Essay by Matthew Allair
It is amazing, when you consider that it has already been over a decade since The X-Files debuted on the Fox Network in late 1993. By all accounts the show should never have been successful, yet it thrived. I would argue that the influence within the television industry of this seminal show, The X-Files, can still be felt today, although some producers might not be willing to admit such an influence. One need not look any further than such current hits as C.S.I., including all of its spin-off shows, to see the evidence. While there had been shows that featured autopsies before - Quincy in the 80's comes to mind - Scully made it fashionable in a macabre sense to go into clinical investigations over death, to even develop a fascination with the subject. Even the visual look of C.S.I. gives a nod, with its use of lighting, to The X-Files.
This same example is also evident in such shows as 24 with its use of heavy shadows and dim lighting, in addition to the conspiracy plot lines. Even a show such as Lost, not withstanding the obvious Survivor influence, shares a flavor that is similar to many episodes that involved Scully and Mulder in a 'them vs. nature' scenario, in addition to Lost's use of exteriors. The X-Files helped to make the horror science fiction tale marketable once again. I suspect that the WB network's willingness to produce Josh Whedon's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, within a similar release time frame, had something to do with witnessing the rising fortunes of the Fox network because of Chris Carter's show.
Even watching such influential Japanese horror films such as Takashi Shimizu's The Grudge or prior hits such as Hideo Nakata's The Ring, one could speculate that the impact of The X-Files had some effect on those features' visual and narrative flavor. Of course The X-Files had its influences and inspirational origins as well. The Silence Of The Lambs is one example of an obvious influence, yet to a degree The X-Files was the inspirational child of Twin Peaks. In many respects there's a serendipity between both shows, including the little detail of David Duchovny getting his first major role during Peaks second season. Yet Twin Peaks was never really tooled for a long term major run, the limitations of its plotline prevented longevity, and one can suspect or surmise that longevity wasn't David Lynch's intention after all. While many detractors dismiss The X-Files as a show guilty of plagiarizing the past and especially The Twilight Zone, they miss the point. Chris Carter found a way to reinvent the genre, much in the same way that Rod Serling had reinvented the genre of television Science Fiction back in his era. The X-Files was a show of its time, just as humanity was being ushered into the twenty first century.
It may be said with a degree of assurance that not everything that meets the eye is as it appears. - Rod Serling
There are many examples of television shows that debuted, where their vision was paved with good intentions, yet never survived. Most of the devout fan base will already know about the origin of the show and its creator. Therefore the few points I make here will probably not be new to the show's faithful viewers. In principle The X-Files defied all convention from the usual television offering - it shouldn't have worked by the assessment of some skeptics. There was no reason to believe that The X-Files would last a season based on the assessment of some Fox executives. Fox network president Peter Roth, had enough faith in Chris Carter to sign a development deal in 1992. Carter had been a Brandon Tartikoff protégé, having written a number of shows for Disney, and Roth demonstrated confidence with Carter's writing talents. When Roth and Carter met they both agreed that there wasn't really anything scary on the television schedule.
Eventually Carter and Roth met with Bob Greenblatt, who was Fox's vice president of dramatic series development. He read an outline of the Pilot, Greenblatt later acknowledged, after being 'scared witless' from his read. He saw what was apparent stating, "I knew from that story that there was something really unique here."* It took over a year of pitching the show twice to executives before they agreed to produce the show. By the time the Pilot was finished, In spite of the fact that the screening of the Pilot in early May of 1993, which included Fox executives Rupert Murdock and Lucie Salhany, had received a positive reaction, no one knew what to make of it.
It was telling that the studio had more faith in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr then their other scheduled drama of 1993. This uncertainty from the Fox executives would be demonstrated throughout the first season, where Chris Carter would battle over the unresolved endings of the episodes, yet his vision eventually prevailed. Its ratings in the first season were soft, yet promising. Yet something interesting started to happen; word of mouth, in addition to the rise of the internet, began a momentum that would reach critical mass in the space of a few years. The internet fellowship known as X-Philes, especially college age viewers, must be credited with helping the show to thrive. At its prime, The X-Files was a juggernaut, with countless episode guide books, novelizations, CD-ROM games, music compilations and the feature soundtracks, comic books and even a satirical porn video. This doesn't even include the countless magazine satires from publications like Mad Magazine no less, and other sources that teased about this phenomenon. There's a common saying that failure can have a million explanations, but that success needs no explanation. Yet the question remains, why does this show work and why will it remain relevant long after its creators are gone? The answer could be simple, that 'the truth' is whatever you make of it, whatever you interpret 'the truth' to mean.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. - H.P. Lovecraft, "Supernatural Horror in Literature"
Fear is one major element that helps to explain the show's success. Chris Carter and his creative team obeyed the principle of Lovecraft's comment faithfully. Many of the episodes weaved seamlessly the fear of the unknown, fear of monsters and the monsters within ourselves, fear of everyday common objects turning against us, our fear of technology, our mistrust of the government and our phobias with established institutions. The fear factor hooked us, yet there were other things that compelled the audience to keep coming back. The show's writers have to be given considerable credit for its success, many of these writers were able to tell stories that didn't have to pander to low intellect. They trusted the audience enough to allow them to make subtle connections, to arrive at their own conclusions. Whenever the show offered too many explanations, that was usually when it was at its least effective.
The other unsung heroes of the series have to be the regular directors. There's a common saying that feature film is a director's medium while television is a producers medium, yet that reasoning shouldn't quite apply to The X-Files. There were several directors that were allowed to put their own visual stamp on their assigned episodes. Most episodes had the visual feel of a feature film. The production design and photography played a large part in its success; a number of the directors of photography, assigned to the show early in its run, laid the ground work that later cameramen would try to remain faithful to and try to emulate up through the last two seasons. Credit has to be given to the special effects crews, from Mechanical effects all the way through to the Computer Generated animation technicians. Much of the various optical effects work managed to look cinematic, in spite of limited television budgets.
Many of the directors also deserve credit for helping to draw out such consistently strong performances from David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, in addition to support players such as Mitch Pileggi, William B. Davis, Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish. David and Gillian played against the stereotype of what was expected for 'television leads' which was refreshing; David played the intuitive character, which is often the female character in most conventional series story telling while Gillian played the logical, skeptical character, which is often the male. Another thing that made the show so appealing during the first five seasons, was the fact that often the actor's cast in any given episode represented common people; there was an authenticity to the characters that helped to keep it relatable.
Credit has to be given to the Vancouver locations which had such an impact in adding a somber and atmospheric flavor; even the Los Angeles crews later on through the final seasons would often try to replicate it. Of course music composer Mark Snow was a continued huge asset throughout all nine years, often heightening the fear with his accompaniment, in addition to providing one of the most distinctive themes in television history. Yet all of this hasn't provided the answer, nor a complete picture as to why it worked. The other element that might explain its long range appeal is a theme that was present through all nine seasons. The 'Truth' that Mulder and Scully pursued could simply be the verification that there is something more to the world around us, simple faith in what cannot be proven, whether that faith involved the existence of Aliens or God.
That faith also could entail an individual's faith in overcoming impossible odds or defeating personal demons, or what happens when an individual loses that faith and allows the demons to overtake them. Or that faith could involve the desire to want to believe and trust our government institutions, and righting wrongs so we can trust our government. The show examined the notion and meaning of faith and belief throughout all nine seasons. It illustrated the potential of faith, when it is blind, to drive someone to self destruction or self delusion, or how faith could lead to salvation and redemption through enlightenment, embracing our better natures. The examination of these themes are some of the oldest issues in storytelling and the most potent. For these reasons, as in most cases of great science fiction or horror or fantasy, 'The X-Files' follows in the great tradition of its creative forbearers, with each episode a puzzle that helps to unravel this mysterious mosaic.
* Quote source: "The Truth Is Out There; The Official Guide to The X-Files" by Brian Lowry, © 1995 Harpers Prism
Page Editor: Red Scully
1x01 Deep Throat
1x04 The Jersey Devil
1x06 Ghost in the Machine
1x09 Fallen Angel
1x12 Beyond the Sea
1x13 Gender Bender
1x15 Young at Heart
1x17 Miracle Man
1x19 Darkness Falls
1x21 Born Again
1x23 The Erlenmeyer Flask
Crew Production Credits