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TV Waffle - The X-Files (1993-2002)

On its twentieth anniversary, a look back at the sci-fi phenomenon.

'The X-Files' is now twenty years old, its place in the firmament of classic American TV Science Fiction shows assured. It is up there with 'Star Trek' and 'The Twilight Zone' as instantly recognizable to a mainstream audience. Satirized in 'The Simpsons', with its theme song reaching Number Two in the British music charts, it's a show that was birthed alongside the internet revolution to be picked apart, analysed, and scrutinized ad infinitum by its core of obsessed devotees. It also did what most shows of its ilk failed to do, which was to garner a general audience. With a new Blu-Ray box set of Chris Carter's show on the horizon, how does it now fare against the more knowing and slickly produced shows coming from HBO, Showtime and the JJ Abrams factory?
Looking back on the first season, it is amazing how tonally different the pilot is from the show we now hold dear. It has a breezy lightweight quality. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is an insouciant, sarcastic and glib character and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is a one note character, there to ground the storyline in reality and allow the audience to enjoy the silliness as if the creators are implying they too know it's not to be taken seriously. The first season is hugely derivative, its "monster of the week" episodes riffing on films as diverse as 'The Thing', 'Predator', 'The Omen', 'Scanners' et al, with a hint of seventies paranoid conspiracy thriller just below the surface. It's only towards the end of the season that the overarching narrative structure of the show is fixed; the Alien conspiracy and the disappearance of Mulder's sister.
Like most networks shows of this era, 'The X-Files' had to balance the need for audience jumping-on-points and stand-alone episodes alongside the overarching narrative structure and character development that would appeal to the existing fan-base. One of the great triumphs of the show is how it maintained this delicate balance between the deadly serious Alien conspiracy and the more jokey stand-alone and monster efforts. This did become more problematic as the show progressed when major changes to Mulder And Scully's lives are put on hold. In one episode, Scully is dying of cancer, while in the next episode we are dealing with a camp Frankenstein monster with a Cher fixation.
Looking at the show with a decade's distance, the pacing of episodes is one of the most interesting aspects. It's not afraid to be slow and talky. At times it takes itself with the utmost seriousness. Even when dealing with God, there is an Alien hokeyness. It's lugubrious, desolate feel can sometimes be wearying when watched in bulk, a tone that became even more heavy handed and stifling in Chris Carter's other show, 'Millennium', leading to the alienation of its audience and eventual cancellation.
The success of 'The X-Files' lead to better production values as seasons went on and allowed the narrative to develop in a confident and complex way. Success in some ways for 'The X-Files' turned into its own worst enemy. A movie released after the fifth season asked more questions than it answered and the mythology was spinning out of control. Unlike a novel or a film, network TV shows don't end if they are a success, they just go on until viewer fatigue sets in and ratings drop, either grinding to a halt mid season or finishing in a desultory, half thought out, nonsensical manner.
Looking at the show as a whole, it is easy to see that the show was spinning plates by half-way through Season Six. By then the Alien Invasion thread has been pretty much wrapped up and by Season Seven there is even a resolution of sorts regarding Mulder's sister. With contract negotiations with the leads, and the uncertainty of continuing, they worked hard to give the show a sense of closure. Seasons Eight and Nine that followed seem like an act not wanting to get off the stage, one encore too many until the audience are booing them off the stage.
With everything wrapped up, the creators then had to pick at the threads and unravel a new conspiracy similar to previous events, even interconnected in some overly convoluted way. With new characters introduced to make way for the absence of main characters, this didn't feel like a new beginning or natural progression for a show, more a screensaver to keep you viewing while contract negotiations went on behind the scenes. Even the Eigth season manages to find closure and a grace note to end on. This is then scuppered by a Ninth and final season that again has to dredge up another conspiracy with pale facsimiles of the original until it reaches a finale that pleases no one and leaves more unanswered questions than existed in its initial endpoints. Questions are still left hanging even after a second movie, which no one wanted to believe existed once viewed.
With the creative control that would be available on a cable network, it would be interesting to see how 'The X-Files' would have played on modern TV. Would carefully choreographed 12 episode seasons have allowed for rigorous quality control? Or is the ramshackle, some good, some execrable, stand-alone and mythology episodes, part of its overriding charm?
What has changed most profoundly now is the way in which we watch television, the weekly segments of shows parceled out to us no longer the only way to watch our favorite programs. Downloads and box sets have allowed us to binge on whole seasons of a show in one blissful couch-bound weekend. It's allowed shows to explore, with confidence, one main story over a whole season, knowing that viewers can handle complex narratives spread over many hours and viewed in different ways. The DVD box set in many ways works against 'The X-Files'. Watching an episode once a week means that the stand-alone episodes have a chance to breath. The whip-pan change of pace and tone seem less disorientating with the distance. It also means that the various gossamer thin strands of the conspiracy are more easily overlooked, and extraneous information conveniently dropped or forgotten, rather than picked over relentlessly to the point of abstraction.
It is arguable that the mythology is a smokescreen to the true narrative drive of 'The X-Files' -  the love story of the mind between Mulder and Scully that slowly develops over the seasons and culminates in the apotheosis of the Season Eight finale. Together, with child, love is unsaid but implicitly fades out. Possibly the reason that Season Nine is so reviled is that essentially Mulder does a runner and Scully turns into a shrill single mother trying to find her man like some Science Fiction Jerry Springer hybrid.
Despite its flaws, 'The X-Files' more than deserves its ranking as one of the most successful and influential shows of its generation. It changed the way network TV treated Science Fiction, allowing the quirky and unusual to be shown before the internet gave geek culture a voice that eventually dominated media culture. Simply, without 'The X-Files' there is no 'Lost', no 'Fringe', no 'Supernatural'. Its influence is wide, it allowed complex interesting characters to develop and pushed the boundaries that others now seek to fill. When it was at its best it expanded the possibilities of what could be seen on TV and, even when it was bad, it still happily whiled away 40 minutes. Except for the 'Fight Club' episode. That was bad, oh so bad.

Jason Abbey