The X-Files was on for nine seasons and through that whole time, the only writer to stick around from beginning to end was its creator, Chris Carter. It was his baby, so its fitting that he’s also writing and directing three of new six episodes on Fox. We’ve already seen his season opener, and that alien conspiracy story arc will continue/conclude in the finale. However, he’s also writing tonight’s fifth episode, which is said to be a monster-of-the-week story, something that The X-Files fans perhaps remember best. While most of Carter’s 72 episodes dealt with the larger alien myth arc, he did write 17 “MotW” and some of those are simply brilliant.
In the show’s first season, Carter was writing a lot, and because the larger conspiracy myth arc hadn’t quite been established yet, a lot of his episodes that year were standalone. Six of them, in fact. The unfortunate part of that, though, is that they mostly aren’t very good. The first was the show’s fourth episode, “The Jersey Devil,” which is about a cannibalistic human in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey who may be an evolutionary relic which spawned the legend of the beast. It’s surprisingly forgettable.
Carter’s next two are some of the least well-regarded in the show’s history. “Space” began as a great idea stemming from that photo of Mars that looks like a human or humanoid face, but it was hampered by boring direction — utilizing NASA stock footage as a cost-saving measure — and a silly general premise of an alien entity hunting down a corrupt astronaut. It’s really dumb. The next one, “Fire,” is about someone with pyrokinesis (played by a very young Mark Sheppard, who is just fine), but it just doesn’t work very well. It also doesn’t help that it has Amanda Pays as a former girlfriend of Mulder’s helping on the case.
After co-writing a couple of other episodes — “Young at Heart” about a dead criminal who can regenerate into a younger version like a salamander, and “Miracle Man” about a young faith healer — Carter finally gave us a really great standalone episode: “Darkness Falls.” Building a sense of paranoia from humanity’s innate fear of the dark and unknown, this episode finds Mulder and Scully in a forest investigating the death of a man who appears to have been cocooned in his car with insect webbing. Very strange. This leads to the pair and a small group of scientists and militant environmentalists huddled in a cabin with an ever-dwindling generator trying to remain in the light to stave off strange insects that only exist in the dark.
“Darkness Falls” is one of the standout episodes of the whole first season and really makes use of the fear of the unseen. This would continue into season two when Carter ceded the premiere slot to Wong and Morgan and took episode two for himself. “The Host” (pictured at the top) is perhaps one of the most iconic X-Files episodes of the bunch, introducing the world to the “Flukeman,” a giant mutated fish monster who lives in the sewers and lays its eggs through a bite. I feel like the image of the Flukeman was everywhere in late ’94.
After that, Carter wrote an episode entitled “Irresistible” which is all about the perceived evil within humanity. It starts with a death fetishist named Donnie Pfaster who begins kidnapping and killing woman to satisfy his perverse compulsion. This inevitably leads to Scully dealing with her post-traumatic stress from her abduction. She has hallucinations about Pfaster where he’s a literal biblical demon, which become powerful images in the episode. That said, this is one of the few episodes where nothing actually paranormal happens.
Carter finished season two’s MotW scripts with “F. Emasculata” co-written with Howard Gordon, which dealt with escaped prisoners spreading a deadly skin-eating disease. In season three, Carter only wrote two standalone stories. One, “The List,” was about a recently executed innocent man whose ghost returns to kill the list of people he claims are responsible for his ruined life. The other, “Syzygy,” is a weird and not very successful comedy attempt about two teenage girls in a small town who are best friends and share a birthday but were born on some kind of planetoid alignment which gives them psychic powers and makes the rest of the town behave erratically as well. These episodes are fine. Not more to say.
In season four, Carter wrote no monster-of-the-week episodes, but his one in season five is a real doozy, and one of the best in the series. “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” which Carter also directed, is a pastiche on both 1931’s Frankenstein (also evidenced by the title of the episode) and David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man, right down to the black-and-white photography. It follows the agents as they go to rural Indiana where a woman claims to have been knocked out and mysteriously impregnated, just as she had been 18 years ago. Her now-adult son has created a comic book called “The Great Mutato” about the local legend of a hideous man-creature.
This turns out to be somewhat the case however, as a deformed man does indeed stalk the streets, but is the result of a genetic experiment carried out by the amoral Dr. Pollidori. The episode is just wonderful and combines so many amazing elements. It’s got the vibe of old 1950s sci-fi/horror movies, it’s inspired by comic books, and it’s really, really weird and funny. Season five is pretty wonderful throughout and this is a prime example of that.
Carter’s first monster-of-the-week episode in season six isn’t really about monsters at all, but it is incredibly important and impressive. “Triangle” finds Mulder going to investigate a supposedly haunted ship and finds himself back in the past on the ocean liner the night it was besieged by the Nazis. He meets different characters who are all played by other actors on the show (Gillian Anderson, William B. Davis, Mitch Pileggi, etc.). Meanwhile in the present, Scully is searching for Mulder and attempting to get the Lone Gunmen to help her. She keeps running into red tape and the like.
What makes the episode really standout is that Carter directed it like it were Hitchcock’s movie Rope; each scene is a single unbroken take from beginning to end. The camera simply follows the action around the halls of the ship or in the FBI field office and elevator. Toward the end of the episode, we get a split screen on the ship of what’s happening in the present and what’s happening in the past in the same locations. This is truly a smart, inventive, entertaining, and wonderful episode, and it looks like a movie.
Unfortunately, from here, Carter’s monster-of-the-week episodes got progressively worse. Still in season six, we had the fun if light “The Ghosts Who Stole Christmas” with Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin as ghosts in a haunted house at Christmas driving Mulder and Scully crazy because the house doesn’t make any sense and the doors change and things like that. It’s a good episode. In season seven, “Fight Club” finds the world possibly going to end if two twin sisters (Kathy Griffin) who somehow live in the same town and live parallel lives but have never met each other actually meet. It’s a cute episode.
In season eight, Carter wrote “Patience” which was Agent John Doggett’s first episode while working on the X-Files and it features he and Scully looking for a man-bat creature. It’s dreadful. And in season nine, Carter’s “Improbable” has a series of unfortunate events all happening around Burt Reynolds, who is playing, we find out, God. The. Pits.
So while certainly hit and miss, like all showrunners, Chris Carter did have some amazingly strong hits in the Monster-of-the-Week department. Seriously, go watch some of these ones I raved about. You’ll be reminded of what Carter and The X-Files could do when everything was firing on all cylinders. Will tonight’s episode be a hit or a miss? We’ll find out!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!