Laura Sook Duncombe’s previous work for The Toast and The Butter can be found here. Note: This essay contains spoilers for The X-Files.
201 hours. Just over eight days. Working 9:00 to 5:00, it would take you five straight weeks to get to 201 hours. It’s a lot of time — the most precious commodity in this world, the one thing that can’t be bought or sold or regained once lost. I am about to spend 201 hours watching a television show, one that I have already seen. Why?
The X-Files, an iconic pop-culture phenomenon in the ’90s, is returning to the small screen for a special six-episode event in January. In preparation for its return, many fans have chosen to rewatch the entire series, in order, one episode per day. No time off for weekends or holidays. There is no prize for doing this, no recognition or tangible reward. I already know many of the episodes by heart, and I need no reminder of major plot points or the mythological arc of the series. So again, why am I doing this?
The short and long answer is Agent Dana Scully. Scully was the hero my pre-adolescent heart craved. Watching the show for the first time was like arriving at a place I’d never been but instantly knew as home. For five years, every Sunday night at 9:00pm, I would sit cross-legged on the floor way too close to the TV in my parents’ bedroom and soak in the gory, macabre, hilarious glory that was The X-Files. I had to watch it upstairs, in my parents’ room, because it was “too scary” for my younger brother and sister. It was too scary for me, too, although I was loath to admit it (I had nightmares about the episode with the killer trees — not even a particularly frightening episode — for years). Like the Barenaked Ladies song, I always watched with the lights on.
Maybe because I watched it alone, or maybe because the show was so adult-oriented, that hour felt like my special passport to adulthood — a Narnia-like gateway into another world, one I wanted to discover and claim. And I adored each and every minute of it.
For those of you unfortunate enough not to know who Dana Scully is, here’s a brief biography: She’s one of four kids, a Navy brat, and a Catholic. She was recruited out of medical school into the FBI, shocking her family by choosing to become an agent rather than the doctor she was meant to be. She is bright and ambitious, a rule-follower determined to distinguish herself in the old boys’ club of the FBI. Dana Scully is a woman who goes after what she wants, always speaks her mind, and throws some killer shade with her trademark raised eyebrow.
At twelve, in my eyes, she was Athena, Justice Ginsburg, and Princess Leia all rolled into one. I wanted to be her, I wanted to be with her, I wanted to hang around in places where she was so that we could breathe the same air.
When The X-Files came into my life in the Fall of 1997, I was smack in the middle of puberty and middle school, the twin trials of adolescent life. To say I was a bit of a loner was a huge understatement. I was new to the school and to the state of Pennsylvania, an outsider in most senses, and I felt like the Little Match Girl, my face pressed up against the glass and staring longingly at the fun, happy, warm things going on inside while I was stuck out in the cold. School was easy for me — always had been — but social interaction with my peers was completely beyond my ken. Flirting and casual contact was a foreign language I studied constantly, but could never learn myself. I watched from under a tree on the playground as girls talked to each other, painted each other’s nails, and “stole” boys’ sweatshirts, marveling at how easy it all looked.
I was too tall, too freakishly developed, too nerdy, and too Southern to ever fit in with most of the other girls. Even if I had worked up the nerve to talk to them, I was afraid of what would come out of my mouth: Star Wars jokes, book recommendations, scientific facts — surely my classmates would recoil and officially brand me as the outcast I already knew I was. So I remained profoundly isolated, watching and longing but never really assimilating into the surrounding population. I figured some girls, like me, just weren’t meant to have close friends.
Scully turned everything around for me. It wasn’t just the way she looked, although she was beautiful. I ached to have her petite stature and pale skin, so impossible for my tall, tanned self. Scully was pretty, and smart, and respected for her knowledge. She didn’t spend her days talking about makeup or boys; she solved grisly crimes with Agent Mulder and kicked ass.
There’s a scene in the first movie in which Scully has to evacuate a building, and the male officer she’s given the order to is hesitating. She stares him in the eye and hollers, “Pick up the phone and MAKE IT HAPPEN!” The man obeys, and thousands of lives are saved. For weeks after I saw the movie, I muttered that line to myself like a mantra. Scully knew what to do, and she wasn’t afraid to shout to get it done.
For the first time, I began to think that maybe there was more to being a girl than cute things and boy bands. Maybe it wasn’t that I was a freak — my definition of “woman” was just too narrow. The first time I saw her flat-out run in her four-inch heels and tackle a fleeing bad guy, my mind was blown. Scully flung wide open a wonderful world of womanhood where just being my nerdy, awkward, tomboyish self could be completely okay. Over and over, she led teams on assignments, saved Mulder’s ass, and proved to be an invaluable asset to the Bureau. Every time she took charge, the tiny flame in my heart burned a little brighter. By the Season 7 episode “First Person Shooter,” when she entered the possessed video game (don’t ask) in all her leather-clad glory and obliterated every enemy in her path while Mulder and the other men’s jaws hit the floor, the flame was a full-on inferno.
She became the older sister I never had. I watched her faithfully every Sunday night for the next four and a half years, never missing an episode unless I was being punished. (Remember, this was in the pre-DVR and Hulu days, when an episode aired only once before disappearing into the ether. If you were lucky, you might catch a rerun in the summer, but that was about it. I keenly recall sobbing the entire hour the show was on the few times my mom forbade me to watch it, mourning the loss of my glimpse into Scully’s world.) In my basement bedroom, I created a low-tech version of tumblr, pasting newspaper clippings, photos, and magazine articles about The X-Files onto a taped-together scroll of notebook paper, which I kept under my bed in a blue manila folder. The scroll was liberally sprinkled with Scully quotes, like “I want you to do me a favor. It’s not negotiable. Either you do it, or I kill you.” I had an X-Files t-shirt I wore constantly, to the chagrin of my parents. And after my bedtime, I would sneak upstairs to the one computer in the house and use our dial-up internet to access the earliest fanfiction forums, spending hours feeding my insatiable urge to be constantly in the presence, even virtually, of my beloved Scully.
Sometimes I felt like I understood The X-Files more than any other person, creator Chris Carter included. It was as if the show existed just for me, and as long as I could tune in and watch, I would be happy.
After a while, though, it wasn’t enough. I never tired of watching Scully navigate trials and triumphs, but I started longing to do the same. Scully could not be my only friend. I felt like I could not waste the gift she had bestowed on me, could not remain alone in my basement with my folders full of fanfiction and theories forever. I figured if Scully could battle aliens, go through cancer, lose her father and sister, bury a child she didn’t even know she had, and lose the man she loved, I could probably make it through middle school. I decided I would be brave like Scully and go out and find my Mulder. Not a romantic partner — that desire didn’t come until many years later — but someone who would accept and understand me; who would help me be my truest self. Mulder called Scully his “one in six billion” — surely I had a one in six billion out there, too.
Clad in my armor — my X-Files tee — I signed up for Odyssey of the Mind, which was like a cross between BattleBots and academic decathlon. I was good with mechanical stuff and I figured if my skills were needed, my presence might be tolerated. Scully had used the magic words “I’m a doctor” to gain access to places she needed to be; surely I could use my talents to break into the Fortress of Friendship.
This decision saved my life, providing me with not just my one in six billion, but six teammates who grew to be my first and closest friends. Although none of them were into The X-Files, they liked Star Wars and board games and science and loads of other things I liked, too. They were smart and funny and they liked me a lot, both for my contributions to the team and for myself. Their friendship became the bright sun in the center of my life, and its glow radiated over everything else in my life and made it all better.
Like Mulder and Scully, my friends and I were far more effective as a team than apart. I eventually grew to love Pennsylvania, my new school, and sometimes even myself. I would remain in Odyssey of the Mind until I graduated high school, eventually winning many state and two international titles. If Scully hadn’t shown me that being abducted by aliens is much scarier than joining a team, I doubt I would have had the courage to do it and find my place.
I am now thirty, considerably older than Gillian Anderson was when she first stepped into Scully’s shoes. In the end, I didn’t turn out much like Scully. I did not become a doctor or an FBI agent. I did not convert to Catholicism. I don’t favor boxy pantsuits. Although I did have a disastrous fling with Scully’s trademark red bob, my hair is back to its natural wavy brown. When it comes to belief in the paranormal, I’m much closer to Agent Mulder than to Scully. A casual observer would never look at my life and see anything to tip them off regarding my love of Agent Scully.
But I still see her handprints all over my life. She showed me how to be brave and face the things that scare me the most, because those things can often turn out to be the best things. She taught me to take pride in my intelligence, joy in my self-reliance, and comfort in my friends. She convinced me that it’s okay to yell when you know you’re right. So many of the things I like best about myself — the things that made me into the happy, healthy adult I am today — I learned from her.
So is all of that worth 201 hours of my time between now and January? As I think about all those hours, it still feels like a very long time. It might be a waste, one of those things you think sounds like a good idea when you first start it, only to come to hate it by the end. But I feel this is something I have to do. I feel I owe it to Scully, in a way, to pay her back for all the hours she spent getting me through my adolescent years. She did so much for me — I can do this for her. I know she’s fictional, and will never know what she did for me, regardless of whether I go through this rewatch or not. But sometimes, attention and honor must be paid. (And of course, I will seize any excuse to watch “First Person Shooter” again.)
By the time the last episode airs, I will have given birth to my first child. Somehow that gives this rewatch more poignancy: the fact that I am exposing my baby, in utero, to the entire X-Files canon. If it’s a girl, I hope she one day absorbs the lessons it took me so long to learn from Scully, saving herself a lot of heartache. If I can give her that, through Scully, I will have given her a lot. Heck, I wish the same thing if it’s a boy — all children deserve to know right from the start that they are loved as they are, no matter how strange or out-of-place they think they are.
Would twelve-year-old me, hunched over on my parents’ bedroom floor in front of a small, ancient television, even believe future me if I told her what life had in store for her? That she would grow into her spindly limbs, become comfortable with her height? That college would rock and she would eventually find other X-Files fans and become lifelong friends with them? That she would fall in love with and marry a man not nearly as geeky as her, who somehow adores her anyway, and achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a writer? Even if I could somehow teleport back to 1997 and tell myself all that was coming, it would all sound too wonderful to be true, and twelve-year-old Laura would probably be convinced that the government had sent some kind of evil clone or something to lull her into complacency while they readied their attack. (When I told you I was a weird, conspiracy-addled kid, I wasn’t kidding.) Yet despite how hard it would have been to believe it at the time, all those things came true.
Now, when I watch The X-Files, I watch on my laptop in my own home with my dog curled up at my side. My life is far better than my teenaged self could have ever imagined, and Scully made it possible. She showed me how to blaze a trail for myself in this weird, wacky world and follow it, no matter what seems to stand in my way. So of course I will be doing the rewatch, all 201 hours of it. How could I miss the chance to spend so much time with one of my greatest mentors and heroes?
I will probably still watch it with the lights on, though.
Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virgina with her husband and a mutt named Indiana Bones, Jr. Musical theater, pirates, and Sherlock Holmes are a few of her favorite things. Her work can be found on the Toast, the Hairpin, Jezebel, and at her blog.