Watching a television show is a ritual. In any ritual, there are certain repeated elements, motifs, and tropes that serve to bring us into the abstract space of the ritual, as well as to provide a constant experience. Television is all about these constants (at least until recently, but that is a matter for another time). We congregate in front of our sets at the hour our show is scheduled, and we watch familiar characters interact with each other on the latest case, the latest family dilemma, etc. Throughout most of the medium’s history, the topic at hand is resolved by the end of the episode (or episodes in the case of a multi-parter) and the status quo is reset for the next installment.
One of the most memorable elements of the majority of programs is the credit sequence, an artistic vignette where the cast and crew of the episode are named, alongside sights and sounds relating to the overall themes and premise of the show. From the funky seventies beat of Barney Miller to the paranoid schizophrenics of The Prisoner to scenes of the funeral industry in Six Feet Under, credit sequences have made their mark on the pop culture landscape. Inspired by memorable title sequences in films from Saul Bass’ work in the 1950s and 1960s, to the audacious near-music videos of the James Bond films pioneered by Maurice Binder, television’s adoption of same has been apt. When The X-Files began to air in the fall of 1993, starting with the second episode “Deep Throat,” Chris Carter and company gave audiences one of the most brilliant and affecting credit sequences yet, which to this day is still remembered fondly and remains an indelible aspect of the show.
The sequence for The X-Files was designed by the firm of Castle Bryant Johnsen (named for the founders of the firm: James Castle, Bruce Bryant, and Carol Johnsen). The firm, which made a name for itself by doing the credits sequences of Cheers, ALF, Growing Pains, and Moonlighting, tackled the weird and paranormal world that Agents Mulder and Scully would inhabit on a weekly basis with an incredible sense of clarity and craft. Unfortunately, in my research I was unable to dig up any sort of production brief or interview with any of the principals to give an official word to things. However, as a student of art history, I will comment on the aesthetics and iconography of the sequence, and how these images reflect in the show itself.
We open on the image at the top of this post, as a beam of light passes over the show’s title, an ominous introduction into the world we will be spending the next hour in. Now, this beam can be interpreted as one from a UFO, as seen for example in “Deep Throat.” Of course, shafts of light are a constant presence in the form of the flashlights our heroes use frequently while investigating shadowy locales. Metaphorically, this beam exposes the truth, bringing it to light, the quest that spurs Mulder (and now Scully) in the pursuit of X-Files.
Our next image is a supposed FBI file photo of a close encounter with an alien craft. We’ve already seen several instances of such photos episodes like “E.B.E.” and “Deep Throat.” An individual is pointing toward the sky at the craft, and we get a sense of the series’ primary preoccupation, the one that so drives Mulder, the one he hopes will one day end in him finding out what happened to his sister Samantha that fateful night.
The next series of images are all iconic in their own right. From a kind of radar system to a plasma globe to a distorted face and seeds germinating, these odd obscure images disorient us. We don’t quite know what to make of them, and their significance to the show at large. The radar screen of indecipherable glyphs has military overtones, the kind of organizations meant to cover up incidences like in “Fallen Angel.” The distorted face has an obvious analogue to Eugene Victor Tooms in his pair of episodes from this season, but also to the various monsters-of-the-week who fall outside of normal anatomy and physiology. The plasma globe is one of those fads of the 1990s, found and purchased constantly at stores like Spencer’s Gifts, tapping into the zeitgeist of the time the show aired. And a full decade and a half before the found footage horror series began, The X-Files is the place where the real “Paranormal Activity” occurs.
We are introduced to our two agents through images of their trusty FBI badges and the names of the actors portraying them. These are classic images, and enforce the premise that we will be exploring these spooky occurrences through the dual lenses of our two protagonists. These observations may be a stretch, but the photos used definitely key us in to the primary disposition of each character. Mulder’s visage is more sobered and subdued, inured by all the stuff he has seen and believes. Scully, on the other hand, is wide-eyed, taking everything new in that she experiences, unsure of exactly what to make of things.
In the middle of the credits for David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson is a shot of a shadowy, ghostly figure prowling a nondescript hallway, with the words “GOVERNMENT DENIES KNOWLEDGE” floating into view. This is a perfect distillation of the conspiratorial panopticon our agents butt heads with on several occasions, a government all too willing to sweep the truth under the rug of an official seal. Of course, we have individuals such the Cigarette Smoking Man as the face of these machinations, and the figure can possibly be said to represent the conspiracy as a whole, which we will be learning more about in the seasons to come.
A classic shot of our heroes investigating a case, armed with their guns and flashlights, bathed in the familiar ambience of shadows.
Our last major image is that of a man falling away from us juxtaposed against a handprint with a finger segment unusually differentiated in red. Again, we experience paranormal phenomenon primarily through people and creatures outside of the norm. These “others” are what populate the cabinets of the basement office with files, and give our heroes an excuse to gallivant all over the country on the taxpayer’s dime. It’s a strong image.
What gives these images their power is the aesthetic choice to make the footage incredibly grainy and well-worn, like a movie that has been recorded several times over on a VHS, the typical loss of information due to generational decay. While we now live in a world where you can record high definition video from your cell phone, in the world that Mulder and Scully inhabit, they are forced to rely on videotapes, cassette tapes, physical photos, and all the lack of clarity that can occur in analogue media.
We get to the credit of creator Chris Carter, superimposed over a blinking “all-seeing” eye, perhaps a metaphor for Carter’s role in overseeing all aspects of the show’s creation, our very own godlike figure, so to speak.
Finally, we end on this vista with the tagline of the series, “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.” As we mentioned in the review of “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” this tagline does change periodically, reflecting an important takeaway point of the episode we are about to see.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the work of composer Mark Snow in crafting one of the most iconic theme songs in television history. Like the ominous notes of the Unsolved Mysteries theme of the same time period, the theme of The X-Files elicits a Pavlovian response in the viewer, that of dread, the eerie, the unknown. Fun fact: Mark Snow came up with the main echoed riff by accident, when in trying to formulate a theme his finger slipped on the keyboard and the “cascading” effect we all know and love came out from the speakers. Combined with the images I discussed, the credits for the show form a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total art of the senses.
As far as rituals go, the television credits sequence is like the invocation to the muse of antiquity, incantations meant bring forth the creative forces and put on a show for us, a taste of what is to come. On these terms, the credits sequence of The X-Files succeeds tremendously.
-all screencaps, 20th Century Fox