TV Smackdown

Did ‘X’ Ever Really Mark the Spot?

25 years ago, two big network series explored both alien visitations and UFO cover-ups: Fox’s The X-Files and NBC’s Dark Skies. With hindsight, how different were they?

Matthew Kresal
Dec 27, 2021 · 8 min read
Dark Skies with Megan Ward and Eric Close | X-Files with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny

HE LAST TIME UFOS AND ALIENS had the public’s attention as much as today was probably the mid-1990s. Back then on the small screen, still dominated by the “big networks” of American television (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC), a ufological showdown played out like a UFO smackdown in the fall of 1996 through the spring of 1997 as two networks presented stories of alien visitations and UFO cover-ups by governmental forces. The heavyweight champion was an existing series, The X-Files, the scrappy challenger with the big mouth was NBC’s Dark Skies.

History records that the X-Files won that fight when the smoke cleared and the ratings spoke. Back then, critics and fans felt obliged to dismiss Dark Skies as nothing more than a pale copy inspired by the success of the adventures of Scully and Mulder.

The truth is now a little easier to see when viewed clear eyes with a quarter of a century’s distance from the battle.

While they shared some similarities, in the same way that CSI and Law and Order are both police procedurals, they were hardly the same show. In actual fact, Dark Skies, viewed in retrospect, has its own compelling power, derived primarily from its differences from the earlier series.

A Time It Was

Both series were living in the zeitgeist moment created by news and ufology being fifty years removed from the events of the summer of 1947 and the double-whammies of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting and events outside of Roswell, New Mexico. 1996 was part of a news cycle that included NASA’s announcement of preliminary findings related to the Martian meteorite ALH84001, plus the fanfare and controversy of the US Air Force’s release The Roswell Report: Case Closed. In the popular culture, the blockbuster film Independence Day brought Area 51 and Roswell further into the public consciousness at cinemas worldwide.

The surprise of the 1990s producing two shows that dealt in UFOlogical issues is that it was only two, and not a dozen more.

The Smackdown

The Champion: The X-Files

The first show had premiered two seasons earlier on the still burgeoning Fox Network. Created by Chris Carter, the sci-fi detective series The X-Files had begun airing in the autumn of 1993. Focusing on two agents of the FBI, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), the series presented their investigations into the paranormal outside of the bureau’s mainstream. Over the course of several cases, Mulder and Scully’s investigations involved them with a shadowy government cover-up involving extraterrestrials connected to the 1947 crash of an alien spacecraft at Roswell, carried out by a group led by a cigarette smoking older man with a determination to keep it secret at almost any cost.

The X-Files, created by Chris Carter.

The Challenger: Dark Skies

The second show premiered on the longer-established NBC network on the 21st of September, 1996. Created by Bryce Zabel and Brent Friedman, Dark Skies followed congressional aide John Loengard (Eric Close) and his White House staffer Kim Sayers (Megan Ward) as they fell into the shadowy world of Majestic. Set up as a government agency after the 1947 crash of an alien spacecraft at Roswell, Majestic and its cigarette-smoking leader share a determination to keep it secret at almost any cost. Of course, in the Sixties as presented by Dark Skies, anybody who was anybody was smoking like a fiend.

On the surface, the two series would appear quite similar as both series follow a young male-female pair as they investigate strange goings-on around the United States. Indeed, comparisons to the older series were part and parcel of critics’ reviews of Dark Skies during its 1996–97 run when the two shows were airing occasionally on consecutive nights. Also, both The X-Files and Dark Skies won in the same Emmy category (“Outstanding Main Title Design”) three years apart.

Dark Skies, created by Bryce Zabel and Brent V. Friedman

Yet, as is often the case with matters ufological, there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

The Abduction Question

Both The X-Files and Dark Skies use of the abduction phenomenon offer a good starting point. Both series feature male leads who have siblings abducted (Mulder’s sister Samantha and Loengard’s brother Ray). Both abductions leave profound effects upon those left behind with Samantha’s abduction sending her brother down the path towards the FBI while Loengard’s brother reveals to his skeptical family the true nature of what he’s up against in the mid-season episode The Enemy Within. One sizable difference is that The X-Files made Samantha’s fate into part of its running arcs while Dark Skies dealt with its consequences within the running time of a single episode, though its effects echoed throughout the episodes that followed.

Further, both series also have their female lead abducted. Of the two series, Kim’s comes far sooner in narrative terms, occurring partway through the plot of the Dark Skies pilot episode The Awakening. It’s the differences between the two series here which are the most interesting given that, despite her experience, Scully remained a skeptic for much of The X-Files run. Kim’s experiences, between the implantation and the ART (Alien Rejection Technique), leave her in no doubt as to what she experienced with her joining her boyfriend’s quest to reveal the truth.

What eventually happens to the two characters post-abduction, notably Kim’s growing unease with her life on the run compared to Scully’s eventual fight with cancer in seasons four and five of The X-Files, also stand in stark contrast with one another. While the basic ideas may be similar, the executions differ significantly.

Past & Present

There is the setting of the two programs to take into account.

The X-Files took place in the the present day of the 1990s (and eventually the 2000s) with Mulder and Scully’s status as FBI agents giving them the ability to travel the United States (and occasionally beyond when episode plots called for it) to officially investigate cases for that agency. Cases saw the two agents butting heads with immediate superiors in the FBI such as Assistant Director Walter Skinner and only rarely meeting figures higher up in government.

Dark Skies, in contrast, took place in the 1960s with differing circumstances at different times in the narrative explaining how John and Kim traversed the United States and for whom. Sometimes on the run from Majestic and other times as reluctant allies, John and Kim’s interactions with real-world figures, sometimes at the highest levels of government including Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

The differences in setting and period are apparent even in the look of the series. At the basic production level, The X-Files made strong use of the gray visuals of the Vancouver filming locations. Dark Skies, in contrast, filmed in California with quite often more colorful visuals drawn upon from its Los Angeles production base and an ability to present a wider (and perhaps more convincing spread) of America. Ironically, The X-Files moved its production to Los Angeles from its longtime Vancouver base (at the behest of Duchovny) the year after Dark Skies premiered.

A Question of Focus

What about the approach that the two series and their creators took to the UFO topic?

With hindsight, it’s perhaps suprising to realize how little The X-Files dealt with the UFO subject. Indeed, the “Mytharc,” as such episodes came to be known, make up less than half of those produced over its long run. The majority of the series run was made of “Monster of the Week” stories that focused on the paranormal at large. Those episodes took in the width and breadth of Fortean matters from shapeshifters to pyrokinetics, vampires and ghosts, reincarnation and so forth. The series in reality dealt with the so-called Mytharc on a sparing basis with Carter and his writers often teasing characters and audience alike as to whether the extraterrestrial invasion was even real.

Dark Skies was the antithesis of that. Right from that first scene of The Awakening with Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 chasing a saucer into Soviet airspace, Zabel and Friedman were never shy about the fact that the aliens very much existed in the show’s universe. The reaction of Kim Sayers to her abduction experience, in contrast to Scully’s continued skepticism, likewise shows the contrasting attitudes toward the questions raised by ufology.

Finally, let’s look at the question of historic UFO cases. The X-Files rarely made anything but loose tie-ins with real-life ufology, often drawing upon elements of it without direct connection, using them more as throwaway lines or inspirations. Indeed, it was only in the first episode of its 2016 revival that it depicted events at Roswell, to name but one example.

Dark Skies, on the other hand, infused real-life ufology into its DNA. Incorporating everyone and everything from Jesse Marcel to the Socorro landing and Project Blue Book, the series made iconic cases the tectonic plates of its alternate history of the 1960s. It incorporated them into the larger canvas of the recent past, ranging from the JFK assassination to the Summer of Love. It’s easy to think the series offered a crash course in the history of the UFO topic for astute viewers.

Is The Truth Out There?

In the final analysis, how each series approached ufology ultimately defined them, both separately and together.

With The X-Files, series creator Chris Carter and his writers teased out its alien invasion narrative, contradicting itself even into its ill-received 21st-century revival.

Dark Skies, in part due to its exclusive focus on its alien invasion narrative and period setting, kept its narrative line cleaner, adding detail rather than seeking to confuse characters and audience alike.

It was perhaps T.J. Dietsch, writing a comparison of the two series at the time of Dark Skies DVD release a decade and a half later, put it in his article for Topless Robot “11 Reasons Dark Skies Really is Better than the X-Files.”

“The truth is actually out there.”

Nothing separates the two programs more than that, even after a quarter-century.

Matthew Kresal is a Sidewise Award-winning writer, critic, and podcaster. His book-length analysis of Dark Skies was published by Obverse Books in 2020. His Cold War alternate history thriller, Our Man on the Hill, was published in 2021 by Sea Lion Press.

Dark Skies is only available as a four disc DVD set, and not on streaming services. The DVDs contain all episodes, a full-length documentary, features, alternative edits and Easter eggs, produced by Shout Factory and available on their site. Also available on Amazon.

Trail of the Saucers

Remixing UFO/UAP News, History, Culture, and Analysis

Trail of the Saucers

Remixing UFO/UAP News, History, Culture, and Analysis. Published by Stellar Productions and edited by writer/producer Bryce Zabel, co-host of Need to Know with Coulthart and Zabel, creator of NBC’s Dark Skies, co-author of A.D. After Disclosure.

Matthew Kresal

Written by

Matthew Kresal is a writer, critic, and podcaster with many and varying interests. He is the author of Silver Archive: Dark Skies for Obverse Books.

Trail of the Saucers

Remixing UFO/UAP News, History, Culture, and Analysis. Published by Stellar Productions and edited by writer/producer Bryce Zabel, co-host of Need to Know with Coulthart and Zabel, creator of NBC’s Dark Skies, co-author of A.D. After Disclosure.