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Tabula Rasa

Believe it or not

by Kate Orman

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#3, 1994

Go to timeline entry

Agent Mulder, by Jason Towers

"I want to believe."

The X-Files, contrary to popular belief, is not based on truth. The first story was what producer Chris Carter described as an "amalgam" of traditional UFO abduction lore, but not on an actual case.

The X-Files, in fact, is based on something far more important and fundamental than mere truth.

Carter was inspired to create the series when he read of a survey suggesting that 3.7 million Americans had been abducted. Folklore becomes fiction, fiction becomes folklore: Betty and Barney Hill, prior to whose celebrated case abductions were almost unknown, described aliens uncannily similar to the ET seen on Outer Limits twelve days prior to their experience. Outside the US, abductions were rare until the publication of Whitley Streiber's Communion.

The X-Files has dipped a straw into the jelly of the American hindbrain, the stuff of teenage seance and urban myth: the Greys, Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, ecoterrorists and technoanarchists, CIA conspiracies, crop circles, brain-sucking amoebae, The Thing and Exorcist III. Three of the cast of Twin Peaks have appeared so far [1].

But the central image, the flame to which the X-Files moth keeps returning, is the abduction of Fox Mulder's sister. He was twelve. She was eight. He couldn't move.

Ostensibly, the key to the series is Mulder's need to find out what happened to his sister, and to get her back. Hence his interest in the FBI's paranormal files, and the ease with which he accepts them. Chris Carter says, "He's willing to take those leaps of faith." With one exception, Mulder has been right every time about the strange goings-on they investigate [2]. Alarmingly, Scully has come up with a scientific explanation for all of it -- alarming because we, the audience, have seen the ghost or werewolf.

Each of the first three episodes ends with Scully transcribing her taped notes, putting on record her unwillingness to believe what Mulder believes and her inability to substantiate his claims. But it's Mulder's tape she's playing back at the end of episode four, Conduit, the hypnotherapy session that recovered his memory of his sister's abduction:

MULDER: The voice in my head.
HYPNOTIST: What's it telling you?
MULDER: Not to be afraid. It's telling me that no harm will come to her and that one day she'll return.
HYPNOTIST: Do you believe the voice?
MULDER: I want to believe.
As she listens we see Mulder sobbing in church, clutching a photo of his sister. Her disappearance tore his family apart. He has been waiting his whole life for her to return (he shows no surprise at her "appearance" in Miracle Man). The poster on the wall of his office echoes the hypnosis tape: I WANT TO BELIEVE.

A friend of mine used to wake up screaming, terrified that the Greys had come to take him away. It wasn't until he wrote a novel about them that the nightmares stopped. In his book, the Greys, with their big, hairless heads, big eyes, slender limbs, didn't come from outside to punish us. They came from inside, the images we push down: the survivors of Auschwitz, the anorexics, the abortions. Greys take Americans almost exclusively (Britons, for instance, are taken by Nazis -- tall, blonde, Nordic -- responding to a different nightmare). America's bad dreams leak into its fiction and back again: Gillian Anderson dreamed of her "shooting" in Young at Heart and was shaky on the set.

The first time Mulder and Scully experience a close encounter -- losing nine minutes in the flash of brilliance -- he gets out of the car and whoops for joy.

Why was his sister taken, and not him? It was his fault. It should have been him.

Mulder chases the ghosts because he wants to be abducted.

"I want to be believed."

COOL OLD NATIVE AMERICAN GUY: I sense you are different FBI. You are more open to Native American belief than some Native Americans. You even have an Indian name. Fox. You should be Running Fox, or Sneaky Fox.
MULDER: Just so long as it's not Spooky Fox.

Chris Carter says, "I felt Mulder had to have a certain whimsy, a lack of self-consciousness, an ability to not have to be liked. He was a person who moved to his own drummer." And yet, the first words we hear from Mulder are a complaint about the fact that he isn't liked: "Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI's most unwanted."

If it weren't for his paranormal interests, Mulder would merely be a brilliant, precocious agent with a talent for understanding serial killers -- perhaps a character from an entirely different series. "It would be an obvious choice to make him an oddball, a mad professor," commented David Duchovny. But, unlike the UFO enthusiasts in Fallen Angel, Mulder is reassuringly normal, mainstream, calm.

Dark FBI suits, quips about "political correctness", a firmly heterosexual interest in Adult Video News and pinups (and a troublesome ex-girlfriend -- no trace of Denise here [3]). Mulder gives the audience something soothingly normal, mainstream, conservative to anchor to -- someone to believe. Mulder is not like the UFO nuts in EBE or the wacky Fallen Angel trio ("That's why we like you, Mulder -- your ideas are weirder than ours."). He is not like the cyberpunk geek in Ghost in the Machine, or the greenies in Darkness Falls. And by extension, neither are we.

And despite all this, Mulder is still an outsider, laughed, mistrusted and disbelieved by the FBI -- and monitored by The Powers That Be in a way that would make a paranoid's day. The series begins as Scully is sent ostensibly to make the "proper scientific analysis", but really, as Mulder guesses, to spy on him -- and to put a dampener on his weirder excursions into the stuff that got him nicknamed "Spooky".

"I'm afraid to believe."

Scully is obviously drawn from Clarice Starling, and faces the same kinds of problems as her Silence counterpart. Chris Carter points out that the FBI is 91% male; "So, she has to compete with these guys and still maintain a sense of her own femininity..."

In any other series, Scully might have been Mulder's assistant, or secretary, or love interest. But in no way is her character secondary to his: after their initial mistrust, they have gradually developed the deep rapport traditional of cop show buddies:

MULDER: I'd hate to see you carry an official reprimand in your career file because of me.
MULDER: (Laughs) I even made my parents call me Mulder. Mulder.
SCULLY: I wouldn't put myself on the line for anybody but you.
This image -- of the hero and heroine on an equal footing, with a relationship based on professional respect -- is one I hope will become a template for future TV series.

It is professionalism that is Scully's keynote, and the basis of her relationship with Mulder. "We have a great respect for each other and the passion we each have for our own process within that work," comments Gillian Anderson. Thinking about marriage, kids, and domesticity, Scully chooses her career instead (and, of course, her partnership with Mulder).

Scully's speech is formal, with more FBI and medical jargon. Mulder is more likely to crack a joke. She is a good skeptic, wielding Occam's razor with precision, "Scully is obsessive about her work and doesn't really have time to pay attention to fashion," says Anderson. "She's a very tight, cool character, very intelligent, very analytical, and very determined to solve these cases and help people."

This dedication allows the show to avoid the romantic cliché while maintaining a superb sexual tension. Anderson again: "Both of our characters are single-minded about our work and respectful enough not to complicate it in any way." Scenes such as Scully's jealousy of Mulder and Phoebe's slow waltz, and their mutual checking for signs of possession in Ice, accentuate that tension. And yet she is able to unclothe him in Fire without either of them batting an eyelid. It's alright; she's a doctor.

X-Files has avoided making any overt feminist statements, but Scully's presence is automatically subversive. Gillian Anderson says, "Scully is strong, she's independent, and she's very smart. It's a very appealing woman's role."

Silence showed us Clarice's encounter with a harassing nimnul and highlighted her struggle to escape her "white trash" background. Similar moments for Scully are rare: Frohike's camera and comments of "She's hot" is the only one that springs immediately to mind. She was seduced in GenderBender, but had a good chunder afterwards; and both she and Mulder get beaten up by the baddie.

The striptease in the first story (and Scully's subsequent falling into a comforting Mulder's arms) was meant for a presumed male SF/horror audience, but we've seen Mulder's black silk boxer shorts since -- and no more of Scully's bras. Scully was freaked out by bugs; Mulder was freaked out by fire.

Mulder and Scully act out an adversarial process. He believes, she doesn't, and she clings to her skepticism with a tenacity that the better-informed audience can't afford. Why?

MULDER: Dana -- after all you've seen -- after all the evidence -- why can't you believe?
SCULLY: I'm afraid. I'm afraid to believe.
Beyond the Sea
Unlike Mulder, Scully has not seen the ghost or werewolf. She has nothing to believe in.

"I'm wondering which lie to believe."

SCULLY: I think you give the government too much credit. I mean, the government can't control the deficit or manage crime, what makes you think they can plan and execute such an elaborate conspiracy?
Fallen Angel

A common UFO conspiracy theory involves an exchange between the government and the aliens. The government gets to stay in power; the aliens get to kidnap whoever they like for experimentation. Such an agreement would require a cover-up so huge that its exposure could shatter the United States government. It obviously couldn't happen.

And yet -- and yet --

After Watergate, Contragate, Irangate, what reason do Americans have left to trust their government? The right fear the intervention of the state to balance their privileges with affirmative action and gun control. The left are still reeling after the backlash of the eighties. People with no politics at all still had to survive the LA riots. It seems ironic that the dirty sheets are being dragged from Clinton's laundry basket just as Mulder is confronting Deep Throat:

DEEP THROAT: We're awfully quiet, Mr Mulder.
MULDER: I'm wondering which lie to believe.

This is an iceberg of which Mulder has only grasped the tip. The fact that he has not quietly disappeared says something about the sheer size of what's below the waterline: this is a conspiracy so big that even its enemies can be of use to it.

America prides itself as the forefront of Western civilisation -- morally advanced enough to invade other people's countries for their own good. But that civilisation is built on the ruins of the ones it displaced. The light of the Declaration and the Constitution and the Bill is interrupted by shadows: fire-bombed abortion clinics, children sheltered from machine guns by their school desks, Three Mile Island. America crams those nightmares down into the last few unexplored places. The wastes of Alaska. The ancient forests, crawling with uncontrollable and unregulated life. Here there be dragons.

And only in the corridors of power are what Mulder and Scully investigate anything more than a joke. Like us, the conspirators that run X-Files America have seen the ghost or werewolf

SKINNER: Do you believe them?
SMOKING MAN: Course I do.


* The episode guide, compiled by Cliff Chen (cliff@eniac., 1 May 1994.

* The FAQ, compiled by Pat Gonzales (gonza006@maroon., 2 May 1994.

* The sci.skeptic FAQ, compiled by Paul Johnson (, posted 14 June 1994.

* X Appeal, Tim Appelo, in Who, Time Inc, Sydney, March 28, 1994.

* Scientific American, Kyle Counts, in Starlog #201, Starlog Commun-ications, New York, April 1994.

* True Disbeliever, Kyle Counts, in Starlog Platinum Edition #2, Starlog Communications, New York, c1994.

* Inside the X-Files with Chris Carter, Rhonda Krafchin in Prydonian Renegade 9(2), The Prydonians of Prynceton, New Jersey, May 1994.


[1] The second scene of the first episode recalls Laura's discovery on the beach.
[2] In Eve, Mulder guesses aliens when it's mutants. Oops.
[3] How many viewers remember that Denise was heterosexual? I can't help feeling the producers are trying to firmly dissociate Agent Bryson from Agent Mulder [4].
[4] It's probably a good thing: a sexually ambiguous Mulder would be more than my heart could take. :-)

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