When you think about it, FBI special agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) are, every week on The X-Files, playing out the commands of The Rules, the current best-seller that lists the ways women are supposed to behave with men (and vice versa) for a successful relationship.
The Rules posits that men respond best to women who manage to be at once aloof and alluring, and who better fits that description than Scully, with her open, blank stare and knack for turning an alien autopsy into an intimate moment between Mulder and herself? Certainly, Mulder and Scully have rule No. 15 — ”Don’t rush into sex” — down cold. And they’ve instinctively obeyed rule No. 19 — ”Don’t open up too fast”: After four seasons they can still barely bring themselves to utter the other’s first name. And only this year did they get to the point where Mulder seems comfortable stroking Scully’s back, after she’s been rattled by the sight of — now, remember, this is The X-Files — a deformed baby’s corpse. Not to mention, if Scully hadn’t been following rule No. 5 — ”Don’t call him and rarely return his calls” — half the suspense of the show (in which a feverish Mulder is forever trying to reach his endangered partner on his ever-present cell phone) would evaporate.
Beyond The Rules, though, it is The X-Files‘ most interesting achievement that it has managed to build a slam-bang scare-fest around a quietly nuanced relationship between a man and a woman. By now, the original dichotomy between the two — he’s a believer; she’s a skeptic — has been dissolved, since he’s seen enough horror to make himself wish there were rational explanations, and she’s been mauled by enough monsters to know that rationalism ain’t enough in this crazy, mixed-up world. What’s left is something more interesting: mutual respect mingled with subtextual love. When, during this season’s premiere, Mulder told his partner, ”I need you to know I’m okay, Scully,” it was, in X context, tantamount to a declaration of devotion and an acknowledgment of his awareness of her feelings for him as well. (The fact that he made his admission via that damn cell phone was merely the poetic coup de grâce.)
Series creator Chris Carter must pat himself on the back all the time that he had the foresight to avoid the lone-male-hero setup that characterizes so much science fiction-derived television, including X-Files‘ direct inspiration, the 1974-75 Kolchak: The Night Stalker. In having the man-woman thing to play around with, Carter and his producer-writers possess a built-in advantage: Even when the main plot is weak, an exciting mini-drama about the Mulder-Scully magilla (based on nothing so much as a brief conversation, a flicker in Scully’s eyes, a shot of Mulder reading a copy of Adult Video News) can light up the hour. Conversely, a good series entry can seem terribly slight when there’s no meaningful S&M action.
Then, too, Carter and company take great delight in messing with the minds of X-Files‘ core audience, which is also sci-fi’s traditional audience: horny adolescent boys of all ages and sexes. Not for nothing are there popular Web pages entitled The David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade and The Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade: Men and women get all het up about what is probably the most discreet relationship on television. In this area, Carter has even provided one half of the audience with an on-screen surrogate: the timorous Agent Pendrell, an FBI lab scientist mutely besotted with Scully, who lives for her every grim-faced visit.
The X-Files is the anti-Moonlighting. Where the Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepherd show featured ceaseless amounts of mock-hostile flirting and finally succumbed to s-e-x, The X-Files presents intensely focused work roles as a form of chaste courtship. Existing in a prime time full of mostly boorish sitcom unions or drama shows in which a couple’s emotional life is conveyed through earnest arguments or the ever-present option of divorce, Mulder and Scully’s ongoing plunges into the unexpected have resulted in something more inexplicable than the knottiest X-File: TV’s most successful, progressive marriage.