Monsters, Mythology and the Smoking Man: 10 Crucial Reasons the 'The X-Files' Remains Iconic (Video)
Here's a comprehensive look at what made 'The X-Files' one of the biggest pop culture phenomena of the '90s — and what makes Fox's revival, perhaps, the perfect reboot.
It all began inauspiciously enough in September 1993, when the relatively young Fox network launched The X-Files on Friday nights at 9:00 p.m. The show starred little-known actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, who toiled in the basement of FBI headquarters on strange or unsolved incidents usually involving the possibility of paranormal or extraterrestrial phenomena. Mulder was the believer, his desire to seek out the truth fueled by both his curious nature and personal tragedy, while Scully was the skeptic, her faith unwavering in the science and medicine used by her superiors to debunk Mulder's findings.
What the pair ultimately found, over the course of nine seasons and two feature films — not to mention spinoff series, books, comics, video games and other related media — was a world much more bizarre than anyone could imagine. And at the heart was a vast, tangled alien/human conspiracy. They also found incredible success as The X-Files exploded from cult viewing to pop culture phenomenon, becoming one of Fox's earliest and most enduring hits while cementing iconic characters, catch-phrases and concepts into the public consciousness and impacting a generation of TV shows that followed in its wake.
Thirteen years after the show went off the air and seven years after the second feature film, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, arrived in theaters, the show and its mythology remain popular enough that Fox has now commissioned a six-episode limited revival, with original creator Chris Carter back at the helm and Duchovny and Anderson both reprising their signature roles. The miniseries is tentatively scheduled to begin filming this summer for a presumed 2016 premiere. Until then, here's a look at 10 details that the show's core fans will remember fondly and that will give new fans a sense of why The X-Files is such a touchstone for the 20 years of genre television that followed it.
1. The Origin
Chris Carter acknowledged the influence of classic anthologies like The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, The Outer Limits and Tales From the Darkside on the show, while the short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker — about a newspaper reporter who investigates the supernatural — was widely regarded as an early template. What The X-Files did was take the "monster of the week" formula of many of those programs and fuse it with a modern sensibility, a healthy distrust of the government and a fascination with conspiracy theories and secret histories. Other influences included David Lynch's Twin Peaks (in which Duchovny guest-starred as a transvestite FBI agent!) and films like Three Days of the Condor and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
2. The Scully Factor
Carter created Dana Scully specifically as a strong female character in a medium that traditionally had not been receptive to them. He flipped stereotypes on their head by making Scully a steadfast skeptic about paranormal phenomena and a strong believer in science, while also keeping the relationship between Scully and Mulder platonic for the larger part of the series' run. Anderson was 24 years old with a handful of stage and screen credits to her name when she got the X-Files pilot script; Carter saw her as Scully almost immediately and stood by her even as Fox lobbied for a better-known, taller and "sexier" actress for the role. Anderson said at a Comic-Con X-Files reunion panel in 2013 that she has heard from many women over the years who went into science or related fields as a direct result of being inspired by Scully.
3. The Writers Room
The X-Files' writing staff over the years became a launching pad for a stream of writers and showrunners who continue to produce high-impact, quality TV shows and films to this day. Vince Gilligan went on to create Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, while Darin Morgan — who penned what many consider the finest X-Files episode ever, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" — moved on to Fringe. Co-producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa later created Homeland, with the former also involved with 24 and Tyrant, while David Amann became an executive producer on Without a Trace and Castle. The show's roster of writers also included genre giants Stephen King and William Gibson, who each penned an episode. Here is a trailer for King's:
4. Monsters of the Week
While The X-Files had a series-long mythology at its heart — more on that in a minute — most of the show's episodes were stand-alone stories usually featuring the "monster of the week," that particular segment's supernatural, extraterrestrial or sometimes just plain human menace. And the show had some memorable ones, from the sewer-dwelling human tapeworm known as the Flukeman to the self-regenerating, tumor-eating Leonard Betts to the body-contorting Eugene Tooms. But perhaps the most grotesque and frightening of the show's many horrific denizens were the inbred mutant Peacock family from the controversial fourth season episode "Home," one of the most disturbing hours of television ever aired.
5. The Mythology
Here it is in a nutshell: Over the course of the series, Mulder and Scully uncovered a vast, shadowy collaboration between alien invaders and certain factions ("the Syndicate") working within the governments of the U.S. and other nations. The aliens planned to conquer the Earth and enslave humanity via the "black oil," a sentient liquid that could be injected into human beings and possess them. After the Syndicate was smashed by rebel aliens, the invaders dispatched "Super Soldiers" — aliens in human form — to infiltrate the government and continue the march toward colonization. And who was the linchpin to all this? That would be …
6. The Smoking Man
Originally just seen lurking in the background of the pilot episode, this enigmatic figure with a Morley cigarette always parked between his fingers ended up becoming the primary villain of The X-Files. As portrayed by William B. Davis, the Smoking Man (also known as Cigarette Smoking Man, Cancer Man and eventually his real name, C.G.B. Spender) was murderous, ruthless, manipulative and treacherous — not just the main liaison between the Syndicate and the alien invaders, but also a central figure in history-changing events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Diabolical and amoral, the Smoking Man eventually met his demise in the final episode of the series — or did he?
7. The Movies
The first X-Files feature film, simply titled The X-Files, came out in summer 1998 and found Mulder and Scully confidently making the transition to the big screen, telling a wide-ranging mythology story that answered a number of questions from the series without being too obscure for moviegoers new to the saga. The worldwide box office was $189 million, not quite enough to make the film a bona fide hit. The second movie, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, was made in 2008 on less than half the budget of the first and featured a stand-alone story involving organ harvesting. While it was nice to see Mulder and Scully back in action, the script and Carter's direction made the film seem like a below-average TV installment. A hoped-for third film never materialized.
8. The Spinoffs
While not a direct spinoff of The X-Files, Millennium existed in the same universe and even got a crossover episode on the former show after ending its own three-season run. Millennium starred Lance Henriksen as Frank Black, a former FBI agent who can see inside the minds of serial killers and who becomes involved with the Millennium Group, an organization that believes the end of the world is near. Meanwhile, The Lone Gunmen was a direct offshoot of the X-Files mothership centering on three nerdy conspiracy theorists who often helped Mulder with his investigations. The more light-hearted Lone Gunmen lasted just 13 episodes, and the trio's own storyline was resolved in a ninth season episode of The X-Files knowingly called "Jump the Shark."
9. The Accolades
The X-Files has regularly found a place on lists of TV's best series. The show won a total of 16 Emmys and five Golden Globes, including Globes for best drama series in 1997 and 1998. Anderson was nominated for an Emmy for best actress in a drama series four times, winning in 1997. She and Duchovny both won Golden Globes that year as well for their work on the show.
10. The X-Files Legacy
Many of the genre TV shows fans have enjoyed over the past 20 years owe a debt, if not their existence, to The X-Files. These include Lost, Fringe, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon name-checked The X-Files in talking about his show), Supernatural, Dark Skies, Sleepy Hollow, Torchwood, Warehouse 13, Agents of SHIELD and many others. The concept of an overall story arc that stretched across an entire series was given focus and definition by The X-Files and is an almost indispensable aspect of many modern television series.
Whether the new iteration of The X-Files can recapture its own special brand of imaginative, eerie magic is a truth we'll have to wait to confirm — but it's out there.