Editor’s Note: This piece on The X-Files, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Usually, when you’re watching TV, you can trust that what you’re seeing is real within the world of the show. If there’s a mismatch between how someone is recounting an event and how it is portrayed, we’re prone to believe that it is the visual depiction that provides the truth. If something is a dream sequence, or other form of delusion, we’re generally clued into this visually at the end of the day through a switch in perspective. The first version of events wasn’t really real, and now we’re being shown things from a more objective point of view.
“Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” scrambles all of this, as virtually everything on screen over the course of the episode is from a particular perspective. The only apparent exceptions are in the running scenes where Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly) sit in her office, and the scene towards the end of the episode in which Mulder (David Duchovny) visits Chung to ask him to refrain from writing his book.
Mostly, we’re given subjective perspectives, as various individuals recount their memories of the events around a possible alien abduction in Klass County, Washington. But, it’s actually worse than that, as we’re generally getting them refracted through another perspective as well. Scully tells Chung what someone told her (or told Mulder while she was in the room), or Chung tells Scully what someone told him. The number of layers vary.
And, in addition to this, Darin Morgan’s story adds a fictional perspective, not only by being a work of fiction itself but by centering itself around the novel that Chung is writing. Of course he thinks that’s a new genre—nonfiction science fiction—but he recognizes that the truth is not straightforward. Regardless, The X-Files depicts events from this fiction within a fiction on screen, as if they were real within the world of The X-Files, but at the same time winks at us that they are not.
Frankly, it’s almost too much! There’s something downright baroque about how “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” flits between levels of “reality” and blends them together with humor. You could call the episode meta, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. And that’s why we love it!
We begin with Harold (Jason Gaffney) and Chrissy (Sarah Sawatsky) on their first date. As he drives down the road, they’re stopped in their tracks as a flying saucer appears and grey aliens head towards them. As they drag the pair towards their vessel, another spacecraft appears to deposit another kind of alien. The grey aliens then mimic the dialogue we’ve just heard between Harold and Chrissy. What is that thing?
How the hell should I know?
So, of course, none of this happened, or at least didn’t happen in the way we’re seeing. And when Chung asks Mulder what actually did happen towards the end of the episode, we get a third iteration of the same line.
It’s not just that Harold doesn’t know what the aliens are, or that the first two aliens don’t know what the third is, or that Mulder doesn’t know what happened that night in Washington. “How the hell should I know?” further questions the supposition that the one saying it ought to know. It points towards something beyond the knowable.
Scully recounts the aftermath of whatever did happen to Chung. Harold claims they were abducted by aliens, while Chrissy doesn’t remember anything. When she was found, her clothes were on inside out and backwards, and as Scully notes it feels like there’s a strong possibility this was a date rape.
Indeed, this troubled me a little more on this viewing than it had on previous ones, as I’m not sure that possibility is adequately dispelled, and it opens the door to a reading where Mulder’s willingness to believe in Harold’s claim of abduction might seem like another case of men in positions of authority not believing women. He suggests hypnosis to get at the truth, which, of course, Scully questions.
Chrissy is hypnotized twice. The first time, she gives an account of alien abduction that feels all too stereotypical, and doesn’t match Harold’s account. The second time, though, she recounts being taken to a room by members of the Air Force, and as we parse everything that “Jose Chung” gives us to work with, it seems like this might have actually happened.
When Blaine (Allan Zinyk) finds a dead alien in the woods, it turns out that this was just a man in an alien costume. He’s identified as Major Robert Charles Vallee (Terry Arrowsmith), before some Air Force men arrive looking for him because he’s AWOL, and when Mulder and Scully return to the autopsy room, his body is gone.
Of course, this is through Scully’s memory as she recounts events to Chung, and so is the fact that Vallee’s body was later “recovered” at the crash site of an experimental plane, but we don’t generally expect Scully to be making such things up.
Mulder, on the other hand, has a conversation with Vallee’s partner, Lieutenant Jack Schaefer (Daniel Quinn), the reality of which is very much in question. As they sit in a diner, Schaefer tells Mulder about how the military disguises planes as flying saucers so they’ll be less likely to be shot down on sight, and says that they fake alien abductions. At the same time, though, he thinks he’s actually been abducted and mentions Lord Kinbote (seemingly corroborating part of Roky’s story).
But Scully doesn’t really buy that this happened, and Chung tells her that the cook at the diner recalled to him that Mulder came in one night and ate a whole sweet potato pie one piece at a time, asking a question with each serving.
Still, the government conspiracy angle “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” presents feels the closest to the truth. If we take Blaine’s accounting with a grain of salt (which seems well warranted since we know neither Scully nor Mulder threatened to kill him), it’s easy to suppose that men in black did visit him and steal his video of the “alien autopsy.” And we might also suppose that Roky (William Lucking) was visited by the same men.
Those men in black are played by Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek (yes, it really is him in the episode), and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how delightful their scenes are. Ventura chews through the scenery as he tells Roky that most UFO sightings are actually people seeing Venus, and the fact that he delivers a backbreaker on Blaine is just hilarious. My favorite thing, though, is the moment when Blaine sees Trebek’s face, which we don’t see until later in the episode, and smiles. Well, that and Ventura’s line about how Jimmy Carter thought he saw a UFO once but it’s been proven that he only saw Venus.
Ventura’s character also gets a bit of dialogue where he questions the idea that “seeing is believing” because we don’t even properly understand how perception works, which is another moment of levity but also gets to the heart of what “Jose Chung” is up to. Eyewitness testimony is distressingly unreliable and there are untold numbers of instances of confabulation when it comes to memory.
A lot of people misremember where they were on 9/11, or what they were doing when they learned of the terrorist attacks. And, of course, there’s the Mandela Effect. It’s no surprise that Darin Morgan would go on to write an episode about that for the reboot.
Larry Musser’s character in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is named Detective Manners, which is surely a nod to Kim Manners. And Klass County, Washington doesn’t exist. All over the place the lines between fiction and reality are blurred.
The Stupendous Yappi (Jaap Broeker) makes an appearance in this episode to question the alien autopsy. Or maybe he’s suggesting that it really was an alien, since Scully notes that the results have been edited out. We might also wonder how he got his hands on that footage. Is Yappi working with the men in black?
We end with Scully reading the completed From Outer Space, wherein she’s been renamed Diana Lesky and Mulder is called Renard Muldrake, who Chung characterizes as mentally unwell. He goes on to tell us the Roky has gone on to proselytize his faith about the beings who live in the Earth’s core, and Chrissy has dedicated herself to making the world a better place.
Harold, still smitten with her, comes to her window. “Love,” she scoffs, “is that all you men think about?”
It’s a fitting end to an episode that has suggested throughout that there are any number of things more worth thinking about—not just whether there are aliens out there, or government conspiracies, but also how we determine anything like truth when everything is a matter of perspective, and we can’t necessarily even trust our own.
Most UFO sightings are actually Venus.