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SciFi Magazine: X-Files' Brave New World

SciFi Magazine
X-Files’ Brave New World
Melissa Perenson

(As the series enters the home stretch of its eighth season, producer Frank Spotnitz takes stock of a year filled with surprises.)

“I’m amazed at how long the show has lasted. Nobody foresaw this.”

In a way, that observation from Frank Spotnitz, executive producer of The X-Files, is surprising. After all, ever since The X-Files debuted back in 1993, its unofficial mantra has been to expect the unexpected. But even Spotnitz is taken aback by the venerable paranormal series’ endurance and resilience now, in its 8th season.

Characterizing the current season as one filled with changes and risks is an understatement. “We took the idea of the series, and we smashed it apart,” admits Spotnitz. “[Doing so] just opened up a whole new lot of possibilities that were never open to us before. But that’s really not something that a studio would want to risk unless they were forced to.”

For so long, The X-Files’ universe has been defined by Mulder and Scully, two characters who are so ingrained in our popular culture by now that they need no further introduction, not even by their official FBI titles of Special Agent. On-screen, the characters were humming along together just fine; in fact, in season 7, Mulder and Scully arguably were more in sync with one another than ever before. Off-screen events threatened to derail the characters’, and potentially the show’s, momentum for good.

Although Gillian Anderson was signed for eight seasons, David Duchovny was not. And Duchovny, whose understated deadpan had come to epitomize Mulder, was bluntly vocal in his desire to move on from the series. Ultimately, his contract negotiations to return for an eighth year went down to the wire, with the actor settling his pending lawsuit against Fox and agreeing to return on a limited basis for season 8 just one day before Fox announced its fall schedule.

Given Duchovny’s self-imposed absence for more than half the season, coming up with season 8’s story arc, and somehow working Mulder into the equation, has been nothing short of a creative and logistical nightmare for the show’s producers. “People at home have no idea of the incredibly complicated jigsaw puzzle that we’ve had here, in terms of the storytelling and actor availabilities,” Spotnitz reveals. “You’re left with a situation where you’ve got to untangle this [already-established story] web, and make use of an actor that you have according to some very bizarre legal formula for a certain number of days here and there. We really had to work around the business realities, and try and make our show feel as organic as possible within those arrangements.”

Concurrent with reinventing the series, Spotnitz and series creator Chris Carter also had to figure out a way to carry on without diluting the significance of the sizzling dynamic between Mulder and Scully. “The importance of Mulder and Scully to The X-Files can’t be overstated. All of us are aware of how crucial the character of Mulder has been to this series, and how much he and Scully and their relationship have been central to everything that has made the show successful,” Spotnitz says. In removing Mulder from the equation, he adds, “you can’t take a bigger gamble in television.”

The gamble, however, is paying off in spades. While some longtime viewers are divisively split over how Mulder’s abduction and Scully’s mysterious pregnancy have been handled this year, the ratings bear up the fact that X-Files’ appeal remains strong, even sans Duchovny. This season’s standalone monster-of-the-week episodes have returned the show to its spooky, if not gory, roots. Anderson has proved more than worthy of her top billing on the series, and the actress has attacked her role with renewed vigor and layered emoting in episodes like ‘Per Manum.’ And thanks to the addition of Terminator 2’s Robert Patrick who came on board as Scully’s interim partner John Doggett, The X-Files has undergone a successful metamorphosis. The series is no longer centered solely around Mulder and Scully.

“Our numbers have held even with the numbers we have had last year,” Spotnitz marvels, referring to the series’ ratings, which remain respectable in spite of being down from their apex in season 4 and 5. “I can’t think of many other series where you’ve replaced one of two leads, and done so with popular success. In Robert Patrick, we hit a home run. He’s somebody who’s very hard not to like, and he’s really accomplished everything we hoped he would do. He brought a different voice to the show than it’s ever had before, and he held our audience and our attention during Mulder’s absence.”

Pacing Doggett’s development has been an interesting twist for the writers, who needed a core character that viewers would care about. “Things are happening much faster for Doggett than they did for Scully. But his skepticism is not rooted in science [as Scully’s is]; it’s rooted in personal experience. There’s a real, emotional investment in his skepticism,” Spotnitz discloses. “That’s a really interesting idea, and not something we’ve ever done before on the show.”

Considering the traditionally precarious balance between Mulder’s believer and Scully’s skeptic, it’s easy to question how Doggett will fit into the equation vis-a-vis the dynamic duo now that Mulder has returned for the final six episodes of the season. However, Spotnitz is confident about the way the new triad is unfolding. “Not surprisingly, it’s a dynamic with a considerable amount of tension, because Doggett has really taken Mulder’s place, both in the fictional life of the show and on the series. So whether they like it or not, they are rivals, and we play with that. But as we head into a big two-hour conclusion that will air the last two Sundays in May, their relationship is going someplace,” he says cagily, with patented X-Files ambiguity.

In some ways, nurturing Doggett along has been an easier task than nurturing Scully’s pregnancy. For much of the season, Scully’s pregnancy has barely registered on the radar as she actively moved from one dangerous case to the next, with little discussion of her efforts to find Mulder. By the time her condition is openly addressed in ‘Per Manum,’ we learn that she’s only 14 weeks along, somewhat surprising considering how much has happened to Scully in the intervening episodes.

The timeline criticisms, in particular, take Spotnitz by surprise. “I saw that on the Internet. And I saw we got a jeer from TV Guide. That was completely and wholly unearned,” he maintains. To set the record straight, “in [the season finale] ‘Requiem’ last May, Scully says she’s pregnant. And in [this season’s opener] ‘Within/Without,’ it’s very clearly the very next day. There hasn’t been an ellipses of six months, in terms of the progress of Scully’s pregnancy.” For those keeping track of the math, three months will have elapsed between episodes 14 ‘This Is Not Happening,’ and 15, titled ‘DeadAlive.’

As for Scully’s tendency to be more impulsive this season, Spotnitz chalks that up less to Scully trying to be Mulder than to the fact that it’s Scully’s turn to take charge. “She’s in the lead now, she’s the head to the [X-Files] unit,” he says.

Keeping Scully true to who she is, while at the same time allowing her to assume Mulder’s role as believer, “has been very challenging to do in a believable way,” he continues. “We honestly have had to feel our way forward episode to episode, because it’s not natural for her. We had to inch her along, and have her be reluctant too. It’s been interesting for us [to write], and I think it’s been interesting for Gillian, because it’s something very different for her to play.”

The decision to embark on the pregnancy arc stemmed from the desire to surprise audiences, as well as the need to resurrect long-buried plot points from early in the show’s history. Having a child, notes Spotnitz, “is something that people do after a number of years. And this is the eighth season [on the X-Files] for Agent Scully. It felt right. We saw how it made sense, and how there was beautiful symmetry to it.”

Artistic symmetry is the ideal, but Spotnitz also realizes that it would be all too easy for the resolution of this arc to fall into a sandtrap of clichés. Accordingly, the production is proceeding “very carefully,” he says with a nervous laugh. “As you approach an event like this that everyone knows is coming, you explore all of the possibilities of what this might be before you settle on the one true path of what it is. I think it is important to do that, because it’s doing justice to the magnitude of what this means to Scully, and what it means to the series. There are an awful lot of possibilities as to what this baby is. We know the answer,” he adds playfully, “but we don’t intend on letting anyone else know until the end.”

The pivotal, if not confusing, mythology episode ‘Per Manum’ used flashbacks to establish the fact that, at some unspecified time in the past, Scully was trying to conceive a child through in vitro fertilization. (Per X-Files canon, Scully’s own abduction back in Season 2 left her barren.) The reasoning for bringing up the in vitro angle at all, Spotnitz explains, was twofold. “One is that [Scully’s barrenness] was a thread of The X-Files’ mythology that had never been sewn up. Back in season 4, we saw Mulder with the harvested [ova] that they’d taken from Scully; but we’d never had an opportunity to address it until now. The other reason was that we have this bombshell with Scully’s pregnancy, but we have no emotional context for it. So it felt good to show the audience the back story for Scully and Mulder, leading up to this news that she was indeed pregnant.”

In the absence of pre-existing context for season 8’s dramatic surprises, the writers relied instead on flashbacks tailored to fit this year’s narrative. “Had I known there would be a season 8, I would have preferred to salt in all of the clues about these flashback episodes last season,” says Spotnitz of how he dealt retroactively with fitting in Mulder’s illness and Scully’s. “But there really is no way to unravel these mysteries in my mind, and make use of David in the time that he was available to us, without having some flashback episodes.”

Conveniently, though, there’s a long-standing precedent that these characters’ private lives are just that, and they’re played out off-screen and away from the prying eyes of viewers. “We’ve always been very stingy with showing anything of their personal lives,” agrees Spotnitz of their strategy. “Chris felt, and I think he’s right, that these [stories] are about paranormal phenomena. It’s very hard to make those personal on a week-to-week basis.”

Still, as much as The X-Files typically leaves volumes unsaid, after eight years no one should underestimate the strength of the bond between Mulder and Scully. “I think they mean everything to each other,” affirms Spotnitz. “They love each other, on a profound level such is rarely found in life. I think people sense that, and that’s why they love these two characters and they love them together. They’d do anything for each other. They’re soul mates.”

What lies ahead for Mulder and Scully, though, and for the series itself, remains to be seen. But The X-Files, which began life as the little cult show that could, seems set to continue its pattern of beating the odds. By all indications, the series will likely return for a ninth season, although a number of variables need to be nailed down to guarantee X-Files’ return. Many of the elements necessary for a ninth season are already in place: The series continues to pull in solid ratings, Anderson’s renegotiated contract keeps her on board for another year, and Fox has made it clear that it isn’t ready to lose one of its flagship television shows just yet. Among the uncertainties: What role, if any, Duchovny might play in the series.

Meanwhile, Spotnitz and Carter are focusing their attentions on making the most of what’s left of this season, while planting enough seeds to carry on the next-generation mythology should there be a season 9. “There are names from the past and ideas from the past that are going to be woven into the episodes that are coming in the next few months,” promises Spotnitz. “When the decision was made to continue with the series this year, we were forced to consider what’s next. What are the aliens up to now in the wake of the death of the Syndicate? What are the people in the government who know about aliens doing in the wake of that collapse?” As of the February sweeps episodes ‘Per Manum’ and ‘This Is Not Happening,’ Spotnitz notes, “we really have begun another chapter in the alien story.”

Where will the new mythology lead to? The X-Files is betting that viewers will be willing to wait and see. After all, no matter how frustrating the show’s seemingly endless questions may be, as Spotnitz notes, “Questions are our stock in trade. But I do think that what happens in the season finale will be the end of something, and it will be satisfying to people who’ve been patient all of these years.”

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