BOSTON — In Albania, it's called "Fajllat X" ("The X Case"); in Israel, "Tikim Ba'afela" ("Files in the Dark"); and in Korea, "FBI Birok" ("Secret Documents in FBI").
"The X-Files" is a worldwide television phenomenon, a well-written, highly literate series that has spawned more than 1,000 Web sites, as well as books, conventions, and memorabilia to rival those of "Star Trek."
Millions of fans hunker down each Sunday night at 9 p.m. on Fox to watch FBI agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) fight the forces of darkness. And though many movies have been spawned by TV series, "The X-Files: Fight the Future," may be the first movie ever (opening today in US theaters) made to serve as a mega-episode for a TV show.
"We had to do the stories [for the entire past season] for the movie - so the movie could be the answer to the mysteries," says co-producer/writer Frank Spotnitz. The movie is supposed to stand on its own, entertaining novices and paying off loyal viewers with the answers to some big mysteries.
But it's the television phenomenon that is most amazing. A bizarre mix of crime fiction, paranormal horror, science fiction, and conspiracy thriller, the series is fundamentally and always a quest drama - and therefore oddly open-ended.
"One of the attractions of the show," says Los Angeles Times television writer Brian Lowry, who wrote the first two official guides to "The X-Files," "is that they always leave room for the possibility that what is paranormal might not be - there may be a scientific process at work we simply don't understand.
"And the second thing is that each episode is open-ended. Viewers are so used to being fed formulas. But at the end of each show there is a question mark. The monster may be out there - or not."
"The truth is out there" is the tag line of the show, and Mulder and Scully are perpetually in search of it.
But the truth they chase is far from garden variety. Often it's extraterrestrial. Mulder's obsession with the abduction of his younger sister (apparently by aliens) when they were children has led this Oxford-trained psychologist to occupy the basement office at the FBI where every weird case of homicide lands in the files marked "X." Mocked by his colleagues who call him "Spooky" Mulder (Duchovny), the soft-spoken young man believes there is a complex government conspiracy to conceal the presence of aliens who want to colonize Earth.
Meanwhile, Scully (Anderson) is a doctor, a scientist, the skeptical voice of reason, who looks for the scientific explanation for all the weirdness the two agents encounter.
The show has science advisers to keep Scully honest, and the science is as real as possible - "Bearing in mind that aliens can do anything," jokes biochemist and science adviser Anne Simon, a friend of Chris Carter's (the show's creator). Dr. Simon checks out the show's science and helps make up plausible pseudoscience.
Simon says that the scientists she knows love the show. But then the best science fiction almost always does mind the details.
Despite their different approaches, Scully has come to trust Mulder's intuitive intelligence, and has come to lean on her expertise and reason. An unusually tender relationship has grown between these two restrained individuals - platonic, yet emotionally intimate.
When either is in trouble, the other is there to save, counsel, and comfort. This alliance is one of the show's most appealing elements, and one of its most defining.
The two live in their work. In one episode, Scully took a vacation to New England and ran into some trouble. Every time she called Mulder he was flinging pencils at the ceiling, badly bored without her. Viewers love to speculate about this relationship on the Internet.
The 'ick' factor
But the show's pervasive creepiness is not for everyone. Even the look of the show is caliginous - much of the action takes place in the dark, with the agents' trademark flashlights beaming through the mist.
The series has an unusually high "ick" factor for TV: Scully's autopsies may be handled with clinical detachment, but they can be graphic. Corpses abound, gruesome plagues crop up, and monsters, murderers, psychos, gobblins, aliens, and other slimy things provide the heroes with adventures each week.
And then some critics have marked, as has criminologist Richard Moran of Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., that the show nourishes public paranoia about government coverups, validates conspiracy theorists, and "privileges exotic and supernatural ways of knowing, so that it ends up feeding the idea that peoples' lives are controlled by outside forces."
Still, most viewers, says Jim Farrely of the University of Dayton, Ohio, don't take the conspiracy paranoia all that seriously. The important thing to remember is that "X-Files" is just as much adult fairy tale as it is creep show. And fairy tales have something to teach.
It "is a very touching show," says writer Spotnitz. "Scully and Mulder sacrifice everything. They have no lives. It is all about the quest."
"It is essentially a struggle between good and evil," says Dr. Farrely. "Mulder is a stalwart knight. The search is really, in Arthurian terms, a search for the Holy Grail. The search for truth, the knight's quest, is there throughout."
Evil is confronted over and over again, he says, and that is one of the functions of fairy tale - to help us practice standing up to evil.
"Stephen King once said, if you're not ready to face evil, evil will triumph." Sometimes the lesson lies in the warning the tale provides.
The New Age element, too, appeals to another portion of the viewing public. "Our culture today wants to value spirituality without committing to any specific spiritual tradition," says Mark Radecke, instructor and chaplain at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.
The appeal of spirituality
"I see a longing for a view of reality that is larger and more expansive than the flat 'everything can be explained' view that currently predominates. We want to recover a sense of mystery, of awe, of wonder.... This series moves in that direction, and I believe that accounts for a good deal of its appeal."
At the beginning of this season, Scully struggled with her religious beliefs when she became ill, and faith appeared to win out. At Christmas time, "The X-Files," which frequently draws themes and symbols from great literature, tapped into Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol."
"All of us are big Dickens fans here," says Spotnitz. "We had Scully go home and confront old memories. The ghost story is about facing the present. And there is a redemptive element as there is in Dickens.
"Scully remembers past events and gains new insight into herself and then changes herself.... It touches on something profound - personal regrets, the desire to reset our course, straighten out and move forward. We all like to think we can unbend ourselves."
It is a rare show indeed that appeals to people of faith and people of science - from many cultures and conditions. "It is one of the signature series of the decade," says Brian Lowry, "and it graduated from a TV show into the culture."
* M.S. Mason's e-mail address is email@example.com