I Want to Believe
September 10, 1993. A normal Friday evening by all accounts, except for one unexplainable event that was to change the face of television. That night, The X-Files premiered on Fox, a network that apparently came out of nowhere to challenge TV’s Big Three with a programming lineup that was racier (Married with Children), more culturally relevant (In Living Color), and generally wittier (The Simpsons) than most of the Neilsen winners in the 1980s. At that moment, neither The X-Files’ producers nor television critics expected the series to do more than draw some stragglers from Star Trek or Twin Peaks fans. However, after seven seasons, one big budget movie, and enough franchise merchandise sold to fill every secret military base in North America, it is clear that the Emmy Award-winning series has altered the science fiction genre, the standards of prime time television, and the way its vast audience views the American government and the possibility of the paranormal.
Almost unbelievably, this phenomenon can be attributed in large part to Chris Carter, the man responsible for the uncanny mythology, that has inspired X-Philes everywhere. After working for years as a freelance journalist, Carter began his screenwriting career writing and producing shows for The Disney Channel, such as 1989’s Brand New Life. In 1992 he began developing projects for Twentieth Century Fox Television; The X-Files was first of many (Millennium in 1996 and Harsh Realm in 1999). The X-Files’ spinoff series, The Lone Gunmen is due to premiere this winter. Carter’s inspiration for The X-Files came mainly from his childhood viewing during the early ‘70s, primarily Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a show about a Chicago reporter who repeatedly encountered strange creatures and circumstances, and The Avengers.
The X-Files chronicles the investigations of FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), assigned to cases that the Bureau has deemed unsolvable. Carter crafted Mulder as an intelligent, intuitive agent on a crusade to uncover the truth behind the paranormal and secret government agendas, fueled by his memory of his sister’s apparent abduction by aliens when they were both children. In an effort to debunk his efforts, Mulder’s superiors recruit Scully, a brilliant medical doctor and struggling Catholic, to be his partner and eventually discredit his work. Easier said than done. Scully and Mulder develop a mutual respect and affection, a friendship based on their complimentary perspectives, both dedicated to finding a truth in which they can believe. As Mulder seeks to confirm a universe of infinite possibilities, Scully attempts to reaffirm her faith in God—the granddaddy of supernatural phenomena.
Anderson’s Scully is a far cry from the usual female characters in science fiction (I don’t think she’s ever once screamed hysterically in seven years on the air). She’s attractive, but not in an exploitive way, and she mixes cool reason and passionate investment with believable results. Mulder’s intensity often appears to be less focused, as Duchovny underplays to the point that his line readings sometimes border on mumbling. Still, Mulder has his own kind of precision (revealed in his acute wit) and a kind of sincerity that allows the audience to suspend disbelief in the midst of a series of fantastic events and environments.
Their complex partnership has yielded a series of murky, melodramatic plotlines, and generated a very intense fanbase. The general background for the series goes something like this: Mulder’s father was an FBI Agent who worked with Mulder’s primary antagonist, known only as Cancer Man (or, Cigarette-Smoking Man, played with appropriate menace by William B. Davis). Cancer Man, in turn, works with an international cabal called the Syndicate on top-secret programs aimed at keeping the existence of alien bodies, spacecrafts, and plans for world domination hidden from the public. The aliens want to enslave the human race by infecting everyone with a mind-controlling virus (which manifests as an unnerving slick of black oil running over people’s eyes). The Syndicate pretends they’re helping the aliens in this diabolical scheme, but are really working against them by creating a human-alien hybrid immune to the virus. This means that the government and private interests are somehow involved in the many lies contrived to explain alien abductions since before the Cold War, not to mention their parts in inserting metal probes into people’s heads and necks, mutating genes, and performing various other horrendous experiments on unknowing test subjects. As every X-Phile knows by now, Mulder’s sister, Samantha, was a victim of such experimentation, his father sacrificing her for a cause he thought noble.
For all the angst suffered and caused by the series’ humans, there’s also lots of drama And surprise, surprise, the aliens haven’t been honest either and have been using the Syndicate to prepare for the spread of the real virus, which doesn’t just turn people into zombies in desperate need of sunglasses, but transforms them into incubators for tiny, savage fetus-aliens that gestate inside human abdomens and eventually pop out a la Alien. Such double- and triple-crossing is typical of the series’ interwoven plots. (One of the most popular involved Alex Krycek [Nicholas Lea], installed as Mulder’s new partner at the beginning of Season Two, then revealed to be working with Cancer Man, and eventually double-crossing just about everyone.) Mulder’s signature phrase, “Trust No One,” speaks to the show’s paranoid premise and atmosphere, which mirrors much of current U.S. culture. The X-Files works this relationship, repeatedly referring to historical conditions and events. When Mulder witnessed Samantha’s abdction—a flashback scene replayed often during the series—they were watching one of the first tv reports on the Watergate scandal: this “coincidence” underlines thematic links between the historical crisis and Mulder’s personal one, and by extension, the viewing audience’s increasing lack of faith in what they see and hear, in media and from their government. The X-Files owes its success as much to the timing of its debut (as it coincided with this increasing lack of faith) as its consistently intelligent dialogue and plots. While it creates a fiction so outrageous that few viewers really believe the cases are or could ever be true, the idea that the “Truth Is Out There” yet hidden by limited thinking and corrupt elitists strikes chords with those who distrust mass media images and government dictates. I must say, it’s comforting to know that such a blatantly subversive series as The X-Files is so popular. However, although it makes clear statements about distrusting authority and rejecting traditional gender roles (notice it’s Mulder who is intuitive, a trait usually attributed to women, and Scully who bases her judgments on science and reason), the show uses conventions that tend to reassert the status quo. After all, the protagonists are FBI Agents—not exactly revolutionaries. And even if Mulder adopts a more “feminine” system of analysis, he is still the one who is usually right, the one with the noble crusade, the one who is more often than not the show’s focus. As well, the methods by which the aliens seek to infect civilians is through a virus, which has obvious resonance with the current anxiety over AIDS and its association with various “threatening” minorities, especially gays and drug addicts.
But it could be that The X-Files’ thematic schizophrenia is one reasons for its popularity. As much as we all struggle to figure out what is true about ourselves, history, and the universe, especially with the coming of the new millennium (as Scully would point out, it doesn’t actually start until 2001), the series does the same. Eventually, even this struggle becomes boring, and we seek new conflicts. The X-Files has challenged numerous conventions and redefined stagnant tropes (ghosts, aliens, gender roles, the government, etc.) during its lengthy run. Nonetheless, this upcoming season, the eighth and final one, will bring all this crazy business to an end. Come next spring, The X-Files will be closed for good. Last season saw the actors take the reins in directing and writing their own episodes, the revelation of what happened to Samantha (saved by spiritual beings in her final, painful moments), the death of the Cancer Man, and, in the season closer, the abduction of Mulder and the discovery that Scully was pregnant. Duchovny’s slotted to appear in only a handful of episodes this season, and Robert Patrick (of Terminator 2 fame) will play Agent John Doggett, Scully’s new partner.
There are plenty of questions still needing answers: Has the alien invasion been stopped? Who is the father of Scully’s baby? And, of course, what’s happened to Mulder? I imagine that the show will come up with some kind of closure, maybe even a new mythology to replace the one it has spent so much time deconstructing. However, I don’t expect Mulder and Scully to hang up their badges too soon. Such a moneymaking machine won’t die quickly, nor will the devoted fanbase forget the past eight years. The actors are young, there are movies to be made, and the show is already in syndication on FX. That’s where the real money is, where Kirk and company have enjoyed an additional twenty-five years of bold explorations. So, the future of The X-Files is still out there. If there’s any truth we can believe, it’s that no one walks out on a successful franchise.