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The X-Files Redux: Revisiting the Exploits of Mulder and Scully

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The X-Files was one of the first Internet-fueled TV phenomena. Every Sunday evening, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) would work together and occasionally at cross purposes for many seasons. After each episode aired, fans flocked to message boards and Usenet mailing lists to discuss everything from the “MOTW” (Monster of the Week) to the nuances of theI want to believe “’ship” (meaning Mulder and Scully’s relationship—or lack therof).

Debuting in 1993, the series centers on FBI psychological profiler Mulder, and his beloved X-files, a roomful of dead cases and bizarre phenomena reported and never explained. He is a brilliant profiler, and so the series canon goes, an Oxford trained psychologist. After a career that started to hit the skids as he began to obsess over the long-ago mysterious disappearance of his 8-year old sister Samantha, Mulder went from crack profiler to just “cracked” in the opinion of his FBI bosses. As such, Mulder—and the X-Files—are sent to languish in the basement of the FBI building in Washington, D.C. Mulder’s obsession to find Samantha, leads him to believe in the existence of a vast, baroque (okay, shall we say convoluted?) government-alien conspiracy with an unknown (and clearly nefarious) goal.

Mulder and Scully

Although Mulder’s bosses publicly dismiss Mulder as crazy loose cannon baying at the moon, they are concerned enough about what he’s doing to assign him to a spy—a watchdog to report on his investigations. “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” comes to mind as an apt description for what the FBI Powers That Be intend for Mulder.

Dana Scully, a rigid-thinking forensic pathologist and medical doctor (as she often described herself) is assigned to work with Mulder, gain his confidence and report back to her handlers in the upper echelons of the FBI. But as Scully begins to witness things not easily explained by science, she is (very, very slowly and reluctantly) pulled into Mulder’s story, which might be characterized as  a “folie a deux” by the skeptics in the room…storyline (and is in fact the title of a Season 5 episode).

There is an unmistakable chemistry between the two lead characters—even romantic, as many the many “shippers” in the fandom insisted; something series creator Chris Carter resisted for years. There would never be anything romantic between them. Full stop. But, as Carter learned, characters often take on lives of their own, and eventually the chemistry became full-blown “unresolved sexual tension,” better known in the X-Files fandom as “UST.” And of course there were the “no-romos” as well among the fandom, just as insistent that Mulder and Scully’s relationship was and always should be strictly Platonic—if that.

In many ways, Mulder’s journey follows a classic hero’s tale—the quest to understand not only what happened to Samantha, but also to be proven right about the existence of the extraterrestrial-human conspiracy. The series tries to walk a fine line between two genres, one, establishing a series “mytharc,” which follows Mulder’s ongoing investigation into the conspiracy. But the series also showcases “stand-alone” episodes between the mytharc entries as Mulder and Scully (affectionately known in the fan community as “Moose and Squirrel”) hunted ghosts, demons, banshees, and monsters—supernatural and all-too-human.

Along the way, both Mulder and Scully experience enough of the world’s (and other-worldly) weirdness to satisfy the most ardent paranormalist. But Mulder’s quest comes at a high cost. Family members are assassinated; Mulder nearly commits suicide midway through the series run; Scully is abducted and contracts cancer as a result.

The shadowy conspiracy is often represented The Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM), creepily played by William B. Davis. But, like most of Mulder’s antagonists along the way, he (and we) were never quite sure whether he is friend or foe. Other antagonists appear and disappear along the way, from the ruthless Alex Krychek to The Well-Mannered Man. And let’s not forget the alien bounty hunter.

The pair are aided on this very twisty maze of a journey by everyone from their boss, FBI Director Skinner and a trio of proto-geek/conspiracy nerds, The Lone Gunmen. Many of their allies start out as possible enemies, and supposed friends are not, adding to the intensity of the story.

The series held my fascination for many of its nine seasons, but after the series moved location from shooting in atmospheric (and rainy) Vancouver to sunny Southern California, it seemed to me (and others in the fandom) that the X-Files began to falter. Whether it had to do with the mytharc losing steam (or becoming just too confusing), the growing indifference of lead actor Duchovny, or just that the series had gone on just a little bit too long, the X-Files lost its way. Full disclosure: I stopped watching the series by the end of Season 7. Mulder’s journey had become someone else’s story, and my buy-in to the series had vanished.

While the series aired, I was a bona fide X-Phile as we were called back in the day. I spent hours online discussing every nuance with others on the old usenet groups like alt.tv.x-files, and its corollary “analysis” group. I even wrote fanfiction.

There is still much interest in the series; fandoms die hard, and new fans are created every day through syndication and streaming. So, I’ve decided to begin anew and watch the series again in retrospect. It’s recently begun airing reruns on BBC America, so I’m not being totally out of step.

Look for a new entry once or twice a week in this space, as I retrace the series from its very first episode. I can’t guarantee that I’ll stick it out through all nine seasons; I still can’t quite bring myself to get into the exploits of Dogget and Reyes, the duo who tried to fill the shoes of “Moose and Squirrel”… er… Mulder and Scully. So tune in and come back often to join the conversation whether you are original X-Philes or have only come to the series lately. And spread the word. 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • ruthinor

    Interesting article Barbara. I haven’t watched one episode of X-Files because I’m really not a sci-fi enthusiast. I tried Fringe for a while, but just lost interest. Strangely, as a young adult, I really liked reading Ray Bradbury, but I guess interests just change over time. I really prefer mysteries now, especially with psychological undertones.

    That brings me to what you said about change of venue from Vancouver to CA. There is currently a great mystery series on cable Sunday night called “The Killing”. It’s derived from a Danish series. It’s supposed to take place in Seattle, but it was actually filmed in Vancouver, and what we see is nothing but rain! It really adds to the atmosphere. But if they do any filming in summertime out here in the Pacific N W, they will be out of luck. It NEVER rains in summer here. I say this as we are taking in the first glorious day in months in Portland…sunny and 70. Tomorrow, rain and in the 50s!

  • Flo

    So cool!!!! Good article Barbara. This is the show I grew up with. I have the dvds. I always wanted to do a thing about it on my blog (I did two articles but the first is not very serious) but I was always out of time.

    What was interesting in “The X-Files” to me was the metaphorical aspect. You can easily replace the aliens by the communists (the show was made few months after the end of the Communist block). This show aged well because of the September 11 IMO. The paranoïa against communism of the 90’s was replaced by the paranoïa post sept-11 against muslims. Of course it’s my own interpretation.

    The interesting part was also the kind of relationship and chemistry Mulder & Scully had. “The X-Files” may be Mulder’s quest but it is Scully’s story. I like how those twç aspects intertwined.

    You said Scully was rigid and I disagree. She was in the beginning but, most of all, she played Devil’s advocate. Mulder was impulsive and she made a point of keeping him grounded and giving credibility to his work through her science. She pushed him to go deeper in every investigation by her questioning. Interestingly, she was supposed to debunk his work but she decided early on to side with Mulder and her science served him and his (their) quest.

    Everytime Mulder is not around we can see that Scully is not as rigid and skeptic as she is with Mulder, confirming the “Devil’s advocate” thing. It was and still is really interesting to see the political side of this, with Scully not respecting the reason of her assignment by siding with Mulder and the government’s respond to this.

    I must admit that the last two seasons are not good for me either. Chris Carter wanted the seventh season to be the last and he even wrote an ending. Unfortunately Fox Channel wanted two more seasons and so CC had to rewrite a part of the seventh season. Too bad.

    I still consider the “Vancouver years” to be the best but I like also season 6 and somewhat season 7. After that, it went somewhere else (If it weren’t for Scully I wouldn’t even ever watched those seasons. I wanted to see the whole thing at least once).

    Anyway, I will read this with great attention. Thank you for this Barbara. This show is still one of the best and we can find many references to it in so many Tv shows today (even “House”!) that I think it is still interesting to watch it (for the 1st time or not) now.

  • Hey guys, thanks for your comments. Flo, what I meant was that when she was assigned…of course as she was pulled in to the whole thing, her rigidity gave way (only to curiously re-emerge at the oddest of times).

  • Flo

    Ah okay Barbara, I understand. Indeed, she was assigned. It’s another great thing to see how she is pulled into the whole thing as you said.
    She was assigned to do a job but instead ended to do another while continuing to report to the people who assigned this job to her. Talk about a difficult situation lol!
    She really paid the price of her “treason”. I always thought everyone kind of underestimated her and her integrity.

    The dynamic between Mulder & Scully and the evolution was very interesting to me because of that. Mulder & the governement were wrong about her at first.
    This dynamic also bring a lot humor in the show somehow. Mulder’s deadpan was priceless.

  • MWK

    Ah, another opportunity to consider Mulder and Scully and the X Files. I was a believer for a long time, excited about each episode and the possibility that the Conspiracy/Mytharc would go somewhere towards an explanation and possibly, a conclusion.

    I do not blame a change of venue for changing the show and making it “less” interesting than the first seasons. What changed the show, IMO, was that Scully became a victim and her intransigent attitude toward the cause of her cancer and other losses STOPPED the story and mired Mulder in a cesspool of guilt and debt. I never felt the “deathless love” between Mulder and Scully was the main attraction of the show; I was in it for Mulder’s Quest toward revelation and proof.

    The last couple of seasons were a mess and without Mulder, hardly the same show. The second movie was dismal too. But it was the finale of the actual show that burned me, because there was no resolution. I did not need everything put into a nice box with a ribbon, but I did need a few “truths” and got none.

    I could rant for thousands of words, instead I will say that although I own the first 5 seasons on DVD and that there are always episodes on TV somewhere, I never watch them anymore and still feel that as a devoted fan, I was dismissed and denigrated by the ending of the X Files.

  • MWK–I agree with most of what you say, but it doesn’t diminish the goodness (if not greatness) of the show for the first six (+) seasons. You are right, it became too much Scully as victim; and both M/S became intransigent in their own beliefs. It left Mulder frustrated and us frustrated.

    I think the series would have been best left at Je Souhaite (minus a few duds before that one aired). I have to admit, my favorite seasons were three, four and five, which I think were the series golden age. Fantastic writing, committed acting and excellent control by Carter. I think he, too, got bogged down in his own mythology to a certain extent, but I want to see it with new eyes after not having watched in several years and see what I see.

  • AJ

    Give season 8 a chance. There are some great standalone episodes, and Doggett is actually a pretty cool character. Season 9 is pretty bad, though. By X-files standards, anyway.

  • Flo

    I think I don’t and never watched The X-Files the same way as MWK and Barbara’s apparently. For me it was all Mulder’s Quest and Scully’s story and they were intertwined in a deep way. There were both victims.
    The show was and always were a tragedy about perpetual failure of two FBI agents, both victims trying to get off the ground and going back to fighting high powers and forces (IMO).
    Both Mulder and Scully were driven characters. Mulder by his personal quest of his long lost sister, Scully by her own curiosity and her own personal quest (SPOILER for newcomers) after her abduction.

    I never was a shipper for any show. It wasn’t why I watched but I wasn’t on it for just Mulder’s quest only or for Scully’s story only. I was in it for both. For me those two things were always inseparable. That’s why I don’t like the last two seasons either.

    Plus for me it was always a metaphorical show and it was less this at the end of the show starting mid season 7. It was less good in this aspect.

    That being said, this show was important and somewhat pioneer in some ways and I still consider it one of the best I have ever watched (okay I didn’t watch many things but still.

    Technically, and esthetically it is still the most beautiful tv show ever IMO.

  • Flo

    Sorry I posted the comment before saying that I really like that we all watched this show differently and we all can still watch it today, years later.

    I think this blog is gonna be really interesting (not a surprise coming from you Barbara) and so cool! To speak of such an “old” show like that…. Can’t wait for the next entry!

  • I will try to post my thought on the XF pilot tomorrow.

  • I never watched the show, but had been TiVoing BBC American episodes, with the intention. It’s always been on my list of things to get to. I’m excited to watch along and read your commentary alongside, certainly a more involved viewing experience!

    Sadly, BBC America started back at the beginning when they got to the end of Season 2. I guess they only have the rights to the first two seasons? As such, if anyone else wants to follow along, many more seasons are streaming on Netflix, if you subscribe. Not a salesperson, just trying to be helpful. 🙂