The Long, Strange, Wonderful Journey of "The X-Files"

Twenty-two years ago, when cable was in its infancy and there were really just three TV networks plus one recent upstart, that upstart launched a detective show about of all things, government conspiracies and alien invasions. “I Want to Believe,” the UFO poster in FBI Agent Fox Mulder’s office proclaimed. “This show is a goner,” proclaimed Entertainment Weekly when “The X-Files” first debuted.

Preposterously, the show enjoyed massive success, including not only a nine season run but two movies and 21 Emmy nominations, including wins for lead actress Gillian Anderson as Mulder’s Catholic partner Dana Scully, outstanding writing for the episode “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” about a man who can’t help but see how people are going to die, and best guest star to Peter Boyle for his incredibly poignant work in that role.


And not only did “The X-Files” never stop being about alien invasions and government conspiracies, but in a way its seemingly paranoid hallucinations proved true. So far as we know, our country has not been inundated with acid-for-blood shape changing aliens (though some have speculated Donald Trump’s hair may be some sort of foreign life form). But in recent memory we have seen our government fake evidence to launch a war; discovered it has been keeping tabs on its citizens without oversight; and watched it exert considerable effort to try and silence whistleblowers who try to reveal its machinations.

Just six months before September 11, “X-Files” spin-off “The Lone Gunmen” also imagined terrorists flying a plane into the World Trade Center. Show creator Chris Carter actually believed the attacks on September 11 finished his show. In the wake of that tragedy, few were interested in wild-eyed the-government-is-evil conspiracies.

But as of Sunday the show is back on the no-longer upstart FOX for a six-episode arc, yet another in the new trend of old shows getting an unexpected new lease on life.

Knowing the mini-series was coming, I’ve been trying to rewatch as much of the series as I can. Even given the incredible chemistry of stars Anderson and David Duchovny, who together with Carter transformed the entire idea of the “buddy cop” show, watching the full opus is still easier said than done. The show had 202 episodes. After six months, I’m only about halfway through.

As I started my rewatch, what really excited me was the opportunity to follow the government-alien conspiracy again. That was the piece that had grabbed me as a kid, but it was also the hardest part to really track. “Which aliens were working with who to do what?” was a regular experience. Watching the episodes one after another in close proximity, I hoped I’d understand better what the overall storyline was.

But it turns out there really is no “bottom” to get to with “The X-Files,” no fully-formed mystery to be uncovered. The show was itself a groundbreaker in the attempt at building a complex unfolding mythology on network television. Some seasons it did that well. (Check out episode 302, “Paper Clip,” for a pretty amazing example.) Others were a hot mess.

No, what you discover in rewatching the show is that it was fundamentally not about aliens but about wonder and mystery. Fox Mulder spends his life searching for clues to help him find the sister that was abducted by aliens when he was a child. But along the way he investigates every kind of unexplained phenomenon that you can imagine. (Basically, if it’s in the Weekly World News, it was fair game.) And Mulder delights in the weird, discovers pathos in the monstrous, and rejoices in surprise. Through his eyes the world is revealed to be so much stranger and more interesting than we believe.

“The Truth is Out There,” “The X-Files” proclaimed at the end of the credits for most episodes. By the end of its nine-year run, though, the truth was it was kind of a mess, with conclusions about the conspiracy that only left further questions. (Anyone still wondering who was on the canoe in the flash forward in “Lost” needs to go through “The X-Files,” try to explain the conspiracy fully and then write a letter of apology to Damon Lindelof.) But man, those early seasons have such a deep sense of longing, a desire for connection on the behalf of both Mulder and Scully and a feeling together of finding themselves in a much stranger and darker landscape than they can control or overpower. They still really land. 

I don’t know how the mini-series will hold up. If history is any indication the first episode will be heavy on mythology, feature an incoherent monologue and make some viewers wonder what they’re doing watching.

But I’d say keep the faith. Strange lights don’t appear in the sky all at once. But when they do show up, they sure do astonish.

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