Before it was a Nielsen hit advertised on the cover of magazines everywhere, before it became one of the first subjects of message-board obsession, The X-Files was the little cult show that could: an offbeat Friday night procedural about two attractive, mismatched FBI agents hunting little green men across the most Canadian stretches of the American boonies. In retrospect, it's difficult to imagine a world without Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), whose investigations into all things paranormal would influence generations of TV smashes, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Lost to the prestige darlings created by one of the show's most prominent writers, Vince Gilligan. But back in the early days of creator Chris Carter's seminal sci-fi series, it was possible to wonder if this weird little gem would survive.
It did, and then some. The X-Files lasted nine seasons on Fox, growing for a time into one of TV's most-watched programs, making stars out of its photogenic leads, and spawning two movies and a ratings-challenged spinoff. It then returned to screens last decade for a short-lived revival — a victory lap for a series that helped set new creative parameters for small-screen drama while inspiring an early internet fanbase to pick over its secrets and speculate about its grand plan. In many respects, The X-Files is the kind of foundational small-screen pillar that renders questions of consistency obsolete; however its quality ebbed and flowed over the years, its legacy is secure.
Still, there were ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys. And in honor of the show's 30th anniversary this month, we're here to trace them from worst to best — to chart a ranked rather than a chronological path through 11 full seasons of sometimes funny, sometimes scary, always idiosyncratic sleuthing. Disagree with the order? Think the Doggett years are too high, or the new adventures of Mulder and Scully too low? Just remember: There are a lot of different truths out there. This is just ours.
Of all the '90s primetime sensations granted new life in our cannibalistic media age, The X-Files actually seemed like a pretty good candidate for the revival treatment. Shouldn't Mulder and Scully be right at home in our scary new age of government surveillance and widespread conspiracy theory? Yet the X-Files that returned to Fox in January of 2016 was a shadow of its shadowy self, successful neither as an upgrade nor a nostalgic approximation of its old supernatural-gumshoe formula. Most of the six episodes range from forgettable to regrettable, lacking even the reliable chemistry between the show's leads. (Duchovny, especially, seems lost, almost hungover.) Fans were left to ponder more pressing questions than those raised by the cut-rate cases of the week. What was Carter thinking making the Alex Jones-like right-wing podcaster a genuine truth teller? Why the hell does the atrocious, bookending mythology arc share a title with Hitler's manifesto? And why would they get our hopes up by naming one episode "Home Again," only to reveal that it does not, in fact, involve the belated return of the Peacocks? Still, there is an instant classic here: "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster," an existential tragicomedy nearly on par with the previous stone-cold masterpieces by writer Darin Morgan. One line reading alone nearly justifies the whole misbegotten endeavor.
Carter and company had nowhere to go but up from season 10, which scored huge ratings despite how poorly it delivered everything The X-Files did well in its prime. The subsequent (and currently final) season, up from six to 10 episodes, smoothed out some of the kinks. The mythology installments are still the pits; season premiere "My Struggle III" even laughably trots out the whole it-was-all-a-dream trick to walk back the events of the previous season's finale. But this is a slightly sturdier crop of episodes, with two major highlights: Darin Morgan's typically hilarious retcon goof "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat," and brother Glen Morgan's ingenious, wordless "Rm9sbG93ZXJz." And this time, the show actually did capitalize on the opportunity to engage with a modern world, building stories around the singularity, smart technology, Fake News, the Mandela Effect, and internet-era urban legends of the Slender Man variety. You almost have to wonder if the revival happened too soon; QAnon and our renewed UFO obsession were right around the corner.
In its ninth season, The X-Files wasn't just running on fumes. It was in the throes of a futile soft reboot for which nobody, not even the creative team, seemed particularly enthused. With Duchovny officially gone and Anderson likely to follow suit, the show feigned towards positioning Robert Patrick's no-nonsense Doggett and Annabeth Gish's woo woo Reyes as the new Scully and Mulder. Angry fans and plummeting ratings killed that succession plan, though it didn't help that the big mythology arc involving government super soldiers was a dud, or that Carter boldly killed off the show's most popular supporting characters, in an episode the incensed would be quick to note is called "Jump the Shark." The clunky two-part series finale would shift focus back to Mulder and Scully, and treat their planned replacements like background players. But for all the endless lamenting for an offscreen, absent hero, it's Doggett who redeems this uneven, occasionally inspired, once-final run of episodes. The standouts — south-of-the-border amnesia thriller "John Doe," unexpectedly moving Brady Bunch homage "Sunshine Days" — put Patrick at center, with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan at the keyboard.
If Season 9 took The X-Files past its expiration date, Season 7 found the show consciously racing towards it — in part, by going back to Mulder and Scully's first case together. Even before that pilot-mirroring closer, a sense of finality settles over the seventh season, which was made in the shadow of Duchovny's salary dispute with Fox and a general uncertainty about the show's future. You can see Carter wrapping up big arcs, including the long-overdue revelation of what really happened to Mulder's sister. He also takes the low-simmering romantic tension between Mulder and Scully about as far as it can go without officially hooking the two up. ("Millennium" finds time for their first kiss, even as it serves as an unofficial finale for Carter's other series). There's a general creative fatigue to a lot of Season 7, but also a nothing-left-to-lose quality. That adventurous willingness to try new things results in some great curveballs, like a brilliant parody of Cops and a Monster of the Week story that unfolds from the monster's perspective. It's also probably to blame for a few rather terrible hours of TV — including the consensus pick for worst episode of the whole series, the nearly unwatchable "Fight Club," starring Kathy Griffin in a dual role.
What happens when a true believer stops believing? That's the central question of The X-Files' fifth year, when Mulder lost his faith in the existence of extraterrestrials — a conflict that honestly didn't much alter the nature of his dynamic with skeptical Scully or the trajectory of their cases. Still, there are deviations aplenty in Season 5, some of them necessitated by the concurrently filmed X-Files movie: To accommodate Duchovny and Anderson's shooting schedules, several episodes minimize the involvement of one or both, zigzagging off into a solo investigation or origin story. The show would also arrange guest-writing gigs for Stephen King and William Gibson, while taking a few stabs at breaking the X-Files mold, including a whimsical, black-and-white spin on Mary Shelley and a gut-busting, he-said/she-said Rashomon riff about small-town vampires. All told, Mulder's moody disillusionment feels like a reflection of the show's own creative restlessness and growing pains, including the internally divisive decision to move production to LA. (This was the final year The X-Files would film in ominously verdant Vancouver.)
Poor John Doggett. Brought in to oversee The X-Files after Mulder's abduction (which is to say, after Duchovny opted to appear in only about half the season's episodes), the straight-shooting FBI company man played by Robert Patrick caught a lot of flack — from new partner Scully, but also from a fanbase unwilling to warm to a character they saw as a poor, interloping substitute for their favorite alien-obsessed oddball. Thing is, Doggett's oddly sympathetic pragmatism gave The X-Files a real shot in the arm, throwing a wrench in the buddy-cop works at a crucial juncture; his earnest attempt to prove himself in a strange new job is a big reason why Season 8 remains the show's most widely underrated. Another is its handful of installments worthy of the peak years: the disturbing town-with-a-secret horror of "Roadrunners;" the almost Lynchian dream-dread of "Via Negativa;" the backwards-unfolding, time-warp suspense of "Redrum." Ironically, only the Mulder-heavy episodes in the second half of the season mar this briefly successful attempt to squeeze some fresh blood out of a show that was starting to really show its age.
The first season of The X-Files is, in some ways, embryonic; everyone from the stars to the writers to the special effects artists were clearly still figuring out what it could be. At the same time, though, the show's format — the way it combined Kolchak with Silence of the Lambs, Oliver Stone conjecture with UFO culture, episodic casework with serialized storytelling — was firmly in place almost right from the start. Some of the absolute worst episodes (like the atrocious "Space") hail from this modestly budgeted, modestly rated inaugural run. But so do some of the best: The gloriously icky "Squeeze" introduced the first of the show's memorably outlandish villains, "E.B.E." set the sprawling '70s-conspiracy-thriller template of the so-called mytharc episodes, and the incredible "Beyond the Sea" established how seriously Carter would take the psychology of his central duo. Those fans not hooked by the miniature horror or sci-fi movies beamed into their homes each week could instead latch on to the instant chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson — a little funny, a little antagonistic, always thick with tension. On their charged rapport, a phenomenon would be built.
Coming off its moves to the big screen and Los Angeles, The X-Files hit the ground running in Season 6, returning with a renewed sense of purpose and newly cinematic scope. "Drive," an intense gloss on Speed, kicked off the fateful collaboration between Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston. The two-part "Dreamland" roped in another future Gilligan player, Michael McKean, for some peerless body-swap comedy. And lavish time-travel yarn "Triangle," which Carter mostly shot in elaborate single takes, is arguably more movielike than the actual X-Files movie, in ambition if not budget. It isn't often that a show feels this alive with inspiration and rollicking energy in its sixth year; there are at least half a dozen other top-tier episodes here, a real improvement on the more fragmented, uncertain Season 5. Only the overarching mythology stuff betrayed signs of atrophy, in part because the show had by that point answered a lot of lingering questions — though even there, we got the delicious, fiery comeuppance visited upon the villainous Syndicate.
The X-Files majorly grew its audience in season 4, thanks to a much-deserved move to Sunday nights and the boost of airing an episode, "Leonard Betts," after the Super Bowl. That terrifically squishy installment, the show's most watched ever (and surely one of the grossest things America's football-loving masses caught in the aftermath of the big game), teased Scully's forthcoming battle against cancer — a storyline that would allow Anderson to stray from poker-faced shtick and show off her acting chops. (Duchovny's attempt to do the same in the reincarnation weepie "The Field Where I Died" is, uh, not as successful.) If Season 4 brought The X-Files to a new commercial peak, it also found the show in its creative groove, balancing crackerjack mytharc entries like "Tunguska" with astonishing standalones like the tensely devastating "Paper Hearts," the Forrest Gump-by-way-of-JFK bad guy origin story "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man," and Gilligan's ruefully funny "Small Potatoes." And before the show decamped for Sunday, it offered one last Friday-night shocker: "Home," which is 44 of the scariest minutes of TV ever unleashed upon an unsuspecting primetime viewership.
Name an all-time favorite episode of The X-Files, and there's a decent chance it aired during the towering third season. This was the year when Carter and his crew gave us an all-time great villain, the mind-controlling assassin Pusher; when they found the ideal use of choice guest stars like Peter Boyle, Ken Foree, and a young Giovanni Ribisi; and when they introduced the black oil, an alien substance that came to look like a perfect metaphor for the fluidity of their formula — the way the show could take on the shape of action, horror, drama, comedy, and more, while still remaining quintessentially itself. Mulder and Scully might be hunting a Loch Ness Monster one minute, having a candid conversation about the meaning of life the next; that was the unpredictable magic of The X-Files in its prime. Of course, the third season's claim to greatness rests most comfortably on the contributions of Darin Morgan, who fully transitioned from the guy in the Flukeman suit to the most radical visionary on the writing staff with his three episodes, including the magnificent "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," a convention-busting masterpiece of big laughs and bigger despair.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Emmy-winning third season is the pinnacle of The X-Files. But it was one year earlier that the show realized the ideal version of itself, perfecting its balance of sweeping longform storytelling and self-contained tussles with the unexplained. The show would eventually exhaust the appeal of its slowly unfurling government conspiracy, but those early mythology episodes are gangbusters entertainment, teeming with intrigue, mystery, and urgency. Look at the breath-stealing "Duane Barry," in which Mulder's ability to empathize with a self-proclaimed abductee threatens the lives of the people he's held hostage. Or "End Game," in which regular director Rob Bowman gets the absolute most out of his network TV budget, delivering one of the most iconic images of the series: a submarine peeking out of the arctic ice.
Nearly every week brought a fresh, exciting new exploitation of the premise, from the superlative creature-feature thrills of "The Host" to the first of Darin Morgan's sad-hilarious wonders, "Humbug." Throughout it all, Duchovny and Anderson fully refined the relationship between their characters into something funny and moving; the show's legacy as watercooler event TV rests on what they forged early on. Maybe the highs got higher in later years, but The X-Files never quite recaptured the consistency of its second season. Back then, it felt like pulp lightning in a bottle, addictive in its eccentricity and its endless possibilities. It was, to borrow the title of one of Season 2's creepiest outings, irresistible.
The X-Files Seasons 1 through 11 are streaming on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.
TOPICS: The X-Files