In 2015, Fox made headlines with its announcement that The X-Files would be returning to primetime TV on January 24th, 2016 after a 13-year hiatus. This has a lot of sci-fi fans very excited, but if you’ve never seen the The X-Files, you might not understand what all the fuss is about. And even if you have seen The X-Files, you might need a refresher to help get you back up to speed with this amazing show.
With nine seasons, 202 episodes, two movies, a spin-off series, and a comic book series, The X-Files has a massive catalog of great stories. Which is exactly why it’s going to be difficult to get caught up with what’s going on in such a short space of time.
However, we have done our best to introduce newcomers to the show, and remind everybody else of the important aspects they may have forgotten while The X-Files has been off the air.
Read on for a quick introduction to the show, along with some recommendations for specific episodes you should watch to help prepare yourself for the return of The X-Files.
A quick note on spoilers! The miniseries will likely pique some people’s interest in the entire series, so we have avoided major spoilers in this article. If you want to explore the mythos of the show in more detail, check out the Wikipedia article on The X-Files mythology.
Although it spans a number of genres, “sci-fi horror” is probably the best single label—with elements of mystery, thriller, and plenty of drama thrown in, and a dash of goofy humor for good measure.
There are occasional historical elements, a lot of conspiracy-theory-type stuff, and some thoughtful reflections on faith and skepticism. The wide range of mysteries and topics is one of the qualities that makes The X-Files such a classic TV show.
The basic idea behind The X-Files is simple: two FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) investigate unsolved cases—the eponymous “X-Files”—centered around paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Aliens, mutants, cryptids, futuristic technology, and monsters all feature prominently in the mysteries investigated by the protagonists.
Most of the show is made up of “monster of the week” episodes, which see Mulder and Scully investigating a single mystery (which usually, but not always, includes some sort of monster), but one of the show’s most interesting and enduring qualities is that there’s an overarching plot, only revealed in some of the episodes, that has much wider implications for the show and the world as we know it. This is known as the “mythology” of The X-Files, and it’s what truly separates The X-Files from other, similar shows.
Mulder witnessed his sister’s abduction by aliens when he was 12 years old, and he’s been on a search for the truth about extraterrestrial life ever since. Government conspiracies, doomsday scenarios, cover-up operations, and a myriad of other intrigues follow.
His drive to uncover the truth and belief in extraterrestrial life are two of Mulder’s defining qualities as a character, but both agents are deep, complex, flawed, and evolving. Scully’s medical training, skepticism, and detachment place her squarely as the foil to Mulder’s more emotional and credulous persona, though both characters grow over the arc of the show as they learn and experience more happenings.
Mulder’s beliefs and supernatural bent contrast sharply with Scully’s evidence-based focus, and the reversal of typical gender roles is one of the best things about this complex pair. The evolution of their initially platonic relationship also makes for a wonderful story.
Near the end of the show’s run, Scully became the main focus, with Mulder making occasional appearances and agents Reyes (Annabeth Gish) and Doggett (Robert Patrick) joining the fray (both pictured above). Mulder and Scully both play lead roles in the two The X-Files films, but Reyes and Doggett have yet to make it to the big screen. Reyes, however, will make an appearance in the new miniseries.
Walter Skinner is a recurring important character throughout the run of the show; as the head of The X-Files office, he serves as Mulder and Scully’s supervisor. Throughout much of the show, his motives are suspect, and it’s unclear whether or not he serves The Syndicate, an evil “shadow government” that serves as a major antagonist, though he repeatedly saves Mulder and Scully’s lives. Skinner is a surprise fan favorite, and will be returning in the miniseries.
The main villain of the show is known only as the Cigarette-Smoking Man, a shadowy figure who often serves as the visible face of The Syndicate. His ties to government conspiracies, assassinations, cover-ups, and other nefarious activities make him a compelling antagonist that always seems to be around when something goes wrong for Mulder and Scully.
So, what kinds of mysteries are the heroes and villains mixed up in? A better question might be, “What kinds of mysteries aren’t they mixed up in?” There’s a huge variety of things that make an appearance in The X-Files, and I can only do very limited justice to the creativity and innovation in the show here.
For example, one of the most memorable monsters sought out by Mulder and Scully is the Flukeman, a hybrid man-flukeworm created by post-Chernobyl radiation (pictured above). A later episode includes a silicon-based fungal parasite discovered inside a volcano. Another monster that makes an appearance is a being somewhere between a human and a bat. Yet another memorable “monster” is a human with a genetic mutation that allows him to elongate and contort his body to squeeze through tiny spaces.
Not every monster of the week is a monster, however, there are also some surprisingly inventive science fiction creations as well. For example, one villainess in Season Seven is actually a computer-generated video game character. The agents also encounter a tulpa, a mystical being summoned to Earth in Tibet. Some of the mysteries aren’t even focused on physical villains—one episode sees the protagonists trying to figure out how to extricate themselves from a time loop.
And, of course, there are aliens, from little grey men to more sinister extraterrestrials that take over human bodies. Aliens form a significant part of the overarching mythology of the show, and their appearances often coincide with the revelation of information about the wider issues being investigated.
This mythology shapes the far-reaching mystery that Mulder is trying to crack, and evolves slowly throughout the nine seasons and two movies of the series. Are aliens in contact with humans on earth? How is The Syndicate involved? What do the aliens want? Why has their existence been kept a secret? Do they pose a threat to humanity? These are the sorts of bigger-issue questions that run throughout the show.
What to Watch Before the Miniseries
You’re not going to be able to watch all 202 episodes before watching the miniseries, but you can at least watch a a few. Especially as all nine seasons are currently available on Netflix. Here are 10 of the best monster-of-the-week-type episodes that you should check out:
- “Squeeze” Season 1, Episode 3
- “Beyond the Sea” Season 1, Episode 13
- “Darkness Falls” Season 1, Episode 20
- “The Host” Season 2, Episode 2
- “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” Season 3, Episode 4
- “Home” Season 4, Episode 2
- “The Post-Modern Prometheus” Season 5, Episode 5
- “Bad Blood” Season 5, Episode 12
- “Triangle” Season 6, Episode 3
- “Roadrunners” Season 8, Episode 4
These should give you an idea of what to expect from The X-Files, and they represent a range of different themes taken on by the show. Getting up-to-date on the mythology side of The X-Files is a bit more difficult, as it’s a complicated, twisting story that requires a lot of explanation.
Wikipedia has a list of mythology episodes that’s rather long, but it’s difficult to recommend another way of getting caught up without watching all of them. You can, however, read the synopsis on that same page to get a quick idea of what’s going on (major spoilers, obviously). I would recommend supplementing the synopsis with these 10 episodes, though:
- “The Erlenmeyer Flask” Season 1, Episode 24
- “Little Green Men” Season 2, Episode 1
- “Duane Barry” and “Ascension” Season 2, Episodes 5 and 6
- “Anasazi” Season 2, Episode 25
- “Paper Clip” Season 3, Episode 2
- “The End” Season 5, Episode 20
- “One Son” Season 6, Episode 12
- “The Truth” Parts 1 and 2, Season 9, Episodes 19 and 20
The X-Files movies are also a good way to get some information on the mythology. The second film, I Want to Believe, was generally panned by critics, and many people won’t find it worth watching, but because it was the last thing to come out of The X-Files universe, it might be referenced in the new series.
The Truth Is Out There
The X-Files is one of the best science fiction shows of all time, and its return is a really big deal in the science fiction community. Whether you’re a long-time diehard fan or a complete newcomer to the series, I highly recommend watching The X-Files from start to finish.
Will you be watching the new miniseries of The X-Files? What will you be doing to prepare? Do you have a favorite episode of the show? If so, let us know all about it in the comments below, or simply tell us what you think of The X-Files in general.