Interviews & Profiles

The X-Files: A Profile of Chris Carter

Chris Carter – by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
If, in 1986, you sat down to watch the Disney made for television movie The B.R.A.T Patrol and proclaimed that its writer would go on to create one of the most pop cultural defining television series of the following decade, you would have been correct, but possibly also laughed out of the room.

In 1993, the not-long formed Fox Network had two genre shows debuting on Friday nights; The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr and The X-Files. The network thought Brisco County, Jr would be a massive hit and make Bruce Campbell a huge star, and that The X-Files would be a cult curiosity. The opposite happened. The X-Files became a massive cult, and eventually mainstream success, and stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson became household names.

A nine season run beckoned, a pop cultural phenomenon emerged, not to mention a cottage industry with official magazines, action figures, companion guides, video games, as well as its two lead stars appearing on all manner of entertainment magazine covers, and to think that it emerged from the imagination of a writer who started his career writing for Surfing Magazine.

Amazingly, Chris Carter would become the editor of the magazine by the age of 28, but it was a career in script writing that would beckon and, through his wife Dori Pierson, would come into contact with famed Disney producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and would write the scripts for made for television movies such as the aforementioned The B.R.A.T Patrol and Meet the Munceys.

Eventually a role as a producer on the family friendly series Rags to Riches would follow, but Carter’s destiny lay with considerably darker material.

A huge fan of famed television movie The Night Stalker, and its subsequent television  series off-shoot, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Carter desperately wanted to create a series that was built more on horror and scares than the work he was delivering. Taking his cue from a report detailing that a large percentage of people believed that they had been abducted by aliens, Carter pitched his idea for The X-Files to the Fox Network and, on the 10th of September 1993, the series debuted, to somewhat low ratings, but an adoring fanbase, most of whom would debate the series on the earlier version of internet chatrooms, and critical acclaim, and made enough of a mark that it ensured a second season, which saw its ratings rise exponentially.

By the time the series began its third season, it was a bona fide hit, with the series firing on all cylinders, with Carter having put together a brilliant team of writers and directors, with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson having become big stars, and the series becoming a flagship series for Fox.

On top of writing some fantastic scripts, Carter also made his directorial debut with the superlative “Duane Barry”, an episode that represented a genuine game changer for the series, and “The List”, a reincarnation tale that was elevated by a superb visual style. Even in these earlier efforts as director, he showed a real talent for being highly visual, with the use of strobe lighting effects during the abduction sequences in “Duane Barry” being brutally effective.

The series had become such a hit for Fox that they asked Carter for a second series. Inspired by one of his strongest X-Files scripts “Irresistible”, Carter used his second series to explore the inner workings of the serial killer, opting to explore monsters of a more realistic variety than his first creation, albeit with a mystical, millennial twist, the series wearing its late-90’s setting on its sleeve.

Bolstered by a superb central performance by Lance Henriksen as Frank Black, and fantastic support from Megan Gallagher, Terry O’Quinn and, in the third season, Klea Scott, the series was a darker, more adult beast than The X-Files. Its pilot episode debuted to massive ratings, but it was a trend that didn’t continue unfortunately, with most mainstream audiences somewhat put off by the darker tone, and graphic violence, as well as its oppressive atmosphere which didn’t lend itself to the the light heartedness that was apparent in some of Mulder and Scully’s adventures.

Debuting on the 25th of October 1996, it would mark the beginning of a very busy time for Carter and his Ten Thirteen Productions, with two series on the air, and a big screen version of The X-Files also in the works. The period from 1996 to the summer of 1998 marked a peak for all things Carter.

Millennium would last for three seasons, disappointingly cancelled after a third season that ended somewhat on an unresolved note, while he would also create Harsh Realm, a virtual reality thriller that wouldn’t make it past its third episode, with six others remaining unaired at the time.

During a hiatus in its eighth year, The X-Files would finally earn itself a more direct spin-off in the shape of The Lone Gunmen. Although Millennium clearly took place in the same universe as Carter’s first series, The Lone Gunmen took established characters from The X-Files, in this case the lovable trio of computer hackers who were always on hand to help our heroes, and put them into their own show. A co-creation between Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz, the series was a more light hearted approach to paranoia and conspiracy and was great fun. Although the series was all over the place at times, when it worked, it did so wonderfully, but despite somewhat decent, if not spectacular, ratings, it didn’t get picked up for a second season.

The key architect of The X-Files, Carter would remain showrunner for all nine seasons, while with Millennium he would hand over the reigns in season two to Glen Morgan and James Wong so he could ensure The X-Files’ fifth season ran smoothly into its big screen debut, while he would return to the series for its third year in a more active role, while Chip Johannesen took over as showrunner.

Contributing many episodes to The X-Files, Carter, along with frequent collaborator Frank Spotnitz, took the reigns on the majority of episodes centred around its complex mythology, but he would also contribute many of its most imaginative and high concept stand alone episodes, some of which he would direct to critical acclaim.

A highly visual director, many of his episodes saw the show firing on all cylinders, from “The Post Modern Prometheus” and its black and white photography, to “Triangle” and its plethora of long steadicam takes, to “Improbable”, which boasted split screen sequences and musical numbers, while “The Red and the Black”, a key fifth season mythology episode, boasted an epic sequence depicting an alien abduction sequence that was one of the most cinematic moments the series ever accomplished.

Not without controversies, Carter has frequently been criticised for overly stylised dialogue, mostly in his use of voice overs in his series, while fans of the Mulder and Scully relationship have had negative opinions over his handling of the show’s central pairing, especially when the series returned for its tenth season in 2016.

Although forever associated with The X-Files, there have been attempts at other projects. He directed the movie Fencewalker, which appears to have never been picked up for release, and was described as a semi-autobiographical movie that starred Katie Cassidy, Natalie Dormer and Mechad Brooks. Filmed in late-2008, the movie has never seen the light of the day.

Another television series entitled Unique was also in development, but was never picked up, as well as an AMC series centered around Area 51, which would have seen him collaborating with producer Gale Anne Hurd, which also never happened.

More prominently, Carter wrote and directed a pilot called The After for Amazon, part of its pilot season. It was picked up to be made into a series, but was then cancelled before filming began. A mixed bag of a pilot, it had much in the way of issues, but also contained a last third which ranked as some of the most terrifying material that Carter had ever shot, along with an apocalyptic scenario that might have been ripe for further exploration. There was potential but sadly it was never to be.

As for The X-Files, a second movie followed in 2008, I Want to Believe, which had a polarizing reaction, with those who loved it being nearly equal to those who didn’t. There were many fan campaigns on social media for a third movie, but in the end, and surprisngly, the franchise moving back to television in 2016 to massive ratings. Producing six episodes, it gained very high numbers for Fox that a follow-up was all but guaranteed, it simply came down to actors availability.

Despite mixed reaction to his more recent works, Carter’s work in the past is more than enough to ensure his status as something of a genre television legend. The X-Files is more than enough to ensure a level of fame and adoration, and while his other works have maybe never quite hit the commercial heights as the adventures of Mulder and Scully, the fact that Millennium was never as big in the ratings is not something that should cause one to dismiss it.

His second series boasted some of the best television horror of the 90’s, and while each of its three seasons was different from the last, each one (yes, even the more divisive final year) has more than enough to recommend it, with the first being more intelligent, thematic and better produced than the majority of many other crime procedurals of the era, with superb editing and deeply intelligent plotting. In fact, if it had have been produced a few years later, during a period of time when many high concept crime procedurals were being made by American television networks, it may have succeeded, but as it is, it was part of a wave of 90’s millennial angst, and as such works beautifully as it is.

At his peak, Carter was a master of the genre, with his handling of The X-Files mythology, as well as his delivery of many of its stand alone episodes, being some of the best television of the era. The most recent season of the series saw his own work be the most heavily criticised, but whether or not you still revere him in the way he was back during his 90’s heyday, not for nothing is he seen as something of a genre legend, and as creator of one of television’s most iconic series, no matter how his work is regarded in the future, as creator of Mulder and Scully it’s enough to make him a key and important figure in genre television.

Plus he wrote a scene where a guy pukes up a flukeworm. You don’t get any more brilliant than that.

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