I think The X-Files is very nineties, because everything is left in doubt. There’s no closure, no answers. … Obviously it’s tapping in to something the nation wants. I think it has to do with religious stirrings—a sort of New Age yearning for an alternate reality and the search for some kind of extrasensory god. Couple that with a cynical, jaded, dispossessed feeling of having been lied to by the government, and you’ve got a pretty powerful combination for a TV show. Either that, or the Fox network has an amazing marketing department.
– David Duchovny
It is possible to capture a moment – or the spirit of the moment – in a single frame. Sometimes a photograph perfectly captures the spirit of the moment, whether something deeply personal buried in a family album or headline picture sitting above the fold on a national newspaper. Sometimes it is possible to look at a still image and to seem so much more than is captured in the film stock or on the digital memory card. Photographs become moments captured in ember, preserved for all eternity.
Sometimes a television show can perfectly capture the spirit of its era. Miami Vice beautifully evokes the Reagan years, both in its subject matter and in its general tone of pastel disillusionment. 24 speaks to the early years of the War on Terror, with its betrayed confusion and brutal paranoia conveying some of the national mood. These are not the only examples. Other television shows overlap and extend beyond, beautifully summarising a particular moment in the cultural psyche.
The X-Files speaks to the nineties. It is not the only show that could be said to speak to the nineties as a decade. Certainly, it was not the most successful show; E.R. was a much larger commercial success while Homicide: Life on the Street has enjoyed a longer-lasting critical reputation. The Simpsons is still going, decades after the nineties came to a sudden and traumatic end. There are any number of television shows that could credibly be said to speak to the nineties as a decade, from Twin Peaks to Friends.
Still, The X-Files captures so much of the moment on film. It was a long moment, but then The X-Files was a long series. Although nowhere near as impressive as the runs of institutions like Law & Order or CSI, very few television shows can make it to nine seasons while feeling like they only barely outstayed their welcome. The nineties felt like a long pause, an awkward silence in a crowded room when the chatter dies down and everybody realises that they don’t quite recognise any of the people sharing the table with them.
Of course, even the label “the nineties” is something of a misnomer. That long pause roughly coincides with the last decade of the twentieth century, but outlasts even that. It began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the last enemy had been vanquished and a few brave souls proclaimed that civilisation stood at the end of history. It ended with the destruction of the World Trade Centre, when new enemies (or perhaps old enemies) revealed themselves to be spoiling for war. By this measure, the nineties ran from November 1989 to September 2001. Close enough.
It was “the unipolar moment”, the point at which the United States had vanquished all of its opponents and emerged as the global superpower. It was a transitory state, one that could never really last. However, it afforded an opportunity for rest and reflection. Without a clear enemy demanding a unified front, people could ask tough questions and demand hard answers. How had it come to this? What now? Where does everybody go from here? Those are not easy questions to answer.
The X-Files was very much a reflection of these contemporary anxieties. “I want to believe,” was the mantra of the show. It adorned the iconic poster hanging on the basement office, speaking to the optimism and idealism of Fox Mulder. The X-Files was the product of an increasingly cynical age, but it was always romantic. The show desperately wanted to believe in something. Love, trust, faith. The democratic process or the basic decency of other people. Aliens would do, in a pinch. Sometimes those other concepts were just as intangible.
The X-Files was rooted in seventies cynicism and paranoia, afforded two decades to ferment. Little Green Men revealed that Samantha Mulder had been abducted while she watched the Watergate hearings with her older brother. The eighteen minute gap in the Watergate tape recurs throughout the show, echoed in the nine-minute gap in The Pilot and in the two nine-minute gaps in Tempus Fugit and Max. Many of the production team came of age during that troubled era, with the nineties affording the opportunity to revisit those themes.
Those gaps in the Watergate tapes came to stand for gaps in the collective memory. The X-Files spent its first seven seasons unearthing a secret buried history, tracing a web of deceit and deception from before the founding of the United States to the present day. Episodes like Darkness Falls and Detour suggested that the European settlers were still strangers in a hostile and alien land. The Calusari implied that the European settlers had brought evil with them to this new world. The colonisation plot at the heart of the show was either history repeating or poetic justice.
The show suggested that the United States was compromised by original sin. Shapes suggested that the first X-file was tied to Native American culture. Anasazi had Mulder finding a train car full of dead bodies buried on a Native American reservation. The show was steeped in the imagery of manifest destiny, from the train car labs of Nisei and 731 through to the biological imperative to push westward in Drive. Across the show’s nine season run, the genocide and exploitation of the indigenous population came up time and time again, perhaps most succinctly in The Gift.
However, the show suggested that the sins ran much deeper than that. The modern conspiracy was not rooted in Roswell, as most conspiracy theories would suggest. The Blessing Way and Paper Clip implied that most of the country’s modern sins could be traced back to the end of the Second World War. The third season really emphasised this idea of forgotten and glossed-over history, drawing attention to how the United States space programme was larger made possible by war criminals. It was a bold suggestion on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the conflict.
This obsession with the past played as ghost stories. Piper Maru and Apocrypha suggested that ghosts were merely voices of conscience reaching out from the past, perhaps reflecting the first season’s fascination for “revenge from beyond the grave” narratives like Shadows, Lazarus, Young at Heart, Roland and Born Again. This theme might have only rippled through the central mythology, with Scully receiving a phone call from a dead relative in Christmas Carol, but it was important. Mulder finds himself literally confronted by the ghosts of his past in The Truth.
Then again, that was the luxury of the nineties. The X-Files had the comfort of examining history from a position or relative comfort. As shows like Fallen Angel and Existence argued, there was no enemy left to vanquish following the end of the Cold War. Without an opponent against which political consciousness might galvinise, there was ample time for reflection and consideration. The X-Files repeatedly suggested that the current generation were stained by the sins of the parents. This was rendered literal with Mulder.
So much of The X-Files could be read as a metaphor for a son raging against the world inherited from his father. This is apparent in the strained relationship between Fox and Bill Mulder, set up in episodes like Roland and Aubrey long before the latter character ever appeared. It also finds expression in the conflict between Mulder and the Cigarette-Smoking Man; Talitha Cumi broached the idea that the Cigarette-Smoking Man might be Mulder’s biological father, a notion confirmed six years later in William.
While it was rooted in seventies anxieties, The X-Files spoke to the nineties. Chris Carter seemed to inherently understand the decade and the zeitgeist, with the series hitting on any number of important ideas at just the right time. There are quite a few moments of uncanny parallel development to be found across the run of the show, with Carter hitting on a clever (and important) idea at just the right moment; the show speaking to audience in perfect harmony with events around them.
F. Emasculata was perfectly in step with nineties anxieties around contamination and infection; it was broadcast at around the same time that Outbreak was released, speaking to some underlying cultural mood. The List subtly touched on issues related to race and incarceration in the United States, broadcast shortly after the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial brought all of those issues back to the surface. The seventh season’s preoccupation with unreality mirrored that bubbling through pop culture in films like The Matrix, The Truman Show and Dark City.
The X-Files was a quintessentially nineties television show, speaking perfectly to the cultural consciousness. The show captured a lot of the aspirations of nineties television. Television was still a relatively young medium at that stage, still uncertain of its own identity or even its artistic sensibilities. The X-Files embraced the idea of film as the closest relative to television, with the mythology offering blockbuster thrills on a television budget for free on a weekly basis. The X-Files looked sleek and polished, cinematic and bold.
While television had traditionally been considered a writers’ medium, The X-Files embraced its directors and allowed them to make the show their own. Directors like Rob Bowman, David Nutter and Kim Manners were jut as important to the voice of the show as writers like Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan or Darin Morgan. Carter even encouraged his writers to become directors, developing something of an auteur theory of television episode production.
The X-Files attracts a lot of attention for nudging towards serialisation with the mythology, telling a long-form story over years and reinvigorating a storytelling style that had gone out with Dynasty and Dallas. This is a perfectly valid observation, but it is impossible to praise the mythology without acknowledging its shortcomings. The mythology was frequently stretched and contracted, distorted and contorted. The show’s mythology makes more sense than its critics will acknowledge, but it is not the most coherent of plots.
The show’s central conspiracy storyline was often at the mercy of external demands. The decision to release a feature film in the middle of the run seemed to stall the long-form plotting, as the production team struggled to plot their arcs ahead of time and maintain a decent sense of pacing in the fourth and fifth seasons of the show. The mythology struggled to end; Carter promised an ending in Two Fathers and One Son, but the original mythology lingered on until Requiem. It was subsequently reanimated in William just in time for The Truth.
While the show’s serialisation garners a lot of attention, it is the episodic structure that defines a lot of The X-Files. Carter encouraged his writers to take responsibility for their episodes, to find their own voice. Writers like Vince Gilligan and Darin Morgan often seemed to carve out their own niche inside the show, returning time and time again to themes of interest and fascination. The X-Files was very much a product of its time in that it allowed its writers the freedom to do this, to let the episodes stand apart and to have their own identity.
The X-Files very consciously aspired towards film. This quite clear from the closing shot of The Pilot, which is a blatant homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first season features a number of such references, with Ice offering a twist on The Thing and Beyond the Sea riffing off The Silence of the Lambs. The mythology consciously and repeatedly borrowed from Star Wars. The influence of Oliver Stone was evident everywhere, but particularly in Redux I. Carter structured The Post-Modern Prometheus as a gigantic homage to Frankenstein.
(As with any generalisation, there are exceptions. Vince Gilligan was a writer fascinated with television far more than film. Unusual Suspects made a point to draw John Munch into the world of The X-Files. Drive opened with fake news footage. X-Cops crossed the show over with Cops. Sunshine Days used a script built around The Brady Bunch to comment upon The X-Files as a television show. Gilligan even cites television as an influence on the stories of Bad Blood or Drive.)
This interest with television-as-cinema spoke to the nineties. The nineties were arguably the last decade when television was truly a mass entertainment system, before the audience began to fragment and before viewing options exploded. The X-Files arrived on Fox when Fox was an upstart network aspiring to become the fourth network. In its final seasons, The X-Files felt increasingly outdated as HBO really sold the idea that television shows could have other aspirations beyond emulating film. Television moved on, and The X-Files was left behind.
In the end, it seemed like The X-Files lived well past its prime. The second, third, fourth and fifth seasons were each nominated for the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy. However, the sixth season saw the show losing its slot to The Sopranos. The show would occasionally try to compete. The eighth season seemed to bring the show to the cusp of the twenty-first century, offering a season-long arc and much stronger serialisation. However, the ninth season quickly retreated into the familiar. When The X-Files ended in May 2002, the nineties came to an end once again.
It is the standalone episodes of The X-Files that have endured. Many of the show’s so-called “monster of the week” stories demonstrate the power and flexibility as television as a medium. The X-Files was responsible for producing some of the most influential writers in the history of the medium. Although The X-Files was rooted in the nineties, many of its writers went on to have long and successful careers beyond the decade. Vince Gilligan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, Howard Gordon and Frank Spotnitz all developed during their time on the show.
A large part of this was down to the freedom that these writers enjoyed to tackle themes that were important to them. Darin Morgan’s four scripts for the show – Humbug, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, War of the Coprophages and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” – serve as a series of interlocking meditations on human loneliness and longing. Vince Gilligan’s scripts for Pusher, Paper Hearts and John Doe all hint at themes that he would develop further later in his career.
Although the episodic model of television drama has largely been brushed aside in the early years of the twenty-first century, in favour of serialised storytelling and long-form arcs, The X-Files arrived at just the right time. It was neither entirely episodic nor entirely serialised. Although scripts like D.P.O. suggested that there was a wall between the stand-alone stories and the central mythology, it was clear that the show was cut from the same thematic clothe. Unusual Suspects may not have too many ties to Redux II, but it plays with the same themes.
Those themes were largely existential and philosophical. The little green men were arguably mostly allegorical in nature. As much as The X-Files was about aliens, it was also about alienation. In hoping to prove that mankind is not alone, Mulder ultimately managed to find that he was not alone. The X-Files returned time and again to the question of the real, of whether the truth so desperately sought by Mulder actually existed in any real sense. This argument was best articulated by scripts like Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or Bad Blood.
The X-Files was cynical about government authority. The show’s central mythology suggested that the government was working in collaboration with an alien species to colonise the planet. Even stand-alone episodes like Ghost in the Machine and The Pine Bluff Variant suggested that the democratic structures of government could not be trusted. Although cut from broadcast, the original closing image of The Truth would have featured one of these aliens meeting with President George W. Bush. The show could have ended on that scene.
At the same time, the cynicism of The X-Files ran much deeper than the United States government. The central mythology was just the most obvious reflection of a deep-seated disillusionment. The X-Files was a show concerned about issues of globalisation and homogeneity. Issues like cloning and the genocide of the Native Americans were suggested by stand-alones like Eve and Shapes before they were incorporated into the overarching mythology with episodes like Colony, End Game and Anasazi. Fear of suburbia rippled across the show, from Eve to Arcadia.
The X-Files feared conformity and loss of individuality. Mulder wandered through farms manned by identical clones in Herrenvolk, encountered a demon who just wanted to be normal in Terms of Endearment, discovered the brutality of conformity in Chimera. The show spoke to these anxieties in many ways; through the cloning vats of The Erlenmeyer Flask, the shape-shifting alien bounty hunter of Colony and End Game, the mind-controlling black oil of Piper Maru and Apocrypha, the faceless rebels of Patient X and The Red and the Black.
The series repeatedly worried about the loss of the unique and ethereal places in the American heartland, of the destruction of everything that made those weird hamlets distinct in favour of the creeping forces of commercialised globalisation. Darkness Falls and Detour both wondered at the dangers unlocked by encroaching civilisation. Humbug, Our Town and Roadrunners seemed to suggest that the global village was becoming too small to sustain all these oddities.
The X-Files could not have existed at any other point in the social history of the United States. The internet was becoming more and more popular, connecting people half the planet away. Mobile phones allowed people to remain in touch no matter where they might be in the world. Across the nineties, it seemed like the world was getting smaller and that there were fewer shadows to hide those monsters. The X-Files always maintained a certain degree of sympathy for those monsters who found themselves bulldozed by the more mundane forces of the market.
The first season hits upon a powerful image, as Tooms finds the lair of liver-eating monster Eugene Victor Tooms converted to a shopping mall. At the climax of the episode, Tooms finds himself shredded in the newly-installed escalator. The once-terrifying monster is crushed by the sheer mechanics of modern American capitalism. Stories like 2shy and Leonard Betts suggest that such monsters are facing a losing battle against the modern information age. Freaks and weirdos can no longer hide so easily in the age of the internet and mobile phones.
There is a rather conservative streak to The X-Files, a sense of mourning for an era that is slipping further and further into memory. It seems reasonable to question whether the eccentric spaces visited in episodes like Gender Bender ever actually existed. Home represents one of the few direct challenges to this wistful nostalgia, this sympathy for nostalgic small-town idealism. There is a tendency to romanticise and idealise the past, to fear the future. However, as worrying as these changes might be, progress can represent a net benefit.
The X-Files was a show that believed very firmly in the idea of absolute evil. The black oil was just a metaphor for corruption and decay, an insidious entity that infects and corrupts. This theme bubbled into stand-alone stories, with scripts like Irresistible and Orison meditating on the limits of human evil and the question of whether anything lay beyond. The show repeatedly presented evil as an infectious contaminant that could be passed from person to person, whether in the form of the infectious insanity in Grotesque or the thread of evil in Empedocles.
The show’s conservative streak plays out in a number of ways. There are certain points in the run of The X-Files where the show expresses it more general anxieties about globalisation in a manner that seems xenophobic. Episodes like Teliko, El Mundo Gira and Badlaa suggest that outsiders are inherently dangerous and hostile. The X-Files frequently resorts to viral metaphors when it comes to expressing existential threats; the alien life at the heart of the mythology is a sentient virus. In the context of AIDS and Ebola, these stories take on a cynical twist.
The X-Files seems to go back and forth on issues of integration and assimilation. Stories like Fresh Bones and Hell Money suggest that attempts to meddle in the affairs of distinct cultures can only end badly; that appropriation is harmful and that communities are subject to their own internal forces. Vienen seems to suggest that the only way for a culture to survive is to maintain pure, with certain Mexican tribes demonstrating an immunity to infection from the alien colonists.
The show never makes up its mind on the subject of hybridisation. Early episodes like Nisei and 731 suggest that the hybrids are monstrous crimes against nature. Later stories like Two Fathers and One Son imply that the hybrids are mankind’s only chance of survival when confronted with the power of the colonists’ “Purity.” In stories like Biogenesis, The Sixth Extinction and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, the hybridisation of human and alien is presented as a form of divinity and wisdom; a key to understanding the universe.
Later stories are more skeptical of the process of hybridisation. En Ami reveals that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is dying as a result of attempts to hybridise himself. Within suggests that Mulder’s body completely rejected the alien tissue resulting in “an undiagnosed brain illness.” Across its nine-season run, The X-Files could often seem confused or disoriented on these topics. Then again, The X-Files was a show written by a large group of people over an extended period of time. Chris Carter is the only writer to work on both the first and the last seasons.
These conservative undertones also played out in some of the gender politics. Mulder was frequently allowed to romantically (and sexually) involved himself with fellow investigators or victims. Episodes like Fire, 3, Syzygy and The End made it clear that Mulder enjoyed a healthy sex life. In contrast, Scully seemed more chaste. Scully’s romantic entanglements in episodes like Lazarus, Never Again and Milagro were inevitably with monsters. There was considerably friction behind the scenes with regards to Scully’s (lack of a) sex life.
Then again, this arguably speaks to the romance of the show. The X-Files believed in romantic love ahead of sexual love. Even when Mulder and Scully eventually hooked up, the duo were remarkably chaste. A quiet and subtle kiss in Millennium led to an entire season of speculation about whether the duo were an item. A single short teaser featuring Scully waking up in Mulder’s apartment in all things is the only suggestion that they had sex. In Trust no 1, a sinister government spy suggests they only slept together once. Even in The Truth, the duo are chaste.
The X-Files genuinely believes in an idealised form of interpersonal love that extends beyond the union of bodies. The show seems to believe that Mulder and Scully shares a bond that reaches much deeper than physical attraction, a purer form of love. There is much debate to be had about whether such an idealised love needs to exist exclusive of any real sexual love, but The X-Files feels decidedly old-fashioned in its romantic notions. For all that aforementioned cynicism, The X-Files believes in love. It wants to believe in love.
It helps that Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are so good. A lot of the success of The X-Files comes down to the chemistry between those two actors. It could legitimately be argued that the show never recovered from the semi-departure of Duchovny in Requiem and his more permanent departure in Existence. Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish did great work replacing the duo in the final season, but it seemed like The X-Files itself never got over the departure of Duchovny.
Then again, there are other factors that made the end of the show inevitable. The X-Files was undeniably a product of its time. It was a show that spoke to the nineties. As the nineties came to an end, The X-Files found itself faced with its own irrelevance an unable to cope. The series was rendered almost redundant as the twenty-first century arrived, a show out of tune with the culture around it. The audience all but evaporated between the eighth and ninth season, lost in the ether.
Then again, it feels entirely appropriate that The X-Files should die as it lived. As a quintessentially nineties television show. It is quite something to embody the spirit of a certain era. The only problem is that eras must end.
September 10, 1993 – May 13, 1994
- The Pilot
- Deep Throat
- The Jersey Devil
- Ghost in the Machine
- Fallen Angel
- Beyond the Sea
- Gender Bender
- Young at Heart
- Miracle Man
- Darkness Falls
- Born Again
- The Erlenmeyer Flask
September 16, 1994 – May 19, 1995
- Little Green Men
- The Host
- Duane Barry
- One Breath
- Red Museum
- Excelsis Dei
- Die Hand Die Verletzt
- Fresh Bones
- End Game
- Fearful Symmetry
- Død Kälm
- The Calusari
- F. Emasculata
- Soft Light
- Our Town
September 22, 1995 – May 17, 1996
- The Blessing Way
- Paper Clip
- Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
- The List
- The Walk
- War of the Coprophages
- Piper Maru
- Teso Dos Bichos
- Hell Money
- Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”
- Talitha Cumi
October 4, 1996 – May 18, 1997
- The Field Where I Died
- Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man
- Paper Hearts
- El Mundo Gira
- Leonard Betts
- Never Again
- Memento Mori
- Tempus Fugit
- Small Potatoes
- Zero Sum
November 2, 1997 – May 17, 1998
- Redux I
- Redux II
- Unusual Suspects
- The Post-Modern Prometheus
- Christmas Carol
- Kill Switch
- Bad Blood
- Patient X
- The Red and the Black
- Mind’s Eye
- All Souls
- The Pine Bluff Variant
- Folie á Deux
- The End
June 19, 1998
November 8, 1998 – May 16, 1999
- The Beginning
- Dreamland I
- Dreamland II
- How the Ghosts Stole Christmas
- Terms of Endearment
- The Rain King
- S.R. 819
- Two Fathers
- One Son
- Agua Mala
- The Unnatural
- Three of a Kind
- Field Trip
November 7, 1999 – May 21, 2000
- The Sixth Extinction
- The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati
- The Goldberg Variation
- The Amazing Maleeni
- Signs and Wonders
- Sein und Zeit
- First Person Shooter
- En Ami
- all things
- Brand X
- Hollywood A.D.
- Fight Club
- Je Souhaite
November 5, 2000 – May 20, 2001
- Via Negativa
- The Gift
- Per Manum
- This is Not Happening
- Three Words
November 11, 2001 – May 19, 2002
- Nothing Important Happened Today I
- Nothing Important Happened Today II
- Lord of the Flies
- Trust no 1
- John Doe
- Audrey Pauley
- Scary Monsters
- Jump the Shark
- Sunshine Days
- The Truth
July 25, 2008
January 24, 2016 – February 22, 2016
- My Struggle I
- Founder’s Mutation
- Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster
- Home Again
- My Struggle II
These reviews draw from a wide range of sources and inspirations. The individual reviews cite any print sources and link directly to any on-line sources. However, it is important to single out a few invaluable resources who have informed and shaped this project, providing valuable insight and even offering material that directly informed the reviews.
- Eat the Corn; a fantastic (and invaluable) repository of information about The X-Files. It includes in-depth analysis and discussion, but also the most comprehensive interview archive on the internet, which was of vital importance when trying to determine authorial intent and behind-the-scenes information. Highly recommended.
- the writings of Paul A. Cantor; Cantor is one of the most comprehensive academic scholars when it comes to analysing the importance of The X-Files as an artifact of nineties America. In particular, his books Gilligan Unbound and The Invisible Hand in popular culture helped to provide various jumping-off points for discussion.
- those cultural critics who came before me; The X-Files is one of the most iconic and influential television shows of the nineties. It inspired an entire generation of pundits and critics. A lot of these reviews are informed by those who wrote about the show before, with particular emphasis on:
- Kumail Nanjiani and The X-Files Files; for occasionally mentioning these reviews and driving a bit of traffic towards them. Also for helping to reinvigorate critical discussion of the show around its twentieth anniversary and heading into the revival. And for being amusing and generally insightful.
- the countless authors of various clever thinkpieces and articles about the history and legacy of the show; many of whom I have tried to cite in the reviews, and a few of whom I have probably subconsciously stolen from. With particular emphasis on:
- John Kenneth Muir – one of the finest horror critics on-line, who has written quite a bit on the work of Chris Carter; notably one of the few mainstream critics to really delve into the show’s place in Carter’s oeuvre.
- Stefan Petrucha – the author of the first sixteen issues of Topps’ monthly X-Files comic book (and annual, and two digests); very willing to candidly answer any queries I had about the book and to offer his own insight into the publication history.
- Glen Morgan – always willing to answer inane questions about his work on the show in a good-natured and patient manner. Also, not a shabby writer in his own right.
- the cast and crew of The X-Files – whose work inspired this project, and who contributed to one of the most compelling and intriguing television dramas of the nineties.
- those who have engaged with me on twitter – although it is hard to trace specific insight to specific twitter conversations by the nature of the medium, a lot of these reviews is shaped by the thoughtful conversations and exchanges that I have had with people on-line. Those people are too numerous to list (and I’d fear I’d forget some), but if you’re reading this, thank you.