The Best and Worst of The X-Files Season 1

I begin my rewatch of one of my favourite TV series, charting the best and worst aspects of every season.

As well as being one of the best and most influential TV shows of all time, The X-Files is also one of the most rewatchable. I’m always finding myself sticking on one of my favourites out of the over 200 episodes of the show, but I’ve never gone back and rewatched the entire series in order since I first became a fan. Now that I’ve purchased the series on Blu-ray (and it looks incredible), I’m rectifying this and re-experiencing the series from Season 1 onward. In the beginning there’s definitely a sense of the show finding its feet but overall, for a genre show in the early 1990’s, it’s surprisingly good for a debut season. Mulder and Scully’s relationship is key in every episode, either highlighting the strengths of a great episode or making the worst episode at least watchable. Duchovny and Anderson’s chemistry is strong from the first episode, from the very first scene in fact, when FBI Agent Scully is sent to work with ‘Spooky Mulder’ to discredit and refute his work on unexplained phenomena but instead becomes his partner on a variety of sci-fi and horror-inflected cases a shadowy agency is trying to bury. It’s a professional relationship that develops into a great friendship. Both of them are extremely capable but flawed in opposing ways, making them the perfect team: Scully’s skepticism to Mulder’s belief. The first season introduces the complex mythology arc inter-spaced with monster-of-the-week adventures that would be the formula for 11 seasons over 25 years, and is also home to the diverse range in quality the show has to offer: from 45-minute masterpieces to complete failures. As I rewatch the show, I’ll be checking in every season with these articles, using the same headings and criteria to chart the progress of one of my favourite television series through the best and worst it has to offer.

Best Character: Mulder

You’d think this category would get old a couple of seasons in but I have a feeling it won’t just be Mulder or Scully earning the title. But for the first season it definitely is a competition between the two of them, and I think Mulder has the stronger debut. Both of the leads are great but Mulder comes out a little stronger because it takes the writers a while to figure out how to make Scully correct sometimes, even when the thing she is skeptical about is in fact happening. The episode E.B.E nails this by having Mulder’s belief get the better of him and Scully has to show him that the truth he seeks if often surrounded by lies. Many early episodes don’t manage this and at the end of the hour, simply, Mulder was right and Scully was wrong. Scully is the lead for the strongest episode of the season – which I’ll get to later – but Mulder has consistency on his side. At this point he’s the one with the fascinating backstory and motivation – the disappearance of his sister – and is the impetus for the start of the majority of the cases. Even in the bad episodes, like the bevy of reincarnation stories that fill out the season’s second half, there’s always a facet of Mulder’s character uncovered and his best moments don’t always come when his hypotheses are correct, but instead when he’s wrong and reaching for an answer even more outlandish than the truth. Mulder may clinch the victory but you can’t have one without the other and much of his characterisation is defined by his relationship with Scully.

My Unpopular Opinion: Ghost in the Machine isn’t that bad

The two episodes on everybody’s lips when asked for the worst episode of the first season are Space and Ghost in the Machine. Space I’ll get to later but ‘Ghost…’ I find to be a little unfairly maligned. It focuses on a killer AI that runs a skyscraper, killing those who want to shut it down, and it’s not a good episode. The technology, now that the episode is over 25 years old, is quite laughable and the writers have confessed that they had no knowledge of the technology they were writing about. But there is merit in the episode. There’s a great sequence featuring Scully trapped in the building’s ventilation system, almost being cut up by a large fan before shooting it. The dilemma the AI’s creator finds himself in is interesting, with him choosing to admit to the crimes himself so he can’t be used to build more killer AI for the government. I also almost always like when the shady government conspirators unexpectedly show up in a ‘monster-of-the-week’ episode, with Deep Throat making one of his few appearances. I admit, it’s a pretty rubbish episode but it’s nowhere close to being one of the worst of the series like many would have you believe.

Best Guest Star: Harriet Harris (Eve)

This is by far the most difficult category for me to pick my answer. There are so many great guest stars throughout every season of The X-Files, with the first memorably including Brad Dourif in Beyond the Sea, Doug Hutchison as Eugene Tooms in two classic episodes and Željko Ivanek’s performance in Roland enhancing the rather lacklustre material. But my pick goes to Harriet Harris for playing three clones in the episode Eve. This is not to say I’m picking quantity over quality but I love the way she plays three very different versions of ‘Eve’. The Eve-series are the result of a government cloning experiment gone awry, resulting in super-strong super-geniuses who, more often than not, end up being psychotic. Harriet first plays a motherly and quite likable Eve who is trying to carry on the experiment and creates two clone children of her own, who turn out to be more dangerous than she could possibly imagine. Next, she portrays the Eve clone left to rot in a cell, babbling through yellowed teeth about how she likes to bite into eyeballs. And finally, in the episode’s last few minutes, a third Eve appears and in just a few seconds of screen time Harris is able to sell great criminal intellect as a Moriarty-type clone planning her own nefarious deeds by breaking the children out of prison. It’s a shame we never got to see a follow-up episode. Harris is wonderful in the role(s) and the episode itself one of the best, and most underrated, of the season.

Biggest Disappointment: Shapes

Who doesn’t love a good werewolf story, and with an X-Files twist this could have been a good one. The problem is that there is no twist. It’s just a standard run-of-the-mill bit of lycanthropy that’s painfully obvious in every way. With this episode The X-Files proves it struggles with the more general horror fare and is more at home creating its own monsters – like centuries-old liver-eating stretchy hibernating genetic mutants – than stock horror characters. The X-Files learns a lot of lessons in its first season and this is possibly the biggest. Creating new horror characters and mythologies are for the best, but I can’t help feeling there could have been a good werewolf episode of the show, and it’s a shame this is the attempt they made.

The ‘What the Hell Did I Just Watch?’ Award: Gender Bender

If an X-Files episode can’t be good, then hopefully it can be weird enough to make it enjoyable and that’s exactly the sentiment I want to celebrate with this category. Gender Bender is a bizarre instalment of the show; a collection of ideas thrown together to create a baffling yet fun mess. The glue that holds them together and makes the episode just about work is Rob Bowman’s fantastic direction. This is Bowman’s first episode and he’d go on to be one of the series’ most prolific directors, including directing the first X-Files movie. There’s a killer on the loose and night clubs are their hunting ground. They just so happen to be able to change gender too. Mix that with an Amish-like sect called ‘The Kindred’ who like to go into the caves under their barn and rub white goo on dead bodies to change their gender, and have the ability to make anyone become attracted to them with a simple touch, and you’ve got Gender Bender. The gender politics are so very dated and at the end it’s revealed ‘The Kindred’ have been aliens the whole time and just leave the planet, with only a crop circle remaining to ever indicate their presence. It’s a stupid ending employed by the writers just so they don’t have to explain anything that just happened in the last 45 minutes and leaves you wondering, “what the hell did I just watch?”.

Worst Mythology Episode: Deep Throat

I feel like having a ‘worst mythology episode’ discussion will make more sense the further into the series we go. Surprisingly, in Season 1, they’re all really good and some of the best episodes of the season overall. Picking a worst is a tough job and I guess I’m picking Deep Throat despite it being a great episode. It acts as a kind of second pilot for the show and therefore feels a little redundant, but that’s the only complaint I have. It follows Mulder and Scully investigating military aircraft that have possibly been built using scavenged extra-terrestrial UFO parts and are driving the pilots insane. Mulder discovers the truth, standing below a UFO in a restricted area, before being captured and having his memory wiped. The truth he’s always searching for being taken from him only to be approached by ‘Deep Throat’, a government conspirator who is looking to feed Mulder information at the episode’s end, setting up the rest of the season.

Best Mythology Episode: The Erlenmeyer Flask

While the first season has mythology episodes in a sense, the finale feels like the first true mythology episode of the series. The Erlenmeyer Flask introduces elements that will play a massive part in the show’s future, from alien-human hybrids to the Purity Virus. Previous mythology episodes will later be tied into the overall narrative, but this is the first episode that feels like it’s building on what has come before and begins the serialised story that will continue for seasons to come, in a time when serialisation was rare. The episode is a little rushed, particularly the final 15 minutes which feature Scully stealing an extra-terrestrial embryo to bargain for Mulder’s life, Deep Throat’s death and the closure of The X-Files. If this were any other season of the show, it would have been a two-parter. But away from all the new plot threads and show-changing events, it’s just an entertaining episode the like of which hadn’t been seen before. The episode also finalises the arc of the season. Whereas Mulder and Scully’s search for the truth began as an optimistic “I want to believe”, the season ends with Deep Throat’s much more foreboding final words of “trust no one”. The more they’ve delved into the conspiracy, the scarier and darker their world has become. And this is just the start.

Worst Standalone Episode: Space

I’ve talked about how a bad X-Files episode can be enjoyable if it’s weird enough but the worst episode of the season doesn’t even have that to fall back on. Space is mind-numbingly boring. It was conceived to save money by having most of the episode set in one location and this isn’t a bad idea. Ice and Darkness Falls are two of the best episodes of the season and are also restricted in location for the same reason. To add insult to injury, Space ended up being the most expensive episode of the season because of the cost of the NASA launch control set. The plot sees a former astronaut possessed by an alien spirit who is trying to sabotage space missions. This all occurs without us seeing what’s happening in space, so most of the episode takes place in one room with the astronauts reporting what’s happening over the phone, while scientists try to fix the issue with technobabble. The guilty party meanwhile sweats in the corner before throwing himself out a window at the end of the episode and Mulder and Scully do nothing but stand around reacting to stuff. It’s interminable and has no redeeming qualities other than the performances of Duchovny, Anderson and guest star Ed Lauter.

Best Standalone Episode: Beyond the Sea

Scully takes centre stage in the best – and most personal – episode of the first season. On first glance you could be mistaken for thinking Beyond the Sea is just a Silence of the Lambs knockoff but it’s anything but. The episode begins with the death of Scully’s father and she has a vision of him just before she’s notified of his death, his ghostly mouth moving but with no sound. Her and Mulder’s case then takes them to imprisoned psychic serial killer Luther Lee Boggs – Brad Dourif giving an excellent performance – who claims to have visions of the location of his serial killer protégé. Mulder believes him to be a fraud while Scully takes on the role of the believer when Boggs claims to be able to contact her father. It’s a phenomenal episode and by far the moodiest, darkest and most atmospheric of the season, largely due to David Nutter’s direction. There are some truly haunting visuals and the script leaves the extent of Boggs’ powers open to interpretation. It does wonders to Scully’s character, building on her reasons for her more scientific outlook and what it takes to challenge that. The episode wisely takes Mulder out of action for a while and Scully’s final choice – to reject Boggs – brings previously unseen insight to the character. The episode is Gillian Anderson’s best work of the season and has everything that makes a great X-Files episode; from effective horror/supernatural elements, a gripping narrative and detailed character work.

And with that the first of my ‘Best and Worst of The X-Files’ series is complete. I’ll be starting Season 2 very shortly but there are over 20 episodes per season and, because of all the other shows I’m currently watching, it’s going to take a while to get through it. Expect the second article in a couple of months but for the time being let me know what episodes from the first season you would place under my categories and where have I gone wrong? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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