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Fringe is a front!

I was a geeky teenager in the 1990s, so I could hardly avoid being at least casually familiar with the X Files. But, for whatever reasons, I never really dug into the show at the time. I watched stray episodes here and there, had a basic idea of how the show worked, knew some of the major recurring characters, but never really got into the major plot arcs or followed the show regularly. One of the things I’ve been doing lately is catching up a bit in my off hours; thanks to the wonders of Netflix Watch Instantly, I’ve been going through the early seasons. One of the things that going back and watching it has reminded me of is just how really influential the X Files has been on the development of pop TV. It’s obvious with Fringe, of course, or with lesser imitators like EUReKA and Warehouse 13. But you can also see interesting points of contact with more conventional spaceship fare like Stargate SG-1,[1] or in other gimmick-based buddy-cop procedurals like Bones.[2] Just looking at it structurally, and sticking with the sci-fi for right now, since the X Files hit it big, it’s been pretty easy to find science fiction that revolves around a heroic team of scientists and investigators or soldiers, working for a special branch of government security, and constantly in search of a secret — hidden — truth in a universe much larger than anyone in civilian life dares to imagine.

Like the X-Files, it’s important that all these other shows are supposed to take place in the present day and the real world we’re familiar with, not in a spaceship future or in a galaxy far, far away. Our heroes have to live in our world but they are always encountering marvels and dangers from this much larger universe.[3]

Shows like Fringe and SG-1 follow in the X Files tradition of treating the conspiracy theories and fringe communities they riff on with ironic affection. Within the show, these theories are reality after all; just seen as through a glass, darkly, by those who are weird enough and obsessed enough to catch the right rumor or grasp the deeper truth.[4] The fact that all this is happening in the here and now of our real world makes the paranormal both fascinating and poignant and a bit disturbing; there’s a whole extraordinary universe beyond our ken, and in spite of our lingering doubts about conventional wisdom, we just really don’t know about it. Specifically, we don’t know anything about it because government security agents have made a concerted effort to keep the whole thing secret from us. The shows pretty much always have a longer arc above and beyond the individual episode’s mystery; the longer arc is always caught up in the fact that this mind-blowing universe might not be secret anymore. (Either the truth is about to be revealed, or some world-threatening crisis is looming that nobody but the heroes and villains have even begun to imagine.)

But of course if you are looking at obviously similar things, it’s usually more interesting to talk about where and how they differ. Usually the potting of Fringe that you hear is that it’s X Files without the aliens, but that’s only a difference in the least interesting way possible. Getting back into X Files after all this time has reminded me of what the real, big difference between the X Files and Fringe, or all the other secret-knowledge shows that have come along, is. In the X Files, Mulder and Scully work for the government, but they are constantly trying to expose a massive government conspiracy that’s hiding vital truths. The Truth Is Out There, both about the aliens and about the government cover-ups and we’re supposed to be fighting for it — against shadowy villains well-placed within a security state that obscures, manipulates, and destroys evidence in order to keep mind-blowing truths secret and lie to people for their own good, to keep them from finding out truths that the security state decides they Aren’t Ready For.

What about the bizarre, world-threatening Pattern investigated in Fringe? What about the secret history and vast alien universe of SG-1? In every single post-X-Files esoteric sci-fi show I can think of, the team not only works for the government; they’re part of the conspiracy; they’re in on the cover-up. Fringe Division investigations routinely end with Broyles, acting as both boss and fixer, telling the team, with a wink and a smile, what this week’s cover story is; in SG-1 the team themselves often have to take extraordinary steps to destroy damning evidence or convince witnesses to remain silent about alien encounters, hyperadvanced technology, and even our own origins as a race, even though the lies that they tell constantly leave everyone outside of a tiny military-government cabal oblivious to the constant, overwhelming danger of enslavement or extinction that looms over every one of us.[5] When they think of the X Files, everyone remembers Trust No One; there’s another early episode of the X Files about covered-up government experiments on human subjects, where Mulder and Scully briefly get into a conversation with a local dairy farmer about rBGH; Scully insists that he shouldn’t worry, because rBGH has been declared safe, and the farmer snorts back Where’d you hear that from? The gov’ment? In the world of Fringe and SG-1, the heroes of the story are the gov’ment, and they expect the rest of the world to believe what they hear when they declare the world safe — nothing to see here, everything’s alright. Even though they know for a fact that it’s all a massive lie. The Truth Is Out There — and we’re going to make sure you’re not ever going to find it.

Of course, I watch Fringe and SG-1 and all that because they’re fun shows — sometimes even really good shows — and I enjoy them a lot. I don’t know if there’s any broad sociological lessons to be drawn here; pop culture is weird, and niche TV writing is even weirder. But I do think it’s hard not to notice the fact that the X Files first came on the air in September 1993, just two years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and just half a year after the massacre at Waco, while the U.S. intelligence aparat and the military-industrial complex were still reeling from the collapse of the Junior G-Man mindset and a very real possibility that they might be judged necessary evils that were no longer necessary. The story of war and intelligence politics since the mid-90s has been the story of the National Security State trying to develop a convincing rationale to justify its own continued existence in a world without hostile superpowers — to revive the state of perpetual emergency and the Cold War mindset that justified it by looking the other way and trusting in the good faith of the chain of command — a sort of cultural reconstruction that they never really accomplished in any stable way until the unveiling of the Great Patriotic War on Terror. Keeping that in mind, it’s interesting to be reminded that Fringe is a story that basically takes place in the fictional world of the X Files — but while Mulder and Scully spent about half of the X Files acting as rogue agents, in Fringe, the Bishops and Agent Dunham are basically working for the Smoking Man. It’s hard not to see just how much it is a show of the Bush-Obama decade.

  1. [1]And not just because Scully’s dad is in every episode of the early seasons.
  2. [2]Besides the dynamic between Booth and Brennan, Bones frequently runs plots that are basically the X Files in reverse, where the hyperrational red-headed corpse-examining scientist always wins the argument: a corpse turns up in a bizarre condition that seemingly can’t be explained by any known phenomena; within the first half of the episode, Brennan identifies natural causes for bubbling bones, devil horns, and even corpses that look like Roswell Grays. Meanwhile, one of the supporting characters, Dr. Jack Hodgins, is obsessed with conspiracy theories and government coverups, and frequently offers them as explanations for the case.
  3. [3]Usually about one marvel or danger per episode, and usually following a canonical set of scenarios. most of them well established within the first couple seasons of the X Files — a bizarre, hyperadvanced technology is uncovered that nobody knows what to do with; inscrutable aliens show up with mysterious, dubious, or malevolent purposes; blowback from government fringe-science experiments on human subjects; an ancient or alien disease is accidentally uncovered through man’s folly and now threatens our heroes, or even life as we know it; prodigies with psychic powers cause inexplicable crimes; shape-shifting or mind-controlling infiltrators destroy our heroes’ ability to trust their senses; the discovery of new forms of life and cryptozoological monsters; sudden real-life, modern-day confrontation with a creature out of ancient legend.
  4. [4]X-shows pretty much always end up doing episodes where the team meets up with a conspiracy theorist or fringe enthusiast, usually a lovable weirdo, where the humor of the situation revolves around the fact that the weirdo enthusiast is dimly grasping at an amazing secret that the serious-and-grounded-heroes would never have believed, except that they now deal with it every day.
  5. [5]The fact that our heroes are constantly engaged in the Big Lie is either taken as a matter of course, or, if it is ever brought up, with a line that could have come straight out of the mouths of the Syndicate: Can you imagine if this got out? People just aren’t ready to know. The human villains in X Files are always players well-positioned within the government, acting on orders handed down from the highest levels, while Mulder and Scully often have to operate well outside of FBI approval; in the post-X shows, the big human villains are evil industrialists plotting to build private empires, or else rogue agents now operating outside, and against the wishes of, the National Security State that our heroes serve.

16 replies to Fringe is a front! Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Gabriel

    An excellent analysis! I enjoyed SG-1 quite a bit for the reasons you mention, and despite being an anarchist I was never really that uncomfortable with the lines praising the armed forces (who after all are actually saving the world in the story’s universe).

    But, as I eventually realized the Federation on “Star Trek” would probably be more like the Empire from “Star Wars” if it was ever realized, I started to see little holes in SG-1 where reality shined through. The way Dr. Jackson goes from a focused academic that distrusts the military at the start to a virtual field commander by the end of the show, the fact that in Season 1 every time an alien showed up the main cast had to stop other government agents from dissecting them, and how the main cast would casually dismiss any character or plotline that even hinted that people might have a right to know something about alien life; all of it suggested a rather disturbing naivete on the part of the writers. Namely, that if government agents do something it’s automatically good. By the end of the show the US practically has enough firepower to destroy half the galaxy, yet no concerns are ever raised that this might not be unbridled goodness.

    In light of your analysis I think you should watch the 10th season episode “The Road Not Taken”. It’s an unintentionally ironic episode that basically shows what SG-1 would probably really be like if it existed in the present.

  2. justino

    I watched a recent episode of Fringe, “Over There, Part 1,” and it is actually worse than you describe.

    Not only are the working to cover up the clandestine operations of the government. They are working to cover up the work of a government from a parallel universe.

  3. dennis

    I like “Supernatural.” It has some connections with some former X-Files writers and directors, and the protagonists are basically outlaw drifters. At times the show has even taken on some vaguely Neil Gaimanesque qualities.

  4. Rad Geek

    Gabriel,

    Yeah, I remember the episode. Of course, in the episode the reason Mirror Universe is so repressive is supposedly because of the chaos that broke out when people found out about the Stargate program and the fact that the government had been lying to them about the Goa’uld, so even though this is really a great portrait of how a military command with such massive, unaccountable power would really act, it gets used within the show as yet another argument for why the program must stay covered-up. See, if you don’t want to descend fascism, you need to make sure that the government maintains complete secrecy and absolutely no accountability; nothing fights fascism better than secret, unaccountable military cabals with alien doomsday weapons. But, to be fair, remember the IOC: in the later seasons the alien technology and doomsday weapons and the massive coverup aren’t exclusively controlled by the U.S. government; instead, the whole thing is maintained by an elaborate international conspiracy of the world’s major military powers. Which is so much more reassuring.

    (Incidentally, I think another good example of unintentional irony is the earlier episode Absolute Power — the one where Shifu allows Daniel to live out, in a vision, what he would become if he alone possessed all the knowledge and technological power of the Goa’uld. Why the perfectly sound lesson about unaccountable power and the will to dominate isn’t supposed to generalize beyond the personal soul of Dr. Daniel Jackson, I don’t know;)

    I think that the first season’s greater ambivalence about government agents is actually a better (and more nuanced) view than what happens later on. Early in the show there’s much more willingness to entertain the idea that there might be genuinely nasty folks within government and military intelligence. The problem is that those worries get progressively rubbed out over the course of the show, as every villain within government either gets spun off as a rogue agent, gets placed under the control of a secret cabal of industrialists, or has their brain eaten by a Goa’uld.

    Justino,

    Not only are the working to cover up the clandestine operations of the government. They are working to cover up the work of a government from a parallel universe.

    Well, the primary allies of governments are always other governments. No reason why it shouldn’t apply across parallel universes as much as it does across the earth.

    Incidentally, from the looks of things, the Over There is turning out to be another plot like The Road Not Taken in SG-1, where the alternate universe is a crappy repressive police-state, allegedly because the public has been allowed to find out some of the truth about the freaky phenomena that government in our world has been assiduously covering up.

  5. Roderick T. Long

    Doctor Who may be an intermediate case. U.N.I.T. (in the old series) and Torchwood (in the new) are both secretive heroic government agencies protecting the earth from alien invasion, but the Doctor’s relationship with them is a mixture of collaboration and hostility (with collaboration dominating in the old series and hostility dominating in the new). In the old series, the theme of hostility between the Doctor and U.N.I.T. (because of the latter’s “military mindset”) was first introduced in the Pertwee episode “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” written as it happens by a Marxist or ex-Marxist, Malcolm Hulke. A follow-up episode, “Inferno,” involved a visit to a mirror universe where U.N.I.T. was explicitly fascist; but upon his return to the regular universe the Doctor complained that U.N.I.T. was uncomfortably similar to its fascist counterpart.

  6. Mike Gogulski

    Good observation here. I hadn’t made the X-files vs. modern shows connection, but I’ve found myself annoyed by the “Gov all good” thread in many series I’ve watched recently. Heroes comes to mind as a counterexample, though.

  7. Andrew

    As a Fringe fan, I enjoyed this post. I think even if the show regularly allows for and maybe in a sense makes you permit government cover-up, it shows some interesting left-libertarian motifs, like the collusion of Massive Dynamic and the FBI as an example of corporatism, and the collusion of science and government, with Walter and William Bell’s research into the Pattern earlier. Massive Dynamic wouldn’t be so massive if it weren’t for William’s career working with clandestine government experimentation and with all other other kinds of government unity with corporations.

  8. Gabriel

    Rad Geek,

    I’ll concede your point that the earlier writing of SG-1 did reflect a greater skepticism of secret government agents and their intentions, although these “nasty government types” weren’t spun off into rogue agents and evil industrialists until maybe halfway through the show’s run. Another interesting point to bolster your Post-Cold War critique is how the show relentlessly criticizes the Russian military and political structure, despite the fact that the Cold War is over! Russian officers are continually portrayed as lacking discipline, caring little for the welfare of those under their command, and acting recklessly with dangerous technology (I also wondered if the cyanide pills were realistic or not, and if they give them to some US teams?). In one of the last season 8 episodes “Full Alert” the Russians suspect the US has been infiltrated and taken over by aliens, only for it to turn out the Russians were the ones being infiltrated! Yet in episodes like “Foothold” when the US seems in imminent danger of being taken over by aliens somehow they pull through.

  9. Sergio Mendez

    Gabriel:

    In general terms your points are well taken, except the one concerning Star Trek. If there was something I really liked about Star Trek, is that even starfleet is a military hierarchical organization, its main point is respect for civil rights and liberties of citizens. The Federation itself has a chart of rights and a strong federal goverment. Starfleet personel have, usually, respect for civilians and their rights, and don´t treat them with the typicall superiority the military usually treats civilians in our world. among my favorite episodes that touch this topics, are “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost” in DS9 series (I think it is the 4th of 5 season), where the founders have infiltrated earth and for a moment starfleet starts to push for laws that violate civil liberties. At the end “the war on terror” is dismantled and there is a very good reflection on how is more important to live free than to live dominated by fear. In another chapter of the Next Generation, there is a parody of Mcartist era, finally having Picard standing and fighting it. In many aspects I feel Star Trek (specially The Next Generation show) is close to most libertarian ideals.

  10. Rad Geek

    Gabriel,

    That’s a good point about the recurring Conniving Ruskies plots — those seemed straight out of the 1960s, and a pretty transparent attempt to manufacture a Cold War plotline, current geopolitics be damned. I guess if they had tried to pick a different nuclear power, most of the others (e.g. UK, France) couldn’t be played for U.S. audiences as plausibly antagonistic; whereas if they’d gone with a Merciless Chinese series of plots, it would have been called out for the obvious racism.

    I should say that, in spite of the more nuanced position towards the military apparatus in the earlier half of the series, there are still two big, obvious problems with the whole structure: first, the fact that virtually all of the evil doings within the government need to be spun off into a separate National Directorate of Evil, where I guess they keep all the real creeps — which, among other things, has the effect of heroizing the secret Air Force cabal by comparison; and, second, that none of that cabal or the main team seems to recognize that the Dissection Creeps they are constantly running up against are, you know, the perfectly natural result of a secret and completely unaccountable military cabal, solely concerned with National Security or Planetary Defense or whatever, controlling all knowledge and access to the Stargate program.

    Sergio,

    Well, I think the point about Star Trek and the Federation is not that the Federation is portrayed as being evil; it’s that it’s portrayed as having a lot of admirable qualities that would never actually be preserved in a real-world political entity that was structured like the Federation (which, among other things, is explicitly modeled on the United Nations, dominated by a professional military — even if one now mainly concerned with exploration — has almost no visible entrepreneurship or private commerce and very little private research, with nearly all scientists and doctors working within the government bureaucracy and flying around on military ships, etc.). On the show, the scriptwriters get to stipulate that this all turns out OK anyway, and you still have a free and innovative society with dreamy-liberal ideals in spite of all this military command, bureaucracy, and lack of any significant social space outside of the government. But I think the point is that, in the real world, paper constitutions notwithstanding, the important thing would turn out to be the strong federal government. I think that any attempt at a structure like the one illustrated in Star Trek would turn out either a lot like the UN is today (UDHR notwithstanding), or else — if the Federation were actually given the power to make it more than a thin legalistic veneer over the naked imperialism of a few Great Powers — it would end up being even worse. Maybe not so much like the Galactic Empire in Star Wars (which really has far too few rules and procedures), but rather something more like the Firefly‘s Alliance.

  11. Ayn R. Key

    I think this is why I liked Supernatural so much. As Dennis noted, it has connections with the X-Files writers and has inspiration from both “American Gods” and “Good Omens” from Neil Giaman, in it the heroes are definitely not part of the government. They are entirely private. Half the time they’re running from the government because someone discovered that they really aren’t the government agents they impersonate.

    There wasn’t much of an effort on the part of the heroes of Supernatural to cover up whatever they fought. They didn’t even warn people “you don’t want to talk about this.” Instead those who witnessed whatever spook, haunt, or monster they fought were considered potential allies or potential places of refuge in the event it became necessary to seek help.

    But the Federation is modeled much less on the United Nations that you think, Rad. Maybe in the later series, but in the original the Federation was clearly the USA, with the Romulans and Klingons as the Russians and the Chinese in some order. Even the Vulcans had a real-world nation-state counterpart, the British. Only later, post-Kirk, did they expand to be more like the UN than the US.

  12. Arvin Sloane

    Christ, dude, you seen Alias? It’s Abrams’ first show, dropped right after 9-11, and transparently spook recruitment prop targeting college students. But it’s also kinda awesome. I’m on season 4 out of 5 and the CIA (that is, the “real CIA”) is still the center of the show’s moral/ethical universe, but I’m told that… stuff happens in season 5. Also, what Andrew said about Fringe applies – covert collusion between apparently antagonistic factions/power-seekers is illustrated pretty consistently. Anyhow, ton of episodes to slog through, but I’d love to read your analysis. Cheers!

  13. Gabriel

    Sergio,

    thanks for the remarks, Rad Geek is correct in how he interpreted what I said.

    Rad Geek,

    one possible caveat one should keep in mind about Star Trek is that the show was written by a former Navy man and confines its attention to what happens on military ships. Certainly, attempting to judge American society solely by behavior on a military craft would lead one astray in a lot of ways (although considering how much American life is more and more controlled and regimented perhaps not much!). The glimpses the show gives of civilian life are very few, but they do hint at some of the things you mentioned: Important scientists at the Daystrom Institute wear Starfleet uniforms, the few civilian ships we ever encounter are either under attack, dead, or hauling freight, private spaceships are considered a rare luxury (as evidenced by Quark’s reaction to finally obtaining one in DS9). In the TNG episode “Gambit” they stop and search a transport for a “health inspection”, and people doing exploration or scientific work outside of Starfleet are, while not exactly looked down on, referred to as strange or eccentric. Probably, the most significant evidence in favor of your point is the fact that Roddenberry explicitly said he wanted to portray a bright future where humanity had evolved beyond war, disease, and poverty, and through Capt. Picard in the very first episode actively invites us to “judge humanity” by the actions of the Enterprise crew.

  14. Rad Geek

    Ayn,

    I agree with you that there’s a clear transition from being modeled on the U.S. to being modeled on the U.N.; but I don’t think it’s so much post-Kirk as post-TOS. (In the films, there’s already a lot more direct appropriation of U.N. terminology and structure.) I’m sure part of the reason for that have to do with shifts in the plot structure over time (and in particular, some deliberate shifts by Roddenberry to make his universe more of a liberal ideal than it was in the earlier material). But partly it’s also just because the Federation hardly even exists for most of the TV run of TOS — I think the word only even gets mentioned maybe once or twice in the first season, whereas several early episodes directly refer to the Enterprise as being under the command of a unified Earth government. It wasn’t until the films and TNG that a lot of the familiar features of the Universe ever really got spelled out with any attempt at depth or consistency.

    Gabriel,

    Right; also, in spite of repeated inconsistencies, the dominant narrative (with several explicit statements, e.g. by Picard) is also, more or less explicitly, that the Federation has progressed almost entirely beyond commercialism and monetary motives, with the result that now everybody just works to make their life meaningful in some higher calling — which pretty consistently seems to mean working for the government. (All this is particularly the case in TNG. In DS9, having several major Ferengi characters and a setting in an interstellar strip mall makes it hard to maintain that narrative consistently.) Commodity goods are almost all made by replicator, with a few services being sold around the edges; capital goods (like the replicators themselves) are apparently shipped by Starfleet to colonized planets as part of the colonial arrangement, and to independent worlds as part of government-to-government transfers conducted with diplomats or heads of state from sufficiently advanced planetary governments. The few independent traders who show up are either explicit villains or lovable rogues at best; military ships are constantly schlepping medical supplies and other rare goods from one place to another, with a strong suggestion that the Federation just does this on a fraternal-aid sort of basis with no money changing hands, and that this kind of foreign aid is the main form of economic exchange within the UFP and its satellites.

  15. Rad Geek

    Not that I have any essential problem with endless free goods from a replicator or with social relations being conducted on a non-monetary basis, mind you. My problem with the arrangement is that the view of Trek is very clearly that the main alternative to money and commercialism is for just about everything in the galaxy to through government military and diplomatic channels, instead.

  16. Gabriel

    Yes that’s true, especially in the TNG episode “The Most Toys” where the independent trader is a villain. I guess what I was getting at is that with a sufficiently charitable interpretation one can make Trek out to be a kind of libertopia in the background while the show narrowly focuses on the military aspect for dramatic purposes. For example you could say that they only deliver medical supplies in emergencies, or that private enterprise, art, and culture still exist but is just not shown (again for dramatic purposes). The main difference between shows descended from TOS and shows descended from the X-files seems to be that while one can maintain a kind of fuzzy delusion about how unaccountable governments work in Trek, the others have to operate in the present day with present institutions. Hence inconsistencies are easier to spot.

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