The X-Files creator Chris Carter thinks he knows the exact moment when Special Agent Fox Mulder first fell in love with one skeptical, fact-driven medical doctor named Dana Scully.
“I think the moment she walked in his door,” Carter says, referencing the scene in the series’ pilot when Scully walks down to a cramped basement office in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, brushes past a poster bearing the words “I WANT TO BELIEVE,” and meets her new partner, a man whose entire life’s work she is tasked with debunking.
Scully, meanwhile, felt the first pangs of attraction to Mulder “when she called him from her bed in that first episode,” says Carter. “It was such an intimate moment. But I think that she fell for what he represented. The attraction was there. There was a huge amount of sexual tension, and not in the lurid sense.”
That’s a fairly controversial position among X-Philes—Gillian Anderson, aka Scully herself, says Carter’s theory is news to her—but that’s the thing about The X-Files, a sprawling nine-season science-fiction epic that changed TV and pop culture for good: It always offered more questions than answers.
Carter is fielding queries about The X-Files in preparation for its much-hyped return in a six-episode Fox event series, the first installment of which (written and directed by Carter) aired Sunday night. “My Struggle,” the first new X-Files episode in 14 years—not counting the second of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully’s two big-screen adventures, 2008’s I Want to Believe—introduces a number of drastic changes to the FBI agents’ world, and, as some heartbroken fans will note, to their relationship.
When we meet up with Mulder and Scully again, their hard-won romance is long dead. Mulder lives alone, depressed, as he watches his work uncovering the truth about aliens and government conspiracies become a late-night-show punchline. Scully, of course, is a successful surgeon saving children’s lives at Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital—but her life too, apparently, feels empty. A sad looks comes over her face when she remembers her time assigned to the X-Files cases. “I’ve never felt so alive,” she says.
It’s a paranoid conservative talk-show host by the name of Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale, channeling Bill O’Reilly on speed) who gets the gang back together again. He contacts Mulder, who in turn seeks out Scully, to “blow up the most evil conspiracy the world has ever known”: a New World Order-like effort by the world’s governments to “fatten, dullen, and sicken” the world’s population, surveil its every move and, eventually, take over.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. The episode also delves deep into the show’s extraterrestrial mythology, revisiting events as far back as the Roswell incident and reintroducing the still-unsolved mysteries of alien hybridization. But Carter, whose interest in the New World Order was sparked by Internet conspiracy sites and visits to conventions exploring subjects like the secret space program, maintains he was strictly discerning about which theories might actually work for the show.
“I didn’t just throw everything but the kitchen sink in, you know,” he says. “I really went through and chose the things that have some kernel of truth or, if not, some element of fear in them for everyone. It’s not just done carelessly, and it also does not necessarily represent my or the other producers’ point of view.”
In that way, he says, he shares Dana Scully’s philosophy. “I’m a skeptic by nature,” he says. “With this New World Order and with aliens and also the paranormal, you’ve got to prove it to me. That poster in Mulder’s office that says ‘I Want to Believe’ is pretty much my point of view. I wanna believe this stuff, but without proof or evidence, I’m reluctant.
“The show is really Scully’s show in the sense that science, real science, is the anchor,” he adds. “And if it weren’t for Scully, Mulder would just be a kook.”
The 58-year-old writer, surfer, and ex-journalist’s lifelong obsession with questioning the “truth” handed to us by authorities is at the heart and origins of The X-Files, which has relentlessly advised viewers for decades to “trust no one.”
“Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon happened while I was in my civics class in high school,” Carter says. “It was a big thing to me, and I think there was a residual effect for everyone of my generation, well into the ’90s.”
Generation X looked to The X-Files to channel its jaded distrust in authority—but that all changed, Carter says, on 9/11, a day that scarred the American psyche and left it looking to the government for hope rather than scrutinizing its every move.
“We [the writing and producing staff] went to work the day of the World Trade Center events,” Carter remembers. “And people were crying at work and it was just tragic and unsettling. It soon became clear that this was going to change everything in the country and, less importantly, for our TV show.
“We saw clearly that there was a much minimized interest in government conspiracies. [Instead] we put all our trust and faith in the government to protect us. And while The X-Files questions authority, we [Americans at the time] were searching for someone to protect us and provide us with homeland security.”
Today, in what Carter calls our post-Edward Snowden “Citizenfour world,” there has been a resurgence in mistrust in the government, spurred in part by the NSA’s breaches of privacy—making 2016 the perfect time, he says, to finally reopen the X-Files.
“So many of the rights and liberties that we gave up willingly have been abused,” he says. “The government admits it’s spying on us—presumably for our own good, but this is a frightening thing. A lot of people my age recognize that there is a lot of potential for abuse. People give up their privacy so willingly now, believing that if you’ve got nothing to hide, why not, but without understanding that that could also lead you down the path to injustice, that what you say today could be used against you tomorrow. What you buy today could be used against you tomorrow.”
“There’s a whiff of fascism there,” he adds. “These are frightening prospects for me.”
To Carter, the xenophobia and destructive rhetoric trumpeted by high-profile presidential candidates is a grim foreshadowing of the abuses of power inherent in Tad O’Malley’s vision of the future.
“When you get presidential candidates saying ‘just bomb the shit out of them’ or ‘don’t allow this group of people into the United States,’” Carter says, alluding to Donald Trump’s proposed anti-Muslim mandate, “it just suggests a kind of wholesale intolerance that could trickle down or filter down into all kinds of policy. So I think that whether we want to admit it or not, there is a sort of—not the Internet version, not the conspiracy site version—but there is a sort of possibility of a New World Order.”
Much has changed since 2002, when The X-Files went off the air and, in today’s political climate, Carter says he picks up the paper every day and sees something that would make an excellent X-File. He’s thought of more potential investigations for Mulder and Scully than he’s had the chance to put on screen, he says. And while Fox’s event series is limited to six episodes, its last hour ends on a “cliffhanger” that Carter says leaves the door open for more.
In the new run of episodes being called The X-Files’ 10th season, we see the return of several key characters, including Mitch Pileggi’s beloved Assistant Director Walter Skinner, along with a few familiar faces long thought to be dead. The Cigarette Smoking Man, Mulder’s deadliest adversary and the shadowy manipulator supposedly behind some of history’s most traumatic events, returns with a badly scarred face (and a hole in his trachea, one side effect of all those years spent addicted to Morleys).
Carter promises an explanation will be given for the Smoking Man’s miraculous survival in the last episode of the upcoming series. The Lone Gunmen, the fan-favorite trio of hackers and conspiracy enthusiasts who helped Mulder and Scully out of sticky situations, will also return despite their deaths—albeit in a fantasy sequence.
As for our chances of seeing Mulder and Scully back in action after the event series concludes, Carter sounds hopeful.
“Fox owns the show, and I think if the [event series] does well now, I’m certain they would want more,” Carter says. “I’m sure the actors wouldn’t want to commit to 22 episodes [the standard length of a season of X-Files]. They have busy lives and families. But I’m sure there’s a possibility that there could be more. We leave that door open.”
Anderson, for her part, very cautiously leaves room for another potential return.
“I think it definitely could, if people wanted it to,” she tells me. “There’s definitely enough there. Chris Carter’s vision for it is far-reaching and based on how he’s delivered these six and the fact that he seems to have gotten the flavor right for people, the right mix of what we used to do with the contemporary spin on it is encouraging and promising. It could potentially be moved beyond that—that’s not to say that it would, or that we could make it work. It’s just to say that I think that were we to want to make it work, we could.”
We know what Mulder, the believer, would probably say: Come on, Scully. The truth is still out there.