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The Christian Science Monitor: X-Files: Case Closed

The Christian Science Monitor
X-Files: Case Closed
M.S. Mason

At times macabre and inscrutable, ‘X-Files’ has made an indelible mark on TV history.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

I Want to Believe. – UFO poster on Mulder’s office wall

After Nine seasons of “The Truth Is Out There,” this Sunday we finally learn just what that phrase means when Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) returns for the two-hour series finale of “The X-Files” (Fox, 8-10 p.m.). Will the space aliens get us or not?

Maybe it was all a dream – so much of the series took place at night and so many of the monsters looked like the ghastly conjuring of nightmares.

This show was not designed for everyone. But whatever “The Truth” (as the final episode is named) reveals, “The X-Files” has had a real impact on television history and, indeed, on cultural history as well. The experts say so, the loyal fans are adamant, and the evidence is everywhere.

“Stylistically, virtually all the dramatic series not on the Big Three [networks] have been influenced by it,” says Sidney Sondergard, a professor of English who also specializes in the study of science fiction at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

“The Sopranos,” “Oz,” “Six Feet Under,” and other shows have “reconceived” the way they tell their stories, Mr. Sondergard says. They get into them much faster. “The catalyst often comes even before the titles, a la ‘X-Files.’ By the time the [opening] credits are over, you have all the backstory you need.”

Indeed, one could argue that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Dark Angel,” “Alias,” “The Agency,” and “Roswell,” to say nothing of other cult (and occult) shows of the recent past, have been inspired by the mysterious “X-Files,” including its dark humor.

Even on the major networks, most of those dour crime dramas that came after “X-Files” (“CSI,” “Third Watch,” “24,” “Crossing Jordan”) owe much to the experimental form of “The X-Files” from its earliest episodes.

“CSI is a clear descendent of ‘X-Files’ – all this interest in forensic medicine,” says Jeanne Cavelos, author of the fascinating book “The Science of The X-Files.”

“X-Files” has a distinctive look, but it also experimented. One episode was shot in black and white; the story was The Elephant Man meets Frankenstein’s Monster – with a comic twist.

In-jokes satisfy fans

Last Sunday, the show took a sentimental turn with the story of a man who needs only to think of something to make it happen – so he thinks up the “Brady Bunch” household because he is lonely.

When unwelcome visitors intrude, he inadvertently levitates and then catapults them through the roof. Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick) figures the whole thing out, remarking sardonically that he is “finally getting the hang of this job” – now that the series is ending. It was one of many in-jokes throughout the years, placed strategically to please loyal fans (or amuse the writers).

Then, too, “X-Files” helped pioneer the “stand-alone episode” and “comic” episodes woven into the season-long drama, says Horace Newcomb, author of “TV: The Most Popular Art Form” and director of the Peabody Awards, which honor the best programs on TV. “It was important, too, because it was serialized science fiction – and science fiction had not done very well on networks before it.”

But “X-Files” was not the “Twilight Zone” or “Outer Limits” – in which the viewer willingly entered into another “dimension.”

“We were always supposed to be dealing with the real world – ‘X-Files’ took that device from film noir – accept that extraordinary things happen there,” says Jim Farrelly, professor of English and media studies at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

“It gave times and locations. It was the FBI. Then it asked: ‘How are you going to explain away these extraordinary things?’ ‘Twilight Zone’ was fantasy. But with ‘X-Files,’ you were entering ‘reality.’ ”

In other words, it was the thinking person’s science-fiction crime drama. “The X-Files” left us with more questions than it answered – and for a long time, that pattern was intriguing, Mr. Farrelly says. Fans pondered great issues just as often as they were asked to digest absurd situations. When Fox executives demanded closure at the end of episodes, creator Chris Carter’s famous response was, “You can’t put aliens in handcuffs.”

Active participation

Farrelly points out that the show could not be watched with the same kind of passivity as the rest of TV. “The darkness, the tilted camera angles, the dialogue, required you to pay close attention, to try to see into those shadows,” he says. “This is active participation.”

At times, a fascinating dialectic was going on – a struggle between faith and science embodied in the persons of Mulder, who wanted to believe that there is more to experience than meets the eye, and his partner, Dana Scully, the scientist who believed there was a rational explanation for everything (at least for the first four seasons or so). He needed her “to keep me honest.” And Scully came to see that “nothing happens in contradiction to nature. Only in what we know of it.” And we know so little.

The nature of our lives has changed radically in the past 100 years because of science, and most fiction does not adequately deal with that fact, Ms. Cavelos says. “As a scientist who believes in God, I think that conflict between faith and science is what makes the show most interesting. There was a time in the ’50s and ’60s when we thought science could solve everything and fix everything. But scientists know by now that we are never going to have all the answers – nature is stranger than we can imagine.”

Science fiction tries to understand those changes and what they foretell. It challenges humankind’s place in the universe. Are we special or an accident?

“Mulder and Scully are perched apart philosophically at first, allowing the viewers into the discussion,” she says. “We are each internally fighting out the conflict. We see some forces out of control – globalization, war, technology – and we hope that the forces of good are more powerful.”

” ‘The X-Files’ most powerful legacy is its imprint on American culture,” says Timothy Burke, a cultural historian and pop culture expert at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

No one can ever do monsters again on TV without some kind of reference to “The X-Files,” he says. “It was the most potent convergence of American paranoid fiction and the paranoid style in politics and society – UFO-ology, [illegal] scientific research by the government, conspiracy theories, subversive activities, and so on…. The intellectual side of the show was the mythology of conspiracy … [it] was unprecedented on television: We are surrounded by invisible powers. Nothing is as it seems. Democracy is always under threat. It brought together a number of these strands.”

And then it dealt with them. There were monsters to conquer, but Mulder and Scully were the knights-errant that could hold monsters at bay. Then, too, in a “post-modern” twist, Mr. Burke says, the show also suggested that the monsters might be misunderstood and not be evil at all.

Mulder + Scully = success

Beyond being a metaphor for social and political concerns of the ’90s, and for the struggle between issues of faith and science, “The X-Files” was also an engaging and unusual romance – a transcendent love affair that focused our attention on the nonsexual nuances of love between Mulder and Scully. No other weekly show has ever done this before in quite the same way – and this in the face of rampant eroticism on TV.

“Mulder and Scully were working together professionally with a commitment to a common ideal,” Burke says. “Sex would have been intrusive. Instead there was agape – intense appreciation and understanding of another person. And there was purity – a pure devotion to the truth.”

Despite compelling performances by Annabeth Gish as Agent Reyes, Robert Patrick as Agent Doggett, and Gillian Anderson as Agent Scully, the usual clever scripts, and beasties galore, in the past two years the series’ ratings dived. Part of it was the entropy that eventually sets in with all serial dramas. But the actual reason seemed apparent: We couldn’t do without Mulder. Or rather, without the chemistry between Mulder and Scully.

When Mr. Duchovny left, he took his character’s idealism with him. Mulder’s obsession with finding the truth about his abducted sister and about what science could not explain came to obsess his partner, too.

And as integral as Ms. Anderson was to the equation (the show would have failed without her, too), it was that relationship that kept us tuned in.

“It was the appeal of the Mulder-Scully relationship,” acknowledges executive producer Frank Spotnitz, that made “The X-Files” so strong.

As the show ends, he is proud of its accomplishments.

“It dealt with big themes. The idea of the show was the quest for understanding,” he says. “The production values were unparalleled in a dramatic series running nine years. The shooting schedule was grueling.”

His hope is that the show will hold up for future viewings (in syndication and on VHS and DVD). “If this show is remembered in the same light as ‘Twilight Zone,’ we would have succeeded,” he says.

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