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The X-Files – Season 1 (Review)

Trying to appraise the first season of any show is quite different from judging any other season. While all subsequent seasons have some measure of continuity to build off, some experience to guide the cast and crew, some familiarity to play into or away from, the first season literally starts with nothing. Even when there’s a sizeable gap between the production of the pilot and the start of work on the series proper (with over a year between the filming of The Pilot and Deep Throat), there’s still a sense we’re watching the production team settle into their roles.

All of this is a round-about way of saying that the first season of The X-Files is not a great season of television, judged on its own merits. It’s certainly not the strongest season of the show, which would go from strength-to-strength over the next three years, while also having an ambitious (if not entirely successful) fifth season. The first season of The X-Files is probably the weakest of the first five years of the show, but to express it in those terms is to miss the point.

The first season does a pretty great job laying the ground rules for the franchise, and offers a pretty solid indication of the talent involved in the show, if they can figure out what they want to do. (With quite a few episodes serving as examples of what the show doesn’t want to do.)


Let’s be fair here. The first season contains – depending on your own allowance – somewhere between three and five episodes that still stand with the best the show has ever done. Indeed, you can see how these successes went on to shape the show’s approach to storytelling, as most of the stronger episodes this season were either alien episodes or episodes based around the arc and development of our lead characters.

Chris Carter’s season closer, The Erlenmeyer Flask, sets the template for the “conspiracy” episodes by tying the show’s first season cliffhanger revolve around shady government cover-ups and alien paranoia. Beyond the Sea deserves consideration when discussing the best Scully episode the show ever produced. E.B.E. and Fallen Angel make a compelling case for the popularity of the mythology arc.


Interestingly, these aren’t stand-alone tales, they are episodes that tend to tie to a larger internal continuity – even if it’s still hazy at this point. The government conspiracy doesn’t quite exist in any concrete form yet. The Cigarette-Smoking Man has had a single line. Deep Throat was our only true recurring character. However, these episodes provide a context for The X-Files. E.B.E. gives Deep Throat history. Fallen Angel puts the X-Files themselves at stake. Beyond the Sea explains Scully’s central philosophy and motivation.

The X-Files would become one of the first network television dramas to embrace serialisation, trying to balance the serialised “mytharc”, which often included character arcs for Mulder and Scully, with more conventional episodic adventures. The mytharc doesn’t quite exist yet. There’s no real sense, for example, how the cover-up in E.B.E. connects to the over-all government conspiracy, or how Fallen Angel directly relates to The Erlenmeyer Flask. The second season would tie all this together.


For now, the first season is more keenly focused on establishing mood and tone, and it does that rather well. Anybody watching the show has a pretty good idea of what the show is capable of doing after twelve episodes – aliens, paranoia, ghost stories, the supernatural and fringe science. Sure, the show would get bolder and more experimental as it went on – there’s nothing here to hint at the gleeful insanity of X-Cops or The Post-Modern Prometheus – but the first season lays some essential groundwork, even if we don’t get much more than a foundation.

This brings us to what’s probably the biggest problem with the season. Once the show has defined its own boundaries and codified what makes an episode of The X-Files, it seems to lose a bit of energy. The first half of a first season is typically devoted to establishing what the show is to be about, but the second half can seem to lack focus or energy. There are lots of reasons for this.


The most obvious is that the team was probably a exhausted from pouring all their energy into the early “make an impression” episodes. Trying to get a new show on the air, it makes sense to put the best foot forward – pushing those early episodes to the screen took a lot of effort, and the second half of the season feels rather “drained” in comparison. Howard Gordon, for example, has cited “desperation” as the largest influence on the script of Born Again.

To be fair, none of these episodes are soul-destroyingly terrible. They’re just sort of dull. I can’t imagine even the most rapid “X-Phile” gleefully revisiting Young At Heart or Lazarus or Born Again. They are competently-produced pieces of television – which is probably a major victory for a young show like this – but they lack a certain focus or creativity. The first season of The X-Files seems to repeat many of its plot beats as it tries to find a rhythm, leaving quite a few of the episodes with a decidedly “samey” vibe.


For example, the first season seems to suggest that the world is inhabited by old friends and partners of our lead characters. When a show like Ghost in the Machine or Young At Heart needs some emotional leverage, it kills off one of Mulder’s old friends. Fire adds a failed romance to Mulder’s Oxford years that feels completely pointless and superfluous. The X-Files is about our heroes traveling America, unearthing weird goings-on. The weirdest going-on seems to be how difficult it is not to trip over old colleagues and lovers.

Similarly, the show’s first season seems preoccupied with life-after-death. To be fair, this isn’t unreasonable. The question of what happens to us after we die is one of the greatest spiritual quandaries. However, it lends a certain bland familiarity to episodes involving hauntings or ghosts or reincarnation. Lazarus, Shadows, Born Again and Roland all feel like they are covering a lot of the same ground. This is especially obvious given that Roland directly followed Born Again.


In a way, this hints at the exhaustion evident in the second half of the season, with a sense that the production team were racing to get stories and scripts out the door as quickly as possible, falling back on tried-and-tested horror formulas in order to make the process a little easier than it might otherwise be. The end result often feels rather bland and rote, the result of necessity rather than creativity.

(I should also concede that the second half of the season has a few gems. Darkness Falls is pretty great, and E.B.E. and The Erlenmeyer Flask both help define the shape of what would become the series’ long running conspiracy subplot. Tooms brought back a familiar character from earlier in the season, but was at least candid about it, turning the use of a familiar element into a sequel rather than a rehash. However, there were a few episodes in this stretch that I had completely forgotten about, and some I fear I’ve already forgotten again.)


I think that – along with the re-runs of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I caught growing up – it was The X-Files that taught me to make note of the writers. I became hazily aware that American television shows (at least in the nineties) weren’t really a single entirely internally consistent story, so much as a bunch of vignettes involving the same premise and characters glimpsed through the prism of different writers’ imaginations.

I came to expect that Howard Gordon scripts would be efficient thrillers, tending to focus on Mulder’s paranoia as an entirely justifiable world view. Glenn Morgan and James Wong tended to be a bit more introspective, more sympathetic to Scully’s perspective, and more willing to question the show’s basic concepts. Later on, we’d get writers like Vince Gilligan and John Shiban and Darin Morgan, but it’s interesting to note that certain styles and trends remained clear from the first season.


The most obvious is the fact that Chris Carter is far from the strongest member of his own writing team. Carter has some great ideas, but he’s not always the best at translating them to screen. His dialogue tends to be over-written and clunky, his philosophical soul-searching excessive and distracting. He seems to struggle, at times, with the voices of the characters he created. Being the show’s guiding light, it’s creator, Carter’s teleplays can seem a little too indulgent – in need of a thorough edit to let the good ideas shine through.

(And I feel the need to stress that there are some very good ideas in Carter’s work. Darkness Falls and The Erlenmeyer Flask are both a lot stronger than most of the episodes surrounding them. Even the disappointing Fire has some interesting elements. Cecil L’ively, for example, is a very clear ancestor of Vince Gilligan’s Robert Modell – “a little man who wishes he were big.” Also, since I just typed that name, Carter needs to stop naming his own guest characters.)


At the same time, it’s easy to mistake criticism of Carter-as-writer for criticism of Carter-as-showrunner. The latter definitely has his problems – he is, after all, the creator responsible for the seventh and ninth seasons – but Carter is undoubtedly an incredible “ideas” man. The X-Files manages to zero in on nineties paranoia with an uncanny accuracy. Even when Carter’s ideas don’t work – look at failed shows like Millennium, The Lone Gunmen or Harsh Realm – the ideas are still fundamentally solid and arguably well ahead of the curve.

(The Lone Gunmen feels like it would have enjoyed greater success had it aired a decade later as a companion to The Big Bang Theory. CSI and Criminal Minds owe a massive debt to Millennium, without the ability or willingness to indulge in the latter’s occasionally brilliant surreality. Harsh Realm seems like it might have gained a bit more traction in the wake of shows like Lost.)


The first season of The X-Files is undoubtedly “of” the nineties, a product of its time, anchored in the sensibility and mood of the post-Cold War era. The AIDs scare bleeds into episodes like Ice or Gender Bender, while the moral panic over various brutal murders can be seen in the way that the show turns children into killing machines in episodes like Eve or Born Again. There’s a sense of encroaching globalisation as small-town communities seem to shrink in on themselves. The weirdos on the edge of town disappear in Gender Bender. Eugene Victor Tooms finds his home has become a shopping mall in Tooms.

There’s also a sense of a nation coming to terms with the end of the Cold War by asking probing questions about their history. Some of these questions have been lingering a while. Shapes explores the exploitation of the Native Americans, and the notion that their mythology might still run wild out there. (Albeit in a form bluntly and grossly altered to conform to European archetypes so that white Americans can relate to it.) Darkness Falls suggests that there are monsters out there older than the country they inhabit.


There’s also a preoccupation with the Second World War, the legacy of that conflict. Howard Gordon repeatedly invokes Oppenheimer – mentioning him by name in Ghost in the Machine and by naming a character “Oppenheim” in Fallen Angel. In Eve, we discover the government has been conducting eugenics experiments. In Fallen Angel, the special ops team (who parade around in black) are described as “fascists.”

In E.B.E., Deep Throat suggests that he is helping Mulder as a way of atoning for the brutal murder of an extraterrestrial, one portrayed as innocent in Deep Throat’s narrative of events. Even though Mulder’s father is absent here, the show is clear on this point: The X-Files is very interested in how the older generation – those who came of age in the post war era, with all the promise it represented – have let the current generation down.

There’s a sense of unease at the post war realities, a sense of discomfort at how far the country may have wandered from the democratic ideals that it swore to protect. The X-Files was written by and for a generation that grew up in the shadow of Watergate, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. These aren’t the kids who grew up in the after glow of the Second World War. These are the kids who see history repeating itself with Vietnam and the Gulf War.


There’s also a sense of unease at the transitional state of politics – about living in a world where the “enemy” has been vanquished. The X-Files is really a show that exists to fill the gap between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. (After 9/11, the show’s paranoia seemed almost quaint – I’d argue it contributed to some of the many problems with the show’s lackluster final year.) In Fallen Angel, a hero of the Cold War uses his skills against his own countrymen. It’s implied that the alien menace and the US government are locked in their own Cold War.

The show would become a bit more interested in the relationship between the fringe and the mainstream in the years ahead, about exploring the way that local legends and spook stories tended to eroded in the era of cell phones and globalisation. There are elements of that here – The Jersey Devil seems to hint that the world has become too large for such a local horror, and Gender Bender sees the cult on the edge of town absorbed into UFO mythology – but it’s not as strong as it would become during the show’s later years.


The first season stumbles a bit when it comes to classic monster stories. Shapes is a werewolf story with Native American trappings, and feels far too generic for its own good. Shadows is very much an archetypal ghost story, without any real twists or turns. Young at Heart seems like an homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with a scientist creating a monster that comes back to haunt us. Born Again finds a dead cop avenging himself on those who murdered him. The Jersey Devil is built around one of the most iconic of American folk myths.

These are all fairly standard monster episodes, and they all wind up feeling a little too bland, a little too familiar and safe. The first season’s strongest episodes are those that twist these conventions and play with them a bit – updating them and riffing off more modern horror stories. Ice riffs on John Carpenter’s body horror The Thing, while Beyond the Sea borrows several major cues from The Silence of the Lambs, both relatively recent.


Even among the weaker episodes, those that stand out are willing to put a twist on classic horror tropes. Similarly, Roland works a lot better as topsy-turvy crazy brain-in-a-jar mad scientist tale than it does as a standard ghost or possession story. Ghost in the Machine is far from the perfect episode, but it feels surreal enough that it stands on its own two feet. Gender Bender has a lot of issues, but it embraces the insanity of its body horror premise and dives head-first into the psycho-sexual horrors of the nineties.

These are, in effect, the stand-alone stories that work – or, at least, have the capacity to work. There’s a reason that Tooms – an original monster – is the most memorable monster from this first season. He’s a better fit for the nineties aesthetic of The X-Files than a vengeful spirit or a werewolf or a mad scientist experimenting on inmates. He feels like something quirky and unique, something far outside the horror standard – a perfect fit for The X-Files.


The first season of The X-Files isn’t the strongest season of the show. However, it’s a solid starting point. It provides a nice foundation for the years ahead, providing a taste of what was to come and allowing Carter and his writers to build on their successes to craft one of the defining television shows of the nineties.

You might be interested in our reviews of other seasons of The X-Files:

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:

6 Responses

  1. God I love your reviews!!! I have to ask, is it just me or do you also think that the X-Files are becoming a new hype? I mean, sooo many people started watching this show after watching Breaking Bad. Good for old fans though, XF3 is long overdue 😛

    • Thanks Burmesa!

      Actually, I only started watching Breaking Bad after this round of X-Files reviews, but I suspect Gilligan’s increased profile has something to do with it, as does the twentieth anniversary and the fact that – mytharc aside – a lot of people have a lot of affection for the show. My room mate hates science-fiction and horror, but he adores the show, for example.

      • So true. And I must admit, even though I haven’t watched Breaking Bad, I can’t see how it can be that good. I think most of it is just the Internet being overly attached to a show again. And yes, truly many people love the X-Files. I loved it even before I ever watched it, I would remember that when I was a kid my parents watched it and all I knew was the intro music. It would still creep me out anyway.

      • I’m watching Breaking Bad, and loving it. But so much of that is down to Cranston’s incredible central performance and Gilligan’s pitch black humour – writing skills he honed on The X-Files. Is it the best series ever? It doesn’t compare to The Wire or The Sopranos or my favourite genre shows, but I could see a convincing argument being made for it as one of the best shows of the past decade. But, as I concede, I’m less than half-way through.

  2. Great read, really insightful. X-Files has found its way in to my ever-expanding ‘to watch list’ and the thought of ploughing through that first season is not appealing, but I must!

    • Ah, you could pick highlights!

      The Pilot
      Deep Throat
      Fallen Angel
      Beyond the Sea
      Darkness Falls
      The Erlenmeyer Flask

      I’d add Ghost in the Machine and Eve and maybe Gender Bender, but I’ll admit my tastes are quirky.

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