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When magazine covers go steamy, from The X-Files to Outlander

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May 22, 2019, 1:01 PM EDT

The first time Mulder and Scully hooked up, it wasn’t in an episode of The X-Files. Instead, Rolling Stone magazine has the honor of depicting the first time they fell into bed together.

Picture it: 1996. The X-Files is one of the buzziest TV shows on air and the third season is almost over. Part of the appeal was the mix of monster-of-the-week stories and episodes devoted to the overarching alien conspiracy, which combined horror elements with a paranoid thriller. It was a show that could be scary, thoughtful, and even hilarious at times, but rarely was it romantic. The other decisive factor was the central relationship, which crackled with the kind of intensity that can't be manufactured.

Romance was never on showrunner Chris Carter’s agenda, but there was no denying the burning chemistry between the leads. This 1996 profile gave viewers the fantasy some had been craving without having to commit to this storyline. Mulder and Scully’s “profoundly sexy yet chaste partnership” was preserved, but they could also frolic naked in bed on the cover of one of the biggest magazines in the U.S.

A couple of months prior, Anderson appeared on the cover of British FHM and caused a stir. While her pose and lack of clothes were pretty typical for a men’s magazine, it was a first for the actress. When these issues hit newsstands, I was a 13-year-old Mulder and Scully shipper so this was an eye-opening and formative experience. Part of it was naivety, as I was so used to seeing Anderson in Scully's signature FBI baggy pantsuit rather than as an object of lust in matching black underwear. The photo suggesting Mulder and Scully had banged was definitely part of my sexual awakening.

In the world of print media, as they say, sex sells. Titillation not only boosts sales but amps up interest in the show being covered. If it means leaning into a vision that can’t be shown on screen, even better. In the profile accompanying the steamy photos, Carter is quick to point out, “That’s David and Gillian in bed, not Mulder and Scully.” This acted as a warning to fans to not get their hopes up. For starters, Anderson’s hair is curly to differentiate from her Dana Scully style. The cigarette also appears out of character (although Scully first smoked on screen in the Season 3 episode “Syzergy,” which aired prior to this cover).

This is also the interview in which Carter said he was “adamant about not putting them in a romantic situation,” while also admitting to lurking in chat rooms:

“Do chat types want romance between Mulder and Scully? They do and they don’t. They want elements of it without them jumping into the sack. There are these 'relationshipers' [sic] who kind of dominate the online chats. I’m a little dismayed because I don’t want to do a show about fuzzy warm Mulder and Scully. Never.”

Welcome to the birth of the now ubiquitous word “shipping,” and I’m amazed he thinks people didn’t want them to bang — or that them getting together would’ve made the show “fuzzy warm.” Enter Rolling Stone, who not only gave fans a shot of Mulder and Scully in bed but made sure it was nothing like that cutesy description.

Rolling Stone has a history of “sexy” magazine covers with plenty of naked or nearly naked photo shoots — the wet white tank or T-shirt is a popular choice. Again, sex sells. The X-Files didn’t feature a lot of onscreen hooking up, which is why that cover caused such a stir. However, just because a TV show has a lot of nudity, it doesn't mean the reaction will be any less controversial when the cast appears naked on the cover — particularly when you throw buckets of blood on them. 

Vampires are inherently sexual and True Blood very much adhered to that trope, so when stars Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, and Alexander Skarsgård posed for the September 2010 cover, things went from PG-13 to HBO levels of blood and skin. In an interview with Conan O'Brien, Moyer explained that photographer Matthew Rolston was shooting his 100th cover for the magazine, so he wanted to do something a bit different. 

For anyone who watched or was even aware of True Blood, this image was in line with the lengths the show went to, but the graphic nature caused the kind of outrage that helps sell issues and promote the product in question. It was a print media and TV show win/win.

Whereas the Mulder/Scully cover featured a couple who hadn't even kissed in bed together, this depiction of True Blood was all about the love triangle (two of whom had slept together in the very first episode). In this image, Team Bill and Team Eric fans both got their dude with Sookie. Team "let them all bang" also got a win.

A couple of years later, Entertainment Weekly also did the vampire threesome shot, but with a lot less blood. Conflicted romance is as vital to vampire stories as sucking blood, and The Vampire Diaries had its fair share of both with Elena at the heart of this love triangle.

One Entertainment Weekly staple is the multi-cover issues, which allows fans to pick their favorite — and helps sell more magazines. Nina Dobrev as Elena appeared on all three covers, one with each brother separately and another with all three of them together. The latter depicted Dobrev looking at the reader while Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley showered her with affection. The threeway shot is somewhat problematic on the fantasy angle given that Stefan and Damon are brothers, walking the line between whether these were the characters being portrayed or simply the actors. While Anderson was the one showing underboob on the cover of Rolling Stonethe nudity on display here is from Somerhalder. The red satin sheet is low enough to reveal buttcrack and hip bone. Delana and Stelana fans are both given the cover of their dreams. So even if their ship sinks in the actual narrative, these photos are forever — even if it is a giant tease. 

Entertainment Weekly covers aren’t normally as provocative Rolling Stone ones, but for certain genre shows, they aren't afraid to go all in. The Vampire Diaries wasn't the only TV show to get the bedroom photoshoot treatment. Whereas Mulder and Scully in bed together was pure wish fulfillment in 1996, Jamie and Claire had already been banging their way through half a season of Outlander by the time this very intimate March 2016 cover hit newsstands. This magazine has a lot of issues dedicated to the Starz hit, which always sees the actors dressed in character. 

Often Jamie will be baring a portion of his chest (scroll through the images above) as the object of lust, but the mid-bang cover doubles down on the sexual intensity of this show. This isn’t as much of a tease for fans, as this is something they have already seen, but it does reassure them that Jamie and Claire will continue to have a lot of sex. It isn’t fulfilling a fantasy that hasn’t happened on screen; instead, it is a reminder of what has been and what is to come. It is also a good way to promote the show to new viewers with images of the very hot cast in this position.

One show that surprisingly hasn’t received the sexy cover treatment is Game of Thrones, as this is another HBO featuring as many boobs as blood. Instead, these images are as chaste as they can be. It is the reverse of the Mulder and Scully situation. Maybe we have moved on from the images that dominated the ‘90s — I looked at the first 1000 covers of Rolling Stone while researching this, and the ‘90s and ‘00s definitely had the most nudity — but the True BloodVampire Diaries and Outlander images would suggest otherwise.

In fact, this shot of Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke from a 2012 Rolling Stone shoot is probably the most thirsty of the Game of Thrones cast together — while also foreshadowing what was to come.

The line between teasing fan fantasies and promoting a TV show is narrow. These extra-textual materials are not canon but can fuel shipper feelings and even test out how viewers feel about certain characters or storylines. Chris Carter was adamant that Mulder and Scully would never get together, but even that shifted over time. Now, they are no longer doing thirst-inducing bedroom shoots but delivering goofy and playful photos instead.

As in IRL relationships, keeping things fresh and interesting is vital. What was once exciting and daring for a pop culture cover is now tired and expected. Sex still sells, but fantasies extend beyond the bedroom.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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