FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are assigned to the X-Files, the department dealing with inexplicable phenomena — flying saucers, killer mutants, werewolves, bigfoot, etc. — the bureau can’t officially acknowledge. Meanwhile, other factions in power know all about aliens and monsters, and pull strings to frustrate Mulder’s quest for a truth which is ‘out there’. And factions within factions betray the conspiracy by doling out information to the heroes.
Writer-producer Chris Carter was inspired by earlier paranoid sci-fi/horror shows (The Invaders, Project UFO, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Twin Peaks) but spun The X-Files into a ten-year run by combining weird stuff which industry wisdom deemed a turn-off with police procedural business in the manner of Thomas Harris and, crucially, a developing but ambiguous relationship between coolly sexy leads David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson which evoked successful TV teamings like Steed and Mrs Peel on The Avengers, Maddie and David on Moonlighting and Starsky & Hutch. They were professional partners, but undercurrents suggested they were potentially a lot closer.
When the show first aired, the nascent Fox network thought a comedy western with Bruce Campbell (The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.) would be their break-out hit and were surprised by its runaway success. Among other things, The X-Files brought TV fantasy back from the wilderness (leading to such hits as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Heroes and revivals of Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica) and put imported American series back on UK primetime TV.
The mannerisms were always easy to parody, though the show was among the first to salt slyly satiric jabs at itself in the occasional comedy episodes (“that’s supposed to be a name?” a suspect responds when presented with a card reading ‘Fox Mulder’), and its ‘mythology’ episodes (an ongoing storyline about alien abductions and the hero’s complicated family) eventually strangled the series to the point when few could actually follow successive, contradictory revelations (and Duchovny’s semi-escape from later seasons didn’t help).
But the series managed more than enough outstanding episodes to qualify among the greats of pop TV — as a cop show, a horror show, a conspiracy saga and a workplace romance.
FOX MULDER (David Duchovny)
Obsessive seeker for truth, motivated by the unsolved disappearance of his sister (aliens took her), Mulder is ostracised in the bureau but more often proved right than not. Duchovny had previously played a transvestite FBI agent on Twin Peaks, and Chris Carter gave his hero some interesting kinks, including a subscription to Celebrity Skin magazine and a prophecy that he would die due to auto-erotic asphyxiation.
DANA SCULLY (Gillian Anderson)
Instinctive sceptic, but also a devout Catholic, Scully is given the X-Files gig initially in the hope of debunking Mulder’s crusade, and also to use her medical qualifications to help out with autopsies and other icky business. At first, Scully seemed modelled on Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, but then-unknown Anderson imprinted so strongly on the character that she became her own woman. A problem was that, after three or four episodes, Scully’s scepticism became hard to take — she saw a werewolf last week, so why is she doubting the human fluke this week? Later plots had her recover from terminal illness, and perhaps become immortal.
WALTER SKINNER (Mitch Pileggi)
Assistant Director of the FBI, and the traditional gruff but steadfast boss — like Alexander Waverley on The Man From UNCLE or the Chief on Get Smart. A porn star once listed the character as the sexiest bald man on television, which must have made up for all the frustrating cover-up and bawling-out scenes Pileggi had to play. At first a possible baddie, the character eventually became one of the show’s heroes and earned a few spotlight episodes. Aside from Duchovny and Anderson, he’s the only actor to have reprised his role in both X-Files films.
THE CIGARETTE SMOKING MAN (William S. Davis)
At first, just one of the Canadian bit-players retained to sit around darkened rooms looking sinister as cabals discussed thwarting Mulder, the CSM became the continuing villain of The X-Files, rewarded with a solo show (‘Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man’) and eventually revealed to have a name (C.G.B. Spender) and to be Mulder’s biological father (though, like all the other big reveals, this was probably provisional).
THE LONE GUNMEN (Tom Braidwood, Bruce Harwood & Dean Haglund)
A trio of ill-assorted conspiracy theorists, computer hackers and knowalls introduced in the episode ‘E.B.E.’ in the ‘Huggy Bear’ role of hero’s comedy informant — delivering helpful exposition and eccentric humour in one package. The geeks caught on with fans who perhaps saw the Lone Gunmen as more likely role models than the conventionally attractive heroes and became fixtures on the show, getting a showcase episode (‘Unusual Suspects’) and a short-lived spin-off series.
JOHN DOGGETT (Robert Patrick) & MONICA REYES (Annabeth Gish)
When Duchovny left the show and Anderson took a lessened role, Patrick and Gish were brought in as new agents assigned to the X-Files and shouldered the burden for the final seasons. Though seen as a sign of the series petering out, the new blood actually helped the show get over a hump — both actors were excellent, and the characters weren’t burdened by backstory the way Mulder and Scully became after six or seven seasons.
ALEX KRYCEK (Nicholas Lea) and JEFFREY SPENDER (Chris Owens)
Boo hiss. Both characters started out as FBI agents assigned to work with Mulder, but actually had their own evil agendas and popped up again as ambiguous villains. Krycek kept losing bits of himself and Spender might have been Mulder’s brother.
DEEP THROAT (Jerry Hardin), MR. X (Steven Williams) and MARIA COVARRUBIAS (Laurie Holden).
Mulder’s informants, who helpfully loitered in dark places passing on files, information, misinformation and plot spoilers for batches of episodes.
Season 1, Episode 3; 1993.
After a couple of ‘UFO’ stories, The X-Files really showed how strange it could be with its third episode, featuring Eugene Victor Tooms (Doug Hutchison), a long-lived liver-eating mutant who resembles Reed Richards gone wrong as he stretches and contorts through tight places. He returned in a sequel ‘Tooms’, and later mutants ate cancer, brains, fat and melanin…
Season 1, Episode 8; 1993.
A miniature of The Thing (or a throwback to 1960s Doctor Who), with a small cast trapped in an arctic base which has been wiped out by larval worms which prompt psychotic behaviour.
BEYOND THE SEA
Season 1, Episode 13; 1994.
The first show to concentrate on Scully’s backstory — a recently-deceased father (Don S. Davis, formerly of Twin Peaks, later of Stargate SG1) — and give her character more to do than trot out a soon-disproved rational explanation. Brad Dourif creepily homages his role from Exorcist III as a psychic on death row.
Season 2, Episode 5; 1994.
The first part of a two-episode story (followed by ‘Ascension’) and, as is often the case, much better in the build-up than the resolution. Guest star Steve Railsback offers a possible glimpse into Mulder’s future as a former X-Files agent who has cracked up completely and become a gun-waving hostage-taker.
CLYDE BRUCKMAN’S FINAL REPOSE
Season 3, Episode 4; 1995.
Peter Boyle is brilliant as Bruckman, who has the unhappy knack of foreseeing the circumstances of everyone’s death — including his own. A serial killer is targeting seers, fortune-tellers and psychics. Often classed as one of the ‘comedy’ episodes, it has a surprisingly affecting finish.
JOSE CHUNG’S FROM OUTER SPACE
Season 3, Episode 20; 1995.
The cleverest of the ‘post-modern’ X-Files episodes, with Scully interviewing a writer who has an interest in UFO stories — and a Rashomon-like series of alternate versions of the truth coming out, involving Men in Black, government conspiracies and the possibility that it’s all a put-on. Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly) returns in the Millennium episode ‘José Chung’s Doomsday Defence’.
Season 4, Episode 2; 1996.
The most gruesome horror show ever aired on mainstream US TV (and often censored in repeats) and a rare X-File in which sheer human nastiness is at the bottom of the mystery. It’s inbred-mutants-on-the-farm territory, and manages to compete in the Hills Have Eyes/Texas Chain Saw Massacre stakes.
Season 5, Episode 3; 1997.
The Lone Gunmen showcase episode, a period piece set in 1989 (when Mulder’s cell-phone was the size of several bricks) at a hackers’ convention in Baltimore, this gives comedy characters (especially Byers) depth and boasts a guest shot by the great Richard Belzer as Detective Munch, the character he originated on Homicide: Life on the Street and holds a trivia record for reprising on more other crossover shows than anyone else has managed (Law and Order, The Wire, The Beat, Arrested Development, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Law and Order: Trial by Jury).
Season 7, Episode 12; 2000.
A parody of the reality TV show Cops, this has a TV crew following Mulder and Scully around a bad area of Los Angeles as they deal with a shapeshifting killer that can appear as whatever its victims fear most. It’s a neat pastiche, but also offers a surprisingly good monster-of-the-week story.
Season 7, Episode 19; 2000.
Writer-director David Duchovny‘s supreme in-joke show takes place on the set of an X-Files movie starring Garry Shandling and Téa Leoni as Mulder and Scully, with the originals on hand to give advice on tricky subjects like how to chase a monster while wearing high heels.