An Alien Anniversary

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson on the "X-Files," 20 years later

Twenty years ago, a handful of American households with no better plans on a Friday night gathered to watch a strange, sinister new show with unknown actors and an unsettling premise.

In those first months, The X-Files felt like a secret. Its slight ratings belied the emotions it stirred, bonding viewers with an almost chemical addition. In the days before DVR, the show became a ritual in families. And then, as it slipped somehow past the cancellation wardens and survived into a second season, it became a phenomenon.

So perhaps it isn't a surprise that even 20 years later, a reunion between stars David Duchovny (Fox Mulder) and Gillian Anderson (Dana Scully) at the Paley Center for Media sold out in five minutes.

"I think it conjured up a lot of different things for a lot of people," said a svelte Ms. Anderson, sporting un-Scully-like long blonde hair. "That aspect of the nostalgia is intrinsic and almost cellular."

She and Mr. Duchovny reconvened Saturday night to discuss the culture-shifting show, which made its debut on Sept. 10, 1993 and lasted nine seasons on the Fox network.

Fans will be pleased to know: Both looked fabulous. Their warm, easy banter—finishing each other's sentences and sharing smiles—was more charming than the most dedicated Mulder-Scully 'shipper could have dreamed.

"I think we've become more friendly as time has gone by," Ms. Anderson said. "We went through something quite profound together and there's only one other person—"

"Traumatizing," Mr. Duchovny interjected. "We were traumatized."

"Traumatized. OK, that's the word—traumatized," she said. "And there's only one other person who has had that experience, which is me, and I don't think we've ever really fully had that conversation yet."

"You want to have it right now?" Mr. Duchovny asked.

Despite a reporter's encouragement, they politely declined.

Things might have been different if an early edit to the pilot hadn't eliminated Scully's boyfriend—in "the first scene we shot," Ms. Anderson said. The decision to disappear the boyfriend recast the characters' critical first conversation, they agreed, despite the fact that "it was very, very poorly acted," Mr. Duchovny said, turning to Ms. Anderson. "Have you seen that recently? Oh, it's bad. It's bad. It's bad. It's terrible. But it worked."

During the 90-minute panel, where the actors were frequently stumped about episode trivia and corrected on plot points by the audience, Mr. Duchovny admitted he initially thought the show had a limited life. "I thought it was about aliens," Mr. Duchovny said. "Eventually you have to see the alien and it's over."

As the moderator detailed the intricate and, perhaps, improbable plot machinations that marked the series' final episode the stars stared in amazement, apparently dumbfounded.

"That is crazy s—," Mr. Duchovny said finally, as Ms. Anderson doubled over and buried her face in her hands.

Also revealed: Mr. Duchovny's infamous red Speedo was something he owned, and lobbied to wear. "I have regretted it ever since," he said. The sliver of a suit is now in the Smithsonian, he said.

Cynthia Nixon read for the part of Scully, according to Ms. Anderson.

The blood on the show was sticky and mint-flavored.

Ms. Anderson urged Mr. Duchovny to consider her as a possible guest role on his show "Californication," where she plays "a Scully impersonating stripper that you have sex with."

Mr. Duchovny demurred.

But perhaps the audience's favorite moment came when Ms. Anderson turned to Mr. Duchovny and began a question with, "Mulder—," then caught herself.

The crowd cheered.

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