The X-Files is 20: six ways that Scully and Mulder changed TV

The cult science-fiction series made a massive impact when it was on our screens, but its influence just keeps growing

The X-Files beamed down to the UK 20 years ago yesterday, first screening on Sky1 on 26 January in 1994 (and coming to BBC2 nine months later). An FBI procedural about alien abduction, fringe science, paranormal activity and submerged conspiracies, it took traditionally wackadoodle subject matter and transmuted it into TV gold. Cinematic, atmospheric and compelling, The X-Files barely had time to establish itself as a cult hit before becoming a global phenomenon – and even though the series ended in 2002, its influence can still be felt today. Here are six things it gave television.

Gillian Anderson's blooming career

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The X-Files could claim to be the making of Gillian Anderson, but she probably would have made it anyway. Show creator Chris Carter clearly recognised her potential, lobbying hard for the unknown 24-year-old to play Dana Scully. According to Carter, she brought "a certain need-to-prove-yourself quality to the character". Two decades on, Anderson is killing it everywhere. She's about to start filming season two of Belfast-set cop drama The Fall, memorably guest-starred as Doctor Lecter's therapist in artful slay-ride Hannibal and will also appear in new NBC political thriller Crisis in March. (As for David Duchovny ... well, some people like Californication, right?)

Jokes about filming in Canada

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Though Mulder and Scully were continuously criss-crossing the US investigating chupacabras, wampyrs and sightings of little grey men, the first five seasons of The X-Files were produced and shot in Vancouver. The technical nuts-and-bolts of TV production rarely make for juicy gossip, but such was the insane appetite for information about The X-Files – and the fact that Duchovny kept making jokes about how much it rained in Canada – this far-flung production base gained an almost mythic status. It also popularised the idea that if your TV show was shooting in Vancouver, you were a little bit cheap, a public perception that continues to this day.

Fringe, and about a dozen other shows …

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A stacked caseload of weird phenomena, season-long storylines, a strong female FBI agent, sexual tension between the leads – Fringe didn't shy away from the fact it was an attempt to recreate Carter's megahit for a new generation. (In a particularly dedicated tribute, it even moved production to Vancouver from season two onwards.) It wasn't the only one. In the early days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon liked to describe it as "My So-Called Life meets The X-Files", and traces of the "X factor" are detectable in almost every sci-fi show created from 1994 onward, including Warehouse 13, Supernatural, Dark Skies, The 4400, Sleepy Hollow … not to mention Chris Carter's own companion show, the doomy Millennium.

Including one very notable example

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Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was an early adopter and "absolute hardcore fan" of The X-Files, who met Chris Carter early in the production of season two and joined the writing staff soon after. He ended up writing 30 episodes. "It taught me how to be a producer, and it taught me how to be a showrunner," said Gilligan last year. "It taught me how to be a boss." Certainly, a glance at his pre-X-Files work – the demented Dennis Quaid movie Wilder Napalm – and what came afterwards suggests the experience helped him focus his talents. It was also where he first met Bryan Cranston, who was cast in the Gilligan-written episode Drive, playing a scumbag you couldn't help rooting for.

Mythology and biology

The X-Files popularised the idea of a TV show having a "mythology", seeding serialised storytelling in standalone episodes to make even the most dashed-off monster of the week seem somehow relevant to the bigger picture. The overarching conspiracy about an alien attempt to colonise Earth created an unprecedented demand for fans to consume X-Files episodes at home, and 20th Century Fox was more than happy to release endless VHS sets that collected multiple episodes, often in confusing configurations. At the height of X-Files mania in the late 1990s, Facebook didn't exist, so you couldn't bone up on what sort of culture a potential partner was into, but if you made it back to someone's flat and spotted one of those bulky, ugly box-sets on their shelf, it was a clue you might be simpatico. Did this VHS home invasion create a new generation of geek children raised by X-fans? It's a theory.

The Downton Abbey theme tune

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Do you believe the influence of The X-Files lives on? Let us know in the comments.

Powered by article was written by Graeme Virtue, for on Monday 27th January 2014 12.25 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Lindsey Turner