Abducted by The X-Files: all the places fandom can take you

What happens when you fall hard for a show like The X-Files in 2018? Sophie found out...

The X-Files Season 11 Poster
Photo: Getty

I was a nonchalant abductee. I wasn’t exactly scrambling up the side of a mountain or on a bridge gawping at bright lights or partying at the top of the Empire State. It took the cumulative power of a second watch of Kumail Nanjiani’s reference-strewn rom com The Big Sick, the online hype for season eleven and Amazon Prime Video’s recommendations for me to turn to my sister, one cold February night, and say, on a whim, nonchalantly, hopefully, “Let’s watch the pilot of The X-Files?”

That was me gone. When a young Special Agent Dana Scully knocked on Fox Mulder’s office door in the basement of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building twenty-five years ago, she was not adequately informed of what joining The X-Files was getting her into and twenty-five years later, neither was I.

Where I went

I say I was abducted, let me be more clear. I mean my pop culture tastebuds were abducted. Mulder and Scully experience nine minutes of missing time in the pilot. I can’t account for nine months.

When the central UFOs and aliens mystery of The X-Files was laid out, and it was several times, I still felt that I wasn’t quite done with this story. Questions were left unanswered, business unfinished, tension – somehow – left unresolved. Was I trying to reveal further mysteries of a TV show outside the TV show itself? Yes, that’s exactly what I was doing.

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One of the first strong feelings I had was that I was definitely going to read Moby Dick. A Scully family text, it’s first referenced in Glenn Morgan and James Wong’s season one episode Beyond The Sea – Scully calls her Navy captain father Ahab, he calls her Starbuck. Then in Season 3’s Quagmire by Kim Newton, there’s a brilliant, fan famous, conversation on a rock (written by Darin Morgan) about whether or not Mulder is the “monomaniacal” Captain Ahab. We also find out that Scully has named her new, adorable dog Queequeg, after the harpoonist in the whale hunt novel, a joke that becomes much, much funnier when you meet the original. I also liked the sound of Moby Dick because it’s known for people who are very influenced by the book but have never actually finished it.

I never finished it. But I’m about four hundred pages in (out of six hundred and thirty) and almost every chapter is one to savour. Also, the first one hundred pages are unexpectedly really funny. I can’t randomly quote it but I can just about remember Mulder’s favourite line on the spot: “Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling.” In context on the page, this is a sick burn from Herman Melville, the 1850s equivalent to one of Mulder’s better puns.

Of course, I did all the obvious things too. I googled cryptozoology. I was transfixed by a rewatch of Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, a huge influence on The X-Files creator Chris Carter. I found John Carpenter’s Antarctic research station horror The Thing, from 1982, after seeing Ice, Morgan and Wong’s Season 1 homage/remake. It works beautifully. My flatmate fell asleep on the couch when I made him watch Ed Wood’s 1956 Plan 9 From Outer Space, i.e. the ‘worst film ever made’, late at night, in black and white on YouTube. Mulder’s got it on the TV – for the 42nd time – when Scully walks in mid-way through David Duchovny’s Hollywood AD from season seven.

In the months after I’d watched all (most of) the original nine seasons, I blitzed through the first four seasons of Californication which sees Duchovny delighting in playing asshole writer Hank Moody, and two mini seasons of Gillian Anderson as Detective Stella Gibson in serial killer drama The Fall. And sure, it’s nice to see the actors you’ve come to like doing other stuff and I enjoyed both shows but neither quite scratched the thematic itch.

Signals and spin-offs

By the summer of my cosmic kidnapping I found myself on a sort of anti-algorithmic odyssey, with all strings on the virtual pinboard leading back to The X-Files. I was seeking out influences and tangents, quick hits like The Springfield Files on The Simpsons; the paranormal instalments of BuzzFeed Unsolved; Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius (more Simpsons); the 1956 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

I remembered that I like to work for things, make discoveries. Sometimes I felt the pop of a Mulder finding the Japanese translation of ‘Osu’ (in Vince Gilligan’s season three episode Pusher), other times the vibe was more Roy Neary pushing mashed potato around his plate, insisting “This means something, this is important.”

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The show also served as a signal in the noise of online recommendations, even when I wasn’t looking. In June, I spotted a story in The Guardian on a graphic novel about the 30s/40s New York crime scene photography of Weegee, the alias of Arthur Fellig. I clicked because it sounded familiar. It sounded familiar because Vince Gilligan based his Season 6 episode Tithonus on the detail that Fellig – here Alfred and immortal – always seemed to be at the scene of murders before the cops. I bought Weegee: Serial Photographer by Max de Radigues and Walter Mannaert and fell for the pages of Weegee staging victims and developing photos in the trunk of his car.

I couldn’t find the only true spin-off The Lone Gunmen anywhere but YouTube. I tried the pilot, which freakily predicted a plane flying into the Twin Towers six months before it happened in 2001, thereby providing material for conspiracy theorists, not just portraying three of them. Incidentally JJ Abrams’ Fringe, considered by some a successor to The X-Files, contains a parallel world with an iconic shot of the Twin Towers still standing. From what I’ve seen of Fringe, years ago, it’s perfectly fine sci-FBI but no contest. I haven’t got to Carter’s Millennium or Harsh Realm yet and maybe never will. But it’s nice to know there’s 12 more episodes of the very silly The Lone Gunmen hanging out online.

There are some gaps when it comes to influences on The X-Files mainly because I just don’t have time for another full-blown, multi-season addiction this year and also because this is my obsession and I’ll follow the threads I want. I’ve watched a couple of Twilight Zones. I’ve watched clips of Clarice Starling, a proto-Dana Scully, in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 The Silence Of The Lambs but not rewatched the whole thing. I should probably check out the 70s show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, another big inspiration for Carter. I’ve seen some but not all of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks so that might be next – Duchovny pops up as DEA Agent Denise Bryson.

When I’m ready, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is on my Netflix list – I was being contrary when it came out but I love all of Gilligan’s episodes including season six’s Drive with Bryan Cranston – and Frank Spotnitz’s alt-Hitler-history The Man In The High Castle is on my Prime Video one. This thing isn’t exactly over.

The mythology

I’m not naturally a crime person, it has to be The Jinx/The Wire levels of greatness, I’ve never even listened to Serial. I flirted with the shipping stuff considering The X-Files can be consumed as an excruciatingly paced period romance to rival Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion and blogs like TVMouse are very witty companions. But if I had to boil it down, I’d say my preoccupation with The X-Files is really to do with how it treats myths, symbols and storytelling, real high brow stuff. And that’s where I got it bad for this show. Really bad.

So bad I’d be clicking on individual episodes on Darren Mooney’s The M0vie Blog, which should come with a health warning, to find out just how well read the Ten Thirteen Production team is. So bad I watched the 1996 Richard Dawkins’ lecture ‘Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder’ in which he bemoans the fact that even though The X-Files is fictional, and sets up Mulder as believer and Scully as skeptic, “week after week, the rational explanation loses” in favour of fantasy. So bad I may have watched Alien Autopsy: Fact Or Fiction? a ridiculous Fox doc (currently on Netflix) which Dawkins was railing against, referenced in season three’s Nisei and exposed as a hoax after it aired.

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The X-Files is interested in spirituality but I’ve always been more into myths. The long running UFO and alien colonisation plotlines have long been referred to by the creators and fans as the ‘mythology’ and Carter and his writers are never afraid to reach for big themes and symbols. Frankenstein is everywhere in The X-Files, not just Season 5’s The Post-Modern Prometheus, and who knows if that nudged me into watching both the 2018 Mary Shelley and the 1931 Bride Of Frankenstein. Anyone into The Handmaid’s Tale should check out the sometimes feminist, sometimes problematic, reproductive Scully storylines, at least until it goes off the deep end.

The Wizard Of Oz, something I haven’t thought about since I was twelve, pops up in season six’s Triangle and The Rain King. I’m not into baseball or veganism so I took a chance on David Duchovny’s recent novel Miss Subways which turned out to be charming, jam-packed with Irish myths, NYC ennui and a wonderfully weird heroine. After I was done, I spent 90p on The Only Jealousy Of Emer, a play by W.B Yeats on which Miss Subways is based, racing through twenty-four illuminated Kindle pages. Fewer birds, more melancholy at the source.

The real eyes to the sky stuff has come from Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, an influence on the Morgan brothers and Duchovny’s input on the character of Mulder and his family’s involvement in the conspiracy. The Hero’s Journey is far from unknown in Hollywood, I knew it was George Lucas’ jam when he was creating Luke Skywalker but until my X-Files bender, I hadn’t sat down to read the whole damn thing. Then there I am nodding along at the “astonishing consistency” with which heroes are the king’s son – Skywalker, Fox Mulder, Jesus etc. Turns out this trope just means what we’re looking for is probably already hidden within, waiting to be rediscovered, even in a show which tells us ‘The truth is out there.’

Stories in stories

It might be cliched but it’s Vince Gilligan’s season five vampire ep Bad Blood and Darin Morgan’s outrageous season three Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, each with multiple, trickster narratives, that stuck with me. Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashomon (rewatched) frequently comes up as an influence, though Gilligan namechecks The Dick Van Dyke Show for completists. The character Lord Kinbote in Jose Chung shouts out the fictional editor Charles Kinbote in Vladmir Nabokov’s mindblowing 1962 novel Pale Fire which may be my favourite X-Files related find. Both the semi-spoof episode and the playful edition of poetry and commentary, let’s call it, got me basically high on some serious postmodern thrills. And when it comes to thoughtful criticism, Community and Rick And Morty creator Dan Harmon talking about Jose Chung on episode thirty-seven of Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files podcast might as well be poetry itself.

Getting to Gilligan’s season seven episode X-Cops, shown entirely as footage of an edition of reality show Cops, featuring Mulder, Scully and a demon, reminded me of BAN, the season one BET Network ep of Donald Glover’s show Atlanta. And it was found footage director Max Landis, talking about X-Cops, again on The X-Files Files, who led me to the Secure Contain Protect Foundation, a 4,000+ strong collection of short stories presented as “special containment procedure” reports on anomalous objects, people and places.

As for TV mythologies, I’d heard of the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, that hundreds of shows exist in the same universe as 80s medical show St. Elsewhere whose finale closed with the reveal that it was all the dream of one Tommy Westphall. But once I learned that The X-Files is involved via a crossover from Detective John Munch (Homicide: Life On The Street, Law And Order: SVU) I was all in. Will I watch all four hundred and nineteen shows in the Tommy Westphall Universe master list? Probably not?

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My own personal conspiracy theory

The thing about conspiracy theories is that they’re only conspiracy theories as long as the rest of the world doesn’t believe you. The real quest isn’t finding the connections, it’s finding out which connections have meaning or can be given meaning, from within or without, and how much what the rest of the world believes matters to you.

Because look, I could tell you, feverishly, that the season three The X-Files episode Syzygy stars Lisa Robin Kelly as telekinetic teen Terri Roberts and that Lisa Robin Kelly would go on to play Laurie Forman in That ’70s Show from 1998 and in season five of That ’70s Show, Kelso, played by Ashton Kutcher, sings a riff on the song American Pie – “So bye, bye Mr. Stephen Hyde” – and that American Pie, written in 1971 by Don McLean, was inspired by the death of Buddy Holly and who else died in that February 1959 plane crash with Buddy Holly but The Big Bopper, a fact pointed out by one reluctant psychic in the season three The X-Files episode… Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.

What does that mean? It means that when I listened to a Studio 360 podcast about American Pie, I had The X-Files on the brain. All things considered that’s not exactly surprising. All Things is a season seven episode written and directed by Gillian Anderson. I can’t stop.

Finding this show in 2018

Whatever took hold of me in February could only have happened in the 2010s. It was nostalgic for the ‘long 90s’. I’d never watched The X-Files back then, I was still in single digits, but I remember a scene or two of UFOs and monsters from my dad watching it on the TV in the front room. I quickly realised this year that everyone my age has seen Stranger Things and no-one I know has seen The X-Files.

It’s been entirely digital – so far. I may buy the box sets at some point for the bonus features, but I’ve watched extras and bloopers and interviews on YouTube. The only physical objects relating to The X-Files in my flat are Darren Mooney’s definitive Opening The X-Files book and a black ‘Mulder It’s Me’ t-shirt that I’m pretty sure I’ve lost. Kumail’s The X-Files Files, my call to adventure, is locked away in a podcast app on my phone.

It’s seriously meta. For me there has been no gap between watching vintage season one episodes and seeing present day David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson OTT goof-smooching on Jimmy Kimmel. The last thing: it’s over. Becoming of a fan of a TV show that was gone for years then returned then was over again six weeks after you got into it is… odd.

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My cultural tastes have just about returned to baseline. Still, this is a fandom with lasting consequences. The chances of me visiting Vancouver, where the first five atmospheric seasons were filmed, have shot up. One of my friends might name his future child Fox Mitha (I want to believe). Just to be clear I am free to have things like a job and friends and plans. In fact next summer I’ll be flying to Bermuda for a wedding. On the flight over there, though, I’d be a damn fool not to spend forty-five minutes watching season six Mulder’s Nazi adventures on the Queen Anne in the Bermuda Triangle. So can we really say for sure that I’ve been returned?