The Truth Is (Still) Out There: 30 years of the X-Files and 20 years as an X-Phile

This cross stitch took me eight months. I have a picture of it on my phone that I show to people as if it were my child.

Thirty years ago today, the pilot episode of The X-Files first aired in the US. Since I lived in the UK, and was preoccupied with being a toddler, this passed me by completely.

Nevertheless, about ten years later I discovered a couple of VHS tapes on my parents’ shelf: the first X-Files film, and a set containing the episodes Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip. I was hooked instantly.

My mum taped episodes off the TV overnight for me, and I also watched some episodes with my dad. Then, over a succession of birthdays and Christmases, I received all nine seasons on VHS.

I used to hide the box sets in a cupboard when friends came over, as I was afraid of being judged. I didn’t hide other nerdy things in a similar way, but I suppose that demonstrates how important the show was to me. I was teased all the time for things I enjoyed, but The X-Files felt somehow different.

I grew up in a pretty average family, socioeconomically speaking. I was the first person in my family to attend university and didn’t know any scientists until I contacted some to organise work experience. However, my parents did encourage my interests despite all the teasing, plus I was lucky to attend a good state school.

These things all impacted my science capital, a concept encompassing what a person knows about science, their attitude towards it and how they engage with it. It’s not just about knowing that science is an option, it’s about feeling like it’s something that you want to do and is within your grasp. Research indicates that young people with higher science capital are more likely to pursue it as a career.

I was always academically inclined, but I discovered The X-Files at just the right time to steer me on a path towards science. Thinking in terms of science capital, it certainly increased my knowledge of science through learning about the real science behind each case (which was informed by the show’s science consultant, Professor Anne Simon, whose book The Real Science Behind the X-Files is well worth a read). I learned about different science-based careers through both the main characters and the experts-of-the-week they called upon. It also helped me understand how science worked and how the world could be illuminated through scientific thinking.

Ultimately though, the reason I decided to study science was Agent Scully. I wanted to be like her so badly, and that aspiration was a powerful driver that helped focus my ambitions and interests.

I cycled through a few career ideas as a child, ultimately settling on the idea of becoming a doctor. Once I started watching The X-Files I decided I would specialise in forensic pathology. When I realised I was far too socially awkward to do anything medical – not to mention the aversions to needles, blood and seeing people in pain – I switched to the subject of Scully’s undergraduate degree, physics. (I even wrote my A-Level physics coursework on relativity because, as we learn in the pilot episode, Einstein’s twin paradox was the focus of Scully’s undergraduate thesis.) From there I also became interested in science communication.

As a strong and complex character, Scully gave me something to aspire to that still felt attainable. She didn’t hide her femaleness, but it didn’t define or constrain her. In fact, she was highly valued for her intelligence, strength, capability and other traits that are sometimes denied to female characters. The show certainly suffered from a lack of female involvement, but Gillian Anderson’s performance and the contributions of writers, directors and other creatives turned Scully into more than just another stereotype.

I was lucky I never received the message that girls couldn’t do science, but I did get a lot of other harmful messages that stated I wasn’t a “normal” girl because of my personality and interests. Identifying with Scully gave me at least one data point to indicate it wasn’t a bad thing to be myself – and, in fact, it might actually be a good thing. Imagining a future where I could be like this character gave me something to work towards, to focus on and to escape from what I was experiencing at the time. Without that, I would have struggled even more with adolescence. I think that’s why it would have been so upsetting to be teased for loving the show: it wouldn’t have just been making fun of a thing I liked, it would have been making fun of something that was core to my sense of self-esteem.

As an aside, the fact one of Scully’s defining characteristics was being sceptical – and again, that being one of her most valued traits – helped me form my own identity as someone who values truth and critical thinking, even if it challenges my own beliefs. Of course, this is important for someone working in science, but it’s also important for anyone trying to find the most evidence-based path through innumerable competing ideas and ideologies.

If I ever get the chance to meet or talk to Gillian Anderson, I will certainly cry and make a gigantic fool of myself while I tell her all of this. At least I now know that I’m far from the only woman to feel the same, since the Scully effect has been studied and documented.

During COVID I decided to suggest to my partner that we rewatch the whole series. I had owned the DVD boxset for a while, but hadn’t rewatched it since I was a teenager. I had been putting it off for a couple of possibly contradictory reasons: I wanted to save it for a “special occasion”, but I also didn’t want to discover that something that was so important to me as a younger person didn’t hold up as an adult.

Nevertheless, we started our rewatch. I’m not sure how long it took, but with 218 episodes and two films it was certainly a commitment. I’m happy to say that, even accounting for the fog of nostalgia, the show absolutely stands up. I love it just as much now as I did when I was a teenager, if not more.

I’ve already spoken about my love for Agent Scully, but there’s a lot of other things to love about The X Files – not least, all the other characters, who help create a rich and captivating world. I’ve also alluded to the importance of science in the show, which is as vital as its mythological and paranormal elements. As all good science fiction does, the show also tackles a range of both contemporary and timeless themes beyond aliens and the paranormal: from environmental issues, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence to faith and reason, the corrupting influence of power and the nature of truth itself. It does this in episodes that are comic and tragic, sometimes at the same time.

And, if nothing else, the 90s fashions on display are truly iconic.

Having said that, watching as an adult was a very different experience and I realised how much nuance I’d missed as a younger person. Even just having a real job, where Mulder’s mildest antics would be enough to earn you a trip to HR, gave me a new perspective.

I’m not going to say the show is perfect. The mythology ultimately became convoluted and took some turns that are baffling at best, completely ridiculous at worst. It lacks diversity and there are 90s-typical themes and jokes that absolutely would not land nowadays. There’s also an over-reliance on women’s trauma as a plot device – to be fair, the guys get their fair share of it too, but the lack of female creative input is obvious at times. Still, despite these flaws The X-Files remains my favourite show and I firmly believe it’s up there among the greatest shows ever created.

When you have an English accent and you’re in a part of the US that’s not immediately accessible to British tourists, you get asked why you’re there quite a lot. My trip to Saratoga Springs in New York for this year’s X-Files Fan Fest was no exception, and the overwhelming refrain was, “you came all this way… for that?” My answer was the same each time: “well, not just for this – I spent a few days in the city with a friend to make the trip worth it, and I’ve been having a lovely time exploring Saratoga Springs too!” At that point they’d usually just nod and smile with varying degrees of bewilderment.

Up until this year, being a fan was generally a lonely experience for me. As well as generally being embarrassed to tell people about my love for the show, I never really engaged with the online X-Files fandom.

My first taste of being part of the X-Phile community came earlier this year, when I attended a screening of the pilot episode at the Science Museum, accompanied by a virtual Q&A with Professor Anne Simon and the show’s creator, Chris Carter. I was even able to ask Chris Carter a question and tell him that his work inspired me to become a scientist.

Being in that room, surrounded by 400 people with the same passion as me, was almost overwhelming. When it came to Fan Fest, there was no “almost” about it. It didn’t help that it came only two weeks after my father’s death. I thought about cancelling the trip, but at least it was a welcome distraction. (He was also a sci-fi fan, though for various reasons out of my control it’s not something we shared that much. I wish we had been able to share it a bit more, but hopefully he would have approved.)

As well as the main convention, where I was able to meet and have my picture taken with William B. Davis (a.k.a. Cigarette Smoking Man, the main baddie of the series), the event also included entrance to the X-Files Preservation Collection, the only museum in the world dedicated to the show. I had purposefully avoided looking at pictures of the interior, which meant I wasn’t prepared for just how stuffed to the gills with props, costumes, memorabilia and production materials it would be. I went in and out three times to absorb it all and still am not sure I did it justice. I did however manage to walk away without completely gutting the gift shop, so I’ve got that going for me.

I decided to splash out on a VIP ticket for the event, which gave me access to an evening of Q&A panels. Everyone else seemed a little reticent about asking questions, or maybe they’d already asked them during the day, so I was able to get plenty in. Having travelled all that way for this, I was pleased to be able to make the most of it.

Of course, I was my usual awkward self, but I figured: if you can’t be socially awkward at a sci-fi convention, where can you? I leant into it, tried to chat to as many people as I could, and revelled in the fact I was in the company of fellow X-Philes. I was particularly pleased by the number of young people I met and saw. Even after thirty years, new fans are discovering the show and breathing life into the fandom.

I wanted to share one particular anecdote from the event. At some point during the Q&A panel sessions, an attendee said that he would be dead if it weren’t for the show. My immediate thought wasn’t “wow, that’s ridiculous, it’s only a TV show”, it was “wow, that’s so great that he was able to find something that made such a profound difference to his life”. In that moment I was able to have a bit more compassion for myself as well and chip away at the feeling that being enthusiastic about something out of the norm is the most shameful thing imaginable. Since then, I’ve felt a lot more able to tell people about how much I love the show and a lot less bothered by any potential judgement.

Fandom, of course, isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I’m particularly bothered by people who demand more episodes, feel entitled to the attention of cast members or, even worse, ship them with each other as if they weren’t real people. 

(Side rant: Gillian Anderson is perfectly within her rights to not come back for more episodes or do anything related to The X-Files, even when you don’t consider the fact she still had to fight to be paid the same as David Duchovny during the revival seasons, and I think it’s great that she has set that boundary. It genuinely inspired me to set a professional boundary that I knew wouldn’t make me popular, but was vital for my own wellbeing.)

(Side side rant: I’m not besties with every single coworker I’ve ever had, and it’s ridiculous to expect that of famous people. It’s nice when cast members remain friends, but the amount of comments you see when they don’t plaster their friendship over social media is truly absurd.)

Having said all that, I’m really enjoying being part of the fandom, only twenty years into my own existence as a fan. At any rate, it’s preferable to hiding my VHS tapes in the cupboard.

At its heart, The X-Files is a nerdy show about two nerds, plus some other supporting nerds, using their nerdy skills to try and do some good in the world. It’s had a huge impact on my life over the last twenty years, despite all the time I spent too embarrassed to admit that. I wouldn’t be the same person if I hadn’t discovered it, and I’m so grateful for the positive influence it had on me. All these years on, it’s still a source of joy and inspiration for me, but recently it’s also helped me connect with other people. I am certain it will continue to enrich my life for many years to come.

Oh, and just to confirm: I still want to be Agent Scully when I grow up.

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