Maybe, after five seasons spent inuring America to the schemes of a nefarious shadow government, Chris Carter and the folks at Fox have had some of that skulduggery rub off on them. How else to explain the awfully well-timed release of The X-Files: Unrestricted Access? Produced in collaboration with Carter, the exhaustive double CD-ROM arrives in stores on the heels of the series' two most confoundingly complex ''mythology'' episodes yet sufficiently in advance of this summer's big-screen feature The X-Files. Coincidence? Hmmm...
Like the Sunday-night paranoia-fest it's based on, Unrestricted delivers a wealth of information while still leaving you maddeningly mystified. But if approached as a user-friendly catalog of the truth that's already out there rather than a digitized Rosetta stone promising jaw-dropping revelation there's some good arcane fun to be had.
Fun being an aesthetically relative term. Icons dimly illuminated against a pitch-black backdrop, its typeface the show's trademark overmagnified newsprint, Unrestricted's design is as compelling as it is foreboding, consistent with The X-Files' gorgeous gloom.
Built on a Web-browser interface, the CD-ROM's centerpiece is a sprawling search engine through which ''case files'' (i.e., episodes) and ''dossiers'' (for FBI, CIA, and NSA personnel; suspects; victims; and characters cryptically described as ''status unknown'') from the show's first four seasons can be pulled up. They're retrievable in chronological, alphabetical, even geographical order (a map of the states divided into thirds tells you if there's a hotbed of ''human enigma'' activity anywhere on the fruited plain). It's also chockful of cross-referencing hyperlinks and glossary entries. Can't remember what the Erlenmeyer flask contained? Need a definition of Munchausen-by-proxy syndrome? Want to touch base with Anita Budahas, Neech Manley, or the Stupendous Yappi? They're all here.
Less rewarding but worth a look is the Surveillance database, featuring a sort of greatest-hits selection of stills and video footage for the show's main characters: Agents Mulder and Scully, FBI assistant director Walter Skinner, Deep Throat, X, Alex ''Ratboy'' Krycek, and others. The supposed money shots here are multi-angled views of Mulder's and Scully's office and homes. But while the 360-degree pan and zoom functions are a geeky little treat, their frustratingly limited image quality prevents gleaning anything new about the two or their work. That couldn't be intentional, could it?...
Most innovative is the Communications area, which points you online to a restricted X-Files website that provides for regular updating of the case-file database as newer episodes are aired and archived. You can even adjust your preferences to initiate these downloads on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. The catch is that Fox Interactive insists you use Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser to make it happen.
Whaddaya know, Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch in cahoots: Now, that's a conspiracy to make even Cancer Man proud. B