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X-Files, The

Entry updated 21 June 2021. Tagged: TV.


US tv series (1993-2002; 2016-2018). Ten Thirteen Productions in association with 20th Century Television. Created by Chris Carter. Producers include Carter, Kim Manners, Frank Spotnitz, and Rob Bowman. Directors include Carter, Manners, Bowman, and David Nutter. Writers include Carter, Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, Glen Morgan, Darin Morgan, Howard Gordon, and James Wong. Cast includes David Duchovny as Agent Fox Mulder (seasons 1-7, 10-11), Gillian Anderson as Agent Dana Scully, Mitch Pileggi as Assistant Director Walter Skinner (season 9-11), Robert Patrick as Agent John Doggett (seasons 8-9), and Annabeth Gish as Agent Monica Reyes (season 9). 218 one-hour episodes.

One of the first genre series to gain widespread mainstream acceptance and critical acclaim, The X-Files presented a compelling alternative to the Star Trek paradigm, and presaged the dominance of present-set, mimetic science fiction television. Inspired by Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975), to which creator Carter was devoted as a child, the title refers to an FBI department devoted to strange, inexplicable and apparently paranormal cases (Kolchak star McGavin makes guest appearances as the department's founder). It is the tiny fiefdom of the eccentric, sardonic Fox Mulder, joined in the series pilot by Dana Scully (see Frank Scully), a cool, logical, sceptical Scientist and pathologist who is assigned to debunk his work but ends up sharing it.

The phenomena investigated cover the full gamut of tabloid weirdness and Urban Legend in the area of "the unexplained", ranging from abductions of humans by Aliens in UFOs – a recurrent theme, of which more below – through tales of Telepathy, projection of nightmares, Vampires, Werewolves, Alien lifeforms found frozen in the Arctic, unusual longevity (see Immortality), Shapeshifters, Monsters, DNA-spliced hybrids, and so on almost indefinitely. The programme owes a debt to Twin Peaks (1990-1991), a cult television success of the early 1990s and not itself sf; other genre sources, such as the film The Thing (1951), were regularly echoed; a further antecedent was Project UFO (1978-1979). Though many standalone episodes of The X-Files could best be described as belonging to the fantasy, Gothic or Horror genres, featuring stories about ghostly manifestations, Reincarnation, and demonic possession, there is often a veneer of sf rationalization (though events pass too quickly for most viewers to subject these rationalizations to real scrutiny). A common thread running through the show is Mulder's belief in UFOs and alien abductions, which he holds responsible for his sister's disappearance as a child. As the series draws on it is revealed that there is a vast government-based conspiracy – a classic focus of Paranoia – to conceal the existence of Aliens and enable their experiments on Earth, which include the creation of alien-human hybrids.

Though it was not uncommon for genre series to set their scene in the present day or revolve around police investigators, The X-Files's high production values and well-written scripts were unprecedented. Alongside its willingness to penetrate a very long way indeed into the over-the-top and the bizarre (almost to the verge of black farce), the show had a mature tone, elevated by Duchovny's and Anderson's strong performances (both were nominated for Emmys several times and Anderson won once), that was virtually unknown within genre television-making. It appealed to both genre enthusiasts and newcomers, both of whom were attracted to the combination of sophisticated writing, strong standalone stories, an intriguing overarching plot, and Duchovny and Anderson's undeniable chemistry. The X-Files was not only a success but a pop-culture phenomenon of a kind that would not recur until Lost (2004-2010), and it launched a cultural fascination with Aliens and conspiracy theories that dominated mainstream American culture for the better part of the 1990s. Imitators soon spawned, most focusing on the series's alien aspect (Surface, Threshold, Dark Skies, Roswell) though few were successful. At the height of its success, the show spun off a successful feature movie – The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998) – in which Mulder and Scully are briefly reimagined as action heroes.

As the series drew on, it became increasingly apparent that as talented as Carter and his writers were at suggesting a vast conspiracy and terrible secrets awaiting Mulder and Scully's discovery, they had no idea what these secrets were. In the early and mid-1990s, with serialized storytelling still a new format, this constituted such a profound betrayal of fans' loyalty and faith that for much of the show's fandom the realization of this fact was a bitter awakening, and few have entirely forgiven Carter for it, nor for the fact that as he spun the show into increasingly ludicrous and self-contradictory plotlines it began to lose the sharpness and immediacy that had made it so irresistible. Lost in increasingly solipsistic stories, Mulder and Scully, and their determination to discover the truth that had been their holy grail for so many years, came to seem ridiculous rather than noble. Duchovny left the series after its seventh season, and Anderson reduced her participation in it. Their parts were taken by Patrick and Gish as Agents John Doggett and Monica Reyes (who reverse Mulder and Scully's refreshing contravention of traditional gender roles; Doggett is the hard-headed sceptic while Reyes is the intuitive believer) but these failed to capture the by-then dwindling audience's attention. The show was cancelled after nine seasons without ever delivering the answers the audience had clamoured for.

Carter attempted to recapture the success of The X-Files with Millennium (1996-1999), a Horror series that tried, as The X-Files did, to tap into the zeitgeist by playing on millennial anxieties, and Harsh Realm (1999), a show about characters trapped in a Virtual Reality simulation. Neither were very successful, though Millennium ran for several seasons. Near the end of The X-Files's run Carter spun off three of the series's best-liked recurring characters into their own show, The Lone Gunmen (2001), which was swiftly cancelled. In 2008, long after the show had faded from public consciousness, a second film, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, was produced. It attempts to address fans' complaints about the show's inability to resolve the conspiracy storyline by ignoring that story's existence, instead placating viewers by revealing that Mulder and Scully are in a romantic relationship. The result is a shapeless, gloomy mess that only dishonours the vibrant characters who once captured a generation's imagination.

Another decade later, nostalgia-profiteering among television studios saw the return of many beloved classics, and Carter seized his chance once again. Two short seasons (10 and 11, 2016-2018) were commissioned, not as a reboot but a continuation of the series, with Duchovny and Anderson back in their rightful place as leads. Carter brought on a handful of original writers for support (Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad and the show's most famous alumnus, did not return); however a few passable stories could not hide the hackneyed writing in the mythology episodes, which feebly sought to hand-wave the absent alien invasion that had been scheduled for 2012.

Anderson's and Duchovny's performances in these later episodes, though competent and fond, gave the sense that they were returning only as a favour to old friends. More surprisingly, perhaps, the show seemed adrift and irrelevant in the era of Trump's America. In 1993, Fox Mulder had "wanted to believe", but his country ignored his claims of conspiracy. A quarter-century on, the United States was drowning in conspiracy theories, but the idea that its federal government could have the competence to cover up an alien invasion seemed laughable. Time had moved on, and in some ways Americans were now living in the world The X-Files had helped birth. [AN/PN/JN]

see also: Area 51.


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