The New York Times
November 7, 1998

'X-Files' Tries to Keep Its Murky Promise
By Bill Carter

Anyone who turns on the "The X Files" is bound to be struck by the distinctive look: murky, mysterious and just a little bit threatening.

As the biggest hit on the Fox network enters its sixth season tomorrow night, the same words might be used for its future.

"The X-Files" has reached an age at which many highly regarded television shows have been known to start losing their way. Plus it finds itself in a position no television show has ever been in before: following up a big-budget Hollywood movie packed with action scenes and the spectacular takeoff of a giant spaceship in Antarctica, part of an elaborately constructed plot that was an extension of the story line of the television series.

If the burden of serving as a 22-episode sequel to a movie were not enough of a challenge, "The X-Files" is coming out of a summer in which ratings for its repeat episodes have drastically fallen off, most likely as a result of multiple exposure of the early episodes on cable and broadcast channels.

Chris Carter, the creator, producer and chief mythologizer of "The X-Files," knows what is at stake.

"The movie was a calculated risk," he said. 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the movie and the television series, was clearly looking to create a movie franchise akin to the one started up by another television show with extraterrestrial themes, "Star Trek." Based on the results of "The X-Files" movie, with $85 million in domestic box office sales, the jury is still out on that prospect.

"You always take the chance of damaging the series because if the movie fails, people might not come back to the show," Mr. Carter said. "You could never recover if you did not do a good movie. But we didn't let that happen."

Mr. Carter will find that out for sure tomorrow night when "The X-Files" returns to the weekly television wars trying to keep momentum while recapping last season's final episode as well as the movie, complete with selected scenes in letterbox format.

More than a future movie franchise is riding on the series' continued success. For many, the quality of "The X-Files," the last show to start up again this television season, will prove crucial in what is being widely called a disastrously disappointing new season.

It is also being counted on heavily by the suddenly struggling Fox network, which needs the buzz that surrounded previous "X-Files" premieres to ignite a ratings comeback.

Mr. Carter dismissed the impact of such pressure on the work he is doing on the show. "All I can do is a good job; it's as simple and as difficult as that," he said. "We're all saying, with nine shows done, that this feels like it could possibly be the best year yet."

It might have to be, with all the expectations it is carrying.

Ted Harbert, the former chief programmer at ABC and now a television executive with the Dreamworks studio, said: "If they maintain the quality and still tell great stories, they'll be fine. If not, it could start to erode away like any other show that starts to age."

The movie is an unpredictable complication. Mr. Carter spent five years weaving intricate strands of often dense story elements -- suggestions of alien abductions, hints of government conspiracies -- usually offering just enough new information to keep fans intrigued and confused at the same time.

Then came the movie, and Mr. Carter recognized that he had to tell a separate big story that satisfied the longing for some definitive solutions to the show's many mysteries while attracting -- and not utterly befuddling -- moviegoers unfamiliar with the television show. And it all had to be done in the hiatus between the fourth and fifth season, before last season's episodes had even been created.

"It was all fresh ground for us," Mr. Carter said in a telephone interview. "We had to plan long in advance. Of course, we also had all sorts of unforeseen variables like how the film would be edited."

Mr. Harbert noted that the difference between movie storytelling and television storytelling would be instantly apparent. "The requirements of the movie arena demand such big action elements," Mr. Harbert said. "That's so different from the intimate kind of storytelling you can do on television."

Mr. Carter said tomorrow night's episode was "a synthesis of the finale and the movie, a crystallization of the mythology of the show."

Mythology has been his word for those episodes of "The X-Files" that update the alien-conspiracy premise, which began with the initial quest of the show's main character, the F.B.I. agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), to learn the fate of his sister, who as a child was abducted by aliens, or so Mulder has believed. His partner, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), a doctor, has been the voice of scientific reason, demanding empirical evidence of Mulder's encounters with the paranormal.

Though Mr. Carter said that he had never created more than four or five mythology episodes per season and that "the rest are just good scary episodes" that stand alone, it has been the mythology shows that drove ratings to their peaks, largely because they inspired the original cult following for the series.

The following has been intense, like those of other cult shows of other generations: the "Twin Peaks" phenomenon of the early 1990's, the "Prisoner" cult of the late 1960's and the "Star Trek" mania of the 1960's and beyond. At least in terms of first-run episodes, most of these television obsessions were short-lived: one season for "Twin Peaks," one for "The Prisoner" and three for the original "Star Trek."

"The X-Files" has easily outdone the others, though in network television's diminished empire a cult-size audience is nothing to sneeze at. But "The X-Files" has grown into something much bigger than a cult hit: it is routinely nominated for the Emmy for best drama. Its writing and acting have won awards. It is critically accepted as one of the best shows on television.

Its continuing cult appeal is evident on s numerous Web sites, where plot developments are perused like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in the sales of books, T-shirts and memorabilia at fan conventions.

Those elements keep "The X-Files" television show in the same league as "Star Trek," which blazed the path in converting characters created for television into a big box office movie franchise.

In the biggest leap made in the film, the alien invasion plot that had been only dimly decipherable in the series was given reasonably full credence: Mulder actually saw aliens and Scully was kidnapped by them. Mr. Carter said the new season would not back away from those revelations, although new twists would be layered on top of them.

"When the show began I told Fox executives that we would not see aliens for five years," Mr. Carter said. The time is up. Aliens do appear this season.

Sunday's episode also gives details of both the film and last season's finale, which introduced a mind-reading child named Gibson Praise. Recapping that episode is almost as important as recapping the movie because few viewers saw the repeat when it was broadcast a few weeks ago.

Mr. Carter attributed the drop in ratings this summer to its being the first summer "The X-Files" had to compete with multiple showings of its old episodes. But Fox's network competitors will be watching the ratings carefully this season to see if the added exposure of episodes in syndication will damage the "X-Files" franchise.

As for speculation that longtime fans who did not like the film might cool to the series, Mr. Harbert says he doesn't believe that will happen. "I don't think it will matter at all, as long as the shows continue to be good," he said, although he added, "I imagine the film didn't quite live up to expectations."

Mr. Carter was more sanguine. "The film made $150 million worldwide and $85 million domestically," he said. "I think that means it was a very successful movie for Fox."

"The movie was very big with fans of the show and it was successful with nonfans, though maybe not quite as successful as some people expected," he added.

The film presented enormous complications for Mr. Carter, whose work pace already rivals that of a Mach-speed juggler. He directed the movie through the spring and summer of 1997 (after writing it in partnership with Frank Spotnitz) while planning last season's episodes and, from afar, supervising production of his other Fox show, "Millennium."

This season he has decided to involve himself once again in the day-to-day running of "Millennium" as well, and his new contract with Fox calls for him to develop a third series for the network for next fall.

"It's kind of what I bargained for," Mr. Carter said. "This is the life I've chosen."

Mr. Carter said it was unlikely that "The X-Files" would go beyond a seventh year. "The stars' contracts don't go beyond that," he said. He does know what plot conclusion he is moving toward. "I'll resolve the question of what happened to Mulder's sister in the series finale," he said.

There is other unfinished business to attend to before that. "At some point we will do another film," Mr. Carter said. "I had hoped to do it this coming summer, but with my current schedule I've given that up. But we'll definitely do another."