As I’ve noted before, Darin Morgan’s stories for The X-Files (1993 – 2002) are something of a philosophical anomaly.
Where Mulder and Scully typically voice facets of belief or skepticism, Morgan often populates his episodes with a lead character who is a surrogate for his own belief system: nihilism.
That surrogate in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is an opportunistic “non-fiction/science-fiction” writer, Jose Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly) who is seeking a quick buck by writing a history of an alien abduction experience.
And at one point in the episode, Chung directly diagrams this episode’s theme: “Truth is as subjective as reality.”
This statement of principle, as you may detect, is deliberately and distinctively at odds with a series which made famous the catch-phrase “The Truth is Out There.”
How can truth be subjective, if it exists in some definable place, “out there?” If it is subjective, is the truth even worth seeking?
This thematic tension represents merely one glory of The X-Files as a multi-layered and meaningful work of art. The Chris Carter series can accommodate different points of view and different philosophies so long as Mulder and Scully remain true to their beliefs and histories as the audience understands them. Morgan’s episodes are so much fun -- and so provocative -- because the scribe stretches the boundaries a bit, but never totally breaks them. In this case, the lead protagonist role is taken by Chung, an act that permits the storyteller to present a different philosophy while sacrificing nothing we know in terms of continuity.
To wit, the alien-abduction and Mulder and Scully’s role in its investigation is largely recounted in flashbacks this episode. Under this creative paradigm, memories, essentially, are “portrayed” or dramatized as answers to Chung’s probing interview questions. In true Rashomon (1950) style, the viewer has no way of knowing or verifying the honesty or veracity of each account. In other words, the author’s point that the truth is subjective becomes manifest in the very absurdity of many witness reports.
This is a funny development, to be certainly but also a complex one, for it leads to Darin Morgan’s final, existential truth about our human existence. Since there is no objective truth for us dwelling here on Earth, only interpretations of it, we are truly -- in a variation of Close Encounters’ (1977) ad campaign --“alone.”
Two teens in Klass County, Washington are imperiled by dueling aliens on the way home from their first date. A popular author, Jose Chung (Reilly), interviews Scully (Gillian Anderson) about the case and she recounts her perception of it.
Scully and Mulder (David Duchovny) have a difference of opinion about the truth of the case, however. Mulder believes there was a genuine alien abduction while Scully believes the matter was date rape and ensuing post-traumatic stress.
Meanwhile, a witness to the odd events of that night, Rocky, claims that a third alien -- one from the Earth’s molten core and named Lord Kimbote -- was involved, as were two unearthly Men in Black.
Unable to discern the truth for himself, Chung hopes to interview a reluctant Mulder about what really happened that fateful night…
I’m not passing judgment on this aspect of the episode, but a deep cynicism shines through in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Search.”
That cynicism concerns humanity’s eternal quest to know the truth. Through a series of re-enacted events related to one bizarre alien encounter, this episode by Darin Morgan suggests that human memories are inherently and fatally flawed and therefore unreliable arbiters of fact or history. For one thing, humans may lie on purpose, without others knowing it. To this end, we learn that the teenagers involved in the close encounter actually had sex on their date, and are desperate to hide this fact from their parents.
So memory being wrong is one thing, but some people encourage wrong interpretations because they boast hidden or unknowable agendas.
Morgan’s critique of truth goes further. “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” also expresses doubt in truth-searching tools, ones developed under the auspices of man’s science; tools such as hypnosis. Here, hypnosis is termed explicitly in the dialogue as a procedure which “worsens” rather than “enhances” human memory. In other words, human memory is bad but memories re-surfaced during hypnosis are even worse.
Intriguingly, “From Outer Space” also indicates that the desire to know the truth -- in this case to believe in alien life forms -- is merely a primal scream shouted in response to a nihilistic human existence, and a delusion or blind alley fostered and encouraged by a complicit mass media. The episode’s first shot, for instance, is of an object (actually a work crew’s crane…) that could easily be mistaken for a UFO.
In fact, this inaugural image knowingly harks back to the first sequence in Star Wars (1977), with the triangular Star Destroyer intersecting the frame, as well as a moment from Close Encounters (1977), wherein Roy Neary spots a large object overhead, hovering in the dark Muncie sky.
Those productions nurture in us, the episode seems to indicate, some sort of romanticism about the nature of life and the universe. It’s a false or unfounded romanticism, according to Morgan/Chung.
More important, however, is the fact that in this shot we believe we’re seeing a spaceship at first glance. As we watch longer, however, we become aware that we are actually seeing something much more mundane, something utilitarian and man-made.
This visual joke thus perfectly reflects the idea that we can’t ever be sure that we are correctly seeing, registering, and interpreting external stimuli. Our desire for the romantic (look, it’s a spaceship!) supersedes our rationality (oh, it’s a work crane!) and our brain seems to respond to our deeply-held desire see that which isn’t, plainly, there. And if this is so, it means that our perception, our memory, our very truth, is suspect.
At the end of the same scene, we witness the appearance of an intentionally silly-looking “monster,” Lord Kimbote. This hairy, cyclopean thing seems based on an amalgamation of creatures from 1960s Ray Harryhausen films. No matter -- our eyes immediately discount Kimbote as fake or corny.
Here’s the point, however. We don’t visually “read” the Greys nearby in the same dismissive fashion. On the contrary, they seem “real” in a way that Kimbote just does not (perhaps because the Greys reflect 1990s mythology instead of 1960s mythology/fantasy…)
Morgan’s message is thus that we shouldn’t stand in judgment of other people’s belief systems, because they are all equally flawed and yes, silly. Why accept dome-headed Greys from space without question, but nit-pick Lord Kimbote from the center of the Earth? Is one “being” intrinsically a nuttier idea than the other? Or are they insane on a co-equal level?
It’s a little like saying that you believe in the literal meaning of communion (eating and drinking from the literal body of Christ), but that you draw the line of believability at the Pope’s infallibility.
Everyone draws this line differently…
And, of course, if we draw that line differently and can’t objectively support our belief system, then we are, for the most part, alone in our belief system.
What I find so interesting, however, is the last few moments of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” Here, Morgan establishes how the abduction has influenced each “alone” individual to change his or her life for the better. A teen girl at the center of it has become an activist hoping to save the world. The boy she was with that night, contrarily, has been reconfirmed in his (unrequited) love for her, and has made this love the center of his (meaningless?) existence.
And Mulder, of course, tilts forever at Morgan’s impossible windmills, looking for answer to things that aren’t really questions in the first place. Why seek truth when there is no truth?
“What really happened to those kids on that night?” Chung asks Mulder. His answer is “how the hell should I know?”
For Mulder such an answer might result from a lack of facts, or a need for more investigation and research. But for Chung it’s a validation for the belief that we are all animals trapped in our cages of subjectivity, unable to know the truth or reality of any event in our lives.
Undeniably brilliant and categorically funny, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is another signature X-Files episode. I appreciate it intellectually, and it always makes me laugh. Yet it is not among my personal favorite episodes of the series because I tend to believe that we, as humans, must search for the truth, even if it is, finally, a fool’s errand.
The journey is worth the trip, and even if truth is ultimately found infinitely subjective, it still may be enough to help us sleep better at nights, or accept our limitations as flawed, mortal creatures. Sometimes, a little bit of self-delusion isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it can keep us looking to the stars, or to the next horizon.
Next week: “Home.”