‘It was a groundbreaker’: how The X-Files changed television

The 1990s show - which returns to TV this week - was often dismissed as fodder for teenagers and conspiracy theorists, but its legacy is evident in today’s best television

In 2016 it is easy to forget there was a time when television was not so hot. In this golden age, successful film actors, writers, directors and producers think nothing of taking a television gig. Television – not film, not music – is the most immediate touchstone for mainstream pop culture.

Into this comes the revival of The X-Files, 14 years after it first wrapped. The show was an influential precursor to many shows since, a gem of the pre-internet age that became a phenomenon.

On this side of the Atlantic, The X-Files revival begins tonight with a six-part mini- series by the show's original creator, Chris Carter, and starring the original leads, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

To recap, they are FBI special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, a duo with chemistry so fizzing they inspired a Catatonia song, the ultimate late 1990s accolade. Mulder, a misty-eyed mystery-obsessed believer in the paranormal and textraterrestrial; Scully a pragmatic sceptic determined to find a sensible answer to her partner's theories.


Why does this television show matter? The impact of The X-Files is everywhere. The structure of the show can be broken into its "monster of the week" episodes and the broader show mythology. The wider arc of The X-Files focused on a government conspiracy, the existence of a shadowy group within the US government called the Syndicate, and the alien invasion and colonisation of the Earth they were trying to hide. Within all of that there was also the will-they-won't-they story of Mulder and Scully, and the mystery of their own personal backgrounds.

Today, we see multi-arc television as the norm, as broad, complex stories play out over time, in tandem with "story of the week" episodes. But it certainly wasn't the norm in 1993, when The X-Files began.

The show's atmosphere of government conspiracy, paranoia and secrecy was also unusual then, whereas now it is an almost saturated television market. Could there be 24 without The X-Files? Or Numb3rs, Prison Break, Homeland or Scandal? Conspiracy feeds into everything from House of Cards to Mr Robot, but it was The X-Files that brought it beyond JFK truthers into the mainstream.

The sentiment was pretty clear: trust no one. That philosophy is embedded in so many contemporary television programmes – Making a Murderer, True Detective, Sense8, Heroes, Dexter – whereas the dynamic of Mulder and Scully informs CSI, Bones, The Blacklist, Sherlock, The Doctor Who reboot and more. We might like to think of The X-Files as something frivolous, but it changed the course, structure and, perhaps most of all, the feeling of contemporary television.

Prime geek era

Derek O'Connor is a writer, film-maker, and fan. "It was on the cusp of the prime geek era, when all of a sudden popular culture occupied the mainstream, because it started off pre-internet. For a show like that to get the following it did, and have the impact it did and to cross over into the mainstream like it did was huge. It was one of the first 'mythology' shows, the big one obviously being Lost. So you had week in, week out episodes, but also this big back story unfolding.

“It also fed into that post-JFK thing about distrusting the government, and brought everything around the Area 51 thing into a new era.

"Some of the best episodes are just those good, scary monster TV shows, but it was also about the two of them [Mulder and Scully]. They had one of those great double acts. It was proper cult telly in the way that cult crosses over and becomes mainstream. Arc runs though everything now, but they did it before that. It was also the show that put Fox as a network on the map [in the] pre-cable era. And as an incubator for a newer generation, the simple fact that it begat Vince Gilligan is massively significant in terms of giving a voice like that an opportunity."

As a testing and starting ground for writing and production talent, The X-Files was very important. It was a very male show behind the scenes. Its most famous graduate was Vince Gilligan, who wrote 30 episodes, directed two and went on to create Breaking Bad. The 1998 series-six episode Drive was written by Gilligan and featured Brian Cranston as a guest star, who shone in the role; a decade later Gilligan would cast him as Walter White.

Duchovny wrote eight episodes and Anderson wrote one. Writer Howard Gordon went on to be the showrunner of 24, and created Homeland with Alex Gansa, who was also an X-Files writer. On the subject of Homeland, there are shades of both Anderson's and Duchovny's characters in Claire Danes's Carrie, not to mention government conspiracy and the atmosphere of paranoia.

The X-Files proved a valuable training ground for several directors, including Michelle MacClaren, who went on to direct 11 episodes of Breaking Bad as well as episodes of Game of Thrones and Better Call Saul. And long before hot-shot star name screenwriters were migrating to television, Stephen King was writing for The X-Files.

Maleness and money

The maleness of The X-Files is apparent even in its revival. Gillian Anderson says she was initially offered half the amount Duchovny was to return to the show. This seems especially misguided considering Anderson worked for years for equal pay on The X-Files and is arguably more successful than Duchovny now.

At the Light House cinema in Smithfield, Dublin, last weekend, one of the X-Files movies was shown at a fancy-dress screening. Programmer Charlene Lydon has "been a fan since the start. I've always had a tendency to like scary stuff. I was introduced to it as part of a Channel 4 'weird night' when they were showing weird stuff including the Fire episode of the X-Files.

“It was consistently good telly, especially back at the start,” Lydon says. “You had the ‘monster of the week’ episodes to make you laugh, but also really strong threads of actual story you could invest in, and two really great leads, which is something often lacking in cop-show things. But this was really good drama.

The X-Files might be dismissed now as something for tinfoil-hat teens with "The truth is out there" posters on their walls, but whatever the new series is like, the show's legacy is already embedded in our television culture.

"It was a groundbreaker," says Derek O'Connor. "That and Buffy [the Vampire Slayer]: everything now comes from those two shows."