Beholding the Cockroach

By Caroline Hovanec

“At Night Challenge Entry,” Image upload by Gep Pascual, October 23, 2006, CC License

It was a paranormal mystery series studded with conspiracy, violence, and darkness, but The X-Filesalways shone brightest to me when it did comedy. “War of the Coprophages,” a season three monster-of-the-week tale of killer cockroaches from outer space (or are they?), is a case in point. The title captures the episode’s style of humor: “war of the” pays homage to pulpy science fiction’s past (echoing H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds), while “coprophage,” which translates literally to “shit-eater,” puts a Latinate jacket and tie on the cockroach. The mystery in “War of the Coprophages” never gets solved, but this is not so disappointing when you consider that, from a certain angle, the story is actually an elaborately plotted, thirty-nine-minute build-up to a fortieth-minute poop joke.

The episode opens onto a close-up of a human hand holding, between thumb and forefinger, a squirming cockroach. The hand draws the cockroach before the flashlight-lit, inquisitive face of a man—a scientist?—as he delivers a monologue that begins in a tone of scientific wonder, but soon turns to self-serving grandiosity: 

“Behold the mighty cockroach. Believed to have originated in the Surilian period over 350 million years ago, they can be found in every part of the world from the tropics to the Arctic . . . By evolutionary standards, they are nearly flawless creatures, but creatures nevertheless . . . Unlike us, they are incapable of thought, of self-illumination. Compared to the roach, we are gods, and must therefore act accordingly.”

The man drops the cockroach onto the floor and squashes it under his shoe. And at this point, the episode stages its first joke. A second man, obscured up to this point, asks a question about the cockroaches, to which the first man responds, now in a decidedly more blue-collar accent, “Look, buddy, I just kill ’em.” Our learned scientist is not a scientist at all, but, as a cut to his jacket logo reveals, an exterminator. And, in the episode’s second and more brutal joke, he soon becomes the story’s first human casualty. Alone in the basement, spraying and crushing the insects, he suddenly clutches his throat and collapses to the ground. Cockroaches now begin to come out of the woodwork by the dozens, swarming his supine body, seemingly taking revenge for his earlier boast that, relative to a cockroach, he is a god.

In the remainder of the episode, Mulder investigates a series of cockroach-related deaths in a small Massachusetts town. Scully, back in D.C., persuades him over the phone that each death has a perfectly reasonable medical explanation: anaphylactic shock, drug-induced psychosis, brain aneurysm. But when a fourth person dies, she determines to join him on the case. Mulder, meanwhile, seeks guidance from Dr. Bambi Berenbaum, a beautiful entomologist working for the USDA (Scully, incredulously: “Her name is Bambi?”), and Dr. Ivanov, an artificial intelligence researcher modeled after both Stephen Hawking and the roboticist Rodney Brooks.[1] They discover that the cockroaches appearing and disappearing near the corpses are made not of ordinary chitin, but of metal. With their help, Mulder develops a theory: perhaps these cockroaches are robotic probes, sent from an alien civilization far more advanced than our own to explore and gather data about us. “Greetings from Planet Earth,” Mulder says to one bug, who, in the reverse shot, gazes back at five softly superimposed Mulders through its compound eyes.

As they search for answers, Mulder flirts with Dr. Berenbaum (who explains to him that cockroaches are identified by their genitalia—“He’s hung like a club-tailed dragonfly,” she says in astonishment at one sample). Although sparks fly, it’s clear that their romance is a non-starter. “I hate insects,” he confesses on the phone later that night to Scully. As a child climbing a tree, he had been horrified by a moving leaf that turned out to be no leaf at all but a praying mantis: 

“I screamed. No, not a girly scream, but the scream of someone being confronted by some before unknown monster that had no right existing on the same planet I inhabited . . . The mysteries of the natural world were revealed to me that day, but instead of being astounded, I was repulsed.”

To this revelation of Lovecraftian horror at a brush with the insect sublime, Scully responds, in a sympathetic tone, “Mulder, are you sure it wasn’t a girly scream?”

Eventually, the investigation leads the pair to a fuel research facility just outside of town. The facility imports manure and uses it to produce methane, and the agents believe this may be a ground zero for the cockroaches, since they are known dung-eaters. Inside, Mulder finds a distraught scientist, Dr. Eckerle (who is the second man from the opening scene), armed with a can of Die! Bug! Die! insect spray and a gun. Mulder begs him not to shoot but the now-deranged Eckerle narrows his eyes and says, “How do I know that you’re not a cockroach?” Eckerle pulls the trigger, Mulder flees, fires start breaking out in the building, and just as Mulder and Scully find an exit and dive behind a car, the facility blows up in flames and smoke. After the explosion, the two agents slowly rise from their makeshift shelter, uninjured but now crowned, for all their bravery, in animal shit.

From cold open to climax, the episode plays on a sudden reversal of high and low, elevated and coarse, sublime and silly, akin to what Mikhail Bakhtin identified as the “peculiar logic” of the carnival.

From cold open to climax, the episode plays on a sudden reversal of high and low, elevated and coarse, sublime and silly, akin to what Mikhail Bakhtin identified as the “peculiar logic” of the carnival. For Bakhtin, carnival had a folk humor, a style “of the ‘turnabout,’ of a continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings” (Rabelais and His World, translated by Helene Iswolsky, Indiana UP, 1984, p 11). This sense of humor can also be seen as an inheritance from the H. G. Wells line of science fiction to which it pays tribute. It’s a comic mode predicated on puncturing both anthropocentrism and scientific arrogance, putting even scientific man down in the mud with all the other creatures of the earth. Paired with these uncrownings is an element of what Annabel Kim calls “fecal universalism,” an equality grounded in the material fact that “every body shits” (Cacaphonies, ebook ed., U of Minnesota P, 2022). Our favorite glamorous agents in their elegant suits are here exposed to dung, cockroaches, and humiliation, just like everybody else.

The episode’s closing scene is a mirror image reversal of its opening. Mulder, alone in his apartment, types up his case notes, his face illumined by the glow of a laptop computer. His monologue inverts that of the unfortunate exterminator:

The development of our cerebral cortex has been the greatest achievement of the evolutionary processes. Big deal… Maybe we have gone as far as we can go, and the next advance, whatever that may be, will be made by beings we create ourselves using our own technology . . . Or perhaps that step forward has already been achieved on another planet by organisms that had a billion years’ head start on us. If these beings ever visited us . . . upon catching sight of us, would they react in anything but horror at seeing such mindless, primitive, hideous creatures?

The exterminator lauded human intelligence as the pinnacle of evolution, but Mulder shifts it from top to bottom, imagining an alien point of view from which humans would be not gods but bugs. His soliloquy is interrupted by the sudden appearance, on the plate next to him, of a pale, spotted, and rather beautiful cockroach. In the final seconds, Mulder picks up his case file and, with a heavy thud, brings it down atop the insect. We are left to imagine the life forms that might treat us in the same inglorious way.

But there’s one more little joke in the final scene, one that, nearly thirty years on, still hits. While typing the word “technology,” Mulder’s computer momentarily freezes. “Tech . . . tech . . . technology,” he stammers, stuck, until the bug in the system rights itself. Mulder’s vocal glitch represents “something mechanical encrusted on the living,” to quote Henri Bergson (Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, translated by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, Macmillan, 1911, p. 37). The Wellsian comeuppance of Homo sapiens might get fewer laughs these days, now that the idea of man’s special dignity within God’s creation is no longer held so sacrosanct by so many. But the hubristic dreams of the technology industry are still ripe for mockery.

[1] According to Jussi Parikka, “MIT professor Rodney Brooks . . . designed insectlike robots, and in his 1989 paper ‘Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,’ coauthored by Anita Flynn, he introduced the idea of using insectlike mobots [mobile autonomous robots] as space exploration agents instead of large ‘intelligent’ ones” (Insect Media, U of Minnesota P, 2010, p. xi).