Before 2021, I was an X-Files novice. I had seen some of it before in a casual context, and had certainly absorbed a lot of the tropes and memes by cultural osmosis, but I had never committed to actually sitting down and watching the show from beginning to end. It was on my list of things to “get to”, but the massive backlog (202 episodes in its initial nine season run, plus two movies and a revival to complete the set) ensured I’d keep putting it off in the “maybe later” pile.
At least, until February 23rd, 2021, when the full show dropped on Disney+ Star in Canada. Between that day and April 19th, a time span of exactly eight weeks, I watched all 202 episodes and the first movie of the original run. By the end, my brain was running on fumes.
This is my story.
Nothing Important Happened This Month
What started off as an impulse click quickly turned into a full-on obsession. I suspect that certain aspects of my personal life (let’s just say that I was under an extreme amount of stress at the time because my living situation was experiencing a ton of upheaval and I didn’t know where my life was headed) contributed to my desire to escape into a show as long and absorbing as X-Files. To my surprise, it wound up being exactly the kind of comfort food I needed, and my daily routine of watching at least a few X-Files episodes per day, sometimes only two or three and at one point all the way up to ten, provided a sense of consistency that my psychological and emotional state clearly required.
The show’s episodic structure, at least for the first seven seasons, remained steady by having Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) be the only perennial elements. There were extremely rare instances where one of the pair sat an episode out, and a handful of other recurring characters such as Assistant Director Skinner, Alex Krycek and the Cigarette Smoking Man, but when you turned on an episode of X-Files, you knew what you were getting: Mulder, Scully, and something weird they had to investigate. Sometimes aliens, sometimes ghosts, sometimes something else entirely, but it was always these two characters and them looking into the unknown. Whether I was conscious of it at the time or not, that consistency helped me through a dark and uncertain chapter of my life.
Trust No One . . . . Including Me
Watching the whole show in this manner for what was essentially the first time opened my eyes to how I perceived it differently from those who watched it while it was on the air. The first, and probably most controversial take I have, is that I was really not a fan of most of the “comedy” episodes. In ranked lists of “Best X-Files Episodes”, many of these, such as Humbug, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, War of the Coprophages or Bad Blood wind up near the top, but I found a lot of them difficult to sit through because they, to me, betrayed the consistency I fell in love with. It’s very clear that these episodes don’t take place in the same reality as the regular ones, that they’re parodies of the show made by the same people. I found the humour in X-Files connected with me more when it was incidental, fostered by the natural character dynamic the show already possessed, rather than as the driving force of the episode’s writing.
The second, and likely somewhat less controversial take, is that I didn’t find the show’s overarching mythology all that confusing. It was clearly made up on the fly, but most shows are written that way, and given that I watched all the mythology episodes so close to each other rather than having them drip fed over the course of several years, all the pieces of the first six seasons or so of mythology fell together relatively cleanly. I certainly have some questions (what the hell happened to the faceless rebel aliens?), but the real issue with the show’s mytharc wasn’t that it was convoluted, but that it was drawn out way too long. The Syndicate’s destruction was the natural endpoint for most of the show’s ongoing storylines, but the show still had three and a half more seasons, which tried (and failed) to find something new to fill in the hole the Syndicate left behind. It’s a shame, because the show started falling apart after that, when if they’d committed to an actual ending after six seasons, it would likely be even more fondly remembered.
I Want To Believe, But The Time Has Passed
There will probably never be a proper conclusion to X-Files. They had their chance with the attempt to relaunch it as a movie franchise, and a last Hail Mary throw with the revival, which was so widely despised that I skipped it because I wanted to end my binge on a positive-ish note. The two final story points the show had left, the 2012 alien invasion and Scully’s apparent mission from God, were triggers that the show never pulled. Given the age of the stars and Anderson’s vocal disinterest, they are triggers that will never be pulled. At a certain point, what was one of the most groundbreaking shows of the 90s and one of the most popular genre shows ever aired, got away from the people who were making it.
I’m not blowing anyone’s minds by saying that Season Eight and Nine were kind of brutal to sit through. Not that introducing new characters was necessarily a bad thing, but you were never going to replace the once in a lifetime chemistry that Duchovny and Anderson had, the core believer/skeptic dynamic between them so pervasive that even people who’ve never seen an episode before know who Mulder and Scully are. I keep imagining some epic conclusion we never received, where the alien invasion came to pass and Mulder and Scully are vindicated by finally revealing the truth to the world before they inevitably save it. It’s a fantasy, but it’s a comforting one.
Yet even then, the fondest memories of X-Files aren’t about the plot, the conspiracy, or even the aliens (although those were all very enjoyable). It’s Mulder and Scully, and the best character moments they shared. The effortless banter. The overwhelming sexual tension. The deep philosophical conversation they had while seemingly trapped on a lake. Spending a whole episode at each other’s throats because of a cosmic alignment. Scully coming to terms with her cancer diagnosis. Mulder saying “You make me a whole person!” in the first movie. Even Mulder accepting his sister Samantha’s death and that she was in a better place, which was not only the highlight of Season Seven but I thought was one of the show’s most profound and emotionally affecting episodes. It wasn’t always what it was known for, but X-Files hasn’t endured for three decades and counting because conspiracy theories are forever at the centre of the cultural zeitgeist.
It’s endured because Mulder and Scully will always be a joy to watch, two timeless characters who were there for me when I needed them most.