The X-Files Twenty Years Later: Still Truthy?

As impossible as it seems, it’s been twenty years since the Deadpan Duo of Mulder and Scully blazed onto the TV scene, making it cooler, rainier, and more paranoid than ever before.

The Truth is Out There. Trust No One. I Want to Believe. It’s hard to remember when the pop culture lexicon wasn’t peppered with references to the giant government conspiracy concerning aliens, the military, shady informants and something to do with honey bees.

Show creator Chris Carter threw together elements of shows that he liked as a kid, including Kolchak the Night Stalker, The Twilight Zone and The Avengers, mixed in a little Watergate-era cynicism about the government, and managed to create something wholly original and ground-breaking.

Mulder became the embodiment of a crusading believer. Scully stood for ethical skepticism. The military-industrial complex took a hit. Cell phones were never better showcased.

The X-Files did that thing that great TV shows do, which is that it took the form of TV storytelling, which allows for long, drawn-out arcs and character complexity not often seen elsewhere, and made magic out of it.

I feel some best-of lists coming on. (Lists presented chronologically.)
(Disclaimer–Like a lot of fans, I didn’t watch most of the 9th season, so if there was something fabulous between the opener and the finale that I’m missing, I apologize. Apology is policy, after all.)

Top Ten Best Myth-Arc Episodes
1. Little Green Men

How would the agents function when they were miles apart, no more X-Files? This episode showed the creativity of the writers in finding ways to keep their chemistry alive onscreen. Bonus: the message from space sending the information from the Voyager spacecraft back to us. Space geek alert!

2. Duane Barry/Ascension
Take Steve Railsback’s pitch-perfect performance as a terrified and terrifying abductee. Add some juicy Mulder/Scully moments as they continue to bond despite being forcibly separated by the FBI. Mix it all up with Mulder’s pretty new partner Alex Krycek, nowhere near as clean-cut as he seems. Finish it off with a dash of inveterate Hey It’s That Gal CCH Pounder opening up cans of whoop-ass on every scene she steals and you’ve got topnotch, movie-quality entertainment.

3. Colony/End Game
Alien bounty hunters and green slime and clones, oh my! The set piece with the alien space ship in the frozen waters was one of the best visuals of the series.

4. Nisei/731
A good demonstration of how the mythology episodes advanced the overall story but still muddied up the works enough to keep us guessing. For fans of X, lepers, and trains.

5. Piper Maru/Apocrypha
Some highlights: the introduction of the black oil and leaving Krycek stranded in an impressive nuclear silo set.

6. Tunguska/Terma
The black oil gets a starring role in this grim, brutal episode as Mulder runs afoul of a Russian gulag with only Krycek as a translator.

7. Memento Mori
From Gillian Anderson’s lullabye-like voice-over narration at the start all the way to the hug in the hallway that was almost Mully’s first kiss, this episode is infused with a revelatory atmosphere, vivid moments that underscore the cost of the crusade in small-scale human terms.

8. Tempus Fugit/Max
Helped along by guest stars Joe Spano and Scott Bellis, who reprises his role as NICAP’s own Max, this airplane-crash mystery has action, alien conspiracy and a deepening of pop culture’s UFO mythology.

9. Redux II
After the talky lecturing of the hugely disappointing Redux I, this little gem pulled the 2-parter out of the dumps with the resolution of Scully’s cancer storyline and some of Duchovny’s best acting.

10. Patient X/The Red and the Black
Come for the faceless aliens and wheelchair abductions. Stay for the family drama of bitter son Jeffrey Spender vying with Mulder for the attention of his mother (Cancer Man’s wife) and ultimately the approval of his murderous father. Bonus points: When did Veronica Cartwright get so cool?

No real surprises here, other than my stubborn insistence on excluding the Anasazi/Blessing Way/Paper Clip trilogy that’s usually a staple of best-of lists. Though there is much to love in the action-packed 3-parter (Skinner rocks!), I find the corny, talky scenes of dead people Explaining it All For You to be un-rewatchable. Same for the otherwise excellent Talitha Cumi/Herrenvolk. The interrogation scene between Cancer Man and the alien Jeremiah Smith, where they talk like gods who’ve been given cheesy dialogue by a hack writer, is a tragic wasted opportunity.

Top Ten Best Standalone Episodes
1. Beyond the Sea
One of the first role-reversal episodes where Scully is the one challenging Mulder to believe, this entry also sets up Scully’s daddy issues and showcases Gillian Anderson’s considerable acting chops.

2. Ice
Yes, it’s a rip-off of John Carpenter’s The Thing (it’s in the dog, the alien is in the dog, didn’t you see The Thing?). But that, of course, was a rip-off/remake of another Thing movie from the 50s, which was based on a book that ripped off another story…there are no new stories. But what Ice does is take the tropes and tired themes and breathe new life into them, using the remarkable chemistry of the leads to put a whole new stamp on a familiar story.

3. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
Among the many things this episode does well is the writing trick I most admire, and that’s to successfully mix tones. Humor, pathos, suspense, philosophy. Clyde Bruckman has it all in a seamless smorgasbord of storytelling. One of four scripts by The X-Files best writer, Darin Morgan, this one deserved its writing Emmy as well as its frequent inclusion in Top Ten and Best Of lists.

4. Oubliette
The actor who plays Lucy, Tracey Ellis, gives a vivid, searing portrayal of a haunted, damaged-beyond-repair abuse survivor, making this an unforgettable entry.

5. Pusher
“Cerulean blue…cerulean blue…” Robert Patrick Modell looked ordinary, but he was a bad-ass bad guy in this seminal episode.

6. Unruhe
Yes, Scully being kidnapped and tied up was getting kind of old, but the writing, acting and directing were so good, it was easy to overlook. Stellar work from the regular cast as well as Pruitt Taylor Vince, a HITG who’s always great.

7. Paper Hearts
Poignant, tense, absorbing, yes, this episode is all that. But what I like best about it is how it shows Mulder in his previous life in the behavioral crimes unit, something alluded to but rarely depicted. Mulder is so out there most of the time. Here we get to see the promising career he sacrificed to his obsession.

8. Leonard Betts
Yeah, it was gross. Sure, the guy ate cancer and could regrow himself from out of his mouth. A fine example of the classy gross-outs that were a staple of the show. But this one was also poignant and intriguing, with a killer hook at the end. “You have something that I need,” said the cancer-eating man to Scully. Kapow.

9. Drive
A prime example of the kind of writing the show did well. Everyday people caught up in something bigger and more deadly than they could understand and Mulder trying to throw himself in between them and the bad guys to cushion the blow.

10. Triangle
Inventive and fun, this romp into the Bermuda triangle and an alternate-past story involving Nazis was the writers showing off a bit. By the 6th season, they were so comfortable with their characters and their world, they could shake it up, blow on it, roll the dice and come up snake eyes every time. Also: Skinner rocks!

Worst of the X-Files
Hey, it can’t all be sunshine and black oil. These entries missed the mark, but I was happy with how few there were relative to the series’ longevity.

Jersey Devil
The playful banter and seeing Scully all femmed up for a date are a lot of fun. But the monster-of-the-week in this one is so un-monstery as to be embarrassing. And the smug, gleeful anthropologist who Explains it All For You does a Simon Oakland in Psycho, killing all drama with a totally told-and-not-shown lecture about what’s at stake.

Space
I’m with Chris Carter on loving the space program, but this episode is not the homage he intended, plus it’s unfocused and boring. Nice try, though.

The Field Where I Died
Another great concept that just didn’t fly–past lives, reincarnation. Plodding pacing and Duchovny trying too hard to get an Emmy nomination make this one deadly dull.

Redux I
Full of The Writers Explain it All For You, to the point of having inserts of historical photographs to show the military/industrial complex’s diabolical plan. Talk about your authorial intrusion.

Firewalker
A pale imitation of Darkness Falls and other good episodes that put our heroes in isolation.

Grotesque
No detraction from the awesome Kurtwood Smith, but this grim, convoluted episode is slow and just no fun at all.

Emily
After the intriguing and sort of fun part one, A Christmas Carol, this cold, sterile entry into the mythology of Scully’s ova falls totally flat.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Know How Objectively Great They Are, But I Love These Episodes
Darkness Falls
Mulder and Scully in isolation with some unstable people and a deadly threat. And glowy, man-eating bugs! Good times.
Dod Kalm
Mulder and Scully in isolation with a few unstable people and a deadly threat. And premature aging! Good times.
Dreamland I and II
It’s silly and stretched out a bit, but come on. Lenny of Lenny and Squiggy pretending to be a Man in Black pretending to be Mulder? Priceless.
Jose Chung’s From Outer Space
Charles Nelson Reilly. A Darin Morgan script. Self-parody of the highest order. Mulder’s scream. What more do you need?
Quagmire
It’s not the tightest episode but they have a lot of fun with this send-up of the Loch Ness Monster.
Rain King
Whimsy, Wizard of Oz motifs and Mully in all its glory.
Small Potatoes
An excuse to get some Mully action, plus a lot of self-parodying humor.
Tithonus
Wonderfully creepy. Also has the quality that makes a great standalone; the guest character brings with him the feeling of a wealth of story that happened before. Geoffrey Lewis is terrific.
The Unnatural
Written by Duchovny and featuring an obvious cover-up for the missing Darren McGavin, the baseball-themed episode shouldn’t have worked. But Josh Exley, alien star of the Negro Leagues, is such a sweet, poignant character. I love this one.
War of the Coprophages
“Her name is … Bambi?” Die, Bug, Die! “I never thought I’d say this to you, Scully, but you smell bad.” And killer cockroaches. And a sailor shoring up on chocolates and silk stockings. The fun just goes on and on. Another Darin Morgan script.
Wetwired
TV violence really does make you kill as Scully goes slowly nuts in this tense thriller.

I can’t contain my X-Philia to just one post, so this week, I’ll be doing more best-of and worst-of lists, plus an examination of how Mully beat the Moonlighting curse and a little sumptin-sumptin on Scully, the X-Files and gender. Tune in! Add your own. Just don’t go including Home in a best-of list unless you can defend the claim with your life.

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