Nostalgia Machine: Re-watching The X-Files

28 Oct

I’ve been re-watching The X-Files since I’ve been sick, and it’s weirdly been more emotional than I thought it would be. I mean, yes, I snarkily posted this mini-review on Facebook:

So the x-files is basically a show set in the far distant past, back when they didn’t have cell phones or digital cameras. It centres around a 15 year old boy with daddy issues named Fox Mulder. He sulks around and breaks rules and believes in every ridiculous thing ever and uses his Feelings and Troubled Past to justify everything he does. He has a lot of Feelings, by the way. The show also features an actual bonafide adult named Dana Scully who is literally the most patient, tolerant person on the planet and also understands how things like Science and Logic work.

And I still stand by all of that.

But, still.

Emotions.

I was eleven years old when The X-Files first came on the air.

I looked something like this:

Anne youth photo0018

I was in that weird place between childhood and puberty; I had the beginnings of breasts, but no period yet. I liked boys, but had no idea what to do about that fact. I read grownup books, but still secretly played pretend. The siege of my childhood had begun, and I wasn’t yet sure whether to welcome the invading army or fight at all costs.

As if there was even a fight to be had.

I don’t know why I started watching The X-Files – I think I overheard someone talking about it at school, or maybe it was because my Aunt Carolyn, the arbiter of all things cool, was a fan. I’m certain that most of the appeal was because the show seemed so forbidden in our house. My mother has the lowest threshold for fear when it comes to scary movies; even Jumanji was too much for her to stomach. She saw one episode of The X-Files, said that it was disgusting and grotesque, and swore that she would never watch it again.

So of course I had to find a way to see it.

I would tape it off the television, onto cassettes labelled Star Trek or Road to Avonlea. Even though we only had one VCR in our house, this wasn’t so hard because the X-Files aired at 9 pm on Friday nights, at which time my parents were either bribing, cajoling or threatening my sister Catherine to go to bed, or else they were holed up in their own bedroom, trying to pretend for an hour or two that they had no children. If they happened to be in the living room when the VCR started clicking and whirring, I would make up a lie about taping some old movie musical off CBC and then change the subject. Somehow, I never got caught.

I would set my alarm for one in the morning, and when it went off, I would creep downstairs and settle myself into a little nest of blankets and pillows on the couch. I didn’t dare turn any lights on, so the house was completely dark. I would sit there in rapt attention, drinking in every tiny detail of Mulder and Scully’s weekly adventures, even the stuff that I didn’t understand. Especially the stuff that I didn’t understand. Afterwards, I would rewind the cassette to the beginning and tape an hour of test patterns or infomercials, so that no one would know what I had been up to.

I was a cautious kid by nature; nothing that I’d done up until that point had ever felt so daring.

The X-Files gave me the same queasily excited feeling that I got from looking through the Victorian medical dictionary we had in the basement. I didn’t exactly enjoy poring over highly detailed drawings of deformed fetuses or diseased genitals, but I couldn’t seem to look away. Those crumbling onionskin pages had some sort of pull on me that I couldn’t quite explain. And as much as aliens and deadly parasites and ageless dudes who wake from their hibernation every thirty years in order to gruesomely murder people and eat their livers terrified me – and let’s be clear here, as an eleven year old, The X-Files fucking terrified me – I couldn’t look away. Part of it was that I was sort of daring myself to be cooler, less wussy than I was, but part of it was that I was genuinely, horrifyingly fascinated.

It wasn’t long before that horrified fascination somehow turned into love. I loved Mulder, whose deadpan goofiness fit perfectly with his desperate need to believe that there was something, anything out there. I loved Scully, with her take-no-bullshit attitude and her scientific smarts. I loved Skinner, and Deep Throat, and the Cigarette Smoking Man. I loved their stupid basement office with its stupid UFO poster. I loved all of it.

I guess I sort of grew up with The X-Files. That show might have been the first inclination that I had that the government didn’t always have the good of the people in mind. I learned about conspiracy theories, and unethical experiments carried out with the full knowledge of legislative officials, and exactly what happens to the people who go against the official party line. Most of all, I learned to trust no one, and if there’s ever been a more fitting slogan for being a teenager, I haven’t heard it yet.

The X-Files also acted as a touchstone between my father and I after he left. He started watching the show too, and during our weekly phone calls we would compare notes on the latest episode. My father had always had strange nightmares about being abducted by little grey men, so aliens were already a bit of a family joke; once my father and I were both watching The X-Files, that joke amplified in and echoed across the distance, both literal and figurative, between us. We would buy each other alien and spaceship-themed presents at Christmas and on birthdays, and those became a sort of code between us, a code that translated to mean, “I love you. I’m proud of you. No matter what.”

I kind of lost the thread of The X-Files plot towards the end of high school. The mytharc was too complicated, and anyway, I was too old to be watching the same babyish shows that I’d liked when I was eleven. I had new and more exciting ways of feeling daring, like drinking and kissing boys and smoking pot. I didn’t have time for Mulder and Scully anymore, in the same way that I didn’t have time for my family anymore. And then in the last season Mulder wasn’t even there, which, I mean, fuck that. Right?

I did watch the last episode of the show, though, which aired just a few months before I turned twenty. And when I say watch, what I really mean is cried through the entirety of. Because, fuck, man. The Lone Gunmen were dead. Mulder and Scully were finally together. And the siege of my childhood was definitely, without even a shadow of a doubt, over. The city was conquered, the population killed or enslaved, and the buildings razed.

I was a grownup, and The X-Files was gone.

But re-watching it? Re-watching brought me right back to that dark living room twenty years ago, the light from the screen flickering across my impossibly young face. It was like rewinding the tape to the beginning, back to the hard, bright cynical innocence of the early 90s, back to Scully’s boxy suits and Mulder’s enormous wire-framed glasses. It was falling asleep and dreaming something lovely, or else maybe like finally waking up. It was perfect nostalgia.

mulder20and20scully20conv2001

13 Responses to “Nostalgia Machine: Re-watching The X-Files”

  1. Foghorn The IKonoclast October 28, 2013 at 3:13 am #

    I remember watching most seasons a few years ago and I had dental surgery and Oxycodone to help accentuate my feelings of creepiness. As I drooled onto my pillow and floated in and out of fitful sleep, I was still blissful enough to feel it.

    Muldar is the star and I wish to remember his early idealism as opposed to the later cynicism. I need to have my love of my life in a dark room and get into the moment. This is escapism but it is fun. Rather than the hair-brained people who always look for UFOs, ghosts or ghouls, here we have a mixture of dogmas going on.

    I love it when Muldar flashes his badge at the bad guys (usually duplicitous smoking men) and maybe it is a form of protest.

    LOVE THIS BLOG..

  2. andreablythe October 28, 2013 at 4:06 am #

    I don’t really remember when I first started watching X-Files either, but I loved it so much. I remember watching it obsessively every Sunday night. I really only fell off it, when Mulder was out of the picture for a while. Then I just sort of lost interest.

  3. runningnekkid October 28, 2013 at 4:43 am #

    I might have already told you this, but in August my sister took me to an X-Files Burlesque show that was sheer magic. The Lone Gunmen…er…gunwomen…were hilariously, captivatingly sexy. Skinner had a routine with a blow up alien sex doll. The finale had Scully giving Mulder the filthiest, awesomest lap dance I had never dared imagine. It was the oddest, most phenomenal night of my life. I wish you had been there. It would have been even more amazing. Although, maybe that would have been kinda weird for you, since you were eleven when you were watching. I was already a growed-up by the time it was on, and I was fully invested in Scully’s…character.

    Also, that is an awesome picture of you. What a rebel. ;) At eleven I think my friends and I were playing Grease 2 in the driveway and sitting at the bus stop trying desperately to get attention from passing cars (I sat with my legs wrapped around my neck, my neighbor / cousin had her glass eye in her mouth). And I think the only thing we were recording was You Can’d Do That on Television. We were definitely NOT performing covert sci-fi horror movie night missions by ourselves. My dad probably would have made me watch The X-Files with him if I was eleven when they aired, but then my grandma would have ruined everything as usual by dragging us kids off to read the bible or color.

  4. thewriterscafe247 October 28, 2013 at 5:43 am #

    I have got to say that I missed out on a lot of The X-Files when it was on TV because I was a bit too young and squeamish. Eventually I grew out of that, but not soon enough it would seem. Just at the time when I had seen a few episodes from the first season and was starting to get into it FX took it off repeats…GAH!! It has taken me years but I’ve finally been able to watch all 9 seasons!!! I understand the types of feelings you had watching the show. In itself it dealt with some fairly taboo issues, and then for you it had an added level of danger and excitement. Great post and now you’ve inspired me to go on Netflix and watch the show all over again! 

  5. Denny October 28, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    Love this. Made me feel emotional too…but not for as clever, creatively devious reasons as your whole taping, sneaking, secret AM watching bit…love it.

  6. Jennifer Sheppard October 28, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    About a month ago, I finished watching The X Files. When it was originally airing, I was too freaked out to watch (I was a bit younger than you were). Although it doesn’t hold the same nostalgia for me as it does for you, I also fell in love with Mulder, Scully, Skinner, Deep Throat, The Lone Gunmen — even the silly poster. The last couple seasons were difficult to get through because Mulder’s absence is clearly felt, but I still watched every episode. The wardrobe might be dated, but the story still holds strong. Trust no one, the truth is out there — these statements are probably even truer today than they were in the 90s.

    I still like the snarky synopsis.

  7. momasteblog October 28, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    I was in my late teens and 20s when the X Files was on. I loved it. I had trading cards of it. I had posters of it. I bought books on it. It enthralled me. . . flash forward 20 years and I found Fringe on Netflix. Even better. Check it out.

  8. NS October 28, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    You took me back to my absolutely crazy X-files watching days!! I LOVED every bit of the show and still do.I had strict bed times because of school and wasn’t allowed any tv during my final exams as such, but with X-files, even my parents knew NOT to mess with a die-hard mulder-scully fan..There wasn’t much x-filed paraphernalia in my country back then so I harassed any family member going to the US or something to bring me X-files posters, movies, etc.! Aaaahhhh….you took me back to such amazing days:) Thank you for writing about X-files the way it should be written..and of course remembered

  9. imsupersaiyan October 28, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    This makes me wanna X-file binge so hard.

  10. Val October 28, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Man, y’all are just TOO YOUNG!!! I never got into X-Files although I am a die-hard sci-fi geek (STAR TREK FOREVAH)…
    What I had in my formative period was The Six Million Dollar Man – yes, you can quit laughing now! It caused me to investigate all things aeronautic & even considered entering the USAF. I obsessively read & re-read the Novel which sparked it all: “Cyborg” by Martin Caidin…

    This Amazon reviewer put it better than I ever could:

    “This book was, of course, the basis for the popular cheesy ’70s show “The Six Million Dollar Man”. But this book is anything but cheesy. Steve Austin is an astronaut/pilot involved in the very real, very dangerous and exciting NASA “lifting body” program of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a program devoted to finding an acceptable design for the Space Shuttle. Martin Caidin, the author of this book, was a doctor who actually participated in this program, and he was actually at Rogers Dry Lake bed when Bruce Peterson plowed his M2-F2 into the turf in a terrible accident–the very same wreck that we saw at the beginning of every “Six Million Dollar Man” episode.”

  11. Laura Lynn October 29, 2013 at 1:46 am #

    What a great post. I don’t remember being enthralled by a tv show. Mom and Dad didn’t have a tv in the house until I was 14 and by then I’d discovered boys (among other things) I do remember falling love with old musicals when I was in my 20′s. Freaked out all my punk rock friends listening to Fred Astaire crooning, Gene Kelly dancing, Cyd Charisse and all the rest. Still love them.

  12. wiz4rdstatus November 11, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    Reblogged this on extremelyclever.

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