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The Obsessions of Chris Carter

When The X-Files return next week (!), we are going to re-enter the world of Chris Carter. Throughout all his works — The X-Files and its two theatrical movies, Millennium, Harsh Realm, The Lone Gunmen, The After — certain common themes, threads, ways to tell a story, leitmotivs come up again and again, making his work recognizable and giving it a unique voice. Among these recurring themes is history and memory, loss, religion, trust, family.

Next week Carter not only returns with the cast from the original series, along with key writers Glen Morgan, James Wong and Darin Morgan. It’s also such key people, some of which have been with Carter since 1993, as: composer Mark Snow and sound editor Thierry J. Couturier; visual effects supervisor Mat Beck; casting director Rick Millikan; production designer Mark S. Freeborn; production assistant Gabe Rotter. Carter also returns to Vancouver, where The X-Files established its identity in its first 5 seasons and returned to to shoot I Want To Believe. It really is a family.

To delve deeper into this, EatTheCorn proposes below an article that looks at these “obsessions” of Carter’s, written in 2006 by Séverine Barthes — a long time ago, but these very interesting arguments are developed here in an elegant way. Read it after the jump.

XF crew 1994-1995

Séverine Barthes is a Lecturer (Maître de Conférence) at the Sorbonne University (Université Paris IV-Sorbonne) in Paris (bio). She has written about cultural studies extensively, more specifically on television series, inter-textuality, serialized narration, semiotics and semio-stylicism (to put it simple, that is the study of how meaning is passed on via stylistic choices of a work of art).

The following is the translation of an article that originally appeared in the Film/TV magazine Mad Movies in 2006. An expanded version of this article appeared as the following academic paper:

Séverine Barthes. Chris Carter paranoaque ? Le complexe sémantique de la perte comme vecteur herméneutique et créatif [Chris Carter a paranoid? The semantic complex of loss as a hermeneutical and creative vector]. Raison Publique, 2009, pp.133-141. <halshs-00443049>

It can be read (in French) at HAL here.

The Obsessions of Chris Carter

By Séverine Barthes
Translated from French by and for EatTheCorn.com
First publication: Mad Movies special issue on cult TV series (March 3, 2006), under the direction of Alain Carrazé, France.

Over his four series, Chris Carter has developed an imaginarium where one can read his fears and obsessions: fascism, the disconnect between the people and their government, a contemplation on faith and the meaning of our existence… These various themes can seem merely juxtaposed, but they are rather unified around a central theme that fuels the work not only in its narrative and thematic organization, but also through its own mode of creation: it is the motif of loss — or, at least, the deterioration of social and human ties. In that sense, the theme of family is the first that comes to mind: the death of loved ones is at the heart of The X-Files, with the disappearance of Mulder’s sister. Then, as the series develops, Mulder and Scully gradually lose various members of their families. To these disappearances we can add the deaths of Mulder’s successive informants — that of Deep Throat that highlights the end of the first season in particular. Through this point of view, the birth of William and the issues over who fathered him, a question that joins up Mulder’s questioning of his own origins, can also be read as a way for the characters to reconstruct family ties and, more generally, social ties, if one considers the household as an image for the larger collective.

Family ties

This issue of the family and ties runs through Chris Carter’s other series: in MillenniuM, the family of Frank Black is very much central. In the beginning of the series, it represents a haven of peace in a world of violence, as if the binding strength which unites Frank, Catherine and their daughter allowed to erect a barrier between the sickening exterior and fulfilment in both the personal and the familial. The first season’s catchphrase, “Wait, Worry, Who Cares?” clearly expresses the constant individualization of society and the tendency to isolate oneself from others. We know the second season was not under the leadership of Chris Carter and that he returned under the helm during its third season. However, it was at that moment that the death of Catherine happened — Glen Morgan and James Wong had left the door open to interpretation, with her disappearing but without fully resolving the issue. The motif of the disappearance of a loved one thus seems to essentially be a trait of Carter’s creations. In Harsh Realm, Thomas Hobbes keeps trying to rejoin with his fiancée Sophie that he had to leave shortly before their marriage. The letters they come to share, the words they would like to say to each other, often open the episodes of the series, in voice over. It is then telling that they only meet virtually at the death of Tom’s mother, where Hobbes watches over the avatar of his mother in the Realm while Sophie is at the bedside of her mother-in-law in a hospital in the real world. The loss of a loved one is here related to the reconstruction of that tie, to the effort to erase the distance, in an ironic reversal of the theme. Finally, we can consider that the series The Lone Gunmen is an attempt to build a home: we learn that the three characters share the same apartment and have reconstructed, in the hostile environment they live in, a kind of new family.

Fear of the State

After the issue of the family, and going from the household to the social organization at large, the obsession that is most present is that of the governmental lies: it is the foundation of The X-Files, which as early as in its opening titles displays the catchphrase “Government denies knowledge”, but also that of Harsh Realm, where Tom Hobbes was led to believe that he was going to be sent to a simple simulation game and whose opening titles in each episode points back to that lie by stressing the phrase “It’s just a game”. The Lone Gunmen characters, whether in The X-Files or in the series focused on them, embody this lie through their name, which refers to the theory of the lone gunman in the murder of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Moreover, this theory is evoked in every episode of the series since the name Yves Adele Harlow’s character is an anagram of the name Lee Harvey Oswald, and she uses other anagrams of the same name for false identities. We might also recall here that The X-Files delivers, in the episode dedicated to the past of the Cigarette Smoking Man, its own version of the assassination. This event is a founding one, just as the Watergate scandal, in the imagination of Chris Carter concerning the State.

The most direct highlighting of this motif is the beginning of the opening credits of The Lone Gunmen series: over the image of the American flag we can hear the American national anthem as played by Jimi Hendrix, then the image becomes pixelizated; we zoom in on one of the white stripes of the flag and each square of a pixel turns into a surveillance camera. The offbeat feeling, which was sparked in the soundtrack by the distorted sound of the national anthem, is intensified by the pixelization of the image and the paradox between the stars and stripes, symbol of the country of liberty, and the security cameras, which quite to the contrary hark back to a dictatorial power.

The tyrannical aspect of the governmental deception is linked to the military power, be it in the universe of The X-Files or in Harsh Realm. The army, the “unofficial” government and its occult powers represent the smokescreen that Mulder strives to dispel. The Men in Black that the FBI agents meet regularly perfectly symbolize this lie, the darkness in which it throws the people, and connect it to two other themes: the question on the existence of extraterrestrials and the consequences of the Second World War.

This last theme is very much present in The X-Files and omnipresent in Harsh Realm. A number of episodes of the first series of Chris Carter have a more or less direct link with fascism and the war of 1939-45. It can be a mood, as in “Triangle”, or something more specific: for example the episode titled “731” clearly refers to the Unit 731, made up of leading Japanese scientists that made medical experiments on prisoners of war; also, in “Paper Clip”, we meet Victor Klemper, a Nazi medical doctor that was given amnesty by the American government and brought to the United States to continue his experiments. The spinoff series takes up this theme, notably in the episode “Eine Kleine Frohike”, where Frohike pretends to be the son of a Nazi war criminal that had to abandon her child during the war. This woman took refuge in the United States, where she would live perfectly normally. The approach is a bit different, since the war criminals seen in the first series of Chris Carter are most of the time scientists who put their knowledge to the service of the victors, and not ordinary soldiers. Indeed, The X-Files and Harsh Realm develop a vision that is quite dark of the dangers created by technological advances when put in malicious hands: unethical medical experiments, creation of a parallel world capable of destroying ours…

In Harsh Realm, the virtual reality perverted by Santiago is filled with references to fascism: the motto of Santiago’s power is “One People, One Nation, One Santiago”, which resembles the “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer” (“One People, One Nation, One Leader”) of the Third Reich; one character mentions that Santiago has planned a “final solution” and, in the labour camp where Pinocchio and Hobbes find themselves, they are told that the work they do will give them freedom, which is reminiscent of the motto inscribed on the entrance of Auschwitz, “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes free”). One of the episodes sets the characters amidst a reconstruction of the battle of Hotton, which took place in 1944. As for the opening titles, they are composed from samples of speeches by Mussolini. The Realm is, in a way, the materialization of the fears expressed in The X-Files, or how a military power inspired by fascism can destroy our world and our hopes.


The issue of hope and its mystical pendant are present in the works of Chris Carter: the question of Scully’s faith is put in parallel with Mulder’s beliefs from the very beginning of The X-Files, and MillenniuM bathes in a spiritual and religious atmosphere.
In The X-Files, the birth of William is surrounded by a number of references to the New Testament: for example, it is announced by the appearance of a guiding star to his (isolated) birthplace, just like the Star of Bethlehem led the Magi to Jesus. It would be an exaggeration to make Scully into an Immaculate Conception, but it should be noted that the question of the relationship between Mulder and Scully, in particular its carnal dimension, has intrigued, or at least preoccupied, the viewers.

In MillenniuM, the millennial dimension is reinforced by a mystical fear of doom, via the Millennium Group, an occult organization said to be created in early Christianity and that believes that the end of the world is approaching. In this concept are thus intertwined millennialism and the messianic dimension common to the major monotheistic religions and to the characters of William on The X-Files and Tom Hobbes on Harsh Realm. Indeed the latter is quickly identified by the inhabitants of the Realm as the Saviour whose coming was foretold. This idea is repeated in the opening titles, in the voice over by Hobbes himself: “No, you may not know it, I was sent to save you”.

In all cases, hope or faith is what allows people to connect around a project, to reconstruct, on one scale or another, a community. It reconstructs the ties between people, ties which were destroyed in modern society.

Family, reconstructed

All these aspects of a questioning around the degradation of human ties, or even their loss, do not only unify the various topics discussed but are yet another part of a certain writing trend that allows us to interpret the different series of Chris Carter as an attempt to recreate a social tie, or even to establish around Carter a new family. This is quite obvious if one speaks of a professional family: Chris Carter has assembled a team which, although not always the same, is found in the different series. The most obvious and most visible illustration of this phenomenon is of course among the actors: the characters of Mulder, Skinner and Morris Fletcher appear in two episodes of The Lone Gunmen, which is fairly standard for a spinoff. A character transfer also takes place between The X-Files and MillenniuM: Frank Black appears in an episode where he assists Mulder and Scully. This exchange is initially due to a pure happenstance of scheduling: the series was cancelled and it had been impossible to cover the passage to the year 2000 in MillenniuM. In a less ordinary event, actors committed to one series could appear in another of Carter’s series by embodying another character: in Harsh Realm, the guide’s voice (in voice over) is that of Gillian Anderson, Hobbes’ commander is played by Lance Henriksen (MillenniuM’s Frank Black) and Terry O’Quinn (MillenniuM’s Peter Watts) is Santiago.

Beyond this professional family, elements borrowed from the personal and family life of Chris Carter are numerous: among many examples, we can mention the name of his production company, Ten Thirteen, which refers to his date of birth (October 13) and the fact that the voice we hear over the logo at the end of each episode is that of the son of his sound engineer saying “I made this”. The time “11:21” also often appears on screen, a reference to the date of birth of his wife, November 21. In Harsh Realm, the character of Mike Pinocchio gets his name from a childhood friend of Carter’s. All these elements have often been listed and interpreted in a purely light-hearted manner, but one can also see them as an attempt to create a new family around Carter, that of the fans. Carter has frequently communicated with them, notably through the Internet, and these constant more or less obvious winks strengthen the ties between the show and its fans and, consequently, between Carter and his fans. Beyond the simple common culture and references, which are often the playground between creators and viewers in U.S. television series, the use of Carter’s private life that is made here adds another dimension to these borrowed details: we enter in a deep familiarity with the very intimacy of the creator.

In that same topic, the role of fans in Carter’s series is quite important, and goes as far as to dedicate the episode “Paper Clip” of The X-Files to a fan that died. The lists of names of fans in certain episodes are part of this same game. But the most important reference to the fandom is found in the episode “Alone”, in the character of Leyla Harrison. This character bears the name of a real, deceased, fan, and during the episode she assists Doggett in an investigation. She knows all the cases investigated by Mulder and Scully and never stops making all the questions that fans have been making after watching the episodes. There is here a double homage: a tribute to a particular fan, but also to fandom in general, through the on screen materialization of the viewers’ questions and the very strong relationship they keep with their series.


Through Carter’s four series, we see developing an imaginarium which is rather pessimistic, which tackles society under the scope of the degradation of human values and the loss of social bonds. We can interpret these works as illustrations of a society that has lost its bearings and its foundations. But these works are not only a reflection and a description of a situation as it is. In truth, they become for Carter a way to cease this process of individualization and de-socialization by mobilizing around these series a fandom with which he creates an intimacy that is quite rare. Beyond the “professional family” with which he surrounds himself, like many other series creators, he creates a family that is open and potentially infinite, with which he multiplies the builds of a common complicity and for which he handles the mourning, for example by dedicating one episode when a particularly close member of this family dies. Thus not only does Carter offer through his work his vision of society, but he also uses it as a means to change this ascertained state of things. Both speech and action, Carter’s series would not be, as has sometimes been said, the illustration of an exaggerated paranoia but rather a form of a personal and social commitment on behalf of a man consumed by the fear of loneliness.

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