While my father loses his memories I crouch in his house, deciding which of mine to chuck out.
The attic room is large and low, overlooking the garden, with dust furzing the beams. There are half a dozen plastic crates on the carpet. I try to be methodical, work through them one by one, but before long I am diving in randomly, making weird little noises as I haul my one-time preciouses into the grey afternoon light.
Look, my favourite T-shirt, with Mulder and Scully pouting beside the logo in absinthe green! And here, the trading cards, tucked into their special display binders like tiny scenes in an illuminated prayer book, page after gleaming page! Hey listen, the glow-in-the-dark watch is still ticking! And here, here, the homemade Special Agent Fox Mulder ID badge I used to pin onto my Next work-experience suit for hours of cosplay! (The cross-gendering was inevitable. I was 5’11 aged 13; my best geek-mate Natalie had tits).
There are board games, models, badges and magazines. There are more T-shirts, on top of mugs and baseball caps. There are trivia books, quiz books, audiobooks, adult novels, graphic novels, YA novels. Biographies authorized and un. There are two huge underbed storage units filled with videos: seven seasons home-recorded, every Scotch or JVC sleeve Pritt-sticked with a label meticulously typed out in 12-point Courier New (natch). In a shoebox, there are cassette tapes onto which I compiled favourite bits of dialogue (“They’re here, aren’t they?”) so I could listen to them on my Walkman the way other girls in my class would mainline Boyzone or Blur. At the bottom of one of the crates there’s a puffy white folder crammed with reams of fan fiction, the pages printed out and slotted into the plastic sleeves back to back (could our 90s printer not do double-sided or had I not figured it out?) I skim the first story. It’s awful. It’s brilliant.
I rock back on my heels and look at the several hundred pounds of merch sprawled at my feet. Despite my seven-year stint of obsessive accumulation, I am not a natural hoarder, unlike my dad. It was his rotting cardboard boxes of used corks, yellowing piles of perfectly aligned, ancient papers and spider-infested garageful of rusting tools that gifted me my adult urge to purge and slash. And now I now live with two kids in a ruthlessly Kondoed flat in the middle of London, and Dad has just moved into a small, calm, bright room in a specialist dementia care home, and we are selling the old rambling house I grew up in, and I only have an hour to decide what to do with all this… stuff.
It didn’t used to be stuff. It used to be the softly shimmering repository of all my adolescent yearnings. My passion for The X-Files was so strong that I have not rewatched a single episode in over 20 years, scared at what it might stir up.
Or perhaps what it might not.
Every Monday, from September through March, starting in 1994 and ending in 2000 (when university ripped us apart, and the mania began to wane), Nat and I would spend the day at school picking over the story arc so far and speculating on what terrifying delights the next episode might hold. Come evening, I’d pretend to focus on my homework while experiencing a level of excitement that has only ever (and not quite) been matched by the first cup of tea after the birth of my second child. The watching itself, occurring by special parental dispensation at 9.30 pm, happened in a sort of orgasmic trance, my hands unconsciously ripping holes in my scratchy tights as I hoped against hope that our fuzzy BBC2 signal would hold out. And then, as soon as the credits appeared, offering up those familiar names on the monochrome screen (and we knew every single one of them, from minor cast members to assistant art directors – Kyle Klotz, you Anderson-spouse dream destroyer!) and the eerie whistle of Mark Snow’s brainworm theme burst forth, we would hit the phones.
I’d sit with my back to the wall on the cold floor of the hall, twisting the spiral cord of the landline round my fingers as we embarked on our tripartite analysis. First: forensic dissection of episode. Second: earnest discussion of how it advanced the mythology. Third, and juiciest: slow savouring of even the tiniest hint of sexual tension between the stars. The closing scene of ‘Deep Throat’ (S1, Ep2), where a panting, sweat-beaded, post-run Mulder confronts the eponymous villain in a sleeveless Georgetown vest, provoked a sexual epiphany in my 12-year-old self that not even John Malkovich giving cunnilingus to Uma Thurman in Dangerous Liaisons could surpass.
Finally, before we were ordered into bed, it was time to fax. It only seemed right to honour the highlights of such sophisticated drama on similarly cutting-edge technology. As I scribbled down my quotes of the week, added a decorative border of aliens and manila folders and attempted a quick biro sketch of The Lone Gunmen, I could almost hear the sound of Scully’s fingers clacking on the beige keyboard as her CRT monitor blinked out case reports in air-force blue. Just beginning to discover the joy of bulletin boards thanks to my parents’ early-adopter Gateway and blooping AOL dial-up, I revelled in the show’s tactile hardware. Although it featured plenty of muddy chases through Canadian redwoods and road trips to redneck backwaters, the show felt essentially urban, rooted in a glamorous world of takeaway coffee cups and wire-strewn warehouses and big American cars. This was back when the States still felt like the future and, faxing away in an 18th-century house in a small English village with no shower and a coal-powered Aga, I longed to be a part of it.
And repeat (with interim top-ups of American Gothic and Space: Above and Beyond).
But right from the start, mere watching was not enough. I can still feel the tangy blend of lust and frustration that would flood my mouth when Nat and I would sidle into a convention hall and see the sweatshop talismans laid out. They were delicious, they were magical. They were never enough. I spent every last penny of my holiday job earnings on posters and laminated photos and back-issues of SFX and I think I believed that these relics could somehow draw towards me the sort of future that Spooky and Starbuck promised: one where coffee-fuelled adventure unfurled on a daily basis, computers were hyper-intelligent, sex was always hovering on the horizon, and weirdness was not just okay but the truth.
I guess that, even while I still had be-trousered, picnicking bunnies on my curtains, I was growing surprised at how blithely people accepted the collectively agreed-upon version of reality as the only one that is ‘sane’. You mean the one where we have no idea what exactly 95% of the universe is made of, or how consciousness actually works? The one where we destroy the planet that sustains our bodies so we can grow billions of avocados to supercharge our brains? In a recent interview with The Times, the president of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, admitted that “a ‘true’ fundamental theory of the universe may exist but could just be too hard for human brains to grasp.” We are angels, we are ants: for me, that was, episode after episode, The X-Files’ brilliant one-two punch.
In 1994, I had not yet really clocked my father’s alcoholism or control freakery. My own eating disorders and depression were yet to emerge. My experiences of alien abduction were restricted to the onset of puberty – but that was more than enough. Now, as I carefully pile up volume after volume of Les Martin and Ellen Steiber’s slim tie-in paperbacks to pass onto my daughter, I realise that the show gave me permission to hold onto my feelings of dissonance and liminality, to resist smoothing them over for the sake of social acceptance or cognitive comfort. It’s a permission I still cling onto today – however tempting it is, especially as a mother, to pretend that I know what the fuck is going on.
Dementia is a demon as terrible as any that featured in the ‘Files. It isn’t scary because it changes things; it’s scary because it reminds us just how thin the membrane is between the acceptable and the crazed. What is less sane, my dad wandering out to pee in the bushes, or toilets that perfume your arse? A global pandemic caused by a decomposing boar in the rainforests of Costa Rica (‘F. Emasculata’, S2 Ep22), or a global pandemic (probably) caused by bat colonies from southwest China (‘Reality‘, 2019 -)?
Twitter, or Eugene Tooms building a nest out of newspaper and bile?
Perching on the end of the bed, I carefully unfurl the posters from their cardboard tubes. Trust no-one, deny everything, I want to believe, everything dies. When I sit with my dad in his new sun-filled visiting room, we conspire to create a version of reality that allows us to connect, however fleetingly. Sure, it takes a little more effort nowadays, but honestly, our relationship has always taken a decent dose of post-production. How often have our narratives about the world ever really chimed? How many genuinely truthful conversations have we had in the past 38 years? Answers on a (Monsters and Mutants) postcard. I suspect I know more about David Duchovny’s life than I do about Dad’s.
But at least we can still hug – well, once the damn pandemic is over and we’re not calling to each other from either side of a pane of glass. We’ve always been good at that, hugging, clinging on like one of us might be sucked into the sky at any time.
My dad is (was? Jesus) a material scientist, an evangelical atheist, vehemently anti-woo. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why, despite my adoration of Hot Fox the outsider, I always felt that I was Team Dana at heart. Inspired by my working mother’s feminism, determined to divert the male gaze from my preposterously expanding body with my oh-so-precious intellect, I longed to blossom into a sharp-suited smack-down Scully, boldly wielding the flashlight of empirical evidence against the fake-news peddlers of the world (spoiler alert, from the laptop where I make a living regurgitating whatever random crap passes through my head: I failed).
But that was fine too. Because, of course, the real genius of the ‘Files lay in the way it exploded the false dichotomy between the proveable and the possible. After all, Scully is a Catholic, as well as a rationalist. And Mulder and Scully aren’t enemies; they’re IN LURVE. They never do resolve the toss between commonly accepted reality and crazy shit, because that toss is the life-force of their relationship, the show – and, indeed, life. Getting by on the blue planet isn’t a battle but, as our heroes so memorably demonstrated at the end of ‘The Post-Modern Prometheus’ (S5, EP5), setting off an unprecedentedly ecstatic flurry of faxing between two Oxfordshire households until long past midnight on 17th October 1998, a dance. A tender, hopeful waltz between the lab and the loony bin.
I stand up, knees creaking, and look down at the souvenirs that were supposed to be my spaceship. I decide to bin the tapes and send most of the rest to the charity shop, despite my mother’s exhortations to make a killing on eBay.
Whatever I needed from Chris Carter and co back then, I’ve still got.
As I cross the darkening room with a single box tucked under my arm, I contemplate the evening ahead. TV just isn’t the same anymore. Oh sure, it’s better – cleverer, flashier, faster, deeper, prettier, funnier, more diverse. But it’s so knowing, so self-conscious. So much less pure. Then I think of some of more social ways I’ve spent Monday nights over the past two decades: debating ideas with my eclectic, curious, open-minded cosmopolitan friends; tapping away to a deadline with a handcrafted flat white resting beside my arsenal of AI-powered tech; dancing until dawn with my panting, sweat-beaded half-American hunk of a husband. To my teenage self, these scenes would have seemed an outlandish, utopian fantasy, a season-finale slam-dunk.
But have any of them been able to replicate… that?
A few weeks later, back in London, I turn on the giant flatscreen and bring up the grim bazaar that is the interface of Amazon Prime Video. I find the pilot and set it going. I join in with the dialogue, verbatim. Yearning invades me, swelling from within against the limits of my skin.
And then, before the next episode can auto-play, I drag the cursor backwards and I force the 21st-century’s futuristic, frictionless, pathetic damn excuse of a dream-dealing device to roll the credits.