It’s March 24, 2015. Fox has just announced that its hit show The X-Files will be returning as a mini-series some time next year. “Great!” you think. “I always meant to watch The X-Files, now I have the perfect reason! Nine months is more than enough time to catch up!” You check the date again. Oh no! It’s January 2016! How did that happen??
Mulder would tell you that missing time is a side effect of alien abduction, but you’ve never seen The X-Files, so you don’t know that. You’ve got a week to get ready for the new episodes and there’s no way you can breeze through nine seasons and two movies in that time. If only there was some super cool, sexy entertainment website publishing a guide to the essential episodes and information to prepare for the further adventures of Mulder and Scully.
What if I told you that this was such a website? In the following paragraphs, I will prescribe a course of ten episodes (and a movie) that tell you almost everything you need to know about the series and fill you in on what you’ll miss. X-Files episodes come in two flavors: episodes that continue the overall story, we call those Mythology episodes, and episodes that stand alone, unconnected to the larger plot. Those are Monster of the Week episodes. You need a mix of both to really see the appeal of the show. This is a guide to the entire series, so watch out for spoilers if you still want to take the long way around.
Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot (Mythology)
What’d you miss: Nothing so far! This is the first episode.
What happens: Fox “Spooky” Mulder is the most brilliant criminal profiler in the FBI, but his interest in the paranormal has alienated him from his peers and landed him in a dank basement office condemned to work supposedly unsolvable cases the Bureau designates “X-Files.” At a young age, he witnessed his sister, Samantha, being abducted by aliens. He believes the X-Files may eventually lead to him discovering what happened to her.
Dana Scully is a medical doctor assigned to the X-Files as Mulder’s partner for the express purpose of debunking and discrediting his work, lest he get too close to uncovering the Truth. They work their first case together, trying to determine the cause of a number of teens’ deaths in a small Oregon town that Mulder believes to be plagued by extraterrestrial activity.
Why’s it matter: Obviously this is the episode that introduces us to our heroes, Special Agents Mulder and Scully. You’ll also meet their boss, Assistant Director Walter Skinner, though it’s not clear whose side he’s on yet, and the mysterious Cigarette Smoking Man. He’s little more than an extra here, but in time he’ll grow into the series main antagonist. The Pilot also does an excellent job of establishing the tone and dynamic of the show. Mulder and Scully’s chemistry, the foggy landscapes that would define the first five seasons, and knowledge of grand supernatural forces that’s just out of reach are all on full display here.
Season 1, Episode 17: E.B.E. (Mythology)
What’d you miss: Mulder and Scully bond and begin to trust each other. Mulder comes into contact with a man known only as Deep Throat, a member of a mass government conspiracy willing to leak information to Mulder. Great episodes that didn’t quite make this list include, “Deep Throat,” “Squeeze,” and “Ice.”
What happens: An Iraqi fighter pilot guns down a UFO over the Turkish border. Soon after that, a truck driver in Tennessee has a close encounter of his own. After being thwarted by the uncooperative local authority in Tennessee, the agents return to DC to enlist the help of Mulder’s three friends, John Fitzgerald Byers, Melvin Frohike, and Richard Langly, collectively known as the Lone Gunmen. With their help and some information from Deep Throat, Mulder comes face to face with the corpse of an E.B.E. – Extraterrestrial Biological Entity.
Why’s it matter: The Lone Gunmen are easily the most entertaining recurring characters on The X-Files (leading to their own spin-off series in 2001) so you don’t want to miss their introduction here. Deep Throat really shines in this episode as well. His intentions are brought into question as he intentionally misleads Mulder at one point and he has probably his most compelling moment when he confesses to being one of three humans to have executed an E.B.E.
Season 2, Episodes 5 and 6: Duane Barry/Ascension (Mythology)
What’d you miss: Deep Throat is killed making a deal to save Mulder’s life. Scully finally sees credible evidence of alien activity when she discovers an extraterrestrial virus being tested on humans, and we learn of aliens who look human, but have noxious green blood. The X-Files are shut down. Mulder is assigned a new partner, Alex Krycek and meets a new informant, X. Great episodes that didn’t quite make this list include, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” and “The Host.”
What happens: Mulder and Krycek are called in to help negotiate a hostage situation. Duane Barry is a patient at a mental institution. In a desperate attempt to return to the location where he believes he was abducted by aliens, he holds a travel agency in Richmond, Virginia hostage. Mulder asks Scully to look into Barry’s history to see if there’s any truth to his alien abduction claims. It’s revealed that he’s a former FBI agent and that a shot to the head in 1982 is most likely the cause of both his behavior and his belief in aliens, but he maintains that he was abducted, experimented on, and had tracking devices placed in his body. Mulder tricks Barry into walking toward the front door where he is dispatched by a sniper. As he recovers at the hospital, it’s revealed that metal implants were found in his body. Scully has the implants investigated and finds a microscopic barcode which reveals a serial number when scanned. Soon after this discovery, Barry escapes the hospital and kidnaps her.
In “Ascension” Barry takes Scully to the sight of his abduction where she is taken by aliens. Mulder’s attempts to rescue her are stalled by Krycek, who then kills Duane Barry and later suggests to the Smoking Man that the same be done to Mulder, who discovers Krycek’s true loyalty when he finds cigarette butts left behind from the meeting. Mulder reports all of this to Skinner. After learning that Krycek has vanished without a trace, the Assistant Director officially reopens the X-Files.
Why’s it matter: Originally only written so that Gillian Anderson could leave the show for a minute while she was pregnant in real life, The Duane Barry/Ascension storyline is the beginning of every major arc Scully’s character will have later in the series. Sadly, those arcs never quite live up to the character herself which is why you won’t see a lot of that later in this list, but they all stem from this initial abduction incident.
Season 2, Episode 20: Humbug (Monster of the Week)
What’d you miss: Scully returns, with her DNA in some way altered. Mulder’s sister Samantha seemingly returns, though she is then revealed to be a clone created with partially alien DNA as part of a colonization effort. A shapeshifting alien bounty who can only be killed by piercing the base of his neck, hunts down the clones for the impurity they represent to the alien race. Samantha is killed when her and the bounty hunter both fall off a bridge during a fight. Great episodes that didn’t quite make this list include, “Colony” and “End Game.”
What happens: Gibsonton, Florida is home to a community of former circus sideshow performers that have been victim to a series of attacks going back decades. Mulder and Scully must navigate the world of self described freaks to find the killer.
Why’s it matter: This is the first of three episodes written by Darin Morgan that will appear in this guide. He had a talent for bringing humor to the usually dreary, spooky show. In addition to being one of the funniest episodes, Humbug showcases one of the larger themes of The X-Files, which is the idea of modern society pushing up against the fringes of mainstream culture. The X-Files was always a very topical show and in the 1990s the world was becoming more connected than it had ever been. This episode, like the whole series in a sense, is about the monsters that come scurrying out when you shine a light in a dark corner.
Season 3, Episode 2: Paper Clip (Mythology)
What’d you miss: The introduction of The Syndicate, the group to which the Cigarette Smoking Man belongs, a shadow organization pulling the strings in the U.S. government. Mulder’s father, Bill Mulder was part of the Syndicate, but was killed by Krycek before he could reveal what he knew to his son. Scully discovers an implant in her neck, apparently left during her abduction. Her sister Melissa suggests she undergo regression therapy to remember the details, but is then shot by Krycek, along with an associate who have mistaken her for Dana. A hacker gives Mulder a digital cassette containing information on the Syndicate. The information is written in the Navajo language, so Mulder travels to New Mexico to meet with a tribe that can translate it. While there, he discovers a boxcar full of charred alien corpses and is nearly killed. Great episodes that didn’t quite make this list include, “Anasazi.”
What happens: The Syndicate is furious with the Smoking Man for his botched attempts at recovering the data tape. While he assures them that Mulder is dead and the tape will be returned, Mulder and Scully visit Victor Klemper an infamous Nazi scientist that the Lone Gunmen recognized in an old picture of the Syndicate. Klemper reports back to the Syndicate that Mulder is still alive, but also gives the agents enough information to discover secret records revealing that it was originally he, not his sister, that was to be taken by the aliens. Skinner decides to return the tape to the Syndicate in exchange for Mulder and Scully’s safety, but it’s stolen by Krycek, who uses it to ensure his own safety from the nefarious group. Luckily, Skinner still keeps his team safe with the revelation that the entire tribe in New Mexico has memorized the data on the tapes and will go public if any harm comes to either agent. But it’s too late for Melissa, who dies in the hospital. Later, Mulder’s mother confirms that his father chose to sacrifice Samantha over him.
Why’s it matter: This is a great Scully episode. Mulder’s whole life is invested in the X-Files so you know he’s never going stop, but Scully really gets put through the wringer when her work starts to make it dangerous to be close to her. Mulder has obsession, but Scully has to make the hard choice to keep digging because it’s the right thing to do. This episode is also great at peeling back the layers of the Smoking Man by showing that even he answers to somebody.
Season 3, Episode 12: War of the Coprophages (Monster of the Week)
What’d you miss: Not much, mythology-wise. We learn a little more about the hybridization program, but that’s it. Great episodes that didn’t quite make this list include, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “731.”
What happens: While investigating possible UFO activity in his free time Mulder stumbles upon a town apparently being ravaged by killer cockroaches, which he comes to believe are drones from an alien civilization.
Why it matters: This is the second of the Darin Morgan trilogy in this guide and another funny episode. It features jenkem, as it came out around the time of America’s first scare with that made up drug. More importantly, this episode is great evidence of the fact that Mulder is not always right. A common complaint about this show is that at a certain point, Scully should just accept the fact that Mulder is always right. War of the Coprophages shows how Mulder can get taken in by a really out there idea that actually turns out to be nothing while also playfully poking fun at Scully’s skeptical ways.
Season 3, Episode 20: Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ (Monster of the Week)
What’d you miss: The first appearance of black oil, an alien virus that lives in petroleum deposits and can take control of anyone it infects. It is the prime method with which the alien colonists seek to take over the Earth. Great episodes that didn’t quite make this list include, “Piper Maru” and “Apocrypha.”
What happens: Scully recounts the events of her and Mulder’s investigation of an alien abduction to Jose Chung, a popular author researching his new book. As Chung interviews people close to the case, different, wildly conflicting narratives emerge.
Why it matters: This is the third and final Darin Morgan story here. It covers some similar ground as Humbug and War of the Coprophages, but it’s still absolutely worth including in that it’s kind of a microcosm of the whole series. In its nine seasons, The X-Files walks a lot of different parts of its mythology back and forth to the point where only the really major details stand out and the viewer is left to piece them together. That is exactly what Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ does within the space of 42 minutes with a lot of laughs and the three best guest star turns in the show’s history from Charles Nelson Reilly, Jesse Ventura, and Alex Trebek. If you only have time for one episode of The X-Files, make it this one.
1998 feature film, The X-Files (Mythology)
What you missed: All of seasons 4 and 5. These are not bad seasons, they both have a number of great episodes, but the mythology gets a little wobbly here. Much of these years are spent convincing both Mulder and the viewer that actually, aliens don’t exist, that all the evidence we’ve seen were ingenious forgeries to cover up the government’s real misdoings only to then spend another year proving that yes, of course the aliens are real, that’s what the show is about. Again, the individual episodes are still solid, but when you can see these seasons as a whole, it feels like a huge waste of time. Other events from this time: The government gives Scully cancer, the government cures Scully’s cancer, the government made Scully barren, the government made a child using alien and Scully’s DNA, and that child died. Scully’s the most interesting character on the show and her biggest storylines play out over season 4 and 5, but none of them add anything too new or essential, which is a shame. Also, the introduction of Gibson Praise, a child with the ability to read minds; the apparent missing link between humans and ancient alien ancestors; and an occasional McGuffin of the latter half of the series. Oh, and the X-Files are shut down yet again. Great episodes that didn’t quite make this list include, “Home,” “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” “Redux II,” and “The Post-Modern Prometheus.”
What happens: Mulder and Scully break orders to investigate the site where the black oil virus first made contact with humanity in 35,000 BC. After Scully is stung by an infected bee and kidnapped by covert agents masquerading as paramedics. Mulder must race to find her and the vaccine while turning members of the Syndicate against each other, leading to their eventual destruction in the following season.
Why’s it matter: This is the natural end point for most of the threads started in the show. Everything beyond this point feels like afterthought. This is also the first time Mulder and Scully make outright romantic gestures toward each other, which is a disappointingly easy end game for their relationship, but unavoidable when watching the whole series.
Season 8, Episode 5: Invocation (Monster of the Week)
What’d you miss: All of seasons 6 and 7. The writers really struggled to find their footing after the resolution that came with the movie. Much of the mythology in these seasons consists of painfully needless additions to Mulder’s backstory. The Smoking Man is Mulder’s biological father. After her abduction, Samantha was released to the care of the cancer ridden bastard who had grotesque experiments performed on her until she died. It’s a lot of trying the audience to hate this guy we already hate. At the end of 7, Mulder is abducted himself. At the beginning of 8, he’s replaced with tough guy John Doggett. Great episodes that didn’t quite make this list include, “Drive.”
What happens: A young boy has been kidnapped and returned ten years later without having aged a day. Scully and Doggett have to get to the bottom of it while Doggett tries to process the residual guilt from being unable to save his own son’s life years before.
Why’s it matter: Full disclosure: this is not a great episode. It’s okay overall, but it’s the best use of Doggett in these poor Mulderless seasons and if you’re trying to get the flavor of the entire series, you can’t ignore Doggett. Later episodes push him into the role of a straightforward skeptic in tired effort to recreate the same dynamic of the early, better seasons. Here, he dodges the question of belief. He comes off who doesn’t care one iota about the paranormal, he only focuses on whatever evidence leads him to the bad guy. It was an interesting turn that was sadly abandoned.
Season 9, Episode 19: The Truth (Mythology)
What’d you miss: Most of seasons 8 and 9. They’re a real mess. There we meet Monica Reyes, a character ably acted by Anabeth Gish, but absolutely unnecessary. The government has a secret super soldier program that’s ultimately not relevant to anything, really. Scully has here baby then must put him up for adoption to protect him. She suffers through that for our entertainment, but doesn’t move forward much as a character. The Lone Gunmen are killed in a sickeningly cheap grab for emotion/backdoor finale to their spin-off series. Mulder returns then leaves again. After kicking around Russia for a while an occasionally coming back to ruin people’s days, Krycek is finally killed by Skinner. There are no great episodes in these seasons.
What happens: Mulder breaks into a military facility and discovers that the final alien invasion is set for December 22, 2012. He’s then arrested for allegedly killing Knowle Rohrer (try saying that one time slow). Only Knowle Rohrer is a super soldier and can’t be killed. Mulder is put on trial and sentenced to death, but he escapes with a little help from his friends old and new, alive and dead (dumb). And the Smoking Man is super definitively killed for good measure.
Why’s it matter: Like Invocation, this is not a great episode. In fact, its ending is downright infuriating, with its “I am the author of all your pain” reveals and lazy cliffhangers. But during Mulder’s trial, he tells his story in a number of flashbacks that are as close as you can get to a single coherent narrative for the entire series.
So why should you be excited for the new series when the old one petered out so sadly? Curiosity, maybe. How are they going to explain why the world didn’t end three years ago (the second movie, which is best not though about, explained away Mulder’s death sentence, albeit poorly)? Or maybe because Darin Morgan wrote and episode, something he hasn’t done since the show was good. Or because there’s just something intrinsically interesting about watching David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson stumble around in the dark with flashlights looking for monsters.