The temptation in ranking The X-Files is just to list each season in reverse order. It’s a series that started out incredibly strong, became a global cultural phenomenon, and brought mainstream audiences back to SFF television, but buckled under an unwieldy and increasingly unsatisfying myth-arc until it finally dwindled into ignominy after a somewhat lackluster comeback. You can pretty much divide The X-Files into a first half which is a truly great, ground-breaking show (Seasons 1-6) and a second half that’s flawed but still pretty decent sci-fi (Seasons 7-11).
One of the key things that makes a great season of The X-Files is a balance between myth-arc episodes and Monster of the Week episodes. In the seasons with a strong myth-arc, this results in a compelling story overall that provides plenty of variation in its storytelling. In a weaker season, it provides an opportunity to step away from the convoluted mythology and produce some outstanding hours of television.
It’s that balance that kept the show a mainstream hit, popular with viewers tuning in when they had time as well as with dedicated fans who never missed an episode. But since not all seasons of The X-Files were created equal, it’s time to separate the bad from the good…
13. The X-Files Season 10
After a poorly received ninth season and a movie that had a decent but not outstanding reception, it was pretty surprising and exciting to see The X-Files come back to the small screen in 2016. Unfortunately, season 10 is the weakest of the lot. With only six episodes, the fact that two of them are muddled myth-arc episodes that make a gigantic mess of an already messy mythology, and one of them is just bad, means that only 50% of the season could be called “pretty good” or “great.” And even those three are nothing to really write home about.
Best episode: “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” – While not quite as strong as Darin Morgan’s Season 11 episode, this is a fun hour with great guest performances from Rhys Darby and Kumail Nanjiani.
Worst episode: “Babylon” – Very odd tonally. The appearance of Einstein and Miller as younger versions of Mulder and Scully is just bizarre, and not in a good way.
12. The X-Files Season 9
When you literally call an episode “Jump the Shark,” you know you’re in trouble. That episode, a stealth finale to the cancelled spin-off The Lone Gunmen which killed off the titular characters, has been a stone around the neck of the revival, which keeps trying to find ways to bring them back. Meanwhile, the rest of the myth-arc episodes from this season suffer from the same problem as all late-season myth-arc episodes, which is that they are horribly convoluted and not much of it makes sense any more. Unfortunately this includes the then-series finale.
Best episode: “John Doe” – Monica Reyes is an underrated character and “Audrey Pauley” is a nicely mysterious hour for her, but ultimately John Doggett is the more interesting and more likeable late-run Agent, and his experience with a memory vampire allows the show to experiment in fun ways with location and style.
Worst episode: “The Truth” – We wish we could say this was the worst of the various options for The X-Files series finale, but then there’s season 11…
11. The X-Files Season 11
Although the revival seasons are a long way from the show at its best, season 11 would be ranked higher if it weren’t for the first and last episodes. “This” and “Nothing Lasts Forever” are also less than great – the writing in “This” is especially painful – but the other Monster of the Week episodes that made up this 10-episode season are all pretty solid and “Familiar” is especially strong, returning to several elements of the early seasons, including brutal murders, dark, wet woodlands, and of course, Scully doing an autopsy. And although “My Struggle III” and “IV” are predictably terrible, the other myth-arc episode of the season, “Ghouli,” is actually pretty decent, because it leans into the most engaging aspect of the myth-arc, the emotional impact.
Best episode: “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” – This is a great concept for an X-Files episode and very funny to boot. But most importantly, Darin Morgan makes Mulder and Scully speak and feel like Mulder and Scully, all these years later.
Worst episode(s): “My Struggle III & IV” – When you write a season opener and finale so disappointing that your lead actress simply refuses to come back to the show, you know you messed up.
10. The X-Files Season 7
Season 7 is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s the first of many seasons that could have been the last one, and it is the last season from the original run to feature Mulder full time. As a result, it finally offers a conclusion to the show’s very first mystery, the disappearance of Samantha Mulder, but that conclusion was not well received by all fans – it’s emotionally affecting, but tries to make her disappearance both part of the myth-arc and something slightly separate, trying to have its cake and eat it and draw on the success of “Paper Hearts,” but without really committing to the idea. “Millennium” features Mulder and Scully’s first kiss, which was a huge deal at the time, but there’s a bit of a tired feeling to some of it, though there’s still fun to be had with episodes like the meta “Hollywood AD.”
Best episode: “X-Cops” – A crossover between The X-Files and hit reality TV show Cops doesn’t sound like it should work but it really, really does.
Worst episode: “Fight Club” – The X-Files was usually good at comedy episodes, but when a comedy episode completely fails to be funny in any way, it doesn’t go well.
9. The X-Files: Fight the Future
Long before the MCU started tying major motion pictures releases to television series and vice versa, there was the first of the two X-Files movies. The biggest problem with this film is that it’s an integral part of the myth-arc story. The mythology hadn’t yet become as nonsensical as it later did, but this is a film that requires viewers to have watched five seasons of television, and that offers little in the way of resolution. So although the film itself is actually pretty good and has some nice action sequences, it simply isn’t all that satisfying as a motion picture experience. Feige and the MCU producers, take note – most cinema-goers don’t want to have to do homework before watching a movie.
8. The X-Files: I Want to Believe
Yes, we put both the movies right next to each other. I Want to Believe is somewhat underrated as it’s a pretty decent Monster of the Week story, and you don’t need to have seen any of the TV series in order to enjoy it. The references to plot elements from the show are clearly explained, and the impact of those experiences is primarily emotional. It is also probably the most satisfying option for a true finale to the series (depending on where you stand in the shipping wars – and on the understanding that’s a low bar). But it doesn’t quite live up to the high standards of the very best Monsters of the Week, and for a feature film with a feature film budget, it’s not really “spooky” enough, partly as a result of the choice to play down the supernatural elements in favor of human “monsters.”
7. The X-Files Season 8
Season 8 is the first season with very little Mulder in it, and much of the appeal of The X-Files comes from the relationship between Scully and Mulder, so that is always going to hurt it. But Agent John Doggett is a genuinely compelling character and he fits in well. By season 8, the idea that Scully was “the skeptic” was starting to get ridiculous – refusing to believe any of what she was seeing would have put her in a Lois Lane category of missing the blindingly obvious. So bringing in Doggett as the new skeptic and shifting Scully into the “believer” position was a good move, and their relationship, which becomes close without ever veering into the romantic, is both different from her relationship with Mulder and still similar enough to work for the show.
Best episode: “Redrum” – “Roadrunners” is a close runner-up, but “Redrum” is classic X-Files: a prisoner, a murder, and time-travelling shenanigans.
Worst episode: “Badlaa” – A bit too gross, not the most culturally sensitive episode, and the climax is tonally off.
6. The X-Files Season 5
Season 5 is generally popular. We’ve got it lower down the list because it lacks the really high points of some other seasons, though it’s worth noting that it doesn’t descend to the depths of awfulness some other seasons did at any point either. But by this point, the myth-arc was starting to become a little tiresome, and in this 20-episode season it took up a lot of time, even if that includes moving instalments like “Emily.” And although there are some good hours here including “Detour,” “Bad Blood,” and “Folie à Deux,” there are only two absolute classics.
Best episode: “The Post-Modern Prometheus” – The X-Files was starting to move into its adolescent “experimental” phase in season 5, and “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is the glorious, black and white, classic-movie-homaging result (the other classic is the aforementioned and hilarious “Bad Blood”).
Worst episode: “Schizogeny” – The “worst” episodes of season 5 are actually both pretty fun. “Chinga” isn’t great but it really isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests, and we like to think of “Schizogeny” as a loving tribute to The Evil Dead. But it’s still the killer tree episode.
5. The X-Files Season 6
Season 6 saw production move from Vancouver to Los Angeles, and a lot of fans missed the gloomy, wet woodlands and weren’t so keen on the literally brighter feel of the show. But on the flip side of that, season 6 saw The X-Files really letting loose. Sometimes that was through outright comedy, like the “Dreamland” two-parter or “Arcadia,” sometimes it was through dramatic episodes that played with the format, like “Drive.” With a focus on Monsters of the Week for the most part, this season is just fun.
Best episode: “Monday” – Most people would go for “Triangle,” a fantastic trip to the famous Bermuda Triangle that features some great time travel weirdness, but we’ve gone for a slightly different time travel-themed story. “Monday” is one of the best time loop stories on television, and there are some good ones so that’s high praise.
Worst episode: “Agua Mala” – The monster is the water, fresh water has magical healing properties, and of course there’s a baby to deliver in the middle of the chaos. Not the season’s strongest hour.
4. The X-Files Season 2
Gillian Anderson’s maternity leave in season 2 ended up determining the course of much of The X-Files’ myth-arc for the many remaining years of the show. The episodes around Scully’s abduction by aliens were some of the most exciting the show had yet produced, from the tense hostage situation in “Duane Barry” to the action of “Ascension” (Mulder on that cable car was exciting back in 1994!) to the weirdness and mysticism of “One Breath.” The season produced some solid Monster of the Week episodes as well, including “The Host” and “Irresistible.” But it never quite hit the stupendous highs that season 1 or 3 did, and it was still plagued with a few more wobbly episodes that didn’t quite hit the mark, like “3,” “Excelsis Dei,” and “Fearful Symmetry.”
Best episode: “Duane Barry” – It’s really close between this one and ‘Irresistible’, and it’s a testament to how well written Scully was back then that both of those episodes end up with her being kidnapped, but neither feels overly exploitative. But “Duane Barry” has to get a nod for being something that became so rare in later seasons – a truly great mythology episode.
Worst episode: “3” – This episode is actually kind of fun in a cheesy-vampire-story kind of way, but it’s not good.
3. The X-Files Season 4
Season 4 saw the show settling into a comfortable stride, balancing myth-arc and Monster of the Week episodes effectively. “Home” is divisive and whether you think it’s one of the best or one of the worst episodes depends on your taste for gruesome incest plots, but season 4 also gave us the emotional weight of “Paper Hearts,” the tragedy of “Kaddish,” and the hilarious “Small Potatoes.” Meanwhile, the myth-arc stories, following on from season 3’s “Nisei,” lean into what was always the strongest element of the myth-arc: how big revelations affect our central characters on a personal level, as Scully, like the other abductees she met the year before, is diagnosed with cancer.
Best episode: “Paper Hearts” – Technically this is not a myth-arc episode, but it gets its power from that same emotional connection, as both Mulder and the audience are forced to question whether Samantha Mulder was ever abducted by aliens at all.
Worst episode: “Teliko” – Many of The X-Files’ worst episodes are culturally or racially insensitive, and this one is both.
2. The X-Files Season 1
Season 1 of The X-Files rarely makes it near to the top of ranking lists because it has all the qualities you’d expect from the first series of a show that started in 1993. The budget was small so the special effects are both dated and cheap, and some of the stories haven’t aged too well. But simply being made in 1993 shouldn’t detract from just how brilliant this opening season actually was. The myth-arc was still new and exciting and hadn’t devolved into nonsense. The ideas, approach, and style were all fresh, and seeing Mulder and Scully work their way from mistrust to co-dependence over the course of the season is the reason so many people loved this show so much. And just look at some of the great Monster of the Week instalments – “Pilot,” “Squeeze,” “Ice,” “Beyond the Sea,” and “Tooms” are bona fide classics.
Best episode: “Ice” – It’s essentially a rip-off of The Thing, but done so well no one minds, and it cements the Unresolved Sexual Tension that would drive Mulder and Scully’s relationship for the first six years of the show.
Worst episode: “Space” – It’s a toss-up between this one and “Ghost in the Machine,” but neither is desperately offensive. They’re both just a bit bland and dull.
1. The X-Files Season 3
Season 3 has both the awesome highs of season 1, featuring some of the show’s all-time very best episodes, and the reliable standards of season 4, with most episodes being solidly entertaining and a minimum of iffy hours. Among the great are “D.P.O” (Giovanni Ribisi has never been better or creepier), “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Pusher,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” The myth-arc stories are strong too, from Mulder’s mystical experiences in “The Blessing Way” to the first appearance of the black oil and its infection of Krycek in “Piper Maru.” By season 3, The X-Files knew what it was and what it did well.
Best episode: “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” – Sad, poignant, mysterious, spooky, with an underlying sense of both humor and tragedy. This is peak X-Files.
Worst episode: “Teso Dos Bichos” – This episode’s production was complicated by the sudden discovery that domestic house cats don’t follow orders, which anyone with a basic knowledge of common household sayings could have told them. That tells you pretty much all you need to know.