The X-Files is one of the best science fiction series to ever grace our television screens—and in January, it will be coming back to Fox for a miniseries event.
For fans of the series and of awesome sci-fi storytelling, that’s great news.
But it also poses a vexing question: Should we rewatch the old seasons before the new series airs? Or, for people who’ve never watched The X-Files before and want to know what all the fuss is about—will they have to watch the whole thing before the new season airs to figure out what’s going on?
The answer is: we don’t know. I can’t imagine Chris Carter, much less the bigwigs at Fox, would want to make an X-Files miniseries where watching everything that preceded it was a prerequisite. Nonetheless, Fox is giving viewers the opportunity to watch every single episode before the new season premiers, in a 201-day marathon that already began in early July.
201 days, 202 episodes. And two movies! That’s a lot of TV—even if you stream it on Netflix or Amazon Prime, where the show is available to subscribers, that’s more than 150 hours of The X-Files.
And—here’s the rub—not all of it is very good. When you make that much TV, some of it will be great, some of it will be good, a lot of it will be mediocre, and some of it will be complete crap. And with more great TV available than ever before, much of it at the click of a button, nobody has time to waste watching episodes that just aren’t that good.
What’s a viewer to do? Well, whether you’re already an X-Files fan who just needs a refresher on the high points of the series, or someone who wants to experience the show for the first time, there are ways to catch up on the series without watching all 201 episodes. I don’t have an episode-by-episode viewing plan for you; look at this more as some advice for how to get caught up on the series with as little time commitment as possible, getting the most mileage out of every episode you watch.
First thing you need to know is that X-Files episodes come in 2 varieties: there are mythology episodes and monster-of-the-week (MOTW) episodes. MOTW episodes are standalone; mythology episodes follow an ongoing storyline.
We don’t know what the miniseries is going to look like, but odds are good that it will lean heavily on the existing X-Files mythology. There’s a list of the X-Files mythology episodes on Wikipedia, taken from The X-Files Mythology DVD sets (still available for sale in four volumes!), and from books about the series.
By my count, there are 72 episodes in the X-Files mythology—that already brings down your commitment by more than half. And you guys, the mythology stuff is so good. Mulder’s backstory, the alien abduction of his sister Samantha, Scully’s abduction and later illness, the Cigarette Smoking Man, Krycek, Tunguska, black oil—I get chills just thinking about it. If you’re watching this stuff for the first time, I envy you.
That said, not all of the mythology episodes are awesome. Hardcore X-Philes may disagree with me on this, but the series didn’t get off to a great start: the first couple seasons have low production values, and even the acting and writing don’t really lock into place and get good until somewhere around season 3 or 4. That said, very few of the early mythology episodes are truly skippable, and if you can get past the ’90s production values and stilted dialogue, there’s some really interesting sci-fi storytelling at work here. Plus, these early episodes introduce major characters and backstory that will become important later, during the bonkers good episodes in Seasons 3 through 6, so it’s worth it.
The X-Files stumbled a bit in later seasons, too. A major mythology plotline wrapped up in Season 6, and from there it wasn’t immediately apparent where the story should go next. I remain convinced that it might have been better if the show had wrapped up all its loose ends and ended in Season 6—and had the show been made today, it may have been allowed to do just that. There are still some great episodes in Season 7—I’m particularly fond of the “Biogenesis” and “Sixth Extinction” arc that spanned Season 6 and 7. But then, at the end of the season, Mulder/David Duchovny reduced his time on the series, was replaced by a new character, and things started to get even rockier from there.
Still, there’s some good stuff in Season 8 and 9, and I doubt that the miniseries is going to pretend that none of it happened. You’ve come this far, may as well finish what you started.
OK, next: the movies. There are two X-Files movies: Fight the Future and I Want to Believe. Watch the first one, not the second. Fight the Future is mythology-heavy, and takes place between Seasons 5 and 6, when the show was at its absolute best. I Want to Believe released after the series ended, and is completely skippable.
So that takes care of the mythology. Roughly 72 episodes and one movie.
But what about the monster-of-the-week episodes? They were a big part of what made The X-Files great, and whether you’re experiencing the show for the first time or revisiting it, you’ll want to watch some of them. At their best, the MOTW episodes were great little short films: some scary, some funny.
Here, I’d recommend letting the Internet be your guide. There are plenty of lists of the best standalone episodes of The X-Files just a Google query away. The episodes included in these lists may vary, but most will include series highpoints like “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and “Bad Blood.” I’ve personally got a weakness for “The Post-Modern Prometheus” and “Small Potatoes.” Vince Gilligan, later showrunner of the series Breaking Bad, wrote a number of the show’s best episodes; one in particular, “Drive,” pairs Gilligan’s writing with Bryan Cranston, who’d later play Walter White. I’d also recommend consulting the Global Episode Opinion Survey online, where users can vote on the best and worst episodes of their favorite shows; their rankings of the best X-Files episodes, I think, are pretty reliable.
So: 72 episodes, one movie, with a handful of the MOTW episodes sprinkled here and there. Doable? I think doable.
Using these tools, you should be able to cobble together a decent X-Files rewatch or watch-for-the-first-time plan that gets you as far as possible in the least amount of time.