This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the premiere of The X-Files. Now, there’s a lot The X-Files did for sci-fi on television, and for television in general. It was a daring, strange, and, at times, confusing show with a long running mythology and two of the most beloved and popular characters to ever stream from our cable boxes. Of course, I’m talking about Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson), unrepentant believer of the supernatural and grounded scientist, respectfully.
Sure, Mulder and Scully (and the simmering sexual tension between the two) were the reasons people kept tuning in every week, but it was also the guest performances within monster-of-the-week episodes that have helped the show to remain a Netflix hit, now more than ten years after it’s cancellation. What follows are my personal favorites, those actors and actresses that played the monster, the psychic, the alien that just wants to play baseball, the characters that really brought an episode to life and the actors whose performances still stand out in the sea that is over 200 episodes and countless minor characters that exist in The X-Files universe.
5. Nick Chinlund as Donnie Pfaster, “Irresistible” (Season 2)
Donnie Pfaster is the King of Creeps. He’s described in 1993 terminology as a “death fetishist” which basically means he’s in league with the darkest depths of the internet: lusting after women but unable to approach or engage with them in a healthy manner, he takes out his sexual urges on corpses. Unfortunately for Scully, right around the time when Pfaster becomes confident enough to murder women to fulfill his gross desires, he becomes obsessed with her (and her gorgeous red hair) and the episode shifts focus from an average crime procedural to Scully being forced to survive in a situation that’s every woman’s worst fear. Which she does, because she’s Scully.
The thing about Pfaster is that he’s just human. He’s not an alien, a psychic, or an immortal. He’s just a guy. Once or twice in the episode Scully (and others) view Pfaster as an almost demonic being, but there’s nothing about him that says this is anything other than an outside perception, in other words Pfaster is the embodiment of evil, but a very human evil. And a human evil that actually exists in our world AND in the world of The X-Files: violence against women.
And holy crap is Nick Chinlund so very, very good at making our skin crawl. The little drawl Pfaster has, the way he enunciates his words, the quiet ducking of his head when he’s interacting with other people– all of these things belie the violence and hate that Pfaster is made up of. There’s a dissonance in the way he represents himself and the way the audience knows him to be, and this dramatic irony is what makes Pfaster so scary AND it’s what makes this performance one of my favorites.
He’s even pretty good in the seventh season sequel episode, “Orison.”
4. Jesse L. Martin as Josh Exley, “The Unnatural” (Season 6)
“The Unnatural” was both written and directed by David Duchvony, and is a story told mostly through a flashback to the 1940s. More specifically, it’s about Arthur Dales’ time as a cop when he was assigned to protect Josh “X” Exley, a popular black baseball player who has been receiving death threats. It turns out that Exley is actually an alien, one that just wants to play baseball, and is being hunted by more than just racists, but also bounty hunters from his home planet who are afraid he’ll out them all.
It’s a goofy episode, but one with a lot of heart and most of this heart comes from Jesse L. Martin in his role as the outcast and passionate Exley. Martin is likable in this role, all smiles and persistence, and this, added to the adversity Exley faces in the human realm, really makes us root for him — even though he’s an alien, one of the grey bastards that have been hunting down our beloved protagonists since day one. We want Exley to succeed, to escape from the bounty hunter on his trail, to continue being the amazing baseball player that he is.
The first time I fell in love with this character is in the cold open, in the middle of a Nevada desert baseball diamond where Exley’s team (called ‘The Roswell Grays’) are playing an informal game. The game is interrupted with the appearance of Klan members, but before this we get a good few minutes of Martin bantering with the catcher, his teammates, and it’ s basically just a delight to watch. And this is definitely true of the rest of the episode as well: Martin absolutely nails the exchange between Exley and Dales, when Exley has to explain who he is exactly and why he’s playing baseball when he could do anything else: “First unnecessary thing I ever done in my life and I fell in love. I didn’t know unnecessary could feel so good.”
Aliens, man. When they aren’t trying to murder you or infect you with black oil, they’re tugging at your heartstrings. In a non-evil way, of course.
3. Harriet Harris as Eve 6/Sally Kendrick/Eve 8 in “Eve” (Season 1)
In “Eve” Harriet Harris plays three different characters, three clones created in an experiment that happen to ‘go bad’ at some point. Invariably, they become suicidal and psychotic, and then homicidal.
We first see Harris as Eve 6, a clone that’s gone as bad as possible. When Mulder and Scully meet her 6 has been restrained for attacking an orderly; more specifically for biting the orderly’s eyeball. We next see Harris as Sally Kendrick. Kendrick is relatively sane, though she does dabble in genetic manipulation and is the one that created our monsters in this monster-of-the-week episode: Eve 9 and 10, two creepy and murderous little girls who end up poisoning the well-intentioned Kendrick. The last time we see Harris is as Eve 8, when this clone comes for the newly imprisoned Eve 9 and Eve 10.
Each of these characters are different– 6 is completely crazy, wild eyed and rambling; Kendrick is insisting and intense, though well grounded; and 8, though we only see her briefly, holds her head high and seems more self assured and sane than the others. The amazing thing about these performances isn’t the differences between these three characters, it’s the similarities. Harris makes these three characters feel related. They’re all shaky and a bit twitchy, they all have shared mannerisms, they all have the same elevated vocabulary. They’re clones, sure, but they’re also very different people and Harris is able to make that come across. The Eves feel like sisters.
“Eve” is one of the episodes in Season One that is a quintessential X-File, and it’s one of the first episodes that is effective in it’s bait-and-switch plot involving the Eves and a lot of this is owed to Harris and her performance as these elder Eves.
2. Geoffrey Lewis as Alfred Fellig in “Tithonus” (Season 6)
Season Six isn’t nearly as strong a season as, say, three or four, but what it lacks in effective and interesting episodes, it makes up for in some really great and fun performances ( In fact, when this list was still a ‘best ten’ draft, nearly half of the performances I pulled were from Season Six), the most stand-out performance of the season being Geoffrey Lewis as Alfred Fellig in “Tithonus.”
Fellig is a photographer, but not just your run-of-the-mill Sears portrait photographer. He takes pictures of death– or at least he’s been trying to for a couple hundred years. I’m not going to spoil it for you, because the monologue Lewis has in explaining his character’s strange predicament to Scully is what landed him here on the list and it’s pretty great. The long and the short of it is that Fellig has missed his opportunity for death and now, after forgetting his own wife’s name and just being generally miserable, he wants to die. So he looks for death, and has been able to hone his senses enough to recognize when someone is about to die– in an elevator accident, hit by a bus, shot, etc. And by putting himself right there at the moment of the death, he hopes to get noticed as an anomaly and killed as well.
Lewis plays Fellig as determined, stoic, and just sort-of bored with everything around him. Fellig is bitter about how things have turned out and is jealous of Scully because she has the ability to die, but there’s still a kindness to him that lesser actors might not have been able to draw out. The subtleties in Lewis’ performance makes this otherwise lackluster episode worth watching over and over again.
1. Peter Boyle as Clyde Bruckman, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (Season 3)
I’m convinced that “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” is a perfect episode of television. Not only does it nail the mix of horror and humor that The X-Files was so good at, but it also has an intricate plot, entertaining side characters, and Peter Boyle.
Boyle plays Clyde Bruckman, a sarcastic, curmudgeonly, and reluctant psychic and insurance salesman that helps Mulder and Scully track down a man responsible for the deaths of those in the business of telling the future– tarot card readers, palm readers, tea leaf readers, and fortune tellers. Bruckman himself has a very specific ability: he can see how people will die. The rest of his abilities always seem to be wrong, but only just so. He buys a lotto ticket and every number is off by one. He leads Mulder and Scully to where a murder victim has been buried, they search the surrounding woods and find nothing, only to realize they’ve been parked on top of the grave the whole time.
Bruckman’s obsession with The Big Bopper (and the song “Chantilly Lace”) keep appearing throughout the episode and his eventual explanation of his obsession with the odds that The Big Bopper would have been on the plane that crashed and killed him, and Buddy Holly, is a great moment in the episode and a great moment for understanding why his character is just so damned depressed. Every scene with Bruckman is just fun, even the ones with trademarked X-Files tension running underneath.
Like this exchange with Mulder:
Bruckman: How could I see the future if it doesn’t already exist?
Mulder: But if the future is written, then why bother to do anything?
Bruckman: Now you’re catching on…You see that’s another reason I can’t help you catch this guy: I might adversely affect the fate of the future. I mean, his next victim might be the mother of the daughter whose son invents the time machine. Then the son goes back in time and changes world history. And then Columbus never discovers America, man never lands on the moon, the U.S. never invades Grenada, or something less significant, resulting in the fact that my father never meets my mother, and, consequently, I am never born. So when do we start?
Boyle is just wonderful in this role, and he’s the best part of this already well-crafted episode. And all I’m saying is The X-Files is up in its entirety on Netflix right now so you should probably log in and watch Peter Boyle be brilliant.