3 out of 5
Created by: Chris Carter
covers seasons 1 – 10
The X-Files… was not a great show. There’s sincerely not a single episode from its ten (thus far) seasons that I would consider great, or even riveting. Interesting: Yes. Occasionally clever, and often featuring a slew of fun or creepy concepts, but the show popped up at the end of very “TV” era of television – meaning it walked and talked like an average show, despite its intentions otherwise – and it could never really shake that sensibility, leading us down a path of sexism, poorly defined characters, and an odd lack of world-building. Which was all a worse problem when wanting to define Scully as a valid Mulder counterpoint (that is: trying to grow her character beyond its placeholder as a doubter to his conspiracies), or when trying to intertwine the confuddled mythology with character arcs, or just the whole attempt at mythology in general. The show is a mess. It backed itself into a corner of being an oddball procedural and simply could not reformat it when creator Chris Carter and crew started piling excess plotting atop that base.
This is a fresh opinion, having watched the entirety of the series (including both movies) over the course of about a year.
But… the X-Files was also a landmark show, and wildly influential. While I think statements like “if we hadn’t had This, we would never have had That” are assuming that whatever That is wouldn’t have grown from some other source and thus hyperbole, I think it’s allowable to say that, without the X-Files, things would be different. Its implementation of a female co-lead was unwittingly poorly handled, with Scully so often put into a damsel role, or the plots reducing her facts/feelings to silly female wiles, but at the same time, the fact that it had that co-lead – and one who was almost constantly in non-cleavagey business attire (as in not outwardly sexualized), in a very un-sexual tension partnership (although possibly just due to the writers sucking at creation that tension with such dry characters), gifted with an inherent intelligence thanks to actress Gillian Anderson wielding the pseudo-science authoritatively, even if Fox Mulder would alien-poo on it down the road. Gender in media is, and will likely continue to be, a hot button issue, but X-Files was arguably another general step in the right direction.
There’s also the subject matter: Hoo-doo. And I can speak to this as a viewer at the time of original airing, enraptured by the first few seasons of the show: There just wasn’t anything exactly like that. Shows had dealt with aliens, or sci-fi, or the spooky, but not in this exact format, during primetime. (At least that’s how it felt to a young, fledgling TV viewer, and my parents seemed to agree at the time.) To have the concept grounded in a procedural legitimized it, and presented a springboard for more shows of this nature to launch, such that nowadays I’d say there’s always at least one option with some supernatural fare on during dinner time, whereas that certainly wasn’t always the case. To a lesser extent, this also applied to the show’s violence. X-Files was the first series I remember watching with a TV-MA tag on some episodes, the then-new rating system put in place. While the show wasn’t consistently a horror fest, select episodes definitely went there, with the effect of the acceptability of this presenting as early as when Millenium – a fairly gritty show also from Carter – premiered. I’m sure im stretching things, but walk this trend down the road and you get to the R-rated splatter of Walking Dead. As clarified above, we likely would have gotten there regardless, but in this version of history, X-Files was a major explorer of the possibilities.
Also along these “spot the influence” lines – and although it’s my least favorite aspect of the show – is the messy mythology. Having returning characters or plot threads is part of normal TV structure; building up some slowly unraveling mystery certainly had its predecessors as well. But there was some extra wrinkle that X-Files added to these elements: The promise of something more. The government conspiracy angle of the show was so damningly fascinating at the start because it went beyond “there are aliens!” to some shadowy, horrifying Unknown that it seemed like we were always on the cusp of knowing. And when some small understanding had been reached, suddenly there was something else – green ooze, black oil, shape shifters – that re-added complexity. In the end, it really did just turn out to be “there are aliens!,” with a lot of hand-waving inbetween, somewhat (unintentionally) humorously summarized by the post-fifth season movie (not coincidentally when I lost interest in the show…), but we didn’t know that at the time; it felt like there was a plan. Shows thereafter learned to abuse this same sense of leading, perhaps best typified by Lost, which then kicked off its own revolution of mystery-based shows, all trying to avoid that same X-Files (and Lost) problem of making it up as you go along.
So, yes: You had to be there. Some shows you can go back and get the appeal, but the X-Files is pretty hokey nowadays, and rife with narrative issues – the writing assumes stakes and relationships that are never really established; it trips over its own mythology for no good reason other than to make it more complicated than it is – but at the time… At the time it was really a fresh experience.
Later, I mentioned that the X-Files was a show about the dumping ground for unexplainable federal cases – e.g. the name of the series – and the two agents running the managing department, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, portrayed by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Fox is a brilliant analyst (so says the show), but fell from grace because of his obsession with the supernatural. His trading card background will tell you that’s because he thinks his sister was abducted by aliens when he was a kid. Dana is a skeptic, because she’s a doctor. She’s “brought in” to debunk Mulder’s theories, for something something cloudy reasons. Doesn’t matter – it’s the wacko / straight man setup, we get it, with some sketched in details. Also, she’s religious, because TV writers are clever with dichotomies. Unfortunately, the murkiness of the arrangement is compounded by the FBI always threatening to “shut down” the X-Files, to the extent that it quickly becomes the show’s unthreatening fallback bogeyman. Meanwhile, this “genius analyst” seems to operate on guesswork most of the time, and he and Scully bond somehow, despite them never really establishing either an effective partnership or even a good love/hate relationship. It’s more like they just happen to ne around weird cases, and Scully happens to have a stethoscope, and then later it maybe wasn’t aliens at all. OR WAS IT?
…Thus branching into the next over-arching problem of the whole fake mythology escalation. I suspect that, like many, I was encouraged to go back and watch the show after the return to TV for season 10. Having not watched the show in more than a decade prior, I was surprised by season 10’s direct footage of aliens from the outset, like there was no denial they existed. My memory of the X-Files had Mulder always chasing aliens, but never seeing them. And that memory is quite false. They pull back the curtain all the time on the show, so when all the conspiracy nonsense kicks in, it’s too clearly smoke and mirrors. This wasn’t as noticeable at the time because of the time gap between myth episodes (versus my recent-er viewing on Netflix, watching in chunks), but as hinted above, by about season five, I’d come around to realizing that there wasn’t much more to discover besides more twists to the maze, when we were already pretty much at the center.
What’s interesting to me – and I’m surely in the minority on this – is that once the show had freed itself of some of that over-seriousness and had tried its hand at dealing with character drama enough times… It got better. It lightened up. Season six had a lot of humorous episodes – good ones – that let our duo settle into a more relaxed buddy-cop variation. Myth would still pop up, but by then it seemed like it was okay to believe in aliens, so it became interesting again – it was no longer a distraction technique but an actual fresh spin. And I’ll go even further to say that the loss of Mulder in season eight encouraged a good dynamic with new agent Dagget (Robert Patrick) which resulted – gasp – in some solid character work. And even further further that season nine was shaping up into something fresh yet again, with Monica Reyes brought in as an interesting skeptic / believer middleground, with Scully placed into more of an overseer role. Though I’m glad things stopped before they tried to make a Dagget / Reyes relationship a thing, because the X writers still sucked at lovey-dovey stuff. It’s clear, then, that where we ended was way different from where we started, but it was a valid effort; by my analysis, the show had been burying itself right from the start, desperate to be a monster-of-the-week show but also wanting to be taken super seriously at the same time, resulting in an imperfect, herky-jerky dance. That it finally crawled to relative freedom after five years and a movie is impressive.
…And that’s what I have to say about that. A cheesy, wildly uneven show with many poorly handled aspects that was wildly influential… and grabbingly original at the time. How much you invest in it will vary by your tolerance of these uneven factors, but if you’re just starting truly fresh, sacrilegious me suggests there have been better variations in its wake.