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Los Angeles Times: Fox's 'X-Files' makes contact with a Friday-night audience

Los Angeles Times
Fox’s ‘X-Files’ makes contact with a Friday-night audience
Joe Rhodes

They are out there, watching, trying to make contact. Chris Carter suspected this even before he created “The X-Files,” his Friday-night Fox drama about a pair of special-assignment FBI agents exploring all manner of unexplained phenomena, everything from alien abductions to abominable snowmen. But now Carter knows for sure. He has spoken to them, received their messages. He has seen them with his very own eyes.

“They are credible, sane, believable people,” Carter is saying, talking about the thousands of X-Filophiles who have latched onto the show in its first few months, many of whom have gone to the trouble to write, call and mention that, oh by the way, they’ve had contact with extraterrestrials themselves. “They wholeheartedly believe they have had these experiences,” says Carter, who has gotten word of a growing “X-File” cult not only from letters and phone calls but also from a flurry of activity on computer-modem bulletin boards. “And who am I to say they haven’t?”

And, what’s more, they’re not alone. According to a 1992 Roper poll, more than 2% of all Americans believe they may have been abducted by aliens and at least 16% believe they’ve had some kind of contact with beings from another realm.

“That’s an amazing amount of people,” says Carter, who knows a hot demographic when he sees one.

“That’s millions of people who believe.” Which may explain why “X-Files” ratings, although low by traditional network standards, are higher than anything the Fox network has ever seen on a Friday night, high enough for the network to order a full season’s worth (22 episodes) of the series in spite of its usual aversion to hourlong dramas and high production costs. (Even though filming in Vancouver is cheaper than L.A., each episode still costs about $900,000.)

Carter, you should know, is no saucerhead. A lifelong Southern Californian who wrote for Surfing magazine before he became a television writer and producer, he didn’t create “The X-Files” to convince American TV watchers that UFOs exist or that the FBI has special secret files jam-packed with proof. “It’s just that I wanted to do something that was scary and suspenseful and smart,” he says.

Carter does his best to keep “X-Files” as hooey-free as possible, not an easy task considering that his main characters (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully) spend a great deal of each show arguing about whether a particular crime has a logical explanation or might have been caused by visitors from outer space.

“The first few episodes,” says Duchovny, whose character tends to look for supernatural causes for everything from unsolved murders to missing socks, “nobody believed me and I was always right.”

That will change. “Sometimes,” says Anderson, “I have a logical theory that is right. And with a lot of the ‘X-Files,’ we don’t know what the real answer is. It’s kind of left up to the audience to decide what they believe.”

None of this was an easy sell. Carter had to persuade a squadron of Fox executives — including Fox owner Rupert Murdoch himself — that the premise had enough possibilities to fill out a long-running series.

The show has already moved from the obvious cases — your aliens, your Bigfoot, your spontaneous human combustion — into more abstract realms, such as the limits of artificial intelligence. Anything, Carter says, that could be construed as “a speculative scientific possibility” is potential fodder for the show. In the early going, that phrase was a problem for some of the network suits, who were a little unsure about what exactly they were agreeing to put on the air. One question Carter was asked at almost every meeting was: “What exactly is an X-File?”

“It’s like obscenity,” Carter told them. “You know it when you see it.’

The production offices and sound stages where most of “The X-Files” is filmed are in a converted brewery on the southwestern edge of downtown Vancouver. Carter’s office, which probably once belonged to a shipping clerk, is depressingly bare. The only thing on the walls is a bulletin board with photos of actors being considered for parts and some curious newspaper clippings.

There is an obit from the New York Times: two biologists, one of them a botanist who was the world’s leading authority on rain forest plants, have died in an airplane crash off the coast of Ecuador. And there’s a tiny item from USA Today about how the Coast Guard in Alaska had traced the source of phony distress calls to misdirected signals from a fax.

“I don’t quite know how I’m going to use those yet,” Carter says. “But I’m intrigued about the idea that this guy who was the repository of this amazing amount of knowledge is suddenly gone. Why did his plane crash?”

So this is where Carter gets his ideas, flying back and forth from Vancouver to L.A., scanning scientific journals, magazines, as many newspapers as he and his staff can absorb. But he hasn’t said how he really feels about this stuff.

“I’m a natural skeptic,” he says when pressed. “I want to believe, though. I think everyone — including me — wants to be driving through the desert some night, bright stars out, and they see something in the sky that they can’t explain.

“Scientists, eminent professors, have said that if we were to find out that there was extraterrestrial life, it would be the biggest discovery ever made by man … And I like the idea of that.”

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