How “The X-Files” Changed Sci-Fi Programming Forever

“The truth is out there.” This is the still memorable theme from the 9 season long Fox TV show, The X-Files. “X” as in extraterrestrial. The basis for the show has an interesting historical slant to it. The whole idea of UFOs, extraterrestrial life, aliens, and the possibility of intelligent life existing on other planets were subjects left untouched by government critics. This is odd during a time when the secret Area 51 government installation had been drawing attention for decades, with the government denying its existence and purpose every step of the way.

Enter The X-Files which reversed the standard TV and movie science fiction storyline from “we are going in search of aliens“ to “the aliens are coming in search of us.” “Out there” was transformed into “over here.” Shifting the focus and bringing the little green men and other supernatural beings down to Earth laid a foundation for many movies of the science fiction genre to become both popular and mainstream.

Another programming attitude that was changed by Fox’s experiment was that sci-fi shows could not compete with the wildly popular (at the time) sitcoms. Sitcoms were a staple of the American TV viewer diet in the 1990s, and most people were content to be entertained with generally thought-free programming. The X-Files proved that there was a group of people (the 18-49 demographic) who were ready for a change into something that had more substance. But more than just making you think, The X-Files made you wonder.

But general audiences were not the only ones to take note. The show was either nominated for or had won Primetime Emmy Awards every year from 1994 to 2002, in not only acting and writing categories but in technical categories such as Makeup and Sound. Add to that list 3 consecutive Golden Globes of Best Television Series. Sci-fi could go beyond just having an interesting storyline and be well done. In 1993, this idea was almost laughable.

Speaking of storylines, Mulder and Scully investigated not only the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors but crossed over into sightings of the paranormal. This crossover worked well because both had one thing in common – they were conspiracy theories that the public had a definite interest in. Even today, the government and media organizations work hard to bring down most conspiracy theories; The X-Files made them a part of the national culture. The result was that the more you argue against something, the more popular it becomes. Three words – New World Order – spoken by then President George W. Bush only added to the ranks of the conspiracy theorists.

The SyFy channel gives a good deal of credit to its success and cable genre to The X-Files. Prior to the Fox TV hit, science fiction characters were large purpose driven. There was a mission, and the goal was to achieve the mission, much like a World War 2 movie. But Mulder and Scully were not only complex characters but the writers created an undertone of romantic/sexual tension between them which added to the critical “What’s next?” question essential to great writing.

Flipping the previous narrative to “the aliens are looking for us,” challenging the accepted norm of the TV culture, feeding into the curiosity and fear of the audience, and egging on the popular conspiracy theorists are all ways The X-Files changed Sci-Fi programming forever. If you look at the reboot of the Star Trek movies you will see all of these what are now essential elements fitted together.


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