TV lists

The X-Files: Chris Carter’s best episodes

Following Chris Carter's birthday, Tony Black looks at his best writer/directorial efforts on The X-Files...

For any X-Phile (like me), October 13th is a special day. 10/13 as it’s known in America is the birthday of legendary The X-Files creator, Chris Carter, and the name of his production company which made the seminal, pop culture defining TV show such a rampaging success – a show that refuses to go away, given the eleventh season is just months away.

In honour of Carter’s birthday last Friday and his show, we thought we would look back at five of his key episodes, as both writer and director, and what they brought to the series.

Also, shameless plug time, but my podcast The X-Cast has begun #TheXCastPodwatch (find it on Twitter), a daily run of podcasts which talk the entire 200+ run of the series to date, before the S11 premiere. Hopefully unmissable for any X-Files fan out there.

Anyway, on with the list…

The List (S3, E5)

…and ‘The List’ seems as good a place as any to start! An early entry in the third season of the show, by now Carter knew he had a phenomenon on his hands. David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson were on the cover of Rolling Stone. 20th Century Fox were talking about doing a movie. The future was shaped with an X, and Carter knew he had more money to play with in order to realise his spooky tales.

You can see that cash on screen in the production design of ‘The List’, which builds an entire, large prison set as FBI Agents Fox Mulder & Dana Scully investigate what could well be a case of a Death Row, executed inmate returning from beyond the grave to exact vengeance on those who wrongfully put him in the chair. One of the darkest stories the show ever did, set in the smoky Florida tropics, ‘The List’ is filled with shady characters, stark lighting, twisty-turny plotting and memorable guest turns from well known character actors, such as the late, great JT Walsh as the sinister prison Warden.

The best part? It ends with Mulder genuinely uncertain about how it all rolled out. That’s so rare, where Mulder hasn’t figured out the weirdness, so to have him walk away feeling like the case is unfinished is fascinating to see, especially before a final sting of a ending. And I mean that literally…

Patience (S8, E3)

Oddly enough, Carter wrote and directed more episodes from the eighth season onwards than he often did in previous years of the show. Many consider the last few years of the series ailing but Season Eight, in reality, is one of the show’s strongest years; Carter pulls the series back to its roots, moving away from the lighter character comedy of the sixth and seventh season, choosing the absence of Duchovny’s Mulder to pare the season back to darker, tighter and creepier stand-alone stories – at least the first half anyway.

Straight after the two-part premiere, Carter delivers ‘Patience’, a story which absolutely fits the new, pulled back template. A shadowy monster, a small town and plenty of misfit characters who may or may not be doing the murdering and, in this case, be a bat-like creature of folklore. ‘Patience’ also has the virtue of being the first investigation not connected to the mythology for Scully and new partner, Special Agent John Doggett (Robert Patrick), hence Carter writes plenty of awkward tension between two very different people attempting to figure out how to work together, while the newly-pregnant Scully is still suffering the anguish of Mulder’s disappearance and having the man she loves ripped out of her life.

Though not a classic X-File, and in some ways a fairly routine story, ‘Patience’ is neatly shot with plenty of gloomy shadows and mood lighting, and a solid script for Scully and Doggett to start, ever so slowly, forming some kind of partnership.

Duane Barry (S2, E5)

Not just the first episode Carter both wrote and directed for the show, ‘Duane Barry’ in many respects was the episode that displayed quite what The X-Files was capable of, on a dramatic and cinematic level. It kickstarted a storyline for Scully which played out across the rest of the series’ long run—her infamous abduction (whether by men or aliens is never certain) due to Gillian Anderson’s unexpected pregnancy–while also telling a tight, compact and dramatically powerful story about a former FBI agent who could either be an alien abductee, or a crazed lunatic holding people hostage with bizarre demands.

For several reasons, Carter really makes an impact with ‘Duane Barry’. The script, for a start, could well be the strongest he’s ever written, tapping into a rich vein of drama based around the eponymous Duane’s quite harrowing recounting of his alien abduction experiences (many of which, as always with this show, come from documented real life claims), and quite how Mulder reacts to entering a hostage negotiation situation. Duchovny rises to the great material and guest star Steve Railsback–as Barry–just blows you away with how edgy, disturbed and ultimately sympathetic his portrayal is. Though fellow guest star CCH Pounder got an Emmy nomination, Railsback should have been honoured, because his performance is nothing short of legendary.

If not perhaps Carter’s greatest achievement both behind the script and camera (he too got Emmy plaudits), with ‘Duane Barry’ nonetheless he showed everyone The X-Files wasn’t just a weird little procedural, a baton Season Two picked up and very quickly ran with. The rest, well, is history…

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One comment

  1. I have become quite the fan of “Improbable,” Chris Carter’s season 9 foray into numerology, probability, and God in the person of Burt Reynolds. I avoid almost all of season 9, but “Improbable” has improved after multiple viewings, particularly accompanied by Chris Carter’s commentary track, which offers a lot of insight into his thinking and extends thematically beyond this episode into the wider X-Files world. I at first thought “Improbable” was a shallower version of Darin Morgan’s “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and “Clyde Bruckman” certainly handles the themes of fate, chance, pattern perception, and choice more naturally in the story. However, as an exploration of how people perceive (or not) and act (or not) in accordance with patterns in the world and in human psychology and the idea of degrees of freedom in action, it’s a great thought piece. In addition, the quirkiness hits the level of celebration without being over the top. I think “Improbable” is one of Chris Carter’s more cerebral efforts, and it works for me in terms of intellectual stimulation even if the emotional tone is rather dry. It’s also one of the few instances of non-Mulder & Scully intellectual discourse that I truly enjoy in the series.

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