The X-Files first aired in September 1993 in the States; for the UK, save some limited satellite showings, it was a full year later. By the time it arrived on the BBC, it was already a talking point. I was ten – just a bit too young to really be watching something like this, but absolutely the right age to want to watch it. It had everything: aliens, monsters, creepy-as-hell mysteries and quotable taglines. In the early nineties, even that title sequence seemed cool, and not, as it clearly is, hilariously naff.
The series was an early example of what I like to call a paraprocedural: a programme which has the setting and structure of a procedural drama, but with paranormal or fantastic elements. It was far from the first; series creator Chris Carter cites Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a 1974-5 series that combined crime investigation and the paranormal, as a huge influence. Other series that inspired The X-Files include genre classic The Twilight Zone, and police procedurals including the long-running British series Prime Suspect. The greater inspiration, though, was real life: the political corruption of the Watergate scandal, documented murder cases, and a report that 3.7 million Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens.
All this came together in The X-Files, based on the premise of a special department of the FBI that investigated unsolved and inexplicable cases. Using the FBI allowed a national and sometimes international scope to the series, preventing from the stories stretching credibility too far by having everything occur in one location. Carter pitched the series to Fox twice before they accepted it, and the network interfered with his vision for the show considerably during early production. While Carter, as creator, oversaw the direction of the series, he had no overall plan for the ongoing plotlines at the beginning. Instead, he and his writers worked things out on the fly – the art of serialised television being to make it look like you had a plan all the time, even though you're were making it up as you went along. It's unlikely Carter would have been able to script an entire American network season alone, and he employed several staff writers, with Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa being the main contributors. This helped keep the flow of ideas fresh and inventive.
Revolving around two leads kept the show tight. The X-Files would be investigated by two agents – a believer and a sceptic, one male and one female. Most writers would make the woman the believer, but Carter wrote them the other way around. Fox "Spooky" Mulder was a once well-regarded agent with considerable experience in criminal profiling, but had become a pariah due to his obsession with the X-Files and unexplained phenomena. Driven by the vanishing of his sister when they were both children – something he believes was an alien abduction – Mulder is determined to uncover the truth at all costs. Dr. Dana Scully, on the other hand, is a medical doctor and forensic pathologist who also has a degree in physics. Unlike the credulous Mulder, Scully began as a closed-minded empiricist, with the exception of her Roman Catholic beliefs. Scully was modeled somewhat on Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, although there are also considerable similarities to Professor Elizabeth Shaw in the UNIT years of Doctor Who. Carter was keen to keep the relationship between the leads platonic, citing Steed and Peel in The Avengers as a model for their relationship, although a "will they/won't they?" interest developed quickly among fans.
David Duchovny had been a screen actor for some years before auditioning for Mulder. Aside from a small role on Twin Peaks (another influence on the series), he had largely done film work, but was still a bit part actor. Carter and the casting director considered his audition "brilliant" and while contractually two actors had to be shortlisted for Fox to choose from, there was no other serious contender. Casting Scully was more of a battle. Gillian Anderson was largely a stage actor, having very limited film experience and no television experience before auditioning for the series. The Fox executives wanted either a more recognisable lead or a more conventional "bombshell" type – preferably both. Anderson's understated and intelligent audition won Carter over immediately and he had to fight the network to have her cast. Now, it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the lead roles, and the series made stars of Duchovny and Anderson, not to mention international sex symbols.
The first season quickly settled into a pattern of mixing "mythology" and "monster-of-the-week" episodes. "Mythology" episodes dealt with the ongoing story of a government conspiracy that hid the truth of alien contact, providing a spine for the series that would last throughout its entire run. Having these comprise the entire series would have led it to run out of steam quickly, so the decision to include standalone "monster-of-the-week" stories was made quickly. These rapidly became more popular with fans; they were certainly the ones I and fellow young fans talked about and looked forward to far more. Early on, Carter planned to have a third strand, featuring hoaxes and mundane explanations, but these were almost entirely dropped once production began.
The series kicked off with a pilot episode that set up the premise of the series quickly and simply, with Scully being foisted on Mulder to keep an eye on him and provide him with perspective. Their first case involves them investigating a series of deaths that Mulder believes are linked to alien experimentation. The episode introduced several apparently minor characters who would go on to be much more significant: Zachary Ansly as abductee Billy Miles, Charles Cioffi as Scott Blevins, briefly the agents' immediate superior, and William B. Davis as the Cigarette Smoking Man, aka Cancer Man. The latter would go on to be the most significant adversarial character in the series, but you wouldn't guess it from his first appearance: he's completely silent, just watching the developments and at the end of the episode, confiscating evidence to be lost within a gigantic storage facility. He only says four words in the whole of the first season, yet his presence is remarkably powerful. His rise from little more than an extra to the main antagonist is pretty amazing.
The second episode, "Deep Throat," introduces the eponymous informant played by Jerry Hardin. Named for the historical informant of the Watergate scandal, Deep Throat was a way to keep the agents in the loop with developments in the conspiracy storyline. The next episode was the first outright classic. "Squeeze" introduced Doug Hutchison as Eugene Tooms, a cannibalistic mutant who could contort his body and attack his victims within seemingly sealed rooms, squeezing through air ducts or vents. Rising from hibernation once every thirty years to feast on human livers, Tooms was an ingenious creation and a terrifying villain. The first bit of outright horror on the series, "Squeeze" set a direction for the series that would pay dividends, and had its own sequel, "Tooms," later in the season.
"Squeeze" also introduced Mitch Pileggi as Assistant Director Walter Skinner, the supervisor of the X-Files office and Mulder and Scully's main superior. While considered a guest character in the first season, he would increase in importance as the series went on. Calm, collected but dynamic and in-control, Skinner was a class act from the beginning and his presence added a vital element to the series. Fourth episode "Conduit" is an excellent alien abduction story, which largely stands alone from the overall mythology but does provide more information about Mulder's sister and his obsession with finding the truth. Both "Conduit" and "Squeeze" were made on a low budget with clever photography, limited visual effects and old-fashioned techniques, and both work brilliantly as genuinely unsettling sci-fi horror. A huge budget isn't the most important thing when creating arresting film and television.
Other standout episodes include episode six, "Shadows," dealing with a vengeful poltergeist; episode eight, "Ice," an experiment in high paranoia that owes a huge debt to The Thing; and episode eleven, "Eve," that combines human cloning and the perennial horror commodity of creepy children to great effect. While unconnected to the overall mythology, "Eve" introduced concepts that would be revisited later in the series. Other notable episodes include episode eighteen, "Miracle Man," which see a series of murders linked to a young evangelist with supposed healing powers; episode nineteen, Marilyn Osborn's "Shapes," an entertaining werewolf yarn that was the first of many episodes to link with Native American mythology (although its reception by Native American viewers was mixed); and episode twenty-three, Chris Ruppenthal's "Roland," a surprisingly sensitive story of a man with a learning disability who is influenced into carrying out impossible murders.
Not every episode has stood the test of time. Episode seven, "Ghost in the Machine," about a killer AI, has not aged well and looks decidedly archaic when viewed today. Episode nine, "Space," is a hokey and poorly realised story about some kind of phantom haunting an astronaut, inspired by the supposed "face of Mars," a vaguely human-like rock formation on the red planet. Episode fourteen, "Gender Bender," features a sex-changing murderer who's part of an Amish-like religious community who might just be immortal aliens. It's as silly as it sounds, quite offensive with regards to gender non-conforming folks and frankly poorly written. It's also potentially very offensive to the Amish, although, luckily for Carter and Fox, they don't watch television.
Other episodes stand well on their own but are better remembered for their ties to the wider storyline. Episode ten, "Fallen Angel" sees Mulder jeopardise the X-Files when he is arrested infiltrating a supposed alien crash site. The episode introduced Scott Bellis as Max Fenig, a paranoid UFO nut who would turn up again later in the series; while a minor character himself, he led to the introduction of the Lone Gunmen seven episode later in "E.B.E." Langly, Frohike and Byers, played by Dean Haglund, Tom Braidwood and Bruce Harwood respectively, are a trio of conspiracy theorists who act as a sounding board and source of information for Mulder, and, crucially, make him appear more credible by comparison. They would appear on and off throughout the series and even get their own short-lived spin-off.
Episode thirteen, "Beyond the Sea," built up Scully's background, which was missing in early episodes. Brief attempts to give her a romantic life didn't catch on, but by adding her family and faith, "Beyond the Sea" made her a far more rounded character. Don Davis – another Twin Peaks alumnus and later of Stargate SG-1 – appears as her father Captain William Scully, while Sheila Larkin makes her first appearance as her mother Margaret. The episode, hinging on a compelling performance by Brad Dourif as murderer Luther Lee Boggs, sees Mulder begin to question his credulity, while Scully's scepticism falters as Boggs seems to know things that shouldn't be possible. One of the strongest elements to Scully's character is her intelligence, and she doesn't remain an outright sceptic for long. Always the voice of reason, she keeps Mulder's speculation in check but is unable to ignore the evidence before her, and her mind opens as the season develops.
It's also fun seeing some of the now widely recognisable faces in early roles. Seth Green appears in "Deep Throat," a few years before becoming famous on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while Mark Sheppard – the guy who's been on every genre show going – has one of his earliest roles as a pyrokinetic in the episode "Fire." Maggie Wheeler, immediately recognisable as Janice from Friends, appeared on the episode "Born Again". She and Duchovny has previously been involved, beginning something of a pattern of his partners appearing on the show.
The season finale, "The Erlenmeyer Flask," bookends the first season when the agents discover evidence of secret government-sanctioned DNA experiments. Furthering the mythology, it's a thrilling episode that ends with the death of Deep Throat, making it clear that no one is entirely safe. Before he goes, he has the distinction of dropping one of the series' catchphrases: "Trust No One." The episode ends with the X-Files being shut down and the agents reassigned to other departments, adding a level of jeopardy to the upcoming second season. It's an excellent end to a fine first season.
Rewatching the season again, almost thirty years later, it's remarkable how well most of it holds up. By modern standards, some of the scares seem rather tame – much of which is down to network meddling to tone it down – but when it works, by god it's chilling. Some episodes are a touch slow, but that's more a consequence of the accelerating pace of television drama. At the time, these were gripping – and adult viewers thought so too, so it wasn't just because I was ten! While the series is clearly intended for an adult audience, Fox obviously realised the appeal it had for young viewers; it wasn't long before junior novelisations were released to cash-in on the property. Considered a cult hit, with good but not exceptional ratings, the first season made enough of an impact that a second season was assured.
The X-Files is available to purchase of stream from Amazon
Review: Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on January 9th, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.