With the current revival of The X-Files underway, Darren Mooney’s Opening The X-Files: A Critical History of the Original Series, comes at the perfect time to revisit the first nine seasons of the series. Mooney’s approach is to break down the series season by season, while also discussing the two feature films, and creator Chris Carter’s other series that aired in tandem to The X-Files.
Mooney’s knowledge of the series is immediately apparent, but what makes his book so engaging is his ability to point out the links not only between episodes of the show, but also between other shows, movies, and cultural events. He’s quick to place the series in a larger historical context. While The X-Files has always been considered one of the most notable shows of the ’90s, and very much defined by the decade, Mooney is able to lay out just how Carter’s own background—heavily influenced by the Vietnam War and Watergate—bled into the themes that would be explored over and over in The X-Files.
A willingness to engage with conspiracy theories, coupled with a distrust of government (though Mooney notes that the 9/11 attacks would shift that mindset drastically), is at the heart of much of what makes up the series. Whether focusing on monster of the week episodes that often play on paranoia and hidden experiments, or the larger mythology arc that would go on to include a huge government conspiracy, colonizing aliens, and the creation of super soldiers, The X-Files consistently calls authority into question and offers frequent examples of seemingly unbelievable theories being proven correct.
Part of what makes Mooney’s approach so appealing is that by following the series by season and delving into much of the behind-the-scenes goings-on, there’s a real sense of understanding for some of the story decisions made. There’s almost a palpable excitement in remembering how exhilarating it was at the time to speculate and look forward to whatever came next. For those readers who may not have been watchers during the original series run, the book is a wonderful guide to both the series and the cultural timeline in which it is set.
Mooney also makes The X-Files fandom an integral part of his analysis. By placing the series in the context of early Internet fandom, a great deal is revealed about both the relationships that form between fans of a show and those that form between fans and those involved in the making of the show. Though Carter and others initially encouraged the increasingly vocal and opinionated group, as the show went on, criticism from the previously mostly positive fandom became a sore spot. Interestingly, Carter had only intended for the series to run for five seasons, but was pressured to continue making the show based on its popularity. So when the series would run to almost twice the length he initially envisioned, it stands to reason that the quality would drop off. Indeed, the last three seasons are fraught with many storytelling and characterization problems, leading to a decline in viewership and more vocal criticism, particularly from fans online.
Though Mooney’s main focus is The X-Files series, he also examines the two movies, The Making of ‘The X Files: Fight the Future (Spencer Davis Gray, 1998) and The X-Files: I Want to Believe (Chris Carter, 2008), as well as Carter’s other shows, Millenium, Harsh Realm, and The Lone Gunmen. Carter’s impact and leverage at FOX during the series’ heyday led to a deal that allowed him to create other shows. Unfortunately, none of these series were able to match the success of The X-Files. Mooney makes it a point to repeatedly stress how overstretched Carter was once the running of the an additional series was underway. This led to eventually handing over the reigns to other writers, at one show or another. As a result, The X-Files sometimes lost its creator, while the newer shows would also struggle to keep his attention.
Mooney notes that The X-Files was a somewhat unique television writing experience. Carter encouraged and was happy to allow certain writers to explore their own thematic interests, leading to them playing a larger role in The X-Files. Writers such as Darin Morgan, Vince Gilligan, and the writing duo of Glen Morgan and James Wong all emerged as writers with specific voices that influenced the series further. Morgan’s humor, Gilligan’s interest in Western motifs and his criticism of capitalism, and Morgan and Wong’s episodes which tended to flesh out Scully’s faith and skepticism, added more dimension to the series. Carter’s willingness to allow his writers the freedom to delve into the themes they were most interested in proved a fertile training ground for writers who would go on to influence the future of television.
Meanwhile, Mooney is also quick to point out all the times that Carter’s approach didn’t work. The show’s tendency to reset itself episode after episode in the later seasons was partly because Carter had run out of ways to drag out a mythology that was essentially solved at the end of season six. There were also issues around David Duchovny’s insistence the show move from Vancouver to California, as well as his workload while working on non-series movies. In addition, the pay discrepancy between Duchovny and Gillian Anderson also resulted in disparate contractual agreements that allowed Duchovny to do fewer episodes while getting paid the same as Anderson, necessitating those absences be written in ways that made sense.
Mooney also discusses the larger gender politics sometimes at play in the series. Scully is often forced to choose between motherhood and her job, while Mulder is never asked to do the same. Similarly, Carter was prone to romanticize Mulder in ways that left Scully in the role of killjoy. Related to its treatment of gender, Mooney explains that the show often tended to a social conservatism that seemed out of step at the time. The ways the series depicted other cultures was often stereotypical and problematic, as was also sometimes the case with its portrayal of faith and religion. Carter’s own increasingly spiritual and religious life would give way to representations that would sometimes skew to the more conservative and traditional.
Opening the X-Files is an informative and engrossing critical history of the series. As the book comes to an end, it’s impossible to not wonder what Mooney’s perspective on the recent revival episodes, and how they fit into the larger history of the show, would be. As the 11th season of the The X-Files is currently running, it’s helpful to keep in mind how the series has evolved over time, while also remaining true to much of what made it such a seminal series of its era. Mooney makes an excellent case for engaging critically with such a beloved series.