For the past couple days, I've been hunched over my computer, following rabbit holes within rabbit holes in my search for the truth about The X-Files. I don't mean the show's overarching conspiracy, which never even came close to a satisfying resolution. To me, the mystery is a simpler one: What was this thing, anyway?
When The X-Files originally aired, I was a casual fan, tuning in most weeks without ever descending into full-blown X-philia. And like most casual fans, as The X-Files started to spin its wheels in later seasons — particularly after star David Duchovny half-quit the series — I shrugged and tuned out. It wasn't until last year, when Fox announced that The X-Files would return, that I resolved to catch up on what I'd missed all those years earlier.
I quickly realized that plan was doomed to failure. By modern standards, for those who really want to dive into The X-Files, the barriers to entry are perilously high. Any completionist who wants to catch up will need to watch 202 episodes that vary wildly in quality, two movies (one mediocre, one terrible), a spin-off series, a Millennium crossover, a Simpsons crossover, a couple of video games, two "seasons" of comic-book runs that pick up where the final season left off — and, beginning on Sunday, the first of six brand-new episodes reviving The X-Files as an event miniseries.
But however far you're willing to follow The X-Files today, there's a core element of the experience that's simply missing. No matter how completely a contemporary viewer digs into The X-Files, there's one thing that simply can't be replicated: watching it alongside the growth of its fandom.
The X-Files premiered in 1993, at a time when the idea of a professional TV critic doing a weekly "TV recap" of anything was still many years away. Only a few TV shows had garnered an obsessive, internet-based following — most notably, Twin Peaks and The Simpsons, in a pair of Usenet newsgroups. Even then, those devoted communities had comprised a relatively niche corner of a show's total fandom: a fraction of a fraction of the viewers. When Twin Peaks' central mystery was resolved, and the show's quality dipped, pretty much everybody except those unusually hardcore fans moved on — and despite their best efforts, Twin Peaks died off soon after.
The X-Files was something different: a show that earned mass appeal after it had been discovered and championed by a cultish fandom. A TV show about an obsessed man digging into an all-encompassing mythology was a natural magnet for obsessed fans to dig into an all-encompassing mythology, and the show's popularity was engendered by the ever-increasing ease at which they were able to trade notes, essays, fan fiction, fan art, and — perhaps above all — complaints.
Looking back on those then-contemporary reactions to each episode — faithfully collected on the fandom Wiki FanLore.org — is like getting a glimpse at the future of the internet. There are ridiculous theories pushed by unshakeable believers (like the one insisting that Scully is Mulder's sister). There are goofy in-jokes and memes. There are hotly debated hoaxes like the purported "lost episode" in which Mulder encounters a leprechaun. And there's the dawning realization that the creative team behind The X-Files has a much shakier grasp on the narrative than it might have seemed — shakier, in fact, than the people who were watching and taping and re-watching episodes for the clues they might contain. And while many of the detours turned out, inevitably, to be total dead ends, the fandom had a genuine impact on the series, as the show's creative team gauged what its most loyal fans cared about.
At the risk of inciting the rage of a deeply passionate fan base, I'd argue that much of The X-Files hasn't aged like fine wine. It inspired legions of imitators, and the best of those imitators managed to harness what made it great while reducing what made it so frustrating. It was arguably bested by Buffy the Vampire Slayer while it was still on the air; it was certainly bested by Lost after it was gone (though that show eventually ran aground in its own right).
And that brings us to today, when The X-Files returns to a TV landscape it helped to birth in the first place. Dense, serialized mythologies are commonplace, and every show has some kind of passionate fandom that will make GIFs and trade memes and yell at critics on Twitter if they give an episode a bad review.
But zealous and dogged and occasionally irrational as it may be, it's that same level of passion that created the boom in top-notch TV criticism today. Numerous early reviews of the new X-Files episodes have included sheepish disclaimers from critics who originally cut their teeth as X-Files fans, eager to analyze a show that actually seemed to reward those who took the time to scrutinize every episode. The X-Files may be an elder statesman in the TV landscape, but there's one thing you can count on: When you log on after Sunday night's episode, you'll find thousands of fans eager to pore over every frame of it.