Growing up with Mulder and Scully: A look back at "The X-Files Decade"
It has been over 20 years since the X-Files first aired on the FOX network in 1993. It hardly seems that long, although viewing early episodes provides a reminder of how times have, at least superficially, changed. Those early episodes show a world of pay phones, old cars (many from the 1980’s or even 1970’s!) and out of style fashions. Props and other office furnishings (big old clunky computer screens, and corded phones) may seem somewhat dated, and yet, the story could be just as easily relevant today, which is why the X-Files has never gotten old.
It is also, coincidentally, a world in which the internet plays a minor part, at least for the first half of the series. This is ironic, because while the X-Files itself saw the internet as what it still was at the time, a periphery invention, not something that will become insinuated into every aspect of our lives, this was soon to change. Indeed, the X-Files is in one way notable for being the first show to be the subject of major, dedicated fan scrutiny on the internet, while at the same time it was more or less the last show to show a largely pre-internet world.
Now, with the "world wide web" reaching everywhere, and information about what may have happened thousands of miles away at your fingertips, to say nothing of wild rumors and speculation, one wonders if the sort of isolated, creepy small towns portrayed in the show still exist. It is hard to remain isolated, or keep a secret, in a digital world with 24-hour news cycles. Still, I prefer to imagine that they are still out there somewhere.
In 1993, when the X-Files first aired, I was in my second year of high school. The show was broadcast for nearly a decade, through 2002, when I was in college, having taken a year off halfway through. Thus it could accurately be said that I quite literally grew up with Mulder and Scully. In a literal sense, the growth of the show and the characters paralleled my own journey from childhood to adulthood, from adolescence to maturity. It was not a bad influence to have, as it taught one about the search for truth, justice, a sense of loyalty to those one worked with, a need to find out and understand the world around you. Not a bad example at all.
At the same time, however, it was a show filled with darkness, from the freak-of-the-week monster episodes to the season finale “conspiracy” stories. We saw the darkness of a small town’s secret, or a monster living in the New Jersey sewers; then we saw the darkness emanating from the halls of Washington, where faceless men wielded unrestrained influence. I watched with delight and thought, what remarkable villains! Of course, little did I know at the time how much this tableau was just a preview of reality.
My first actual experience with the X-Files was actually of Scully being shot. I came to The X-Files partway through the first season, the sixteenth episode, to be precise. “Young at heart”, where Mulder and Scully, the two main characters, chase a killer Mulder had put in jail – and who was supposed to be dead. I turned the TV on in the middle of the final scene, where the villain shoots Scully, then is killed himself by Mulder. Scully was wearing a bulletproof vest, and is fine. The episode ends with the gunman dying from Mulder’s shot, before he can tell the government what they want to know – the secrets of a grim medical experiment that can effect aging.
I remembered thinking, what is this weird show? Who are these two federal agents – who don’t act like any other agents I’ve ever seen in a cop show? That, and remembering how struck I was by Gillian Anderson's -- Scully’s -- presence on screen. Then there was the overall visual impact of the brief scene I had witnessed. The X-Files cinematography is still excellent by today’s standards. By early 1990’s standards it was phenomenal. I was immersed in the scene.
In short, I saw the last few minutes of one episode out of context, and I thought, wow.
And while, with the killer having one weird hand grafted from amphibian cells, the show did seem like some weird-o sci-fi thing, I was willing to give it a try, because my first impression was so strong. This is saying a lot as my previous experiences with sci-fi were limited to outer space epics like Star-Wars, or the Star Trek series.
The idea of a sci-fi program set in an otherwise normal world – a sci-fi cop show – was so genre bending I couldn’t categorize it in my mind except as “that weird show.” But I began to watch it, nonetheless.
I wasn’t the only one. Indeed, I came to the show too late; by the time I was still thinking I was unique in my discovery of this wonderful, cool new program -- of course -- the truth was it was already becoming popular. And while I didn't begrudge anyone the popularity -- the writers and actors and creators earned it -- I still felt cheated out of the exceptionalism of my experience. It is one thing to think, "Wow, look what I discovered". It is another to see everyone and their brother discovering the same. However, that's what was going on. Indeed, the show barely had time to develop as this weird cult hit before it took off. I remember about a year after I saw my first episode, there was this skinny blonde girl in one of my classes in high school who was wearing a black t-shirt that said, “the truth is out there.” If I wasn’t still so shy around girls at the time, I would have demanded to know where I could have gotten one. If I wasn’t still so secure in my knowledge that the show was a weird thing, not something popular, I might have sought to ask her about it. I don’t remember what the girl’s name was. But I remember that t-shirt. And I wish I had found out where to get one.
The truth is, by that time the show was in its second season and no longer a little-known oddity, but growing in popularity. The impression I had of it as some weird thing, that only myself and a few other oddballs enjoyed, was by then outdated by reality.
The main advantage the show had, in its growing popularity, to be quite honest, is that it played into a healthy dose of skepticism that most Americans had of government. Hey, our country was founded by people who rebelled against a king, let's not forget that, so such skepticism of the power of the state is certainly an historical part of our culture. But… at the time, consider what was happening in the 1990's: The Whitewater fraud scheme, espionage by Red China, the O.J. Simpson murders and subsequent circus of a trial. Massacre at Ruby Ridge. The world seemed to be falling apart around me, right was I was finally getting old enough to understand and enjoy it.
Right around the time I was using old VHS video tapes to record what was left of the early series, the U.S. was seeing President Clinton committing perjury, the mysterious death of Vince Foster, and other allegations of misconduct at the highest level. And while the past few administrations have made some policy choices that certainly warrant skepticism, back in the 1990’s, in the grip of the Clinton era, skepticism of government excesses abounded.
And of course, the early nineties will always be the decade of the black car, too. It was in September of 1993 – right around the time of the first X-File – that someone either tried to murder me, or I ran into a reckless drunk. A car swerved to the right, nearly hopped the curb, and ran me over whilst I was out walking one night. When it was all over my leg was broken, I was lucky to have survived an impact at plus 40 miles per hour, and hardly any law enforcement effort was expended to find the culprit. I ended up spending a few months on crutches and ultimately had to learn how to walk again. Meanwhile, on the X-Files, the characters vigorously sought to expose the truth – a far cry from the lackadaisical local authorities who seemed non-plussed by my body decorating the roadside on a fall evening.
Eventually I healed and got back on my feet, ultimately taking up biking in my senior year as a result. I even spent some time looking for the car that hit me, a lost cause, but even after I gave that up, I still found time to look for mysteries of some sort. I never found any like Mulder and Scully did, but I did go looking for an abandoned rocket base in the Watchung Reservation, and exploring abandoned buildings and ruins. I saw some creepy stuff and thankfully managed not to kill myself, like one time when I entered a building that was being demolished, and turned a corner only to find the floor and walls vanished and I was several stories up! Meanwhile, high taxes continued to drive people I knew out of town, and I would often hear family or neighbors discussing how the country was headed downhill fast.
Oh, and the cops still hadn't found who hit me with the car. Then, just when it seemed it couldn’t get any worse, you had the Oklahoma City bombing.
The evil of the X-Files had transmogrified from the television screen to the real world. First, the evil of faceless government men with no checks on their power, which seemed to be eroding the rule of law around the country and in Washington. Then, the terrors of some creepy killer from the proverbial small town -- in this case with a bomb in his truck. The fact that Tim McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was more or less deemed nuts, was beside the point. His delusions did not make him any less dangerous. Growing up in a world where the President was regarded as above the law and violent bombers were willing to commit terrorism, it is no surprise I saw the X-Files as a shelter from the far more terrifying dangers of the real world. In the X-Files, all you had to worry about was a mutant living in the sewers, or some contortionist eating your liver. Maybe, if you were really unlucky, an alien abduction.
But within the framework of the X-Files even the most bizarre crimes seemed less scary, because there were two dedicated, intelligent people there trying to solve them. Meanwhile, back in the real world, President Clinton’s only response to the Oklahoma City bombing was to exploit it politically to tar his critics as terror-mongers. His wife began talking of a “vast, Right-wing conspiracy”. Insanity! Of course, the X-Files had insanity too, but within a structure, and there was always Mulder and Scully there, trying to explain or solve it. It wasn't just that I turned to the X-Files because bigfoot or el chupacabra was more believable than the President's spin doctors. The intelligence and variety of the plots was also a big draw, as was production quality. As mentioned, the cinematography was excellent even by current standards, back then it was amazing. Color and shapes were vivid, camera work never distracted you, if anything it seemed natural. And though Mark Snow’s score was always perfect, and added immeasurably to each scene, I’m not the only one to observe that even if you watched it with the sound off you would still be able to feel what the producers intended from each scene.
But more than that were the stories. Each week you had some new mystery to be solved, or at least investigated. It might be a murder, a mysterious disappearance, or some other thing. You never knew! The show had the nearly unerring habit of giving the audience the experience of both concrete issues related to the disquieting side of real life (episodes such as "Home", which dealt with incest, and "Paper hearts", which dealt with a serial killer who preyed on children) as well as illustrations of abstract ideas in concrete examples, such as one episode which dealt with determinism, through the artifice of a time travel story. And then, every once in a while, humor got thrown in, always at the right time.
A series that could be at once philosophical and shocking, grotesque and at the same time abstract, that could make you laugh or cry, talk to the audience about everything from the standard sci-fi fare of flying saucers, to the more realistic scary topics such as disease outbreaks and bioterrorism -- this was a show that everyone could appreciate. It was a cop show, a drama, a science fiction theatre of the absurd. Or, as one person put it, The X-Files was like "The Twilight Zone" with a regular cast of characters. The other thing the show had going for it is the characters. Let's face it, both in terms of villains -- such as the "smoking man", chillingly portrayed by William B. Davis, or the main characters of Mulder and Scully, the show offered characters that was both simplistic and complex.
Many characters are often accused of being "one-dimensional" because they are *not* flawed. Well, the characters in the X-Files could be considered less than complex by that standard -- they are not flawed. The protagonists are entirely good, the bad guys entirely evil. William B. Davis makes Darth Vader look like a boy scout. But that is not to say they aren't complex. There is some wiggle room -- in the shadowy, conspiracy riddled world of the X-Files there has to be, and it takes the better part of the series for viewers to find out who is on what side, but eventually, it is quite clear. There are shades of grey but there is also black and white, and no two ways about that. Part of what makes the series so successful is its villains, whether they are mutant monsters or shadowy conspirators, they are so clearly evil and that's the best sort of villain to have. This doesn't mean the characters are not complex, of course. We see that the sinister Smoking Man has a connection to Mulder's past -- but this isn't an attempt to humanize poor Smoking Man and make him seem less a villain. Rather, it is to further the story by giving the background of his villainy. Scully is a skeptic -- and a religious person. An internal philosophical conflict, but in no way is there any doubt she is on the same side as Mulder (his references to an agenda in the early episodes notwithstanding, of course)...
Then, of course, there is Scully. Dana Scully is a special thing about the X-Files... So right in so many ways, which is probably why so many critics found so much wrong with her. Social conservatives derided the FBI agent character *and* medical doctor/scientist as unrealistic, perpetuating, perhaps even unintentionally (one can argue this is being more than charitable) the stereotype that attractive females are not smart, or brave, or courageous. Or, contrarywise, it could be argued that they are perpetuating the idea that you can be either smart, or strong, or brave, or attractive, but not all three. Make it a multi-facet false alternative.
Alternatively, when the conservatives stop moaning about Scully's nontraditional roles long enough for them to get a word in, the liberals complain either that she's carrying a gun, or that she she's not feminine enough, whatever that means. Egads!
One critic in the Star-Ledger, a major New Jersey newspaper, opined after the end of the X-files' run that oh, good, now Gillian Anderson can get away from playing that awful Agent Scully role. For the love of pete, what's awful about it? Scully's character was intelligent, attractive, brave. Oh, that's right, it's "one sided" and unrealistic. Actually, what's unrealistic is the alternative... as one reads the critic's word's in the article it becomes apparent she feels Scully's flaws are that she's too intelligent, too brave... not realistic. Oh, silly me, I guess all female characters are supposed to be nincompoops? I have to say that would have be a major turnoff for me as a viewer. They'll never say it that way but I guess that's what they mean... Good grief!
Still, despite the denunciations of critics, Scully made the X-Files. In an early description of the series I wrote some years ago that Mulder was the driving force behind the show, meaning his quest to find out what happened for his sister literally forced events to transpire, at times. This is true, yet at the same time I was wrong. I was wrong because it isn't Mulder’s quest for the truth that moves the show along so much as how the two of them define it together. This is why, when later seasons saw Mulder’s disappearance, a new agent, Doggett, had to be brought in, in order to maintain the balance. And although to be fair to Agents Doggett and Reyes, who had some excellent episodes, the truth is that here I am more concerned with the first half of the series – say, up through the first movie, “Fight the Future”. These are the episodes I grew up with, the vintage X-Files.
And Mulder would not be able to do this alone, nor would the series, itself. Scully was as crucial to its success as Mulder. Maybe more so. Let’s face it, in the 1990’s, a female lead character – and cop-scientist to boot – was still somewhat odd. Not everyone could play such a character. The actress who portrayed Scully did an excellent job. And a necessary one. The show would not have worked with just Mulder. A believer without a skeptic would not a balanced show make. Series creator Chris Carter knew this, and saw the potential in Gillian Anderson. He lobbied the TV people heavily to get the previously little-known Gillian Anderson cast as the agent. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she was attractive, either, but to be fair the character had to be attractive beyond the face; how Scully was written, and then portrayed on the screen, was more important. It would be pointless to say “I like how Scully looks” if you could not also say you liked Scully, period.
I liked Scully. Indeed, between the writing and Gillian Anderson’s wonderful portrayal, Scully added something original and special to the show, and not just because she was a woman, an FBI agent, and a scientist (a combination that up until then might have been considered sort of unusual). It was her unique blend of determination and intelligence, harshness and sincerity. Simply put, she had integrity. A character, to paraphrase one of my favorite authors, can have integrity the same as a person in real life – and just as seldom. In this case, Scully had it – and so did Mulder. Scully also had something else. Her personality had layers, and one of them was Scully, Mulder’s friend. Yes, they worked together. Yes, they were often in dangerous situations together. And yes, it was their job, plain and simple, to risk each other’s necks. But at the end of the day Scully didn’t just see it as a job. She cared for Mulder. It was that caring, her ability to be coldly scientific one minute, but lay a hand on Mulder's head the next, that made her resonate. And not in a sexual way necessarily. The moment I am thinking of was in the second season, the episode titled “little green men,” where Scully is worried about Mulder and arranges to meet him just so she can see how he is doing.
This brings up the subject of the relationship between the two characters. There are those who say there was always sexual tension between the lead characters – and maybe that’s so. Certainly there were hints here and there, and jokes made back and forth by Mulder and Scully themselves over the years, but in the reality for the vast bulk of the series the issue of a relationship of that sort between them was just there, in the background. And the truth is, the many layers of Dana Scully have nothing to do with the idea of the agents sleeping together. It was the caring, not any sexual overtones her touching his head might have, it was the meaning of a gesture that said, I'm here, you can count on me, I care. Yet the same woman had no compunction about cutting up dead bodies, or taking a government spy hostage at gunpoint in the second episode of the series.
Moreover, the same woman had no compunction about saying, a few episodes later, to an imprisoned criminal in "Beyond the Sea," "nobody will stop me from being the one that will throw the switch and gas you out of this life for good, you son of a bitch!" And, gosh, she meant it, too!
In short, Scully's character was original. Her role of law enforcement type and scientist was not necessarily unique -- look at Sherlock Holmes, another character for whom crime and science collided -- but I think all can agree that while Sherlock Holmes is an original character in his own right, so is Scully. And when I finally got to see the very first episode, with that scene with Scully in her underwear, it dawned on me, how many other television shows would have ruined this moment? Doubtless many TV producers would have screwed up, and had the characters jump into bed. Yet Mulder examines Scully, finds no evidence of harm in the marks on her back, which he concludes are bug bites, and all they do is talk. Yet that talking illustrates a greater trust in each other than any random sexual act could. Mulder felt he could bare his soul to her. And hey, are you going to argue with Agent Mulder? In short, without Scully there'd be no X-Files. And let's face it, that would be a tragedy.
Still, some critics are totally against the X-Files, even after it's popularity took off. It seemed they could not "get" it. Not surprisingly, one objection is the often ambiguous endings the episodes sometimes have, not entirely resolved. Indeed, the lack of a total, wrapped up ending is what in many ways made the show so interesting for me, as a teenager. I was at a place in my life when I, too, was questioning things, often what I was not supposed to question, and when many of the things I pondered didn’t seem to have neat, pat answers. The ambiguous endings of the X-Files episodes made them often more real to me, not only because I could sort of imagine the rest of the ending, but also because it seemed that was the way the real world was… nothing is ever totally resolved, not completely.
In the oft-times soul-searching monologues that ended each episode, with the agents typing up their reports, often unable to fully bring the question to a close, I found something I could relate to. And respect. Mulder and Scully didn’t make up facts just so they could fill out paperwork, or pretend there weren’t unanswered questions to look good with their boss. Their search for truth extended to the process by which they engaged in that search. Ironically, Chris Carter fought about that with the network early on; network execs claimed viewers would not want such spooky unresolved endings. They wanted a guy behind bars and a case closed. Well, sometimes they got that, but more often then not a closed case ended with open questions.
In a way Scully's reception by a hostile media establishment of course was mirrored by the reaction to the show at large. Initially, even after it took off, it was fans that were providing the boost – the critics didn’t get it, probably because, to quote Mulder, it “couldn’t be easily categorized or referenced”. It took a lot longer for the professional critics to warm to the program; some never did.
The irony of course is that fans sometimes know more than critics. In the case of the X-Files, this much-derided program with its much-criticized two main characters spawned a whole new science fiction revival. It made sci-fi cool again. This led to a revival in shows that used sci-fi or supernatural themes, from Dark Skies, to Space above and beyond, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A second rebirth of sci-fi followed after the X-Files left the air, shows like Firefly or Fringe, and police procedurals like CSI and Bones, where science was used to solve crimes and mysteries, took off like jets. Elements of the X-Files were seen in all, to some degree.
Like myself, many seemed starved for some hero or other to bravely move into the dark forest, brandishing a flashlight, looking for whodunit. Whether that was because, like me, they saw crazy crap happening all around them and no one trying to stop it, no one can say. But I cannot believe that the events of the 1990's had no impact on viewers who turned on their TV's, heard an eery whistling tune, and sat back to see what happened. Yes, the X-Files were creepy, often grim, and mysterious. But they offered more than sci-fi wierdness and scary horror. They offered hope. Mulder and Scully weren't after thrills or trying to make arrest quotas. They were searching for the truth. And so, in my own way, was I.
Part of the reason, I firmly believe, for the X-Files' success is that it was a small scale telling of a big scale story. Just two people against a conspiracy of evil, and the unknown.
Oddly enough, many aspects of the program foreshadowed current events, trends, or inventions. One early episode featured a “smart home” that was controlled entirely by computer – which can now be a reality. In fact, recently I’ve seen ads for programs allowing you to control your house from your cell phone. Then there was “fresh bones”, an episode dealing with a crisis involving the detention of a large mass of refugees. The refugees in the episode were Haitian, a direct reference to unrest in Haiti, which was ongoing at the time, but the scenario oddly foreshadowed the massive influx of illegal immigrants this year which have overwhelmed authorities.
Yet some of the most relevant aspects of the X-Files, which ring true to this day, were not specific plotlines or inventions, but ideas. For example, in one episode where there is a concern of an outbreak of a deadly disease, Mulder says to some government men, "You can't protect the public by lying to them." The response? The government men calmly say, "It's done every day," a statement that seemed chillingly real in the 1990's and still resonates alarmingly today. Likewise, Scully's spectacular quote from "Tunguska" where she says, "I still believe in this country. But I believe that there are powerful men in the government who do not - men who have no respect for the law and who flout it with impunity," and then, grilled over a Senate hearing, says bluntly, "there is a culture of lawlessness [within the government] that has prevented me from doing my job."
When I saw that episode, I said, wow. Having recently rewatched the episode on DVD, I still said wow, even though I knew it was coming. If there is ever a phrase that describes the state of our republic, "a culture of lawlessness" certainly hits the nail on the head, now as much as it did in 1996 when the episode first aired.
And while the show may have been shaped by events in its time, by the same token that show has forever changed how I'll view the 1990's. To others those years will have been the focus of who won the world series, or politics. Maybe they think of it as the Clinton decade. But to me, they will always be the X-Files decade, all other observations included.
In short, the X-Files is gone now, and so is the world that created it, a world where you still had small isolated hamlets with dark secrets, the internet wasn’t yet omnipresent, the Gulf war was over, terrorism came mainly from disgruntled anarchists in small towns, and the country that was still decent enough that it could still be shocked by Presidential perjury. How much of this may have been misconception or delusion (Islamic terrorist organizations were at war with the US long before backwoods anarchists blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, see the first world Trade center bombing) the truth is that it seems like a much simpler time, looking back. Yet at that time, it seemed as if the world was on a roller coaster. If only I knew how lucky I was!
Now, we live in a world with massive worldwide terror networks, with internet technology providing instant access not only for us, to information, but to information on us, thanks to NSA spying, and where the President sees fit to disregard the law whenever convenient with hardly anyone objecting. It is a world where post 9-11, post-Columbine attempts at security mean metal detectors and cops at schools and being electronically disrobed at an airport. No one growing up today has any experience of a world without that, and that should make one very mad.
Chris Carter once remarked that when he created the show he was heavily influenced by growing up during the Watergate era. By some strange historical coincidence, the show aired during the Clinton years, when the world gave us more of the same hard questions about government and accountability. Yet, now, those things that seemed so outrageous seem almost quaint. I imagine that today Presidential perjury would be greeted with a great big yawn – the same yawn the media has emitted when it learned that the National Security Agency was spying on all Americans’ phone and email records, or when President Obama used the IRS to go after political opponents.
Today’s world is a world in which Mulder and Scully would find plenty of worthy adversaries, cover-ups and mysteries to keep them busy. However, it is doubtful a show like the X-Files could be filmed today. The show’s premise was the questioning of authority. But that premise is even less tolerated today than in the 1990’s. Indeed, it is no longer welcomed. Today, the message is, toe the Party line – or the IRS will come after you. It is a world that both the Smoking Man and former President Nixon would probably have felt right at home with.
Still, I’d prefer to think that somehow, somewhere out there are two intrepid agents looking into all the mysteries and secrets. That somewhere out there is someone to whom the search for knowledge is worth risking life and limb, and for whom the notion of “the truth” is worth fighting for. Unlikely, yes, but if you give up on that possibility, what have you got?
And anyway, as scary as current events get, well, I’ll always have the flukeman. Thank you, Mulder and Scully.