The X-Files is returning to television with a limited run of six new episodes, starring both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.
This return has been hinted at, hoped for and written about since the show concluded with nine seasons of episodes and two motion pictures under its belt, but why do you care? If you've never seen The X-Files, or need a refresher, you've come to the right place.
The X-Files was huge
The season four finale of Game of Thrones was a pretty big show, bringing in 7.1 million viewers. The Big Bang Theory, one of the most popular network television shows of the past ten years, enjoyed 18 million viewers for the first episode of season eight.
Those are both gigantic, incredibly large numbers for cable and broadcast TV. Those ratings are the equivalent of a home run; it's the stuff executives dream of.
The X-Files, at its height, had 27.3 million viewers for its season five premiere. And those were live viewers, there was no time-shifted viewing or other such bullshit. It's hard to believe now, but for the hour that The X-Files was on every week, life in the United States all but ground to a halt. It was a show that had the sort of popularity that's likely to be impossible to replicate these days.
The X-Files was insanely influential
Watching the X-Files today is kind of like listening to the Pixies and thinking they sound a bit like Nirvana, or watching Aliens and being bothered that it seems like a video game.
The X-Files introduced the greater mainstream audience to government conspiracy theories, to the ongoing mystery narrative that never seemed to have an end and with its premiere in 1993 it was one of the first shows to have fans running to the Internet to discuss whether the two leads would ever end up in bed together.
The program was originally supposed to be a take on Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a classic television show about a newspaper reporter who keeps finding supernatural goings on at the heart of his stories. Series creator Chris Carter made that character an FBI agent, and introduced a partner that would be skeptical of the "spooky" theories behind the things they were investigating.
It helped that they were both very good looking, although the fashions didn't exactly age well.
The titular X-Files referred to a place that the FBI stuffed cases and files that didn't make sense, and a brilliant FBI agent named Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) was investigating them. Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) joined him in the first episode of the show. This set up their relationship: One agent who had somewhat unbelievable theories about every case, and a skeptic who stuck to the science. It helped that Sculley was trained as a medical doctor; many of the shows most tense moments happen when's she's working with a body or allowing the evidence itself to guide the investigation.
The show worked because they were both smart, educated and driven. Mulder and Scully were an impressive team, and it didn't take long before the two characters came to trust each other.
This sounds great!
It is! And most of the series still holds up, gratuitous scenes of dark rooms and flashlights and Scully endlessly reiterating the plot of each episode aside. You can stream all nine seasons of the show on Netflix if you want, although they got a bit shaky when Duchovny left the show and Agent John Doggett, played by Robert "T-1000" Patrick, stepped in.
Those episodes remained kind of interesting, though, in a different way. During the years of her work on the X-Files Scully came to believe in many amazing things, so the new partnership had Doggett take over the role of the skeptic and Scully pick up the mantle of the believer. It didn't always work, but at least it was fresh.
I mean, there were super-soldiers and stuff. It got goofy.
Maybe I should take a step back. The show was originally supposed to follow a "monster of the week" formula where every week the two stars investigated some well know paranormal phenomena. When Anderson became pregnant in real life and creators had to explain her disappearance for a few episodes in the first season, they decided she had been abducted by aliens and suddenly the "mythology" was born.
The mythology episodes allowed the writers and creative team to take a break from monsters of the week to tell a broader story about alien goo and assassins, and there was a creepy-ass agent named Alex Krycek and a Cigarette Smoking Man who seemed to be the puppet master of the whole thing.
Wait, are you OK with spoilers?
Yeah, I'm fine with some spoilers, carry on
Cool! The world of the TV show was being set up for eventual alien colonization, and it was going to happen on a specific date. This was what all the mythology episodes were leading up to, but I don't think that plot point would be picked up again, even though the end of the world is kind of a significant thing. It's too hard to resolve all that story in a single movie or micro-season, and the mythology often barely made any sense.
Here, listen to this if you want to get a sense of it.
Ummm, I made it two minutes in, you said this show was good?
My friend, it's so good. Start at the beginning with the pilot to get a sense of the show's pacing and tropes, and then move onto "Ice," which is the eighth episode of the first season and acts as a kind of rebooted version of The Thing.
Go watch "Paper Clip," the second episode of season three, to see one of the most chilling images the show had to offer; a vast collection of files and tissue samples that seemed to include everyone who was given the smallpox vaccine.
The show constantly give us evidence that the government was a vast, uncaring machine that cared only for the survival of the few and nothing for the common person, while also exploring the personal life of Fox Mulder and his missing sister, a character he remembers being abducted by aliens during his childhood.
It's a dark show, and often scary, but it was always held down by some of the best writing in television at the time and the amazing chemistry between the two leads. There were also a fine collection of comedic episodes that directly made fun of how seriously the show often took itself.
A good example is "Small Potatoes," an episode where Mulder's life is taken over by a man who can shape shift. This episode does a great job of exploring the idea that Mulder is a super-sexy, intelligent special agent who more or less chooses to not have any fun, or even a life, due to his work on the X-Files.
Everyone, from show runner Chris Carter on down, thought The X-Files should play in many different genres and styles, and the writers and actors were all up to the task. The show was many things, some of them not so great, but it was rarely boring.
This is going to be great for Netflix!
Oh yeah, and that's kind of the point. Many of us are going to go running back to the series on streaming services, and that has a ton of value to the network.
Above all else, however, you can thank Netflix for The X-Files. Back when "Kevin Spacey's bad Southern accent" meant Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Big Red was primarily a haven for people to binge-watch old favorites or discover shows they missed the first time around. (It arguably still is; even if Netflix's marketing push is aimed at its original content, the company spends millions to secure syndication rights of shows like Friends and The Blacklist.) Binge-watching saved Family Guy. It saved Futurama — twice. The X-Files remains a known quantity, and that makes it viable.
24: Live Another Day was the show’s lowest rated season, but it didn’t matter because Amazon paid big money for it anyway based on expectation. The same will be true for Heroes Reborn later this year, and it will be true again for The X-Files. Don’t kid yourself into thinking Fox cares about your desire to see Mulder and Scully’s journey come to a proper conclusion. To them, you’re nothing more than leverage for the likes of Amazon, Netflix and anyone else who would pay for the right to steam exclusively.
This is the new face of television, where streaming rights are just as important as syndication rights. That means we get new content for shows we love, that we watch over and over, and that benefit the studio directly when it negotiates streaming deals. The X-Files is a perfect fit for that new world.
So will those shoulder pads and 90s-era haircuts still look as good?
We can hope.