The X-Files: a complete history

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The X-Files is back in the public consciousness thanks to the launch of the show's six-episode tenth season. Not only has it reunited series creator Chris Carter with stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, but it's successfully managed to capture much of what worked about the show when it debuted in 1993, while being updated for the modern audience. To celebrate its return, we look back at its formative days through a series of interviews conducted over two decades ago.

In the early 1970s, America was getting its creep on with the airing of the TV movie The Night Stalker, which had Las Vegas reporter Carl Kolchak investigating a series of murders that led him straight into the lair of a vampire. So terrifying - and successful - was the film that it led to a sequel (The Night Strangler) a weekly TV series that had the intrepid reporter going up against different supernatural creatures (Kolchak: The Night Stalker), and, indirectly, The X-Files.


Chris Carter (Creator/Executive Producer): The X-Files was just one of those ideas that seemed to work on a number of levels. Also, it just seemed like a TV series to me. Lots of stories to tell without having to be self-referencing, without having to rely on going into the lives of the characters. But, basically, I just wanted to create and do something as scary as I remember The Night Stalker being when I was in my teens. I was scared out of my wits by that show and I realised that there just wasn't anything scary on television anymore. I also loved The Avengers TV show and that relationship between Steed and Emma Peel; the intensity of the stories. It's the way I sort of instinctively write, so that also fed into my ultimate concept.

The X-Files was just one of those ideas that seemed to work on a number of levels.

Then there was The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling was telling fables, almost allegorically. You see a lot of that in The X-Files, too, but each of the episodes of The Twilight Zone had a bigger message, a bigger purpose, and a way to illuminate something about the human condition. We don't set out to do that, we don't set out to be instructive - there's no message behind each X-Files episode. Although there is something you can take from it, we're not teaching.

Jeff Rice (Creator, The Night Stalker): The Night Stalker came out at a time when the American public was beginning to shake off the relative innocence of the 1950s and the hopes of the brief Camelot era of the 1960s, and settle into the slowly dawning realisation that the war in Vietnam and other matters the government said were in the national interest, were not quite what they appeared to be. The release of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers only served to fuel this growing awareness that our government, like any other government, had a double set of books, one for the insiders and one for the people, and their bottom lines didn't jibe.

Carter: With all of the paranormal events that are reported in the world, I have to believe that there is an agency like the FBI, or a branch of the FBI, that investigates these things. They won't admit to it, but there is a government department investigating these very high-profile, often satanic cases. I believe that there are people devoted solely to these kinds of cases.


Rice: Kolchak, dealing with "monsters" every week, dealing with various forms of official denials and cover-ups, gave people a chance to root for someone who was, essentially, one of them; an ordinary guy who just kept on digging to get the facts, to get the truth, and to lay it out for his readers. Covert government activities - which have been going on since the dawn of governments - and their exposure had made people feel increasingly powerless and cynical, and Kolchak came along at just the right time to give them someone to identify with. People often talk about the X-Files protagonists, Mulder and Scully, picking up the baton of Kolchak, in battling to get at the facts about the matter at hand - whether it be extraterrestrial contact and government involvement or other side issues. And with decades now of periodic revelations of other government cover-ups, once again the ordinary citizen can focus on something fictitious yet see all the intense behind-the-scenes workings of agencies and departments and bureaucrats who work to serve their own ends.

People believe the government is hiding things from us.

Howard Gordon (Supervising Producer) It started with Watergate and progressed to the present. People believe the government is hiding things from us. Those shadowy possibilities, which are present in every show, hold a certain appeal. Remember the button, "Question Authority"? That and "Trust No One" are adjunct to "The Truth is Out There." Part of the show's appeal - to borrow a phrase from Clear And Present Danger - is that the truth needs a soldier. And Agent Mulder is that soldier. He's the guy who goes against the conventional wisdom, who fights his own government - his own agency - to get answers.

David Nutter (Producer/Director): The key to the drama is making everything as real as possible. To do this, you really have to get the characters' emotions and the environment of the story just right. You also have to get into the hearts and minds of people - not only those who are putting the show together, but the people who are at home, watching. I looked at the show as a strong, realistic drama. If the audience believed it and could relate to it, you could then turn it on its head and do the things that make the show what it is. That's the key: to get the audience to go along for the ride. It's like locking them into a seat of the rollercoaster. Once you've done that, you've got them.

Glen Morgan (Co-Executive Producer): The FBI aspect ground the series in reality. We got letters from people who wanted to know who to call to see the real X-Files.


Carter: From the start I realised that the show had to take place in the realm of extreme possibility. Although I was a big fan of The Night Stalker, its approach was self-limiting. There are only so many monsters you can offer before you run out of monster power. We tried to approach these stories from a more cerebral perspective. With vampirism, for example, we would take a real scientific approach. I'm interested not just in mutants and monsters, but real scientific anomalies, biological anomalies, unexplained phenomena. Basically, we were interested in any kind of science or speculative-technology story that looks at something that could somehow happen. We began with the sort of age-old question, "What if?", and then we spent a lot of time trying to make sure that the stories are sufficiently rooted in reality.

I just think it's a much more interesting show if it's believable. I think it's much more frightening. If you look at Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man or Jurassic Park or The Andromeda Strain, the most frightening part is that you actually believe that could really be happening, therefore heightening the scare. It's easy to scare people, but it's hard to scare them in a way that has some resonance; that really makes them double-lock their doors at night.

Michael Lange (Director): When I first started watching the show, which was before I even got an assignment to direct one, my first impression was that these were true stories taken from the deep files of the FBI - and I'm a fairly sophisticated viewer. And with the subjects it deals with, you can, for the most part, accept that maybe this could happen. One of my favorite Hitchcockisms is his saying that he didn't believe films had to be believable, merely plausible. That's the same thing with The X-Files.

Daniel Sackheim (Producer/Director): In the initial stages, we had talked about two projects as stylistic sources, one of which was The Thin Blue Line, a documentary about a cop-killing in Texas back in 1976. It was an unusual film because it was the first of its kind to be presented in an intensely stylised fashion, with much emphasis being on the evidence produced: the letters being typed on a report or a piece of evidence being dropped on the street. We had also talked about the realism of something like Prime Suspect, the miniseries with Helen Mirren. But the reality is that The X-Files found its own style in that it didn't have a confined style to it. Everybody who came on the show attempted to make a little scary movie.

Carter: Credible, believable characters and credible, believable situations dealing with incredible and unexplained phenomena. I did as much research as I could through the FBI, and they were rather reluctant then. It was a limited resource. But I did research on all the things that I was writing about - aliens, UFOs and the FBI - just by reading about it. I also had a friend who was familiar with the work of Dr. John Mack of Harvard. Mack, who has become famous in UFO circles, surveyed a big cross-section of American citizens and found that three percent of Americans believe they've actually been abducted by UFOs. That means if there are a hundred people in a room, three of them have actually been abducted or believe they have. And this psychologist friend of mine, whose specialisation is schizophrenia, told me that - and this is a sane, credible, believable person - he's looked into people's eyes and he's seen, whether it be multiple personalities or the schizophrenic himself, what he felt is not human. So he believes in the alien abduction syndrome, or in alien abduction. I thought that was a great leaping-off point for the series.


David Duchovny (Fox Mulder): I think The X-Files [was] very '90s, because everything is left in doubt. There's no closure, no answers. Most of the credit goes to Chris Carter. Obviously it tapped into something the nation wanted. I think it has to do with religious stirrings - a sort of New Age yearning for an alternate reality and the search for some kind of extrasensory god. Couple that with a cynical, jaded, dispossessed feeling of having been lied to by the government, and you've got a pretty powerful combination for a TV show.

Gillian Anderson (Dana Scully): The series deals with many aspects of the paranormal, and one of the aspects is the spiritual one. That's very appealing to people. I'm less sure about what intrigues people about the horror side of it, because that never appealed to me. But on a spiritual level, some of the episodes deal with the possibility of coming back to life or some sort of spiritual awakening. And that offers hope, some way out of the fear and the pain of everyday life on this planet.

Obviously it tapped into something the nation wanted.

Carter: I think the show's success had as much to do with viewers' fascination with UFOs as it does with the show itself. The idea that there are visitors to the planet, that they are not only visiting now but have been visiting since prehistory, and how it affects us is a very interesting idea. I suppose just looking up into the night sky at all those millions of stars up there, you wonder if it's possible. I have a pet theory that everyone wants to have that experience where they're driving through the desert at night, and they see something and can't explain what it is. I think it's all about religion. Not necessarily Christian religion, but it's about beliefs - and meaning and truths and why are we here and why are they here and who's lying to us? It's a religion with a lowercase 'r.' Encountering a UFO would be like witnessing a miracle.

The characters at the center of the show, of course, are the aforementioned FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully; he, the believer of the otherworldly, and her representing the skepticism of the common person.

Carter: Mulder and Scully are equal parts of my nature, I guess. I'm a natural skeptic, so I have much of the Scully character in me, yet I'm willing to take leaps of faith, to go out on a limb. I love writing both those characters, because their voices are very clear in my head. What she sees, what is unexplainable, what seems fantastic to her, she believes truly can be ultimately explained scientifically. She is a scientist and will always be one, so she maintains a scientific distance from things, whereas Mulder leaps in and wants to believe.

The character of Mulder came first, because he was the key to the series in that he was the person who wanted to believe. You need that before you can move ahead. Then Scully as his opposite. It's the nature of any interesting relationship. When someone forces you to justify what you believe in, you take that person more seriously and, in turn, that person really turns you into a better, clearer thinker, which is what Scully does for Mulder. I always felt that the show was from Scully's point of view. We would cut to her reaction to what Mulder was saying. She was the one who would pull Mulder back and say, "Look what you're doing; look what you're saying."

At first I cast the roles separately. We cast David and then we cast Gillian, so they didn't have a chance to go into a room together and act together. But I saw the chemistry immediately, which is unusual. I said, "These are our two people." Honestly, I think you just get lucky with the chemistry. And I'm lucky to work with them, too, because they're both smart and good people. Both personally and professionally, we lucked out in getting the chemistry we did.


Sackheim: I remember the first time we screened the pilot. Everybody thought David was a movie star. I think he offered a certain sense of vulnerability. He was handsome, but he was sort of like the boy next door. He was the brother you wanted to comfort. That was the quality David brought that we were excited about. And Gillian is an attractive woman, but she is not what one would call a sex queen. She's not the classic sex symbol type - tall, blonde, big-breasted. You know, the kind of women networks love to put in those kinds of roles. What appealed to me was Chris' desire to cast the role real, as opposed to casting it in the traditional way networks cast, which is to skew it to a certain level of sex appeal. Chris didn't do that, and that's one of the things that drew me to the project.

Carter: Early on, all anyone wanted to know was whether or not the characters would get romantic. I think a little sexual tension goes a long way, and I think the thing that makes this show unconventional in that way is that we're not going to have the characters jump into the sack for sweeps. The fact that their relationship is a cerebral one, first and foremost, actually is more interesting for me to write.

Among those filling out the show's staff early on were co-executive producer Robert Goodwin, who was given the assignment of overseeing the physical production of every episode; co-producer Paul Rabwin, who oversaw post-production; and production designer Graeme Murray.

Carter: There are a lot of people involved in the production of the episodes. It's music, it's lighting, it's photography, it's production design and scripts, and, of course, the actors. This is a rare case, I think, when you give them the scripts and they come up with ideas to make them better. Everybody thinks that features are the big thing, but I think we're doing feature-quality work on the TV show, week in and week out. It's an opportunity to consistently do good work.


Robert Goodwin (Co-Executive Producer): I feel, with some pride, that we deliver the best-quality television you can get. We don't skimp, we just find a way to do what we want within our budget. The first year, I almost had a nervous collapse every time I got a new script. "Okay," I would say to myself, "here's a good one: This guy can relocate all the bones in his body and slither through tiny air vents and suck people's livers out of their bodies. Great. How do we do that?" Every episode represents something that's really amazingly challenging to create - from great fires to worms wriggling under the skin of people.

Paul Rabwin (Co-Producer): There are three editors who work in rotation. One will get all of the film on one episode and will spend three or four weeks working on it, then he finishes that and starts working on another. The three of them rotate. The editor works in conjunction with the director and the producers of the series, all of whom have a say in what will make the show better. Generally, the main focus during the editing process is to get the show to work well, to make it interesting, to make it flow, to make it entertaining, and to drop a bombshell at the magic moment at the end of the act so that people will come back after the commercials.

On this show, I feel like we're a bunch of little kids making forts in the woods.

Graeme Murray (Production Designer): On this show, I feel like we're a bunch of little kids making forts in the woods. You get to build some weird stuff and you have the budget to kind of build the fort you want - plus you're old enough to have girls in, too. Chris Carter's ambition has always been that these are little features, and we all try to approach it that way. For instance, I like layering things. I like to see things through glass or through doorways, and place other elements behind, so the set has a bit of depth and it's not just flat walls or anything real straight. As much as possible, we try to go make it feel like there's a world beyond the little room you're actually in. The set also has to feel right for the story. We try to give each episode an individual look, so we use different colors or different moods to make each one stand by itself, which is unusual for most episodic stuff. I think that fits in with Chris' thinking, He's always felt that we could get that kind of feature quality and as long as the show's popular, he can push.

Although its ratings were marginal in its first year, the Fox network stuck with The X-Files, which shortly thereafter began to gain traction on its way to becoming a full-blown pop culture phenomenon in years two and three prior to it really exploding.

Gordon: People realised that it's a fairly intelligent show. People know they're being turned on to a part of our world that they don't normally see. Whether it's government conspiracy or ghosts, they're going to see something that will take them to a place they don't usually see. There are so many shows on television, and so little that distinguishes one from the other. This is one of those shows that's different, and as long as you deliver on the promise, people will come.

Carter: A lot of it has to do with the stories we tell and how we tell them. I think the writers on the show have hooked into what really scares people. We try to stay away from horror conventions, and I think we've been very successful at that; I think we've been very successful at finding the universal, real scariness out there and plugging in to it.


Goodwin: There was a lot more confidence going into the second season. I became immune to the pressure of accomplishing the impossible. After getting 23-impossible-to-produce scripts that first year, by the second year it didn't matter what they sent. So the stress level changed. Second year we were so much more confident, because we had pulled so many amazing things off. Some of the guest directors who come in start hyperventilating. They say, "Oh my God, have you read this script?" and I would respond, "Yes, you've got an easy one." The second season opener, "The Host," is a perfect example. The script required a large humanoid flukeworm that's going to be moving through all these sewers and Russian freighters and so on. Sure, it was hard, but in the end we did it. There was none of the panic or disbelief that was there in the first year. By season two I was saying, "Okay, if that's what you want, that's what we'll do." But that doesn't mean we became complacent. If you don't do it right, it becomes laughable. It could be like an Ed Wood movie if you're not careful.

Carter: When I was sitting in my office in my surf trunks, barefoot, playing ball with the dog every 20 minutes, writing the pilot for The X-Files, I never imagined that they would be making X-Files underwear or that tens of thousands of people would be discussing the show online. You can't imagine that kind of growth or success. It's unreal. You set out to do something, and it's like Lewis and Clark in that you don't know what you're going to encounter. The surprise is in the discovery of where the show has gone and how the people I've hired have brought amazing things to it. Oftentimes, things can never be as good as you imagined them, but oftentimes on this show, things are better.

Rabwin: During our first year, the industry said The X-Files was a cross between The Twilight Zone and The Night Stalker. By our second season, TV Guide said that a new show, The Kindred, was a "feeble attempt to imitate The X-Files." Then the industry was saying the other networks were trying to launch shows that would take the eight-to-forty-nine audience away from us. We were even spoofed in MAD magazine, so I guess we made it.