Last week the internet exploded with joy when the long-circulating rumour that The X-Files would be getting a new season 13 years after it went off the air, was confirmed. Well, much of the internet exploded with joy. Some of the internet exploded with skepticism (‘It’ll just suck!’) and bits of it exploded with confusion (‘they’re making a television show about that stupid movie from a couple of years ago?’)
Well, gather round, folks, because I'm here to tell you why you should not just care that the X-Files are back, but should get really excited. I was there when it all began, loved the show from the beginning, and have a lot of opinions so I'm more qualified than anyone else on the entire internet to tell you this stuff.
So, what was the X-Files? Short answer: a television show about two deadpan FBI agents and the aliens who loved them. Longer answer: everyone remembers the 1990s as being all about bright colours and Saved by the Bell. And Friends, for some reason. The 90s was actually defined by conspiracy theories, drab colours, obsession with ‘the truth’ and endless meditations on the desperate fight to retain some vestige of individuality in a rapidly globalizing world. Also, Bill Clinton’s sex life, but that’s slightly less relevant. And here’s what the X-Files delivered: conspiracy theories, drab colours, endless meditations on individuality in the face of increasing globalization, and two hot leads with perfect mastery over the art of deadpan humour.
That tells me nothing. Fine. Okay, In 1992ish, FOX – at the time still an upstart network with something to prove, rather than the conservative juggernaut we’ve come to think of it – greenlit a show about an alien-obsessed FBI agent and the medical doctor/FBI agent the Bureau sent in to keep an eye on him. The X-Files premiered in September 1993 in the so-called Friday Night Death Slot – basically, the place where networks dumped shows they didn’t think would find an audience. Fortunately, early fans of The X-Files (like yours truly) were young or nerdy or both and didn’t have Friday night plans to take them away from their televisions. The X-Files’ cool premise, sharp writing, excellent acting and overall vibe meshed perfectly with the interests – and schedules – of a legion of early internet users, who would watch episodes and then turn on their computers, dial up an internet server with their modem machines, and discuss the show in endless detail. FOX realized it had some sort of cult hit on its hands and kept airing the show. By 1997/8 it was a full-blown mainstream success. A movie, timed to be released during the summer hiatus between seasons 5 and 6, was a massive hit. The X-Files lasted nine seasons and (more or less) survived a location change, from Toronto Vancouver to Los Angeles*, and a cast departure, when David Duchovny (sort of) left the show. The X-Files also survived a fairly bad second film, which was released a baffling seven years after it went off the air and left very little impression on anyone anywhere.
Thanks for all the boring history. Now tell me why you liked it. The X-Files combined season- and series-long arcs about a massive government conspiracy to cover up the existence of extra terrestrials (the so-called ‘mytharc’) with single-episode stories (called ‘monster of the week’ episodes) that sent its comely leads to small towns all over the US to investigate whatever weird goings-on were going on. This is important because nerds, like yours truly, love to obsess over details, and a hundred-plus episodes of details gave us a lot to obsess over. Nerds like yours truly also like really esoteric stuff, and the monster-of-the-week eps mined a lot of really, truly esoteric sources to produce some really, truly great episodes. But that wasn’t all! Viewers were also drawn to the show’s trademark humour (deader than deadpan) and its good-looking leads with their frustrating will they/won’t they/hey, are they already?! chemistry.
Oo, chemistry? Yeah, so the show was anchored by the two agents, Mulder and Scully. Fox Mulder, the dude, was a brilliant criminal profiler who was obsessed with finding out whatever happened to his sister, who had vanished without a trace when they were children. He was convinced she’d been kidnapped by aliens, and created and then nearly destroyed his reputation and career by chasing after any evidence of aliens – and anything else weird and unexplained, aka any X-File – he could find. The Bureau assigned Dana Scully, a forensic pathologist, to ‘assist’ in Mulder’s investigations and secretly work to debunk him. Scully, a consumate skeptic, became invested in Mulder’s cause even as she remained uncertain that there was ever any explanation beyond the rational for their cases. The actors had an easy natural chemistry that lent itself to suggestions that the characters liked each other, you know, like that, even though the show kept the mystery of whether Mulder and Scully were actually doing it as misty and vague as its settings.
So,were they doing it? Congratulations! You have nine seasons and two movies to watch to find out.
Lame. Can you summarize the show for me? Yes. Yes, I can.
Mulder: We have an X-File! Let’s fly to [insert name of Rural Midwestern Town here] and investigate!
Scully: We don’t have to, Mulder. The answer is clearly Science.
Mulder: Wrong! The answer is clearly Aliens!
[They fly to Rural Midwestern Town]
Scully: [talks to locals] See, Mulder? The explanation is obviously Science.
Mulder: [goes haring off into a mist-shrouded forest] No, Scully, the answer is obviously Aliens!
Scully: [in episode-closing monologue] The answer was probably Science, but what do we know? There are mysteries everywhere, I guess.
Or, to put it even more concisely:
Scully: [rolls eyes]
You talk too much. What episodes should I watch if I can’t just binge-watch the entire nine seasons, because I have an actual life?
1. Pilot (1.1): sets everything up, introduces the characters, and becomes vitally important to the show’s mytharc later in the series.
2. Ice (1.8) A monster-of-the-week episode that tackles John Carpenter’s The Thing in true X-Files style. There’s an isolated research base in a frozen tundra, a bunch of homicidal scientists, and a half-rational, half-lunatic explanation for everything.
3. The Erlenmeyer Flask (1.24) A major mytharc episode that advances the conspiracy…
4. The Host (2.2) Ask any X-Files fan about the most memorable episodes and they’ll inevitably bring up ‘the fluke-man episode.’ This is that episode.
5. Irresistible (2.13) The X-Files established itself as a master of creepiness early on, but this is one of the very creepiest episodes of the early seasons. There’s a preternaturally calm serial killer on the loose… and he likes redheads.
6. Humbug (2.20) Another of the super famous episodes, this one about circus freaks. Scully appears to eat a grasshopper in the episode. Everyone thought she actually had and their responses are genuine. (She palmed it.)
7. Anasazi (2.25) Season 2’s final episode is another huge mytharc one, and ends with Mulder trapped in a burning boxcar buried in the New Mexico desert. It was a hell of a cliffhanger!
8. The Blessing Way and Paperclip (3.1, 3.2) Continue the story from Anasazi.
9. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (3.4) For my money one of the finest, most affecting episodes the show ever did.
10. War of the Coprophages (3.12) It’s an episode about cockroaches. It’s also hilarious.
11. Jose Chung’s From Outer Space (3.20) Possibly the most famous and most loved episode of the show, a Roshamon-style outing about an alien abduction and a science fiction author.
12. Home (4.2) Honestly, this is one of the most disturbing hours of television I’ve ever seen. And I’ve watched both seasons of Hannibal. Mulder and Scully investigate the weird death of a baby in a rural town and uncover some horrifying secrets…
13. Leonard Betts (4.12) Another creepy episode (they’re mostly pretty creepy) about a guy who eats cancer.
14. Never Again (4.13) As Mulder’s search for his sister intensifies, Scully begins to question her role in the X-Files. This Scully-centric episode is as much a watershed for her character as the episode Leonard Betts.
16. Unusual Suspects (5.3) Explains the origins of fan-favourite characters The Lone Gunmen, three conspiracy-obsessed guys who Mulder regularly turns to for help.
17. A Post-Modern Prometheus (5.5) This episode is about Frankenstein, and also Cher.
18. Bad Blood (5.13) Another classic episode, retelling a story from Mulder and then Scully’s perspectives. Probably the funniest episode the show ever produced.
19. The End (5.20) Paving the way for the film that would follow that summer, The End seems to spell the end of the X-Files forever.
20. The X-Files: Fight the Future (film), Bees, Antarctica, and an OMG JUST KISS ALREADY moment straight out of every shipper’s dreams, The X-Files film promised maximum awesome and delivered it. And for a brief, shining moment you could buy Scully and Mulder action figures in supermarkets across the nation. Man, 1998 was weird.
21. Triangle (6.3) I should put The Beginning (6.1) here but Triangle is so much fun – Mulder gets stuck on a ship trapped in the Bermuda Triangle… in 1943. Or maybe he just gets hit on the head and imagines it all.
22. Monday (6.14) Mulder relives the same day over and over again. There’s a recurring joke about a waterbed with a mirror above it that you’d have to watch Dreamland I and II (6.4 and 6.5) to get (essentially, it’s a body-swap two-parter, and very good), but it’s a fun episode even if you don't watch Dreamland before.
23. Arcadia (6.15) Scully and Mulder go undercover in a gated community. Come for the garbage-monster; stay for the sexual tension.
24. Biogenesis (6.22) Another season-ending episode with a cliff-hanger ending. Aliens! Conspiracies! Smokey back rooms and mysterious conversations!
25. The Goldberg Variation (7.6). The detective duo investigate the luckiest man alive, and also Johann Sebastian Bach.
26. X-Cops (7.12) An episode of the X-Files shot as though it’s an episode of Cops. Written by Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad) and utterly weird.
27. All Things (7.17) Written and directed by Gillian Anderson, it’s a Scully-centric episode that explores the faith of a skeptic, and confronts the unanswerable and unknowable.
28. Requiem (7.22) Scully’s health fails and Mulder… vanishes.
To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of seasons 8 and 9, and so I’m not sure (especially in 8) which episodes are really ‘must see’. I’d say skip ‘em all (because all you really need to know is going to follow this paragraph in white text – highlight to read) and move straight to the last three episodes of 9:
Mulder vanishes, apparently abducted by aliens. Scully isn’t sick; she’s pregnant, despite her cancer from earlier seasons having rendered her infertile. In Mulder’s absence she becomes the alien conspiracy true believer. She's also joined by two new characters, the T-1000 and a really, seriously annoying lady who likes tarot cards and stuff. Scully gives birth and then gives up her baby. Because he might be part-alien, or something? I don’t remember. It was really weird.
29. Sunshine Days (9.18) The last non-finale episode of the X-Files is about… the Brady Bunch? Yes, it is. It’s also a stirring meditation on the power of television to captivate, and how long-running shows – like the X-Files – become warm, safe spaces for the audiences who love them. It seemed weird at the time but in retrospect it's a charming send-off to one of the great television series of all time.
30. The Truth, I and II (9.19, 9.20) The two-part finale to the series answered a lot of questions and raised even more. I’m not sure how satisfying it would have been for anyone not familiar with the preceding five hundred thousand episodes, but it does explain what happened to Mulder, and some of that stuff from the white text block up there.
For completion’s sake, you should probably also watch the second film, The X-Files: I Want to Believe. But the poster is cooler than the movie, which is more like a long, not very good monster-of-the-week episode. And there are no bees in this one, alas. Mulder does have a beard for part of it, though. (Euugh.)
That was way more information than I wanted. How about just ten episodes this time?
Wimp. Try Pilot, The Host, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, Home, Bad Blood, Triangle, Requiem, Sunshine Days, The Truth I and II. Clearly I’m a monster-of-the-week person over a mytharc person, but the best mytharc episodes are encapsulated in Pilot, The X-Files: Fight the Future, Requiem, and The Truth I and II.
Wait, is that all? Okay, here are some of my personal favourite episodes that didn’t make the list above: Darkness Falls (1.20), about little green bugs (the first episode I ever saw); Roland (1.23), features the creepiest death ever; Detour (4.5) where our heroes get lost in a forest; The Unnatural (6.19), about baseball and aliens, Je Souhaite (7.21) about a genie in a bottle. I’m not even kidding with that last one. A genie. In a bottle.
Is there anything else I need to know? Let’s see: there was a song about David Duchovny that actually got a lot of radio-play one summer because the 90s were way less fun than you remember. Gillian Anderson went on to prove herself an incredibly talented actress. She’s also really short, and not a natural redhead. Indeed, she’s so short she had a special ‘apple box’ to stand on for most of their scenes together.
Also, there's a real phenomenon, the so-called 'Scully effect' - that we can trace to the show. In the years that the X-Files was on the air, there was an increase in the number of women pursuing STEM degrees that can be traced directly to the fact that a woman with a degree in physics and an MD was being portrayed as calm, competent, successful and awesome on a successful weekly television show. Because, as it turns out, representation matters. Who knew.
Any last thoughts? I was 14 years old when the X-Files started airing and it felt like it had been made specifically for me, a bookish, career-oriented, nerdy girl with a healthy fascination with the macabre, the strange, and the cryptozoographic. The male lead was hot and smart; more importantly, the female lead was hot and smart and not a victim or an idiot. My friends and I would watch the X-Files at sleepovers; my first boyfriend and I connected over our shared affection for it, and - even when it got kind of sucky - it remained the first real example of what kind of stories could best be told on television, presaging the new golden age of television. The X-Files was, for years, the only television I watched. I can't say I'm a genre fiction editor because of the X-Files, but I can say that it and my love for it during a formative period absolutely contributed to my love of science fiction, fantasy and horror and was - and remains - a huge influence on me.
The X-Files was serious appointment television for years, one of the incredibly rare examples of a cult television show that gained critical praise and mainstream success. It traded off the dawn of the internet age, made world-wide stars of its unconventionally attractive leads, and spawned a generation of conspiracy-obsessed nerds (like me) who found some kind of uncomfortable validation in the show’s success. For an entire generation of nerds, geeks and weirdos it was our first major fandom. It may have stayed on the air one or two seasons too long, but it produced and continues to produce fanfic, fan art, fan loyalty and something we can continue to get really excited about, more than two decades after it premiered. Long may it last.
*The show was filmed in Vancouver, Anne, not Toronto.