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The X-Files 101: Ten “Monster of the Week” Episodes (Seasons 1-5)

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.

The first list is the “monster of the week” shows from the first five seasons, which perhaps represents the purest distillation of what The X-Files actually was. On initial broadcast, a lot of attention was focused on the “mythology”, the long-form story about alien invaders who were conspiring with the United States government against mankind. It captured the attention of the nation, generating a lot of buzz and watercooler talk with blockbuster episodes that pushed the sheer scope and scale of nineties television to the limit.

xfiles-killswitch15

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The X-Files – Hungry (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Hungry is an underrated episode of The X-Files.

Although it was the third episode of the season to air, it was actually the first episode produced, allowing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson to ease themselves back into the demanding shooting schedule. As with Vince Gilligan’s script for Unusual Suspects, the idea was to write an episode that required as little of Mulder and Scully as possible. However, rather than building Hungry around an established member (or members) of the supporting cast, Gilligan decides to introduce a new character and make them the focus of the episode.

"I am sharkboy, hear me roar..."

“I am sharkboy, hear me roar…”

Hungry is not quite as experimental as X-Cops, but there is something deliciously subversive about telling a “monster of the week” story from the perspective of the monster. Gilligan is arguably building upon the work done by David Amann in Terms of Endearment, but Hungry is very much its own story. It pushes Mulder and Scully to the very edge of the narrative in a way that distorts many of the underlying assumptions about what The X-Files is and how it is supposed to work.

Hungry is proof that The X-Files still has legitimately great stories in it, even if the seventh season has a decidedly funereal atmosphere.

Brains...

Brains…

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The X-Files – Kitsunegari (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Kitsunegari hits on a lot of fifth season anxieties for The X-Files.

The episode is rather clearly a sequel to a beloved third season installment, featuring a returning monster of the week for the first time since Tooms brought back Victor Eugene Tooms. In this case, Kitsunegari is built around Robert Patrick Modell, the mind-controlling psychopath from Vince Gilligan’s first script as a staff writer. Given the level of Gilligan’s skill, the affection for the episode, and the charm of actor Robert Wisden, Kitsunegari really should be a “can’t miss” script for the series.

Painting the town...

Painting the town…

However, Kitsunegari proves to be a surprisingly joyless experience. The script hinges on incredibly coincidence and contrivance, everything feels a little too familiar, and even Robert Wisden seems relegated to a small supporting role. (It is telling he earns an “and” credit instead of heading the guest cast.) Kitsunegari has a host of memorable set-pieces and effective visuals, but it feels curiously hollow. It feels like a script going through the motions, rather than trying to say something new or intriguing.

Then again, there is a sense that this is the point. Kitsunegari plays beautifully as a self-aware critique of soulless sequels, of half-hearted follow-ups and cash-ins on popular monsters and villains. Kitsunegari is almost an ingenious parody of these conventions, teasing the viewer with what it might look like if The X-Files began to eat itself. It teases the audience with a trashy sequel to a classic episode, and then delivers exactly that. Kitsunegari does not just demonstrate the law of diminishing returns, it practically revels in it.

Pushing the Pusher...

Pushing the Pusher…

After all, Pusher was an episode about a man with complete control of his own story. Robert Patrick Modell was able to change the world using nothing more than mere words, crafting a new identity and persona for himself, casting himself in role of a criminal mastermind pursued by dogged investigators. It is no wonder that Kitsunegari portrays Modell as exhausted and strung out. Kitsunegari is essentially a story about how Modell has lost control of the narrative, how it has begun to control him. In a way, he gives voice to the same concerns that haunt The Post-Modern Prometheus.

Of course, all this postmodern self-awareness is ingenious, but it still leaves one sizable problem with Kitsunegari. Kitsunegari is so effective at mimicking a soulless sequel that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The result is a well-constructed and clever little episode, but one that is not particularly enjoyable or fun.

"I'm blue, dabba-dee-dabba-di."

“I’m blue, dabba-dee-dabba-di.”

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The X-Files – Paper Hearts (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Paper Hearts is one of the best scripts that Vince Gilligan would write for The X-Files, and one of the best episodes of the fourth season. This is enough to put it in the frontrunners of any possible “best episode ever” ranking.

The episode is spectacular. It works on just about every conceivable level. It has a great script from a great young staff writer. It has a great guest star in Tom Noonan. It features a great performance from David Duchovny. Rob Bowman does a spectacular job directing. Mark Snow is one of the most consistent composers working in nineties television, and his score for Paper Hearts manages to be simple, effective and memorable. It is thoughtful, atmospheric, emotional and compelling. It is the perfect storm.

The truth is buried...

The truth is buried…

However, the real cherry on Paper Hearts is just how easy it would be to mess up an episode like this. On paper, Paper Hearts seems like a disaster waiting to happen. It is an episode that teases the audience with a potentially massive reversal of one of the show’s core truths. It posits an alternative theory for the abduction of Samantha Mulder that would shake the show to its very core. If Paper Hearts followed through on that basic premise, everything would change. Much like Never Again, this is an episode with the potential to poison the show.

Which makes it inevitable that Paper Hearts will back away from its potentially game-changing premise, which brings its own challenges. It is one thing to up-end the apple cart; it is another to pretend to up-end the apple cart only to restore the status quo at the end of the hour. On paper, and from any synopsis, Paper Hearts seems like the biggest cheat imaginable. “Everything is different!” it seems to yell. “And then it’s not!” The real beauty of Paper Hearts is the way that the episode works almost perfectly even with these huge hurdles to clear.

The heart of the matter...

The heart of the matter…

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The X-Files – Quagmire (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Quagmire is a delightful little episode, one of third season episodes that most effectively embodies what casual fans (or even those who have never seen the show) think of when they hear the words The X-Files.” In Wanting to Believe, author Robert Shearman describes Quagmire as something akin to a “live action Scooby Doo, and he’s not far wrong. This is Mulder and Scully searching together in the darkness, looking for a monster that may or may not be there. You don’t get more archetypical X-Files than that.

One of the defining features of the third season of The X-Files has been a sense of consolidation. It feels like the show experimented a great deal in its first two years, but the third season is very much about cementing and solidifying its identity. It is no wonder, then, that the third season has such a high concentration of archetypal episode – episodes you can show an interested viewer and say this is The X-Files in a forty-five minute nutshell.” In that respect, Quagmire ranks with D.P.O. or Pusher or Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose as a great introduction to the show.

There's something in the water!

There’s something in the water!

Of course, Quagmire is a very good introduction to The X-Files for new viewers, but it is also something of a farewell. It is Kim Newton’s last script for the show. Newton had joined the writing staff at the start of the third season. Her other major credit was Revelations. Like Revelations, there is a sense that Quagmire was heavily re-written before it made it in front of the cameras. In this case, it is something of an open secret that Quagmire received a fairly significant polish from departing story editor Darin Morgan, whose fingerprints are all over the finished draft.

If Darin Morgan bid farewell to The X-Files with Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, then Quagmire serves as something of a coda to his time on the show. If that is the case, it makes for an uncharacteristically upbeat postscript to Morgan’s work on the show.

They really collared the bad guy...

They really collared the bad guy…

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The X-Files – Avatar (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Avatar is really the first time that The X-Files relies on a member of its supporting cast to carry a story all by themselves.

Later seasons will get a bit more adventurous when it comes to sharing screen time. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and En Ami both offer viewers a glimpse at the man behind the cigarette. The Lone Gunmen prepare for their own spin-off with The Unusual Suspects and Three of a Kind. Even Skinner gets a couple more character-centric episodes with Zero Sum and S.R. 819. In a way, Hungry is a day-in-the-life episode of a monster of the week.

Pushing Mulder to the background...

Pushing Mulder to the background…

Avatar is an episode that demonstrates that these kinds of stories are possible – that The X-Files can lift the focus off of Mulder and Scully for a week and flesh out those characters who exist at the periphery of the series. Just under two years after he was first introduced, Mitch Pileggi has proven himself invaluable to the series. Asking him to carry an episode like this demonstrates the show’s faith in the character.

Avatar is a bit rough around the edges, struggling to decide whether it is part of the show’s conspiracy mythology or a stand-alone monster tale in a season that has worked hard to delineate the two types of show. Still, it’s an ambitious late-season installment that makes a lasting impression on what The X-Files can be.

Don't look now...

Don’t look now…

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The X-Files – D.P.O. (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

What is interesting about the third season of The X-Files is the way that everything seemed to click into place. After two years of figuring out how various parts of the show worked, the series was in a place where it worked like a finely-honed machine. The conspiracy episodes hit all the right boxes. The second season had demonstrated the show could do experimental or even humourous episodes. Even the standard “monster of the week” shows were delivered with more confidence and style.

While D.P.O. may not be the strongest episode of the third season, it is an example of how comfortable the show has become. It is an episode that move incredibly well, where the vast majority of the pieces click, and one which is fondly remembered by the fan base. There’s a very serious argument to be made that writer Howard Gordon was the best author of “monster of the week” scripts working on the show at this point, and D.P.O. demonstrates how well he crafts these sorts of stories.

Cooking up a storm...

Cooking up a storm…

D.P.O. also benefits from any number of elements that make it seem memorable, even if it is “business as usual” after a massive three-part conspiracy epic. The opening sequence – featuring Ring the Bells by James – is one of the first times the show has so successfully integrated music into its action, something that would become a memorable part of later shows and even Millennium. The guest cast features Giovanni Ribisi and Jack Black. The episode also perfectly captures teen angst in an insightful manner.

The show was apparently drawn from an index card labelled “lightning boy”, which had been on Chris Carter’s white board since the first season. It’s very hard to imagine the show pulling off something like D.P.O. during its first season. While it might have worked towards the end of the second season, the start of the third season seems the perfect place for it.

Cloudy with a chance of angst...

Cloudy with a chance of angst…

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