Before an internet connection allowed us access to everything we ever wanted to know, there was The X-Files. The stories it shared with us each week made us feel like we too were in deep on the clandestine secrets Fox Mulder (the believer) and Dana Scully (the sceptic) would mutter about in dank sewers, next to dimly lit autopsy tables and in FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner’s chintzy waiting room. It made us feel like we were part of a club, albeit one that was growing each week.
In a world where Bigfoot, or at least some rednecks in hired gorilla suits mucking about, didn’t live on YouTube, where aliens weren’t discussed weekly on Limetown (the best science fiction podcast in the galaxy, by the way) or where Twitter wasn’t monopolised by actual conspiracy theorists way crazier than anyone we ever met in eleven series, two movies and twenty-five years of The X-Files, the show was our gateway to the weird. The X-Files was a hit because it entered a world that wanted to believe.
Down the Wormhole
Of course, The show didn’t occur by immaculate conception (a little nod to Season 11 premiere “My Struggle III” for you there). You can feel the influence of director Don Siegel’s paranoid 1956 recreation of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers woven throughout. There is, of course, the influence of The Twilight Zone, though what genre fiction hasn’t been influenced by Rod Serling’s classic anthology series? Ditto Twin Peaks. And then there’s the short-lived sixties ABC show The Invaders, NBC’s Project U.F.O., even The Avengers (not that one), whose pairing of Patrick Macnee as John Steed and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, created a mould for David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson to step into.
But The X-Files went down the wormhole like no show had done prior, and yet, none of this would have mattered beyond, say, week five, if it hadn’t also been excellent drama. You cared about Fox and Dana. You were often infuriated by Fox and Dana. In all truth, you probably fancied Fox and Dana. And while the will-they-won’t-they telly trope is one of the most dusty and dry-throated around, this wasn’t as simple as just wanting to see two people do the dirty. After all that time and investment in them, watching them help each other grow, after knowing the pain they’d both endured, you just really wanted them both to be happy — and, in part, the solution for each of them seemed right in front of their noses.
Talent Breeding Ground
The X-Files proved to be a sort of finishing school for some of the episodic drama’s most promising talents. As well as creator and showrunner Chris Carter (though, in truth, he never wrote an X-Files episode in the same league as Millennium, his brilliant three season doomsday drama that aired on FOX between 1996 and 1999) it provided a showcase for Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) as well as Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa (Homeland). And shout out to Frank Spotnitz, who wrote an astonishing 48 of the show’s 218 episodes. He’s the guy responsible for adapting the highly underrated The Man In The High Castle.
The X-Files paved the way for all genre television that followed. Firstly by treating horror and sci-fi with respect and high production values, being on the cusp of the binge viewing habits that now define the way many of us watch television. There’s very little that is camp about The X-Files. Little that is folly. It’s smart enough to know that the people they’re making this stuff for don’t think it’s silly, even when it is. Think about the show’s greatest contribution to its Monster Of The Week concept, which in the early years, alternated, normally week to week, with the overarching alien-centric conspiracy that ran for the duration of the show’s run.
Eugene Victor Tooms might have only featured in two episodes — although he debuted early, appearing in Season 1’s first episode, “Squeeze”, then returning late in the same season in his self-titled episode, “Toombs”, directed by one David Nutter, who would later win an Emmy for his work on Game Of Thrones — but he’s an original creation arguably now as iconic as any of the creatures with centuries of folklore behind them that the series often explored. Essentially an immortal man-slug, for a certain segment of the X-Files fanbase, Tooms is The X-Files distilled into one (well, two) episode(s). Frightening, surprising and really, really funny. Mulder’s attempt to distract Tooms with his quip about his Norwegian Elkhound, Heinrick, still zings. Mulder and Scully talking about iced tea and flirting epitomises how lovely it was to watch their pairing.
Mulder was funny. Mulder was cool. But crucially, within a medium where so often the male lead is the star, The X-Files wasn’t Mulder’s show. Fox shared that spotlight with Dana Scully – more human, more complicated, can’t find a suit that fits her – a character with genuine cultural clout that Duchovny’s can’t hold a candle to. It’s long believed that the depiction of the character has resulted in a surge of young women entering the fields of medicine and science, inspired by Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of the FBI Special Agent.
Anne Simon, a biology professor who worked as a science advisor on the series, has been quoted as saying; “I asked my Intro Bio class back then how many of them were influenced by the character of Scully on The X-Files to go into science and half of the hands in the room went up. That’s huge!” It’s also proof of representation being important.
Earlier this year, Anderson said she was hanging up Scully’s oversized suits for good, accepting that the truth may just have to stay out there, and it’s hard to argue with that decision. Every mutant alien dog has its day. Neither Duchovny or herself need the show anymore. And maybe we don’t either, such is the wealth of genre TV available to all of us now.
But for a while there, The X-Files was everything we had. And it was more than enough. It was wonderful.