The Truth is Way Back There: Happy 20th, X-Files

September 23, 2013 — Twenty years ago this month, The X-Files started making our televisions glow a little more weirdly. I remember exactly where I was when it debuted. In front of the TV. Natch. Where I always was.

That exact anniversary was September 10, and of course we watched a few episodes on that day to both celebrate and grieve our ages. I even dug out my old X-Files T-shirt that I had to mail-order through a magazine way back when because the show hadn’t yet become mainstream enough for omnipresent merchandise and the Internet was still something only that one friend of yours was talking about.

The back of it still fits.
But for the Halloween blog, I thought I’d throw down my favorite episodes.

Level of difficulty: I’m going to choose and talk about them from memory. It’s the pop culture writing equivalent of walking a tightrope without a net. Or a tightrope.

If I were to rewatch the entire nine seasons today, my opinion about the individual episodes would probably change. But this is how I remember, and always want to remember, The X-Files.

1.1: Pilot

I’ll never forget sitting on my couch while my family did non-TV watching things around me. It was like those scenes in movies where the main character stands still while everything around him goes at hyper-speed. I’ve had few revelations in my life, but this episode was one of them.

Everything that was or would be great about The X-Files is present in at least germinal form in this simple alien abduction episode. In fact, I might go so far as to say that every mistake the series made throughout its run can be attributed to deviating from the formula set forth in the pilot. It balances believability and outlandishness. It was earnest without being annoying.

Most importantly, Mulder and Scully were awkward and not at all comfortable with what they were doing. Later, Mulder would get too cool. Scully too elegant. Their interactions too practiced. Their wardrobe too Hollywood. If the series was a science fiction convention, early-episode Mulder and Scully would be the attendees hiding in the hotel bar. Later seasons would have them doing full cosplay while filk singing in the lobby.

It was like we watched the The X-Files go through all the phases of high school, from shy to blossoming to popular to overcompensating to trying to relieve past glories.

By the way, this episode is the only mythology one on the list (I’m not counting Jose Chung’s From Outer Space). Sure, part of that is because I was way more into the monster-of-the-week episodes than the convoluted and continuing alien subplot, but the bigger reason is because the mythology episodes got all mashed up in my mind so that I can’t remember where one ended and another started.

1.13: Beyond the Sea

Brad Dourif. That’s it. Made this episode. Made me a Brad Dourif fan for life. Even in Critters 4. Something about the intensity and anguish of his serial killer psychic and the way he elicited such an emotional reaction from an often unflappable and frozen-faced Mulder. It was like I was watching a one-man play and not getting pissed that it was a one-man play. And all without crossing that line into too-cool villain that most serial killer portrayals on TV and film slip into.

1.20: Darkness Falls

You might argue with me on this one, but something about the secluded, rainy forest atmosphere of this episode about swarms of ancient glowing green bugs just made it for me, story be damned (and it wasn’t a bad story). It was one of the episodes that marked the series out as more cinematic than its peers and even from the frequent, suburban-flavored episodes of most of the series itself. It also went a long way in establishing that color green that will always be “X-Files green” to me. For Seasons 6-9, the show stopped filming in versatile Vancouver and moved to Los Angeles, and never really got the signature great X-Files atmosphere back. It's all here, though, in this episode.

2:2: The Host

Flukeman should be a staple of classic monsterdom. We should be celebrating him every Halloween right beside Dracula and the Mummy. It was just a great creature creation, unique, belief-suspendable, and terrifying. And I love a good, old-fashioned monster suit. If you ask me why I like the standalone monster episodes better than the alien saga, I’ll point to this one every time. And then I'll do everything I can to forget about it lest my psyche chooses it as my nightmare du jour for the night.

2.14: Die Hand Die Verletzt

Despite what I said in the introduction, this is the one episode on this list that I watched recently...on the actual 20th anniversary, in fact. I just had to find out whether it was the concept by itself that I loved so much (which I remember well), or if the story was good, too (which I didn't remember much at all). I'm happy to say that after watching it in 2013, it's still one of my favorite episodes. I mean, backsliding Satanists? It’s an idea so good that it must’ve been done before, even if I don't know about it.

The episode also had somewhat of a throwback horror vibe to it, which was extremely welcome in a show that could get a little high in its concepts. And it taught me about the Coriolis effect, which changed forever how I look at my toilet. This episode deserves so much more than that joke.

3.20: Jose Chung’s From Outer Space

Quite simply, one of the best hours of television ever. It melded comedy and perspective and idea into a story about alien abduction that was layered and funny without making a mockery of the show. It was so good, in fact, that every few years I Google Darin Morgan, the writer of this episode, to see what he’s doing. “Not being the highly proclaimed master of the art that he should be,” is always the answer.

He would end up writing four of the strongest episodes of The X-Files (with the possible exception of War of the Coprophages, which I don’t really remember my reaction to, but which I’d wager was better than a large chunk of the non-Morgan episodes) and then just disappeared.

Oh, and before he became a writer for the show, he was the guy sweating it out in the rubber suit for Flukeman in The Host episode. The truth is strange.

The downside of Jose Chung’s From Outer Space is that it’s kind of the Star Wars of the X-Files saga. It got copied with abandon and without art. It worked so well that they tried to do inject much more humor into the show, which was too often forced or trivializing.

But it’s worth all the bad copycat episodes for this one singular moment in television history. Hyperbole!

3.4: Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose

This is another of Darin Morgan’s episodes and starred the great Peter Boyle. The magic trick pulled in this episode is that they made a story about a psychic who could see how people will die that was not at all cheesy, especially for a pro-paranormal show, and didn't at all cop-out at the climax. Beyond that, it’s just a beautifully crafted story. It also hides a brilliant and resonant reference to the Beyond the Sea episode (New York Knicks T-Shirt).

4.2: Home

Yeah, this episode. The only one in nine seasons to come with a mature content warning at the beginning. I’ve rewatched this episode more than any other, I think. Not because it’s my favorite, just because I love introducing it to people and scarring them for life.

The premise sounds trite and cliché: A family of inbred rednecks doesn’t like to be messed with. But it gives a whole new meaning to “It’s all in the execution.” Basically, it’s a great horror movie. It was also one of the last gasps of The X-Files as a great series, even though it went for five more seasons.

And that's my list. I would've done a top-ten list instead of a top-eight, but I couldn't trust my memory enough to commit to more episodes on a medium that makes even the tritest, most in-the-moment statement a forever-stance.

One day, I hope to introduce the series to my descendants, thereby taking the opportunity to re-watch the entire series run, but like the 1970s Kolchak: The Night Stalker series that was reinvented as The X-Files, I'm sure The X-Files will get reinvented by the time mine are old enough to want a world with more layers than realty currently gives us.

We are old. We are so old.