Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A young person’s guide to The X-Files

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Gillian Anderson in "Triangle"

I was thirteen years old when The X-Files premiered, and if you’re thirteen now, you were much too young to watch the show in its original run: its final episode would have aired sometime around your second birthday. With so much great television being produced all around us, it can be hard to catch up on a series, even a classic, that concluded its golden years before you were born, and neither syndication nor binge-watching will quite do the trick. It’s a fundamentally uneven show, so it can be something of a crapshoot if you happen to stumble across it on cable, or even if you decide to watch a season straight through. If you’re interested, I’d recommend sampling it at first, checking out a few episodes that offer a sense of what made this series so special before diving into the deep end. Here’s one possible approach:

1. Pusher. Long before Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad, he was one of my personal heroes, since he’d written what I’d argue is the finest hour of television The X-Files ever produced. I’ve discussed it in greater detail elsewhere, but what strikes me the most about it now—with its duel of wits between Mulder, Scully, and a hired killer with the ability to control the minds of others—is how modest it is. There aren’t any aliens, gimmicks, or government conspiracies, no revelations that would reshape the series forever: it’s notable only because it’s the best. And for anyone who wants to see what this show could do at its finest, there’s no better place to start.

2. Ice. David Duchovny once referred to this installment as the show’s first really “rocking” episode, and it holds up better than just about any other. The premise—which traps Mulder and Scully at a snowbound research base with a handful of scientists and an alien threat—is obviously lifted from The Thing, but it’s told with such energy, economy, and wit that it’s hard to complain. It’s one of my favorite bottle episodes in any series, and it has one of the best supporting casts the show ever assembled, with Felicity Huffmann, Xander Berkeley, and Steve Hytner chewing the scenery as they deal with a nasty surprise in Alaska.

David Duchovny in The X-Files episode "Pusher"

3. Humbug/Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose/War of the Coprophages/Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. It’s a bit of a cheat to lump all of Darin Morgan’s episodes together in one entry, but otherwise, he’d have taken over this entire list: I can’t think of another writer in any medium who made such an impact on me with such a small body of work. (For much more on the subject, see here.) “Humbug” shifted the show’s tone forever, mining a newfound vein of mordant humor; “Clyde Bruckman,” for which Morgan won an Emmy, is one of its funniest and most emotional episodes;  “Jose Chung” picks apart and tramples the abduction narrative forever; but “War of the Coprophages,” the goofiest and most humane of the bunch, is the one I revisit the most.

4. Eve. When we think back to The X-Files now, what stands out are its conceptually or formally ambitious episodes, but at its early height, this was the kind of story it told best: a self-contained, creepy tale that lives happily within the confines of its genre while hitting all of its beats with remarkable concentration. This one stands out for a few great shock moments, a fantastic guest turn by Harriet Hansom Harris—in something like three different roles, depending on how you count them—and a nice, twisty plot: it looks at first like a case of alien exsanguination, then gets even weirder. It’s one of the few episodes that left me genuinely curious about what happened after it ended.

5. Triangle. This is a personal choice, and a slightly controversial one: it’s an obvious example of the show’s tendency, in its later seasons, to emphasize visual or structural trickery over plot, and yes, the story is a little thin. But the result is still gorgeous, a fantasia, told primarily in continuous tracking shots, inspired in equal parts by Titanic and The Wizard of Oz, with Mulder traveling back in time via the Bermuda Triangle to a luxury liner in 1939. The moment when Scully, in the present, crosses virtual paths on a split screen with her own doppelgänger is one I treasure to this day, and it’s a reminder that for a show capable of generating so much dread, The X-Files also left its viewers with a surprising amount of joy.

Extra credit: You’ll find countless other lists of essential episodes, but a few more of my personal favorites include “Fire,” “Paper Hearts,” “Quagmire,” “Small Potatoes,” “Field Trip,” and “Piper Maru/Apocrypha.”

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2013 at 8:26 am

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