‘The X-Files’: 5 Episodes to Watch If You’ve Never Seen The Sci-Fi Drama

These picks, which were tested on someone who had never seen the show before, are the best introduction possible to the Fox series now celebrating its 25th anniversary.
No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1650800a)The X-files , Gillian Anderson, David DuchovnyFilm and Television
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in "The X-Files"


Season 3, Episode 17

Official Description: A seemingly unmotivated murderer, who can apparently talk his victims into killing themselves, is on the loose and it is up to Mulder and Scully to study the clues left to them by the person and capture him.

What the Newcomer Was Told Prior to Viewing: “Another stand-alone, no specific context needed. You may hear one line during the climactic scene that references a past event, but it may just slip right by you.”

Why It Was Picked: This episode features fantastic character moments, a fascinating villain, and one of the all-time great climaxes. Written by Vince Gilligan, it may not be the best-ever episode of the show, but it’s definitely in the top 10, and it does a perfect job of capturing how, when at its best, the Mulder-Scully dynamic is the best part of the show.

What the Newcomer Thought: First things first: I need to know Holly’s OK after this. [Editor’s note: She doesn’t appear again, but she seems fine!]

Maybe watching more of this show trains you to expect the unexpected, but as a relative newcomer, the twist at the opening of this episode fooled me. Robert Patrick Modell — the names on this show are so good, I’d remember this even if it hadn’t bizarrely predicted a future cast member, years in advance — goes from someone I thought for sure was marked for death to a prime suspect in the span of 30 seconds.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ken Staniforth/20th Century Fox TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5884419r) Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny The X Files - 1993-2002 20th Century Fox Television USA Television Scifi The X-Files
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in “The X-Files.”Ken Staniforth/20th Century Fox TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“Pusher” was also a helpful way to dive deeper into how Scully and Mulder fit within the framework of this show. It’s been thrilling to see how the two of them go against the usual detective prototype in a way that naturally stems from the work they’re doing. These are agents who are prepared to break protocol not because they’re broken, self-important rebels, but because that’s what the situation calls for. They’re willing to yell down a SWAT team because they’re the ones who are able to articulate why they’re worth listening to. Under inexplicable circumstances, they can still appeal to people’s sense of reason rather than smashing into a manhunt by sheer brute force. There’s something really admirable in that.

Without knowing exactly what kind of workplace flirtation has been going on for the better part of three seasons, that little hand-hold (and the knowing look Scully gives him) before Mulder goes in is right in that serialized sweet spot between partner and partner. There’s a confidence in these early episodes to let the knowledge of these characters boost your understanding and leave enough unspoken. That might be the most satisfying part about these so far.

That comes out in some more of those simple, real-world indicators, too. Watching someone sweat so much that it’s unavoidable taps into a visceral sense of fear that’s universal, and seeing both Mulder and Modell in that final standoff struggling with their own internal forces is more dramatically satisfying than any physical combat would be. Battles of wits and wills with metaphysical ramifications? Yeah, this is getting to be my kind of show.

“Duane Barry”

Season 2, Episode 5

Official Description: A former FBI agent who claims he was abducted by aliens takes several people hostage. Mulder agrees to be the negotiator.

What the Newcomer Was Told Prior to Viewing: “We’re ending with the beginning one of the series’ most significant narratives, but even with that said, ‘Duane Barry’ starts a bit in media res. What you need to know: At the beginning of Season 2, the X-Files division was shut down and Mulder and Scully were reassigned to different departments, and Mulder got assigned a new partner named Krycek. Krycek is very pretty, but we have come to suspect that he is working for the conspiracy (what with us having seen him meeting with the conspiracy at least once).”

Why It Was Picked: This episode technically means going back a bit (if this list was chronological, it’d be the second mentioned). But not only is the episode’s central plotline a truly gripping casefile, the ending also launches viewers into the core of the show’s ongoing mythology with a seismic twist. Is this a sadistic choice, given that if a new X-Phile is hooked on the show by now, he or she will immediately want to watch the next episode and more? Oh, you’d better believe it. But it could be worse: “X-Files” fans spent months waiting for resolutions to the show’s infamous season-ending climaxes. In short — the Newcomer’s getting off light here.

What the Newcomer Thought: After writing about how the last four episodes succeed by being selective in what they show, it’s jarring to see this cold open lay everything out so explicitly. And it’s not just that the aliens are visible right up top. Duane’s performance is loud, shrieking and attention-grabbing for the exact opposite reasons that so many of the other guest performances were.

This makes me think that getting invested in these mythology hours are more about how they affect Mulder and Scully (maybe to some extent Skinner, since I’m not sure how much Pileggi was involved going forward). Carter’s obviously interested in exploring how the pursuit of answers can crowd out everything else from someone’s perception. But I can already see how that pursuit can be exhausting if it’s not tempered by parallel ideas. This showdown with Duane Barry only came alive when the element of him being an ex-FBI agent got introduced. Otherwise, it’s a hostage negotiation not too different from a well-established template.

There’s a sliver of that when he has to acknowledge, “I can’t negotiate with him if he thinks I believe him.” I was looking forward to seeing whether the empathetic one in this show’s central pair could actually remove himself enough to have a Scully-esque sense of professional removal. Of course, he can’t. That certainly says something about him, but watching Mulder get eaten alive by his compulsion to find “the truth” is a tiny window into how this show could (and I’m assuming does, at some point) veer from what made the other four of these episodes easy to fall in love with.

What seemed novel at the beginning of this experiment has now become a tad bit commonplace: Mulder confronting a suspect in a dimly lit living room with carefully placed, beautiful shadowing. There’s still a lot of craft to admire here, but I enjoyed it more when it went hand-in-hand with the restraint from before. That scanner sequence at the end plays out largely as you’d expect, but it’s still really effective to see the display fritz out like that. Can’t help feeling like it would have worked just as well even without seeing Duane set up on the Vitruvian Man operating table. (Though, that laser drill is going to give me waking nightmares.)

The Newbie’s Final Thoughts: Was This a Success?

THE X-FILES: L-R: Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in the "Rm9sbG93ZXJz" episode of THE X-FILES airing Wednesday, Feb. 28 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2018 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Shane Harvey/FOX
If the goal of this experiment was to see whether this was enough to make someone a believer, consider this a success. After hearing years of references, invocations, and unrestrained bliss from fans when talking about this show, it was thrilling to be able to tap into a tiny bit of that same feeling. This really was like cracking open the pages on a classic volume and realizing just how big a creative shadow it casts over what’s come in its wake.

Now, it may very well be that what I liked most about these episodes are specific to them, things in combination that don’t recur very often outside these five. There might not be as much opportunity to see Mulder and Scully as a unit, playing off of each other’s instincts and drives. Maybe over time, “The X-Files” loses sight of them as individuals and treats like a monolithic unit. Maybe Scully (like in “Duane Barry”) becomes the agent in distress, the one who keeps having to be saved. As these two evolve, maybe the show around them isn’t sure how to handle major changes in their perspective.

Seeing the unseeable (and in turn, writing the unwritable) may have a way of hardening your heart and making you complacent. At some point, you hope your fandom finds fulfillment at the exact time that the people giving it life find the right time to step away. That’s the danger with any ongoing story, but it’s also what makes starting that journey — even decades later — so enticing.

In hearing discussion of the show’s recent years, even without remembering specifics, I got the feeling that this has become a show that often loses track of what once made it transcendent (I also gather that was also the case even before the revival). Now I feel like I’m ready to make that determination for myself. It’ll be a while before I can indulge/satisfy the completist side of my brain and take a full plunge into what “The X-Files” has to offer, but the thought of getting to that point someday has me far more excited than trepidatious. I’m incredibly glad I started the search.

“The X-Files” Seasons 1-11 is streaming now on Hulu, and also airing on BBC America.

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