In the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, we spoke to showrunners who’ve gone through the painstaking process of bringing a series to an end. The 2002 finale for Chris Carter’s nine-season sci-fi series The X-Files was special in many ways: Not only did it bring back a main character who’d exited the show (David Duchovny’s Agent Mulder), but it also gave fans a chance to see their heroes (Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Agent Scully) reunite in a full-circle type of scene that harked back to the show’s 1993 premiere. Furthermore, The X-Files was one of the first series to fully engage with its fans online — as Carter puts it, “We really came of age with the Internet.” Read on for our full conversation with Carter about his experiences putting together the X-Files finale and how it might affect his new Web series, The After.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At which point did you know it was time to end The X-Files?
CHRIS CARTER: I think we decided to end the show about midseason of the ninth season. It was a couple months after 9/11, which I really feel was, for me, a turning point. For the country and the world, of course, but for the TV show as well. We lost our steam in a way, so the next few months helped form our approach going to the end.
And so when did you know what the ending was going to be?
Not until the very end. I don’t remember exactly how many episodes we did in season 9 — we probably did somewhere around 20. We really didn’t have a chance to work on it, and we made a two-hour finale, something we had never done before. So we didn’t really think about how exactly it would end until we were forced to, because there was just too much work to do with a broadcast schedule. But certainly, because it was a part of the mythology, we had a good idea of where we had been and where we were going.
And so the finale that aired, was that the original vision? Was it exactly what you guys had decided on when you wrote it, or were there changes along the way?
Everything is ever-changing, and if you’re doing your job right, you can’t just say, “This is what I’m doing and it works exactly like that.” There’s discovery. If you’ve got a really good team, everyone has got interesting input, so I’m sure that’s the way it worked. I don’t remember exactly how it worked. But the funny thing about doing a TV show is you never know when it’s going to end. And if you’re lucky enough to go for nine seasons … everyone’s shooting for five seasons; everyone wants to do 100 episodes. But when you do 200 episodes, you have to start thinking of things in much different ways, and certainly that was a big part of how the show ended.
When you guys were coming up with the ending, did you feel like there was a lot of pressure to unite Mulder and Scully on screen again? Or was it something you wanted to happen all along?
It was a must for me, in that they ended up essentially where they began. One thing that was sweet for me and the characters, and was just a touching scene: One of my favorite scenes from the pilot is when Mulder really throws down with Scully in the dark hotel room [which the finale alludes to]. That was … you can imagine that you’ve spent a really good portion of your life with these characters, so that’s a powerful thing.
At what point did you have to let David Duchovny know about the plan? Was it always a certainty that he’d be involved in the finale?
Yeah. And you know, while he was absent from the show directly for part of the season and previous to that, he certainly wasn’t an absent center. It wasn’t as if he had really disappeared. And it was a command performance.
There was an X-Files movie before the series ended, and there was one after. When you were ending the show, did you write it with the possibility of a movie/continuation in mind?
It was talked about, but it wasn’t … it was a notion and not a goal, necessarily. But it was certainly out there as a possibility. And we actually talked to Fox quite soon after the show ended about doing a movie. That energy dissolved for some reason. 20th Century Fox didn’t want to do something on the scale of the first movie; they wanted to do something smaller, and we thought that could be an interesting approach — to go back and essentially do what was essentially a standalone type of approach. And that actually took a number of years — I think six years — before we ever sat down to do that.
Did knowing there was possibly going to be another movie affect the way you wrote the finale?
No, I don’t think it did.
Did you consult other producers or showrunners for advice when you were putting the finale together? Maybe people who’d gone through it before?
I would liked to have. [Laughs] But I don’t think that I did. It’s a frenetic and pressurized situation, and you don’t have a lot of time to stop and scratch your head or pick other people’s brains. It is one of the most intense experiences of my life, right down to the very end.
Did you do any homework? Maybe watch finales from other landmark shows?
I wish I could say yes, but I don’t remember doing that.
You guys were always particularly in tune with your viewers. Were you listening to what the hard-core fans wanted in the finale, or did you lock yourself in a room away from the outside world?
You’re asking a question that can be asked about the show generally. We always listen to our audience, but when we sat down to do what we did, we always did what felt right to us. Certainly you can’t help but be influenced by people’s comments, and certainly I took direction from people during the course of the show. But I know when we sat down to do those last two hours, we sat down with so many thoughts in our head — but really, it was “How best do we end the show?” I’ll speak to the way that other people ended their shows after The X-Files ended. Of course, I watched the ending on The Sopranos and Six Feet Under certainly with new eyes by the end of my show. And I was just so impressed by the way both of those shows ended.
It feels like it’s a different environment to end a show nowadays. The stakes for a finale are higher than before. Do you feel like there’s maybe an overimportance placed on how finales go these days?
Absolutely the stakes have changed. I think with this saga storytelling, the ending is so important because it isn’t necessarily the ending of just a series, it’s the ending of a much longer tale.
If X-Files were around now in the Twitter age, or if Twitter was around back then, how do you think it would’ve affected the show? Or the way you wrote the finale?
I don’t know if it would’ve affected it any directly. We really came of age with the Internet. So right at the beginning there were chat rooms, and people could get right to us immediately. While I think the technology has made those distances even shorter between audiences and show folk, we did experience that — just in a way that wasn’t quite as immediate.
Were there a lot of notes from the network regarding the finale?
They always had notes and comments, and we always listened, and it was part of the process. I’m still friendly with the folks who commented, so it was a very constructive and creative process. But the good thing about the show — one of the best things about the show for me — was that once we really proved that we weren’t complete idiots, they left us mostly to do our jobs.
When the show finally did end and everyone saw it, how was the experience for you?
That was really strange that I wasn’t going to be doing that job anymore. And when I say this, this is the honest to goodness truth: I worked 11.5 months a year. That was for 10 years, because it took me about a year to get the show off the ground. And then all of a sudden you’re not going to do that anymore. I remember seeing as the show ended, just with my wife and I sitting in the room. It was both powerful and completely anticlimactic at the same time. [Chuckles]
What did you think of the fan reaction? Were people talking to you about the show’s legacy, this and that?
Yes, of course. And you … I do pay attention. It’s funny, I didn’t read the online comments with this new show that we’re doing [Amazon’s The After]. It’s really an exercise in madness. But what I do, though, is that I know other people are reading it, and there are people that I trust who read them and who can distill the sentiment for me, and certainly some of the best criticism I would take to heart. I’m certain it was the same way at the end of The X-Files. I paid some attention, but I peek at it rather than stare at it.
What are some of the lessons you have learned from The X-Files and its finale that you might apply to future projects?
I learned lessons, and while if you ask me what they were, I’d probably be sitting here and there’d probably be a lot of silence on the phone. But there are… you develop instincts, and you certainly know things. One of the best things about doing a TV show that goes on for so long is that you have knowledge that can only be gained through that experience. You develop instincts and you develop, hopefully, a fine bullsh– meter.