This is a teaser for a book I hope to write about The X-Files. I was a fan of the show from the start, and stuck with it to the end. I didn't like everything it did, but I always thought it was worth taking seriously. The opening excerpt below shows why.

--Brantley Thompson Elkins

In Dangerous Purpose:

Mulder and Scully and the Greatest of Journeys

[Kipling] was farther from being [a Fascist] than the most humane or the most "progressive" person is able to be nowadays…. No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is no "law," there is only power. I am not saying that this is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold.

--George Orwell, "Rudyard Kipling"

Tragedy is not the hard part. The hard part is when you don’t quite succeed and you have to keep on fighting. When you must keep going on and on and on in face of really hopeless odds, of real temptations to despair.

--Cordwainer Smith, "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul"


It is August 19, 1953, at Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital. As the tape rolls on an old RCA Victor recorder, a sailor dying of radiation sickness cries out for justice to a team of investigators. We don’t know what agency they represent, except that it isn’t the Navy. But as we are soon to learn, it is who these people are that matters.

"I'm the last man who knows who killed the men aboard that submarine, who knows it was a suicide mission – but I'll burn in hell before I tell the murderers who sent us there," the sailor tells them.

"That's why we came here all the way from Washington, sailor, to hear your story, to make sure that justice is served," replies one of the investigators. It is Bill Mulder, later to be the father of Fox Mulder, and his concern for the sailor seems genuine.

It is the first scene of "Apocrypha," second chapter of a two-part episode of The X-Files that begins with "Piper Maru." The two-parter is probably best remembered for introducing what was later called the Black Oil to the X-Files mythology, and the dying sailor’s story is that it was this "enemy" rather than a missing atomic bomb that doomed him and nearly all his fellow crewmen. We see flashbacks of panicked sailors and the captain – black oil leaking from his mouth, nose and eyes after they knock him out.

"Whatever it was, we were sent to guard it," the sailor tells Bill Mulder. "Before it slithered away, back to where it came from, back into the sea, back into who knows what."

Bill Mulder has heard enough, but clearly not because he considers the sailor’s story incredible. Quite the contrary. He reaches to switch off the recorder, but the sailor grabs his hand.

"That thing... is still down there!" he protests. "The Navy will deny it... but you've got to make sure the truth gets out. I can trust you to do that, can't I, Mr. Mulder?"

Bill Mulder says nothing, but glances – as does a second investigator – towards a third man, who is lighting a cigarette. He may be 40-odd years younger, and played by a different actor than the familiar craggy-faced William B. Davis, but there is no mistaking Cancer Man.

"You can trust all of us," Cancer Man assures the sailor as he takes a puff.

Cancer Man was surely not the mover and shaker in 1953 that he later became. Yet Bill Mulder seems helpless against him – or, more precisely, against the idea he represents: that there is no moral law, only power. He knows that he is betraying the dying sailor, but can see no way out.

Decades later, Cancer Man and the terrible world view of Darwinian expediency he embodies are unchanged. A French expedition has investigated the site once visited by the U.S. submarine Zeus Faber, and the French sailors have met the same fate as the Americans. One has been possessed by the Black Oil, and the rest are dying of radiation sickness. As he visits their death ward, Cancer Man is pitiless:

CANCER MAN: Have the bodies destroyed.

DOCTOR: But.. but sir...these men aren't dead yet!

CANCER MAN: Isn't that the prognosis?

Yet the prognosis for humanity may have changed – because of Fox Mulder and his partner Dana Scully. As we learn years later, Fox is not even Bill Mulder’s biological son – but he is the son Bill hoped for. A poster on his office wall reads "I Want to Believe." But what he wants to believe in is not just the paranormal, but the possibility of truth and justice and decency.

Mulder is a man obsessed, a man who believes that his sister Samantha was abducted by aliens years before. In pursuing that obsession, however, he risks becoming as callous as those he fights in order to learn the truth. But there beside him is Scully, once described by David Duchovny as his "human credential." For all her skepticism about aliens and the paranormal and conspiracies, she is absolutely essential to his quest – because only she can enable him to hold onto his own humanity.

In "Piper Maru," Scully is similarly able to reach out to Johansen, the retired Naval commander who in his youth led a mutiny against the seemingly insane Captain Sanford aboard the Zeus Faber. Johansen never saw the Black Oil; he doesn’t know that it wasn’t radiation from a lost atomic bomb that doomed his men ("The madness we planned to unleash on the Japanese...we ended up setting it loose on ourselves."). At first, he denies knowing anything about the Zeus Faber incident, let alone having been part of it.

But then he changes his mind, and we sense that it isn’t only because he was friends with Scully’s father, and that she played as a child with his son Richard – since killed in a Gulf War training accident. It is because her honesty and humanity have touched his heart that he can finally unburden himself of the guilt that has haunted him for decades."

"I knew mutiny was our only chance for survival," he tells her. "But I also knew, by sealing that door, I was sealing the fate of the men I locked behind it… When they opened that door, those who weren't dead were dying. There were 144 men on that boat, only seven of us had survived. Whatever killed then, I was allowed to live, to raise a family, to grow old. None of us ever got an explanation why."

But the dialogue between Johansen and Scully speaks, not just to the fictional incident of the Zeus Faber, but to the all the true crimes of the Twentieth Century, committed out of a pitiless Darwinian struggle for power:

JOHANSEN: We bury our dead alive, don’t we?

SCULLY: I don't know if I understand.

JOHANSEN: We hear them every day, they talk to us, they haunt us, they beg us for meaning. Conscience... it’s just the voices of the dead, trying to save us from our own damnation.

In The X-Files, Earth is threatened with an alien invasion that would at best mean enslavement and at worst extermination for the entire human race. Conspiracies at the highest levels are devoted to concealing that threat, and even cooperating with the aliens if no means can be found to forestall them. It is the ultimate expression of social Darwinism, of the conviction that nothing matters but force.

Although it revolves around fears for the future, The X-Files is shaped by the past – a century in which tens of millions were slaughtered and hundreds of millions enslaved in the name of one cause or another, from ideological fanaticism to religious frenzy and outright racism. It was a century in which even the leaders of the democracies were not always able to rise above the temptations that consumed their adversaries.

Franklin D. Roosevelt thwarted the admission of Jewish refugees to the United States when there was little doubt of Nazi plans for the Holocaust, sanctioned the internment of innocent Japanese-Americans, and – even before the atomic bomb – ordered incendiary bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities that cost more innocent lives than the nuclear blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With Winston Churchill, he approved the devastating and militarily pointless fire bombing of Dresden.

Some of the crimes that followed have been incorporated into the background of The X-Files. There really was an Operation Paper Clip that brought Nazi scientists to America to work on military projects, lest they fall into the hands of the Soviet Union. In what seems at once ironic and cynical, Operation Keelhaul simultaneously forced two million ordinary Russian refugees back to the Soviet Union to face execution or the Gulag. Japanese biological warfare researchers were indeed spared punishment as war criminals, in return for sharing their knowledge with the U.S. military.

The fate that humanity faces in The X-Files is no different, really, from the kind that some humans have inflicted on other humans in the past, and continue to even today. The mind-set of Cancer Man and the other shadowy adversaries Mulder and Scully face is no different from that of the men who have sanctioned such true crimes. As in the real world, the struggle against their Darwinian expediency often seems futile.

At the end of "Apocrypha," the truth is literally buried – in an old missile silo, to which Cancer Man has consigned the bodies of the French sailors, along with a UFO that was the actual goal of both the French mission and the American one 50 years earlier. Yet Mulder and Scully remain defiant, even as they are led away by military police working for Cancer Man.

SCULLY: We saw bodies in there. Men with radiation burns!

CANCER MAN: You saw nothing.

MULDER: You won't get away with this! You can't bury the truth!

Only the truth is buried – for now. In a parallel story, Scully can find no justice in the death of her sister Melissa, murdered by Cancer Man’s henchmen five months earlier in a botched attempt to assassinate Scully herself. When Assistant Director Walter Skinner tries to keep the case open on her behalf, he gets a bullet in the gut for his trouble. And Skinner’s assailant – who was also one of Melissa’s – is captured, but murdered himself before he can talk.

Yet Mulder and Scully carry on, with a courage and perseverance that seems almost superhuman, armed only with the conviction that there is, after all, some sanction greater than power.