[Originally appeared in DEADLY Magazine #5] In 1993, The X-Files premiered on Fox, forever changing genre television, and after 20 years, its influence is still felt. No series since The X-Files has even come close to creating such incredibly nuanced and compelling storytelling than what Chris Carter’s series delivered each week for nine seasons.
What made The X-Files so remarkable was that it hit the ground running from its first episode and maintained that momentum. While Seasons 8 and 9 aren’t remembered fondly by fans, I’d argue that the storytelling still remained strong until the series finale in May 2002.
Known generally for its overarching alien and governmental conspiracy plots, The X-Files always managed to find clever and unusual ways to celebrate so many horror and sci-fi tropes, much like its predecessors (The Twilight Zone and Kolchak: The Night Stalker influenced Carter when he was first conceiving the series in the early ’90’s.)
The conspiracy plot gave The X-Files the major stakes it needed to keep fans hooked, as it was gradually revealed the entire fate of the human race could be in the hands of FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Each week they put their lives on the line to uncover a desperately sought truth. Their roles within the FBI gave the series a sense of realism, balancing out the otherworldly circumstances they often found themselves in.
Historically, pilot episodes of new television series struggle to find the right tone and establish their characters. That wasn’t the case with The X-Files. As the two new partners came together to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl, the chemistry between Mulder and Scully was instantaneous, and their differing points of view balanced each other nicely as they dug deeper into their first case. The pilot also established The X-Files’ initial mythology and the character of Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), who would go on to become the series’ main antagonist and the foil to Mulder’s efforts to uncover the truth.
From there, The X-Files was off and running for its first season, delivering ambitious stories like “Ice,” “E.B.E,” “Ghosts,” and the two-part “Squeeze”/ “Tooms,” which all brought high-concept storytelling often reserved for theatrical films rather than television. Other memorable episodes included “Beyond the Sea,” featuring Brad Dourif as a psychic serial killer, “Shapes,” which tackled werewolf mythology, and “Eve,” which introduced a cloning subplot that was just the tip of the iceberg to the overall alien/cloning conspiracy both Mulder and Scully were starting to piece together.
By the end of the first season, Mulder and Scully were forced to focus their efforts elsewhere after the Bureau closed down the X-Files division based on their actions in the first season finale. In most shows, this would be a major misstep, but Carter made it into an opportunity to further strengthen the devotion shown between the two partners. It made their characters more determined to validate their work by bringing the men behind the alien conspiracy to justice.
It was also during Season 2 when Anderson revealed to Carter that she was pregnant, which meant her character would be absent for a good amount of time. Generally, this would be detrimental to the momentum of a newer series, but Carter made it into a positive. When Scully’s character was abducted in the second episode of the “Duane Barry”/“Ascension” two-parter, it made her absence and subsequent return an important aspect of the governmental conspiracy that would become the centerpiece of The X-Files mythology.
Scully’s abduction also acted as a way to bring her closer to her partner. Mulder often felt responsible for his sister Samantha’s mysterious disappearance when they were kids, so losing someone else he cared for – regardless of how platonic it was at that time – was something the determined agent wasn’t prepared to let happen again. Meanwhile, up-and-coming FBI Special Agent Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea) was introduced as a new partner for Mulder while Scully was M.I.A. It was later revealed that Krycek was actually working for Cigarette Smoking Man and The Syndicate, a group of powerful men behind the alien cover-ups who created a shadow government with the intent to track all human DNA for purposes that would later be revealed.
Once Scully returned, the circumstances surrounding her abduction were gradually uncovered. In the meantime, both Mulder and his partner kept busy after the X-Files unit was re-opened by their supervisor, Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi). They encountered various creatures and human monsters in episodes like “Firewalker,” “Irresistible,” “F. Emasculata,” “Our Town,” and two of my personal all-time favorites: “Humbug” and “Die Hand Die Verletzt.”
Season 2 ended on an epic note with the episode “Anasazi,” in which Mulder is believed dead after recruiting a Navajo code breaker to decipher a document thought to be an essential piece of the conspiracy puzzle. His actions were discovered by the Cigarette Smoking Man, who followed Mulder to the New Mexico desert and ordered a boxcar containing evidence of alien life to be torched – with Mulder trapped inside – leaving fans wondering about our hero’s fate.
In the Season 3 premiere, Mulder’s nearly dead body was unearthed by the Navajo. He was nursed back to life through a healing ritual, while Scully discovered she was implanted with some type of microchip during her abduction. As the third season continued, more secrets were uncovered, as we found out the government had been monitoring the human population for almost 50 years through smallpox vaccinations and an alien substance known as “black oil” (or “Purity”). Both would have huge implications on future storylines.
Season 3 featured several satirical episodes, including “D.P.O.,” “Syzygy” and “War of the Coprophages.” The series also took a notably darker approach to most of its stories, including “Pusher,” involving a mental manipulator who could force the will of others, as well as “Nisei” and “731,” which mirrored the atrocious treatment of Japanese prisoners of war during World War II. The Season 3 finale, “Talitha Cumi,” focused on Mulder’s loyalty to the X-Files division, as he was forced to choose between his quest or the safety and well-being of those he cared for most – a true turning point for Duchovny’s character.
By Season 4, The X-Files refocused itself and dedicated more of its storylines to the alien/human hybrid conspiracy and the shadow government’s preparations for the inevitable alien invasion that threatened humanity’s very existence. Around mid-season, Scully was diagnosed with a rare and inoperable form of cancer directly linked to her abductions. Many of the season’s storylines focused on how her illness played into the bigger picture of secrets she and Mulder were working to unearth.
During the Season 4 premiere episode, “Herrenvolk,” the concept of the cloned bees was introduced (something that factored largely into the 1998 feature film) and we also said goodbye to Mulder’s informant, X (Steven Williams), who was violently gunned down after his actions were discovered by The Syndicate. The character of Marita Covarrubias (The Walking Dead’s Laurie Holden) was subsequently introduced, but to most fans, that character paled in comparison to her predecessor and her presence was largely met with disdain – one of the few missteps for The X-Files series at that time.
When the fourth season ended, the stakes could not have been higher for everyone’s favorite FBI agents. Scully’s cancer aggressively attacked her body, forcing both her partner and her supervisor to make some bold moves against Cigarette Smoking Man and The Syndicate. It also looked like Mulder finally succumbed to the pressure of his lifelong search for his sister, when he appeared to have committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Fans knew better, as it was quickly revealed in the Season 5 premiere that Mulder actually killed a Department of Defense agent who had been monitoring his activities. As Mulder infiltrated the DOD in search of a cure for Scully’s illness, he discovered more than he imagined, which would ultimately have an impact on several of the show’s long-standing mythologies, as well as factor into future seasons and the eventual feature film.
Season 5 is often lauded as The X-Files’ creative peak and for good reason – Carter found clever ways of tightening the overall mythology by reverse-engineering the storylines to fit well with the impending feature film (which had been shot previous to the filming of the fifth season). He still found ways to fit in great “Monster-of-the-Week” stories that were among some of the finest ever scripted for the show, including “Kill Switch,” “Bad Blood,” “Mind’s Eye,” and “All Souls.” We also got a peek into the lives of The Lone Gunmen (Dean Haglund, Tom Braidwood and Bruce Harwood) in their origin episode, “Unusual Suspects.” In the finale, we saw the X-Files go up in smoke (literally) thanks to the Cigarette Smoking Man, leaving Mulder and Scully once again facing the closure of their division. Meant as a way for the series to end and live on in feature film iterations, Carter’s show proved too valuable to Fox and was subsequently renewed again.
The sixth season of The X-Files marked another turning point for the series, as production moved to Los Angeles after residing in Vancouver since the very beginning. This change would ultimately have huge long-term effects on the show, with both the look and the feel changing dramatically. Due to increased costs, stories told during Season 6 were not nearly as monster-heavy as previous seasons and generally focused on romantic or humorous situations rather than the high-tension drama The X-Files was known for.
That’s not to say that all of Season 6 lacked intensity. The two-parter of “Two Fathers”/ “One Son” was undoubtedly two of the most powerful episodes of The X-Files thus far (and saw the demise of The Syndicate – quite possibly the series’ second big misstep), while “S.R. 819” followed Mulder and Scully’s desperate efforts to save Skinner’s life after he was infected by a dangerous biochemical nanotechnology from a mysterious assailant. The finale, “Biogensis,” ended with Mulder’s life once again hanging in the balance after succumbing to a mental illness following contact with symbols taken from an alien ship that had recently washed up on a beach in Africa.
Sadly, though, you could tell the momentum behind The X-Files was beginning to wane as Season 7’s premiere failed to answer any real questions. It didn’t resolve Mulder’s illness satisfactorily and subsequent episodes failed to reach the storytelling heights previous seasons had achieved. The seventh season also put to rest the true fate of Samantha Mulder in the episode “Closure,” which was met with mixed reception from the series’ longtime fans as it muddied several details we were led to believe in previous seasons.
During Season 7, Duchovny embarked on a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox and announced his intent to reduce his involvement with The X-Files at the conclusion of the season – something that should have signaled the end of Carter’s show. As we all know, that’s when The X-Files we had grown to love for seven seasons ceased to exist. One of The X-Files’ mantras throughout its run was “Not Everything Dies.” Perhaps it would have been best had the show decided to end on a positive note with its Season 7 finale “Requiem,” which did an admirable job of bringing the series full-circle with elements first introduced in the “Pilot” episode.
However, the show carried on and Season 8 kicked off with the search for Mulder after he was abducted. It also introduced the newest addition to the main cast of The X-Files, Robert Patrick, who portrayed FBI Special Agent John Doggett. Originally brought in to head up the investigation of Mulder’s disappearance, Doggett eventually led the X-Files division in Mulder’s absence, and most of the first half of Season 8 focused on establishing his character within the context of Carter’s world.
It’s also during Season 8 that Scully dealt with an unplanned pregnancy (something she learned at the conclusion of Season7). While the child she carries ended up playing a role in the series’ mythologies, many fans felt this was a last-ditch ploy to introduce some new drama to Scully’s life and did nothing to add substance to the series or the character.
Another semi-permanent character introduced midway through the eighth season, Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) would feature more prominently during The X-Files’ final run the following year. She was meant to be a believer, much like Mulder, but her character often felt out-of-step with the tone of the series and didn’t quite fit in the way creator Carter had hoped.
The ninth season was far from perfect, as it continued to move further away from thematic elements that made it so special before. With Duchovny removed from the show (except for appearing in The X-Files’ series finale) and Scully’s character once again relegated away from the division she was first brought in to debunk, fans found little left in The X-Files to connect with. The numbers reflected these feelings, as the series suffered from its largest ratings drop ever during Season 9, despite strong writing and performances from the entire cast.
The finale of The X-Files was truly an ambitious effort, with Carter bringing back many of the original cast members (including the aforementioned Duchovny). While it didn’t necessarily make up for the sins of the previous episodes (like killing off The Lone Gunmen in “Jump the Shark”), it found a way to bring old and new mythologies together, gave fans closure as to the fates of several of their beloved characters, and made the series’ ultimate bad guy, Cigarette Smoking Man, finally pay for all his misdeeds.
Even at its worst, The X-Files was still miles ahead of many of its peers. It remains a hugely popular show with fans who first fell in love with it in the 1990’s while connecting with new audiences on platforms such as Netflix. It explored timeless themes like loss, religion, faith (blind or otherwise), loyalty, family and the search for the truth. It also took a good, hard look at some of the issues our society was beginning to face at the time it initially aired, including mistrust of the government, cyber-terrorism, assisted suicide, online dating, cloning, and advancing technologies.
At the heart of it all, The X-Files was truly about two people coming together in a quest for the truth – both in their work and within their own existences and fates. Very few relationships in the history of television were as pure as the one shared between Mulder and Scully. Despite the fact that their characters eventually got romantically involved, it was the platonic love and devotion they had for each other that propelled The X-Files to extraordinary dramatic heights, unlike anything fans had ever experienced before or have seen since.