restricted access Introduction: The truth is (still) out there: The X-Files twenty years on
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The truth is (still) out there: The X-Files twenty years on

Many of our Earth years will pass, longer, in fact, than it takes a multi generation starship to reach the galactic hub, before sci-fi tv outgrows its rather silly image.

Writing in the Radio Times the week that The X-Files (US 1993-2002) first aired in the UK on BBC 2, critic Richard Johnson took the opportunity to do a brief survey of television sf. As the above quotation demonstrates, he argued that television sf was, essentially, juvenile entertainment. It is ironic that the series whose beginning prompted these musings was about to release sf from the perceived trappings of camp and turn television sf into something very serious indeed. It did so through a combination of significant factors. First, it relocated sf narrative away from outer space and the future and placed it firmly on contemporary earth. Second, while allowing an identifiable (and delightful) thread of humour to run throughout, it never approached its sf premise with anything other than the utmost reverence. Third, it incorporated its sf within a web of generic hybridity, mixing sf with horror, with conspiracy, with police procedural and, of course, with just a hint of romantic spice. The show that Johnson mockingly announced was about to 'beam down to BBC 2' was, in fact, about to make alien abduction and colonisation an integral part of the cultural discourse of the 1990s.

Of course, The X-Files was not new in treating sf on television seriously, nor indeed in hybridising it. It harked back to, and was arguably openly derivative of, key sf and telefantasy television texts like the Quatermass serials (UK 1953, 1955, 1958-9), The Twilight Zone (US 1959-64), Night Gallery (US 1969-73), and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (US 1972-3). What The X-Files did, after sf on television had gradually become synonymous with space opera and Star Trek (US 1966-9) - particularly following the successful launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 - was resurrect and re-imagine the genre for a new audience, an audience more responsive to the series' contemporary and earthbound setting. In doing so it would become itself a touchstone, a [End Page 1] significant influence in terms of genre, visual style, narrative structure and aesthetic experimentation on the shows that would follow, including Babylon 5 (US 1994-8), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (US 1997-2003), Roswell (US 1999-2002), Alias (US 2001-6), The 4400 (US 2004-7), Battlestar Galactica (US 2004-9), Flashforward (US 2009-10), Haven (2010-) and, perhaps most directly, Fringe (US 2008-13).

The first episode of The X-Files was shown on the Fox Network at 9pm on 10 September 1993. It was a gamble for Fox, an attempt for the relatively new network at an industry staple of an hour-long drama series, while its previous successes lay largely in the fields of reality television (Cops (US 1989-)), comedy (Married with Children (US 1987-97) and The Simpsons (US 1989-)) and teen dramas (Beverly Hills 90210 (US 1990-2000)). Chris Carter, creator and executive producer, had never produced a television show before, and the two leads - Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) - were played by largely unknown actors, although Duchovny would be familiar to some for his minor appearance as DEA agent Denise Bryson in Twin Peaks (US 1990-1), a series which is generally acknowledged to be an influence on The X-Files. It nearly did not pay off. The first season aired in autumn 1993 in the Friday night graveyard slot, with Fox hoping that the show might pick up ratings by following The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (US 1993-4).1 By January 1994, The X-Files was only averaging 102nd place out of 118 shows in the ratings (Thomas 10). In the second season, things began to change as the show won a Golden Globe for Best TV Series Drama and the ratings began to rise, causing UK fantasy magazine Starburst to report that 'The X-Files has, this year, graduated into the big league...