One of television’s most influential and beloved series celebrates its 20th anniversary this week. Chris Carter’s The X-Files, starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents investigating strange and unexplained cases buried by shadow government forces, became a “cultural touchstone” for the 1990s. It changed the landscape of television with intelligent writing, dynamic characters (hurray for strong women), and imaginative storytelling. We’ve been reflecting on the series all week and felt compelled to create an A to Z walk down memory lane.
The creatures at the heart of it all. The X-Files featured many terrifying species of aliens, including the shape-shifting, faceless renegade aliens who burned abductees alive by the masses.
Mulder’s line to Scully when they first meet, “Nobody down here but the FBI’s most unwanted,” says it all. His famously messy basement office was decorated by the crew with pages from old sci-fi magazines, old books, cast-off documents from the police department and various UFO societies, and staged crime scene photos. The series couldn’t get permission to use the official FBI seal, so they invented their own.
Believe it or not, Fox initially rejected showrunner Chris Carter’s pitch for The X-Files. “I was kind of unproven,” he told Vulture in a recent interview. “Even though I had some success, it was limited, and so there’s always a tremendous amount of nervousness on the part of the studio and network in sending lesser combatants into the field.” Carter was heavily influenced by one of his favorite TV shows when he was a child, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. “First and foremost what I wanted to do was scare people’s pants off,” he once said of creating The X-Files. With Mulder and Scully he wanted to subvert the traditional gender roles, making David Duchovny’s FBI agent the believer and Gillian Anderson’s special agent the skeptic. Presently, Carter is returning to sci-fi for an Amazon Studios drama, AMC project, and X-Files comic book, but he doesn’t see himself resurrecting the series: “It was nine years of good storytelling, and even though a lot of people would like to see a third movie, I don’t think there’s a whole lot we need to elaborate on.” The X-Files films haven’t fared terribly well with critics, but ultimately Carter is leaving the decision about a movie to the studio. “It would really be up to 20th Century Fox,” he remarked.
“I thought it was a good script and it would make a good pilot and possibly get picked up for a few shows, but I didn’t see enough buried material in it to continue on,” David Duchovny said of his initial take on the X-files script in 1995. “Once it got opened up, then it’s pretty much limitless. So, I wasn’t surprised once I understood the concept of the series.” Chris Carter had a few reservations about Duchovny, despite a terrific first read. The actor’s delivery was rather slow, which didn’t sit right with Carter. It wasn’t long before the showrunner saw Duchovny was the best man for the job. “He can be a bit of a provocateur some times, just like Mulder. That’s one of the appealing things about him,” executive producer Frank Spotnitz said of the star. “It’s been a great collaboration over the years. One interesting choice David made early on when playing Fox Mulder was his being completely unembarrassed and unapologetic for his whacked out beliefs.” At this year’s X-Files reunion, Duchovny summed up the series quite simply: “It was just a good show. There was no show like that on television at the time.”
E.B.E. (Extraterrestrial Biological Entity)
You may not remember episode 17 of the show’s first season, but it’s significant for one reason: the Lone Gunmen. The ragtag tech nerds, John Fitzgerald Byers (Bruce Harwood), Richard Langly (Dean Haglund) and Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood), thrived on government conspiracy tales and were always willing to lend Mulder and Scully a hand during their most difficult cases — to comedic effect. The characters quickly became fan favorites and eventually got their own spin-off series, which was canceled in 2001.
The X-Files became known for their “monster-of-the-week” episodes that introduced a fascinating array of paranormal, sci-fi, and horror-inspired characters — creatures that rarely got small screen time in those days (especially compared to our current monster-obsessed TV programming). The Flukeman was one of the most grotesque of the bunch — a radioactive humanoid sewer dweller. Carter was partly inspired to create the character after his dog had worms.
“I sort of staked my pilot and my career at the time on Gillian. I feel vindicated every day now,” Carter said of casting Anderson as levelheaded agent Scully against Fox’s wishes. Execs wanted someone with more overt sex appeal, but Carter lobbied for the actress. He admired her intensity, which made the scientific aspect of her character more believable. Carter has said that he wrote the character of Scully as his ideal woman — someone attractive, but rather intelligent. Anderson recently wrote a love letter to fans of The X-Files, which you can read over here.
One of the scariest X-Files episodes and the first to receive a graphic content rating, “Home” followed our intrepid agents to the creepy, ramshackle house belonging to a family of unhinged, inbred mutants. The twisted reveal is one of television’s darkest moments. Critics praised the episode’s cinematic quality, comparing it to the work of David Lynch.
“I Want to Believe”
Mulder’s everything. The poster had to be replaced several times since it would frequently disappear from the set.
James Wong and Glen Morgan
“Morgan and Wong came to me via Peter Roth, who was running Twentieth Television, and was very involved in the process and suggested that I hire these guys who were actually, I think, hired or nearly hired on another show, which they were able to slip out of and came to work,” Carter recalled of beloved writing and producing duo James Wong and Glen Morgan. “[Along with writers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, they] were essential to the show’s not just early success, but laying the foundation for its greater success.” The men would later work on Carter’s underrated Millennium series, starring Lance Henriksen.
Nefarious agent Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea) was a member of the Syndicate — a shadow government group responsible for covering up the alien visitations on Earth. Krycek became one of the series best villains, taking aim at Mulder, Scully, and their families — assisting in Scully’s abduction and the murder of Mulder’s father.
Love (and all the sexual tension, ever)
“When we were doing the show, Gillian and I had got tired of it. And we wanted to be ourselves outside of it. I remember struggling. But now I think, ‘God, what a great love affair.'”
Chris Carter on the show’s developing mythology:
“I learned something in the first season and this came as a result of not just experience, but [from] a letter I had received from a fan who said, ‘[We] like the episodes that involve Mulder and Scully and their relationship and their lives and not the ones that are strictly procedural and case-driven.’ It was a good note. And it helped to create the mythology of the show. I actually named a character after the letter writer in the season finale [“The Erlenmeyer Flask”]. I named her Dr. Berube [because] that person’s last name was Berube. It was the right letter at the right time. The mythology and the two-part episode approach began shortly thereafter and became a mainstay of the show.”
NICAP (National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena)
Based on a real-life civilian UFO research organization active through the 1980s. Abductee Max Fenig (Scott Bellis) was a member of the group, which was a precursor for the Lone Gunmen.
The sentient alien virus we hope we never get.
Pencils and Porn
Two of Mulder’s favorite things. “The pencils in the ceiling were a good character trait or, I should say, revealed [his] character. Mulder’s love of porn came from Morgan and Wong, which is now kind of… it is something that I was even asked [about] during a twentieth-anniversary convention, about where that came from, so obviously that’s a lasting impression people take about the character,” Carter said of his star. “But I have to say a lot of those quirky traits came from David himself,” the showrunner revealed. “In the pilot episode, he does a little thing while he’s driving with Scully where he does like a funny kind of old woman, New York accent. David revealed himself as a funny person. He’s got a very dry sense of humor, so it sometimes takes a little while.”
Scully’s pet pooch, named after the harpooner in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (carrying on her family tradition of nicknames from the book). Scully’s father called her “Starbuck.”
“Roswell was a smoke screen, we’ve had a half a dozen better salvage operations.” — Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin)
The Smoking Man and Walter Skinner
Archenemies, William B. Davis’ villainous Smoking Man — Syndicate member and man with unspeakable powers — and Mitch Pileggi’s FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner battled it out during nine seasons. Show creators had no idea the characters would play such an important role in the development of the narrative. In the case of Davis, producers had not even planned for him to star as the central antagonist. Execs even questioned his acting chops.
Deep Throat was just in the neighborhood. He wanted to drop by to tell you that you can’t trust anyone, and you’re totally screwed.
The abduction at the center of the story concerns Mulder’s sister, Samantha, who was taken when she was 8 years old. The traumatizing event fuels Mulder’s obsession to uncover the truth.
Virologist Dr. Anne Simon acted as the show’s science consultant and wrote a fascinating book about “the real science” behind The X-Files. The show’s scientific element was an important counterbalance to the fringe theories that ran rampant throughout, making the show seem frighteningly realistic.
The suave and collected Syndicate member (played by John Neville) is the opposite of the Smoking Man’s brutal and impulsive character. The Well-Manicured Man acts as the voice of reason within the group, but grows disillusioned with their initiative. This occasionally benefits Mulder and Scully who receive tips from him during their investigations.
Steven Williams portrayed the secretive X (aka Mr. X) — the character who replaced Deep Throat as Mulder’s secret friend in the FBI. Mulder used to tape an X on his window when he needed to signal for the informant’s help.
All hail the “Stupendous Yappi” who sees “foreseeable futures,” and acts as a consultant to Mulder and Scully. He also hosted an alien autopsy documentary. Actor Jaap Broeker was actually David Duchovny’s stand-in for scene blocking and lighting, but snagged a part on the series after writer Darin Morgan saw him hanging out on set and felt inspired to create a part for him.
Zeus Storage Tanks
One of the great “Oh shit!” moments on the show, when Mulder discovers the creepy containers holding alien-human hybrid guinea pigs at the Zeus Storage facility. Nightmares for life.