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“Mulder and Scully” by Catatonia (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Things are getting strange, I’m starting to worry

this could be a case for Mulder and Scully…

If you needed proof that The X-Files was a cultural juggernaut in the mid-to-late nineties, look no further than Mulder and Scully.

The first single off Catatonia’s International Velvet propelled the band to new heights of fame and fortune. Before the release of Mulder and Scully, the band had skulked around the bottom of the British charts; their biggest success before that point had been You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For, a song lucky to scrape the top forty. Indeed, reaching the third position in the United Kingdom charts, Mulder and Scully easily became the Welsh band’s largest pop hit. A month after the release of Mulder and Scully, its parent album would reach the top of the international charts.

catatonia-mulderandscully3

Having a Wales of a time…

Indeed, it could be argued that Catatonia’s success overlapped quite neatly with that of The X-Files. The core of the band’s “classic” line-up, Cerys Matthews and Mark Roberts, began writing songs together in 1992. The single Mulder and Scully and the album International Velvet represented the peak of their success. The band would release two more albums building off the success of International Velvet, before formally announcing the dissolution of the band in September 2001. It is an arc that roughly mirrors that of The X-Files – suggesting Catatonia were another nineties artifact.

Although Mulder and Scully was Catatonia’s biggest success, it is worth noting The X-Files had enjoyed a great deal of success in the British charts. Late in the show’s third season, the theme song had been released as a single in its own right. Mark Snow’s iconic opening credits music had climbed all the way to the number two slot. Nevertheless, Mulder and Scully is interesting because it is a massive hit about the show that came from outside the production office. The X-Files had conquered television, now it seemed to be laying claim to both cinemas and the pop charts.

Sing when you're winning...

Sing when you’re winning…

It would be tempting to write off Mulder and Scully as a novelty hit – a spiritual successor to eighties hits like Star Trekkin’ or Doctorin’ the TARDIS. However, that does not quite cover it. Mulder and Scully is not simply cobbled-together sound effects and references structured into a clean three-minute celebration. Instead, Mulder and Scully is actually a credible song in its own right – one with a meaning only related to the parent show by metaphor. It is very much a testament to how firmly The X-Files had entrenched itself in the popular lexicon by this point in its run.

There is arguably something quite cynical about Mulder and Scully. Writer and vocalist Cerys Matthews was quite candid that she was not a fan of the show. Addressing the argument that there might have been some confusion about releasing a branded song so close to the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future, Matthews was somewhat typically irreverent. “It’s funny we’ve done so well on the back of that song. I don’t even like The X-Files. I’m sure loads of people bought the record by mistake, but who cares? They should be flattered we wrote a song about them anyway.”

Shippers, enjoy!

Shippers, enjoy!

Matthews is being delightfully cheeky, as if to suggest that the multi-million dollar international science-fiction franchise owes the indie Welsh band a great deal for the pleasure of providing that Welsh band their largest hit. After all, as David Owens notes in Cerys, Catatonia And The Rise Of Welsh Pop, Mulder and Scully changed everything for the band:

“The transformation was quite incredible,” says Conal Dodd. “The tour had been going well, but when Mulder and Scully’hit the charts everything changed. The crowds seemed more up for it, more fervent and by the time we got to Port Talbot on 1 February, which I guess was their homecoming gig (Aled is from just down the road in Llanelli and Cerys has lived in both Cardiff and Swansea), the crowds were clambering for tickets.”

And well it should have. Mulder and Scully is a decidedly catchy song, with a killer riff. There is something brilliantly audacious about trying to rhyme “Scully” with “worry”, and Matthews is really able to hit the emotional beats of a song that is – at its core – about a fundamentally dysfunctional relationship. Because what else would it be about?

Rhys and shine!

Rhys and shine!

Of course, Mulder and Scully is quite candid about its influences. The cover art for the single features a UFO hovering over Cardiff. The video – which received substantial airplay – not only features a young Rhys Ifans, one year shy of his breakout performance in Notting Hill, but also two Mulder and Scully lookalikes investigating a music festival that happens to feature the eponymous band. Inevitably, the video features the stand-ins hooking up in the middle of a crowd – and even the implication of some improper behaviour in a festival portaloo.

“The single is out there,” teased full-page advertisements keen to cash in on the success of a popular American television show to help sell a hip Welsh band. When Catatonia performed the anthem on Top of the Pops, they were accompanied with two giant posters of Mulder and Scully on either side of the stage, lest the audience be confused about which Mulder and which Scully were being referenced by the song in question. For a band that weren’t fans of The X-Files, they were certainly riding it for all that it was worth.

"This is the worst assignment we've ever had." "Worse than the time we were attacked by the flesh-eating virus?" "No, this is much more irritating."

“This is the worst assignment we’ve ever had.”
“Worse than the time we were attacked by the flesh-eating virus?”
“No, this is much more irritating.”

The single enjoyed considerable international success in the Irish and American charts. It became Catatonia’s first single to be released in the United States, with the song’s name recognition helping to secure attention. In fact, Mulder and Scully enjoyed quite a happy afterlife, appearing on quite a few “Britpop” nineties compilations like Common People: The Britpop Story and 100 Hits of the 90s. It is a light and bubble song, with a catchy chorus and a solid vocal performance; a love song for the self-aware and pop-culture-referencing nineties generation.

However, for all that the publicity around Mulder and Scully could be read as a cynical cash-grab from a band that found themselves eager to make an impression as they stood on the cusp of success, the song is not about The X-Files or Mulder and Scully. Instead, Matthews uses the central characters as a metaphor for a weird and damaged romantic relationship. “It’s about asking Mulder and Scully to figure out this thing called love,” she explained at the time. “I like the idea of two people going round the planet investigating odd phenomena, in this case love.”

"I should have just gone to Graceland. Again."

“I should have just gone to Graceland. Again.”

As a contemporaneous NME review explained, Mulder and Scully was not just a good novelty hit or cynical cash-in, it was also a good song in its own right:

For not only is M & S a braincrushing juggernaut of a tune – it is also a work of unquestionable lyrical genius. The irresistibly sticky chorus – with its utterly desperate cry for help aimed at Ginger and UFO Boy from The X-Files – is a solid-gold nugget of cross-referenced pop-culture cool worthy of Shaun Ryder at his least overdosed. But look beyond that and the song is an almost operatic roar of confusion and pain from a woman who is both dizzy with the euphoria of sexual love AND utterly pissed off that she’s once again let herself become an emotional Siamese twin.

Instead of fixating on The X-Files as a pop culture object of itself, the song uses the show as a launchpad to explore deeper and more resonant themes.

Putting his heart out there...

Putting his heart out there…

This is quite informative when it comes to examining the intersection between The X-Files and wider pop culture at this point of its life-cycle. Most obviously, it demonstrates how successful the show had become that international indie bands (who weren’t even fans of the show) were building entire songs using Mulder and Scully as a metaphor. That a song like this could carry Catatonia to the upper reaches of the charts says a lot about the show’s pull and weight. In fact, Mulder and Scully does not even need to reference The X-Files itself; those two names are iconic enough on their own.

However, Mulder and Scully is also quite informative about how the show is broadly perceived at this point in its run. The most compelling part of The X-Files to the most casual viewers has nothing to do with aliens or monsters, and all to do with the strange dynamic between a tall dark-haired agent and his red-haired colleague. For all that fandom might divide itself into categories like “shippers” and “noromos”, it seemed more and more likely that the public was interested in The X-Files more as a dysfunctional romance than as a horror anthology.

"Sure, we might have questionable wigs, but our suits are still better than they were for the first three seasons of the show."

“Sure, we might have questionable wigs, but our suits are still better than they were for the first three seasons of the show.”

At the centre of Mulder and Scully is a relationship between a man and a woman that is fundamentally unhealthy and unfulfilling. “And what does someone do without love?” Matthews ponders in the final verse. “And what does someone do with love?” Mulder and Scully is a song about contradictions and contrasts, about the complexities of romantic relationships. It hints at one of the more interesting aspects of the Mulder and Scully dynamic – the idea that these two characters are in love, but that their love does not conform to expectations of what a romantic relationship should be.

The series does not confirm that Mulder and Scully are actually sleeping together until after David Duchovny has left the show. No sooner has the show embraced the idea than Duchovny leaces again. It is quite possible to read the show as suggesting that Mulder and Scully have been sexually active with one another since the fourth or fifth seasons, even if that is never confirmed one way or another. The two do not move in together, they do not hold hands in public. They avoid a lot of the standard “tells” of a romantic or sexual relationship in popular culture.

Adding fuel to the fire...

Adding fuel to the fire…

That relationship was compelling – and not just to fandom. As Mulder and Scully suggests, there was a large number of people outside of fandom who recognised the dynamic between Mulder and Scully as unconventional and intriguing, seeing that relationship as something which set the show apart from many of its contemporaries. While fandom might still be locked in a civil war about the nature of the Mulder and Scully dynamic at this point of the run, Mulder and Scully makes it clear that the “shippers” have already won the war in the larger cultural theatre.

This, in turn, explains a lot about the show from Fight the Future onwards. Carter might have been uncomfortable with the idea of Mulder and Scully having a romantic relationship, but it was clear that this was what the audience wanted – not the fans who post in message boards or join chat interviews, but the larger audience of television viewers and cinema-goers. While the show had been staunchly and heavily platonic in its first few seasons, The X-Files becomes more and more romantic around the looming release of Fight the Future.

Sleeping on it...

Sleeping on it…

This, in turn, suggests a great deal about Fight the Future. Fight the Future attracts a large amount of criticism for its perceived failure to push the mythology to any sort of conclusion. Indeed, it feels (along with The End and The Beginning) like a diversion in the middle of the mythology’s real third act with Patient X, The Red and the Black, Two Fathers and One Son. However, it seems that the mythology was never really the point for Fight the Future. While the movie attempts to offer a thrilling mythology-driven story, its attention is focused elsewhere.

The biggest moment in Fight the Future is ultimately given over to the relationship between Mulder and Scully, in a very savvy move by writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz. That, it seems, is where the heart of The X-Files lies – at least for the casual fan who might want to check out “the X-Files movie.” It turns out that, to a broad audience, The X-Files is fundamentally a story about a dysfunctional dynamic between two people. The most paranormal and supernatural element of The X-Files remains the weird relationship between Mulder and Scully.

And that, children, is where William came from.

And that, children, is where William came from.

To be fair, this is something that the show has itself referenced and reinforced over the course of its run. The opening arc of the second season made it quite clear that The X-Files could exist without the eponymous X-files, but that both Mulder and Scully were essential to the series. The show would reiterate this idea at the start of the sixth season, deciding that focusing on Mulder and Scully took priority over focusing on the X-files themselves. It was very canny marketing, and an example of just how skilfully Carter could recognise public tastes and attitudes.

However, this approach would cause problems for the show later on. If The X-Files really was inseparable from Mulder and Scully, then what would happen if the show ever had to make do without one or the other? Things would be getting strange and people would be starting worry, indeed. Still, that cloud was barely visible on the horizon at this point in the show’s run. For the time being, it was enough that The X-Files could be synonymous with Mulder and Scully. They wouldn’t stop doing what they keep doing for quite a while yet.

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2 Responses

  1. Heh, I’d forgotten about this song.

    I think for me the biggest sign of ‘X-Files’ ubiquity was having Mulder and Scully given official AD&D stats in ‘Dragon Magazine #238’ (August 1997). Okay technically they were ‘Vanyard the Fox’ and ‘Danna the Skull’ and the article they were part of was clearly a humour piece but still…

    (Incidentally Mulder/Vanyard is a Chaotic Good 9th level Thief and Scully/Danna is a Lawful Good 9th level Necromancer.)

    • That really was the “peak” year for The X-Files. It was all downhill from there, baby! (Fun fact I recently learned: no episode after The Rain King rated higher than The Rain King. The same is true of Two Fathers, if you want to chart the descent.)

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