Twenty years ago this week, on a Friday night in September 1993, the Fox Television network quietly premiered a science-fiction TV show called The X-Files. When it debuted no one had any idea that it would go on to become one of Fox’s most popular shows, give millions of viewers the creeps weekly, propel the careers of its two lead actors, launch a movie franchise, and spawn a group of writers and producers who would go on to create some of TV’s most acclaimed and memorable shows.
At the time, Friday was still a popular night for TV shows; Dallas had concluded its long and highly popular run as a Friday night fixture on CBS just two seasons earlier, ABC had a solid weekly audience for its “TGIF” block of family-oriented comedies, and in recent years NBC had chosen Friday to air shows like Quantum Leap, Miami Vice, Night Court, and Wings.
Fox was still in the process of strengthening its primetime schedule, having reached a full seven nights of programming just one year earlier. The idea of a series about a pair of FBI agents traveling around the country to investigate unexplained incidents with possible paranormal connections was, at a minimum, curious and quixotic.
But as with so many TV shows that eventually become hits, the “secret ingredients” were its stars, Gillian Anderson as Special Agent Dana Scully and David Duchovny as Special Agent Fox Mulder, and its stories, guided by series creator Chris Carter and brought to life by a team of talented writers. Not since The Twilight Zone three decades earlier had a TV series presented a regular dose of scary, spooky, eerie, weird, and sometimes disturbing entertainment that viewers found so compelling.
The X-Files got some early notice from critics, but took a while to build its audience. Twenty years ago I was generally not home on Friday nights, and did not see my first episode of the show until that November, but I recall exactly which episode it was: “Ice.” On another Friday night at home in January I caught a second episode, “Genderbender,” and those two samplings were enough to convince me that I should set my VCR to record the show each week.
By that point Fox had aired nearly two-thirds of the first season’s episodes, so I had missed quite a bit. I recorded the weeks with repeats since I hadn’t seen them, and kept doing so throughout the summer months, by which point a lot of other people had heard about the show and were doing the same thing. (Eventually I would rewatch the entire first season in order on DVD.) After that, I was fully invested in the show and never missed another episode.
The X-Files was not the first prime-time drama to employ the story structure of weekly stand-alone episodes blended with season- and series-long arcs that expanded and filled in the show’s “mythology,” but for the most part it balanced them well. This turned out to be a mixed bag for viewers; some found the show’s alien-conspiracy story confusing and off-putting, and skipped those episodes. Even faithful fans found it challenging to keep track of the myriad of characters, events, and chronology of the mytharc.
Prior to the start of the fourth season in 1996, Fox announced that The X-Files would be moving from Friday to Sunday, but not until after three new episodes had aired. By this time Fox had a substantially larger audience in general, and Sunday was the most-watched night of the week, so the move made sense. (After the move, Fox filled the Friday time slot with Millennium, another Chris Carter-created show about a former FBI profiler who has strange visions and consults with law enforcement on strange, difficult cases. With a much darker tone than The X-Files, it aired for three seasons and is something of a cult curiosity now.)
The popularity of the show led to a feature film, The X-Files: Fight The Future, which was released in June 1998 after the conclusion of season five of the TV show. The film took in a respectable $84 million in the US. Its storyline fits between seasons five and six of the show, and primed fans for its return.
As it turned out, the show had peaked creatively and in ratings. By season seven Duchovny was publicly expressing his desire to do more film work. It appeared The X-Files was about to reach its end, and Carter wrote the final episode of the season as a series finale, but Fox opted for a renewal. With Duchovny out, two new agents were assigned to investigate X-Files cases, while Scully was moved to a less prominent role at the FBI academy as an instructor.
Many fans believe the show should have ended with the conclusion of season seven. Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish did a credible job with the material they were given, but with two new actors and a shift in the conspiracy storyline from the cover-up of an alien invasion to the cover-up of genetically engineered supersoldiers, it was like watching an alternate-universe version of the show. (A spinoff featuring Mulder’s paranoid conspiracy-buff buddies, The Lone Gunmen, ran for 13 episodes in the spring of 2001.)
The retooled version of The X-Files soldiered on for two more seasons. With the knowledge that season nine would be its last, Carter was able to craft an ending to the series, and was able to get Duchovny to return, though this was really more a gesture for the fans than for the story itself, which sputtered to a halt in a manner suggestive of what would happen with Lost eight years later. The final episode aired May 19, 2002. The second feature film, I Want to Believe, reached movie screens six years later, but failed to connect with audiences.
The show’s legacy includes dozens of imitators and wannabes (the most successful of which, Fringe, also aired on Fox), but its real gift to TV audiences, besides its own enduring appeal, is the corps of talented writers who have given us other shows. Most notable are Howard Gordon, who’s had a hand in 24 and Homeland, two shows which made conspiracies a key part of their storylines; John Shiban (Hell On Wheels); Frank Spotnitz (Strike Back and Hunted); and of course Vince Gilligan, the man responsible for giving the world Breaking Bad.
Talk of doing a third movie surfaces from time to time, but it’s mainly speculation, and it may be time to acknowledge that the show’s moment has passed into TV history and it’s time to let it assume its place in the digital pantheon of great TV shows. Carter is working on a pilot set in a post-apocalyptic future; it’s not for any TV network but for Amazon, which is hoping to duplicate Netflix’s success with original programming. Speaking of which, if you happen to be unfamiliar with the charms of The X-Files, all 201 episodes are available to stream on Netflix.