If Mutant Reviewers had started its run a little earlier in the ’90s, I have no doubt that we would have a virtual library of fan gushing about the legendary show that was The X-Files. What originated as somewhat of a odd cult series quickly blew up into a legitimate phenomenon with loads of name recognition throughout the mid- and late-1990s. Everywhere you turned — including one memorable episode of The Simpson — there were people geeking out over X-Files.
For me, I was pretty much on board from the beginning. I remember huddling down in my parent’s basement in high school on Friday nights, partially enthralled and partially squirming at the exploits of FBI’s most famous monster hunters. By the time I went to college in 1994, I was such a fan of the show that I slapped up an X-Files poster in my dorm room (to the dismay of my cool-jock roommate) and would gush about how this was the best show of all time to anyone who would listen. Yet, as fandom sometimes does, my interest with the show waned as it headed into its sixth and seventh season. I guess I outgrew it, but I suppose that it was the oversaturation of X-Files in popular media that also did me in.
Created by Chris Carter, The X-Files debuted on the Fox network in September of 1993. As the series began, Scientific-minded FBI agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is assigned to work with Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), a pariah in the agency who believes in all sorts of vast conspiracies and has been trying to track down his sister, who was abducted by aliens when they were children.
The combination of a skeptic and a believer, of science and superstition, proved to be a winning formula. It also didn’t hurt that Scully and Mulder had amazing chemistry, being a team of partners that were against all of the craziness the world had to throw at them. The way they balanced each other out, with Mulder eagerly grasping any ridiculous concept while Scully seeking the logical explanation, provided a great tension as well.
Rounding out the regular cast were two more important figures: Walter Skinner (Mitch Peleggi) and the Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis). Skinner was Scully and Mulder’s direct boss who was, depending on the episode, their ally or antagonist. He often functioned as a buffer between the X-Files department and the higher-ups that wanted their reports quashed. CSM, on the other hand, was a total mystery for a good portion of the show, a figure of power and intrigue who didn’t even have a proper name.
All episodes of The X-Files were broken up into one of two categories. There were your standard monster-of-the-week tales, with the duo solving some sort of crime or tracking down yet another slice of cryptozoology gone awry. And then there were the mythos episodes, the ongoing epic storyline of aliens, conspiracies, black goo, government coverups, and the like. While the monster episodes were one-offs, the mythos entries offered nothing but a string of cliffhangers while the show presumably pushed toward the full reveal.
The X-Files quickly became one of Fox’s most-watched series, peaking with an average of 19.8 million viewers in its fifth season. It was the middle of the show’s run, too, that a feature film was interjected between seasons — 1998’s X-Files: Fight the Future. It was a decent hit, making $198 million, even though it couldn’t actually resolve any of the overarching mythology of the show.
But as the show started to get a little long in the tooth, the winning formula of “conspiracies + attractive people” began to falter. Duchovny and Anderson had a bit of a falling out during this period, and the former wanted out of the series entirely. Fox started working on creating a replacement duo — John Doggett (Terminator 2’s Robert Patrick) and Minoca Reyes (Annabeth Gish) — for the later seasons, but they never really clicked with fans.
By the end of the ninth season, everyone knew it was ready to call it quits. The X-Files wrapped up its original run in May 2002 with the finale “The Truth,” where Mulder and Scully get a bit of a happy ending while uncovering the conspiracy of an alien colonization of the world.
Yet The X-Files as a franchise was far but over. A short-lived spin-off, The Lone Gunmen, produced 13 episodes in 2001 about a trio of conspiracy nuts that were in some of the more popular X-Files episode. In a bizarre coincidence, the March 2001 pilot featured a storyline about a hijacked airplane that was sent to crash into the World Trace Center. While people did like the show, the lower ratings than the X-Files prompted its early cancelation.
There was another X-Files-adjacent show called Millennium that Chris Carter created, this one running from 1996 through 1999. It was a darker series (if that’s possible) about ex-FBI agent Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) who investigates serial killers with a psychic ability and deals with a secret society known as the Millennium Group.
After The X-Files’ cancellation, a second feature film — I Want to Believe — came out in 2008 and made a lackluster $68 million. And that was it for The X-Files… at least until 2016, when fans were surprised to get a 10th season of six episodes to try to tie up some loose ends. Despite mixed reviews, an 11th season of 10 episodes was created and aired in early 2018, which marks the most recent (and, until now, the last) X-Files entry. Both seasons saw vastly fewer viewers than the original run, but they weren’t insignificant.
It’s so strange to look back at The X-Files, which is such a child of the 1990s, and see how it’s lingered on for two decades past its sell-by date. I may not be a fan these days, but I have warm feelings for how this show got us looking over our shoulder and propping up every conspiracy that the internet would ever believe.