Sunday, September 22, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: XX Years of The X-Files

Gillian Anderson (L) and David Duchovny (R)
Seems like we're marking a lot of twentieth anniversaries in Nostalgia Theater, and this is one's a biggie, at least in the geek set. The X-Files first premiered as part of Fox's Friday night lineup on September 10, 1993 (alongside the highly-hyped, quickly forgotten The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., starring Bruce Campbell). While its place of significance on the pop culture landscape today is plain to see (even if it hasn't actually been a pop culture force for awhile now), at the time it was just another cult show that seemed headed to an early demise.

Created by Chris Carter and starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as, respectively, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, the "X-Files" of the title referred to the agency's (fictional) division that handled cases dealing with the paranormal, the supernatural, and the extraterrestrial -- the "unexplainables," in other words. With Mulder as the true believer and Scully the dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, their byplay each week would gird our excursions into conspiracies, paranoia, terror, and conspiracies. Did I mention conspiracies? Here's the intro from the first season, with theme music by Mark Snow:

Like so many cult offerings before (and since), The X-Files was a bit slow to catch on with auds at first. The critical praise was there pretty much from the start, but a Friday night slot (in the days before DVRs, remember) wasn't exactly inviting to the 18-39s who would have been the prime demo for the series. Hell, this was in the midst of my socially awkward phase, during which I can assure you I was doing nothing on Friday nights, and even I didn't start watching until quite a ways into the first year.

When I finally did discover it, I found something unlike anything that was airing at the time, but which owed a great deal to shows I'd grown up with such as The Twilight Zone and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (both of which Carter has readily acknowledged were forerunners to his skein). It was an anthology series with continuing characters, and while the alien abduction-government conspiracy stuff ("The Truth is Out There!") added texture to the ongoing narrative, it wasn't so oppressive as to seem like work. At least initially. Check out this collection of Fox promos for every ep of the first season:

Anyway, Fox demonstrated an inordinate amount of patience with the show, renewing it for a second year and a third, and by the time the series moved to Sunday nights during its fourth season, it was a bonafide mainstream hit, becoming a top 20 fixture for several years. Of course, this being Fox, once they got themselves a show horse, it wasn't long before they turned it into a work horse via merchandising, spin-offs, tie-ins, etc. They even followed the Star Trek model by 'porting the brand to the big screen in summer of '98, between seasons five and six. Here's the trailer:

The flick was subtitled "Fight the Future," whatever the hell that means, and even though it did pretty well, the bloom was starting to fade from the rose, as it was so steeped in its own impenetrable mythology that it might as well have had a big "Newbies Need Not Apply" card before the titles. Also, this was around the time that stars Duchovny and Anderson started feeling wanderlust and, I'm guessing, a bit of resentment that they weren't able to translate their X-Files notoriety into bigger and better opportunities, and made noise about moving on, which Duchovny did for part of the eighth year, and most of the ninth.

Even though Anderson stuck around for the duration, she was probably biding her time as well, and by then producers brought in Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish to play new agents John Doggett and Monica Reyes, presumably in hopes that name recognition would be enough to keep viewers coming back even with the loss of the original duo. Things didn't exactly work out that way, which is a shame. Though I'd drifted away by then, I actually came back for the Doggett era, and I thought it was pretty good. More than anything, I think X-Files just became a victim of its own backstory, which you needed a hammer and chisel to cut through.

Nine seasons in (a then-record for an American sci-fi program, since surpassed by Stargate SG-1 and Smallville), the core audience was tired, and there was no "in" to make it welcoming to anyone else. Thus, The X-Files ended its network run on May 19, 2002, a shadow of its former self. During that run, Carter tried to leverage his X-success in several different directions: the quasi-spin-off Millennium (starring Lance Henriksen and Terry O'Quinn) in 1996, and actual spin-off The Lone Gunmen in 2001 (Millennium was woven into the X-Files mythology retroactively following its cancellation in '99).

After that, things went pretty quiet on the X-Files front, though there were whisperings of another movie every now and then. It wasn't until six years later that the brand made its triumphant return to the big screen in 2008. Oh, did I say "triumphant"? I meant catastrophic. The X-Files: I Want to Believe played to empty theaters (literally, I was the only person in the theater when I went to see it, a few days after release), and grossed an embarrassing $20 million domestically against a $30 mil budget. Here's the trailer for that one:

And that, as they say, was that. But not really. The truth is that, at this stage in its shelf-life, The X-Files brand is well and truly dug in to the collective psyche. The catchphrases, the mythology, heck, even Mark Snow's creepy-cool theme music are all things that people are familiar with even if they haven't seen the show. I don't know if The X-Files will ever return, or even if it should, for that matter, but its web of paranoia, mistrust, and conspiracies within conspiracies says something important about the (simpler?) times in which it emerged. At least that's what I want to believe.

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