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'The X-Files' turns 20: Agents Mulder & Scully made us want to believe

Tuesday, September 10

Two decades ago, creator Chris Carter and stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson turned a never-ending mystery into television history


It could have been called "Spooky and the Smoking Man."
It could have been called "The Show of Many Acronyms" (SOMA).
Instead, they just called it "The X Files," and from its modest launch 20 years ago Tuesday, it carved itself a memorable niche in TV and pop culture history.
In the same way you could say "Titanic" was a movie about a boat ride, "The X Files" was a show about the investigation of potentially paranormal phenomena by two main characters: Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), an FBI agent who was convinced that weird stuff was out there and out to get us, and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), a doctor who initially considered Mulder's convictions to be demented ravings.
As seasons passed, Scully came more and more to believe Mulder might be onto something.
By season seven, Mulder had been abducted by aliens, which provided pretty strong proof that at least in the universe of this show, they existed.

Through the final two TV seasons and the 2008 movie "X Files: I Want To Believe," the storyline shifted toward a battle to save humanity.

Though the show didn’t stick the landing, ‘The X-Files’ proved a pioneering show for genre television.
It sounds noble and action-packed. Trouble was, many of the show's most devoted fans also thought it turned the show into an incoherent mess.
Undeterred, producers and performers as recently as this summer were making noises about a third movie.
Depending on which fans are talking, that could either be a welcome delight or would simply reffirm that "X Files" somehow will be given infinite do-overs until it finally gets it right.

But if "X Files" became one of the first shows whose ending sparked debate and some disappointment — an ancestor of "The Sopranos" — the show's legacy is much greater.
Originally viewed by many people in the TV biz as a niche or cult show, "X Files" proved that sci-fi could reach a mainstream audience if it had compelling characters and didn't cater only to the sci-fi hardcore.

Mulder and Scully were relatable characters who did relatable things, which eventually included falling in love.
They were both smart and sharp-tongued, and neither won every argument. By design or accident, the show let their characters and relationship develop slowly, letting viewers nod knowingly at each step.

Duchovny and Anderson listen to creator Chris Carter on the set of ‘The X-Files: I Want to Believe’ movie.

Mulder and Scully became part of the pop culture vernacular of the late 1990s: points of reference, subjects of parodies, the inspiration for hit songs.

Besides movies, the show inspired comic books, merchandising and video games. It could easily have become a lifetime gig for Duchovey and Anderson if they wanted to spend their time at fan conventions, though each has been fairly aggressive about doing other things, including "Californication" for Duchovny and a long string of films for Anderson.

"X Files" was hardly the first TV show to explore unexplained phenomena. "The Twilight Zone" set a standard in that field 35 years earlier.


"X Files" simply proved, again, that TV can sell almost anything if it's done well.

The first "X Files" episode, on Sept. 10, 1993, drew 12 million viewers. On November 1997, the first episode of the fifth season drew 27.34 million, and even that was two million below the audience it drew the night it aired after Super Bowl XXXI.
The viewer arc eventually fell, much as it had risen. By the seventh season, the premiere audience was 17.82 million, and by the start of the ninth and final season it was 10.6 million.

By then, familiar TV dynamics had set in. Duchovny downshifted to a part-time role the last two seasons, and there were serious questions whether Anderson would do season nine at all.

The first ‘X-Files’ episod aired on Sept. 10, 1993.

The moment had passed, essentially, as it does with all TV shows, though any show that averages 13-14 million viewers over nine seasons will never lose the glow it generated Besides helping pave the road for weird-stuff shows that followed, from "Fringe" to even "Lost," "The X Files" also broke considerable fan engagement turf.

With the Internet just starting to emerge as a giant clubhouse for fans in the 1990s, "The X Files" provided a perfect place for viewers to feel they were sharing something all their own.

It helped that the show already served up some nicknames. Mulder was known as "Spooky" for his paranormal convictions. Bad guys and mystery guys almost all got names, with the worst villain — the guy who was conspiring with aliens to enslave the rest of the human race — becoming known as The Smoking Man.

The acronyms, however, were mostly fan-driven.
MOTW meant "Monster of the Week," shorthand for the fact that most episodes were self-contained "procedurals," in which Mulder and Scully faced a paranormal problem and resolved it.
Their relationship itself became the acronym MSR, with the subtext of UST, or "unresolved sexual tension."
In the texting age, all this seems just a day at the office. Twenty years ago, it was a little new and more than a little cool.

So was "The X Files."

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