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The Enduring Appeal of The X-Files Lies in Its 'Monster of the Week' Episodes

These entries tapped into primal fears and captured the show's potential better than its central conspiracy storyline.
  • Clockwise: Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, Darin Morgan, Justine Miceli, and Harrison Coe in The X-Files (Photos: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)
    Clockwise: Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, Darin Morgan, Justine Miceli, and Harrison Coe in The X-Files (Photos: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)

    The X-Files, which turns 30 this month, might seem daunting to new viewers in its scope. There are 218 episodes and two feature-length movies. Its core narrative — a convoluted government conspiracy involving hostile aliens — is never fully resolved, even after a two-season revival that reunited FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). However, the sci-fi series remains binge-worthy if you ignore the alien mythology and focus instead on what’s commonly known as the “Monster of the Week” episodes.

    A far-reaching government conspiracy to deny the existence of extraterrestrials falls apart upon any real scrutiny — after all, people simply can’t be trusted to keep secrets that big. As Scully tells Mulder’s paranoid conspiracy theorist friends the Lone Gunmen, “I think you give the government too much credit… I mean, the government can’t control the deficit or manage crime. What makes you think they could plan and execute such an elaborate conspiracy?”

    The series would also need to endlessly hand-wave why a seemingly all-powerful shadow government consortium can’t just kill or at least fire a couple meddlesome FBI agents. No such suspension of belief is required for a century-old serial killer who can contort his body like Plastic Man, or an inbred family of murderous psychopaths. This is the enduring appeal of the MOTW episodes. They make us turn on the lights while watching and perhaps cast an anxious glance at our own air vent. Few of us seriously worry that aliens will abduct us, but we can’t shake our childhood fear that a red-eyed monster lurks beneath our bed.

    Like Doctor Who’s the Weeping Angels or the Vashta Nerata, The X-Files’ scariest monsters strike when no one’s looking or prey on victims wherever they feel the least safe. Chris Carter’s series was at its best when it mined horror from our daily, real-world fears, such as the charming monster from Season 3’s “2Shy,” who exploited the loneliness of women over the internet well before online dating had become mainstream.

    Admittedly, some of the first season’s MOTWs are forgettable. “Jersey Devil,” for instance, is burdened with tedious plot-obstructive elements that the show would later drop — Scully resists investigating a case and Mulder argues over jurisdiction with a cliched local detective. The plodding “Shadows,” “Space,” and “Ghost In The Machine” are among the series’s low points. But there’s an exponential increase in quality with the second season, starting with “The Host,” featuring the creepy “Flukeman” (played by Darin Morgan, who’d write some of the show’s best episodes). The noted “ickiness “ of the monster and the shocking body horror pushed past the often tame boundaries of the first season. Flukeman’s origins in the 1980s atomic horror of Chernobyl was a modern riff on 1950s sci-fi films but with more pointed political commentary. Like Eugene Tooms, Flukeman is effectively unsettling because he’s not an alien. He’s a homegrown threat that walks among us.

    While The X-Files was technically sci-fi, it never dwelled long in any specific genre, instead becoming one uniquely its own. This was the advantage of the MOTWs, as up-and-coming writers could build their own diverse worlds within separate corners of the X-Files universe. It’s similar to The Twilight Zone: Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and creator Rod Serling wrote episodes with distinctive styles and tones that were still recognizable entries in the anthological series. Mulder and Scully, like Serling’s narrator, were our consistent guides through this strange world.

    The MOTW episodes expanded the series’s narrative palette and offered endless storytelling opportunities. Imagine if Charlie Kaufman wrote for a 1990s TV series — in fact, the premises of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind could easily have been X-Files. Yet, there were also moody, atmospheric installments that would inspire such later procedurals as CSI and Criminal Minds. The show’s many outright comedic episodes (“Humbug,” “Bad Blood,” “War of the Coprophages”) weren’t merely self-parodies, as some critics have argued, but instead pioneered a sly, winking tone that Joss Whedon would popularize on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel.

    The X-Files frequently challenged stereotypes and subverted expectations, and some of the best examples are found in MOTWs: The nurse at the plastic surgery clinic in “Sanguinarium” is indeed a witch but she’s trying to protect the patients, not hurt them. The snake-handling, fire and brimstone preacher in “Signs and Wonders” is the good guy while the charming, almost progressive minister is pure evil. In “Folie à Deux,” a telemarketer takes his office hostage, but this is because he knows the horrible truth — that his boss is a monstrous insect creature who’s turned his coworkers into zombies. The mytharc episodes were so busy advancing a circuitous plot that they never had time to be innovative. That was never a problem with the MOTWs: “Triangle” took place in “real time,” like Alfred Hitchock’s Rope, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” was filmed entirely in black and white, and “X-Cops” was an unlikely crossover with the reality show Cops.

    The alien conspiracy plot eventually stopped making sense (if it ever did), but The X-Files avoided the fate of series like Lost or The Pretender, which emulated the long-running “mystery” plot line but without the creative risk-taking. The X-Files revival in 2016 and 2018 picked up the overwrought conspiracy plot line with Mulder and Scully’s part-alien son and some more end-of-the-world spectacle. It was a needlessly tangled mess, yet the best installments hands down were MOTW stories — “Plus One,” “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” and the brilliant “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat.”

    The alien conspiracy episodes advanced a cumbersome plot line and elevated stakes to levels the series never fully paid off, but MOTWs delivered compelling character studies, trenchant satires of small-town middle America, and tense thrillers that showcased Mulder and Scully as driven, insightful investigators who solve cases that flummox their more traditional colleagues. They were far more satisfying than the conspiracy installments in which the agents chased their tails for 40 minutes, tapping into something primal and making The X-Files a classic show in the process.

    The X-Files Seasons 1 through 11 are streaming on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Stephen Robinson is a staff writer at Wonkette and theatre maker at Seattle’s Cafe Nordo. Follow him on Twitter @ser1897.

    TOPICS: The X-Files, FOX, Chris Carter, Darin Morgan, David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Monster of the Week