It is, quite simply, a love story. You can sense that, the moment fledgling FBI Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) walks into the basement ofﬁce of her soon-to-be-partner Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) in the original pilot episode of the long-running science-ﬁction series The X-Files. Scully comes through the door with the expectant look of an eager young go-getter; she’s going to make this work even though her superiors have tasked her with debunking her colleague’s investigations into paranormal and extraterrestrial phenomena. And when the obsessive Mulder, hunched feverishly over a slide table, turns to meet her gaze, an emotional circuit completes. “Who’s this now?” he seems to be thinking, his lightheartedly brusque stoicism (a Duchovny staple) cracking ever so subtly. Though neither character realises it, this is going to be a journey for the ages.
When that pilot ﬁrst aired, at 9pm on 10 September 1993, nobody had reason to expect that its own journey would last almost nine years and include two movies – not to mention a new six-part miniseries, which premieres on 24 January. The executives at Fox, the show’s home network, were more enamoured of its 8pm lead-in, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., a sci-ﬁ western starring Sam Raimi muse Bruce Campbell as a steampunkish bounty hunter. Yet ultimately it was this strangely invigorating Kolchak: The Night Stalker-inspired mix of government paranoia, conspiracy theory, alien abduction, religious mysticism and slow-burn melodrama – the brainchild of 35-year-old former Surﬁng magazine reporter Chris Carter – that caught on with critics and audiences alike, going from a cult item to a zeitgeisty blockbuster… and back again.
Ask people about The X-Files and it’s likely they’ll fondly recall the earlier years while dismissing the later ones. The break-up points are never entirely the same. For some it was when the series stopped ﬁlming in atmospherically misty Vancouver and moved production to sun-baked Los Angeles. For others it was the moment, different for everyone, when the show’s overarching narrative (which dealt with the alien colonisation of Earth, but was interrupted for large portions of each season by a number of standalone ‘Monster of the Week’ episodes) became too convoluted for its own good. For still others, it was after season seven, when Duchovny split, frustrated by the rigorous ﬁlming schedule and angry with Fox for holding out on proﬁts, appearing in only half the episodes of season eight and one instalment of season nine; those years showcased a new pair of agents, John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), toward whom many fans were decidedly ambivalent, if not outright hostile. Multiple answers, none of them deﬁnitive – kind of like an X-File.
But reactions cut the other way, too. In the run-up to the new series a few devoted X-Philes (the ofﬁcial moniker for fans) have voiced their appreciation for the latter seasons. Some have even spoken of their love of the much maligned second theatrical feature, The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), which was more concerned with intimately scrutinising the Mulder-Scully relationship than providing ‘closure’ to the labyrinthine narrative that Carter and his collaborators devised, not always elegantly, over a labour-intensive decade. Though mainstream appeal has waned, the cult persists.
For a number of reasons, I’m one of those who proselytise for the series in toto – peaks, valleys and plateaux. One among many: The X-Files’s fascinating role in blurring the line between cinema and television – always a touchy subject, especially at a time when so many think-piece writers and social media posters sound off defensively about how TV is so good now.
In the mid-80s and early 90s, shows such as Miami Vice and Twin Peaks brought to American television a unique aesthetic sensibility, always eye-catching and at best profoundly evocative, that seemed closer to the silver screen than their predecessors. The X-Files built on their example. In several interviews Carter has talked about how he and his creative team approached each episode like a movie. Though the average shooting schedule was only eight days, Carter and his producers ceded as much creative leeway to the writers, directors, special effects artists and other key crew as possible. Admirable in some respects and quixotic in others, this meant that the team had to work long hours over 11½ months to produce between 20 and 25 such instalments per season. (And Carter has also said that if he wasn’t thinking about the following season during his annual two-week holiday, he’d already be behind when he came back to work.)
Given these factors, it’s incredible that the show’s quality remains so consistently high. Even the weakest episodes have at least one striking element: the season three instalment Teso dos Bichos, with its infamous batch of killer kitty cats, is widely regarded as a nadir, but still features one of Mulder’s funniest moments (“Ladies ﬁrst,” he says to Scully before they enter a muddy underground tunnel). And what often goes unmentioned in discussions of the series is that, in the era before showrunners like David Chase (The Sopranos), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and X-Files alumnus Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) were king, this was one of the few long-running TV productions where the original creator/executive producer guided it the whole way through. Michael Mann left Miami Vice. David Lynch departed Twin Peaks. Joss Whedon took a back seat on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Carter (minus a brief period during contract negotiations for season nine) stayed on. Every decision made in the series, for good and ill, bears his imprint.
That’s not to say his was a purely monomaniacal vision. Carter provided the sturdy framework within which a number of creatives honed their distinctive talents, and the numerous auteurist interventions are among the greatest pleasures of The X-Files. The regular writers were a diverse bunch: Gilligan tended toward idiosyncratic character studies – one of his best is season ﬁve’s Bad Blood, in which Mulder and Scully argue Rashomon-style about an abortive case involving a pizza-delivering vampire. John Shiban ambitiously tackled a number of racially charged subjects, as in the provocative season eight instalment Badlaa, about a diminutive Indian beggar who kills materialistic Westerners by literally crawling up inside them.
Glen Morgan and James Wong – who were there at the series’ inception and have returned for the new miniseries – contributed many memorable hours, the most scandalous being season four’s Home, in which our intrepid agents stumble across an incestuous brood known as the Peacocks. In the episode’s queasily drawn-out centrepiece, the deformed clan brutally murder the local sheriff and his wife to the tune of Johnny Mathis’s Wonderful! Wonderful! (Mathis actually refused permission to use his version of the song, so the producers had to hire an expert sound-alike.)
The directors were similarly singular: the late Kim Manners was the linchpin, directing 52 of the series’ 202 episodes, and proving himself equally adept at the horriﬁc (season four’s memorably gory devil-worshipping plastic surgeon tale Sanguinarium) and the comic (season ﬁve’s Unusual Suspects – a humorous showcase for Mulder and Scully’s trio of conspiracy-obsessed informants known as The Lone Gunmen, which paved the way to a short-lived and underrated spin-off series).
The great talents of another regular director, Rob Bowman, were evident from his ﬁrst episode, season one’s Gender Bender: this ludicrous tale about a sex-crazed Amish alien was elevated by eye-popping deep-focus imagery and a try-anything sense of shadowy atmosphere. Bowman would go on to direct many of the best instalments, both standalone tales and those tapping into the series’ ‘alien colonisation’ mythology, as well as the entertainingly grandiose 1998 movie, The X-Files (aka X-Files: Fight the Future), which bridged seasons ﬁve and six.
Essential contributions were made, too, by directors of photography such as John S. Bartley (instrumental in deﬁning the colourfully noirish, often rain-slicked palette of the ﬁrst three seasons) and Bill Roe, DP for the Los Angeles seasons. His third assignment, season six’s Triangle, was a giddy time-travel adventure shot mostly in sinuous single takes. And no X-Files article can be written without mentioning the work of composer Mark Snow, whose moody, synth-heavy score accompanied every episode and both movies, and helped to land him a job scoring the last four features of French New Wave great Alain Resnais, a devoted X-Files fan.
Into the labyrinth
This is all to say that there are numerous ways to appreciate The X-Files beyond the usual pleasures and pains of its plot. Narrative is, however, the level on which it seems to engage and ultimately lose most people. The alien colonisation narrative was mostly a by-product of Anderson’s unexpected pregnancy, which straddled the ﬁrst and second seasons. Since she’d have to miss one full episode and be sidelined for several more, Carter and the writers came up with a powerful storyline that saw the X-Files unit shut down and Scully abducted – developments that are constantly referred to and occasionally repeated through the rest of the series.
The longer The X-Files goes on, the more complicated the mythology becomes, introducing a number of microcosmic struggles (such as Mulder’s seasons-spanning search for his missing sister Samantha, or Scully’s bout of cancer in years four and ﬁve – an incredible showcase for Anderson) among such macrocosmic convolutions as the facially mutilated rebel aliens who burn their enemies with metallic igniters. I was fortunate enough to host a panel featuring Duchovny and Anderson at New York City’s Paley Center for Media in 2013: one of the funniest moments came when I tried unsuccessfully to explain a season nine story-point about magnetite, the metal that effectively destroys the alien colonisers. “Are you serious?” Anderson asked before breaking into hysterics. “What the fuck is magnetite?” she shouted, to the audible delight of the gathered Philes.
Try breaking down the mythology to its ﬁner points and people – even those who were involved in creating it – will start looking around for a straitjacket. No use denying: it’s pretty ridiculous, and I can certainly understand when a non-fan like David Thomson, writing about Anderson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, dismissed the series as “high-class tosh”. Carter often played coy while the show was airing, insisting he had a plan and was not making things up as he went along, when he clearly was. (Though I do believe he had certain story-points in mind early on – such as the ﬁnal date of the alien invasion, 22 December 2012, coinciding with the end of the Mayan calendar.)
And yet there’s something about this impossible narrative – with its dark alleyways and dead-ends; with allegiance-switching allies like the fatherly Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin) and the gruff Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi); with memorably malevolent adversaries like the Russian double-agent Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea) and the unkillable puppetmaster known as the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) – that consistently compels.
The series’ best writer was Darin Morgan, who penned four astonishing satirical, elaborately layered episodes that give him a claim to being the small-screen Charlie Kaufman. He pretty much pinpointed the alluring essence of The X-Files’s tangled plot in a sequence from his great season two circus-freaks murder mystery Humbug. Scully visits a museum of curiosities looking for clues to the killer’s identity. The establishment’s disﬁgured owner (Alex Diakun) directs her, for a gently coaxed donation of ﬁve dollars, into a dark room where he has stored showman P.T. Barnum’s exhibit A Great Unknown. Scully walks toward the metal box in the centre of the room and opens it. It’s empty. Then a doorway opens to the outside world. A Great Unknown.
Look too hard for concrete answers and you can miss the transcendental beauties surrounding you. Even as The X-Files’ narrative devours itself, the mystery that is Mulder and Scully – the believer and the sceptic, two emblematically opposite characters forever entangled – provides deep and ongoing emotional sustenance. This is a romance that evolves from affectionately platonic in the early seasons (a delicate shoulder-touch here, an off-guard compliment there) to fervently amorous by the end, when they have a child together (by mysterious means, of course) and write emails headlined with baldly impassioned salutations like “Dearest Dana…”
This isn’t quite a case of Moonlighting-style fan service: Duchovny and Anderson play Mulder and Scully’s interactions as a courtship from the start. The mere fact of their being in each other’s company (and sometimes violently separated by circumstances beyond their control) pushes their rapport continually forward by tantalising increments. When the long-delayed kiss ﬁnally comes, it feels freighted with history, possessing a sublimely instinctual intimacy. Yet their passion is not only for each other, but for the work that drives and obsesses them.
Carter has said, aptly, that the series is about the search for God. Each X-File case is like a hard-won nugget of wisdom on a spiritual journey that brings Mulder and Scully (who is candidly Catholic, and often photographed to suggest the Virgin Mary in earthly garb) ever closer to enlightenment – to the truth that is, as the series’ memorable tagline promises, “out there”. But of course, as life goes on, the decisive revelation they desire is ever more elusive.
To that end, the ﬁrst episode of the new miniseries, written and directed by Carter, attempts to refocus the mythology and the Mulder-Scully relationship in a number of interesting ways. No longer employed by the FBI, and their romance having soured, the duo are nevertheless drawn back into action by a conservative conspiracy theorist, Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), who insists he has the real facts behind the alien conspiracy. Mulder now comes to see himself as, in effect, a character who has been trapped in a “ﬁction masquerading as fact”. Aliens are not the real aggressors: men are – men with delusions of power who will use extraterrestrial technology to take over the world, and who have gone to great lengths to concoct elaborate cover narratives to protect their secrets. Stories within stories within stories… and ever on.
This is in some ways Carter’s own attempt to streamline a mythology that has got out of hand. But it is still a mostly effective gambit, because it plays expertly on a distrust of government that was going out of fashion in the George W. Bush years (the original series came to an end in May 2002, at the height of Dubya’s influence) but has come back with a vengeance in the era of mass surveillance and Edward Snowden. O’Malley and Mulder’s lengthy rapid-ﬁre explication of the new conspiracy is knowingly ludicrous (and Scully’s nonplussed reaction to it all is priceless), yet it still tantalises because you can sense how it stokes the old flames in our old flames. (And speaking of ﬁery things, it should come as no surprise that the Cigarette Smoking Man is once again behind it all.)
There’s a scene early on in the new miniseries that acts as a beautiful reminder of Mulder and Scully’s ﬁrst meeting in that basement ofﬁce, and perfectly encapsulates why The X-Files continues to transﬁx. This time the duo meets on the side of a road in Washington DC, no longer young, open and expectant, but clearly ravaged by time and emotional distance. Some cheeky, up-to-the-moment banter ensues.
“Uber?” asks Scully as a dishevelled Mulder steps from his car. “Hitchhiked,” quips Mulder with his typically blank, unreadable tone. She stares at him quizzically. “Relax, Scully, I’m kidding.” But of course. The old rhythms are slightly rusty, but still there. A few more awkward exchanges follow. Then: “I’m always happy to see you,” says Scully. “I’m always happy to ﬁnd a reason,” says Mulder. Quite simply, it’s a love story.