TV discussion

The X-Files @ 25: The X-Files Effect

The X-Files was everywhere in the 1990s. Literally. From magazine covers, to news reports on UFO activity that used Mark Snow’s iconic theme music, to inspiring a whole raft of copycats in both movies and television, The X-Files was to 90’s pop culture what Star Wars was to the late 70s and early 80s, inspiring a creative direction for genre entertainment that could sometimes lead to works of equally dazzling and creative originality, or sometimes just trying to copy it wholesale.

Maybe it was the period, but the series fit magnificently into its era. The Cold War was over, we were now (temporarily) friends with Russia, but with technology now beginning to advance at a more alarming rate, and different political concerns starting to take over, it seemed as if we were going to have to get our paranoia from somewhere else other than geopolitical concerns. Why look to other countries and their political regimes, when we could look to the stars and ask ourselves “Is there life out there?”, and question the methods of our own governments, and wonder with a fearful uncertainty of what their methods were in trying to govern us.

It wasn’t just UFOs and aliens that would give us our concerns; with the year 2000 on the horizon, there was also the potential issue of the world ending to due to what was being dubbed the Millennium Bug. In this environment no wonder we were worried about the world ending due to alien invasion or worrying even more about monsters of an equally imaginative variety falling through the cracks. It was this sort of environment that The X-Files helped solidify and which every other television network decided to try to latch on to.

With it came shows that were actually really good, with at least two or three of those series managing to gain their own stranglehold on genre television and pave their own destinies and place in the pop cultural pantheon. Some would feel like blatant attempts to cash in and would fail miserably.

In all honesty, it didn’t take long for some television networks to try to find their own niche in dark horror or science fiction. With The X-Files in its third season, various networks tried to initially find their own smash hit genre series to call their own, with even Fox trying desperately to find their own follow-up to their brand new smash hit, with the likes of Strange Luck, which would be cancelled after one season, while CBS produced the Shaun Cassidy-created one season wonder, American Gothic.

Boasting Sam Raimi as an executive producer, along with early starring roles for Sarah Paulson and Lucas Black, not to mention a series-stealing turn from Gary Cole before he became famous for deadpan comedy, the series owed more to Twin Peaks, but stood out superbly due to being incredibly dark and nasty by network television standards. It was greatly misunderstood by CBS who took to showing the series out-of-order and badly mistreating it. Sadly even the DVD release of the series presented the series in broadcast as opposed to production order.

It did show a willingness to try to create genre television that was more of its own thing rather than an X-Files clone, but it was clearly the success that Fox had with its chilling crime procedural that was giving the suits at various television networks the idea of trying to have their own equivalent.

Even on the big screen, there was the feeling that the level of paranoia that existed on The X-Files was trying to be captured in a bottle. The biggest movie of 1996 was Independence Day, a behemoth of a blockbuster directed by Roland Emmerich and co-written by the director alongside Dean Devlin. Not only did the movie have a character refer to The X-Files by name in one humourous moment, but even the movie’s eventual destination to Area 51 felt like it came about because the somewhat infamous US military base and its potential affiliation with UFO phenomena was in much of the public consciousness due to Mulder and Scully.

Come the 1996 US television season, and many were making no apologies for trying to find their own version of The X-Files. NBC ended up devoting an entire night of scheduling, in this case Saturday night, to genre programming, with one hour of it given over to a series that felt very much like it was trying to be the next X-Files.

Marketed as the Saturday Night “Thrillogy” by the network, the schedule was made up of The Pretender, Profiler and Dark Skies. The latter was created by Bryce Zabel and Brent Friedman and was expected to be the biggest hit of the three. Ironically it would be cancelled after one season while The Pretender and Profiler would go on to run for several seasons and be big hits for the network. In fact, the latter was initially believed to be NBC’s attempt at trying to ape Fox and the new Chris Carter series Millennium ahead of time, itself a thriller about an FBI profiler, but which ironically would gain better ratings than the more hyped new Chris Carter series and outlast it by one season.

Dark Skies, on the other hand, would be done and dusted after a single year. Starring the David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson-esque Eric Close and Megan Ward, as well the late great character actor JT Walsh and a pre-Star Trek Voyager Jeri Ryan, while dismissed somewhat as an X-Files copycat, it did have merit and some interesting storytelling directions. Instead of being set in the present day, the series took place in the 1960s and sometimes integrated real-life events such as the JFK assassination, The Beatles, and the death of Jim Morrison into its narrative.

Its blatant marketing campaign of trying to advertise itself as the next X-Files probably hurt it more than anything, and it really should have tried to trail itself as just its own thing. With Mark Snow on scoring duties for the pilot, itself directed by genre legend Tobe Hooper, the series had a lot of potential but was cancelled on a cliffhanger at the end of its first year, while the other two series it was scheduled between went on to run for several seasons. Interestingly, The Pretender and Profiler never ended up on British television, although Profiler did end up on Irish television network Network 2 as part of its Night Shift strand where, ironically, Carter’s Millennium was also scheduled, while Dark Skies gained itself a prime Monday night at 10pm time slot on Channel 4.

At the very least Dark Skies tried to be its own thing, even if the advertising campaign and the visual casting of the two leads suggested otherwise. It may not have lasted beyond that one season, but it could always hold its head up as a noble commercial failure, and the series did gain enough of a cult following to wind up on a highly sought after DVD courtesy of Shout Factory, which its creators campaigned for years to get.

Nobility was not in supply when it came to the Baywatch spin-off Baywatch Nights. A spin-off from the (inconceivably) most-watched television show in the world at the time, Baywatch Nights followed David Hasselhoff’s character, Mitch Buchannon, as he became a private detective. After a first season made up of standard crime stories, the second season decided to have its characters investigate the supernatural and monsters in an effort to stall falling ratings and ride the coattails of The X-Files, but it didn’t help and the series was, thankfully, cancelled after its second season.

The biggest and most important success to come out of the wake of The X-Files was, surprisingly, at The WB network. Also produced by 20th Century Fox Television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was initially seen as an attempt to do a teen version of The X-Files but it would become so much more than that, becoming an important pop cultural phenomenon of its own and becoming one of the very best shows on television, creating its own cottage industry of books, video games, comics and action figures, not to mention a critically and commercially successful spin-off.

Taking the idea that high school is hell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer mixed monster of the week and ongoing story arcs, but in a more expansive way than even The X-Files where the mythology and stand-alone episodes were frequently kept separate. Creating a feminist icon in its heroine and making a star of Sarah Michelle Geller, Buffy was the one attempt at creating an X-Files style success that would genuinely become its own entity. Based on a failed feature film, the series would be a different kettle of fish entirely and would, like The X-Files, stake (no pun intended, honest) a claim as one of the very best genre television series ever created.

While television and movies tried to find their own way of grabbing hold of that X-Files magic, other aspects of pop culture tried to do so as well. Walking into a newsagent, it was hard to find any genre of magazine that didn’t have David Duchovny or Gillian Anderson on it. From celebrity gossip to television listings and every genre magazine under the sun, there was Mulder and Scully, or just one of them, looking back at you under the moody lighting that tried to capture the unique atmosphere of the series.

Not for nothing, but the majority of my pocket-money was spent on many of these, from the output of Visual Imagination and their publications such as Starburst, Cult Times, TV Zone and Xpose, (the latter of which is probably my favourite genre magazine of all time), it was virtually impossible to walk into any newsagent, from local establishments to big chains such as WH Smith and not see the latest promotional photos, or speculation on the latest plot twists. I always remember Xpose Issue No.9 declaring “Will Scully Die” in dramatic fashion when “Memento Mori” aired.

There was also the Official Magazine published by Titan Magazines which contained the UK’s publication of Topps comic book based on the series, as well as all manner of official and unofficially endorsed books based on the series, while Welsh rock band Catatonia gave us the absolutely wonderful song Mulder and Scully, an upbeat rock anthem that really should be thought of as some unofficial anthem of the characters and which got to number three in the UK singles chart.

You couldn’t move in the 90s without something X-Files related, such was the impact of the series. Its biggest moment of success in the United Kingdom came in January of 1995 when, after running for a season and a half on BBC 2 and amassing massive ratings, the series moved to BBC 1 and attracted viewers of nearly ten million. Sadly, it would not continue due to the BBC messing the series around the schedules in its third season, right at the peak of the series and showing nearly the entire season in a nonsensical order that badly affected the continuity of the series.

Despite this, there was never any getting away from The X-Files. It was the 90s, feeding into our paranoia and emerging fears over a new world that had turned away from the previous geopolitical landscape before it, and offering what now seems as, strangely enough, a more fun and entertaining type of paranoia before the emergence of a deadly and terrifying, not to mention terrible more political world, that emerged after the events of September 11th.

In fact, it was the ricochet effects of what happened after that that led to the vested re-interest in the series and its eventual revival in 2016 where it had a whole new set of concerns and paranoia to play with. It may be the work of pop culture that defined the 90s, and it may sometimes look and still feel like the 90s, albeit in a way that is aging considerably well, but The X-Files Effect is still being felt a little to this day. Even if it’s not dominating the shelves of WH Smith in quite the same way, it was hard not to get a little nostalgic kick when Mulder and Scully were looking out at you from the cover of SFX or some other genre magazine when they made what was an inevitable comeback.

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