In my continuing quest to figure out what geek means, why geeks are “in” right now, and and how to make any of this useful in an academic sense, I was thinking the other day about Patton Oswalt’s Wired article, “Wake Up Geek Culture, it’s Time to Die.” Long story short, Oswalt basically argues that its too easy to be a geek now, that the Internet makes obsessing with things too easy, since you can just go read the Wikipedia entry instead of tracking down every back issue of a comic book.
I think the Internet does make answering the question of “How is geek culture created and performed?” a lot easier, but I’m not sure it entirely answers why geeks are “in” right now. I think I have an idea that might help to answer that, although it certainly doesn’t answer it by itself.
It’s Chris Carter’s fault.
Now, when I say “fault” I don’t mean that Carter is to be blamed for a bad thing. What I mean is that The X-Files changed the world. Or it might be less dramatic. It’s like this:
Geeks are, and I would agree that this is not wrong, commonly associated with science fiction, fantasy, super heroes, and horror. I will shorten this list to “speculative fiction” for now since I don’t want to type all that out over and over. There has always been a place in book sales, film, and television for speculative fiction, and there have been some very popular and successful examples of all these genres in all these mediums. I’ll take two shows as example, Star Trek, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, because I’m a born again Trekker, and they make my point pretty well.
Star Trek ran from 1966 to 1969, canceled before it’s natural demise for reasons I’m not getting into here (like so much speculative fiction on TV). It launched an entire sub-culture, and so when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, it had a built in fan base, which then expanded beyond just the Trekkers, spawning three more TV shows and some movies.
Let me return to speculative fiction for a bit. These shows, such as Star Trek, usually involve a significant amount of setting information, the show’s mythology, which can be daunting for first time viewers. Star Trek is pretty episodic, and the characters can be figured out pretty easily with only an episode or two under your belt, but the perceived investment can really throw people off. More casual TV watchers, especially people who aren’t into speculative fiction in the first place, might be put off by the implied legwork of understanding the mythology and world in which Star Trek exists. The same goes for Star Trek: The Next Generation, possibly even more so.
So fast forward to 1993, and the debut of The X-Files. The X-Files has a complex mythology, by the end of the 9 seasons (the longest running science fiction show until Stargate SG-1 eclipsed it), there was a ton of complicated backstory and arcs and sub-plots and etc. But, like Star Trek, the generally episodic nature of the show meant that you could jump in and understand the characters and the world they inhabited with ease.
Let’s focus on that world for a minute. Star Trek is set in the 23rd century, it has Vulcans and Romulans and the United Federation of Planets, and it has technobabble (which becomes even worse in later shows). The X-Files is set in the real world. If you were alive at the time the show was on, it automatically made sense to you, especially in the early 1990s when conspiracy theories and alien abductions were still very much a part of popular culture. The learning curve for that setting and mythology was really low, it was like chess: minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master.
The X-Files was incredibly popular, and rightfully so, and I think that was in no small part because it was immediately accessible in a way that Star Trek: The Next Generation wasn’t. So a speculative fiction show was popular, so what? Those things are all over TV now! Yeah, now. We might not have Once Upon a Time, or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, or Smallville without The X-Files. There is no way Lost would have worked before Carter changed the world.
The reason The X-Files changed the world is because it was so accessible, and people got hooked. The show gained popularity, and brought in more and more fans who might not have considered themselves speculative fiction types. Now, sure, these people aren’t the die hard, spend hours on forums discussing minutiae of the show fans, but those fans (the ones who are more readily deemed geeks) aren’t the focus of this essay. It’s the casual fans.
Those casual fans, sucked into a show about government conspiracies that had freaking monsters in it (Eugene Toombs is terrifying, still, and I haven’t watched The X-Files since the late 1990s), found themselves more likely to watch other speculative shows. Like Smallville, or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or, eventually, Lost. The X-Files mainstreamed speculative fiction by making is easy to jump into the mythology. Getting into Star Wars is easy, it’s two hours of your life and you can walk away, but Star Trek takes work. The X-Files removed that work, and made people realize that they not only like speculative fiction, but that they might be willing to give other, less immediately accessible shows a try, because the pay off might be worth it.
So Chris Carter is, at least partially, to blame for mainstreaming geek culture. More specifically, for mainstreaming a part of geek culture, which for many of us is what defines something as a part of geek culture. Is the popularity of The X-Files the only reason? No, of course not, but I think it’s a contributing factor.