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The Truth Was Out There—

Cancellation of The X-Files ends an Era

The news arrived without fanfare on January 18, 2002, and it wasn’t even a big surprise: there would be no tenth season of The X-Files. The long-lived Chris Carter series, a ratings and cultural bedrock during the Clinton 1990s but now Mulder-less with the departure of star David Duchovny, will air its swan song in May 2002. Only three years ago, this cancellation was not just unimaginable, it would have been viewed as a terminal blow to the horror genre on television. But Duchovny left the series, Gillian Anderson appears bored out of her mind, and ratings have been on a marked decline of late. There was no conspiracy here; the handwriting was on the wall: the series’s day is over. But rather than curse the darkness, we should remember that back in the day, circa 1994—1998, The X-Files was a brilliant, innovative series and one that revolutionized horror on TV.

One indicator of success on TV is imitation. In this regard, The X-Files must be viewed as one of the most successful ventures in the medium’s history. It re-activated audience desire for scary “conspiracy” entertainment and since its debut has witnessed a slew of imitators, some quite worthy, including: Nowhere Man (1995), Dark Skies (1996), The Burning Zone (1996), Sleepwalkers (1997), Prey (1998), Strange World (1999), and The Others (2000). The X-Files has also launched a successful motion picture (Fight the Future [1998]) and birthed two interesting spin-offs: Millennium (1996-1999) and The Lone Gunmen (2000-2001). The success of this paranormal horror series also no doubt allowed other “risky” genre shows, like the excellent Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997—?) to see the light of day and thrive there. As a piece of television history, The X-Files remains indelible. More to the point, The X-Files has entered the hallowed cultural lexicon. We all know precisely what it means to be regarded as “Mulder” (a believer) or “Scully” (a skeptic). “Trust No One” and “The Truth is Out There,” two series mainstays, have become buzz-words oft-repeated, imitated, and lampooned everywhere from the Op-Ed pages of major newspapers to the late night talk-shows.

But let’s face it, nobody really cares about the relatively sterile study of TV history when the real point here is that The X-Files delivered chilling, feature film quality horror shorts to our living room every week for the better part of the decade. There has never been a creepier series, and some episodes are instant classics. This author’s favorite installment happens to be the controversial fourth season entry Home, by Glen Morgan and Jame Wong. The harrowing story of the three (mutant) brothers Peacock who dwell in their isolated farmhouse with their limbless, crazed mother, Home, is an intense descent into terror. When Mulder and Scully must apprehend these brothers for the murder of a deformed baby, they enter the Peacock’s stinking, filthy home, where flies buzz incessantly and every corner is protected by murderous booby-traps. The episode goes toe- to-toe with Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) for savage family dynamics and over-the-top, intense horror. The episode aired on network television only once because it was so terrifying, so stomach-churning.

And that was just one such show. Another gem was Unruhe, a chilling tale in which a serial killer performs lobotomies on unsuspecting victims with a sharp object resembling an ice pick. Operating without anesthesia, the killer jams the instrument into the corners of the human eyes to quiet the strife he finds in the women all around him. Before the episode culminates, Agent Scully ends up in the killer’s operating theater, her greatest assets threatened: her incredible intelligence and questioning nature.

As I wrote in my 2001 encyclopedia on horror TV, Terror Television (McFarland), The X-Files is also a valuable example of the story arc, since each season in the series can be viewed as a chapter in a video novel, or some other large work. The first year of the series introduces Fox Mulder and Dana Scully to the bizarre world of the F.B.I.’s unsolved cases. The characters are defined not just by their opposing world views (belief vs. disbelief), but by their previous co-workers and partners (seen in episodes such as Lazarus, Young at Heart, Tooms, and Fire.) The second season develops the series’s primary conflict as the X-Files are temporarily shut down, the antagonists (such as Krycek and the Cigarette Smoking Man) are introduced in their full villainy, and Scully is abducted—possibly by extra terrestrials, possibly by the U.S. government. The third season sees the details of the global conspiracy emerge. The fourth season introduces a new threat as Scully faces terminal cancer from her abduction experience. The fifth year reveals Mulder in equal jeopardy since he loses faith in his cause and becomes a cynical, rudderless person. The movie then witnesses Mulder’s faith restored and the sixth season brings about a new danger: Mulder and Scully are separated and forced to re-evaluate their personal and professional choices. Also in the sixth year, the conspiracy culminates and then heads off in a new direction even as the Mulder/Scully romance reaches new heights. From the seventh season on, The X-Files often seemed like a new book, a sequel perhaps, with new characters such as Doggett (Robert Patrick) taking center stage. But even with that change, the series never lost interest in telling solid, frightening stories. Some talk-backers claim the series lost its edge in the eighth and ninth seasons, and that may be true to some extent, but the bottom line is that a series can’t lose its “edge” if it didn’t have “edge” to begin with. The X-Files remained of remarkably high quality throughout the majority of its run, even if the last days were not its strongest.

The X-Files was a weekly appointment with terror, fun, and even romance. Virtually every week for nine seasons, I knew precisely where I needed to be on Friday (then Sunday…) nights at 9:00 pm. I wouldn’t have passed on a minute of it, and I’ll deeply miss the series in the years to come, even while I enjoy the DVD releases of the first several seasons worth of episodes, and hopefully more motion pictures. Still, facing facts, the cancellation of this series brings an era to a close. We now perceive our enemies not as government moles, secret government experiments, or the like, but as foreign terrorists (witness the success of Alias…), so The X-Files ends at an opportune time, its zeitgeist no longer relevant after September 11, 2001. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape, and Smallville, among others, promise that the genre will live long and prosper on TV, but that doesn’t mean legions of us won’t miss the highest-rated genre show in history, Chris Carter’s masterpiece.

Just for the record, here’s a list of my favorite ten The X-Files episodes (not necessarily the best, just my personal favorites):

  1. Home
  2. Unruhe
  3. Bad Blood
  4. Milagro
  5. War of the Coprophages
  6. Our Town
  7. The Host
  8. Quagmire
  9. Small Potatoes
  10. Detour


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