What happens when you assign two academics who also happen to be superfans to watch the lesser of the two films in the X-Files franchise? Stevi Costa and Erik Jaccard deconstruct their own fandom in their team review of The X-Files: I Want to Believe.
We’re Erik Jaccard and Stevi Costa. You have known us separately as writers on this site, but because we are both lifelong X-Files fans, we decided to team up for this re-view of The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Just like Mulder and Scully.
And like Mulder and Scully, we both once worked in a forgotten and labyrinthine basement. While working on a PhD in English isn’t exactly the same as investigating government conspiracies and chasing monsters of the week, it also isn’t exactly different. Both quests rest on the belief that a “truth” of whatever esoteric subject you are studying is indeed out there, and to unveil it, one must investigate as closely as possible and build a plausible case to support that truth by writing a lengthy document that no one will ever read. The height difference between us is roughly equivalent to the height difference between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Like Duchovny, Erik loves baseball and captained our grad school softball team. Like Anderson, Stevi looks equally good as a blonde and as a redhead.
Both of us have been with the show for a long time. Erik has maintained a lasting and loyal partnership with the show since its inception in 1993 but has managed to stay a fan without being in the fandom. Though he never turned in religiously, the show was perhaps the closest he had ever come to pop culture devotion. He watched all of it—even when he had more or less stopped watching television between 1999 and 2002, even when the show had outlasted its own mythology, overextended its characters, and reinvented itself in the Mulder-less era of seasons 8 and 9. He watched the terrible final episode and still felt the grief of losing something you love as the show faded away against one final refrain of Mark Snow’s iconic melody.
Stevi came to the show a little later, catching it on syndication as a tween around its third season in 1996, just before the show made the jump to Sunday nights. Growing up in a family of sci-fi fans, The X-Files quickly became something the Costa household watched together (alongside Star Trek: Voyager, which replaced Star Trek: The Next Generation, which itself replaced Quantum Leap). And, as a person who grew up as the internet did, Stevi was not just a fan, but quickly became engrossed in the fandom itself, scouring fan sites online in the school’s computer lab and reading every licensed and unlicensed bit of material she could about the show and anything pertaining to its mythos. She once wrote an impassioned letter to persuade her parents to purchase at-home internet—primarily to continue her X-Files fandom research at home.
In spite of our mutual love for The X-Files, which has manifested in our lives in very different ways, neither of us remembered much about I Want to Believe when we sat down to watch it together earlier this month. We remembered some cast members, that there was a psychic involved, and that it all led to some strange mad scientist plot. We suppose we’ve done a lot of growing up since 2008 and that perhaps our brains had to push out this movie to make room for our dissertation projects, but perhaps it’s also simply a very forgettable film.
The plot—half psychic-serial-killer melodrama, half mad-scientist horror show—is at best opaque and at worst utterly incomprehensible. Even were one to carefully parse motives or backstory, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point, as though the film itself doesn’t really care who does what or why. Beyond the leads, the film seems ridiculously, almost improbably cast, with Amanda Peet and Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner woodenly playing FBI agents split down the spectrum of belief in or rejection of ‘Spooky’ Fox Mulder, and even the excellent Callum Keith Rennie is stuck in the role of a thuggish Russian organ thief. Billy Connolly as the defrocked priest is an interesting but also mostly misjudged choice. An accomplished comedian with a penchant for wry, sardonic humor, Connolly is called on here to extend himself into dramatic territory that isn’t so much wrong as simply unsuited to his strengths. Despite the return to British Columbia for primary production, the film even manages to get the atmosphere wrong, translating a Pacific Northwest backwoods locale that contains all the shadowy small-town surrealism one could ask for (just ask David Lynch) into a generic West Virginia hill town. The otherwise dependable (and wonderful) Mark Snow’s score tries unsuccessfully to blend generic action movie palettes with slow, dramatic strings, neither of which improve upon the show’s signature synth-driven moodiness.
Finally, as any X-Files fan will agree, there is a huge risk in letting show creator Chris Carter anywhere near a script, especially at this stage in the game, when—as the most recent revival of the show proved—there’s little left to do with the mythology or characters. It’s not that the script is bad per se. Stevi keeps describing it as a rejected Criminal Minds episode, a rote hour-long procedural, stretched beyond its limits to become a feature-length film. You might enjoy what Erik refers to as a “dead girls” plot if you’re into grisly procedurals of that type, and you might even enjoy the inexplicable mad scientist organ harvesting plot if you’re into pseudo-retreads of previous X-Files plots. The film even seems to recognize this when it has Peet’s agent Whitney spew out three examples of previous episodes involving psychics, all of which were considerably more interesting than this film. Carter’s writing can often be described as rehashed, as the worst parts of seasons 10 and 11—the “My Struggle” episodes—prove. But he’s also clearly more invested in the evolving partnership between Mulder and Scully than anything else. The rest of this film seems to exist simply so that the pair have something to go through the motions of investigating, when really what they’re investigating is themselves—and each other.
And this is the key tension I Want to Believe presents for any X-Files fan, as it did for us during the course of our viewing together. Are you the kind of fan who is interested in Mulder and Scully’s evolving romantic relationship, a.k.a. a shipper? Or are you the kind of fan who just wants to see them as mystery-solving partners, a.k.a. a noromo? 10 Years Ago is first and foremost a project of memory and self-reflection, and it is here that we learned some deep truths about ourselves in our responses to the content of this film and our experiences in and around being an X-Files fan. Just as Mulder is a believer and Scully is a skeptic, Erik is a shipper and Stevi is not.
For the uninitiated, we’ll explain our terminology, as Stevi did for Erik during this viewing. As a verb, “to ship” characters in fanfiction, fan art, or simply fan conversation is to desire their involvement in a romantic relationship that is often outside of the parameters of the text. For instance, Victor Frankenstein and his creature are not in a romantic relationship in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but one might imagine that the pair are truly each other’s other half, and generate some sort of paratext in which the creature is no longer chasing Victor across the ice to his certain demise, but instead chasing after him like Pepé Le Pew does to that poor striped cat in so many Looney Tunes cartoons. Shipping generates from The X-Files fandom itself, so it is intrinsic to what it means to be a viewer of this show. Either you desired Mulder and Scully to push past the boundaries of professionalism and become romantically involved as part of what Jo Jo Stiletto calls the “detectives who bone” genre, or you vehemently wished for the pair to remain steadfast partners in spooky crime-solving and nothing more. The X-Files was one of the first fandoms that benefitted from the power of the internet and was also subsequently shaped by it. FOX knew about the fan art, the message boards, the fanfics, the Church of Our Guy David Duchovny, and more. FOX utilized the fan culture surrounding the show as free market research leading up to the first film, Fight the Future, and realized that there was a growing segment of the fandom invested in seeing our heroes develop and potentially resolve their underlying unresolved sexual tension. And so FOX leaned into this and gave the fans what they wanted: that bee-interrupted kiss in Fight the Future. The almost-kiss that launched a thousand ships, as it were.
Media critic and fandom scholar Henry Jenkins describes fan writing and fan imagining as acts of resistance. To imagine characters, perhaps Mulder and Krychek, in a queer relationship subverts heteronormative expectations and carves out a representational space that simply wasn’t a part of any aspect of The X-Files in the ’90s, or really even now. But to ship any characters at all is also inherently subversive as it transforms and reworks the act of creation itself. Creators create. Fans consume. But when fans ship characters and write about it, paint about it, or edit videos about it, fans are instead creators, making something new out of what they’ve consumed. In a way, fan creation is like being Victor Frankenstein and making your own monster.
But when these small acts of imagining become canonical, they lose aspects of their subversive potential. This is Stevi’s main gripe with the decidedly shippy content of this film, which features Mulder and Scully snuggling and exchanging deep pillow talk about their relationship and closes with a zany post-credits sequence in which the pair escape on a rowboat in swimsuits. To reincorporate fan desires from paratexts into the dominant text removes their subversive potential. The power of creation fans harness when they ship dwindles when what is produced by the “folk” (i.e. the fans) becomes reclaimed by the corporations who already own the mythos of the show in the first place.
Erik’s position as an X-Files fan outside the realm of X-Files fandom left him blissfully unaware of this term, although he was academically familiar with aspects of reception theory which undergird Jenkins’ claim. Yet the film did indeed beg the question about how to identify yourself as a fan of The X-Files: Were you a shipper? Yes or no? Believer or skeptic? Erik always enjoyed those moments when the show teases the possibility of a romantic relationship developing between Mulder and Scully. But is he a shipper? Yes. And no.
Given how incredibly interesting and competent they are at their jobs, not to mention how well they seem to work as Odd Couple partners, there is a certain topsy-turvy delight in picturing Mulder and Scully in opposite-land, bound to heteronormative conditions and the kinds of social and cultural boundaries their work is generally so adept at transgressing. To see these two incredibly intelligent, devoted, and hardworking people hinting that they might do anything besides be incredibly intelligent, devoted, and hardworking grates against genre expectations, but often in a kind of pleasant, through-the-looking-glass kind of way. This is the raison d’etre of the season six episode “Arcadia,” which has Mulder and Scully infiltrate a gated community in the guise of a suburban married couple. Amusing as that episode is, that’s not the kind of shipping Erik is into because squeezing two independent, interesting, intelligent, and talented people into that formulaic, one-size-fits-all box seems a terrible crime.
It’s the restraint of that heteronormative box for relationships that Stevi bristles against, especially when it comes to Mulder and Scully. We’re not here to tell you how to be a fan or what kind of fantasies to have, but for us the real joy of Mulder and Scully’s partnership lies in the intimacy they share as companions, confidants, and colleagues that is decidedly non-sexual in nature. (Although she admits that her initial noromo feelings as a teen might have also had a lot to do with her own very romo feelings for Mulder—an impulse she now questions every time she watches an episode of The X-Files as an adult woman in her 30s.) This is not to say we reject any and all sexual tension between the two. We recognize that some sexual tension might be natural to a pair who enjoy a lasting and really rather tender intimacy. We object, however, to the way conventional shipping foreground the centrality of sex and obscures other, equally as interesting intimacies. We also object to it because it naturalizes the role sex can play in the disempowerment of women. Dana Scully defied the cultural myths young women were fed in the ’80s and ’90s. If representation matters, and “The Scully Effect” proves that it does, then seeing a career-oriented woman whose story did not center on her romantic partnership with a man was a watershed cultural moment. To ship Mulder and Scully is, to Stevi, an act in defiance of Scully’s completeness on her own, one which dangerously replicates the cultural narrative that people of different genders can’t be friends or in a working partnership without becoming romantically involved.
If we as fans have power over these narratives, we can rewrite the notion of shipping itself to arrive at something that feels more true to what we love about The X-Files, while still encapsulating the generative, active spirit of fandom. There are many ways to “ship,” romantic relationships being only the most obvious and, in the realm of television, the most frequently discussed. But there is also “friend” shipping and “partner” shipping, and probably others as well. We all multi-ship all the time, and even when we decide that we’re going to commit ourselves in one way or another to a single person, we hopefully don’t let that commitment define who we are or what we can become. Conventional shipping, because it emerges from the fabric of the staid, heterosexual world view, seems always to denote some closing down of options, some encaging of possibilities in the One True Ship. It obscures the actually existing complexity of social relations, flattening their value into a singular purpose. This is why, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Mulder and Scully made their clear friend- and partnership into something “more.” They never needed “more.” They always already had enough.
Anyone familiar with the show’s entire breadth can probably name off the top of their head a half-dozen moments in which the pair clearly express the depth of their trust, admiration, respect, and devotion to and for one another. Shit, how many times did one or the other go running headlong into a darkened or derelict building, putting life and limb at risk for the other (often while screaming the other’s name)? How many times did they hold one another through tough times, ready to risk it all? To notice and respect and even wish for this, is this not shipping? Best of all, how many times have they left each other alone, as though to say, “You are an incredible person and I love you, but you are your own person and you are not me.” It doesn’t matter what you call this—relationship, partnership, friendship—but it’s shipping at its most honest and healthy, and may render shipping Mulder and Scully redundant. They’re shipped whether we like it or not, and to focus explicit attention—as I Want to Believe does—on the direct, explicit nature of their togetherness overlooks the important fact that they have always been together, and that they will probably always be together. Whether that means they share a bed or a house, or go shopping at IKEA on Saturdays, doesn’t really matter. Ultimately, this is what the film misses, intent as it is to resurrect a story that never needed to be resurrected, and to inject needless life into something already vivacious and robust and time-tested.
And this is the real conspiracy of The X-Files and its fandom: no matter how many times the showrunner dangles a romantic future for Mulder and Scully in front of us, enticing us to follow along, it is only a distraction from the real ship that was always there, waiting for us to find and admire it.
And maybe the real X-Files were the friends we made along the way.