AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT:
Rating the X-Files
A discussion of Horror literature must invoke all mediums. This October I’ve primarily focused novels and short stories, but literature includes drama and poetry, and I and many others have contended that it should include the newer mediums of television and film as well. While these have been exhaustively explored by armchair critics, especially movies, I want to spend a few days investigating the top horror television that has graced our screens.
I’m going to start with my favorite show – and my biographer’s favorite show as well – the X-Files. But one can google Best Of lists that, by and large, accurately rate the show’s top episodes. What I want to do is give a brief overview of the series and rate what I think are the best episodes from each season and both movies as well.
The X-Files is a fictional television series based on an actual investigative unit of the FBI. In fact, a visit to the FBI’s public site will show viewers the cases that have been declassified under the Freedom of Information Act, that fall under the paranormal phenomena designation. For most of the story, the series follows FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, MD as they investigate cases of the paranormal and the supernatural, government conspiracies, and alien abductions and UFO sightings
Mulder is the believer, at the time a turn for television because it put his female partner, Scully, in the role of skeptic, a seemingly more rational role. Scully uses her background as a medical doctor and her courses in the hard sciences to provide rational explanations for the cases they find – as she is told in the pilot, she is there to debunk the X-Files. Mulder, on the other hand, is spurred on by the memory of his sister’s alien abduction when they were children, an event that fractured his family and sent him on this quest to search for other answers. Mulder is intelligent in his own right, an Oxford-educated FBI profiler well-versed in folklore, science, and literature.
Later in the series, David Duchovny (who plays Mulder) left the show, and Gillian Anderson (who plays Scully) tried to step back so that newer agents could have the spotlight, which was the original idea of Chris Carter, to feature a revolving door of agents. But Mulder and Scully proved the heart of the show, were featured in both movies, were there in the finale, and were the focus of the revival (a six-episode “Season Ten”). In fact, the revival was such a hit that Fox has renewed it and has ordered more seasons, longer seasons, and has so far patiently waited for Duchovny’s and Anderson’s schedules to clear up.
The chemistry of the two characters drove the show, sure, but it was their diametrically opposed ideologies that played out before us, examining the case from all sides. Is it supernatural or rational? Often times, the episodes ended without a clear cut answer, leaving them open for interpretation, or at least leaving the supernatural cases room to incorporate the more scientific explanations. This was smart writing, and smart television, subverting the normal format to incorporate both an overarching mythology and stand-alone – and so coining, or at least making famous, the term “monster-of-the-week” – episodes. Like any long-running series, it had its weak points, but I’d like to focus for a bit on its stronger episodes.
Pilot – “You are to debunk the X-Files” – Scully’s mission statement is made clear, as she meets Agent Fox Mulder and the two head off to Oregon to investigate a conspiracy of alien abduction in a small Pacific Northwest town.
Squeeze/Tooms – the MOW stories start immediately, as Mulder and Scully investigate a liver-eating monster who can stretch his body so as to fit through tight spaces. He attacks every thirty years to sustain himself.
Ice—Mulder and Scully travel to an arctic substation to find out why an expedition team killed each other, and come face to face with an ancient alien parasite that infects its host and tries to control it.
Beyond the Sea—The creepiest scene in this story about a convicted serial murderer / psychic trying to save the lives of two abducted teens in an effort to stave off his own execution is Scully waking to glimpse the image of her recently deceased father. This is one of the first episodes where the two protagonists switch roles as believer and skeptic.
Darkness Falls—Agents Mulder and Scully investigate the disappearances of loggers and environmentalists as an ancient hive of insects have emerged from a recent felled tree intent on retaking the darkness.
Duane Berry/Ascension – This mytharc episode features an alien abductee labeled mentally unfit, who in an effort to no longer face the experiments abducts Scully to replace him. This is the episode that steers us directly into the mythology of the remaining series.
3 – The serious vampire episode, where Mulder, still grieving over the loss of Scully, investigates a series of vampire-like attacks in LA under the penumbra of the looming wildfires.
One Breath – A great conspiracy driven episode where Mulder fights for Scully’s life who has appeared again near death.
Die Hand Die Verletzt – For fans of the Blacklist who recognize Mr. Kaplan, Susan Blommaert plays a demonic substitute summoned to clean up a school district whose followers no longer believe.
Humbug – Agents Mulder and Scully investigate strange murders at a carnival community in Florida. This is the first slightly humorous story that subverts the standard format for something more.
Paperclip – the end of a season-capping trilogy thrusts the agents into a world-wide conspiracy dating back to World War II and involves the real-world event of bringing Nazi scientists to work for the US so as to help win the Pacific war, and incorporates the practice of something as innocuous as the smallpox vaccination to insidious levels.
DPO – In this story about a boy who can harness lightning, the world is introduced to both Jack Black and Giovanni Ribisi.
Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose – The very next episode of the Season brings the world Peter Boyle’s best performance (after the role of the monster in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and in Everybody Loves Raymond) as a reluctant psychic who can see people’s deaths, who helps the agents search for a killer cutting out the eyes of psychics in an effort to find out his own fate.
Pusher – Mulder and Scully are pitted against a man who can bend people to his will (the Season Five sequal “Kitsunegari” is just as good, and provides a good close to this story).
Jose Chung’s From Outer Space – as with every season, there are a lot of great episodes, but if I were to pick the best, then this is one of them. An iconic episode about the many turns a UFO investigation can (humorously) take, the comedy does not undermine the dark tone of the series though it does push the envelope. If anyone wants to know what the series is about, then watch this episode.
Home – After airing, Fox refused to re-air this episode for years due to its disturbing content. Mulder and Scully investigate the murder of a baby in a small Pennsylvania town where they uncover an homage to heartland America (Sheriff Taylor and his deputy, Barney) as they investigate a family of inbred mutants fighting to the death to protect their way of life.
Paper Hearts – An episode dedicated to Mulder’s devotion to his missing sister, with a completely secular explanation for her abduction, featuring a chilling performance by the looming Tom Noonan.
Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man – Mulder and Scully’s often relied-upon trio The Lone Gunmen provide a possible origin story for the series antagonist, the Cigarette-smoking Man, and in a nod to movies like Forrest Gump, connect the villain to the most notable moments of the 20th century all while giving him a human condition.
Tempus Fugit/Max – Before there was the Lone Gunmen, there was Max Fenig, a schizophrenic believer of the UFO phenomena who disappears when a flight he’s on mysteriously crashes after a close encounter of the third kind.
Zero Sum – After her abduction, Agent Scully was subsequently diagnosed with an inoperable cancer, the cure to which might be held by the Cigarette Smoking Man and the mysterious Syndicate for whom he works. This Skinner-centric episode features Mulder’s and Scully’s boss as he lives up to his end of the Faustian bargain he struck with CSM in an effort to save Scully’s life. As with all the great espionage episodes of the series, the line between allies and enemies are blurred by intentions and motives as the clock races and no one is who they appear to be.
Redux 1/ Redux 2 – In the finale to Season Four, Mulder finds evidence that the Truth he’s been chasing has been a lie, and appears to kill himself. The two-part Redux episodes show the truth, as Mulder, after overcoming an assassin, pursues the new government cover-up he’s made aware of, now in the role of skeptic. (Later in the season, he returns to his role as believer in “The Red and the Black” when his longtime nemesis presents him with evidence that the alien colonization is real.)
Unusual Suspects – This origin story is great because it ties the X-Files to the larger television universe. Detective John Munch (who first appeared on the show Homicide: Life on the Street) investigates a break-in to a Baltimore warehouse. The audience learns how the Lone Gunmen meet and how they meet Mulder. Munch the character, meanwhile, would go on to cross over with Law & Order and later star in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. This isn’t just the actor, mind you, but the established character. This ties X-Files in with every other show that exists within the L&O universe, including all the Dick Wolf titles, as well as the newer shows Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, Chicago Med, and the forthcoming Chicago Justice. Episodic crossovers have all established that these shows exist in the same universe, and Detective John Munch is a strong link between all these shows. When you figure that the characters of Mulder and Scully (voiced by their respective actors) also appeared on an episode of The Simpsons , we can see the far-reaching effects of this series.
Bad Blood – the comedic vampire episode, featuring an endearing performance by Luke Wilson and “that kid from the Sandlot” and conflicting stories between Mulder and Scully about vampires in Texas, who was drugged, and who had fake teeth.
All Souls – Physically and mentally disabled orphaned girls are found burned to death by lightning strikes while kneeling in an impossible pose of prayer. This isn’t the first story to invert the roles, but it is the better of the stories to put Scully’s religious faith to the test as she works to save the last orphan.
The End – A government conspiracy involving the assassination attempt of a child chess prodigy, this season finale sets up the first movie.
X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE – This movie does a great job of tying Season Five to Season Six, of introducing the alien conspiracy to a mass audience who may not be familiar with this cultural phenomenon, and of forwarding the progress of the mythology established in the series. It serves as a great standalone feature and as a tie-in to the series.
The Beginning – This season premier grounds us back into the world of the series, and we learn that things haven’t necessarily been improved by the revelations of the movie.
Drive – This tense, fast-paced episode first introduced the creator of Breaking Bad to his star, Bryan Cranston of Malcolm in the Middle. Little supernatural happens in this horror story about government overreach and cover-up at the expense of the citizens.
How the Ghosts Stole Christmas – Mulder and Scully investigate a haunted house on Christmas Eve (actually an ancient cultural tradition) and encounter the ghosts of two out-of-love lovers, played by Ed Asner and Lilly Tomlin.
Two Fathers/ One Son – This pair of episodes returns Mulder and Scully to the X-Files after their extended absence, and furthers and permeates the Syndicate conspiracy and the impending alien invasion.
The Unnatural – Jesse L. Martin (prior to starring in his iconic role as Detective Greene in Law & Order and years before his role on The Flash) guest stars as an alien who falls in love with baseball and plays for the Roswell Grays in the tumultuous time of the 1950s, while Mulder concludes his interview with the brothers both named Arthur Dale (played by Darren McGavin in previous episodes & M. Emmet Walsh here) about the founding of the X-Files.
Millennium – the official/unofficial series finale to the acclaimed but short-lived series starring Lance Henriksen.
Orison – Way back in the second season, audiences were introduced to the death fetishist Donnie Pfaster, and now he’s back, released from prison by a hypnosis inducing parson played by the Walking Dead’s future Herschel, and Pfaster is ready to resume his pursuit of Scully. The original was creepy, and this one just brings it home.
Sein Und Zeit / Closure – This two-parter brings closure to the Samantha Mulder disappearance case, as it returns to the idea of walk-ins as originally presented in Season Two’s “Red Museum”.
Requiem – In what was originally intended to be a series finale, Mulder and Scully return to Oregon and to their first case and, as Scully learns she’s pregnant, Mulder is abducted by aliens.
Within/Without – As the FBI searches for Mulder, Scully meets her new partner, the skeptic John Doggett, played by the always talented Robert Patrick.
Patience – Like “Squeeze” before it, this episode serves as the first MOW episode as the series abandons the humor for the earlier darker roots. While standard in format, we see Scully struggle with her new role as the believer in the wake of Doggett’s skeptic, who in light of the case, seems willing to entertain other possibilities.
The Gift – During his investigation into the disappearance of Agent Mulder, John Doggett follows him to a rural community harboring a supernatural being that, with its own suffering, promises to release the ill, and so is held in perpetual captivity. But Doggett succeeds where Mulder failed in releasing the beast, but what consequences this holds for Mulder remain to be seen.
Per Manum — This crossover with Scully’s abduction experience shows she and Doggett investigating an alien abduction in the present day as she recalls when Mulder told her that due to her abduction, she was infertile. Her pregnancy is kept in the dark from her new partner.
This is Not Happening / Deadalive – Mulder is finally found, but in this two-parter, his death and recovery are explored within the larger mystery of the new super-soldier conspiracy, the alien/human hybrids that have replaced the Syndicate.
Nothing Important Happened Today 1 / 2 – As Mulder leaves, fearing for his family, Scully is left to be protected by Doggett and his new partner Monica Reyes from the Syndicate replacement Super soldiers.
Daemonicus – Doggett and Reyes are aided by Scully as they investigate a case of demon possession.
William – Deemed too dangerous for them to protect, Scully opts to hide William away so he is safe from all the conspiracies. (We should also note that this season’s “Jump the Shark” seals the fate of the Lone Gunmen.)
The Truth – Mulder returns for this Series Finale where the Truth and the X-Files is put on trial, and the whole conspiracy is put on trial.
X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE – Mulder and Scully, long since ostracized from the FBI, are called back into duty when a young FBI agent goes missing, in this story about the metaphorical descent into the underworld, a Frankenstein creation, and a pedophiliac psychic’s visions about the murder. This movie received a lot of flak, but its tone and atmosphere were undervalued, its myth-scope underappreciated, and it’s timing unfortunate, as it premiered within a week’s opening of another little film: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
THE REVIVAL: SEASON TEN
My Struggle 1 / 2 – From two different perspectives, we get Mulder and Scully as they are re-indoctrinated to the FBI. We get a new spin, a human spin, on the conspiracy (which I’d argue has been hinted at all along throughout the series, from “Paperclip” to Mulder’s turn in the “Redux” episodes) – there has always been this seesaw, if it is more human or alien driving the conspiracy, and with the return of the CSM and his new assistant in Monica Reyes, a former ally, we realize that the horror isn’t finished, but has just started.
Mulder and Scully Meet the Were Monster – This is a great Darin Morgan return to the series, with hoakie special effects featuring a misplaced zipper and an atmosphere as intentionally reminiscent of an Abbott and Costello film, this not only returned the Morgan humor and subtext to the series but also restored Mulder’s faith in the mission.
Babylon – The series has been nothing if not controversial, so this episode’s focus on Islamic terrorists in Texas was a slap in the face to all things millennial and 21st Century and Politically Correct. Still, it is an episode that features younger mirror images of Mulder and Scully, a placebo acid trip from mushrooms that allow Mulder into the mind of a comatose terrorist, and a reincarnation of the Lone Gunmen, along with Mulder line-dancing to “Achy Breaky Heart” (and I AM NOT a fan of Country, but found this sequence fun).
Are these all the good episodes of the 200+ episodes and two feature movies? Absolutely not. But in my humble opinion these are some of the best, though I have found value in many more episodes. Maybe, if you watch these, it will inspire you to watch the others.