Test Pilot #2: The X-Files
Debut Date: September 10, 1993 on FOX
Series legacy: One of the best science fiction television series of all-time, a major catalyst for modern fan cultures and the primary innovator of the use of “mythology” and its balance with standalone, procedural episodes.
Welcome to the newest regular feature here at TV Surveillance, the fantastically titled, Test Pilot. In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.
The first batch of Test Pilot files were chosen because of their importance to today’s television landscape. The medium has expanded in a lot of ways over the past 15-20 years, and to get this series of posts going, we are going to tackle four series that are perhaps most important to what we see on television today — and perhaps what we’ll see in the future. If successful, we’ll eventually move on to failed pilots, groups of posts based on genre, etc. It’s not as exciting to only look at the high-quality stuff, so hopefully we’ll get to some interesting failures in the future.
In today’s second file, we tackle FOX’s X-Files. The mid-’90s sci-fi thriller may have been gone from airwaves for almost a decade, but its influence is still reverberating across the medium. In this entry, Megan Clayton and I discuss why that’s so. Megan, the veteran fan of the series, is up first:
The premiere of The X-Files early in the last decade brought alien abductions and conspiracy theories out of shadowy basements wall-papered with news clippings and into the world of prime time television. Although the series still drew a large audience of geeks, nerds and people seriously operating under the assumption that the military recovered extraterrestrial bodies from Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, The X-Files will live on as the first program of its kind to break into popular culture.
The show’s popularity also lead to a mid-‘90s rebirth for the genre in that medium and helped establish FOX as the place to go for good sci-fi programming. Plots heavy with aliens and government conspiracy also paved the way for thematic similarity in the spate of sci-fi shows we’ve had since then. When it went off the air in 2002 FOX tried to replace the series and replicate its success with Dark Angel, a show about a secret government project using hybrid DNA to create a super-soldier, and more recently with Fringe, a show structured in much the same way, with a male/female duo (one of whom is an FBI agent!) who investigate paranormal phenomena.
But The X-Files of course, didn’t bring science fiction to mainstream television audiences. Stories about space travel and aliens have been appearing on the small screen since the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and there’s probably not a person in the world who hasn’t seen at least one episode of Star Trek. However, the presentation of the material – space travel and science as tools for government control and corruption rather than avenues for enlightened exploration – put The X-Files in a separate class from most of its television ancestors.
The series’ pilot episode introduces these themes and most of the others that recur throughout the series’ nine seasons. Conspiracy is present from the moment we meet Special Agent Dana Scully, who is being reassigned to spy on Fox “Spooky” Mulder, an FBI prodigy who has developed an unbecoming and unsettling devotion to investigating cases with a paranormal bent. Although the conflicted Assistant Director Skinner has yet to come onto the scene, the familiar face of the soon-to-be-duo’s arch enemy, The Smoking Man, is there to see Scully off on her first assignment.
Throughout the series Scully, who sees everything through a scientific lens, uses her med school training to drive a hard point into Mulder’s paranoid theories, though the two do switch sides occasionally in the dichotomy between faith and reason, most notably regarding Scully’s strong Catholic faith, which Mulder finds eternally puzzling. The X-Files uses the characters’ biases to argue the virtues of faith and reason – Mulder goes with his gut and is usually right, but he can never confirm his suspicions without Scully’s level head and rigorous detective work. And the show never fails to point out when a character is letting faith or reason lead him or her astray – Scully’s inability to turn in a report to The Smoking Man that completely debunks Mulder’s work shows her backtracking on her headstrong faith in scientific convention. And although the two are set up for conflict, they eventually discover the only people they can trust are each other – a trust that is tested and questioned, but never broken.
In a discussion of the show’s recurring motifs it would be a serious oversight not to mention the sexual tension that starts to smolder in the pilot, when Scully literally has to disrobe in front of Mulder so he can examine three spots on her back that are eerily similar to the alien surgical scars. Such tension is pretty much a hallmark of the male/female television duo, and a show with this much geek written into it has to throw in something that popular audiences and fan boys alike can understand on a visceral level. The “X-Files,” however, has been one of the few shows in the last 20 years to play the sexual tension correctly. Scully and Mulder eventually jump the shark and jump into bed together, but the “Will they do it?” question doesn’t do more than tease viewers until the very last season, and enhances their character development rather than turning the both of them into simpering lovers early on (or ever, for that matter).
And speaking of sex, I have to point out Dana Scully as one of the best television heroines of all time. The X-Files debuted during the “third wave” feminism of early ’90s, and is one of the first shows to depict a thoroughly modern woman: Scully does a man’s job and she does it with distinction, and though she cries many tears and leans on Mulder for moral support, she’s never depicted as a stereotype, unlike so many female protagonists before and since. And her pantsuits are to die for – better than Hilary Clinton’s.
And now, a perspective from me, who has seen various episodes from time to time in recent years:
Perhaps even more than our first file The Sopranos, The X-Files is a series with an influence that is still being felt today. Despite the popularity of the original Star Trek (that in itself came about mostly in syndication and not during the original series initial run), science fiction was not a welcome genre on television, especially gloomier science fiction. After Star Trek, the “science fiction” on broadcast television all felt like watered down versions of that fantasy actioneer variety (the original Battlestar Galactica, V) or something of light, mostly frivolous fun (Quantum Leap). Based on my research, there were probably less than 15-20 moderately successful science fiction series on the air between the end of Star Trek and the beginning of X-Files. The late ’70s and ’80s were not the golden age for science fiction television.
But since The X-Files? A different story. I think a lot of sci-fi and “genre” fans would say that the late ’90s and most of the ’00s was something of a golden age and in many ways, those popular series (Buffy, Lost, the new Battlestar Galactica, I could go on) owe something to The X-Files. Let me count the ways. First of all, The X-Files was the first major series to fully toy with the lexicon and establishment of a “mythology.” Chris Carter and company openly discussed a mythology in the press and simply didn’t actually use that as a storytelling approach (more on that). The openness with their fans and the press about the complications is something that future show runners and series bring out before anyone ever even sees the pilot. This was especially true in the direct aftermath of The X-Files, but is becoming less regular now as networks have realized that “mythology” and “arcs” sometimes scare general audiences.
Secondly, the implementation of the mythology as a storytelling technique was certainly unique to broadcast television in the early to mid-’90s. At that time, it was assumed that audiences wouldn’t want difficult, long-lasting stories from their television, but it’s probable that assumption came about because said audiences were actually never given any stories of that ilk. One notable exception is Twin Peaks, which shot to the top of the television world and quickly fell to a scorched earth in less than a calendar year, but did so mostly because ABC did not want the series to extend the larger arcs. In relation to the mythology and that storytelling approach, the series’ ability to mix those mythology episodes with more standalone efforts was also a novel idea in the world of television. This notion is perhaps the most important point to make about The X-Files because of how television is changing today. As I noted, in the post-Lost world, networks are afraid of series that appear to focus almost entirely on mythology, so the oscillation between mythology and the also infamous Monster of the Week cases is now a go-to approach across all of television. In that respect, many new series that have a sci-fi slant and major mythology start out appearing to be more procedural-heavy (Fringe and Supernatural are the most obvious examples of this). Really, that approach now applies to more than just science fiction series and works across all genres (see: FX’s Justified).
Finally, The X-Files‘ legacy is probably most felt in reference to the relationship between fans and a text. Although Lost gets closely attached to the rise of the internet, The X-Files was there first, right at the cusp of the internet, message boards and easier-connected, multi-national fan communities. Major fan cultures were not original to X-Files fandom (Star Trek), but as the New York Times suggested in 2005, the series “may have been the first show to find its audience growth tied to the growth of the internet.” The listservs, the Mulder-Scully fan fiction and the fan reviews were again not completely original ideas, but technology ramped them up to a new level of fan interaction that now seems completely natural to us as viewers. Meanwhile, the mergers and synergistic relations between media producers happening at the same time thinks to deregulation allowed for the series to be become a major brand that crossed mediums, from television, video games, PC games, apparel, novels and films. To this day, The X-Files is one of the most recognized content brands around.
On a completely unrelated note, I can’t leave this section without mention how much direct influence the series had on television in terms of related programming, sort of spin-0ffs and its fantastic writing staff. The Lone Gunmen were given their own (failed) spin-off and Chris Carter helped get thematically similar series like Millennium and Harsh Realm onto the air where many X-Files writers then took up shop there (Glen Morgan and James Wong handled Millennium during season two most notably). Aside from that, a number of the series writers have gone on to do some great things in television. Vince Gilligan is the mastermind behind Breaking Bad. Tim Minear worked on Angel, Dollhouse and more. Chip Johannssen was the show runner on Dexter for years, Howard Gordon did the same for 24. Wong and Morgan have done some okay movies (Final Destination, Willard) and Darin Morgan is now a consulting producer for Fringe. In any even, X-Files has even an indirect influence on today’s media.
In relationship to the technology-powered fan culture surrounding the series, the same could have been said for the development of UFO/conspiracy groups. The rise of the internet allowed people who had questions, reports of specific sightings or a general discontent with how the world was operating to seek out those answers, to find the proverbial truth that was out there. Individuals with an individual belief became groups with a group belief and the ability to make themselves heard to some extent. Local concerns could become global concerns. Culturally, the series tapped in to those feelings, as well as the other frustrations and fears plaguing the early- to mid-’90s society. Most notably, there was a sense during that time that the technology I’ve been lauding so much thus far would be nothing but a bad thing. Privacy concerns, questions of power dynamics and all sorts of fears had people wondering if 1984-type scenarios were going to come to pass with this World Wide Web of information. In short, The X-Files debuted right as our society moved into a postmodern age that started to recognize that constant change, constant innovation would now be a regular thing instead of a scenario with a beginning and an end.
That postmodern backdrop emphasized the transition from the glossy, superficially upbeat ’80s into something more critical and cynical in the ’90s. Again thanks to the telecom boom and an emphasis on world trade, the culture felt at once more expansive and open, but also dangerous. The first gulf conflict became the first major television war and other events like the fall of the Berlin Wall brought forth the McLuhan idea of the global village, as the country’s economy became more intertwined with the world economy. In that sense, despite being thought of as one of the most stable times in American history, the ’90s was full of uneasiness. Questions about privacy, safety, job security and more made for a confusing time. In that confusion, we looked for someone to blame and the government is just such an easy target. If the government was letting us down by slowly sending our jobs overseas and spying on our computers, who is to say that they’re not covering up some of the weirder things that happen?
In the pilot episode of The X-Files, much of that uneasiness, that grimness is on display. The colors are dark, life is meant to seem simple, but there’s a bubbling sense of terror on the fringes that is hard to describe. No one quite knows what is happening out there in the world, but they know something is.
Moreover, perhaps what is most obvious to me in viewing the pilot is the stark contrast between believers and the technology-friendly and those who are not so welcome to what the world is becoming. Mulder represents a new individual in our culture at the time, one that not only doesn’t believe in what he’s being told, but one that goes out and attempts to prove said falsities. And to support his unique opinions, he’s willing to embrace technology and what it can help him accomplish. On the other hand, the small town’s law enforcement and even the bureaucrats in Washington are either not willing to embrace the new world or are trying to suppress it. Meanwhile, Scully’s stuck in the middle as someone who is certainly open to what technology can do (she uses a laptop!), but is perhaps skeptical of how certain people like Mulder are using it to craft their viewpoints.
In the core of this argument is a discussion of power dynamics. The Cigarette Smoking Man and his crew are part of a machine that doesn’t want folks like Mulder finding out the proverbial truth that internet-based research could bring them. And again, before this time, it was much easier to keep fringe beliefs suppressed because there was no way to mobilize. The internet and telecom innovations changed all that, leaving those formerly in complete control vulnerable. Mulder is obviously at an advantage because he does have some access to government files that not everyone on the internet can see, but he certainly stands in as a representative of a certain viewpoint. The mobilization of certain groups online makes the famous “Truth is out there” line apply to more than just aliens, as the internet is full of groups looking for the real story on all sorts of issues, be it the economy, health care, etc. This was a time when people started waking up to the idea that not everything they read is always true and the series’ pilot plays right into that.
Moreover, I think there is something to be said for the fact that in a way, science and faith are aligned on the same side in The X-Files. That’s not absolutely uncommon, but with my experience in watching a series like Lost, the two ideals oftentimes end up on opposite sides of an argument. Here, Mulder is certainly more of a believer than a scientist, but what he believes in is very connected to scientific and technological issues. Scully on the other hand, comes from the scientist side of things, but is absolutely willing to believe in something that she never thought possible. There is definitely an inherent opposition to the two ideals and that’s why one character is a “believer” and the other a “scientist,” but I appreciated the series’ ability to not make it a black and white issue at the outset. Most series complicate the argument as things progress, but here it’s already a big issue from the jump.
Additionally, so many of the elements I discussed above are front and center here in the pilot episode. The main part of the episode is a procedural case in the most traditional sense, though one that introduces a larger story that I’m assuming supplies the series with material for seasons to come. As Megan notes, the series features a nice combination of science and police work, creating stories that are accessible to both sci-fi “nerds” and the general public. This is certainly one of the major reasons the series reached a specific level of success during its run. However as a fan of mythology-heavy series myself, I can see why certain fans were frustrated with the story as it went on, because the premise allows for detours in to more procedural fare, and from everything that I’ve read, Carter and company were more than willing to take those detours. That lack of clear direction might have derailed the series’ legacy, especially based on the reaction to those later seasons, but if most of the cases are as interesting as the one here, I wouldn’t have any trouble sticking with the series through its case-based excursions. At the same time, the nuggets of information here are certainly enough to get the fans talking about possible directions, plot lines, etc. and it’s thus obvious why the series had such a rabid fan base.
Finally, despite all the mythology, conspiracy stuff, etc., I appreciated that the pilot does make an effort in convincing us that Mulder and Scully are people to care about just as much, if not more than the stories. Both are inherently likable and eccentric without being too television-y and artificially “quirky,” and have an instant connection, that while can surely be read as sexual, is simply more trusting and comforting. The scene in the motel room where Scully comes to Mulder and has him examine her lower back is surely read as sexually charged, but also something that depicts a quick trust between two people who just met days before. In that sense, the characters aren’t automatically written to be antagonistic foils who will eventually fall one another, but instead complicated people with certain beliefs that impact who they are and how they relate to others. That’s a great distinction to make.
Conclusions on legacy: Totally deserved.