Saturday, 14 September 2013

THE X FILES: 20 Years On

Saturday, 14 September 2013

I feel I have to write something about The X Files in the week it has somehow reached its 20th birthday. A cultural touchstone for many, I credit it with cementing my love of television drama back in the mid-'90s. It's strange to remember just how ingrained in pop-culture The X Files was around that time. There are now so many excellent TV shows vying for people's attention, that few rise above the rest in terms of both critical acclaim and popular appeal. That's perhaps because viewing's so fractured these days, whereas when The X Files started most people still only had four channels in the UK, and Sky's only non-sporting selling point was The Simpsons. It was little wonder the masses seized on this very unusual, intelligent, enjoyable show.

If you'd known me in 1994, I would have bored you to tears talking about The X Files. In those pre-internet days, it felt like TV shows were speaking more specifically to you through your box, and you had to get the word out amongst your school friends the following morning. There were no forums to talk to fellow X Philes, until much later in the show's lifespan. No Twitter of Facebook. When the internet took off with the general public around 1997, The X Files naturally became a big part of online fan communities—but the quality of the show was unfortunately on the slide around the same time. Like many people, I consider the first five seasons its heyday. I don't exactly hate season 6, and there are some good episodes in season 7, but my interest had completely waned in the final two seasons when David Duchovny's presence became sporadic at best. The X Files was all about Fox Mulder and Dana Scully to me, so from the moment those two characters parted company it was hard to care about the increasingly convoluted conspiracy mytharc.

These days, it's strange to think back about The X Files. I haven't sat down to watch any of its 202 episodes in perhaps 10 years or more, so the only ones that truly stand out from the crowd are the "funny ones"--usually written by Darin Morgan or Vince Gilligan. Like the one with the sci-fi author and the alien abduction anecdotes ("Jose Chung's From Outer Space"), the one with the town overrun by cockroaches ("War of the Coprophages"), the one with the shape-shifter who took Mulder's identity ("Small Potatoes"), or the one with the psychic ("Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"). Those and a smattering of the monster-of-the-week episodes, featuring some of the best villains TV's ever seen: the one with the liver-eating killer who could fit through any small space ("Squeeze"), the man who could will you to do things ("Pusher"), the one with the inbred family ("Home"), or the one with Brad Dourif's serial killer ("Beyond the Sea"). I guess some of its "experimental episodes" were also memorable, even if the qualitative results were sometimes iffy: the one that replicated the style of fly-on-the-wall TV show COPS ("X Cops"), the one with prolonged one-take camera shots ("Triangle"), or the one shot in monochrome with a Cher-loving monster ("Post-modern Prometheus").

Of course, at the time you were always clamouring for the episodes that continued the storyline about the government keeping secrets from the public about contact with aliens. It's just unfortunate these seasonal highlights became increasingly less enthralling, and I've forgotten most of their specifics. There's only so long you can keep people on a hook, and The X Files notoriously overstayed its welcome. If it had ended after season 5, when production switched from Vancouver to Los Angeles, I think it would be hailed as a complete classic. But the fact it continued for four more increasingly dumb seasons, even introducing new characters to replace Mulder, means it suffers from "The Simpsons Syndrome"--its impact on pop-culture is unquestionable and nobody can ever deny the quality of its glory years, but everyone knows the later seasns are pretty weak.

But we owe The X Files a great deal. It was arguably the first television show where the budget made it feel like you were getting weekly feature-films (these days we're so used to TV resembling film it's easy to forget that wasn't always the way), it made the FBI super cool, it gave us this edition of FHM magazine, it introduced the world to the genius mind of Darin Morgan (who otherwise seems to keep his talent to himself), it trained writer Vince Gilligan and producer-director Michelle MacLaren (who went on to create/direct Breaking Bad), it created the idea of TV shows having a serialised "mythology" running parallel to the standalone stories (even coining that very term), Mark Snow's style of pervasive music orchestration started a trend we're still enjoying; it directly led to the very underrated Millennium; it made theme tunes and opening titles awesome again; and it took chances with form and structure that modern shows took their cue from.

I loved The X Files. I wish I had the time to revisit all of its episodes, but 202 hours are better used elsewhere than in re-watching something. I'll leave you with this: the 20th anniversary reunion panel from this year's San Diego Comic Con, with Chris Carter, David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Vince Gilligan, Howard Gordon, Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan and Jim Wong.

The X Files: 10 September 1993 – 9 May 2002. The Truth Was Out There.