The X-Files episode ‘Fearful Symmetry’ falters as a criticism of animal rights activism, but offers a foreshadowing of the later extraterrestrial arc.
In 1787, the celebrated English poet William Blake included within a text called ‘Songs of Experience’ a poem called ‘The Tyger’, the opening stanza of which read:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Blake was writing about the natural world and the confluence between it and the nature of divinity. He questions who, or what, was responsible for such a wild animal as the tiger and interrogates the importance of man’s understanding of the world around him through the existence of such a creature. The X-Files borrows the last two words of his stanza, ‘fearful symmetry’, for an episode that itself interrogates nature, a higher power, and man’s ability to comprehend in the face of staggering catastrophe.
The natural world and The X-Files are frequent bedfellows. Chris Carter’s series takes place within an often wild, untamed America, one hiding not just dark secrets but mysteries and enigmas of evolution – mutated ‘monsters’ such as Eugene Victor Tooms, teenagers juiced up by the environment like Darren Peter Oswald, the list goes on. Yet what of nature itself? Animal life has its own space within the mythology of the series, often one of warning and portent.
Frequently, we see animal life on The X-Files as an extension of the same kind of unknowable sense of human development. ‘The Jersey Devil’ (S1, Ep5) provides an early example, of a cat-like urban myth with ancestral lineage to primitive human life. ‘Shapes’ (S1, Ep19) presents the tried and tested lycanthrope transformation of man into savage wolf. Episodes such as ‘Red Museum’ (S2, Ep10) or ‘Teso Dos Bichos’ (S3, Ep18) present animals as hallucinatory visions or tools of arcane mysticism – take the horror imagery of screeching cats or a toilet bowl festooned with rats of the latter.
Regularly, The X-Files presents animals akin to alien life – terrifying and beyond reason.
Animal Rights Activism in ‘Fearful Symmetry’
‘Fearful Symmetry’ (S2, Ep18) combines both of those elements and presents them in a different manner with a distinct ecological message underpinning the episode. Despite a rather goofy cold open, in which what turns out to be an invisible elephant stomps through a town and kills a road worker by stamping them to death, the episode provides Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) with a case that eschews their traditional investigative routine. They are present as FBI representatives for a death that would at the most be certified with an open verdict; a tragic accident with a few strange twists. There is no savage animal on the loose.
Said elephant turns out to be Ganesha, a 5,000-pound Indian female who inexplicably disappeared from her pen at Fairfield Zoo only to appear before a truck, after her rampage, in the middle of town hours later. She is named, of course, after one of the most widely worshipped and best-known gods within the Hindu pantheon, represented famously in scripture with an elephantine head. Crucially, Ganesha in myth is said to not just have been a patron of arts and science, and a totem of good fortune, but also a deity of great intellect and wisdom. Ganesha the elephant, therefore, is representative of a higher order.
Very swiftly, ‘Fearful Symmetry’ establishes numerous characters who inhabit distinct natural and conservationist spaces around the zoo. There is Ed Meacham (Jack Rader), an old-fashioned wrangler who has little time for evolving practices regarding animal care. Willa Ambrose (Jayne Atkinson) provides a direct link between human and animal as a ‘naturalist’ with a deep connection to the animal central to the episode, a gorilla named Sophie, who she is fighting custody over with the Malawi government. And there is Kyle Lang (Lance Guest), the extremist animal rights activist, part of the Wild Again Organisation, a group that campaigns against the captivity of any animal.
The so-called W.A.O. is designed very clearly to evoke groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), as Darren Mooney discusses:
Although animal rights movements (like PETA) had existed and garnered attention during the ’70s and into the ’80s, these organizations really engaged with the mainstream into the ’90s. In the United Kingdom, the number of vegetarians “peaked” in the ’90s, undoubtedly assisted by various meat scares. The Independent named animal liberator Peter Singer as its first “thinker of the ’90s.”Darren Mooney, Opening the X-Files: A Critical History of the Original Series (2017)
Animal rights were becoming a mainstream part of Western discourse to a degree never before seen, away from cult groups and directly into people’s homes. Families were now encouraged to donate for the protection and security of animals in Africa, a far cry from the days men would stride across the African veldt taking great beasts as hunting trophies; indeed, heading into the 21st century, social media actively excoriates any wealthy individuals who take pride in hunting animal life. Kyle himself suggests the Malawis fighting to take Sophie away are guilty of latent abuse:
“This is a perfect example of man’s imperialism over the animal kingdom – this craven impulse to turn animals into objects for our own selfish pleasure.”Kyle Lang, The X-Files, ‘Fearful Symmetry’ – S2, Ep18.
Frank Spotnitz, Robert Patrick, and Annabeth Gish reunite for a live panel and audience Q&A on The X-Files Season 8, Season 9, and what might have been.
Enter the Extraterrestrial in ‘Fearful Symmetry’
With Mulder and Scully as outsiders lacking a great deal of knowledge and experience in the field of animal rights, they nonetheless serve as our conduit into judging the positions of these three key players in the drama, all of whom take different positions against one another. Willa considers Ed to be riven with a sense of male privilege and underlying generational sexism, unhappy a woman is telling a man older than her what to do. Kyle believes, despite Willa’s best intentions, that her personal connection to Sophie in particular clouds her from the radical action needed to ensure animal protection and safety. And later, as the story veers too closely into interpersonal drama, Willa and Kyle are found to have a romantic past and are connected in the ‘adoption’ of Sophie.
What becomes clear as the episode progresses is the intervention of an unseen hand, one which connects to the deeper X-Files mythology without trespassing distinctly on the broader storytelling in play. Mulder posits—as usual, correctly—that extra-terrestrial abductors are kidnapping these animals and artificially inseminating them, once Ganesha is found to be pregnant and Sophie—with whom Willa can communicate via a sophisticated amount of sign language—becomes withdrawn, afraid of the light, despite wishing to become pregnant. Before these events, no animal at Fairfield had managed to become pregnant at all, unusually.
Those around Mulder are naturally incredulous at his suggestion, despite his supposition as to why they would do this.
“Maybe their own Noah’s ark? To preserve the DNA of these animals that we’re depleting to extinction. Whatever it is, that’s probably the reason why you’ve never had a successful birth at this facility.”Fox Mulder The X-Files, ‘Fearful Symmetry’ – S2, Ep18.
The assumed alien visitors return the abducted animals but without the babies they inseminated them with. While there is no attempt to reconcile this with the bigger alien mythos of the series, The X-Files leaves open the possibility of interventions from multiple alien sources, one of whom could well have been ecologically aware of Earth’s continued depletion by man’s hand.
Before Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan toyed with tragic masculinity in X-Files episodes like ‘Pusher’ and ‘Soft Light’.
Animals and the Divine in ‘Fearful Symmetry’
‘Fearful Symmetry’ does get bogged down with the much less interesting human drama between Ed, Willa, and Kyle revolving around the treatment of Sophie, which itself is hampered by writing and performances that are far from the series’ best, but the deeper questions of conservation the episode proposes intrigue. Sophie, an example of human ancestral forbearance, provides a warning essentially through history when she signs ‘man saved man’, the same kind of received wisdom that might have been imparted by Ganesha the deity.
This episode suggests a distinct correlation between a divine agent acting on behalf of nature and the animals who provide that connection to the natural world. Kyle early on, in describing his extreme philosophy, discusses this in relation to Ganesha the elephant:
“These are incredibly spiritual creatures. Their rituals and behavior are linked to a past no man ever witnessed. Did you know they actually bury their dead? They can visit an elephant graveyard centuries old and know instinctively where the bones of their ancient ancestors lie.”Kyle Lang, The X-Files,‘Fearful Symmetry’ – S2, Ep18.
‘Fearful Symmetry’ suggests man is past being able to act in the best interests of its own salvation.
Yet equally, the personalities of the activists and those working to protect the more enlightened animal life are distinctly unsympathetic. Scully excoriates Kyle for his lack of humanity and sympathy in the face of his W.A.O. colleague being mauled to death by a tiger which suffers the same fate as Ganesha, prepared to blame him and his extreme political viewpoint for the man’s death, suspecting conspiracy on his part. Willa, too, struggles to separate her role as a conservationist from that of a mother, transferring onto Sophie maternal feelings that the female gorilla is feeling for the baby who has been ‘saved’. Ed is simply the regressive catalyst who serves little beyond the antagonistic force the episode at points needs.
This is why ‘Fearful Symmetry’ struggles to stand out as a powerful hour within The X-Files’ pantheon, hampered by the humans who get in the way of a compelling examination of animal conservation. We are led to assume these creatures are being abducted by aliens, but we see no spaceship or little green man, as is often common in the series whenever extra-terrestrials do appear on the scene. The episode is careful simply to represent them as a beam of light, which could just as simply equate to a divine, religious source. An unnatural space for a natural being, less raped by conservationist invaders and perhaps conserved in a different way, through their progeny.
Beloved by Chris Carter, Fire in the Sky – based on the ‘true’ story of Travis Waltons 1975 abduction by aliens – set Robert Patrick up for The X-Files.
Can Man Save Man?
‘Fearful Symmetry’ does attempt consistently to invoke ancient memory, in how it suggests a deep spiritual connection between animals and their forebears, so perhaps this unseen power has the same connection in mind. Mulder wonders this too in his closing summation:
“The motives of the silent visitors who set these events in motion remain unclear. Could this be a judgment on a global rate of extinction that has risen to 1,000 times its natural rate in this century? An act of alien conservation of animals we are driving hard toward oblivion? And if so, might it follow that our own fate and existence could finally be dependent upon the conservatorship of an extraterrestrial race? Or in the simple words of a creature whose own future is uncertain, will “man save man?””Fox Mulder, The X-Files,‘Fearful Symmetry’ – S2, Ep18.
These questions become ever more potent as the 21st century deepens, and humanity slips ever closer to natural, ecological catastrophe it is summarily refusing to take the necessary steps to hasten, saying nothing of the human factor of war and possible nuclear brinkmanship being fought in pointless—in terms of the grand scheme of history—conflicts. ‘Fearful Symmetry’ suggests our hubris is our downfall and only the acceptance of a higher power to guide can save us. In that sense, in the confluence of religious worship and alien existence, it leans toward bigger mytharc ideas the show will explore later in the fifth, sixth, and ninth seasons – the idea that God and the alien might be one and the same. This early in the series’ life, however, they seem here to protect rather than destroy.
The final shot of the episode is pointed as Mulder and Scully, in leaving town and another case behind, pass a church that bears a verse from Ecclesiastes 3: “Man has no pre-eminence above a beast: for all is vanity.”
The comment is clear. Man can only save man by protecting and saving nature and its environment. We are not all dominant, even if we are all-consuming. And while The X-Files is prone to the depiction of the natural American landscape it fills with monsters and aberrations, the series still understands that only our respect for nature can ultimately save us from it. For in the real world, there might be no great flash of light, no alien or divine hand, that will save man, woman, or beast.
As a member of The Companion, you’re supporting original writing and podcasting, for sci-fi fans, by sci-fi fans, and totally free of advertising and clickbait.
The cost of your membership has allowed us to mentor new writers and allowed us to reflect the diversity of voices within fandom. None of this is possible without you. Thank you. 🙂
A. J. Black is a writer and podcaster about cinema, TV and pop culture for his blog Cultural Conversation and podcast network We Made This, plus the author of books about modern mythology and Star Trek. Born and bred in the West Midlands, he now lives in Wiltshire with his wife and their dog.
Find him on Twitter @ajblackwriter