The X-Files’s long anticipated return to television comes to an end Feb. 22, and with it, so does my own Proustian moment of nostalgia for my very American and very embarrassing adolescence as a millennial geek.
When the series premiered in September 1993, I was 13 years old, just beginning the eighth grade in a new school, and already acquainted with online chat forums. A dialup baud rate with its shrieking gurgle was a mark of futurist distinction back then, when it wasn’t only kosher to be on AOL—now the “McDonald’s of the Internet,” as one Onion editor indelibly put it—it was motherfucking necessary unless you were one of those irredeemable losers who paid CompuServe to connect with likeminded obsessives.
On the service provider that verbally informed when you’d got mail, you’d have no trouble finding your own bespoke community of hobbyists, obsessives, and pedants who forged friendships through keystrokes well before To Catch a Predator or ISIS made different use of just such a constituency.
From the first episode of The X-Files, about an alien abduction of the entire graduating class of 1989 in some Oregon small town, I was hooked. Mulder and Scully were the Sherlock and Watson of the fin de siècle, only with more or less sexual tension, depending upon your perspective.
Here, finally, was a contemporary TV show for those too young to gel to Star Trek in any generation. The X-Files didn’t take its ridiculous sci-fi premises too seriously and was more cleverly written than even the best episodes of Dr. Who. Also, the series about two paranormally focused FBI agents was the first popular cultural touchstone to apprehend that the Clinton years weren’t just going to be about welfare reform and blowjobs but a vast, right-wing conspiracy—in this case, to deny us the truth about Roswell, Chernobyl-spawned human flukeworms, death row psychic inmates who could prefigure violent crimes, the chupacabra, and miniature alien fetuses kept in cold storage at Fort Marlene.
Well, it was the ’90s. The world was coming to an end soon when computers rebooted their clocks. Somehow it all made sense. So I became “Mulder7776” (the number was assigned automatically, so popular was the nominative handle) and found my home in AOL’s X-Philes Chat Forum.
An X-Phile is exactly what it sounds like. The whole virtual gemeinschaft, which met weekly after each episode’s airing to discuss each episode in a bespoke AOL chatroom, was run by a guy named Jerry Jones. Not only did the name “Jerry Jones” seem perfect for a government villain straight out of the show he celebrated, it had several concerned adult members of my family convinced the man behind it was about to lead me and dozens of hapless others into a Kool Aid-infused mass suicide in the sands of Red Rock.
In reality, Jerry was the most milquetoast and harmless Floridian you could ever hope to meet—Jeb Bush in an “I Want to Believe” T-shirt—who ended up organizing an ambitious fan gathering in a different sort of desert. Yes, when I was in high school, I traveled to Las Vegas to attend an X-Files convention.
How else was I going to meet my heroes Glen Morgan and James Wong, the executor producers and top writers for the series, and all three Lone Gunmen, the vaguely anarchistic and Asperger’s-y computer hackers who knew where all the extraterrestrial bodies were buried and, at great personal expense to themselves, never failed to help Mulder and Scully expose the cigarette-smoking blackhats trying to pretend that toxic-blooded, underwater-breathing human-alien hybrids were only the stuff of comic book fiction?
The Lone Gunmen were AOL users with SAG cards. In between casual raids of the hotel suite snack bar, they were incredibly gracious and indulgent. As for Morgan and Wong, they genuinely respected their viewers and cared about their opinions. This, I submit, is what made The X-Files the cult phenomenon that forced its return to primetime programming.
It took no real work of the imagination to envision these two concept men on the other side of the cathode ray, scrutinizing every plot point and giving grief to writers just like themselves. Was it wise to kill off Deep Throat so soon into his avuncular tutelage of Mulder? How curable, scientifically speaking, was Scully’s otherworldly cancer?
Morgan and Wong would pop online from time to time to share the latest series spoiler or hint about a forthcoming “mythology” episode, which is to say the true nature of the U.S.-alien collaboration that had been under way for decades and occluded at the highest levels. On one delirious occasion, they even brought Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) with them.
Now I’m not saying that I left such an impression that a certain FBI Special Agent Barrett Weiss, who appeared ever-so-briefly in the Season 2 episode “The Colony,” was named for yours truly. It was written by series creator Chris Carter, whom I never met, and Agent Weiss was found dead in his underwear in the trunk of a car, so I mean, come on.
But The X-Files taught one never to buy into mere coincidences, however far-fetched or at distances of remove. Anyway, I must have done something right with Morgan and Wong, as they eventually entrusted me with co-piloting the AOL forum for their own tragically short-lived independent FOX series, Space: Above and Beyond. Think Firefly and/or the remade Battlestar Galactica well before their time.
Come to that, it’s easy to see how The X-Files inspired a whole new genre of television series-making. Writer Vince Gilligan gave us a Rashomon-narrated vampire genre episode, where the nightwalkers all ran an RV park and had to use false fangs to exsanguinate their victims, about a decade before he thought up Winnebago meth and chemical disincorporation as a means of cadaver disposal in Breaking Bad.
Sure, the last five episodes of Season 10 have been a disappointment, no doubt because I’m watching them through younger eyes but also because so much of what the series forecast now seems either realized, boring, or quaint by comparison. The age of sacred terror has turned back the dial somewhat on the The War of the Worlds.
The rebooted series continues Season 9's slightly contrived subplot of an offstage Mulder and Scully romance, complete with an abandoned and possibly alien-mutated love child. It also tries nobly and sardonically to cope with a fundamentally changed zeitgeist, poking fun, for instance, at how runaway, all-powerful bureaucracies and conspiracy theories have become the norm rather than the exception of popular belief systems—all thanks to the Internet, the medium that made the original X-Files so wildly successful.
But this is why series and fandoms come to an end. Thinking that the truth is out there used to mean something. Now it means you’ve bookmarked InfoWars, Russia Today, or any number of candidates’ presidential websites.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of The X-Files’ finale.