Some of my greatest memories as a kid involve sitting cross-legged in front of the television obsessively watching The X-Files while my mother braided my hair. The show had a lot that captured my imagination. I quickly developed a crush on Fox Mulder and an appreciation for the show’s weirdness. But it was Dana Scully I truly fell in love with. I wasn’t the only one, and for good reason.
When Scully first appeared in the fall of 1993, she felt like a rarity in the television landscape. She cultivated a form of womanhood where being awkward, terribly dressed and disinterested in fashion, and the smartest person in the room were things to cherish. She wasn’t created as a sex symbol, though she became one. But it’s the other aspects of her character that became foundational. In the face of cancer, alien abductions, madmen, and monsters, Scully may have been afraid, her faith in Catholicism and science tested, but she was always brave. And above all else, her intelligence was her defining trait. She proved to be such a cultural force that she gave rise to “The Scully Effect,” inspiring young women to enter fields of science and medicine.
Scully returns this year in The X-Files’ six-episode event, to a television landscape where her presence is profoundly felt. TV since The X-Files is full of characters inspired by Scully, especially when it comes to shows that hinge on a duo — the outgoing, charismatic partner, and the more scientifically minded one — who may or may not develop a romantic relationship. Do all the characters Scully has influenced live up to her? Definitely not. Gillian Anderson’s performance and her chemistry with David Duchovny aren’t exactly elements that can be replicated. But these characters prove that Scully isn’t only the heart of The X-Files, but also the character who had the most profound influence on popular culture.
Temperance “Bones” Brennan, Bones
Temperance “Bones” Brennan and her dynamic with Seely Booth is indebted to The X-Files to the point where I’d argue I don’t think the show has added anything to pop culture. Bones embodies Scully’s skepticism to the point of being hyperrational. Her awkwardness takes the form of lacking social cues and struggling to relate to people who don’t fit her worldview. For all that Bones shares with Scully, she lacks the wit, warmth, and stellar acting that make the character so memorable.
Peggy Carter, Agent Carter
Hayley Atwell’s plucky Peggy Carter may have been born on the pages of Marvel comics in the mid-1960s, but she’s gone through quite an evolution making it to the screen. On Agent Carter, she struggles dealing with a sexist, even hostile work environment where she’s manipulated and her incredible skills are taken for granted — something Scully reckoned with to various degrees. But like Scully, it is Peggy’s unerring belief in herself, her intelligence, and her keen wit that help her survive.
Veronica Mars, Veronica Mars
Veronica Mars is often considered to be indebted to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whedon even made cameos in the last season. But there’s more than a little Scully in Veronica, too: her ability to read people, defiant bravery in the face of more powerful foes, and sarcastic humor. But most important, Veronica shares one of Scully’s most definitive traits: a desire for justice, especially for those whom others might turn away from. For Scully, that can often take the form of monster-of-the-week episodes that center on religious phenomena, which seems to be the only thing Mulder doesn’t believe in, like season five’s “All Soul,” in which Father McCue asks for her help in investigating the mysterious death of a disabled girl. For Veronica, it often takes the form of aiding the outcasts at her school, which leads to one of her greatest friendships, with Wallace. There’s also another Rob Thomas heroine that feels like Scully’s little sister …
Olivia Moore, iZombie
Maybe it’s her work as a coroner’s assistant. Maybe it is how she decides to turn being a zombie into a way to help the murdered people whose brains she eats (it’s less gruesome than it sounds) that recalls Scully. No matter; Olivia “Liv” Moore, the caring, quirky zombie heroine of iZombie, brings Scully to mind much in the way Veronica Mars does. Olivia’s quest for justice and new understanding of the weird and macabre, much like Scully’s, greatly affect her personal life to the point where her interpersonal relationships are incredibly strained.
Dr. Maura Isles, Rizzoli & Isles
If you ever watch a show that involves law-enforcement partners with a dynamic whose closeness seems borderline romantic and one is incredibly scientifically minded, you can thank The X-Files and Scully. Like Bones, Rizzoli & Isles seems to confuse spouting off facts like a walking encyclopedia for great intelligence. Dr. Maura Isles shares a lot of surface traits with Scully, but lacks her depth.
Olivia Benson, Law and Order: SVU
Premiering in 1999 (and still on air 17 seasons later), Law and Order: SVU’s Olivia Benson captures a lot of Scully’s brave spirit in how she faces sexism, dangerous criminals, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Olivia has long proven herself to be the heart of her own show, even as it grows more and more outlandish (the same of which can be said about The X-Files).
Joan Watson, Elementary
Scully can be seen in the beginning as a sort of John Watson figure from Sherlock Holmes, so it isn’t surprising that you can see parts of her in the updated version of the character Lucy Liu plays on Elementary. Watson, like Scully, proves herself to be an equal to her infamous, more dramatic partner. She’s a keen observer of human behavior, a former surgeon, whip-smart, and often struggles with the way her work as an investigator affects her interpersonal relationships. The various murders on Elementary aren’t always as dynamic as its characters, and it’s Liu’s embodiment of the character that keeps me returning.
Sydney Bristow, Alias
Difficult familial situations? Check. Intense, slow-burning relationship with partner that turns romantic? Check. Unerring desire for justice and truth? Double check. Sydney Bristow is a lot more physical than Scully. Just check out season two’s finale, which includes the most emotional, brutal fight in the show’s history. But Sydney’s ability to kick ass isn’t her defining trait — it’s her intelligence and her caring, which often get her in tricky situations.
Abbie Mills, Sleepy Hollow
If there’s a show with a weird premise, involving a partnership with tons of chemistry, you can thank The X-Files for that. The problem with Sleepy Hollow is it doesn’t respect its leading lady as much as it should, even though she’s a worthy heir to Dana Scully. Lieutenant turned FBI agent Abbie Mills gradually comes to accept her role fighting the forces of evil as a witness to the apocalypse. She’s a stabilizing force for the charismatic, occasionally foolish Ichabod Crane, and the show itself. Without Nicole Beharie’s assured performance, the show wouldn’t be worth watching.
Zoë Washburne, Firefly
Firefly at times feels far too beloved for what was actually produced. But one thing I can agree with is how great Zoë Washburne is. Zoe is a war veteran and a tough, deadly badass whose impressive skills in a fight sometimes mask her incredible heart. It’s her loyalty to her husband, Wash, and former superior officer, Malcolm Reynolds, that greatly recall Scully’s relationship with Mulder. Much like Scully, she often has to bring the outlandish ideas of the men around her down to reality. Gina Torres imbues Zoë with sharp humor, intelligence, and warmth that I think would make Scully proud.
Stella Gibson, The Fall
At first blush, Stella Gibson doesn’t share much with Dana Scully besides also being portrayed by Gillian Anderson. As the senior investigator looking into a serial killer targeting young-professional women in Belfast, Gibson proves herself to be much bolder, sexually assertive, and more of a force of nature than Scully. But it’s the way she cares about the victims that links her most to Scully. A character like Scully can cast a long shadow on an actor’s career, and Anderson has definitely proven herself to be more than just her breakout character. But in looking at Scully and Gibson side by side, we can perhaps trace Anderson’s thematic interests as an actor: women who wrestle with societal expectations, who work to right the wrongs that most turn away from, and whose intelligence is their defining trait.
Olivia Dunham, Fringe
When Fringe premiered, it was quickly written off as a pale imitation of The X-Files. And it does share some superficial similarities. Secret government division investigating all manner of the paranormal and weird? Check. Two partners whose relationship grows romantic after considerable teasing, only to be upended by the kinds of cases they investigate? Check. But Fringe is a more somber affair. Where The X-Files pretty much includes everything from aliens to vampires, Fringe’s mythology feels far more intimate, showing an interest in mad scientists and alternate universes. At the center of all of this is Agent Olivia Dunham.
Like Scully, Olivia is intelligent, rational, caring, and brave in the face of insurmountable odds. She’s perhaps the most fascinating heir to Scully. She is a colder, more reserved figure due to a rough childhood at the hands of an abusive stepfather. Like Scully, she finds herself becoming intrinsically tied to her cases when it’s revealed she was experimented on as a child, giving her astounding abilities, including being able to cross over into an alternate universe. At times, she represents why we still need Scully figures on television. She captures the heart of Scully’s character: her intelligence, bravery, excellence in her field, warmth, and heart. She also represents the greatness that can come from being inspired by Scully, but not wholly indebted to recreating the character. Television has come a long way since Scully’s heyday, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t need more characters like her who are defined not by their sex appeal, their romantic relationships, or their wardrobes, but their keen intelligence, and who affect not only the medium they’re in but the culture at large, influencing generations to come.