The X-Files, like much cult TV, started off as a fairly modest effort from an outside writer (Chris Carter, who up to then had spent much of his writing career doing surfing magazine work). It assumed cult status fairly rapidly until in the late Nineties every new season seemed to be lauded on the cover of TV magazines, and the two protagonists Mulder and Scully were even written into popular song (by Catatonia). Nearly as meteorically, it began plunging in the ratings and was killed off as a TV series with almost indecent haste in 2002/2003.
Unlike some other cult TV, notably the evergreen "Prisoner" series, the basic premise of the X-Files was at least fairly straightforward. Fox Mulder was a young FBI agent, formerly involved with profiling serial killers, who had strange theories and ideas about the paranormal, earning him both the nickname "Spooky" and a place in a newly-created job to deal with unsolved FBI crimes - so-called "X" files which lacked any obvious solution. We later learn that as a young boy Mulder had seen his sister apparently abducted by aliens. He was joined by Dana Scully, an orthodox doctor and FBI agent with a rigorous scientific training and a Catholic religious background. In fact Scully's initial and unspoken assignment was to debunk Mulder's theories and work, but she found herself instead involved in cases where Mulder's ideas or suggestions no longer seemed as outlandish as they had in the office.
From the early episodes onwards there were two streams of continuity in the programme. One was the fresh story each week of a mystery (often gruesome murder) that had conventional detectives baffled but to which Mulder could bring some fragment of mythological lore, religious belief or previous unexplained and similar history to bear. The other was the ongoing and burgeoning conspiracy by parts of the "establishment" to conceal the truth, although the nature of the truth seemed rather shadowy at first but appeared to involve extra-terrestrials. Mulder and Scully's superiors appeared to be obstructive, but gradually it became clear that something more sinister was behind them, embodied partly in the Machiavellian figure of The Smoking Man, who in the early days often appeared as an onlooker with few if any lines but who obviously wielded very great power.
For some years it appeared that the X-Files could do no wrong. It certainly attracted an audience beyond the normal size of those attracted to paranormal or supernatural stories and held prime-time TV slots for several seasons. Part of this was due to the fairly high standard of the scriptwriting and stories, and also the unspoken sexual chemistry between "the believer" Fox Mulder and "the sceptic" Dana Scully. The writers certainly knew what they were doing in holding the pair back from an overt relationship until the last two seasons. Also, the show attracted a fairly high standard of acting, interestingly enough reinstating some actors who had either been quiet in recent years (Steve Railsback, Martin Landau) or who had dropped from the public view (Veronica Cartwright, who starred in the first Alien movie and the Donald Sutherland remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers). Duchovny and Scully were also an excellent pairing: Duchovny had played a few low-key roles before, while this was Anderson's first major break.
What probably marked the shift in the show's fortunes was in fact Duchovny's decision to jump ship. Despite his cult status it seems he feared being typecast for the rest of his thespian career, although his portrayal of Mulder never seemed tired. With one half of the star casting leaving, Carter and the other writers decided to carry on and explain Mulder's disappearance in terms of an abduction, although Mulder was to return for later episodes, including the climax. In a bid to fill the gap they brought in first of all Robert Patrick (best remembered previously as the T-1000 in Terminator 2) as Agent Doggett, an ex-Marine and ex-policeman who brought a healthy scepticism and orthodoxy to the X-Files team. He was joined by Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), a slightly wide-eyed agent in the "I want to believe" mould whose prior experience had been investigating satanic cult abuse and who was interested in such esoteric affairs as numerology. On paper of course this looked very much like a rerun of the Mulder/Scully pairing, although Scully was still on the scene, albeit less in seasons eight and nine as Gillian Anderson had decided to also reduce her commitment to the show. In fact Doggett and Reyes came across as a warmer pair of partners in comparison with Mulder and Scully, and a certain amount of romance was allowed to blossom between them in the last series. There was some indignation on fan sites, in fact, when Doggett and Reyes appeared (to some at least) to be somewhat sidelined in the final episode.
By season nine the show was falling in the ratings, although not as catastrophically as some shows of formerly cult status have done. It seems Carter was faced with the choice of either carrying on with Doggett and Reyes, and any newcomers subsequently, with possibly a film or two to accompany the series, or else bringing the show to an end with a bang rather than a whimper. He chose the latter, the wisdom of which choice will no doubt be debated for months to come. Ironically, some found the final two-hour ending not as climactic as they had hoped, although it did make a valiant effort to clear up strands and loose ends from the entire series.
No discussion of the X-Files would be complete without looking at the representation of evil, or at least law-breaking, from both without and within the FBI. The "monsters" of the series are fairly easy to examine, and spanned both the high and low points of the series. Some were modernised versions of old mythology, such as the werewolf or vampire legends, while others drew heavily on evolutionary theory and in particular the idea of "punctuated equilibria", for example the turbellarian flatworm that developed humanoid features, or the man that could regenerate himself, including a whole copy of his body. Unfortunately (at least from this website's point of view!) the one later story that featured a reptilian metamorphosis was unsatisfactory: the scriptwriters seemed unaware that the salamander is an amphibian, not a reptile, and nor is it venomous in the way envisioned in the programme (this was also during the awkward stage when Mulder was being phased out and Doggett brought in). One monster, the liver-eating serial killer Eugene Toombs, was brought back for a second episode. The psychology of evil was also examined, as for example the Catholic man who could not face up to the idea he was a sinner and therefore became literally a different person at times when he was driven to kill. In fact religion was discussed openly and without prejudice in the X-Files, being treated more sympathetically than in some TV shows. For example, Scully often discussed matters of difficulty with her priest from home, while in an episode involving a fairly hardcore snake-handling preacher, the real villain was shown to be the liberal minister (depicted at the end of the episode as pulling a mouse out of a drawer and eating it, snake-like).
Unfortunately religion was also drawn into the ever-present "alien conspiracy" part of the X-Files, which started off as one of its selling points but which by the end of the series had become more of a liability. At first the premise seemed quite exciting: certain parts of the government were in contact with alien visitors but were concealing the truth from the public. This involved storylines about vaccines, abductions and experiments, including the insertion of alien embryos into unwitting human mothers, and often seemed to involve Mulder and Scully visiting out of the way places in the dead of night to look at people's medical records. Gradually the story emerged that the aliens wished to colonise the planet by spreading an alien virus (the so-called "black cancer") among the human race, with only the collaborators in humanity (including "Smoking Man", "Well-Manicured Man" and others) being offered immunity. Unfortunately this idea tottered and then ran out of impetus, especially when during the film and in later episodes most if not all of the conspirators were killed off violently. (The idea was not helped either with the suddenly recurring motif of scriptural writings turning up on spaceships, an idea so worthy of that seventies writer Erich von Daniken that I cringed as soon as this was announced). By season nine we had instead a rather confusing storyline about super-soldiers, with Doggett's old buddy turned nemesis Noel Rohr getting apparently killed off and coming back every other episode. William B Davis, as the Cigarette Smoking Man and Mulder's real genetic father, was rather missed by now, but returned to the final episode for an apocalyptic judgement day in New Mexico.
Of other recurring characters in the series, some were partners, some villains and some both. Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) gave sterling support as the initially hard-faced yet not unsympathetic superior of Mulder and Scully who later came to share their views. Perhaps the most affectionately-held partners were the unofficial ones known as "The Lone Gunmen", a misfit trio of conspiracy theorists (Langley, Byers and Frohicke, played by Dean Haglund, Tom Braidwood and Bruce Harwood) who aided Mulder and Scully and later Doggett and Reyes by such duties as hacking into computer systems or producing nuggets from long-buried UFO stories. The Lone Gunmen in fact were the only X-Files characters to get their own spin-off TV series, which however to the best of my knowledge never materialised on terrestrial TV in the UK. Nicholas Lea was also good as the renegade and mercenary Alex Krycek, originally an FBI partner to Mulder and later a loose cannon who nevertheless seemed to have a strange affection or at least respect for Duchovny's character. Jeffrey Spender (Chris Owen), Mulder's half brother via the Smoking Man, had a certain pivotal role in some episodes. Brad Follmer (Carey Elwes) was effective as the rather slimy FBI apparatchik and Monica Reyes' former lover but only appeared in season nine and did not have enough time to make a great impact. Mention must also be made of Deputy Director Kersh (James Pickering Jr), a shadowy character who persistently blocked moves by the X-Files protagonists to discover the truth. Adam Baldwin was also effective as the remorseless and steely-eyed Noel Rohr.
The X-Files could on occasion field some impressive and quirkily-cast guests, including Bert Reynolds as a mysterious gambler in "Improbable" in Season 9, or Martin Landau (formerly of cult TV series Mission Impossible and Space 1999) as a hack writer cum conspirator in Fight The Future, the X-Files film. Lucy Lawless also continued her swim into more mainstream work than Xena: Warrior Princess in a two-part appearance as a super-soldier.
So what of the future, and could the X-Files have continued? Some of the later episodes appeared to retread older ground, a fate inevitable in the television format where even the most inspired ideas can become stale over a period of time. Having said that, there were some imaginative if bizarre moments even in the last season, such as one that featured outbursts of singing from old men on the street. Perhaps the main question is whether Doggett and Reyes could have carried the flame originally lit by Mulder and Scully, and I think the answer is yes: both Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish were beginning to really make the parts their own, and while I was initially sceptical about Patrick, he won me over after a few episodes. Ironically, what probably caused the terminal demise of the programme was the sheer weight of unresolved conspiracy theory cluttering it up, and even the final episode leaves some loose ends apparently untied.
The good news is that plans are afoot for another X-Files film in 2004, and in fact the question has been raised whether the X-Files will become a franchise for the cinema, not unlike Star Trek. I personally wouldn't expect quite that level of output, and whether the short 45-50 minute format of the normal X-Files episode would survive repeated lengthening to a cinematic size, with or without conspiracy theory, remains to be seen. However, Fight The Future was a fairly good effort, albeit as part of the long-running conspiracy, so the bets are still open.
In one sense, the X-Files was symptomatic of something far greater than itself: the shift in modern cultural beliefs and expectations. A belief in both extra-terrestrials and conspiracy theories (whether about Roswell or Iraqi oil) has become firmly engrained in popular Western culture since the nineties, along with some of the more esoteric or "New Age" ideas that were touched upon in some of the episodes. One could argue of course whether the programme was a prime mover in this or simply a reflection, but there is no doubt that such ideas were helped into the mainstream of popular thought by such a generally well-made and well-written series. But that is a subject for another essay.
Back to Cult TV page | Back to Culture Page | Back to Homepage