It’s like this: Alien-abduction stories follow a pattern. Are the elements these stories often share (paralysis, testing, memory loss) proof that abduction lore is true or that everyone who tells them has internalized the same lie? Mulder’s sister Samantha vanished when they were kids. He believed she had been taken by aliens, but throughout the series Mulder confessed to worrying that he couldn’t trust his memories. Maybe his sister’s abduction was just a story he told himself to give meaning to a senseless loss. To which The X-Files said, Of course. But that story could still be true.
In the pilot, Scully was assigned to Mulder to spy on him: a fine plan on paper, not that anything that makes sense on paper held up on The X-Files. She was a scientist, a medical doctor, and a young woman who wanted to distinguish herself in a male-dominated field, so the suits at the FBI assumed she’d hammer the last nail in Mulder’s coffin, shutting him down before his curiosity could expose bureau secrets. This was a failure of imagination.
Mulder and Scully were Schrödinger’s believer and skeptic, setting the molds even as they broke them. The famous poster on Mulder’s office wall wasn’t “I believe” but “I want to believe”—for all his open-mindedness, he couldn’t fathom belief that doesn’t strive for proof. Scully, who still clung to the cross around her neck, was the one who saw believing as a Catholic leap of faith. The partners were symmetrically curious, both drawn to the spaces where facts should be but aren’t; on their first case, when Scully lets herself consider an irrational theory, she laughs.
The FBI higher-ups conspiring to cover up the existence of aliens wanted Mulder out of the picture, but in pairing him with Scully, they only drove the thorn deeper into their own sides. If the personal conflict at work in The X-Files was between belief and skepticism, the global conflict was between connection and alienation—summed up in the way the strange, instant alchemy between Mulder and Scully made them unknowable to the bureau conspirators, whose business was so impersonal they didn’t have names. The most unconscionable monsters in the world of the show weren’t ghouls, but men in suits working deals behind closed doors, trying to maintain their grasp on the power they felt slipping away. The X-Files was afraid of progress; its discomfort with technology was primal. But with its episodes about wild-eyed cult members and murderous, incestuous rural families, it was even more afraid of what people who fear progress will do to prevent it.
It’s a genre cliché that believing in monsters is easier than believing we are the monsters; Mulder heard as much from a psychologist in the show’s revival, which debuted in early 2016. But the monsters in the show’s mythology are mindless chess pieces: classic little gray men in flying saucers, hidden from view by the conspirators and planted in plain sight only occasionally, as a distraction. For Mulder and Scully, accepting the existence of alien life is not a means of avoiding human monstrosity but a guaranteed reckoning with it, in the sense that people governed by the basest instincts of self-preservation stand between the agents and the answers they seek.