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Why You Don’t Need to Be a Sci-Fi Junkie to Become a Believer in ‘The X-Files’

Why You Don't Need to Be a Sci-Fi Junkie to Become a Believer in 'The X-Files'

It’s telling, for a series that so splendidly warped the familiar conventions of film and television, that what may be the finest episode in the annals of “The X-Files” is among its least outlandish. In the first season’s “Beyond the Sea,” FBI special agent Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), still reeling from the death of her father, travels to North Carolina with her partner, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), to aid local authorities in the pursuit of a serial murderer—and confronts, in the process, the series’ central theme, which is the nature of belief itself.

As fans of “The X-Files,” which ran on FOX from 1993 to 2002, prepare for the network’s six-part revival, slated to begin production this summer, it’s worth remembering that the original rivals “Twin Peaks” (ABC) and “Homicide: Life on the Street” (NBC) as the decade’s best drama, in part because it manages to combine elements of both, and much more besides. Within well-established patterns, “The X-Files,” created by Chris Carter, consistently defies expectations, and “Beyond the Sea,” set against the grain of both the protagonists’ charged relationship and the frequent “monster-of-the-week” entries, is a brilliant illustration of the series’ reserves of reinvention.

Thoroughly blurring the distinction among psychic visions, psychological insights, and psychotic breaks, the episode, clearly indebted to Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), finds Mulder and Scully face to face with death row inmate Luther Lee Boggs (Brad Dourif), who promises to use his prophetic powers to solve the case in return for a commuted sentence. Yet it’s the skeptical, fastidiously rational Scully, not Mulder, the true believer in paranormal phenomena, who comes to trust Boggs: singing the titular tune, which played at her father’s funeral, and calling her by a childhood nickname, Boggs convinces Scully, for a time, that his “gift” is genuine.

Again and again, “Beyond the Sea,” written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by David Nutter, destabilizes Scully’s faith, and Mulder’s doubt, by introducing new information. Boggs can only describe the warehouse in which the killer is holding his next victims captive if he is, in fact, clairvoyant—unless, that is, he conspired with the perpetrator in advance to secure his reprieve from the gas chamber. Boggs can only offer a profile of the killer if he has some supernatural perception of the man’s psyche—unless, that is, he understands the murderer’s modus operandi from their collaboration in past crimes. “Beyond the Sea” is, finally, an extraordinary balancing act, leaving a messy trail of clues for our perusal without ever providing a firm answer to the key question. Who’s right, Mulder or Scully?

This tension, between evidence and explanation, skepticism and belief, convention and invention, is the galvanic force behind “The X-Files,” the heat that fuses its mess of narrative strategies, genre influences, and philosophical positions into a coherent whole. For the timeless appeal of the series is inextricable from the multiple points of entry it provides, weaving together elements of science fiction, horror, romance, and police procedural. Though I can’t count myself a bona fide “X-Files” obsessive—the labyrinthine mythology it constructs about the presence of extraterrestrials on Earth, and the government’s cover-up thereof, has never held much interest for me—I came to the series a skeptic, guided by a college roommate brandishing a set of DVDs, and left a loyal devotee, always impressed by its ability to sustain Anderson and Duchovny’s unmatched chemistry through so many changes of key. 

Take the third season’s “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” written by Darin Morgan and directed by Nutter, or the sixth season’s “Arcadia,” written by Daniel Arkin and directed by Michael Watkins. The former is a macabre comedy, guest starring the terrific Peter Boyle as a sad-sack life insurance salesman with the power to predict the exact details of a person’s death; the latter is a lacerating satire of suburban conformity, in which Mulder and Scully pose as a married couple to investigate a series of mysterious disappearances in an otherwise pristine gated community. In each case, as in “Beyond the Sea,” the shifts of style and tone only accentuate the multifaceted nature of the main characters’ relationship, by turns playful, flirtatious, strained, and serious, all anchored in mutual respect and affection. It’s a partnership worthy of McNulty and Bunk, in “The Wire” (HBO), or even Don and Peggy, in “Mad Men” (AMC), so attuned to the intersection of personal and professional dynamics it scarcely seems a fiction at all.

Of course, these precise, human rhythms develop primarily by way of serial storytelling’s particular magic, which is its capacious expanse of time. The more one watches of “The X-Files,” the more clear it becomes that Mulder and Scully’s positions on reason and faith, alone and together, shape the arc of each episode, and indeed the series as a whole. At once inseparable and irreconcilable, the partners’ personal histories inflect their respective views of the paranormal, which in turn influence their distinct approaches to cases, the inconclusive findings of which then feed back into their existing understandings of the world. They’re two Möbius strips made one.

To see “The X-Files,” then, is to find oneself implicated in their ongoing debate about belief and its absence, which is both its most satisfying pattern and its most frustrating flaw. For the series to work, narratively speaking, it must hew to Mulder’s position—its mantra, after all, is the promise that “the truth is out there”—but as in any argument in which one side relies in part on faith, the participant tasked with disproving the unprovable faces something less than a fair fight.

Though Mulder is by no means infallible, “The X-Files” glories in the sparks thrown up by Scully’s dissent without lending equal weight to the notion that her perspective might, in the end, be the correct one, except in the guise of the many oafish, blundering law enforcement officials who ridicule Mulder’s eccentric theories. To favor scientific explanation over the as-yet-unexplained would be to render the series’ very premise null, but as an aspect of the protagonists’ otherwise captivating, challenging bond, the imbalance can become rather wearisome. In the series’ narrative logic if not its emotional one, Mulder and Scully’s relationship is not quite so equal as it may appear.

While the episode returns to this ideological baseline in the final minutes, as Scully, admitting that she’s “afraid to believe,” attempts to rationalize Boggs’ apparent psychic power as a product of biographical research, the lion’s share of “Beyond the Sea” finds “The X-Files” in top form, a meeting of worthy adversaries and fast friends determined to sort out “the truth,” even at the expense of belief’s closed system or science’s unbending method. “I thought that you’d be pleased,” Scully says after confessing her trust in Boggs, “that I’d opened myself to extreme possibilities.” Whether or not FOX’s upcoming revival approaches this rarefied ideal, “The X-Files” unearths “extreme possibilities” for the medium far beyond the realm of sci-fi, an original still worth savoring from every angle.

“The X-Files” is available via Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and Hulu Plus.

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