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The X-Files – Nothing Important Happened Today II (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Of course, the ninth season was broadcast in a radically different world than the eighth season.

Nothing Important Happened Today I was broadcast early in November 2001, less than two months after hijackers commandeered control of several airline jets and sent them crashing into various American landmarks. The attacks upon the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon changed the world in a way that very few events can claim. History can be comfortably divided into “before 9/11” and “after 9/11”, a rare marker of cultural significance generally reserved for events like World Wars.

World on fire...

World on fire…

Tom Brokow has argued that 9/11 was “when the twenty-first century truly began.” Anne-Marie Slaughter argued that 9/11 was “the defining event of the new millennium.” Phillip E. Wegner suggested that 9/11 represented the end of “the long nineties” that had begun with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that 9/11 changed absolutely everything. It defined American foreign policy for over a decade after the fact, cemented a culture of anxiety and surveillance, cast an incredibly long shadow over world culture and politics.

Over two-and-a-half thousand people were killed on 9/11. Estimates suggest that up to twenty-one thousand civilians and more than two thousand American troops died during the War in Afghanistan. Studies suggest that up to half a million Iraqis have died of war-related causes and nearly four-and-a-half thousand American troops have died during the Iraq War. These are just the losses that can be tangibly measured; it is to say nothing of the lives caught in ripple effects and unforeseen (or foreseeable) consequences.

Shining a light on what happened...

Shining a light on what happened…

It is very cavalier and insensitive to suggest that The X-Files was a victim of 9/11 in any real sense. With everything else going on in the wake of 9/11, the cancellation of a television show means nothing. The cancellation of a show (even a popular show) is not even a footnote in any account of how the world changed. It is entirely reasonable to argue that The X-Files might have been cancelled even if 9/11 never happened. The show was nine years old, and had just lost one of its two leads. It was entirely possible that the show could never have recovered from that anyway.

Still, The X-Files was a show indelibly and undeniably anchored in the context of the nineties. It was a show that tapped into the zeitgeist in that historical lacuna following the end of the Cold War, when there were no more enemies to fight and where there was room for introspection and reflection about government authority. By the start of the ninth season, the show’s cultural moment had passed.

A Doggett lead...

A Doggett lead…

Chris Carter has argued that The X-Files simply could not survive in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that the attacks marked a point at which the public consciously turned away from the show’s underlying themes about mistrust of authority:

When we started the show in the early nineties, there was still what I would call a lingering mistrust of authority and government, which came as a result of Watergate and other events [such as] Iran-Contra, the Church Committee hearings, things of that nature, that gave an interesting context to the spirit of the show. After 9/11, everything changed. That’s curiously when the show went off the air, when basically we wanted authority figures to protect us; we wanted a strong government and wanted to place our trust in them. In the ensuing years, that’s not only changed back, but I would say our mistrust has been amplified — and for many good reasons.

Indeed, Carter suggests that such things are cyclical. He has argued that such things inevitably come back around. “There was lots more we could have done but we ended at the right time. Things had changed after 9/11… and now the mood is right once more.”

Blowing this thing wide open...

Blowing this thing wide open…

The mood change was dramatic. During the nineties, it seemed like there was a healthy skepticism of government authority and power. In the wake of the Cold War, it seemed like there was time for discussion and exploration of the decisions and policies that had allowed the United States to emerge at the so-called “uni-polar moment.” As the most powerful and influential nation on the planet, the relative tranquility of the nineties invited people to ask tough questions about the government’s accumulation and use of power.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, those questions were largely silenced. Far from asking tough questions about the accumulation and use of power, it seemed like the public was eager for the government to assert even more power. In October 2001, President George W. Bush established the Department of Homeland Security; the organisation would be accused of data-mining and spying on citizens without recourse to due process while also flagging a wide variety of peaceful (and entirely legal) acts as subversive.

Awash in a sea of bad CGI...

Awash in a sea of bad CGI…

At the same time, President George W. Bush sign the PATRIOT (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”) Act into law. The PATRIOT Act massively extended the power of the surveillance state, to the point where its provisions were at the heart of the recent National Security Agency’s phone-hacking scandal. In 2007, the Inspector General of the Justice Department would accuse the FBI of “widespread and serious abuse” of the provisions of the PATRIOT Act.

These measures passed with almost unanimous support. Although the PATRIOT Act has become a political football in the years since, only one Democratic Senator actually voted against the passing of the Act in October 2001. It has been suggested that much of Congress did not even bother to read the PATRIOT Act before it was signed into law, that the document was effectively rushed through without any consideration of its consequences as part of the national mood in the wake of the attacks.

He looks quite Foll(mer) of himself...

He looks quite Foll(mer) of himself…

Even in the time that has passed since 9/11, the apparatus put in place has proven difficult to dismantle. President Barack Obama made much of his desire to close Guantánamo Bay upon his election, while his Secretary of Defence Robert Gates would eventually state that the likelihood of actually closing Guantánamo Bay was very low. Indeed, Obama campaigned strongly on behalf of the PATRIOT Act, renewing many of the powers that it afforded to the National Security Agency. He even extended some of those powers with the National Defense Authorisation Act.

It seemed like the culture had changed overnight. This was a world in which the Cigarette-Smoking Man could feel entirely at ease. While it is tempting to believe that this gigantic security and surveillance apparatus simply sprung into being in the wake of 9/11, the truth is rather more complex. As traumatic as the events and consequences of 9/11 might have been, they did not exist in a vacuum. While the War on Terror might have marked the end of the nineties, it was not a discontinuity in any true sense of the word.

"I really should just get a mobile. The crew hates it when I have to pull in to check my wife's recording my stories."

“I really should just get a mobile. The crew hates it when I have to pull in to check my wife’s recording my stories.”

After all, part of the reason that all of this legislative machinery was ready to spring into action in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was because it was merely an extension of what the legislative and executive branch had sought for quite some time. As Jeffrey Rosen explains, a lot of the political response to 9/11 was opportunistic:

If the Patriot Act were focused on investigating potential terrorists, rather than spying on innocent Americans, then we would still need it. Unfortunately, it was never focused on potential terrorists: many of its most controversial provisions were the same expansions of law enforcement authority that federal and state officials had sought after the Waco siege and the Oklahoma City bombing. In the 1990s, civil libertarian liberals and libertarian conservatives were able to resist this power grab; after 9/11, they were less successful.

A lot of the seeds of the War on Terror were laid during the long nineties, but the political climate allowed for voices raised in opposition. Oppressive legislation could be shouted down as part of a larger discourse on the use (and abuse) of government power in popular culture.

Without a second(-in-command) thought...

Without a second(-in-command) thought…

That impulse to increase the power of the apparatus of state was always there. Indeed, it could be argued that the recent scandal about the NSA spying on American citizens could be traced back to the Reagan administration. The culture itself goes back further. The National Security Agency can trace its roots back to the First World War, but it really cemented itself as part of the surveillance state in the immediate aftermath; in 1920, what would become the NSA began spying on Western Union telegrams. Only the technology has changed.

During the peace and prosperity of the nineties, it was possible to criticise and discuss the expansion of this surveillance state. While there were arguably erosions in civil liberties during the last decade of the twentieth century, there was also a larger cultural willingness to call those violations out. The paranoia and mistrust of The X-Files is perhaps the best example, but that skepticism filtered down and diffused through shows like The Simpsons. In many respects, the nineties were a skeptical decade.

Baby momma...

Baby momma…

9/11 did not change the structures of authority, it changed the context in which those structures were allowed to operate. In the wake of the attacks, “security” became a more important watchword than “liberty.” It seems that the majority of the population were caught up in that fervour, panicked by the horrors that had befallen them. Polling suggests that, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the public were willing to consider sacrificing their civil liberties for a feeling of safety.

The line between dissent and disloyalty could be blurred in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, with the public desperately wanting to believe that their elected officials could protect them. Discussing the War on Terror, former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan called the press “complicit enablers” of government policy rather than fulfilling their role as watchdog and critic. Patriotism became an overriding concern, with all of the anxieties and uncertainties about government authority casually thrown aside in the panic of the moment.

Going to and Fro(hike)...

Going to and Fro(hike)…

Reflecting on the end of the show, Joyce Millman speculated that the audience simply did not want to engage with the paranoia and uncertainty of The X-Files:

You might think a show that warns us to trust no one, that depicts human-looking alien sleeper agents living among us, would have taken on new resonance. But, oddly, it hasn’t. The show’s mythology, frustratingly teased along and built upon through the years, is by now too insular, self-referential and arcane (what was the significance of the black oil? the bees? Cassandra Spender?) to serve as a metaphor for our times. The most imaginative show on television has finally reached the limits of its imagination.

Television was meant to be an escape from the real world. With all that paranoia and uncertainty playing out in news broadcasts and panel discussions, it makes sense that audiences looking for relief would not turn to The X-Files.

"You know, we have a lot more free time now..."

“You know, we have a lot more free time now…”

It is not that audiences tuned into Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II and failing to get hooked by the (admittedly tired) ninth season of the show. Instead, viewers simply didn’t show to watch the premiere. Carter himself has suggested that the show’s cancellation was not due to the loss of audience members across the ninth season as whole, suggesting that the audience just never turned up. “I felt that some of the audience had left and I didn’t know where they had gone,” he recalls of the cancellation.

It is hard not to feel a little sorry for the production team in all this. The fate of The X-Files really doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of the twenty-first century, but it does seem like The X-Files did not get the chance to go out on its own terms. While there are certainly debates to be had about the ninth season’s quality (or lack thereof), but it seems fair to suggest that the ninth season was on shaky ground before even a single drame of Nothing Important Happened Today I was broadcast.

Getting it in the neck...

Getting it in the neck…

As such, The X-Files was no longer in tune with the cultural zeitgeist, the moment had passed. To be fair, The X-Files had been in decline since the move to Los Angeles at the start of the sixth season following the release of The X-File: Fight the Future. However, the change in mood following the 9/11 attacks provided a clear and unambiguous point of disconnect. This was no longer the same world in which Mulder and Scully had first appeared; all the elements of The X-Files that made it so suited to that particular world were now outdated and out of place.

Five days before the broadcast of Nothing Important Happened Today I, Fox premiered its next pop culture sensation. 24 had been conceived and greenlit long before the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, the pilot episode of 24 found itself struggling to figure out what it wanted to do with a plot-relevent attack upon an airline jet at the climax of the hour; although the sequence had been produced long before 9/11, it still felt a little too timely and uncomfortable. Ultimately, the destruction of the plane remained in the pilot, but it was very carefully edited.

Mind = blown. Or crushed. One or the other.

Mind = blown.
Or crushed.
One or the other.

If The X-Files spoke to the pop cultural anxieties of the nineties, then 24 would come to embody a particular moment in popular consciousness during the first decade of the twenty-first century. As Jane Mayer noted in her assessment at the end of the show’s fifth season:

24, which last year won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, packs an improbable amount of intrigue into twenty-four hours, and its outlandishness marks it clearly as a fantasy, an heir to the baroque potboilers of Tom Clancy and Vince Flynn. Nevertheless, the show obviously plays off the anxieties that have beset the country since September 11th, and it sends a political message. The series, Surnow told me, is “ripped out of the Zeitgeist of what people’s fears are—their paranoia that we’re going to be attacked,” and it “makes people look at what we’re dealing with” in terms of threats to national security. “There are not a lot of measures short of extreme measures that will get it done,” he said, adding, “America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer. He’s a patriot.”

If The X-Files warned the audience to trust nobody, then 24 assured the audience that they could trust Jack Bauer. In the world of The X-Files, Jack Bauer might easily be a mid-level employee of the conspiracy akin to Malcolm Gerlach or Quiet Willy. In the world of 24, Jack Bauer was a patriot and a hero.

His red right hand...

His red right hand…

Of course, this is perhaps an oversimplification of the two shows. 24 had a strong fondness for foreign antagonists; the second, fourth and sixth season featured threats originating from the Middle East. However, the show was just as fascinated with conspiracy theory as The X-Files had been. The United States government was constantly being infiltrated and perverted, with palace coups and secret agendas perverting the democratic structures. While the second season featured Islamic terrorists, they were ultimately being used by war-mongering oil oligarchs.

In contrast, The X-Files was not dynamically opposed to 24. The show had embodied a very strong sense of liberal guilt in its first seven seasons, but the eighth season had marked a turning point for the show. Constructing an alien invasion narrative that owed more to Invasion of the Body Snatchers than All the President’s Men, the eighth season seemed to hint at a post-9/11 version of The X-Files, a world where the threat to global peace came from subversive aliens infiltrating democratic structures rather than powerful men in positions of authority.

Captain of his destiny...

Captain of his destiny…

Indeed, there is considerable thematic overlap between the two shows – with lots of emphasise on paranoia and mistrust. Many of the big twists could easily have been ported across the shows. The revelation that Knowle Rohrer was actually a super soldier in Three Words is ultimately just a variation on the episode-ending reveal of the “mole” that would become a staple of 24 after Nina Myers was exposed as a traitor in the climax of penultimate episode of the first season. The two shows are not as different as they might seem.

Still, there were fundamental distinctions to be made between the philosophical outlook of the two shows. Barring the character of Charles Logan, who ascended to the presidency by chance rather than by democratic process, 24 generally has a lot more respect for the structures of government than The X-Files ever had. In the world of 24, presidential characters like David Palmer and James Heller stand as paragons of virtue. In contrast, there was a deleted scene from The Truth which revealed George W. Bush to be complicit with colonisation.

Matters come to head...

Matters come to head…

While there are undoubtedly secret cabals working within the government of 24, organisations like CTU and CIA are generally staffed by well-meaning and competent people. In fact, based on the volume of moles operating within high security environments, it would seem that biggest character flaw of any of the people working at CTU is that they simply aren’t paranoid enough. In contrast, The X-Files tends to suggest that the entire apparatus of government is sinister and corrupt, planning to exploit and abuse the people under its care.

The ninth season of The X-Files also starts at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the fallout of 9/11. Episodes like Trust No 1 and The Truth allude to post-9/11 politics in ways that are quite insightful and constructive given their relative proximity to the events in question. However, the show’s mythology is arguably more ill-suited to tackle these issues than it would have been two seasons earlier. The eighth and ninth seasons largely jettison the human face of the conspiracy to make room for an invasion narrative about “alien replicants.”

"Federal Bureau of Insufferability..."

“Federal Bureau of Insufferability…”

The idea that honest Americans have been secretly replaced by aliens hoping to subvert the state is a potent image with a long history in the American popular consciousness. Having the colonists literally replace people from all walks of life with unstoppable biological machines offers a very palpable reason why the cast should “trust no one.” The idea that somebody who looks and sounds perfectly normal could actually be a subversive enemy is unsettling and uncomfortable; it is fertile ground to explore, distinct from that occupied by the Cigarette-Smoking Man.

However, this idea of alien replacements has certain unfortunate connotations that align with moments of national crisis or anxiety. The idea of enemy agents operating on American soil tends to pop up time and time again when the nation feels under threat. In some respects, it ties into the worst excesses of nationalism or patriotism; it ultimately connects back to a rich vein of paranoia that can be traced through the Red Scare of the Cold War and back to the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

Sadly, Kersh never actually says "in this department, we do things by the book..."

Sadly, Kersh never actually says “in this department, we do things by the book…”

The X-Files had developed the idea of the super soldiers long before 9/11 actually occurred, but it feels like the type of knee-jerk allegory that would be constructed in response to the attack. Had the super soldiers been introduced after the events of 9/11, it would be easy to argue that they served as a metaphor for terrorism. The super soldiers presented in the final two seasons of the show could easily be read as an allegory the so-called “sleeper cells” that effectively “pass” undetected through American life.

This suggests another reason why The X-Files was so effectively and so instantly outdated in the wake of 9/11. The show’s paranoia and conspiracy-mongering had been a diversion during the peaceful nineties. Sure, there was some anxiety around the growing militia movement and the impact that conspiracy theory might have on public discourse, as the show acknowledged in episodes like The Field Where I Died, Tunguska, Unrequited, Gethsemane and The Pine Bluff Variant. Generally speaking, though, the nineties could afford to indulge in paranoia and uncertainty.

Oh, baby...

Oh, baby…

In contrast, the War on Terror would serve to push conspiracy theory from fringe discourse to legitimate political debate. “Truthers” have become part of the political discourse around 9/11, to the point where British Prime Minister David Cameron has alluded to them in speeches to the United Nations. When Barrack Obama released his birth certificate, it was hard not to see it as a response to the high-profile “birther” movement. As the politics of the United States became more and more heated, conspiracy theories became more and more serious and disconcerting.

The impact of post-9/11 conspiracy theories dwarfs earlier conspiracy concerns. After all, the conspiracy theories around the assassination of John F. Kennedy only really took off decades after the shots were fired. The internet had facilitated the spread and dissemination of such theories and speculation during the nineties, around events like the crash of TWA Flight 800. However, these events were generally not so big that the conspiracy theories around them could distort the cultural and political landscape. The sheer scale of 9/11 changed everything.

The brainy specs!

The brainy specs!

In the post-9/11 world, conspiracy theories were no longer confined to cranks on street corners, but espoused by billionaires like Donald Trump and connected to politicians like Rand Paul. Inkoo Kang has noted, the legacy of The X-Files has been radically altered by the shift in political discourse since 9/11:

Since 2001, right before its last season, creator Chris Carter has been saying that 9/11 killed the show. The War on Terror told us that aliens were already among us, and they wished us harm — we just called them “terrorists.” When the “9/12” moment came, people needed to put faith in their government again, not question its motives.

But the recent ascent of anti-government and anti-science politicians to Congress — not to mention the ongoing spread of militias and measles — makes The X-Files’ willingness to contemplate, even glorify, extremist views feel misguidedly idealistic at best, and disingenuously destructive at worst.

This is particularly true of the last two seasons, where the alien threat is quite literally passing among ordinary Americans, reflecting some of the more paranoid and uncomfortable rhetoric about terrorist operating on American shores. It suggests Admiral James Lyons’ paranoid fears of infiltration of the US government by Islamic extremists.

"How come Skinner gets to the opening credits and we don't?"

“How come Skinner gets to the opening credits and we don’t?”

So the mythology of the ninth season is particularly awkwardly placed to deal with the fallout from 9/11. If The X-Files wants to engage with post-9/11 realities, it has to engage through what appears to be the worst case scenario: the large-scale infiltration and subversion of the United States by an alien force. In the context of the War on Terror, it appears that The X-Files has jumped to a paranoid knee-jerk justification of the more extreme policies of the Bush administration. The ninth season presents an America under siege from a foreign enemy.

Of course, this is not an entirely accurate reflection of the eighth and ninth season mythology. It could be argued that the whole “super soldier” mythology is indeed a criticism of militarisation and dehumanisation, that the soldiers themselves represent a military-industrial complex rapidly spinning out of control. Even within the context of Nothing Important Happened Today II, Shannon McMahon is revealed as a loyal soldier who does not wish to be used as an assassin or a weapon.

Bad steer...

Bad steer…

However, these details get obscured by the big picture. The criticisms of reactionary post-9/11 politics in episodes like Trust No 1 and The Truth are drowned out by the fact that the aliens are the direct antagonists for the first time in the show’s run. Discarding the human conspirators in favour of the alien colonists sets up the sort of blunt “us” and “them” narrative that plays into the most extreme rhetoric around the War on Terror and leaves no room for the sort of ambiguity or nuance that a story like this would require.

Still, it is possible to over-emphasise the role that 9/11 played in the collapse and decay of The X-Files. The show was hopeless ill-equipped for the twenty-first century as heralded by those attacks, but this narrative of the decline and collapse of The X-Files glosses over problems that had taken root long before the world changed. The X-Files was one of the most influential and important television shows of the nineties, but the nineties were over. 9/11 was perhaps the most obvious point of transition, but it was not the only one.

DON'T STOP

DON’T STOP

The X-Files had been on dangerous ground since long before 9/11. The decline of the series can be traced back several years. The X-Files was a definitive nineties television show in more than just theme or content. The success of The X-Files had helped to cement Fox as the fourth major television network, successfully cracking into the highly competitive American television market. The X-Files succeeded as prestigious network drama, at a point when television shows could still dominate the consciousness because there only four major channels.

The mode of television production began to change at the end of the nineties, and The X-Files never managed to keep up. The show’s audience had been shrinking since the start of the sixth season, the same point at which the show lost its “Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series” nomination slot to The Sopranos. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, audiences began to look beyond twenty-odd episode seasons of prime-time dramas on major networks. The larger television audience itself was beginning to diffuse.

Splashing about...

Splashing about…

The success of shows like CSI, Lost, and Scandal would demonstrate that prime-time network scripted drama still has life in it, but it no longer had the same cultural impact that The X-Files enjoyed during the nineties. The expansion and decentralisation of television drama meant that prime-time television drama could never quite have the same weight that it carried during the nineties. Although the new millennium has seen the rise of “event” television, that just obscures the fact that all television was event television in the context of the nineties.

Audience figures for the major networks are a lot smaller now than they were during the nineties, lost to other modes of media consumption. As much as prestige shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men or Breaking Bad tend to dominate internet and cultural discourse, they lack the same raw reach of nineties television drama like E.R. or The X-Files. It could be argued that 2015 represents “peak television” in terms of sheer quantity of scripted drama, the reach of each of those shows is diluted by the size of the market.

Need a lift?

Need a lift?

At the turn of the century, The X-Files could not quite adapt to that new mode of television. When the show first appeared in the early nineties, it was new and fresh. In the eight years since, The X-Files had inspired a whole generation of imitators and copycats. By the end of the nineties, The X-Files was established as a grand old man of television. It was now an institution, rather than an upstart. By their nature, institutions are slow and reluctant to change.

To be fair, the eighth season had suggested that The X-Files could change. The final third of the eighth season is the most serialised stretch of episodes in the entire run of the show, suggesting the same sort of tightly serialised storytelling model that shows like 24 and Lost would employ in the years ahead. The idea of two very specific questions driving a season of television (“where is Mulder?” and “what’s the deal with Scully’s baby?”) seemed to hint rather firmly at the development of “event” television that was still a few years away.

Docking speed...

Docking speed…

Of course, these elements were clear and logical developments of the show’s early experiments with the mythology. However, the eighth season employed them as questions that were not just playing out in the background of the show, but driving the entire narrative forward. The X-Files had waited seven years to answer a question as broad as “what the heck happened to Samantha?”, but twenty-first century television would come to demand more immediate questions and (pseudo-) answers.

The problem is that the ninth season pulls back from the ideas and innovations of the eighth season, instead seeking comfort in familiar routine. Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II see like episodes that could have aired in November 1996, November 1997 or November 1998. They seem curiously out of tune with the reality of November 2001. The X-Files is a show living in the past, pretending that Mulder is still around and that television is the same as it was and that 9/11 has not changed everything.

Fertile ground...

Fertile ground…

There is just a hint of self-awareness to all this, in the title of the episode and in the (apocryphal) anecdote that Kersh relates to Doggett at the end of Nothing Important Happened Today II. In a way, The X-Files is casting itself in the role of King George III, desperately trying to convince itself and others that everything is really the same as it ever was. Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II plays as an act of supreme denial in the face of a changing world.

Denial is a perfectly understandable response to trauma, but it doesn’t make the situation any less tragic.

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One Response

  1. Darren is from Ireland.

    Ireland uses British English spelling.

    Therefore Darren texts “World Trade Centre”.

    America uses American English spelling so therefore the text should be “World Trade Center”.

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