Building The X-Files:
Television Production, Authorship, and Discourse
By Malinda Lo
Fox Studios is situated at the juncture of Pico Boulevard and the Avenue of the Stars in west Los Angeles. It is hidden from the view of the public by brick walls and chain link fences, behind which huge satellite dishes are planted in clusters of eyes peering up at the sky. Although Fox Studios is not as large as some of the production lots in the Los Angeles area—it only boasts fifteen sound stages—it is still an expansive, sprawling space that houses an entire New York City street (often used in filming NYPD Blue), several high-rise office buildings, and numerous trailers that serve as production offices for the shows that are filmed on the lot. Ten Thirteen Productions, the production company that produces The X-Files, occupies several nondescript buildings that resemble prefabricated trailer homes built in a hurry.
In late August and early September of 2001, I conducted about a week’s worth of fieldwork at Ten Thirteen Productions, during which I interviewed producers, writers, and staff, and observed several meetings and one day of filming on the set of The X-Files. This week was the culmination of a summer of fieldwork in Los Angeles focusing on the entertainment industry, and a year of research into the online X-Files fan community. I did not actually expect to be dazzled by the actors and the magic of Hollywood; what I expected to find and what I found was a workplace of cameras and lights, scaffolding and makeup—the comfortable, familiar scent of backstage darkness, and the memory of high school theatre.
But Hollywood makes stars of its producers and directors as well as its actors, and I was somewhat startled to experience a moment of disorienting glamour that week when I met Chris Carter. On the morning of my designated set visit, one of the Ten Thirteen assistants took me from the main offices to the sound stage where The X-Files is filmed. As we left the offices I turned back for a moment, and saw an SUV parked next to the building. Inside the car, seated in the driver’s seat, was Chris Carter, the executive producer and creator of The X-Files. I think he waved at us.
Although I had seen him around the offices in my first few days at Ten Thirteen, I hadn’t yet officially met him, and seeing him watching us in his car was somewhat surreal. It was as if he had become, at that moment, the all-seeing god that observes everything, and manipulates all events from his privileged vantage point in the distance. I had probably forgotten about this by the time I finally shook hands with Carter, later that day in the cold darkness of the set. Here was the man in the flesh, the author of it all, I thought. From his mind came the weird, fascinating world of conspiracies and secrets that had occupied so much of my own mind, both as a viewer and as a graduate student studying his work. The perception of Carter as the man behind it all is a story that is told repeatedly in the media discourse on The X-Files. He is the front man, the one who faces the lights and the press, and is either rewarded for success or excoriated for failure. The buck apparently stops with him.
In creating The X-Files, Chris Carter has cited a favorite childhood television show, Kolchak: the Night Stalker, with inspiring him to write a “truly frightening” television show (Lowry 1995:10). In order to make the show viable as a series, Carter was spurred by The Silence of the Lambs to make his protagonists FBI agents who routinely investigated paranormal phenomena. The hallmark conspiracy elements of The X-Files came out of Carter’s teenage memories of the Watergate scandal, which he has described as “the most formative event of my youth” (Lowry 1995: 12). Chris Carter has noted in the press numerous times that there was conflict with network executives over his choice of Gillian Anderson to play Special Agent Dana Scully; it has been suggested that Fox was looking for more of a “bombshell” to play Scully, whereas Carter insisted on Anderson, who did not fit the stereotype but was able to play Scully with an “intensity” that he admired (Lowry 1995:15). In this narrative of creation, which is reproduced in publications such as The Truth Is Out There: The Official Guide to the X-Files, as well as in interviews and behind-the-scenes articles throughout the popular media, Chris Carter is constructed as the primary voice, the creator, the author of The X-Files.
But my research at Ten Thirteen showed me that although the seed of The X-Files undoubtedly did develop in Carter’s mind, the show itself is a porous subject constituted by many different voices, visions, and intentions. The production of a television show is constrained by numerous factors, including network censors and budgets; the actors’ own personas as well as their acting; the multiple viewpoints of the writer-producers working on the show; and the audience itself, which in the case of The X-Files includes a huge fan base that is fragmented by different interests. Thus, the production of a television show is much more complex than it would seem.
Although industry insiders would probably be quick to agree that television production is a collaborative task that involves many different and competing agendas, the industry nonetheless participates in constructing the myth of the auteur producer. Aaron Spelling, Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon, Chris Carter—they are the creators of their television series, according to the popular press; and the popular press is inextricably linked with the huge promotional machines driven by studio financing. My research at The X-Files and, more broadly, my interviews with other Hollywood writers and producers, has shown that the “creator” is at best a complimentary title—an award given to those who managed to push their project through to the top of the studio. In the day-to-day reality of making a television series, there are multiple creators, all of whom contribute in some degree to making a product that, at its best, comes through the maze of co-operation with a unique and distinctive identity.
In this paper, I will examine the discursive formation of The X-Files, which consists not only of the text of the show itself, but also includes the audience and X-Files fans. In other words, the discursive formation of The X-Files includes both production and consumption. Through a descriptive analysis of the nuts and bolts of production, I will show how the text that is recognizable as The X-Files is produced by many individuals who often have different goals. Ten Thirteen has also actively worked at constructing a particular type of X-Files fan through its publicity and merchandising, but their efforts have been contested by the fans themselves through criticism of production decisions, and fan production of alternative texts. Thus, competing visions of “fandom” fragment the nature of the fan that Ten Thirteen has attempted to produce. However, the construction of the text and the audience is not a one-way street. The imagined audience and the imagined fan play significant roles in the creation of the text itself; this is a circular process that results in multiple layers of meaning and context, depending on one’s situation in relation to the text.
The Discursive Formation of The X-Files
With a genealogy that can be traced through the modern phenomenon of alien abduction; the peculiar American belief in government conspiracies; popular depictions of the FBI; the development of a genre of “cult” television; and generic roots in science fiction and mystery novels and films, The X-Files has been characterized as both modernist and postmodernist (Lavery et al. 1996; Graham 1996; Malach 1996; Reeves et al. 1996; Wilcox and Williams 1996; Kellner 1999).
The X-Files has also enjoyed substantial critical and academic acclaim. As Bellon (1999) notes dryly, “In what must be conclusive evidence that The X-Files is truly a force in modern American culture, 1996 saw both the condemnation of the show by a self-styled watchdog group (Yemma) and the publication of a collection of academic works exploring the show’s textuality” (137). As a site of textual analysis, The X-Files obviously fulfills the needs of academics as well as fans. Because it “undermines the modern paradigm of truth” through its constant questioning of reality, because it “problematizes dominant ideologies and classical generic codes,” The X-Files “exhibits a level of narrative ambiguity rarely encountered in mainstream media culture” (Kellner 1999: 165-67). This ambiguity informs the construction of blurred categories of good and evil, and allows Mulder and Scully to play in the liminal area between genders (Braun 2000; Wilcox and Williams 1996). Episodes of The X-Files can be read as pilgrimages in which the main characters undergo the typical pattern of a religious pilgrimage (Aden 1999), and because The X-Files begins from a point of ambiguity, episodes “point to a deeper reflexivity and more complex appreciation of the search for meaning than usually represented” on television (Wildermuth 1999: 148).
In my analysis, I have made use of Michel Foucault’s theories of power and discursive formations. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault argues that discursive formations are characterized by their internal inconsistencies and ruptures rather than by coherence. He suggests that one should not seek a discursive formation in the “coherence of concepts, but in their simultaneous or successive emergence, in the distance that separates them and even in their incompatibility” (Foucault 1972: 35). In the discursive formation of The X-Files, which includes both the production of the text and its consumption by viewers, those distances, ruptures, and incompatibilities are most clear in the relations between the producers and the fans. However, rather than looking for themes through time or tracing the conflicts of a discursive formation, Foucault contends that we should mark out a “field of strategic possibilities” (37). These possibilities emerge from groups of relations between institutions; in this case, relations between the network, the media, Ten Thirteen, and the imagined audience. These relations characterize discourse as a practice; that is, discourses are not merely groups of signs but are “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (49). In other words, discourse is a practice that constitutes its subject. The discourse on fans—including concepts of fans as overly-obsessive, freakish, nerdy geeks or overweight women —produces people who are categorized as such by marking their behavior as abnormal.
Power is clearly at work in the formation of discourses on popular culture. Much of the recent work in cultural studies has counteracted the Frankfurt School’s assumptions of the consuming public as a mindless mass, absorbing the messages being transmitted by the all-powerful culture industry. Indeed, power, as Foucault reminds us, is not a one-way street: “Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (1990: 93). It is this pervasive nature of power that renders any discursive formation vulnerable to conflict. Power is a “name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation” (Foucault 1990: 93); it is this strategy, these strategies, that create the conditions of possibility for what is commonly known as resistance. Thus, “Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it” (Foucault 1990: 101). The discursive formation of The X-Files, then, is both powerful and fragile; it is characterized by multiple strategic relations of power; it is produced by a field of strategic possibilities, and it produces other possibilities.
The discursive formation of The X-Files, including both production and consumption, can be effectively visualized as a rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). The rhizome is characterized by connection and heterogeneity: “any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be” (7). The rhizome is also a multiplicity: “A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature (the laws of combination therefore increase in number as the multiplicity grows)” (8). Media fandom on the internet is a multiplicity of persons drawn together in varying configurations according to shared interests in TV, movies, comics, or novels. As the magnitudes and/or orientations of one grouping change, so does the nature of the multiplicity.
For example, many fans became increasingly dissatisfied with The X-Files during seasons seven and eight, when the decision of actor David Duchovny to depart the show required the producers of the series to make major adjustments in the storyline and characters of the show. These changes were not met with universal acclaim by fans; in fact at this time the online fandom became extremely divided, with some supporting the new directions of the show, but many criticizing it and declaring that the best days of the show were over. The changing nature of the multiplicity, and thus the rhizome, is defined by Deleuze and Guattari as the principle of asignifying rupture: “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new ones” (9). The departure of Agent Mulder and the introduction of two new agents, John Doggett (played by Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (played by Annabeth Gish) marked a break in the rhizomatic discursive formation of The X-Files, but it also marked the beginning of new lines of flight. New characters and a new feel to the show meant new arenas of fan production (e.g. fan fiction featuring Doggett and/or Reyes), and new fan groupings (those who approved of the new cast additions, and those who did not).
Finally, the rhizome is characterized by “cartography and decalcomania: the rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:12). It is a map that is open, connectable, adaptable; “it always has multiple entryways” (12). These last characteristics of the rhizome are most useful in visualizing the continuing and discontinuous storyline of The X-Files: what is known as the series’ mythology. While many fans have grown weary of trying to make sense of the mythology of the show, their frustrations may be due to their attempts to force a linear narrative onto what is a fluid and dynamic, rhizomatic system of possibilities . Although I am not at all certain that the producers of the show had such a complex mythology in mind from the beginning, what has resulted from nine years of television production—including changing directors, writers, producers, actors, and even a major location change from Vancouver to Los Angeles—is exactly that: a rhizome.
Interestingly, the producers of the Official X-Files Website have fit the mythology of the show into a rhizomatic interface called “The Brain.” This software tool allows the user to choose from a variety of starting points (e.g., “characters” or “locations”), and then provides a number of lines of flight from that position (e.g., “Scully” or “Washington, D.C.”). In this way, the user can chart characters, locations, and storylines through multiple entryways and in differing directions. I am not arguing that the discourse of The X-Files is exactly like a rhizome, that it is completely acentered and non-hierarchical; it seems clear that there are centers and there are hierarchies involved in constituting this discourse. The rhizome does, however, enable a visualization of the discursive formation in a way that makes apparent its vulnerabilities.
X-Files: Making the Text
The X-Files is written and produced within the larger context of the entertainment industry, and therefore is influenced and constrained by the demands of Hollywood. These constraints include the power structure of the television industry; the continuing pressure to create shows that draw in the desired demographic of viewers in order to attract advertisers; and the budgetary and time limits imposed on the production of one-hour television dramas. The structure of the television industry is unambiguously hierarchical, with network executives located at the top of the chain, and the crew at the bottom. At Ten Thirteen (and probably at most television productions), employees are still divided—at least colloquially—between “above the line” talent and “below the line” crew. At The X-Files, the “below the line” crew consists of approximately 325 workers in 26 departments ranging from art to visual effects; this crew is overwhelmingly male and unionized. “Above the line” talent includes the writers, producers, directors, and actors; they are also unionized but belong to the talent unions (e.g. Writers Guild, Actors Guild). Just as is the case throughout television, Ten Thirteen is predominantly male; there are no female writers on staff at this time, although there was one several years ago.
The process of making The X-Files is a routinized set of tasks that involves hundreds of people and decisions; there is potential for intervention into the discursive formation at every step of the production process. This process is common across the television industry, but applies most particularly to the production of one-hour drama series, although practices vary according to the particular demands of each show. The production process involves: (1) scheduling the season; (2) pre-production, including writing the script, casting, constructing the set, etc.; (3) shooting the episode; (4) post-production, including editing, sound, and special effects; and (5) promotion, leading up to the airdate of the episode. Although I have divided up the production process into time periods determined by their relation to actual shooting or filming, in reality these periods are not fully bounded units. Writing, for example, occurs throughout scheduling, pre-production, and even the shooting of the episode. An examination of the process of making an episode of The X-Files shows how tasks are undertaken simultaneously in a fragmented manner that mimics the repetitive, stop-and-go methods of filming.
Scheduling a season of The X-Files involves a number of factors, beginning with sweeps periods in November, February, and May. These three four-week periods are extremely important for network television, because this is when Nielsen undertakes its most extensive ratings analysis of the industry; these ratings affect the kind of advertising that networks draw in for the remainder of the year. Thus, like most other television shows The X-Files aims to place its best episodes—meaning those expected to draw in the highest number of viewers—in these three time periods. For The X-Files, mythology episodes are often slotted in during sweeps. In addition to sweeps, the choice of directors plays a role in scheduling episodes. One producer noted that it is best to have an established director on the season premiere and season finale, but because two episodes are shot simultaneously, a director cannot direct two episodes in a row.
Similarly, due to the heavy workload involved in writing one episode, writers should not be scheduled to write two episodes in a row. Although ideally a writer would have two months to work on a script, in reality the production time frame diminishes as the season progresses, so that by the end of the season episodes are often written in as little as a few weeks. Producers also consider the content of the episodes when scheduling the season, and attempt to avoid airing two similar episodes in a row. The producers generally do not plan a season-long developing storyline in advance, but because the ninth season introduced two new characters into the X-Files narrative, they felt that it was important to establish some new character dynamics early on in the ninth season. Therefore, an episode focusing on these new characters and their motivations was scheduled as the third episode of the season. Finally, personal considerations come into play in scheduling; for example, during season nine all of the executive producers wanted to direct an episode, which involved a bit of maneuvering in order to make time for them to do so.
Once the season is generally scheduled, the writers meet in storyboard conferences, often daily, to hammer out the plot points of every episode. The structure of a one-hour television drama is divided into an opening teaser and four acts, separated by commercial breaks; the end of each act must involve a cliffhanger. At The X-Files, as well as many other television shows, each act is marked vertically on a bulletin board using 3×5 index cards; each scene or beat of each act is summarized on index cards from left to right. In this way, the movement of the episode can be visualized quickly and easily. The task of creating this storyboard is undertaken by the staff writers collectively in a series of storyboard meetings, which often last for several hours.
Even though the television producer is geographically and institutionally distant from the average viewer, Paul Espinosa (1982) has argued that the audience is present and influential in television story conferences: “The producer’s perceptions of the audience function as an internalized, restraining mechanism which they bring into play at appropriate moments in the story conference” (84). Espinosa contends that four text-building practices present in the story conference show how the producer’s perception of the audience contributes to the content of a script.
First, producers are concerned with engaging the audience, which essentially means producing an entertaining show, using basic storytelling techniques such as compelling characterization and a suspenseful plot. Second, the producers must consider the audience’s knowledge of the world, and “make assumptions about what they believe their audience is familiar with” (Espinosa 1982:80). In the case of The X-Files, this involves assessing how much of the series’ mythology should be included in an episode without confusing the “general” (i.e. non-fan) audience. As Espinosa explains, the producers of the Lou Grant Show believed that “It would be counterproductive and ultimately disastrous for the show to treat topics and situations unknown to the audience” (81). Third, producers attempt to meet the audience’s expectations for the show, which involves including familiar and recurring characters. Fourth, producers try to not divide the audience with controversial material; they are operating on the assumption that “Dividing the audience means…diminishing the audience,” and that is bad for ratings. All of these practices aim to keep the audience tuned into the show they are watching, particularly across commercial breaks.
Espinosa’s analysis makes use of the concept of the “audience image,” which Gans (1957) has described as “an external observer-judge against which [the creator] unconsciously tests his product even while he is creating it” (316). The term “audience image” can be more usefully defined as an “imagined audience.” The term “imagined audience” reminds us that the audience is not merely an isolated image floating somewhere, whole and distinct; the audience is in fact imagined by situated agents who are influenced by particular contexts and goals. The imagined audience is especially important in television, in which the writers are constantly trying to maintain the audience’s attention in order to prevent them from switching to another channel. During a storyboard meeting for the ninth season episode “4D,” in which the X-Files agents encounter a killer who is able to cross into a parallel dimension, the concept of the imagined audience cropped up in a heated discussion over the climax of the episode.
This episode involves a serial killer who lives our world with his mother, and who crosses into a second, parallel world to murder his victims. In the parallel world, Agents Doggett and Reyes have been investigating him, and have nearly cornered him in an alley when he crosses into our world to escape. Doggett follows without realizing that he is entering another dimension, and is shot by the killer. Because only one version of Agent Doggett can exist in our world, the Agent Doggett of our world disappears when the second Agent Doggett crosses over. This second Agent Doggett, who is paralyzed from the gunshot wound, is hospitalized as the Agent Reyes from our world attempts to find out who shot him. When she realizes that he is from a parallel dimension, she follows through on his suggestion to turn off his life support; presumably this will allow the correct Agent Doggett to return to the correct world.
At the storyboard meeting, one writer argued that the climax of the episode should not be an action sequence in which Agent Reyes shoots the serial killer, but rather should focus on how difficult it is for Reyes to make the decision to kill her partner, someone who is “the love of [her] life.” Another writer countered that once the serial killer is dead, the audience will know that there are only “three minutes left” in the episode, and the only remaining task is to return Doggett to the correct dimension. Thus, it wouldn’t matter how long the camera lingered on Reyes turning off Doggett’s life support, because the viewer would know everything was going to turn out well anyway.
Although the discussion about which way to conclude the episode was quite convoluted due to the nature of the plot, the important point is that the disagreement centered on differing notions of imagined audience. One writer imagined that the audience would suspend its disbelief in viewing the episode, and would be most interested in seeing the emotional development of the characters. Another writer imagined that the audience viewed the show consciously knowing that it was a television drama that must restore the heroes to their proper places within a sixty-minute time frame. These two visions of the imagined audience divide the audience into two different groups: those who watch for character and those who watch for action. Although clearly viewers can watch for both character and action, writing for character is different from writing for action; they require different storytelling techniques, and in the condensed time frame of the one-hour drama, they require a different climax to the episode.
While the imagined audience usually refers to a “general viewer” who is not necessarily familiar with the X-Files mythology, the imagined fan also was discussed obliquely during the “4D” storyboard conference. The writers mentioned that the parallel universe concept was a bit more “Star Trek” than The X-Files is accustomed to, implying a critique of the kind of audience that Star Trek draws, and a desire to distinguish the X-Files brand of storytelling from Star Trek. Although the desire for a Star Trek-style franchise has long been acknowledged by Ten Thirteen and Fox, The X-Files has nonetheless also attempted to be different from other science fiction cult hits by trying to maintain a mainstream feel that enters it into consideration for the Emmy and Golden Globe awards. This means a storytelling style that is more science than fiction, and that exhibits a first class production style. In my interviews with members of Ten Thirteen, it was also apparent that they have a deeply ambiguous relationship with X-Files fans, who are often perceived as overly-obsessed in a stereotypical “Trekkie” manner. In the final version of the episode “4D”, Agent Doggett himself protests to Agent Reyes that her theory about parallel universes is “too much Star Trek.”
Once an episode’s storyboard has been completed, the writer who has been assigned the task of writing the episode sits down to writes it, and then circulates drafts to the other writers who return comments or “notes.” The writer’s task is to then incorporate these notes into subsequent drafts. Executive producer Frank Spotnitz explained:
[N]o matter whose name is on any one of these episodes they’re all collaborative efforts, and people don’t realize that, but we all work very hard so every one of us understands it perfectly. The goal is that when the writer sits down to write, every one of us could write that script if we had to—that’s how well we know the story. And then Chris [Carter]—in the rewrite process—will usually deepen things, bring up issues, you know, make it better. (Interview, 9/6/01)
Every time a new draft or new pages are completed they are printed out on a different color of paper, so that the final script—which is often modified during shooting—resembles a rainbow. As this final script is being assembled, other elements of preproduction are simultaneously under way, including concept meetings, locations scouting, and production meetings that organize the numerous details of the shoot.
To prepare for organizing the actual filming of the episode, the writer meets with the episode’s director and production team to discuss the “concept” or “tone” of the episode, including casting, costumes, and the overall “mood” of the episode. Because an X-Files episode is shot partly on-stage at Fox Studios and partly on location in the Los Angeles area, a significant portion of the pre-production activity involves visiting possible shooting locations, generally suggested by the locations manager. At the same time, the First Assistant Director organizes the schedule of the shoot itself, which involves coordinating the activities of all the various production departments (e.g., casting, make-up, transportation).
During the production meeting, which takes place one or two days before shooting begins, the director of the episode meets with all the department heads in order to make sure that everything required for shooting is available and prepared. At the production meeting for the ninth season episode “Daemonicus,” which took place the day before shooting began, approximately 40 people attended, including department heads, the executive producers, and their assistants. Led by the First Assistant Director, each scene of the episode was checked in order to make sure everything needed would be ready. Among other things, preparing to shoot this episode involved acquiring live snakes, arranging for a mold of an actress’s face to be made for a special effects make-up application, and organizing stunt drivers. Every episode requires the input of many different individuals responsible for specific elements of production.
Each episode is generally allotted eight days of shooting with the first unit, and three days for the second unit; about five pages of the script are scheduled for each day of shooting. The first unit shoots the main portion of each episode and includes the main director and a larger crew; the second unit has a different director and a slightly smaller crew, and shoots scenes that need to be reshot or finished, as well as other extraneous material necessary for the episode. Due to union rules, the crew is guaranteed twelve hours off between workdays, which often stretch to fifteen hours in length. Therefore, if shooting begins at 8:00 a.m. on Monday, by the end of the week it may not begin until late afternoon. As someone who had never seen a television show or film being shot, I initially found it to be a peculiar process that repeatedly produced tableaux resembling sci-fi attackers frozen before oblivious victims: a horde of crew bristling with cameras, lights, and furry-headed microphones, descending upon two or three actors in a meticulously-dressed stage scene.
The process of preparing for each of these tableaux may take hours to complete, and therefore the actors themselves are not involved in setting up the shot; they are replaced by stand-ins who are of the same height and coloring as the actors. These individuals are measured and positioned by the director, the director of photography, and the assistant directors as they determine the various angles they want to shoot. After the details are worked out, a camera rehearsal occurs; only after the camera rehearsal is complete do the actual actors appear. During my day on set, it soon became clear that when the make-up crew arrived, the actors could soon be expected. The actors often do not receive the script early enough to undertake any significant rehearsal; this is due to the compressed time frame in television production and differs from the lengthier rehearsal process involved in filmmaking. On this morning, however, the actors did run through the scenes several times before shooting began.
Once the scene is ready to be filmed, a highly ritualized set of procedures is set in motion to record the scene. The First Assistant Director manages many of the details of this process; he indicates that the scene is about to be filmed by calling “Pictures up” across the set. At this point a bell or foghorn is sounded, and the doors to the sound stage must be closed; a red flashing light outside the sound stage comes on to warn people not to enter the set. The assistant director then calls out “Rolling,” which is echoed by the second assistant directors across the sound stage to indicate that film is rolling. Once film is rolling, the stage must also fall silent; all construction ceases and cannot begin again until the end of the scene.
Before the scene begins the slate is filmed; this is the familiar black-and-white board that indicates the scene and take, for example “Scene 26, Take 4.” Then the assistant director calls for background action to begin, followed by the director calling for “Action!” During the scene, sound is recorded simultaneously, but it can also be added in later during postproduction. Each scene is shot from multiple angles in order to get coverage of each of the actors in close-up, as well as a wide-angle shot that encompasses the entire scene. The shooting process quickly took on a soothing repetitiveness punctuated, rhythmically, by the clamor of construction, the low murmur of crew at the craft services table, and the foghorn warning bell that indicates the beginning of each take.
The iterative nature of television production contributes to a feeling of habit, mundaneness, and suggests that everything that is being done has been entirely predetermined. However, the repetitive structure of shooting is not airtight; it is full of entrypoints into the text of The X-Files. It is during shooting that the director, the crew, and the actors have their opportunities to insert their own interpretations and voices into the text. Chris Carter has attributed much of the series’ distinctively dark and menacing lighting design to the first director of photography, Thomas Del Ruth, and his successor, John S. Bartley.
The actors themselves also contribute significantly to the text of The X-Files, both in their acting and in unforeseeable events such as Gillian Anderson’s 1994 pregnancy. Her real-life conditions were incorporated into the narrative of The X-Files by subjecting Agent Scully to an alien abduction, during which Anderson actually gave birth to her daughter. Scully’s abduction allegedly resulted in the agent’s infertility, and has become a key element of the evolving storyline of the series. The actors have also intervened in the written text of the show through actively playing up the tentatively romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully. According to Frank Spotnitz,
I think the actors played it; it was rarely scripted. If you look at those episodes it was rarely scripted. There were some really beautiful moments early on that suggested it; I remember this episode, I think it was “Tooms,” when they’re on surveillance, and Scully brings lunch, and you know [Mulder says] “if that’s iced tea it’s love”—and it’s not iced tea… stuff like that, that was beautifully playing it, but that was the exception. Most episodes really didn’t—but because the actors played it, the audience felt it. (Interview, 9/6/01)
During season eight, Robert Patrick followed in these footsteps by playing his character, Agent Doggett, as if he were in love with Scully. Spotnitz and the other executive producers of the show later decided that, in light of Doggett’s apparent infatuation with Scully, they might be able to take advantage of this in the development of the ninth season: “now we’re using that, this season” (Interview, 9/6/01).
During postproduction, the multiple takes that comprise one scene are spliced together to create a complete narrative. Although the director does have the right to a “first cut,” the producers of The X-Files have the penultimate say in determining the construction of the episode. At this point, the network itself intervenes in the show through creative decisions or overt censorship. During the first season of The X-Files, the structure of the show was very open-ended, and the lack of narrative closure concerned network executives who felt that the audience needed more definitive solutions to the mysteries investigated by Mulder and Scully.
Chris Carter insisted that these mysteries should remain unsolved, arguing that the audience didn’t need a conclusion spelled out for them, that “You make the sense yourself” (Lowry 1995:20). However, the network insisted that Carter add some narrative closure to The X-Files, and Carter capitulated by adding a Scully voiceover to the end of episodes, “bringing closure to a non-closed case” (Lowry 1995:20). The network’s demands also changed the content of the show through its censoring of overt violence and gore, forcing The X-Files to place most of its grislier moments off camera; this contributed significantly to the character of the show and Carter felt that “it makes the show creepier” (Lowry 1995:27).
Finally, advertising and promotion bridges the gap between the producers and the audience. Although Ten Thirteen and Fox control some of the promotional efforts surrounding The X-Files, many media angles on the show focus on elements that are beyond the control of the producers. These elements are closely tied up with the culture of celebrity, and a desire to sexualize content and contexts. This can be most clearly seen in the 1996 cover of Australian Rolling Stone, which featured the actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in bed together.
This cover image became a rallying cry for many X-Files fans who yearned to see a romantic relationship between the two main characters. Although the photograph may actually feature Duchovny and Anderson, there is an easy slippage into identifying them as Mulder and Scully. Articles and photographs in other magazines, as well as the actors’ own behavior in television interviews, become part of the popular understanding of The X-Files. These images and interviews are used by fans to construct alternative or additional meanings in the discursive formation of The X-Files.
X-Philes: Making the Audience
I have argued that the imagined audience plays a significant role in the actual writing of The X-Files. This audience is not simply an undifferentiated mass of viewers; instead the audience is more accurately conceptualized as a continuum of investment in the show. At one end is the “general audience” (people who may or may not watch regularly), and at the other end are the X-Files fans, also known as “X-philes.” Ideally, producers attempt to write episodes that make sense to both ends of the continuum; this difficult balancing act was most apparent in the press surrounding the release of The X-Files movie in the summer of 1998. Reviews of the movie nearly always addressed the problem of accessibility, and divided the potential movie-going audience into two opposing camps: insiders and newcomers. The Los Angeles Times stated:
only those familiar with the small-screen series will get many of the film’s characters and references. Despite attempts to make “The X-Files” palatable to nonbelievers, its creators couldn’t resist a series of complicit winks to the cognoscenti that can only irritate those not in the know. (6/19/98)
On the other hand, The New York Times warned that “this film isn’t tailor-made for true X-fanatics, because the material has been so broadened to accommodate the uninitiated” (6/19/98). Although the general audience is of primary importance in selling a summer blockbuster or gaining Nielsen ratings points, the members of the general audience are not necessarily those who are most likely to purchase X-Files DVDs and action figures—these key viewers are the X-philes.
X-Files fandom emerged from a tradition of other fandoms, particularly television fandoms such as those of Star Trek and Twin Peaks, and was accelerated by the growth of the internet in the mid-1990s. Although X-Files fandom shares many of the characteristics of Star Trek fandom, particularly in its quantity of fan produced texts, the content of The X-Files places its fandom closer to that of Twin Peaks. In addition, the fact that The X-Files has been on the air continuously for nine years makes the trajectory of its fandom resemble that of Dr. Who, which underwent numerous changes in actors and producers during its lengthy run. Star Trek, by comparison, was on the air only for three seasons.
It is Star Trek, however, to which The X-Files has always been compared. For example, the first annual “Official Guide” to The X-Files, entitled The Truth is Out There and published in 1995, stated that “Executives at Fox, in fact, believe The X-Files has the potential to become a long-term franchise on the order of Star Trek—one that will be playing in syndication for the next 30 years” (4). It is clear that Ten Thirteen is aware of the potential profitability of a sustained fan following, and they have worked since the beginning of the show to produce a fan base that is dedicated to purchasing its products.
After the show “hit” at the end of season two, licensing and merchandising X-Files products became a serious business. X-Files merchandise has included a series of novels published by HarperCollins, action figures, posters, calendars, T-shirts, key chains, videotapes, and most recently DVDs. According to The Hollywood Reporter, The X-Files franchise has generated approximately $1 billion of revenue for Fox and its parent company, News Corporation.
Arjun Appadurai has argued that consumption is a serious form of work, and the heart of this work is the “social discipline of the imagination, the discipline of learning to link fantasy and nostalgia to the desire for new bundles of commodities” (1996:82). In the case of The X-Files, the ideal fan has been constructed by creating desire for commodities through artificial scarcity. One Ten Thirteen executive explained that Ten Thirteen in particular does not want to “overdo” the merchandising, and that Chris Carter has from the beginning intended to make the products hard to find. This contributes to an image of The X-Files as something rarefied, that is worth waiting for.
Essentially The X-Files has intentionally created scarcity in the market of X-Files merchandise, with the assumption that this will result in higher demand (and higher prices) for the products that are available. The Official X-Files Fan Club participates in the disciplining of consumption and the creation of the ideal fan by providing an exclusive source of limited X-Files merchandise. Acquiring X-Files merchandise is part of the process of constituting oneself as an X-phile; owning the calendars, action figures, and DVDs signifies one’s identity as an X-phile while simultaneously creating that very persona.
Merchandising, however, is not the only method of producing an X-phile. One of the most significant fan-production mechanisms is the internet, which has played a major role in building the X-Files fandom. Beginning with the first season (1993-94), viewers began logging on to Usenet bulletin boards to discuss the show after it had aired. As the World Wide Web developed, X-Files fans began to create their own fan websites that soon overtook the official X-Files website in breadth and depth of content. Fan sites provided viewers with thousands of images captured from episodes; photos of the actors; transcripts of the episodes; narrative/plot summaries and analyses; nearly-instant episode reviews; and daily news of spoilers from the set. It wasn’t until season seven (1999-2000), when Fox decided to make further investments in the web, that the official X-Files website began to offer anything approaching the content of fan websites. The goal of the new-and-improved Official X-Files website was to beat the fan websites at their game by providing news, episode summaries, and insider information to fans that was unavailable elsewhere on the web.
The official website actually functions in two ways: as advertising and promotion for The X-Files and other Fox network programs via banner ads; and as a mechanism for authorizing a specific type of X-Files fan. The website authorizes and constitutes an ideal fan through promotional sweepstakes events, and through the type of information or trivia presented. Two of their offerings include “The Brain,” which enables the user to track storylines through a rhizome-like interface; and the “Mytharc,” billed as a “path finder to the conspiracy.” Based on an image created by a seventeen-year-old using the black oil theme from The X-Files movie’s main titles, the Mytharc timeline enables the user to select from themes (e.g., hybridization, abduction, cancer), characters, and locations to explore the trajectory of the mythology. Important events in the mythology appear on the black oil background as red or white “event beacons.” The Mytharc timeline, as well as “The Brain,” focus on the textuality of the show’s mythology, and assume that viewers are interested in the details and possibilities of the continuing conspiracy storyline.
The official website also constructs the ideal X-phile through rewards for close viewing. A season nine sweepstakes asked fans to scrutinize the teaser of the episode “4-D” in order to determine “what was strange about the episode’s teaser.” The answer—which required repeat viewing with the use of a VCR—was that “the film was reversed, so that everything that appeared to be on the right was on the left.” The winners were awarded signed scripts from that episode.
Another website sweepstakes followed from the new main title sequence introduced in season nine. These main titles include an image of a list of “FBI informants,” which happen to be the screen names of X-Files fans culled from the message boards at the official site and the Haven, a major X-Files fan site. In order to read the list of screen names, the episode must be taped to allow those few frames to be paused for viewing. Following the announcement that season nine (2001-02) was to be the final season for The X-Files, the official website launched a “Put My Name in The X-Files” sweepstakes that focused on these main titles. The sweepstakes encouraged fans to enter their screen names for a random drawing, from which 72 names would be selected to appear in the final episodes of the series.
The efforts of Ten Thirteen to create a market for its merchandise has resulted in a particular notion of the kind of fan that is desirable to a franchise such as The X-Files. This fan is in love with the text of the show and is willing to pay hundreds of dollars to own videos and DVDs of the series. This fan is also dedicated to analyzing minute details of the series, from the multiple dimensions of the mythology to the camera angles used in the show. Ten Thirteen now rewards close viewing—clearly assuming the use of a VCR—by listing the names of fans in its main title sequence.
This concept of the “X-phile”—someone who collects information about the show and loves to sort through it repeatedly—overlooks or rejects many other aspects of X-Files fandom, including a dedication to relationships between the characters rather than the mythology, and a desire to reach a satisfying conclusion to the mythology rather than exploring multiple other lines of flight. The gap between Ten Thirteen’s vision of an ideal fan and the kinds of fans that actually exist is one of the main factors in the often antagonistic relationship between Ten Thirteen and X-philes.
While some fandoms have remained overwhelmingly loyal to their producers (particularly Star Trek), X-Files fandom has become highly critical of Ten Thirteen. In much online fan discourse about The X-Files, Chris Carter and Ten Thirteen are constructed as tricksters who plot to disrupt the fandom, or as inept authors who don’t even know their own storylines. The trickster character in X-Files mythology is the government itself; it is not to be trusted, and always has the potential for betrayal. Fans who have invested so much time and money into The X-Files often feel a sense of ownership in the series. They struggle to control The X-Files in much the same way that Agent Mulder has struggled with his superiors over the (fictional) X-Files division at the FBI. According to many fans, Ten Thirteen simply stands in the way of the true story; they act to obscure the truth in the way that the government in The X-Files tries to cover up a multitude of conspiracies. When speaking about the fans, Frank Spotnitz acknowledged that it is as if “the show is theirs,” and that “you almost feel like you’re in the way” (Interview, 9/6/01).
One television producer described the process of television production to me as building a mosaic by committee—sometimes the person in charge of the color blue simply messes up. In light of the committee-like nature of television production, it is astonishing that so much good television is made. I have argued that the “author” is a fragmented entity that includes many actors, from the series “creator” to the imagined audience employed by the writers to focus the storyline. Because the production process is so complex, there are possibilities of intervention into every episode at many points in the process.
Writers, camera operators, actors, directors, editors, network executives, and the media all contribute to authoring the text of The X-Files. However, multiple authorship does not mean that each “author” has equal power in this process. Because of the hierarchical nature of television production, some individuals clearly have more power than others, but relationships between different agents are not simply ordered according to this hierarchy. In fact, the relationship between producer and fan is arguably mutually constitutive.
Ten Thirteen works to produce a particular type of fan through merchandising, in which the desire for commodities is disciplined by manufacturing scarcity; and through the Official Website, which authorizes particular reading strategies focusing on a rhizomatic mythology, and rewards close viewing of the show with sweepstakes prizes. However, fans are not merely content to be packaged as official X-philes; they openly criticize creative decisions made by Ten Thirteen, and author their own alternative visions of The X-Files by producing fan websites, fan art, and fan fiction (fiction written by fans featuring the characters and storylines of the show).
While many of these fan-produced texts do not reach the offices of Ten Thirteen, in one notable exception—the eighth season episode “Alone,” written by Frank Spotnitz—fandom directly entered the narrative of The X-Files through the character of Leyla Harrison. Named after a fan fiction writer who died of cancer in 2000, the character Leyla Harrison was a young FBI agent who was herself a fan of the X-Files division of the FBI. Frank Spotnitz explains,
I had written [Harrison] a letter; somebody had told me about her situation, and so—you know I had never read her fan fiction, but I knew she was somebody who was part of the X-files community, and I felt for her situation. And at the time I was conceiving the episode I knew I was going to have a green FBI agent character. I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman, but I knew that I wanted that as sort of a foil for Doggett and for Mulder and Scully. Also I wanted an episode—because I knew Mulder was leaving the show, and even if he returned for cameos the show would never be the same—I wanted a valedictory for the Mulder and Scully era, somebody who could speak to how great they were. I wanted somebody who celebrated Mulder and Scully’s characters. And then I heard she died, it seemed like too perfect an opportunity to pay tribute to her. (Interview, 9/6/01)
This episode was viewed by many fans as a “love letter” to the fandom, an acknowledgement that despite many years of antagonistic criticism on both sides, Ten Thirteen did realize that The X-Files would not have become so successful without the support of the enthusiastic X-philes.
At some mysterious point in the development of an artifact of popular culture, that artifact seems to take on a life of its own. It becomes something that is shared by a popular consciousness, that can be referenced and accessed by a few words, even among strangers. At the end of my visit to the set of The X-Files, I was taken on a tour of the standing sets in the two sound stages where the show is filmed. Entering the sets of the FBI and the basement office, I felt a strange sense of dislocation and even discomfort—the kind one might feel when secretly entering someone else’s office, in fact. While it was fascinating to be in those spaces, to see that the desks and the chairs and the hallways were real, physical spaces built by human hands, my entry into those spaces was sanctioned by the fact that they were, on the show, public spaces.
Entering Scully’s apartment, on the other hand, was like entering someone’s home uninvited. Having watched Dana Scully on screen for years, I felt like I knew her intimately, and yet of course I did not know her at all—she is after all a fictional character. Her apartment, though, stands in that soundstage. When we entered her apartment through a back door, it was dark, unlit except for the blue glow of Mulder’s fish tank, which had been moved there following his departure from the show. I recognized the kitchen tiles; the furniture; the bathroom, where Eugene Tooms had crawled in through the window in season one; the crib, where baby William would appear in season nine. I felt like an intruder into a private space.
Standing in Scully’s kitchen, it was as strange as any X-file—in this space, Scully, who began her life as a figment of Chris Carter’s imagination, did exist. The character she has become may have been influenced by many people, but on some miraculous level Special Agent Dana Scully is as real as you or me.
This research was partially funded by a Mellon Foundation Grant while I was a graduate student at Stanford University during the summer of 2001.
 See Jenkins (1992) for an analysis of the stereotype of “fans.”
 Many fans would argue that the mythology is not rhizomatic; it is simply bad storytelling. If I were making a critical judgment on the show and were looking for a linear narrative, then yes, the mythology falls far short. I am merely suggesting that the rhizome is a useful tool for visualizing the storytelling possibilities on The X-Files.
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