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Cinefantastique: The Man Behind The Mytharc

The Man Behind The Mytharc
Dan Persons

Where’s the profit in knowing that the sinister and the strange daily walk our streets, when it seems that The X-Files – the show that poked at our paranoias, that visualized our national apprehensions, that defined cutting-edge horror for the better part of a decade – has finally reached the end of its own, recently tortured lifespan?

In the reality of television broadcasting, The X-Files has dodged the cancellation bullet one more time, finding itself renewed for an eighth season. In terms of the all holy mythos, though, fans had to wonder at what cost Chris Carter’s brainchild had received its reprieve. Was this actually a new lease on life, or just a dwindling survival on life support, spurred by a network whose proprietors were all-too-aware of how they had botched the previous season? Could the creators and principals of the best genre show on television overcome internecine conflicts and hardening of the arteries to push this final season to heights not previously achieved, or would those tuning in be confronted with vague hints the show’s prior glory?

Those were questions that avid viewers really wanted to know. You’d sooner get the correct time from the Cigarette Smoking Man.

Talking to Chris Carter, at the end of 1999 was a cordial, but cautious, experience. He should hardly be blamed – in what for him should have been a triumphant autumn, the executive producer had instead seen his carefully conceived words dismantled by strife and incompetence. The problems had actually started last summer, when X-Files star David Duchovny filed suit against 20th Century-Fox, charging them with selling reruns of the show to the Fox-held FX network for much less than what the episodes would have brought in open syndication, thus cheating the actor out of his rightfully earned share of the profits. While Carter was not named as a defendant – Duchovny is ballsy, not crazy – the executive producer was cited as an accomplice in the deal, willing to sell his profit-partners down the river in return for favorable treatment for his future shows.

If such was actually the case, then Carter should have checked the fine print a little more closely. On the decision of Fox Entertainment president Doug Herzog – a man who would be out the door scant months later – the network through the bulk of its autumn ’99 promotional might behind ACTION, a funny, edgy satire of current-day Hollywood that, it turned out, nobody on Earth wanted to watch. Forsaken in the push was Harsh Realm, Carter’s new attempt to bring X-Files-style darkness into the virtual reality world. The miscalculation was epic: by November, all of Fox’s fall debuts had been canceled, Harsh Realm included.

Carter did not mince words when asked if Fox had jumped the gun in cutting life-support on Harsh Realm: “Yes,” was his terse reply. Asked about the emotional impact of the cancellation, he became more voluble: “There were a lot of people invested in it, a lot of my friends here, whom I work with, a lot of people who had been giving a tremendous amount of attention and energy to it. For it to be so summarily and thoughtlessly canceled really just hurt a lot of people. That is something you deal with in ways that no one but people on the inside would know.”

If keeping some things within the production family was Carter’s automatic response to the tragedy, it was no surprise that he’d respond to questions about Duchovny’s litigious revolt with similar caution: “I’m not going to talk about the lawsuit, because I’ve been asked not to. But along with the creative aspect of the job, there’s a business aspect of the job. This was about business, and the business is often-competing interests.”

Was it easy, though, to set aside those interests when Carter had to face his recalcitrant star on the soundstage? “We have not had words, if that’s what you mean.”

Maybe not – whatever kind of diva Duchovny may turn out to be, not witnesses have stepped forward to claim he ever brought his business problems to the set. Still, with “The Sixth Extinction,” the season opener of The X-Files’ seventh season, one had to wonder whether the actor wasn’t paying some sort of on-screen price for his legal hubris. Picking up from “Biogenesis,” the prior season’s cliff hanging final episode, “The Sixth Extinction,” offered us a Mulder reduced to a comatose state, and maintained in that condition for the bulk of the hour. Looking close into Duchovny’s glazed stare, one could imagine someone fairly high up the production latter whispering in the actor’s ear, “Is this the way you want to play out your final season?” The perplexities only doubled in the following week’s “Amor Fati,” a script credited to both Carter and Duchovny. In a scenario that recapitulated the finale of Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, we got a Mulder wishing for any path other than the one his life had taken, and an operating table crucifixion, complete with high-tech crown of thorns, that heaped on intimations of the agent’s divine status, at least by his own perception, in shovelfuls. Daring, dramatic experiment, or Duchovny’s calculatedly over dramatized retort to his tormentors? Only the authors knew for sure.

Said “Amor Fati” director Michael Watkins about Duchovny’s on-screen vision of martyrdom, “I think David is such a fine writer and such a free mind. Chris has obviously proven that, and David – who did [season six’s baseball-flashback] ‘The Unnatural’ and this – is so free, he’s so gifted. For him to write this, he was totally there with the character. That’s what it took and it was even more enlightening to have the writer be there right at the moment, so that we could really talk about where we were going, and the passion of these moments and these themes…And for poor David, lying on that table with that headgear on, it was extremely uncomfortable – his poor butt was cooking on the lights and [in that] head thing, he couldn’t move. It was sort of ironic, because he wrote himself into this awful position. We had a lot of smiles, though. I really like David and Gillian. I like them a lot.”

While the season opener did add more fuel to the mythos fire – suggesting that aliens were in possession of technologies that could do everything from cure cancer to explain Adam Sandler’s career – it was not immediately clear in what direction the balance of the season would go. “I actually thought this was going to be the year of Scully’s science,” admitted Carter. “That in doing that, there would be many spiritual concerns. Scully’s dilemma is: how do you reconcile faith in God and faith in science? That’s always an interesting question for the writers. I think we’re dealing with that on some levels; we’re actually telling six mythology episodes this season – in those that are dealing not just with Scully’s faith, but with Mulder’s faith as well. It has become somewhat spiritual, but I think what’s more interesting is that we set out to do one thing and then found ourselves being more interested in something else.”

Something else was right, although sometimes “anything else” might have been a more accurate description. The problem was, with one star pretty much admitting his full-bore animosity towards the show and his co-star not far behind in her contempt with the executive producer potentially resenting behind held in orbit around his only, bona-fide hit when, by all rights (and possibly without the network bumbling), he should have already achieved escape velocity with newer, more challenging projects, no one seemed confident enough in The X-Files’ future to declare a clear-cut path for the season.

About the only thing that could be noted this year was a definitive move away from the more humorous tone the show had taken after its sixth season move to California, a season that fans derisively had dubbed, “X-Files Lite.” Observed co-executive producer Vince Gilligan, “Last season we didn’t have any conscious intention to make it lighter, it just sort of wound up that way. I think we heard lot of people saying they missed the old-time scary ones, so we probably tried a little harder this season to make them scarier. Which is not to say we don’t have the occasional lighter one, like ‘The Amazing Maleeni.’ But I think as a whole that we’re not really heading in any specific direction, other than to say we need to find out pretty soon whether or not this is our last season, and that will inform quite a bit.”

Deprived of a clear-cut objective, The X-Files was free to try new directions in story-telling, but also evidenced one of the most telling signs of a show that had outlived its concept: creeping redundancy, “Chimera,” about murder in a mini-Peyton Place, recapitulated the ambiance of last season’s Mulder-goes-suburban “Arcadia,” but without that episode’s subversive tang.

The witty “The Amazing Maleeni,” about a couple of conniving illusionists, not only failed to shake its ties to the classic “Humbug,” but in an overall plot structure that had Mulder and Scully slowly becoming cognizant of their participation in a mechanism greater than could be immediately perceived, also seemed an earthbound reworking of December’s more supernatural “The Goldberg Variations.”

Meanwhile, the strain marks continued to show, with at least seven of the episodes constructed to keep the bantering agents apart (and one, the killer tobacco “Brand X,” even contriving to put Mulder into a coma again), and enough episodes to set at least part in California (including, curiously, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz’s effective Appalachian-revenge thriller, “Theef”) to make one wonder whether last season’s production move wasn’t finally taking its toll. Both stars have clearly taken more active control in the show’s production, both to their benefit (Duchovny’s self scripted and directed “Hollywood A.D.”) and their detriment (ibid. “”Amor Fati,” and Anderson’s disastrous “all things,” a self-conscious outing in which Scully, hitherto to a devout Catholic, suddenly and inexplicably turns Buddhist). Whatever modifications – star inflicted or otherwise – have occurred to The X-Files characters (and what the hell happened to Mulder’s fondness for skin rags, anyway?), Carter claimed that such changes could only be expected over the span of seven years. “I think Mulder is still a willing participant to any adventure that cannot be explained; he still takes the unpopular side; he still puts it in the face of his superiors. If anything, though, he has worked with a partner who has seen so much that’s he’s not able to get as big a rise out of her as he once did. I think he may seem to be less of the ‘Spooky Mulder’ that she came to know early on. But the aspect of Mulder’s character is still the same in that he wants to believe he is looking for phenomena that cannot be explained and that might expand his perception of reality.”

As for Scully’s ability to remain the skeptic after having been exposed to weekly helpings of aliens, poltergeists, and giant mutated fluke-men, Carter said, “Scully’s a scientist, so she comes to everything scientifically. Even though she sees something that she can’t explain, she thinks it can ultimately be explained. That’s her M.O. and her bias. So while she has seen a lot, she is never going to take anything at face value and say, ‘That is paranormal.’ She will always look for a rational and scientific explanation.”

The season was far from a total wash. Gilligan was responsible for two-engaging envelope-pushers – the monster P.O.V experiment “Hungry” and the reality-TV satire “X-Cops” – and the darkly vivid Monster-of-the-week “Theef.” The mythos two-parter “Sein Und Zeit” and “Closure” took the questionable tactic of trying to explain the JonBenét Ramsey killing in supernatural terms, but also provided an emotionally engaging conclusion to Mulder’s search for his sister Samantha (while, in fine X-Files tradition, raising three new questions for every one that it answered). And the cleverly titled, William B. Davis scripted “En Ami” dared to give us a glimpse at the Cigarette Smoking Man’s humanity, while still keeping his motivations shrouded in clouds of Marlboro smoke. Admitted Carter, “This show is so elastic that it succeeds on so many levels. I think that there is no one episode that is a crystallization of what the show does best, because it always is surprising, even to me, how many things it does well. The fact that we can actually make fun of ourselves and everyone seems to have fun doing it and fun watching it, I think, says a lot about the show, too. It is protean.”

However mutable the series might have been, though, it could’nt accommodate all situations, especially when the decision to move ahead on an eighth season was delayed until the very end of season seven. “We’re still waiting to hear,” Gilligan said in January. “[20th Century-Fox Television and Fox Broadcasting topper] Sandy Grushow said that he thought it was a 50/50 chance at this point. I don’t know what the exact odds are, but I do know for sure it is still up in the air and we are waiting for a final verdict from David Duchovny and Chris Carter.

“We need to find out pretty soon whether or not this is our last season, and that will inform us quite a bit. If it is our last season, we just need to know so we can end the show properly with a great two-part episode or a three-part[er] or something like that. If not our last season, I guess we’re just…we don’t really have…Chris Carter and [executive producer] Frank Spotnitz may have more of a master plan, but I think generally if this is not our last season we’re all basically doing what we always do, which is trying to come up with a good mix of mostly scary and some suspenseful and some lighter episodes, and just keep entertaining our audience.

“You know, it’s a shame: with the original Star Trek, they didn’t know they had been canceled during their hiatus, and they didn’t get a chance to do a final episode, which I guess everybody would have appreciated. I don’t think anyone’s going to let that happen here. If X-Files ends, I can’t imagine it would be because we’re canceled. It would only be because David Duchovny and Chris Carter and Gillian Anderson decided it was time to move onto other things.”

Of course, any vote that incorporated Duchovny’s choice was easy to prognosticate. By April, the actor was talking openly with Entertainment Weekly about how his “Hollywood A.D.” episode would be “my way of saying good-bye,” and speculating on what his life would have been like if The X-Files had backed off the Mulder/Scully interplay and become more an ensemble show (Here’s a hint: “Hi, I’m David Duchovny for 10-10-321…” Jeez, hasn’t the man ever seen The Others?).

Taking no chances, Fox gave Chris Carter the go-ahead to spin The Lone Gunmen – the conspiracy theorists and cyber-geek poster-boys who were rarely seen this season – off into their own series, the pilot being hastily assembled and shot in early spring in Vancouver.

As far as what path an X-Files eighth season might take, no one dared to speculate. “It’s a question we’re always asking ourselves,” admitted Gilligan, who has a contractual commitment with Fox for at least the next season, and who claimed he would be happy to continue on with the show.

“Everyone knows that [Scully and Mulder] have a tremendous respect for one another, certainly a platonic love for one another and they would each lay down their lives for the other. I think that’s the way we like it, that’s the way a lot of the fans like it as well. That could probably blossom into some sort of romantic relationship, but I think we’re also reluctant to push it to that level. Other than that, I don’t really have a great answer for you.”

Carter again minced no words when asked about his intentions to participate in the next X-Files movie: “That’s my plan.” As for moving with the show into season eight, his public stance was initially one of guarded optimism: “I would only do it if I felt that everyone wanted to do it, because I felt that there were plenty of good stories to tell. If everyone felt that they were up to it, I would be excited to continue. I think that anything past year five is difficult for a series, but it’s also where, if you can work in a collaborative and creative way, I think you can find things that you didn’t know where there. I think that we’re at that place, we can continue to be. The other reason would be that there are very few, great television ideas, and something like The X-Files has the ability to generate so many different kinds of stories that you cannot close the door on it just because you can. The show becomes bigger than its parts. If there were more good stories to tell, I think, in a way, it’s only doing justice to continue on.”

But it seemed that, after making that statement, the exec producer took a more careful inventory of the stories remaining to be told and decided hat justice had well been served. Come April, both Carter and Spotnitz had signed up with Miramax genre branch Dimension Films to respectively direct and producer/write Serios, a “true” story about a man able to project his thoughts onto film negative. Why this change of heart? “I have a contract [with Fox] that lasts through the end of this year,” Carter had said in 1999, prior to cutting the deal. “If I didn’t re-up, I probably wouldn’t be giving any attention to the show, but if I do re-up, I will be giving the same amount of attention to the show that I’ve always given to it, because I don’t want it to be anything other than what it could potentially be.” In light of ensuing events, it well appeared that Carter had made his own decision about his continuing involvement in the future of The X-Files.

As with all things X-Files, Carter now faces a daunting puzzle: how to devote time and attention to a major, feature film project while “giving the same amount of attention” to the show that placed his name on the media map.

Meanwhile, for the public’s sake, it was all smiles from the series’ principals as the show received the eighth season go-ahead. Duchovny, who just prior to renewal was seen looking bored on the all-star edition of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (and who wound up taking home less money for his agonies than either Rosie O’Donnell or Ray Romano), told the press, ” I am pleased we were able to come to an agreement that enables me to remain part of The X-Files…I’m looking forward to going back to work.” Getting a salary raise to a reported $350,000-$400,000, and having his suit settled out of court no doubt helped.

But one had to wonder exactly how much Duchovny relished a return to the world of the sinister and the weird when part of his agreement dictated a lighter workload in the upcoming season. The result of that handy codicil: No one should expect Mulder’s prompt return from the alien fueled joy-ride that scooped him up at the end of “Requiem,” the seventh season closer.

With Mulder M.I.A (probably to some beach in the south of France), Scully in a family way (having apparently being knocked up while doing the stop-motion Macarena in an Oregon forest – did Anderson ask for some off-time as well?) and the Cigarette Smoking Man apparently passed on (though you can never keep a good creep down), it’s anybody’s guess who will be fit enough to pick up on the story come fall. Skinner? C’mon, do you really want to watch sixty minutes of paperwork? Krycek? An interesting alternative – his reformation is being hinted at, but ibid. the parenthetical for CSM.

The Lone Gunmen? Oops, sorry, they’ve got their own show to worry about that. No, The X-Files world is now filled with people who, through either contractual or other obligations, are too preoccupied to carry on work started seven years ago. It’s an ironic counterpoint to the questions posed at the beginning: the truth may still be out there, but there may be no one left to discover it.

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3 Responses to “Cinefantastique: The Man Behind The Mytharc”

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