'X-Files' devotion beyond explanation

May 16, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

NEW YORK -- Gillian Anderson, better known as Agent Dana Scully, has just stepped off the stage at the Jacob Javits Convention Center and is making her way through some 6,500 fans to the autograph table. Jessica Barrett, a 17-year-old fan from Stockholm, N.J., offers an instant analysis of Anderson's performance in the hourlong question-and-answer session with audience members that just ended.

"I love Scully, totally love Scully," Barrett says. "But, after seeing Gillian Anderson, I have to tell you I think she's an airhead, total airhead."

"Blasphemy, man!" says Edward Hernandez, a stick-thin 14-year-old from Union City, N.J., dressed in black and wearing thick, black-framed Buddy Holly glasses. "How do you even know that was Gillian and not a wicked clone of some kind or the Alien Bounty Hunter morphed out to look like her so he could get in here? Yeah, think about that for a minute. Remember, man, what they say: Trust no one. Peace."

Welcome to the world of "The X-Files," specifically the New York stop on "The X-Files Expo Tour 1998" -- a traveling roadshow of promotion, paranoia and popular culture that opens today in Washington, spiritual home of all the conspiracy theories and counter-histories of the most popular series on television.

For those not familiar with the Sunday night Fox show, it stars Anderson and David Duchovny as FBI Agents Scully and Fox Mulder. They investigate unsolved cases that defy conventional explanations -- cases classified as "X-Files" by the bureau.

Many involve assassinations and alien beings, like the Alien Bounty Hunter who can change forms. In "The X-Files," almost all roads lead back to Roswell, N.M., in 1947, and an alleged UFO crash with dead aliens left behind, or to Dallas in 1963, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Cover-ups and conspiracies that reach to the highest level of government are the order of the day.

What distinguishes the series more than anything else is its sensibility, with its weird camera angles, long shadows and scenes set in deep forests, basements and underground garages. It's a universe of whispers, tape recordings, secret files and a government that lies to its employees and "terminates" civilians who discover its dirty secrets.

What makes "The X-Files" so culturally significant is that prime-time television is supposed to be the soft, safe center of mainstream middle-class consensus -- as in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, when "Gomer Pyle, USMC" was America's most popular series.

Conventional wisdom says that while you can have a cult show here and there that is cynical and dark -- such as "Twin Peaks" -- you could never find the 20 million or so viewers it takes to support a hit series.

The Top 20 Nielsen status of "The X-Files" challenges that belief. Furthermore, with an eagerly anticipated feature film due next month and the roadshow playing to big crowds, "The X-Files" suggests that what was once marginalized as paranoid thinking has become mainstream in 1998.

"I can only speak to my own paranoia, which is great," says Chris Carter, who created "The X-Files" and serves as executive producer. "Personally, I think the world is a very scary place. ... So, for me, the darkness in this show is a response to the world I live in -- it's a response to the times. And that is important."

Carter says it's also important that any fan convention associated with "The X-Files" capture that sensibility.

"I was unhappy with the way they were done in the past," he says. "We work so hard to make this show as good as it can be, so any expression of the spirit of the show -- which is what these conventions are all about -- needs to follow that attention to detail. The problem is these things can turn into just an opportunity to sell stuff. Philosophically, I'm opposed to that."

Not that there isn't stuff to buy at the X-Files Expo: mugs ($17), keychains ($15), card games ($29.95), T-shirts ($20), baseball caps ($27), sweatshirts ($40) and jackets ($325 for leather; $195 for nylon). There's also an official "X-Files" map of the United States, showing where each episode of the show has taken place. (According to the map, a lot of spooky stuff happened in Maryland.)

Despite all the commerce, though, the dark mood of "The X-Files" is what dominates from the moment you pay your $40 admission.

The entranceway is a dark, low-ceilinged hallway filled with filing boxes and cabinets and backlit in a spooky green. All of the dates on the boxes are from the 1960s, most of them 1964 and '65, the years immediately following the Kennedy assassination -- an event "X-Files" fans don't accept as fact.

Asked about Nov. 22, 1963, Kelly Wrobleski, a 16-year-old from Syracuse, N.Y., replies: "You mean the Kennedy suicide and CIA cover-up?"

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