Chris Carter looks back on 'The X-Files' legacy
Last summer at press tour, I sat down with Chris Carter to discuss his new Amazon drama "The After," but my main interest was in asking him about another show he had created: "The X-Files." We spent 15 minutes talking about the legacy of that show, how he feels the TV business has changed in the dozen-odd years since it ended, and how he might be applying some of the lessons he learned there to this new project.
When Amazon pulled the plug on "The After" before a second episode was even shot, I suddenly had 15 minutes of conversation with no news peg, and I figured this would just be something for my personal archives. Then FOX announced today that Carter, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson would be reuniting for a six-episode "X-Files" limited series, and I had the perfect context in which to finally transcribe that recording.
We talk briefly about "The After" here, but even that's in an "X-Files" context, as we also talk about how that show shaped viewers' relationship with the notion of TV shows having a mythology, how he feels (or doesn't feel) "X-Files" influenced the shows that followed it, and what he might say to skeptics who are worried about him telling another serialized story(*).
(*) Interestingly, the press release announcing the reunion series has Carter declaring this "a perfect time to tell these six stories." So it's entirely possible that this could just be a collection of Monster of the Week episodes. And given that those have held up much better through the decades than all the stuff about the black oil, maybe that would be for the best. All I know is that I want Darin Morgan back to write a comedy episode at some point.
On the panel, you said that during your time off, you finally got a chance to watch everything that had been happening on TV, both during "X-Files" and after. "X-Files" was an enormously influential show, both in terms of the talent you developed, and in terms of the style and theme. How much influence have you personally felt as you've been watching other things?
Chris Carter: I'm never aware of it. I don't look at it, honestly. I mean, I can see a direct influence with "Fringe," but beyond that, I never look at a show and say, "Oh, they were inspired or influenced (by me)." Television, it's too hard to do it well. Every idea and every show has its own beauty and life. Everyone, I don't care who they are, is influenced by what came before. I'm just part of a continuum.
I assume you've been watching what Vince (Gilligan) and Howard (Gordon) and Frank (Spotnitz) have been doing.
Chris Carter: Yes. With big smiles on my face.
"Breaking Bad" is...
Chris Carter: A masterpiece.
One of the things you popularized, both for good and for ill, was the notion of a TV show having mythology. Do you think, ultimately, it was a thing that served your show, and has served future shows well, or is it something that becomes too unwieldy?
Chris Carter: We didn't invent it. Charles Dickens invented it, in a sense, and I'm sure there are examples before him. It worked for us, but it was a happy accident. It was something that was instinctual, but not necessarily a conscious decision. When we saw that the stories about Mulder and Scully were best told through the mythology — that they were more personal — it gave the show an emotional grounding, that I think the mythology of a show does. So it's simply a good way of telling the most personal kind of stories.
The challenge with mythology is always paying it off in satisfying fashion. You guys ran into some of that. With "Lost," there was a lot of anger about that, with "Battlestar Galactica," too. You're coming back into the business to not only the children of "The X-Files," but the grandchildren. So you have this generation of viewers who are conditioned to be almost suspicious of a mythology show. How do you deal with that?
Chris Carter: It's interesting. There's something going on with culture. My brother teaches at MIT. He talks about a culture where the students challenge the teacher's wisdom, in a way. It's not dissimilar to what's going on in television with the direct connection viewers have with the producers of a show. People think that they know better. It's probably the same as it ever was. Now it is more pronounced because of technology, and because of the new media culture.
So you think if "X-Files" had debuted today with no precedent, but it was in the Twitter age, it would be received differently?
Chris Carter: It's not necessarily the Twitter age, but we grew up with the Internet. Chat rooms were happening when we started the show. If it weren't for chat rooms, the show probably wouldn't be the show it became. We had a direct connection to our most hardcore fans.
It's interesting to see how audience expectations have evolved. The structure you used then was three or four Monster of the Week shows to every mythology show. "Fringe" tried that exact formula, and they found quickly that the audience had no patience for anything that didn't have to do with their mythology, and they eventually had to go straight serial. "The After" seems as if it's designed to only be serial to begin with. Is that a correct assessment?
Chris Carter: No. Every episode has to be satisfying unto itself. So whether that is a mythology approach or a Monster of the Week approach, the objective is the same. And so, I think that you do yourself a disservice, and the audience, if you actually try to lock into a formula. You have to find out what's interesting. That is a process that is very much an instinctual process, and a rigorous process of making your show.
But you're going to be making these episodes into the void. Even if they're not going to be released all at once, the season will all be in the can before anyone has a chance to react to them. You're going to have be making some very educated guesses about how people are going to react to this character, or that one, or the pacing, or whatever.
Chris Carter: Yeah, but that's where, if you've developed instincts, and you hope your instincts are good, there's no telling. I tell people, "This is a business of failure." Most things fail. If you work really hard and you have really good instincts, you're much more likely to succeed. But you've got to go boldly, and that's how I'm going.
I know you did a pilot a few years back, but you mostly haven't been involved in TV since "X-Files" and "Lone Gunmen" ended. What was it like getting back into it? Did the muscles come back right away? Did you need some time to remind yourself how structure and everything else works, or was it like riding a bike?
Chris Carter: I'm thinking about directing right now. I don't care how good you are at it. If you haven't done it in a while, there are things that take you by surprise. It takes you a moment to get your sea legs again. They say that the best sea captains were often seasick their first few days out of port. I would liken it to that.
I've had this conversation with Vince, with Frank, with Howard, and they all tell slightly different versions of the same story about "The X-Files" mythology. Which is, "Chris genuinely, at the beginning, he had a plan, he knew, and then the show was too successful, it ran too long, and eventually it folded in on itself." Is that how you would assess it?
Chris Carter: No. I think some of the best work was done in seasons 6, 7, 8 and 9. I would point to those seasons, and there are episodes in those seasons that I think are among the best.
I'm not talking about the quality. I'm talking specifically about the mythology of the show.
Chris Carter: When you set out to do a show, you don't imagine it's going to go nine years. And all of a sudden, you have to start looking at it in new ways. The mythology was complex, and I think complexity equals, in people's minds, confusing. I don't accept, necessarily, this idea that it folded in on itself. I think if you go back and watch it from beginning to end — I've actually talked to people who have done that recently, and they say, "It all holds up. It works together." Whether you like where it went after season 5, you can cavil with me there. But I think all of the choices were still lovingly made, and I would back every one of them.
But the show has this reputation, fair or not, and there have been other shows since then that have not stuck the landing. Now you're coming back, and there are going to be people who will, like Scully, be very skeptical of Chris Carter saying, "I'm going to do a 99-episode show, and I know what the story is going to be from beginning to end." What would you say to the skeptics?
Chris Carter: I don't claim to know how it ends. I claim to imagine how it ends. But I can't say it with absolute certainty that I know where it ends. Because I don't know what I'm going to discover along the way. Ninety-nine episodes sounds completely doable to me. Two hundred and two episodes is a completely different story.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org