”I am still doing a cult show; it’s just that more people are watching it,” says X-Files creator and executive producer Chris Carter. But if the term cult show conjures up visions of an extreme, obsessed, hyper-scrutinizing fan base, then what the near-pervasiveness of The X-Files really signifies is the mainstreaming of the cult — the geeking of America.
Simply put, The X-Files defies casual viewing. This sensuous, darkly humorous, scary, and gorgeous paean to free-floating evil depends on an audience willing to suspend disbelief — to buy into the paranormal, the extraterrestrial, and all manner of government deceptions, inveiglements, and obfuscations (not to mention two windmill-tilting FBI upstarts who hope to unravel it all). And that skepticism bordering on paranoia — even if it has become chic — necessitates feverish commitment.
”In a way, Mulder and Scully are tour guides to the postwar chaos that we’re having to navigate,” says executive producer and writer Howard Gordon. ”The show is really about the power of the individual and the necessity of the individual in that context. It’s a testament.”
But while the conspiracy (i.e., ”mythology”) episodes are clearly the series’ raison d’être — and its sweeps-week trump cards — it’s the stand-alone monster tales (like ”Irresistible”) and paranormal excursions (à la ”Beyond the Sea”) that provide some of The X-Files’ greatest moments. Though often more traditional outings (paying homage to sci-fi/horror TV and movie archetypes), these tales also help us uncover Mulder and Scully’s quirks and provide the sharpest rendering of their sexual tension. ”The hard part [with stand-alones] is just not to make them purely investigative,” admits Carter. ”So you play with the characters’ belief systems or [add] something personal for them. And it’s nice to use humor as release.”
Indeed, upping the yuk factor — from the occasional parched Mulder wisecrack to outright parody (as in ”Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”) — has consistently proved a winner. ”When we did ‘Humbug’ in the second season,” says Gordon, ”there was this concern, ‘Oh my God, we can’t do this. We’re making fun of ourselves.’ But it was one of the most popular episodes.
”Chris has described the conspiracy as the scaffolding on which the series hangs,” continues Gordon. ”It’s actually a conceit that the audience has permitted … for this huge conspiracy to be going on and yet we’re allowed to deal with an albino vampire or three mutant brothers in Pennsylvania.”
Ultimately, believes Carter, The X-Files’ popularity points to ”a certain sense of longing, and more openness now about extra-scientific possibilities. The ‘I Want to Believe’ poster in Mulder’s office sums up a personal longing. I’m a skeptic, and I want to be challenged. I want to believe in something. That’s the heart of the show and what infuses the characters.”
And what, beyond this obsessive search for the truth, defines a fan of the show? Everything from a taste for great storytelling, eye-popping visuals, and seductive villains, to (and this is critical) a willingness to respect the show’s inevitabilities and inconsistencies. A brief sampling …