Ask anyone to name some iconic science fiction television shows and no doubt The X-Files will spring from their lips. Creator Chris Carter‘s cult hit has been a regular mainstay across the entertainment landscape for almost three decades now, it’s thrilling blend of drama, humour and horror enthralling viewers since 1993.
Detailing the exploits of FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and their investigations into monsters, aliens, government conspiracies and the paranormal, The X-Files still holds up today as one of the finest pieces of television drama ever made, it’s influence still reverberating through many popular shows to this day.
Whether you’re a seasoned true believer or a newcomer to the world of Mulder and Scully, now seems as perfect time as ever to select our picks for the must-see X-Files cases. With the long-awaited Season 11 finally hitting our screens, the following 11 episodes are the perfect introduction (or re-introduction) to the dark, murky world of the FBI’s most mysterious case files…
11. Darkness Falls (Episode 1×20)
An early classic from the show’s first season, Darkness Falls has all the hallmarks of a perfect horror film. When an entire logging team inexplicably disappears without a trace in a Washington State forest, Mulder and Scully find themselves investigating a likely eco-terrorist attack. However, what they instead uncover is an ancient menace that stems from mother nature itself!
One of Chris Carter‘s smartest scripts for the show, the episode weaves strong environmental themes into the central narrative, yet also succeeds in providing an eerie, haunting tale that secludes the characters in a deadly environment where even the dark itself can kill. Full of twists and strong moments of creeping dread, Darkness Falls is further complimented by an open-ended conclusion that offers little answers yet plenty of nightmares.
10. The Post-Modern Prometheus (Episode 5×05)
Question: What do you get when you combine Frankenstein, mysterious pregnancies, farm animal/human hybrids, a genetically-engineered mutant from the pages of a comic book, and the songs of Cher?
Answer: one of The X-Files‘ most bonkers episodes, represented in the form of The Post-Modern Prometheus.
A stylish and hilarious tour-de-force from Chris Carter, Prometheus is more then just an X-Files episode that happens to be shot in black and white. Instead it’s a loving homage to classic 30’s horror films with a freewheeling sense of humour added in for good measure, poking fun at everything from horror movie tropes to Jerry Springer. Concluding in atypical fashion with one of the show’s sweetest endings, it’s a refreshing tale that is incredibly fun from beginning to end.
9. Hungry (Episode 7×03)
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan delivers an inventive spin on the show’ formula in this fantastic episode from the show’s seventh season, which casts the monster-of-the-week (in this instance, a brain eating mutant) as the protagonist, with Mulder and Scully making fleeting appearances throughout as the antagonists investigating him.
It’s a clever idea, well executed by Gilligan‘s script and bought to life by guest star Chad Donella, who turns in a beautifully sympathetic performance as the brain-munching creature intent on going cold turkey. There’s some satirical digs at twelve-step programmes and some inspired instances of black humour peppered throughout, but the show ultimately resonates due to it’s fresh perspective and heartbreaking denouement.
8. Paper Hearts (Episode 4×10)
The X-Files‘ mythology and Mulder’s character revolved heavily around the disappearance of his sister Samantha, seemingly abducted by aliens when Mulder was 12 years old. Vince Gilligan‘s Paper Hearts throws a shocking curveball into the mix, when an incarcerated serial killer claims to have murdered Samantha all those years ago. It also doesn’t help the Mulder’s been experiencing visions of his sister that seem to back-up the killer’s story.
An emotionally charged episode that plays hard and fast with established facts, Paper Hearts‘ ability to make the audience actually question whether Samantha was abducted or not is powerful and unsettling drama at it’s best. David Duchovny gives a one of his finest performances yet, relishing the chance to push Mulder to the breaking point, whilst the tense climax is incredibly tragic and tantalizing.
The X-Files may be a show about aliens and monsters, but Paper Hearts proves that the human element of the show is still an integral part of it’s core.
7. Apocrypha (Episode 3×16)
The concluding episode of a two-parter that began in the equally impressive Piper Maru, Apocrypha is easily one of the finest Mythology episodes from The X-Files‘ entire ten season run. Introducing the deadly Black Oil to the ongoing alien colonisation arc, Apocrypha tidies up a number of loose ends from the show’s already complex Mythology whilst also adding several new and interesting elements that would ultimately have a huge impact on the show’s future.
The intriguingly creepy intro is just the tipping point for what becomes a fine piece of horror in it’s own right, as well as an emotional turning-point for Scully as she hunts down the man responsible for murdering her sister earlier this season. This, along with the Black Oil, the evil Syndicate’s ongoing alien conspiracy and a race against time to save the life of FBI boss Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), all coalesces into a tightly packed and well-directed sci-fi thriller.
6. Home (Episode 4×02)
An episode so disturbing it aired with a viewer discretion warning, Home is easily one of the show’s darkest episodes. Keen to shock viewers, writers Glen Morgan & James Wong delivered an episode of The X-Files that was beyond nightmarish, and yet utterly superb from start to finish.
Investigating the discovery of a deformed baby corpse found buried in the small town of Home, Pennsylvania, Mulder and Scully suspect the mysterious Peacock brothers, who live on a derelict farm near the crime scene. However, what the two agents uncover is far worse then anything they could have possibly imagined.
Home unashamedly takes its influence from classic horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not just in terms of the grim violence, but more importantly the uncomfortable themes it evokes – its perverted view of the atypical American family unit and the disturbing imagery it conjures up are unsettling at best, terrifying at worst. Elsewhere, a brutal murder scene to the tune of Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful, Wonderful” creates a strong juxtaposition between the humour and horror, and remains one of director Kim Manners’ finest moments.
Home is a solid hour of horror television that gets firmly under the skin. Pushing boundaries to the point it was subsequently left out of repeat runs on Fox, it truly deserves it’s classic status, as well as it’s infamous reputation.
5. Bad Blood (Episode 5×12)
Another classic from the mind of Vince Gilligan, Bad Blood wins the distinction of having one of the show’s best pre-credits teasers, as Mulder pursues and stakes a suspected vampire in the heart, killing him instantly. Unfortunately, it turns out the boy was wearing a fake pair of fangs. Mulder swears. Cue Titles.
Thus begins an unorthodox episode of The X-Files, told from two entirely different points of view – Mulder’s AND Scully’s. A hilarious episode from start to finish, Bad Blood allows it’s two stars to really let rip, playing exaggerated and heightened versions of their characters. Both Duchovny and Anderson deliver perfectly pitched OTT performances, each tear-inducingly funny from start to finish, whilst the episode’s central narrative offers up plenty of great material for the two actors to play with.
The fact that the episode ends with a killer twist is just the icing on the cake – Bad Blood both celebrates and roasts the show’s two lead characters to perfection, and is a breath of fresh air in-and-amongst the more intense episodes from the show’s fifth season.
4. One Breath (Episode 2×08)
One of the highlight’s of The X-Files‘ sophomore year is a trilogy of Mythology episodes (comprised of Duane Barry, Ascension and One Breath) which revolved around Scully’s abduction by aliens. All three episodes from said-trilogy could have easily made this list, but One Breath stands out as the real highlight, largely thanks to it’s inventive and experimental nature.
Scully lays dying in hospital after her ordeal, whilst Mulder sets out on personal crusade to find those responsible for her condition. His thirst for revenge leads him to the ominous Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) and subsequently forces him to make a difficult choice – catch the men behind the alien conspiracy he’s spent his life pursuing or say a last goodbye to his dying friend.
There are so many aspects of One Breath that truly make it a standout episode – David Duchovny lets rip with a heart-wrenching performance that depicts Mulder at his most desperate and vulnerable, whilst the direction is surreal, symbolic and beautiful (particularly in the scenes depicting Scully’s coma). What truly makes the episode work though is it’s B-Plot, which offers up a more positive and hopeful depiction of the supernatural, something of a rare distinction at this point in the show’s history.
A tour de force from all involved (both cast and crew), One Breath is a standout character piece driven by raw emotion and moving moments, directed with restrained but eloquent skill, providing both lead actors with some great material that really shows off their collective talents.
3. Leonard Betts (Episode 4×12)
A paramedic named Leonard Betts is decapitated in a fatal accident. But when his headless body gets up and walks out of the morgue, Mulder and Scully discover Leonard is in actual fact a radical leap in human evolution, a man that feasts on cancerous tumours and is capable of regrowing severed limbs.
A Monster-of-the-Week episode that plays out like any regular episode of The X-Files, Leonard Betts is far from mediocre – amazing prosthetics work and disturbing body horror compliment a brilliant script that packs in plenty of scares, whilst the story takes all manner of frequent twists and turns, all building up toward one of the biggest shock reveals the show ever depicted over it’s original nine year run.
A testament to the excellent script from executive producers Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban and Vince Gilligan though, is that even without the big end twist (which set up a major arc plot that in turn shaped the future of the show for years to come), Leonard Betts is still a fantastic and unsettling creature-feature in it’s own right.
2. Beyond the Sea (Episode 1×13)
The episode that finally shone the limelight on Scully, Beyond the Sea is a very personal and inspired episode from the show’s first season that pays homage to The Silence of the Lambs.
Brad Dourif guest stars as Luther Lee Boggs, a serial killer due for imminent execution, who claims to have psychic powers – psychic powers that could help the FBI locate a young couple who have been kidnapped (as long as his sentence is commuted in return). Mulder is sceptical of the man’s abilities, but when Boggs begins to channel Scully’s recently deceased father, she finds herself and her solid scepticism tested like never before.
Beyond the Sea puts Scully through the emotional wringer, with her and Mulder trading places in their established believer/sceptic dynamic. It’s a genius move from James Wong and Glen Morgan, perfectly timed after the season’s heavy focus on Mulder. The episode finally explores Scully in-depth, her motivations and her relationships outside the FBI, whilst also weaving an interesting paranormal mystery for her to solve.
With scene-stealing performances from Gillian Anderson and Brad Dourif, Beyond the Sea is a solid 45 minutes of drama – emotionally chilling and beautifully made.
1. Humbug (Episode 2×20)
It would be all too easy to fill this list with just episodes by the show’s best writer, Darin Morgan. The man behind acclaimed classics such as the Emmy Award winning Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and 2016’s weird but wonderful Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster, Morgan contributed only five episodes to the show over it’s ten season run, but all five remain firm fan favourites. Yet, it’s his debut script for the show that remains his best and earns it the accolade of being the best ever episode of The X-Files (to date).
The show’s first out-and-out comedy episode, Humbug sees Mulder and Scully investigating a series of strange murders in a community of retired circus freaks. From the off, the tone is shockingly irrelevant and offbeat, yet utterly hilarious. Incredibly eccentric, Humbug is somewhat of a culture shock after 43 episodes of dark, straight sci-fi drama. And yet Morgan‘s more left field approach to the show’s characters and format is entirely respectful and in-keeping with everything that has gone before.
As a Monster-Of-The-Week episode, it’s perfection. To go into details regarding the nature of said-monster would spoil the fun surprises, but rest assured, it’s appropriately weird and wonderful. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are a delight throughout, clearly relishing the opportunity to flex their comedic muscles and have some fun with their characters, yet never at the expense of the drama. Events never slip into self-parody, thanks to the more creepy aspects of Morgan’s script and some skilled, restrained direction from Kim Manners.
Humbug is a milestone in The X-Files history, expanding on the type of story the show could tell and setting a precedent for every season that followed it. It’s a perfect example of the format’s flexibility and the skill of it’s writers, directors, designers and actors. It’s also incredibly funny, clever and even a little bit creepy. Basically The X-Files in a nutshell.