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Non-Review Review: The X-Files – I Want to Believe

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

The plan was always to transition The X-Files from television to film, but fans change.

Following the success of The X-Files: Fight the Future, there had been some mumblings about the possibility of releasing a film in the summer of 2000. Given that The X-Files was a cultural property rooted in the nineties, it seemed like a big screen adventure would have been the perfect way to bring Mulder and Scully into the twenty-first century. After all, the original plan was that the show would retire in its seventh season. (The network even had a bespoke successor selected in Chris Carter’s Harsh Realm.)

Gotta have faith...

Gotta have faith…

However, this was not to be. It turned out that Fight the Future represented the cultural peak of The X-Files, the moment of maximum pop culture saturation. Almost immediately upon the production team’s move to California at the start of the sixth season, the show’s rating began their slow (and then not so slow) decline. The seventh season was itself hampered by behind-the-scenes drama, with David Duchovny suing Chris Carter and Fox over syndication. At the same time, Fox’s “worst season ever” meant that the broadcast could not afford to cancel The X-Files.

So, understandably, the sequel to Fight the Future was postponed and put on the long-finger. As the show came to an end in its ninth season, the subject of a second X-Files feature film arose again. Still, there was a debate to be had about whether the world really wanted a second X-Files film. While the sixth and seventh seasons had slowly eroded the show’s popularity and appeal, the ninth completely collapsed it; through the combination of bad storytelling decisions and the broader shift in the political mood, The X-Files felt like a spent cultural force.

"Platonic", eh?

“Platonic”, eh?

Ultimately, that was not to be either. The production history of The X-Files: I Want to Believe often recalls the mythology at the heart of The X-Files, with the project constantly shifting and changing as outside forces intervene. I Want to Believe arrived in cinemas in July 2008, a full decade after Fight the Future and more than six years after the broadcast of The Truth. The finished product is radically different from what anybody might have imagined in the immediate aftermath of Fight the Future, its design often surreal and awkward.

If I Want to Believe would have been a strange choice for an X-Files film release in July 2000, it seemed downright perverse in July 2008.

The truth is out there. Way out there.

The truth is out there. Way out there.

There are a lot of reasons why I Want to Believe arrived so late. Initially, Carter was simply enjoying a break. Factoring in the development of The X-Files before the first season was even broadcast, Carter had devoted a year of his his life to the project. As such, the cancellation represented a certain amount of freedom for the writer. Asked about the possible development of a second X-Files film in 2004, actor Dean Haglund remarked that Carter was “off surfing and climbing the mountains of the world.”

In fact, Carter openly acknowledges that he greatly enjoyed the free time afforded by the end of a hit network television series. Explaining what he did with all of that time off, Carter confessed, “I took three years of drum lessons.  I have a kit set up right now. I love jazz and funk, because it’s hard. If it’s not hard, it’s not worth doing.” Carter had certainly earned some time off; overseeing more than two hundred episodes of a weekly television series is exhausting. (And this discounts the work Carter did on other projects overlapping.)

A close shave...

A close shave…

At the same time, the show’s creative team had split up to work on a variety of different projects. The influence of The X-Files would be keenly felt on an entire generation of television, as the landscape was shaped and moulded by writers and directors who had honed their skill on the popular nineties supernatural drama. In particular, Carter’s regular mythology collaborator Frank Spotnitz had moved to work on shows like Robbery Homicide Division and Night Stalker.

As a result, it took a little time to get all the pieces moving. It was late 2004 before the plans were made public, with Fox acknowledging their interest in taking Mulder and Scully to the big screen again. Already, it appeared to be something of a logistical nightmare. “So now it’s just a matter of making sure everybody can get together at the same time and do it,” reflected David Duchovny of the planned sequel in 2004. However, other obstacles to the movie’s development would soon emerge.

Snow escape...

Snow escape…

Shortly after committing to the sequel, Carter became embroiled in a legal battle with Fox concerning the financial management of The X-Files. Ever diplomatic, Carter was keen to stress that the engagement was never hostile on either side, although it did affect the scheduling of the film:

Fox approached us in 2003 and said, ‘Let’s go.’ We were ready to go, but then there followed what I would call a contractual thing over the series’ profit, and what started out as a negotiation had to turn into a lawsuit – it’s complicated – in order for me to protect my right to negotiate. It took years to settle, and at that point I didn’t think there could ever be a second movie. Then, after everything was resolved, Fox called and said, ‘Remember that movie you had in mind? You’d better get ready to do it now or never, because there’s a Writers Guild strike looming.’ So it was years of stasis, and then a mad rush.

Somewhat ironically, Carter would be represented in this legal matter by Stanton L. Stein, who had represented Duchovny during his seventh season lawsuit against Carter. I Want to Believe already had a storied history before it even entered production.

Joe knows...

Joe knows…

The production of I Want to Believe was not entirely smooth. Although it seemed like the film had slowly lurched into production, the movie suddenly found itself in a mad dash towards the finish line. Although Carter and Spotnitz were allowed to develop the film, Fox imposed a number of serious constraints upon the team:

Five years out of sight is a long time even for a popular franchise, and when Fox gave the go-ahead to Mr. Carter and his co-writer and co-producer, Frank Spotnitz, the green light came with a low budget of $30 million, a strong expression of preference for a user-friendly PG-13 rating and a now-or-never timetable predicated on finishing the script before the writers’ strike last winter.

In many ways, I Want to Believe was fighting an up-hill battle even before those constraints were imposed upon it: a minuscule budget smaller than that of Fight the Future; a tight deadline on scripting, with no capacity for rewriting or reworking when that deadline elapsed; a preference for a rating that would undercut the movie’s ability to do horror.

For Peet's sake...

For Peet’s sake…

Carter has acknowledged these factors as limitations upon the finished product. In many respects, I Want to Believe was tailored to the restrictions imposed upon the production team:

It’s funny, but on the series, we prided ourselves each week with making a little movie. Then, when it came time to do the second X-Files movie, we were given the money and the opportunity to make, literally, a little movie. That’s what we did. We realized we had no money for big special effects. We had to come up with a story that didn’t rely on those special effects, and hence wasn’t a summer blockbuster kind of movie.

There are certainly some respects in which these restrictions are obvious. Fight the Future opened with the demolition of a government building and built to a massive alien ship buried in the Arctic. The biggest set piece in I Want to Believe is a footchase through Vancouver.

Growing the beard...

Growing the beard…

At the same time, even allowing for the limitations imposed upon the film, some of the choices made by the production team were curious. The most obvious of these decisions was to structure I Want to Believe as a “monster of the week” story rather than a mythology adventure. Whereas Fight the Future was tied into the show’s tangled web of government conspiracies and alien visitation, I Want to Believe is a smaller story about psychic visions and body-swapping experiments.

To be fair, it had always been the plan for the second X-Files film to stand on its own. Chris Carter explained, “When we finished the first movie, we said the next movie we do will be a story that stands alone, what some people call a ‘monster of the week’ story. We wanted to do a story that didn’t require you to have any knowledge of that ongoing story arc.” It makes a certain amount of sense, particularly in the context of the show’s final years.It was easy to understand why Carter and Spotnitz thought that fans might want a “monster of the week.”

Surgical precision...

Surgical precision…

The mythology had been a huge draw in the show’s early years. Episodes like Colony and End Game had seen the show push the limits of what was possible on television, while the twist and turns kept audiences hooked as Mulder and Scully gradually unearthed a massive conspiracy against the American people. However, time took a lot of the luster off the mythology, as it became increasingly clear that the mythology was not going to offer viewers the answers that they wanted in the way that they wanted.

The final season had seen the mythology become an albatross around the show’s neck as it became bogged down in prophecy and “super soldiers.” Indeed, the show’s fixation upon its own mythology – and the desperate need to prove that the mythology all made sense – turning the two-hour season finalé into a slog. The Truth was less of an ending and more of a clip show. In many ways, it felt like the show was making a desperate attempt to salvage its legacy by arguing that the mythology did make sense.

A cold reception...

A cold reception…

(In a way, perhaps, this speaks to the gap between what fandom wanted from the show and what they thought they wanted. By and larger, the mythology of The X-Files does make a certain amount of sense; there are a few loose threads and narrative cul de sacs, but the show explains the “why” and the “how” quite clearly. However, the show’s mythology is not satisfying in any material sense, because none of these resolutions lead to fulfilling resolutions. The problem was never that the mythology didn’t make sense; the problem was it ceased to be told well.)

Whatever the reason, the broader consensus on the relative merits of the mythology episodes as compared to the “monster of the week” stories had shifted in the years since the show went off the air. While the mythology had driven discussion and discourse on the show while it was on the air, retrospective evaluations of the show tend towards the “monster of the week” stories. It should be noted that – as a rule – the strongest episodes of the ninth season tend to be those least connected to the overarching mythology.

Chill out...

Chill out…

Of course, there was a slight hitch with this plan. For better or worse – and most likely worse – the show’s troubled ninth season had spent considerable time building to a cliffhanger ending designed to pay off in a series of feature films. William wrote Mulder and Scully’s son out of the show, based around the awkward assumption that Scully could not be a mother and have cool alien adventures. The Truth put Mulder and Scully on the run, fugitives from justice (or injustice), offering a blockbuster-ready status quo.

The Truth also postponed any true closure to the mythology, with the entire episode built around a deadline of 2012. The teaser to the episode have Mulder discover that colonisation of Earth was due to take place in December 2012, as the Mayans had predicted and which was (likely coincidentally) massive blockbuster territory. (As much hype as summer blockbusters get, Avatar and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens were both December releases; as were the Lord of the Rings trilogy.)

An axe to grind...

An axe to grind…

When The Truth was broadcast, that deadline was more than a decade in the future. It was a concern that could be put on the long-finger. It was not a pressing or immediate concern for the production company, in much the same way as “what if we had to do the show without Mulder and Scully?” was not a concern for the writers when they decided Mulder and Scully were more important than the X-files in Little Green Men. Ten years is a long time. There was no need to worry about that for the first standalone film.

In the context of 2003, a standalone “monster of the week” made a great deal of sense. After all, the best “monster of the week” stories felt like standalone horror films, so doing a standalone horror film starring Mulder and Scully made a lot of sense. It made a lot more sense in the context of the explosion of low budget horror films at the turn of the millennium. While companies like Platinum Dunes were flooding the market with cheap knock-offs, Mulder and Scully served as a recognisable brand. Who wouldn’t want to see a big-screen version of Home?

"Have you seen this boy?" "This'd be funnier if Doggett were still around."

“Have you seen this boy?”
“This’d be funnier if Doggett were still around.”

This made sense when it seemed like Carter might be delivering  a series of feature films, with one instalment every few years. It made not difference if a “monster of the week” story landed in 2003 or 2004, because the next film (or even the one after it) might be a mythology story. It was easy to assume that Carter and Spotnitz would have at least two films before they had to worry about a big blockbuster invasion of Earth by an army of colonists and their human accomplices or super soldier compatriots.

So I Want to Believe gloriously fudges the cliffhanger ending to The Truth. Mulder makes only a fleeting reference to the season finalé. “They put me on trial on bogus charges and tried to discredit a decade of my work,” he complains. However, Scully downplays the importance of all that. “Mulder, if the FBI wanted to get you, I have no doubt that they could,” Scully assures her former partner. “I think they’ve just been happy to have you out of their hair.” In fact, Mulder and Scully are offered a pardon in return for their assistance on the case of the week.

The charges are parked. (Also, the parking is charged.)

The charges are parked.
(Also, the parking is charged.)

It is a storytelling decision that feels awkward. After all, Mulder was a man accused of killing an army officer. Those charges do not simply “go away.” While people like Scully and Skinner know that Mulder was set up and that he actually murdered an alien posing as a soldier, Mulder’s criminal record should make him a pariah to the law enforcement community. Even ignoring active members of the conspiracy, normal members of the FBI should treat Mulder in a manner similar to the way they treat Father Joe.

There is a logical reason to avoid getting into the finer details of The Truth. After all, The Truth aired at a point where The X-Files was considered to be a spent creative force. The show had been a cultural juggernaut at its peak, but it faded from prominence during its sixth and seventh seasons. As a result, it seemed reasonable to assume that cinema-goers would not be overly familiar with the continuity of the later seasons; and so elements of the show’s final years were consciously downplayed. I Want to Believe was largely disinterested in the show’s final seasons.

Sick burn!

Sick burn!

I Want to Believe represented a conscious effort to hark back to the so-called “golden era” of the show. In the six years since The X-Files went off the air, the cultural memory had the opportunity to properly process and access the impact of the show. The X-Files was no longer an on-going concern pressing boldly forward. Instead, The X-Files was a historical artifact; it was something to be approached as a relic or a monument. I Want to Believe demonstrates just how the collective memory had framed The X-Files, calling back to an archetypal version of the show.

The archetypal version of The X-Files was very much the peak of the Vancouver years, spanning from the third through the fourth season. The show’s memory came to fixate upon that, an internal nostalgia. There were early indications of this in the tie-in media. Resist or Serve might have been set in the seventh season, but its continuity and iconography largely drew from the fourth and fifth. Frank Spotnitz’s comic work for Wildstorm to coincide with I Want to Believe was set at a hazy point in the past, some time between the second and fifth seasons.

He hasn't a prayer...

He hasn’t a prayer…

I Want to Believe does something similar, offering the most blatant example of The X-Files engaging with its own history and its own legend. In many ways, fandom had been pointing to the early seasons of The X-Files the most ideal and archetypal iteration of the show from early in the sixth season. While the fanbase had protested aggressively against “X-Files Lite” or John Doggett, it seemed like there was an unconscious agreement that the show was at its creative peak during those early years in Vancouver.

And so I Want to Believe consciously calls back to that era of the show, even making a point to film in Vancouver. According to Frank Spotnitz, the film was specifically tailored to these locations. I Want to Believe unfolds in a very snowy New England setting, which is an environment that the later years of The X-Files would have had a great deal of trouble replicating. The movie’s supporting cast features a lot of veteran X-Files guest stars, but primarily from the first five seasons.

"Why no, Agent, I have never heard of a Fox Mulder. It could not possibly be me, for you described a beardless man!"

“Why no, Agent Whitney, I have never heard of this “Fox Mulder.” It could not possibly be me, for you described a beardless man!”

To pick just the more obvious ones: Callum Keith Rennie from Lazarus and Fresh Bones; Alex Diakun from Humbug, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”; Stephen E. Miller from The Pilot, Duane Barry and Piper Maru; Xantha Radley from The Post-Modern Prometheus; Lorena Gale from Shadows, One Breath and Elegy; Sarah-Jane Redmond from Aubrey and Schizogeny. In contrast, neither Robert Patrick nor Annabeth Gish appear; the most prominent supporting player from the show’s later era is Nicki Aycox from Rush.

It should also be noted that a large portion of the supporting cast from I Want to Believe had associations with some of Ten Thirteen’s other productions based in Vancouver. Alex Diakun appeared (in different roles) in both the first and seconds season of Millennium. Stephen E. Miller was a recurring player on the third season of Millennium. Sarah-Jane Redmond was a recurring guest star on both Millennium and Harsh Realm. I Want to Believe is very firmly tied to the show’s Vancouver era.

Holy theories...

Holy theories…

On the movie’s commentary, Chris Carter acknowledges that the production even took the team back to right where everything had begun:

This is a scene shot very close to Vancouver; you know, twenty minutes away at the GDRD, where we filmed the original abduction in the X-Files pilot, a long time ago. But there was enough snow on the ground that we could use the location.

I Want to Believe represents a literal homecoming for the show, and it feels like the production team are making a conscious choice to favour the show’s Vancouver era over its later years.

Eye see...

Eye see…

As Chris Knowles has argued, I Want to Believe might not be a traditional “mythology story” featuring aliens and conspiracies, but it is very much saturated in the imagery and iconography of the mythology itself:

  • We do see an alien conspiracy – Russian aliens, who have set up a colony to create hybrids.
  • These aliens are abducting people, and using their bodies for advanced genetic experimentation.
  • In a gruesome twist on AAT, the aliens are trying to literally graft their alien “consciousness” onto the native women.
  • All of this is going on in West Virginia, Ground Zero of the human/alien hybridization database in the original series.

Knowles is quite right here, a detail that is often overlooked in discussions of the film. (It should also be noted that the film explicitly acknowledges one connection; but that is still to come.)

Yes we Can(ada)...

Yes we Can(ada)…

I Want to Believe harks back to several images and themes associated with the Vancouver era. The emphasis on Franz and Janke as Russian, and their secret cabal, harks back to the “subculture” episodes of the show like Hell Money and Kaddish; these stories became less common once the show moved to Los Angeles. When Father Joe starts bleeding through his eyes, the staging and framing of the sequence recalls the portrayal of the black oil. The use of black ice in the closing credits seems designed to reinforce this connection.

The use of ice in the film evokes a whole host of X-Files continuity. The third act emphasis on Mulder wandering off in the snow to complete his quest recalls both the climax of End Game and the climax of Fight the Future. Even the use of the ice bath as part of the treatment forges a visual connection from I Want to Believe to Colony and End Game. The recovery of a body (or body parts) frozen in ice and thawed for analysis recalls the central plot point of Gethsemane, in which Mulder investigated a supposed alien body found in the ice.

"Law enforcement! Freeze!"

“Law enforcement! Freeze!”

There are countless similarities between I Want to Believe and the basic thrust of the mythology. Christian’s brain surgery recalls the experiments conducted upon Gibson Praise in The Beginning. Father Joe is just another abusive male authority figure, a “father” by vocation rather than biology. In many respects, Father Joe is a flawed and fallen father seeking redemption for past complicity. He mirrors that most archetypal of X-Files mythology figures, from Deep Throat to Bill Mulder to Alvin Kurtzweil to the Well-Manicured Man. His arc ends the same way.

Boiled down to its essence, I Want to Believe is arguably the quintessential mythology story; it just doesn’t have anything to do with colonisation. It is the story of (in this case legal) aliens conspiring to abduct innocent (and mostly female) victims so as to exploit their bodies for their own ends. Much like the conspirators, Franz and Janke are trying to fashion a “hybrid” body from their experiments; a “hybrid” body that would allow them a longer life. Franz and Janke are committing horrible acts for their own ends, and to protect their families.

"I will be your father figure..."

“I will be your father figure…”

This all speaks to I Want to Believe as a way of engaging with the show’s history and continuity. I Want to Believe was released a decade and a half after Mulder and Scully made their first appearance in The Pilot. In that time, the X-Files had gone from a fringe television show to a pop culture institution. It had entered the popular lexicon, reimagined and recontextualised time and time again. I Want to Believe seeks to make a myth of the mythology, removing many of the events and themes from their original context; telling the same story in a different way.

With all of this going on, I Want to Believe‘s somewhat selective attitude towards continuity becomes quite telling. The decision to ignore the continuity of The Truth is not simply an attempt to avoid alienating new or casual viewers. Even beyond all the dense references to episodes like Beyond the Sea or Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Unruhe, the film treats the small appearance of Walter Skinner at the climax as a big dramatic moment that assumes some familiarity with the character.

I really wish we got to Seymour Skinner...

I really wish we got to Seymour Skinner…

Carter and Spotnitz have talked about how including Doggett and Reyes in I Want to Believe would have over-crowded the film, but this does not seem entirely fair. Taking the whole “reworking the mythology as metaphor” aspect of the film, Drummy and Whitney are very clearly stand-ins for Doggett and Reyes. In particular, Whitney might easily have been rewritten as Reyes; she is open-minded and eager to help, even drafting in Mulder is presented as an idea that is pretty “out there.”

It seems strange that the FBI would go straight to tracking down two fugitives (one charged with murder of an army officer) when there are two other experts in the X-files on staff. According to Kersh in Three Words, Doggett had a better record than Mulder when it came to closing X-files. The absence of Doggett and Reyes makes sense considering how keenly I Want to Believe glosses over the events of the final seasons, but it makes even more sense when Drummy and Whitney are considered as stand-ins.

Filed under X...

Filed under X…

It should be noted that the middle stretch of I Want to Believe separates Mulder and Scully. While Scully works at the hospital, Mulder investigates the case at hand. In doing so, Mulder is teamed up with Whitney. This feels like a nod towards the eighth season of The X-Files, when David Duchovny’s absence forced the production team to pair up Scully with Doggett. I Want to Believe reverses the dynamic; Mulder finds himself working alongside the movie’s Reyes stand-in.

However, while the eighth season allowed Doggett to earn his place on the X-files, I Want to Believe makes the rather mean-spirited decision to brutally kill off Dakota Whitney by shoving her down a shaft in a half-complete building. (The film even impales her for good measure, perhaps the most striking example of what Fox executives deemed the movie’s “torture porn” aesthetic.) It seems like the movie is punishing Whitney for her hubris; for the arrogance of assuming she could step into a narrative vacancy left by one of the show’s two leads.

"Well, this is going swimmingly..."

“Well, this is going swimmingly…”

All of this lends I Want to Believe a somewhat regressive quality, making it feel like an attempt to reverse or “undo” a lot of what happened with the franchise after the release of Fight the Future. Mulder and Scully feel more like archetypes than characters. I Want to Believe acknowledges the events of Sein und Zeit and Closure, acknowledging that the mystery of Samantha Mulder has been solved and that she is dead; however, I Want to Believe also ignores the character development flowing from that revelation. Mulder is no longer “free” of that trauma.

A larger part of Mulder’s arc in the seventh and eighth seasons was learning to let go of the X-files and his family’s history with the government conspiracy. His mother passed away in Sein und Zeit, while the Cigarette-Smoking Man disappeared from the show following the events of Requiem. The events of Closure finally allowed Mulder to make peace with the loss of his younger sister. The eighth season allowed Mulder to reconstruct the family that had been shattered by the abduction of Samantha.

Unearthing the past... ... or, de-icing it, at least.

Unearthing the past…
… or, de-icing it, at least.

I Want to Believe steamrolls over that development, clearly yearning for a more archetypal version of Mulder. Mulder might have found out what happened to Samantha, but it brings him no peace. “This is not about finding an FBI agent,” Scully observes at one point. “This is about you trying to save your sister.” Even before Mulder discovered what happened to Samantha, episodes like Oubliette rejected so crude (and one-dimensional) a reading of Mulder’s character. However, I Want to Believe pushes the character back to an archetypal state.

Indeed, I Want to Believe is so eager to ignore the fact that the eighth and ninth seasons happened that it even opts for a cheap shot at the expense of the Bush administration. Catching a photograph of President Bush hanging in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, Mulder and Scully exchange an awkward glance as the iconic notes of the X-Files theme play in the background. It’s a nice (if blunt) gag; but it ignores the fact that both Mulder and Scully worked at the FBI during the Bush administration, as much as I Want to Believe might want to gloss over that.

"Mulder, you haven't sent Doggett and Reyes a Christmas card in six years."

“Yes, Mulder. His name is Christian. But your name is Fox, so don’t judge.”

The movie’s most direct engagement with the troubled final seasons of the show comes in Scully’s subplot. Working at a Catholic hospital, Scully finds herself treating a young boy named Christian Fearon. (“Christian Fearon”, the Christian patient who is the cause of Scully’s anxiety, is one of those wonderful Chris Carter names; like “Frank Black” or “John Doggett” or “Fox Mulder.”) Christian is an obvious stand-in for William, the child born of the love between Mulder and Scully in Existence.

In fact, Christian is such an obvious stand-in that I Want to Believe openly (and repeatedly) acknowledges it. When Mulder asks Scully how old Christian is, she immediately sees what he is hinting at. “You think it’s because of William,” Scully responds. Mulder admits, “I think our son left us both with an emptiness that can’t be filled.” Later, during a heated argument at the hospital, Scully demands of a fellow member of staff, “Would you do it if it were your son?” Father Ybarra cuts in, “It’s not her son, and he’s not yours.”

Judas priest...

Judas priest…

William casts a large shadow over I Want to Believe. His name is only spoken once, but it hangs over the film. This feels particularly ironic, given that Spotnitz and Carter (and Duchovny) had made a conscious effort to write William out of the show with William in the final season. The show’s fourth-to-last episode had Scully give up William for adoption, with the production team arguing that the baby served to tie Mulder and Scully down. The hope was that writing William out of the mythos would allow Mulder and Scully to adventure without worrying about him.

The ninth season of The X-Files was full of misfires and decisions that did not work out as intended. The attempts to minimise William’s in William only served to make him more important. The staff felt that William’s presence tied Mulder and Scully down, but his absence created a void that could not be ignored. Even more than a decade after The X-Files hastily wrote the character out of the mythology in William, the character is the subject of discussions and interview questions. Paradoxically, William made the character a greater focus than he had been before.

"You really think there's a Darin Morgan episode in our future?"

“You really think there’s a Darin Morgan episode in our future?”

This acknowledgement of Christian-as-William (and the less pronounced suggestion of Bannon-as-Samantha) marks I Want to Believe as an allegorical story. Mulder and Scully are working a case of the week, but that case is tied up in all sorts of past traumas. While I Want to Believe is quite heavy-handed in all of this, and it leads to some decidedly uncomfortable implications, the film ties back quite strongly to the themes of trauma and connection that permeate the original television show.

Over the course of I Want to Believe, Carter repeatedly connects trauma and its consequences. At several points in the film, Carter cuts between brutal events and the horrific aftermath of these attacks. It is most obvious at the start of the film, as Carter cuts between the abduction of Monica Bannon and the subsequent manhunt. Later on in the film, Carter cuts between Janke disposing of a body and the FBI’s recovery of that body. Although not the same trauma, a later sequence has Drummy finding a severed head just as Whitney is murdered.

White out...

White out…

It is a very ambitious storytelling decision. It doesn’t quite work, because this cutting has the effect of killing any suspense or momentum during the sequences. However, it is a very bold narrative choice that serves the story that Carter wants to tell. Carter was always a massively underrated director on his own show; The Post-Modern Prometheus and Triangle are among the show’s most high-profile creative accomplishments, but his work on Duane BarryThe List and The Red and the Black is also quite stunning.

I Want to Believe plays into the broader themes of The X-Files as a story about responses to trauma. In many ways, the show was about past horrors returning to haunt the current generation; Piper Maru and Apocrypha suggested that ghosts were little more than voices of conscience for past misdeeds. Mulder’s quest was driven by the loss of his sister, and the bulk of the mythology was about uncovering a series of abuses perpetuated by those in power and stretching back decades.

What's up, doc?

What’s up, doc?

In the context of I Want to Believe, all of this is rendered more intimate. The movie emphasises the connections that exist between violence and its aftermath. Father Joe’s visions are not random; he is not catching a glimpse of any arbitrary crime. Instead, Father Joe is witnessing a trauma connected back to his own misdeeds. He abused Franz, and now Franz has become an abuser in turn. The cycle of violence is self-perpetuating, and Father Joe has just been granted a rare insight into it.

Indeed, the movie’s climax suggests that Father Joe was linked to Franz up until his death. “Father Joe died of lung cancer, right?” Mulder asks Scully. “The same as that man that Dr. Frankenstein tried to give a new body.” Mulder presses the point, “What time did you pull those tubes from that woman’s neck. What time did you cut off the blood supply to that man’s head? That’s when Father Joe died. You get me his death certificate and I’ll show it to you, and then I’ll take it to the FBI and I’ll show them.” It’s all connected.

Grizzly Fox...

Grizzly Fox…

Of course, this brings up one of the more problematic aspects of I Want to Believe. Quite frankly, the film is quite homophobic and transphobic. While it is quite clear that Spotnitz and Carter did not intend to cause offense, the film traffics in some troubling stereotypes and shorthand. As Alexander Stevenson summarises:

This is all so wrong in so many ways. If they’re really gay, why would they even consider putting his head on the body of a woman? Yes, his AB- blood type is rare, but almost one percent of the population has it, so it wouldn’t that hard to find a male body.

Given the movie’s creepy visuals on the matter, it’s hard not to see this as playing into the stereotype that gay men secretly want to be women. But, uh, wouldn’t sex reassignment surgery be a lot easier? (And unlike secret Russian Frankenstein experiments, it’s even covered by some health plans!)

Or perhaps the movie is saying that he’s “not really gay” — that he’s only been acting that way because of the childhood sexual abuse at the hands of another of the movie’s characters. But again, why would this make him want to be female? It’s another completely fictional movie psychosis — Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs all over again.

What makes this doubly ironic is that the movie is dedicated to Randy Stone, a gay man. MSNBC film critic Alonso Duralde noted in his review of the movie that Stone was The X-Files’ original casting director and also co-founded the Trevor Project, a support group for GLBT youth.

I Want to Believe is very much a film about a gay man hoping to build a body (built primarily from female parts) for his lover. It is a very awkward and very troubling plot point, which is only compounded by the thematic connection that the movie makes between Father Joe’s abuse and Franz’s violence.

Nothing could be father from the truth...

Nothing could be father from the truth…

To be fair, I Want to Believe does make a point to stress that Franz and Janke targeted victims of both genders. Mulder makes it clear that the remains recovered by the FBI included “men and women.” However, the film makes a point to fixate on Franz and Janke’s violence towards women. The two major abductees – Monica Bannon and Cheryl Cunningham – are female. The body onto which Franz’s head is being placed is very clearly female. The camera even lingers on the shot of the torso’s breast, as if to underscore the importance of the body’s gender.

There are thematic reasons why I Want to Believe would place this emphasis on the female victims. A recurring theme of the show’s mythology is the exploitation of the female body by male authority; in episodes like Nisei and 731, this is very clearly rendered as a feminist subtext to the show. However, tying that exploitation of the female body into broader sexual themes – making Franz and Janke gay, making Franz a victim of childhood sexual abuse – renders the choice remarkably tonedeaf and offensive.

A cup o' joe...

A cup o’ joe…

The production team would retroactively acknowledge the misstep. Frank Spotnitz would apologise for any offense caused:

While it’s true the villains in this story happen to be gay, it was not our intention to suggest that being gay, transgender or a victim of pedophilia is in any way villainous. It should go without saying that nothing could be farther from the truth. The sexual orientation of the villains, their connection to Father Joe, and the motive for their crimes were all intended to deepen the mystery, not to make any kind of moral judgment. In truth, theirs is a love story that is meant to parallel Scully’s story (the lengths that both will go to save a loved one, the not-so-coincidental overlap in scientific research, etc.). If we have offended anyone, you have my deepest apology.

Spotnitz was quite frank in his apology, and seems reasonable to infer that there was no malice intended in the movie’s unpleasant subtext.

Get your (Da)kota, you've pulled an assignment...

Get your (Da)kota, you’ve pulled an assignment…

However, The X-Files has never had a particularly strong progressive streak. It should be noted that the writing staff on the series was predominantly straight white men. The show largely reflects this position; Mister X and Alvin Kersh remain the show’s more prominent African American characters. There are several points in the run where the show seems incredibly uncomfortable with anything that does not conform to a white-middle class ideal of normality; most obviously in episodes like Teliko or Badlaa.

Similarly, the show’s sexual politics were decidedly conservative. In the episode Gender Bender, Mulder and Scully are astounded when a sexual serial killer targets victims of both genders; they seem to accept that a killer who can change genders is more likely than a bisexual. While the gay characters who appeared in episodes like X-Cops and all things were undoubtedly written with a great deal of affection and consideration, they still feel like stereotypes rather than real people.

Taking holy orders...

Taking holy orders…

While the show would tease homoerotic chemistry between characters like Skinner and Krycek or Mulder and Krycek, the show was less keen to engage with explicit homosexual relationships. To be fair, the show was also quite awkward in dealing with its heterosexual relationships. The possibly sexual relationship between Mulder and Scully inferred at the peak of the show (from Detour to all things) was far more adventurous and modern than the rather conservative family unit that they would form at the end of the eighth season.

The X-Files was a product of its time, and its sexual politics were very much rooted in 1993. However, the show never seemed to advance from that point. The sexual politics of I Want to Believe are not that striking when considered in the context of Gender Bender. However, the world had moved on significantly in the intervening fourteen years. The X-Files seemed frozen in time. Given that I Want to Believe harked back so strongly to the show’s mid-nineties peak, it should not have been such a surprise that its sexual politics had failed to evolve with the time.

Taking a bath on this one...

Taking a bath on this one…

To be fair, a lot of these issues are inherited from Chris Carter’s obvious influences. I Want to Believe is a film that is very consciously structured as a serial killer film, a genre that was very prevalent in the nineties. However, the serial killer film had somewhat declined in popularity in the early years of the twenty-first century. The serial killer was largely a nineties bogeyman; by the time that I Want to Believe was released in 2008, the serial killer had given way to post-9/11 horrors like the resurgent zombie genre.

I Want to Believe is steeped in the storytelling cues of the serial killer genre, emphasising Carter’s fondness for that particular strain of horror. After all, Carter had created the television show Millennium to dish up that sort of horror on a weekly basis. I Want to Believe borrows from several of Carter’s favourite films; Drummy discovering the head in the box recalls the ending to se7en, the theme of killing-as-transformation recalls the work of Thomas Harris, while the “use a predator to catch a predator” storytelling device is an homage to The Silence of the Lambs.

Hopes were cooling fast...

Hopes were cooling fast…

A lot of the more problematic elements of I Want to Believe are common to The Silence of the Lambs. Jame Gumb was building himself a “person suit” out of his female victims, while Franz and Janke are building a literal female body for themselves. However, while both author Thomas Harris and screenwriter Ted Tally go out of their way to explicitly state that Jame Gumb is not a transsexual, I Want to Believe offers no such clarification as to what Franz and Janke are actually doing.

It should be noted that The Silence of the Lambs was criticised for being transphobic in the early nineties in spite of that explicit dialogue. Certainly, Thomas Harris’ reactionary portrayal of Margot Verger in Hannibal did little to help convince the world that his sexual politics were progressive. Director Jonathan Demme has acknowledged the transphobic reading of The Silence of the Lambs, admitting it is a failure on his part but a very important way of raising awareness of transgender issues.

Character Mulder-vation...

Character Mulder-vation…

Given how much cultural sensitivity and awareness had progressed in the years since The Silence of the Lambs, it is quite surprising that Carter and Spotnitz could be so oblivious to the subtext of their gigantic homage. After all, Bryan Fuller would be exceedingly careful in his handling of certain parts of the Hannibal Lecter mythos, acknowledging them as problematic and unsettling. I Want to Believe is very much rooted in the early nineties, even though it arrived towards the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Serial killer films were not Carter’s only point of reference for I Want to Believe. In keeping with the idea of I Want to Believe as a most archetypal X-Files story, it makes sense that Carter would draw so heavily from Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s classic novel (and its feature film adaptations) had been a huge influence on The X-Files. This was most obvious in how the show approached science, but also in particular beats. The Post-Modern Prometheus is the most obvious, but Mulder’s journeys to the ice in End Game and Fight the Future also reference the novel.

"Why do you keep asking me about evidence Xzibits, Mulder?"

“Why do you keep asking me about evidence Xzibits, Mulder?”

Carter acknowledges as much on the commentary for the film:

I so loved Frankenstein movies when I was a kid, and I got to kinda do one over the course of the series. This was a chance to do one with real science, real Frankenstein science.

Even the red herrings to the press drew on the Universal monster canon, including a prop werewolf head.

For somebody who is familiar with the X-files, Whitney was far to eager to split up and wander off on her own...

For somebody who is familiar with the X-files, Whitney was far to eager to split up and wander off on her own…

There are obviously some very loaded gender and sexual politics that come with any adaptation of Frankenstein, even without the subtext attached by the James Whale version. Frankenstein is the story of a man who decides to take it upon himself to create life without the involvement of a woman; although he succeeds in creating new life, that new life is monstrous and malformed. Even before Carter decided that Franz and Janke should be lovers (and that Franz should be a survivor of abuse), I Want to Believe was wading into deep water.

I Want to Believe is interesting in its approach to Mulder and Scully. Although the two characters had spent an extended period of time together in the eighth season, and had been reunited in The Truth, the feature film represents the first time that the duo have investigated a “monster of the week” case together since Je Souhaite. With that in mind, a lot of the decisions made in telling the story seem quite strange. Most obviously, Carter and Spotnitz opt to separate Duchovny and Anderson for extended periods of time; it feels like a missed opportunity.

The killer might yet get away Scot free...

The killer might yet get away Scot free…

That said, the decision to keep Mulder and Scully relatively separate perhaps speaks to Carter’s discomfort with the idea of Mulder and Scully as a romantic couple. This creates a conflict within I Want to Believe; as with Fight the Future, the second X-Files film takes advantage of its wider platform in order to tell a story largely rooted in the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. I Want to Believe has Mulder and Scully cuddling in bed, kissing each other, and even going on a nice romantic rowboat getaway together.

As with the last X-Files film, I Want to Believe leans rather heavily on the idea of splitting the duo up. “Mulder, you think I don’t understand, but I do,” Scully confesses. “This stubbornness of yours, is why I fell in love with you.” Mulder acknowledges, “It’s like you said, it’s why we can’t be together.” It is not too far removed from the archetypal conflict between the duo in Fight the Future. This emphasis seems to suggest that Carter and Spotnitz believe that audiences want Mulder and Scully together.

Doors to the past...

Doors to the past…

As Mulder and Scully share a deep and loving kiss at the end of I Want to Believe, Spotnitz even jokes about the almost!kiss from Fight the Future on the audio commentary. “No bee this time,” Spotnitz quips. I Want to Believe is very much a sequel to Fight the Future, built around much of the same basic logic. It is a big archetypal X-Files story with a broad approach to Mulder and Scully hinging on the primal threat of breaking the duo up. There is an unspoken assumption that large audiences are very interested in seeing Mulder and Scully together.

This creates a conflict, as Carter is clearly not entirely comfortable with a sexualised romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully. As a writer, Carter is much more interest in chaste dynamics than in sexual relationships; Frank and Catherine Black seem more like best friends than a married couple, while Thomas Hobbes and Sophie Greene are separated from one another almost immediately. To Carter, characters searching for an emotional connection are more intriguing than traditional romantic couplings.

Rooting for a Doggett/Drummy spin-off, "Angry Cop, Angry Cop."

Rooting for a Doggett/Drummy spin-off, “Angry Cop, Angry Cop.”

Of course, using the word “romantic” is somewhat misleading. Carter is a very romantic writer, but his romances are typically chaste. Carter spoke out repeatedly in the early days of the show, rejecting the idea of Mulder and Scully as a romantic couple. He seems quite content with Mulder and Scully ending up as a couple at the end of their run, but not in a situation where he would have to write them on a weekly basis. There is a strange paradox there, as if Carter believes Mulder and Scully should end up together, but also isn’t sure when that end will come.

This is most obvious in the eighth and ninth seasons of the show. The eighth season suggests that Mulder and Scully have become a family unit and accepted their roles in each others’ lives. The final shot of Existence is Mulder and Scully cradling their child together as the camera pulls back to offer them some privacy. It is a great place to leave them. However, once it becomes clear that the show is not leaving them, everything changes. In Trust no 1, when the Shadow Man boasts that Mulder and Scully only ever had sex once, it seems like Carter is being entirely earnest.

"Well, the tak force's chilled beverage requirements are met for the next year."

“Well, the tak force’s chilled beverage requirements are met for the next year.”

That is quite apparent in I Want to Believe. The movie is fairly candid about the idea of Mulder and Scully as a couple, to the point that they row off into the sunset together. However, Carter and Spotnitz are not entirely sure how to write Mulder and Scully as a couple. As a result, I Want to Believe is caught between two extremes. The movie feels at once like the closest that Mulder and Scully have ever been together and the furthest they have ever been apart.

As a result, I Want to Believe is hugely unsatisfying to everyone; noromos have to put up with the idea of Mulder and Scully as a romantic couple, while shippers barely get a chance to see them together. The film is intensely frustrating, even as it demonstrates why Carter would take extreme steps like separating Mulder and Scully before the launch of the revival and even arguing that their relationship was always platonic. While Carter seems to acknowledge that mainstream audiences want to see Mulder and Scully get together, he is not comfortable writing them together.

Things come to a (fore)head...

Things come to a (fore)head…

I Want to Believe was released in July 2008. It did not perform particularly well. There were a lot of reasons for this, but Carter was quite blunt in his assessment of what happened:

So we came up with a movie that was about faith and forgiveness and redemption. And then you put it up against The Dark Knight in late July, in the heat of the summer, and what happened to us was that we met with some valid criticism, and also what I call lazy criticism.

I Want to Believe was released a few weeks after The Dark Knight had torn through various box office records. Both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson cited The Dark Knight as a reason for the film’s under performance.

Wow, flashlights have got a lot smaller since we started...

Wow, flashlights have got a lot smaller since we started…

There were rumours of plans for a third X-Files film, even after the disappointing returns rolled in for I Want to Believe. In October 2008, Fox Chairman Tim Rothman stated that the development of a hypothetical third film was “really up to Chris, David [Duchovny] and Gillian [Anderson].” It would frequently come up as a subject in interviews and discussions, but seldom with any real material process. At the time, it looked like I Want to Believe had not breathed new life into the franchise; quite the opposite, in fact.

If the idea of an X-Files film franchise had stalled following the television show’s cancellation, then I Want to Believe put the final nail in the coffin. The X-Files would not be surviving as a series of standalone theatrical films released once every few years. The high-profile failure of I Want to Believe was likely a large part of the decision to bring The X-Files back to television. While a film like I Want to Believe was a crushing disappointed as the first new X-Files story in six years, it might have fared better as part of a larger season order or in another context.

Let's hope the trail doesn't go cold...

Let’s hope the trail doesn’t go cold…

In retroactive discussions of Fight the Future, Carter conceded that its box office performance demonstrated a lack of appetite for that sort of story told using Mulder and Scully on the big screen:

If there is a third movie it’s got to be a gigantic movie. It would have to be a big-budget movie; that’s what X-Files fans want. We tried to do a very small movie about faith the second time out. And it was released in the middle of summer tentpole movies. It was a misstep in that way. I think [a third movie] has to be more like the first movie.

It was simply not feasible to tell a story like I Want to Believe on the big screen and expect the audience to show up. An X-Files movie had to be more than simply a return to the show’s classic television aesthetic.

"You know, you never once asked what happened after I went into Kersh's office..."

“You know, you never once asked what happened after I went into Kersh’s office…”

I Want to Believe might sit further from My Struggle I than from The Truth, but the film does seem to indicate towards the revival. I Want to Believe confirms what was largely inferred with the release of Resist or Serve and what would be reinforced by the Wildstorm comics; Mulder and Scully were an essential part of The X-Files, and the franchise would begin the process of retroactively wiping away the final few years of the show’s run from the popular memory. Any future X-Files project would have to go backwards, at least before it could go forwards again.

As with I Want to Believe, the production of My Struggle I would take the team back to Vancouver and acknowledge the region’s importance to the show. While Carter and Spotnitz populated I Want to Believe with veteran supporting actors from the show’s first five seasons, Carter would recruit some of the strongest writers of the Vancouver era to work on the revival. It should be noted that Carter is the only writer and director on the revival to have written (or directed) for Ten Thirteen after The X-Files moved to Los Angeles. The future lay in the past; at least to start.

A legal alien.

A legal alien.

At the same time, I Want to Believe confirmed that William could not be forgotten or discarded. The child of Mulder and Scully could not be brushed over in the show’s internal continuity as easily as Mulder’s “murder” of Knowle Rohrer or Mulder’s extended absences from the X-files unit in the eighth and ninth seasons. I Want to Believe confirms that the spectre of William would haunt the show, a dangling thread that any attempt to pick up the story of Mulder and Scully would have to acknowledge.

There are other links, as well. “Don’t give up” serves to bridge I Want to Believe and My Struggle I, the sentiment serving as a meta commentary on the long-term survival and viability of The X-Files as a franchise. I Want to Believe signalled a change in how The X-Files was approached. Sitting so far from both The Truth and My Struggle I, it serves as a convenient dividing line. I Want to Believe seems to mark the point at what the show is far enough gone that it exists more as a pop culture memory than as a living organism.

Putting some Skin(ner) in the game...

Putting some Skin(ner) in the game…

To be fair, The X-Files had always been postmodern and self-aware. Episodes like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” played with the iconography and imagery of the show. The show’s final season repeatedly and heavily drew attention to its nature as a television show. However, I Want to Believe seems to represent a point at which The X-Files attained perspective upon itself, the point at which the show’s original nine-season run seemed to definitively end and become the parent of something similar yet different.

I Want to Believe allows Carter and Spotnitz to effectively mythologise the mythology, to filter their own story through abstraction and metaphor. The original run of The X-Files itself becomes a cultural object exerting its own gravity and weight. I Want to Believe feels like the point at which The X-Files can almost become its own influence, folding over and weighing on itself in the same way that Kolchak: The Night Stalker or All the President’s Men weighed upon the original run.

Life is but a dream...

Life is but a dream…

I Want to Believe marks the point at which the show seems to recognise itself in the truth that lays out there.

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5 Responses

  1. Finally! A review of this one…hmm, for a brief moment I thought this was going to get harsher but finally you treated it kindly.

    The subplot of Scully trying to heal the boy doesn’t blend well to the rest of the script, it seems like it’s simply placed to give Mulder & Scully something to talk about William and keep Dana busy, in the end we don’t even know if she succeeded or not. When the revival was announced I was hoping they would reveal what happened, but it wasn’t even mentioned (and I highly doubt it will, this movie belongs to that ‘let’s pretend it didn’t exist’ approach for future installments like season 8&9).

    Other problem I had when this came out (and still have it) was the way the ‘climax’ was resolved, the film does a decent effort building the moment toward the final minutes, but then it lacks action, all it took was Scully and Skinner firing a couple gunshots to solve everything, Skinner picks up Mulder and we’re back into a sunny day, in very simplistic and boring way, frankly I’ve seen much better resolutions in the TV series but this being a big screen feature supposedly had to offer something ‘bigger, better, faster, more’!.

    I think that even if ‘I Want To Believe’ were a TV standalone ep, it wouldn’t be the best one on any of the XFiles seasons, maybe if it was cut down to the classic 44 minute mark it could be more compelling.

    • To be fair, I don’t think it’s a ringing endorsement of the film. Maybe more a sympathetic skewering. (Okay, not a skewering, but I do like awesome alliteration.)

      You’re right about the climax. Particularly given Skinner shows up out of nowhere to help save the day. (Why can’t Scully do most of that herself, with a little re-write or tweaking?) Why isn’t he involved from the outset? Why doesn’t Whitney use him to contact Mulder and Scully? How come he doesn’t meet them at the Hoover Building?

      It’s interesting that you should mention its possible inclusion in a television season. I was talking to somebody who suggested that it would have been a lot more pallatable if it had been packaged with a Darin Morgan episode and a Glen Morgan episode and a James Wong episode. Putting it as a standalone film arguably hurts it a lot. (It’d be like releasing The List as a standalone film, which is an episode I admittedly like a lot more than I Want to Believe, but which is by no measure a highlight of its season.)

  2. X-Files is bigger than Mulder and Scully. These characters are played out.

    The sad fact is no one wanted to take a risk. And the asinine fans contributed that, probably, at the end of the day.

    • The same is true of arguably any revival in contemporary pop culture, but I think the trend is to go backwards. I think there’s an argument to be made that taking The X-Files back to Mulder and Scully and Vancouver in I Want to Believe is part of the broader move backwards that gave us the Daniel-Craig-as-novice-Bond reboot and the Chris-Pine-as-James-Kirk Star Trek reboot. (Taken to its logical extreme, the original T-Rex in Jurassic World.)

      That doesn’t make the film good (it is messy and ugly and unsatisfying, despite some interesting ideas), but I think it speaks to the moment.

  3. I actually thought this film was a bit of a masterpiece. Fix the “action climax” (Skinner was unnecessary) and it’s almost like a serial killer movie by Bergman. Loved the parallels all over the place.

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