Matthew Sweet on the schlocky show that offered a warning of things to come
They warned us. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, FBI special agents who were barely tolerated by their state institution because they knew the secrets of all state institutions: the vaults and filing cabinets packed with smoking guns; the smoking men in smoke-filled rooms, advancing decades-old plans to prevent us from knowing the truth, the terrible truth. They warned us.
Perhaps, in those nine seasons of The X-Files, roughly coincident with the Clinton years, we absorbed that warning too deeply.
Chris Carter created the characters who sounded it: Mulder (David Duchovny), a suspiciously handsome conspiracy theorist with mischievous, narrow eyes; Scully (Gillian Anderson), sensible as her trousers, a voice of scepticism unfairly condemned to life in a universe in which everything – from covert alien invasion to Bigfoot – was true. Both actors made hypnotic music of Carter’s dialogue, which often resembled copy from those partwork publications sold with a packet of ESP cards taped to the front. They delivered it in pine forests and morgues and car parks, and it was exhilarating.
Even more so now. Today, when television drama has mistaken slowness for profundity, The X Files plays like a trailer for a Netflix show. A location – the more obscure the better – taps itself out on the screen. We see something weird involving lights in the sky or a glutinous organism slithering through a drain system. Duchovny gives us a lecture using index cards, 10×6 photographs and an early email. Anderson looks sceptical and, after a chilling encounter with cannibal hillbillies or a humanoid flatworm or a former NASA employee whose eyes blink the wrong way, sits down at her cathode-ray computer to compile a report that ends with a question mark. All in 45 breathless, dangerous minutes.
They were dangerous for us, too. The X-Files spent the best part of a decade telling its audience about a secret world that lies beneath the apparent one; one the state works hard to conceal, but which dogged investigators can discover with a mixture of fieldwork and online research. Then, as the final series of its original run was in production, 9/11 happened. A million Mulders got to work on that problem, and the Bush years gave them plenty more material.
Something healthier happened, too: a generation of young women, inspired by Gillian Anderson, went into STEM careers. A 2019 study gave this a name: the Scully Effect.
The X-Files wasn’t one of the box sets with which we consoled ourselves in lockdown. Its velocity and blue-lit moodiness are out of fashion. In the age of the virus, who wants to trouble themselves with stories of monsters and flying saucers? But a return to it might help us diagnose our present moment.
This time, Scully needs to be right.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill