March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

This kind of thing never happens to Agent Mulder … Before the credits even come up on the pilot of the new X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen, a teaser flawlessly re-creates the famous ”vault” scene from Mission: Impossible. Except here, the infiltrators are the titular conspiracy-obsessed trio, and their bungled attempt to abscond with a priceless new computer chip leaves one of them flailing helplessly in the air while the high-tech treasure is filched from right under his nose. Not humiliating enough for ya? The scene ends with the Gunmen — Messrs. Langly, Frohike, and Byers — apprehended by a clutch of thick-necked security guards, who proceed with a thorough cavity search.

”It’s a flipped X-Files,” says creator Chris Carter of the new series, which will debut in X‘s time slot on March 4 before settling in on Fridays at 9 p.m. ”A comedy with some drama in it, rather than a drama with some comedy in it.” But while Gunmen was inspired by X, its soul derives from a handful of other action classics like I Spy, the aforementioned M:I, and The Wild, Wild West. Adds Carter, ”It’s all of those things meets the Three Stooges or the Farrelly brothers.”

The creation of ex-X producers Glen Morgan and James Wong, the Gunmen debuted in a 1994 episode called ”E.B.E.” (which found agents Mulder and Scully on a cross-country chase after a downed alien — make that Extraterrestrial Biological Entity). It was meant to be a one-off appearance, but the Gunmen proved so popular that by the following year they’d become recurring comic relief, usually in X‘s heady ”mythology” episodes. ”They were inspired by the kind of guys you’d meet at UFO conventions,” says Carter. ”They became a good way to get information [to Mulder and Scully] without having to go to X or Deep Throat [the agents’ usual informants], and everybody liked them. We thought they were funny, wonderful geeks.”

In 1997 they starred in ”Unusual Suspects,” a flashback episode documenting the formation of the group and the conspiracy-busting newsletter they publish in their warehouse lair. But it was their starring performance in the action-packed 1999 ep ”Three of a Kind” (wherein the Gunmen try to infiltrate a confab of defense contractors in Las Vegas) that proved the bumbling crusaders ready for prime time. ”We’d heard for years from fans that we should do a Lone Gunmen spin-off, but we couldn’t figure out how,” recalls creator and executive producer Frank Spotnitz. ”Then we saw this episode and it was so successful and so much fun, we [realized] these guys don’t just have to work behind their computers; they know all kinds of high-tech gizmos and gadgets.” At the time, Carter’s Ten Thirteen Productions was preoccupied with X and the ill-fated 1999 series Harsh Realm, but when the latter met ”an untimely and unfortunate death,” says Spotnitz, the Gunmen were a go.

”I think that we were there to show that there are people more paranoid than Mulder,” says Bruce Harwood, who plays dapper Gunman John Fitzgerald Byers, a disenchanted former FCC suit who left that gig to embark on a Superman-like quest for ”truth, justice, and the American way.” He’s joined by Dean Haglund’s loose-cannon computer hacker, Richard ”Ringo” Langly, who claims to be forsaking a dotcom fortune to take up the cause; and Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood), a grizzled crank who boasts a wealth of tactical experience (and attitude) honed from his fight-the-power struggles of the 1960s. Braidwood, who came over to the other side of the camera after a stint as an assistant director on X, says of his alter ego, ”He lived through that whole period, [so] he serves as a kind of grouchy guide.” He adds, rolling his eyes, ”Not that they listen…”

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