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The X-Files – Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Then there are those who care not about extraterrestrials, searching for meaning in other human beings. Rare or lucky are those who find it. For although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways, on this planet, we are all alone.

– Darin Morgan takes his bow

It came from beyond the stars...

It came from beyond the stars…

In many ways The X-Files doesn’t feel like a single show with one cohesive identity. After all, television shows grow and change over time, to the point where it is hard to stick on an episode of the eighth season and insist that it is the same show that it was in the first season. However, more than that, The X-Files feels like a bunch of different voices all tied together, the work of several different creators who each have their own slightly different perspective on how the show works.

The X-Files as written by Howard Gordon is not the same as The X-Files as written by Darin Morgan. Although indebted to a few of his predecessors, The X-Files as written by Vince Gilligan is not the same as The X-Files as written by Glen Morgan and James Wong. Different writers have different strengths, and different perspectives. Watching the show, there is a sense that these are different writers filtering their own perspectives through The X-Files.

Write on!

Write on!

Writing at The A.V. Club, Todd VanDerWerff explained that The X-Files (and specifically Darin Morgan’s work on The X-Files) was what taught him to check the “written by” credit on a given episode of television:

When I was an X-Files obsessed teenager, Morgan was the guy who taught me to check out who was writing which episode, just as soon as I realized that my two favorite episodes of the series so far – Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ (which I am going to write a novel about, I warn you) – were both written by him.

One wonders how many other viewers had a similar experience watching The X-Files, given the number of unique and distinctive voices coming from the writers’ room on the massively popular television show.

From a certain point of (inter)view...

From a certain point of (inter)view…

Naturally, it is impossible to offer any evidence to back this up, any statistics to substantiate the claim, but it is supported by anecdotal evidence. Although Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” casts doubt on the worth of such evidence. Still, an entire generation of television fans came of age watching The X-Files, a show that spun off quite a few influential and successful film and television writers. It is perhaps optimistic, but not unreasonable, to wonder whether it may have impacted the way that some of the audience watched television.

Of course, it is nuts to suggest that The X-Files was the first show to give rise to distinctive voices on the writing staff. Looking at the “written by” credit is generally a reliable way to gauge quality, even on classic television shows. After all, one could almost feel The Sopranos percolating in the back of David Chase’s head as he wrote for The Rockford Files, particularly with episodes like Just a Coupla Guys, The Jersey Bounce and The Dog and Pony Show. However, The X-Files was pretty unique in how it actively encouraged these unique voices to make the show their own.

Alien aliens...

Alien aliens…

The early years of the twenty-first century have seen the development of what might be described as the “TV auteur” theory, the idea of the showrunner as the creative voice responsible for every detail of a successful television show:

Much has been made in recent years of the TV show producer as a creative force on par with the great directors of cinema. The Sopranos’ David Chase, The Wire’s David Simon and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan – all of them have acquired acolytes in the media, in the viewing audience and the chattering classes. Weiner has managed to position himself as the King of the Auteurs – he’d like you to think that no syllable uttered on Mad Men, no suit, no dress, no ashtray, appears on-screen that he has not approved and deemed authentic.

This notion has been reinforced by the tendency to talk about showrunners as singular and defining creative forces in television criticism, but also through the tendency to analyse and explore the work of showrunners in styles similar to that of cinematic auteurs. Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution comes to mind.

An out of this world experience...

An out of this world experience…

It is not an unproblematic view of of the art of creating television, in that it tends to diminish the contributions of other parties to the process. And the approach comes with its own potential problems, as Martin himself will concede. However, there remains an argument that this is a fairly useful critical tool, and there are certain cases where it seems reasonable to apply it. The concept is not unique to the twenty-first century. David E. Kelley’s writing staff would joke they were largely redundant; Aaron Sorkin wrote eighty-seven of the first ninety episodes of The West Wing.

In light of all of this, it is interesting to note that Chris Carter was not that kind of television producer. He undoubtedly had a great deal of vision, and The X-Files was a product of that vision, but he was not afraid to allow others to contribute their own visions. He was happy to step away from his shows for a little while, leaving them in the hands of other writers. The second season of Millennium was overseen by Glen Morgan and James Wong, The Lone Gunmen was run by Vince Gilligan, Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban.

Just in case the audience ever doubted him...

Just in case the audience ever doubted him…

Carter seemed to trust his writers to find their own unique voices and develop their own unique styles – demonstrating a remarkable amount of trust in his staff. Howard Gordon has talked about the atmosphere on the shows, and how Carter encouraged and developed his writers:

It was such a special show, and unique in its ability to tell stories that were stand-alone and compelling, [but it also had] conspiracy theories and monsters of the week, and it had the satire and parody that [X-Files writer] Darin [Morgan] really defined. Vince [Gilligan] did his version of that as well. So it was a show that had its own voice, but also allowed for other voices to add to it. The base was so strong that it allowed for grace notes. I think Chris was wise enough to allow those voices in and give them a chance to be heard.

Chris created a show that had an engine and a voice, and it was incredibly elastic and grew. It attracted talented people. Vince had written a couple of brilliant screenplays before that, and X-Files was great for his voice. Certainly you learned what you can do and what you can’t do on television, and what works and what doesn’t. It was kind of like film school for him. I mean, he’d done these really, really inventive screenplays, some of which got made but none of which kind of hit the sweet spot. They were always kind of more interesting on the page than they were as movies. With Breaking Bad, you really can see a lot of the voice from those early screenplays and from his X-Files episodes.

There is no denying that The X-Files made its mark on pop culture, but it also created a fascinating bunch of writers with unique voices, who went on to develop their remarkable and influential careers afterwards.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

Howard Gordon worked on 24 and Homeland. Glen Morgan and James Wong created Space: Above and Beyond and then the Final Destination series. Vince Gilligan drove Breaking Bad. Even people like John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz, Jeff Vlaming and Tim Minear enjoyed long and successful careers after they finished on the show. All of which is to say that Carter ran a writers’ room that seemed to lend itself to cultivating and encouraging diverse talent.

If it can be said that all these influential people were writing their own version of The X-Files within the confines of the larger show, it makes sense that some of these writers got to write finalés for their version of the show; episodes that bid farewell to the writers’ versions of these characters and of this world. James Wong and Glen Morgan close the door on their version of The X-Files with Never Again. Vince Gilligan bids a fond farewell to two different versions of the show with Je Souhaite and Sunshine Days.

I see...

I see…

Which brings us to Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, what feels like a finalé to Darin Morgan’s quirky and slightly eccentric version of The X-Files. “Goodbye to all that,” it suggests, perhaps a little acerbically, but also sympathetically. This is Morgan drawing down the shutters on his own eccentric little space within the world of The X-Files. The last line of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is a pure distillation of Morgan’s central themes, pushing them into the spotlight one last time.

Of course, this isn’t really Morgan’s goodbye to the world of The X-Files. He would do a heavy re-write on the late third-season episode Quagmire, which feels like something of a coda to his scripts. He would even guest star in Small Potatoes late in the fourth season, passing the quirky comedic baton to a younger generation of X-Files writers. He would write and direct two episodes for the second season of Millennium. Even within The X-Files itself, his spirit would live on in scripts like Bad Blood.

Don't lose your head...

Don’t lose your head…

However, Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” marks the last time that Morgan gets to write an entire episode featuring Mulder and Scully, and so it feels like a big deal. Watching Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, you get a sense that Morgan himself thinks it is a big deal. The result is the purest “go-for-broke” Darin Morgan script ever written for the show, one outlining and articulating themes that have peculated through his work from Humbug through to Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and War of the Coprophages.

This is the most “Darin Morgan” of the Darin Morgan episodes, making it a fine note to end on; barring a few welcome (and deserved) encores. It is confusing and complicated, but delightfully so. It is ambiguous even beyond the norm established on The X-Files. The episode aired in early April 1996, and it feels almost like a wry April Fools joke on behalf of the show. It is hard to imagine a popular prime-time television show on a major network trying something as surreal as this today, let alone the mid-nineties.

A Roky road to success...

A Roky road to success…

Morgan himself offers a somewhat unconventional way to determine just how odd Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” was for an episode of The X-Files: it has a very low body count. Despite the unique flavour of his episodes, Morgan insists that he worked very hard to adhere to the show’s format and style in his other scripts:

The thing I was always careful of was to make sure I had a real investigation, with theories from both Mulder and Scully. I was aware I was doing things differently, but I also wanted to make sure I was doing all the things the show would normally do. In Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, each time Mulder says Clyde is psychic, Scully had a legitimate reason to say he’s not. I did even more in Coprophages, where, in the end, Scully was wrong, but she was right in the beginning, and that’s what the whole show is about: different theories, how to explain certain phenomenon. My scripts had that, and I always had stereotypical ‘boo’ scenes or act-outs [ending an act] with a dead body. I was proudest of Jose Chung, in which only two people died, and I didn’t have a death on an act-out. You get in the habit of saying. ‘Okay, here’s a dead body,’ cut to commercial. But you usually have to have those.

The fact that Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” avoids the show’s “dead body to act break!” conventions seems like its least radical departure from formula. However, it is clear that Morgan was allowing himself a bit more freedom with this script than with his earlier work.

Tough cell...

Tough cell…

Morgan has acknowledged that the episode is complex and difficult to process, taking some measure of pride in that fact:

“I think it worked, for the most part, and even if people are confused–because it is confusing, and purposely so–I hope that they would recognize that for being part of it and enjoy it even more. I just want to get a reaction. I don’t care if they learned anything or got anything out of it. I hope they thought it was funny and moving, and were entertained on whatever level they needed.”

It is worth noting that Morgan works hard to keep the story accessible, with repeated and quoted lines reinforcing the show’s self-referential nature.

Watching the skies...

Watching the skies…

Jose Chung himself notes that “when people talk about their ‘UFO experiences’, they always start off with ‘well, now, I know how crazy this is going to sound… but…'” Appropriately enough, the episode is packed with characters using a variation on that line. “I know how crazy all this sounds,” Roky Crikenson offers before telling his story. “It all seems so crazy,” Harold Lamb reflects. The mysterious Man in Black assures Mulder, “I find absolutely no reason why anyone would think you crazy if you described this meeting of ours.”

This is only one of a number of recurring hooks and callbacks that occur throughout the episode. The words “dead man” pop up repeatedly, as threats or concerns or simple statements of fact – somewhat ironic for an episode with so low a body count. These touches lend the story a fascinating recursive element – drawing attention to its nature as a story where these sorts of elements are not uncanny coincidences, but examples of craft.

A lot to draw on...

A lot to draw on…

It is also worth acknowledging just how much Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” owes to Rob Bowman. Bowman is very ambitious and cinematic director, but he’s also incredibly proficient at conveying information to the audience. He has a beautiful understanding of how television works, and understands how to convey the essential (and often unspoken) information from Morgan’s script to the audience at home. While Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is not the most technically demanding script that Bowman has been assigned, it is one that demonstrates his prowess.

A lot of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” works because Bowman can convey a lot of information elegantly and efficiently, in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. He lets Morgan’s script tell its mind-bending story, but Bowman ensures that the audience is able to follow along. As with most Morgan scripts, Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” rewards repeat viewings. However, Bowman ensures that the audience can get all it needs to know on the first watch.

Scully seems less than convinced...

Scully seems less than convinced…

Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is a delightfully post-modern piece of work. In The Essential Science-Fiction Reader, J.P. Telotte describes it as “one of the most effective and successful examples of a postmodern story line and visual aesthetic.” Lavery, Hague and Cartwright expand on this in their introduction to Deny All Knowledge:

It is not only the episode’s complex narrative structure, however, that makes it both rich and difficult. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is a very postmodern text, ripe with what Eco has called the weight of “the already said”, opulently intertextual and self-referential, studded with allusion upon illusion.

Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is wry and self-aware, and playful. It teases the audience, engaging with them actively – asking them to make sense of events it refuses to explain. Morgan wears his postmodernism on his sleeve. Roky Crikenson’s “Lord Kinbote” is a sly reference to Nabokov’s postmodern masterpiece Pale Fire.

A genre mash-up...

A genre mash-up…

Of course, The X-Files has frequently been discussed in terms of postmodernism – whether a piece of postmodern entertainment, or as a piece of entertainment defined against postmodernism. As Jan Delasara notes in PopLit, PopCult and The X-Files:

The two protagonists’ dedication to truth leads some to claim that The X-Files is not a postmodern text at all. Even though it demonstrates such characteristics of postmodernism as intertextuality and self-reflexivity, several commentators have seen the series as anti-postmodern or post-postmodern. … It may be that The X-Files possesses attributes of more than one cultural or literary period, reflecting, for instance, modernism’s expression of alienation and its stream of consciousness techniques as well as the blurred boundaries and intertextuality found in postmodern texts.

If we want to be wry about it, we could suggest that The X-Files is postmodern about postmodernism. However,  Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” does embrace postmodernism by casually throwing the concept of truth right out the window.

After all, the world of The X-Files lends itself to postmodernism. It has been argued that conspiracy theories are just one expression of postmodernism in modern life:

In a Postmodern world in which scientific claims to “true knowledge” are questioned and merely labeled as social constructionism – that it is the social process and practices of institutions such as Universities and scientists that perpetuate science as “truth”; the discourse of science for some Postmodernist is filed under oppressive regimes that perpetuate universal truth.

Instead Jacques Derrida’s notorious Deconstruction Theory comes vividly to life in that any subject matter is not just open to interpretation but the possibilities of interpretation are endless. In today’s world we see conspiracy theorists operating within this framework. Mistrust in scientific facts and the agents of established social institutions, especially those who endorse the official account of 911 is coupled with the both the ability and license to look at phenomena such as 911, the Iraq war, JFK and the banking crisis and interpret them in any way possible. In fact this is incredibly salient for conspiracy theorists. The Deconstruction Theory rings true in that the narrative of Conspiracy Theory is applicable to any phenomena imaginable. Postmodernists scream out that any phenomena are open to infinite alternative accounts and conspiracy theorists seize on the opportunity.

So a postmodern episode about a movement inexorably tied to postmodernism feels strangely appropriate.

Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is an episode that consciously and confidently calls attention to its own fictionality. There are shoutouts to Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, obvious (and heavy) influences on the show. Jesse Ventura plays one of the Men in Black. Not only is Ventura enough of a public persona that his appearance as an anonymous goon feels surreal, at one point the former wrestler uses a “backbreaker” on a witness – an element designed to remind the audience that they are watching a former wrestler.

Similarly, the episode features Alex Trebek playing a Man in Black with an uncanny resemblance to Alex Trebek; the culmination in a recurring gag that has the show affectionately mocking David Duchovny’s appearance on “Celebrity Jeopardy.” In War of the Coprophages, Scully was seen reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the answer to the question (or the question to the answer) that Duchovny got wrong during Final Jeopardy. Syzygy features “Grover Cleveland Alexander High School”, another reference to a wrong answer (or question) given by Duchovny.

What kind of game are they playing here?

What kind of game are they playing here?

Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” plays with the boundaries between reality and fiction in other ways. Fox’s decision to broadcast the infamous “alien autopsy” tape had already served as a throwaway gag in Nisei. However, here Morgan incorporates Mulder and Scully into the alien autopsy. Indeed, the edited footage is narrated by the Stupendous Yappi, a character introduced in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and played by Jaap Broeker, David Duchovny’s stand-in. Mark Snow gets into the spirit of the episode, dubbing in a cheesy riff on the theme.

Morgan makes the alien autopsy an explicit attempt to capitalise off the hard work done by Mulder and Scully, a fictionalisation of how Fox broadcast Ray Santilli’s fake footage in an attempt to cash in on the success of The X-Files. Watching the footage, was Yappi offers his best Jonathan Frakes impersonation, Scully groans, “This is so embarrassing.” There is a sense that Morgan is having a bit of a laugh at the expense of the network; Nisei had made a point of having Mulder dismiss the autopsy as obvious fake.

Fox's alien autopsy...

Fox’s alien autopsy…

This isn’t the only example of Morgan playing around with the Fox Network. Detective Manners substitutes in “blank” and “bleep” for swearwords that Broadcast Standards and Practices would never have allowed on the air. On the commentary, Bowman and Morgan joke about Morgan’s delightfully stubborn response to the censorship:

And this was where the network demanded that we take out all the less-than-veiled metaphors or whatnot for cuss words and Darin just sort of rebelliously put in ‘bleep, bleep.’

Which actually turned out working better. I can’t thank the censors enough with their help on that one.

The fact that Manners cannot actually swear, and that the episode actually draws attention to that censorship, serves as another effective reminder that Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is a television episode.

Wrestling with conflicting accounts...

Wrestling with conflicting accounts…

Morgan’s delightful fascination with the mysterious workings of Broadcast Standards and Practices is something of a minor theme in his work on The X-Files and Millennium. The writer had received some very strange notes on his script for Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, as to the content of Bruckman’s monologue. The advice was weirdly specific, to the point of swapping out similar words, with little to distinguish their actual meaning.

Morgan’s final script for Millennium, Somehow Satan Got Behind Me, would devote an entire act to the dark magic of network censorship – it is even set on a show that seems eerily familiar. Millennium writers Kay Reindl and Erin Maher would joke in Back to Frank Black about how Morgan would silently sit in on (and take notes during) their meetings with Broadcast Standards and Practices during the second season. It is clearly a subject that Morgan found quite hilarious, perhaps due to the strange union of specificity and arbitrariness.

Dead weight...

Dead weight…

It should also be noted that the character of Detective Manners is named for – and modelled on – veteran X-Files director Kim Manners. According to the episode’s commentary, the show had originally considered casting Manners himself in the role:

I think the truth was that the character was written to curse quite a few times and I think Kim realized that part of his reputation was…

I think he was proud of that. But he just didn’t want to do that.

Manners had a long relationship with Morgan. Manners’ second assignment on The X-Files had been directing Morgan’s first script, Humbug. They also collaborated on War of the Coprophages and Manners directed Quagmire, the last episode of the show to feature extensive work by Morgan.

The naked truth...

The naked truth…

The show even draws attention to the way that it is edited. Scene transitions occur without the use of a cut to firmly delineate one sequence from another; characters stop engaging with one scene and start engaging with another. There is a wry sense of humour to all this. One of the hour’s (many) brilliant gags has Mulder asking a local diner owner if he ever experienced “a period of missing time”, sandwiched between two quick cuts that represent missing team for the audience; and maybe the characters.

Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” even incorporates some frequent criticisms of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson into the script. Recounting his strange encounter with the duo, loner and Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast Blaine Faulkner explains how inhuman they seemed. However, he does not criticise the characters. Instead, Blaine makes some very pointed observations about the actors playing the lead roles.

He could Yaap on all day...

He could Yaap on all day…

Of Scully, he remarks, “Her hair was red but it was a little too red, you know?” Anderson had dyed her hair red to get the role of Scully, and was in fact a natural blonde; Scully was a natural redhead. Of Mulder, Blaine confesses, “He didn’t even seem human. I think he was a mandroid.” Duchovny’s performance style was frequently criticised on the show, to the point where Futurama would quip that he was one of “history’s great acting robots.”

Jose Chung himself feels like the author poking at the show. As portrayed by Charles Nelson Reilly, Chung is a gleefully surreal presence – an author who sense the opportunity for a big cash payday (“money!”) by inventing the genre of “the non-fiction science-fiction.” It is too much to claim that Chung is a stand-in for Morgan. There is simply too much of Charles Nelson Reilly in the role for it to belong to anybody else – the mannerisms, the delivery, the quips.

Writing wrongs...

Writing wrongs…

However, Chung provides an effective vehicle to discuss The X-Files as a story. He is seemingly more interested in the idea of Mulder and Scully waking up together than in any of the particular facts of the case. He provides a way for Morgan to discuss the conventions and rules of the alien abduction scenarios, to drop in the research he has done on aliens-as-stories and to discuss the nature of fiction itself.

For example, Chung is able to ruminate on the similarities between hypnosis and storytelling in a way that would be difficult with any other character, but serves to underscore Morgan’s themes and ideas. “As a storyteller,” he admits to Scully, “I’m fascinated how a person’s sense of consciousness can be… so transformed by nothing more magical than listening to words. Mere words.” It is certainly a romantic idea, the suggestion that the world can be changed with a few well-chosen words. Isn’t that what magic is?

Probing for the truth...

Probing for the truth…

However, with that in mind, Chung also becomes a vehicle for Morgan’s own questions and doubts. After Chung compares hypnosis to the art of writing, Chrissie recalls her own hypnosis experience. “I don’t like what he’s doing,” she admits. “It’s like he’s inside my mind, like… like he’s stealing my memories.” In a way, this could be seen as Morgan’s own ethical concerns about this sort of writing. Is it right to take somebody else’s memories – their experiences, their essences – and turn those into your own stories?

In interviews, Morgan often seems like his own worst critic – he is frequently unhappy or unsatisfied with his work, expressing legitimate concerns about it. The portrayal of the writer in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is less than flattering. The hypnotists re-write Chrissie’s memories to serve their own interests, distorting her sense of self in pursuit of their own agenda. Chung himself is a decidedly ambiguous figure, as much a “trickster” as those Celtic gods he mentions while discussing the Men in Black.

Going off-script...

Going off-script…

Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is not sure what to make of Chung. What little sense we get of his work is portrayed as decidedly hackish. Scully describes his hypnosis-themed novel “The Caligarian Candidate” as “one of the greatest thrillers ever written”, even though the title is a clear amalgamation of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Manchurian Candidate two classic hypnosis-themed stories. Scully certainly seems less-than-impressed with the published version of “From Outer Space.”

Chung is a decidedly cynical author. He is not pioneering a new genre as a literary experiment with any cultural value; instead, he treats the decision to write a book in a new genre as a “gimmick” that “will guarantee it’s landing on the best-seller list.” He is extremely dismissive of his subjects, despite his intent to capitalise on their stories. When Scully describes Roky as “a fantasy-prone personality”, Chung replies, “Agent Scully, you are so kindhearted. He’s a nut!”

Holding him back...

Holding him back…

So Chung is never softened and humanised in the way that Clyde Bruckman was. Morgan saves that for Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”, his first episode written for the second season of Millennium. And, yet, despite that, the narrative retains some sympathy for Chung – perhaps most evident in the way that Morgan teams Chung up with the rational and grounded Scully, suggesting some measure of similarity between the two.

Morgan has always seemed more sympathetic to Scully than to Mulder, so positioning Chung close to her seems almost like an endorsement. Crucially, both Chung and Scully spend Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” ruminating on the idea that “the truth” may not be an objectively verifiable fact. When Scully asks whether Chung is attempting to verify the truth, the author responds, “Oh, God, no. How can I possibly do that?” He clarifies, “Truth is as subjective as reality.”

When aliens attack!

When aliens attack!

This is a pretty earth-shattering concept for a show like The X-Files, and it is telling that Mulder spends much of the episodes on the sidelines – appearing primarily in flashbacks or briefly towards the end of the story. Mulder is a character who has devoted his entire life to “the truth” as a singular monolithic concept. Morgan sees Mulder as being unable to have the conversation at the heart of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, one which suggests truth is not absolute and universal.

Chung’s willingness to realise that puts him a step or two ahead, and suggests that the character is not merely a hack writer or a figure of fun. Chung might be a cynic, but that does not mean that he is wrong. Reilly makes Chung extremely likeable and even charming, even if he doesn’t anchor the episode in the same way that Peter Boyle did. Then again, Clyde Bruckman was at the centre of his story, and Jose Chung is on the outside looking in for his.

Don't look now...

Don’t look now…

While Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” repeatedly draws attention to its on fictionality and to the world that exists outside the confines of the television show, Morgan spends a considerable amount of time critiquing and criticising many of the underlying assumptions of The X-Files as a television show. This is nothing new. Humbug was a criticism of the idea of “monsters”, suggesting that normal is a relative term. War of the Coprophages criticised paranoia. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose seemed to lament the show’s grim fixation on death.

Instead, Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” sets its sights on the very core of the show. It explores the alien abduction and conspiracy mythology that came baked into the show from the very first episode. In fact, Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” makes extensive reference back to The Pilot. The teaser features a car mysteriously losing power, as happened to Mulder and Scully in that first case, leading Mulder to mark that iconic “X” on the road. Again, this is a story of a young couple separated by forces larger than themselves. However, it ultimately takes a sharp left turn.

Sitting on the truth...

Sitting on the truth…

As such, Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” represents the most fundamental of Morgan’s criticisms of The X-Files. Not only does the episode reach all the way back to The Pilot, it also extends into the opening credits. “The Truth is Out There,” the show’s opening credits promise. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” simply replies that the truth is subjective, and deeply personal. There is no universal truth that makes it all magically better. Mulder’s quest is likely to be doomed because it presupposes a single unifying truth, which the episode suggests does not exist.

However, Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” has much more to say about the show and its identity. Here, there’s a sense that the quest for this sort of absolute truth is something personal, no matter how we may try to frame it in broader terms. Chrissie’s plan to save the planet is as personal as Harold’s pursuit of a meaningful relationship. Roky equates “outer space” with “inner space.” Mulder’s pursuit of the truth says less about the world than it does about an emptiness inside himself – sitting in bed, alone, watching the Patterson–Gimlin footage over and over again.

At the heart of it all...

At the heart of it all…

(Morgan also gets points for intimating – somewhat subtly – that Mulder’s entire quest might plausibly be a lie. After all, his memory of Samantha’s abduction was inspired by regression hypnosis. While Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” does not make the connection directly, it does demonstrate how screwy hypnosis can be as a data retrieval tool. It’s a nice way of undermining one of the show’s core ideas, as Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard did in A Dismembrance of Things Past.)

Morgan’s scripts have stressed the idea of Mulder and Scully as oddities. In Humbug, Mulder and Scully were the real freaks. In Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, Bruckman spent most of the episode complaining about how unsettling he found their disconnect from the horrors around them. In War of the Coprophages, Morgan implies that Mulder and Scully are incapable of having normal lives; Mulder’s flirtation with Doctor Baumbridge is doomed, as is Scully’s night off.

Hopes and dreams...

Hopes and dreams…

Here, Blaine Faulker presents Mulder and Scully as literal aliens; viewing them as the men in black – inseparable from the convoluted conspiracies they chase. Similarly, Mulder and Scully wander into UFO lore when they appear in the edited alien autopsy footage. Morgan’s first pitch for the show, Blood, has Mulder initiating a cover-up for the greater good. In War of the Coprophages, Mulder is mistaken for a sinister conspirator by a paranoid scientist. Mulder and Scully are as disconnected from the real world as the oddities they chase, just as surreal and ethereal.

Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” also devotes considerable time to mocking the series’ convoluted mythology. Maybe there are aliens, or maybe there are just men in suits; maybe there are men in suits and real aliens, too; maybe the government is making all this up to manipulate the public; maybe everything is true; maybe nothing is true. It feels like Morgan is gleefully toying with the show’s central conspiracy narrative, to the point where he just goes for broke and offers the audience a cigarette-smoking alien, perhaps the logical culmination of the series’ iconography.

The cigarette-smoking alien...

The cigarette-smoking alien…

With that in mind, the episode becomes even more hilarious in hindsight. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” does not just affectionately tease the show’s convoluted mythology, it predicts a significant portion of it. It is quite likely that this is just coincidence – after all, there will inevitably overlap when you ask different people to put their own twist on similar themes. However, in the style of grand sweeping conspiracy theories, it is fun to wonder and conjecture; to recognise patterns that may not exist outside the heads of the most hardcore fans.

The teaser featuring two different types of aliens is even more ridiculous in the wake of Patient X and The Red and the Black, when the show actually introduced two different types of aliens with a straight-faced seriousness. Schaffer’s repeated insistence that “this is not happening!” would pop up as the title of an eighth season episode. Even the suggestion that the government had faked the existence of aliens in order to manipulate the public – while implied by Nisei and 731 – would become a central mythology point in Gethesemene, Redux I and Redux II.

Holding a torch...

Holding a torch…

While Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” has a great deal of fun with the trappings of The X-Files, involving government conspiracies and ambiguous plotting, Morgan still finds time to examine the alien abduction narrative that underscores a lot of the show. Alien abduction is a familiar narrative, practically a piece of American folklore. According to the narrative rules of The X-Files, if a character claims to have been abducted, then they were likely abducted. However, as a real-world experience, it is fascinating.

“Abduction lore has become so prevalent in our society that you can ask someone to imagine what it would be like to be abducted and they’d concoct an identical scenario,” Scully tells Mulder at one point. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” seems to support her position. The alien abduction at the centre of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” ultimately affects its cast in deeply personal ways. Blaine gets a job. Roky founds a cult. Chrissie finds a purpose. Harold is alone.

A book like that will undoubtedly attract a cult following...

A book like that will undoubtedly attract a cult following…

There is a very credible school of though that suggests alien abduction reports are largely attempts to process subconscious trauma. Sleep paralysis is a common occurrence, and there is some suggestion that people may attempt to work through horrific experiences through dreams that are filtered through alien abduction lore. This would help to account for the four million Americans who claim to have been abducted by aliens.

Morgan has tended to be sympathetic towards Scully. So there it is no surprise when Scully provides this perfectly rational explanation for alien encounters – that the aliens are merely metaphorical constructs that help people to process through more intimate events. “Mulder, you’ve got two kids having sex before they’re mature enough to know how to handle it,” Scully proposes. “It’s a lot more plausible than an alien abduction, especially in light of their contradictory stories.”

Something to chew over...

Something to chew over…

It is interesting that Morgan’s central hypothesis – that the government is fostering myths about aliens for some sinister purpose – may have some basis in fact. Richard Doty has recently come forward to claim that the American armed forces actively encouraged speculation about alien visitations and conspiracies in order to cover up military secrets and operations from the public. Materials concerning UFOs and public misdirection were among those leaked by Edward Snowden.

Inevitably, these revelations are the subject of much debate and discussion. As is the nature with conspiracy theories, there’s a plausible argument to be made that these are all clever attempts at misdirection to throw true believers off the scent. The real UFO hunters will remain faithful in their pursuit of the truth about extraterrestrial life. Then again, the truth is a flexible concept. Everybody has their own truth, their own meaning, their own perspectives.

No way, Jose...

No way, Jose…

Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” feels like a finalé to Darin Morgan’s version of The X-Files, one that decides to resolve the show’s pursuit of truth by revealing that the truth is at once infinite and non-existent. It is something that everybody must find for themselves, and not an absolute that can be derived through a scientific process. Like reality, truth is ultimately unique to each individual. Perhaps we spend too much time looking up to the stars, and not enough focusing on what is right in front of us.

After all, one need not look to the sky in search of something alien. Alienation is something a lot less exciting and a lot more mundane – the paradoxical idea that feelings of utter loneliness might somehow be a universal experience. It is a feeling the permeates Morgan’s work, from Lannie’s fear of abandonment in Humbug to Bruckman’s desire for empathy in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. For his final full script for the show, Darin Morgan ties it all back into the show’s big themes.

Not a by-the-book episode at all...

Not a by-the-book episode at all…

After all, in our own ways – to paraphrase Chung’s closing line – we all feel a little alien sometimes.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the third season of The X-Files:

2 Responses

  1. Amazing review thanks!

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