The X-Files was a groundbreaking TV show that brought sci-fi into the mainstream and laid out the framework for the hour-long TV drama that is still in use today. So it's easy to forget that roughly one in every three episodes was racially troubling, if not outright racist. Below, we take a look at five particularly questionable episodes, as well as the vaguely ethnic MIDI instruments that composer Mark Snow chose to accompany them.
Warning: This article gives away the endings of several mediocre episodes of The X-Files. Completists, racists, and racist completists may wish to view the episodes before reading.
Every X-Files episode that deals with the quirky superstitions of a particular ethnic group features the same character: an assimilated member of that group, usually a lawmaker, who helps Mulder and Scully understand the strange ways of these noble savages. In Teso dos Bichos, we meet Dr. Bilac, an archaeologist's assistant whose job it is to placate the Ecuadorian tribespeople while a hilariously British archaeologist disturbs the remains of their ancestors.
Most of the racially troubling moments in The X-Files result from racism by reduction. While the show does not strongly assert that everyone in a particular ethnic group is a superstitious liar or a magical criminal, it doesn't bother to give many examples to contrary. Even the assimilated ally is usually revealed to be a turncoat. So it comes as literally no shock at all when we learn that Dr. Bilac is taking an Ecuadorian hallucinogenic called "yaje", which allows him to turn into a jaguar spirit monster to murder other archaeologists.
In the final act, Mulder and Scully are attacked by a horde of angry housecats, which is only "explained" by a shot of an old, white-haired shaman in Ecuador whose eyes turn into jaguar eyes. Luckily, this episode's racial insensitivity is obscured by the overall feeling of "WHAT IS THIS EPISODE ABOUT?"
Mark Snow's MIDI Instruments: Pan flutes. Always with the pan flutes.
In the 1990s, there was only one Asian man on television: B.D. Wong. Throughout the course of a decade, Wong played every scientist, doctor, and bilingual detective on every TV show broadcast in America. So it's no surprise that he shows up as Detective Glen Choi when Mulder and Scully investigate a murder in San Francisco's Chinatown.
What appears to be an aggressive game of Chinese bingo turns out to be a black market organ harvesting operation in which desperate immigrants gamble with their body parts. Detective Choi helps protect the game, because being Chinese matters more to him than being a police officer (there's also a bribe). The ringleader, an evil Chinese doppelganger of the Smoking Man, tells Mulder that the game gives its players hope, which is important in their culture. Mulder will never understand, he explains: it's an Ancient Chinese Secret.
Also, a live frog comes out of the body of a sewn-up dead man due to Chinese Magic.
Mark Snow's MIDI Instruments: Pan flutes and plucked string instruments.
From time to time, the creators of The X-Files liked to change things up and create an episode in a different visual/narrative style. This produced some of their greatest work, including the Frankenstein-inspired "The Post-Modern Prometheus" and the Rashomon-style "Bad Blood". Other attempts were less remarkable, like the Spanish-language-soap-opera-inspired "El Mundo Gira" (Spanish for "The World Turns," presumably referring to viewers turning to another channel).
An undocumented immigrant (stop calling them "illegal") from Mexico dies under mysterious circumstances, leading Mulder and all of the Mexican immigrants to believe that it was the work of el chupacabra. This episode's assimilated local law enforcement officer tells Mulder and Scully that "these people" have nothing, and need to believe in stories. The show's creators attempt to mirror this theme by having all of the Mexican characters act like they are in a soap opera. The actual result is an episode that seems to assert that all Mexicans are extremely dramatic and prone to passionate acts of violence. Oops.
Mark Snow's MIDI Instruments: Fingerpicked guitar, tambourine, pan flutes for good measure.
On a military base where Haitian refugees are detained, soldiers begin to die due to mysterious, voodoo-ish circumstances. What is otherwise a solid early X-Files episode, complete with supernatural mysticism, government conspiracy, and even a visit from Mulder's second shadowy informant, is sullied or even ruined by the cartoonish accents and shifty attitudes of the only Haitian characters with speaking roles. A hip-talking, street-smart, Haitian child named Chester Bonaparte leads Mulder and Scully around, only to fall victim to the classic "What do you mean you were just talking to him? He died a month ago!" plot twist.
The solution to this episode's mystery, if unpacked, is troubling as well: it turns out Haitian people do have voodoo magic powers, but White people can learn voodoo magic from Haitians. So watch out for Haitians, everyone! They'll turn you to zombies or teach you to turn other people into zombies, according to this episode.
Mark Snow's MIDI Instruments: Chanting vocals, deep-pitched drums, curious absence of pan flutes.
X-Files episodes involving Native American tribes tended to be respectful and well-written. This was due in part to the fact that most "mythology episodes" (part of the ongoing storyline about aliens or bees or whatever) were written and directed by series creators Chris Carter and Vince Gilligan.
Season three's "Shapes" is, unfortunately, just another monster-of-the-week murder mystery that happens to take place on an Algonquin reservation. Without the compelling government conspiracy plot and the strong writing that normally accompanies it, this episode is simply an assortment of classic Native American stereotypes: a white-haired, old wiseman; a land dispute with the White Man; and a spirit that turns Algonquin people into mountain lions every eight years. Also, idea of the "manitou", borrowed from Algonquin mythology, is entirely misrepresented, because...who cares? Gotta churn out an episode every week.
This episode comes to a close as Mulder and Scully suddenly realize who the murderer is, and that she has driven away in a car. They choose not to follow her since she had murdered an old man only after she'd been transformed into a mountain lion (solid reasoning). So now there is a woman who can turn into an animal and kill people out there somewhere. The end.
Mark Snow's MIDI Instruments: Hand drums, whistling sounds, wolf howling, probably pan flutes.