aliens, Annabeth Gish, Chris Carter, Cigarette Smoking Man, conspiracy, Dana Scully, David Duchovny, FBI, Fox Mulder, Gillian Anderson, John Doggett, monsters, paranormal, Robert Patrick, science fiction, Walter Skinner
The X-Files is an American science fiction series created by Chris Carter that ran for nine seasons on the Fox network from 1993-2002, spanning 201 episodes. There were also two X-Files films released: The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998) and The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008). In January 2016, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprised their roles as FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully for a six-episode event series, which has been dubbed by many fans as season 10.
The X-Files concerns two FBI agents, Mulder and Scully, who investigate unsolved cases involving paranormal phenomena. Mulder believes in the existence of extraterrestrial life and a government conspiracy while Scully is the skeptic, always applying a rigorous scientific code to her work. The series includes a mix of mythology episodes that explore the alien conspiracy and monster-of-the-week installments, stand-alone entries that involve a wide variety of paranormal activity.
The X-Files is not entirely consistent. The series has its fair share of mediocre episodes but there are also many excellent installments. The real magic of the series lies in its stars, Duchovny and Anderson who have such incredible on-screen chemistry. A lot of the fun lies in watching these two actors interact. Other series regulars include Mitch Pileggi’s Assistant Director Walter Skinner and William B. Davis’ villainous Cigarette Smoking Man. Duchovny and Anderson starred in the first seven seasons. In the underrated eighth season, Anderson starred alongside Robert Patrick’s Agent John Doggett while Duchovny appeared only intermittently. The disappointing ninth season starred Anderson, Patrick, and Annabeth Gish as Agent Monica Reyes. Duchovny appears only in the underwhelming series finale.
The X-Files is more than just a TV show. It is a pop culture phenomenon that has garnered a huge, loyal fanbase. I started watching the series at age 11 and continued intermittently through the years until I finally finished it at age 24. The X-Files is a blend of various genres including science fiction, drama, horror, and comedy. One of the show’s strengths is that it does not take itself too seriously and at times, can be hilarious. Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan are my favorite writers on the series. Darin Morgan had an incredible talent for incorporating comedic elements. He contributed season 2’s Humbug and a handful of episodes from season 3, all of which are among my favorites. Vince Gilligan was with the series from season 2 until the end. He would go on to create the fantastic series, Breaking Bad, starring Bryan Cranston, who appears in the sixth season episode Drive. My favorite season is the third, which is the most consistently great year of the show. The X-Files remains one of the most iconic television shows of the 1990s.
The first five seasons of The X-Files were filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, before production was moved to Los Angeles, California for seasons 6-9. I will cover Seasons 1-5 in Part 1 of my X-Files retrospective and seasons 6-9 in Part 2. I will include separate posts for the event series and the two feature films.
Here are my thoughts on each of the first five seasons:
Season 1 (1993-1994) (24 episodes):
Like a lot of TV shows, the premiere season of The X-Files is one in which the writers were still finding their way and there are plenty of misses. The first season is pretty evenly split between episodes that are great and ones that are mediocre and there really isn’t much in between. Some of the show’s best and worst episodes can be found in the first season.
Season 2 (1994-1995) (25 episodes):
Like the first season, season 2 of The X-Files features some of the show’s best and worst episodes. It certainly is an improvement over the first season though and there is a lot less mediocrity. There is more experimentation in the second season, as the writers continue to find the show’s unique voice. The mythology episodes are very strong here and there are many memorable stand-alone entries as well.
Season 3 (1995-1996) (24 episodes):
As stated before, the third season is my favorite. Both my favorite mythology episode and favorite Monster-of-the-Week episode can be found in this season. It is arguably the show’s strongest year and is when The X-Files went from cult TV hit to cultural phenomenon. Season three is also the year of Darin Morgan. The writer contributed three episodes this season, all of which rank among the show’s best. The mythology is still very strong here.
Season 4 (1996-1997) (24 episodes)
The dark fourth season is regarded by many as the show’s best. While I do not agree with this assertion, there is no denying that season 4 is a strong batch of episodes but not quite as strong as the stellar third season. The mythology in the fourth season begins to become bloated and convoluted even while a feature film loomed on the horizon.
Season 5 (1997-1998) (20 episodes)
The fifth season saw the series at the height of its popularity. Re-shoots on the movie, which had been filmed between the third and fourth seasons, resulted in less episodes than normal. It was the final season to be filmed in Vancouver. Every episode in season 5 is at least decent and there are also some of the best episodes that the show has to offer here.
The following are my favorite episodes from seasons 1-5:
Mulder: “When convention and science offer us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility?”
Scully: “What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.”
Logline: Working on their first case together, Agents Mulder and Scully investigate a series of unsolved deaths that Mulder believes are linked to alien abduction.
The X-Files’ first episode is one of the best pilots I have seen for any series. It is the perfect introduction to the world of The X-Files. Even in the first episode, Duchovny and Anderson are great together onscreen and have such an interesting dynamic, which was the foundation on which the series was built.
Mulder: “Do you think I’m spooky?”
Logline: Mulder and Scully must stop a genetic mutant serial killer who feeds on human livers and has the ability to squeeze into small spaces.
The series’ first Monster-of-the-Week episode is a classic featuring Eugene Victor Tooms, who would return in the appropriately titled sequel, Tooms later in the season. Not only does this episode show that The X-Files is more than a show about aliens but it also introduces one of its most memorable monsters.
Mulder: (the three men on the expedition are undressing to check each other for signs of infection) “Before anyone passes judgment, may I remind you, we are in the Arctic.”
Logline: Mulder and Scully are sent to a remote Alaskan outpost where a team of geophysicists have killed each other after becoming infected by a parasitic alien life form.
This installment is a tribute to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic The Thing and it is loads of fun. Trapping a group of paranoid characters together in a confined space makes for great drama.
Scully: “Mulder, I wouldn’t put myself on the line for anybody but you.”
Mulder: “If there’s an iced tea in that bag, it could be love.”
Logline: The genetic mutant Eugene Tooms is released from prison and Mulder is convinced he will kill again.
This sequel may be even better than its predecessor. I love the final scene with the escalator.
The Erlenmeyer Flask
Deep Throat: “Trust…no one.”
Logline: Mulder’s informant Deep Throat tips him to a case involving a fugitive and the cloning of extraterrestrial viruses.
This season finale is an excellent conclusion to the first year and turns up the volume on the series mythology. I love the final scene, which mirrors the first episode and brings the season full circle.
Smoking Man: “Don’t try and threaten me, Mulder. I’ve watched presidents die.
Logline: As Scully is comatose and close to death, Mulder frantically searches for answers to her mysterious disappearance.
The conclusion to the great story arc that began with Duane Barry and Ascension, One Breath is a beautiful episode and proves that the series can handle emotionally driven entries with ease.
Die Hand Die Verletzt
Mulder: “Did you really think you could call up the Devil and ask him to behave.”
Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate a ritualistic murder of a teenager who may have been killed by the local high school’s PTA, who worship Satan.
Die Hand Die Verletzt is one of the earliest episodes to exhibit noticeably comedic elements without being an all-out comedy episode as Darin Morgan’s first script, Humbug would be six episodes later. However, the seemingly lighthearted nature of the episode takes a dark turn when a young girl recounts memories of sexual abuse. Die Hand is an episode where everything works and its various elements combine to make a truly excellent installment.
Scully: Did you find what you were looking for?
Mulder: No…no. But I found something I’d thought I’d lost. Faith to keep looking.
Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate the deaths of human clones who were murdered by a shape-shifting assassin.
This is a riveting two-part episode that has some fantastic visual effects and production design. The X-Files can be so cinematic at times. The set piece featuring the submarine submerged in ice is a marvel. These episodes also introduce one of the show’s most memorable guest characters – the Alien Bounty Hunter.
Dr. Blockhead: “Did you know that through the protective Chinese practice of Tiea Bu Shan, you can train your testicles to draw up into your abdomen?”
Mulder: “Oh, I’m doing that as we speak.”
Logline: The agents search for a serial killer in a small town inhabited primarily by sideshow performers and persons with physical deformities.
Darin Morgan’s first episode as a writer on the series, Humbug is a classic X-File and has the perfect blend of comedy and horror that Morgan did so well. Morgan would go on to pen the season 3 episodes, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, War of the Coprophages, and Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, all of which rank among my absolute favorites.
Albert Hosteen: “In the desert, things find a way to survive. Secrets are like this too. They push their way up through the sands of deception so men can know them.”
Logline: Mulder receives an encrypted computer disk containing proof that the government has known about the existence of extraterrestrial life since the 1940s.
The second season finale begins what is arguably the best mythology story arc in the series.
The Blessing Way/Paper Clip
Smoking Man: “What is this?”
Skinner: “This is where you pucker up and kiss my ass.”
Logline: Scully’s career and life is in jeopardy and Mulder is missing and presumed dead while the Smoking Man continues to seek the stolen files.
Along with Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip comprise the show’s greatest myth arc. For me, Paper Clip is easily the show’s single most perfect mythology episode. It all feels so epic and is relentlessly paced.
Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
Scully: “Nobody does anything without a reason.”
Logline: Mulder and Scully seek the aid of a man who has psychic abilities as they search for a serial killer who is targeting fortune tellers.
If Paper Clip is the show’s best mythology episode, then Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose is its finest Monster-of-the-Week installment. A complex rumination on fate and what motivates people to do what they do, the episode features a great Emmy-winning performance from Peter Boyle.
War of the Coprophages
Scully: “I’m not going to ask if you just said what I think you just said because I know it’s what you just said.”
Logline: In a small town, people are seemingly being attacked by swarms of cockroaches.
Even Darin Morgan’s weakest script is a damn-near masterpiece and one of the series’ best episodes. Cockroaches always get under my skin so this episode proved particularly effective in the gross-out category.
Commander Johansen: “Conscience, it’s just the voices of the dead trying to save us from our own damnation”
Logline: A French salvage ship uncovers a World War II fighter plane and inadvertently releases a mysterious black liquid that jumps hosts and which Mulder believes is extraterrestrial in origin.
This relentlessly paced two-part mythology episode introduces the black oil, which would become a pivotal part of the series mythology. These episodes also mark the return of Nicholas Lea’s immortal Alex Krycek, a character who is always fun to watch.
Scully: “Please explain to me the scientific nature of the whammy.”
Logline: Mulder and Scully are up against a dangerous man who has the ability to will people to kill themselves.
Written by Vince Gilligan, this episode is absolutely riveting from start to finish and features one of the agents’ most memorable adversaries, Robert Patrick Modell.
Jose Chung’s From Outer Space
Scully: “That was Detective Manners. He said they just found your bleepin’ UFO.”
Logline: Scully recounts an alleged UFO abduction case for a renowned author who is researching for his latest novel.
Jose Chung’s From Outer Space is an absurd parody and deconstruction of the series that is both funny and touching. It is a great send off from my favorite writer on the series.
Scully: “…you’re like Ahab. You’re so consumed by your personal vengeance against life, whether it be its inherent cruelties or its mysteries, that everything takes on a warped significance to fit your megalomaniacal cosmology.”
Mulder: “Scully, are you coming on to me?”
Logline: Mulder believes that a series of lakeside deaths in a small Georgian town were caused by a creature who the locals affectionately call “Big Blue.”
Easily, one of the most underrated and overlooked episodes of the series, Quagmire is a standard Monster-of-the-Week installment that explores people’s reliance on stories and folklore but also Mulder and Scully and their personal struggles. Their conversation on the rock is beautifully written.
Mulder: “Scully, you are the only one I trust.”
Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate a series of murders linked to a device that alters television signals and people’s behavior.
Another underrated episode, Wetwired is a paranoia-infused installment with great visual flair and direction. The concept is similar to that of season 2’s Blood, another great, underrated episode but here, it is done even better.
Scully: “Mulder, it looks like this child has been afflicted with every birth defect known to science.”
Logline: A dead and deformed baby is found buried in a field in a small town in Pennsylvania, causing Mulder and Scully to investigate the Peacocks: an inbred family of brothers living on a farm.
Fox only aired this controversial episode once. It shocked audiences and received a lot of negative backlash at the time but is now regarded as one of the show’s best episodes and for good reason. It is hard to believe that Home aired on network television. It is Glen Morgan and James Wong’s finest script for the series, taking what is essentially trashy B horror movie material and turning it into something intelligent and beautifully structured. Home is hands-down the most terrifying episode of The X-Files. It is an examination of the dialectic between traditional ways of living and modern culture. It shocks and surprises even as it pulls you in with its delicious indictment of the American dream.
Scully: “For truly to pursue monsters, we must understand them. We must venture into their minds. Only in doing so: do we risk letting them venture into ours?”
Logline: Distorted photographs offer Mulder and Scully a glimpse inside the mind of a troubled man who kidnaps women and lobotomizes them.
Another brilliant Vince Gilligan-penned episode, Unruhe is an incredibly creepy and tense hour of television. Guest actor Taylor Vince is excellent, making Gerry Schanuz one of Mulder and Scully’s most memorable adversaries. Interestingly enough, in the near-twenty years since this episode aired, the technology that the story is built around-film cameras-has all but disappeared. It is a reminder that besides being a brilliant television series, The X-Files is a product of its time and will be forever associated with the ’90s.
Scully: “You said it yourself, once: A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t learned how to ask.”
Logline: A series of dreams leads Mulder to believe his sister was abducted by a child murderer who he put away years earlier.
The impetus for Mulder’s beliefs and search for the truth was the abduction of his sister, Samantha when he was a child. This storyline was the focus of several episodes throughout the series. This Vince Gilligan-penned entry may be the best of these; it is an emotionally gripping episode with a winning guest performance from Tom Noonan.
Betty: “You’d break my heart over a cheap redhead?”
Logline: While Mulder is on vacation, Scully goes on a date with a recent divorcee whose new tattoo seems to have a life of its own.
The X-Files is a show that more often than not, follows a specific formula. Never Again, an excellent Scully-centric entry, is an episode that departs radically from that formula and the results are brilliant. This is the last script that Glen Morgan and James Wong wrote for the original series. This writing duo was with the show from its beginning and helmed Squeeze, the first Monster-of-the-Week installment. Each of the four scripts they wrote for the fourth season is, in many ways, a radical departure from anything the show has done before or since. In Never Again, the viewer gets a rare glimpse into Scully’s personal life and how her relationship with Mulder is affecting her negatively. Gillian Anderson is amazing as always. The final scene with her and Mulder is brilliant. This episode was originally going to be directed by Quentin Tarantino but a dispute with the Directors Guild prevented him from doing it. Rob Bowman does excellent work in his place. Bowman is clearly one of the show’s most kinetic directors, lending a cinematic, visually stunning look. Never Again is gorgeously shot and is a devastating and beautiful episode. It is a fitting farewell from two of the show’s best writers.
Skinner: “You can’t ask the truth of a man who trades in lies.”
Logline: Mulder seeks answers to the cause of Scully’s cancer, which he believes is linked to her abduction.
Memento Mori is a beautiful, heart wrenching episode in which Scully comes to terms with the fact that she has an inoperable cancer. Gillian Anderson won an Emmy largely for her work in this episode.
Smoking Man: “Yours isn’t the first gun I’ve had pointed at my face, Mr. Skinner.”
Logline: Skinner becomes involved in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the Cigarette Smoking Man as people are mysteriously being killed by swarms of bees.
A.D. Walter Skinner is a great character and this is the second time the show focuses on him. The results are stunning. The interactions between he and CSM are classic and who can forget those bees?
Smoking Man: “Quit the FBI, come work for me. I can make your problems go away.”
Logline: Scully is hospitalized and close to death while the Cigarette Smoking Man offers Mulder a cure to her cancer.
The first part of this two-part season premiere is a huge disappointment with its lengthy voice-over and messy script. However, the second part, Redux II is one of the show’s best episodes. Even if the episode is full of red herrings, it is still a riveting installment. Gillian Anderson is amazing and her scenes with her family and Mulder are genuinely moving. Cigarette Smoking Man is “killed” for the first of three times. One thing The X-Files was never good at was letting go of its characters, including Mulder and Scully.
The Post-Modern Prometheus
Scully: “Is there anything you don’t believe in, Mulder?”
Logline: Mulder and Scully travel to a rural town, where a genetic experiment has grown out of control.
One of the show’s greatest strengths is its ability to take huge leaps of tonal shifts between certain episodes. Some episodes, such as Memento Mori, are dead serious and others are pure comedy, like The Post-Modern Prometheus, a fantastic homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Visually stunning, funny, bizarre, and genuinely moving, this episode is representative of some of Chris Carter’s absolute best work as a writer and director.
Scully: “Why would a real vampire need fake fangs?”
Mulder: “Fangs are very rarely mentioned in the folklore. Real vampires aren’t actually thought to have them.”
Logline: Mulder and Scully must report to Skinner after Mulder killed a boy he believed to be a vampire.
Cited by Gillian Anderson as her favorite episode of the series, Bad Blood is hilarious. It was penned by Vince Gilligan who proves himself a worthy heir to Darin Morgan. This episode is also a testament to how well Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny work together and both actors have great comedic quips.
The Pine Bluff Variant
Mulder: “If you don’t hear from me by midnight, feed my fish.”
Logline: Scully becomes suspicious that Mulder is aiding an anti-government terrorist group who are experimenting with a biological weapon.
By far John Shiban’s best solo script on The X-Files, The Pine Bluff Variant is the kind of paranoid conspiracy thriller that the show excels at. The episode moves along at a breakneck pace and feels like a feature film in its grandeur.
Smoking Man: “You look surprised. Is it that I’m here or that I’m alive?”
Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate an assassination attempt on a young boy with special abilities.
The End is quite literally the end of an era for the show. It was the last episode to be produced and filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia and the last episode before the first feature film. An excellent season finale, The End reunites the entire Syndicate again and introduces two new characters – Diana Fowley and Gibson Praise. The final scene, in which Mulder’s office is in flames, is iconic.
Stay tuned for posts on seasons 6-9, the event series, and the two films. The truth is out there.