3.20: Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.
Perhaps because the series was so willing to cast its net so wide (in its stand-alone episodes), The X-Files can be more interesting to consider for what it didn’t tackle than what it did. It’s one of the reasons, by the end of its run, it was regarded (in some respects unfairly, as it was still coming up with occasionally inspired instalments) as overly staid and without any drive or real energy. This was even more clear with its patchy return in 2016, when despite – or because of? – the snowballing of the conspirasphere in almost every facet of life, it seemed rather lost and out of touch. Or perhaps it was simply that Chris Carter was still calling the shots. We were, after all, treated to a couple of gems from a writer he famously left free from his intrusively constipated philosophical retooling: Darin Morgan. Darin Morgan, writer of the best X-Files episode ever: Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.
Blaine: I know how crazy this is going to sound, but I want to be abducted by aliens… I just want to be taken away to some place where I don’t have to worry about finding a job.
At least, that’s how Jose Chung is generally feted, and it’s an assessment I find difficult to dispute. Robert Shearman, in wanting to believe, proved a rare voice of dissent, admitting to its cleverness but bemoaning the episode as “pretentious, overwritten and desperately self-indulgent”. The nub of the issue for Shearman, as one would might expect from a nu-Who writer (however one-time his stint), is that “there really isn’t much room for heart” and “the humanity I’m looking for”. I have no such qualms over its perceived lack of depth of feeling; twenty-four years (!) later, it’s still as dazzling, “very clever” and hilarious as ever. As I revisited it, it occurred to me that Morgan was essentially The X-Files’ Charlie Kaufman, so it’s appropriate that all the charges levelled by Shearman at Morgan could also be laid at Kaufman’s door (doubtless coincidentally, Kaufman wrote a screenplay concerning Chuck Barris’ self-professed moonlighting from his game show host day job as a CIA assassin in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; in Jose Chung, game show host Alex Trebek is revealed as a Man in Black. It’s a shame to hear that Morgan had the more prosaic Johnny Cash in mind).
Scully: The Lonely Buddha is one of my favourite novels.
Where Shearman is on more solid ground is in highlighting the manner in which Jose Chung seizes on the series’ most essential ingredient, “in which the truth palpably isn’t out there, because it’s the series very intention to celebrate ambiguity”. More particularly, in Morgan’s case, he makes a mirthful virtue out of subjectivity, as we are witness, via author Chung’s various assembled accounts of events in Klass County Washington. Accounts that form highly unusual takes on the series’ at-that-point very sober and straight-faced extra-terrestrial encounters. Most memorably, these include very different impressions of the amenable and conscientious lead FBI agents, allowing Duchovny and Anderson to cut loose (in the former’s case, most indelibly with a high-pitched whoop on arriving at the scene of an “alien” corpse). So well received was the episode that soon everyone on the staff wanted a piece of this kind of madcap X-Files action, to degrees of success. Most variable, inevitably, was Carter himself (the likes of The Post-Modern Prometheus but also the pretty good Improbable). Vince Gilligan was most successful with Small Potatoes and Bad Blood.
Bad Blood most shamelessly borrowed Jose Chung’s template, and further repetition of the formula would quickly have become stale. Nevertheless, subjectivity and undercutting also feed into Morgan’s last contribution to the series in 2018, The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat (one of the problems with which is that it has to identify some fundamental “objective” truths in order to enable its quirky examples of Mandela Effect manipulation of collective reality, almost as if Morgan wants to have his cake and eat it). Accordingly, the point of all Morgan’s tales is that the truth does not matter (or, if it does, only on a personal level). And yet, in Lost Art, he arrives at a rather berating and glib fake-news finger wagging position, that “you believe what you want to believe – that’s what everybody does now anyway”. Which is some distance from and much more jaded than his cheerfully shrugging “Truth is as subjective as reality” of twenty-odd years earlier (as if to emphasise the point, he shoehorns in some lazy Trump commentary, the last refuge of the desperate TInseltown resident). What Lost Art really confirms – despite the previous, sublime Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster – is that Jose Chung remains Morgan’s last word on the series.
Original and inspired as it is in the show, this “subjective nature of reality” business was not a new take on the genre, as Jose Chung itself is a natural embodiment of the research and conclusions of John Keel. Morgan was surely aware of Keel, since his work is suffused with a deeply sceptical perspective on the validity of experience being what it appears to be (along with much wry rug-pulling). Keel is most famous for The Mothman Prophecies (a subject mentioned by Mulder in Detour). Over the course of his investigations in to strange phenomena – running the gamut of cattle mutilations, UFO sightings, abductions and Men in Black, as well as poltergeist activity – Keel came to the conclusion there was no E.T. presence manipulating humanity. He instead offered the term “ultraterrestrials” to describe malicious entities existing on the border between matter and energy, reality and dream, who thrive on belief in them. In Keel’s view, the more people believe in UFOs, the more they “can manipulate people through false illumination” (so by his definition, The X-Files would represent the ideal vehicle to fuel such an agenda on “their” behalf).
Mulder: But if abductions are just a covert intelligence operation and UFOs are merely secret military airships, piloted by aliens such as yourself… then what were you abducted by?
Keel was dealing with phenomena where subjectivity was everything, and yet this very much did not mean his investigations led to the conclusion that it was “all in the mind”. Morgan offers a sliver of this in Jose Chung by positing no sign of the series’ bread and butter, actual greys. Instead, he gives us government employees in zip-up Zeta-Reticulan style outfits encountering the genuinely inexplicable Lord Kinbote (never explained by Morgan, or anyone concerned). The “it’s all a charade” idea was one that eventually entered the series main mythology in Season Five, just about at the point the arc was beginning to run out of steam; Mulder experiences a season-long crisis of faith on encountering fake alien bodies and underground tunnels leading to the Pentagon. It is, essentially, the disinformation surfed by the conspiracist in a nutshell (just ask Linda Moulton-Howe).
Scully (reading from Roky’s manuscript): Before I knew it, I was heading not into outer space but into inner space, towards the Earth’s molten core.
As such, even Jose Chung doesn’t really get close to grappling with Keel’s ultraterrestrial hypothesis, and yet it is – perhaps bafflingly – still the closest the series has come to addressing this general idea. Is there a reason Carter shied away from it? Particularly in a series whose mythology was going nowhere fast and becoming both increasingly convoluted and bereft? Perhaps it was just seen as too nebulous and out there (The Mothman Prophecies movie ironically ended up skewing towards an X-Files format, and was all the worse for it). Towards the end of the episode, Mulder pleads with Chung not to publish his forthcoming book – the cover of which is very similar to that of Whitley Streibers’ Communion, but with a cigarette in the alien’s mouth; Communion is generally much more in line with Keel’s thinking than it is X-Files mythology – as it will not be possible to “describe the events that occurred in any realistic vein, because they deal with alternative realities that we’re yet to comprehend”.
Scully: I don’t know which was more disturbing, his account of the inner core reincarnated souls’ sex orgy or the fact that the whole thing is written in screenplay format.
I’ve tended towards Keel’s general take on ETs – albeit, I hadn’t read him back then – since the heyday of The X-Files and avidly reading Nexus Magazine had me speculating on the UFO phenomena. So much so that sometimes I have to be reminded there’s still a very strong base with the traditional bedrock view. Admittedly, much of that is currently manifesting, so to speak, via the channelling community (another area The X-Files didn’t really grapple with, and again, one wonders at such reticence). I was reminded of this recently watching a podcast between Dark Journalist and Gigi Young. And there is, of course, a strong link between the Q movement and always-imminent alien disclosure – well, those of whom who aren’t fundamentalist Christians – as can be seen with the likes of Kab on Twitter. Contrastingly, you have someone like Charlie “They’re dee-mons!” Freak, who insists on a Flat Earth and there being no aliens (he might skew closer to Keel in certain respects, although I doubt the latter would have had much truck with the former’s “innerstanding” that Greys are, in fact, children who have been kept in DUMBs all their lives). Of course, The X-Files had it's own single-lettered insider delivering cryptic messages to the truth seekers.
Man in Black: Some alien encounters are hoaxes perpetrated by your government to manipulate the public. Some of these hoaxes are intentionally revealed to manipulate the truth seekers who become discredited if they disclosed the deliberately absurd deception.
Mulder: Similar things are said about the Men in Black. That they purposefully dress and behave strangely so that if anyone tries to describe an encounter with them, they come off sounding like a lunatic.
The most obvious link to Keel in Jose Chung is the appearance of the Men in Black. Albeit, those here, led by Jesse Ventura, are more proto-Barry Sonnenfeld’s movies than the inscrutable types of Keel’s reports. Chung notes, as Keel did, that there’s a history of MIB prior to the alien phenomenon (“The Celtic legends are filled with trickster men in black and how anyone who encounters them becomes enchanted”). Because they have never been otherwise inducted into series mythology, they retain a distinctive flavour here, if a highly quirky one, offering bewilderingly rational explanations for UFOs (“No other object has been misjudged more often as a flying saucer than the planet Venus”). Indeed, the description of Mulder and Scully as MIBs has more in common with Keel than Ventura:
Blaine: One of them was disguised as a woman, but wasn’t pulling it off. Like, her hair was red, but it was a little too red, you know. And the other, the tall lanky one, his face was so blank and expressionless, he didn’t even seem human. I think he was a mandroid.
If The X-Files’ ultimate mantra is “I Want to Believe”, Morgan’s is a more thorough exponent of the runner-up “Question Everything”, since he is intent, like Keel, on not just accepting things at face value and cognisant that there may not be any answer to some questions. In concert with director Rob Bowman, he underlines our propensity for misapprehension from the off, with the opening shot of a Star Wars spaceship rolling into frame revealed as the underside of a cherry picker. It’s followed by the classic UFO encounter scenario – except that this time the aliens are very chatty, with American accents, and seem extremely perturbed by a third stop-motion specimen.
The Stupendous Yappi: Is this actual footage of an alien autopsy. Or simply a well made hoax –
Along these lines, sceptic Scully offers valuable backup with regard to hypnosis (“People in that state are prone to confabulation”). And indeed, this is reinforced by references to MKUltra and Chung’s own The Caligarian Candidate, “one of the greatest thrillers ever written”; Bowman mimics the subjectivity of the brainwashing there by having the abductee here then see those present at her recall session as aliens, or in the same positions thereas (and later, hypnotised again – most amusingly “To see if she what she remembers is really what she remembers” – as air force personnel). Morgan has a lot of fun with internal contradictions – “I do think you’re right about one thing, that this case might not have anything to do with aliens” concludes Mulder, as Larry Mussers’ Manners enters and tells them a real live dead alien body has been found – and spoofs the then-recently-released Ray Santilli alien-autopsy film, courtesy of the Stupendous Yappi (Jaap Broeker, returning to the role from Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and rather recalling Bullshit or Not? from Amazon Women on the Moon).
Then there’s Mulder’s centrepiece conversation with one of the “alien” pilots, building a Close Encounters of the Third Kind tower from a plate of mash, in which the pilot (Daniel Quinn) offers a very lucid explanation of how abductions and UFOs are all a fake yet concludes “I can’t be sure of anything anymore”. That really says a lot more, a lot more concisely, about the nature of reality than Morgan’s later Mandela Effect rumination.
Mulder: If I find out you lied to me, you’re a dead man!
Still, for all its thematic depth, Jose Chung’s such a fave because it’s funny. And because it has fun, in particular, with Mulder, and because the droll Duchovny is so good at playing to that, particular the malevolent or wacky Mulder people keep seeing him as. His response to Harold (Jason Gaffney) telling him he’ll confess to the date rape charge if that’s what they want is the abrasive “Well, that’s too bad, because the next rape you experience will probably be your own, in prison” (“the only thing you were abducted by were your raging rampaging hormones” is another great line inflicted on poor sincere Harold). Later, Fox threatens would-be abductee Blaine (Allan Zinyk), the one who has mistaken him for a MIB (Blaine shouting “Roswell! Roswell!” when he’s being harassed is also inspired). In a riff on Dale Cooper, Mulder stops in at a diner and reels off a question for each piece of sweet potato pie he consumes. And I love that Chung’s publishing house ownership ties suggest “a covert agenda on the part of the military industrial entertainment complex” (where would Fox’s Fox Corporation come out in the wash?) Only Detective Manners’ swearing gag falls a little flat now (it was very funny at the time, naturally).
Jose Chung: As for her partner, Reynard Muldrake - that ticking time bomb of insanity – his quest into the unknown has so warped in his psyche, I shudder to think how he receives any pleasures from life.
In terms of X-Files lore, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space occupies something of the territory of The Prisoner’s The Girl Who Was Death (Charles Nelson Reilly returned to the part of Chung in Millennium’s Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense a year later, and Morgan’s style stands out even more in such a rigorously sombre setting). It’s not really what the show is, but it couldn’t exist without the show previously having established what it is.
As I suggested at the top, I’m doubtful about The X-Files' potential in today’s world. Which is to say, it would be entirely redundant in 2020, where we’re living a daily conspiracy writ global and rubbed vigorously in our masked faces. But even its Season 10 and 11 incarnations were largely hampered by Carter running on the fumes of his 90s perspective. There’s almost too much out there now for a revived show to know where to start. Even assuming it could in any way, as an establishment show, dive into any of the subjects that are now too evidently operating in full swing and well beyond the safety valve of fringe “laughability”. The X-Files could only now be a dangerous show or a redundant one, so it had to be the latter.
And that’s despite a semi-decent Carter rehearsal of conspiracy-since-we-last-met by Joel McHale’s webcaster (that came to nothing interesting), the Darin Morgan episodes and the humorously technocratic nightmare of Rm9sbG93ZXJz. This was a show that once betrayed a deep mistrust of vaccines that wouldn’t wash with the mainstream currently (for example, Paperclip). And didn’t the thrown-away opportunity of The X Files’ second movie mystifyingly concern itself with sympathetic paedophiles and human trafficking? What was that all about? I suppose it’s all subjective.