Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The X-Files: "Babylon" (February 15, 2016)

In “Babylon,” a young Muslim man in Texas -- an apparent terrorist -- is involved in the suicide bombing of Ziggurat, a local art gallery displaying controversial imagery.

This young man, Shiraz (Artin John) survives the deadly blast, but does not awake from a coma afterwards. This is a grave concern because he is the only person living with information about a terror cell operating in the area.

Investigating the case, FBI agents Miller (Robbie Amell) and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) seek the assistance of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) in communicating with the comatose Shiraz.

Mulder proposes to Einstein a psychedelic kind of vision quest. Using “magic mushrooms,” he will go into a trance and psychically communicate with Shiraz. 

By contrast, Scully suggests to Miller a scientific possibility: communication with Shiraz via MRI imaging.

Both plans are enacted, with Mulder experiencing a strange vision involving country music, the Lone Gunmen, CSM, and Shiraz’s mother.

Meanwhile Scully and Miller attempt to create a technological base-line for communicating with Shiraz. They protect him, in the process, from those individuals seeking to end his life with extreme prejudice.

Working in conjunction, these two plans are successful, and further terror attacks are foiled.

But after the danger has past, Mulder wonders why, with Scully, that so much of human life -- in all ideological corners -- must focus on “unqualified hate.”

Although much attention in the press has been focused on Mulder’s "mystical magical tour" and David Duchovny’s (admittedly) awesome dance routine therein, such attention hides a crucial fact about “Babylon,” the latest episode of The X-Files (2016). 

That fact is, simply, that this installment is one of the most consequential and vital episodes in the 200+ X-Files catalog.  

In fact, I would rank “Babylon” right beside “Improbable” in terms of its significance in the canon, It is an episode I would therefore recommend to students hoping to glean a deeper understanding of The X-Files as a modern work of art.

I have often compared Chris Carter to Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry, because -- like those TV artists of yesteryear -- he often uses the science fiction milieu as a vehicle for a discussion of the human condition, and of the larger culture. 

On the surface, The X-Files is about aliens and monsters. Underneath that surface, it is about philosophy, religion, and all the other big questions of human life.

“Babylon” is a clear example of this paradigm, and it offers a huge -- and welcome -- dollop of Chris Carter philosophy.

However, before the artist can move into the terrain of meaning, and commentary, he or she must universally ground the narrative in fact, in reality. And one quality I admire about “Babylon” is that Carter builds his story of “the extremes of human nature” by focusing on two concrete concepts, both legitimate fields of study in 2016.

The first concept is the study of mushrooms with hallucinogenic property to enhance extra sensory perception. 

Cult television has dealt with this concept before, actually. Memorably, the last season of One Step Beyond (1959-1961) featured a documentary episode called “The Sacred Mushroom” in which Dr. Andrija Puharch sought to test the hallucinogenic properties of mushrooms found in Mexico. The episode culminated with series host John Newland actually sampling these psychedelic mushrooms and being tested for any increase in ESP capacity. 

Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980) involves similar terrain, though on a trippier level, and the study of these mushrooms continues to this day in books such as The Sacred Mushrooms of Mexico: Assorted Texts, by Brian Akers, which I had the pleasure of consulting on (vis-à-vis One Step Beyond’s episode) in 2006-2007.

So while the mushroom subplot in "Babylon" permits Mulder to go wild (thanks to “the power of suggestion”), his psychedelic journey has a strong grounding in a long-lived field of study. It doesn’t matter what you believe about the properties of said mushrooms. It matters that The X-Files is accurate in depicting the field of inquiry surrounding them.

My point is merely that the author of the episode has taken special care to assure that the concepts which come to facilitate the meaning -- the art -- boast a basis in research and science.

From that foundation of reality, a tale is ultimately spun about human nature, and that’s what “Babylon” concerns. Once more, Carter has imagined his story in symbolic terms, so that we can meaningfully connect The X-Files to religion, philosophy and history.  

For example, “Ziggurat,” the name of the art gallery in Texas, is also the name of the legendary tower in Babylon (Gen. 11:1–9) that sought to touch Heaven itself.

One might rightly conclude that art fulfills a similar purpose in our world. 

It helps us better understand our reality and our possibilities. It activates our imagination.  

But in that attempt to reach heaven, man sometimes over-reaches too, and sometimes offends others with his or her concepts.  

In “Babylon,” that’s Ziggurat’s explicit function. Western society sees the creation of art, generally, as a high purpose. There are some cultures, by contrast, that see such artistic representation as the greatest of offenses towards God. 

Why does this disunity of ideas exist? 

Because we are all locked into different bubbles. Our languages, our cultures, our beliefs, and our religions separate and divide us.

The episode “Babylon” is so named because it refers to the Tower of Babel, and the idea that God punished man for his hubris by giving the builders of the tower different languages. Therefore, they could not understand each other; could not cooperate.

Again and again in The X-Files’ “Babylon,” we see examples of people speaking different languages; talking right past each other.

The Islamic terrorists and those that run the art gallery, Ziggurat, no doubt possess different concepts of art, and different tolerances for blasphemy.  

Similarly, we see several examples of liberal and conservative pundits battling it out on a cable TV opinion show, screaming at each other about the freedom of expression. They possess different ideas of personal responsibility, and different ideas about tolerating other cultures and different world views. The language that should bind these pundits -- the “code" they should hold in common -- instead divides them.

We also see a nurse who is willing to commit wanton murder, the same act she condemns the terrorist for, because “vengeance” or “unqualified hatred” is an accepted and acceptable part of her particular world view.

The thing I appreciate most about “Babylon” is that Chris Carter provides the audience an example about what it takes to get past the din of Babel, past the cacophony of world views that don't and can’t line up.  

He depicts Mulder and Scully doing just that in their particular choices here.

Consider, Mulder and Scully represent -- and have always represented -- opposing or dueling viewpoints.

Mulder represents the Romantic, the quest to believe in magical things beyond the realm of proven science.  

Scully represents Enlightenment values; science and evidence.  

And in “Babylon,” Mulder and Scully encounter two agents who mirror their world views, the scientist Einstein and the believer Miller.

But who does each one reach out to?

Mulder reaches out -- beyond his bubble of belief -- to the scientist. He contacts Einstein.

Identically, Scully reaches out beyond her world-view, to the believer. To Miller.

Why does this matter, and why does this brave selection on their part speak to our times so trenchantly? 

Just look at the news.  

Liberals flock to MSNBC, and in that bubble, see only their pre-existing views reinforced. 

Conservatives flock, meanwhile, to Fox, and there they hear and see only the things they already know and feel to be true. 

Each ideology has thus chosen as information sources closed-off bubbles that allow in no new information, and no examination of ideas that don’t line up with pre-programmed beliefs.
You can read the facts all you want about these impenetrable bubbles of reinforcing beliefs. I recommend you do so. Don't take my word for it.

But watch Fox News regularly, and you are seeing information that is demonstrably false 60% of the time. MSNBC presents information that is demonstrably false roughly 44% percent of the time. 

Yet if liberals are so tolerant, they can certainly tolerate watching a news program that disagrees with their world view once in a while, right?

And if conservatives really care so much about personal responsibility and accountability, they can take the responsibility to seek the truth beyond the official news organ of the Republican party. 

Isn't that so?

The point here is that sometimes you have to exit your bubble of selective exposure, and not just preach to the choir. 

In "Babylon," Mulder and Scully exit their ideological bubbles, and seek out the very person it would be hardest to convince of their particular case. 

That is how progress is made. 

That is how truth is transmitted. 

You don’t challenge the status quo by preaching to the choir, but by having someone who sees things differently question and test your assumptions.  

Mulder and Scully, spontaneously and independently, both do that in this episode.  

Rather than seeking a like-minded, younger counter-part who will dutifully parrot their perspective, Mulder and Scully have internalized the value of someone who thinks differently, who has a different perspective on life. 

Who challenges you to back up your bullshit.

This is very much an apotheosis for these pop-culture legends and characters, and the reason that the episode is so important, in my estimation.  

Mulder and Scully have argued about “the truth” for 23 years, but they don't seek to protect their ideas from real scrutiny inside a bubble.  Indeed, they thrive on hearing the opposite viewpoint, the uncomfortable viewpoint, on taking in data they know will disagree with their interpretation of matters.

"Babylon" asks a pointed question (through Mulder, if memory serves): Why does such unqualified hate exist in our country, and in our world? 

In large part it’s because many of us exist in a bubble of self-reinforcing belief, and don’t leave that bubble to experience other viewpoints, other ideas. 

The act of seeking out other ideas doesn’t mean we give up our ideas or beliefs willy-nilly, by the way. It means that we test our ideas and beliefs. We hold them up to scrutiny. We are stronger when they are challenged.

It is the responsibility of great art to reflect its culture; to tell the culture it concerns something about itself. “Babylon” undoubtedly fulfills that function.

But great art must go beyond that benchmark as well. It must offer a new perspective, and show the culture the way forward. It must show us a path.

Accordingly, we see in Mulder and Scully’s example of going outside the bubble, a way for us to move forward as a country, and as a people. They are an example for us to follow.  They leave behind their perceptual baggage and selective exposure to seek answers beyond the bubble.

“Babylon” goes further, however. It tells us that the din of competing, angry voices in the world -- in this modern Babel -- is actually, only a matter of perspective. We all view ourselves as different from liberals, or from conservatives, or from Islamic extremists.

But are we, really?

Where you stand, depends on where you sit, I guess, to quote communications textbook I teach from.

How can I say that?  Well, if the camera pulls back far enough -- as it does in the valedictory shot of “Babylon” -- we get a different perspective.  

We are all inhabitants of one planet.  

We all belong to this spinning ball called Earth.  

We are not many.  We are one.  

The voices of unqualified hatred and the extremes of human nature are inordinately loud, but we should not let them drown out this simple, inescapable fact.

We share not just a planet, but a fate and a future. Mulder may believe in UFOs, and Scully may be a practicing Catholic, but those differences don’t outweigh the connections that bind us together as, one human race.

Look past the line dancing, and “Babylon” reminds us that a mother’s love trumps hate, and that a planetary perspective makes ideological differences seem small.  

Through its canny use of a variety of songs, pop and otherwise (a call-back, I believe, to God’s fondness for CDs in “Improbable,”) "Babylon" cleverly reminds us too that we already possess a universal language.

It's called music.  

Music, Plato told us, "gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind," and "flight to the imagination." 

It is, in his words, a "moral law."

Perhaps music is the very terrain where listening begins anew.

Grounded in reality, and yet pointing us towards that very possibility -- that we don’t need to listen to or heed the extremes of our nature --“Babylon” is as perfect and thorough a presentation of Chris Carter philosophy as we have yet experienced.

I know we’re getting the season finale, “My Struggle 2,” next week, but today “Babylon” feels like the absolute zenith, the summit of the entire, 23-year The X-Files journey.

The truth is out there, but to hear it, see it and understand it, we must seek answers not just within, but those who see and understand the world differently.

Every Mulder needs to be tested by a Scully. And every Scully needs to be tested by a Mulder.

I love that Scully and Mulder punctured their bubbles of selective exposure in this episode. They've learned a lot from each other on this quarter-century journey.  

The question is: can we follow their lead?


  1. John good review of yet another excellent X-Files episode that managed to deal with radical Islamic terrorism in a new honest way. The bubbles are so true. True that Fox News is official news organ of the Republican party as it is 100% true that MSNBC is official news organ of the Democratic party complete with the thrill running up Chris Matthews leg.


  2. Anonymous5:36 PM

    Just wanted to make one addition; Fringe has to be mentioned in terms of shows that deal with psychedelic trips ;)

  3. Psychedelic trips may be a good topic for Mondays Cult TV Faces of...


  4. It is mind-blowing me how Chris Cater's storytelling skills (as well as his associates, Wong, the Morgans, etc,) are as as sharp, insightful, and politically/culturally relevant as ever. Almost all artists never regain their peak after a long layoff. But he sure has!

    I love the idea of music being a universal language. I always thought that was one of the most brilliant aspects of "Close Encounters".

  5. Todd V.7:54 PM

    I liked how this episode continued the theme of creation from the
    previous episode. Last week the street artist's thoughts of hatred for the way
    the homeless were being treated created a literal monster. This week an artist
    created a depiction of Muhammad which was insulting toward Muslims. That
    creation incited Islamic extremists to attack the art museum. The episode
    certainly isn't saying that act of terrorism was in any way justified. It's just
    saying that people need to be careful about the ideas their putting into the
    world. Words do have consequences. We have the freedom in this country to
    express ourselves in the way we want. But don't we also have a responsibility to
    censor ourselves. Avoid putting ideas out there that may foster hatred.

    1. Anonymous10:23 AM

      If I avoided putting ideas out that foster hatred, I'd never put any ideas out. For any idea, there's someone who will hate it.

  6. Anonymous10:22 AM

    At the beginning of the episode, I groaned. I'd hoped for something other than the cliches Muslim terrorist. I felt disappointed.

    But it got much better when it became apparent (and later confirmed by the mother [even though it was through her own 'trip']) that Shiraz didn't detonate his bomb (if he had, would he really have survived?) He dies, but he breaks out of his bubble.

    I was impressed that Miller and Einstein are subtly shown to be very, very smart. Miller picks up on the fake DHS agents pretty quickly, and Einstein nearly instantly.

    And yes, Einstein is the science person, but she also picks up on the relationship between Mulder and Scully, even if she makes a joke about it.

    And this episode finally breaks out of something that's bugged me about the whole mini-series. In the original series, a lot was left unsaid or unresolved. The mini-series had been way, way to explicit. This episode wasn't.

    Did Einstein really give Mulder a placebo? Or did she say that to cover her butt? Did Mulder really astrally connect with Shiraz? Or is he just such a good detective that the 'trip' was more of him just putting pieces together in inspiration? And what about the mother's prayers?

    I also like the way that having the mother there with her unconditional love and absolute certainty that her son did not murder anyone kept the whole motherhhood thread going.

    And seeing the Lone Gunmen again was a blast.

    As for bubbles, CITOKATE all the way.