Lots of TV shows are big hits – but very few of them change the TV landscape permanently. For every The Sopranos, there are a dozen or more The King of Queens. They are hits against the odds in their time and mercifully forgotten once they leave the airways. Unlike many of its contemporaries, The X-Files is a show that really did change the TV landscape. Modern prestige TV, fandoms, cinematic universes, pop culture and more have all taken cues from The X-Files. But as we’ll see, not all of that influence has necessarily been positive…
“A UFO Party.”
The X-Files was primarily the brainchild of Chris Carter, a former surfing journalist who was a keen fan of Kolchak: The Nightstalker as a young man. During the 1980s he made the transition from printed page to the small screen, writing scripts for a couple of Disney TV movies. A move to NBC led to a handful of unproduced pilot scripts and production work. But it wasn’t till 1992 that things really began to take off. Carter was hired to Fox and began working on ideas that would eventually germinate into The X-Files. Launching on September 10 1993, it was a near-immediate critical and commercial success, with the audience growing substantially into the second and third seasons. By the mid-90s it was a genuine pop culture phenomenon in a way that’s rarely been replicated since. Merchandise naturally followed – T-shirts, tie-in novels, comics, trading cards, soundtrack albums (complete with dance remixes for the club), VHS releases and eventually action figures.
Of course, a swathe of shows looking to imitate its successes found their way to TVs around the world. Poltergeist: The Legacy, Roswell, Dark Skies, American Gothic all landed with some viewer anticipation but predictably mixed results. Few lasted longer than a handful of seasons and certainly none eclipsed the original in wider pop culture. Even The X-Files’ own direct spin-offs, The Lone Gunmen and Millennium, weren’t immune to this effect. Well-received but only ever attracting a fraction of the main show’s viewership, they have largely been consigned to TV footnotes outside of a dedicated core of fans. In fact, in a slightly different universe, The X-Files would have been a sci-fi show that ran for a handful of seasons and is forgotten by all but convention circuit tragics these days. Yet, it emerged as a genuine crossover hit, breaking through to the wider mainstream in a way that we wouldn’t really see from genre TV until Game of Thrones came along almost two decades later.
“Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI’s most unwanted.”
All of this said – 30 years on from its debut, it’s fair to say The X-Files has aged unevenly. The core concept is solid and the interaction between co-leads David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson is wonderful. The dynamic of the agnostic who believes in virtually everything but God and the Catholic who believes in virtually nothing of the supernatural is still a fascinating one to this day. For the most part its visuals have held up well too, thanks to a reliance on practical effects and a higher-than-usual budget for a TV show at the time. Conversely, as an early 90s network TV show, the pace can often be plodding. There are a lot of filler episodes to hit the 20 or so required for each season. It’s very clear the overarching mythos is being made up on a season-to-season basis and incongruous retcons are not uncommon. But in a post QAnon-world, the most troubling feature is the show’s consistent focus on paranoia and conspiracy theories. At the time of its original airing, a plotline that had 30-plus known conspiracy theorists running for congress would have been considered on the nose. In 2021, it was reality. Characters like Fox Mulder consistently have unorthodox, bizarre and outlandish views about the world validated – only to be then covered up or suppressed by the government. Coupled with this is the fact that in the world of the show, Mulder is unquestionably an agent for good. There are questions to be raised about the show’s depiction of the FBI and copaganda, for sure, but within the show’s mythos Mulder is someone working to expose the truth for the betterment of everyone. This is a stark contrast to the real world, where people with views akin to Mulder are more often like David Icke, Alex Jones and Jeff Rense. They often move in decidedly less savoury circles and could charitably be said to promote a brand of weirdo conservatism – all while claiming to want “freedom”. There’s unquestionably a tension that sits between the fictional portrayal of the crusader for truth versus the real-world grifter that portrays themselves as a crusader for truth. Unfortunately, not everyone who watched the show seemed to have picked up on the distinction.
“I want to believe.”
There’s a popular notion that conspiracy theories used to be “fun”. Back in the 80s and 90s, many would have you believe, there was none of this QAnon business or even real-world consequences for having some kooky ideas. But even a cursory glance reveals this to be a gross misunderstanding. The Oklahoma City Bombing – carried out the same year The X-Files debuted – was carried out by a man who had been heavily inspired by conspiratorial and racist literature like The Turner Diaries. The Satanic Panic of the 1980s was fuelled by fictions like Michelle Remembers and Mike Warnke’s The Satan Seller. Not to mention that a good deal of Evangelical apocalypticism – which continues to exercise a huge influence over American foreign policy, attitudes to climate change and much more – can be directly traced to texts like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. There are many more examples to be found if you look back further; the anti-Semitic The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is probably the most notorious. So they’ve never really been “neutral” in the way a lot of people like to imagine.
With all of this noted, it is still probably fair to say that most people’s experiences of conspiracy theorists in the 80s and 90s leant more towards Dale Gribble than Jacob Chansley. Many of us had a miscreant acquaintance who was way too interested in Area 51, missed the more problematic aspects of Chariots of the Gods? or simply believed that the government was hiding human clones somewhere. If you’ve found your way to this article today, perhaps you were that acquaintance yourself at one point. Strange people, certainly, but not necessarily harmful to themselves or likely to cause harm to others through radicalisation. And frankly, we should all be a lot more pissed off about Area 51.
“The truth is out there, but so are lies.”
It also cannot be discounted that certain paranormal subjects were simply more mainstream at the time. Ghosts, cryptids and particularly UFOs and aliens received regular and credulous media coverage. The rose-tinted glasses of the New Age movement had been ripped off, with many ex-hippies now looking to the skies rather than looking within. The end results were books like Whitley Strieber’s Communion and TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings. Not to mention the genuine government malfeasance that often factored into the discussion around these subjects. It’s a topic I’ve discussed in more detail over at We Are the Mutants – but a 1992 quote from CIA historian Gerald K. Haines sums matters up pretty well.
“Like the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, the UFO issue probably will not go away soon, no matter what the Agency does or says. The belief that we are not alone in the universe is too emotionally appealing and the distrust of our government is too pervasive to make the issue amenable to traditional scientific studies of rational explanation and evidence.”
Thus, The X-Files was born not only into – but from – an environment that positively encouraged conspiratorial thinking.
“I have seen this before. You’re on fire, believing that you’re onto some truth, that you can save the world.”
If you’ve dipped more than a toe into the world of UFOs or wider conspiracy theories, you’ve probably run across the work of Milton William Cooper. A sort of proto-Alex Jones (though the two men disliked each other immensely), Cooper originally gained notoriety during the 1980s, within the world of UFO research. He eventually decided the whole UFO thing was more or less a hoax to district people from the “real” issues and moved on to broader ideas about global conspiracies, JFK’s assassination, the Illuminati and the New World Order. He ran a regular radio show where he espoused these ideas until his death in 2001 – but far more influential was his 1991 book, Behold A Pale Horse. With a crudely illustrated cover reminiscent of some of Rebecca Brown’s books, it rapidly became a hit in prisons across the country, did the rounds in conspiracy circles and would become an unlikely influence on rap and hip-hop. If you want a copy today, you can still easily find it at your local Barnes & Noble. Though official sales numbers are hard to come by, it seems to have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The importance of bootlegged or stolen copies can’t be downplayed either. Whether or not the book was a direct influence on the show – and there are certainly suggestions it was – it’s not hard to see comparisons between Cooper’s worldview and The X-Files. Both espouse an all-encompassing conspiracy that touches on concerns about a huge number of disparate topics while directly tying itself to the paranoia of the time. Cooper does not really seem to have benefitted directly from the success of the show, though perhaps it gained him some additional listeners. In fact, Cooper himself is a fairly depressing figure; though he enjoyed adulation from fans, he followed a bleak path filled with petty grievances and dire predictions about his own fate that would eventually become self-fulfilling. By 2001, he was alienated from most of his family and friends. Not long after 9/11, he was shot dead by police after trying to flee from being served a warrant. As might be expected, many of his biggest fans have questions about the official narrative.Many of Cooper’s ideas would go on to influence modern conspiracies like Pizzagate and QAnon, though it’s difficult to say how much truck he would have had with them. Dead men can’t speak – but cranks who live long enough do tend to get crankier.
“I saw Elvis in a potato chip once.”
Where, then, does this leave The X-Files? It would be unfair to say to throw all the blame for the rise of the alt-right or wider conspiracy media at the foot of creators like Chris Carter. The show is very clearly fiction. After all, from 1993 to 2002, millions of people around the world watched it without turning into conspiratorial bizarros. Additionally, the show used its fictional setting to bring real horrors to light to the wider public – Operation Paperclip, Unit 731 and the Tuskegee Experiments, to name a few. This is not to say all these subjects were handled equally well or in good taste – but the show did encourage viewers to look a bit closer to home for problems that needed addressing, and was not ignorant of the banality of evil.But whether or not it wanted to, The X-Files has unquestionably left its thumbprint on the modern conspiracy landscape. The show picked up on a wider zeitgeist of the time – in turn, bad actors and the misguided alike have certainly recognised its worth as a recruitment tool.
It’s not the first piece of media pressed into service for a purpose it wasn’t intended for – and unfortunately, it won’t be the last, either. One only needs to look at media like The Matrix or Fight Club has been co-opted over the last couple of decades by personalities who seem to have missed the point of the movie entirely.
“After what you saw last night, after all you’ve seen, you can just walk away?”
Today, The X-Files is something of a time capsule of the 1990s and early aughts. The fashion and hairstyles have dated; its attitude to technologies like the internet is both frighteningly prescient and charmingly naïve at points. Bigger picture, it’s also something of a cautionary tale. Authorial intent is often out of step with authorial impact, particularly once a piece of media picks up a large enough audience. And frankly, how could it be anything else? If the truth really is out there, as the show claims, you can’t guarantee that everyone is going to look in the right places.