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The New York Times: Without Mulder (most of the time), 'The X-Files' thrives

The New York Times
Without Mulder (most of the time), ‘The X-Files’ thrives
Anita Gates

Mulder has a brain tumor? One that he neglected to mention to Scully, his longtime partner in FBI investigations and unresolved sexual tension? And this was preying on his mind for a full year before he was abducted by space aliens last May?

These are thrilling, frustrating, patience-testing days for fans of “The X-Files.” The Fox show’s eighth season, which began in November, has been the first without David Duchovny – playing Agent Fox Mulder, lonely but sexy believer in all things paranormal and extraterrestrial – as a weekly fixture. Gillian Anderson, as Agent Dana Scully, M.D., has top billing now. And there’s a new guy in town: Robert Patrick as Agent John Doggett, Scully’s by-the-book partner. This month, Mr. Duchovny appears (more or less) in three episodes, the last one next Sunday. Tonight: Who or what is the father of the baby Scully is carrying?

Scully is a little stressed out, but for the series, things are going well. Ratings have remained high (an average of 12.99 million viewers this season as opposed to 12.97 million last season, according to Nielsen Media Research). And although a very vocal Internet-chatting, letter-writing group of viewers is convinced that Mr. Duchovny’s absence is some sort of plot rather than his own career decision, most fans have accepted Mr. Patrick’s Doggett for what he is: one more guy looking for Mulder, not a replacement for him. Sometimes Doggett has to spell it out for us. “I’m no Fox Mulder,” he admitted in this season’s third episode, “but I can tell when a man’s hiding something.”

In creating the new character, the idea was to bring in “someone as different from the character of Mulder as possible,” said Chris Carter, the show’s creator. And he has. Doggett is, as planned, “an insider rather than an outsider” and “a skeptic rather than a believer.”

“What I like about him is he’s an adult,” Mr. Carter said. “He’s very noble and honorable and restrained and all those wonderful characteristics in a man. And he’s got to play this every week.”

Mr. Patrick, 41, looks like a Secret Service agent, maybe from the Nixon administration. The first time Scully met him, she threw a glass of water in his face. (She didn’t like what he was saying about Mulder, whom, as we all know, she thinks of as much more than a friend.) He can be counted on to ridicule her theories with comments like, “Agent Scully, don’t ask me to believe that this is some sort of justice from beyond the grave,” or, “What do you think, Agent Scully? Haunted hotel room? Alien invaders? Sloppy vampires?” In Episode 5, he challenged her with: “What are you saying? Ray Pierce has become some sort of metal man?” But that was a semi-inside joke, alluding to Mr. Patrick’s most famous role until now, as the killer liquid-metal cyborg in “Terminator II: Judgment Day.”

Surely Doggett is becoming a little more open-minded. In the course of 12 episodes, working with Scully in Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah, Massachusetts, Montana, Pennsylvania and points south, he has seen things. He has shot a half-man-half-bat to save Scully’s life, cut an otherworldly parasite out of her back and shot it dead, seen his own “third eye” in a mirror and, oh yeah, been devoured and regurgitated by a “soul eater.” Like Scully in the old days, however, Doggett contends that seeing does not necessarily mean believing.

The old days began on Sept. 10, 1993, when the series had its premiere. The premise was fairly original: two very different FBI agents investigating UFO sightings, aliens, mutants, telepaths – anything seemingly paranormal that would land the case in the so-called X-files. The show quickly became a hit, Mr. Duchovny quickly became a sex symbol (maybe the first one with a serious Internet presence), and the writers and producers were clever enough to let the unspoken attraction between Mulder and Scully build and build without consummation.

This has not stopped them, however, from teasing fans over the years: the almost-almost-almost kiss interrupted by a bee sting in the 1998 “X-Files” feature film; Mulder’s “I love you” to a Scully who wasn’t exactly Scully, because they were somehow on an ocean liner just before World War II; a Mulder who wasn’t exactly Mulder approaching Scully with a serious come-on (it was really another man borrowing Mulder’s appearance). The show’s so-called mythology, which included the story of the long-ago abduction of Mulder’s sister, Samantha, by aliens and Mulder’s belief in a government conspiracy to conceal the existence of extraterrestrials, took on a life of its own in the minds of the show’s millions of fans. Most of the time, Mulder turned out to be right.

Maybe that’s why Scully is behaving so much like him this season, which amounts to actual character development. Long the empirical analyst, she has taken on Mulder’s role as the agent willing to take a leap of faith rather than search endlessly for a scientific explanation. “He’s a kid who materialized out of thin air, unaged,” she pointed out to Doggett in an episode about a missing child who turned up after 10 years. “Do you not somehow recognize how strange this is?”

Like Mr. Duchovny, Ms. Anderson, 32, does have a life outside “The X-Files.” She earned generally favorable reviews two months ago as Edith Wharton’s heroine Lily Bart in the film version of “The House of Mirth.” But she has chosen to stay with the series full time so far, and with Scully expecting a baby, she is sure to be the focus of episodes ahead, especially during the next sweeps period in May. As Mr. Carter predicted, when asked just how pregnant the character is, “I would say that baby’s due on the season finale.”

Mr. Duchovny will be back on the show in April and May, but his character is very much a part of the series almost every week. When Mulder isn’t there, people are talking about him, or the camera is lingering lovingly on the nameplate on his desk.

When the principle of Occam’s razor (that the simplest explanation is usually the right one) came up in Episode 3, Scully quickly pointed out that Mulder had always called it “Occam’s principle of limited imagination.” In Episode 10, in which Scully shot what appeared to be an angelic little boy but was really a homicidal fakir, she wept as she told Doggett how she came to the decision.

“I realized that it’s what Mulder would have seen or understood,” she said. “Because that’s just how he came at things. Without judgment, without prejudice and with an open mind. And I am just not capable.”

That sort of talk is very satisfying to devoted David Duchovny fans (me included), who have been reduced this season to an adolescent kind of yearning for Duchovny-Mulder, whose current scarcity makes him the ultimate unattainable man. Sure, Mulder is presumably in some other part of the galaxy for the time being. Sure, Mr. Duchovny, getting serious about his film career at age 40, has been busy making “Evolution,” a science fiction movie with Julianne Moore. But if we get one more glimpse of Mulder in which he appears to be having his face stretched on the aliens’ examining table but says nothing (well, once he screamed “Scully!” and that was encouraging, but it turned out to be happening in Scully’s dreams); if we see him make one more five-second screen appearance without speaking; if we think we’re seeing him but it turns out to be an alien bounty hunter disguised as Mulder, we’re going to turn.

Flashbacks are fine (the scene in tonight’s episode in which he says, “The answer is yes,” is a semi-thrill). Even a best-of-Mulder collage will do.

Luckily, the lead characters and the actors who play them were never the show’s only strength. Most of the same writers and directors from past seasons are still around, creating scary one-hour dramas about exterminators with superhuman vision, religious cults, mystics who can stow away inside human bodies and murder suspects experiencing time in reverse.

The future of the series is still up in the air (negotiations for a possible ninth season are still going on, Mr. Carter said). Serious fans already know that the season finale is going to be a cliffhanger that will be resolved – well, as much as anything is ever resolved in “X-Files” world – either in the new season or in a second feature film. That film is not expected to happen until the series is off the air.

Meanwhile the show’s first spinoff, “The Lone Gunmen,” is scheduled to have its premiere on Fox on March 4 (in the “X-Files” time slot the first three weeks, then moving to Fridays). The title characters are, as X-philes know well, the trio of less than movie-star-glamorous, conspiracy-obsessed computer geeks whom Mulder has called on for assistance many times. Mr. Duchovny, Ms. Anderson and Mr. Patrick are listed as cast members in the new series, so they should be making at least the occasional appearance.

Watch “The X-Files” long enough and you can get a little zen about the big issues, like birth, death and terminal illness. With space aliens and backwoods healers around, nothing, it seems, is irreversible, which may be a good thing to keep in mind in the weeks ahead. And we have reassurances of that rule from the horse’s mouth. When I interviewed Mr. Duchovny last year and asked about the fate of Mulder’s sister, Samantha – was she really, most sincerely dead, as recent episodes seemed to have indicated – he put on a mischievous half-smile and answered, “She comes back for sweeps.” And Mulder’s mother – also dead, right? “Sweeps,” he said, switching to deadpan. “Whatever we need. They come back.”

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One Response to “The New York Times: Without Mulder (most of the time), 'The X-Files' thrives”

  1. […] With the possibility that the seventh season might be the last season of The X-Files; and with the near-certainty that it would be David Duchovny’s last season, there was a clear desire to tidy away the show’s biggest remaining loose end. In theory, at any rate. As with anything on The X-Files, it seemed like there was no real certainty of closure: […]