August is X-Files month! In this week’s edition of Binge or Purge?, we see how the first three seasons hold up.
The X-Files, currently streaming on Netflix and Hulu Plus
FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) – who claims to have once witnessed the alien abduction of his eight year old sister – oversees the X-Files, federal investigations involving unexplained phenomena. Medical doctor Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is assigned as Mulder’s partner for the express purpose of debunking his far-flung theories. Through their mutual determination to find the truth, the two agents forge an unlikely bond despite their opposing beliefs about all things supernatural. Over the course of the series, Mulder and Scully gradually uncover a decades-long government conspiracy to hide the ongoing colonization of Earth by space aliens.1
The X-Files began as a quiet cult favorite and later became a huge crossover hit, spanning nine seasons and spawning two films. The show launched Duchovny and Anderson’s careers and sparked an alien-centric science fiction craze in the mid 90s.
What’s to Love Now
Even though I was a big fan back in the day, I was nevertheless surprised to find that The X-Files remains an excellent show. It’s dated as hell, but nearly every episode is a clever, well told story, built around two remarkably compelling leads.
Mulder and Scully’s chemistry, that “Will they or won’t they?” attraction of opposites, is still the best I’ve encountered on any show. Even in the pilot episode, well before series creator Chris Carter would even consider allowing them to have a romantic relationship, their energy sizzles. It’s all about the way they work together, building upon each other’s intelligence – she analyzes on the basis of her broad factual knowledge, he responds with inspired, out-of-the-box theories. They rarely agree on explanations, but eventually learn to trust no one other than each other. Their relationship is all about mutual integrity and it is super hot.
Visually, The X-Files is gorgeous 90s noir, from the chiaroscuro lighting of misty backdrops2 to the way Scully’s coppery hair contrasts the black and neon blue palette. Mark Snow’s lush, ambient soundtrack heightens the moodiness and suspense. The storytelling is a well balanced mix of mythology episodes that address the ongoing government/alien conspiracy, and stand-alone “monster” episodes featuring unique, unpredictable villains. In the beginning, many viewers said this series ripped off The Silence of the Lambs and Twin Peaks. Obvious as those influences may be, it’s well apparent by the end of season 3 that The X-Files had developed a style all its own.
What Makes Us Groan
Mulder is always right, and that just seems improbable. Other than that, my main complaint is that many of these early installments drag, especially the mythology episodes. Sometimes that storyline is riveting, but often it involves endless bouts of exposition, followed by long, drawn-out chase scenes in secret government laboratories. Overall, I find the monster episodes more entertaining (or at least easier to skip past).
The agents’ now-ancient technology may amuse younger viewers to the point of distraction, but for me, it’s a fascinating reminder of how much has changed in 20 years. I remember when this show was cutting edge. I remember looking at Mulder and Scully’s cell phones with the long antennae, thinking, “Wow, those are fancy.” At that point, I didn’t know cell phones and the internet would become everyday tools of my adulthood.
Definitely binge-worthy, but don’t feel like you need to watch every single episode to know what’s going on. There’s a wide range here. Some episodes are masterpieces, some are “meh” and most are in between. But once you get sucked into one, you’ll certainly crave more.
You could just watch the mythology episodes, but then you’d miss some true gems. I suggest a more comprehensive approach. Here’s a list to get you started.
Season 1 – Definitely begin with the first three episodes. “Pilot” and “Deep Throat” establish the mythology and introduce us to our arch villain, the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). “Squeeze” is the first monster episode, and a very good one, at that. E12 “Beyond the Sea” is a top-notch Scully story, featuring Brad Dourif 3 as a death row inmate who claims he can channel the spirit of her recently deceased father. Check out E16 “E.B.E. ” for an introduction to Mulder’s trio of conspiracy theorist pals, the Lone Gunmen. The finale, E23 “The Erlenmeyer Flask”, features a major development you won’t want to miss.
Season 2 – This season features two key overlapping story arcs4. You’ll meet a mysterious young agent named Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea) in E4-6, “Sleepless”, “Duane Barry” and “Ascension”. Those latter two episodes, plus E8 “One Breath”, thrust Scully into the alien mythology, much in the way that Mulder’s family is personally involved. One notable and very 90s monster story, E20 “Humbug”, features the Jim Rose Circus, which you may have seen at Lollapalooza back in the day. Again, don’t miss the season-ending mythology cliffhanger, E25 “Anasazi”.
Season 3 – Here’s where the show really hits its stride, adding a lot of humor and meta weirdness to the mix. You can pick up where the cliffhanger left off in E1-2, “The Blessing Way” and “Paper Clip”. Continue with E3-4, both excellent monster episodes. “D.P.O” stars Giovanni Ribisi as a terrifying, lightning-powered mouth breather and young Jack Black as his sidekick. “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”5 features Peter Boyle in an Emmy-winning performance as a sour old man who can psychically predict how everyone around him will die. I recall E12 “The War of the Caprophages” being a very funny, clever and creepy send-up of 1950s creature films (though I no longer have the stomach for cockroach horror). I’m more fond of E13 “Syzygy”, in which a rare planetary alignment leads to a series of grotesque murders and some major shade-throwing between Mulder and Scully. E20 “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”, in which a popular novelist (Charles Nelson Reilly) interviews Scully for a book about an especially outrageous X-File, is chock full of funny geek culture references and includes one of the most surprising cameos I’ve ever seen. As always, check out the cliffhanger finale, E24 “Talitha Cumi”. Important stuff happens.6
- Hey, hey, HEY! Spoiler! – Ed. ↵
- the show was shot in Vancouver ↵
- Doc Holliday from Deadwood ↵
- both of which were written around the birth of Anderson’s daughter – you will see very little of Scully ↵
- my all-time favorite ↵
- For what it’s worth, I didn’t watch any of the midseason mythology episodes, and I did not feel lost ↵