When “The X-Files” debuted in 1993 I was still using a VHS video recorder to tape my favorite shows.
Created by Chris Carter and starring a paranoid, conspiracy theory nut who worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it quickly grew a fanatical fan base.
Good alien conspiracy TV had been missing from the airwaves for a long time. Classic fare like “The Twilight Zone,” “Night Gallery” and “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” all served as inspiration for the new episodic drama.
Sure, there was “Doctor Who,” but that show’s cult following was a long way from influencing more mainstream television. Series like “Star Trek” reveled in its alien-inclusive future but never talked about the conspiracy of aliens that might already be among us.
There was something appealing about the paranoid FBI agent Mulder (David Duchovny) and his skeptic partner Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigating what might be an alien conspiracy to control our world. Or was it fanciful nonsense that fed Mulder’s theories but actually had more prosaic explanations?
I can remember my wife and I eagerly waiting for the latest episode so we could keep up on the alien conspiracy story line with Cancer Man and otherwise inexplicable events in the FBI case files. Indeed, “The X-Files” was one of the first shows where there was a larger story arc. It wasn’t exclusively comprised of standalone episodes.
Even that first season had its challenges.
The show bounced between the great conspiracy and what we rapidly grew to call the Slasher of the Week episodes. Subsequent seasons brought more serial killers and appalling crimes to the forefront, almost always completely unrelated to the alien story line.
Mulder and Scully were FBI agents, so it made sense that they’d investigate crimes unrelated to Mulder’s alien theories, I suppose. We didn’t want to watch them in “CSI: Serial Killer,” though.
See a Pattern Yet?
After a few seasons we became more discerning viewers and would assess in the first few minutes whether it was a “Slasher” episode or a conspiracy episode. The nadir of this was watching the episode that featured a baby’s body unearthed in a field.
Why would anyone think that was entertainment?
Note: This was the episode “Home” which first aired in October 1996. It proved so controversial that Fox never aired it again on reruns and the New York Times identified it as the show’s most disturbing episode.
After that installment, we lost most of our interest in “The X-Files.” I can recall really wishing that they’d just identify within the first 60 seconds if it was a Slasher or Alien episode so we could completely skip the bad ones.
The series persisted, however, and aired from 1993-2002. The show inspired two “X-Files” movies. The second, “The X-Files: I Want To Believe,” hit theaters in 2008. The show got the inevitable reboot treatment in 2016 and is back on Fox with its 11th season now.
Problem is, the show’s already run its course. Yes, the 2016 season was met with good ratings by hardcore fans along with a lack of enthusiasm from generic TV watchers.
Peak TV’s Revenge
Episodic TV had evolved quite a bit since “The X-Files” early seasons. Programs that don’t weave tightly into a greater narrative are suddenly passé. The quality of shows had zoomed forward, too. Netflix, Hulu, AMC, Amazon and Syfy have commissioned their own excellent series.
Still, I do love me a good alien conspiracy. I tried keeping up with the latest “X-Files” episodes, even as fantastic fare like “Stranger Things,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Falling Skies” and “Dark” shared smarter programs with highly engaging story lines.
Even a great series has its lifespan
I really enjoyed the Scully and Mulder characters, and I think that perhaps I do want to believe and that just maybe the truth is out there.
But I never made it through the 2016 season -- season 10 -- programming. And I wasn’t alone. Sonia Saraiya, writing in Variety, says “much of the 2016 event series felt hollow, a resurrection gone awry,” and writing for AVClub, Zack Handlen says It’s the end of the world, and ‘The X-Files’ feels awful.”
When season 11 started up with “My Struggle III” on January 3 I watched but wasn’t pulled back into the story. After the “Plus One” episode I was done, probably forever: I canceled the series recording on my DVR.
So what happened?
The series jumped the shark when Carter was apparently unable to say, “We’re done, thanks for all the fish” and move on to a new story that reflects our greater level of sophistication -- and higher expectations -- of episodic television.
Even a great series has its lifespan. Ending on a high note is so much preferred over having season after season that get worse and worse, ultimately just burning us fans and having us share our memories of when the series was really good.
But perhaps I’m alone.
Are you watching “The X-Files” season 11 on Fox? And if so, how would you compare it to the earlier seasons? Just as importantly, to all the other options we have appearing month after month on the dozens of outlets that comprise the modern episodic show landscape?
Me? I think it’s time to check my Netflix subscription to see what’s new. Actually, isn’t “Altered Carbon” starting up in a few days?