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The Truth Is Around Here Somewhere

March 2nd, 2013

Last Saturday was a milestone for our fair campus community: the 30th Annual Insect Fear Festival. Run by the Entomology Graduate Student Association at the University of Illinois, the Festival presents our ingrained anxieties about things that creep and crawl through the prism of bad movies.

This year’s fear fest was also notable for the participation of Chris Carter (seen sitting on the left in this photo from the event), creator of the television series The X-Files, as well as Emmy award-winning writer Darin Morgan (seated to the right). They were in attendance for a screening of the 1996 episode “War of the Coprophages,” one of several that Morgan wrote during his all-too-brief time on the staff of the sci-fi/horror/conspiracy drama.

“Coprophages” (literally, feces-eaters) is a spoofy installment in which a Massachusetts community* panics in response to a series of cockroach-associated deaths. Spoiler alert: the cockroaches are really mechanical probes from another world. Or not. The X-Files was that kind of show. More on that in a bit.

One of the script’s many in-jokes is the inclusion of a beautiful entomologist named Bambi Berenbaum, named for Dr. May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois. (“Her name is Bambi?” says an incredulous Agent Scully, to which Fox Mulder replies, “Yeah. Both her parents were naturalists.”)

It’s all great fun, and not just because of the comically-large cell phones our heroes keep pulling out. It also features one of my all-time favorite TV pranks: a cockroach which appears to crawl across the viewer’s own television screen.

Watching it again with an appreciative audience reminded me of just how good this show was in its early seasons. There’s a reason that it inspired so many knock-offs.

Following “Coprophages” was a screening of the first X-Files feature film, sometimes known under its promotional title Fight the Future. Set between the events of the show’s fifth and sixth seasons, it is–to my mind, at least–sort of the Grand Unified Theory of the franchise, an attempt to tie together various seemingly-unrelated alien incursions into a single conspiratorial invasion. It’s also, arguably, the last time that The X-Files was any good.

After that, the show’s underlying mythology grew ever more convoluted, asking two questions for every one it (unsatisfyingly) answered. Fox Mulder was eventually written out when actor David Duchovny became tired of the E.T.-hunting grind. The shadow government central to the show’s backstory was eliminated, only to be replaced by yet another group of extraterrestrials.

Lured back for the series finale at the end of its ninth season, Mulder showed up just long enough to endure an interminable show trial during which the franchise irrevocably disappeared up its own ass. Even worse, the finale left hanging the prophecy of a final, all-out invasion scheduled for December 22, 2012. Yes, that December 22, 2012.**

Never mind that the hoped-for follow-up movie series never materialized. A half-hearted attempt to revive The X-Files resulted in 2008’s I Want to Believe, a film which went after a wider audience by doing away with all that monster and alien stuff and managed to attract only crickets. December 22, 2012 came and went without so much an alien-human hybrid clone to be seen.

To bring us back to the present, questions of a third film were very much on the mind of the X-Philes who attended the Insect Fear Film Festival. Chris Carter could only demur that if he was given the chance to make another movie, he’d be very interested in addressing the whole apocalyptic space invasion thing, as if in denial that that particular flying saucer had sailed years ago.

After Fight the Future screened, there was another Q&A session with Carter. I went up to the microphone and commented about how the movie marked the halfway mark of the series, that we hadn’t even gotten to the “super soldiers” or Scully’s half-alien miracle baby. (Yes, that was a thing that happened.) I said that a few years after the show ended, I’d begun to speculate that perhaps the whole thing was really Chris Carter’s meta-commentary on real-life conspiracy theories, which seem to grow ever wilder and more confusing the more one tries to explain them.

He answered, “No. We thought it all made sense.”

Which may be all the explanation The X-Files will ever receive.

*”Miller’s Grove,” named for Grover’s Mill, the town in which the first Martian cylinder landed during Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

**This was the first time I heard about the so-called Mayan doomsday prophecy. Sadly, it would not be the last.

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