We search the universe for the latest X-Files conspiracy theories.

What is going on here? Sure, The X-Files has always been TV’s foremost head scratcher. But lately the paranormal plotlines are particularly out there. The latest tangle of mythology, as told in the March 8 episode, ”The Red and the Black,” has left even seasoned X-Philes baffled. Who are the faceless aliens? How are the shape-shifters and the black oil related? Why is Mulder suddenly the skeptic?

”By necessity, everything needs to be sort of unsettled and cloudy, because Mulder is going to come to a new understanding,” says Frank Spotnitz, a coexecutive producer of the show. ”When people see the [upcoming X-Files film], all of this will become crystal clear.”

Who can wait that long? Flashlight in hand, we went searching for our own answers by grilling attendees at last weekend’s X-Files Expo in Orange County, Calif., as well as fans online. Here are the predominant theories about the conspiracy…so far.

Cancer Man is alive?

Of course he’s alive. (Did anyone buy that sniper’s-bullet-through-the-chest routine?) More important, how do we notify his next of kin? While there have been hints all along that Mulder (David Duchovny) is actually Cancer Man’s spawn, many observers pooh-pooh the idea as being, in one devotee’s words, ”a little too Star Wars.” Rather, a number of fans subscribe to this scenario: Cancer Man once had a fling with Mulder’s mother, resulting in little Samantha Mulder. But Cancer Man may also have had a relationship with Cassandra Spender (Veronica Cartwright), which is why the smoking one addresses a letter to Agent Jeffrey Spender ”Dear son.” (Cancer Man also makes a cryptic reference to ”twin war gods” in the missive, suggesting that Spender and Mulder are all in the family.) Also supporting the Spender-as-Cancer Man Jr. theory: Chris Owens, who plays Spender, also starred in last season’s ”Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” — as the young Cancer Man.

Who are the colonizing aliens?

Before planting a big wet one on Mulder’s cheek, renegade agent Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea) notes there is an alien ”war raging” and that humans are facing ”the colonization of this planet by an extraterrestrial race.” But we all know there are any number of aliens in the X-Files universe. So who are the bad ones?

Fans seem divided. ”The shape-shifters are the colonizing aliens,” says fan Sheila Bodey via E-mail. ”They are attempting to coexist with the people of Earth, but they also are not going to take no for an answer.” That would explain why the shape-shifters seem to be in bed with those nasty old codgers, The Syndicate. The other school of thought says that the black oil is actually a sentient alien species and not just an otherworldly virus. That would make the black oil the colonizing aliens. And that’s why everyone is so desperate for a vaccine against it.

Which leaves the question of what these two alien races have to do with each other. ”We’ve seen these shape-shifters and they seem to be enforcers for alien law,” explains Spotnitz. ”We’ve also seen this black oil that can go inside people and make them subject to its control.” Which suggests, though Spotnitz won’t elaborate, that the shape-shifters are in thrall to the black oil. Uh, doesn’t it?

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