25 years of The X Files reminds fans that The Truth Is Out There
PUBLISHED: 16:59 20 September 2018 | UPDATED: 16:59 20 September 2018
Television phenomenon The X Files this month celebrates its 25th anniversary. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at the enduring appeal of a show that continues to inspire its legions of fans
In September 1993, one of the longest running science fiction series on television and one of the most beloved cult series in the world made its debut. Featuring a cast of unknowns and created by a writer with virtually no track record, The X Files remains one of the great TV series of the last 25 years.
One of the great strengths of the series was its ability to mix stand alone ‘monster of the week’ or ‘weird phenomenon of the moment’ with a coherent, on-going government conspiracy storyline. This made the show unpredictable and gave writers plenty of room to be creative. Nothing was off-limits.
Inspired by the conspiracy theories surrounding the Watergate scandal as well as reports of UFO activity and classic late night TV series like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, writer-director-producer Chris Carter decided to pen a series which combined all these elements along with ideas and atmosphere he gleaned from The Twilight Zone, Prime Suspect and TV’s The Avengers with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.
Like the characters in the show, The X Files always had a sense of independence. It was created away from the glam TV hub in LA. For the first five years it was shot in Vancouver and in the wilds of British Columbia. Its northerly locations, doubling for all areas of the US, gave the show a darker, shadowy atmosphere which was very important.
For those who have not encountered the show, The X Files followed the lives of two FBI agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, who found themselves investigating strange happenings and being forced to confront or explain the unexplainable.
Mulder, played by David Duchovny, was an obsessive. Tucked away in a half forgotten office decorated with UFO posters and Big Foot sightings, he was working through the emotional pain of losing his sister while growing up. He was convinced she was taken by aliens and the more he investigated the more convinced he became that his father, a government employee, had something to do with it.
Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, is an FBI agent but also a medical doctor, she is assigned to ‘Spooky’ Mulder, as he is known, by the FBI hierarchy with the brief to either reign him in or debunk his wild theories. She is sceptical about the supernatural, and it is her voice, which forms the narrative flow of the series, but over the course of nine years, she too starts to believe.
Living and working away from home helped The X Files swiftly develop a sense of community. There was a sense of stability within the production team with Carter overseeing a writing and directing team which, during its early years, stayed remarkably constant. People like Kim Manners, Rob Bowman, Frank Spotnitz, James Wong, Vince Gilligan and RW Goodwin shaped and defined the X Files ethos.
Casting too was incredibly important. The chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson was electric. Neither were experienced television actors when Carter cast them. Duchovny was best known as the narrator in the late night TV show The Red Shoe Diaries while Gillian Anderson, a young theatre actress, had no television experience at all.
The executives at Fox Television, worried about the inexperience being gathered around this risky, unclassifiable sci-fi/detective show, wanted some insurance of success. They wanted a star in the role of Scully. According to Carter they stipulated a tall, leggy blonde.
Armed with the audition tapes, Carter stuck to his guns and cast Anderson, a short, red head. The rest is history. The one-off pilot, which set the scene for the ongoing X Files mythology storyline, was a huge success and resulted in a series commission which immediately captured the imaginations all over the world.
The X Files was something new. It played with conventions of both science fiction and TV cop shows. It also developed a strong charismatic supporting cast which included Mitch Pileggi as Walter Skinner, Mulder and Scully’s boss, the shadowy Cigarette Smoking Man, played by William B. Davis, and a group of computer nerds known as The Lone Gunmen.
These characters were all well served by some imaginative and inventive writing. Mulder and Scully’s backgrounds and families were also explored and a rich world was developed and interwoven into the on-going storylines.
Then, in 1998, just after the first film, which dovetailed neatly into the final episode of series five, everything started to unwind. The production moved out of Canada and was brought back home to the day-glo sunshine of Los Angeles.
The shadows and rural small-town locations which gave The X Files its unique visual identity was gone. It was as if the show had lost several major cast members. The arrival in Los Angeles for season six gave the show a tonal shift in the storytelling.
Instead, of the stand-alone paranormal episodes or the monster-of-week storylines which punctuated the mythology episodes, The X Files now had relationship episodes or lighthearted, not to be taken seriously, stories.
Something felt wrong, increasingly wrong as season seven got under way, and by eight and nine, online grumbling had turned into a ratings disaster as formerly loyal audiences switched off in droves. The situation was not helped by the fact David Duchovny had effectively become a guest star in his own show.
In May 2002, Chris Carter wound up all the straggling storylines in a bumper episode called The Truth and the X Files was over. Or was it?
Such was the allure of the series, such was the fan loyalty for the first five glorious years, that second feature film X Files: I Want To Believe was made in 2008 and was a huge success. Then against all odds two further limited episode series were screened in 2016 and 2018 which brought the old team both in front of and behind the camera back to together.
After a shaky start the new series proved that the old magic was still there, especially as they had learned their lesson and returned to Vancouver for location filming.
What of the future? Well, the truth is still out there, as the series logo states, but Gillian Anderson, who still enjoys a thriving stage career in London, says that enough is enough. I think she is probably right and we should enjoy the memories and hope TV will invent something else that will break the mould and inspire our imaginations.