Alaska to work at a resort. I may have been the only person to make anything of this development at the time—the country had more important things on its mind—and (p.279) I have never seen any explanation from the producers of the series. Yet I cannot help thinking that Commandant Spangler was a casualty of 9/11. In its own small way, Malcolm in the Middle confirmed what commentators like Rosenblatt had argued. After 9/11, one of the most cynical shows on television now drew the line at making fun of the military in any form.
The mainstream of popular culture—especially television—may have changed its tone in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but the spirit of the American people is not easily contained and controlled. The cultural elites had passed a death sentence on irony, but it was by no means clear that the American public was ready to carry it out. Popular culture always has a way of colonizing new media, especially when they offer greater freedom of expression. As a result, since the 1990s a good deal of American popular culture has migrated to the Internet. And it was to websites and e-mail that one had to turn in mid-September 2001 to get a fuller picture of how Americans were reacting to the terrorist attacks and to see that, despite everything else they had lost, Americans had not lost their sense of humor.
One hesitates to repeat in print the obscene and cruel jokes that almost immediately began circulating about Osama bin Laden via e-mail, and the computer-generated graphics suggesting how to deal with him and al-Qaeda soon proved that American ingenuity—and irony—were still very much in play. Irony began to resurface in semirespectable public venues with surprising speed. The splendidly irreverent and politically incorrect satirical online newspaper The Onion quickly decided not to pull its punches. As early as its September 26, 2001, issue, it ran several tasteless but hilarious headlines: “U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We're at War With,” “American Life Turns into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie,” and “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves In Hell: ‘We Expected Eternal Paradise for This,’ Say Suicide Bombers.” By October 4, The Onion was even making fun of the national obsession with how the events of 9/11 would affect popular culture in a story headlined “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care about Stupid Bullshit Again.” As the article explained:
Three weeks after the horrific attacks that claimed more than 6,000 lives, many Americans are wondering when their priorities will finally be in the wrong place again. Some are wondering if their priorities will ever be in the wrong place again.
“In the aftermath of this horrible tragedy, people find themselves cruelly preoccupied with the happiness and well-being of their loved (p.280) ones, unconcerned with such stupid bullshit as the new Anne Heche biography or Michael Jackson's dramatic comeback bid,” said Dr. Meredith Laufenberg, a psychologist and family therapist at UCLA Medical Center. “Who knows how long it will be before things are back to normal?”6
In short, the cultural elite may have prematurely proclaimed the end of irony because they were looking in the wrong places in an American popular culture that had found new outlets and had become increasingly decentered and diversified. But even the mainstream media could not do without irony for long. I would date the official end of the end of irony to a much-publicized exchange on NBC's Saturday Night Live (September 29, 2001) between the show's executive producer Lorne Michaels and then New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Seeming to reflect the somber mood of a chastened entertainment industry, Michaels was seeking official sanction to return to business as usual in comedy from the man who more than anyone had come to personify the agony of New York in the wake of 9/11. Michaels soberly asked the mayor, “Can we be funny?” In a soon-to-be legendary reply, Giuliani said with a straight face, “Why start now?”7 We were expecting Giuliani to answer as the mayor of New York, perhaps saying something statesman-like: “We have been through a lot, Lorne, but we do need to maintain our sense of humor.” But instead, Giuliani replied as “the mayor of New York,” a character in a comedy sketch scripted for him by the SNL writers.
Here was irony in its most postmodern form: Giuliani self-consciously playing himself, and playing himself for laughs. And for most New Yorkers, as well as most of the nation, this exchange showed that irony can be cathartic. Precisely because it gives us some distance on our emotions, it can help us come to terms with them. The commentators calling for the end of irony had forgotten that it has a healthy role to play in any culture. That is why irony has such a long history, stretching back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Before calling for the end of irony, commentators might have remembered that its most famous practitioner was a man named Socrates.
From what we saw of South Park (1998– ) in chapter 6, it should come as no surprise that it quickly chose to deal with 9/11 and its aftermath, and to do so with irony and irreverence. Just two months after 9/11, on November 7, 2001, the show aired an episode called “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants” (#509), in which it contrived to send its four young heroes to (p.281) Afghanistan to confront their counterparts among Afghani children.8 As its title indicates, this episode takes the terrorist leader, who by this time had been elevated in the media to quasi-mythic status, and treats him with the utmost contempt, cutting him down to size with the force of sheer ridicule. The show suggests that the best way to deal with bin Laden would be just to kill him, in as humiliating a fashion as possible. Accordingly, South Park, in full Looney Tunes mode, casts bin Laden as Elmer Fudd and Cartman as Bugs Bunny and subjects the terrorist to one embarrassing scene after another, culminating in the exposure of the tininess of his genitalia. Finally, bin Laden is executed by an American soldier putting a gun to his head, in a moment that eerily anticipated his actual fate ten years later.
At the same time, however, the show satirizes various forms of what it presents as overreaction to the terrorist threat in the United States. It shows the boys forced to wear gas masks to school and subjected to the sort of searches that were becoming mandatory in many areas of American life. A television news report speaks of how “more and more cases of terrorist-related AIDS continue to grow.” The episode repeatedly points to the exaggerations, distortions, and misinformation being spread by the media in the wake of 9/11. It also makes fun of the political rhetoric that 9/11 generated. The boys are in Afghanistan to return a goat sent from there by four children, in return for the four dollars the American children had sent to Asia on the recommendation of President Bush. Ever the diplomat, Cartman explains to the Afghani children about the goat: “It was choking on the sweet air of freedom in America, so we brought it back to your crappy country.”
At a time when Americans were honestly wondering how people from other countries could possibly hate the United States, South Park had the daring to suggest that the reason might be that the United States was involved in military operations all around the world. Considering how soon this episode aired after 9/11, it is remarkable how far it goes in challenging received opinion on terrorism. One of the boys even expresses sympathy for terrorists when he first arrives in Afghanistan: “No wonder terrorists come from places like this! If I grew up here, I'd be pissed off, too!” The boys try to defend the United States to the Afghanis: “Do you really think your civilization is better than ours? Your people play games by killing animals, and oppress women!” But South Park allows the Afghani child to make a sharp retort: “It's better than a civilization that spends its time watching millionaires walk down the red carpet at the Emmys!” Even the American boys have to admit, “He's got us there, dude.”
(p.282) As we saw in chapter 6, South Park can be surprisingly evenhanded in treating issues, and here it distinguished itself by considering how the war in Afghanistan must have looked to the other side. Nevertheless, even South Park felt compelled to end this episode on a patriotic note. One of the boys rescues an American flag from desecration in Afghanistan and says, “America may have some problems, but it's our home. Our team. And if you don't want to root for your team, then you should get the hell out of the stadium.” This may sound like a cop-out, but actually South Park makes an important point. One can be patriotic and still question some of the policies and attitudes of one's country. Here, as elsewhere, the show insists that to be critical of America is not necessarily to be anti-American. In the climate of opinion generated by 9/11, it was useful to remind Americans of their long tradition of tolerating dissent on the most heated and controversial political issues.
Perhaps the most significant and complex case study of the impact of 9/11 on American popular culture is provided by The X-Files (1993–2002). In its eight-season run leading up to the fall of 2001, The X-Files exemplified what media critics had in mind when they complained about a negative attitude toward government in American popular culture. One of the show's mottoes was “Trust No One,” and that meant especially trust no one in government. The show features two FBI agents, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), who are presented as heroic, but only because of their independence from the government—their constant willingness to disobey the orders of their superiors and go it alone in their pursuit of truth and justice. Over the years, The X-Files portrayed the FBI and other government agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as alternately incompetent or sinister. In the seemingly contradictory terms of the show, government agencies are either incapable of handling the simplest problems or involved in complex conspiracies and cover-ups. In the central plot arc of the series, the FBI and other government agencies are shown to be manipulated by a shadowy syndicate masterminding a projected alien takeover of the planet, which involves, among other nefarious schemes, the federal government spying and experimenting on American citizens against their will and without their knowledge. The X-Files raises doubts about the conduct of the U.S. government throughout the Cold War, often presenting its actions as morally equivalent to those of its evil enemies. In a number of episodes, the show takes a cynical attitude toward the first Gulf War, even going so far as to suggest that Saddam Hussein was a puppet of the United States—indeed, its creation.
(p.283) Thus, if any show was going to run into problems with a changed American public in the wake of 9/11, it was going to be The X-Files, and Fox chose to delay the beginning of its ninth season by several weeks. In the event, its ratings plummeted in the 2001–2002 season, with the show averaging 8.5 million viewers, down from 13.2 million in the previous season and from a peak average of 18.3 million in 1996.9 By January 2002, the creator-producer of The X-Files, Chris Carter, could see the handwriting on the wall and made the decision to pull the plug on the series. When its last episode aired in May 2002, many commentators chose to view The X-Files as another casualty of 9/11. In a thoughtful—and appreciative—article on the show, Andrew Stuttaford argued that 9/11 had relegated The X-Files to the dustbin of history: “the X-Files is a product of a time that has passed. It is a relic of the Clinton years as dated as a dot-com share certificate, a stained blue dress or Kato Kaelin's reminiscences.” Echoing Rosenblatt and other media pundits, Stuttaford accused the series of not taking life seriously, pointing to its “cynicism, irony, and a notable sense of detachment.” He added, “This is a show where, for all the drama, no one seems genuinely involved—even with each other. … This is Po-Mo Sci-Fi. … It is Seinfeld with flying saucers, another show, ultimately, about nothing. Nothing serious, anyway.” Invoking 9/11 as having transformed the world, Stuttaford dismissed the series as having become irrelevant in the twenty-first century: “The X-Files was a show for self-indulgent, more complacent times, an entertainment for before.”10
TV Prophets of Doom
Sorting out causality in the realm of culture is notoriously difficult, and an argument like Stuttaford's risks falling into the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Merely because the popularity of The X-Files began to decline after 9/11 does not prove that a change in the American public's attitude toward government was responsible for the show's demise. To his credit, Stuttaford admitted that other factors may well have been at work. Nine seasons is a long time for any television series to survive. The X-Files is in fact the longest-running science fiction show in TV history (by comparison, the original Star Trek lasted only three seasons). Well before 9/11, media critics began wondering whether the 2001–2002 season would—and should—be the last for The X-Files.11 Many argued that the show had suffered a significant decline in quality ever since its fifth season, or at least since its seventh. For a show that often depended on the shock value of its (p.284) episodes, The X-Files was running out of novel plot twists. Moreover, casting problems threatened to doom the show once its stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, began to lose interest in continuing in their roles. In the eighth and ninth years of the show, this uncertainty left its creators unable to plan out whole seasons in advance, as they had done so successfully in the past. Duchovny's absence from all but the final episode of the ninth season was probably enough by itself to sink the series. The attempt in the eighth season to introduce two new FBI agents to pick up the slack from Mulder and Scully never really caught on with X-Files fans. In short, the show had probably run its course by the 2001–2002 season, and attempts to attribute its demise to a post-9/11 change in mood in the American public probably overemphasize the importance of sociopolitical factors.
More to the point, if Stuttaford's thesis were correct, The X-Files should by now have long since slipped off the pop culture map. Instead, a significant segment of the public continues to be very interested in the show. The X-Files has been highly successful in syndication and is still rebroadcast regularly on several channels in the United States and on the BBC in Britain. DVDs of the show have also sold very well in various forms of packaging and repackaging. Despite Stuttaford's confident prediction, The X-Files has not gone the way of Kato Kaelin, ending up as a mere footnote in pop culture history. On the contrary, The X-Files has emerged as a permanent feature of the American pop culture landscape. New television shows and movies continue to draw upon its legacy and refer to it in implicit and explicit ways.12 Far from being made outdated by 9/11, The X-Files actually pioneered a model of what post-9/11 popular culture would be like. Some critics were saying this even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. An October 23, 2001, New York Times article on how horror movies might have to change after 9/11 quotes Robert J. Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University: “The horror movie is going to move away from the age of Godzilla, which personified this enormous threat of atomic power to destroy things. … Instead, it's going to be much more on the ‘X-Files’ model, where the villain is elusive and perhaps conspiratorial.”13
Perhaps The X-Files did not generally receive the credit it deserves for modeling the post-9/11 world because media pundits did not want to face up to a disturbing truth: the show had predicted a new age of international terrorism with uncanny accuracy. The X-Files is one of the darkest and most unnerving shows in the history of television, especially in the way it dwells on the nightmare aspects of globalization. Its horror stories often focus on (p.285) how the increasing dissolution of national borders is unleashing new and terrifying forces in the contemporary world, forces that threaten to undermine and destroy the American way of life. X-Files plots often deal with the migrant as monster and the monster as migrant. In episode after episode, various forms of alien creatures, whether extraterrestrial or not, penetrate U.S. borders and have to be hunted down by Mulder and Scully. The show rests on the premise that in the age of globalization, the nature of the threat to the United States has undergone a fundamental transformation. Gone are the Cold War days when America had faced a single, clear-cut enemy in the form of the Communist bloc and the central fear was of nuclear annihilation. The X-Files accurately reflected the fact that by the 1990s, the enemies of the United States were no longer coming neatly packaged in the form of hostile nation-states like the Soviet Union.
Again and again The X-Files suggests that in a globalized world, threats will take more shadowy, diffuse, and mysterious forms, difficult to pin down and hence difficult to deal with. Many episodes center on the threat of terrorism, both international and domestic, and the line between the two is often difficult to draw. The X-Files is especially interested in bioterrorism, and several episodes portray the threat of plague and other forms of disease being spread around the globe by sinister but unidentifiable forces. As I summed up the basic situation in The X-Files in a book published in September 2001:
The X-Files portrays a kind of free-floating geopolitical anxiety that follows upon the collapse of the clear-cut ideological divisions of the Cold War. … [It] presents a post–Cold War world that, far from being polarized in terms of nation-states anymore, is interconnected in all sorts of clandestine and sinister ways that cut across national borders. … The central image of threat during the Cold War was a nuclear explosion—destruction that starts at a clear central point and spreads outward. The central image of threat in The X-Files is infection—a plague that may begin at any point on the globe and spread to any other—thanks to international air travel and all the other globalizing forces at work today.14
Does this sound like a television show that is irrelevant in the post-9/11 world?
In fact, when the events of 9/11 were quickly followed by the anthrax scare, and scenes of personnel in hazmat suits decontaminating whole buildings (p.286) suddenly filled the airwaves, the real world seemed to have been plunged into an X-Files episode. I remember thinking at the time not how outdated the series was, but how prophetic it had turned out to be. Life seemed to be imitating art in the form of The X-Files. But the most prophetic moment the show produced came not in the series itself, but in its spin-off, The Lone Gunmen (2001). The titular characters are three paranoid conspiracy theorists who run a tabloid that seeks to expose various forms of government cover-ups and evil deeds. Introduced in the first season of The X-Files as aides to Mulder in his FBI investigations, the characters were treated semi-comically and became very popular with fans of the show. Eventually the X-Files team decided to give the Lone Gunmen their own series, produced by the same people who had made the parent show successful (Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban, and Vince Gilligan).
The new series debuted on March 4, 2001, with a pilot episode punningly entitled “Pilot” because it deals with piloting an airplane. Incredible as it sounds, the episode portrays an attempt to pilot a commercial airliner into the World Trade Center in order to create an international incident. Of course the episode does not get all the details right—it involves a Boeing 727 rather than a 757 or a 767, and the fictional flight is heading for Boston's Logan Airport, not departing from it. Still, the resemblance of the fictional story to the actual events of 9/11 was chilling for anyone who, like me, remembered the Lone Gunmen episode on that fateful day in September. It seems to me very odd to claim that 9/11 demonstrated the irrelevance of The X-Files to the twenty-first century when the creators of the show had anticipated the details of the disaster better than anyone else in the twentieth century, including U.S. intelligence agencies.
To be sure, in the TV episode, the plane headed for the World Trade Center is being piloted not by Islamic terrorists, but by remote control, and at the last moment the Lone Gunmen succeed in freeing the regular pilots to fly the 727 on their own. The plane merely grazes one of the Twin Towers, and disaster is averted. As for the explanation of the “terrorism,” true to the conspiratorial worldview of The X-Files, in the Lone Gunmen episode the plot has actually been hatched by a faction within the U.S. government. As the father of one of the Lone Gunmen explains it: “The Cold War's over, John, but with no clear enemy to stockpile against, the arms market's flat. But bring down a fully loaded 727 into the middle of New York City and you'll find a dozen tin-pot dictators all over the world just clamoring to take responsibility and begging to be smart-bombed.”15 In their commentary (p.287) on the Lone Gunmen DVD set, the producers of the show talk about how difficult it was for them just to view the episode after 9/11. Frank Spotnitz says, “I actually couldn't bring myself to even look at the episode again until I sat down to prepare for this interview today.” They regret having presented a plot so close in its details to 9/11 as if it had been planned by the U.S. government itself. Commenting on the episode's explanation of the events depicted, one of the producers says, “The irony is there are people out there who believe this to be true”—referring to all the conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks having been executed by the U.S. government, not by Islamic terrorists.
The deeper irony is that the existence of this Lone Gunmen episode has itself fueled conspiracy theories about 9/11. Refusing to accept the idea that the anticipation of 9/11 in this television show could have been a mere coincidence, conspiracy theorists have offered the episode as proof that some people in the United States must have known about the World Trade Center plot ahead of time.16 Some theorists have seized upon the fact that, like The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen was broadcast on the Fox Network, which is owned by the wealthy and powerful media mogul Rupert Murdoch. These people insist that Murdoch must have been actively involved in producing the episode, perhaps trying to warn the public about what turned out to be the 9/11 terrorist attacks, perhaps trying to create disinformation about them in advance. There could be no better example of art and life blurring together than the way in which the pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen has become woven into conspiracy theories about 9/11. In this case, television has become part of the reality it is supposed to be merely representing.
But if we are to believe the Lone Gunmen producers—and I think that we should—they were as shocked as anybody by what happened on 9/11. In the DVD commentary, Spotnitz says of the morning of 9/11: “My first thought was the Lone Gunmen. … ‘I hope this has nothing to do with what we did on television six months ago. … I hope we weren't somehow guilty of inspiring this.’”17 Given the amount of time that was required to prepare for the 9/11 attacks, Spotnitz and his colleagues were safe in assuming that they were innocent of having contributed in any way to what happened. Nevertheless, they are troubled by their strange “prediction” of the World Trade Center disaster. A number of government authorities, in defense of their failure to anticipate 9/11 and their lack of any contingency plans for dealing with this kind of attack, have said that such a terrorist act was unimaginable. And yet in working on the Lone Gunmen pilot, the X-Files team did imagine it.18 As (p.288) Spotnitz says about his assumptions at the time, “If we thought about some-thing like this happening, then the government certainly has thought about something like this happening. When it actually happened in real life, six months after this was broadcast, I just was shocked that there was nothing in place … to prevent something like this from happening.” Unfortunately, the events of 9/11 confirmed not only the X-Files vision of the rise of global terrorism, but also its vision of the U.S. government's inability to deal with this development. The kind of bureaucratic infighting and snafus The X-Files frequently portrays in the FBI and other government agencies turned out to be all too real. As subsequent investigations revealed, various government agencies had reason to believe that a terrorist attack was imminent in September 2001, but their failure to share their information and other errors prevented them from doing anything to forestall the disaster.
“The Truth” At Last
Perhaps, then, those who chose to dismiss The X-Files in the wake of 9/11 were shooting the messenger. Far from being wrong about the world we now live in, The X-Files had portrayed it all too accurately. Disturbed by what they saw in that mirror, critics decided to blame the representation for what it revealed about the underlying reality it was representing. As the series approached its final episode, many commentators seized the opportunity to proclaim its irrelevance in the post-9/11 era, but they never bothered to analyze the episode itself.19 They thereby missed a chance to see whether The X-Files might have anything important to say about the post-9/11 world.
Watching “The Truth” air on May 19, 2002, I was so caught up in the excitement of seeing the last-ever episode of The X-Files that I was unable to view it critically. Seeing it years later on DVD, I would have to say that “The Truth” is not an example of The X-Files at its dramatic and intellectual best. Chris Carter and his crew were trying to accomplish too many things at once in this episode. As drama it suffers from being overburdened with retrospective exposition, nostalgia, and the sheer emotional weight of making the last show. Oddly enough, in light of the criticism of the show at the time, the strongest aspect of the final episode is its contemporary relevance. Unwilling to go down without a fight, Carter came out swinging in “The Truth.” At a time when movies and television were heeding the media pundits and trying to avoid any content that might be considered antigovernment, the final episode of The X-Files remains true to the series’ motto of (p.289) “Trust No One.” “The Truth” has turned out to be almost as prophetic as the “Pilot” episode of The Lone Gunmen. Just as the Bush administration's War on Terror was ramping up, The X-Files chose to deliver a timely warning against its tendency to disregard civil liberties and to deprive people of their fundamental legal rights.
In “The Truth,” Mulder breaks into a secret government facility and is put on trial for supposedly killing a soldier in the attempt. The episode is largely devoted to showing how brutally Mulder is treated in detention and how unjustly he is treated during the trial. Early in the episode, he is kept incommunicado in a military prison. The parallels with the U.S. government's detention facility for terrorist suspects in Guantánamo Bay were obvious at the time and have become only stronger as more information has emerged about how the government has treated its prisoners at the Cuban base.20 Mulder is being held in secret, with no access to legal counsel and no way to communicate with his friends and allies. In the opening sequence, he is brainwashed by vicious military guards, who, in Orwellian fashion, keep asking him, “What are you thinking?”21 He is deprived of sleep, beaten, and tormented in an effort to break his spirit and get him to confess his guilt. At a time when most Americans were not inclined to think too closely about what their government was doing in Guantánamo, The X-Files was confronting them with images of what can happen when there is no public scrutiny of the treatment of prisoners.
Mulder's friends at the FBI, including Scully and Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), finally find out that he is, in Skinner's words, “being held … indefinitely,” and are able to come to his aid. But they seem virtually helpless in the face of a coalition between the military and the FBI to ensure that Mulder is convicted. FBI deputy director Alvin Kersh (James Pickens Jr.) has always had it in for Mulder; and he is told by General Mark Suveg (William Devane) that he will preside over Mulder's trial. Suveg makes Kersh's task clear: “I want a verdict—a guilty verdict.” Then, in typical X-Files fashion, he ominously adds, “There are forces inside the government now that a man would be foolish to disobey.” This seems to be Carter's comment on a political turn for the worse in post-9/11 America.
As for Mulder's trial, it is a classic case of a kangaroo court. In the director's commentary on the episode in the DVD set, Kim Manners says that Carter's model for the trial was the Australian movie Breaker Morant (1980)—a powerful story of military subordinates taking the fall for the misdeeds of their imperialist superiors. In “The Truth,” every aspect of the trial (p.290)
Condemned to death by lethal injection, Mulder is rescued by his FBI allies (in one of several plot developments in the episode for which the viewer is insufficiently prepared, Kersh inexplicably comes to Mulder's aid (p.291) and helps him escape). Instead of fleeing to safety through Canada, Mulder heads with Scully to one of the series’ favorite locations, the deserts of New Mexico (site of the infamous UFO incident at Roswell in 1947 and hence where the story all begins for The X-Files). Here the episode's plot gets murky, especially for anyone unfamiliar with X-Files mythology. In a remote mountain cave, Mulder finds none other than the chief villain of the series, the sinister Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). We had every reason to believe that he had been killed off in an earlier episode, but somehow he survived and somehow he has made it to this mountain retreat, where he is cared for by an old Native American woman.
None of this action is well explained, and at this point the plot appears to be driven by considerations not of narrative logic but of thematic symbolism. The most striking fact about the scene is that the hitherto urbane Cigarette Smoking Man, at home in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., has retreated to a mountain cave in New Mexico. In President Bush's October 7, 2001, address on the first U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, he had famously said, “Initially the terrorists may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places.”22 Because of its initial implausibility, I offer this interpretation with some hesitation, but in the mountain cave scenes of “The Truth,” the Cigarette Smoking Man appears in some weird way to be standing in for Osama bin Laden.23 He has traded in his standard-issue government bureaucrat's business suit and adopted the pose of a shaman. He is referred to as a “wise man” and looks the part of some Eastern sage with his newly flowing long hair. At the climax of the episode, two military helicopters blast him into flaming oblivion by firing missiles into his retreat. Exactly this kind of scene was very much on the American public's mind at the time this episode aired. The U.S. government was promising to deliver a similar blow to bin Laden in his mountain hideaway in Afghanistan.
I am not sure exactly what point The X-Files was trying to make by linking the Cigarette Smoking Man with Osama bin Laden, but a connection that seems logically weak is extremely strong visually in the episode (and television is a visual medium). Just look at these mountain cave scenes with the sound turned off and ask yourself whether what you are seeing was more appropriate to Afghanistan than to New Mexico at the time the show was broadcast. The best I can do to articulate the connection would be this: Native Americans, especially the long-vanished Anasazi peoples referred to in this episode, figure prominently in X-Files mythology. The show criticizes what it regards as a contemporary American empire by linking it (p.292) with the conquest and extermination of native tribes in the course of creating the American nation-state. If “The Truth” is pairing Afghanistan with New Mexico, the suggestion would be that the United States was doing to a Third World people in Asia in 2002 what it had done to natives in America throughout the nineteenth century—namely, using its technological superiority to wipe them out.
As for the destruction of the Cigarette Smoking Man, it seems to be an illustration of the principle of blowback, which was on many people's minds in connection with 9/11. The United States had originally armed and trained the mujahideen in Afghanistan; terrorists were now using those weapons and skills against the United States. Similarly, throughout The X-Files, the Cigarette Smoking Man had participated in one government operation after another directed against indigenous peoples around the world, operations that sometimes bordered on genocide. In the final episode, the government weapons he helped unleash against the world come back to destroy him with a kind of rough justice.
As often happens in The X-Files, opposites come to be equated. Governments turn out to be the mirror images of the evil opponents they rail against; sometimes governments generate the very enemies they fight. In “The Truth,” the Cigarette Smoking Man has retreated to his cave because unusual mineral deposits in the area will protect him against the aliens and the government's supersoldiers. He explains to Mulder, “Indian wise men realized this over two thousand years ago. They hid here and watched their own culture die. The original shadow government.” These words take us back to the beginning of the episode, when Skinner explains that the secret facility Mulder broke into, the Mount Weather Complex, is “where they say our so-called shadow government is installed.” Two shadow governments—the episode is bookended by images of leaders hiding out in mountain caves, protecting themselves while appearing to be indifferent to the fate of their own people. Ever willing to play two sides against each other, the Cigarette Smoking Man moves between these two worlds, the government at the center of power and the remote native tribes on the periphery. In response to 9/11, there was much speculation about where American leaders would go to keep safe during a national emergency. The X-Files could not resist calling attention to the irony of the fact that our nation's leaders might be hiding in mountain caves even as they were directing air strikes against terrorist leaders hiding in mountain caves in Afghanistan.
The finale of The X-Files is characteristic of the series as a whole in the (p.293) way it blurs the line between the persecutor and the persecuted, showing that the victim is the mirror image of his killer. The protean Cigarette Smoking Man, who had already played many contradictory roles in the series, represents at once both the government and the forces it wants to suppress. In seeking to annihilate him, the government is trying to eliminate the destructive forces it originally set loose itself. In a world of terrorist blowback, the mountain cave scenes of “The Truth” make a kind of rough sense. After all, in bombing Afghanistan, the United States was trying to wipe out terrorist forces it had originally armed and trained back in the 1980s in an effort to push the Soviet Union out of the country.
Bush, Batman, Bauer, and Blowback
If we had any lingering doubts about the contemporary relevance of the final episode of The X-Files when it first aired, they have been dispelled by the evidence of a deleted scene that can be found in the DVD version. We now know that “The Truth” was originally intended to conclude with a scene of President Bush in the White House overlooking the Washington Monument (they cast a remarkable look-alike named Gary Newton in the role). Handed a note that evidently tells him that Mulder has escaped, Bush says, “What do you want me to do? I was told this was being handled. The truth is out there now.” The camera then pans to the other figure in the room, and it turns out to be one of the members of Mulder's kangaroo court. Indeed, he is the most sinister of the judges, the one who had been identified by the psychic, Gibson Praise (Jeff Gulka), as an alien and the clandestine orchestrator of Mulder's railroading in court; in the quaint terminology of The X-Files, he is known as the Toothpick Man (Alan Dale). It is this dark figure who was originally going to conclude the episode and hence The X-Files as a whole with ominous words that evoke two of the show's mottoes: “The truth has always been out there, Mr. President. The people just don't want to believe.”
Even by the normally harsh standards of The X-Files, this scene is extraordinarily cynical about the U.S. government. It is the only time in the long history of the series that a U.S. president is shown actively engaged at the heart of the great conspiracy the program purports to chronicle. By having Bush speak the words “What do you want me to do?,” the show suggests that the U.S. president is merely the puppet of shadowy forces of which the American public is willfully ignorant. One of the commentators on the deleted scene says, “I'm so happy we cut this scene,” and perhaps this decision is evidence (p.294) that even The X-Files felt a need to exercise some self-restraint in the wake of 9/11. Yet further comments on deleting the scene suggest that the real reason for doing so was aesthetic, not political. The producers wanted to end the episode and the series with the highly emotional exchange between Mulder and Scully that brought the original broadcast to a close. But what-ever the reason for deleting the Bush scene was, its mere existence gives some insight into the political attitudes of The X-Files and emphasizes how much it was engaged with the realities of the post-9/11 world. Precisely when media pundits were calling for movies and television to get on board with the program and become cheerleaders for Team America, The X-Files had the courage to remain true to its long-term mission of providing a voice of dissent in popular culture. In sum, even though the plot and the symbolism of the final episode of The X-Files are often murky and perhaps inconsistent, it is still clear that the series was engaging with some of the fundamental issues that had been raised by 9/11 and its aftermath. The attitude the show took toward those issues may not have pleased media pundits at the time, and they had every right to criticize the show's position, but it was unfair to say that The X-Files had simply been made irrelevant by 9/11.
As for the prediction of a total transformation of American popular culture after 9/11, very little of what the pundits prophesied in the fall of 2001 has come to pass.24 As we have seen, in the immediate weeks and months after 9/11, there were many signs of film and television producers altering their plans in an effort to avoid upsetting and displeasing a traumatized American public. But as for the long-term effects of 9/11 and its aftermath, films and television seem to have become more cynical than ever about government.25 I originally wrote this chapter in the summer of 2008 and chose that moment as a representative sample of American pop culture. The biggest blockbuster of that season was the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, a film that in its scenes of urban destruction on a mass scale clearly evokes 9/11. Insofar as it is an allegory of a post-9/11 world, it suggests that the good guys have become virtually indistinguishable from the bad guys. Batman (Christian Bale) must operate outside the law and resort to the tactics of the villains in Gotham City in order to combat them successfully.26 In particular, the Caped Crusader must rely on morally and legally dubious practices, such as kidnapping foreign citizens on foreign soil and eavesdropping on a massive scale on the citizens of Gotham City in the name of protecting them. The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a chilling portrait of a terrorist, a man who is not interested in money or any of the other usual (p.295) goals of criminals, but who is destructive because “some people just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker is actually shown triumphing in the film, because he manages to turn the most upright man in Gotham City, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), into Two-Face, a crazed vigilante who seeks vengeance at any price. After Dent dies, the only way justice can prevail in the world of the film is for the authorities to cover up his crimes to preserve the myth of his being a decent and just civic official. The Dark Knight may end up endorsing the need to violate civil liberties in order to combat terrorism, but its portrait of government officials comes very close to what The X-Files typically shows.27
Two other popular superhero movies in the summer of 2008—Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk—portray the federal government in general and the military-industrial complex in particular in a sinister light. In both cases, the government literally produces monsters and unleashes them to wreak havoc on its own cities on a scale that dwarfs the devastation of 9/11. Iron Man explicitly connects the operations of the U.S. military-industrial complex with terrorist threats coming out of Afghanistan from a group called Ten Rings. Both movies provide powerful metaphors of geopolitical blowback. A third blockbuster hit of summer 2008, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Skull was reviewed with this opening line: “Steven Spielberg's fourth Indiana Jones adventure is the best very special episode of The X-Files ever!”28 Spielberg's film heavily borrows its plot elements from The X-Files, with references to the 1947 Roswell incident, alien autopsies, and extraterrestrial forces colonizing the Earth in earlier periods of history. The film is cinematically nostalgic, with a loving recreation of the 1950s as it was visualized in film, including a teenage hangout, perfect in all the details. It takes us back to the “simpler” days of the Cold War and even features that great treat of 1950s films, a nuclear explosion. But the film does not take a 1950s attitude toward the 1950s. The main villains are from the Soviet Union, but it portrays FBI agents as their moral equivalents. Just as in The X-Files, the McCarthyism of the FBI is presented as the mirror image of the Stalinism of the KGB.29
The popular Fox series 24 (2001–2010) is frequently offered as the alternative to The X-Files and an example of a patriotic response to 9/11.30 The show celebrates the actions of a government counterterrorist unit and makes a hero out of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) for risking everything, including his own family, to foil terrorist plots against America. But 24 is much closer to The X-Files than it may at first appear. Bauer is much like (p.296) Mulder and Scully—he succeeds not because of, but in spite of, the government agencies he works for and with. 24 goes just as far as The X-Files ever did in showing how bureaucratic incompetence and infighting hamstring government efforts to deal with terrorism. Bauer is, if possible, even more insubordinate than Mulder and Scully, and even more of a lone wolf and a loose cannon. Both The X-Files and 24 suggest that the government is completely dependent on mavericks among its agents in order to protect America against its enemies. Following its own rules and procedures, the government would succumb to bureaucratic gridlock. Only the determination, initiative, and resourcefulness of independent-minded agents can save the day. Even within government, a sort of free enterprise principle is necessary to accomplish anything. The highly centralized, top-down control of bureaucratic organizations cannot respond well to crises. Only the bottom-up, flexible responses of agents in the field can adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and prevent disasters.
As for the portrait of government leaders in 24, it did offer a very attractive model of a president in the figure of David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), but it went on to show Palmer assassinated on the orders of his successor, Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin). In Logan, 24 created perhaps the most loathsome U.S. president ever portrayed in popular culture—a figure who is obviously meant to conjure up memories of Richard Nixon, but who in the end makes “Tricky Dick” look like Mr. Nice Guy by comparison. Logan turned out to be literally a traitor to the United States, colluding with the Russians and countenancing a terrorist strike against American citizens in a conspiracy that would have shocked even Fox Mulder. Looking carefully at 24, one would conclude that the spirit of The X-Files is very much alive in American popular culture in the post-9/11 era.
At a party celebrating the conclusion of the broadcast run of The X-Files, Sandy Grushaw paid tribute to its creator: “Chris Carter didn't just create a show for our time, but for all time.”31 A Fox executive is not exactly the most objective judge of one of his own network's series, and Grushaw's evocation of Ben Jonson's famous encomium to Shakespeare may be a trifle over the top. As with all cultural products, only time will tell how enduring the achievement of The X-Files will turn out to be in the history of television. But I think that it is already safe to say that the rumors of its death in 2002 were exaggerated. The continuing relevance of The X-Files is a tribute to the vitality of popular culture and its ability to perform a gadfly role in American society. The pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen is a powerful reminder that (p.297) popular culture may sometimes glimpse truths that have eluded those in power who are supposed to be on the lookout for just such truths. I am not shocked to find that creative artists can be more imaginative than government bureaucrats. The critics of The X-Files in 2001–2002 mistook political dissent for cynicism about politics. In political terms, popular culture is at its best when it provides not a chorus unanimously singing the praises of the United States and its values, but lone voices raising the questions that must be asked if freedom is to continue to flourish in democratic America.
(1.) For example, NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker was quoted in “The Robins Report” in TV Guide, October 13, 2001, as saying, “This is a watershed moment, where everything in popular culture changes” (37).
(2.) I quote the article from http://time.com/time/printout/0,8816,175112,00.html (consulted July 13, 2008).
(3.) See, for example, Suzanne Fields, “A Reformed Hollywood? More Wholesome Entertainment Poised to Sell,” Washington Times, October 1, 2001, A21. In many ways, these responses resemble the concerns about American pop culture that surfaced immediately after Pearl Harbor in 1941. On this subject, see LeRoy Ashby, With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture since 1830 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), (p.415) 263–271. For the connection between Pearl Harbor and 9/11, see Marcia Landy, “‘America under Attack’: Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and History in the Media,” in Film and Television after 9/11, ed. Wheeler Winston Dixon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), 79–100.
(4.) For a detailed article on how one show, The Agency (2001–2003), struggled to adapt to the post-9/11 environment, including script and cast changes, see Stephen Battaglio, “Tactical Maneuvers,” TV Guide, December 15, 2001, 43–44, 60–61. For attempts by the Bush administration to influence Hollywood production after 9/11, see Dana Calvo and Rachel Abramowitz, “Hollywood May Enlist in Unconventional Warfare,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2001, A6, which discusses a meeting between Bush's senior advisor Karl Rove and high-level Hollywood executives, such as Sandy Grushaw of Fox and Sherry Lansing of Paramount.
(5.) For the way TV comedians reacted to 9/11, see Matt Roush, “Reality Check,” TV Guide, October 20, 2001, 28–32. The article quotes late-night host Conan O'Brien: “I have no idea how we're going to get back to doing this [comedy] again. I make a living acting like an ass, generally. No one's looking to me to put this in perspective” (29). At the time, only Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Show (1999–) seemed willing to challenge the “end of irony” thesis: “Maybe we should wait to make pronouncements about what will happen to us culturally until the fire is completely put out. Why did irony have to die? Why couldn't puns have died? Or would that have been too devastating to Mr. Al Yankovic?” (ibid., 30). Just a month later, however, TV Guide was reporting a return to normalcy among TV comedians (Mark Laswell, “Laughing Matters,” TV Guide, November 20, 2001, 24–28). The article ends with a heavy dose of irony about the end of irony: “Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, whom many blame for starting the epidemic of eulogies for contemporary humor, has since issued a deft retraction in the Washington Post. ‘Only a fool would declare the end of irony. I said it was the end of the age of ironing,’ Carter said, adding a new wrinkle to the debate” (28). For more on the putative end of irony, see my article “Irony Survives,” http://mises.org/daily/837 (substantial portions of this article have been incorporated into this section of this chapter).
(6.) Robert Siegel, ed., The Onion Ad Nauseam: Complete News Archives, vol. 13 (New York: Three Rivers, 2002), 235, 241–242.
(7.) See http://en.wikipedia.org?wiki/Saturday_Night_Live_(season_27) (consulted February 25, 2011).
(8.) For an extended discussion of this episode, as well as a complete transcription of its text, see Sebastian J. Westphal, American National Identity after September 11: Post-9/11 Experience as Mirror Narrative (Berlin: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2007), 63–82, 97–112. This book gives an excellent overview of American reactions to 9/11, especially in popular culture.
(9.) Allan Johnson, “Secret Agents Won't Reveal All in the Finale of The X-Files,” Chicago Tribune, May 19, 2002, Arts & Entertainment (section 7), 5.
(10.) Andrew Stuttaford, “The Ex-Files: Mulder and Scully's Exit,” National Review Online, May 17, 2002, http://www.nationalreview.com/stuttaford/stuttaford051702.asp (consulted January 6, 2006). Among media pundits taking this line on the demise of The X-Files at the time (indeed, on the very same day), I notice in my files an authority I generally find unimpeachable: “Paul A. Cantor, a University of Virginia English professor, said that the end of the series reflects a change in the mood of the country, which has less cynicism about the government after Sept. 11 than it did during the drama's heyday” (Greg Braxton, “Closing the Files,” St. Petersburg Times, May 17, 2002, F30).
(p.416) (11.) As early as February 12, 2000, Matt Roush was writing in TV Guide of The X-Files that “an exhaustion factor has set in among fans” (20). In his predictions in the September 9, 2000, issue of TV Guide for the start of the eighth season of The X-Files, he wrote, “this seems like an excellent opportunity for Carter to find a way for Duchovny and Anderson to bow out gracefully” (8). Responding to Carter's decision to end the series, Roush wrote in the February 9, 2002, TV Guide: “Nothing on TV lasts forever, not even a landmark like Fox's marvelously inventive The X-Files.… Yes, I will miss the show when it signs off in May after nine seasons, a wise but overdue decision. The sorry fact is that I've been missing the series—at least as it was in its prime—for some time. The decline dates back to the fatal decision last season to continue without Duchovny's full-time services…, a move that coincided with the unsatisfying announcement of Scully's miracle pregnancy: two ‘jump the shark’ moments for the price of one” (10). On Duchovny's absence causing the show's decline, see also Johnson, “Secret Agents,” 5.
(13.) Rick Lyman, “Horrors! Time for an Attack of the Metaphors? From Bug Movies to Bioterrorism,” New York Times, October 23, 2001, E3.
(14.) Paul A. Cantor, Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 184–185. This book contains a long analysis of the show in the chapter “Mainstreaming Paranoia: The X-Files and the Delegitimation of the Nation-State,” 111–198. The scholarly literature on The X-Files has become quite extensive. I know of three collections of essays on the show: David Lavery, Angela Hague, and Marla Cartwright, eds., “Deny All Knowledge”: Reading the X-Files (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996); Dean A. Kowalski, ed., The Philosophy of The X-Files (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007); and Sharon R. Yang, The X-Files and Literature: Unweaving the Story, Unraveling the Lie to Find the Truth (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2007). Of the many valuable essays on the show, see especially Michael Valdez Moses, “Kingdom of Darkness: Autonomy and Conspiracy in The X-Files and Millennium,” in The Philosophy of TV Noir, ed. Steven M. Sanders and Aeon J. Skoble (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008), 203–227; and Christy L. Burns, “Erasure: Alienation, Paranoia, and the Loss of Memory in The X-Files,” Camera Obscura 45 (2001): 195–225. For an excellent analysis of The X-Files in a broad cultural and political context, see Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From the Kennedy Assassination to The X-Files (London: Routledge, 2000). Knight notes the diffusion of power in The X-Files: “Paradoxically, then, the more The X-Files promises to reveal a traditional humanist conspiracy of top-down control, the more it seems to paint a Foucauldian portrait of decentered power which is everywhere in the system but in no particular location” (220).
(15.) I have transcribed all quotations from “Pilot” from the 20th Century Fox DVD set The Lone Gunmen: The Complete Series (2004). The quotations from the producers are from either their commentary on the pilot episode or the retrospective feature “The Making of The Lone Gunmen” in that collection.
(16.) By their nature, these conspiracy theories are of dubious provenance and question-able in terms of both authority and motive—and they are mostly to be found on the Internet. I hesitate to dignify them by citation, especially since some of them involve anti-Semitic claims. Nevertheless, in the interests of scholarship, and because some of them offer excerpts from the relevant moments in the Lone Gunmen pilot, I cite three of the sources I consulted: http://www.cloakanddagger.de/media/LONE%20GUNMEN/Killtowns.htm, http://www.thetruthseeker.co.uk/print.asp?ID=1130, and (p.417) http://www.davidcogswell.com/MediaRoulette/LoneGunmen.html (all consulted July 13, 2008). If one is interested in the subject, all one need do is Google “Lone Gunmen and 9/11.”
(17.) I can confirm this account based on a conversation I had with Vince Gilligan when he appeared at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville on November 7, 2010.
(18.) The pilot was not the only episode of The Lone Gunmen that conjured up images that came to be associated with 9/11. “Tango de los Pistoleros” contains this remarkable line about a Department of Defense composite material that confers invisibility: “Saddam Hussein could build a Cessna out of this stuff and fly it right into the White House.” The imaginations of The Lone Gunmen staff were evidently in high gear in 2001 and attuned to the Zeitgeist.
(21.) I have transcribed all quotations from “The Truth” from the 20th Century Fox DVD set The X-Files: The Complete Ninth Season (2004). The quotations from the producers are from either their commentary on this episode or the documentary “The Making of ‘The Truth’” in that collection.
(22.) George W. Bush, “Address on Initial Operations in Afghanistan,” http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911initialafghanistanops.htm (consulted July 21, 2008).
(23.) I owe this insight to Michael Valdez Moses, who has often guided me through the mysteries of The X-Files.
(24.) One of the post-9/11 predictions that turned out to be off the mark was the wide-spread opinion that the attacks spelled the doom of reality shows on TV—the subject of two editions of the Robins Report in TV Guide (October 13 and 20, 2001). One “senior network executive” was quoted as saying of reality television, “My gut tells me it's over. After what's happened here, the audience is going to want uplifting programming—not endless faux reality, where people succeed by screaming and double-crossing.” Tom Wolzien, a senior media analyst at the investment-research firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., made this comment: “Millions of Americans watched thousands of people die in ghastly terrorist attacks in their own backyard. After this kind of unprecedented horror, you have to wonder if anybody will want these reality shows the networks have bet so much on.” USA Network president Doug Herzog joined the chorus: “We know we've entered a whole new terrain.… You have to ask if the values people want to see now are represented in a lot of these reality programs. Do we still want to see people stabbing each other in the back to win a million dollars?” (The three preceding quotations are taken from the Robins Report, TV Guide, October 13, 2001, 37–38.) Polls at the time seemed to confirm these predictions. J. Max Robins reported that a poll taken by Initiative Media “found that since September 11, 57 percent of those surveyed say their taste for these types of [reality] shows has diminished.” ABC Entertainment cochairman Lloyd Braun said, “The pettiness and interpersonal dynamics of people are one of the really interesting parts of these shows. But you have to wonder, after September 11, whether people will look at that now and say, ‘Please, we don't care.’” (The two preceding quotations are taken from the Robins Report, TV Guide, October 20, 2001, 57–58.) All these reports of the death of reality programming on TV proved to be premature; in fact, the genre is now flourishing more than ever. With the benefit of several years’ hindsight, it is easy for (p.418) us today to laugh at the confidence with which these experts made their predictions about the demise of reality TV, but I can understand why they made them at the time. Still, the way all these commentators woefully misread the future of reality TV is good evidence for the wisdom of Jon Stewart's caution at the time not to rush to judgment and, literally and figuratively, to wait for the dust to settle before making apocalyptic pronouncements about the future course of pop culture.
(25.) For a concise overview of post-9/11 pop culture, see Ashby, Amusement for All, 495–500. Ashby concludes, “Within a relatively short time, it seemed that the immediate effects of 9/11 on entertainment were, in fact, negligible or, at best, ephemeral” (498). For a more upbeat assessment of pop culture responses to 9/11, see the Biography Channel program “How Pop Culture Saved America: A 9/11 Story” (first broadcast September 5, 2011). For more views on this subject, see Dixon, Film and Television after 9/11, especially Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Introduction: Something Lost—Film after 9/11,” 1–28; Rebecca Bell-Metereau, “The How-To Manual, the Prequel, and the Sequel in Post-9/11 Cinema,” 142–162; and Jonathan Markowitz, “Reel Terror Post 9/11,” 200–225.
(26.) In the first movie in this series, Batman Begins (2005), the hero goes to the Orient to perfect his fighting skills at the mountain retreat of Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), a religious fanatic who heads an international terrorist organization (obviously pointing in the direction of Osama bin Laden). This plot development suggests an equivalence between U.S. forces and the Asian terrorists they are combating. On this subject, and further analysis of this film in light of 9/11, see Michael Valdez Moses, “Blockbuster Wars: Revenge of the Zeitgeist,” Reason Online, September 30, 2005, http://www.reason.com/hod/mvm093005.shtml (consulted September 30, 2005).
(27.) Debate over the question of whether The Dark Knight comments on U.S. foreign policy quickly came to focus on the issue of whether the film's Batman is a portrait of George Bush and, if so, whether it is a favorable or unfavorable portrait. See, for example, Andrew Klavan, “What Bush and Batman Have in Common,” Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2008, A15. In Chris Nashawaty, “Knight Fever,” Entertainment Weekly, August 1, 2008, 24, the director of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, quotes Michael Caine, the actor who plays Batman's butler, making what I regard as the single most intelligent comment on the film: “Superman is the way America sees itself, but Batman is the way the world sees America.”
(28.) Steve Warren, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” The Hook, July 10, 2008, 60. Notice that The X-Files continues to be a reference point in popular culture even in 2008.
(29.) In reviewing the movie blockbusters of the summer of 2008 I cannot, alas, include The X-Files: I Want to Believe. In fact, the movie did poorer-than-expected business at the box office, perhaps effectively ending the franchise. The disappointing showing of the film might be taken as strong evidence for the claim that The X-Files has become irrelevant in the post-9/11 world. But the situation is more complicated than it at first appears. Having themselves bought into the “X-Files and 9/11” thesis, the producers went out of their way to avoid any possible element of government conspiracy in the new film and dropped most of the trademark themes of the TV series. The advance publicity for the film stressed the absence of antigovernment sentiment in it. For example, in a prerelease interview, Frank Spotnitz assured the potential audience, “I don't think you're going to worry about the government in this one” (quoted in Whitney Pastorek, “The Truth Is in Here,” Entertainment Weekly, August (p.419) 1, 2008, 36). It is ironic that, even as the genuine summer blockbusters were presenting the U.S. government in an extremely negative light, the X-Files film deliberately blunted its political edge and may have thereby destroyed its chances for success. There were other reasons for the film's poor showing at the box office. It had the misfortune of opening one week after the new Batman film The Dark Knight, which emerged as one of the greatest box-office successes of all time and no doubt drained some of the potential audience for a new X-Files film. Moreover, I Want to Believe is an extremely dark, unnerving, and depressing film, with almost none of the humor or light touches that brought comic relief to many of the TV episodes. With very few of the characters remaining alive from the series, the film offered little to die-hard fans other than the chance to see Mulder and Scully reunited and a glimpse of Skinner coming to the rescue. I Want to Believe may have been an excellent movie—a serious reflection on profound issues of religion and science—but it was not a good X-Files movie. Therefore, it would be unfair to judge the relevance of the original TV series to our world on the basis of how this theatrical film performed at the box office. For a review of I Want to Believe that makes a strong case for the quality of the movie and its intellectual depth, see Michael Valdez Moses, “Modern Day Frankensteins: The Return of Mulder and Scully,” Reason Online, August 11, 2008, http://www.reason.com/news/show/128028.html (consulted September 29, 2008).
(30.) For an analysis of 24 in relation to 9/11, see Ina Rae Hark, “‘Today Is the Longest Day of My Life’: 24 as Mirror Narrative of 9/11,” in Dixon, Film and Television after 9/11, 121–141.
(31.) This quotation is from the X-Files DVD documentary “The Making of ‘The Truth.’”