The Truth is Back There

Is the new series of The X-Files good enough for Gillian Anderson?

There’s an incredibly frustrating scene in the premiere of The X-Files reboot where Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, is trying to get a key piece of conspiracy-related information out of David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder. “I don’t know what you mean,” she says, clearly exasperated. In classic Mulder fashion, he responds by looking frantic and disheveled, ranting incoherently. “The truth is out there,” he says.

It’s a moment fraught with poor writing and some truly laughable over-acting on Duchovny’s part (there is a moment where it looks like he might actually break out into a wide, goofy grin,) but it is a great example of why we cling to the nostalgia of this legendary show. More than thirteen years after its first series run, skeptical Scully is still gracefully dealing with Mulder’s over-the-top erratic tendencies, still lending thoughtful reason to a male-dominated universe governed by irrationality. In a show defined by paranoia, conspiracy, and the unknown, she is the quintessential comfortable place to land.

When scientist and doctor Dana Scully was introduced to the world in September 1993, it didn’t take long for her to become the kind of iconic character that a generation of women could look up to. Named after long-time Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, and modeled after Silence of the Lamb’s Clarice Starling, the Fox network was initially looking for a “bombshell”-type actress to fill the part. (Which presumably means a tall, blonde, male gaze stereotype.) Anderson was only twenty-five when she auditioned for what was at the time her only major television role, and at first glance was not what they were looking for to complement the already cast Duchovny.

Refusing to be just a sidekick, Scully (and Anderson) went on to give young women a character that was unapologetically brilliant, skilled, and—contrary to the era’s persistent thoughts on the female psyche—logically sound. There have since been countless personal essays written that cite her as an influential role model, her very existence encouraging young women to stand shoulder to shoulder with men in often exclusionary professional settings. In fact, “The Scully Effect” is a commonly suggested phenomenon, one that saw a noted increase in women entering the fields of science, technology, medicine, and law enforcement.

The Scully–Mulder dynamic may have been the dramatic sci-fi equivalent of a sitcom marriage (think the smart, eye-rolling wife and the bumbling, apologetic husband), but Scully’s overall capability spoke to so many who were persistently told all the things they couldn’t do. It’s unsurprising that the Internet has managed to document every one of those gloriously irritated eye-rolls in JPEG and GIF form, and that it has turned “getting real tired of your sh*t, Mulder” into a common search phrase.

Anderson won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role as the subdued and relentlessly doubtful scientist, and proved to nineties audiences that leading women like her were well worth their time. She also managed to close the wage gap between Duchovny and herself before it was a mainstream conversation, and was recently outspoken about the fact that, decades later, she was forced to fight for parity again after being offered half of Duchovny’s salary to return.

“(In) this climate of women talking about the reality of (unequal pay) in this business, I think it’s important that it gets heard and voiced,” she told the Daily Beast. “It was shocking to me, given all the work that I had done in the past to get us to be paid fairly. I worked really hard toward that and finally got somewhere with it.”

Anderson herself is by no means an unlikely feminist heroine. In August 2014, she did an interview with Glamour UK in which she said, among other things, that she doesn’t “feel sorry for men.” It was exactly the kind of incendiary quote the quick-hit Internet thrives on, and was subsequently shared across Tumblrs and Twitter feeds, even making it onto a T-shirt or two. (She also said to a photographer during that same interview that she doesn’t smile, causing women who’d heard the request in the form of street harassment to further rejoice.)

Anderson, who has said she has “feminist bones,” is also a long time supporter of the Feminist Majority Foundation, various reproductive rights organizations, and Refuge, a UK charity offering support to victims of domestic violence. But in some ways, her surging feminist popularity has more to do with her on screen presence than her laudable charitable efforts. Through various roles she has come to represent a kind of exasperated frustration with the status quo that is easy for women to sympathize with, whether she’s chasing down a serial rapist and murderer in BBC’s The Fall or becoming the unlikely companion of a cannibal in NBC’s Hannibal. She’s managed to bring that classic low-key Dana Scully disdain to a majority of her roles, without ever once feeling like a one-note talent.

Two episodes in, the long-awaited return of The X-Files has sadly been a critical disappointment—it’s a muddled, anxious rehash of the past, with some clumsy on-the-nose post-9/11 fears thrown in for good measure. (Did anyone else find Community’s Joe McHale wholly unbelievable as conservative news pundit Tad O’Malley?) Yet it’s interesting to look at Scully’s return in the context of a revised television landscape, one where ShondaLand consistently provides “strong female characters” like Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, where Jessica Jones is deadpanning her trauma, and where complexity has been redefined by Orange is the New Black’s ensemble effort.

In a new era of well-written female leads, the mini-series thus far feels like a waste of Anderson’s talent and larger than life presence. A coldly dispassionate Scully is no longer a pop culture necessity, and the cartoonish dynamic between her and her overly emotional, hygiene-lacking colleague is now a well-worn road we no longer need to walk down. In the nineties it was important to see women on the small screen who didn’t let their “hysterical” feelings govern their workplace decisions, but now that depiction seems as flat and lazy as its long-dated counterpoint.

There are certainly arguments to be made that our beloved X-Files was better left in the past, that nothing they could have produced would ever compare to the feelings the show and its iconic characters invoked more than a decade ago. After years of increasing shock-factor television, can we truly be thrilled by the supernatural in the same groundbreaking way the show initially hinged on? Do the characters risk treading into caricature now that their once-innovative time has passed? And perhaps most importantly, can the long simmering romantic tension between a messy Mulder and a staid Scully still have its heart-tugging impact after all that has happened? (To be fair, even the most reasonable among us will find it hard not to swoon when Mulder says, “You’re never just anything to me, Scully.”)

Whether or not we still need a Dana Scully and her ilk on our screens, it’s clear Gillian Anderson has the enigma and the skill to save what currently threatens to be a disastrously written do-over of a beloved relic. The ratings on the much more compelling second episode soared like the first, its 9.7 million viewers thumping the higher quality CBS effort Supergirl in the same time slot. For now, the success of the reopened X-Files seems to be carried on Anderson’s richly deserved cultish following, which may not necessarily be a bad thing at all.

Here’s to hoping that this new incarnation of an old favourite evolves into the kind of show she deserves.

Stacey May Fowles
Stacey May Fowles (@MissStaceyMay) is a novelist and essayist. She curates baseball feelings from across the league into a weekly newsletter called Baseball Life Advice.