BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 16 FEB 18

The Truth Is Not Out There

From The X-Files to The Orville to Black Mirror: what role does sci-fi play in our age of fake news?

BY Ian Bourland in Opinion | 16 FEB 18

When The X-Files first aired 25 years ago it channelled an era in which the Cold War had ended, but new threats – contagion, extinction, alien colonization – all served as proxies for a seemingly more 'globalized' world. At its heart, the show was a byproduct of the Watergate era, with its anxiety over shadowy government overreach and its paranoid preoccupation with institutions of authority. The X-Files even had an informant named Deep Throat. It's fitting, then, that it returned for its tenth series in 2017, as America ushered in a president seemingly cut from Nixonian cloth (first as tragedy, then as farce, as the saying goes).

Refreshingly, rather than reboot the franchise when it returned in late 2015, the series reintroduced the lead investigators Scully and Mulder to the fray after 14 years of absence, a bit more grizzled for the wear. During their hiatus, they have gone from dogged outsiders rooting out conspiracy to professional G-men in the age of The Intercept and Infowars, which has not exactly ingratiated them with the agency's new cohort. In an episode from the current (and last) series, two younger FBI agents round on them in a parking garage and call them out as agents of the 'deep state' – a conspiratorial term now favoured by Donald Trump's most ardent supporters.

The X-Files, 2017. Courtesy: Fox

The 11th series of The X-Files is led by its veteran writers and original ensemble cast, but it takes on a new poignancy as it looks with elegiac wit at the world it has wrought. In 1993, the show shifted sci-fi from the realm of visionary futurism to NSA-noir, though it was always predicated on the notion of a neutral authority. As Mulder's iconic office poster reminded us, 'The Truth is Out There', implying, of course, that truth still exists. In the 1990s, the agents spent their time in anonymous installations looking for discs, DNA samples, dossiers – hard evidence of malfeasance that would be taken up by some higher authority. But what of a world in which neutral authority is under siege? What if there is no higher authority anymore?

In one of the finest recent episodes, 'The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat', Mulder concedes that 'the world has become too crazy for even my conspiratorial powers.'  He even shares a meta moment with a villain, who jokes that we are living in a 'poco' (post-conspiracy) world.  If the truth elicits only a resigned shrug or bemused invocation of 'fake news', why bother hiding sinister plots at all? Or in terms of sci-fi as a genre, what can it provide us in 2018?  End-of-millennium shows such as The X-Files (and darker retreads such as Deep Space Nine and Battle Star Galactica) took us from the visionary utopianism of the Apollo era to disenchanted realpolitik.  But now that their darker undercurrents have been revealed as more than plausible, what futures are left for us to speculate?

Black Mirror, The USS Callister, 2017. Courtesy: Netflix

For its part, the multicultural, interstellar humanism first posited by Star Trek in 1966 is now reduced to knowing punchlines. Seth Macfarlane's loving Trekky homage, The Orville, is propelled by one joke: the ironic collision of Gene Roddenberry's stern modernism and Macfarlane's middle-brow office humour. Similarly – albeit in its typically acidic mode – Black Mirror's current series begins with the outstanding episode 'USS Callister', in which a pitch-perfect Jesse Plemons populates a Trekian simulation with digital clones of his work colleagues, ultimately subjecting them to petty retributions and delusions of grandeur that echo David Fincher's 2010 Facebook movie, The Social Network.

That contemporary sci-fi has taken such a pessimistic turn is not surprising. After all, The X-Files hinged on the notion that the statist projects so central to Trekian humanism – and modernism in general – were rotten to the core, and more to the point that, Spielbergian fantasies aside, space was decidedly not the place. Its best successors continue in this sceptical trajectory, taking up the mantle of sci-fi as cautionary Philip K. Dickian allegory. Indeed 2017 saw the revival of Blade Runner, which, for all its sublime lustre was a cautionary tale of a world in which the state was not sovereign, but a corporation run in collaboration with the police. Similarly, the most potent television science fiction looks trenchantly not into the distant future, but the bleak middle distance.

Mr. Robot, Season 3, 2017. Courtesy: USA Network

On this score, theorist Kodwo Eshun once argued that sci-fi is, at its core, a protean contemporary genre that adaptively serves as the R&D wing for new technologies, regimes of power and modes of consumption that are not lightyears away, but just around the corner.  This is, of course, the axis around which Black Mirror spins. In many episodes, a version of in-home technologies like Facebook or Alexa go horribly awry, accelerating a global race to the bottom of bespoke doppelgängers, perpetual distraction, and virtual pleasure among the circuitry circles of a neoliberal hell. This is also the near-future landscape at the heart of Mr. Robot, a moody hacker pastiche that borrows from high-Gen-X fiction such as Fight Club and The Matrix (both 1999). In those films, however, there is always a Zion to be had on the other side of some tangible project – global credit systems can be sabotaged in a jouissance of mayhem, or a messianic hero can emerge from within the machine to disrupt it from without. By contrast, Mr. Robot imagines that the other side of a 'hack the planet' rebellion is not a utopian society but rather a deeper inequality as resources shift from one set of global elites to another. 

For all that, the best televised sci-fi right now is grounded in a cautionary vein, warning us of crucial changes in our near-future hidden in plain sight. One example is the appearance of Manhattan's 33 Thomas Street in both Mr. Robot and The X-Files this year. A 550-foot brutalist skyscraper, it is at once futuristic and banal, towering implacably over the financial district. It was envisioned as a fortified telecommunications nerve centre, and remains so today. It features as the 'shadowy government installation' for Scully and Mulder, and is the last redoubt of global financial information for Robot's titular character. Titanpointe, as it is also known, was also the subject of Laura Poitras's film Project X (2016), which argues that 33 Thomas is, in fact, an important node in an emerging regime of global surveillance, a blurry private-public collaboration between Ma Bell and the NSA.

Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures

If Titanpointe is the Area 51 for this century, it has replaced UFOs for the fibre optics and FISA warrants that are the very architecture of a world in which data and the self are increasingly the province of tech and telecom companies. Many of these companies are the same ones at the centre of the 2016 US election hacking scandal, and those that Texas Senator Ted Cruz recently hoped to shield in the rollback of net neutrality. He argued that the industry could only thrive by freeing these organizations from meddlesome federal power. Much as the recent, cynical memo on alleged FBI abuse by Representative Devin Nunes buried the lede, obscuring its deeper lessons about widespread surveillance under FISA, Cruz either cynically or ignorantly fails to recognize that the all-knowing state at the heart of The X-Files no longer exists – supplanted instead by non-state, or state-corp actors more akin to Mr. Robot's Evil Corp, or Blade Runner 2049's Wallace Corporation.

In 2016, it seemed clear that The X-Files's return was cynical in its own right: Kumail Nanjiani's critical, annotation-style podcast The X-Files-Files coincided with the discovery of a '90s phenomenon by a younger generation, and Fox execs determined there were loyal fans yet to serve. But this series, like the best of the more recent slate of shows that share its dark sci-fi genetic code, are doing the crucial work of its putative heroes – scouring the shadows for a future not so much speculative as imminent. It is almost easy to forget that 25 years ago the lessons of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All the King's Men still resounded, and merely uncovering and bringing unsettling truth to light was a potent disinfectant. In 2018, the realities prognosticated in our black mirrors suggest dangers of a more intractable sort.

Main image: The X-Files, 2017. Courtesy: Fox

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. He is a contributing editor of frieze