Golden Age of Television has spoiled the modern audience. Thanks to increased quantity and quality of content available now, the shows that were made before that era are increasingly looking less impressive than when they aired first. It happens even to the shows that enjoyed enormous popularity or created their own cult status. Sometimes this is due to technical or content limitations being too apparent, sometimes due to new shows in much more imaginative way and sometimes simply because old shows ran out of steam. This, to a certain degree, happened to The X-Files, science fiction television series that originally aired in USA between 1993 and 2002 (not counting short 2016-2018 revival). Like many such long shows, there were many changes between beginning and the end – newly introduced showrunners, newly introduced characters, new styles. However, the closest the show was to the original vision of its creator Chris Carter was during first three seasons, aired from 1993 till 1996.
First season (1993/1994) introduced the basic concept and two protagonists. Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) is talented and experienced FBI agent who, because of his belief in paranormal and willingness to investigate various “weird” cases got relegated to obscure one-man unit dealing with “X-Files”. Dana Scully (played by Gillian Anderson) is FBI agent with medical and couple of other science degrees assigned as his partner, with vague task of debunking his work. Two of them begin their work by investigating cases related to UFO sightings and alleged alien abductions, but soon branch out to other paranormal phenomena or negative side effects of advanced science. Although Mulder is a believer, while Scully is a sceptic, two agents quickly become close friends. First season was, like with many such shows, partially experimental in nature and most paranormal themes were used for stand alone episodes that would later be called “Monster of the Week”. Couple of episodes dealing with UFOs and government conspiracies were more connected and that included season finale “Ehrlenmayer Flask”, which ended on very sour and dark note, with X-Files being shut down.
Second season (1994/1995) was affected by Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, which ultimately helped Carter to further develop what would later be known as X-Files mythology arc. Since Scully’s character had to be taken out of the show for a couple episodes, Carter and his team decided to have her mysteriously abducted in two-parter episode (“Duane Barry” and “Ascension”). Such episodes would later become standard for advancing general plot of the show’s mythology. Second season also introduced the character of Alex Krycek (played by Nicholas Lea), treacherous FBI mole that would become one of the show’s main antagonist. Two characters that briefly appeared in the first season also became prominent – Assistant Director Walter Skinner (played by Mitch Pileggi) who, despite trying to work by the book became the closest thing to ally among Mulder’s higher ups; and Cigarette Smoking Man (played by William B. Davis), mysterious and sinister government official that belongs to conspiracy. Quality of production generally improved in the season while there were also attempts for stylistic and tonal difference in certain episodes, like “Humbug”, tale of circus freaks written by Darin Morgan. Unlike the first season, the finale (“Anasazi”) ended with cliffhanger to be resolved in next season.
Third season (1995/1996) became even better. It began with the two-parter (“The Blessing Way” and “Paper Clip”) which tried to tie government UFO conspiracy with some of the real life conspiracies from the past, most notably World War II, a motive that would be further explored by another two-parter (“Nisei” and “731”). Motive of government’s wrongdoing and two FBI agents having to fight increasingly powerful and ruthless forces became even more enhanced with show’s tendency to kill off popular recurring characters. On the other hand, themes and settings, especially those in “Monster of the Week” episodes showed great variety. The best episodes were, again, those with slightly more humorous touch – “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”. Both were written by Darin Morgan and featured veteran character actor in main guest roles (Peter Boyle and Charles Nelson Reilly).
The X-Files was one of the most popular shows of 1990s, although its emphasis on paranoia and government conspiracies looked somewhat anachronistic in the self-confident post-Cold War America under Bill Clinton. The audience was more attracted with the show’s somewhat unusual style and willingness to experiment, at least within the limits of broadcast television. The X-Files, shot on locations in and around Vancouver (which, for the most time, successfully stood for various locations in USA and the rest of the world), owed a lot to Twin Peaks, another show that had experimented with different styles and genres. Unlike Lynch’s hit, The X-Files wasn’t limited to same setting or constrained with straight narrative arc. “Monster of the Week” episodes allowed that the general plot develop more gradually and, more importantly, lack of creativity among Chris Carter wasn’t that apparent. Starting from fourth season, The X-Files would begin to make its mythology more complicated and more elaborate, increasingly depending on melodramatic plot twist that would ultimately turn the cult science fiction show towards soap opera. In some ways, it was inevitable, since 1990s US television still wasn’t ready for new opportunities and new formats given by new medium of cable and streaming. The X-Files nevertheless managed to remain on air for next six season, although none of them managed to look as fresh and innovative as the first three.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)
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