If you weren’t alive or simply too young in the 1990s to remember, The X-Files was an insanely huge deal. UFOs, in particular, had a significant popularity resurgence in that decade, but this show was the most popular media to come out of all of that by a longshot. The X-Files aired on Fox for nine years and spawning two feature films, one of which came out between seasons 5 & 6 and a short-lived revival. Creator Chris Carter was inspired by his love of science fiction & horror media, with the most relevant source being Kolchak: The Night Stalker. That was a short-lived ABC series about a paranormal investigator in the Monster of the Week mold.
The X-Files is about FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), who investigate the titular files. These are cases involving elements of the supernatural or aliens. Mulder is the true believer, convinced his sister was abducted by extraterrestrials when they were children. Scully is a scientist and the chief skeptic of the series, always trying to find a rational explanation when Mulder is so eager to jump into the deep end. There is also a “will they, won’t they” sexual tension that does payoff eventually but suffered from how those arcs so often do, with characters losing a lot of what made them interesting & and chiefly writers who didn’t plan what to do after the characters consummated things.
The best episodes of The X-Files rarely dealt with the broad sweeping ongoing arcs surrounding Mulder’s sister and the conspiracy within the U.S. government. Instead, it was the Monster of the Week entries that typically provided the best fare. The writers allowed themselves a broad range, so you get episodes that are classic science fiction, disturbing horror, and even absurdly comedic. The writers understood that boxing a show into one type or format never works, and the best stuff comes when you start to break out of those compartments.
Ice (Season 1, Episode 8)
Original airdate: November 5, 1993
Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
Directed by David Nutter
You’re going to immediately think of John Carpenter’s The Thing when watching this episode, and that is right on the nose. The setting, a remote Alaskan research facility, and the problem, something alien infecting people and turning them against each other, is straight out of that film. However, The X-Files adds enough twists and variations they manage to make it their own thing. The menace here is parasitic in nature and not prone to the over the top transformations of Carpenter’s monster. This is due to television budget constraints, but that muted menace actually is in the episode’s favor. There is no malevolence on the part of the creatures, they are animals doing what they do. It’s the human paranoia and mistrust that proves the most dangerous element of the series. This was the first episode that really put Scully’s talents as a medical doctor on full display. The show even provides them with foils in the form of Hodge and DaSilva, two experts sent to investigate the lost communications at the station. By presenting us with these mirror images, we better understand the dynamics between Mulder and Scully.
Duane Barry (Season 2, Episode 5)
Original airdate: October 14, 1994
Written & Directed by Chris Carter
During the second season, actress Gillian Anderson became pregnant, and so the writers had to devise a way for her character to exit the series for a while. This was done in series creator Chris Carter’s directorial debut that helped build out some of the show’s complex mythology. Duane Barry is a Virginian who is plagued with mental health issues. He claims he’s the victim of systematic abduction and torture by extraterrestrial beings. After escaping a mental institution, Barry holds the employees of a travel agency hostage. Mulder is called in by his partner at the time, Alex Krycek, to aid in hostage negotiations. To the chagrin of the other agents, Mulder indulges Barry’s abduction recounting because he genuinely believes him. The building out of the mythology is very subtle here. What’s most shocking is the ending which became an avenue to write Gillian Anderson out of the series for a bit but was still a moment that puzzled fans as to what was coming next.
Paper Clip (Season 3, Episode 2)
Original airdate: September 29, 1995
Written by Chris Carter
Directed by Rob Bowman
I honestly think shows like The X-Files are partially responsible for the modern anti-vaxxer madness. The show would use the mandatory polio vaccinations of the post-War era as a plot device to explain how every U.S. citizen was actually implanted and being tracked. This episode is a whirlwind of mythological revelations, the biggest being the discovery of an underground tunnel filled with filing cabinets that contain medical records on every person in the nation. In typical X-Files fashion, we are just teased with this information and briefly see some alien Greys lurking in the shadows. The plot jumps all over the place dealing with a standoff between Mulder & Scully and their boss Skinner, Mulder’s resurrection from the dead, Scully’s sister being shot by Krycek, the secret cabal’s moves to secure a hard disk with top-secret information, and even a Navajo man who can miraculously heal the injured and the dead. The showrunners compared this episode to the Star Wars trilogy, and Sophie’s Choice for the sweeping reveals involving Mulder’s father. We get closure on what happened to Mulder’s sister decades ago but not an explanation as to “why?”. These were the episodes the fans clamored for, finally moving the needle a bit more on the ongoing arc. Eventually, these would become extremely unsatisfying after seven or eight years, but they were riveting early on.