It seemed to me that the best way to process the question of whether The X-Files is fantasy or sci-fi is to ruminate upon the inheritor of the X-Files’s’s mantle. No, not Millennium (though that was a corker of a show, wasn’t it? I could watch Lance Henrickson read the phone book).
Now, before we start getting into arguments about the cow, I’ll say that I kicked around all sorts of theories about the differences between Fantasy and Sci-Fi and touched on the things touched on by Patrick and RTod (and a handful of others):
“Fantasy has an underlying moral fabric while Sci-Fi is more interested in what actually happens” or “Fantasy has a point that it’s driving towards while Sci-Fi has an experiment that it wants to see the outcome of” or even “Fantasy’s point is that nothing changes while Sci-Fi’s point is that things can.”
All of these are well covered (and better) by others… it seems to me, however, that the difference is best exemplified in the best examples by not the ground covered by the story but the goal of the author when it comes to what he is trying to process and, by extension, who is audience actually is. For the sake of this essay, I’ll say that there are two particular audiences in this particular Venn Diagram: “Us” is a small circle entirely within the larger circle of “Those willing to listen” (which is a smaller circle within the gargantuan circle of “everybody”).
I will posit that Fantasy is explicitly written for Us. It tells Us what assumptions to make and, indeed, We make them. We are more than happy enough to make them. When we are told that “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
Instead of saying “WHAT THE HECK IS WITH THIS CLAPTRAP”, we say “oh… so that’s what It is called” and boldly go forward. (Indeed, this explains what was so upsetting about the Midichlorian issue in Episode 1… we were explicitly told that this was no longer a story for Us but for those inclined to ask questions in all caps.)
As implied above, Sci-Fi is where the author understands that there are those who need convincing and, as such, gives the underlying explanation behind everything (which, in the best examples, is the *REAL* story… for example: Asimov’s Nightfall (warning: PDF)). The explanation to those who need convincing is the point in Sci-Fi while Fantasy is written for those who need no such explanations. (We’ve already shown up, you see.)
Now, what does this mean? Well, it certainly means that things are much messier than we’d like things to be. This episode of Star Trek may be Sci-Fi, that one may be Fantasy. The entire story arc of Babylon 5 may be Sci-Fi, but almost every single fanfic inspired by the show qualifies as Fantasy.
And, indeed, Anne McCaffrey is a Sci-Fi writer despite the presence of dragons.
The so-called “sci-fi” show that relies heavily upon “insert technobabble here” appearing in the first draft of most every script would be a fantasy show. “We” smile and nod when we hear that a reverse tachyon pulse has reversed the polarity of the dilithium crystals… even though, seriously, this should have all of us standing up and yelling “WHAT THE HECK DO YOU TAKE ME FOR?” at the television when they say something like this.
Which brings me back to Fringe… the intention of the show, when it starts, is to gain converts. After it has them, it can loosen up. It starts out at Sci-Fi but just like the X-Files before it and Voyager before that and The Next Generation before that and Quantum Leap before that and so on and so forth back and back and back:
It eventually becomes Fantasy… even as we watch the authors got really, really good at cleaning up the portions of the script that say “insert technobabble here”.