The TDF Top 10: The X Files
In our next TDF Top 10 we look to all eleven seasons of Chris Carter's sci-fi horror series The X Files...
The X Files was one of TV's biggest cultural icon of the 1990s. Mulder and Scully's search for the truth saw them battle government conspiracies, hunting UFOs, aliens and monsters. This wasn't just an entertaining sci-fi show. This was mainstream, prime-time TV. And the magic between David Duchovny's Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson's Dana Scully was the real heart of the series.
It's a show that ran long past its prime, has two movies (one at its height, another after cancellation) and then returned for two further shortened seasons in the current age of TV revivals. It's a show that inspired countless others; the like of Criminal Minds, Fringe and Lost all owe something special to The X Files. It's a show that gave us some truly terrifying and memorable monsters; Tooms, the Flukeman and the mothmen. It gave us chilling serial killers like Luther Lee Boggs, Donald Addie Pfaster and John Lee Roche. It delivered plenty of comedy greats, from Humbug to The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat, gave us an iconic villain in William B Davies' The Cigarette Smoking Man and when it was at its best, the show's on-going mythology delivered some truly riveting television.
I could go on about the show forever, and I sort of did, with an in depth retrospective across ten seasons and both movies (which you can check out here), but right now, I'm here to pick out the ten greatest episodes. With more than two hundred to choose from, that's quite the challenge. As it's a TV article, I won't be including - but should definitely give an honourable mention to - the first movie The X Files: Fight the Future, which fitted between seasons five and six. With some big mythology moments - from bees to black oil to aliens in the Antarctic, a complex conspiracy involving the syndicate and some big action and emotional moments for Mulder and Scully, it really is one of the best stories in the history of The X Files.
But this is a TV article and I'm here to talk about the ten greatest episodes. After a lot of thought, allow me to present The TDF Top 10: The X Files...
10. Roadrunners (8.04)
Anyone switching off The X Files after David Duchovny left the full time role at the end of season seven, missed out. Robert Patrick is terrific as pragmatic Doggett and Gillian Anderson really shines without her former partner. Season eight also returns to its darker roots, none more so than Roadrunners, the highlight of the later years of the show.
A secret hidden within a backwards community sees Scully's life in peril after she attempts to follow in Mulder's footsteps and throw herself into the investigation. Wonderfully atmospheric, with a heroic rescue attempt by Doggett, Scully becoming 'impregnated' by the creature, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe and Doggett and Scully coming to odds over her actions, make this an instant classic.
9. Squeeze (1.03)
The original monster of the week episode is still one of the greatest episodes The X Files ever produced. Eugene Victor Tombs is a wonderfully horrific creation, a man that sustains himself through extracting and eating the livers of his victims. It's made all the worse by the fact that he can elongate his body, stretching through air vents and chimneys to get his victims; a locked door and window doesn't keep them safe.
It's such a bizarre change of past after the first two alien-focused episodes of season one, but it's a gamble that more than pays off. Doug Hutchinson delivers a disturbing performance, Duchovny is having fun playing up 'spooky Mulder' vibes to Scully's former colleagues and the final attack in Scully's home is nail biting stuff. It was so good, Squeeze became one of the few monster of the weeks to get a sequel later that season in Tooms.
8. Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space' (3.20)
Truth be told, I would quite happily list all of Darin Morgan's zany comedy episodes of The X Files among my favourites. Jose Chung's From Outer Space is one of his best, an episode the episode is framed through author Jose Chung's interview with Scully in their FBI office. Charles Nelson Reilly is wonderful kooky as Chung, a man fascinated by the subject matter even though he fully admits he's in it for the money. Through his retelling of events, we experience alien abductions and government conspiracies - core staples of The X Files - portrayed in a delightfully meta chain of events.
It's an episode that begins with a young couple on their first date when they encounter a flying saucer in the sky, a blinding light and two grey aliens that put them to sleep. From there the story unfolds from the perspectives of witnesses Chung interviewed and Scully's own perspective, all crazier than the last. Be it Detective Manners (Larry Musser) with a penchant for foul language, the arrival of Lord Kimbolt, chain smoking aliens, US game show host Alex Trebeck playing a Man in Black and Mulder screaming like a girl and breaking the fourth wall as he presents his FBI badge to the camera, Jose Chung's From Outer Space is a comic tour de force from beginning to end.
7. Home (4.02)
Home is certainly one of the most most terrifying, disturbing episodes in the show's history. Mulder and Scully investigate the remains of a dead baby in a small town, the result of inbreeding from the chilling Peacock family; deformed brothers that procreate with the limbless mother that lives under the bed of the ramshackle farm house rigged with deadly booby traps.
This isn't an episode for the faint of heart; from the image of the dead baby's hand sticking out of the mud, to the murder of Sheriff Andy and his wife to Mulder and Scully's venture into the house, this is dark, disturbing and harrowing. It is also one of The X Files' finest episodes.
6. Paper Hearts (4.10)
The mystery of what happened to Mulder's sister Samantha was one of the most compelling mysteries in The X Files, resolved rather unsatisfactorily in season seven's Closure. Season four's Paper Hearts would have been an unexpected, but much more satisfying ending, in which Mulder begins to suspect that prolific murderer John Lee Roche was responsible for his sister's fate.
"Scully, do you believe that my sister Samantha was abducted by aliens? Have you ever believed that? No. So what do you think happened to her?"
The idea that her disappearance may have been far more mundane than alien abduction hangs over the episode as Mulder faces off against Roche in search of the truth. David Duchovny does phenomenal work in this episode, while Tom Noonan delivers a very subtle performance that would almost be likeable if you didn't know he had killed so many children. Amid are rather harrowing case, the idea that Samantha could have been his victims makes for some powerful drama, with some disturbing imagery and a number of intriguing twists as Mulder plays Roche at his own game in search of the truth.
5. Anasazi (2.25) - with an honourable mention to The Blessing Way (3.01) and Paper Clip (3.02)
In the first few seasons of The X Files, the mythology arc delivered some of the greatest and most compelling episodes of the show's run. Season two had already ramped up the mysteries with Scully's abduction, the return of Mulder's clone sister and the debut of the shapeshifting alien bounty hunter. But Anasazi was where The X Files really took things to another level.
Mulder slowly being poisoned, his dad Bill murdered by a returning Krychek, Scully uncovering confidential records tracking the US population through small smallpox vaccinations and the discovery of alien remains in a box car certainly make this the biggest season finale in the show's history, ending with Mulder's apparent death at the Cigarette Smoking Man's command.
The subsequent The Blessing Way and Paper Clip continue the epic tone of Anasazi, as Mulder returns from the dead, Scully is stripped of her role in the FBI, Skinner's allegiance is confirmed, the Syndicate is established, alien life is witnessed, Krycek murders Scully's sister and Bill Mulder's role in the conspiracy is revealed. This was the mythology firing on all cylinders...
4. Bad Blood (5.12)
This season five entry is one of the funniest episodes in The X Files' long list of comedy gems, in which we revisit the events of Mulder and Scully's investigation into a vampire attack from the perspective of both agents. It plays up the laughs tenfold - in Mulder's version, Scully is bored by his conspiracy theories and flirts with the hick sheriff (played by Luke Wilson), while from Scully's perspective, Mulder's obsession with cattle mutilation borders on manic and the sheriff is far more alluring. Seeing the extremes of how the two agents perceive the other is worth watching the episode for alone.
But Bad Blood also has great fun poking fun at vampire lore and the two different perspectives offer new insights into the narrative - each agent uncovering something new about the case the other wasn't aware of. Vince Gillian (of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) delivers his finest script for The X Files and it's one that regularly tops the 'best of' episode rankings. Deservedly so.
3. Nisei (3.09) / 731 (3.10)
While the three episode arc of Anasazi through to Paper Clip offers plenty of revelation and drama, it is the follow-up mythology two parter Nisei and 731 that sees the ongoing story arc at its very peak. Building on those season-crossing episodes, Nisei starts with the promise of an alien autopsy cover up, before turning the events of Scully's abduction on its head - it was the government that experimented on her. The discovery of a group of fellow abductees is chilling, sowing the seeds for Scully's fatal cancer diagnosis next season.
Mulder meanwhile goes off in search of the truth, leading to an even tenser second half in 731. The scenes onboard the train as Mulder faces off against an assassin and a carriage ready to explode and release a deadly pathogen into the public, is truly mail biting stuff, with Mr X's rescue at the end a huge rewarding moment. Packed with tension, revelation, action and emotion, Nisei and 731 is The X Files mythology at its absolute finest.
2. Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (3.04)
Darin Morgan's best script for The X Files is both hilarious and heart-warming; Mulder and Scully encounter Peter Boyle's Clyde Bruckman (the best guest spot in the show's history), a psychic that can predict the deaths of others. This is an episode that both embraces and mocks the idea of psychic abilities, from Bruckman's morose nature to the bonkers appearance of the Stupendous Yappi - a man who berates Mulder for his negative energy and refusal to believe in one of the episode's finest comic scenes.
The episode is littered with terrific one liners, particularly Boyle's droll delivery to Duchovny's Mulder "You know, there are worse ways to go, but I can't think of a more undignified way than autoerotic asphyxiation." It is an episode that insanely clever, has a wonderful relationship between Bruckman and Scully and moments that really make you think. A sublime episode with perfect casting, perfect moments and the show confidence to take bigger and bolder chances with its storytelling.
1. Triangle (6.03)
One of the show's most experimental episodes is also its finest as Mulder goes in search of a cruise liner that disappeared in 1939 and reappears in the Bermuda Triangle. Only the time distortions send him back to the outbreak of World War II where he encounters Nazis and passengers wearing the faces of those he knows best. Of course the Cigarette Smoking Man makes the perfect Nazi officer.
It's an episode that works on every level. For the Mulder / Scully shippers there's their first kiss as Mulder kisses the alternate Scully and then confesses his love to his real partner at the end. It's got a bizarre time travel mystery, Mulder punches Nazis, and marvellous tracking shots as we make our way through the captured vessel. The entire second act is devoted to a one tracking shot sequence with Scully as she races through the halls of the FBI in search of coordinates to find Mulder, pursued by Spender and Kersh - with Skinner saving her skin in a hilarious kiss in the lift. The final act has Scully and the Lone Gunmen searching the doomed vessel in the present while Mulder fights for his life in the past. Most importantly, Triangle is a lot of fun. It plays into weirdness, never really explaining the logistics, and entertains from beginning to end.
Of course, with a show with such a high quality success rate as The X Files, you could easily write a top 25 episodes. Honourable but brief mentions to the next 15...
- Ice (1.08) - The X Files goes all The Thing
- Beyond The Sea (1.13) - Scully deals with Brad Dourif's chilling psychic serial killer Luther Lee Boggs
- Duane Barry (2.05), Ascension (2.06) and One Breath (2.08) - Scully is abducted by Duane Barry, Krycek betrays Mulder and The X Files are reinstated
- Die Hand Die Verletzt (2,14) - Satanic High school teachers!
- Colony (2.17), End Game (2.18) - Mulder's sister returns and the shapeshifting alien bounty hunter makes his debut
- Pusher (3.17) - one of the show's best guest villains in Robert Patrick Modell and the tensest game of Russian Roulette on TV ever...
- Memento Mori (4.14) - an emotionally wrought episode that sees Scully deal with her cancer diagnosis
- Detour (5.04) - a funny, tense episode with invisible moth men
- Patient X (5.13), The Red and the Black (5.14) - the debut of Spender as the mythology wraps up to its conclusion in a tense two-parter
- Monday (6.14) - The X Files does Groundhog Day as Mulder and Scully die in a bank robbery over and over again
- Field Trip (6.21) - A trippy Rashamon episode that sees events plays out from Mulder and Scully's differing perspectives.
- X-Cops (7.12) - one of the most fun, experimental episodes of The X Files as Mulder and Scully end up on reality TV in one of the most bizarre TV crossovers ever
- Redrum (8.06) - The narrative travels backwards as Doggett and Scully help Martin Wells uncover who murdered his wife
- John Doe (9.07) - Doggett wakes up in Mexico with no memory of who he is. A superb episode for Robert Patrick
- Familiar (11.08) - an old school The X Files horror with evil Teletubbies and Mr Chuckles Teeth.
Enjoyed this article, check out our Greatest TV seasons feature - The X Files season three and let us know your favourite episodes in the comments below...