The X-Files is returning for Season 11 shortly and to celebrate, we at Set The Tape are looking back at the best of each season. We kick things off with Season One, looking at the top five episodes versus the worst entry of the year.
It is clear that, even without the heights if popularity it would find, the first run of The X-Files is still landmark television. There are some fascinating ideas at play, gripping stories of alien abductions, terrifying monsters and dark, chilling horror. Not all ideas worked and it is clear the show was still finding its feet even as it reached the end of season one, but there is no denying the ambition of it all.
Most importantly, it is the chemistry between David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully that sells the show. Even in the weaker episodes, the chemistry and performances from these two elevate the stories. And with that in mind, let’s look to the very best…
There were other contenders for best episode but I had to include the pilot episode because it is not only an expertly-skilled introduction to the show, but it laid the groundwork for one of the most successful character partnerships of all time. From their very first scene in Mulder’s basement office, the chemistry is there; Mulder’s kooky enthusiasm for the unexplained and Scully’s ability to challenge him with that great line “The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.”
It’s an incredibly atmospheric episode, dealing with alien abductions in the dark forests of Washington State (Vancouver has never looked better, while Scully continues to be a foil to Mulder’s assumptions (it’s easy to forget that she was there to be his antagonist, debunking his work). And yet that mutual respect is there from the start and without the obvious hint of romanticism, we see two people working to a common goal; to discover the truth of what is happening.
Adding in the first mention of Samantha, the Cigarette-Smoking Man hiding the evidence in the Pentagon vault in the episode’s closing moments and some hugely atmospheric moments like the blinding white light in the rainswept Oregon woods at night and this is The X-Files at its most confident from the very start.
The first monster of the week episode and arguably still the best; Eugene Victor Tooms is the stuff of nightmares, crawling through the tightest air vent, a chimney, your toilet to hunt you down and eat your liver. It’s such a fantastical idea and a huge risk to divert the premise of the show in its third episode, where the first two have been concerned with aliens. But it totally works, and sets up the introduction of some truly terrifying monsters to follow; the Flukeman, the Mothmen, the Peacocks, they all owe something to Mulder and Scully’s very first monster.
And that is all down to the terrific, witty script from Glen Morgan and James Wong and the wonderful, offputting performance from Doug Hutchison. Where ‘Squeeze’ differs from other monster of the week episodes is it’s ability to bring a depth to character to the bad guy. It’s what makes him a better monster than say the Flukeman, who might look disgusting but whose soul purpose on screen is to terrify and kill. Tooms wants to eat your livers in order to hibernate for thirty years. It’s a disturbing but fascinating concept.
‘Squeeze’ could easily have been the show’s first clunker; instead it became its biggest success. You couldn’t imagine a show these days taking some a bold diversion from the premise until the show’s format has been established. A witty, terrifying episode with some horrific set pieces that really get under your skin, ‘Squeeze’ is one of the greatest episodes of The X-Files ever and its easy to see why Tooms returned later in the season for ‘Tooms’.
The X-Files takes on The Thing and it is marvellous. An episode fraught with tension and paranoia, Mulder and Scully find themselves trapped in an Arctic base with an alien parasite infecting everyone and turning them into killers. It’s pure bodysnatchers horror and at this stage – just eight episodes into their partnership – ‘Ice’ is an episode that threatens to put these two partners at odds with each other.
But the episode doesn’t just rely on those classic horror movie homages; the direction is tight, there are many thrilling set pieces including the a gripping, bloody pre-title sequence that sets the stakes at play, and a terrific cast to back up the strong performances by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.
With the likes of Felicity Huffman and Xander Berkeley, the supporting cast are as impressive as the leads and adds a depth of rich storytelling before all hell breaks loose. And those final scenes where Mulder and Scully turn their guns on each other are nail biting stuff, delivering a dramatic and yet terrifying intimate horror story in the frozen wilderness. In fact the concept was so great, it would form the basis of the forest-based ‘Darkness Falls’ later in the season.
‘Beyond The Sea’
The X-Files has given us some truly chilling serial killers, from Donnie Pfaster to Robert Patrick Modell, but one of the most skin-crawling human monsters came in the form of season one’s Luther Lee Boggs, played with an understated but terrifying intensity by Brad Dourif.
‘Beyond The Sea’ was Scully’s best episode to date, thanks to a tour de force performance from Anderson as she deals with the raw grief of her father’s death at the start of the episode (a brief but memorable performance from Don. S. Davis). Scully finds herself manipulated by Boggs and his psychic connection to another killer, while claiming to have a message from her father.
It’s a fascinating, grim exploration of death that flips the show’s premise as Mulder becomes the skeptic, believing Bogg’s claims to be lies, while Scully becomes the believer. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way, but it is all down to the stunning interplay between Dourif and Anderson; the scene where she rages at him for the incident that left Mulder in hospital and he reveals facts about her childhood are utterly mesmerising. It incredibly dark and moving episode that bravely has Scully chose not to given in to Bogg’s claim of a message from her father and makes it the standout achievement of The X-Files‘s first season.
‘The Erlenmeyer Flask’
While season finales like season two’s ‘Anasazi’ were better, this season one ending showed how it was done by tearing up the rule book and spinning the entire series on its head. There is a general consensus that the mythology really kicked off with Scully’s abduction in season two, but in reality, season one had been laying the breadcrumbs with some great alien storytelling (‘Deep Throat’, ‘Fallen Angel’ and ‘EBE’ are also contenders for top season one episodes).
It’s a slow build of an episode that keeps the audience on their toes, as Mulder and Scully come several steps closer to uncovering the conspiracy around alien life. The motivations of Jerry Hardin’s Deep Throat, a shadowy presence in the season, are questioned by Scully as he leads Mulder in search of a fugitive doctor and the discovery of human alien hybrids. It is easy to take for granted the big themes that made up the core mythology storyline, but here these clues are tantalizing; Mulder discovering the hybrids in huge water tanks is a hugely iconic moment in the show’s history.
And then everything falls apart; Mulder is captured and Scully is forced to work with Deep Throat to steal an alien embryo in exchange for her partner’s life. This leads to the shocking moment where Deep Throat is shot and killed – an act that did not seem thinkable at that stage in the show – followed by the cliffhanger of the X-Files being shut down. It was a bleak but thrilling ending to the season and left audiences excited for the second season to follow…
As for the worst episode? Well Season One does have a few clunkers as the show tried to find its feet in supernatural storytelling. These are several episodes that feel dull, lacklustre and dated (‘Shapes’, ‘Space’ and ‘The Jersey Devil’ to list a few) but there is one episode that really sets the bar low in season one…
‘Ghost In the Machine’
It’s Mulder and Scully versus an evil computer, but this artificial intelligence is as dull as it is dated. It’s a story we’ve seen done many times before and surprisingly, like The X-Files‘ attempts to look at werewolf lore in ‘Shapes’, it just feels utterly uninspired. It kills people with electrocuted key cards and tries to force Scully into the rotating blades in an air shaft, but it is devoid of tension to be enjoyable. And it was done much better (though admittedly not brilliantly) in season five’s ‘Kill Switch’.
Season One of The X-Files was a hugely ambitious debut year with some of the show’s all time classics. There are were perhaps a few more clunkers than those seasons that immediately followed, but there is no denying the mark it made on television history.
Do you agree with the choices? What are you best and worst episodes of season one? Let us know in the comments below…