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Mercury News: 'X-Files' makes mark on TV sci-fi history

Mercury News
‘X-Files’ makes mark on TV sci-fi history
Charlie McCollum

Alien-Spacey show re-established genre during skeptical decade and created pop catchphrases

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny created two of the most enduring TV characters of the 1990s as FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder in “The X-Files.”

“The X-Files” has been one of the best dramas on television for almost a decade. It has also been one of the most influential series in TV history, a rare show that not only altered the medium of television itself but also American pop culture.

Yet, in recent seasons, it has also been one of the most maddening, disappointing series on the air.

In fact, when “The X-Files” finally leaves the air tonight, the show that told viewers “the truth is out there” but to “trust no one” will exit with only a small measure of the fanfare it deserves and with a viewership that is a fraction of what it was.

“If it called it quits three or even two years ago, it would have been a much bigger deal,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

“I’m not saying that this was a terrible season of `The X-Files’ — or that the last three years didn’t have any good episodes. . . . But there is a sense that they’d said what they had to say, the whole concept began to wear out and it lived a lot longer than it needed to.”

“It should have ended a couple of years ago,” says Maria Sardina, an office manager in the East Bay who has watched the show since 1993 and regularly participates in online dissections of the series. “I still watch it, but it’s more out of habit than any strong feeling.”

Even the show’s creator, Chris Carter, sounds more than a bit ambivalent about the show stretching out to nine seasons. He says that he had to think long and hard about returning for the final year because “I’d basically wrapped up everything.” And he attributes the series’ plunge in viewership to the fact that “people sensed a journey was completed and weren’t ready to start a new one.”

None of this should, or probably can, obscure the impact “The X-Files” had during most of its run.

A series that executives at its own network thought would die by midseason went on to film more than 200 episodes. It developed a cult following on Fridays and then built an even bigger audience when it became the cornerstone of Fox’s potent Sunday lineup. Of all the scripted series on the air when it made its debut, only four — “Law & Order,” “NYPD Blue,” “The Simpsons” and “Frasier” — are still around.

The show featured one of television’s great “couples”: agents Fox Mulder, the true believer, and Dana Scully, the skeptic. It created an impressive array of indelible supporting characters, from the sinister Cigarette-Smoking Man to the Lone Gunmen, a group of nerds who often helped Scully and Mulder. It mixed wry, sophisticated humor and sly pop-culture references with tales of terror that seeped into viewers’ nightmares.

More than good TV

But “The X-Files” went beyond being merely a very good TV show.

The series had an influence on television and pop culture during the 1990s that was matched by only a handful of shows. Its best episodes rippled through offices, schools and coffee shops the morning after they aired. Its catchphrases — “the truth is out there,” “trust no one” — became part of the American lexicon. It took U.S. television drama beyond the standard formats — cops, lawyers, doctors — and revitalized science fiction as a genre.

“In drama, `The X-Files’ is comparable to `Seinfeld’ and `The Simpsons’ in comedy in that they really did something that left the medium a different place than when they first got on the air,” says Thompson. “ `The X-Files’ has earned a position in that very small pantheon of truly influential shows.”

It also tapped into the 1990s cynicism about the government and the pre-millennium jitters that became more pronounced as the decade went along.

Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) were two outsiders seemingly caught up in a vast conspiracy involving an alien takeover of the world with the complicity of high-ranking government officials. Some of the show’s best episodes had nothing to do with what became known as “ `The X-Files’ mythology.” But for nine years, the show’s narrative has been driven by the agents’ search for the truth about the conspiracy.

In the end, the complicated story line proved to be the seeds of the show’s destruction. The longer the show stayed on the air, the more the creators had to work to keep the mythology going and key questions unanswered. There was no psychic payoff for viewers in terms of resolution.

Carter dismisses the criticism, contending that “we’ve always played fair. If we withheld anything . . . well, we’re dealing with unexplained phenomena. Often times, people want explanations for things that we really don’t want to explain. It would be limiting to explain them.”

But Thompson responds that the series ultimately became “one of the biggest teases in all of American television. There was this constant need . . . to create these perpetual cliffhangers that they’d then have to back off from completely solving because they had to come back and fight another day.”

Many fans point to the 1998 film version of the series as something of a breakdown point for the show. The film promised at least a measure of closure. Instead, it asked more new questions and answered few old ones.

“Now, it’s become so complicated that it’s no fun,” says Dan Weissman, a bookstore clerk from Sunnyvale who started watching the series as a 13-year-old. “I don’t think the writers can even keep all the conspiracy stuff straight, and it really went off the tracks when it lost the Mulder-Scully relationship.”

In fact, the emotional core of the series was always the relationship between Mulder and Scully. Their interplay — whether poking around dark places with big flashlights or discussing the meaning of what they see but can’t believe — was the heart and soul of “The X-Files.”

“I always saw the central appeal of the show as the relationship between these two people who share everything in life but the physical love that they so desperately would like to share,” says Carter.

But two years ago, Duchovny decided he wanted to leave the series. He reluctantly agreed to do a handful of episodes last season and then disappeared entirely. (He does return for tonight’s two-hour finale.)

Failed experiment

Since the fall, the series has tried to establish two new agents — John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) — as characters who could carry on “The X-Files” tradition. It didn’t work.

“If you ask me, we should have ended it two years ago,” said Anderson in a recent TV Guide interview. “They couldn’t have found two better actors to take over, but the show was about Mulder and Scully. I think it was a difficult transition for the audience to make.”

Even though Carter won’t fess up to it, he and his fellow writers are too smart not to know that their show stayed around too long. As a result, a certain amount of self-awareness has filtered into recent shows.

An April episode was titled “Jump the Shark,” a sly reference to a well-known Web site where TV fans vote on when long-running series started their downhill slide in terms of quality. In another recent show, an acquaintance of Scully’s tells her that her older cases with Mulder are “pretty cool but the later ones I’m not that into. I don’t even know who these two new agents are.”

Carter feels longtime fans will be satisfied with tonight’s finale and the answers it contains.

“You find out where Mulder has been, what he’s been up to,” Carter says. “You see a lot of old faces that, if you’ve been a longtime fan of the show, you haven’t seen for a while, and you might wonder how it is that you’re seeing them again. And you see a really good story that brings us full circle, back to the pilot.

“We also make some sense of the mythology. I’m not suggesting that we can answer everything or answer the unanswerable, but we certainly take a logical, cohesive approach to trying to answer some of the bigger questions.”

Carter also says the creators will not “save anything” for a second “X-Files” scheduled to begin production next year: “We’re expending all our capital here trying to wrap everything up.”

But asked whether, at the end of tonight’s episode, the vast alien conspiracy is still out there, Carter pauses for a moment and then replies very carefully:

“The conspiracy,” he says, “does live on.”

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