Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Fox’s landmark sci-fi series.
“Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI’s most unwanted.” Oh, how modest you were Special Agent Fox Mulder. The truth was out there, alright, and that truth was simple: Everyone wanted The X-Files.
For close to a decade, Chris Carter’s long-running sci-fi series scared millions of Americans every weekend and for zero fees. Well, that is until 1998’s Fight the Future, and eventually 2008’s I Want to Believe, but still…
From little green men to vampiric Sandlot stars, a benevolent T-1000 to inbred hooligans, The X-Files is to The Twilight Zone as Pepsi is to Coca-Cola. It’s the sci-fi of a new generation! Well, at least it used to be.
Today, the series turns 25, which is why you ought to crank up some Mark Snow, grab a fresh bag of sunflower seeds, line up a handful of sharpened No. 2 pencils, and start flipping through our own files.
–Michael “Spooky” Roffman
Number of Episodes: 20
Most Valuable Writer: Chris Carter takes home this trophy, though it’s not exactly a triumphant win. Marching onward despite David Duchovny’s departure, Carter attempted to save face, working with Season Eight’s acceptable contingency plan of pairing Robert Patrick’s John Doggett and Annabeth Gith’s Monica Reyes with Gillian Anderson’s Special Agent Dana Scully. To his credit, he managed to write a few inspired episodes with exciting possibilities (“Provenance”/”Providence” and “Improbable”), trumping a few of the misfires from veteran writers like Vince Gilligan (“Sunshine Days”, “Jump the Shark”) and Frank Spotnitz (“Dæmonicus”, “Jump the Shark”).
Most Memorable Guest Star: One could make the argument that Duchovny’s short-lived return was by far the most memorable guest appearance of the entire season, but that’s a smart-ass answer. A fair response would be Lucy Lawless’ promising and equally short-lived turn as Super Soldier Shannon McMahan, a role that was cut short due to Lawless’ own high-risk pregnancy. She appeared in two episodes: “Nothing Important Happened Today” and “Nothing Important Happened Today II”. Outside of that, credit is due to Adam Baldwin’s fantastic other Super Soldier Knowle Rohrer, in addition to a recurring role by Cary Elwes as FBI Assistant Director Brad D. Follmer and Burt Reynolds as God. No lie.
X Marks the Spot (Best Mythology Episode): “William”, with story by trio Duchovny, Spotnitz, and Carter, rounds up the best of the very few mythology spotlights in Season Nine. Duchovny triple-downed by also directing and guest starring in the episode, and his appearance served as a preview for the two-part then-series finale, “The Truth”. The title alone should hint to the weight of this episode, and it delivers as best as it could, uncovering the deep, dark secrets a badly disfigured man holds. Chris Owens’ previously thought-to-be-dead Jeffrey Spender returns to the fold, initially sending a jolt to Scully, who believes he wants to hurt William. Not the case, so it would seem, and it’s his information that sparks theories of alien invasions, setting up in many ways what’s to come in the forthcoming mini-series.
Monster of the Year (Best Monster-of-the-Week Episode): The last great Monster-of-the-Week for the initial series run centered on John Doggett and his missing son. Written by David Amann and John Shiban, “Release” was less about monsters, per se, and more about the actual horrors of human beings. Jared Poe stars as Rudolph Hayes, a wunderkind FBI cadet with an uncanny (and mysterious) ability to solve crimes. He helps Doggett link several present cases to what happened to his son, which offers some closure for our underrated hero, solidifying him as one of the best characters The X-Files ever produced.
Bad Blood (Worst Episode): “Jumping the Shark”, an episode used to wrap up the ill-fated spin-off series, The Lone Gunmen, falls incredibly short. The episode features our three hackers in a race against time to prevent a biological outbreak. Naturally, they contain the virus, but they trap themselves with it. By episode’s end, they’re buried in Arlington Cemetery, having earned the spot due to their duty to the country, and like a scene out of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the entire cast attends the funeral. With only five episodes left, many felt this was a wasted opportunity, and longtime fans of The Lone Gunmen felt cheated. However, comics would later retcon the decision, a move that prompted Carter to bring ’em back for the upcoming mini-series.
Closing Statements: Season Nine is a fleabag of mostly not-so-great episodes. Had this been the first of a series, it’s possible they could have eventually found their footing. But with a tired production team and audiences increasingly straying with the departure of Duchovny, it was already doomed. Patrick and Gish were never really given a real shot to maintain the X-Files sans Scully and Mulder, but maybe that was never meant to be. And while Patrick’s Doggett became a fan favorite on the show, most would agree that Gish’s Reyes lacked some serious attention. Of course, with the mini-series (not to mention 2008’s I Want to Believe), it’s obvious that Duchovny and Anderson have and always will be The X-Files. Plain and simple.
Number of Episodes: 6
Most Valuable Writer: Are we really surprised that Darin Morgan turned in the strongest chapter of the six episodes? As you’ll later read in this feature, the guy’s responsible for two of the greatest episodes of The X-Files, and it’s clear he hasn’t skipped a beat at the typewriter over the past two decades. “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” is the sole diamond in the ghastly rough, an ideal existential meditation on humanity and modern society that’s both hilarious and charming. And out of all the writers who were tasked with directing each of their respective episodes — an unfortunate decision with less-than-stellar results — Morgan actually rose to the challenge, capturing the look and feel of the original series with aplomb. Without him, this mini-series would have been relegated to the bottom of the barrel.
Most Memorable Guest Star: Joel McHale’s Tad O’Malley flopped. Annabeth Gish returning as Monica Reyes was ill-advised. William B. Davis’ Cigarette Smoking Man should have never survived the missile attack (or an exploding skull). And both Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose, as Agent Miller and Einstein respectively, were irritating parodies at best. Out of everyone who could have added something to this series, it was Flight of the Conchords MVP Rhys Darby as the quirky Guy Mann in “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”. As the monster-turned-human, his own thoughts on his new skin offer a handful of terrific laughs that warm the belly and the mind. His patient exchange with Mulder at the end of the episode proves essential in ways that few reunions ever manage to nail. Plus, those last lines before the credits roll … genius.
X Marks the Spot: It’s hardly a mythology episode, but James Wong’s “Founder’s Mutation” at least contains a subplot that’s related to the overall narrative. (Plus, it’ll be a cold day in hell before this writer ever suggests either of the mythological bookends in this season.) As Mulder and Scully investigate the strange death of an unfortunate researcher, they stumble upon a series of wild mutations that trigger all sorts of feelings related to their lost son, William. Some of it works, some of it’s lousy directing, but it’s an emotional couple of scenes that at least tries to do something with the clumsily underwritten arc that wound up plaguing the later seasons. Watching Scully and Spooky dream of parenthood, even for a few minutes, is interesting stuff. What’s more, there’s also this great scene involving a Ziggy-looking kid that will scare you away from oatmeal. Forever.
Monster of the Year: Darin’s “Were-Monster” is technically the best of this bunch, but when it comes to actual monsters, there’s little arguing over Glen Morgan’s Band-Aid Nose Man in “Home Again”. Sure, some fans were disappointed it wasn’t a followup to the Peacock clan (see: Season 4’s “Home”), but Glen sure as hell dreamed up another terrifying creature to behold. Rancid’s own Tim Armstrong stars as a street artist named the Trashman, who creates a defender for the homeless by placating the city walls with its ominous image. Unfortunately, said image works out like a Golem (see: Season 4’s “Kaddish”), who comes to life and preys upon those threatening the city’s less fortunate. This offers up some wickedly demented scenes, like a terrifying home invasion set to the sounds of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. It’s a gasp of terror that chills the bones in delight.
Bad Blood: You have three to choose from and they’re all written by Chris Carter: “My Struggle”, “Babylon”, and “My Struggle II”. Yes, the George Lucas of the franchise has now become, well, the George Lucas of the franchise. And like ol’ Georgie, he has plenty of ideas and no understanding in how to execute any of them. The mythological bookends are a complete mess, suffering from awful dialogue, breakneck pacing, and ludicrous plotting. Watching Mulder and Scully go from 0-120 in a matter of seconds with regards to choices and beliefs goes against everything this series set out to create. Even worse, the rabbit holes that Carter chose has now pushed the mythology, and the series itself, in a red alert zone where there’s no resolve. In other words, there aren’t any writers who can climb out of this one without resorting to Dallas-like lengths…
Closing Statements: …which is why this mini-series walks around with some muddy Bad Idea Jeans. Carter not only couldn’t handle the scripting or directing, but he also couldn’t make up his mind as to what this mini-series was supposed to represent. For years, he waited for Fox to greenlight a third X-Files film, assuring fans that he had an epic conclusion in mind for his long-storied and murky mythology. Good. Great. Grand. Wonderful. That’s why it’s baffling when he was commissioned six episodes — ahem, that’s nearly five hours to close things out — he chose to waste four of them on standalone episodes.
Granted, two of those wound up being top-of-the-line, but there’s reason to believe that had this been a six-episode arc devoted to a proper conclusion, things would have felt, at the very least, more coherent. It would have also been more faithful to Mulder and Scully’s previous arc. Don’t get me wrong, it was a joy seeing them back in the saddle, so to speak, but the required jumps in logic speak to Carter’s insistence to do too much within a measly six episodes. If only he had taken a note from Skinner this season: Slap your name on the credits and watch from the shadows.
But really, what the hell happened to Mitch Pileggi? And a cliffhanger? Really?
Number of Episodes: 10
Most Valuable Writer: Easy peasy. Darin Morgan. With “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”, the veteran writer is officially six for six, and before you scoff at that (admittedly) slim number, look at his outstanding run: “Humbug”, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, “War of the Coprophages”, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space“, and last season’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”. Even passing fans of The X-Files should be able to recognize those titles, if only for how they redefined the way the series approached the standalone format altogether. “Sweat” is hardly peak Morgan, but the episode makes you think, and that’s always been the strongest suit for The X-Files. If only Carter gave this guy the keys a decade ago.
Most Memorable Guest Star: Not enough can be said about how much Brian Huskey brings to any series. For instance, the guy’s one of the silent MVPs of HBO’s star-studded Veep every season, getting under everyone’s skin in the best way possible. His work on The X-Files, particularly on “The Lost Art of the Forehead”, can best be described as “fitting.” Simply dubbed Reggie — although, it’s later revealed he’s a longtime government employee turned mental-ward patient named Reggie Murgatroid — Husky brings all his irritable quirks to the character, who’s cheekily squeezed (no pun intended) into several iconic moments of the series. His irascible tendencies offer not only a brilliant foil to the stoic mannerisms of Duchovny and Anderson, but a beautiful outlet for fans, who also feel just as irritated with the series’ mythology at this point.
X Marks the Spot: Well, you can’t count on Carter to do a damn thing anymore, so this honor once again goes to James Wong, whose William-focused entry, “Ghouli”, is arguably the strongest chapter in the ensuing X-Files “mythology”. Not only does he add some heart and mystery to the ever-problematic role that William has always played in this series, but he also seems to nail the aesthetic, drawing out the moods and atmospheres of Vancouver in ways that have alluded too many of the screenwriters-turned-directors. That ending, where Scully discovers she’s been talking to her son all along at the gas station (generously portrayed with doppelgänger heart by Francois Chau), is one of the rare moments in this latter era that actually legitimately tugs at your heartstrings. It’s just a goddamn shame that Carter eventually derails the whole sentiment with his asinine Smoking Man pregnancy plot.
Monster of the Year: Something special happened with “Rm9sbG93ZXJz”. The X-Files essentially tapped Black Mirror on the shoulder and said something to the effect of, “Get in the back of the line, pal.” Writers Shannon Hamblin and Kristen Cloke really went out of the box for this one, offering up an eerie meditation on technology that felt like a bizarre piece of pop culture art. Glen Morgan owns the source material, too, nearly delivering a silent movie as we watch Mulder and Scully cycle from bizarre sushi restaurants, to automated cars, to Scully’s curiously tech-loaded estate. It’s a thrilling hour that recalls a time when this series was at the top of its game, setting the bar for all of modern science fiction, and it was a relief to see that the show’s “still got it.”
Bad Blood: Without sounding like a broken record, this series’ greatest threat is its own creator. Chris Carter has lost the touch, and while he shows glimmers of hope in OK episodes like “Plus One”, his days of knocking out something like “Duane Berry” are long, long gone. No, like George Lucas and Star Wars, he’s all ideas (mostly awful) and no execution, which is why his hilariously awful “My Struggle” chapters continue to infect the series. After digging himself and the series into a deep grave with last season’s low-ball finale, “My Struggle II”, enough that this season’s premiere had to predictably resort to Dallas-esque tropes to breathe again, Carter tossed aside the shovel and opted to stay 12-feet under. In a devastating blow, he delivers one of the most offensive rewrites to a character’s mythology in the history of television (see: Scully and biological rape), which is why Anderson finally walked.
Closing Statements: Good for her. Look, when it was first announced in 2015 that The X-Files was going to return to television, there was all kinds of hope that the series could recapture the magic of yesteryear and provide brazen commentaries for the 21st century. As Season 10 proved, that magic came in brief gasps, all too quickly smothered by Carter’s own stupidity. Although this season’s expansion from six to 10 episodes offered up more room to breathe for outside influencers, Carter still managed to become even more of a nuisance, strong-arming the main through line into territory that’s just now unforgivable. For Christ’s sake, you can see the frustration on the faces of Duchovny and Anderson throughout any of the “My Struggle” chapters.
But, here’s the thing: Season 11 proves that The X-Files could still be great. Episodes like the head-scratching themes of “Forehead Sweat”, the post-modern meditations of “Rm9sbG93ZXJz”, the small town terror of “Familiar”, and the cultish vibes of “Nothing Lasts Forever” all underline a truth that’s been out there for years. Simply put, this series now belongs to the Monsters. Whereas most procedurals are redundant and predictable, it’s actually a thriving medium for The X-Files, which is why it’s not surprising that the most critically lauded chapters now have zero to do with whatever conspiracies Carter still wants us to believe in. Sadly, it doesn’t look like we’ll be heading down to the basement anymore, but there is life in the files.
Just leave Carter out in the woods.
Number of Episodes: (HEY EVERYBODY LOOK AT THE DESERT WE’RE SHOOTING IN L.A. NOW OKAY) 22
Most Valuable Writer: (HEY EVERYBODY LOOK AT THE DESERT WE’RE SHOOTING IN L.A. NOW OKAY?) This is a tough season. For every MVP vote towards one writer, they receive a demerit. I’m going to give it to Chris Carter for two reasons: “Triangle” and “Milagro”. Carter tends to get melodramatic with his writing, but because the show is so high on “genre,” it favors his writing more than it would as a staff writer on The Wire. “Milagro” was the best vehicle for Carter and the great John Hawkes as his vessel: a loquacious writer who is somehow connected to a string of murders in which the hearts of the victims have been removed. A nice little reveal about Scully at the end makes “Shippers” swoon. Let’s not talk about “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”, ‘kay?
Most Memorable Guest Star: (HEY EVERYBODY LOOK AT THE DESERT WE’RE SHOOTING IN L.A. NOW OKAY?) There are so many great guest stars this season that it reads like an SNL episode guy. “Dreamland”, with your host Michael McKean! “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”, featuring Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin! “Terms of Endearment” with musical guest Bruce Campbell! The winner here is Bryan Cranston in Vince Gilligan’s “Drive”, the answer to what if the bomb in Speed was inside Keanu’s head. It’s an intense episode, and the decision to make Cranston a racist jerk was a bold decision by Gilligan. Gilligan and Cranston would team up years later on some AMC show set in New Mexico. Anyone heard of it?
X Marks the Spot: (HEY EVERYBODY LOOK AT THE DESERT WE’RE SHOOTING IN L.A. NOW OKAY?) I believe that The X-Files had six perfect series finales (ask me about them some time), and I believe that the “Two Fathers”/”One Son” two-parter is one of those finales. This was Carter’s attempt at wrapping up a mythology that had become convoluted to those who weren’t able to binge-watch or re-watch in the way we can now. It’s a farewell to the great Veronica Cartwright as Cassandra Spender, an eradication of the e-vile Syndicate, and a hello to whatever comes next. More movies? No. Mainly diminishing returns instead.
Monster of the Year: (HEY EVERYBODY LOOK AT THE DESERT WE’RE SHOOTING IN L.A. NOW OKAY?) Chris Carter had the keys to the kingdom. Coming off the heels of a successful theatrical release, the show’s creator was not about to rest on his laurels. The first stand-alone of Season Six is the time-hopping “Triangle”, which was also designed to appear as one shot per each commercial break (think Hitchcock’s “Rope”). It’s Carter’s finest hour behind the camera as we jump back and forth from Mulder on a Nazi-occupied cruise ship in the 1940’s to Scully trying to get to the truth in a busy FBI office in the present. It’s a fun romp that was a technical landmark at the time. Honorable mention: Carter’s “Milagro”.
Bad Blood: (HEY EVERYBODY LOOK AT THE DESERT WE’RE SHOOTING IN L.A. NOW OKAY?) Season Six was more like Rowan and Martin Presents The X-Files. For the non-ancients, it was more like Lorne Michaels Presents The X-Files. The occasional “fun” episode lightened the load and darkness of seasons past, with the likes of Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan being the kings of that domain. It was out of control come the move to L.A., with five straight “humorous” episodes before the show’s tribute to D.O.A. via Skinner’s poisoning (“S.R. 819”). It’s an unforgivable run that begins with the way-too-long “Dreamland” two-parter, goofy spirits in “How the Ghosts…”, demon abortions in “Terms…”, and Victoria Jackson in “The Rain King”. Get thee to a nunnery, Chris Carter!
Closing Statements: (HEY EVERYBODY LOOK AT THE DESERT WE’RE SHOOTING IN L.A. NOW OKAY?) In case you weren’t aware, the show moved to California after Season Five. While Carter and co. would figure out how to best incorporate said move in future seasons, their insistence about ramming the move down our eye sockets is unforgivable. The Vancouver seasons did their damnedest to convince us that we were in New Mexico, even if that meant painting rocks and dirt. The variety was strong in those first five seasons, but we feel the heat so much in season six that it’s as though a UFO transferred FBI headquarters to Fresno. It’s the worst Mulder/Scully season, with Duchovny sleepwalking his way through the first handful of episodes (he regains his focus during the back half), way too many comedic episodes, and the most unmemorable season finale of the show’s run (“Biogenesis”).
Number of Episodes: 21
Most Valuable Writer: Frank Spotnitz for his work with Carter on the plethora of mythology-based stories (10 in total!), as well as his own work in the supremely disturbing “Via Negative” and affecting “The Gift”. The former deals with cults and another level of being, brought to a whole different level thanks to some brilliant lighting decisions during Agent Doggett’s climactic nightmare. The latter sees the return of Mulder for the first time since his disappearance, albeit in flashback form. Spotnitz does a good job of switching up who the monster really is — a plot device I will personally go for 99% of the time. Gruesome and beautiful stuff to be found here.
Most Memorable Guest Star: Before announcing the winner, I gotta give a shout-out to my boy Adam Baldwin and his portrayal of Super Soldier Knowle Rohrer, which is the greatest name ever. However, I have to give the award to Joe Morton of T2 fame. He stars in Steven Maeda’s episode “Redrum”, which follows Morton’s lawyer traveling backwards in time after discovering he’s been accused of killing his wife. Morton does a good job of playing panic and methodical, and while he is able to change time in one direction, the other way doesn’t prove innocence, either. It’s Morton’s episode through and through.
X Marks the Spot: The two-part premiere of “Within”/”Without” was an exercise in keeping the ball rolling when it appeared all was lost. It was considered high treason to believe that the show could continue without Duchovny’s presence, and while he appears in various forms during the premiere, the show now belonged to Anderson and Patrick. With this new team, we get a new dynamic (a new skeptic while the other wants to believe a little more than she used to), a male lead that is not a Mulder clone, and a sense of desperation that hadn’t been seen since … when? The Vancouver seasons? Whatever the case, the premiere proved there was still life, provided you didn’t watch the show in the hopes of seeing Mulder and Scully hooking up. If so: take The Eagles’ advice and get over it.
Monster of the Year: Go “Gift” or go home. We believe that a grotesque, deformed, Neanderthal-lookin’ creature is eating human beings alive … and he is. As I mentioned in my vote for Spotnitz getting MVP, the plot twist remains tragic while not doing anything to remove the uncomfortable unease of these feasting sequences. Solid special effects and a character reveal of a monster that doesn’t speak puts this episode high up in my personal faves. It’s another nice character turn for Doggett, as well.
Bad Blood: Boy does “Badlaa” have a good idea. Squeaky wheels only the chased can hear. Deep Roy on a cart stalking victims. It’s too bad it loses itself in a total lack of cohesion. Writer John Shiban’s solo efforts are responsible for a lot of bad on this series (“Teso Dos Bichos”, “El Munda Gira”), and this belongs in that pack. A wasted opportunity to tell an old-fashioned ghost story. Dishonorable mentions go to the misfire of “Surekill” (the one where the killer sees through walls) and “Medusa” (subway virus, blah, blah, blah).
Closing Statements: What The X-Files had lost was a sense of purpose. In the previous two seasons, the Syndicate was removed from the equation (S6), and Mulder finally learned what happened to his sister (S7). What better way to reboot the series than to give it a new purpose: the search for its original protagonist. Duchovny’s decision to scale back his appearances only proved for a richer season, and when he did return, we started to see what would have happened if he stayed on: a five-member ensemble of Mulder, Scully, Doggett, Reyes, and Skinner. Alas, Duchovny bid the series farewell (pretty much), and while Annabeth Gish’s Monica Reyes proved serviceable as a guest this season, as a regular she left a lot to be desired. Watch out for those Super Soldiers!
Number of Episodes: 22
Most Valuable Writer: Surprise, surprise, it’s a toss-up between Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz. Sure, the two were responsible for “The Amazing Maleeni”, one of the more asinine episodes of the series, but they also collaborated on the eerie Billy Drago-starring “Theef” and established the Carter Cinematic Universe by introducing Mulder and Scully to Lance Henrikson’s Frank Black in the crossover episode, “Millennium”. Although Spotnitz was tasked with finalizing Samantha’s arc in the beautifully written “Closure”, he at least had support from Carter. Gilligan, on the other hand, penned “Hungry”, “X Cops”, and the incredibly underrated “Je Souhaite” all by himself. So, Mr. Breaking Bad for the win, folks.
Most Memorable Guest Star: Season Seven brought back a few familiar faces — for instance, it was nice seeing Jerry Hardin return as Deep Throat in “The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati”; it was terrifying reuniting with Nick Chinlund’s Donnie Pfaste in “Orison” — but the most memorable guest star has to go to Henrikson. After three seasons and 67 episodes, Millennium came to an end in early 1999, so it was a relief to many fans to see Black again, especially so close to the actual millennium (the episode aired in November). Henrikson wasn’t pleased with how the episode turned out, but there’s no denying his presence was unforgettable, and having him as part of X-Files lore was pretty surreal. What’s more, Mulder and Scully kiss for the first time.
X Marks the Spot: “Closure” is the teary second half of a two-part story that began with “Sein und Zeit”. The first episode finds Mulder getting involved in a missing persons case way out in Sacramento, California, despite Skinner’s protests (it’s not an X-File), which ultimately leads to the follow-up episode’s resolution on what happened to Mulder’s sister, Samantha. After being strung along for so many years by various subplots and arcs, “Closure” felt like a gift to the fans and viewers, albeit a tragic one. Carter and Spotnitz delicately layered the two episodes with so much purpose, showering the latter with an emotional conclusion that’s haunting yet enlightening in ways only this series could execute. Moby’s “My Weakness” has never felt the same.
Monster of the Year: Gilligan’s aforementioned “X-Cops” must have sent every Fox executive screaming towards the nearest water cooler in excitement. Pairing up two of the network’s most iconic shows was such a brilliant, if not obvious, idea that was executed to perfection thanks to director Michael Watkins’ reverential balance between the two franchises. Back in February 2000, the crossover was extraordinary, an experimental move that shocked casual and die-hard fans as they tuned in Sunday night and were surprised to watch what looked like a legitimate Cops episode. Gilligan was also smart enough to embrace the new medium rather than exploit it, piecing together an eerie tale about a shape-shifting force that feeds on everyone’s fears. Very smart.
Bad Blood: It’s bizarre how incredible talent tends to fumble from time to time. Case in point: “First Person Shooter”. Acclaimed sci-fi novelists William Gibson and Tom Maddox returned to the series for their second episode together — the first being Season Five’s bottom-barrel “Kill Switch” — to deliver another piss-poor offering under the X-Files banner. Drawing from their respective cyberpunk backgrounds, Gibson and Maddox pair Mulder and Scully with The Lone Gunmen, who take the two agents to a video game company’s headquarters, where there’s this dangerous new virtual reality game. What follows is a nauseous story that suffers from queasy stakes and a lame antagonist that was cheesy even at the turn of the millennium.
Closing Statements: There was a feeling by Season Seven that things were coming to an end for The X-Files. With the exception of Samantha’s closing arc, the mythology itself was disintegrating, especially after the two-part season premiere of “The Sixth Extinction” and “The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati”. What truth was left out there? Who weren’t we supposed to trust? Even the stand-alone episodes were often redundant — they went so far as to bring back Donnie Pfaste! Still, there’s a lot to love here: Whereas Season Six struggled to find a consistency in tone following the move to Los Angeles, Season Seven felt as if the crew were finally making it work. Duchovny also returned to the writers’ room and the director’s chair with the hilarious “Hollywood A.D.” while Anderson was offered her first chance behind the camera for “All Things”. Not too shabby.
Number of Episodes: 20
Most Valuable Writer: This season Chris Carter kicks the mythology into high gear. After what some would say is the best year of the series, the Fifth Season begins to drift a bit. However, I believe this is due to the inability to create the strong Monster-of-the-Week episodes that match the intensity and momentum created by Carter’s through line.
Most Memorable Guest Star: Veronica Cartwright has always had an interesting character career. If she looks familiar, there’s an easy reason: You probably remember her most from Alien or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Chalk her performances in “Patient X” and “The Red and the Black” right up there. As a fellow abductee, Cartwright’s Cassandra Spender brings a certain street cred to the floor as Scully and her bond over their shared experience.
X Marks the Spot: The standout here being the two-parter “Patient X” and “The Red and The Black”. You’ve got the return of the Cigarette Smoking Man and the reveal that Spender is his son, Veronica Cartwright knocking it out of the park as alien abductee and Spender’s mother, and Scully witnesses a mass alien abduction. What’s that? You heard me: Scully witnesses an alien abduction herself! And last but not least, we have everyone’s favorite slimeball Alex Krycek doing what he’s best at, going rogue and getting all kinds of infected by the black oil. Not only are these the best mythos of the season, they rank high in the series as well.
Monster of the Year: “‘Cause baby now we’ve got bad blood.” Excuse my ridiculous Swift reference, but every once in a while you’ve got to hit the comedy. There’s no denying that Vince Gilligan’s “Bad Blood” is one of the greats. Mulder and Scully hilariously retell the events of their day in a town just outside of Dallas where Mulder stakes a young boy through the heart that he believes is a vampire, which … spoiler alert … he is! Luke Wilson gets an honorable mention guest starring as the seductive and incredibly goofy town sheriff Hartwell (well, depending on who’s telling the story). Despite the tomfoolery, it still feels like an episode of The X-Files — something Season Six could hardly achieve.
Bad Blood: Did we learn nothing from “Ghost in the Machine”? The worst episode this season is undoubtedly “Kill Switch”. Cyber-based episodes (especially in the ’90s) are just the worst. Mulder and Scully investigate a diner shoot-out only to discover, with the help of the Lone Gunman, that the shoot-out was set up by an intelligent computer program. AI, when existing solely in an AOL computer age, is just not scary. Kristen Lehman’s performance is solid as the computer hacker Esther, but even she cannot save this episode from being in the bottom of the barrel. Woof.
Closing Statements: Season Five is a definite drop-off in quality from Season Four, but that goes for every season. It’s unfortunate the Monster-of-the-Week episodes were sparingly good, but thanks to Spotnitz and Gilligan, we still get our fair share of good storytelling. Carter succeeds in creating enough mythos momentum to launch into the series’ first feature film, Fight the Future, so major kudos there. Also, I’ll always take a season with Brian Thompson’s Alien Bounty Hunter. Still a very solid effort from the crew that leads us to the Sixth Season, where we ask ourselves: “Why?”
Number of Episodes: 24
Most Valuable Writer: Though this was Chris Carter’s baby clocking in with nine episodes, Glen Morgan and James Wong are undoubtedly the key players here. Their six episodes not only stand the test of time, but set the tone for the rest of the entire series. They were responsible for “Squeeze”/”Tooms”, the underrated “Shadows”, “Ice”, “E.B.E.”, and “Beyond the Sea”. Need I say more?
Most Memorable Guest Star: When you have a season littered with the likes of Mark Shepherd, Felicity Huffman, Jason Beghe, Xander Berkeley, and Titus Welliver, it’s hard to choose just one. Except when Brad Dourif blows the competition away. A death row inmate who claims he’s psychic and can help with an X-Files case. Claiming to be able to commune with Scully’s recently deceased father, Dourif eerily shines in this one (as he does with everything).
X Marks the Spot: “E.B.E.” Written by, surprise, surprise, Wong and Glen Morgan. We get a UFO-centric story and are introduced to the Lone Gunmen, a popular trio of conspiracy theorists who time and time again come to Mulder and Scully’s aid. Deep Throat plays a game of tug-of-war with Mulder, seemingly wanting to help him in his quest. I challenge anyone who says they were not on the edge of their seat when Mulder gets 20 feet away from possibly witnessing an honest to god alien. But the duo only every see a glimpse of the puzzle before it’s gone for good — classic X-Files.
Monster of the Year: One word: Tooms. To this day, I have never seen a character more chilling on television than that of Eugene Victor Tooms. He’s a man who’s not only been around for hundreds of years, but also has the ability to quite literally “Squeeze” his way into any home — I still can’t look at an escalator without cringing. Having said that, due applause must goes to “Ice”, one of the best of the bunch here and an incredible throwback to John Carpenter’s The Thing. The episode is truly terrifying with heightened performances from both Duchovny and Anderson.
Bad Blood: If the first episode you ever caught was “Gender Bender”, fans of the series would give you a pass for dipping out on the series. Larry and Paul Barber’s only writing contribution to The X-Files, and rightly so, was a total mess. “Let’s sex up a show for no reason! When has that ever not worked?” To be fair, the idea is promising: a being that can manipulate its sex and who’s all tied to a religious sect in Massachusetts. It’s super cult-like right? Unfortunately, that didn’t exactly pan out. Throw this one on the fire boys — next! Oh, and let’s not forget about “Space” and “Ghost in the Machine”. Garbage.
Closing Statements: Chris Carter’s pilot of The X-Files captured the imaginations of millions, including my own. It was the first time I can remember losing myself to a television show, wanting desperately to tell those who created it that I believed. The show’s first season is close to perfect, save a few major duds. However, it was a tangible chunk of pop culture responsible for launching a new age of curiosity into the unknown, into conspiracies, and into the dark corners of the human psyche, where most TV shows have failed to venture prior or since. That’s why the first season rests safely at number four on our list, running on the heels of seasons it was responsible for launching.
Number of Episodes: 25
Most Valuable Writer: Glenn Morgan and James Wong for the easy win, right? The pair penned five of the season’s 25 episodes! Not so fast. Don’t forget the series creator himself, Chris Carter. Although he was twice assisted by star Duchovny, Carter turned in six scripts over the course of the season, and most of them are among the series’ best. Specifically, the introduction of The Flukeman in “The Host”, Scully’s kidnapping in “Duane Barry”, the first appearance of Donnie Pfaster in “Irresistible”, the debut of the Alien Bounty Hunter in “Colony”, and the bold tip-off of a three-part mythology arc in “Anasazi”. This was hands down Carter’s Golden Era in television.
Most Memorable Guest Star: The Lost fan in me wants to pick the first of many Terry O’Quinn appearances in the series. (This time around he played Lt. Brian Tillman in “Aubrey”.) But that would be ignoring Tony Shalhoub’s dark matter scientist Chester Ray Banton, a man afraid of his own shadow and for good reason. “Soft Light” is hardly the best episode of the season, but Shalhoub would go on to become a household face in USA’s Monk, which makes this guest appearance all the more special. By 1995, Shalhoub was no schlub, having already carved out an enviable filmography, from Barton Fink to Addams Family Values to Searching for Bobby Fisher. This is what you call a “big get,” foreshadowing bigger names to come.
X Marks the Spot: What’s refreshing about Season Two is how young the mythology was at the time. Carter and his team were just starting to flesh out the mystery that Deep Throat hinted at in the first season, and that includes what type of episodes we’d likely be seeing in the future. Which is why the mythology in this collection is all so unique and vivid, from the world-traveling adventures of “Little Green Men” or “Colony”/”End Game” to the character studies of “Duane Barry” or “One Breath”. So, what’s best here depends on your fancy when it comes to these marked episodes, though there’s little arguing that “Duane Barry” is a top contender. Steve Railsback’s rich performance as the titular quasi-villain heightens the tension considerably, and Carter’s directorial debut is one of his finest hours. So many seeds were planted in this episode, too, which makes it a must-watch for any fan.
Monster of the Year: There are few antagonists more terrifying than Donnie Pfaster (Nick Chinlund) and even fewer episodes of The X-Files more frightening than “Irresistible”. In a rare move, Carter eschews the paranormal for this entry, focusing instead on a more reality-based terror, such as a death fetishist who murders women, exhumes corpses, and saves their hair and fingernails. Things turn ugly when Scully gets tossed in the mix and kidnapped once more, capitalizing on her feelings of post-traumatic stress disorder that stem from the recent events involving Duane Barry. Her hallucinations escalate the uneasy, disturbing feelings at hand, recalling the disturbing realism of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Fun fact: Originally, Pfaster was written as a necrophiliac before Fox put the kibosh on that horror. Rest assured, it’s still implied.
Bad Blood: Toward the later years, the most common complaint lodged against The X-Files would be how the principal story became way too complicated or convoluted. This is mostly due to Carter’s laissez-faire attitude and lack of a general plan, which eventually pretzeled as the seasons and mythos piled on. It’s also due to episodes like “Red Museum”, where the action, the mystery, and the plotting are all twisted and contorted in ways that defy logic and the episode’s running time. There’s a cult, there are kidnappings, there’s a Crew Cut Man, a plane crash, animal spirits, sexual predators, the list goes on. It’s proof that Carter, who wrote the episode, had an incredible imagination, but also one that went haywire when untamed. Then again, this season was also responsible for “3”, an unintentional Red Shoe Diaries spin-off that found Mulder traveling to the west coast to uncover a few Los Angeles vamps while Scully was abducted elsewhere. Christ, yeah, let’s go with that one.
Closing Statements: Those with an appetite to binge-watch should find solace in Season Two’s offerings. There really aren’t any truly awful episodes out of its hefty 25 selections, and the season shines from a number of addicting spurts of creativity: sentient sewage (“The Host”), haunted nursing homes (“Excelsis Dei”), classroom satanists (“Die Hand Die Verletzt”), supernatural zoos (“Fearful Symmetry”), voodo curses (“Fresh Bones”), sideshow freaks (“Humbug”), and intercontinental viruses (“F. Emasculata”). That’s all without mentioning the impressive mythology gathering momentum and expanding its never-ending scope. At this point, we’ve only just begun unraveling the blueprints behind the government’s alien conspiracy, and there are still so many creases and folds that are lost even on Mulder. It’s a delight to watch The X-Files become more and more assured.
Number of Episodes: 24
Most Valuable Writer: Despite the best episode of this season credited to another writer(s), the man with the strongest showing overall was Vince Gilligan. He co-wrote a number of episodes, but it’s his solo efforts that put him over the top. Look at this run: the psychic-photography of “Unruhe”, the hilarious/morally reprehensible “Small Potatoes”, and one of the most unnerving Samantha Mulder-related tales: “Paper Hearts”.
Most Memorable Guest Star: Speaking of “Paper Hearts”, Tom Noonan as John Lee Roache. A character actor extraordinaire (e.g. Manhunter), Noonan plays an incarcerated man who claims responsibility for the death of Mulder’s sister. Just watch that scene between the agent and the killer on the basketball court, noting the casual way Noonan talks about his evil deeds in between jump shots. Chilling.
X Marks the Spot: The season was rich with mythology episodes: the From Russia with Mulder double-dip “Tunguska/Terma”, Scully’s turn for the worst in “Memento Mori”, and the crazy cliffhanger of “Gethsemane”. But the winner is the two-parter dealing with poor Max Fenig, the UFO-obsessed abductee. The Apollo 11 key chain monologue that Scully gives at the end of this episode is the show at its most poignant:
SCULLY: “I actually was thinking about this gift that you gave me for my birthday. You never got to tell me why you gave it to me or what it means, but I think I know. I think that you appreciate that there are extraordinary men and women and extraordinary moments when history leaps forward on the backs of these individuals, that what can be imagined can be achieved, that you must dare to dream, but that there’s no substitute for perseverance and hard work and teamwork because no one gets there alone; and that, while we commemorate the greatness of these events and the individuals who achieve them, we cannot forget the sacrifice of those who make these achievements and leaps possible.”
Monster of the Year: Have you seen Glen Morgan and James Wong’s “Home” in recent years? I was crazy enough to take part in the “201 Days of The X-Files” challenge, and it still holds up. Its stark violence and not-so-subtle incestuous overtones make it a tough watch 20 years later, and I watched all of Hannibal! The tale of the Peacock family, their sweet ride, “Wonderful! Wonderful!”, and an existence in the dark are reason enough to go running for your life if you hear them crawling down your street. A fan favorite and deservedly so. Shout-out to “Small Potatoes” and its Darin Morgan-esque script by Vince Gilligan. Appropriately enough, D. Morgan himself played the “monster” in that fun couldn’t-shoot-it-today episode.
Bad Blood: While “Never Again” wastes a voice spot from Jodie Foster (and sadly plays out as the final G. Morgan/Wong effort for the original run), the worst episode of the season is “El Mundo Gira”. X-Files dealings with famous legends were never a guaranteed success (“The Jersey Devil”, the werewolves of “Shapes”, vampires of “3”), and this episode proved no exception. Writer John Shiban fumbles with the legend of the Chupacabra as he writes every Mexican as a superstitious, paranoid screamer. The normally outstanding Rubén Blades succumbs to the tired role of “dummy” towards the end, as well. To waste an actor of Blades’ talents is sinful enough, but then Shiban heavy-handedly incorporates a “woe to the Mexican” message at the end that plays about as subtle as Wonder Showzen’s “H.O.B.O. Ops” sketch (“Just ignore him, honey. Just ignore him…”). A mess. A loud, screaming mess.
Closing Statements: Season four is just about as good as the show ever got. The main reason for this is the strong combination of mythos and Monster-of-the-Week episodes. Hell, even the bad episodes were book-ended by greatness (check out “El Mundo Gira”’s placement in the episode order). The strength of the season stems from Scully’s ongoing bout with cancer — an event that understandably brings our favorite FBI agents closer together than ever before. It was still a platonic relationship and would continue to be so on camera for another four years. God only knows the pressure put upon Carter and co. to change that up, but it’s a testament to their passion for the show that they never did. The scope of the series kept growing, and somehow a movie didn’t seem so far off. It wasn’t.
Number of Episodes: 24
Most Valuable Writer: This one’s difficult — impossible almost. While Carter and Spotnitz were responsible for this season’s elaborate and exciting mythology episodes, hands down the series’ best, rascal Darin Morgan single-handedly penned two of the greatest episodes in the history of The X-Files and arguably ’90s television: the Emmy Award-winning “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and the genius meta parody “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space“. By now, anyone who hadn’t caught on to the power and majesty of Fox’s hit show weren’t just missing out at the water cooler, but totally ignoring a cultural phenomenon, and much of that influence should be credited to Morgan’s cunning wit and insightful wisdom. Trust no one? Trust Darin.
Most Memorable Guest Star: Although the season saw familiar faces like Giovanni Ribisi, Jack Black, Lucy Liu, R. Lee Ermey, and even a young Ryan Reynolds, there’s no topping the late Peter Boyle. There’s a reason the veteran comic actor won an Emmy for his role as Clyde Bruckman, and it’s all in his devotion to the character. His dazed prophecies and enigmatic charm are sweeping and mystifying, stealing the screen from Duchovny and Anderson, which was quite a feat at the time. Mind you, this was a year before Everybody Loves Raymond premiered on CBS and became a household pastime, so to see Boyle was a delight for slacker cinephiles who grew up worshipping Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. What’s wild is that he would go on to be nominated for an Emmy seven times as Raymond’s Frank Barone, only to lose out each time, making Bruckman his sole win.
X Marks the Spot: Carter originally claimed Raiders of the Lost Ark as an influence on the series, and this season wears that fedora with pride. Mulder jumps on trains (“Nisei”, “731”), wanders around New Mexico (“The Blessing Way”), travels to Hong Kong (“Piper Maru”, Apocrypha”), and evades bounty hunters (“Talitha Cumi”). But the true adventure and highlight is “Paper Clip”, Carter’s most thrilling script to date and the series’ most essential mythology episode, thanks to an intelligent and cogent backstory involving Nazi scientists, one surreal set piece tucked away at a mining facility, and a warranted coup by Mulder and Scully against the Cigarette Smoking Man. Multiple revelations and breathless stakes also make “Paper Clip” a rewarding watch that never stops answering questions and never stops pushing you off your seat. If adventure has a name … you get the point.
Monster of the Year: Are you tired of hearing about Clyde Bruckman yet? Sorry, it’s just too focused, too succinct, and too smart of an episode not to name Monster of the Year. But, to be fair, Bruckman is hardly a monster, and this season is full of ghouls and goblins worth championing: electric youth (“D.P.O.”), a reincarnated inmate (“The List”), a quadruple amputee (“The Walk”), cockroach infestations (“War of the Coprophages”), gargoyles (“Grotesque”), a psychic mastermind (“Pusher”), organ thieves (“Hell Money”), mind-control devices (“Wetwired”), and even a potentially murderous Walter Skinner (“Avatar”)! Similar to the previous season, the Monster-of-the-Week episodes were unique and aplenty, but they were now becoming more cerebral and wicked, thanks to writers like the aforementioned Darin Morgan, Vince Gilligan, and Charles Grant Craig.
Bad Blood: When the cast and crew turn their backs on an episode, that’s never a good sign, and that’s exactly what happened to “Teso Dos Bichos”. Director Kim Manners despised the episode so much that he made T-shirts for everyone that read, “Teso Dos Bichos Survivor”. Ouch. So, why all the hate? For them, the entire production was plagued with on-set issues, ranging from nagging rewrites to incorrigible cats. Also complicating matters was the fact that “bichos” is a euphemism for “testicles” in Columbia and Venezuela, which writer John Shiban later joked would be good controversy for ratings. Behind-the-scenes madness aside, the episode is Lame with a capital L, awkwardly hinging upon a ludicrous MacGuffin — an Ecuadorian artifact — more befitting of a Goosebumps episode. Thankfully, Shiban would have several opportunities to make up for this mess.
Closing Statements: The third season of The X-Files didn’t attract the series’ highest ratings — that honor goes to its fifth season with a whopping average of 19.80 million viewers — but these were certainly the show’s glory days. Every writer was firing on all cylinders and there was an inherent belief that the show understood what it was and where it was going. Critics took note of that, praising the majority of the third season, which eventually landed five of its eight nominations at the Primetime Emmy Awards. (The show would go on to conquer the following year’s Golden Globes, winning Best Drama, Best Actor, and Best Actress.) With regards to the actual story, Season Three laid the groundwork for some major arcs, including the viral alien black oil, the first appearance of Don S. Williams’ ominous First Elder, and cruel family shake-ups for both Mulder and Scully. Glory days, indeed.