The X-Files, the series that united believer and skeptic — and inspired intense loyalty— returns with its creator still at the helm.
Twenty-five years ago, Chris Carter wanted to believe.
He’d just written a pilot, certain that it would be unlike anything else on the air. The trouble was, the networks reacted to the idea of an alien-chasing FBI agent and his skeptical scientist-partner as if it hailed from another planet.
It took two pitches by Carter and Peter Roth, then head of 20th Television, to bring Fox around, Carter recalls: “They couldn’t quite understand what I was trying to do. The only thing like it back then was Sightings [a syndicated paranormal news series].
"Even after they decided to put it on the air, they made me put text at the beginning, saying the show was based on actual stories. The mindset then was that people wouldn’t believe any show that dealt with the supernatural.”
After 25 years, tens of millions of viewers, countless conventions and 16 Emmys, it’s safe to say that most everyone is a believer in the paranormal pursuits of agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Though the series ended its nine-season run in 2002, it returned for six more episodes in early 2016 and will resume in January with another 10. Craig Tomashoff spoke with Carter, creator–executive producer of the series, about the Scully effect, the Trump effect and one surprising fan.
Has Mulder and Scully’s quest for the truth changed over the years in ways that you didn’t expect?
The show always had its heart rooted in a political reality, so we seized on things I felt were salient during the ‘90s. That was a sort of Watergate holdover, a distrust of government and institutions. That’s why I always felt Scully was the heart of the show. Her belief in science is what kept everything grounded. It’s what kept Mulder tethered, despite his belief in conspiracies and shadow governments.
That wave of distrust faded after 2001, only to come full circle with the era we’re in now. When we came back to do that first event series, things had completely flipped. Now there’s a distrust of science and a wholesale belief in conspiracies that has put The X-Files once again in unfamiliar territory.
Does that mean the new season will have a Trumpian aspect?
We’ve definitely incorporated the new political reality. It’s not just about the current administration, which I’m sure is on the minds of everyone doing TV right now. It’s also about how the internet has been a complete game changer, what’s happening technologically and in the digital realm — we’re exploring all those things.
When the show returned last year, Joel McHale played an Alex Jones–like conspiracy theorist. Did you get any feedback from the real Alex Jones?
He contacted me after those shows aired and wanted to meet. We never did, but I couldn’t help but think about how the sort of conspiracies he talks about have gone mainstream. The fact that he has the president’s ear is extraordinary to me. He sent a very warm greeting and was certainly — if not flattered by the inclusion of that character, at least pleased to make note of it.
At some point, The X-Files stopped being just a show and turned into a cultural reference point, even for those who’d never seen an episode. What effect has The X-Files had on the real world?
When we had our 20th anniversary at Comic-Con, people in the audience started talking about how they were now doctors and scientists as a result of watching Dana Scully. They call it the “Scully effect” in scientific circles. There’s something to be said for a show that turns women toward a career in science. I always hoped the show had a certain effect, especially given some of the mantras that stuck around, like “The truth is out there” and “I want to believe.”
The X-Files is famous for its dark storytelling. Is there another element of the show that hasn’t received enough recognition?
I think the stylistic elements, which have been a hallmark, have been underappreciated. This became a director’s show right away. We had two directors, Kim Manners and Rob Bowman, who directed 85 of the 202 episodes and are a major reason why you can still pull The X-Files off the shelf and it seems current.
We were lucky enough to also attract guest directors like David Nutter, Bob Goodwin, Dan Sackheim and others. Their styles were perfect for the tales we were telling. They knew how to make these 45-minute movies.
Was it important to bring in a fresh group of writers and directors for the latest incarnation?
We wanted to get the band back together, but we also made sure to invite new people. Everyone is bringing their own take on the world as well as on The X-Files. There are always new facets for them to explore.
This time, we had three directors who had never directed before. There’s Carol Banker, who had been a script supervisor on the show, along with Holly Dale and Kevin Hooks. We also had writers who had never written on the show before — Karen Nielson, Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin.
When you close your eyes and think of The X-Files, what is the most indelible image that flashes in front of you?
It’s the moment I met David and Gillian in those early casting sessions. Gillian gave me a gift when we wrapped the series back in 2002. She’d found the pages from those sessions for Mulder and Scully. On those pages, I’d written “Yes!” by David’s name. On Gillian’s, I wrote, “Test!” I will never forget knowing immediately these were people I wanted to bring to network.
How have you changed as a writer-producer since the show first went on the air?
I think I’m the same person generally, but with a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge under his belt. I used to say I wrote one-handed, with one hand on the phone and the other on the keyboard. These days, I have rules like, “Never write after dinner.” That’s a big change from how I used to write around the clock.
When a show first comes on, you live in complete fear. Everyone around you is braced for failure and hedging their bets. What you learn from experience is that things are going to work out. But you need to keep figuring out how you can reignite people’s interest and passion for what you’re doing.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2017