Deep in an industrial district here, the dank interior of a closed-down nightclub has been gutted and refitted with black plastic, chain link and neon lights for an episode of Fox's sexy, surreal TV series, "The X-Files." Detached mannequin limbs protrude from darkened walls to create disturbing images.
The seedy, smoke-filled space is supposed to resemble a Hollywood Boulevard nightclub--the hangout for a contemporary coven of grunge vampires. These creatures of the night fall under the purview of the X-Files, which are the dumping ground for unexplainable FBI cases, dealing with subjects from poltergeists to extraterrestrials to telekinetics to genetic monsters. Probing these unworldly cases are the mismatched agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), a true believer, and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), a natural skeptic.
Milling about the smoke-filled nightclub are jewelry-pierced bodies in leather and chains. "They were looking for freaks," shrugged Shanin Graver, 26, one of the more conservatively dressed in a black miniskirt and lace. As one of dozens of extras recruited from Vancouver nightclubs, she jumped at the chance to appear in "X-Files."
"This show is different from anything else on television," she said excitedly. "There are science-fiction shows, but nothing that deals with the paranormal or the supernatural."
At least not successfully.
"The X-Files" has caught fire early in its second season. Ratings are up 36% compared to the same period last year, and 60% among adults 18 to 49, the demographic group for which advertisers pay most. All next month, Fox will air "X-Files" twice a week for a quick ratings fix during the November sweeps. New episodes will air in their regular time slot Fridays at 9 p.m., and specially chosen repeats will air Sundays at 7 p.m.
Part mystery, part haunted house, part science fiction, part New Age mysticism, part government conspiracy, "The X-Files" is slowly creeping into pop culture. A recent New Yorker essay called it this generation's "The Twilight Zone." A devoted cult following dissects episodes weekly on national computer bulletin boards. MGM recently called creator Chris Carter to see if he had any "X-Files" mugs or T-shirts to use as set dressing on its big-budget science-fiction movie, "Species."
When asked about the show's success, Carter pointed to the legions of young Americans out there who believe--or want to believe--in the strange and supernatural. "There are more than you know," he said.
"Most of the people who believe in these phenomena are sane, credible, normal everyday folk, who believe that it happened to them," he said. "You have no reason to doubt them. When I'm standing around on location, somebody will inevitably come up and say, 'Can I tell you my story?' We get lots and lots of fan mail. I'm a natural skeptic, but it has chipped away at my own skepticism about these things."
"There's a large segment of people who believe literally in a lot of stuff we're doing," said Duchovny, sitting in his trailer outside the set. "Then there's a large subgroup who believes figuratively--it's possible , what we're doing. If there is not a literal 6-foot fluke worm, at least the possibility of it exists. So there is the literal group and the figurative group, but they're both believers."
The number of believers has come as something of a surprise, even to those involved with the show. "Chris pitched the show to me originally, and I was concerned nobody would buy it, because it's so far out there," said Bob Greenblatt, senior vice president of drama development for Fox.
Duchovny had just come off a role in the film "Kalifornia" when his agent gave him the pilot script for "X-Files." "I read it, and I thought, 'A, it's a really good pilot. B, it's about extraterrestrials--it's never gonna go. Who cares about this crap?' " Duchovny said. "Even if it did go, I thought, 'Yeah, it'll go six episodes, but, after six, how many shows can you do about extraterrestrials?' "
Twenty-five episodes a season, as it turns out--three more than most TV series. But they do not all feature your typical rash of aliens. There has been a shape-shifting serial killer who ate human livers, a ghost whose force surrounded a young girl and killed anybody who tried to harm her, and a beast-woman from the woods of New Jersey who fed on human victims.
"We tell smart, scary stories, but we will not stoop for the easy scare," Carter said. "We avoid the conventions of horror or science fiction for that scare. If you try to analyze and put a label on the stories we tell, you do yourself a disservice. People say what is an X-File? I say it's like obscenity--I know it when I see it."
"Now I hear from other writers and other networks, and everybody is trying to develop their own 'X-Files,' " Greenblatt said.
In the meantime, "X-Files" has been working hard this season to overcome an in-house challenge. Viewers may have noted a less visible role for Scully, played by Anderson, in the last few weeks. In last Friday's episode, she was abducted by an escaped mental patient who says he was experimented upon by aliens, and when she returns Nov. 11, she will be in a coma.
Isn't it a strange choice to take your lead actress out of a sizzling series?
Not when she's pregnant.
"I had decided sometime after learning that she was pregnant (last winter) to shoot around Gillian's pregnancy," Carter said. "Because the show is still in its infancy, essentially, I didn't think it would be good thing to write her pregnancy into the show. There were all these rumors circulating that she was going to have an alien baby. Although I addressed every possible idea from a creative standpoint, that was never a serious plan."
Carter considered making Scully a single mother, but he resisted domesticating the show. "I have chosen not to make the show about the characters' lives," he said. "The show works best as two FBI agents investigating paranormal or unexplained phenomena, and that's what drives the show. If the stories don't drive the show, then we're working backward."
Instead, the producers began writing lots of scenes late last season with Anderson talking on the phone or sitting behind a computer, and the directors began shooting her from the bust up. In the season finale, Carter wrote an episode in which the X-Files were closed, allowing Mulder to operate more independently to start this season.
"I forget about the importance of our relationship in the show, because the story lines are what drive each episode," said Anderson, who gave birth to a baby girl, Piper, last month. "But, from what I can tell, from the feedback in the fan mail, there's a particular dedication that audience members have to this relationship."
Next month, the X-Files will be officially reopened by Mulder's boss--Mulder has been a sort of paranormal free-lancer so far this season--and Scully and Mulder will return to their regular working relationship in the episode airing Nov. 18. After that, they will just try to sustain the momentum they have built.
"It's going to be hard to come up with really good stories every week," Duchovny said. "You can't be like a 'Melrose Place'--you know, the guy's got a bad haircut, let's make an episode out of that. It's got to be a full-blown, movie-type story. So the pressure on the writers is immense."