While The X Files deserves plaudits for the way it helped redefine television drama, I do believe that not enough praise is injected towards the man behind the phenomenon, Chris Carter.
Taking influence from childhood shows such as Kolchak: The Night Stalker, during the 90’s with a blend of Carter’s huge vision and a tightknit team, The X-Files went from a potentially lame and silly concept, to an intelligent piece of television that has influenced contemporary programmes.
Another influential show that Carter credits is The Twilight Zone, which comes as no surprise as they both share a similar style and even certain plots. In many ways, The X-Files is an anthology show but with regular characters who come in and attempt to make sense of the situation. But it wasn’t just the show itself; the man behind The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, is regularly cited as influence by many screenwriters, with Carter being one of them.
There are many comparisons to their work; instead of big, fantastical, space-opera ideas with bug-eyed monsters and cheesy characters, both Carter and Serling use the science fiction and fantasy genres as an allegory for the social and political elements of everyday life. The majority of episodes of both shows are set on Earth, in everyday settings and reflect the eras in which they first aired. The Twilight Zone caught the 50’s and early 60’s post World War 2 mind-set, with many episodes depicting war heroes and criminals trying to make sense of a world with such a tumultuous past and uncertain future. Furthermore, Serling used the genre to portray his strong views on prejudice with many episodes overtly depicting bigotry, albeit always subliminally and through a science fiction context. Similarly, Carter caught the psyche of generation X’s interest in extra-terrestrial life, lack of trust in the government and spirituality through The X-Files, both in the stand alone episodes and in particular, the mythology arc.
Carter’s influence helped The X-Files become more than just a TV show and this is similar to Serling’s televisual impact with The Twilight Zone half a century ago. What must be remembered is that Serling was writing for television in its early years and helped make it an art form when many considered it a ‘mediocre’ medium. While Carter helped redefine television, it’s fair to say that Serling defined it. Unfortunately, it would be many years before those such as Carter would take his influence into a new generation.
Perhaps Carter’s biggest influence to contemporary television, unlike Serling, was the new concept of a big mythology arc, something that had never been done before on television. Yes, television had many serialised shows, but never had one attempted to keep its audience hooked with a big story arc that had many strands mixed in alongside stand-alone episodes. While Carter’s success with the mythology arc is regularly debated, many forget that this was new to television, with The X-Files becoming a pioneer. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have high concept shows such as Lost or Fringe, to name but a few.
Another aspect that links Carter and Serling is that their legacy is defined by one influential show and a modest follow up. Carter’s series Millennium is by no means completely unknown, indeed it has a cult following too, with many campaigning for a feature length follow up. Set in premillennial America, unlike The-X Files, the series looks at the most wicked evil of all, serial killers. The heightened sense of reality of generation X’s pre-millennial panic is seen through the shows disturbing imagery symbolising the antagonists as monsters; a trope seen in the current Hannibal TV series. Millennium proved to be simply too subversive for its audience and despite hanging by a thread to the schedules it managed three seasons and ended with a cross-over episode of The X-Files in season seven. Although a modest success due to different factors, Serling’s Night Gallery also failed to impact viewers and was seen as inferior to The Twilight Zone. In many ways, The X-Files is Carter’s Twilight Zone, while Millennium is his Night Gallery.
Successes like The Twilight Zone and The X-Files are too huge to be replicated, but in many ways it’s a shame that both Carter and Serling’s other works aren’t held with as much esteem. The X-Files was ground-breaking, and it still holds up well compared to contemporary television and this is due to Carter’s brave experimentation of the medium, also seen in his short-lived series Harsh Realm, which was set in a virtual reality with soldiers trying desperately to escape back to the real world. The plot is similar to a number of Twilight Zone plots, particularly the pilot episode, "Where is Everybody?" However, it could be said that both Millennium and Harsh Realm were simply ahead of their time. Carter was working on a primetime network that needed to attract a mainstream audience. As the recent cancellation of Hannibal proves, primetime is not necessarily the place to be subversive or experimental and if Millennium were made today, it would probably be aired on HBO or even Netflix. As for Harsh Realm, it’s hard-core science fiction concepts would perhaps have attracted an audience on the Sci-fi channel had it aired four or five years later.
Many often lambast Carter as a screenwriter and showrunner; the term ‘Chris Carter effect’ is used to describe those whose TV mythology arcs become so tangled, they eventually lose their audience. But whatever people’s opinions are, no one can deny his imagination and concepts have made a huge impact on television. And if the two X-Files movies prove anything, Carter’s talent as a screenwriter could easily transpire to a lucrative film career. Fight the Future is by definition a ‘blockbuster’ but has an intelligent story and characters that have as much substance as the images and special effects. And 2008’s I Want to Believe is by no means a terrible film; the plot is interesting and well directed, but it’s simply not The X-Files movie fans wanted.
Although Carter hasn’t been as prolific since the 90’s, with various projects failing to take off such as the Amazon Prime series The After, hopefully by returning to the franchise that made his name, Carter will once again prove himself as a masterful storyteller and begin a second phase of his career.
Only time will tell, but let’s not forget Rod Serling, whose legacy remains as strong and influential as it’s ever been, forty years after his death. Both men were experimenters of the genre and medium, never spoon-feeding the audience and always making you question reality and fantasy; both introduced elements that have influenced contemporary TV. Whether their executions were consistently successful is debated, and maybe some audience members don’t want to be challenged, but it can’t be argued that the two men made great leaps for television.
However the revival pans out, Carter’s legacy and influence as a television great is already set in stone.