What most people remember from the X-Files are the aliens, government conspiracies, Mulder and Scully’s will they, won’t they relationship and the theme tune. However the X-Files also looked at the wider world of the paranormal. With the show having a lot of “Monster-Of-The-Week” episodes. These episodes may not have affected the show’s big alien story arc, but they did deepen the world of the X-Files and help explore the main characters. At its heart the X-Files was a horror show filled with homages and clichés of the genre.
For those not familiar with the X-Files, the show centres around two FBI agents as they investigate unsolved cases that often deal with paranormal phenomena. Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is the believer, whilst his partner Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is the sceptic. This dynamic gave the show a distinct hook as the show’s characters questioned the validity of the supernatural. However the show itself was on Mulder’s side as more often than not the monsters, ghosts and ghouls were real.
Created by Chris Carter, the X-Files took inspiration from a number of films, books and TV shows. First and foremost the show is based on two of Chris Carter’s childhood favourite TV shows; The Twilight Zone and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Carter blended the styles of both to create the X-Files. Carter also drew inspiration from Twin Peaks, The Thin Blue Line and Prime Suspect when it came to the shows visual language and dark atmosphere. The Silence Of The Lambs was also an influence and was the reason the FBI was the focused organisation. The FBI angle allow Carter to make the show more plausible for the characters to be on these cases as oppose to Kolchak, who was just a reporter. The series was even influenced by the 1960s British spy show The Avengers, as Carter used John Steel and Emma Peel’s platonic relationship as the basis for the Mulder/Scully dynamic (in the earlier seasons). Fusing all these elements together was the key to the show’s success. It was essentially a horror anthology with an alien conspiracy thrown in for good measure. With season one being both the foundation and the perfect example of the shows distinct identity.
The reason the show stands on its own and manages to not get buried by its familiar horror ideas is due to how it approaches the subject matter. Using both rational thinking and belief as its tent pole thematic strands, the X-Files scratches the surface beyond the simple thrill of paranormal spectacle. The show’s grounded investigative side of things gave the creators chance to actually debate if these things exist or not, whilst showing the differences between Mulder and Scully. As mentioned before the show fully embraced the supernatural, but it was refreshing to have actual science play a part. Mulder would bring up legends, myths and fringe science for his argument, whereas Scully would look at the evidence and run actual tests before forming her own opinion. It is this focus on both sides of the argument and the fact that the show would explore our relationship with the paranormal world so thoroughly that made the X-Files so compelling, especially in its opening season.
When you look at season one as a whole only five out of twenty four episodes deal with the alien conspiracy directly. Which means the shows major focus in its opening season was its horror credentials. Of course the show was built around Mulder and Scully, but season one was concerned with how much horror it could throw at the audience. Evil twins, glowing green insects, werewolves, ghosts, killer computers and even the Jersey Devil make an appearance. This season is rife with nods to classic horror films (like John Carpenter’s The Thing and The Entity) and filled with a lot of horror genres most used clichés. But this doesn’t harm the show at all and in fact plays well in engaging the horror fans it is clearly aiming for.
Season One was the proving ground for a lot of the show’s trademarks. Each episode played out like a police procedural, which was taking place halfway through a horror film. There was the opening death, which would lead to Mulder and Scully turning up and before they figured out what was going on someone else would have died. It was formulaic, but it was also filled with charm (due to the Mulder/Scully dynamic) and intelligence. The pair would banter their way through each episode before the monster-of-the-week would either be caught, killed or vanish.
Stylistically the show was very dark. It wasn’t exactly revolutionary in its visual language, but it did blend the realism of the cop show with the deep dark shadows of an eerie horror show. It managed to fuse these styles well in each episode and this balance in tone allowed the show to depict its intended realism and at the same time deliver some nice creepy scenes and scares along the way. Adding to the visuals was Mark Snow’s score. Often the show wouldn’t have music until the horror moments kicked in. Snow’s score would creep into scenes depicting scary little girls or stretchy serial killers. Adding to the tension, but then it would fade away once Mulder and Scully were dealing with the real world. That isn’t to say those moments were devoid of music, but the score was used to set the tone of the horror as opposed to the drama.
A lot has been said about Mulder and Scully so far in this article and it would be remiss not to mention the excellent work of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Duchovny’s approach to Mulder made him a quirky, well-read and charming leading man. Duchovny has great comic timing and his ability to convey a man with such a conviction in his beliefs that some would call him an obsessive was impressive and added such depth to the character. Anderson did wonders with Scully too. She was attractive, intelligent, determined and as quick to action as her male partner. She was sometimes boiled down to the final girl/victim role, but even in these moments she showed a tenacity and resourcefulness. Anderson played her as the straight man to Duchovny’s Mulder and the chemistry between them flows off the screen. All good horror films need one good protagonist and this had two.
All good horror films also need a solid threat and the X-Files had a plethora of nasty creatures. Not all of them worked, but when they did they where terrifying and season one had the iconic Eugene Victor Tooms. A mutant who is over 100 years old and wakes up every thirty years to eat some human liver before hibernating again. He made nests out of newspaper and his own saliva and his most famous trick was the ability to squeeze into the smallest cracks. Tooms was the subject of two episodes and was the only monster of season one to have a two-part story. In “Squeeze” we are introduced to him and his modus operandi, Mulder is of course convinced there is something amiss with him and although Tooms is caught, it is for his attack on Scully and not the unexplained murders he’s apart of. In “Tooms” he is set free after psychological evaluation and he is desperate to eat some liver. Mulder keeps tabs on him, which leads to Tooms to beat himself up and then blame Mulder. This however doesn’t stop Mulder and Scully; the pair confront Tooms in a mall where he is killed by an escalator.
Yes that last part is ridiculous, but on the whole the “Squeeze”/”Tooms” episodes are the X-Files at its best. The episodes play on the idea of the bogeyman, as Tooms literally comes out of the dark corners of any room. But Tooms is also the X-Files dealing with the supernatural killers of the slasher genre. Doug Hutchison’s portrayal of Tooms is unnerving to watch. He looks like an unassuming everyman, but once his eyes turn yellow he is a terrifying creature. But outside of the content of the episodes “Squeeze” was the first Monster-Of-The-Week episode of the show and it had to sell the audience on that premise. Thankfully it fully delivered in showcasing all the aspects that X-Files is famous for and is easily one of the best episodes of the season.
But looking past Tooms’ appearances the X-File also had a plethora of episodes that really showed the wealth of horror the show had to offer. “Eve” had identical twins killing people, showing once again how creepy children truly are. “Ice” was a direct homage of John Carpenter’s The Thing and managed to do it well. “Ghost In The Machine” had the long lost brother of HAL 9000 and Proteus IV terrorizing people. “Gender Bender” dealt with an Amish-esque cult and a gender swapping runaway. Each of these episodes tackled a variation on the horror genre. They all also highlighted fears and anxieties of society much like the best horror fiction. However one episode really standout from the pack and that is “Beyond The Sea.”
“Beyond The Sea” is quite simply the most rewarding episode season one has to offer. It’s a character and thematic piece first and due to this “Beyond The Sea” is quite remarkable. Of course there is a paranormal element and a kidnapper to be caught, but that comes secondary to the episodes exploration of Scully as a character. The episode deals with Scully’s father dying and how she deals with it. But as she is grieving a man kidnaps a young couple. Mulder tells Scully about Luther Lee Boggs (Played by the excellent Brad Dourif), a serial killer Mulder caught years ago, who is psychically linked to the kidnapper. As the case unfolds Mulder is convinced that Boggs is orchestrating everything and so is Scully. But Boggs offers to let her speak to her dead father and this puts doubt in her mind. In the end she visits Mulder in hospital (he was shot by the kidnapper) instead of going to see Boggs, as she decides she already knows what her father would tell her.
The similarities to Silence Of The Lambs only go so far as the episode is more concerned with shaking up the status quo of the show. This is the first time that Mulder becomes the sceptic and Scully the believer. It highlights that Scully can move past her rational scientific background. This is due to her religious faith and this episode gives Scully a level of complexity that wasn’t there before. It shows how Scully is often in conflict with authoritative men, her place within a patriarchal working environment and her relationship with father figures. The episode really does wonders for her character. But outside that this is an episode that deals with the central concept of belief VS reason head on and in an interesting manner.
However not every episode was like “Beyond The Sea,” as there are a lot of misfires in season one. “Fire,” “Shapes,” “Born Again” and “The Jersey Devil” leant too much on genre clichés and ended up as unoriginal duds. But on the whole season one was an eclectic group of tales that entertained.
Throughout its nine seasons the X-Files would search for the truth, scare us and fascinate us with paranoid government conspiracies. The show itself would become a cultural phenomenon and heavily influence the countless TV shows that would follow it. But in this early season it was a show that dealt with nightmares and monsters and our relationship towards them. It was intelligent, often funny and driven by character drama. A true triumph of the genre, the X-Files showcased the best (and worst) horror had to offer.