The X-Files celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, so what better time to look back at one of the most defining TV shows of the 1990s?
For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, the Chris Carter-created series followed FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as they investigated a wide range of unexplained supernatural cases. Mulder was the conspiracy theory-obsessed believer, while Scully was sceptical scientist, originally assigned to her partner to debunk his work.
The show ran for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002 and returned for two additional seasons starting in 2016.
Over the course of 11 seasons, 218 episodes and two feature films, the TV drama left a lasting legacy and redefined televised storytelling. It was unique at the time, equally genre-pushing, suspenseful and funny. A spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, it took chances and interweaved standalone episodes (referred to as “monster of the week” episodes) with a rich overarching mythos regarding aliens and a shadowy governmental conspiracy. It also featured a central female character that was her male counterpart’s equal (a characteristic which was rare at the time), and became the precursor for shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Lost and Fringe.
While we recommend starting the show from scratch and working your way through the global conspiracy about the Syndicate’s plans to collaborate with alien colonists, here are the 12 best standalone episodes of the series – one for each year it was on air.
So, none of the Duane Barry saga; no ‘Anasazi’ / ‘The Blessing Way’ / ‘Paper Clip’ triple bill (arguably the show’s greatest episodes); and no mention of the ambitious ‘Two Fathers’ / ‘One Son’ diptych or any of Season 8, which essentially plays out like an extended serial focused on the hunt for Mulder.
These are the “monster of the week” episodes that don’t require homework and can be watched without prior introduction to the over-arching alien mythology.
A starting point to get closer to the truth, if you will...
12) Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster
Season 10, Episode 3
What’s it about? Mulder is questioning his beliefs in the supernatural. Luckily, his funk is broken by a new case involving a corpse found in the woods near Oregon. The victim’s wounds don’t seem like they’ve been caused by anything human...
What’s so good about it? The X Files were reopened in 2016, with a 6-episode run that wasn’t the show’s finest. The second revival season was less disappointing, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks that the magic of the original run was recaptured. However, there was one highlight midway through Season 10, a “monster of the week” episode that was a welcome balm after Chris Carter’s clumsy handling of the rebooted mythology. Written by Darin Morgan (expect to see this name pop up several times during this list), ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster' is a tongue-in-cheek delight that subverts expectations, features plenty of laughs (due to Rhys Darby, a lizard who was turned into a human after a human bit him), and the surreal is perfectly balanced with some cheeky Easter Eggs for longtime fans. It's pretty much the only Season 10 episode you need to watch.
Season 6, Episode 15
What’s it about? A couple are brutally murdered in the seemingly perfect planned community of Falls of Arcadia. Sent to investigate, Mulder and Scully go undercover as a married couple and move into the deceased’s former lodgings. There, they discover that the gated community operates under a very strict set of rules. And there are fatal consequences for those who disobey them.
What’s so good about it? This darkly comedic (but not particularly biting) satire of tight-knit communities and homeowner associations makes for a great "monster of the week" episode. The monster in question, a Tulpa thought-form summoned much in the same way the Golem is conjured into existence by a community, could have used more work. However, 'Arcadia' is a fan favourite because it offered up a glimpse of what married life might look like between our two favourite two FBI agents. David Duchovny has a blast as “Rob Petrie” and Gillian Anderson nails every comedic moment as his wife “Laura”, who is less thrilled about the assignment. As evidenced by her cute nickname for her husband: “poopieface”.
10) The Lost Art of the Forehead Sweat
Season 11, Episode 4
What’s it about? Mulder meets a man named Reggie, who claims to know him. He tells Mulder that someone is trying to erase him from society...
What’s so good about it? Season 11 was an improvement on 10, but still struggled. Episode 7, ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’, was a playful admonition about artificial intelligence and did a great job in conveying the dangers linked to our eliance on technology. However, the season standout was the brilliantly titled ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’, which explored the phenomenon known as the Mandela Effect (or is it the Mengele Effect?). It’s an absurdist and loving adventure all about the collective acceptance of lies. Written and directed by Darin Morgan (told you so), the episode updates the show’s brand of skepticism and makes it about the concept of truth. It is one of the show’s most overtly politically engaged episodes, as it satirizes the Trump climate and anxieties. Brian Huskey is superb as Reggie, and the episode is a fun but thought-provoking exploration of how accepting facts, despite healthy skepticism, is vital - especially in a country like the US, which has repeatedly tried to rewrite reality to mask its darker past.
Season 7, Episode 3
What’s it about? A young man working in a fast-food joint has more than burgers on the mind. He needs brains to survive. Not that he’s happy about his condition. His attempts to ween himself off cerebrum are made all the more complicated by the arrival of Mulder and Scully...
What’s so good about it? Season 7 was the beginning of the end for The X Files. The previous season had done an admirable job of blowing up the conspiracy and actually offered some answers – as evidenced by the bold double-tap of 'Two Fathers' / 'One Son'. Season 7 dipped in the aftermath, and was initially going to be the show’s last – with David Duchovny leaving after the finale. Still, there were a couple of good episodes, including 'Hungry'. The narrative shifts perspectives, as we follow a monster story from the POV of the ‘monster’. By playing with the “monster of the week" template, the genre is turned on its head and the episode explores how antagonists are only considered as much from a certain perspective. A brain-eating creature investigated by Mulder and Scully is a pretty standard set-up, but 'Hungry' remains memorable because it encourages discussion and empathy. None of it could have worked without Canadian actor Chad Donella, who plays the hungry Rob; through his excellent work, the viewer is tasked with considering the monster figure and reconsidering their own prejudices.
8) Die Hand Die Verletzt
Season 2, Episode 14
What’s it about? A group of faculty members meet to discuss the school agenda and how the musical Jesus Christ Superstar could be a problematic show to put on. So far, so conservative America. However, the meeting ends with the teachers reciting not a prayer but a Satanic chant. The tight knit community will be thrown into disarray when the substitute teacher from hell (literally?) arrives in school…
What’s so good about it? Remember that school teacher that traumatized you to you core? Good. Now multiply that by a thousand and you’re there with Ms. Paddock, the aforementioned substitute teacher – played to eerie perfection by Susan Blommaert, who manages to make affability very sinister. Essentially the perfect Halloween episode, 'Die Hand Die Verletzt' (“the hand that wounds”) is a very creepy story that stands out by its atmosphere and the effective use of urban myths and occult imagery linked to black magic. It plays on the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and, later on, delves into how unfaithful servants must be punished – a beat that is turned into a sick little joke at the end with a blackboard message that reveals who was playing who (and for what purpose) all along. If this one is to your liking, fast forward to Season 11 and the episode 'Familiar', which also harks back to occultism in smalltown communities.
Season 6, Episode 2
What’s it about? A driver and his ‘hostage’ have been stopped after a high-speed chase. The driver is detained and the woman in the car is clearly disorientated. He calls out to her - his wife as it turns out - in desperation. She is put in a police car and the whole endeavor seems to be over… Until she begins to bash her head against the window of the car, as if suffering from the worst headache mankind has ever known. Suddenly, a violent burst and confusion ensues. Her skull has exploded, repainting the car in a lovely shade of brain. And that’s just the pre-title sequence…
What’s so good about it? Much like the mythology episodes, 'Drive' is about sinister government experiments. It shows Mulder out in the field while Scully investigates in the lab, a dynamic repeated (sometimes a bit too much) throughout the show. Without spoiling anything, the leitmotif of this episode is: keep moving or die. It’s a shocking and well-orchestrated tribute to Speed that showcases a terrific performance from both Duchovny and Anderson, as well as Bryan Cranston, who steals the show as a bigot plagued by his own very bad headache. It is worth noting that Vince Gilligan (Drive’s writer, a regular scribe on The X Files, and the man who went on to create Breaking Bad) met Cranston during this episode. So, no 'Drive', no Walter cooking meth…
Season 3, Episode 17
What’s it about? Mulder and Scully face off against Robert Patrick Modell, aka: Pusher, a man who has the ability to will others into doing anything he wants simply through the power of suggestion. He can ‘push’ people into committing crimes, killing themselves or even letting him walk once they’ve caught him...
**What’s so good about it?**This is another episode penned by Vince Gilligan, who creates a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse that is suspenseful from beginning to end. It shares some DNA with David Fincher’s Se7en, and Robert Wisden is terrific as Modell - one of the series most underrated villains. Like Eugene Victor Tooms (scroll down for more), the character is given a second episode in season 5 with 'Kitsunegari', another very enjoyable mystery. However, 'Pusher' remains the superior of the two episodes and has some very memorable scenes, including that terrifying one in which a crying FBI agent begs for help before lighting himself on fire. Extra points for those of you who can spot ex-Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl’s cameo.
Season 4, Episode 2
What’s it about? Murder, mutilations, deformed siblings, incest… It’s Mulder and Scully versus the Peacock family for the show’s most controversial episode.
What’s so good about it? Following the stellar Season 3, the showrunners decided to up the ante in Season 4, with some genuinely scary and gory stuff. (See: the haunting 'Unruhe' and the less impressive but gag-inducing 'Sanguinarium'.) 'Home' is the only X Files episode which was preceded by a warning and the only one to have been banned… Indeed, Fox blocked it from being re-aired for three years after its premiere, as the story of an isolated inbred clan who “raise and breed their own stock” was deemed to much for the studio to handle. It’s suspenseful, disgusting, and even darkly humoristic at times. Playing on some deep-seated fears, writers Glen Morgan and James Wong and the late director Kim Manners crafted a genuinely terrifying hour of television that was inspired in part by an anecdote in the biography of Charlie Chaplin (of all things) and played out as The X Files meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Good luck.
4) Squeeze / Tooms
Season 1, Episodes 3 & 21
What’s it about? Mulder and Scully track an apparently ageless killer who can squeeze himself into tiny vents and narrow conduits in order to get to his victims… And as a good spiritual student of Hannibal Lecter, he takes trophies, feeding off livers to survive… No mention of whether he enjoys them with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
What’s so good about it? For Robert 'Pusher' Modell, only one episode of his two-parters is included in this list. Rules are bent for Eugene Victor Tooms, who gets a two-episode story arc in Season 1. 'Squeeze' was the show’s first "monster of the week" episode and it set the benchmark high. The unnerving killer was played to perfection by Doug Hutchison, who returned in 'Tooms'; both episodes (written by Glen Morgan and James Wong) showcased the series’ strength of balancing real scare power with more outlandish sci-fi and suspense a go-go. This two-parter gave a generation of fans the chills when they saw small ventilator openings… And probably made them think twice before ordering liver for dinner.
3) Jose Chung’s From Outer Space
Season 3, Episode 20
What’s it about? Novelist Jose Chung interviews Scully for research on an upcoming book he plans to write, about the abduction of two teenagers. Behold the distance between fact and fiction, what one is told and what one wants to hear…
What’s so good about it? 'Jose Chung’s From Outer Space' is a reminder that The X Files didn’t always take itself so seriously and managed to poke fun at the sci-fi / thriller genre, as well as its own alien gimmicks. This episode, brilliantly written by Darin Morgan once more, is a goofy spin on Rashomon storytelling. More accurately, the unreliable narrator trope leading to conflicting testimonies – much like Season 5’s excellent ‘Bad Blood’, which nearly made the cut for this list. 'Jose Chung's From Outer Space' centers around the impeccably cast Charles Nelson Reilly, who played Chung in a fantastically droll manner. Filled with copious homages to sci-fi and a healthy dose of old school slapstick, the episode asks if there is such a thing as objective truth. It also benefits from an oddly moving closing monologue about how “we are all alone” in the universe, but we don’t have to be. It’s less about aliens at the end of the day, and more about the ache for a human connection.
2) The Erlenmeyer Flask
Season 1, Episode 24
What’s it about? A high-speed police chase ends with the driver being shot. He manages to escape but leaves behind some blood. Green blood. As you do.
What’s so good about it? We’re cheating a little bit with this one, as the final episode of Season 1 starts off as a "monster of the week" investigation and ends up being the first bona fide mythology episode. It sets up the groundwork for everything to come and was audience’s first peak into the conspiracy: experiments with alien DNA, shadowy conspiracies... The lot. The episode is filled with memorable images that would come to define the overarching mythology (the watertanks filled with tubed bodies stand out), and by placing Mulder and Scully’s informer Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin) at the centre of the finale, the stage is brilliantly set for Seasons 2 and 3 – arguably The X Files’ best years.
1) Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
Season 3, Episode 4
What’s it about? World-weary insurance salesman Clyde Bruckman has psychic abilities. He can foresee when and how everyone will die, and he’s sick of it. Simultaneously, a serial killer is targeting psychics and fortune tellers. Bruckman is, naturally, of particular interest to the murderer…
What’s so good about it? It won’t surprise you that Darin Morgan - who is responsible for four episodes on this list - is behind the best standalone X Files episode. It is chilling, cheekily funny and thought-provoking in its meditations on the curse of knowledge. The late Peter Boyle gives his best performance as the crotchety Bruckman, who sees how life fits together and, as such, holds no more mystery. He won an Emmy for his efforts (as did Morgan), and the interactions between him and Gillian Anderson are a joy to watch. The episode strikes the perfect balance between humour and pathos, exemplified by one joke between Bruckman and Scully, which becomes one of the series’ most tear-jerking moments by the end of this genuinely stunning episode.
All the seasons of The X Files are available to buy on DVD / BluRay, and are streaming on Disney+.