Celebrating the X-Files Self-Aware Sense of Humour

There’s been some predictable criticism of the latest episode of the new X-Files, “Babylon”, the fifth in a short run of six, since it deals with the issue of Muslim extremists and terrorism. We should make clear up front that this critique is valid: this episode does feature a young Muslim character, begins with him saying his prayers and subsequently participating in a terror attack with another young man. It’s a shame to see that depiction, and I was hoping that the show would go another direction with it, particularly since the whole incident is just a device to create a brain-damaged suspect for Mulder and Scully to have to question. But if one can look past this slightly tone-deaf plot element that really doesn’t help improve relations between Muslims and the west, there’s a veritable treasure-trove of X-Files goodness to relish here.

This episode, and the new season’s third, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”, featuring Rhys Darby as (in an interesting twist) a monster who transforms into a man, rather than the other way around, has a generous dose of the trademark X-Files sense of humour that always managed to poke out from underneath all of the dark atmospherics and genre intensity. David Duchovny in particular always seemed to enjoy playing comedy, mostly at his own character’s expense, something that he capitalized on in his later series Californication, but it arguably works even better here, where the humour is doled out in smaller and more precious doses.

Another wonderful aspect of this episode is that it highlights how self-aware and self-parodying the X-Files can be. Many episodes this season have had numerous little nods to the show itself, such as when Scully comments in the were-monster episode, “This is the Mulder I love,” seeing him get back to being the driven conspiracy theorist. But the show was always more than a little self-aware, never more so than in the season three classic “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”, which re-told an episode from the perspective of a “civilian” look in at the workings of this shady FBI special project.

In this case, the self-awareness comes from the introduction of two new characters, Agents Einstein (played by Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose) and Miller (Robbie Amell from The Flash). Clearly set up as a younger version of Mulder and Scully, and even including an on-the-nose name joke (Agent “Einstein” is apparently a direct descendant), the show has great fun pitting the two generations against each other.  Mulder and Scully take full advantage of their greater experience with interpersonal dynamics, manipulating their younger counterparts into helping them communicate with the brain-damaged terrorist that most of the other authorities would just as soon leave for dead.

The “X” factor here comes largely from Mulder’s decision to take psychedelic mushrooms, which he believes will help him reach a new level of communication with the patient, under the supervision of a disapproving Agent Einstein. The equation “Mulder + Mushrooms” must exist on the whiteboard of a genius somewhere, and the writers (not to mention an extremely game Duchovny) don’t let us down, sending our favourite paranoid agent on a magical mystery tour deep into the heart of Texas, of all places. Line dancing, Tom Waits music and a spiritual encounter with the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis, reprising his classic role) are all served up in a generous bowl of X-Files greatness. When it’s suggested later that Mulder actually took a placebo, that just makes the whole incident that much funnier and more rich. Mulder, with his “I want to believe” attitude is precisely the kind of person who would posses a very strong capacity for the placebo effect, and would no doubt carry it to the extreme. (Skinner, by the way, is his usual exasperated self, threatening Mulder’s dismissal for approximately the 489th time before discovering that, in the midst of all his foolishness, he actually did discover the important piece of intelligence that saves lives.)

After last week’s heavy episode “Home Again”, with two plots that didn’t quite seem to match up involving cancer, death, tragedy and loss, this was a welcome antidote and a reminder that the X-Files was often as much fun as it was intense. With one more episode to go in this run, and we can safely presume that it will be full of conspiracy plots after a few standalone episodes, the show is back in all of its facets and forms. This was always a show with enough intelligence and flexibility to touch many notes, and back in the early 1990s that was rare indeed. One of the great gifts the X-Files gave to “Quality TV” was the ability to be self-aware and funny while also being dramatic. Shows since then, from Buffy through Breaking Bad, followed in its footsteps. “Babylon”, and the earlier “Were-Monster” allow the X-Files to rightfully celebrate this particular aspect of this pioneering show.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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