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‘Ship Shape or Ex-Files? Mulder, Scully and Paranormal Romance

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

It is very hard to talk about The X-Files without talking about the relationship between Mulder and Scully.

This goes without saying. After all, David Duchovny was a regular for seven years of the show, making a few appearances across the final seasons. Gillian Anderson was in the primary cast for all nine seasons. Both movies have centred around the characters. The recent comic book “Season Ten” returns to the classic Mulder and Scully dynamic. It is impossible to imagine The X-Files without Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

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Given how frequently the possibility of a revival comes up, one suspects that the biggest problem with potentially rebooting or relaunching the series is the fact that it would be impossible to book Duchovny and Anderson for twenty-odd episodes in a given year. Surely some enthusiastic executive has pitched a new X-Files show (“the neXt files”, perhaps?), only to have the idea shot down because it fails to consider how big a deal Mulder and Scully are to the show.

Indeed, given how important Mulder and Scully are to the show, it seems inevitable the discussion would turn towards the possibility of a romantic relationship between the two. They are two very attractive straight people of opposite genders with great chemistry. Romance seems all but assured between the two. Of course the possibility of a romance between Mulder and Scully became a fault line in X-Files fandom.

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The idea of a romance between Mulder and Scully developed quite quickly. On-line fans would frequently discuss the possibility, and Chris Carter was already dismissing the possibility in interviews as early as October 1993:

No, it’s a relationship that is much stronger and more passionate. First of all I would call it a cerebral romance in that these characters sort of delight in each other’s approaches and it isn’t the pat or standard or expected television romance between them.  There is no physicality between them.  I don’t see it in the near future here.  They don’t end up in the sack together.  At least I don’t see it happening yet.  I think it’s refreshing.  I mean I was raised on shows like The Avengers which are smart and the characters were very attractive for those aspects.  They didn’t have to end up in bed together.

For the record, this interview was published before Ghost in the Machine aired. Five episodes into the show’s run, Carter was already addressing the possibility of a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully.

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However, these early denials did little to stop fans excited by the idea of a relationship between Mulder and Scully. By May 1996, the alt.tv.xfiles usenet group had latched on to terms like “relationshipper”, “r’shipper” and “shipper.” These terms were used to indicate support for a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully. The term “shipper” has since passed into the pop cultural lexicon, and is used in contexts outside of Mulder and Scully on The X-Files. (Much like “slash” evolved beyond Kirk and Spock.)

It is quite easy to see why the idea became popular, even in the show’s early days. After all, Mulder and Scully seemed to be alone together in a hostile world, confronting all sorts of terrors and fears. In many episodes, all Mulder and Scully have is each other; there is nobody they can count on to help them. Mulder doesn’t have a close relationship to his family, and has been exiled to the basement of the FBI. Scully has found herself becoming a pariah by association.

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Mulder and Scully see impossible things, but they frequently end up without any material proof. As such, their cases are unique shared experiences; there is nobody else who understands Scully’s abduction as well as Mulder does, while Scully herself sees and understands Mulder’s vulnerabilities in a way that nobody else can. This is obvious even in first season episodes like Ice or Darkness Falls, where the only people they can trust are each other.

All these factors contribute to the possibility of a romance between the leads. If one is being cynical, they could argue that these factors are further compounded by the limited number of options. Mulder and Scully seem unlikely to end up with other people, so it makes a certain cold sense. Mulder seems unlikely to retire to start a family, as that would mean stepping away from his crusade. Scully seems unwilling to abandon Mulder, which makes it difficult for her to maintain relationships outside the case.

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In a way, “shipping” became part of the discourse on The X-Files. In their retrospective interviews celebrating the twentieth anniversary, Empire magazine quizzed those who worked on the show about how they much (or little) they liked the idea of a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully. Apparently, Nicholas Lea is not a shipper, but Brian Thompson is. There have been academic articles written about fandom’s fascination with Mulder and Scully as a romantic pairing.

The show was quite aware of these “shippers” in fandom. It would frequently tease and provoke fans. Darin Morgan seemed to write War of the Coprophages to demonstrate that Mulder and Scully are unlikely to forge meaningful relationships outside their partnership. Chris Carter wrote the duo as an angry married couple in Syzygy. The X-Files: Fight the Future was shrewd enough to realise that Mulder kissing Scully was as much a climax to five years of The X-Files as a giant alien ship in the Arctic.

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The show’s resistance to the idea of a union between Mulder and Scully seemed to wear down over time – eroded by years of people watching and waiting for the duo to hook up. The seasons directly following the movie seemed more open to the idea of romance between Mulder and Scully than any before. Arcadia existed solely so Mulder and Scully could play-act as a married couple. How the Ghosts Stole Christmas featured the pair juxtaposed with a malevolent married couple.

Inevitably, the show just bit the bullet – albeit in the most non-committal manner possible. The episode all things implied a sexual relationship between Mulder and Scully, without showing anything that would tie the series down. The seventh season ended with Mulder vanished and Scully pregnant. The eighth season spent a lot of time procrastinating, refusing to confirm the identity of the father. Finally, it was confirmed to be Mulder. The closing scene of the eighth season gave us Mulder and Scully as a family, at last.

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Of course, not all fandom was glad to see Mulder and Scully hook up. “I had somebody write in and say that if Mulder and Scully ever kissed, they’d throw their television set out the window,” Chris Carter claimed in another interview at the start of the second season. As much as the “shippers” wanted a union between Mulder and Scully, the “noromos” wanted the relationship to remain purely platonic in nature.

Ask a dozen X-Files fans how they feel about the romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully, and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Some like the idea of Mulder and Scully as a couple who fight aliens and conspiracies together; others argue that the relationship between the two remains “pure” if it isn’t complicated or clouded by romantic or sexual feelings. Despite the firm delineation suggested by terms like “shipper” and “noromo”, it feels like more of a spectrum than a binary division.

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It is easy to see why a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully might be a bad idea. After all, the show’s troubled ninth season would seem to prove that. On a purely practical level, the relationship tethers the two characters to each other. Mulder’s almost complete absence from the ninth season feels strange after seeing him with Scully and William at the end of the eighth season. If Mulder and Scully are now a conventional romantic couple, Mulder’s absence really needs to be a bigger deal.

The show can no longer shrug it off with “Mulder had to go on the run.” After all, Mulder has just abandoned the woman he loved and his own child. His complete absence – and the way that the show accepts his complete absence – makes the continued presence of Scully and William feel a little incongruous. It feels very disconcerting to cast Mulder as a lover and a father, while unable to actually treat Mulder as a lover and a father. It is the worst of both worlds.

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Making Mulder and Scully a couple means that the Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are inseparable. It means the show has commit to both or neither. When Mulder goes on the run at the start of Nothing Important Happened Today, it is never quite explained why Scully and William don’t simply go with him. They could settle down somewhere, have a new life. They could get a small cottage or a suburban house.

In a way, that is the biggest problem with trying to shoe-horn Mulder and Scully into a conventional relationship. Both characters are very unconventional. In their own ways, Mulder and Scully are both very unique and very odd. It makes sense for there to be a deep love between the two; after all they’ve been through, attraction and affection feel like logical developments in their relationship. It is very hard to watch The X-Files without realising that Mulder and Scully love each other very much.

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This love is apparent by the end of the second season. In End Game, Mulder is willing to give up his long-lost sister in order to keep Scully safe. In Anasazi, Scully is willing to lie to her bosses and to shoot Mulder in order to protect him. The two regularly take impossible and incredible risks for one another. Mulder might not always be emotionally astute enough to realise Scully’s needs, but the two are devoted to each other.

It has always seemed a little odd that people expect that love to express itself in such a conventional way. There is something uncomfortably normative about a romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully – the idea that the two should transition into a relationship that looks and feels a lot more like what we expect from a romance. It may be an exaggeration, but it often seems like the hardline “shipper” position expects Mulder and Scully need to declare their love for one another, kiss regularly, and hold hands.

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Do Mulder and Scully need to be described as a “couple” for their love to have meaning? Do they need to have a child together to prove how deep their affection is? Do they need a little cottage where they live an idyllic existence? Do they even need an apartment together or a shared account to put some official stamp on their relationship? Do Mulder and Scully need to be a “family” in a conventional sense for this love to make sense?

The X-Files is an artifact of the nineties in a number of ways, but the early years of the relationship between Mulder and Scully seem to hone in on a very interesting aspect of the decade. It seemed like – in the mid-nineties – the very idea of romantic interpersonal relationships was beginning to change. It seemed like there was more tolerance for relationships that did not conform to society’s expectations and norms.

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This increased awareness and appreciation of non-normative behaviour really came to the fore with the greater tolerance shown to homosexual couples over the course of the nineties. However, the shift in attitude also extended to heterosexual couples as well. The number of married couples continued to decline through the decade. (Interestingly, the proportionate number of divorces also fell.) Prior to the nineties, high school students had been more likely to get married than go to college.

Cohabitation become more common during the decade, while single-parent and unmarried families also became more accepted. In the mid-nineties, the United Kingdom discovered that over one million couples were living in separate homes and apartments. Indeed, the sense that marriage was the default relationship between two romantic individuals had declined so much that the 2000 census did not even bother to ask about it.

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Perhaps this explains why Mulder and Scully were so fascinating in those early years, why the relationship felt so much more compelling before it was re-worked to make it more conventional and normative. Mulder and Scully are much more interesting when they are unconventional or abnormal. They are two people who love each other very much who do not conform to what society expects of them. They value each other’s companionship and company, but they do not need society to quantify it or label it.

Neither has to compromise or give up anything in order to affirm their love. Mulder does not have to give up his quest for “the truth” in order to play loving husband or doting father. Scully does not have to give up her apartment or her independence in order to play wife or mother. They do not need to “settle down” to grant their relationship legitimacy. Mulder and Scully are two people who do what they do together, and don’t feel the need to play the roles expected of lovers.

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Just because Mulder and Scully do not hold hands in public together does not mean they do not love each other. The fact that the show is coy about the possibility of a sexual relationship does not prove anything one way or another; while the love and sex can be (and often are) linked, they are not mutually dependent or exclusive. The nineties had seen the idea of asexuality gain wider understanding – accepting that sexuality and attraction could exist in various unconventional forms, or even not at all.

There is something very appealing about the Mulder and Scully as a couple in love. However, a large part of that appeal is anchored in how they refuse to conform to many of the social norms that people have been conditioned to expect from these sorts of relationships. This is a dynamic that is more interesting because it is a lot harder to quantify, and all the more compelling because it refuses to simplify itself so that it might be more comfortably categorised. Forcing that relationship to conform to old-fashioned expectations feels like it misunderstands the central appeal of the dynamic.

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To try to force the relationship between Mulder and Scully into a more conventional shape seems to miss the primary appeal of it. It takes something unique and fascinating, only to make it more generic and familiar.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the third season of The X-Files:

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7 Responses

  1. Thanks for coming back to this! 🙂
    I think there was a lot of implied hookups between Mulder and Scully. I think I had mentioned in some comments back when you were doing this over the summer, I had gone back and watched the series on Netflix, and I remember some scenes, though not the specific episodes, but later on in the series, there were a few scenes we saw Mulder get out of bed with Scully in the mornings so I had taken it that it was implied that they were seeing each other on the lamb because they were absolutely forbidden to see each other because the FBI forbade it. Idk. I could be wrong because I could have missed something and they could have been dream sequences for all I know. Or wishful thinking on my part of being a shipper LOL…. 😀

    • You’re right about the scene with Mulder in bed, although I think they tried very hard to keep it ambiguous. It’s from Gillian Anderson’s episode, All Things, I believe. In the seventh season. It’s an episode that… I have mixed feelings towards, for reasons completely divorced from shipping or anything like that. (I think it’s an interesting, but flawed, piece of television.)

      Oh, set the calendar. Home is February 3rd, at midnight. If one sets calendars for that sort of thing.

  2. “It feels very disconcerting to cast Mulder as a lover and a father, while unable to actually treat Mulder as a lover and a father. It is the worst of both worlds.”

    Thanks for writing that. And thanks for writing this article. There really aren’t enough X-Files analyses that honestly acknowledge the problems with putting Mulder and Scully into a heteronormative relationship.

    I especially appreciate the shout-out to asexuality – but I think you’re being a bit optimistic in your chronology. It really wasn’t till the noughts that asexuality began to gain recognition, and only in the last decade has it become relatively accepted. Back in the nineties, there really wasn’t a language to talk about asexuality or asexual relationships. If there had been, I have no doubt that the discussions between the shipper and noromo communities would have been very different.

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