“We didn’t invent it. Charles Dickens invented it, in a sense, and I’m sure there are examples before him. It worked for us, but it was a happy accident. It was something that was instinctual, but not necessarily a conscious decision. When we saw that the stories about Mulder and Scully were best told through the mythology — that they were more personal — it gave the show an emotional grounding, that I think the mythology of a show does. So it’s simply a good way of telling the most personal kind of stories.”
— Chris Carter, on the mythology
Most people when asked about The X-Files think of three things: Mulder and Scully, freaky monsters, and aliens. Over the course of nine seasons and two feature films, agents of the X-Files division have come face to face with some pretty creepy adversaries, from liver-eating contortionists to sentient machines and the essence of evil. But what captured the attention of those who would consider themselves X-Philes was the developing story of a race of extraterrestrials bent on retaking the planet, and the people who endeavored to keep this a secret (The Syndicate) and those who wanted to bring their misdeeds into the light (Fox Mulder, chiefly). The result was a sprawling, highly complex, somewhat messy but mostly compelling narrative that served as the backbone of the series and informed the wonderful character work which made things memorable for audiences worldwide. The X-Files — writ large — became then a template that influenced countless television series in its wake, an object lesson for writers rooms and the next generation of showrunners.
It wasn’t always going to be like this though. In fact, Chris Carter scarcely had the idea in his head of a long running story when conceiving of The X-Files and later during the initial stages of its production. Alien abduction was the topic of the very first episode, but it was only one of a panoply of ideas that Carter and the writers had. That first season had its share of episodes involving extraterrestrials, alien technology, and human agents covering up their existence, which set the parameters and ground rules for what we the audience would see on a semi-regular basis. “The Erlenmeyer Flask” tied some of these disparate threads together, and the writers could see the hieroglyphs on the spacecraft at that point.
We’ve spoken quite a lot about how the next big event — Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy — set in motion the idea of a cohesive mythology in earnest (resulting in Scully’s abduction), but David Duchovny had quite a hand in things as well, coming up with the idea of an alien bounty hunter, as well as helping introduce The Syndicate. For the remainder of the series, things spiraled out from there, and of course real life events (the first feature film, Duchovny leaving the show) continued to have repercussions on the plot. By the time we get to “The Truth,” it is a wonder that things held up to the degree that they did, despite lackluster seasons and somewhat unsatisfactory resolutions to long-standing mysteries.
In the history of television, the idea of a serialized, long-running narrative is a relatively new phenomena — at least where the primetime schedule is concerned. Before that, a continuing story was mostly the domain of the daytime soaps, with a few notable exceptions (The Fugitive and the UK’s The Prisoner, for example). Even when a serialized story manifested itself in primetime, it was still in the guise of soap opera satire, like in 1976’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. It wasn’t until the 1980s when programs like Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues and its NBC brethren St. Elsewhere began to take the idea seriously.
Their approach was several interlocking story arcs which took place over several episodes, and so sometimes on any given episode you would have one arc begin, another continuing, and a third concluding. The overriding principle though was still the standalone episode, a model that didn’t alienate viewers. This wasn’t the age of binge watching or on demand availability. Once an episode aired, you could only see it if it was rerun, and it would be disadvantageous to have a continuing story when it was very possible that casual viewers would not have seen every episode.
The X-Files really broke that mold, and with the incorporation of a continuing mythology alongside standalone Monster of the Week episodes, a compromise was brokered which allowed the show to grow on casual watchers while taking advantage of hardcore fans as well as emerging and newly established technologies (the Internet and recording shows onto VHS tapes). The X-Files wasn’t the only show of this period to do these things, as it joined the ranks of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in this kind of hybrid approach. The impact of this was almost immediate, as Joss Whedon utilized the hybrid model himself from the very inception of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997, only two years after The X-Files formalized it. At the same time, you had J. Michael Straczynski writing Babylon 5, for which he famously plotted out five seasons of intricate storytelling as well as Murder One, which followed a single court case over its 23 episode season.
The next big shakeup in television occurred when the prestige programming of HBO (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, etc.) ushered in the rise of completely serialized programming ahead of what is commonly referred to as a new Golden Age of Television. These shows took the Babylon 5 model and ran with it, and when you could buy or rent seasons on DVD, it became easier to convert casual fans or non-viewers into loyal viewers. That is not to say that the model The X-Files excelled at faded away, in fact, it grew even bigger. Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan has explicitly referred to Chris Carter and The X-Files when talking about the kind of storytelling engine he wanted to use in his show, despite the fact that to some the “procedural” nature would be a dirty word in the era of Mad Men. The programs on the USA Network basically treat this model as gospel, hanging a continuing story as punctuation across a season of standalone episodes.
A common criticism of The X-Files was that the writers were just making things up as they went along, which to be honest, was pretty much the truth. Chris Carter did not operate the show like a J. Michael Straczynski, but that is not to say that flying by the seat of your pants doesn’t pay off its own kind of dividends. We would never have the kind of rich thematic material that came from both Scully’s and Mulder’s abductions had the writers not been able to effectively adapt to changing situations. Ronald D. Moore, showrunner of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, took this philosophy to heart and in fact embraced the chaos, from which he credited some of the best and most inspired story beats of that program. Naturally, this approach has its dangers as well, as Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse know all too well with their show Lost, when the improvisations resulted in dissatisfied viewers unhappy with the way things turned out. This was a series that was supposed to be only five (later seven) seasons. This is something a program like Fringe learned from both Lost and The X-Files, crafting a mythology driven by mysteries while not losing a sense of the bigger picture. The X-Files has its share of late-period detractors, a point Radhika and I could see given how the writers painted themselves into a corner.
Despite this, the mythology is one of the most iconic aspects of the show we have come to know and love. Its design stands out in the great pageant of television history, and serves as inspiration for audiences and writers alike.