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FeaturesOctober 2, 2014

Three Perfect Episodes: The X-Files

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X-Files obsessive David Farrier chronicles the show’s strengths through three very different episodes of the sci-fi classic. //

“I don’t know anybody in the world working in film, and that’s what we work in here even though it appears on television” – Chris Carter, circa 1996

One of the happiest days of my life happened six years ago, when I sat down with X-Files’ creator Chris Carter and told him how much I adored his show. The only thing that marred the meeting was that he released the second X-Files movie that same year, which was a tired old dog.

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The author with an old friend

But the fact remains: The X-Files informed my formative years. Season one kicked off when I was just nine, and wrapped up when I was 19 and at university. In the early years I’d have to record Wednesday night’s show on VHS, ready to play on Thursday morning before school. It was a rough, dreadfully uneven nine seasons that really tested your patience towards the end (What, no Mulder?!), but it demonstrated how a television show could develop a mythology (suck it, Lost) to keep long-term fans intrigued, while drawing in newcomers with standalone episodes.

On reflection, it turns out those standalone episodes had the strongest writing and direction, so became the series’ best. Here are three X-Files’ episodes which demonstrate why the show worked so well.

Squeeze‘ is the third episode of season one. The first two episodes served to set up the show, and its ongoing obsession with extraterrestrial life (aka THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE). What ‘Squeeze’ did is establish the monster-of-the week format, thanks to actor Doug Hutchison. Doug’s made a career of playing creeps (Percy in The Green Mile springs to mind), and in ‘Squeeze’ he played an animal control officer who was over 100 years old, could squeeze his body through tiny gaps, and liked to eat human livers. As Mulder and Scully chased down the monster, fans of the show were reminded these two humans weren’t about falling in love, they were about getting their hands dirty (with monsters and UFOs). In doing so they created a chemistry far greater than two people pashing on screen. That chemistry, combined with a horrible distorting monster who lived under an escalator, made for a show that was both sexy and scary. The people cried out for more (and got another 199 episodes).

sexual tiger
sexual tiger

As an aside, Hutchison ended up being a creep in real life too, when at 51 he decided to marry a 16-year-old, who said the horrid words “He’s a tiger” in regards to his sexual appetite.

‘Squeeze’ proved so popular, Eugene Victor Tooms was brought back in his own episode later in the season, called ‘Tooms’. It rated even better than ‘Squeeze’, even though it wasn’t nearly as good.

Actual monsters weren’t the only monsters to be found in The X-Files. Some of them came in very human form. The second episode of season four, ‘Home’, is probably the most horrifying episode of fictional television I’ve seen. No doubt we’ve now seen worse on Hannibal and True Detective, but in 1996 ‘Home’ was breaking new ground, and the first X-Files episode to come with a “graphic content” warning in the United States.

It opens with some kids playing a basement game on a bright, sunny day. One of the boys scuffs at some dirt with his foot as he gets ready to swing, only to find something mushy under his shoe. It’s a dead baby. And so starts the story of the peacock brothers, and their tendency of inbreeding with their quadruple-amputee mother they store under the bed.

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prancing peacock

It’s a morbid story with a morbid end, and it showed just how glum and dark a television show could be. While the overarching mythology was chasing escapism in the form of Mulder’s abducted sister and alien colonisation (a concept brilliantly expanded upon in 1998’s X-Files film Fight The Future), episodes like ‘Home’ revelled in the pointless, horrible things human beings decide to do. The show saw the return of staff writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, who’d buggered off to create the hugely underrated Space: Above and Beyond. These two were the X-Files dream-team (Hell, they wrote ‘Squeeze’).

Jose Chung’s From Outer Space
It’s an incestuous little team on Chris Carter’s show, and Glen Morgan’s little brother, Darin, was responsible for the third most vital X-Files episode. Darin proved that deadly serious show could do comedy, and do it well.

‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ was the first episode in the show to revel in the world it had created. It played on the stereotypes Mulder and Scully had become, and the two different outlooks they had – the believer and the sceptic. The show starts normally enough with an alien abduction, but it’s the way in which it’s told – or rather re-told – that brings in the comedic beats.

Agent Scully allows herself to be interviewed by writer Jose Chung, who’s penning a book about alien abduction. This serves as an excuse to break down the episode from multiple viewpoints, which at one point sees Mulder yelping like a small girl. It’s the opposite of ‘Home’ in tone, and demonstrates that a show doesn’t have to be defined by a single aesthetic. As Chris Carter himself said in an interview: “It’s been a wonderful coincidence of timing, talent, and the success of the show that allowed it to stretch in a direction it would never have been able to if it had been less successful”.

‘Jose Chung’ is also wonderful in that it references the paranormal world both within The X-Files, and out in the real world. An autopsy conducted by Scully parodies the “real” alien autopsy video played again and again on the X-Files home network, Fox. Jeopardy host Alex Trebek plays a Man In Black. I haven’t watched the episode in over a decade, but the line, “This is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening” refuses to leave my brain.

The whole show refuses to leave, and it never will. ‘Squeeze’, ‘Home’ and ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ are three big reasons. There are countless more examples, many found on VHS tapes I’d recorded as a pre-teen. I hate to think how much I’ve spent on the show: I recall the purchasing the individual Toom’s VHS, followed by a 5-VHS ‘Want To Believe’ megapack. Then there’s the full set of collectors cards released on the ’90s (goodbye, pocket money), and the insanely expensive special-edition fold-out DVD box-sets. Christ. No wonder I don’t own a house.

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