It's life, Jim, but not as we know it

Deny All Knowledge - Cult Fiction
March 28, 1997

The critic Karl Kraus once remarked that the surest way to cause the foot fetishist most offense would be to offer him the whole body. One can make a similar observation about those people who take an obsessive interest in certain so-called "cult" television series: the surest way to cause them most offense is to treat their beloved shows as mere cogs in the vast quotidian machinery of televised entertainment.

William Shatner - who, with the help of a hairpiece, shoe-lifts and an occasional corset, portrayed the heroic Captain Kirk in Star Trek - learnt this fact by accident when he agreed to take part in a Saturday Night Live sketch about the show's fanatical followers. Addressing an audience of middle-aged men and women sporting an assortment of plastic pointed ears, Klingon head-extensions and ill-fitting coloured sweaters, Shatner said: "Having received all your letters over the years, and spoken to many of you, and knowing some of you have travelled hundreds of miles to be here, I'd just like to say: 'Get a life!' I mean, for crying out loud, it's just a TV show! You've turned an enjoyable little job that I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time! I mean, how old are you people? What have you done with yourselves?" The real fans of Star Trek - who style themselves "Trekkers" - took this teasing rather badly, and, as a consequence, Mr Shatner is now considered persona non grata by habitues of the huge Trekker conventions that continue to be held throughout the western world.

After reading some of the contributions to Deny All Knowledge, however, Shatner's comic exclamation - "Get a life!" - seems hard to resist. The book collects together a number of essays on diverse aspects of the peculiar appeal of the latest cult television show, The X-Files, which has been running on the Fox network since 1993 and is now into its fourth season. The show, say the editors (who collaborated previously on a similar volume on Twin Peaks) is much more than a popular and cleverly produced piece of entertainment; it is an "activated text", with "polysemic, intertextual relations", which means, broadly speaking, that people cannot only watch it once every week but also read the tie-in "novelisations" and comic books , wear the official T-shirt, drink from the official tea mug, study the guide books and encyclopedic "companions", and, last but by no means least, discuss, describe and debate the minutiae of every single episode with similarly obsessive strangers on the Internet. Such fans - who fashion themselves "X-Philes" - are the subject of a particularly striking essay entitled "DDEB, GATB, MPPB and Ratboy: The X-Files' media fandom, on-line and off", by Susan J. Clerc. Each day, notes Clerc, X-Philes flood their on-line discussion groups with gossip, statistics, news and views about the show and its producer (Chris Carter), directors (such as the memorably named David Nutter), writers (such as Glen Morgan and James Wong), stars (David Duchovny, who plays unorthodox FBI agent Fox "Spooky" Mulder, and Gillian Anderson, who plays his more sceptical partner, Dana Scully) and occasional reviewers. There are, it seems, so many of these fans that they have now established subcultures within the sub-culture, dividing themselves further according to disposition and design. "DDEB" and "GATB", for example, stand for the "David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade" and "Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade" respectively (although, such is the apparent fascination with the multi-faceted Duchovny, the original "DDEB" has now split further into the "DDEB" the "DDEB2" and the "DDEB3").

The essay certainly demonstrates that the X-Philes are far from being a passive audience, but it does little, alas, to dispel the suspicion that their undeniably nimble imaginations would be better deployed within a wider range of contexts. They fret about the unresolved feelings shared by Mulder and Scully ("In theory", opines one X-Phile grandly, "I have nothing against the two of them consummating their love for each other. In practice, it's a different matter." "They belong together", another ejaculates, "let them do it!"); they suggest alternative names for characters (such as "Ratboy" for the evil Agent Alex Krychek); they reflect on issues such as gender confusion (in one episode Mulder is judged by one viewer to have given out a "girlie scream" at a moment of crisis); and they even devise elaborate "drinking games" ("take one sip every time the agents use their flashlights, and take two sips if they drop them.") Duchovny, one of the principal objects of this sustained attentiveness, has himself expressed misgivings about the activities of the X-Philes. Recounting one intense discussion concerning the "mystery" of why Scully never appears to adjust the car seat after her much taller partner has been driving, he commented: "That was probably the last time I ever looked at the Internet, because that kind of frightened me ... I didn't want to see myself scrutinised in such a fashion." One senses the beginning of a Shatner-style rift.

According to Clive Bloom, in his refreshingly sensible and well-written Cult Fiction - which takes a much broader look at the history of what he refers to as "kitsch art" - it is doubtful that a show with the populist sensibilities of the X-Files would even wish to be treated with such reverence. "Pulp," he argues, "does not want to be respectable, it wants to pretend to be respectable." The kind of respect now shown by a rapidly increasing number of academics, writes Bloom, "kills pulp with kindness." The least felicitous aspect of the otherwise rather intriguing Deny All Knowledge is its shrill insistence on the grand significance of its subject. It claims that The X-Files "is as complex and controversial a phenomenon as the medium of the television has produced in many years; not only because the series has dared to suggest (with great seriousness) that the government of the United States is involved in a vast conspiracy with former Nazi and Japanese scientist to assist alien beings in performing experiments ... on American citizens, it also has experimented (?) - televisually, narratologically, semiotically - with the medium in innovative ways." This all seems like misdirected hyperbole for what is an admirably audacious piece of hokum whose original objective, according to its creator, was "first and foremost to scare people's pants off".

It is left to the more down-to-earth Bloom to suggest a sympathetic but critical approach to this kind of popular culture: "It is essential," he writes, "for pulp to remain pulp and for it to retain its unassimilable nature, thereby preserving the frisson of its secret passion enacted among fans, coteries, cults and followings - the secret handshake of the initiated." The advice "get a life", therefore, far from representing a cold-hearted rejection of such warm passions, might actually be better understood as a wise prescription for their ultimate redemption.

Graham McCann is a fellow, King's College, Cambridge.


Deny All Knowledge: Reading the X-Files

Editor - David Lavery, Angela Hague and Maria Cartwright
ISBN - 0 571 19141 X
Publisher - Faber
Price - £8.99
Pages - 233

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