From 1993 to 2002, few shows captivated our collective consciousnesses like The X-Files. Each week millions regularly tuned in to watch Mulder and Scully expose government conspiracies, hunt down urban legends or, for the purposes of this article, goof off in experimental, often comedic adventures that stood out from the show’s usual tone.
With the show’s revival mere days away, we felt it was a great time to remind folks of these unforgettable one-offs that usually ignored the alien invasion arc and yet still became definitive fan favorite episodes. While “the truth is out there” became a timeless slogan and the show’s dense mythology created a lore-building blueprint employed by almost every popular 21st century TV show, it was these engaging, downright fun episodes that kept us coming back for more.
X-COPS (Aired 2/20/00)
Given X-Files’ runaway popularity, it was only a matter of time until it crossed over with another FOX property… and in season seven, it crossed over with two FOX shows! Up first was a tie-in with fellow spookfest Millennium, and then mere weeks later Mulder & Scully found themselves on the streets of LA with the COPS crew.
Of all the experimental one-off episodes, X-COPS is indeed the most “gimmicky.” The whole show was shot on videotape and structured like an episode of COPS, where a silent cameraman follows a group of officers working a case. But while the cops think they’re after a prowler, Mulder is looking for a werewolf. And Scully really doesn’t want to be on TV when Mulder’s talking about werewolves.
However, the wolfman idea doesn’t stick. Subsequent murders and attacks fail to line up with those of a fanged beast, as witnesses pin the assaults on gang members, a wasp man, Freddy Kruger and so on. It turns out the “monster of the week” this time around is literal fear – a creature that becomes your worst nightmare and kills you in a way that you’re desperate to avoid. So as they move from location to location, they get another gruesome crime scene and another strange account… all in TV-news-style shots of dark streets and parking lots.
This was mere months after Blair Witch surprised the hell out of everyone with its “found footage” approach, so seeing this type of horror storytelling on TV was quite fresh. True, COPS was already 11 years old at this point, so while we’d seen shaky-cam shows plenty of times, we hadn’t seen much “horror reality” television by February 2000. This made X-COPS immediately stick out and become one of the most popular “oh do you remember the X-Files where…” episodes of all time. – Brett
Triangle (Airdate 11/22/98)
Now that every episode of X-Files has been redone in HD widescreen, the cinematic aspect ratio of Triangle isn’t as unique as it was in 1998. Back then that cinematic scope was rarely seen on network TV, as widescreen televisions were scarce. But even without that edge, this haunted cruise ship is a gimmick episode that also brought some substantial character moments along with the camera tricks.
Oscar-nominated Birdman got lots of praise for camera work that made the film look like one uninterrupted shot, but writer/director Chris Carter was doing it years earlier. Divided by the usual commercial breaks, each act is told in one unedited scene that gives the story more room to breath. From Mulder’s Bermuda Triangle excursion that sends him aboard the doomed Queen Anne cruise ship in 1939, all the way to Scully’s quest through FBI headquarters for any clues to her missing partner’s whereabouts, it’s an adventure that feels bigger than a mere 45 minutes.
Thanks to numerous camera tricks and some very game actors, you’re taken on a long trip through a World War II spy adventure and a search for a man lost at sea, all with the intensity of an unblinking eye. They even got really creative with some Brian de Palma-esque split screen cuts.
For all the clever filmmaking, Carter makes sure this episode takes place firmly in X-Files timeline, making this more rooted in mythology than it seems. As was the case early in season 6, Mulder and Scully are no longer partners, and answer to different bosses. Skinner appears powerless to help, while Scully is being watched by Cigarette Smoking Man’s newest henchmen within the agency. The maneuvering around that status quo ramps up the pressure on Scully’s search for Mulder, while also explaining why Fox would venture off after the Queen Anne all alone.
And like other great experimental episodes, Triangle allows the regular actors to stretch out some. Gillian Anderson does double duty as both Scully and an unnamed 1939 secret agent who has even less patience for Mulder’s BS. CSM gets recast as Nazi officer (forcing actor William B. Davis to fake speaking German), Spender is Cancer Man’s lapdog in both ’98 and ’39, as well as Skinner acting as a faux-German officer who’s actually working for America.
Meanwhile, Duchovny may only play one role in Triangle, but it’s hard to deny Fox didn’t go through a little bit of a transformation himself in this one. While stranded in 1939, beaten up by both British and German military, Mulder meets Scully’s doppelganger and leaves her in the past with a request to trust him that’s punctuated with a kiss. Though not really the kiss fans had been waiting for, it was the first time the actors had ever been that romantic on the show, making it quite an event even if it doesn’t 100% count.
Following Mulder’s smooch and his deserved punch in the face, Fox wakes up in the real world a changed man. After a cute homage to The Wizard of Oz that is promptly crapped on by the Lone Gunmen, Mulder tells Scully he loves her, another huge first. Though Scully seems to dismiss it as the result of a head injury, Fox knows his feelings are as real as the bruises on his face. By the show’s sixth year, even Carter was getting impatient on the will-they-won’t-they aspect of Scully/Mulder. – Henry
Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ (Airdate 4/12/96)
The X-Files has played fast and loose with perspectives on many an occasion as this list showcases, but rarely has it been as complex as it is in Season 3’s Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space.’ The episode’s main narrative thrust is the eponymous Chung (played by Charles Nelson Reilly) as he researches an alien abductee case. While he’s questioning Dana Scully throughout the episode, he recalls stories that other witnesses have told him, which include their depictions of characters like Fox Mulder. In some cases, Scully rebukes Chung with conflicting accounts, so you’re seeing two characters present their depictions of other characters, so the story can get a bit heady. It’s all worth it for weird moments like a cigarette-smoking alien and Mulder shrieking upon discovering a corpse.
The case itself also plays with unreliable narration, as Mulder and Scully (and Chung) investigate a couple (or as Chung calls them, “experiencers”) who swear they’ve been abducted, while others are adamant the victims only believe so because they’ve been brainwashed by the government. This is compounded by many an occasion where the weirdness of the characters and omnipresent “Men in Black” make their stories seem unbelievable. Those men (played by Jesse “The Body Ventura and Alex Trebek) have encounters with just about every single witness in the episode, attempting cover-ups with both brute force and light hypnotism.
For an episode that rarely gives Mulder and Scully time together, Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ succeeds due to many comedic bit parts like alien enthusiast Blaine Faulkner, censored foulmouth Detective Manners, The Men in Black, and Chung himself. The episode may not have moved the needle about the alien mythology in any meaningful way, but it is one of the funniest early episodes of The X-Files when true humor was in short supply. – Dave
Up next – Fake vampires, fake zombies and REAL ghosts!