The X-Files was always such a tease. After the fairly suggestive pilot episode—in which newly paired FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) flirt and find excuses to disrobe in each other's presence—the characters promptly buttoned up. As the show's eccentric structure developed, monster-of-the-week plots alternating with the occasional hour-long comedy and episodes that added to the quickly impenetrable alien mythology, the writers doled out a love story in glances and touches so chaste they couldn't make Jane Austen blush.
By the time The X-Files ground to a rather ignoble halt in 2002, it had become pretty useless to describe the workings of its vast government conspiracy or to catalog the many varieties of extraterrestrial beings the series introduced and then dropped. The only through-line, the only arc the writers returned to again and again, was the evolving relationship between Mulder, the paranormal enthusiast, and Scully, the skeptic. Little gray men aside, The X-Files was eight years of foreplay (along with one long, final year during which Duchovny refused to renew his contract and left Anderson to moon about stupidly in his absence).
When we last saw the characters in the series finale, they were locked in an embrace on top of a bed, sort of... nuzzling. In the world of the show—however absurdly—one could not assume that this sort of behavior was going to lead to sex. The writers' need to keep Mulder and Scully apart for dramatic reasons had begun to imply there was some diegetic reason for their aloofness. Castration? Virginity pledge? Nothing was too weird for The X-Files.
But now, in the second feature film, answers are finally forthcoming. And the show's producers have foiled the fans once again. (Spoiler forthcoming; forgive me.) In The X-Files: I Want to Believe, it appears that Mulder and Scully have been sleeping together, possibly on and off, for years. It's a total cop-out, but it's kind of genius. The sexual tension in the film comes not from any worn-out will-they/won't-they formula, but from the question of whether their volatile relationship is sustainable. It's still hot stuff.
The movie—a big fat episode, essentially, with a noticeably constrained budget—is a satisfying thriller, with romantic and religious angst substituting for explosions and chase scenes. An FBI agent has gone missing, and the Bureau tracks down Scully at her post at a Catholic hospital to get her to recruit Mulder to help with the investigation. A convicted pedophile priest who claims psychic abilities (Billy Connolly) thinks he can lead them to her abductor—but he keeps turning up other people's severed limbs instead. Scully's usual doubts about paranormal phenomena are given an additional rigidity by her contempt for the priest's crimes. Meanwhile, her day job as a medical doctor is bringing up questions about persistence in the face of opposition that resonate with both her relationship with Mulder and their mutual efforts to uncover the truth about aliens in defiance of a hostile government.
The first X-Files movie sported a tag line even cheesier than "I Want to Believe" (which doesn't seem so bad, if you remember the often ironic ways it was used in the series): "Fight the Future." I almost wish this movie had taken that dictum more to heart. It's old-fashioned in so many ways that its gestures toward the present day (a smirking musical cue at the portrait of George W. Bush at FBI headquarters; a Google search for stem-cell therapies; and, most jarringly, a reference to the villains being gay-married in Massachusetts) feel forced.
The X-Files was, after all, unusually grounded in the psychological climate of its time. It's fascinating to go back through the seasons now, in the wake of 9/11 and especially Hurricane Katrina, to see how the series—which went on the air in 1993, near the beginning of the Clinton administration—envisioned an American government so monolithic, so complacent in its power that one had to suspect things were more complicated than they seemed. In the 1990s, we were sufficiently bored with prosperity and globalization (with Empire, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri put it) that it was entertaining to imagine that an international cabal might be pulling the strings behind the scenes. The chasm between that way of thinking and the current political atmosphere became obvious to me only after I rewatched the last movie. Released in 1998, it went so far as to suggest that FEMA was a second shadow government, just waiting to take the reins after alien colonization. Thanks to Mike ("heckuva job") Brown and the Bush administration, FEMA is an embarrassment now, not a fearsome symbol of government's reach into the most obscure corners of our lives.
It's easy to believe that post-9/11 patriotism killed The X-Files, that people couldn't find pleasure in imagining a malevolent U.S. government when we'd been so rudely reintroduced to foreign malice. But I think it goes farther than that. Conservative governments love to hate themselves; so when the show's suspicion that the federal government had too much power was co-opted by the Bush administration (albeit hypocritically), conspiracy theories lost some purchase. Then the bungled occupation of Iraq and the pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina made it clear that an effective federal government that isn't afraid to exert soft power might not be such a bad thing after all. We might have to wait until a second Obama administration for people to ascribe such nefarious over-competence to government again. Luckily for fans, director Chris Carter is already making noise about a new movie in 2012.