Two years ago, Fox’s revival of The X-Files was a huge success. The six-episode return of FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) ended up as the No. 5 rated broadcast show in the 18-49 demo that season, behind only Sunday Night Football, Empire, The Big Bang Theory and Thursday Night Football. Fox was eager for a follow-up in 2017, but a second season of the revival took an additional year to coordinate the schedules of stars Duchovny and Anderson.
Yet the delay ended up working in the show’s favor, as Donald Trump’s presidency has made the show more relevant than ever. Several episodes in the new season, which debuts tonight, reference the real-life schism between the FBI and the White House, which culminated in Trump’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey in May. Meanwhile, Trump’s routine embrace of conspiracy theories leads Mulder to note at one point that “the world has been too crazy even for my conspiratorial powers.”
Ahead of the show’s return tonight, X-Files creator Chris Carter spoke with Adweek about how his show unexpectedly became of the moment, why the new season is stronger than the 2016 revival and how he might incorporate last month’s news that the Pentagon ran a secret program to investigate UFOs.
Adweek: What do you think worked well during the first revival, and what did you try to tweak for the second go-round?
Chris Carter: I felt that the first time, we went from a standing start—12, 13 years off the air—where we had to consider many things. We had to consider the hard-core audience, who had stayed with us all that time. We had to consider a new, young audience who may have found us on places like Hulu or Netflix and we had to consider the new viewer. So there was a bit of catchup to be done. I really think we went from a standing start to full speed ahead. This time, I felt like we had more of a running start.
It seems like having 10 episodes this season, as opposed to just six the last time, also gives you a bit more breathing room and more time to gain that momentum.
I think so. It’s funny—it used to take us a year to make 22-25 episodes. It’s going to take us a year to make 10 episodes. Television has changed.
What else did you learn from the last season?
The Mulder-Scully relationship is important and explored in a way it wasn’t the first series. So I think that we saw what worked. You’re coming back to television; you don’t know what broadcast standards are. We would love to tell the scariest stories possible, with the scariest imagery possible, with the most boundary-pushing language possible, and I mean language in the larger context. I did a second X-Files movie and it was a PG-13 movie. When we came back, we found that network television is more permissive than the PG-13 rating, which I found very interesting. So we explored those boundaries this season.
Fox would have liked to have these episodes last year, but the delay feels like a blessing in disguise given current events and the current political climate. Was there a time during the original run where the show seemed so of the moment as it does now?
This is a much more pronounced moment than we’ve had since 1993 in terms of the politics, society and technology, and certainly we wanted to talk about that. The show has always been of its time and political, and I think that we’ve seen such an amazing reversal, of the news in particular, where it used to be that we were a show that dealt in conspiracies and were looking for the truth. Now people seem to be looking for conspiracies, and the truth be dammed.
The UFO news is probably great for the show, but are you also wishing it had happened a couple of months ago so you could have written it into the new episodes?
Well, we’ve been writing this in the show since 1993. We’ve always felt there was a new Project Bluebook out there, which is the thing that is cited, the secret UFO studies in the late ’40s, early ’50s, that there was something like that, and we now have validation. I guess for me, it’s semi-sweet, because we’ve been doing this for so long. But the funny thing is, I read a piece in the New York Times, and I think serious outlets are now covering this as news, because there is ample evidence, certainly in the revelation that the Pentagon had a secret program to investigate these … but I still feel, even in the reportage, that it’s being treated like tabloid news.
Also, any other year, it would have been much bigger news but instead, it felt like just another insane moment among all the others we had last year.
Right. You said it!
You’re wrapping production now. Will you try to work in same last-minute references to the new in postproduction or wait until another season?
It’s packed into the show as is, and while it would validate what the show has been saying from the beginning, pointing to it directly is, for The X-Files, kind of shooting ourselves in the foot. What I truly believe is, they’ve found things, and this was written about, that there was material recovered. So there is not just video evidence of unexplained or unidentified phenomena, but they’re now talking about things that they’ve found, and I’d like to know if they’ve recovered any of these spacecraft. Certainly, this is a thing that we’ve touched on in the show, so I think it would be more along those lines: what don’t we know yet.
This season, it feels like the mythology episodes, which deal with Mulder and Scully’s son, have a bit more urgency to it than last season’s mythology arc, and is more personal to both characters. Was that something you were trying to tweak this season?
I had a big plan, and there’s a culmination in episode 10 of these episodes I’m calling the “My Struggle” series, which was originally Mulder’s struggle, then Scully’s struggle at the end of last season, and then we have the Cigarette Smoking Man’s struggle at the beginning of this season. And it will be Mulder and Scully’s son’s struggle at the end of this season. So that is an arc, a mythology arc, and it takes place in a very short amount of time. So instead of the “myth arc,” as they call it, stretching out over nine seasons, it has been a much more exaggerated curve.
You have another partnership with Ford this season, as you did during last season. Did you work with any other brands?
One of the hardest things for me was being limited to the kind of technology we could put on display. I still can’t quite figure it out, if it’s product placement or it’s just restrictions, but there are certain brands we just can’t feature.
Do you like this limited series model? What is your feeling as you look at this franchise, this brand, going forward after this season?
I think the brand, if you will, the franchise, has a lot more life in it in terms of a way and a place to tell stories. Certainly I think that is for me an endless resource, an infinite one. There are just so many stories to tell. I think the life of the show for me, will be how long the actors want to do it. My X-Files revolves around Mulder and Scully, and Gillian and David, and I think that would shift it into another gear if they were not to come back.