The X-Files' Invisible Ink

The Truth Is Out There -- Somewhere

by Michael Ventura

"The Truth Is Out There -- Somewhere" was originally published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on September 10,1995, prior to the start of the X-Files fall season. It is excerpted here in an abbreviated form.

The hardest thing is, the truth is out there -- but you don't know what it is and you have no control whatsoever."

That's what 26-year-old Stacy O'Grady told a reporter during the six days that she and her family waited for news of her brother, Capt. Scott O'Grady, after his plane was shot down over Bosnia last June. Neither Stacy O'Grady nor the reporter stopped to discuss the likely source of her sentence. But for about 10 million Americans, what she said was familiar, something that's become as close as we get nowadays to a proverb. These 10 million spend their Friday nights watching or taping The X-Files. Over spooky stills and spookier music, one tantalizing sentence flashes on the screen in white capital letters: THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.

The rest of the sentence is O'Grady's elaboration, but it accurately expresses the state of many characters on The X-Files -- and of many of us who watch it. Which may be the secret of the show's success.

It needs a secret, because the hour-long X-Files goes against classic mass-entertainment formula. Its lead characters, FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), have laughed once, and that was in the pilot. They were standing in the rain in a graveyard and were laughing at Mulder's gruesome theory about the deaths of several young people. (The young fare badly on this show. They are always being murdered, or possessed, or abducted and/or experimented on by aliens and/or our own government.) It might be more accurate to say that only Scully laughed in that scene. Mulder chortled. Since then, they've smiled and smirked some, but there's been precious little chortling and no more laughter. With good reason. Agents Mulder and Scully never win.

In two seasons, not one show has given us anything that a Hollywood executive would call a Happy Ending. Mulder and Scully manage to stay alive, and that's about as happy as it gets. The Bad Guys -- sinister, super-secret government cabals -- almost always get away. The facts are almost always inconclusive, and the evidence is almost always destroyed or stolen. When someone who knows anything is about to talk, he is instantly doomed. Brutal betrayals take place as a matter of course; for instance, our government (or a cabal, within a cabal, within our government) assassinates Mulder's father. The perpetrators -- whether earthly, ghostly, or alien -- are rarely caught; sometimes they're not even seen. They depart after doing as much harm as interests them. At best, they're neutralized only after they've done a great deal of damage. And since the nature of how they come and go is vague, there's never any assurance that the Bad Guys won't be back to do still more damage whenever they feel like it.

In an episode called "The Calusari," a boy is dispossessed of his evil stillborn twin's spirit, but only after he's witnessed the grotesque deaths of his father, younger brother, and grandmother and has been cleansed in a ritual in which rooster blood is splashed upon him by some very chilling old men. We can only imagine what sort of shape this boy and his mother are going to be in for the rest of their lives. (Families in general have a hellish time on The X-Files, always threatened and often devastated by inner and outer forces beyond their control.) In a voice-over at the end of this episode, Mulder tells us that "neither innocence nor vigilance may be protection against the howling heart of evil."

Needless to say, if neither innocence nor vigilance are going to do us any good, we don't have a chance. Even if the truth is out there.

Compare these goings-on to NYPD Blue, ER, Homicide, Law & Order, the various Star Treks, or any halfway-serious successful show, past or present. In those stories, the authorities are sincere and can usually be depended on, and the forces of good hold their own, though with difficulty, against the forces of not-so-good. Even in Twin Peaks the authorities were the Good Guys, and the government could be trusted not to assassinate your father. In contrast, Mulder and Scully are in constant danger from elements in their own outfit. An oft-repeated X-Files axiom is "Trust No One." ("Trust No. 1 is Mulder's computer access code.)

What could be the ap- peal of a program in which every attempt to bring order out of chaos seems doomed to produce only further chaos -- and in which life seems to be defined, at best, as a tentatively normal arrangement over which the abnormal reigns? Is this what many of us are really feeling? (You don't have to answer that.)

Perhaps so, since the show -- which had its third season premiere Sept. 22 -- won this year's Golden Globe as TV's best dramatic series and was nominated for seven Emmys. The show's ratings have been climbing steadily, and its growth from the first season to the second in the key 18-to-49 category was, according to Fox, the greatest of any returning network show. The first two weeks ofthe Fall '95 season earned the show's highest rating ever and the series continues to sweep its time period as the current season progresses. Its fans are devoted to the point of fanaticism, generating umpteen fanzines and computer bulletin boards in which every detail of every show -- and I mean every detail, such as the significance of the number on Mulder's apartment door -- is contemplated and discussed endlessly.

I discovered the show last fall while channel-surfing on an otherwise featureless Friday night. I came in well after the beginning, and what held me, of all things, was the lighting. In contrast to the brutally bright living-room of sitcoms, and the rich primary colors of most TV and wide-screen dramas, on this X-Files (and most I've seen since) the screen was dark -- often almost black, but for a few gleams in which faces and furniture were barely visible. Even exterior daytime shots were mostly gray. Yet the texture of this darkness was rich, with subtle variations that were always in movement. This movement, in turn, was rarely predictable. The camera setups were unusual, and the editing more intricate than TV schedules allow for. Someone was paying considerable attention to getting the show's point across visually, using color to get the black-and-white effects of classic "film noir."

Then there were the faces. On big and small screens, what we see these days are smooth and pretty visages devoid of the marks of experience -- billboard faces mouthing the copycat vocabulary of behavior that telegraphs the intent of each scene with numbing regularity. Not on The X-Files. Its casting proves there are still faces out there -- young and old, rich in psychological depth, capable of tones of voice, flickers of expression and quirks of delivery -- that add the kind of resonance to dialogue that used to be a matter of course in old movies. Virtually every actor, in every part, projects an air of intelligence. Of course, one doesn't find such widespread smarts in "real life," but this carefully designed show wasn't pretending to be real life. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, these filmmakers were clearly interested in magnifying one spectrum of life and then viewing the world through that magnification. This used to be called style.

The leads, Duchovny and Anderson, are minimalist actors with attractive but distinctive looks, who usually speak softly and can make small variations in expression count for a great deal. They give the impression that they're thinking much more than they're saying -- a touch that the old Hollywood stars knew how to make the most of, transforming many a silly script into a minor classic. The effect of the visuals and the acting that night was like listening to music where the words function as part of the sound and aren't all that important in themselves.

I was, in short, hooked. Over the weeks, the craftsmanship that had first attracted me held up. The casting was nothing short of inspired. Whether the roles called for social workers or serial killers, abductees or vampires, necrophiliacs or small-town sheriffs, the actors looked right without looking like what you'd expect, and they played skillfully within the show's necessarily ambiguous style. As The X-Files explored its menacing territory -- that netherworld between "The Truth Is Out There" and "Trust No One" -- I came to have increasing respect for its interplay between actors and writers. Sooner or later, all the continuing characters are given speeches that reveal their hearts; yet you don't necessarily have to have seen any particular speech or know their backgrounds, because the acting contains subtleties that imply the content of the speeches.

But the pitfall of episodic TV is that, no matter what dangers are in the script, everyone knows the stars will survive. The X-Files handles this unavoidable evasion cleverly, by making the danger to the stars psychological more than physical. The wear and tear shows over time. Duchovny's Mulder, who believes in extranormal possibilities, has become increasingly frayed and desperate; Anderson's Scully, a forensic doctor, becomes more and more at odds with her own certainties. Show by show, it seems that they are going slowly out of their minds -- which, considering what they have to deal with every week, may be inevitable.

Their slowly changing characters help make up for the show's inevitable ticks. (It is television, after all.) For instance, if the FBI's X-Files -- records of unexplained and unexplainable cases -- are so dangerous to various all-powerful intergovernmental cabals, why not just destroy the files? Why leave them around for the likes of Mulder and Scully to investigate? Why would the government bury a boxcar of dead aliens in the New Mexico desert? Why not just burn them, if civilization as we know it would be transformed by the discovery? Why did it take 50 episodes for the cabals to realize that they're going to have to kill Mulder, especially when they don't mind killing anyone else? The flimsy excuse was that Mulder had friends in Congress. Can you imagine a congressperson standing in front of C-SPAN's cameras and telling America that an FBI agent was killed because he had proof of extraterrestrials? (OK, maybe Newt would do it.) The gloves finally came off in the second season's finale, when the cabal murders Mulder's father and tries to kill Mulder himself.

If the FBI is such an untrustworthy organization, why do Mulder and Scully trust the security of their office computers? Since their homes, their offices and even their pens have been bugged, they should know that nothing is more easy to tap than a computer -- unless it's a cellular phone, and Mulder and Scully are constantly talking secrets on cellular phones. That kind of thing.

Why must Mulder and Scully enter a pitch-black room with flashlights and guns drawn in virtually every episode? (It's such a signature gesture that it's even in the title sequence.) And don't Mulder and Scully ever get horny? If not for each other, then for someone. I mean, for a human being -- because Mulder did have a brief (and unconsummated) crush on a vampire who ended up immolating herself, while Scully (in one of Anderson's finest performances) was once possessed with the desire for an alien. True, we've all sometimes felt that our lovers are vampires or aliens. But, to put it in X-Files fashion, Sex Is Out There, along with the truth, and the reason these characters are getting so desperate may be that they've been forced to repress their drives for two years.

Then there's the occasional unintentional hoot, my favorite being when Mulder corners the nameless but most powerful cabal operative, referred to as "Cancer Man" (because he always smokes). Cancer Man tells Mulder, "If people were to know of the things that I know, it would all fall apart."

Hasn't anybody on the show noticed that it is all falling apart? That a show as fundamentally negative as The X-Files probably wouldn't have an audience unless it spoke to the suspicions of many that society is at least a little shaky?

Actor Doug Hutchison, who starred in the popular Tooms episode, refers to creator and executive producer Chris Carter simply as "God" -- a fairly accurate description of how executive producers function on television. At 38, Carter is not quite middle-aged, even with his longish, prematurely gray hair. He wears faded blue jeans, he's charming, he smiles a lot, but just beneath that affability lurks the single-mindedness of a man at the height of his powers, a man who cares about nothing but his work, and whose time has come. Such a time comes once if it comes at all, and Carter radiates that excitement, albeit under tight control.

In a bungalow at Twentieth Century Fox's studio in Los Angeles, Carter and some of his crew were gathered around an editing console, fine-tuning "The Calusari" episode. "The way it works here," he said, "the writers are also producers. So they do the editing." Writers having a say in how a scene plays on the screen? In most Hollywood shoots, once a script is approved (much less shot), writers are kept at a distance, and it can even be hard to get a phone call returned by anyone in production. So the show's greatest mystery, its consistent level of craftsmanship, was partly revealed: The people who cared most about the story were in on its depiction from beginning to end. Carter added: "We're all filmmakers. That's what it ends up being."

In the room with Carter were the episode's writer, Sara Charno, editor Heather MacDougall, and two, sometimes three others. An orange-and-white cat had the run of the place as well. Carter's crew were of his general mold, casual on the surface but tense underneath, intelligent, and looking just a little out of place in the bastion of Hollywood -- as though they were still a bit surprised that the guards had let them through the studio gates.

But none of them, Carter especially, looked in the least bit tortured. You'd think that people whose job description is immersion in paranoid horror, constant dwelling on what Carter calls "extreme possibility," and preoccupation with fear and betrayal, would at least be a little gaunt. Instead they were pleasant, affluent, healthy types, with no distinguishing ticks, who happened to be working up quite a bad dream: a woman realizing that one of her sons may have indeed killed the other as well as her husband and mother. "To show you how fast we work," Carter said, "this show airs a week from Friday." The editing wasn't yet finished, and technical matters such as voice-overs and color conversion hadn't even begun.

There was a lot of discussion about the exact moment that the mother has her realization. Was it in this frame, or was it several frames later, and when should they cut? People spoke freely, disagreed and agreed easily. They seemed to share an unspoken understanding of the program's intent, and they spoke within that framework. Carter cautioned: "What you leave to the imagination is more frightening than what you show. Usually what's most frightening is what you don't see."

What was most interesting during the conference was Carter's insistence on keeping a balance between clarity and ambiguity. "Plot is so important," he emphasizes, "but it shouldn't be so literal that it's laid out completely." In most feature films and television, the plots are so obvious, especially by the end, that there's no room for a viewer's imagination. Carter's flirtation with the intentionally vague is what sets The X-Files apart. This explains its audience's obsessive involvement with the program. Viewers fill in the vagueness with their own imaginations and thus become sort of co-writers of the show.

Craft is not an accident. It allows no shortcuts and tolerates little insincerity. These people had found techniques to bypass many of television's most severe constrictions, but have they painted themselves into a corner? Like Agents Mulder and Scully, will they be overpowered by the logic of their quest and ultimately forced to reveal so much that the clarity itself becomes boring? Questions are usually juicier than answers in this realm. Their work can only become harder.

In an episode called "One Breath," Mitch Pileggi, who plays Mulder and Scully's FBI boss, got to say the one speech that expresses why The X-Files is so welcomed by some of us. For we live in a country obsessed with safety, a country that seems to have forgotten that there's never enough police or money, never enough armaments and never enough insurance to make the flux of life predictable and secure. He says simply: "Every life... every day... is in danger. That's just life."

That's our real fear, and why shouldn't it be? But scary as it is, it was refreshing, even exhilarating, to have that truth said plainly and forthrightly in a medium that usually lives on lies... then one morning I'm crossing the street, and I see a billboard on a bus. It's Scully and Mulder. "Working for the government is cool," it announces. "Cool like us." Nothing like a bracing dose of hypocrisy to start the day. n

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