Shaenon: As part of our painstaking research for Skin Horse, Jeffrey and I have been watching a ton of old “X-Files” episodes. I wasn’t that into the show when it first aired, even though I was obsessed with UFOs and Bigfoots and government conspiracies. Maybe “The X-Files” wasn’t paranoid enough for me. Re-watching the series, though, I’m impressed by how well it’s held up, especially a lot of the stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes. A good monster is forever.

Jeffrey’s a fan, too, so we decided to share our top five personal favorite episodes. However! For the purposes of this list, we disqualified the five episodes scripted by the show’s best writer, Darin Morgan (“Blood,” a.k.a. the one where LCD displays order people to kill; “Humbug,” a.k.a. the one in the town full of sideshow performers; “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” a.k.a. the one where Peter Boyle is an insurance agent who can see the future and tells Mulder he’s going to die of autoerotic asphyxiation; “War of the Coprophages,” a.k.a. the one with the killer cockroaches; and “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’,” a.k.a. the greatest episode of anything ever with the possible exception of the “Pete and Pete” where Little Pete forms a band), because otherwise both of our lists would just consist of the five Darin Morgan episodes.

That’s not precisely true. Jeff might not put “Humbug” on his list because he’s disappointed that Scully didn’t really eat the cricket. But there would still be way too much overlap.

Anyway, with that in mind, here are:


Jeff’s Top Five:

1. The Post-Modern Prometheus
“The Post-Modern Prometheus” is my favorite non-Darin Morgan episode
of the show, and is a near contender for my favorite overall episode.
It’s got a series-unique style and a framing device quite unlike
anything else we see in the seven seasons of this show that actually

(Parenthetically, I know there are rumors out there that this show
proceeded on for two more seasons after season seven, to which I say,
ha ha, you must live in some sort of alternate universe where they
stitched up the “Mulder’s Sister” arc in about the least conceivably
satisfying way, brought in two entirely new protagonists and proceeded
to make episodes in a somewhat epileptic style until the show was
finally cancelled for everyone’s good. I feel sorry for you, living
in that universe.)

Anyway, yes. Post-Modern Prometheus. Shot entirely in
black-and-white, framed with a storybook motif and concluding with an
absolutely explicit deus ex machina ending, this episode has
human-animal chimeras, a delightful mad scientist, a sad monster, and
lots and lots of Cher. Don’t think too hard about all the
non-consensual sex, and you’ll do fine.

2. Bad Blood
“Bad Blood” is by far the funniest non-Darin episode, including some
series-standout memorable bits. I’m a sucker for the Rashomon style
of storytelling, because showing “what a character perceives” will
almost always tell you more about him or her than merely showing “what
is”. “Bad Blood” features Scully feeling hungry for weird things —
in this case the stomach contents of her autopsy case — which I
always find hilarious for some reason. It’s also got Mulder playing
with a Magic Fingers machine, singing the theme to Shaft, and
trying to stop a moving RV by grabbing onto the bumper, all of which
he totally would do. Lastly, it includes the most amusing
pronunciation of the word “knawed” I have, to date, heard. Thanks,
Mitch Pileggi.

3. Soft Light
The always-reliable Tony Shalhoub turns in an outstanding performance
as harrowed Dr. Chester Banton, who, because of blah blah technobabble
blah blah, has a SHADOW THAT FRIKKIN’ EATS PEOPLE, which, I’m sure you
will agree, makes for a pretty great Monster Of The Week. Look, I
know the science is absolutely off the hook in this one, but if you
can muscle through that, it’s really an enjoyable episode. Plus,
composer Mark Snow is at the top of his game in this one; the quiet,
rolling theme that sets up the train station scene is my favorite
single musical bit in the series, aside from the Cher tunes in
“Prometheus,” mentioned above.

4. Beyond the Sea
I’ll admit it, I like the Scully episodes. Yes, she can be
blockheaded and willfully, almost incredibly, obstinate. Yes, her
writing becomes a little spasmodic later on. She’s still sorta my
baby. What can I say — I’m a fan of red-haired military brats with
daddy issues, I guess.

Anyhow, since I can’t very well fill my whole list with Scully-centric
episodes, I’m just picking my favorite: Season One’s “Beyond the Sea”.
This is packed full of daddy-issues-y goodness, and features Scully
being genuinely open-minded and useful at a time when Mulder’s
prejudices take him out of the fight as the intuitive member of the
team. Also, it’s got a hella touching closing scene, one of the best
in the series.

5. Drive
I hesitate to put “Drive” on my list, because, frankly, it’s not
really that great of an episode in terms of objective quality.
“Monday” or “Triangle” almost certainly should have beaten it out for
my #5 slot, but …hell, I can’t help it. “Drive” occupies a special
place in my heart, because I was actually studying inner ear mechanics
during the time it was aired, and I like stuff dealing with ELF
radiation. Plus, I’m a big fan of constrained, limited-resource
stories, and this, combined with the tense and ultimately touching
relationship between Mulder and the carjacker, puts this one into my
top five X-Files episodes, um, not written by Darin Morgan.

Shaenon’s Top Five:

1. The Unnatural
Mulder visits retired agent Arthur Dales’ brother, Arthur Dales (“our parents weren’t exactly big in the imagination department”) and hears a heartwarming baseball story set in 1940s Roswell. At the center of the tale is Josh Exley, an alien invader who defects from his fleet, disguises himself as a black man, and joins a minor league baseball team, all for the love of the game. “The X-Files” was often at its best when it wandered from its established milieu of sci-fi horror, and this episode is unmistakably a departure: a combination sports story, period piece and loving tribute to postwar UFO nuttery (which has its own special flavor distinct from other UFO nuttery). It could stand on its own as a short film. Jesse Martin is great as Exley, and tell me the ending doesn’t make you tear up at least a little.

2. Triangle
Another period piece! Mulder disappears in the Bermuda Triangle and gets picked up by a cruise ship that vanished in 1939. In no time he’s fighting Nazis, delivering action-hero quips, and meeting unexplained 1930s versions of Scully and other characters (this episode is, among other things, a tribute to The Wizard of Oz). But the real action is back in the present, where Scully has to navigate an FBI building swarming with agents of the Conspiracy in order to rescue Mulder. An unusually action-packed episode, this is one of a handful directed by Chris Carter, who went all-out with the fancy camerawork. The whole episode is designed to look like a series of extended takes in the style of Hitchcock’s Rope, and one sequence in particular, with Scully running up and down FBI headquarters for eleven uninterrupted minutes, looks impossible to shoot. Near the end, there’s another neat trick: a split screen tracking the 1939 and present-day action, during which the two Scullys pass like ships in the night and switch to the opposite sides of the screen. Also, Nazis get punched.

3. Monday
The show’s homage to (or ripoff of, depending on how kind you are) Groundhog Day, “Monday” forces Mulder, Scully, and everyone inside a downtown bank to repeat the same disastrous bank robbery over and over again…and only the robber’s accomplice/girlfriend is fully aware of the time loop. A cool idea, nicely executed, with lots of gloomy cinematography and shots of Mulder looking downcast–that’s what a solid “X-Files” episode is all about. Plus it ties up the all-important loose end of the waterbed Mulder acquired in the two-part body-swap storyline “Dreamland.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “How can Shaenon possibly pass up a body-swap episode? Nobody loves body-swap episodes more than she does!” The thing is, “Dreamland” is okay, but Scully is really unforgivably dense in that one, and, more importantly, it’s a little too similar to the earlier and far superior…

4. Small Potatoes
What’s almost as good as an episode written by Darin Morgan? An episode starring Darin Morgan! Following a tabloid story about monkey babies, Mulder and Scully uncover the unfortunate case of Eddie van Blundht, a janitor who’s been using his shapeshifting powers to trick women into sleeping with him. When the agents show up to shut him down, van Blundht impersonates Mulder and ham-fistedly tries to steal his life. My vote for funniest non-Darin-Morgan-scripted episode, “Small Potatoes” features great performances by Morgan as van Blundht and voice actress Christine Cavanaugh as a Star Wars nerd who thinks she spent the night with Luke Skywalker. But in the last act, David Duchovny steals the show. Duchovny is generally good at comedy, the one area where the poker face helps, but here he goes above and beyond, playing a schlubby loser in the body of a hot FBI agent with total conviction. And of course that loser, like anybody who ever winds up in Mulder’s body over the course of “The X-Files,” immediately tries to make it with Scully.

5. D.P.O.
If “Drive” is Jeff’s guilty pleasure, “D.P.O.” is mine. Before I re-watched it a few weeks ago, I’d completely forgotten about it, and I was shocked and a little embarrassed to realize how thoroughly it had wormed its way into my subconscious. It’s the story of Darin, a sullen teen who uses his power over electricity to kill people who interrupt his video gaming and hit on hopelessly unattainable older women and oh holy geez this is Nick. There is no getting around it. The body language on this character is so perfect it makes my jaw drop. He is very sullen.

And no wonder, because Darin is played by a pre-“Saving Private Ryan” Giovanni Ribisi, an amazing actor in any role you care to give him but especially if it’s someone who’s kind of a dick. And Darin’s best friend is–can it be?–yes! It’s a very young Jack Black! Wait a minute, this episode isn’t a guilty pleasure! This episode is awesome! It’s true that the whole thing was based on an index card with the words “Lightning Boy” that Chris Carter had pinned to his wall, but that just illustrates how a so-so idea can be elevated by great execution. It even has a patented “X-Files” Ironic Pop Music Counterpoint Scene, when a guy gets lightning-killed to “Ring the Bells” by James.

Also, Darin? Named after Darin Morgan. I rest my case.

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