‘The X-Files’: Fighting the Future
[Original article here]
Robert Patrick will take David Duchovny’s spot on the Chris Carter sci-fi show
They appear like sentries every hundred yards or so on the dusty, winding back roads of Southern California’s Ventura Farms. Pink Day-Glo signs, stapled to telephone poles and trees, bearing one word: ”Patience.” A five-minute drive to the end of the line reveals this to be the title of an upcoming X-Files episode, the placards showing the way to a suitably eerie wooded lakeside, where a crew is lensing a few location scenes. But they might as well be advisory signposts, their message a watchword for X‘s upcoming season, which holds an uncertain future for the Emmy-winning drama, its reeling network, and, most of all, a legion of leery fans.
Much like some of the less fortunate creatures who have populated its paranormal tales, The X-Files enters the 2000-01 campaign a mutant, largely due to the phasing out of beloved costar David Duchovny and the attempt to fill his sizable gumshoes with journeyman character actor Robert Patrick. Patrick will star as FBI agent John Doggett, a hard-nosed career climber charged with leading the search for Duchovny’s Agent Fox Mulder (abducted by aliens in last season’s finale), but who could very well come to — gasp! — replace him as the gun-toting, flashlight-waving partner to Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully.
”I hope you write some nice things about me that will help win over the fans,” says Patrick, ”’cause I’d kind of like to help keep the show going, you know?” That’s not just Southern-fried humility coming from the Georgia native; it’s an acknowledgment of the extreme skepticism the actor faces from the show’s more, um, custodial supporters. ”I don’t expect the fans will like him right off the bat, because Scully certainly doesn’t,” says executive producer Frank Spotnitz. ”David is a terrific actor with a huge amount of charisma, so no matter who you put in there, some segment of the audience is going to be hostile.”
Mulder and Scully, Scully and Mulder — they go together like plausible and deniability. And certainly with the show’s more passionate followers, Patrick runs the risk of joining Bewitched replacement Dick Sargent in the annals of TV infamy. On the other hand, it might just help make a name for him other than ”that Terminator 2 guy.” Despite a tragicomic arc last season as a sicko gambler on The Sopranos and a résumé boasting 55 feature films, the 41-year-old actor has yet to escape his most infamous role as a cyborgian assassin in the 1991 Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster. ”A character like that is great because it gives you a career,” says Patrick, who lives in L.A. with his wife, Barbara, their daughter, Austin, and newborn son, Samuel. ”But it’s also like this thing.”
Ironically, Patrick’s emergence on The X-Files is largely due to Duchovny feeling that very same way — about Mulder. So Patrick could be trading one straitjacket for another — not that he or his new colleagues are complaining. ”There were a lot of actors who were suggested to us, but not a lot who fit the character we were writing,” says X creator Chris Carter, ”which was this hard-boiled cop, salt-of-the-earth Everyman, who was going to be a nonbeliever to the core.”
Not surprisingly, the Hollywood trades spent the spring abuzz with casting scuttlebutt. Among the actors who vied for the gig: Hart Bochner (Apartment Zero), Lou Diamond Phillips (Courage Under Fire), Bruce Campbell (The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.), Gary Cole (American Gothic), and D.B. Sweeney, costar of Carter’s short-lived Fox actioner Harsh Realm. None, according to Carter, communicated Doggett’s blue-collar essence like Patrick; the steely-eyed actor imbues his FBI agent with a Dirty Harry-esque sense of righteous menace. As stand-up as Mulder is flaky, this G-man is not likely to be seen thumbing through Adult Video News or traipsing off to Graceland for a kitschy holiday. ”There’s heat,” says Carter, who remembered Patrick from a 1999 casting meeting for Realm (coincidentally, the actor’s brother Richard Patrick plays guitar with Filter, a band that has contributed music to Files as well as to the 1998 feature film, Fight the Future). ”Robert’s got a very masculine quality.”
Heat. Masculine. Just what’s being implied here? ”David’s and my chemistry has been a topic of conversation for a long period of time, and it’s valid and tangible, and so is the chemistry between Robert and me, thank God,” says Anderson, whose Scully will now be the show’s resident believer. ”I hope that people can open their minds enough to allow a natural progression to take place.”
Anderson is convinced that, like her character, fans will come to appreciate ”the way Doggett is protective of Scully, the way that he respects her journey, the way that he is mindful of her relationship with Mulder. We were fortunate enough to get an actor who knows exactly how to play that.”
Mulder’s abduction? Scully’s pregnancy? Cancer Man’s could-be death? Those revelations from last spring’s season finale were nothing compared with the truly scary real-life X-Files cliff-hanger: whether Duchovny would return for another year. Carter, who at the time had not signed on for season 8, balked at the idea of continuing without Duchovny. The show’s producer, Twentieth Century Fox, and its affiliated network Fox were within their rights to keep the show on the air without its mastermind or marquee costar, but, as Carter understates, ”it would have been very hard for them.”
Finally, on May 17, a mere day before Fox was to unveil its fall lineup to potential advertisers, Duchovny agreed to a limited role in X‘s eighth season (he’ll appear in 11 of 22 episodes — the first two, the last six, and three more in between, and not always in a lead capacity); his salary renegotiations plus the settlement of his lawsuit will reportedly total nearly $30 million. (The suit alleged that Fox had forged a sweetheart deal wherein X-Files reruns were sold to Fox’s cable outlet, FX, rather than offered up for competitive bidding, thereby depriving Duchovny of millions in syndication profits.) ”The lawsuit created a certain amount of rancor,” says Carter, who nonetheless tied his own return to the show to Duchovny’s. ”Right down to the end, I was saying ‘I don’t want to do this without David,’ and finally everybody figured out a way to do it with him.”
Carter claims that in Fox’s negotiations with Duchovny, and subsequently with himself and Anderson, the network was ”incentivized” by the fear of airing a compromised version of its popular series. Though X‘s ratings have fallen off 26 percent in the last three seasons, it’s still Fox’s highest-rated drama and a perennial cash cow for both the network and the studio. Compounding the network’s woes was a dismal 1999-2000 season that yielded a solitary hit (Malcolm in the Middle), the end of two signature dramas (Beverly Hills, 90210 and Party of Five), and diminishing returns from its other hour-long hit, Ally McBeal. The words over a barrel come to mind. ”We are obviously in a building phase,” concedes the network’s new entertainment president, Gail Berman. ”We don’t have the next X-Files yet, so getting the show back is a tremendous asset for the company.”
But the network was not without its own negotiating gambits. ”There was a lot of leveraging going on,” says Anderson, who admits that while Fox’s need to deal was a ”huge” factor in the talks, she had to make a significant concession herself — signing on for a ninth year with the show — as a trade-off for a salary jump that would amount to ”fair compensation.” ”Because they have me on contract for this year,” she adds, ”I basically had no bargaining chip unless I agreed to do the next one.”
Why bargain at all? The truth is in Duchovny’s lucrative deal. ”There was a gulf for five years,” says Anderson of the longtime pay disparity between her and Duchovny, ”and then we narrowed the gulf. And then, based on what was being offered for the few episodes that he was doing [this year], we were back in the caveman ages … It was ludicrous.” Anderson will now make between $200,000 and $300,000 an episode.
Still, in light of previous comments Anderson has made (in an October 1999 Access Hollywood interview, she spoke of being ”physically, psychologically … spent,” and said of a then-projected eighth season, ”It would be a big mistake to try and draw it out. It would be great to go out with a modicum of respect”), that she re-upped at all seems an attitude adjustment drastic enough to do any of X‘s morphing villains proud. She attributes those grousings to a long-running ennui on both her and Duchovny’s part. ”David and I kind of settled into a rhythm of just showing up and doing the work,” she says. ”We’d get little bursts of stuff here and there, but it was dragging.” Now, having worked with the fleshed-out Doggett character, she reports, the show ”has got a whole new life.”
And not a moment too soon. With the series’ sprawling conspiracy having wound down over the past couple of seasons and its declining Nielsens, Carter is taking a decidedly hands-on approach to season 8, having written or rewritten five of the season’s first seven episodes, and directed the aforementioned ”Patience.” ”This is the most involved I’ve ever been,” he claims, adding ”I’ve been somewhat facetious about being a prisoner of [the show], but my feeling is, if I’m going to be doing it, I want it to be good, so I work hard.”
Harder, for sure, since for the first time in four seasons, Carter won’t be straddling two fall series, as he had during Millennium‘s three-year run and the canceled Harsh Realm‘s intensive start-up (his next project, X spinoff The Lone Gunmen, doesn’t debut till mid-season). Alluding to the automatic-pilot lethargy — and bloated paychecks — that often characterizes TV series in their autumn years, he notes, ”I didn’t want this to be another year of The X-Files as a matter of commerce. I want to make it interesting for the actors and myself so that the show might go on, that we might, indeed, preserve the movie franchise.”
Back in the woods, Scully and Doggett stand beside the murky lake, interrogating a hermitic old geezer about a series of murders apparently committed by a half-human, half-bat creature. In a rare moment of forthrightness, Carter has admitted that season 8 will mark a return to the show’s horror-driven origins and take a break from the ”comedy” episodes and high-concept flights of fancy like last year’s ”X-COPS” and 1998’s cruise-ship time warp, ”Triangle.” For Spotnitz, that retrenchment bodes well for the series’ second wind: ”As it’s turned out, it’s been more interesting and challenging than it’s been in a long time … You find out more about what the show was, and is, in the process of redesigning it for a new character.”
But while Agents Doggett and Scully will be busy pursuing real and imagined bogeymen, says Carter, ”the search for Mulder kind of informs the whole season.” That quest, however, is also connected to a power struggle within the Bureau, as Assistant Director Kersh (James Pickens Jr.), introduced as a nemesis to Mulder and Scully in season 6, is promoted to deputy director. His first act in his new capacity is to send the ambitious Doggett to the basement, literally as well as figuratively, by saddling him with the X-Files.
In other Bureau-related news, costar Mitch Pileggi will get a promotion of sorts, as his Assistant Director Skinner takes a bigger — and friendlier — interest in the agents’ paranormal exploits in the wake of Mulder’s abduction. ”Having seen what he saw in the season finale, he becomes something of an ally to Scully … an inadvertent believer,” says Carter.
Speaking of the finale, how about Scully’s from-out-of-nowhere pregnancy (the other bombshell dropped in that tumultuous hour)? Although an explanation is promised as to how the ostensibly barren agent was able to conceive in the first place, more troubling are recent, near-blasphemous intimations that Mulder may in fact be … Dad. Spotnitz, who says he and Carter had been pondering the pregnancy idea for a long time, points out that in addition to the agents’ New Year’s kiss in the holiday-themed ”Millennium” episode, we saw Scully wake up not once but twice in Mulder’s apartment last season. ”I’ve always said nothing is impossible on The X-Files, and anything is possible on The X-Files,” Carter concurs.
Maybe so, but that (hypothetical, he says) possibility would be durn near apocalyptic for some fans, as Mulder and Scully’s resiliently chaste romance has been an unspoken point of pride for the show, both in its defiance of television cliché and as an essential part of what’s made the soul mates so quirkily endearing. ”These are two people who have maintained a very powerful and respectful relationship,” says Carter, ”but like all relationships between men and women, sometimes feelings are expressed in a physical way. I don’t think it would be dishonest for them to have done that.” In any event, says Anderson, ”I have confidence, and possibly inner knowledge, that the fans will get to see how Scully got pregnant … before Christmas.”
The season premiere (Nov. 5) takes place the day after the events of last season’s finale, so don’t expect to see a telltale tummy bulge any time soon. Viewers won’t have to wait all that long, however, to see the show’s past come face-to-face with its future, as Doggett will catch up with old ”Spooky” in the season premiere: ”I do run into Mulder, and it’s a confrontation,” says Patrick. ”I have a gun, and I basically tell him I’m going to shoot unless he does what I say. He does — and then he does something un-f—ing-believable.”
Wanna know what? Sorry, you’ll just have to sit back like the rest of us and try a little … patience.
— Additional reporting by Lynette Rice and Ethan Alter