The seminal sci-fi series lives on to tell new stories while embracing the fandom who changed how we watch television.
Nobody blinks when there’s a monster lurking around the set of The X-Files. Nine seasons, two feature films, and a six-episode revival would condition any actor or crew member to treat the paranormal as just another day at the office. But what happens when a superfan invades the production?
In season 10, writer and director Darin Morgan cast lifelong X-Files fan Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley, The Big Sick) to play a guest role as the titular creature in “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” His first night on-set, Nanjiani recalls walking through the Vancouver forest and seeing a white light coming through the trees. “I turned to Darin and said, ‘It’s just like The X-Files!’” Nanjiani enthuses. “I was seeing that image that I’ve seen on TV hundreds of times. Darin was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what we’re making.’”
Then came his big scenes with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny. A pro like Anderson could smell Nanjiani’s lack of composure from a mile away.
“It’s surreal because you have someone standing in front of you who is clearly trying not to geek out,” Anderson says. “He’s trying to compose himself and every once in a while allows himself to go after the shot, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m here with Mulder and Scully!’”
Under the chilly cover of moonlight, Anderson, Duchovny, and Nanjiani huddled in a tent between takes, as Anderson and Duchovny launched into an unexpected trip down memory lane, revisiting some of their memorable shooting experiences with Nanjiani listening raptly on the nostalgic ride. They even let Nanjiani record the private conversation for his X-Files Filespodcast. “David went out of his way to be super nice to me because he knew I was nervous,” Nanjiani reflects.
At that moment, Anderson says she thought it was pretty cool to be in the presence of somebody who has a better memory of the show than herself or Duchovny.
“Our perspective is: ‘Do you remember that night when it was 5 a.m., freezing our fingers off?’ And he’s going, ‘That’s when you did that amazing scene!’” Anderson says. “It was fun for us to be a part of that conversation because he’s more enthusiastic about our past than we are… And we were there! A new appreciation came out of that.”
For Duchovny, those small moments of reflection need to be fleeting when there’s a job to do.
“As long as I’m doing [The X-Files], I can only see the show as an actor, or writer, or director,” Duchovny tells me over the phone on a rare day off. “If I start looking from the outside in, we’re going to lose track of what made it great in the first place.”
The casting of Nanjiani was the show’s latest display of fan service, which is just one small way that the franchise has fostered a fan base so loyal that, even after a nearly 15-year absence from television, they returned in droves when Fox reopened The X-Files for an event series in 2016.
The X-Files will return to Fox again in 2018 for its 11th season, this time with a 10-episode order, and the weight of expectation from diehard fans hoping the series will right its wayward mythology. For the people involved on a daily basis, too much legacy talk is a distraction when there is still an impending alien colonization to thwart. Nostalgia may be at the heart of the television industry’s current obsession with revival, but the series’ stars and writing team are set on telling X-Files stories that are just as relevant today as they were 24 years ago.
When The X-Files disappeared into a bright light in the season 10 finale, it left a few plot threads hanging in the balance.
Far right-wing media blowhard Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale) was correct about one thing: An alien DNA strand, known as the Spartan Virus, was injected into American citizens with the purpose of breaking down humans’ immune systems. Scully and her younger counterpart, Agent Einstein (Lauren Ambrose), find a cure thanks to the help of Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), who in turn makes a traitorous deal with the Cigarette Smoking Man. (Did you really think they could kill off William B. Davis’ iconic villain that easily?)
Reyes and Scully are protected from the outbreak, but when Scully finally finds Mulder, he’s succumbing to the virus and running out of time. The only hope is a stem cell transplant from their long lost son, William. Then, finally, a white light and a UFO thrust fans into yet another X-Filescliffhanger.
Fear that Fox would cancel the series without a satisfying conclusion was short-lived. The X-Files revival was a huge ratings success for the network, with more than 20 million viewers watching the premiere within a week of airing. Those were the kind of numbers the series was doing in its prime, and in a far different era of television. Once the shooting schedules aligned, Fox picked up The X-Files Season 11, and the onus was placed squarely on the shoulders of series creator Chris Carter to do what he’s done many times before: return the iconic agents to some state of normalcy.
“As is always the case with the show and the mythology episodes, there is a reset,” Carter says. While he is careful not to spoil the first episode, which relies heavily on classic X-Files mythology, Carter is cryptically confident in how the myth arc of the season will unfold.
“The audience has traditionally gone with it, which is to go with a kind of tonal shift for the show,” he says. “So we're anticipating that they'll go with us as they did for nine years, and in the 10th season in 2016.”
Carter’s narrative risk of ending the previous season on a cliffhanger with no firm guarantee that Fox or his stars would agree to another year was calculated.
“When I wrote the season finale, I prudently imagined what the answer would be to the questions we set up,” he says. “So coming back, I really just got to do what I had anticipated and wanted to do. But at the same time, when you do these cliffhangers, you suggest that it could also be the end. We're imagining that these characters have a life lived out in real time. As the show ages, they age too. And they certainly could have a life beyond any particular season.”
What we do know is this: Mulder and Scully will live on to investigate a variety of different cases in 2018. Season 11 will be a mix of mythology and Monster-of-the-Week episodes, along with a “dark comedy” episode from fan-favorite writer Darin Morgan. Because the writers are as guarded as the Lone Gunmen, the only episode-specific information we could pry out of them was from Glen Morgan, best known for co-writing with James Wong some of the series’ most iconic episodes (“Home,” “Tooms,” and “Ice” among them).
“I looked at it like The X-Files does North by Northwest,” Morgan says, referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller in which a milquetoast Cary Grant is mistaken for a government agent by foreign spies, and is pursued across the country. “It’s not a Monster-of-the-Week, it’s more like a Mulder and Scully on the run type thing.”
FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner will have a larger role in the season, and actor Mitch Pileggi likens the scripts he’s seen to early seasons of the show.
“There’s a lot of science in it,” Pileggi says. “A lot of chemistry and relationship between the two. They’re still able to catch that thing that the fans loved so much about these characters.”
When it comes to the mythology arc, Carter confirmed the show will continue to play with Mulder’s self-doubts while Scully will be confronting a “huge matter of scientific urgency.” These are themes we’ve seen The X-Files explore before. Why retread familiar narrative ground? In the current political climate where “science is now in question and conspiracies are now taken almost as the truth,” these questions take on new meaning, says Carter.
“The world is changing so rapidly that you actually wonder if what you're writing today will have any bearing on reality when it airs six months later,” Carter admits. “It makes it a challenge for people who want to try and capture the zeitgeist, because the zeitgeist seems to be morphing on a daily basis.”
The truth is still out there, but it’s harder to hit than ever before.
No contemporary television show captured the zeitgeist in the way The X-Files did. In the pilot episode, unexplained forces literally stop time, which leads Mulder to posit that “time as we know it stopped and something took control over it.” In a flash, Fox had one of the hottest properties on television. It soon spilled over onto a nascent internet where fans became “X-Philes,” and a television show turned into a phenomenon. The X-Filesfandom grew out of early internet adopters looking for a community to dissect every clue to the series’ larger mythology, debate which monster-of-the-week episodes were best, and speculate on the palpable romantic tension between Mulder and Scully.
On message boards around the world, at the center of the first real internet-driven fan base, Duchovny and Anderson, and the characters they played, were larger than life.
“We were caught up in a whirlwind,” Anderson says. “It was really hard to step outside of that, to have any kind of perspective or objectivity or reflection on the importance of being a part of something iconic. It was quite a long time afterward before it hit me.”
Compartmentalizing the accolades and rabid fandom of the series during its original run from 1993 to 2002 was a matter of necessity. Anderson recalls the intense early years when they filmed 24 episodes in nine months. “It’s kind of unfathomable how hard we worked back then,” she says.
In the days before social media, Anderson and Duchovny could take off their badges and maintain some semblance of separation from the X-Files-obsessed masses. As X-Files mania reached its fever pitch, it became nearly inescapable. Fans left the message boards to gather at X-Filesconventions, an official X-Files magazine began publication in 1995, and the merchandise, which the actors didn’t get a cut of, was disappearing off the shelves at rates that would make even aliens do a double take. A 1995 headline in the Hartford Courant asked, “Can ‘X-File’ Conventions Reach Trekkian Proportions?”
In an infamous 1996 Rolling Stone cover story, in which Anderson and Duchovny share a bed together, Duchovny was asked why he’d yet to appear at any X-Files conventions.
“I have my convention virginity intact,” he told the magazine. “It's nice to do a good show, but I want to be able to move on. Doing conventions is a way of not moving on. I meet people who like the show all the time, and I shake hands. I don't need to get paid $15,000 to go to some convention. In 20 years I might.”
Almost exactly 20 years later, in 2015, Duchovny stepped on the New York Comic Con main stage to premiere the first episode of The X-Files revival. When asked about the uncanny accuracy of his prediction, Duchovny tells me, “I guess I was correct, 20 years. I should get credit for being really good with my prediction.”
He continues, “I guess when I was interviewed then, I thought only Star Trek would have conventions, that was my image of it. Now, having been to conventions, you see all of Hollywood comes to these conventions. It’s been a revolution.”
Over the years, it has become easier for both Duchovny and Anderson to engage with the fandom.
“It’s always a pleasure,” Duchovny says. “It’s intense. You see a lot of people, and you have to keep your wits about you and realize these are the people that come to express that they enjoy what you’ve done. And it’s your job to accept that.”
Anderson is still constantly surprised by “The Scully Effect,” and the stories she hears of young women who are motivated to pursue jobs in law enforcement and medicine because of Dana Scully.
“I was on a plane yesterday coming back from LA to Vancouver, and there was a 12-year-old girl that came up to me to tell me how much she loves The X-Files,” Anderson says.
She credits the forward-thinking, fiercely independent nature of her character. “Scully is still having an impact on the choices young women are making in terms of where they see themselves in the world, and their potential impact and where they want to put their energy. To see that continue is extraordinary.”
The new generations of fans are just as passionate, according to Pileggi, who still frequently attends conventions. He says it’s gratifying to know the show has held up this long.
“Doing comic cons and coming into contact with fans is such a cool thing, because I’ve seen a new generations of fans,” Pileggi says. “Parents are turning their kids onto the show, and the kids love it. They love the characters and they are excited when they see the actors. Others shows have great fans, but our fans have stuck with us for a long, long time.”
For all the endless chatter about how The X-Files directly influenced this generation of prestige television, it also changed how fans watch and engage with content.
X-Philes were at the forefront of internet fandom, and the microscope has only intensified after the show went off the air. Now, fans are only clicks away from getting the attention of their favorite writers and actors on social media.
“It used to be people would see [the show], process it, and form their opinion. And that would be the end,” Nanjiani says on the big shift in fandoms over the years. “Now, people try and get their opinions to the creators, and actually try to affect the piece of art or the product that’s being made. People really want it to follow the path they see in their head.”
In the early days of the show, there were stories about X-Files writers lurking on message boards to gather ideas and take the pulse of the fan base. Now, feedback flies directly into writers’ inboxes and mentions.
“These fans want Mulder and Scully to get together,” Glen Morgan says. “These fans just want a monster show. These fans hate you because you're so liberal. These fans hate you because you're so conservative. We try to just do what we believe the show and the characters should do, and hope that we did the right thing.”
Both Anderson and Duchovny are noncommittal, but say they “assume” this season will be the curtain call for The X-Files.
The seminal sci-fi series won’t go quietly into the land of reruns or into the on-demand ether of streaming services. For a show with a legacy as fluid and impactful as The X-Files, Carter brought the “band” back together because he wants to believe that, 25 years after he originally began work on the show, it could still be a “tremendous engine for thoughtful storytelling.”
When the show, at its peak, could introduce iconic taglines like “trust no one,” “I want to believe,” and “the truth is out there,” it is inevitable to wonder about its greater political impact on the culture. Carter himself once told a newspaper that he’d be “flattered if I could create a lot of paranoia out there.” Today, however, it seems zealots and conspiracy theorists are more willing than ever to crawl out from the fringe and into the public eye. But this is also a line of thinking that Morgan bashfully asks to leave for greater minds than his.
“I think people can still look to the show and go, ‘What do you guys have to say? You were one of the first to start saying it, so what do you have to say now?’” Morgan muses. “I hope that we're answering that.”
Duchovny was more blunt about the freaky abduction of sanity in recent years. “It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where science is considered a theory and not fact,” he says. “I don’t like to think that we’ve contributed to what I see as the decline of rationality and empirical proof in the world. I’d like to think the Fox News outlet has done that, not us.”
Whether the show can find something meaningful to say about the issues of the day is for fans and critics alike to debate endlessly on the social platform of their choice. If the revival has done one thing, however, it’s further solidified the mutual respect between the cast, the crew, and the fans. In some ways, it’s brought them closer together.
As Anderson says, “It wasn’t until I started to have a different relationship with my perception of the show that I was able to enjoy a bit more the contact with the fans and the impact that it had on our success and how beloved the characters were, and to embrace that as opposed to feeling like it was more than I could handle.”
If it is the end, we might be one step closer to Duchovny giving his official thesis on the legacy of the series.
“Every time I go to set, I just want to see the show be entertaining, smart, funny, and scary,” explains Duchovny. “As far as trying to wrap up what the show means, my mind doesn’t go there as an actor in the show.”
When pressed one more time for a tidy soundbite to summarize the show’s legacy, Duchovny refuses to budge. His method is in the moment, and that’s not something he’s ready to look past. Duchovny has no neat bow to put on this story, but in typical X-Files fashion, he leaves the door cracked just enough for an answer somewhere down the line.
“Like I said in 1996, I hope I’m around to answer that question in 20 years,” Duchovny says. “Let’s put it that way.”