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New York Times: The X-Files' Finds Its Truth: Its Time Is Past

New York Times
The X-Files’ Finds Its Truth: Its Time Is Past
Joyce Millman

Is the truth out there? For the first five thrilling seasons of “The X-Files,” I wanted to believe (just like the show’s UFO-chasing hero, Fox Mulder) that all would be revealed. Surely the executive producer, Chris Carter, had a master plan in his head and my loyalty and patience would someday be rewarded.

OK, so I’m a sucker. But it was fun for a while, playing along with “The X-Files,” rooting for this little spook show on the fourth-place Fox network as it wormed its way into the popular consciousness. It wasn’t until the incomprehensible 1998 feature film “The X-Files: Fight the Future,” an overgrown sweeps episode, that it became obvious that Carter was making up the show’s “mythology” (the sadistically convoluted plot line about a secret government war on extraterrestrials) as he went along.

“The X-Files” will end its run on May 19 with a two-hour episode tantalizingly _ or, perhaps, tauntingly _ called “The Truth.” But it’s hard to get all tingly with expectation that Carter will finally wrap everything up with a tidy bow. Especially since he’s apparently planning to write a second “X-Files” movie.

Still, even with its often maddening ambiguity, “The X-Files” could give you the heebie-jeebies more elegantly and efficiently than anything else on television. Perpetually underlighted and rain-slicked, rich with cynicism, almost Hitchcockian in its command of tension and release, it was the defining series of the ’90s. It hauntingly captured the cultural moment when paranoid distrust of government spilled over from the political fringes to the mainstream, aided by the conspiracy-theory-disseminating capability of the Internet. With its high-level cover-ups, Deep Throats and adherence to the watchwords “Trust no one,” “The X-Files” tapped into still-fresh memories of Iran-contra and Watergate, not to mention Ruby Ridge and Waco.

Making its premiere on Sept. 10, 1993, “The X-Files” starred the little-known David Duchovny as a flaky FBI special agent, Fox Mulder, and the unknown Gillian Anderson as the levelheaded special agent (and medical doctor) Dana Scully. Mulder’s interest in the paranormal and his fervid quest to find his sister (abducted by aliens, he believed) had gotten him demoted to a dead-end assignment investigating the bureau’s weirdest cases. Fearful that Mulder was closing in on proof of the government’s conspiracy to hide the existence of extraterrestrials, the FBI assigned the straight-arrow Scully to debunk his theories and be his unwitting baby sitter. Armed with their trusty flashlights, the deadpan Mulder and the stern but scrappy Scully (who soon warmed up to Mulder’s goofy charm) chased down freaks of nature like Eugene Tooms, who consumed the livers of his victims and, oh yeah, had the ability to fold up his body like an envelope and slip through the thinnest of cracks. They also uncovered possible evidence that life on Earth began from extraterrestrial ancestors, and that a cabal of government, science and industry leaders was trying to create a race of superhumans to fight a global takeover by aliens.

Sure, “The X-Files” covered the same turf as Weekly World News. But this was no campy creep show. Carter and the best of his writers (Glen Morgan, James Wong, Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan) tackled alien abductions, clairvoyance, wrinkles in time, satanic possession and telepathic revenge with a measure of dignity and fine, low-key gallows humor. The show made sci-fi accessible to viewers who didn’t consider themselves sci-fi fans.

“The X-Files” borrowed more from hard-boiled cop shows like “Law & Order” and “Homicide” than from “Star Trek.” And it owed an obvious debt to the freaky metaphysical mysteries of “Twin Peaks” _ that show’s quirky Agent Cooper and Fox Mulder could have been spiritual twins (provided you were able to forget that Duchovny appeared on “Twin Peaks” as a fed who liked to wear dresses). “The X-Files” also left plenty of room for smart viewers to weigh the respective merits of Mulder’s open-mindedness and Scully’s skepticism. Some of the show’s “scientific” explanations were as scary as the scary monsters themselves, because they contained just enough plausibility to make you wonder. (My personal favorite: Flukeman, a humanoid parasitic flatworm, possibly spawned as a result of nuclear waste from the Chernobyl meltdown.)

Helped along by the ecstatic buzz among its Web-savvy fans, who called themselves X-philes (this may have been the first show to find its audience growth tied to the growth of the Internet), it soon broke out of its cult status. Its mainstream popularity was all the more surprising given that alien-invasion fiction usually flourishes in times of national anxiety. The Red scare and the Cold War of the ’50s, for example, inspired “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and countless attack-of-the-Martians B-movies. But the United States enjoyed security and prosperity for much of the run of “The X-Files.” So what was driving the paranoia on which the show fed?

An event that comes once every thousand years.

As the ’90s unfolded, superstition about the approaching millennium renewed interest in all things spiritual, from doomsday prophecies to fundamentalism, from the cabala to angels.

And “The X-Files” mirrored this hunger to believe. Mulder wanted extraterrestrials to be real so he could solve the mystery of his disintegrating family. Scully placed her faith in science, yet she wore a small gold cross around her neck; unable to rationally explain how she survived an incurable cancer, or became unexpectedly pregnant after she was diagnosed as “barren,” she fell back on the comfort of her Roman Catholicism and considered them “miracles.”

Indeed, “The X-Files” has been preoccupied with Christian imagery for the last two seasons. After her “immaculate conception” (apparently she was artificially inseminated with Mulder’s donor sperm), Scully gave birth last season in a hokey Nativity scene, complete with a Star of Bethlehem pointing the way to baby William, who may or may not be the part-alien savior of humankind. An episode this season also revealed that a crashed alien spaceship, carbon-dated to be millions of years old, was encrypted with passages from the world’s great religions. For Carter’s coup de grace, will the existence _ and nature _ of God turn out to be the biggest X-File of all?

Carter’s willingness to take on the big spiritual What If’s in a manner more provocative than, say, “Touched by an Angel” was one stroke of brilliance. The other was, of course, the soulful and enduring relationship between Mulder and Scully. Their partnership was professional yet deeply intimate, as typified by the odd salutation that Scully used whenever she contacted her partner by phone: “Mulder, it’s me.” We never saw them in bed together (and we were privy to only one meaningful kiss), but Mulder and Scully were clearly soul mates, throwing sparks from the tiniest hints of longing. Scully’s sexiest quality was, arguably, her luminous integrity, while Mulder (turn-ons: UFO’s, sunflower seeds, porn) was an unlikely cross between a broodingly handsome hunk and a wisecracking nerd _ part Richard Gere, part Alfred E. Neuman. Yet despite all this, or because of it, Mulder and Scully became Internet sex symbols, the thinking person’s downloads.

Mulder’s disappearance last year (Duchovny had tired of the weekly grind; he returns for the series finale) left single mom Scully looking haunted and irritable, a sad misuse of the radiant Anderson. This season, Anderson (who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her work on the show) held a sort of X-Files Emeritus status, with substantially reduced screen time. The heavy lifting of ghoul-chasing fell to the show’s personality-free new co-stars, Robert Patrick as Agent John Doggett (the skeptic) and Annabeth Gish as Agent Monica Reyes (the believer). To paraphrase Dr. Evil, Doggett and Reyes are the quasi-Mulder and Scully. They’re the Diet Coke of Mulder and Scully.

Without Mulder and Scully at its heart, “The X-Files” is just another middling sci-fi anthology. It was once the champion of its 9 p.m. Sunday time slot (where it moved, from Fridays, in 1996), but its ratings have been soft since Season 7. With HBO’s “Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” around (and, this season, ABC’s “Alias”), “The X-Files” is no longer the hottest show on the Sunday block. And for at least the last two years (I know, I’m being generous), the burn-out has been painful to watch.

But the truth is, even if “The X-Files” hadn’t self-destructed, it still would have been pushed into irrelevance by the events of Sept. 11. You might think a show that warns us to trust no one, that depicts human-looking alien sleeper agents living among us, would have taken on new resonance. But, oddly, it hasn’t. The show’s mythology, frustratingly teased along and built upon through the years, is by now too insular, self-referential and arcane (what was the significance of the black oil? the bees? Cassandra Spender?) to serve as a metaphor for our times. The most imaginative show on television has finally reached the limits of its imagination.

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