Flashback Fridays: The X-Files
Alien abductions, ghosts, demons, voodoo and government conspiracies have never created the kind of memorable, even powerful experience that was achieved by "The X-Files." Like few other TV shows it managed to tell paranormal-themed stories with intense realism and a sharp, deep sense of human drama.
This gem created by producer Chris Carter not only cemented itself as an iconic TV moment of the 1990s, it has aged so well that it still surpasses much of what passes for TV dramas today. "The X-Files" combined so many genres that you can easily trace shows as diverse as "True Detective," "Supernatural" and "CSI" back to it.
David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson became icons in their roles as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Mulder is a man obsessed with his sister's disappearance which he believes was an alien abduction. To try and solve this aching tragedy he spends his time working on case files the FBI has relegated, literally, to the basement- X-files, which are unexplained, paranormal cases Mulder is convinced point to greater truths and realities. Since his superiors consider him an outsider and possible quack, they assign the incredibly intelligent and rational Agent Scully to monitor his work and decide if it's valid or not. For nine seasons Mulder and Scully will find themselves facing strange, sometimes terrifying cases as well as uncovering a vast government conspiracy involving the possible cover-up of alien life.
First premiering in 1993, "The X-Files" touched on age-old themes but was also a complete product of its time. In the 1990s the Soviet Union was gone, the economy was booming and 9/11 was still little less than a decade away. For a while it seemed the only plausible threat to the American way of life had to come from outer space. UFO sightings were quite the rage and in an era before Dick Cheney, talk of government cover-ups revolved around the Roswell flying saucer crash and Area 51. Movies like "Independence Day" were massive box office hits.
Amid this cultural moment what really helped sell the show were the two main characters. Duchovny created a driven, obsessed, smart character who would stop at anything to prove to the world that alien life was real, that the government knew about it and that the people had a right to know. He provided the believer to Scully's skeptic, he was willing to give any belief a chance whether it be vampires or spirits, lake monsters or Bigfoot.
The writing was wonderful because Mulder would rationalize it with real, intellectual arguments. Scully was great too because she could challenge Mulder on his level. Like few female characters she exhibited an independence and breadth of intelligence that broke stereotypes. For years Scully has even been my preferred idea of a girlfriend: Intelligent, articulate, perceptive and yet open hearted and capable of sharing a laugh.
Their relationship felt authentic. They were two opposites who developed a great friendship. Even when she was convinced he was dead wrong, Scully always had Mulder's back and trusted him with her life and vice versa. In the episode "Memento Mori" (the show always featured cryptic episode titles), Scully becomes seriously ill and there is a scene where Mulder visits her in the hospital and hugs her that is as moving and touching as anything you'll see in a movie.
The production values of the show also helped turn it into both great entertainment and a highly influential benchmark. Creator/producer/writer Chris Carter, a notorious perfectionist, crafted the show to play like a movie every Friday (and later Sunday) night. There was no limit to the scale of the stories. In the episode "Ice" Mulder and Scully find themselves trapped in the Arctic with a group of scientists fighting off a deadly virus, in "Tunguska" Mulder travels to Russia to track down evidence of alien life while in "Die Hand Die Verletzt," the agents investigate a group of high school teachers who might secretly be a Satanic cult.
The show had a mix of stark realism and grand imagination. It could even be a psychological/conspiracy/crime thriller all at once. For example in the episode "Duane Barry," penned and directed by Carter himself, an escaped psychiatric patient is convinced he's being abducted by aliens. He's so tired and frustrated by the experience that he takes a travel agency hostage, desperately seeking someone he can offer to his tormentors as an alternate. In the episode "Triangle" Mulder finds himself on the cruise ship the Queen Anne, transported back in time to World War II and facing Nazis boarding the vessel.
Visually the show was always so atmospheric. The first five seasons were shot in Vancouver, British Columbia and featured deep forests, natural myst and rain. The music by composer Mark Snow was always so melodic and rich. The show's theme song with its spooky whistle-like sound became stamped in the public consciousness just as much as the "Twilight Zone" theme.
Of course what made "The X-Files" so addictive was its paranoia. The great, connecting thread of the show was Mulder's pursuit of a government conspiracy to conceal the truth about alien life. These episodes were devilishly paranoid in how the conspiracy could reach everything and everywhere from the deepest corridors of government power to isolated bee farms in the southwest to Hong Kong. The show would only let you get glimpses and leave you wanting more (was that really an alien craft inside that hanger?). Nobody is safe in the world of this program. The top villain in all of this was the Cigarette-Smoking Man, played by William B. Davis, who would always be standing the shadowed corner of an office, puffing away while playing puppet master.
"The X-Files" was and remains a thrilling drama and spooky TV. Whether battling mutants in a sewer or evading shadowy government thugs, Mulder and Scully transported viewers into a world where secrets lurk in every corner as well as amazing discoveries.