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The X-Files 104: Ten “Monster of the Week” Episodes (Seasons 6-9)

Next week sees the release of The X-Files on blu ray for the first time, just over a month before the new six-episode series premieres on Fox in January. We’re running daily reviews of the show (and its spin-offs) between now and the end of the year, but we thought it might be worth compiling some guides for newer viewers who are looking to experience the length and breadth of what The X-Files has to offer. Every day this week, we’ll be publishing one quick list of recommended episodes every day, that should offer a good place to start for those looking to dive into the show.

Everything changed between the fifth and sixth seasons of The X-Files. The release of The X-Files: Fight the Future perhaps represented the peak of the show’s popularity, but the summer of 1998 saw the show moving its production from Vancouver to Los Angeles. This had a tremendous impact on how the show was produced; working in Los Angeles meant higher budgets, bigger guest stars and a completely different environment. Gone was the rainy atmosphere of Canada, replace with California sun. It was almost a new show.

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The show’s storytelling changed as well, perhaps to reflect this move to a sunnier climate. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz wrapped up the show’s central mythology (for the most part) in Two Fathers and One Son, although it lingered on for another season and a half. Taking advantage of the warmer climate and brighter surroundings, the show moved away from the murky horror associated with the forests of Vancouver. The sixth, seventh and ninth seasons have a strong emphasis on comedy episodes. For better and for worse.

The final seasons of the show were also a source of tension behind the scenes. The plan had originally been that the show would run for five seasons before transitioning into a series of movies. However, Fox thought the shrewder strategy would be to have the best of both worlds; to keep the show on the air while doing movies. However, only one movie would be produced during the life of the series. Duchovny grew restless on the show, signing on for a sixth and seventh season on the condition that the production team move to Los Angeles.

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The final few seasons of the show were fraught and tense. During the seventh season, Duchovny announced his intention to depart the show while suing Fox for their treatment of the show’s syndication rights. Duchovny even went so far as to suggest that Chris Carter had been complicit in the backroom dealing, effectively conspiring to deprive Duchovny of his own share of the profits. Duchovny made it clear that he had no intention to return to the show in the eighth season, but for a last-minute settlement of his lawsuit.

Chris Carter was also observing changes in the nature of his relationship with Fox. His second television show, Millennium, was cancelled the season following the move to Los Angeles. Carter signed a lucrative deal with Fox to develop a number of shows, but little came from this. Most infamously, Harsh Realm was cancelled after only three episodes had aired. While Carter lent his name to the short-lived spin-off The Lone Gunman, it only lasted thirteen episodes at Fox.

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At the same time, the television landscape was changing. Viewers were abandoning The X-Files in droves. Ratings fell dramatically in the sixth and seventh seasons, at the same time that the move from Vancouver to Los Angeles had caused the production budgets to spike. The X-Files had once been a hip young show, but it increasingly felt like a tired institution. The sixth season saw the slow slipping from the Outstanding Drama Series nominations at the Emmys, replaced by The Sopranos.

The eighth season brought real change to The X-Files. Duchovny would only be around for roughly half of the season’s twenty-one episode run, which led the production team to draft in actor Robert Patrick as a new series lead. The eighth season was largely driven by the search for Mulder, but marked a return to the dark and moody aesthetic that had made the Vancouver years so successful. Against all odds, the eighth season was a critical and commercial success; it improved upon the ratings at the tail end of the seventh season.

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The success of the eighth season ensured the commissioning of a ninth season, built around the idea that the new characters of Doggett and Reyes might replace Mulder and Scully. David Duchovny declined to appear in the ninth season, while Gillian Anderson made it clear she was on the way out. However, the production team proved reluctant to let go of Duchovny and Anderson. Tellingly, Mulder was treated as a more important character than either Doggett or Reyes, despite the fact that Duchovny would not actually appear in the show.

The ninth season died with a whimper, flailing the shadow of 9/11. The X-Files had always been a very nineties television show, its questions about power and authority befitting a time of peace and stability; it is okay to feel insecure or reflective when there are no more enemies to fight. The show’s paranoia seemed uncomfortable in the context of a world that desperately wanted to believe that the organs of government could help them. In the wake of a brutal terror attack, audiences weren’t hungry for tales of the government betraying its own people.

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The X-Files was cancelled (or retired by mutual consent) after a rocky year. Although the show had been a pop cultural fixture at the height of its popularity, it had been allowed to fade into obscurity. Although everybody with any engagement with popular culture can point out Mulder or Scully, fewer would be able to pick Doggett or Scully out of a line-up. There is a reason that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are headlining the looming revival, while Annabeth Gish is confined to a single guest-star appearance.

Nevertheless, the show’s final seasons have a lot to recommend them for audiences who want to chart the life of a long-running television series. In particular, the sixth and eighth seasons work much better now than they did on initial broadcast. The sixth season is packed with brilliant standalone stories, while the eighth is perhaps the most heavily serialised run in the nine-year history of The X-Files. These are easily forgotten when assessing the cultural history and legacy of The X-Files.

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Drive

(Season 6, Episode 2)

Writer: Vince Gilligan

Director: Rob Bowman

Original Airdate: 15 November 1998

The X-Files “does”: Speed. Or that episode of Homicide: Life on the Street.

What it’s about: Taken off the X-files – yet again – Mulder and Scully find themselves drawn into a suspiciously X-files-esque mystery when Mulder crosses paths with a man who must keep moving westwards at a constant speed or else… bad things will happen.

Why it’s on this list: There’s that great writer/director combination of Vince Gilligan and Rob Bowman once again. Drive works on multiple levels, most obviously as a high-stakes visceral thrill-ride in which momentum actually becomes the point of the plot. However, there is a wealth of stuff happening beneath the surface, including the first collaboration between Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston, a sly commentary on the show’s move to California, and perhaps even a broad critique of manifest destiny as an American doctrine. Plus it looks great.

More like this: It is possible to read Drive as a capitalist critique, particular given the emphasis on Mulder’s tie at the climax and his frustration with his job even before the plot actually kicks in. As such, it’s the middle section of a loose trilogy of Vince Gilligan episodes trading in capitalist critiques, including Folie à Deux and Monday.

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Triangle

(Season 6, Episode 3)

Writer: Chris Carter

Director: Chris Carter

Original Airdate: 22 November 1998

The X-Files “does”: Rope meets Indiana Jones meets The Wizard of Oz.

What it’s about: Investigating the mysterious sighting of a cruise liner that disappeared decades earlier in the Bermuda Triangle, Mulder finds himself swept back in time and fighting Nazis on board a captured American cruise liner.

Why it’s on this list: The sixth season of The X-Files is controversial for a number of reasons, most notably its relatively lighter tone compared to a lot of what came before. There is a stretch at the start of the sixth season where the show seemed to morph into a weird paranormal romantic comedy. It begins with Triangle, an episode famously built around long takes. Written and directed by Carter, it ranks as one of the most bold and experimental (and downright fun) episodes that the show ever produced.

More like this: Carter was no stranger to writing and directing high-concept episodes. The fifth season featured The Post-Modern Prometheus, a black-and-white pastiche of James Whale’s Frankenstein. However, the sixth season is packed with enjoyable light and fuzzy episodes: Dreamland I, Dreamland II, The Rain King. However, the best might just be the sixth season’s other high-concept Chris Carter production: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas.

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The Unnatural

(Season 6, Episode 19)

Writer: David Duchovny

Director: David Duchovny

Original Airdate: 25 April 1999

The X-Files “does”: Every inspirational movie about baseball and racism. But with aliens.

What it’s about: Developing a sudden (and previously unmentioned) obsession with baseball, Mulder spots a familiar face lurking in the background of a photograph of a forties baseball team from Roswell, New Mexico. Mulder digs into the history of the case, discovering a secret history of aliens and baseball.

Why it’s on this list: David Duchovny had been pitching stories for the show since the middle of the second season, playing a large role in shaping and defining the mythology. His style tends more towards the abstract, and that bleed through into The Unnatural. Using the loose format and framework of the show, Duchovny is able to frame an affectionate and romantic allegory about baseball that plays like an American fairytale, playing into The X-Files‘ engagement with American cultural history. It stays just on the right side of saccharine and cheesy.

More like this: Duchovny followed up The Unnatural with Hollywood A.D. in the late seventh season, his (mostly) fond farewell to the show that made him a star. Although over-stuffed in places, it is a surprisingly earnest and heartfelt meditation on what is real and what is not.

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Field Trip

(Season 6, Episode 21)

Story by: Frank Spotnitz

Teleplay by: John Shiban & Vince Gilligan

Director: Kim Manners

Original Airdate: 9 May 1999

The X-Files “does”: The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenz, et cetera.

What it’s about: Investigating the mysterious disappearance of two hikers, Mulder and Scully find themselves drawn into two radically different versions of events. What is really happening? Is either account true?

Why it’s on this list: Something of a companion piece to Bad Blood, the beauty of Field Trip is the way that it plays Mulder and Scully off one another. The episode explores what either character actually wants from their work on the X-files, and how far they have come in their six years together. If Bad Blood is about how Mulder and Scully each have their own unique points of view, then Field Trip suggests that the duo have learned to reconcile them; that the two agents have come to find that reality lies somewhere between their two points of view.

More like this: If you haven’t watched Bad Blood, watch it. The late sixth and seventh seasons are populated with stories engaging with the idea of alternate and simulated reality. Perhaps the best of these is the flawed Milagro, a rather earnest allegory for the difficulties of creating fiction.

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Hungry

(Season 7, Episode 3)

Writer: Vince Gilligan

Director: Kim Manners

Original Airdate: 21 November 1999

The X-Files “does”: The X-Files… but from the monster’s point of view.

What it’s about: Told from the perspective of Rob Roberts, Hungry follows a young fast food employee with monstrous urges who attracts the attention of two inquisitive FBI agents by the names of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

Why it’s on this list: One of the benefits of a long-running show is that it offers a certain freedom to experiment. Churning out over two-hundred episodes, there is almost certainly an episode of The X-Files for every mood. Hungry is the type of clever episode that is only really possible when a show has been running a long time, allowing Vince Gilligan to focus on telling what amounts to a fairly conventional X-Files narrative from the perspective of the monster being hunted by Mulder and Scully. Turns out Mulder can be pretty scary in his own right.

More like this: Although Hungry was the first episode to focus on a monster so intensely, Terms of Endearment offered a much more sympathetic monster than usual in the early sixth season.

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X-Cops

(Season 7, Episode 12)

Writer: Vince Gilligan

Director: Michael Watkins

Original Airdate: 20 February 2000

The X-Files “does”: Go on. Guess.

What it’s about: A production team filming Cops encounter a strange and inexplicable occurrence in the course of their duties. They find themselves crossing paths with an eccentric pair of FBI agents who claim to hunting a werewolf through South Central Los Angeles.

Why it’s on this list: Think of it as unreality television. The X-Files was one of the mostly glibly postmodern shows on television, and this intersection between The X-Files and Cops feels particularly prescient; not only does it foreshadow the emergence of reality television in the early years of the twenty-first century, but it also teases out the “found footage” horror boom. More than that, it’s just a genuinely funny and clever piece of television. Of particular joy is the way Duchovny and Anderson play with Mulder and Scully’s reactions to the camera.

More like this: For more postmodern self-aware media-related fun, Hollywood A.D. sends Mulder and Scully to Hollywood.

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Roadrunners

(Season 8, Episode 4)

Writer: Vince Gilligan

Director: Rod Hardy

Original Airdate: 26 November 2000

The X-Files “does”: Bad Day at Black Rock meets The Lottery.

What it’s about: Still settling into the new dynamic after Mulder’s disappearance, Scully is called in to consult on a mysterious case in Utah. Following a bus down a dusty road, Scully quickly discovers a small town with a dark secret.

Why it’s on this list: One of the strengths of the eighth season is the way that it embraces darkness and horror in a way that the sixth and seventh seasons had shied away from. Roadrunners is a very nasty and visceral piece of work, returning to the “small town with a dark secret” aesthetic that had powered classic episodes like Our Town or Home. This episode is very much classic horror, decidedly uncomfortable with a slowly building sense of dread that begins with a deeply unpleasant teaser and only gets stronger.

More like this: It turns out that Roadrunners isn’t even the only classic “small town with a dark secret” episode of the eighth season. The Gift touches on similar ideas, albeit tied into the show’s own appropriation of Native American iconography.

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Via Negativa

(Season 8, Episode 7)

Writer: Frank Spotnitz

Director: Tony Wharmby

Original Airdate: 17 December 2000

The X-Files “does”: Nightmare on Elm Street.

What it’s about: When Scully takes some personal time, John Doggett finds himself taking the lead for the first time on a case involving members of a doomsday cult who appeared to have died in their sleep. Doggett and Skinner desperately pursue a killer who seems to stalk his victims’ dreams.

Why it’s on this list: The character of John Doggett was always going to face something of an uphill battle when it came to winning the hearts and minds of fandom. A lot of viewers were reflexively defensive about the possibility of The X-Files without David Duchovny, and justifiably so. The standard consensus around The X-Files tends to throw the last two seasons of the show under the bus, dismissing them as inferior or subpar. However, there is a lot to recommend the eighth season. Especially Robert Patrick’s performance and the show’s willingness to tackle its existential crisis head-on.

More like this: The eighth season is very candid about the difficulties of replacing David Duchovny. The Gift also tackles the idea head-on, while allowing Doggett to go through the show’s ritual “death and rebirth” cycle like Mulder and Scully (and Skinner and the Cigarette-Smoking Man) before him.

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Vienen

(Season 8, Episode 18)

Writer: Steven Maeda

Director: Rod Hardy

Original Airdate: 29 April 2001

The X-Files “does”: Bad Boys and Lethal Weapon meet… there has to have been a Steven Seagal movie set on an oil rig, right?

What it’s about: Back from the dead, Mulder wastes no time in making himself a nuisance for the FBI. When Mulder and Doggett are forced to team up investigating a mysterious murder on an off-shore oil rig, sparks fly near flammable substances.

Why it’s on this list: One of the joys of introducing John Doggett was allowing for entirely new dynamics with existing characters. His interactions with Scully and Skinner were unique; as were his interactions with Mulder. Vienen is technically tied to the show’s mythology, but to elements that had not been used for two years. (And which would not be used again before the end of the show.) The result is an accessible and enjoyable buddy comedy episode that even culminates in a slow motion explosion and the implication that Mulder might be “too old for the sh!t.”

More like this: The entire eighth season is well worth a watch, and one of the most creative and consistent periods in the show’s nine-season run. It also sees the show embracing a more serialised storytelling model than it had before. The whole thing is worth a watch, from beginning to end.

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John Doe

(Season 9, Episode 7)

Writer: Vince Gilligan

Director: Michelle MacLaren

Original Airdate: 13 January 2002

The X-Files “does”: Desperado meets Breaking Bad.

What it’s about: Waking up in a small Mexican town with no memory of who he is or what he is doing there, John Doggett finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue featuring cartels and coyotes.

Why it’s on this list:Robert Patrick is phenomenal, and John Doe is one of the few episodes of the ninth season to use Doggett with any real skill or understanding of the character. More than that, the pulpy sun-drenched setting feels like a trial run for Breaking Bad, right down to the fact that John Doe is written by Vince Gilligan and was the first episode of television to be directed by Michelle MacLaren. It is clever, well-constructed and emotionally powerful. There are few ninth season episodes that can make such a claim.

More like this: Contrary to fan consensus, the ninth season was strongest when it was willing to let its attention drift away from Mulder and Scully on to Doggett and Reyes. Sadly, the production team lacked the confidence to do this with any regularity, leading to a relative dearth of strong episodes. Still, 4-D, Hellbound, Audrey Pauley and Release recommend themselves. (Improbable and Sunshine Days are also worth a watch.)

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