When you make a show about the unexplainable, the only rule is that there are no rules. Of course, plenty of ghost-hunting reality shows (and all six seasons of Lost) have capitalized on this fact, but none has done so quite as masterfully or earnestly as The X-Files. Through nine seasons and two movies, Chris Carter’s paranormal FBI epic pushed the limits of what viewers were accustomed to seeing on network TV: intricate government conspiracies to hide alien life; faceless zombie armies powered by black alien goo and wielded by Cold War adversaries; one-offs about video-game characters becoming sentient. Every mystery was fair game. With that sort of genre carte blanche, it’s no wonder showrunners felt comfortable experimenting with dystopian metaphors and making commentary on society’s underbelly. That’s part of what science fiction is for, after all.
The problem with that particular experimentation on The X-Files, though, is that it’s a show about searching for literal aliens. And when your scripts regularly imply that foreign cultures are related to or even rooted in the extraterrestrial and/or paranormal, you’re likely to end up with flat stereotypes and offensive us-versus-them narratives. Though our beloved X-Files was in many ways ahead of its time, it’s now been over two decades since its premiere, and some of these episodes are straight-up embarrassing.
Now, eight years since the last X-Files movie — eight years in which patience for racial caricatures in Hollywood has dwindled significantly, though of course not entirely — agents Scully and Mulder are returning to the small screen in a six-episode mini-series, which debuts January 24 and 25 as a two-part premiere on Fox. Fans have long been reliving some of the show’s best moments, either in preparation for its continually demanded return or simply because it arrived on streaming services, but to truly respect The X-Files as it is, it seems only fair to remember — and then, hopefully, promptly forget — the bumps it faced on the way to greatness. Let these ten episodes, all worthy of being jettisoned into the paranormal abyss, remind us that even the best shows can take a few too many risks that age awkwardly.
“Gender Bender” (Season 1, Episode 14)
This early episode features an Amish-ish community whose members have supernatural powers that amount, essentially, to gender fluidity — not exactly an alien concept by 2016 standards. A first of many overachiever moments in the show, it attempted to deal with the concept of gender in a progressive way, at a time when ideas about gender and sexuality were radically changing.
Unfortunately, it did this very, very poorly. The main “gender-bender” in question, who has gone on permanent rumspringa and is seducing men and women with some kind of magical pheromone that bewitches their victims into sex and subsequent death, is played by two actors (a cisgender man and woman), and only comes to the FBI’s attention because they’re murdering a bunch of people. The episode all but encourages the fear and literal alienation of trans and bisexual people, to say nothing of how it implied that partaking in casual, anonymous sex was comparable to rape. (I mean, they have Scully herself getting psychically roofied by one of the gender-benders.) There’s no explanation for any of this claptrap, either — the episode ends with the community vanishing entirely, leaving only a crop circle behind. Considering the overwhelming amount of violence experienced by trans and genderqueer people, this one’s definitely not a high point of Mulder and Scully’s tenure.
“Shapes” (Season 1, Episode 19)
In this episode, we learn that the first-ever X-File had to do with werewolves, so, of course, where else would Mulder and Scully’s current case take them but to a Native American reservation in Montana? “Shapes,” in which a still super-credulous Mulder and a still rigidly scientific Scully investigate several murders seemingly committed by and against Native Americans with shape-shifting abilities, did at least attempt to respectfully portray the way the government has failed American Indians for centuries, with characters who point out the damage the FBI has done in the past and promptly abandoned when the impoverished community needed federal assistance.
But considering how terribly Native Americans are treated to this day, using their religions and cultures in a show about the supernatural (and the choice to continue doing so, repeatedly, throughout the series) wasn’t a good look for The X-Files. Never mind that the reservation in the episode belonged to the “Trego tribe,” which doesn’t exist, nor the fact that the “manitou,” which is described in the episode as a specific legendary spirit that can possess humans, is simply the Algonquin concept of any “spirit” in the broadest sense. This was also one of the first of many episodes to feature that age-old marker of racist stereotypes: ghost stories told over a soundtrack of pan flute and drums! Which is all to say, “Shapes” was a proto-Twilight.
“Roland” (Season 1, Episode 23)
This was the What’s Eating Gilbert Grape meets Good Will Hunting embarrassment episode: Zeljko Ivanek (a.k.a. that dude from True Blood, 24, and Damages) plays a janitor with autism who becomes possessed by the spirit of his neurotypical twin brother, a brilliant scientist who was working on supersonic jet-engine technology before his untimely death, in order to kill his colleagues, whom he feared would take credit for his work.
Though the depiction of mental illness on TV and in movies has grown more nuanced in recent years, there’s still an ongoing stigma attached to Autism Spectrum Disorder and similar conditions, particularly onscreen. So while the episode is cringeworthy, it’s not exactly surprising that The X-Files fell right in line with the rest in 1994, taking the “genius with autism” stereotype and stretching it so fantastically that it turns Roland into a vehicle for supernatural forces rather than an actual person with valuable talents.
“Fresh Bones” (Season 2, Episode 15)
Can we all just agree to a permanent moratorium on the use of voodoo as a plot device in all mainstream, predominantly white pop-culture? I mean, seriously. Never mind that the term is derived from voudon, an actual Afro-Caribbean religion evolved from the forced conversion of slaves to Christianity (and, you know, not a magical revenge tactic employed by black people). The idea that Haitian refugees being detained and abused by the U.S. military could curse those Marines into delusions and suicide might sound like a good cautionary tale in theory (it’s revenge, after all), but in reality, it only serves to further stigmatize those Haitian refugees (and black people in general, if we’re being really real here).
Chester Bonaparte, a tween who seems responsible for the curses, plays the role of an elflike trickster (and then a black cat), which of course doesn’t do much to humanize anyone, the way a story about white American cruelty might seek to do in theory. See, we’ve always wanted to turn nonwhite immigrants and refugees into a scary “other” to be avoided at all costs!
“Teso Dos Bichos” (Season 3, Episode 18)
This episode was supposed to be one of those classic (and clichéd) “don’t mess with the dead” stories, in which American archaeologists value scientific progress and discovery more than the sanctity and respect for ancient burial grounds. Instead it’s another spooky-racist depiction of North American Indian culture: Put simply, some Boston-area researchers bring back an uncovered burial urn from Ecuador to put on display in a museum, only to discover that the dead lady-shaman inside the urn would have preferred to have been left alone and has summoned a leopard spirit (in the body of, like, a thousand tabby cats) to disembowel them all. There are also some intense spiritual hallucinogens going on, and the episode ends with the reburying of the urn in its rightful place as a shaman’s eyes literally glow like a leopard’s. Also, a bunch of rats come out of toilets and a dog dies. Lazy racism, dumb monster, meaningless plot, and the cast and crew hated it, too — this entry sort of explains itself.
“Hell Money” (Season 3, Episode 19)
SpoOoOky “ethnic” music returns in this episode about the Chinese mafia in San Francisco. A mob boss runs an ongoing illegal lottery in which the poor/working-class “winners” must sacrifice their vital organs to be sold on the black market (or sacrificed to please the gods, as they’re told).
On the bright side, “Hell Money” does benefit from the talents of a young Lucy Liu and B.D. Wong, the latter of whom plays a detective (hey, foreshadowing!) who acts as cultural translator until he eventually has to tell off Mulder and Scully for their ignorance of Chinese immigrants and their culture. The FBI dream team are indeed out of their depth, and demanding to boot; however, what really pushes this episode into uncomfortable territory is not the (obviously intentional) clumsiness of our protagonists in a foreign culture. Instead, it’s the fact that the abnormality of this case comes, once again, from the “alienness” of a foreign heritage. Like voodoo in “Fresh Bones,” the religious beliefs of the Chinese-American community are played for horror effects (like when the sewn-up dead bodies of the “winners” contain living frogs). Even worse than “Bones,” though, is that it drudges up the spirit of the “what about black-on-black crime” argument, that Chinese people — Wong’s Americanized detective included — are not only mysterious, they are also barbaric, even to their own. Even if we try to forget this episode ever happened, we still have to also forget the Fringe episode that deals with a (probably intentionally) similar premise.
“Teliko” (Season 4, Episode 3)
Maybe a show run by and starring white people should steer away from writing stories hinging on black victims’ pigmentation? Look, Mulder makes a valiant attempt at skepticism when a string of young African and African-American men suddenly and inexplicably die and lose all pigment in their skin and hair in the process (see above); he suggests that perhaps attributing it to a genetic disorder is an easy cover-up of a more insidious series of hate crimes, “the perception being that nobody cares” about young black men. It’s a very real problem, to be sure, but considering we’re supposed to believe the deaths are actually the work of a mysterious, evil spirit out of Burkina Faso folklore, it’s hard to really buy “Teliko” as commentary against racism. Like “Hell Money,” this episode ends up being a foreign-culture mystery that touches on racism yet still takes place exclusively among a single-race community. Let’s hope that if the mini-series contains any monster-of-the-week episodes, the alien enemies are devised with a little more sensitivity in this realm.
“El Mundo Gira” (Season 4, Episode 11)
It is personally offensive to this writer that so few people know about and/or reference el chupacabra in their everyday lives, but that doesn’t mean this episode depicting migrant workers as skittish and superstitious of the mythological “goatsucker” monster gets a pass. “El Mundo Gira” plays out as more of an actual fable than its Latin American predecessor “Teso Dos Bichos,” with its central “suspects” being two brothers in a shantytown in central California fighting over the affection of the same woman, who is suddenly killed by some sort of alien acid-fungus. One brother accuses the other of killing her, and the other one runs away, eventually transforming into el chupacabra (Or maybe a little gray alien? It’s unclear, but it’s definitely mythological either way). The accusing brother and Mulder and Scully chase him to a construction site and then an INS lockup, ending back at the migrant camp where the two brothers have an emotional face-off, cheesy-Western-style. As the story unfolds, it depicts various elements of undocumented immigrants’ lives, especially when it comes to the government; the workers run shrieking from the FBI agents when they first arrive, mistaking them for border agents.
Through it all, “Gira” suffered from that now-well-worn X-Files handicap of trying to be political and outlandishly scary simultaneously: Episode writer John Shiban did an unusual amount of research by spending time with undocumented detainees at an INS facility, and he showed his work in his characters and their anxieties. But ultimately, whatever commentary came of that experience was framed by the wacky histrionic structure of a telenovela, a format that — as Scully herself implies when Mulder suggests the murder is extraterrestrial — is inherently ridiculous and over the top, and which traffics heavily in stereotypes. A real tragedy, especially since el chupacabra is a fantastically funny myth rife for extraterrestrial investigations, not to mention special effects.
“The Unnatural” (Season 6, Episode 19)
Ha ha ha, remember that one time Detective Green guest-starred on The X-Files as an alien who comes to Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 and just wants to play baseball? Only he’d be too conspicuous as a really talented white athlete, so he instead disguises himself as a really talented black athlete? Coincidentally, the same year Jackie Robinson started playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers? Remember how that Terminator-esque bad-guy alien who already looked like a Nazi joined up with the KKK to kill the nice black alien who just wants to play baseball? And how, before the good-guy alien dies, he refuses to morph back into his alien form, claiming, “This is my true face”?
How did this episode even happen? Oh wait, that’s right — it’s what happens when you let Mulder himself write and direct an episode (and cast it, apparently — he liked guest star Jesse Martin’s performance in Rent and on Ally McBeal). Not the most embarrassing entry by a long shot — Martin’s performance as an impossibly sweet E.T. willing to die for his love of human sportsball really saved it — but a painfully dated white-dude commentary on centuries of racism nevertheless.
“Biogenesis,” “The Sixth Extinction,” “The Sixth Extinction Part II” (Season 6, Episode 22–Season 7, Episode 2)
It’s obvious that series creator Chris Carter wrote this triple-header, in which a mysterious artifact covered in Navajo text is discovered on a Côte D’Ivoirean beach and causes all sorts of paranormal havoc, with the best intentions. The Rosetta Stone–like artifact, which turns out to be a small chunk of an even larger (maybe) UFO buried in the sand whose markings include passages from the Bible and the Koran as well as the entire chemical sequence of the human genome, is clearly supposed to symbolize the optimistic theory that all life on Earth originated elsewhere in the universe, thus unifying all people as variations on the same theme. The cultural touchstones in these mid-to-late-1999 episodes were tastefully timed, too, what with the Human Genome Project’s ethical parameters being hotly debated and Côte D’Ivoire just months from a military coup that would send the country into its first civil war a few years later.
However, the “we’re all one race — the human race” message holds up in this episode about as well as it does in an armchair social-justice activist’s Twitter mentions. Instead of communicating a message of global unity, the double dose of mysticism from Scully’s spoooooky recurring visions, of a Côte D’Ivoire mystic (who, I suppose, to Carter’s credit, does tell the white lady, “Some things are not for you”) and of her good ol’ Native American pal slash extraterrestrial wizard Albert Hosteen from season two (who appears to take a break from his terminal coma in New Mexico to come … pray with her in her apartment?), only serves to make us twice as uncomfortable as all the previous instances in which magical people of color show up to help or haunt Mulder and Scully whenever something inexplicable and possibly extraterrestrial occurs.
“Terms of Endearment” (Season 6, Episode 7), for mixing demons, abortion, and a mild dabbling in eugenics to stunning effect.
“Agua Mala” (Season 6, Episode 13), for its caricatures of a Cuban couple caught in a hurricane and stuck in a flooding Florida apartment building, where a creature is trapped and threatening to eat the gang. The wife is very pregnant and there’s a literal sea monster in the building, but we’ve still got time for some classic fiery scoldings!
“First Person Shooter”* (Season 7, Episode 13), for its corny yet of-the-era portrayal of women in video games.
* A previous version of this article referred to “First Person Shooter” as the fifth-season episode “Kill Switch,” the other X-Files episode penned by leading cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Tom Maddox.