X-Philes: Imaginations of Millennial Anxieties

By Ramirez, John; Olsen, David S. | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

X-Philes: Imaginations of Millennial Anxieties


Ramirez, John, Olsen, David S., Journal of Film and Video


Critical examinations of The X-Files support the contention that its formula for success included narrative originality, social commentary, and cultural resonance to a degree rare in prime time network commercial entertainment television, but not so uncommon within the tradition of TV science fiction. Science fiction in broadcast history, although neglected critically for its associations with the populist leanings of genre criticism on one hand and the lowbrow reputation of broadcasting on the other, is rich with examples of memorable and enduring programming. To name just a few-Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" (1938), Alcoa Presents/One Step Beyond (ABC, 1959-1961), Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-1964), The Outer Limits (ABC, 1963-1965), The Invaders (ABC, 1967-1968), Star Trek (NBC, 1966-1969), Night Gallery (NBC, 1970-1973), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (ABC, 1974-1975), V (NBC, 1984-1985), Something Is Out There (NBC, 1988), and "Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?" (Fox, 1995)-most of these the subject of remakes, sequels, franchise spinoffs, feature adaptations, or feature serializations, and most enjoying six degrees of separation from The X-Files (Fox, 1993-2002).

Susan Sontag's 1965 "The Imagination of Disaster" stands among the earliest considerations of the cultural functions of science fiction. Even though she focuses on 1950s Hollywood science fiction cinema, aspects of her argument have been found applicable to examinations of television (Delapa; Murray). Not simply did she inventory generic properties and their recurring combinations across the body of fifties science fiction films, Sontag brought social history to bear upon their study. She asserted the march of world events as the genre's circumscribing frame of reference and identified the specter of the 20th century's demonstrated technologies for mass atrocity as science fiction film's political unconscious. Imaginings of alternate cosmologies and allegorical fantasies find structural points of departure and frames of reference in the destructive excesses to date of human enterprise. However, asserting a much-debated proviso to her formulation, Sontag wrote, "There is absolutely no social criticism . . . in science fiction films" (233). By its beautifying and neutralizing effects, science fiction normalizes the extremes of modern human existence-relentless banality and unimaginable terror.

Although Sontag denied social criticism as a function of science fiction film, her assertions have nonetheless informed contemporary elaborations that argue that science fiction film and television intersect with broader systems of social meaning to engage intertextual modes of address that, in turn, cultivate and support sophisticated spectator and viewer practices (Sobchack; Kuhn; Telotte; Penley et al.; Lavery, Hague and Cartwright; King and Krzywinska). For example, place and location in science fiction rarely, if ever, function independently from diegetic frames of social organization. Within science fiction landscapes, environments driven by science and technology lend generic specificity to characters, con-flicts, and plots. Science fiction themes speak to the interface between human social existence and advancing scientific technologies. Moreover, the resulting scenarios find comprehension according to an era's lexicon for imagining the inconceivable. Thus, science fiction performs a particular historical function of negotiating present and pressing social concerns through cautionary fantasies of alternate realities. Science fiction's poles of dramatic conflict echo a given generation's lived challenges to humanity's status as a material and moral force-those historical challenges recast in utopian/dystopian narrative space.

The more recent trend towards cultural studies extends genre criticism's identifications of characteristic structural and narrative properties that undergird science fiction film and television production and marketing. …

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