A conversation with The X-Files’ creator Chris Carter
“Now that Russia is no longer our very recognizable enemy, we suddenly need to find other enemies and other sources of discontent. That’s when we start looking to the skies….” — Chris Carter
What are the X-Files?
“Everything and anything from weird science to paranormal phenomena to genetic mutations to alien hybrids. Basically,” says Chris Carter, creator and executive producer of the Fox TV series, “we know an X-File when we see it.”
The X-Files chronicles the exploits of two federal agents, Dana Scully and Fox “Spooky” Mulder (intelligently played by Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, respectively), who inhabit a speculative branch of the FBI charged with investigating paranormal activity and unexplained phenomena, trawling the fringes of American culture for clues, only to butt up against walls built by the same government that issues their paychecks.
“I was inspired by the show Kolchak, The Night Stalker,” says Carter, his voice an aural blend of Rod Serling and Joe Frank. “It had really scared me as a kid and I wanted to do something as dark and mysterious as I remembered it to be. So, I was able to say to Fox when they hired me to an exclusive deal, “this is what I want to do.” I had the track record and the know-how to develop the show, cast it properly and produce it the way I wanted it to be produced. Although there’s no Kolchak character in The X-Files, the spirit of the show is in many ways the same.”
Having generated a buzz everywhere from computer bulletin boards to bohemian coffee shops to the mainstream press, The X-Files was renewed for a second season despite its slow start. Along with his creative team of co-executive producers and sometime writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, as well as supervising producers and occasional writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, Chris Carter has created a virtual anomaly in network TV — a show which gives you questions where you expect answers, and which demands not only your attention, but your capacity to speculate, to wonder, and to think — all of this from the same network that brings you Melrose Place.
Rather than the usual practice of tying up all the loose ends at the close of a given episode, The X-Files series unravels like a narrative Gordian knot, with each episode revealing a small truth only to lay bare a deeper puzzle. Many conclusions are left ambiguous, a pill the network found hard to swallow. “Closure seems to be a word that everyone throws around in TV drama,” Carter says. “They want everything explained; they want the cuffs thrown on. They want somebody put in jail and they want the morality tale. You can’t do that with a show like this. It’s going to take different turns; you’re dealing with different kinds of villains. It took [Fox] a while to come around to our way of thinking. There have been many battles waged, and many of them won, and some are still going on, but we fight for what we believe in on this show and I’m not alone.
“I think that our most successful episode last year, on every level, was “Beyond The Sea”, in which Scully’s father dies,” Carter continues. “The look of the show was fantastic but believe it or not, the network didn’t want to do that episode. There were hesitations and reservations about some of the plotting — but we stood our ground.
In the case of “Deep Throat”, the first episode after the pilot, a compromise with the network grew into a motif which continued through the rest of the season. Carter explains, “The idea of closure was still being forced on us, and the scene in which Scully is sitting at her computer writing in her journal was not in the show until the last minute. It came down as an edict because they wanted a summing up of the episode, and in the end, I think it made the episode better. That motif of Scully doing a voice-over as she types became a running story crutch for us when we needed to reinstruct the audience about where we are going, or where we had been.”
Carter is quick to point out that not every idea incites a battle.
“A woman from the network called me up yesterday,” he says. “She said she felt silly telling me this but she had so loved the script I had written that she wanted to bow to “the X-Files god”. I obviously felt very satisfied by that. These things all work in strange ways.”
Another source of praise for the show has been the unique relationship shared by the two main characters. Though there is chemistry between Anderson and Duchovny, the writers and actors take pains to maintain a tender but nonsexual relationship. It’s their philosophical differences that form the heart of The X-Files. Agent Scully is a skeptic, Mulder, whose sister may have been abducted by a UFO, is a believer. By chipping away at her skepticism, he is also chipping away at ours. “I myself come to all this stuff about aliens and alien abductions as a skeptic,” Carter says. “One of the byproducts of doing this show is that I’ve met a lot of people who genuinely believe that they’ve been abducted.
But I have not seen a UFO. I wish one would reveal itself to me. But I’m one of those people that needs to see it in order to believe.”
Like The X-Files character Deep Throat (played by Jerry Hardin), Carter seems to know more than he’s willing to tell. “Some things I find intriguing,” he allows. “We read enough in the news to know the government keeps things from us every day, but I tend to think that the government runs out of chaos, and organization of thought or of systems inside the government is a joke. That’s why I find most conspiracy theories difficult too believe.”
On Area 51, the air base in Nevada many believe to be a test site for UFO technology: “I believe that people go out there and watch things happen. Do I think that Bob Lazar [a scientist who claims to have worked on alien technology in Area 51] is telling the truth? I have no reason to believe him; I have no reason to disbelieve him.”
Who is Chris Carter? Where did he come from? And how did he come to roll the stone of intelligence up the ever-steepening hill of TV’s lowest-common-denominator sensibilities?
“I have a strange and varied background,” he says with typical understatement. A California native, Carter has had the unlikely but enviable experience of thirteen years as writer and associate editor for Surfing Magazine. “I was hired because I was a journalism major in college and had been a surfer all my life. Travelling around the world and surfing, I had one of the best prolonged adolescences a young man could want. It allowed me a lot of freedom to write, develop a voice, read and see the world … and surf, of course.”
His interest in dramatic writing didn’t fully develop until he met his wife, Dori, who was herself a professional screenwriter. “I came from nowhere to somewhere in a real short time,” says Carter. “My hair was barely dry from the ocean when I was hired in 1985 by Disney studios with a feature writing deal, an office and a secretary.”
Nine years later, Carter seems to have perfected the style which has become analogous with The X-Files: intelligent writing, understated acting, and extraordinary situations taking place in a very mundane world. Carter and his creative team cull ideas from a variety of sources to keep their approach fresh. “A lot of the ideas come from the writers knowing what scares us and what scares others the most and building X-Files from those themes,” Carter says. “For example, ‘The Erlenmeyer Flask,’ which was the season finale last year, has a little element in it from the news. In the not-too-distant past, a woman was rushed to an emergency room with blood that had crystallized. After being exposed to it, doctors suffered from the fumes. I took that as a tiny element and incorporated it into a story I had been wanting to tell all year. It became, I felt, a perfect season finale, which revolved around the ideas that there is alien DNA that has been captured as a result of a Roswell-like incident, and this tissue is sitting in a lab in a government facility somewhere, and someone has been running tests with it. So, it’s a wedding of different ideas looking for good visuals, a good scare, and good tension, with the characters continually testing their own personal biases and beliefs about things.
“The Erlenmeyer Flash” brought an end to the X-Files project, and the new season has the team split up, with Mulder in the field, assigned to “conventional” cases (yet still managing to get into trouble with uncanny forces), while Scully is tied to a desk job (yet still the only agent who will tolerate Mulder’s bizarre theories). Carter has previously revealed that the separation will last for eight episodes, during which time more will be revealed about the X-File team’s foes and allies.
While the separation been necessitated by Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, Carter sees this eight-week period as an opportunity to play with a more serialized, less episodic format, involving more of the personal lives of both protagonists. As far as the sexual tension between the two goes, everyone involved in the series seems to agree that a full-blown romance is out of the question.
Early episodes this season will feature the discovery of a genetic mutant, washed up on the shores of New Jersey; a “super-soldier” created as part of a government experiment; and, possibly, an episode about a “group mind” created over a computer network.
The last is a notion Carter has played with since his recent discovery of electronic mail and online computer services; this year, The X-Files’ producers, writers, and possibly cast members, will be making their appearance on the “information superhighway.” “Delphi is the official X-Files service,” says Carter. “The other writer-producers and I will be participating in online forum discussions in the not-too-distant future; but fans can also interact with other fans, and download different media from the system.”
How close will Scully and Mulder get to the final truth in the current season of X-Files? Carter’s answer is as nebulous as any of last season’s answers. ‘I don’t think there is a final truth,” he says with a laugh. “There are problem final truths. We’ll just keep pushing.
“Mulder still wants to find his sister, so there will be an ongoing source of his energy into his search into the paranormal. We always try not to go too far with the X-File stories because we want to keep them inside what we call the realm of extreme possibility. And besides, telling too much gives away part of the magic.”
This season, Carter will stretch his talents, making his directorial debut with an episode, and hopes to explore the possibilities of a spin-off series, in response to the Fox Network’s interest in “X-panding” the franchise. Carter promises that they’ll continue to push the envelope of extreme possibility.
Will we see Deep Throat again? “That’s a good question,” he says with a smile. “The X-Files begins with the idea that anything can happen, and so that’s how we proceed.”
Trust no one.