I’ve been watching old 1990s films and TV series. Including, among them, a few episodes of the The X-Files.
I enjoyed the series, first time around. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is the dry, depressed protagonist driven by a desire to discover the truth. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is the other half of the investigative duo, which has more than a passing resemblance to the Shelock Holmes and Dr Watson template of detective fiction.
The X-Files was a remarkable success. It aired on US TV from September 1993 to May 2002. It produced two spin-off films with theatrical releases, The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998) and The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008).
The 1990s produced a lot of TV series that, to be honest, I’ve forgotten about. Remember any of these?
- Northern Exposure (1990–1995)
- Twin Peaks (1990–1991)
- Millennium (1996–1999)
- Frasier (1993–2004)
- Due South (1994–1999)
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003)
- Seinfeld (1989–1998)
- 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996–2001)
- Party of Five (1994–2000)
- Spin City (1996–2002)
- Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)
- Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000)
- Dawson's Creek (1998-2003)
- Ally McBeal (1997-2002)
- Beavis and Butthead (1993-1997)
- Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
- The Simpsons (1989-Present)
- The Wonder Years (1988-1993)
- My So-Called Life (1994-1995)
- Friends (1994-2004)
Some of these have withstood the test of time better than others. Quite a few 90s TV series seemed to die off in the late 90s (almost as if there was a desire by the network bosses to introduce new programming for the new millennium). While others, to my surprise, carried on into the naughties. The big successes among them are The Simpsons, and Friends. It’s worth noting that they are both comedies.
It’s not something that I’ve really looked into extensively, but — at a glance — the 90s were literally an in-between, from the 1980s where each episode followed the same formulaic arc, to more recent TV-series like Lost (2004-2010), which follow a longer form narrative journey that develops over multiple seasons. The overarching storylines were never that compelling in the 1990s series, not in the same way as Breaking Bad, or Mad Men.
‘The X-Files’ was part of the 90s paranormal noir, echoing the early 90s global recession (after the economy had overheated in the late 1980s), and a Pre-Millenium Tension, which was itself the name of a 1997 Tricky album.
The first episode of The X-Files is worth watching. It’s remarkably efficient in the way it tells the viewer what’s going on, the rules of the story, and who the main characters are. They literally walk into shot and introduce themselves. Dana is interviewed and given her mission briefing (with echoes of the mission briefing at the start of Apocalypse Now). The production qualities stand up well, the editing, the audio, the faux-documentary camera work, and the poignant but never overwhelming background music.
When it first aired, my interest in the series tailed off because it felt too much like ‘more of the same’. They seemed to spend a lot of time driving around in their nice-but-ordinary car, permanently clutching paper coffee cups, walking around at night pointing a torch directly into the camera. Fox Mulder was always mumbling about a potential breakthrough that would inevitably be mysteriously hushed up, pointing to some wider government conspiracy. These ingredients, including the flirtatious relationship between the two main characters, made the series the longest-running science fiction series on American TV.
For viewers, it ticked a lot of boxes — suspense, mystery intrigue, horror, conspiracy — but it was really about two relatable, talented yet ordinary, characters struggling to be taken seriously in their work place.
Fox Mulder and Dana Scully dressed like a couple of salespeople, and drove around in a salesperson’s car, staying over at hotels where salespeople stayed over. They were like salespeople, but on a special mission, selling their kooky belief that the truth was being covered up by the government, that ‘they’ (aliens) were already here. All they needed was the evidence, because ‘the truth is out there’, as the tagline said.
Is there more to The X-Files? Does it have a deeper meaning? Probably not. But I was pretty surprised when I heard expressions like ‘fake news’ being mentioned by the characters. Suddenly I was jolted from 1993 back to 2021. Other tag lines to episodes include: ‘Trust No One’, ‘Deny Everything’, ‘Deceive Inveigle Obfuscate’, ‘Believe the Lie’, ‘All Lies Lead to the Truth’, ‘Nothing Important Happened Today’, ‘Accuse Your Enemies of That Which You are Guilty’, ‘You See What I Want You to See’, and, suddenly, it almost seems possible that The X-Files not only tapped into a wider social cynicism, but might even have been a metaphor for something more profound? Again, probably not.
The X-Files is all atmosphe and tone, and a little flirtation. It was a highly marketable formula that spoke about anxiety and unease, but ultimately it never led anywhere.