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Did Success Spoil “Spooky” Mulder?

Remembering What Made The X-Files Great in Its Heyday

Scully and Mulder stood in the funeral home, Mulder mocking Scully's 'theories' with air quotations while she looks on irritably

Watching Season 11 of The X-Files makes me nostalgic for the early days of this groundbreaking series, perhaps the most successful of the many so-called “Quality TV” programs inspired by the original Twin Peaks (1990-91). In part, this feeling of nostalgia is what keeps folks coming back for these revivals. For some, the nostalgia is enough, regardless of the revival’s quality. For others, the nostalgia arises from a longing for the series in its prime, before a severe lack of planning and a bad case of smirking self-consciousness dulled its previously sharp edges.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a die-hard fan of The X-Files. Still. If Mulder and Scully are back together for any reason, I’m there. And I always will be; after all, I owe these two (and both their friends and enemies) a great debt.  I discovered The X-Files in the middle of its fourth season (1997-1998) during a particularly difficult time in my life. I just happened to stumble upon a marathon of episodes, shown in order, on the aptly named XF channel and, after watching mythology episodes such as Season 2 finale, “Anasazi,” followed immediately by the two-parter Season 3 premiere, “The Blessing Way” and “Paper Clip,” I knew I would never be the same again. I tuned in for the remainder of Season 4 and forever after. As is so often the case with these immersive television experiences, I found that the show’s fantastical elements appealed to my desire for an escape from the pain of everyday life, while, at the same time, the show’s larger questions appealed to my intellect in ways I hadn’t otherwise experienced. I was hooked, and I grabbed everything about the series that I could get my hands on–episode guides, character encyclopedias, TV Guide covers, action figures, comic books, card games, Entertainment Weekly specials. I even attended a traveling X-Files convention in which I seized the chance to have myself photographed in a mock-up of the iconic basement X-Files office, my feet on Mulder’s desk as I gazed up proudly at the pencils stuck in the ceiling tiles. By the time Season 5 ended, I considered myself an expert on the series, and danged if I wasn’t first in line for the show’s huge jump to the big screen with The X-Files: Fight the Future in the summer of 1998.

Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) in <em>The X-Files in a large futuristic empty space
Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) in The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998).

But by the time I walked out of that feature-film debut, I felt something had changed. Yes, admittedly, I had only been a die-hard, live-and-breathe X-Files fan for about a year, but I sensed a sea change in the series with which I didn’t feel entirely comfortable or satisfied. I began to suspect the change had begun even before the release of the film, sometime over the last season (Season 5). Yes, I loved the film; I loved seeing skeptic Scully (Gillian Anderson) and believer Mulder (David Duchovny) make the leap to the big time of the Silver Screen, no doubt; I loved the tease of the kiss, for sure; and I loved the larger scope and scale of these mythology tales as told in a widescreen format best of all. Even so, for the first time in my X-Files fandom, I began to get a distinct feeling that, for all its spectacles, conspiracies, mysteries, and Monsters of the Week (MOTW), no one really had any idea where The X-Files was ultimately headed–least of all creator Chris Carter himself.

I should cut Carter some slack here, though; after all, he believed at the time that The X-Files had run its course as a television show and that it would continue to tell its stories in future years as a film franchise (much in the same way Star Trek [1966-69] and Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987-94] had done). But when FOX ordered a sixth season of the series, plans changed, no doubt forcing Carter and company to re-evaluate any plans they might have had for the roll out of future mythology stories. As if that speed bump weren’t enough, Duchovny, with his star power, demanded that production of the series move from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Los Angeles, California, in order to accommodate his career ambitions and the demands of his personal life; as a result, much of the Vancouver-based talent–not to mention that location’s distinctly overcast and verdant look–were lost by the time viewers returned for Season 6 of The X-Files in the fall of 1998.

I was enough of a fan to hang in there, and I’m glad I was, because the next four seasons  demanded even more blind loyalty from viewers. As Duchovny became scarce in Seasons 8 and 9, I was amazed at how well Anderson held the show together under extremely difficult circumstances–a testament to her talent, screen presence, integrity, and fortitude (and a major return on Carter’s early investment in Anderson as an actress and in his decision to write nearly the entirety of Season 2 around her surprise pregnancy, a splash that resulted in countless compelling narrative ripples over several subsequent seasons).

Looking back, The X-Files seemed to lose direction immediately after Season 4 when production of the feature film began. While the series could always be counted on to deliver compelling MOTW episodes–right up through the current Season 11’s “This” (the most recent MOTW episode as of this writing)–the mythology episodes post-Season Four almost always failed to deliver on the promise of the show’s early seasons. Above, I’ve offered some thoughts on why that’s been the case. But what made the early seasons so successful? And how, with their formula in place, did Carter and company allow success to spoil “Spooky Mulder”?

I submit that The X-Files, in its heyday (which I define as Seasons 1 through 4), succeeded for five main reasons:

1) The Postmodern Pastiche of The X-Files Felt New, Despite Its Myriad Precedents.

One of the characteristics of postmodernism is its pastiche nature, the way in which a given text is comprised of countless pre-existing parts and influences. While it’s true to say that there’s really nothing new under the sun, some cultural objects wear their influences much more gracefully than others. Readers of this page will almost certainly recognize the show’s tell-tale vestiges of the original Twin Peaks, but other possible inspirations might not leap so readily to mind, including films such as The Manchurian Candidate (1963), The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Boys from Brazil (1978), and JFK (1991), and other television programs, among them, The Twilight Zone (1959-64), The Outer Limits (1963), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), and Project U.F.O. (1978-79). The X-Files effectively threw aspects of most (if not all) of these into the blender, hit the “Maximum” button, and then pulled of the lid, calling the mess on the ceiling their new program. And by golly, it worked–something brand new made from old parts. Recycling really IS the way forward!

2) The Chemistry of the Show’s Two Leads Effectively Mirrored That of the Characters.

It’s hard to imagine two greater actors for these roles. Gorgeous, talented, and endowed with the kind of screen presence and chemistry usually reserved for the likes of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Duchovny and Anderson quickly established themselves as one of the greatest–if also most unlikely–pairings in the history of the screen (whether it be large or small). Even from the beginning, Anderson always demonstrated a greater emotional range than Duchovny, who, like Gary Cooper, seems most frequently to have been hired simply to play himself (a great compliment, in its way). As a result, over the years, Duchovny’s performances as Mulder morphed into a kind of aloof self-parody, one that began with Season 3’s hilarious and ingenious “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” but resurfaced often (and sometimes disconcertingly) in post-Season 4 episodes not necessarily meant to come across as satire. I (and perhaps “we”) loved Mulder all the same, but part of me, at least, yearned for the more earnest, driven, and compelling Mulder so familiar from the show’s early seasons (think of his intensity in Season Three’s mythology pairing, “Nisei” and “731”).  Meanwhile, Anderson only got better and better as the years went by, stepping up to the plate, as always, when the series demanded it, stretching her skills as an actor and, later, as a writer and director, along the way. (Duchovny also wrote a directed a few episodes, all of them charming and, in the case of Season Three’s “The Blessing Way,” which he co-wrote, downright jaw-dropping).

3) The X-Files Wasn’t Kidding Around; This Show Used to Mean Gritty, Frightening Business.

While “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and other such self-conscious, self-satirical episodes were often the gems of the series as a whole–I still quote Mulder’s “military-industrial-entertainment complex” comment in “Jose Chung” silently in my head (if not aloud to my annoyed friends) nearly every day, especially since it’s become more relevant than ever–the success of such episodes came to be mistaken for much of the charm of the series at large post-Season 4. Self-reflexive navel-gazing become an unwelcome hallmark of later seasons in fact, with Carter and company devoting just a bit too much time winking at their viewers. In contrast, the early seasons were, at first, hungry–they had what Apollo Creed in Rocky III (1982) called “the eye of the tiger.” Viewers felt like they were on a powerful, barreling freight train headed in a definite, fatalistic direction. The stakes were very real, and unpredictable dangers lurked around every tight curve. The historical complicity of the U.S. government with former Nazi scientists surfaced in episodes like Season 3’s “Paper Clip,” and for many, that episode proved to be the first time such uncomfortable truths had ever been learned. Season 4’s “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man” proved to be the best summation of American “Deep State” speculation ever presented on television, and lines such as, “Don’t threaten me, Mulder–I’ve watched presidents die” hung in the air like ghosts more real than those found in any of the show’s MOTW episodes.

William B. Davis as CSM in Season Four's "Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man."
William B. Davis as CSM in Season Four’s “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.”

4) The Series Celebrated the Power of Expertise, No Matter How Obscure or Strange.

In his new book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, Tom Nicols discusses the ways in which Americans have, in recent decades, largely come to distrust experts across a variety of fields and how such distrust has put the United States into the precarious political situation in which it now finds itself. Similarly, Isaac Asimov once said, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” The X-Files, on the other hand, championed expertise–at least in its early seasons. Postmodern as it is, The X-Files has always challenged Mulder and Scully with a variety of phenomena that defy precise explanation; even so, the early seasons of the show never failed to present its two protagonists as the perfect storm of expertise most equipped to tackle such challenges.  The early seasons went out of their way, in fact, to namedrop university degrees (Mulder: B.A. in Psychology, Oxford; Scully: B.S. in Physics, University of Maryland, and M.D., Stanford) and publication/thesis information (Mulder: an unnamed but apparently influential monograph on serial killer Monty Propps; Scully: “Einstein’s Twin Paradox: A New Interpretation). While it’s doubtful that Carl Sagan would approve of Mulder’s unique deployment of expertise, he would most certainly appreciate Scully’s skepticism in response to Mulder’s ideas–a dynamic that begins to break down in later seasons. Before the dynamic’s collapse, I was so taken with the concept of government-funded expertise like that seen in The X-Files, I sent away for an application to the FBI (and even got one back in the mail!). Now, given the way the current Administration dismisses expertise at every turn–especially that of the FBI–maybe I was smart to have never submitted that application. I’d probably be out of a job right now. Man, if ever we needed a veneration of expertise like that demonstrated by the early seasons of The X-Files, it’s now.

5) The X-Files Used to be Just Dang Smart, More Enthralled by Big Ideas Than with Its Own Big Success.

The series, in its early seasons, thought deeply about how the “Big Questions” (e.g., the existence of extra-terrestrials; the possibilities of the paranormal; the origins of humanity) could play into our larger concerns about race, gender, privilege, paranoia, and the uncanny. This deep thinking continued in later seasons, to a degree, but the lack of a formal, long-term plan for the series and its characters (much of it imposed by a network that, in later seasons, could never quite guarantee that the series would be renewed season by season) kept true development of deeper ideas in a constant state of chaos. The true potential of the series was thus (and still has not been, as of this writing) ever truly realized. The early seasons offered the beginnings of such explorations, and those traditions continued, to a limited extent, in many later MOTW episodes, but Seasons 5 through 11 (so far) largely rested on the laurels of the stars’ still-electric chemistry and a kind of smarmy self-satisfaction that seemed unjustified given the lackluster quality of its mythology episodes. In the absence of writers/producers such Vince Gilligan (now a celebrity in his own right after the success of Breaking Bad [2008-13]) and Frank Spotnitz (also successful with his development of the Vancouver-based and horrifically relevant adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle [2015-present]), much of the mythology has been left in the hands of Chris Carter himself, who, ironically–although extremely capable and talented–has never been among the best writers or directors of the very series he himself created. Given second and third chances with Seasons 10 and 11, Carter has failed [so far] to prove he learned any lessons from the later seasons of The X-Files. The series is at its best when it riffs off cultural fears and anxieties to create thrilling, metaphorical visions that help us to cope with, and understand, the craziness of the everyday world. We need those visions now, right now, in a big way.

In sum, I’m always going to show up for Mulder and Scully. I have to–it’s part of my DNA now (alien or not). But I don’t want to feel that Carter and company take my fandom for granted–or that they disrespect it. Chris–if you’re reading this, I love you, man. I want you and The X-Files to succeed, always. But remember that “eye of the tiger,” baby.  You gotta get it back. I’m in your corner, but only you can throw the punches. Maybe you will. Maybe you already have. The rest of Season 11 will tell–time for the bell and the next round. I hope you come out swinging. I want to believe you will.

Written by Doug Cunningham


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  1. awesome article. I never got the line about “i’ve watched president’s die” i mean who cares i what i’d have thought if mulder said that. The line doesn’t protect CSM from being killed off. Felt like some bragging line some pizza eating mafia guy would say as if it means anything.

  2. I think you make a lot of good points in this article, but I wish you’d push them a bit further. What effect do you think losing those virtues had on the later seasons of the X-Files? How did it change the show’s meaning? Did it have negative consequences beyond making the series less good?

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