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We figured out the best episode of 'The X-Files' of all time

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Mike Rampton
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Figuring out the best episode of 'The X-Files' ever

The X-Files might never truly die. At one point the producers said that Season 11, currently airing on Channel Five, would be the last, but they said that about Season 9 and Season 10. Gillian Anderson has said that she’s done playing Scully, but the show continued after David Duchovny was finished playing Mulder, and he ended up changing his mind. It’ll keep coming back, like an unkillable stretchy monster.

This could never have been foreseen (more on foreseeing stuff later). Back in 1992, nobody involved thought it would go anywhere - most were just grateful for the work. Creator Chris Carter wanted to make a show inspired by The Twilight Zone, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Avengers (the Patrick Macnee/Diana Rigg secret-agent show, not the superhero franchise). He’d worked on several failed projects beforehand, including the beautifully-titled Copter Cop, but something about The X-Files immediately worked. 

Tapping into fears about government conspiracies, uncertainty about the approaching millennium, the long shadow of Watergate and a study that suggested that 3.7 million Americans believed themselves to have been abducted by aliens, it was an immediate hit despite a cast of relative unknowns and a poor time slot. Something about the combination of a determined believer, an equally determined skeptic and loads of scenes where they kick open a door holding torches struck a chord with people. Nine seasons, two films, a Netflix mini-season and the new ones you haven’t watched yet because Channel Five is awful followed, while the title of the show entered the cultural lexicon to describe anything a bit offbeat.

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All good so far. But where does that leave us in terms of picking the best episode? By the time this season ends there’ll have been a whopping 218 of them. We can start paring it down by being a bit brutal. As good as Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish were as Doggett and Reyes during Duchovny’s hiatus from the show, and as much as everyone loves T-1000, there’s no way the best X-Files episode could be anything other than a Mulder and Scully joint.

There’s also a divide between mythology episodes, dealing with ongoing conspiracies, coverups and alien activity, and monster-of-the-week tales, one-and-done 45-minute masterpieces. There are certainly people who’d opt for a mythology episode as their best - the story of Mulder trying to find out what happened to his sister and how it fit in to an enormous government conspiracy always drove the big season cliffhangers and the overall arc of the series. But it all went a bit, um, silly: super-soldiers, clones, alien bounty hunters, oil with a vendetta against humanity, unkillable chain-smokers… It got a bit daft, but they had to stick with it all, and it just compounded and got dafter.

The monster-of-the-week episodes, in contrast, almost always offered imaginative, weird, scary, funny, disturbing one-serving adventures - sure, some were a bit rubbish (the talking tattoo that tells people to kill! The talking doll that tells people to kill! The video game that tells people to kill!) - but the majority were the best thing on telly that week. The best ones were the ones you could describe in a few words - the stretchy guy, the sewer monster, the incest family.

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The X-Files was always a funnier show that people gave it credit for, and was at its best when it embraced the absurdity of its subject matter, from Mulder’s Season 1 line, “Is there any way I can get [this monstrous slime] off my fingers without betraying my cool exterior?” to the Lone Gunmen’s hyper-nerdiness, from Scully’s dog getting unexpectedly eaten to the high-concept wackiness - Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin as Christmas ghosts! A time-travelling snog in the Bermuda triangle! - that came in later.

Both Duchovny and Anderson have excellent comic timing, and it felt like every episode that didn’t exploit that was a truly wasted opportunity. Some writers and writing teams used it better than others, particularly Vince Gilligan, Darin Morgan and the partnership of Glen Morgan and James Wong.

(It’s not like anyone else was bad. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz looked after most of the important mythology of the show, John Shiban did some great one-off sci-fi episodes, and big-name authors like Stephen King and cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson wrote some that were… actually, you know what, their ones were crap. We’re just saying, the show was at its best when it didn’t take itself too seriously, which was easier done when Mulder and Scully were investigating The Case of the Plastic Fangs or The Case of the Unusual Chickens than the big, complicated, ongoing story, which was always kind of joyless.)

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What Anderson and Duchovny also had, of course, was extraordinary, unfakeable, never-topped sexual chemistry. The actors didn’t always get on well off screen, but on screen, it was sexy magic. Dozens of shows have been feted for the sexual tension between their leads, but few hold a candle to The X-Files in its prime. One of the shows responsible for the development of the idea of ’shipping’ (where fans watch a show not necessarily for the events in it, but for the relationship portrayed), in the early seasons every glance between Mulder and Scully felt like it had loads of subtext, and that it was just a matter of time before we had a 45-minute plotless episode where they just had sex in real-time. Right? That totally seemed like it would happen. While the show was never the same after they got together, it couldn’t go on indefinitely - they were both far too damn good-looking.

Someone who understood the humour and chemistry of the show was Darin Morgan, the younger brother of writer Glen Morgan (who, with James Wong, had previously worked on 21 Jump Street and would later create Space: Above and Beyond and the Final Destination series). While he only worked on a handful of episodes,  they’re pretty much all classics, consistently bringing out the best elements of the show, creating big laughs as well as great moments between Mulder and Scully. While his comedic approach polarised the show’s fans and crew at first, he became a favourite of both, with Duchovny attributing Morgan’s success on The X-Files to a lack of reverence for it, saying: “What I loved about his scripts was that he seemed to be trying to destroy the show.” For example, a scene in one episode he wrote featured a chase during which Mulder realised he was running on a treadmill. That’s deliciously stupid. 

The best episode of The X-Files just has to be one of his. But first…

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EVERY EPISODE DARIN MORGAN WAS INVOLVED WITH THAT PREDATES THE NEW ONES AND ISN’T IN THE TOP THREE X-FILES EPISODES EVER ACCORDING TO OUR RIGOROUS ANALYSIS

’The Host’: Before becoming a writer on the show, Morgan donned loads of disgusting prosthetics for his X-Files debut, playing the sewer-dwelling monster Flukeman in an episode written by series creator Chris Carter. Morgan spent up to 20 hours a day in the costume and never met the cast outside it - despite having a friendly in-costume relationship with David Duchovny. When Morgan later joined the show’s writing staff, Duchovny had no idea they’d met before. ‘The Host’ is a great, very solid monster-of-the-week episode featuring one of the show’s most iconic beasties.

’Humbug’: The first episode with Morgan’s writing credit, ‘Humbug’ is set in a village of retired sideshow acts, stars members of the Jim Rose Circus and Twin Peaks (including the late, great Vincent Schiavelli), and is the show’s first full-on hilarious episode, while still remaining creepy as all hell.

’Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’: ’Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ is one of the funniest episodes of The X-Files ever, and is so good that the character was later revisited on Chris Carter’s other show Millennium (in an episode again written by Morgan). Buuut, it’s a format-breaking, meta-episode of The X-Files, so hailing it as the best would suggest that there was something wrong with the show generally. Like, ’22 Short Films About Springfield’ is an incredible episode of The Simpsons, but if it’s your favourite, you don’t like The Simpsons that much. 

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THE TOP THREE X-FILES EPISODES EVER ACCORDING TO OUR RIGOROUS ANALYSIS

NUMBER THREE: ‘SMALL POTATOES’

Written by Vince Gilligan (who would later create Breaking Bad, and wrote the funniest non-Morgan X-Files episode, ‘Bad Blood’), ‘Small Potatoes’ would have been a strong contender for the top spot if not for a slightly problematic attitude to what, however you look at it, is non-consensual sex. 

Morgan stars as shape-shifting be-tailed janitor Eddie Blundht, who among other things fathers a child by changing his features to resemble Luke Skywalker. It’s a great performance, but it’s when Blundt takes on Mulder’s appearance that the episode truly excels - David Duchovny does an amazing impression of himself without any of the charisma, his awkward near-seduction of Scully is a hell of a moment, and it’s nice to have an in-show acknowledgment that Fox Mulder looks the way he does - there were frequent remarks from the Lone Gunmen about how attractive Scully was, but this was the first time the show explicitly mentioned how stupidly handsome David Duchovny is. It’s a lovely episode - a sad, funny, deeply silly one about what it means to feel insignificant.

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NUMBER TWO: ‘WAR OF THE COPROPHAGES’

Scripted by Darin Morgan, War of the Coprophages does one of The X-Files’ signature moves in a very explicit way, having its cake and eating it by repeatedly coming up with highbrow, intelligent-sounding explanations for really grotty events like a man dying while doing a poo. Even the episode’s title combines the highbrow and lowbrow - coprophage means ‘shit-eater’. 

It’s a genuinely stomach-churning episode, as Mulder and Scully investigate a series of mysterious deaths where all the bodies show up covered in cockroaches. Scully comes up with incredibly implausible but scientifically sound explanations while Mulder suspects something more sinister is afoot, and they’re surrounded by poop the whole time. Over 300 real roaches were used in the making of the episode, as well as a staggering amount of fake dung.

It contains one of the most disturbing moments of body horror in the whole series (when a cockroach burrows into someone’s arm), as well as an ingenious piece of quasi-fourth-wall-breaking when a cockroach appears to walk across the TV screen. There are loads of references to War of the Worlds in the script, and a general ongoing self-aware acknowledgement that everything that is going on is really silly. When Mulder is distracted by Lara Croft-esque entomologist Dr Bambi Berenbaum (played by 1990s B-movie icon and hotelier Bobbie Phillips), Scully repeatedly points out how silly a name Bambi is. And, in the end, it turns out Scully’s probably right about everything - nothing spooky is going on, just a bunch of unrelated grisly incidents surrounded by mass hysteria, a twist on a twist and the show cheerfully holding a middle finger up at itself.

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NUMBER ONE: ‘CLYDE BRUCKMAN’S FINAL REPOSE’

This episode won two Emmys, entirely justifiably - it’s a magnificent piece of television. Peter Boyle (from Young Frankenstein and Everybody Loves Raymond) guest stars as Clyde Bruckman, a reluctant psychic who can foresee people’s deaths. Written by Morgan following a period of depression, it’s one of the most heartbreaking, hilarious, human episodes the show ever did. Filled with death, inescapable death, in a way it’s like a pitch-black look at Spider-Man’s mantra of great power bringing with it great responsibility. Bruckman is plagued by his gift, terrified of it, inescapably lonely, guilt-ridden and, despite possessing an ability nobody else has, powerless. 

“The idea was that if you can foresee the events of someone’s life, you should be able to foresee their death; and if you could foresee their death, you would be seeing pictures like this all the time,” said Morgan of the origin of the episode. Death is everywhere in it, and it leaves you with a strange feeling after viewing - the bleak, unsentimental truth that we’re all dying, surrounding a tiny kernel of something approaching hope. It’s maudlin but life-affirming, while also featuring the best-eyebrowed comedy psychic ever televised, The Stupendous Yappi. We get two death-related revelations in this episode - that Mulder will die by auto-erotic asphyxiation, and that Scully will never die.

It’s a conventional episode in many ways - there’s a serial killer, some unexplained abilities, and Mulder and Scully’s trademark sick bantz - but there are also things turned on their head. Mulder’s a bit of a dick in multiple ways - he sees the tragic Bruckman not as a person but merely as a phenomenon, an X-file. In turn, we see how Mulder himself appears to others, as a crackpot. It’s Scully, the eternal skeptic, who sees Bruckman as a person rather than a novelty, and the conversations between the pair of them are as moving as the show gets. And in a show that’s always about seeking answers, a man who has all the answers wishes he didn’t. 

People die all the time on The X-Files - generally at least one before the opening sequence. At a guess, at least a thousand people have been murdered on it, but Bruckman’s suicide at the end of the episode is heartbreaking. He’s a tragic figure whose jokey earlier pronouncement that he and Scully would end up in bed together comes true in the saddest of ways, Scully holding his dead hand tenderly.

It’s The X-Files at its best - suspenseful, funny, intelligent and at times both monstrous and beautiful, and it’s the episode where Scully adopts a dog that’s eaten an old lady’s face. What a great bloody show.

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Mike Rampton

Mike Rampton is extraordinarily old, like some sort of giant mountain.

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