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Films and TV
Unfortunately, it also arguably played a role in the reawakening of interest in conspiracy theories in the 1990s. The writers heavily mined UFO mythology, such as the Majestic 12 and the Roswell crash, for ideas, forming a story that, both as a whole and as the sum of its parts, was largely indistinguishable from many real-life, grand-scale UFO conspiracy theories. While it likely was not the intention of the writers to do this, the show's run went hand-in-hand with an explosion of interest in ufology, cryptozoology, and the paranormal in general, and as one of the most high-profile purveyors of such ideas, it is difficult to argue that this was coincidental. This was even more true during the show's 2016 revival, in which the show integrated many of the newer methods and ideas that conspiracy theorists had picked up in the show's absence.
The show follows Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), a pair of FBI agents who handle "X-files", cases that are seemingly inexplicable by conventional scientific and forensic knowledge. Mulder used to be well-regarded as one of the FBI's best profilers, but came to develop a reputation as a crank, nicknamed "Spooky Mulder" by his fellow agents. This is due to his unwavering conviction that aliens not only exist, but were responsible for the disappearance of his sister Samantha when she was little, which led him to devote considerable resources to investigating them. As the poster on the wall of his office (illustrated with a photo by UFO fraudster Billy Meier) puts it, he wants to believe. Scully, meanwhile, is a doctor and a skeptic who's been assigned to work with Mulder chiefly to debunk his crazier theories, with it implied that the higher-ups in the FBI sent her to him because he was getting too close to "the truth".
Each episode features the two of them investigating a bizarre case, with Mulder going for the more out-there explanation and Scully looking for a rational one, with Mulder usually being vindicated at the end of the episode. Exceptions include the cases where the subject matter is religious/spiritual (wherein it's usually Scully, a Catholic, who's the believer and turns out to be correct, and the irreligious Mulder who's the skeptic and turns out to be wrong), and the cases where both of them are wrong and the actual explanation is something way out there. After all, watching them investigate iridium flares refracted off of weather balloons through swamp gas wouldn't be the most exciting television.
Meanwhile, everybody was wondering when the two were just gonna shut up and do it already. It was obvious to everybody watching and writing the show that Mulder and Scully had the hots for one another; the phrase "unresolved sexual tension" has even been claimed to have originated in the X-Files fan community. The chemistry between the two of them was a major factor in the show's rising popularity, as people tuned in to watch the two sexy FBI agents chase down aliens, psychics, and ghosts. As a result, it became one of the first truly mainstream shows (not counting cult hits like Star Trek) to produce a large volume of fan fiction, and with the rise of the internet in the '90s, it also became one of the first shows period to have a real fan following online, with the show's creators often giving shout-outs to big-name fans by naming minor characters after them.
The X-Files started out as, essentially, a paranormal version of a police procedural, with most episodes being standalone stories and only a few of them being seriously connected. It was in the second season when these connections really began to develop into an overarching plot, which involved, at its core, an alien conspiracy to invade and colonize Earth and the humans who were in on the plan, assisting in it and covering it up. This plot emerged out of necessity when the writers had to work around Gillian Anderson's pregnancy and allow her several episodes' worth of time off to have her baby; their method was to write a story in which Scully was abducted by aliens. Not only did this bring aliens into the main plot in a far more direct way than in the first season, it also created a need to develop the show's supporting characters with Scully temporarily absent. This story became a major focus of attention, and episodes came to be divided into two categories: "monster of the week" episodes, which saw Mulder and Scully chasing down bizarre phenomena that would usually be wrapped up by the end of the episode, and what came to be known as the "mytharc".
The mytharc is heavily based on existing UFO lore, positing a vast conspiracy in which, ever since the Roswell crash in 1947, the world's governments have been covering up the existence of extraterrestrial visitors on Earth, destroying all evidence of their arrival. This conspiracy, variously known as the Majestic Consortium or simply the Syndicate, is a fragile one; its member countries are shown to be out for themselves as much as anything, often withholding samples of alien life and technology for their own research (including the creation of super soldiers, human-alien hybrids, genetically-modified smallpox, and more) despite the directive ordering them to destroy it, as well as frequently snooping on and disrupting each other's activities. Nevertheless, they do stand united when it comes to individuals learning about the existence of aliens, deploying black-ops teams and men in black to silence anybody who gets too close to the truth. They believe that they are acting for the good of all mankind, fearing that disclosure of the existence of aliens would lead to mass chaos.
The conspiracy is also involved in preparation for an alien invasion and colonization of Earth, forecast to begin on December 22, 2012. Seeing that humanity couldn't possibly hope to fight back against a full-blown invasion, in 1973 the conspiracy cut a deal with them, in which the members of the conspiracy and their families would be permitted to survive in a privileged position on the aliens' new world after being "elevated" through hybridization with alien DNA, while the rest of humanity would be brainwashed and enslaved. The aliens' true goal, however, was to wipe out humanity outright after colonizing Earth. When the conspiracy learn about the aliens' plans, they begin work on a vaccine designed to counter the efforts of the aliens' biological weapons in order to save most of humanity. A deleted scene from the series finale also reveals that, if worse came to worst, the conspiracy had the ultimate trump card: start World War III and deny Earth to the aliens through nuclear winter (the alien biological weapon shuts down in the cold), while riding it out in underground bunkers.
So, to sum up...
What we have here is basically a Berlitz Guide to UFO Lore. Anything that even remotely pertains to ufology, this show offers in spades. It starts, as it always does, with Roswell, though the aliens had been testing the waters for a very long time before then. From there, you have a government conspiracy loosely inspired by the Majestic 12 that has sold out the planet to the alien colonists. That conspiracy treats 99% of humanity like sheeple, breaking out the black helicopters to keep them ignorant and planning to let the aliens conquer and enslave them, while using its positions of power to funnel test subjects to the aliens. (To its credit, though, the conspiracy draws the line at flat-out genocide of most of humanity.) They fully plan on joining the aliens themselves as a privileged caste once those experiments begin to bear fruit and allow them to be successfully turned into human-alien hybrids. Both sides, however, are planning on screwing the other over. It's from here that the show leaps into exopolitics, with other alien races, as well as rebel factions in the colonizing alien race, all taking an interest in Earth and running their own conspiracies alongside those of humanity.
Huh, sounds like a certain British ex-footballer was watching the show a bit too much...
The slow spiral up its own ass
For years, the mytharc helped make The X-Files into one of the most talked-about shows on television. Episodes would drop new details about the government conspiracy, the aliens, and the machinations of both, and fans struggled to piece together the various clues and figure out the truth behind the conspiracy...
...at least, until it became clear that the writers themselves were also struggling to figure that out. They were originally planning to end the show at the end of the fifth season, with a feature-length film that summer closing off the remaining loose threads, but the network wouldn't let a show that was still a ratings smash die so soon. The writers were thus dragged back in for another season, then another, before finally ending up with nine seasons, the last two generally viewed by fans as the point where the mytharc went completely off the rails. Having used up all their ideas but forced to keep the show running until its audience goodwill ran out, the writers pretty much began throwing everything at the wall and keeping what stuck, with the mytharc becoming increasingly convoluted and self-contradictory. While the mytharc was one of the show's main attractions during its run, nowadays you're far more likely to find fans praising the "monster of the week" episodes and the chemistry between Mulder and Scully, with the ultimate outcome of the mytharc being fairly divisive.
Ironically, the process of how the show was written in later seasons, which basically amounted to "throw in anything that sounds cool and scary, and worry about continuity later", pretty closely mirrors the process of how a real-life Unified Conspiracy Theory develops. Perhaps it's not a surprise, then, that many elements of the X-Files mytharc, particularly the idea of humanity's leadership selling out the rest of the world to alien overlords, have crept into the crankier ends of real-life ufology.
The truth is right here
Premiering during the "end of history" when America had just won the Cold War, The X-Files tapped into/preyed upon a cynical '90s milieu that saw Bill Clinton sleeping with interns, the Waco siege (which ended just five months before the show premiered), black helicopters behind every blade of grass, and Y2K coming to destroy civilization. Right down to its mottoes of "the truth is out there" and "trust no one", it spoke to the more fearful elements of the '90s mindset in a manner not unlike how Red Dawn symbolized the '80s — whereas the enemy in Red Dawn was the highly visible danger of communism, the enemy on The X-Files was a shadowy, amorphous, alien conspiracy within our own government. It was the paranoia of the '90s stripped of its more politically extreme elements and given a sci-fi makeover, and it's been suggested (including by its own creator, Chris Carter) that the reaction to 9/11, which introduced Americans to the very real dangers of both terrorism and the surveillance state, did more to kill the show than its troubled later seasons ever did. During its run, both Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan criticized the show for promoting what they felt to be a credulous, uncritical mindset and large amounts of woo.
Other skeptics, however, took a different view. Perhaps the most notable was one of the show's own stars — William B. Davis, who played the villainous figure known as the "Cigarette-Smoking Man". Davis is a member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry in real life, and was frequently challenged by both fans about aliens and the paranormal and by his fellow skeptics about starring on a show that seemed to promote belief in such. His answer to both was "the show is fiction... it isn't a documentary", while also criticizing Dawkins' response to that answer by pointing out that he had failed to provide any actual evidence to back up his claim.
All told, The X-Files is something of a mixed bag for skeptics. On one hand, even if the show didn't actively promote pseudoscience and woo outside of its own fictitious continuity, it can be argued that it helped contribute to a cultural atmosphere where such topics were the subject of mainstream discussion. After all, the fiction that a person reads, watches, and otherwise consumes can still inform their mindset even if it's not "real" per se. On the other hand, one could easily lay the same complaint at the feet of an esteemed franchise like Star Trek, which also features aliens and poorly-grasped science, and which can also be argued to have influenced the culture of ufology back in its heyday, or the works of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, who wrote all manner of acclaimed graphic novels based on Western esotericism, the occult, and of course, conspiracy theories. Plus, it can be argued that anything that gets the more credulous sections of the populace interested in comparatively harmless conspiracy theories and kookery like cryptozoology and aliens as opposed to the "Christian Patriot" movement, white nationalism, and Jewish conspiracies, while also being an explicitly fictional program that isn't trying to actually claim that aliens built the Pyramids and are coming back to take over the world (unlike, say, Ancient Aliens or Coast to Coast AM), is an all-around good thing. Meanwhile, the less gullible segments of the population can enjoy a program that they know is fiction, one that takes real-life conspiracy lore and crafts an entertaining (before it went off the rails) show out of it.
The "Scully effect"
On a more positive note, Dana Scully has often been praised as one of the great female characters of television and science fiction. As the skeptic within the show's central duo, her dynamic with Mulder was initially an inversion of a classic gender stereotype, with the man in the relationship portrayed as more given to going with his gut while the woman served as the rationalist, and over the course of the show's run, her character evolves from that setup and eventually joins Mulder in his quest without ever being defined by her relationship with him. In particular, she has been credited with getting more women interested in science and engineering, in what's been called the "Scully effect", something that Gillian Anderson is quite proud of.
In addition to two film adaptations (one at the end of the fifth season, the other years after the show ended) and a number of video games, The X-Files had two spinoffs. The first was Millennium, a show starring Lance Henriksen as a psychic FBI agent who uses his powers to fight serial killers and other criminals, while also working for a shadowy organization called the Millennium Group that seeks to bring about the end of the world in the year 2000. It ran for three seasons from 1996 to '99, before being canceled due to low ratings, its plot being wrapped up with an X-Files episode. The other spinoff was...
The Lone Gunmen
The Lone Gunmen ran for a single thirteen-episode season in 2001, following the titular trio of conspiracy theorists who run a 'zine and investigate government conspiracies. As the Gunmen had been comic relief characters on The X-Files, their show was often more lighthearted, with a good deal of slapstick comedy thrown in.
While short-lived, the show did make one great contribution to conspiracy culture, though it largely came after it was canceled. The pilot episode revolves around the Gunmen working to stop a plot to hijack airliners and fly them into the World Trade Center, which is being orchestrated by a government conspiracy that seeks to blame the attack on terrorists and use that as the impetus to start a war for profit. In other words, the core of every 9/11 conspiracy theory worth its salt. This episode, which aired on March 4, 2001 (six months before 9/11), has often been held up as the Holy Grail of predictive programming by conspiracy theorists, who allege that the writers either got too close to the truth!!! or were in on the conspiracy, and that this was the real reason why the show was canceled (and not its falling ratings). It's important to remember in cases like this that 9/11 was not something that came out of the blue. Islamic terrorists had already tried to attack the World Trade Center once before in 1993, and had seen a similar hijacking plot in 1995 (with one of the targets being the CIA headquarters) foiled, so the idea of terrorists crashing hijacked airliners into major cities was not unheard of. Furthermore, by this point, al-Qaeda was already in the process of planning 9/11.
Another episode, "Like Water for Octane", is of relevance for skeptics for how it satirized free energy conspiracy theories, specifically the water powered car. After spending the entire episode searching for this mysterious car, thinking that it was suppressed by the oil industry, the Lone Gunmen meet the daughter of the man who built it. She tells them the truth: her father, a committed environmentalist, destroyed the car himself when he realized its hidden costs, namely in how it would fuel suburban sprawl and consumerism that would ultimately do far more damage to the environment than the internal combustion engine would in a world facing peak oil. The shifty energy company executives weren't looking for the car's blueprints in order to shred them, but rather, to hand them to Detroit to put into production in order to keep the consumerist gravy train going.
- The X-Files (1993-2002)
- Millennium (1996-1999)
- The Lone Gunmen (2001)
- Muir, John Kenneth. The X-Files FAQ: All That's Left to Know About Global Conspiracy, Aliens, Lazarus Species, and Monsters of the Week. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2015.
- Ellis, Lindsay. "Fox Mulder and the Problem of the Romantic Conspiracy Theorist." Tor, 3 May 2015 (recovered 7 August 2017).
- Marshall, Rick. "7 Things We Should Thank The X-Files For." (4. The Growth of Online Fan Communities.) Mental Floss, 10 September 2013 (retrieved 7 December 2014).
- Yezpitelok, Maxwell. "6 Classic Series You Didn't Know Were Made Up on the Fly." (#4. The X-Files) Cracked.com, 1 March 2011 (retrieved 1 December 2014).
- The folks at io9 offer a fine catalogue of attempts to sort out the whole convoluted mess that the show became.
- Newitz, Annalee. "Chris Carter Says 9/11 Killed X-Files, But America is Ready for It Again." io9, 23 February 2008 (retrieved 17 December 2014).
- Vlahos, Kelley Beaucar. "X-Files: Only for a pre-9/11 World." Antiwar.com, 11 September 2013 (retrieved 17 December 2014).
- "Each week The X-Files poses a mystery and offers two rival kinds of explanation, the rational theory and the paranormal theory. And, week after week, the rational explanation loses. But it is only fiction, a bit of fun, why get so hot under the collar? Imagine a crime series in which, every week, there is a white suspect and a black suspect. And every week, lo and behold, the black one turns out to have done it. Unpardonable, of course. And my point is that you could not defend it by saying: 'But it's only fiction, only entertainment'."
- Cossitt, Allison. "Cigarette-Smoking Man". Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, March 1998 (retrievd 1 December 2014).
- Fortin, Jacob. "The Good Atheist Podcast: Episode 154." The Good Atheist, 22 December 2011 (retrieved 1 December 2014).
- Traister, Rebecca (24 July 2008). "Scully have I loved." Salon.com, 24 July 2008 (retrieved 2 December 2014).
- Norman, Abby. "How Dana Scully Inspired a Generation of Women." Paste Magazine, 28 April 2017 (recovered 18 May 2017).
- "I love it when women come up to me and tell me I'm a positive influence on their lives and the lives of their young daughters. That's a great feeling."
- The Lone Gunmen, "Pilot"
- Such as this guy.
- Harkins, Danny. "7 Completely Unrealistic Movie Plots (That Came True)." (#1. The Lone Gunmen) Cracked.com, 19 May 2009 (retrieved 2 December 2014).
- Bonner, Raymond and Benjamin Weiser. "Echoes of early design to use chemicals to blow up airliners." The New York Times, 11 August 2006 (recovered 10 March 2017).
- The X-Files Wiki: "Like Water for Octane"