From its beginnings, “The X-Files” was as much a product of circumstances as of meticulous planning led by creator-producer Chris Carter. Although the epic arc of the “mythology” story was built into the series’ concept, it received an unexpected jolt when Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy forced Carter and crew to write around her Dana Scully character — thus leading to the abduction of Scully that has permeated the larger “X-Files” story since and resulted in some of the series’ finest episodes, including “Duane Barry” and “One Breath.”
Likewise, when David Duchovny knew that he would be away from the Vancouver shoot for several days in October promoting his latest feature, “Playing God,” Carter & Co. had to write around Duchovny’s Fox Mulder character.
Enter Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban, veteran “X-Files” scribes who have become increasingly responsible for episodes during the third and fourth seasons. In this past season, while Spotnitz provided many of the mythology stories in collaboration with Carter (“Tunguska,” “Terma,” “Tempus Fugit,” “Max”), Shiban (“El Mundo Gira,” “Elegy”) and Gilligan (“Small Potatoes,” “Paper Hearts,” “Unruhe”) tended to fly solo.
Together, their job, starting in the last week of August, with a script delivery date of Sept. 25 for an eventual airdate of Dec. 7, was to come up with a Scully-only story — a rarity in the show’s history.
Dawn of the dead
“We started with the idea of Scully getting a phone call from a ghost as she was visiting her family in San Diego at Christmas,” says Shiban, relaxing in Spotnitz’s Fox lot bungalow office. “It was a dead woman,” Gilligan adds, “but someone new to the series, and we couldn’t figure out who she was,” Nor, Shiban notes, how she fit into Scully’s past.
They had hit a creative brick wall. Spotnitz speculates that because the three of them had worked together on last season’s “Memento Mori” and the gory-funny “Leonard Betts,” they were able to regroup and find a way to get over the wall. The solution, ironically, lay in “Memento Mori,” in which Mulder discovers that the eggs of several women, including Scully, are being used in a ghastly government experiment.
They realized that using Melissa, Scully’s dead sister, as the ghost would lead to Scully uncovering one of the most dramatic secrets and revelations her character has experienced in “The X-Files’ ” epic story — one that we won’t reveal here. “Christmas Carol,” as the episode was titled, clearly would lead to a cliffhanger and a second part (to air Dec. 14).
In fact, the story’s earliest sources could be found in the Spotnitz-Carter two-parter of the third season, “Nisei” and “731,” in which Scully discovers a possible kinship with fellow female abductees. “But we don’t sit around for hours plotting lines between all these episodes,” Shiban says.
“In this case,” Spotnitz chimes in, “it was first solving the ghost caller’s identity, then blending a paranormal theme with Scully’s personal history, and then playing with the idea of Scully as a kind of Mulder — she’s believing this caller could be her dead sister — while her brother Bill is a kind of Scully, saying that it’s all in her head.”
The trio wrote the story’s beats in order, based on meticulous notecards pinned to a large cork board. With only three weeks to deadline, the cards were completed in three days. They alternated work between the office and Spotnitz’s and Shiban’s homes.
“We never do the writing until we know the ‘button’ of a scene, how we get in and out of the scene,” Shiban explains, “and the cards are the way to find that.” The writers discussed key images and dialogue lines so they collectively knew where the script was headed. The finished first draft was examined by hooking up Shiban’s laptop with a computer monitor in his office, each displaying the same page of text. With just days to spare, the review process on “Christmas Carol” took three days.
Gilligan cites writer Darin Morgan’s “Humbug” episode in the second season as a breakthrough for the writers on the series, “because he showed Chris that this show was very elastic, capable of going in many different directions. It led to the kind of freedom we felt creating ‘Christmas Carol,’ which does away with a lot of the usual ‘X-Files’ business.”
But “Christmas Carol” did endure the usual “X-Files” critical rigor of Carter conducting his “tone meeting,” in which he reviews the script line by line with the writers and director (in this case, Peter Markle, making his “X-Files” debut) to polish the dialogue and action. By early October, after a week’s worth of pre-production, “Christmas Carol” was ready for filming.
“We’re dropping hints through the episodes, including this one, this season,” Spotnitz says cryptically, “partly based on narrative threads from past seasons, partly to draw the audience through to the feature film, picking up where the season-ending cliffhanger ends. Which is why we don’t really think of this process as TV. When you see the movie, you’ll get it.”