Editor’s Note: This article comes from the Den of Geek UK archives.
Ah, the age-old debate between the value of a lengthy story arc and the value of a single, one-off story, recently kicked into a higher gear by Steven Moffat’s arc-based approach to Doctor Who. Except, in the world of sci-fi fandom and criticism, it’s not really a debate.
Episodes that contribute to the ongoing story arc are praised, while any story that stands by itself is disregarded as filler, or even a throwaway episode (episodes that contribute to the overall mythology without being specifically connected to the main story arc get varying receptions according to how good they are, and whether or not they’re written by Neil Gaiman).
Story arcs can be great things, but there is something to be said for the filler episode, the structural basis for Star Trek, one of the most successful genre shows of all time. In Star Trek’s case, these episodes are notorious for featuring the dreaded “reset button,” which causes everyone to appear to forget what happened by the following week – also, I would argue, not an entirely bad thing – but in other shows, they are often the source of some great character drama and development, free from the constraints of the ongoing story arc.
Indeed, essential character beats can often be more fully explored in the context of a single story than when they are shoehorned into the complex plotting of a bigger arc.
In defense of the filler episode, I turn here to a show notoriously brought low by an increasingly convoluted story arc, which got so twisted and incomprehensible by the end that the series finale spent a good portion of its runtime summarising the rest of the show. Seasons eight and nine of The X-Files, in particular, are frequently derided as having flown over one shark, and promptly landed in an entire pool of them.
In the case of the ongoing arc episodes, there’s probably a case to be made there, but the show continued to produce the occasional excellent stand-alone story at least once per season until it finally came to a halt in season nine. This retrospective look at the best individual story from each season should also act as a reminder of the value of the stand-alone episode.
Season 1: Ice
Choosing just one great individual story from season one is pretty challenging, as this season was built largely on stand-alone episodes, and many of them were highly successful. The creepy twins/clones from “Eve,” Mulder and Scully bickering in “Fire,” Scully’s grief and vulnerability in “Beyond The Sea” and the originally stand-alone “Tooms” are all classics. But just pipping them to the post is “Ice,” a story that moves Mulder and Scully’s personal relationship on in leaps and bounds, but remains largely unconnected to the main story arc of the first season.
Bearing an uncanny resemblance to John Carpenter’s The Thing and starring, among others, a future Desperate Housewife, the story of a small group of people trapped in a confined space and knowing one of them may be a killer is claustrophobic, tense and requires the two attractive leads to take their tops off. What more could a viewer want?
Season 2: Irresistible
The undoubted highlights of season two were, it’s true, Scully’s abduction and return in “Duane Barry,” “Ascension” and “One Breath.” But this season produced a good crop of stand-alone episodes as well, of which “Irresistible,” an unusual episode in that it doesn’t really contain an X-File, is among the most memorable. Donnie Pfaster is probably not supernatural, but he is seriously creepy, and the story builds on poor Scully’s trauma from her recent abduction by placing her once again in the position of damsel in distress.
One of the great things about The X-Files was that Scully had to rescue Mulder almost as often as he had to rescue her, but equality goes both ways, and this episode demonstrates how really shaken she appears to be (and how young and relatively inexperienced she is – Gillian Anderson was actually a bit too young to hold the qualifications her character supposedly does at the start of the show). Essentially, it’s a genuinely creepy 45-minute horror movie.
Season 3: Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
As a teenage fan, my personal favourite season three episode was “Syzygy,” and “Avatar” is also an excellent day in the sun for Mitch Pileggi’s eternally underused Walter Skinner. But the fight for best episode of season three is a straight tussle between Jack Black and Frank Jr. from Friends-starring “DPO,” and the sad, haunting “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.”
Much of the success of both is down to powerful guest-star performances, Giovanni Ribisi’s Darren Peter Oswald is all quiet, creepy power that eventually explodes into homicidal rage, and Peter Boyle’s Clyde Bruckman is such a perfect embodiment of melancholy that you forgive him his slightly leery attitude towards Scully, which turns from lecherous to genuinely touching over the course of the episode.
Jack Black’s weary and ultimately doomed sidekick helps “DPO”’s case enormously (“No, man, not the cows again!”) but ultimately, “Clyde Bruckman” takes it for sheer emotion, and for the hanging possibility opened up at the end (take Bruckman’s ambiguous, elusive response to Scully’s query about her own death and then watch season six’s Tithonus…)
Season 4: Kaddish
Season four contained perhaps the most individually successful arc-related story in “Paper Hearts,” in which Mulder is forced to confront the possibility that his sister was not, in fact, abducted by aliens, but fell victim to a fairly ordinary human monster. It also contained the spooky “Elegy,” in which Scully temporarily joins the ranks of the nearly-dead, and “Small Potatoes,” one of the series’ always effective lighter episodes, in which our heroes sort of almost nearly get jiggy with it, but don’t really. But for a true, one-off story, “Kaddish” takes it, a story which makes the highly fantastical conceit of the golem feel absolutely real and utterly tragic, while throwing in an exploration of the terrible results of racism for good measure.
An amendment to this list:
Season 4: Home
When a deformed corpse of a newborn child shows up in a field. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully must investigate the crime and discover the true horrors of rural America. Their quests leads the two beloved FBI agents to three brothers who the local constabulary don’t want to disturb. The brothers were simple they said, they live alone. When Mulder and Scully enter the house, the boundaries of television horror were pushed to the limit. The episode was so hardcore, the FOX Network refused to rerun it. For years, the only place to see the introduction of the Peacock Family was on syndicated cable. You’ll never look under a bed again. via Marc Buxton (55 Genuinely Scary TV Episodes)
Season 5: Bad Blood
Season five contained a few experimental or playful episodes, including fan-favorite “The Post Modern Prometheus,” Stephen King-scripted “Chinga,” and the amusing Lone Gunmen origin story “Unusual Suspects.” But for sheer fun and narrative playfulness, the winner has to be “Bad Blood,” in which we see Luke Wilson from two very different points of view. And vampires are given a comic overhaul, after the series’ somewhat less successful treatment of their romantic side in two’s 3.
Episodes which pit Scully’s version of events against Mulder’s, or play with unreliable narrators, are always good entertainment value (season three’s “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is another fan favorite), and “Bad Blood” is no exception – though ultimately rather silly, it’s too much fun for that to be a real problem.
Season 6: Monday
Season six included some more excellent episodes only peripherally related to the main story arc, chiefly “Dreamland” parts one and two, and classic comedy episodes including, “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas” and “Arcadia.” The most effective stand-alone episode from this season, though, used that staple of genre television that can only work effectively in a single, one- or two-episode story: the time loop.
Time loops, if dragged on for too long, can become tedious, but in small doses they can be hilariously funny or achingly poignant. This episode is definitely the latter, as the downtrodden girlfriend of a bank robber is forced to witness the deaths of her boyfriend, Mulder, Scully and a large group of innocent people over and over again until finally she breaks the loop by dying herself.
The callback to Mulder’s water bed, acquired by weird timey-wimey means in “Dreamland,” injects some humor and character, while the onus of saving everyone being largely on the shoulders of an unknown woman effectively brings in a change of pace and a welcome breath of fresh air.
Season 7: The Goldberg Variation
Season seven of The X-Files included some highly successful returns to the origins of the show’s mythology, chiefly the return of Billy Miles in “Requiem” and, most satisfyingly of all, a final end to Samantha Mulder’s story in the aptly-titled “Closure.” The heart-warming highlight of the season, though, must be “The Goldberg Variation,” in which Stanford from Sex And The City (otherwise known as SG-1’s Martin Lloyd, played by Willie Garson) plays a man trying to use his extraordinary luck to help a sick boy without inadvertently causing misery and mayhem along the way.
Since The X-Files’ roots are in horror, feel-good episodes are few and far between, and something to be treasured when they appear. “The Goldberg Variation” is the perfect feel-good X-Files episode; not too soppy, not too harsh, but just the right mix of ludicrous gangster deaths and saving the cute kid.
Season 8: Roadrunners
By season eight, arc-based episodes were dominant, and stand-alone episodes were increasingly few and far between, but the show still produced the occasional gem. This included “Redrum,” which saw The X-Files playing with another common television staple – the backwards episode, which in science fiction means an episode where a character actually experiences events backwards (rather than the artistic choice used in non-genre shows like ER’s “Hindsight”).
“Redrum” is an excellent backwards episode, in which the audience is left satisfied that the horrific event that sparked it off has been prevented, but the guest protagonist has to pay a high price for the happy outcome. This episode, however, barely features the regular characters at all, whereas “Roadrunners,” one of the small-town horror stories The X-Files always did so well, represents the turning point in Scully and Doggett’s relationship, as it’s here they start to trust and rely on each other.
Although not part of an ongoing story arc, it does represent important character development, as many of the best individual stories do. It’s perhaps a shame that Scully has to get kidnapped again for this to happen (since she spends much of season eight pregnant, there’s rather a lot more of Doggett rescuing her than her rescuing him), but the episode effectively brings the two together as partners, and gives us a nicely scary story on the way, in which the audience can fear for Scully in a way they haven’t in years because, although they’ve got used to seeing her in danger and it’s highly unlikely she’ll be permanently hurt, the same could not necessarily be said for her unborn child.
Season 9: John Doe
Doggett became one of The X-Files’ few remaining strengths in season nine, subject of one of the few really successful story arc episodes (his version of “Closure,” “Release,” in which he solves the murder of his son, benefitting enormously from not being connected to the alien story arc). He is also the chief protagonist in this Mexican-set story, which provides a refreshing change of pace and feeling with the change of location. Episodes that play with characters’ memories are always intriguing, and this episode reveals a little more of Doggett’s past while also telling an unusual, individual story.
Of course, not all individual stories are successful. Quite a few of them really are throw-away filler, though personally, my least favourite stand-alone episode of The X-Files is easily season four’s Home, for sheer unpleasantness.
When The X-Files made a belated comeback in movie form in 2008, the decision to make the film a stand-alone story rather than tie it into the main alien invasion story was a controversial one, and may have contributed to the film’s damp reception. However, since the majority of the cinema-going audience would have lost track of the main story arc long before, it seems equally likely that the problem wasn’t that the film told an individual story, just that the particular story it chose to tell wasn’t terribly exciting or cinematic.
There are some shows that are designed to be based around long, complicated story arcs that require the viewer to watch every episode, possibly with a notebook in hand, like Lost, or shows based on books, like True Blood. There are other shows that mix arc-based episodes with stand-alone stories in roughly even quantities to great effect, like Stargate: SG-1.
Then there are shows that thrive on the individual episode model, like Star Trek (and The Next Generation and Voyager). Which one fits Doctor Who best remains to be seen, but I think it’s safe to say The X-Files might have maintained a better, shark-free reputation if it had made a bit more use of the stand-alone model.