The 20 greatest X-Files episodes

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20. X-Cops

X-Cops episode stills

Episode: Season 7, Episode 12
Aired: February 20, 2000

Vince Gilligan originally pitched this high-concept episode in The X-Files’ fourth year, but it didn’t get greenlit until Season 7. Taking the form of a faux episode of Fox reality show Cops, the hour gets weird when it’s revealed that the LA lawmen are working the same case as Mulder and Scully. Rather than a run-of-the-mill perp, the killer they’re pursuing is a diabolical creature that takes the form of whatever its victim fears most, raising the intriguing possibility that our heroes are actually on the trail of the Polymorph from Red Dwarf. X-Cops could have been a gimmicky disaster, but Gilligan’s sharp writing and the nicely underplayed performances help elevate it to classic status. We particularly like the fact that the format allows Mulder to drop a bleeped-out F-bomb, and his exhortation to a petrified cop to “cowboy up”. Throw in an off-screen cameo from Freddy Krueger, some long bravura tracking shots and Scully’s increasing annoyance at being followed by a camera crew, and you have an experiment in form that works gangbusters.

X-Fact: Actual SWAT team members appear in the episode, breaking down the door of the crack house.

19. Beyond The Sea

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Episode: Season 1, Episode 13 Aired: January 7, 1994

An early twist on the Mulder-as-believer/ Scully-as-sceptic division, with Dana quicker to accept a self-proclaimed psychic on Death Row after he talks about her just-deceased father. Writers Glen Morgan and James Wong also dig beneath the often icy veneer Scully has used as self-defence to this point, allowing Gillian Anderson to give her some welcome emotional warmth as we learn a little more about what makes her tick. Don Davis and Sheila Larkin offer excellent support as Scully’s parents, the dedicated naval man and the emotional wife who wants to badly to think her husband has contacted them from beyond the grave. Kudos also goes to Brad Dourif for instilling Luther Lee Boggs with such creepy charisma, shape-shifting emotionally as he claims to channel spirits and proving more than a match for Duchovny and Anderson. Little touches make this work so well, including Mulder calling Scully “Dana” in a moment of tender sympathy for her recent loss, and the believable relationship between the seemingly distant military man and his FBI daughter, who still feels like a disappointment to him despite all she has achieved. It’s a fine introduction to Scully’s family or at least part of it — all of which becomes more valuable down the line.

X-Fact: When Scully sees a vision of her father shortly before learning of his death, actor Don Davis is silently reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

18. Duane Barry

Duane Berry

Episode: Season 2, Episode 5
Aired: October 14, 1994

After an early run of standalone episodes in Season 2, the mythology kicked back into high gear with one of the most notable cliffhangers. Starting a story that will actually run across several episodes — and impact the rest of the series — we’re introduced to Steve Railsbeck’s seemingly insane former FBI bod Duane Barry, committed to an asylum thanks to his beliefs about alien abduction and experimentation. He serves as a chilling peek into what could happen to Mulder in the future, and when the FBI’s “least wanted” is called in to consult after Barry breaks out of the hospital and takes hostages, he’s inclined to believe the man’s claims. In one of the clearest early examples of the creative team truly embracing the alien storylines, Chris Carter writes and directs this one, and crams it full of effective tension. A favourite moment is the sudden power loss at the plaza where the hostage-filled bank is situated — the lights flicker and die, and, even more spookily, the fountain stops. The image is beautifully unsettling, but that’s just one reason why the episode works. Railsbeck makes Barry a sympathetic character and CCH Pounder is her usual brilliant self, a tough-nosed FBI agent with little time for Mulder’s theories — at least, at first…

X-Fact: A sign at the hospital reads “Please line up quietly”, a nod to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

17. Pilot

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Episode: Season 1, Episode 1
Aired: September 10, 1993

Late at night in an Oregon motel, there’s a sinister knock at the door. “Who is it?” asks fledgling FBI agent Dana Scully. “Steven Spielberg,” jokes the knocker, who turns out to actually be her new partner, Fox “Spooky” Mulder. There’s a reason for the reference (as well as riffing on images from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the episode has a final shot cribbed from Raiders Of The Lost Ark), but the moment also perfectly encapsulates the appeal of The X-Files: mystery and humour, blended together in perfect proportion. While some TV shows take a while to find their feet, this pilot is sheer class right from the start, following Scully as she’s drafted into her new station, “an unassigned project outside of the Bureau mainstream”, and introducing several of the series’ quirkier mainstays, from Mulder’s sunflower-seed obsession to the Cigarette Smoking Man, who demonstrates within the first five minutes that no-one leans against filing cabinets with greater menace. And the production values are so slick and cinematic that the unanswered questions — not least, why the two agents are given such a massive travel budget when their department is regarded as a joke — don’t seem like such a big deal. One final note: a subtitle on the final scene reveals that the episode is rather inexplicably set in March 1992, a year before it was shot. Spooky.

X-Fact: Scully was originally meant to have a boyfriend called Ethan, but his two scenes were dumped.

16. War Of The Coprophages

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Episode: Season 3, Episode 12 Aired: January 5, 1996

Darin Morgan’s back, this time blending a love for classic, cheesy sci-fi movies with a seriously skin-crawling episode about cockroaches (the coprophages of the title, which means faeces-eater). Riffing on the fact that Scully and Mulder spend so much time on their mobiles, Morgan cannily keeps the pair apart for much of the episode, swapping theories on the cockroach-related deaths as Mulder pushes ahead with his beliefs in the face of Scully’s usual scepticism. We’re also given an alternative sidekick for Mulder in the shapely form of Dr. Bambi Berenbaum (“Her name is Bambi?” Scully says in disbelief twice when Mulder mentions the entomologist) and a town full of kooks and local weirdoes who must deal with the unusual circumstances. Amidst all the fun, it’s still a scary treat for those who can’t stand the idea of creepy crawlies. As usual with a Darin Morgan episode, repeat viewings are rewarded with little references and Easter eggs. Note, for example, that when Mulder is eating cake at the end, it looks exactly like he’s eating crap. Also, in possibly one of the most meta moments of the series — or any series — a cockroach appears to crawl across the screen just as Dr. Ivanov (Ken Kramer) and Mulder discuss the case in the scientist’s laboratory.

X-Fact: Scully is reading Breakfast At Tiffany’s, a wink to David Duchovny’s appearance on Celebrity Jeopardy where a wrong answer about the book lost him the game.

15. One Breath

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Episode: Season 2, Episode 8
Aired: November 11, 1994

The story arc that began with Duane Barry comes to a close with this highly emotional episode. Scully is returned, but in a coma and a battle begins for her future. While her mother is convinced that Dana should be allowed to die peacefully, Mulder isn’t ready to give up on her that easily. The core of spirituality vs. science that runs through the series rears its head again in James Wong and Glen Morgan’s script as the two sides argue it out. Scully, meanwhile, is trapped in a dreamlike limbo, trying to decide if she’ll embrace the afterlife or return to the world. It’s an effective mix of the drama and metaphysical aspects of the show. And One Breath is testament to The X-Files writing staff’s ability to turn the temporary loss of one of the stars into a compelling, suspenseful and worthwhile piece of the overall mythology. Duchovny gets one of his best early scenes, as Mulder burns with intense anger (and anguish) over the thought of losing his partner while all around him preach acceptance. Steven Williams’ Mr. X is also great here, shifting from demanding that Mulder drop what he sees as a fool’s errand that’ll get him killed to begrudgingly helping him.

X-Fact: The entire arc was designed to let Gillian Anderson have time off to give birth to her daughter, Piper.

14. Musings Of A Cigerette Smoking Man

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Episode: Season 4, Episode 7
Aired: November 17, 1996

A welcome trawl through the backstory of one of the series’ most enigmatic characters, even if we’re never quite sure — as usual — whether what we’re seeing is the truth or not. After all, the information about William B. Davis’ Cancer Man is dug up by squat troublemaker Frohike of the Lone Gunmen. Still, accurate or not, it’s a fascinating trip through some of America’s biggest conspiracy hotspots, as seen by someone involved with most of them, seen through the filter of X-Files history. So we “learn” that the CSM had a Communist father and was recruited from the military to assist in dark, bloody projects including the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. And via Glen Morgan’s script (directed by regular collaborator James Wong), we also get to dig under the skin of the man, with his frustrated attempts to establish himself as a mystery writer, only for his efforts to be turned down by publisher after publisher as simply outlandish. If only they knew… It’s a fascinating, funny peeling of a mysterious onion that also drops a few hints at other X-Files lore (we briefly meet a young Bill Mulder and there’s a welcome return for Jerry Hardin’s Deep Throat as the pair meet at an alien crash site and consider their different roles in the conspiracy cover-up).

X-Fact: Chris Owens, who plays the young Cancer Man, returned in Season 5 to play Spender, who (spoiler alert!) was the Cigarette Smoking Man’s son.

13. Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose

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Episode: Season 3, Episode 4 Aired: October 13, 1995

Darin Morgan could be relied upon to bring humour and pathos to the series whenever he wrote a script, and Clyde Bruckman is one of his best. Taking a clear pot shot at loopy, fake psychics and the celebrity culture that grew up around them, he spins a tale of a quiet, lonely, slightly bitter man who never sought out fame and fortune yet appears to possess true psychic power. With Mulder and Scully engaged on what would appear to be an odd and possibly occult-orientated murder, they come into contact with psychics of several stripes, including the showboating Yappi (a great, Siegfried & Roy-channelling turn from Jaap Broeker). The scene-stealer, though, is Peter Boyle, who imbues Clyde with a grouchy, deeply felt sense of morose doom and gloom, but with a thoughtful, optimistic side occasionally peeking through. Morgan seizes every chance to tweak the both the main characters and the conventions, including Mulder’s negativity, possible future death by autoerotic asphyxiation, and the confused, pie-obsessed warning about the real killer’s stalking of our hero. Stu Charno is also great as the killer known only as “Puppet”, slaying his way through various fad fortune-tellers until he meets his match in Clyde.

X-Fact: Clyde Bruckman is named after the director of Buster Keaton’s The General, who had a successful career in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, before hitting hard times and committing suicide in 1955.

12. Bad Blood

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Episode: Season 5, Episode 12
Aired: February 22, 1998

Vince Gilligan breaks out his black comedy chops again for a Rashomon-styled outing that has our FBI team tracking down what he believes is a real vampire and what she thinks is just a misguided attacker. The apparent error leads to the possibility of a lawsuit from the family of the deceased, Ronnie Strickland (Patrick Renna), which means Mulder and Scully have to get their stories straight. The highlight here is definitely seeing the two agents’ differing recollection to the case, resulting in some hilariously skewed memories. Chief among them is a game Luke Wilson as Sheriff Lucius Hartwell, who Scully remembers as a handsome, smart small-town lawman and Mulder views as a buck-toothed, bad haircut-sporting yokel. It’s shot through with Gilligan’s wit and keen ear for fun exchanges, including Mulder and Scully discussing how she wouldn’t fare well in prison (her cellmate’s nickname will apparently be “Large Marge”). Mitch Pileggi gets to dish out his usual brand of intense dissatisfaction with the stories spun, and it features one of the best near-uses of “shit” on US network television, as Mulder’s reaction to Ronnie Strickland’s fake teeth at the close of the pre-credits sequence is silenced mid-profanity as the theme kicks in.

X-Fact: This is Arlene Pileggi’s first appearance on the show. She began her X-Files career as Gillian Anderson’s stand-in and met and married Mitch Pileggi.

11. Small Potatoes

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Episode: Season 4, Episode 20
Aired: April 20, 1997

Darin Morgan trades his writer’s hat for an acting credit, cropping up in this comic tale of mistaken identity and babies with tails from Vince Gilligan. Five babies are born in a town with the small, vestigial extras swinging from just above their backsides. The local fertility doctor is blamed for somehow tampering with the eggs, but it turns out there’s an odder explanation — Eddie Van Blundht (the H is silent), played by Morgan, a man with the apparent ability to change his features. Thanks to an odd genetic quirk, he can appear to be anyone he comes into contact with, and has been using that trick to sleep with local women in a variety of guises from their husbands to, er, Luke Skywalker? Sadly for him, he’s also passing the tail on to his unfortunate spawn. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk — after all, isn’t Eddie a rapist here? — but Gilligan manages to balance things well. Top marks, performance-wise go to David Duchovny, who channels the script to perfection when playing Eddie-as-Mulder and his attempted seduction of Scully. Not only does it play on the expectations of X-Philes who craved a relationship between the main pair, it proved both actors have fine comic timing. But then, we knew that already…

X-Fact: Gilligan originally pictured wings as the birth defect, fearing tails wouldn’t be cute enough. But tails were easier to create digitally.

10. Triangle

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Episode: Season 6, Episode 3
Aired: November 22, 1998

This one, coming on the heels of the release of Fight The Future in cinemas, feels like Chris Carter deciding it’s time again to have a little fun with his creation. So he throws Mulder into a weird dream state in order that he can mix things up and have what almost amounts to a fan fiction tale coming to life. Upon learning that the Queen Anne, a British luxury liner that went missing under mysterious circumstances in World War II has re-appeared, Mulder immediately heads out to find it in the middle of the notorious Bermuda Triangle. But he ends up shipwrecked and comatose (no fresh mango juice in sight, though) hallucinating that he finds the ship swarming with Nazis and war-weary British sailors trying to defend it. Cancer Man, Scully and more show up as past-life versions of themselves, and we’re treated to some truly beautiful shots here. Carter — writing and directing this one — uses split-screens to show the action in the present day and the past, with timelines crossing and splitting apart again with such visual aplomb, you’re sometimes tempted to go back and watch the whole thing again just to appreciate them. It’s clear a lot of love was poured into this one, effectively a love letter to those who worship at the altar of the show.

X-Fact: The tagline is “Die Wahrheit Ist Irgendwo Da Drauben” which translates to “The Truth Is Somewhere Out There”. Nice.

9. Drive

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Episode: Season 6, Episode 2
Aired: November 15, 1998

Vince Gilligan’s pulse-pounding tribute to Speed (complete with a meta moment where Mulder cracks, “If you stop moving you die? I think I saw this movie”) is almost more notable for what it led to than the episode itself. Needing to find someone who could still be relatable while playing a raving, violent, anti-Semitic man who claims his brain will explode if he travels less than a certain speed, Gilligan cast a pre-Malcolm In The Middle Bryan Cranston. The actor’s nuanced yet powerful performance impressed him enough that he kept Cranston in mind when he got a shot at creating his own TV series. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Baywatch was born. Wait… No: Breaking Bad. It’s how Breaking Bad was born. Duchovny and Cranston make a perfect odd couple, their mismatched philosophies suddenly syncing up mid-way through the episode. Drive also makes full use of the show’s move to California — while keeping the interiors dark and foreboding, the desert locales mean there’s scope for some impressive action, albeit still powered by the characters. And the sound design here is just as evocative, the high-pitched whine whenever Crump or someone else infected with the brain-blasting disease starts to feel a build-up is enough to have you reaching for the mute button.

X-Fact: Vince Gilligan loves to reference his girlfriend, Holly Rice. Here, a gas station is named after her.

8. Ice

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Episode: Season 1, Episode 8
Aired: November 5, 1993

This is a successful, suspenseful riff on several movies dealing with paranoia, chief among them 1951’s The Thing From Another World and John Carpenter’s 1982 remake The Thing. The agents are sent to the Arctic to investigate what happened to a scientific research team who apparently went mad and slaughtered each other. Easily up there with Squeeze as one of the first season’s highlights, it’s a fantastic, claustrophobic outing, with the cause of the problems determined as a strange, ancient micro-organism that dug up from the deep ice that infects living organisms and amplifies the host’s feelings of anger and paranoia. As the infection jumps from person to person, no one is quite sure whom they can trust. A structure and set design that highlights the cramped surroundings just serves to heighten the tension. Burrowing deep into our own fears of being trapped or isolated even in a group, Ice – another Glen Morgan and James Wong joint – has director David Nutter bringing out the best in both Duchovny and Anderson, but also a guest cast that includes Xander Berkeley and Felicity Huffman. Oh, and amidst all the drama there’s still scope for Mulder’s trademark deadpan humour with quip as they prepare to be examined, “Before anyone passes judgment, may I remind you we are in the Arctic...”

X-Fact: While the close quarters heightened the tension, it was also a budgetary boon after several expensive episodes.

7. Paper Clip

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Episode: Season 3, Episode 2
Aired: September 29, 1995

Between The Blessing Way and this episode, Season Three closed out the cliffhanger from the end of the second season. Back in the days when the series’ mythology was not such a confusing mélange of ideas, this is a taut, exciting dig into one of the biggest conspiracy theories the show explored. Mulder and Scully are once more running for their lives, but also discovering more about the sneaky syndicate’s plan and the global conspiracy of silence that appears to tie together Roswell, the Operation Paper Clip programme that brought Nazi scientists to America to help win the space race, and Mulder’s family history. Along the way, Skinner is thrown into a shady light, but ends up both a hero and a bad ass as he stands up to the Cigarette Smoking Man and finds a clever way to make sure the contents of a mysterious data disc don’t vanish and our heroes stay safe. Creator Chris Carter also makes sure we feel for Scully in particular this time, killing off her sister and putting her in peril. He indulges in a superior, cinematic sequence (helped by Rob Bowman’s direction) that finds the agents discovering a disused mining facility holding thousands — possibly millions — of files and a glorious shot of an alien ship passing overhead.

X-Fact: Mulder’s birthday on the file is 10/13/61, which you may not be surprised to learn, is Chris Carter’s birth month and day (and his production company’s name, 1013).

6. Piper Maru

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Episode: Season 3, Episode 15
Aired: February 9, 1996

Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz add more to the mythology with this thrilling episode, one that introduces the key element of the weird alien black oil. The ooze would grow to become one of the best parts of the show, a terrifying substance than can hop between humans and put them under its influence. The teaser, which focuses on the oil infecting the crew of the French salvage ship, is a master class in scary tension. It’s also an introduction to just how far this conspiracy extends, and a clear sign that the show is truly ready to go all in on the alien elements. But while the action-adventure elements are to the fore, there’s also plenty of the emotional backbone that makes the show so watchable — with Scully finally given a proper chance to grieve for her sister’s death and Mulder driven to find out whether the villainous, duplicitous Alex Krycek (Nicolas Lea on typically fine form) murdered his father. Though the show occasionally overdid the mortality rate on the Mulder and Scully clans, this one uses grief to illustrate the stakes for our heroes. Pacey and balanced, Piper Maru is also a dark, immersive watch that serves to set up the conclusion in Apocrypha to heart-stopping effect.

X-Fact: The episode is named after Gillian Anderson’s daughter, who was born during Season 2.

5. The Post-Modern Prometheus

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Episode: Season 5, Episode 5
Aired: November 30, 1997

Like Triangle, this is Chris Carter taking on the role of proud father and having a little fun with his baby. He plays with style and form, turning the entire episode into a loving homage to Universal monster movies in general and James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein in particular. There’s more to it than that, as Carter channels his love of comic books and even manages to squeeze in Jerry Springer’s dysfunction-fuelled chat show thanks to a guest appearance by the man himself. The plot is pure small-town paranoia spliced with a treatise on the fears humanity has over genetic engineering gone mad. Drawn to a small Indiana town via a letter from a concerned woman who appears to have been knocked up — twice — by a strange creature, Mulder and Scully discover the Cher-worshipping result. M &S shippers get fuel for their fires, primarily from the happy ending with the pair dancing away to Walking In Memphis. Sadly, that’s not Cher herself — though she wanted to appear, she thought the cameo might be tacky, a decision she since regretted. She’s not the only X-fan who missed their chance: Roseanne Barr was offered the role of pregnant Shaineh Berkowitz, but turned it down.

X-Fact: The scientist’s wife is named Elizabeth in a direct nod to Dr. Frankenstein’s other half.

4. Die Hand Die Verletzt

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Episode: Season 2, Episode 14
Aired: January 27, 1995

Mulder and Scully frequently fail to collar the perps they’re hunting, which is perhaps unsurprising given how difficult it is to put handcuffs on inter-dimensional sludge-monsters. This episode sees their adversary — a snake-eyed demon (or maybe even Satan himself?) imitating a high-school substitute teacher (Susan Blommaert) — slip through their fingers come the third act, but it only adds to the vibe of total dread that permeates Die Hand Die Verletzt. The Feds arrive in the town of Milford Haven, New Hampshire, to find a community racked by fear after the discovery in the forest of a teenager who’s had his eyes and heart ripped out. It turns out that the teachers at Milford Haven High have been dabbling in black magic, but the real Big Bad is something much more nefarious, a being so powerful that she / it can sic a giant boa constrictor on an enemy, force a young girl to slit her wrists, or compel toads to fall from the sky. It’s altogether a thoroughly dark and creepy episode, leavened slightly by the odd playful moment (like the taunting note left on the blackboard for Mulder and Scully after Mrs. Paddock has slipped away) and the presence of Dan Butler, aka Bulldog from Frasier.

X-Fact: Butler was so terrified while doing his scene with the snake that no fake sweat was required.

3. Home

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Episode: Season 4, Episode 2
Aired: October 11, 1996

Buzzing flies. Bloody scissors. A decapitated pig’s head. A dead baby. Just some of the delights of what may well be the grimmest X-Files episode of all time. The tale of the Peacock family, a Pennsylvanian clan of murderous, incest-happy mutants, it’s part The Burbs, part Blue Velvet, part The Hills Have Eyes, all nightmare-inducing horribleness — so twisted, in fact, that after its premiere Fox blocked it from being re-aired. These days, though, Home is rightly viewed as a classic, from the nightmarish cold open (in which the brothers Peacock do a spot of unwholesome gardening) to the action-packed finale, with Mulder and Scully braving a booby-trapped mansion to discover the chilling secret the Peacocks have stashed beneath a bed. The trio of monsters are memorable, not only for their distinct looks (Cannibal Ozzy Osbourne, Burn Victim Baldie and Mega-Forehead, respectively), but their weirdly chilling affinity for classic US muscle cars and the music of Johnny Mathis. Could it be that the scariest thing about the Peacocks, with their self-sufficient set-up and dedication to each other, is that they’re the personification of the American dream?

X-Fact: The episode was inspired by an excerpt from Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography.

2. 731

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Episode: Season 3, Episode 10
Aired: December 1, 1995

Arguably the greatest of The X-Files’ many mythology episodes, 731 is a high-octane mix of action and intrigue, with the production values and pacing of a Hollywood blockbuster (indeed, director Rob Bowman was later picked by Chris Carter to direct the first X-Files feature). It sees Mulder and Scully split up, the former trapped on a speeding train with a secret cargo, the latter investigating the tiny computer chip she’s found implanted in her neck. There are iconic images galore — the mass grave of alien-human hybrids; the death of Japanese scientist Dr. Shiro Zama as Mulder walks by unaware; the reveal of the box car’s non-human occupant, as a reflection in an eyeball — but the real joy of the episode is Mulder’s transformation into an action hero, as he leaps onto the roof of the caboose, grapples with a piano-wire-wielding assassin and generally James Bonds it up a storm. Though come the climax he still needs to be carried to safety in the arms of X (Steven Williams). Bet he didn’t tell Scully about that.

X-Fact: It took 45 gallons of gasoline to blow up the train.

1. Squeeze

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Episode: Season 1, Episode 3
Aired: September 24, 1993

It’s not many series that can boast such a definitive episode this early in its run, but we’re happy to anoint Squeeze as the top of the bunch for The X-Files. The story, written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed to superbly creepy effect by Harry Longstreet, marks the point at which the show proved it was going to be more than just a UFO-obsessed sci-fi drama: it showed real scare power. Called in by an old colleague of Scully’s (Donal Logue’s Agent Tom Colton) to investigate a seemingly impossible murder, the duo discovers that the culprit is a true freak of nature. Doug Hutchison makes Eugene Victor Tooms into an absolute nightmare, a stretchy hunter with an appetite for human organs, who hibernates for 30 years between killing sprees. Tooms is a truly iconic monster, kicking off the creature-of-the-week run with aplomb. Even watching the episode now, it’s not hard to have your skin crawl at the thought of this modern-day bogeyman. It’s also the first time the Mulder/ Scully partnership truly begins to gel, and Scully’s life is put in real danger. The stakes are raised and the show itself really begins to hit its stride. Just try not to think about that mysterious sound you heard…

X-Fact: Doug Hutchison sent Chris Carter a calf’s liver as a thank you gift for the role. Charming!