The Anniversary is Out There: The X-Files Turns 25

The X-Files opened 25 years ago. A legitimate pop culture phenomenon, it’s generated 11 seasons, 2 films, dozens of comics and novels, and millions of fans that want to believe.

X-Files Logo
The X-Files logo. (™ Ten Thirteen Productions and 20th Century Fox Television)

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Chris Carter
Chris Carter at 2013’s Comic-Con International in San Diego. (Photo by Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons via  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

The truth is out there. Trust no one. The government is in it with the aliens. And monsters are real. Your mileage for belief in any of those ideas might vary, but the fact is that many people subscribe to similar notions, to the idea that are dark forces and shadowy adversaries working against humanity. It’s that livewire of paranoia that Chris Carter tapped into when he created The X-Files. That pop culture phenomenon made its television debut 25 years ago this week, and, in many ways, it never left.

Chris Carter got his start in journalism, writing for Surfing Magazine for 13 years. He eventually got hired by Walt Disney television, primarily focusing on writing TV movies. When he got the opportunity to pitch a series for the Fox network, Carter went back to his love of The Twilight Zone and the short-lived ’70s cult classic Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Carter’s concept, The X-Files, would feature a pair of FBI agents, one a believer and one a skeptic, investigating cases that hinged on the supernatural. The series would have stand-alone episodes, but also include an over-arching “mythology” that ran through the whole story.

Scully and Mulder from the X-Files
FBI Agents Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) from the original run of The X-Files. (© Ten Thirteen Productions and 20th Century Fox Television)

When the show debuted in 1993, it quickly caught on in fandom circles. One of the most appealing aspects of the show was the relationship between the two leads, David Duchovny, who played Fox Mulder, and Gillian Anderson, who played Dr. Dana Scully. He was the believer, she was the skeptic, and while they approached their cases from different directions, the chemistry was palpable. Mulder and Scully also worked well on screen because they played professionals that respected one another; Scully in particular was depicted as incredibly competent and disciplined, avoiding the distressed damsel clichés that marred other programs.

The famously spooky opening theme.

The overall quality of writing and direction stood out as the other main driver of the show. Carter surrounded himself with talent like the writing and directing team of Glen Morgan and James Wong, writer/producer Vince Gilligan, writer/producer Frank Spotnitz, director Michelle MacLaren, and many others. Morgan and Wong would go on to create the series Space: Above & Beyond and serve as showrunners on the X-Files-related Millennium series. Gilligan is better known today as the creator of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Spotnitz developed The Man in the High Castle at Amazon. And MacLaren continues to distinguish herself as a director of shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Westworld.

At the end of its first season, The X-Files averaged over 11 million viewers, making it 105th out of 128 shows on broadcast television. Word-of-mouth and positive critical reviews continued to spread, and the show would dramatically build its audience by millions for the next several seasons. By the end of season five, The X-Files was the 11th most-watched series on broadcast television. The combination of continuing mysteries, inventive suspense, and the appealing leads made the series a bona fide pop phenomenon.

Comic book cover
The show generated a number of transmedia tie-ins, such as multiple comic book series from IDW Publishing; this issue was written by Joe Harris. (©IDW Publishing)

Darkness Falls screenwriter and X-Men comic book writer Joe Harris is very clear about the root of the appeal of The X-Files. He says, “I want to tell you that it’s all about the good fight against the powers that be and the darkness they collaborate with . . . I want to say that it’s one part sci-fi, one part horror and all thriller with a boss-level mythology that is as iconic as the alien abduction genre of stories which only describes one of many dimensions. But it’s Mulder and Scully. It’s always Mulder and Scully.”

Among themost interesting pieces of The X-Files mythology is the vast government conspiracy to keep knowledge of aliens and other creatures from the public. Though there are many recurring villains from this plot, such as the nefarious Agent Krycheck, the conspiracy is best personified by the ongoing villain, the Cigarette Smoking Man, played by William B. Davis. Within the so-called “Mytharc” of the show, he seems to be involved in nearly every heinous act in the 20th Century. Harris says, “The villains are spectacular too, from Alex Krycek and the various monsters to who’s, for my money, the second greatest bad guy after Darth Vader in The Cigarette Smoking Man.”

The original television promo for the season four episode, “Home.”

Despite its swelling popularity in the mid to late ’90s, The X-Files wasn’t a stranger to controversy. One 1996 episode, “War of the Coprophages,” dealt with an infestation of roaches. That in itself might not have been a huge deal, but the puckish production team pranked the audience with a special effect that made it look as if a roach quickly scurried across the viewers own TV screen; the moment still alarms first-time viewers. That same year saw the airing of the notorious “banned” episode “Home,” which pushed the envelope with the antagonists, the inbred Peacock family. The most shocking moment came when Mulder and Scully discovered that the Peacock men had been hiding their quadruple-amputee mother under the master bed, when they weren’t breeding with her. While the Morgan and Wong-written episode carried a violence disclaimer and a TV-MA rating and drew praise from many critics, the airing still drew a number of complaints. “Home” was never repeated by Fox in prime-time, earning its “banned” reputation, but it handily wins fan voting for favorite episode; it’s frequently taken first infan-driven events, such as the 1997 FX X-Files Marathon countdown.

DVD Cover
The X-Files Season 10 DVD set. (©Ten Thirteen Productions and 20th Century Fox Televison)

The X-Files wasn’t content to just be a single popular television series. Chris Carter launched the related series, Millennium, which ran for three seasons beginning in 1996, and one season of X-Files side characters The Lone Gunmen in 2001. A feature film, also called The X-Files, hit theaters between the fifth and sixth seasons in 1998 and was a solid hit. Additionally, dozens of comic books, tie-in novels, and more would be released. And though the main series signed off after nine seasons in 2001, it would launch a second film (The X-Files: I Want to Believe in 2008) and return for two more seasons in 2016 and 2018.

Harris has written nearly 60 X-Files and Millennium spin-off comic books. The show’s ongoing appeal is no shock to him. He says, “But, again, those characters are so damn charming and good looking and they’ve got each other’s backs against everything coming for them, and us. Everyone holds dear what was great when they were growing up, and The X-Files is just one of those things. It’s smart, sexy and thrilling.”

Right now, the immediate future of The X-Files is in some doubt. Gillian Anderson exited the show after the two revival seasons, citing a desire to do other things. Though the show did continue for a time without Duchovny in its original run, there’s some question over whether or not Carter would run a 12th season without Scully. Additional questions hang over the show since Fox was recently purchased by Disney, and the future of most properties is unknown for the moment. Whatever the case, The X-Files has a way of sticking around and coming back. That’s one truth that we’re sure you can believe.

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