The X-Files (1993-2002) was a science fiction television series that took all of our familiar fears—who we can and cannot trust—and spun out nine years' worth of paranoid fantasies. Created by executive producer Chris Carter, whose singular vision made the show both a cult hit and an iconic representation of the 1990s, The X-Files, which premiered on the Fox Network, reflected American anxieties in a post-Cold War universe.
The X-Files revolved around the existence of extraterrestrials and government conspiracies and explored the idea that the enemy we cannot trust lurks in the very institutions we have entrusted to protect us. The show centered upon its two leads, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson), FBI agents dedicated to finding the truth. The X-Files was in fact two shows in one—the formulaic stand-alone episodes in which both heroes chased after the monster of the week, and the mythology arc, which dealt with aliens and the government cover-up to conceal their existence—though sometimes both factions intertwined. But the show's true intent was to uncover the paranoid fears toward an omniscient and all-powerful government institution. As Carter stated in a CNN interview: "The conspiracy is what originally fueled the show, and was the sort of core idea which drove the series —the conspiracy of the government to keep the truth about the existence of extraterrestrials from the public."
The inspiration for the series came from various sources, such as The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a 1970s series starring Darren McGavin. In fact, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, with its emphasis on paranormal storylines, is a far closer predecessor to the The X-Files than any other television program. Carter specifically referred to it when he was given the option to create his own series: "[Peter Roth, vice president of Twentieth Century] asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to do something as scary as a show that was on when I was a kid called Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I loved that show. I'd always been waiting to do a show like that. . ." ("A Discussion with Chris Carter," 15). Kolchak: The Night Stalker focused on a newspaper reporter, Carl Kolchak, who stumbled upon paranormal activity, usually in the wildly implausible forms of motorcycle-driving zombies (Lowry 12), vampires, werewolves, and the like. Like Fox Mulder, Kolchak had a difficult time getting everyone, from his bosses to the local police, to believe his wild tales. Outside of that pedigree, however, The X-Files sharply deviates from its predecessor in many ways. Carter quickly understood the limitations a show like Kolchak: The Night Stalker could have had on his project and instead took a page from the Oscar-winning film Silence of the Lambs (1991). Released two years before The X-Files premiered on TV, Silence of the Lambs, starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, featured an FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer. While the film didn't deal with evil of the paranormal sort, it did offer a way for Carter to present UFO phenomena more realistically by having federal agents tracking and investigating cases that were sent their way. This avoided the trap The Night Stalker had fallen into by having its main hero simply stumble onto cases (Lowry 11). The Silence of the Lambs also provided another influence in the form of Foster's character Agent Clarice Starling, who was an inspiration for Agent Dana Scully.
Historical events also served to present the series with its bent toward government conspiracies. Carter stated that the Watergate hearings had a tremendous impact on him while he was young (Lowry 12). In fact, Deep Throat (outed as Mark Felt years later), who was a deep background source for Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, was also a character during the first season of The X-Files, a shadowy figure deep within the recesses of the government who supplied Mulder valuable information concerning government conspiracies or paranormal activity the government chose to cover up. The use of such a signifier helped create a paranoiac atmosphere that was both familiar and realistic to viewers. Thirty years after President Kennedy's assassination and two years after the release of the popular Oliver Stone film JFK (1991), which brought assassination conspiracy theories to the attention of the American public, audiences were primed for a series like The X-Files. Carter became confident of the show's appeal following a test screening of the pilot episode. After the episode pulled favorable ratings from the audience, Carter realized that "[E]veryone in that room—everyone—believed that the government was lying to them. Everyone believed that the government was conspiring to keep the truth—whatever truth it was—from them. So I realized this was a very rich and prevalent idea that I've made a lot of use on various episodes: 'Deny Everything'" ("A Discussion with Chris Carter," 14).
Two thematic elements in the series—truth and trust—were twin poles that represented an American mindset mired in paranoia and conspiracy: what are we to believe? Who are we to trust? The show's two taglines—"Trust No One" and "I Want to Believe"—exemplified this paradox. While the environment Carter established gave free rein to paranoid fantasies, in which extraterrestrials, monsters, and government figures lurked in the shadows and manipulated agendas that dictated the lives of those who lived outside those murky depths, there was another environment which provided the possibility of truth, faith, and loyalty.
In the series pilot, Agent Scully, a forensic scientist, is assigned to keep an eye on Mulder's work in the X-Files department and report back to her superiors. Mulder and Scully's first case occurs in the Pacific Northwest, where several teenagers were supposedly abducted by aliens. During their investigation, Scully uncovers a pivotal moment in Mulder's past which explains his obsession with the paranormal. Years earlier his sister Samantha was supposedly abducted by aliens. In order to uncover the truth of her abduction, Mulder sacrificed his promising career as a criminal profiler to head the X-Files, so-called paranormal cases that were marginalized in the FBI (so marginalized that Mulder's office is in the basement of the FBI headquarters). Though Mulder and Scully's relationship is suggestively adversarial, with Mulder playing the rogue agent to Scully's button-down establishmentarian, the two quickly form an alliance, no doubt based on Scully's respect for Mulder's work as a criminal profiler, as well as the revelation of his traumatic past life experience. Scully's skepticism becomes a welcoming factor in Mulder's paranormal investigations, while Scully embraces Mulder's adventurousness and the challenges of his beliefs serve to strengthen her own. The two, in a sense, become the twin poles upon which the show bases its thematic goals. Yet, as the series progressed over the years, it also became apparent that Mulder and Scully could question his or her own beliefs and certainties as much as they questioned each other's.
Though the show used forensic science as an antidote to its supernatural backdrop, The X-Files in fact weighed heavily in favor of faith. Scully's scientific logic and reason were nonetheless a much needed counterweight to Mulder's often childish naïveté. Yet the entire premise of the show leaned toward faith, whether it was in the existence of extraterrestrials and a government cover-up, in God, in science, in humanity and friendship, or, in Mulder and Scully's case, in one another. Though it was sometimes cynical and steeped in paranoia, the show was optimistic. It assumed that despite the worldwide conspiracy in which Mulder and Scully found themselves battling, there was still something left to believe in: the sky, darkly matted with stars, could rain down with aliens bent on destruction, but it could also be a place of wonder and awe. Faith was a hard-earned beacon of hope in the darkness of paranoia and conspiracy.
Mulder and Scully's obsession pulled them through a crucible of fire, testing their will and their faith in one another and their beliefs. Mulder's singular obsession with uncovering the truth had a detrimental impact on his and his partner's lives and that of their families. Mulder's father (whose Faustian pact with aliens to forestall an invasion long enough to find an antidote against them led to the sacrifice of his own daughter to those experiments) lost his family because of his betrayal. He also lost his life at the end of Season 2 ("Anasazi"), presumably because he knew too much. Scully was likewise abducted during the beginning of season two (two-parter "Duane Barry" and "Ascension"), and later learned she had cancer in season four ("Memento Mori") due to experiments that had been performed on her during her abduction. Her sister Melissa was sacrificed when the show's resident villain, Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea), shot and killed her, mistaking her for his real target, Scully ("Piper Maru"). Mulder himself was abducted, shot, infected with the Black Oil (a strange amorphous extraterrestrial creature), beaten up, and suffered various other forms of victimization. These losses and sacrifices proved to audiences that the stakes were high, and that even Mulder and Scully could become victims.
The losses and sacrifices both characters experienced were the prices they paid in their mythic quest to uncover the truth. Mulder's obsession mirrored the obsessions of JFK conspiracists, who continue to search for the truth despite resistance. In fact, the show alludes to this link with the Lone Gunmen, a trio of conspiracy geeks who sometimes lend help to Mulder and Scully during their investigations. And, like conspiracy buffs, who only come close to getting a glimpse of that truth without exactly ripping it wide open, Mulder's quest was filled with fits and starts, red herrings, and leads that ended up in dead ends. The nature of the shadowy government which always seemed to be one step ahead of the show's erstwhile heroes provided The X-Files with its sinister and paranoiac atmosphere.
While Mulder and Scully were at constant odds within this conspiracist fantasy, battling bureaucracy (Mitch Pileggi's Deputy Director Walter Skinner and his various superiors were alternately portrayed as allies or as obstructionists), a confederacy of lies and "plausible deniability," and sometimes each other, they discovered a faith in one another they were not likely to find elsewhere. Though their relationship was largely platonic, based on their mutual respect as friends and colleagues, their trust in one another turned romantic as the show grew more mired in its paranoiac visions.
Ironically, executive producer Carter wanted to avoid the trap of drawing his two leads into romantic entanglement. Bob Greenblatt, then vice president of Fox's dramatic series development, revealed that "Chris from the very beginning always said, 'It's not going to be Moonlighting'" (Lowry 16). As the series progressed, the showrunner changed his mind, no doubt due to the fact that he could not avoid the obvious sexual chemistry between leads Duchovny and Anderson. Fans of the show were divided by the development of Mulder and Scully's relationship. Some preferred the two leads to remain platonic colleagues whose friendship and respect nonetheless formed the basis of the show's appeal. Others, known as "shippers" on AOL Internet chat boards, wanted the show's producers to proceed with a romantic relationship. The fact that Mulder and Scully's relationship generated attention was a clear indication of the show's hold on fans. This is by no means a minor point to address, since Mulder and Scully's partnership formed the crux of the show's more hopeful ideals. While the world they explored was always by turns dangerous and filled with uncertainty, the relationship between Mulder and Scully, give or take a few moments of doubt (the second season episode "Wetwired" being one example), was always unquestionable. Despite the darker aspects of the show's preoccupation with paranoia and distrust, the show revealed that faith, trust, and love, no matter how severely tested, will ultimately win out.
The level of trust both characters shared toward one another was aided by the fact that neither was able to trust anyone else. The roster of characters who made their way through the lives and work of both Mulder and Scully were a who's who list of shadowy conspiracy figures. Chief among them was the Cigarette Smoking Man, aka CSM, aka Cancer Man, aka CSM Spender. Played by William B. Davis, CSM was an enigmatic figure who pulled all the conspiracy strings affecting both Mulder and Scully. Though primarily not a member of the conspiracy syndicate, CSM was a man who had a great deal of clout within the conspiracist world of The X-Files, and who, along with Alex Krycek, earned the most ire from the show's fans. CSM was presented as someone who not only held all the cards but also knew the inner workings of the secrets Mulder yearned to uncover. Some of the show's most confrontational moments occurred between Mulder and CSM as Mulder tried to seek the answers he was looking for from his archnemesis, only to be thwarted with more obfuscation.
Originally, CSM was never meant to be more than a shadowy figure. In the pilot episode, he doesn't even have any lines. He lurks in the background, smoking his familiar Morley's cigarettes, while Scully delivers her final report to her superior. As Carter stated, "I never anticipated that he would be speaking as much as he is" (Lowry 20), but clearly the character caught on not only with the showrunner but with fans as well. He became a memorable villain and a useful signifier for the resistance Mulder and Scully encountered in their quest to uncover the truth.
The show also relied on a plethora of other secondary characters who forced Mulder and Scully further into their claustrophobic relationship. Even Mulder's romantic liaisons proved to be untrustworthy. The show introduced this theme in the season one episode "Fire," when Mulder's former college lover, Phoebe Green (Amanda Pays), now a detective with Scotland Yard, comes to America to investigate a series of fire-related murders caused by a highly combustible Englishman. Mulder's relationship with Phoebe is strained, and the reason becomes apparent later on in the episode when Green's questionable actions as a detective reveal her untrustworthy nature. Though the episode doesn't address the mythology arc which would later take greater shape in the second season, it does firmly establish Mulder's insistence on trust in his personal relationships and why his working and personal relationship with Scully becomes so important. Throughout the series, Mulder's relationships with other women (Marita Covarrubias [Laurie Holden] and Agent Diana Fowley [Mimi Rogers]) fell under equal treatment, as the series veered between revealing whether the women were Mulder's real allies, part of the conspiracy to destroy him and his work, or both. Even Mulder's relationship with his parents was equally doubtful, either because of complicity on his father's part or his mother's unwillingness to reveal the Sophie-like choice that led to her own daughter's abduction.
Characters such as Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin), Mr. X (Steven Williams), FBI Special Director Alvin Kersh (James Pickens, Jr.), FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Spender (Chris Owens), and others are alternately seen as allies and/or obstructionists. Only the Lone Gunmen—Frohike (Tom Braidwood), Byers (Bruce Harwood), and Langly (Dan Haglund)—achieve any status of trust within Mulder and Scully's world. The aliens themselves were also ambiguous in nature. Beyond a possible invasion their actual intentions were never really revealed, but the show rarely presented them as the true enemies (the prize of the show's best villains were decidedly human), though a few characters, like the menacing Bounty Hunter (Brian Thompson) and the nebulous Black Oil, were aggressive actors within the conspiracy. Our sympathies for Mulder and Scully could have easily been transferred to the aliens and their hybrids, who were presented most of the time as victims of government experiments and cruelty.
Later on in the series, after Duchovny left the show, producer Chris Carter introduced two new characters against which Agent Scully could test her own conspiracist ideas. Agent John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Agent Monica Reyes (Annabelle Gish), unlike Mulder or Scully, were deeply embedded in the FBI's regular detail, and therefore lacked the invested interest in the X-Files cases. This led to a disconnect in the show's conspiracy themes. Much of the conspiracy theorizing was placed on Scully's shoulders, which would have made sense were it not for the fact that throughout the entire series Scully was the show's resident skeptic. Duchovny's absence created a void which the show's producers had difficulty filling (thankfully, Duchovny returned during the final season, but the damage was already done and the show, which had gone on longer than its sell-by date, went off the air). While Scully was an important character, the show was primarily Mulder's. His conspiracies and fixation on finding the truth formed the backdrop of the entire series's run.
In The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies, author John Scalzi writes that "[t]he new realities of the post-9/11 world knocked the wind out of [The X-Files] and its ilk—who has time for alien conspiracies when there's enough going on down here?" (286), yet the show's use of alien conspiracies was precisely a metaphorical device for our preoccupation with threats we could not foresee or forestall. Rather, terrorism has been a catchall for all of our fears since 9/11, though it had been a fact of daily life in many other countries. And given the way the government behaved after the fact, conspiracists had much to worry about and chew on during the post-9/11 years. Indeed, a whole cottage industry arose over the conspiracist idea that the 9/11 attacks were in fact perpetrated by the American government. America was no doubt still primed for conspiracy tales. Rather, along with Duchovny's departure, The X-Files lost its steam because Carter had drawn such a convoluted narrative through the mythology arc that there was no plausible way in which he could have untangled it. By the series's end, the show's heroes were not only battling the government syndicate and extraterrestrials, but clones, Black Oil, alien bounty hunters, and the like. Each thread seemed more convoluted and disjointed than the other, and many of the answers Carter provided to tie them all together only begged more questions than answers. Yet the show's real strengths weren't in the conspiracy itself, but in Mulder and Scully's relationship and the way they bonded through the fog of obfuscation, lies, and cover-ups. "The truth is out there" became the series's hopeful message: that the truth found in faith and love can never be concealed as long as the faithful are genuine in their ideals.
"A Discussion with Chris Carter: Behind the Scenes at the X-Files." Spectrum May 1996: 12-17.
"Chris Carter Making a Splash with the X-Files". CNN. July 8, 1998.
Lowry, Brian. The Truth Is Out There: The Official Guide to The X-Files. New York: HarperPrism, 1995.
Scalzi, John. The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies. London: Rough Guide Ltd., 2005.