‘X-Files’ marks the plot

Fox’s “The X-Files” is the guilty pleasure show of the season, a moody, atmospheric and very scary sci-fi drama that recalls “Twin Peaks” or “Silence of the Lambs” in its intensely credible portrayal of the, shall we say, otherworldly. It may not make you a believer (and the great thing about the show is, it’s not out to), but you’ll sure have fun considering the possibilities.

Abduction by extra-terrestrials. Government-sponsored human genetics experiments. Spontaneous combustion. The Jersey Devil. Jack the Ripper. Cover -ups, conspiracies, cults. “The X-Files” is “Unsolved Mysteries” for sophisticates. Created and usually written by Chris Carter, “The X-Files” premiered in September and has built a following in its 9 p.m. Friday time slot that, while loyal, amounts to a mere blip in the Nielsens. Nonetheless, Fox has recently ordered a full season’s worth of episodes and is showcasing the series in better time slots. Monday, it gets a tryout in the two-hour Fox movie block (8 p.m, Channel 2) with two episodes back-to-back.

“The X-Files” depicts the adventures of two FBI agents who investigate the nutty top-secret stuff the Bureau (on orders from the Pentagon or the White House) doesn’t want the public to know about.

Fox Mulder (David Duchovny, who played the cross-dressing DEA agent on “Twin Peaks”) is a believer and, for that, his fast-track career has been derailed. Tortured by a recovered memory of his sister’s alien abduction when they were children (she’s been missing ever since), Mulder is obsessed yet professional, mopey but sort of funny about it.

His partner, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), is cut from the Jodie Foster-as-FBI-agent mold, methodical, cool under pressure, rational. A specialist in forensic medicine, Scully was originally assigned to discredit Mulder’s offbeat theories but she has ended up his protector, she’s come across enough evidence of governmental cover-ups to convince her that Mulder’s paranoia is justified. In their impassioned on-going debate, Mulder represents the metaphysical, Scully the logical. But it’s within the vast gray area between these poles that “The X-Files” does its most sneakily entertaining work.

“The X-Files” hangs on The Big “What If?” but deftly avoids both New Age schmaltz and tabloid-TV schlock. Like its leading characters, “The X -Files” maintains a detached yet curious tone, the suspense builds almost imperceptibly and then you suddenly realize you’re on the edge of your seat. Like “Twin Peaks” or “Miami Vice,” “The X-Files” draws you in with the force of its conviction and the dark edginess of its vision. For sheer chill factor, it’s the spookiest thing on the tube since “The Twilight Zone.”

For its special Monday showing, Fox is repeating “The X-Files”‘ pilot episode (8 p.m.), followed by the best episode so far (9 p.m.), in which Mulder and Scully go to the Arctic to investigate mysterious deaths at a government research outpost where scientists are drilling down into the ice to take core samples from prehistoric times.

The episode borrows heavily from both “The Thing” and “Alien”; the scientists have unknowingly dug up prehistoric wormy creatures that enter victims through bodily orifices and mess up their hormones so they become highly aggressive, jumpy and super-strong. Isolated in the middle of snow fields with an ever-shrinking band of hysterics (and then there were three . . .), Mulder and Scully get to be even more paranoid than usual, suspecting each other of being a worm-infested murderer. Cool!

Despite such phenomena as gnarly killer worms and thermonuclear alien beings, “The X-Files” is not your basic Weekly World News geekshow. What makes it worth your time is that it’s open to all possibilities, including the possibility that there’s a scientific explanation for everything. It’s not that the writers yank your emotions and then cop out. It’s just that the show suggests skepticism, restraint and scientific research before entertaining otherworldly answers.

Without preaching, “The X-Files” acknowledges the vulnerability that makes us want to believe. In a recent episode, Mulder and Scully flip-flopped attitudes. She was convinced of a Death Row serial killer’s psychic powers and his ability to channel the dead, her father had just died and she desperately needed to hear his voice clearing up unfinished business between them. This time, Mulder was the skeptic, warning her about charlatans who play on fears and yearnings.

As we approach the end of the century, belief in angels is the hottest trend and new revelations are emerging daily about government radiation experiments on unwitting Americans. In its distrust of the powers that be and its tug-of-war between the intellectual and the spiritual, “The X -Files” has captured the profound confusion of the times.

 
 
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