In 1993, the world was introduced to FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Their job was to investigate cases that others didn’t want, didn’t understand and, above all, didn’t believe. These cases were dubbed the X-Files, cases that were thrown at Fox “Spooky” Mulder to keep him. busy, while Dana Scully was assigned to be his partner to keep an eye on him.
For 11 seasons and 2 movies, Mulder and Scully hunted monsters, aliens, and other paranormal phenomena, cultivating a rabid and well-deserved fan base across the globe. The show has made household names of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, with audiences fully invested in seeing how their will-or-will-they won’t relationship is resolved. Looking back, what made the show so successful and how did it lay the groundwork for the series that followed?
The premise and dynamics of The X-Files
When X files debuted, there had never been anything like it on TV before. There had been plenty of shows with both male and female leads who had a permanent question mark over their relationship status, but there was nothing that mixed horror and sci-fi elements the way X files ended up doing. Thanks to creator Chris Carter, the series has brought together monster-of-the-week episodes, bottle episodes, and overarching mythology in a virtually seamless fashion.
The main plot of the show saw Mulder and Scully seek to uncover the plot perpetrated by the government to hide the existence of extraterrestrials. The two played opposite sides of the coin: Mulder was the total believer of Scully’s skeptic who, despite weekly evidence to the contrary, always began each episode with incredulous disbelief. As the show progressed, the true depth of the conspiracy was uncovered, and it became a show about the two protagonists clashing with an increasingly dark cabal trying to maintain the smokescreen.
The influence and legacy of The X-Files
Take a look at the shows that followed X files, it’s easy to see the influence the long-running show has had on the television landscape. Shows like Lost and Bones owe much to the show’s formula, deep, multi-season mythologies in Lost to the male/female detective couple in Bones. Even now with shows like stranger things, the fingerprints of Chris Carter and his creation are clearly visible. This is by no means a bad thing. The way the show played with tone, changing plots, and settings changed genre television in revolutionary ways. Before X files, mainstream television with science fiction and horror elements was rare. Meanwhile, since the height of its popularity, genre television has exploded.
Shows like Fringe, Supernatural, and even buffy the vampire slayer would almost certainly not exist (or at least be far less successful) were it not for the enormous popularity of X files. Fringe, in particular, took a more extreme sci-fi approach, but featured many of the same elements; namely, a leading man and woman investigating both an ongoing conspiracy and weekly mysteries based on the fringes of science. The relationship between Olivia and Peter was central to the show, and without it, the story wouldn’t have worked as well.
With Supernatural and Buffy, the shows took a monster-of-the-week style approach also similar to X files, usually with one main antagonist per season or so. The creators of both series quoted X files as inspiration for the combination of suspense and humor used in both shows – plus, legendary producer and director Kim Manners who worked on X-files also worked on Supernatural. Creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, also worked on X files as a producer before creating his flagship show. The X-Files alumni also worked on Castle, Game of Thrones, and Shameless, to name a few.
While the reach of other shows is undeniable, it’s also important not to overlook the importance of Dana Scully’s character to pop culture. Before Scully, the female characters were often the ones who were characterized as fickle believers, while the male characters were often the staunch, sensible, and intelligent skeptics, those who kept a cool head when things got out of hand. Mulder and Scully reversed that stereotype, with Anderson’s dry and often exasperated portrayal of Scully clashing with Mulder and his often nonsensical ideas about aliens.
What made The X-Files special was a fusion of character chemistry, storytelling, and structure. It captured a moment in time, and yet remains fresh when viewed today. Not only do sci-fi shows owe a winning formula to Chris Carter, but so do many crime shows airing today. Shows like ITUC, NCIS, and all of their spinoffs owe their business cracking methods to X files. Solving the mystery, collecting evidence, and digging deeper into facts and science were popularized by Mulder and Scully’s methodology. This structure continued to dominate procedural shows, instead of focusing on the human side of the criminal.
It is difficult to determine exactly what caused X files capture so completely the zeitgeist of the times. It was a perfect timing storm – the show started airing shortly after the end of the Cold War, making the overall government conspiracy plot more than timely. Each episode was like its own standalone feature, making primetime television a cinematic event every week. Granted, in later series the plot got a bit convoluted, but that did next to nothing to detract from the overall appeal of the show. The legacy of X files is somehow both indefinable and completely traceable back to the series. It may have been nearly 30 years since it first appeared on our screens, but the show’s influence isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
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