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1993 saw the birth of one of the most popular cult shows to date. So popular, in fact, it moved from cult to mainstream with an alarming speed…

The X-Files: A Special Effect  
from TV Zone Special #36

When the history of the 1990s is written, several television shows will stand out as having helped to define its popular culture. They fitted the bill that western society demanded, and said something in return about that society, whether consciously or not. In Britain, This Lifeseemed to represent that whole generation who had started or were about to start their professional lives. In America, er and NYPD Blue gave fragmented, breakneck depictions of everyday existence and showed the heroes’ struggle to maintain order in the chaos, which reflected our own attempts to create space to cope in a world that drives us ever faster and faster.

But on both sides of the Atlantic, the television show that defined the 1990s more than any other was The X-Files. It started in 1993, quickly establishing itself as a cult favourite. Mass popularity was only a short step behind, even leading to a spin-off movie. In Britain, the show’s success was nothing short of amazing. Here, the general public are very scathing of anything that is even marginally tainted with traces of Science Fiction, perhaps a legacy of exposure to Doctor Who as children and then putting what they perceive as childish things aside on reaching adulthood. But Nineties Man (and Woman) took The X-Files to their hearts.

The series has lost little of its popularity in its home country, where The X-Files’ seventh and final season started in 1999. Along with the phenomenal success of The Simpsons, it has helped to establish the Fox network as a credible force in US television. But in Britain, a lot of viewers became bored some time ago. The BBC didn't even bother to start showing the sixth season during 1999, and treated the fifth rather badly, shifting it around hither and thither.

It’s all a far cry from when the first season topped BBC2’s ratings in 1994 and the series was promptly shifted to the more populist BBC1 in time for the second season. It was treated incredibly well compared to most imports, let alone most Science Fiction ones; BBC1 has treated no import better since the days of Dallas and Dynasty.

The Need For the Show

So why was the last decade of the 20th Century the right time for a tv programme such as The X-Files to take such a grip on our collective imagination? No one can deny that it did so – we have only to look at the imitators that it spawned to see that the public’s demand for things like it was immense. The X-Files somehow filled a psychological need that western society had at the dawn of the third millennium. Whether he knew it or not, Chris Carter, its creator, had stumbled on a winner.

On the surface, the show’s popularity seems unremarkable. Its two lead characters are played by two highly attractive individuals, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. At various times in Mulder and Scully’s relationship, there is plenty of ‘will they, won’t they?’ sex appeal, which is a sure-fire way to tease the viewers and maintain their interest. And using FBI agents as protagonists is really yet another variation on everyone’s favourite tv genre, the cop show.

But beyond these usual trappings, The X-Files does some remarkable things, one of which is that it mostly takes itself and its subject matter absolutely seriously. Most people are generally uncomfortable with ideas like alien abduction and Government conspiracies, but Carter’s masterstroke was to balance Mulder’s belief with Scully’s scepticism. Had The X-Files been about two FBI agents who believed in aliens, it would not have lasted, but instead it tapped into one of the oldest debates in the world, that of faith versus knowledge and science...

Gareth Wigmore

Get TV Zone Special #36 for more coverage of The X-Files in the Nineties

Gillian Anderson image ©BBC, David Duchovny image © Polygram / Viacom
Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2000. Not for reproduction
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