Sci Fi Magazine
The Sci Fi Files
Melissa J. Perenson
Executive producer Frank Spotnitz considers his search for the truth as The X-Files comes to SCI FI.
From the outset, The X-Files provoked viewers with intricate storylines and chilling tales of the paranormal. But allusions to aliens didn’t keep the series from disavowing its fundamental ties to science fiction. It was only later in the series – particularly as the show’s complex mythology began to overtly tackle the subject of aliens – that the producers embraced The X-Files’ true lineage. By the end of the show’s run, there was no question of what genre the series belonged under – which is why the show’s arrival on the SCI FI Channel this fall is all the sweeter.
“This is a venue that makes perfect sense; people know that they can turn there and see science-fiction programming,” reflects the show’s former executive producer, Frank Spotnitz. “While The X-Files usually tried to disguise its science-fiction aspects, they’re undeniably there, and important to the show.”
The SCI FI Channel has an advantage in showing the entire series from the beginning nearly a decade after the phenomenon of X started. “There’s a real story, a real and incredible journey that these characters undertake [over nine seasons],” says Spotnitz. “If you were to watch the whole thing, you could see how the show evolved. And you can see how it got increasingly sophisticated and ambitious over time. There’s a real evolution. It’s rewarding from the beginning; there are many classic episodes in the very first year, but in some ways it got even better as it went on.”
The finer nuances of the series become more clear over the course of viewing over a compressed period, as well. “It’s an interesting thing that if you watch the show, you can really see how some ideas are planted in one season, and then grow in another, and then come back,” relays Spotnitz. “It wasn’t uncommon in The X-Files that an idea would take one or two years to return, but it would return. And that was one of the pleasures of being a devoted viewer: Your attention was rewarded. There were things that only you would realize were connected to the past. And if you’re watching these shows together over a few months, instead of a few years, you have an opportunity to really track much more easily.”
Making the transition to the SI FI Channel not only gives fans an easy way to relive the progression of the show over the years, but also gives new and casual viewers a chance to catch up from day one. “We’ve been off the air for a little over a month, and I’ve already had two people say to me that they never watched the show while it was on the air, but now they’re starting to catch up with it. That happens,” acknowledges Spotnitz. “And that’s what’s nice about it still being broadcast now. Of course, when you working on something, you want it to live on; and it’s gratifying to see that happening. I’m glad that The X-Files is continuing to get exposure, and I hope the show continues to gain new viewers through its broadcast on SCI FI Channel.”
One of the more astonishing things about The X-Files is the simple fact that the series endured for as many years as it did. The show is the longest-running network sci-fi series – going well past such venerable genre mainstays as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Babylon 5 and The Twilight Zone.
The fact that the show succeeded year after year is something that Spotnitz and the show’s writers and producers thought about often, even while in the thick of producing the series. “As we were writing The X-Files, we thought about the things that made television endure. What are the elements that make one TV show something you’d want to watch again 10, 20, 30 years later, and then another TV show instantly perishable, where people watch it, and then it will very likely, very rarely ever be watched again?” ponders Spotnitz.
“I think one of the things X-Files had going for it, like a lot of other quality science-fiction shows have going for them, is that it was idea-driven,” he continues. “We tried in every episode to have a strong idea – a truth – and something that we wanted to say. And the plot was in service to that idea. If you have a good idea or a truth to dramatize, that is something that does not go out of date. If it’s an interesting idea, it will always be interesting. That’s in contrast to other types of dramas, which, while they may be excellently written and performed, tend to be more about serialized, interpersonal lives of the characters. Stuff like that may be harder to endure, and to revisit in syndication, because you’re not necessarily willing to just jump back into the stream of these people’s emotional lives. Whereas you can revisit something like The X-Files any time, and don’t have to be in the flow of the series in order to enjoy that particular episode.”
Another surprising consideration is that, even though the show was contemporary to the time it was produced in, it’s remarkably undated, from its production values to the hairstyles, wardrobes, and even the technologies shown on screen. The most overtly dated component in the series was the size of Mulder and Scully’s cell phones.
Spotnitz laughs at this observation, but agrees wholeheartedly. “I think it’s remarkable that the pilot of The X-Files is exactly what the show was and remained. Even after the cast changed in the last two seasons, it was still exactly what the show was: It was skeptic and believer. And it was their dialectic that drove the investigations, and drove the stories. I think the one thing that did obviously change over the course of the years was the personal lives of the characters. But rarely were those important in the stand-alone episodes; it really [mattered] in the mythology shows where you could track the progress of their lives, and you could have characters dying. And those were a minority of the episodes we produced; of the 202 hours, I’d say maybe 30 were mythology.”
As would be expected, “the first season was about establishing the versatility of the series – just how many things the show could be, how scary the show could be and how exciting the show could be – and the ambition of the ideas,” notes Spotnitz, who didn’t join the show until its second season, when he came aboard as a story editor. The series really started to develop its voice in the second season, he adds, “when the show continued to get better, and the mythology bloomed for real.”
“The show really hit its stride in the third year,” states Spotnitz, pointing to the year that the show catapulted into pop culture’s consciousness. “While the third year may not have been the best season, it was the season that was the model for what the show remained the following seasons, which is mythology, scary episodes and humorous episodes, which really were invented by Darin Morgan at the end of season two with Humbug. That was also the year we showed increasingly sophisticated production value and storytelling – greatly aided by the fact that by that point, both Kim Manners and Rob Bowman were regular directors, and they were competing to outdo each other on a regular basis. The show was just onward and upward from there.”
The fifth season’s very carefully outlined stories about renewal and faith marked an undeniable reversal from past years: Thereafter, the show distinctly had one foot firmly planted in the realm of science fiction. “At the beginning of season five, Scully is cured of her cancer, although in typical X-Files fashion, you don’t know whether it’s because of medication intervention, religious faith or the scientific element, which was the chip that was removed from her neck was put back in. It was also the very weird season, where Mulder lost his faith in extraterrestrial life. He became disillusioned in the beginning of season five, and spent most of that season believing he had been wrong. And that was a very disorienting turn for some viewers.”
Also disorienting were all the twists and turns the conspiracy mythology began to take. Much like a monster that keeps growing new heads, by this juncture in the show’s life, the mythology had taken on a life of its own – something that both confounded and captivated audiences. “In the later seasons, the mythology started to become very complicated, and some people started to get confused. But the show went on for far longer than anybody anticipated it would go. I remember thinking into the fifth season that it would be our last year. So the mythology that nobody really thought would end up going five years, ended up going almost twice as long as that,” laughs Spotnitz. “We ended up going through some growth spurts and changes in direction that no one ever anticipated.”
The finale itself had to be so much to so many people – and Spotnitz is ultimately pleased with how the two-hour telefilm, a first in the show’s history, turned out. “I’ve discovered in the responses to that episode that there are some people who really like it, there are other people who said, ‘Oh, I already knew all of that,’ and then there were people in between. It was sort of impossible to play to everyone’s satisfaction, because everyone had varying levels of how much they’d paid attention, and how much they knew. But it really was a culmination of the series, and we tried to explain and connect the dots as best we could about everything that had gone on in the nine years of the show.”
Was the truth really out there, as the X-Files so often postulated it was? In the end, we learned many truths, but not all. Connecting the dots on the role of the alien artifact and impact of the aliens on our religions are some of the elements lost in the shuffle. “There was stuff that we wanted to write that we didn’t have time to write and put in the show, there was stuff we did write that we had to cut because we didn’t have time to film it and the show was running long, and there was stuff we did write and film, but at the end of the day, the show was still too long and we had to cut it out,” concedes Spotnitz. “So we were very, very conscious of our inability to answer everything and talk about everything, and so we tried to answer and talk about as much as we could in the time we had.”
Spotnitz found the final episode’s treatment of the elusive truth in turn served to highlight the long road Mulder and Scully traveled together. The two, he says, are intertwined. “More importantly, the show talked about the journey Mulder and Scully had been on,” he says. ” To me, the theme of the episode and the series was that you can never find the truth. The truth is out there, but you can never hold it in your hand. But you can find another human being, and Mulder and Scully found each other, and the believer and the skeptic were able to say at the end of the day that they believed the same things. That is the most powerful truth that human beings can hope for is finding another kindred spirit and not being alone. And that to me was the perfect end to the journey that they had begun nine years earlier.”