Except for a brief period after his office is torched at the end of Season 5, Mulder has always the iconic ‘I Want to Believe’ poster prominently placed close by his desk. In the movie ‘I Want to Believe’, though no longer in his office, Mulder is sitting at a desk when first we meet him and, sure enough, the poster is again in a place of prominence.
Despite all the conspiracies and double-crossings, this simple mantra is probably the biggest single misdirection in the whole history of the X Files. It seems fitting then that it should serve as the title to the 2008 movie that brought Mulder and Scully back to the screen after an absence of six years. Maybe, finally, we’d discover just what it is that Mulder wants to believe. It couldn’t possibly be the existence of extraterrestrial life or alien abduction for, of these, he has plenty of experiential evidence. Gosh, even Scully the sceptic pretty much accepted all things supernatural and alien by the end of Season 9.
So, when asked by Father Joe if he believed “these sort of things”, Mulder misleadingly replies, “Let’s just say I want to believe”. Misleading because that filing cabinet in which he keeps the X Files contains enough evidence to make any need for belief redundant.
One cannot but ask just what is there left for Mulder to want to believe in?
The answer to that may be the one thing he has always avowedly disbelieved.
Despite Mulder’s apparent willingness to believe in almost anything, he is a man, evidenced by his own endless and resolute pursuit of the truth, of no faith. The simple truth is that Mulder has no interest in believing anything. He wants to know! And not only that, and what causes his frustration throughout the show, is his deep-seated need to be able to prove.
It isn’t too difficult to understand his motivation. We heard Scully’s reiteration so often it became annoying. Even as early as Season 3’s ‘Oubliette’, Mulder, showing an annoyance most of the audience are probably beginning to feel by this time (though Scully persisted with her conviction beyond this episode), responds to her latest pseudo-psychoanalytical accusation by reminding her, “not everything I do, say, think, and feel goes back to my sister. You, of all people should realize that sometimes motivations for behavior can be more complex and mysterious than tracing them back to one single childhood experience.”
So, we can chalk off another item from the list of things Mulder might want to believe, because Freudianism certainly isn’t one of them.
Yet, while Scully may be off-the-mark on this occasion, she is clearly right on a more fundamental level. Of course, not everything Mulder does is motivated by his need to find his sister. But who he is is predicated on his need to find the proof that was so conspicuously absent on the occasion of that childhood trauma. If we harken back to that conversation in the Pilot which occurred after Scully, despite her scepticism, got so wound up in the events of the case she mistook a couple of mosquito bites for signs the aliens were coming to get her, Mulder’s opening up is very revealing – as, indeed, such sharings are meant to be. What he reveals is not so much an undying need to find a lost sister so much as an inability to comprehend what had happened because there was so little evidence.
Which is why he remains wanting to believe. Belief is an essential element in the make-up of the healthy human being. Believing in something greater than the self provides the impetus to the achievement of great things. Belief in nothing but the self leads only to petty selfishness. Mulder’s desire to know lacks, despite his frequent protestations, a willingness to believe. Knowledge without belief is just as dangerous as belief without knowledge. Hence Scully’s journey through the X Files was always more engrossing and immediate than Mulder’s – she began with the knowledge, acquiring the belief along the way. He also has the knowledge – he is an Oxford educated psychologist, after all – but he never acquired the belief.
Whenever Scully’s new-found belief led her into situations no ordinary person ever had to deal with, her knowledge, her science, always provided her a reassurance Mulder forever lacked. Hence, he’d disappear, leaving those who loved him to worry and mourn (on more than one occasion) and, eventually, save him from himself because he had none of the grounding Scully’s much-vaunted science provided her. But it wasn’t a willingness to believe that led Mulder into such rash action; it was his need to know – and more than that, his all-consuming need to be able to show others what he knew.
There is, however, another fundamental difference between the two agents. Scully not only has her science, she has her faith. Scully is a Catholic!
Which brings us back to the movie of 2008, ‘I Want to Believe’.
Scully hasn’t just gone back to medicine; she is a surgeon in a Catholic hospital. With a young patient suffering an incurable(?) illness. The administrator, the ‘bad guy’, is a Catholic priest. He wants to move the boy out of the hospital because it is his view that the hospital exists “to heal the sick, not prolong the ordeal of the dying”.
Scully, having been the partner of Fox Mulder for so long, isn’t about to give in to the voice of authority. There is a radical option available – an option that might confuse the audience – depending on how much they pay attention to anything outside the self. Scully’s option is radical, of course – intrathecal stem cell therapy. Confusing because, in the popular perception, the Catholic Church is averse to anything stem cell. It’s at times like these, one has nothing but admiration for the researchers of so-called lowbrow culture. The church, of course, is only against the use of embryonic stem cell research.
This is relevant because throughout her journey along the winding road of the X Files, Scully has, however tenuously at times, maintained her conviction that there is a God. Sceptical she may be, but she’s also Catholic. Not surprisingly, Mulder, who will accept the most extreme possibilities, refuses to accept this kind of faith. Probably because it provides no evidence.
Yet, it may well be true; that Mulder, self-aware enough to realise he has no faith, really does want what Scully has – the courage to believe.