Written by: Valerie Kalfrin, CC2K Staff Writer
The truth is out there—or so we heard, a message written over the stars. Twenty-five years ago this month, The X-Files and its wistful but mysterious motto premiered on network television. Inspired by speculative series like 1974’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The X-Files lasted nine seasons before its brief reboot in 2016, making it the longest-running sci-fi series in history. Along the way, it won five Golden Globe awards (including Best Dramatic Television Series), laid the groundwork for cousins like Fringe and Supernatural, and became a pop-culture touchstone for exploring urban myths, conspiracy theories, and whatever goes bump in the night.
The show launched the careers of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, two attractive and intelligent people with a platonic dynamic that evolved into romance. Creator Chris Carter upends traditional gender roles by making Mulder, who as a child watched a UFO abduct his sister, the true believer—or at least the guy who wants to believe. Scully, a medical doctor, is a Catholic by faith but a skeptic on the job, insisting on tangible evidence behind fantastical sightings. They make a captivating pair, delving into philosophical questions, horror, and humor with low-budget effects and a lot of flashlights.
I fell away from the show in the later seasons as the overarching mythology took over, but I loved it so much that I still remember lines, moments, and characters. Not the Cigarette-Smoking Man or the Well-Manicured Man, double agent Alex Krycek or Director Walter Skinner. I mean the smaller players in the show’s eccentric universe, the ones who queued us in that us X-Philes were part of something special.
Here are five of my favorite episodes. What are yours?
1) “The Unnatural” (Season 6, Episode 19)
Before appearing on Law & Order, Jesse L. Martin turns in an earnest and touching performance as Josh Exley, aka “X,” a black baseball player for the Roswell Grays in 1940s New Mexico whose skills are truly out of this world. Written and directed by Duchovny, the episode earned high praise for its themes of racism and alienation, but X lingers for his pure love of the game as well as his humanity.
2) “Squeeze” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Doug Hutchison made a strong impression as Eugene Victor Tooms, a killer who emerges from hibernation every thirty years. To do that, he needs to devour five human livers, which he obtains by stretching through air vents and other tight spaces. With his elongated fingerprints, yellow eyes, and nest made of shredded newspaper and trophies, Toombs is undeniably creepy—and signaled that The X-Files could cover stories beyond extraterrestrial encounters. The character returned in “Tooms” (Season 1, Episode 21), but that first case stands out for beautifully showing off unexpected one-liners, like when Mulder realizes he’s touched bile. “Is there any way I can get it off my fingers without betraying my cool exterior?” he asks, then shakes his hand wildly.
3) “Pusher” (Season 3, Episode 17)
English actor Robert Wisden played Robert Patrick Modell, a man who opts to keep a brain tumor that’s killing him because it grants him the ability to “push” people, or talk them into seeing whatever he wants. (Mulder calls it “the whammy.”) Before taking ill, Modell tries to be a Navy SEAL and a Green Beret but doesn’t have the skills to match his ambition, instead ending up a military supply clerk and a self-styled ronin. Wisden’s deep yet melodious way of turning a phrase like “cerulean blue” is mesmerizing, as is the game of Russian roulette Modell lures Mulder into—and the cat-and-mouse game Scully plays to free her partner from his control. “I say we don’t let him take up another minute of our time,” she urges Mulder, who finds it tough to get Modell out of his head. The laconic antagonist returned in the less-satisfying yet twisty “Kitsunegari” (Season 5, Episode 8).
4) “Small Potatoes” (Season 4, Episode 20)
Darin Morgan wrote some of my favorite X-Files episodes, including “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and a standout from the reboot, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” He made his acting debut in Season 2’s “The Host” as the Flukeman stalking the sewers in my home state of New Jersey, but I remember him better playing shape-shifting schlub Eddie Van Blundht. Van Blundht is a janitor who impregnates five women while posing as someone else, including Luke Skywalker. His guile reminds me of con men I wrote about as a crime reporter. He’s particularly emboldened once he poses as Mulder, giving writer Vince Gilligan plenty of comedic fodder for Duchovny to play. (“You’re a damn good-looking man,” the unreal Mulder quips in the mirror.) Unlike some X-Files villains, Van Blundht isn’t a sinister mastermind but still knows how to cut to the bone. “I was born a loser,” he tells Mulder once in custody, “but you’re one by choice.”
5) “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (Season 3, Episode 4)
The magnificent Peter Boyle won an Emmy for his guest appearance as Clyde Bruckman, an insurance salesman whose psychic ability to foresee how people die makes him a killjoy, a sad soul, and a protected witness once he becomes the target of a madman. Bruckman’s visions are imprecise, but Boyle’s delivery is killer as he gets hung up on details like the type of pie in one of his predictions. (Lemon meringue? Banana cream?) He memorably tells Mulder there are more dignified ways to go than autoerotic asphyxiation—and envisions himself and Scully in bed together, her with tears in her eyes. Like other stories that toy with fate, it’s surprisingly tender in how it all plays out and hits a sweet poignancy when Scully trusts Bruckman enough to ask how she’ll die. “You don’t,” he says with genuine joy.
Valerie Kalfrin is a multiple award-winning journalist, film and culture critic, essayist, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She’s a “Tomatometer-approved” critic on RottenTomatoes.com and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Hollywood Reporter, The Script Lab, Script magazine, ScreenCraft, The Guardian, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and elsewhere.