I Want to Believe

Four and a half years after the second “X-Files” feature film was released – nine years after the series ended its nine-season run as the show that, alongside “The Simpsons,” put FOX on the map as a network – fans are calling for a third film, and there are indications that the studio is listening.


The odd thing about this isn’t that fans want more; fans of anything almost always want more.  What’s unique is that, while the television series was a blockbuster (both critically and in the ratings) and the first feature film (released in 1998, near the peak of the show’s popularity) grossed nearly two hundred million dollars worldwide, the second movie – titled “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” – barely scraped seventy million dollars internationally.  Granted, it still made a tidy profit (why else would the studio even think of a third?), and a certain drop-off in interest is probably inevitable for any franchise that began as a Friday-night sci-fi cult hit.  But what’s interesting is that even the briefest googling (this, from a Scully-focused, predominantly female mailing list: “[Make] Mulder and Scully the way they used to be!”) will reveal that what many fans really want from a third movie is not a continuation of “I Want to Believe."    It is a correction.


"I Want to Believe” was not a flawless film, but the common complaints lodged against it – that it was not, according to multiple commenters on an official FOX blog, a “proper ending” – deal less with minor issues of continuity and more with the tone and scale of the piece as a whole.  The first film, subtitled “Fight the Future,” was a big-budget action epic in which a building was blown up, Oklahoma City-style, within the first five minutes.  In “I Want to Believe,” nobody even fires a gun.  More crucially, the structure of “Fight the Future” is transparent to anyone with a passing knowledge of Joseph Campbell, or comic books: Fox Mulder, the FBI’s resident boy genius and alien-hunter, is the hero.  Dana Scully, MD, is his sidekick.  They fight the bad guys and do not emerge unscathed or totally victorious, but eventually, the viewer is certain, they will triumph.


Scully was, to a science-minded girl growing up in the nineties, about the coolest character to ever hit the small screen.  She was smart, skeptical, and sassy, whereas Mulder kept losing his cool (and his gun); she was guided in her work by a deep sense of principle and compassion, but yet she remained professional and reserved, standing up for justice without alienating all of her peers like her crazy partner.  She was undeniably beautiful, but she was rarely sexualized, and in the earlier seasons her wardrobe was downright dowdy.


Scully also, for much of the show, played second fiddle.  The narrative universe of “The X-Files” was centered around Mulder’s quest, inspired by the mysterious disappearance of his sister when he was twelve years old, and this center held throughout seven seasons and the first film.  Although Scully was abducted herself at the outset of season two (in order to write around actress Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy), this was seen primarily as fodder for Mulder’s quest, rather than fuel for  Scully’s independent involvement in uncovering conspiracies.  As the series went on, Mulder’s father – who, we learn, was somehow complicit in these deals – is killed.  Conversely, Scully loses her sister in a botched attempt on her own life, discovers a metal implant in the base of her neck, removes the implant, is diagnosed with fatal cancer, re-implants the mysterious object (which is some kind of computer chip and, it’s often implied, tracking device) to save her life, learns that she cannot have children as a result of medical experiments conducted during her abduction in which her ova were harvested, then encounters a child created from these ova.  The little girl’s name is Emily, she is some kind of alien-human genetic experiment, and after all medical interventions fail, Scully must watch her die.  And that doesn’t even take us to the end of Season Five.


The show caught some feminist flak for siting so much institutional violence and oppression within Scully’s body, and perhaps rightly so; although Scully was a well-drawn character, and astonishingly portrayed, she was nonetheless the show’s second lead.  Gillian Anderson’s name came after David Duchovny’s in the credits, and for many years she was paid less.  But then something strange happened: Duchovny left the show after its seventh season, and the entire dynamic shifted.


Duchovny’s absence was explained away by Mulder’s abduction, and finding him became the central focus of the show’s eighth season.  But it was far from the sole focus, for the seventh season ended with another bombshell revelation: the formerly barren Scully was, we learned, pregnant.


Most fans consider the show’s eighth and ninth seasons to be the worst, and there are some terrible episodes in the two years.  The pregnancy storyline was frustratingly handled; although it had been strongly implied, in late season seven, that Mulder and Scully had become sexually intimate, the show drew out the question of the baby’s paternity (was it Mulder… or an ALIEN?!?!) beyond all reason and good sense.  Also, Scully started crying a lot, which might have been accurate for a woman dealing with pregnancy hormones, the sudden disappearance of her best friend, and what seemed to be clinical depression – but it was less than fun to watch.  In the show’s eighth-season finale, Scully gives birth to a human baby, hers and Mulder’s (he’s back from his abduction!), and everything seems like it could end happily – until the show’s ninth season, in which Mulder immediately goes on the lam, Scully gives up their child for its own safety (the powerful forces arrayed against her and Mulder seek to use their child as a weapon against them), Mulder comes back and is convicted of murder, and then they both go on the lam together.


And then, after a six-year hiatus, there was the second feature film.


“I Want to Believe” looks nothing like “Fight the Future,” which was set predominantly in summertime Texas.  “I Want to Believe” is stark and cold and filled with snow.  “I Want to Believe” is also, undoubtedly, a movie about Scully.  And that’s why many fans don’t like it.


It’s not that the fans don’t like Scully.  But in “I Want to Believe,” we see her as realistically drawn, a middle-aged woman who has sacrificed everything – her career, her health, her sister, her two children – in the name of Mulder’s quest.  And now?  Now she is tired.  Now, she is finished.  Now she is putting her foot down, drawing lines in the sand, setting boundaries and taking charge.


It’s not as much fun as the first film.  Mulder is, after all, the kind of righteous boy genius that cultural mythology tells us must always be right; if he is demanding of the people in his life it is only because greatness is always demanding.  The corollary, though, is that greatness is also always male, and the individuality of women is often swept aside behind such greatness.  Throughout the series of “The X-Files,” Mulder took bold – sometimes downright crazy – leaps of logic and frequently put others in danger, but it was always in pursuit of the Truth, and we knew that only Mulder could make those leaps.  In “I Want to Believe,” it’s not clear that Mulder’s involvement advances the case beyond what the FBI could have otherwise achieved.  It is clear that his involvement leads to the death of one FBI agent, and nearly to his own.


In the nineties, as the show was airing, it seemed retrograde and even irresponsible to locate so much of the conspiracy’s evils within Scully’s health and reproductive capability.  When she and Mulder had a child, it felt like a momentary victory; to give him up was an unfathomable cruelty wrought upon both the character and the audience.  Ten years later, wizened and cynical, it seems only fitting that one of television’s iconic female trailblazers would be so marred by the persistent male control – or attempts to control – the female body.


It is precisely that kind of control against which Scully is rebelling in “I Want to Believe."  She has re-established herself now as a pediatric surgeon, made a life anew while Mulder was still wanted by the FBI.  She has supported him, made the hard and practical choices and built a home while he chases lights in the sky, just as millions of women have done for millions of men over the years.  When Mulder is offered the opportunity, in "I Want to Believe,” to chase those lights once again, the audience is heartened – this is Mulder at his finest!  Scully’s obstinate refusal to return to their former life feels almost like a slap in the face.


Most fans, of course, would reject such a reading; they want Mulder back chasing aliens and conspiracies not to return Scully to her secondary status, but because he is Mulder, and he is extraordinary, and an intelligent, capable woman losing control of her reproductive choice is a price that society is very much willing to pay in service of extraordinary men.  But what “I Want to Believe” makes abundantly clear – and what makes fans so uncomfortable – is that Scully is extraordinary too, and not merely in Mulder’s shadow.  When she pursues a risky and cutting-edge approach to treating a young boy with a disease thought to be incurable, it is well outside the halo of Mulder’s brilliance, and we see that Scully is distinctly brilliant in her own sphere, too, where it’s not simply that she’s not Mulder’s helpmeet – it’s that he is completely irrelevant to her achievement as a doctor.  (One fan, writing on the Scully-focused mailing list, ascribed this to series creator Chris Carter’s “strange Gillian fixation”; another wrote in a well-circulated review “What was the point of the whole ‘sick young boy’ plot, anyway?”)


Part of what made “The X-Files” so compelling was that, well before the two leads became sexually involved, they seemed to be in a relationship, a partnership so intense and consuming that they adopted all the gestures and tics of a couple years before they kissed.  In that sense, “I Want to Believe” is an affront against the male ego that cuts close to home even for those who don’t make their livings searching for aliens; what Scully asks of Mulder is what people ask of their significant other every day, across the world: to stop, to offer space for each person’s fulfillment.


Throughout history, women have reduced their essential selves to supporting roles.  Heroes, however, are by definition irreducible; we do not honor those who step aside but only those who charge ahead, noble and certain.  “I Want to Believe” makes Mulder step aside.  It questions the necessity of his heroism; it suggests that Scully’s selfhood is equal to Mulder’s.  That he doesn’t own the narrative, but has to share it.  Equally.  To make sacrifices for the needs of another.


These are not things that we ever demand from heroes, and they are not things that we often demand from men.  The calls from the fans for a third movie are for something much more like the first: alien invasion, Mulder saving the day, “black oil, conspiracy… the cigarette-smoking man."  (Never mind that the shadowy Cigarette-Smoking Man was obliterated in a missile attack in the series finale, wherein we literally saw the skin burn from his skeleton.)  They are not asking for a complex relationship drama in which a fiercely smart and highly educated woman is recognized as fully equal with her romantic partner.  Her partner was supposed to be the hero, after all, and the reward for heroic men is to get the girl, not to have to navigate the rest of life together with the girl’s full suite of needs and neuroses and accomplishments.


These fans want a third movie so the second one can be forgotten; they want to paper over "I Want to Believe” and make Mulder the hero again, to have the story “go out with a bang”.  To end such an epic saga not with the conquering victory implied by Mulder’s quest but by the quiet victory of Scully saving lives and defining her own life on her own terms seems a letdown, but it is a beautiful one, lifelike and hopeful.  The reclamation of female agency may not be the ending we are conditioned to expect, but one day we may see it as far more powerful than anything handed to us from Joseph Campbell – or at least, that’s what I want to believe.

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