Arguably, television has replaced cinema as the preeminent visual entertainment medium. Shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and The Wire have stolen Hollywood’s thunder when it comes to dynamic and progressive storytelling. It wasn’t always this way, however, and back in 1993 a strange, cultish show about two mismatched FBI agents struck a chord with the public, tapping into a throbbing vein of pre-millennial angst and paranoia. But twenty years later, just what was the impact of Mulder and Scully’s unflinching look into the paranormal abyss? They said the truth was out there, but what happened when we actually found it?
My overwhelming memory of The X-Files is lush green trees, dripping wet with rain. Partly, this was a production limitation of Fox’s new hit series, with the cast and crew filming in Vancouver in Canada, the wet climate and vast forests having to double up as all manner of side-lined , backwoods rural towns. But also, this enticingly enigmatic backdrop served as a metaphor for one of the series’ key motifs, that notion that outside of our comfort zone, out in the wilds, something was stirring, and we had every right to be afraid.
For a long time, the show had become so engrained in popular culture that its two protagonists, the erratic but gifted Fox Mulder, and the stoical sceptic Dana Scully, served as a by-word for mystery, for the unexplained. The biscuits in the cupboard had all been eaten? Get Mulder and Scully on the case. You’ve misplaced the car keys? Mulder would probably say they’ve been abducted, whilst Scully rolls her eyes and goes along for the ride. Hell, even Catatonia scored a hit single paying tribute to the duo. That’s the kind of fame you can’t put a price on, man.
And they seemed to be everywhere, popping up in The Simpsons, cavorting in a bed on the cover of Rolling Stone, and on posters decorating the bedroom walls of millions of alienated teenagers over the world. This was the dawn of internet culture, an era when something new was happening, but it hadn’t yet come to dominate our lives. In one way, it’s an exciting time, in another, terribly naive. Of all the things it got right, one of the areas that it got wrong was how the internet would come to seep into our lives, becoming a central part of our working lives, and our social lives, a far cry from the bookish nerds who scoured the net in the show, looking for the truth in lines of computer code.
But if that was a miss-step, one thing creator Chris Carter nailed was the idea that most people believed that something was going wrong with our society, but we couldn’t quite put our finger on what the problem was. For a show that, in retrospect, seems pre-occupied with aliens, ghosts, and monsters, Mulder and Scully spent an awful lot of time fighting a much more earthbound enemy – their own government. The government conspiracy plotline occupied a large part of the series mythology, evolving out of a growing discontent and suspicion that we were being lied to, that stuff was going on out there, and it was being hidden from us. In the post-Watergate world, it seemed to be out in the open that governments were bending the rules and operating in the dark, but The X-Files brought that fear into the light, and many people recognised a kind of truth in its paranoia.
A millennial change, in real life terms, is just a moment in time, a changing of seconds that will be repeated until the human race has expired and we can no longer mark the passing of time. But in psychological terms, it’s a very big deal, with all manner of fears, doubts, and anxieties rising to the fore. The X-Files completely captured this sensation, with Mulder’s quest for the truth acting as a mirror for our own need to have the answers revealed to us. In a world where religion was being laid out on the philosophical battlefield, many people were turning to the periphery for their answers, seeing more truth in the existence of aliens or the supernatural than they did in the nightmarish atrocities that were taking place in the real world. As a deluge of digital information began to spread into our lives, previously outlandish perspectives suddenly made a lot more sense, and The X-Files seemed like the perfect realisation of this fear that our darkest desires might actually be the truth.
This was all helped, of course, by the care and attention paid to the show, a heightening of production values allowing it to look more cinematic than television had done so before. This wasn’t some schlocky, tacky fright fest, with a man in a rubber suit jumping out to scare us (or at least, it wasn’t always like that…), it was a sleek and dynamic look at darkness, our two heroes being thrown into the kind of dangers that had never been seen on television before. This was the first awakenings of a time when television began to up its game, to realise that it could do things that cinema could only dream of, and finally, technology had caught up with our creative ambitions.
And taking things further, The X-Files was playful, gleefully indulging in post-modern explorations of what it was about, defying convention, and upturning expectations. The X-Files treated the viewer with a certain kind of respect, reasoning that anyone who had bought into the series so far would be able to cope with a few ‘meta-stories’, where the show devoured its own mythology and tropes. It was rare for television to display such self-awareness, and it set the tone for everything to come.
But, after nine series, and two feature films, The X-Files ended, arguably with a whimper, rather than a bang. Early fans like me had outgrown the show, having discovered other pre-occupations (like puberty, frankly), or having become frustrated by the over-arching and increasingly confusing story arc that found Mulder chasing after the truth of what happened to his missing sister. What had originally seemed enigmatically enticing now seemed drawn out and confused, and people began to tire of staring into a darkness that revealed only more darkness.
And, perhaps most importantly, the world changed. In one fell swoop, the events of September the 11th, 2001, changed the way people in the western world examined their reality, in a much more profound way than The X-Files ever did. Over the course of one day, the threat of alien invasion, or of supernatural terror, seemed insignificant in the face of international terrorism, or religious fundamentalism. As the world geared up for conflict, men operating in shadowy government organisations suddenly didn’t seem so entertaining, becoming a either a twisted cog in real-world politics, or just another line of defence against our enemies, depending on what perspective you took. Mulder and Scully’s quest to find the truth seemed somehow ill-judged and misguided when young men and women were being sent to war, fighting a battle dominated by grey areas and deception. In a weird way, Mulder and Scully were no longer part of the solution, they’d become part of the problem.
But as The X-Files celebrates its 20th anniversary, enough distance has passed for us to revisit this classic slice of innovative and creative storytelling. Looking back, we might laugh at Mulder and Scully’s primitive cellphones, or Scully’s unflattering collection of trouser-suits, but the central conceit of the show seems eerily relevant in the current age. As we sink deeper and deeper into a world of surveillance and data monitoring, where shadowy corporations know our every move and desire, Mulder’s paranoia takes on a new resonance, whilst Scully’s scepticism seems oddly admirable and strong willed. One suspects that Wikileaks, or the case of Bradley Manning, would be the kind of cases that would land upon Mulder’s desk, evidence of the kind of global conspiracy that found him relegated to the basement of the FBI headquarters in Washington. 20 years after its debut, it seems that the truth is still out there, and we seem ever more willing to stand up and look for it. Steven Rainey