I originally disappeared down this X Files rabbit hole for my friend Laura. She’s never watched the X Files and so, initially I started thinking about how someone might go about watching some episodes which would give a flavour of what the X Files was all about, without fully committing to watching all 11 seasons (which equates to 163 and half hours of TV).
I also figured this might be a useful thing for people who previously watched some or even all of the episodes of the X Files, and fancy a trip down memory lane; but again, don’t want to actually watch all 11 seasons.
So, when I started out, I thought this would be a lot of fun for me. I loved the X Files and was pretty excited about this whole idea. And it was fun, until it wasn’t.
I think that there’s often something very comforting about rewatching a series you love. For me at least, it’s a pretty passive experience, I don’t need to think too hard about what it is I’m watching, and I’ll just let nostalgia carry me away.
I was very much in that “not thinking” mode when I started rewatching various X Files episodes.
But somewhere along the way I started noticing things. Things I hadn’t noticed before, and what was initially a comforting experience quickly turned into a disquieting one.
Here’s the thing: even in the nineties and early noughties (when the show was originally aired), I recognised that there were some problematic X Files episodes.
When I rewatched the show again in 2016, again I noticed problematic episodes. This time there were episodes which I found newly problematic (i.e. ones which I hadn’t realised were problematic previously).
Fast forward to today, and again, when rewatching a selection of episodes I noticed even more problematic storylines and characterisations than I did before (in either the nineties or 2016). Things like: the perpetuation of damaging racial stereotypes, problematic depictions of various cultures and religions, minimising or otherwise glossing over violence against women in deliberately comic episodes – I could go on, but you get the picture I’m sure.
Is the whole damn show problematic? I think that the answer is yes. Some episodes are definitely worse than others. Some episodes stand up fairly well, but nevertheless, there are problematic aspects to pretty much every episode.
Perhaps some of this is inevitable, right? I’m watching a show from the nineties and noughties through a 2021 lens. I see the show differently now because my perspective has changed. It’s a show which I acknowledged was occasionally problematic even at the time it was aired, and so it probably shouldn’t be a huge surprise that I now find the show to be more problematic now than I did before.
And yet I am surprised. I’m surprised that I didn’t notice a bunch of this stuff until now.
And I don’t know quite how to feel about the show now – I definitely loved the X Files once upon a time, but do I still love it today? There are episodes I once liked, but now I find offensive. There are also episodes that I liked before, and I still like now. I can’t help but wonder how I might feel about them in the future though.
I decided to do a little research to find out if others felt similarly. I was pretty surprised to find that actually not that much has been written about the problematic nature of X Files. However, I did find one article which I think does a great job of summing up the complexities of loving a show that’s problematic, and highlights some of the key issues with the series. I’d encourage you to read the full article here.
So where does this leave me in terms of what I originally set out to do? My plan was to come up with some options so that someone could watch some episodes which would give a flavour of what the X Files was all about without watching the whole thing.
Do I still want to do this? Is this a show I’m comfortable recommending people watch? I’ve gone back and forth on this a bunch of times, and here’s where I’ve landed:
If you’ve never seen X Files before you should understand that it is problematic. If you’re still curious and would like to watch some, in this post I’ve outlined some options for you.
If you’ve previously watched some or all of the X Files, but perhaps didn’t perceive it to be particularly problematic, then I suspect it’s likely your view of it will change if you rewatch it. If you’re cool with that, again, the options outlined here could also work pretty well for you.
Options one and two include episodes which I’d categorise as overtly problematic. Option three is a list I’ve personally collated. Whilst I’ve attempted to avoid the most overtly problematic episodes here, this list is not without its issues.
I feel like it’s also worth noting at this point that problematic episodes aside, the X Files is not for everyone. It’s a series which includes a lot of violence, various horror tropes, and scenes which viewers might find upsetting.
If you’re in, then cool. If not, I totally understand.
Ok then, let’s do this:
How might you go about watching the X Files?
Each season of the X Files contains two types of episode. There are alien mythology episodes (these episodes form part of an ongoing narrative); and there are monster of the week episodes. The monster of the week episodes are arguably standalone – i.e. you don’t really need to have seen any of the episodes prior, in order for them to make sense.
So, effectively you’ve got two ways to watch – alien mythology is an ongoing arc, so in order for the series to make sense, you probably need to watch them in order; however the monster of the the week episodes could probably be watched in any order because they’re not part of an ongoing narrative.
With this in mind, here are a few ways you could go about watching X Files without committing to 163 and a half hours viewing time.
Option One: Just watch the Alien Mythology Episodes
One way of watching the X Files would be to just watch the mythology episodes. That would mean watching 70 episodes which is about 52 and half hours of viewing time. If you wanted to do that, here are the episodes you should watch:
|1||24||“The Erlenmeyer Flask”|
|2||1||“Little Green Men”|
|3||1||“The Blessing Way”|
|4||7||“Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”|
|5||14||“The Red and the Black”|
|7||1||“The Sixth Extinction”|
|7||2||“The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati”|
|7||10||“Sein und Zeit”|
|8||14||“This Is Not Happening”|
|9||1||“Nothing Important Happened Today”|
|9||2||“Nothing Important Happened Today II”|
|9||6||“Trust No 1”|
|10||6||“My Struggle II”|
|11||1||“My Struggle III”|
|11||10||“My Struggle IV”|
Before embarking on this particular TV binge, you should know that there are problematic episodes included within this list.
Also, I’ve never watched the X Files like this, so I’m not sure how well or otherwise it would actually work in practice. Plus, you’d obviously miss out on all of the monster of the week episodes – this of course leads me neatly to the next option.
Option Two: Just Watch the Top 10 Monster of the Week Episodes
I infinitely prefer the monster of the week episodes to the alien mythology episodes – the ongoing narrative arc frequently creaks, and frankly it’s just not as much fun. If you’re going to skip anything I’d skip the alien mythology, but I’m sure there’s tonnes of people out there who’d disagree with me.
The monster of the week episodes have another advantage too – they’re standalone; so you could arguably watch as many or as few as you like.
So which episodes might you choose to watch? These are the top 10 highest rated monster of the week episodes of X Files according to IMDb:
|3||4||“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”||9.3|
|3||20||“Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”||9|
The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that episodes 4 and 5 from Season 6 (Dreamland, and Dreamland II) both appear here. It’s a two-parter so you’ll clearly want to watch them back to back. Also, rather than watch them in order of IMDb rating, you’ll probably want to watch them in chronological order, like this:
|3||4||“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”||9.3|
|3||20||“Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”||9|
Because it’s based on IMDb user scores, whilst this is a pretty decent list of episodes, it’s fair to say these are fan favourites. The list includes some pretty meta or otherwise self-referential episodes like Jose Chung’s From Outer Space and Bad Blood. For fans of the show these are a delight, but they may leave the uninitiated cold – it’s hard to understand a joke you’re not privy to, huh?
More importantly, there are also problematic episodes included in this list. For example, Small Potatoes is a deliberately comedic episode which, whilst entertaining, definitely doesn’t befit the seriousness of the crimes perpetrated against women within it.
Also Home definitely isn’t for everyone – it’s probably the scariest X Files episode, (many have also dubbed it the sickest) and Fox apparently never re-aired it.
Option Three: Handpicked Episodes
Here’s a list of the episodes I’ve handpicked. As noted earlier in this post, whilst I’ve attempted to avoid the most overtly problematic episodes, even this list is not without its issues.
These 30 episodes equate to around 22 and half hours viewing time. Personally, I’d view them chronologically so you get a sense of the progression of Mulder and Scully’s relationship, but you do you.
|3||4||“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”||9.3|
|5||19||“Folie à Deux”||8.7|
|6||6||“How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”||8.3|
|10||3||“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”||8|
As this is my list, here are a few notes on each episode:
S1, E3: Squeeze – the first monster of the week episode features a mutant called Tooms. Cheesy special effects, but still great I think.
S1, E8: Ice – killer parasitic extraterrestrial worms are found in ice core samples. A wonderfully tense episode.
S1, E11: Eve – Genetic experiments lead to the creation of homicidal twins. Creepy kid-tastic episode.
S1, E20: Darkness Falls – insects that will give you a new reason to be afraid of the dark. There’s plot holes here, but it’s still a great episode.
S1, E21: Tooms – the return of episode three’s monster of the week, Tooms. X Files created a handful of monsters over the 11 seasons who got follow up episodes; but for me, this is the only one worth watching.
S2, E2: The Host – Not the greatest episode to be fair, but it features particularly memorable mutant called the Flukeman. Another parasitic worm, but very different to those featured in Ice.
S2, E3: Blood – A mind control conspiracy, where digital devices instruct people to “kill ’em all”, plus this episode features Mulder’s Lone Gunmen pals who I have a soft spot for.
S2, E20: Humbug – I think this might be my favourite episode of all. It somehow manages to be funny, thought-provoking, creepy, and sad all at once. An incredible 45 minutes of TV.
S3, E4: Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose – frequently cited as the best X Files episode ever, for me this one comes in third place behind Humbug (S2, E20), and Field Trip (S2, E21).
S3, E13: Syzygy – Set in a High School and is perhaps best described as a cross between the films Heathers (1988) and The Craft (1996). “Hate him, wouldn’t wanna date him.”
S3, E22: Quagmire -A Loch Ness Monster-style episode that’s actually about Mulder and Scully’s relationship.
S4, E2: Home – definitely not for everyone, this is probably the scariest X Files episode, and many have also dubbed it the sickest.
S5, E3: Unusual Suspects – the origin story of Mulder’s pals the Lone Gunmen.
S5, E10: Chinga – notable mainly because this creepy doll episode was written by Stephen King. Also, Scully gets to take centre stage whilst Mulder is merely a bit-player which I approve of.
S5, E12: Bad Blood – a fan favourite, and possibly the funniest episode of the X Files. Not a great vampire story by any means though.
S5, E19: Folie à Deux – The horrors of telesales. Paranoid delusion, or body snatching alien bug creatures? Tonnes of B Movie fun.
S6, E2: Drive – Bryan Cranston’s in this episode! It’s a bit like Speed but without Sandra Bullock and therefore infinitely superior.
S6, E4 & E5: Dreamland – Mulder swaps bodies with a creepy asshole played by Michael McKean. Kinda bloated (not sure this really needed to be a 2-parter), but fun.
S6, E6: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas – Mulder and Scully get trapped in a haunted mansion with some homicidal ghosts. Like Quagmire (S3, E22) this is another episode which is more about Mulder and Scully’s relationship than anything else, and it’s also the best Christmas episode the X Files ever made.
S6, E14: Monday – Groundhog Day, X Files-style.
S6, E15: Arcadia – Mulder and Scully go undercover in a strange gated community. Fun mainly because you get to watch them play house.
S6, E21: Field Trip – Fans of the show will likely remember this as the shrooms episode. Twisty turny fun, and for me the second best episode of X Files ever.
S7, E3: Hungry – A fast food worker has one hell of an eating disorder.
S7, E12: X-Cops – Mulder and Scully find themselves investigating a case which is simultaneously being filmed by the crew of Cops. Fan favourite which shouldn’t work but somehow does.
S7, E19: Hollywood A.D. – Features a glorious three-way split-screen bubble bath between Scully, Mulder, and Skinner, and dancing zombies. To be fair this episode’s a total mess but I like it.
S7, E21: Je Souhaite – The one with the genie. Be careful what you wish for kids.
S9, E18: Sunshine Days – Michael Emerson (Lost’s Ben Linus) plays a man who turns his home into the Brady Bunch house because he’s never had a family. Personally I think you can safely skip Seasons 8 and 9 of the X Files (David Duchovny doesn’t feature in many episodes, and the writers really struggled to make the series work in his absence), but this episode is pretty great.
S10, E3: Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster – Another fan favourite. The sharp-eyed will notice that the stoners from Quagmire (S3, E22) reprise their roles are stoners here, and at one point Scully hushes Mulder’s concerns, saying: “You forget… I’m immortal” which is a reference to Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (S3, E4). Disappointingly, this episode includes an extremely problematic depiction of a transgender character – I can’t help but feel that in 2016, the writers really could have done better here.
S11, E7: Rm9sbG93ZXJz – To dub this episode “X Files does Black Mirror” does it a disservice – I think it’s actually better than season 4’s Black Mirror episodes – but it’s a neat way of describing it I guess. In this episode Mulder and Scully learn the importance of tipping our new robot overlords.
Want Moar Stuff?
This is likely to only be of interest to fans of the show, but I’ve made a GoogleSheet with a bunch of extra stuff which I’ll happily share with anyone who wants it.
For example, I’ve categorised all of the monster of the week episodes by theme, so if you wanna watch just the creepy kid episodes, just the mutant episodes, just the mind control episodes etc, then you can easily filter the sheet to find them.
Drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll share it with you.