Deep Down the Well of Nerd, X-Files edition

This is a really fun, absolutely dumb first post for an account I’m mostly using to lurk, which happens. You get the fun here of a more loose editorial voice AND even more sloppy typos. It’s win-win! Onward.

I’m sort of hanging on to every little bit of X-Files fandom I have (going back to 1993 / season one, when I found the series on FOX on a Friday night and subsequently got banned from watching it after my parents saw “Genderbender” and decided that at age nine, I was maybe a bit young for the show. (They weren’t necessarily wrong, per se, though I was no less upset.)

Anyway, as the only member of my pub’s news team who works almost 100 percent remotely, I like to have background noise. The X-Files is perfect background noise — I can look up and see moments I remember fondly without getting distracted by things I haven’t seen before. It’s a great system.

What follows is spoilers for a TV show that ended 13 years ago, so stop now if you’re doing a binge watch before the series returns.

I had PROBABLY noticed it before, but today I noticed it again. In “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” an actor named Chris Owens plays the young Cigarette Smoking Man. He later returned to the series as Agent Jeffrey Spender, an uptight nerd of an agent trying to outshine even Scully’s skepticism.

But while the show recycled actors every once in a while (Joel Palmer appearing in both “Conduit” and “The Calusari” as separate creepy children, Darin Morgan as whoever they needed him to play when he wasn’t writing some great episodes), it still should’ve been a dead giveaway that there might be a connection.

Science fiction fans are nothing if not thorough, seeking out the slightest minutiae of episodes, on the hunt for treasured anachronisms and plot holes, fervent in their desires within that fandom. The X-Files was no exception, with zines and online groups extolling its virtues (and decrying its pitfalls.)

I don’t have the research in front of me so I don’t want to be the target of pedants, so I’ll say: it was some approximation of one of the earliest online fandoms, a popular show coming up right alongside the early Internet. If we place a widespread deployment of household Internet service around 1994–1995, then a show debuting in 1993 certainly comes around at the right time. Which is to say, I’ve heard it was one of the first (operative words, one of) the first large scale online fandoms.

What this also means is that eagle eyed viewers probably noticed the connection between Chris Owens roles in the show, though possibly ignoring when he was heavily made up in “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” As a dedicated, fervent community, it certainly couldn’t have gone unnoticed. So my question was: when did they notice what I just kind of re-noticed?

The truth was out there; I just had to look through archives of the still-active Usenet group to find it.

Spender debuted in “Patient X,” which aired on March 1, 1998. The first time the connection was made was two weeks prior on the group, when Louise Jeffery pointed out that a blind item on David Duchovny leaving the show also mentioned Owens coming in as Agent Spender. She mentions on this posting from 2/13/98 that played the young Cigarette Smoking Man, but did not find the connection suspect.

Andy Guess notes that it’s an “interesting” casting choice on 2/27/98. It looks, briefly, like he’ll be making the leap into outright speculation … and instead continues on the gossip thread of Duchovny leaving the show.

In fact, it was first concretely noticed that something was truly amiss the night the episode aired. On 3/1/98, Matt Usedcomputers (likely not his real name) made the connection, but fell short of quite the wrong answer. He found a relationship between Spender and the Cigarette Smoking Man, but didn’t nail what the relationship was.

Finally, the next day, people got a little more toward the truth that was out there, inadvertently outing a reveal that wouldn’t truly unfold until the beginning of Season Seven: that the Cigarette Smoking Man had an affair with Tina Mulder which resulted in the birth of Fox Mulder, and that Fox and Jeffrey Spender were thus brothers. Here, Sarah Stegall almost makes that connection on 3/2/98.

But the first person to hit the nail on the head was Scott Ballenger, who gets Spender’s parentage right … and half of Mulder’s.

By 3/5/98, it was taken as a matter of speculation-fact that the Cigarette Smoking Man and Spender were related, by which point the group was arguing over whether Spender’s chin was too weak and his frame / demeanor too effeminate to possibly replace Mulder. Perhaps this is why, when David Duchovny (mostly) left the show in Season Eight, he was replaced by Robert Patrick, who played the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and does not have a weak chin or an effeminate manner. But Maggie Helwig both nails it closer that there’s a relationship to Mulder, and tries to stop the pile-on while admitting that Owens does have a weak chin. She both defends Owens, saying its irrelevant, dispels the notion that Spender is a clone of the Cigarette Smoking Man, and dispels the rumors that Owens was just supposed to be some cheap replacement for Mulder.

So the answer is: it barely took any time at all for X-Files fans to figure out what was what and why Owens was cast in the role, and an even shorter time to snark, based on a more unsubstantiated claim, that he was not handsome or masculine enough to replace David Duchovny.

I have now spent way too long thinking about this, but here’s one last thing.

On 12/3/97, Andrew in Amherst shared this to the group, showing that any recasting would not go unnoticed by the fans. Here, Andrew discusses that Owens was both in “Musings” and in “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” In the latter, he played a deformed, lonely man known as Mutato. His particular theory has not, to this point, been thoroughly explored in fandom so far as I know, though it has the makings of an interesting literary journal article (or fan zine issue, whatever.)