X-Files mythology, TenThirteen Interviews Database, and more

Archive for January, 1996

Sydney Morning Herald: Chris Carter Interview

Jan-??-1996
Sydney Morning Herald
Chris Carter Interview
John Casimir

How did the episode I visited turn out?

Revelations, it was called. It actually turned out really well. It was one of the favorite episodes this year.

You were locked up writing last week when we were supposed to talk.

I think every week it’s safe to say I’m locked up writing.

How much of the series are you doing?

I have my name on seven of the first 15 for this year. And I do a fair amount of rewriting past that. So I do, I would say, more than the lion’s share.

Is writing the heart of the job for you?

It is. Everything springs from that but there are numerous responsibilities that I have undertaken. I just got out of the playback room, where I reviewed the sound and music for episode 13. I did a final quality control on that.

Is writing where you get the most personal enjoyment?

I think the biggest personal satisfaction for me is in seeing the final product. Everything else is done under such strict deadlines and time pressure that a lot of the enjoyment is just in finishing it.

You’ve given yourself a job where you work 150 hours a week? Couldn’t you pull back?

I don’t think I’ve got the personality to really pull back. If I felt that the show was going to suffer in any way or was not going to be the show I thought it could be, I couldn’t pull back. And right now I feel that this isn’t just obsessing or a neurotic compulsion, it’s really about trying to make the show as good as it can be. I am really determined to never have the quality suffer. I would like to see the show keep getting better and better.

Gillian said that the third series had really found itself, that it has been through its adolescence and has now found its style.

I think she’s right. I think that this is the best year ever. The ratings reflect it. I think the quality of the shows this year has been excellent. And I think that has a lot to do with the directors that we have hired. We’ve hired a series of directors who have rotated. I think that helps a lot, takes a lot of the guesswork out. There’s a communication that is built in in that situation.

Does a TV show need to mature?

I think the first year is a really important maturing process. I think it really finds itself. You find what works, the pacing, the rhythms. But I think that all too often TV shows age rather than mature. And that is not a good thing.

How close to your original vision is what we get?

I have to say that it’s extremely close to what I imagined. Of course, when I was sitting and writing the pilot, I never imagined episode 73, which is where we’ll be this year. Anyone who creates a show, I don’t think, can look that far down the road. But I did, indeed, have an idea about how the Mulder and Scully relationship would progress. And how the stories would work. What is most surprising to me is the kind of stories we have told, the directions the show has gone in, in terms of the variety of stories we’ve told. Other than that, the show is pretty much what I originally conceived of.

So where has it taken you that you haven’t expected?

I don’t know if you guys saw the humbug episode, the freaks episode last year. That’s just an ep that I never imagined. to tell you the truth, when it came in, I thought it was a pretty big departure from what we had done before, but I thought at that time, the 45th episode, that we had earned the right to stretch a little. If I can make a baseball analogy, we had been throwing fast balls and curve balls and this was a knuckleball, something new to our repertoire. In season three, you’re going to get a few more of those kinds of episodes. They’re very comedic episodes and I hadn’t anticipated taking the show in that direction.

Are you getting away with more than expected, taking it further?

In some respects, yes. There were stories they told us we wouldn’t be able to tell, about satanic cults for example. They thought that was viewer-unfriendly, territory they thought was not for television. We’ve gone into that and further. I think we have pushed the limits of standards. But other than that, I think we’re not getting away with anything more than they would ever let us get away with in terms of detail, graphic elements. I think it’s more that subject matter which may have been verboten before is now in play.

Are the episodes gone over with a fine tooth comb?

Oh yeah. Every week there is a negotiation that is waged between the broadcast standards and practice wing, which is the censorship wing really, of the network, and me and the producers on the show, who fight for the things we think are very important to our storytelling.

You’ve talked a lot about the influence of TV shows like Night Stalker. But are you now or were you as a kid a big comic reader?

No, uh-uh, never. Never a big comic book reader. Never a science fiction fan. I just loved scary movies, good scary stories, good mysteries and thrillers. Even in my adolescence things like good political thrillers, Parallax View, All The President’s Men, Three Days Of The Condor, loved those kind of movies.

Scaring is not what it used to be in an age of gratuitous, over the top special effects. What are the rules of doing it now?

Making it seem as if it really could happen. If it could happen to you. If it’s a believable situation. We live in fear every day, we live in a lot of denial as well. If you can find the elements of everyday life that scare us and bring them into play, embellish or find new ways to look at the world, then you have naturally scary situations, which is what the best X-Files have.

The really good shows, rather than a rollercoaster scare, have a profound sense of unease.

Yes that’s what I’m always looking for.

I love that story about there being three million people in America who believe they have been abducted by aliens. Anyone else would say, well, it’s time to move country, but you thought, wow, a target audience.

Not so much a target audience. If I had to go for three million people, I’d be off the air. Three million people is not enough to carry an American TV show. I didn’t see them as the audience as much as I saw it as a quantitative analysis of a syndrome. For me it said that there is a legitimate way to present these people’s cases to a larger public. So I never saw them as my audience as much as fuel for my stories.

You’ve created a believer and a sceptic. Which are you?

I’m a skeptic by nature. I describe myself as a non-religious person looking for a religious experience. So I’m like Mulder, who has that poster “I want to believe” on the wall. I really have a desire, as I believe we all do, to find a reason to believe, to have our skepticism tested, eroded, or our beliefs affirmed.

Is it a search for meaning?

I think it is, but it is indirectly. I didn’t set out to deliver a message at all. And I still don’t want that to be the purpose of any of the shows. I really want to entertain, scare and thrill.

The motto of the show is the truth is out there. But you seem to be saying the truth isn’t, that it’s changeable, manipulable.

I’ve always thought of it as a double entendre. The truth is out there to be found, and then it’s so far out there that we’ll never find it.

How important is the sexual tension between the characters?

I never wanted them to jump in the sack together because it was uninteresting to me. To me, the most sexual relationships are often the ones that are never realized, consummated or even spoken about. So I wanted this to be two smart people who work together, who happen to get along very well. Through their shared passion in their work, there is a natural chemical sexual tension that comes out of that, that doesn’t ever have to be spoken about, but it works.

Like in the Avengers?

I loved the Avengers as a kid. That Steed/Mrs Peel thing was a sort of May/September thing. He definitely was more of a father figure to her.

I like the fact that the X-Files in a non-linear drama.

Kind of. Sometimes its very linear. Sometimes you really tell it in a very straight path.

But it’s drama which often works without resolution.

Oh yes, in that way, there is rarely any kind of perfectly satisfying resolution. You may have an understanding of a situation or something may have been solved, but ultimately we never try to explain the unexplainable.

That’s a pretty radical step for television. There is an assumption that everyone wants a neat package tied up with bows.

They only do if they think there is resolution to be had. But I think in this case people would actually call BS on us if we pretended to explain something or give them all the answers. We are dealing with subject matter beyond explanation a lot of the time. So I think it was the right choice. It’s the natural choice for this kind of storytelling.

It also gives credit to the audience for intelligence and imagination.

Yeah exactly.

It’s been a real zeitgeist show. Did you have any idea it would strike a chord?

You never do. You just hope you get an order for your pilot script, an order for your pilot. You hope the pilot gets picked up for a series and you hope the series gets picked up for another. Along the way, you are, I call it taking the pig to the fair. You want to make it to the final judging, which is ultimately with the viewing public. You want them just to like it. You can never anticipate the kind of response we have had with the X-Files.

Were you surprised at the level of paranoia and weirdness out there?

No, I had anticipated that. But I wasn’t prepared for the prevalence of a basic distrust of authority and the government.

Around the time of the Oklahoma bombing, did you ever think I am making a paranoid anti-government program, and feeding into this?

No, I think there’s no connection. I am not saying overthrow authority. I am saying question it. We’re not suggesting anything revolutionary. These people are obviously very militant.

People talk of the X-Files being like Star Trek, saying it will go on forever. Are you sitting on a 30 year job?

No way. This show will never go for 30 years. There may be a movie now and again. I see it going for five years and anything past that is great. But if it lasted any longer than seven, I would be completely surprised. And it wouldn’t be under my aegis.

Has it made you as rich as Croesus and does this mean you are finally going to get to make that series of docos on the life of the bollweevil or whatever your personal fantasy has been?

I think it will allow me to go surfing where I want to go surfing, when I get to go surfing again. So I’m looking forward to that. When you do this kind of show, certainly the pay cheques fatten and start coming in. Am I rich as Croesus? Hardly.

Skeptical Inquirer: Science and Reason in Film and Television

January / February 1996
Science and Reason in Film and Television
Skeptical Inquirer Volume 20.1
William Evans

[Original article here]

Recent entertainment media portrayals of science and pseudoscience imply that skepticism is no longer useful and may even be dangerous.

Who has the most dangerous job on prime-time entertainment television? The police officer? The soldier? The private investigator? The answer is “none of the above.” On prime-time entertainment television, scientists are most at risk. Ten percent of scientists featured in prime-time entertainment programming get killed, and five percent kill someone. No other occupational group is more likely to kill or be killed (Gerbner 1987).

Popular entertainment media have long portrayed scientists as mad, bad, and dangerous to know, but in the past few decades entertainment media portrayals of science have changed significantly, and these changes seem to have accelerated in recent years. Science remains dangerous, but it is also increasingly portrayed as useless in solving problems. The skepticism about paranormal claims that is a part of scientific thinking is portrayed as a handicap. And in many newer entertainment media offerings — most notably in ”The X-Files” — the paranormal is portrayed as, well, normal. “The X-Files” offers a world in which fantastic events such as alien abductions and spontaneous human combustion are everyday occurrences.

Film and television entertainment programming increasingly portrays science and reason as tools that are unsuitable for understanding our world in a new age of credulity. This article reviews entertainment media portrayals of science and pseudoscience and considers the important function of skepticism in horror films and other offerings. The evidence reported here will likely be discouraging for many skeptics, but it is evidence that skeptics must nonetheless consider if they are to effectively counter entertainment media tendencies to devalue science and reason.

Television and Public Conceptions of Science and Pseudoscience

There is a correlation between watching entertainment television and credulity. Habitual viewers of entertainment television — approximately one-third of U.S. adults watch more than four hours of television daily — are more likely than infrequent viewers to hold negative opinions about science and positive opinions about pseudoscience. Habitual viewers are more likely than infrequent viewers to believe that science is dangerous, that scientists are odd and peculiar people, and that a career in science is undesirable (Gerbner 1987; Gerbner et al. 1985). These findings persist even taking into consideration education, sex, age, and other factors that are known to influence people’s attitudes toward science. Habitual viewers are also more likely than infrequent viewers to believe that astrology is scientific. Thirty-seven percent of adults in the United States believe that astrology is scientific (National Science Foundation 1989), but among habitual viewers of television this figure is 55 percent (Gerbner et al. 1985).

While the existing evidence does not permit us to claim that viewing entertainment television creates antiscience and pro-pseudoscience attitudes, it seems certain that entertainment television provides a symbolic environment in which such attitudes are readily cultivated. Our entertainment mass media provide a steady diet of negative images of science and skepticism — images that reflect and reinforce popular misgivings and misunderstandings about science.

Mad Scientists and Clever Laypersons

Western literature and popular entertainment media have long featured scientists in the role of the troublemaker (Haynes 1994). Mad scientists are second only to psychotics as the primary source of trouble in horror films. In fact, mad scientists account for a larger percentage of horror movie antagonists than zombies, werewolves, and mummies combined (Tudor 1989).

Although scientists have been consistently portrayed as dangerous in twentieth-century popular entertainment media, there have been important changes in the portrayal of scientists’ abilities to solve problems. Tudor (1989) notes that between 1951 and 1964 scientists were often portrayed in film as being responsible for saving as well as endangering humanity. In films of that era science is dangerous, but science also provides the most appropriate means of dealing with the dangers that science unleashes. Scientists might, for example, inadvertently create mutant monsters, but scientists also most commonly figure out how to eliminate the threats they have created. In these films, science is dangerous but efficacious.

In contrast, more recent entertainment films portray scientists as being unable to solve problems or eliminate threats to humanity. Instead, laypersons most commonly save the day (Tudor 1989). Scientific expertise is devalued in these films, and may even be portrayed as a handicap of sorts. In horror films like C.H.U.D. and the 1988 remake of The Blob, laypersons rid the world of dangerous creatures, but only after the laypersons outwit scientists who either fail to understand the dangers or who have a vested interest in perpetuating the dangers. In films like E.T. and Splash, laypersons save the lives of kind and intelligent creatures by rescuing them from scientific captivity. In these and many other recent films, science no longer provides resources for solving problems, but rather, becomes an obstacle to solving problems (Goldman 1989; Tudor 1989).

You Will Believe

Like science, skepticism is devalued in current popular film and entertainment television. Indeed, skepticism is shown to be untenable and even irresponsible. Films about the paranormal typically feature a fictional skeptical character who doubts the reality of poltergeists, demons, and other paranormal phenomena, even though it quickly becomes apparent to everyone else — story characters and audience alike — that supernatural forces are at work. As a result of the skeptic’s refusal to acknowledge the reality of the supernatural, the film’s protagonists are endangered. These films typically include a pivotal scene in which the protagonists explicitly reject the skeptical point of view. Soon after, the skeptic is either killed, converted to credulity, or simply written out of the action. At this point in the film, the protagonists (who, again, are seldom scientists unless they have “converted” to credulity) can eliminate the paranormal threat.

A quintessential example of this narrative structure is found in the film Poltergeist III. In this fictional story, a psychologist, Dr. Seaton, steadfastly insists that young Carol Anne is not being pursued by demons, but rather, is suffering from an emotional disturbance of some sort. Dr. Seaton continues to insist that nothing supernatural is going on long after he, every other major character in the movie, and the movie audience have seen quite remarkable supernatural events. Dr. Seaton’s diagnosis is clearly wrong, but as a skeptic he is unwilling to accept the ample evidence of supernatural forces at work. As a result, Carol Anne suffers repeated and terrifying encounters with otherworldly entities. Dr. Seaton seems cruel, and his continued skepticism in the face of incontrovertible evidence seems almost pathological.

Fortunately for Carol Anne, a psychic arrives to save her. The psychic, named Tangina, becomes aware of Carol Anne’s plight via telepathy and rushes to help her, only to be rebuked and ridiculed by Dr. Seaton. As the peril to Carol Anne and others grows, and Dr. Seaton refuses to accept Tangina’s warnings about the great power of supernatural forces, Tangina demands that Carol Anne’s uncle and aunt (with whom Carol Anne is living) make a choice: They must choose between Tangina’s mysticism and Dr. Seaton’s rationalism. The uncle and aunt decide to follow Tangina’s recommendations and to reject Dr. Seaton’s counsel. When Dr. Seaton objects, the previously restrained uncle treats him harshly, calling the psychologist’s diagnoses “stupid and idiotic.” The outcome of this confrontation is meant to be pleasing to an audience that has witnessed Dr. Seaton’s increasingly strained and, finally ludicrous, attempts to find prosaic explanations for fantastic events. Shortly after this confrontation, Dr. Seaton is killed, pushed down an elevator shaft by a teenager who is possessed by evil spirits. At this point, the real work of saving Carol Anne can begin, and sure enough it is a combination of faith and benevolent psychic power that in the end save Carol Anne and her loved ones from the malevolent spirits.

While the portrayal of Dr. Seaton is perhaps unusually negative, skeptics are frequently portrayed by Hollywood as being dogmatic, misanthropic, and just plain wrong. In films such as Poltergeist III, The Entity, and even Ghostbusters (where the skeptic is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who insists that it is the ghostbusters rather than ghosts who are responsible for an epidemic of strange phenomena and whose order to shut down the ghostbusters’ “containment system” brings predictable, dire consequences), skepticism is shown to be foolish and inefficacious, while psychics and parapsychologists step in to eliminate the paranormal threats.

Hess (1993) and Tudor (1989) identify the transition from skepticism to credulity as a major theme and distinguishing feature of recent horror and suspense movies. People who live in haunted houses (e.g., as in The Amityville Horror), or find their loved ones possessed or pursued by demons (e.g., The Exorcist, Poltergeist), or find themselves immersed in satanic conspiracies (e.g., Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen) typically are at first skeptical regarding the supernatural; but their safety and even their survival require that they acknowledge the reality of the supernatural. In these films, to deny the reality of the supernatural is to place oneself and one’s loved ones at risk. As audience members, we often find ourselves rooting for skeptical characters to forsake skepticism. Sometimes a converted skeptic must work to convert other skeptics, to make others recognize the reality and danger of the supernatural. Here again, audience members often find themselves rooting for successful evangelization, since the survival of one or more likable characters, and perhaps even the world, depends on it. The power of these narratives is such that even dedicated skeptics often find themselves cheering when a skeptical character comes to believe in the supernatural.

The Paranormal Becomes Normal

While skeptics should be distressed by films that portray the transition from skepticism to credulity as a matter of life and death, at least these films acknowledge that skepticism is an understandable first response to fantastic claims and wondrous events. In these films, the major characters typically at first consider prosaic explanations, even though they soon become convinced that supernatural forces are at work. These films reassure us that the major characters are not eager to believe in the supernatural, that they are sensible, normal people. (In fact, very few mainstream entertainment media offerings portray the victims of the supernatural as having had an interest in the supernatural before they became victims, even though in the real world a previous interest in UFOs, demons, and other paranormal phenomena is characteristic of those who claim to have encountered such phenomena.)

In contrast to entertainment media offerings in which skepticism is portrayed as a normal, if untenable, response to fantastic claims, the television series “The X-Files” presents a new and potentially pernicious portrayal of the paranormal as entirely normal. In “The X-Files,” FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate paranormal events in the same routinized, “it’s all in a day’s work” manner in which “Dragnet’s” Sergeant Friday and Officer Gannon investigated armed robbery and petty theft. Paranormal events are mundane, “The X-Files” suggests, and even an initial but quickly abandoned skepticism is no longer warranted. Agent Mulder is always ready (and often eager) to consider the possibility that paranormal forces account for the phenomena he is investigating, and his hunches typically prove to be correct. In conversation, Mulder and other characters are fond of offering offhand and even wholly gratuitous, credulous references to a wide variety of paranormal phenomena. Emery (1995) aptly characterizes these references as “extraneous poppycock.”

Agent Scully plays “The X-Files’” token skeptic, but as Emery (1995) notes, Scully’s skepticism is often a symptom of her closed-mindedness. Like Dr. Seaton in Poltergeist III, Scully remains skeptical even after she has witnessed remarkable and unequivocally paranormal events. Her skepticism is seldom shown to be useful or warranted, and in recent episodes she seems decidedly less skeptical (a change that should perhaps be expected given the many paranormal forces and extraterrestrial beings she has encountered in the show’s first two seasons).

“The X-Files” achieves a kind of realism that sets it apart from previous television science fiction series such as “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” “The X-Files” adopts the quasi-documentary style of recent television police dramas, appropriates the authority and prestige of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and suggests that “The X-Files” cases are similar to real cases. “The X-Files” perhaps has more in common with shows such as “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Sightings” — shows in which allegedly real paranormal events are often reenacted — than it does with older shows such as “The Twilight Zone.” In following the discussions of “The X-Files” fans on the Internet, it becomes clear that, while most fans do not believe “The X-Files” to be a documentary (although a few fans seem to have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction), many believe that “The X-Files” cases are highly plausible and that the FBI and other government agencies are actively, if secretly, investigating similar cases.

In popular entertainment prior to “The X-Files,” skepticism was necessary, if only to provide an obstacle for the protagonists to overcome. In “The X-Files,” skepticism is almost wholly unnecessary. Although it remains to be seen if future entertainment media offerings will follow the lead of “The X-Files,” the total immersion of “The X-Files” in the paranormal is worrisome. It suggests that paranormal events are common and that even likable, educated, and attractive people like agents Mulder and Scully can embrace the supernatural.

Skepticism and Hollywood

Skeptics have had some success in persuading journalists to include a skeptical point of view in news stories about the paranormal, although, clearly, more needs to be done in this regard. Unfortunately, Hollywood accords skeptics no standing to address the portrayal (or the absence) of skepticism in film and television. Many film and television producers would no doubt claim that because their products are merely entertainment, neither viewers nor researchers should take “The X-Files” and similar offerings seriously. But this excuse is increasingly disingenuous as the evidence mounts that viewers’ conceptions of reality are influenced by media entertainment programming (Gerbner et al. 1994). These same producers increasingly turn to docudramas, “reality-based” shows, tabloid journalism, and other program formats that owe their success in part to the strategic blurring of fact and fiction.

Hollywood television producers have agreed in recent years to work with experts to design portrayals that inform viewers about various health and environmental issues. Perhaps entertainment television and film producers can be recruited by scientists and skeptics to help ensure that critical thinking does not disappear from our entertainment media environment. Of course, it is perhaps easier to remind viewers that unprotected sex is dangerous or that aluminum cans can be recycled than it is to invite viewers to develop critical thinking habits, an invitation that would require producers to abandon their reliance on skepticism as a source of error and danger.

Carl Sagan (1995) implores television producers to work with scientists and skeptics to develop a nonfiction series that details how fantastic claims can be investigated scientifically — a kind of “Solved Mysteries.” Such a series, Sagan suggests, could make for entertaining televison that would also encourage viewers to appreciate and cultivate the power of rational thought and rigorous investigation. Unfortunately, although many viewers would find such a series worthwhile, it may never reach an audience watching tabloid television. As a culture, we have long preferred that our tales of the supernatural be credulous rather than skeptical. Still, the breathless celebration of the paranormal in current films and television programs must be addressed. Understanding the need for media portrayals of skepticism is a necessary first step toward change. Skeptics would do well to identify or invent commercially viable alternatives, and entertainment media producers would do well to more often and more explicity acknowledge in their programming the important roles of science and reason in maintaining our civilization.

References

  • Emery, C. Eugene, Jr. 1995. Paranormal and paranoia intermingle on Fox TV’s “X-Files.” SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, 19 (March/April): 18-19.
  • Gerbner, George. 1987. Science on television: How it affects public conceptions. Issues in Science and Technology 3(Spring): 109-115.
  • Gerbner, George; Larry Gross; Michael Morgan; and Nancy Signorielli. 1985. “Television Entertainment and Viewers’ Conceptions of Science.” Unpublished manuscript.
  • —. 1994. Growing up with television: The cultivation perspective. In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, ed. by Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillman, pp. 17-41. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Goldman, Steven L. 1989. Images of technology in popular films: Discussion and filmography. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 14: 275-301.
  • Haynes, Roslyn D. 1994. From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Hess, David J. 1993. Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • National Science Foundation. 1989. Science and Engineering Indicators-1989. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Sagan, Carl. 1995. What TV could do for America. Parade, June 4, pp. 12-14.
  • Tudor, Andrew. 1989. Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell.

William Evans

William Evans is assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30303.