The X-Files, one of the most recognised and beloved television properties of the last three decades, lies once again at a fascinating impasse.
My Struggle IV was billed as a finale, but it soon became clear Chris Carter only intended Season 11 to serve as a season rather than series finale. Despite Gillian Anderson’s claim this was her last time playing FBI agent Dana Scully, Carter has steadfastly refused to write a true ending for Scully and her erstwhile partner Fox Mulder. What many considered could well be the final time we saw these iconic characters, fates were left unresolved, storylines nebulous, and our two heroes were left staring down at a crossroads of two different paths: domesticity with the chance of a new family, or continuing their work investigating the paranormal. Their choice depends on many factors which lie beyond any decisions made by the two intrepid FBI agents in the show.
For one thing – ratings. Unlike the cavalcade of TV shows and even movies now being produced for streaming services, The X-Files still operates out of the FOX network on broadcast television, and their fiscal choices of what to spend their money on depends on how many people tune in every week. While the first revival series, Season 10, was a mega hit for the network both domestically and internationally, lightning hasn’t struck twice; Season 11 has consistently underperformed week on week, with low viewer numbers.
Were people turned off by the lukewarm creativity of the six episodes in 2016? Did they watch back then because The X-Files returning was a novelty? It’s hard to say. Either way, the numbers haven’t looked good, and while it mattered less when everyone believed Season 11 was the final hurrah, it matters more if Carter hopes to continue the show in some form.
The X-Files may get a reprieve simply by the power of its brand. Many have quite rightly argued the show would never have ran for as long as it did were it made in the modern day, but this quirky, strange drama has made enough of an impact on the cultural consciousness over the years to make its brand strong enough to rival other long-running sagas such as Star Trek, Star Wars or Doctor Who. Even if you have never watched The X-Files, chances are you will have heard of it, or heard of Agents Mulder & Scully, in the way everyone has heard of James Bond or Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker. They have become iconic archetypes who have evolved beyond the series which made them famous, in a way thousands of characters never manage to do.
This gives them substance from a financial point of view; you can write books or comics around them, create Funko Pop toys or develop video games & board games. The brand extends way beyond just the television show and a couple of nascent movies. FOX will be acutely aware of this when making any decision about The X-Files’ future, poor ratings or not. They will also factor in domestic and international DVD & BluRay sales, which traditionally can serve as quite a financial uptick after the fact. The fans are definitely still out there.
Perhaps the more interesting decisions then will need to come from a creative level, and Carter may already have some advance knowledge about how to take the show forward. He is certainly talking in more optimistic terms about a Season 12 (or some variant), even in the wake of Anderson’s departure, than he was when the season began; the premiere, My Struggle III, even contained a coded message in the credits thanking fans for their loyalty in the expectation this was the final run. Some factor, behind the scenes, may well have changed.
David Duchovny, ironically, seems happy to carry on playing Mulder (when twenty years ago his zeal to leave the character behind caused a massive course-correction for the series). Mitch Pileggi, despite Skinner being seemingly crushed to death under a car, has made noises suggesting he would want to come back, and Carter has even suggested the Smoking Man—shot repeatedly by Mulder and pushed into the harbour—could have rejuvenation abilities that would allow him to survive and live to ham it up another day. The only major question mark is Anderson and Scully, and it’s a big question mark. We’ve seen The X-Files without Scully, but think about it… how do you solve a problem like Dana?
Bear in mind, as much as The X-Files has always been driven by Mulder’s eccentric crusade for the truth, the show was eternally grounded by Scully’s down to earth scepticism and rationality. She was the audience’s way into the story and Mulder’s crusade, and the only episode where Scully didn’t fully appear in some context, 3, Mulder was corrupted and almost killed by a sexy vampire woman! (aside from Season 4’s Zero Sum where Scully was away having cancer treatment as Anderson was off working on something else). Scully may have become somewhat lovelorn when Mulder was out of the picture in Seasons 8 & especially 9, but Fox really does not do well on his own.
We have never really seen a version of The X-Files without Scully at the centre, and without that key narrative balance which made the show work: a believer and a sceptic investigating the paranormal. Even when Agents Doggett & Reyes led the department in Season 9, as Carter and his writers attempted to move the concept away from Mulder & Scully as the focus, they remained in some respects believer and sceptic, even if the line wasn’t quite as clearly drawn between both of them. Take Scully out of the key equation, you lose a massive point of balance that made The X-Files what it is. You lose the dynamic. You may even lose the heart and soul of why we loved it so much.
Let’s try and imagine, then, a future Season 12 under the following parameters. Scully, for whatever reason, has gone – maybe she’s off with the new baby being a mother. Maybe she’s looking for William (unlikely given the end of My Struggle IV). Maybe she’s just gone on a well deserved vacation! Either way, Scully isn’t around. Mulder somehow still has his job at the FBI (despite running around killing people with abandon & all that Tad O’Malley show business) and the X-Files have been reopened. He needs a partner. Do you bring back a character of old to join him? Who would be left alive?! Do you introduce a new female character, to keep that balance of male/female? Is she a sceptic to counterbalance Mulder as the believer?
All of these are possible. All of them also sound wholly unsatisfactory. Whenever you looked at that new character, no matter how well written or performed she may be, you would simply just end up thinking “but she’s not Scully, is she?”. As Mulder’s spectre haunted Season 9, even in some episodes where he had nothing to do with the narrative, Scully’s absence could end up informing the forward momentum of the show. The X-Files could again become all about someone off-screen. That was a major contributing factor to why Season 9 faltered in the first place, and partly why the series ended up prey for cancellation.
In which case, if Scully doesn’t return in a hypothetical future season, should Mulder either? The X-Files by around its sixth season had firmly become a show about these two characters beyond the central concept of two government agents investigating the paranormal. That transition had been happening ever since Scully’s abduction in Season 2, which deepened the mythology and from then on made it personal and relatable to these characters. This came even more into focus over Season 8 into Season 9, and trickled down into the revival series. My Struggle IV is simply the ultimate encapsulation of that – by now the mythology itself is about Mulder & Scully, and more specifically their son William, in a deeper way than even the previous aforementioned seasons.
In other words, can The X-Files truly evolve while one or either of these characters is still hanging around? The answer, honestly, feels like no. The mythology, by this point, feels especially played out; this is not to say Carter couldn’t add a new spin on the ideas that have percolated around the show over the last twenty five years, but it may increasingly feel like Mulder & Scully are old dogs with no new tricks. My Struggle IV may leave plenty of unanswered questions but The X-Files is built on unanswered questions – the very fact the Truth (with a capital T) is a nebulous, ever-changing concept Mulder (and the audience) will never quite find is precisely what the show is about. Carter has given these characters an out – it’s time he let them take it.
So let’s envisage a scenario where The X-Files carries on without Mulder & Scully. Granted, it would lose a significant audience share of fans who have been ‘shipping’ these two characters for the last quarter century. As much as some may heap scorn on fans who are attached to The X-Files purely for the romantic aspect, don’t underestimate their numbers. Carter would therefore have to accept many people who did watch The X-Files would not tune into a twelfth season where their emotional interest has been removed. This is understandable. Certain TV shows engage viewers on a level where they deeply connect to a unique fusion of both actor and character, and this has certainly happened with Duchovny & Anderson over the years. These fans would be a necessary loss.
What would a post-Mulder & Scully version of The X-Files look like? You could point to Doggett & Reyes as an example, but they were characters who were never allowed to escape Mulder & Scully’s shadows given Scully still was around and they had to cleave to a mythology which had come to serve that duo, rather than the reverse. What about Miller & Einstein? Debuting in Season 10’s Babylon & playing a bigger role in My Struggle II, they were a strange visual and iconographical homage to a young Mulder & Scully while almost looking like prototype replacements Carter was testing the water with, perhaps having one eye on this post-M&S world. A quite scathing fan reaction to their misconceived characterisation soon saw them quietly disappear after a My Struggle III cameo.
How do you approach a version of The X-Files which doesn’t have Mulder’s louche wit and Sherlock-style leap into extreme deductions? Or with Scully’s scientific, down to earth rationality? Do you simply try and replace these archetypal figures with the same style of characters? Much like the aforementioned replacement partner for Scully with Mulder, would this not just make us yearn for Mulder & Scully themselves? Or do you expand out the concept by taking a cue from a show such as Fringe? Developing a team of investigators and scientists around the X-Files department in the FBI, perhaps with greater resources? Fringe of course took a massive cue from The X-Files itself in its development, and this approach recalls late-90’s sci-fi cult shows such as Psi Factor, which themselves were inspired by The X-Files’ rampant success. Television eating itself, as it were.
Would Carter himself be at home with such an approach? He spent over two decades developing a rich, thematic and literary world around the characters of Mulder & Scully, so could he countenance at this stage building out the world of The X-Files without them in tow? Would the show have the same narrative style or thematic approach? These are all questions we don’t have the answers to. We also don’t know how successful a post-Mulder & Scully version of the show would be. That aforementioned lost audience share could also be joined by fans who did watch for the concept, aware it absolutely doesn’t begin and end with Mulder & Scully, but equally ended up watching for so long in no small part due to those characters and how they have evolved over the years.
Ultimately, would it go the way of a series such as 24 in its attempts to continue the brand? After Kiefer Sutherland elected to stop playing tormented counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer after mini-series Live Another Day, Fox went ahead in developing 24: Legacy, a show set in the same universe, in the same action thriller style, with a brand new lead character… and nobody was interested. It died after one season. Why? Probably because everyone wanted Jack Bauer and felt it just wasn’t 24 without Sutherland. Again, it is a concept which does not simply rest on the strength of one character or one actor, but which people had become so attached to thanks to Bauer’s powerful personality and Sutherland’s charisma, losing him meant they lost the same level of interest.
The same could be in danger of happening to The X-Files unless Chris Carter makes some key decisions well, and admittedly ends up with a bit of luck on his side. This is not to say he shouldn’t try, incidentally. For my part, it feels like the right time to let Mulder & Scully go, or at least relegate them to background players who could pop up every now and then in a theoretical continuation of the concept. To do so, however, and create X-Files: The Next Generation, comes with all kinds of question marks, calculated risks, and unknown territories. Carter is bold enough to give it a go, I’m sure, if Disney (the new owners of this property, after all) give him the opportunity, but the truth is… we have no idea what is out there for The X-Files.
Damn. That’s really quite exciting.