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Review: That X-Files episode where aliens came to Earth to play baseball, and what it says about race in America

The most iconic shot from The X-Files‘ 25 year run is also the funniest one: the image of a somber grey alien gazing away unto loftier things while holding a bat and dressed in a baseball cap and a little alien baseball uniform. You see, the alien in question is the true form of Josh Exley, the rootinest-tootinest bad-ball batter in the bush leagues who came to earth and stole the identity of a disappeared child from Macon, Georgia because he loved baseball so, so much. Season six’s The X-Files episode “The Unnatural” was David Duchovny’s writing and directing debut, and it shows. The episode is a bunch of tropes loosely strung together by the mythology of the X-Files that had already been years in the making, the foremost of which being that American identity has the power to unite all people in its embrace, regardless of the historical wealth of systemic obstructions marginalized people face to claim that identity.

The X-Files is a time capsule of 25 tumultuous years in American history, particularly the mistakes of 90’s-era colorblindness. The episode “The Unnatural” is a unique record of the failures of pretending that the naive adage of Michael Jackson ever rang truethat there was ever a period in history when it “[didn’t] matter if you’re black or white.”

Premiering in 1993, Chris Carter’s The X Files starred David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as “two F.B.I. Agents, Fox Mulder the believer and Dana Scully the skeptic, investigate the strange and unexplained, while hidden forces work to impede their efforts,” as described by IMDb.“The Unnatural” opens on a flashback of a New Mexico minor league match, which despite the racial barbs tossed across the field seems to be mostly friendly with other players, encouraging Josh Exley that with his skill he’s soon to be the next Jackie Robinson. That is, until the music turns ominous as a group of KKK members ride onto the field. The players start pitching fastballs at the groups’ faces until the leader falls off his horse, whereupon the players remove his white hood only to find an alien underneath. Later in the episode, we find out that the conflict surrounding integration in baseball is merely a backdrop for the battle between Josh Exley, an alien himself, and an alien bounty hunter who has infiltrated the KKK. Aside from a basic outsider narrative, the backdrop of segregated minor league baseball is just that—a backdrop with little attention paid to the significance of the setting.

The episode is narrated by Arthur Dales—the eponymous twin brother of retired investigator Arthur Dales—who waxes philosophical on the nature of man. “What you fail to understand,” Dales says, talking to the audience as much as Mulder, “is that baseball is the key to life—the Rosetta Stone, if you will. If you just understood baseball better, all your other questions … would all, in their way, be answered by the baseball gods.” 

Americans have a mythology of various time periods and activities, from baseball to the Fourth of July to being able to bootstrap your way through college, that are said to be able to unite people despite any social boundary. The idea that there are certain activities in which racism can be totally overcome trivializes its far-reaching historical roots in all aspects of society. It also trivializes the idea of race itself; after all, if something can be so easily overcome, it must not be very significant. The supremacy of baseball, and the mythology of the American past by extension, defines the episode to the point that the power of American identity is what unites the characters in the episode’s resolution.

The episode undercuts the grip of racism on America by pushing the idea that inside, we’re all the same. “What is it to be a human?” Dales asks rhetorically. “Is it to have the chemistry of a man? In the universal scheme of things, a dog’s chemistry is nearly identical to that of a man. But is a dog like a man? Of course not. To be a man is to have the heart of a man. Integrity, decency, sympathy: these are the things that make a man a man and [Josh Exley] had them all more than you or I.”

The idea that what makes us is only what is inside is to discount the ways that less lofty factors like gender, race, sexual orientation and religion inform who we are. Most dangerously, if we are all the same inside then there is nothing precluding anyone from being Proud American™ so, if you are deemed un-American then it must be due to a choice you’ve made; under the inviolable liberal rule that discrimination based on class or creed is immoral, lifestyle choices are still a target. 

The episode exposes the fragility of its own ideas (namely that baseball can cure racism) through the prevalence of racial stereotypes. The character of Josh Exley is functionally a “magical negro,” with unflinching positivity and unfailing wisdom that have led him across the universe from his home planet to the baseball diamond. Even more problematically, the episode doesn’t even follow Josh Exley, but a young Arthur Dales, the white cop assigned to protect him. But don’t worry, he’s a good cop —he doesn’t see race, and he doesn’t “have an opinion on Negroes or Jews or Communists or even Canadians and vegetarians,” but he “cannot stomach … a man of any persuasion or any color being [in danger.]”

The episode ends with the assassination of Josh Exley by an alien bounty hunter, continuing where the opening segment left off. Before Josh is killed, the alien demands that he show him his “true face,” but Josh dramatically refuses to relinquish his human form, declaring that the body of a Black minor league baseball player “is [his] true face.” He is then killed and left to die on the field, but instead of bleeding green froth like as aliens do in the X-Files canon, Josh bleeds red, signifying he’s become a red-blooded American out of love for the greatest sport on earth.

The episode is absurd, attempting to use aliens to force the plight of African Americans into a traditional patriotic narrative of one people united under one great sport, and yet it is somehow intriguing enough to merit multiple watches. This is an episode of television that should never be forgotten or brushed over; beyond the fact that it is a time capsule of American baseball mythology, a lot of network executives had to nod and say yes to David Duchovny when he said he wanted to write, direct and star in an episode of the X-Files about an alien who turns himself into a Black man for the love of the game, and it is our responsibility as viewers, nay, as Americans, not to let the Fox network ever live this down.