On any other network, The X-Files would be long gone.
Yes, there has been an avalanche of critical praise, but the ratings have been lower than a snake’s belly. According to the latest Nielsen ratings, the series that straddles the suspense and science-fiction genre line was ranked fourth from the bottom.
But Fox Broadcasting considers The X-Files (Fridays at 8 p.m. on KBVO, Channel 42 Cable 5) a success. That’s because it delivers the young audience that advertisers covet and because the show has a loyal core audience that includes a lot of well-to-do and highly educated people.
David Duchovny, best-known for his portrayal of the bizarre transvestite detective Dennis/Denise in Twin Peaks, stars as FBI agent Fox Mulder, a man who passionately believes that paranormal phenomena are responsible for several of the bureau’s strange cases.
Gillian Anderson co-stars as Dana Scully, an agent trained in science and medicine who is sent by the bureau to debunk Mulder’s claims. Scully hangs onto her scientific skepticism but finds herself increasingly intrigued by Mulder’s theories.
“Fox has loved this show from the beginning,” said creator-executive producer Chris Carter in Los Angeles recently. “I think they expect the ratings to rise as more people find out exactly what the show is.”
Defining exactly what The X-Files is may well be the problem. It’s scarier than most sci-fi dramas; it has a base in modern-day reality, and yet it deals with such supernatural activity as UFO abductions and spontaneous combustion.
“I really don’t think this show is science fiction,” Carter said. “I stand by my original description of it as a suspense drama about speculative scientific possibilities.”
And some of those speculations are terrifying, thanks to great storytelling, fine acting and minimal special effects. The scary stuff, for the most part, is implied rather than shown, which is in part due to budgetary constraints but also due to a creative decision in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock.
“I think not relying too heavily on special effects forces us to tell a better story,” Carter said. “Showing too much can be self-defeating.”
Among the things Carter said the network will not let him show are too much blood, dead people with their eyes open and hypodermic injections. He doesn’t know why, and Fox executives offered no explanation. Apparently there was no mention from Fox about showing a man melting in a fire and his hideously deformed face afterward.
That episode was by far the scariest to date, one that pre-teens and teens who are devoted fans probably had nightmares about. Parents should use caution in allowing younger children to watch X-Files. It is not intended for children and is often quite intense. Tonight’s episode – about a being who switches genders at will and commits sex crimes – definitely sounds inappropriate for youngsters.
Not surprisingly, the show receives hundreds of letters from viewers who have an unnatural affinity for it, including many who claim to have been abducted by aliens.
“I got a letter addressed to Fox Mulder from a man who said he had met an alien,” Duchovny said, shaking his head. “It was kind of sad in a way.”
Unlike his character, Duchovny doesn’t believe in the series’ “speculative scientific possibilities,” although Anderson, in contrast to her character’s beliefs, does believe in the possibility of paranormal phenomena such as telekinesis and extrasensory perception.
Whether you believe them or not, the strange stories make fascinating television, and Fox is hoping more and more people will join a group of viewers that Carter has fondly dubbed “File-ophiles.”