Back in 1993, the fledgling US network Fox thought its breakout hit series would be The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr
, a wild Western that barely lasted a season. They expected little of this odd show they commissioned from producer-writer Chris Carter, whose track record was mainly in surfing magazines and teen programmes. Too many series (Kolchak: The Night Stalker
, Project UFO
, Shadow Chasers
) had been down the parapsychology/alien visitation route without making television history, and teaming a leading man (David Duchovny) who was fresh from wearing a dress in Twin Peaks
and the cable erotica series Red Shoe Diaries
with a female co-star with nothing at all on her curriculum vitae more or less guaranteed fast cancellation.
Yet The X Files clicked and has grown into a major franchise, expanding into movies, books, t-shirts, comics and alien mugs. The foundation of the X-industry is in this box set, which collects all 24 episodes of the first season, as the show, its creators and stars were finding their feet. Watching them all at once, you can see Gillian Anderson go from stiff to subtle without breaking character, and notice how the Dragnet-style emotionless patter of the early episodes unbends to allow for a streak of black humour that has become one of the show's great strengths.
The episodes themselves are hit and miss. The first couple of shows ("The X Files", "Deep Throat") and many later episodes ("Conduit", "Space", "Fallen Angel", "E.B.E." and series finale "The Erlenmeyer Flask") introduce and develop the so-called "mythology" thread as FBI agent Fox Mulder (Duchovny) probes a series of UFO or alien-encounter stories to assuage his guilt over the disappearance of his sister long ago. Meanwhile, sinister forces within the government try to stop him and prevent any revelations as to what exactly is going on from breaking (a thread that would, in later seasons, stretch and break). The episode that really sold the series was the third, "Squeeze", in which Mulder and his sceptical partner Dana Scully (Anderson) tangle with a mutant (Doug Hutchison, the evil guard of The Green Mile) who can elongate himself and eat human livers. A bizarre, creepy, gruesome and slyly amusing show, this kicks off a run of episodes ("Shadows", "Fire", "Miracle Man", "Shapes", "Roland" and the "Squeeze" sequel "Tooms") featuring mutants, ghosts, psychic happenings, grisly murders (Anderson gets to do all the autopsies) and plots which sometimes have resolutions.
Other standout episodes include: "Ice", a miniature of The Thing with alien bugs in the arctic taking over a research station; "Eve", an evil child/cloning story; and "Beyond the Sea", an unusually emotional ghost tale which finally allowed Anderson as much anguish as Duchovny. There are dropped balls ("Genderbender", "Lazarus", "Young at Heart") where repetition has already set in, or too much conventional cop-action stuff gets in the way. The simmering sexual chemistry of Mulder and Scully only surfaces in a few moments as the characters and the players settle into their game, and the supporting cast (Mitch Pileggi as the FBI superior, William B. Davis as the ever-smoking master villain) have yet to come into their own, but X-philes will need this on their shelves between their bottled alien baby and Anderson-in-lingerie calendar. --Kim Newman