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The X-Files X-Posed

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Television is a powerful medium. For example, a single word – "Flukeman" – can send a chill down the collective spines of an entire generation. If you just shivered, you must be one of the millions who followed the paranoid adventures of Agents Mulder and Scully as they investigated everything from mutant monsters to psychic killers to a global government conspiracy concealing the existence of extraterrestrials. Come along – if you dare – as we delve deeper into the mysteries behind The X-Files, one of the most beloved shows in television history.

The Inspiration

The X-Files was the brainchild of surfer dude turned television producer Chris Carter, who began working for the fledgling Fox Network in 1992 after developing shows for NBC and The Disney Channel in the 1980s. At the time, Fox was primarily known for half-hour comedies like Married...With Children and was looking to expand its line-up with hour-long dramas. So Carter approached them with a show in the same creepy vein as The Twilight Zone and the Kolchak: The Night Stalker made-for-TV movies and spin-off series. Influenced by The Silence of the Lambs' Clarice Starling, Carter made his lead characters FBI agents who investigated cases considered unsolvable because witnesses said they saw a UFO, Bigfoot, or some other unexplained phenomenon. The network greenlighted a pilot episode (above), but they were not expecting it to be picked up for the Fall season.

Pam Anderson as Scully?

When casting for the pilot began, Carter wanted to ensure the stars were fairly unknown to help the audience accept them in the roles. Carter quickly decided the part of UFO-believer Agent Fox Mulder should go to David Duchovny, who had done some television, most notably as the host/narrator of Showtime's Red Shoe Diaries. However, the casting of Gillian Anderson as the level-headed scientist Agent Dana Scully became a point of contention between Carter and the Fox execs. The network thought they needed an ultra-sexy bombshell to draw in male viewers, so they wanted buxom Baywatch beauty Pamela Anderson for the role. Carter and his casting director immediately felt that Gillian Anderson had the right intensity to be Scully, so they fought for her to get the part instead. Though the network relented, throughout the first season they repeatedly complained that Anderson was too cold and not likable enough. Thankfully, by the second season, they agreed with Carter's decision.

The Ratings

The X-Files debuted on Friday, September 10, 1993, after The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., which Fox execs saw as their #1 prospect for the Fall 1993 season. Brisco's two-hour premiere was a hit, but the ratings slipped after that, until it came in almost dead last in primetime by the end of its first and only season. The X-Files, however, ended its first season with an 8.8 Nielsen rating, almost a full point stronger than its premiere, which earned a 7.9 rating. The show grew thanks to "X-Philes," dedicated fans who discussed the show in online forums and brought in new, curious viewers. In fact, as the show went into summer reruns, the ratings were often higher than when the same episode premiered because people wanted to catch up thanks to all the online buzz. The season two debut received a 10.3 rating, and continued to grow to a 14.6 average rating while also earning a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Nomination, the first for the Fox Network.

The show continued for nine seasons, with a peak rating of 17.1 for season five, before it started to drop off in popularity. After a difficult contract negotiation between seasons seven and eight, Duchovny ultimately decided to leave half-way through the eighth season so he could pursue film roles, only appearing again in the series finale. On the show, Mulder was abducted by aliens to explain Duchovny's absence, and Agent John Doggett, played by Terminator 2's Robert Patrick (at left), was assigned as Scully's partner. Many fans felt this is when the show "jumped the shark," and the ratings took a nosedive, bottoming out at 9.1 by the series finale on May 19, 2002. In all, The X-Files received 141 awards nominations with 61 wins, including 3 Emmys and 5 Golden Globes, and is considered by many to be the show that made Fox a serious force in network television.

The Writers

Aside from famous guest writers like Stephen King and cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson, some of the cast tried their hand at penning episodes of The X-Files. Gillian Anderson wrote "All Things;" William B. Davis, better known as The Cigarette Smoking Man, wrote "En Ami;" and David Duchovny scripted a total of eight episodes, three of which he also directed. One of the regular writers, Vince Gilligan, who also served as a producer, went on to write and produce the short-lived X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen. But Gilligan is best-known today as the creator of AMC's Breaking Bad. Another writer, David Greenwalt, later teamed up with Joss Whedon to produce Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel.

Famous Guest Stars...

While the regular cast was made up of unknowns, there were plenty of well-known guest stars throughout the nine season run. Just some of the big names include Brisco County, Jr. himself, Bruce Campbell, Peter Boyle, Burt Reynolds, Michael McKean, Charles Nelson Reilly, Ed Asner, Lily Tomlin, Gary Shandling, Jodie Foster (she voiced a living tattoo), and, most memorably, Jesse "The Body" Ventura and Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek as the legendary "Men in Black" (at left). Unfortunately, there are two names missing from this list: the unlikely duo of Roseanne Barr and Cher. The divas were asked to appear in the multi-Emmy nominated episode "The Post-Modern Prometheus" but, due to scheduling conflicts, couldn't be on the show.

...and those who became famous

The X-Files was also fertile ground for actors who would later go on to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. Some of these future stars include Seth Green, Jack Black, Giovanni Ribisi, Ryan Reynolds, Lucy Liu, Luke Wilson, Shia LaBeouf, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, Machete's Danny Trejoo, and Monk's Tony Shalhoub (at left). It also seems that a few future acclaimed series found most of their cast from The X-Files' stable: The Shield had three alumni (Catherine Dent, Benito Martinez, CCH Pounder), Lost counted six (M.C. Gainey, Alan Dale, Terry O'Quinn, Michael Emerson, Mark Pellegrino, Titus Welliver), and HBO's Deadwood had no less than nine (Brad Dourif, William Sanderson, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Garret Dillahunt, John Hawkes, Jim Beaver, W. Earl Brown, Ray McKinnon, Titus Welliver).

The Alien Factor

One of the defining aspects of The X-Files – and easily its biggest influence on television today – was its over-arching mythology regarding the colonization of Earth by alien invaders. This was not originally supposed to be part of the show, but when Gillian Anderson got pregnant during the second season, Carter had to find a way for her to be absent from a few episodes. His solution: Scully was abducted by aliens. Mulder's search for the truth about Scully's abduction turned out to be a huge success, so Carter kept the idea going, sprinkling in unrelated "Monster of the Week" episodes to keep the tension high and help expand the boundaries of The X-Files universe.

I Want to Believe

The famous "I Want to Believe" poster that hung in Mulder's office was slightly different in the first season than in the rest of the series. As the show became popular, fans wanted their own copy of the poster, but the first season version was not easily reproducible by the prop team. So a new poster was made for Mulder's wall and, shortly after, copies were hanging on dorm room walls all over the world. The revised poster appears to use a UFO from a series of photos taken in the 1970s by controversial UFOlogist Bill Meier. The actual prop poster was donated to the Smithsonian in 2008, along with other memorabilia, such as a copy of the script for the pilot episode, Mulder and Scully's FBI badges, and a model of an alien from Fight the Future.

The Romance That Never Was [Update: OK. It was.]

Although Mulder and Scully could have easily become a romantic couple, Carter refused to let it happen. He specifically didn't want the show to end up like Moonlighting, the 1980s sitcom whose ratings rapidly declined once the characters became involved after a few seasons of "Will they or won't they?" tension. Mulder and Scully did lock lips a few times during the show, though. In the episode "Millennium," the two puckered up at midnight on New Year's Eve in accordance with the long-standing tradition. Another kiss happened in "Triangle;" however, in a twist that could only be on The X-Files, the Scully that Mulder kissed was from an alternate timeline, whom he met on a ship that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in 1939.

Too Disturbing for Reruns

While every X-Phile has their own favorite episode, there's one that didn't go over so well with the general public. The episode "Home," about a violent family of inbred mutants, featured such horrifying moments as a newborn baby getting buried alive, the brutal bludgeoning of a sheriff and his wife, a decapitation, and an image burned into most X-Philes' memories: a deformed, limbless woman, who has been stratpped to a rolling cart and is kept under the bed. After the show aired, Fox received numerous complaints from concerned parents that such a disturbing episode appeared on network TV during primetime. The network apologized and banned the episode from future reruns on Fox, though it has been seen in syndication and on DVD.

X-Philes

The official X-Files website was launched on June 12, 1995. Before then, the online service Delphi was the official internet home of the show, attracting around 25,000 X-Philes every month. Many fans on Delphi were women, who formed an online club called The David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade. Not to be outdone, male fans formed The Gillian Anderson Testosterone Brigade, though their numbers paled in comparison.

The Soundtrack

Almost all of the music for The X-Files, including the iconic theme song, was composed and performed by Mark Snow. The music was extremely popular with fans, especially in Europe, who helped push the 1996 CD single to the #2 spot on the UK Charts and to #1 in France. Just this year, Snow released a limited edition, 4-CD box set of some of the musical score highlights.

On the Big Screen

There have been two feature films – 1998's X-Files: Fight the Future and 2008's X-Files: I Want to Believe. Fight the Future was a hit, making nearly $190 million at the worldwide box office, while I Want to Believe only made about $70 million. There has been talk of a third film in the series, but nothing solid has been announced.

Okay, X-Philes: What was your favorite episode? Is there a moment that still keeps you up at night? Is there a fun fact you'd like to add to the list? Tell us all about it in the comments below!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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