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'The X-Files' had two Christmas specials, here's how they stack up against each other
The show wasn’t all that big on tying episodes to certain holidays or celebrations, but back-to-back Season 5 and 6 outings went all in on the festive season.
Ghosts are a lot like family. Expected or not, they have a habit of showing up during the holidays. Whether they're metaphorical apparitions of past choices or very real spirits lining up to help fix your life, the month of December is big on hauntings.
Over its original nine-season run, The X-Files made only two Christmas episodes. The show wasn’t all that big on tying episodes to certain holidays or celebrations, but back-to-back Season 5 and 6 outings went all in on the festive season.
The first was a two-part mythology-heavy story focusing on the ongoing ripple effect of Scully’s abduction on both her body and family. The other equipped the well-known "Monster of the Week" format, delivering a fun haunted-house episode. For better or worse, these Christmas stories are a snapshot of two distinct Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) adventures.
Season 5's “Christmas Carol” is an all-Scully affair (in part to accommodate Duchovny’s off-camera promotional duties for the movie Playing God), which occurs while she's visiting her brother Bill for the holiday. Her sister-in-law is heavily pregnant, and their military home looks exactly like the one Scully grew up in. The holidays can dredge up a lot of feelings, and Dana Scully has more baggage than most. At this point in the series, she has just learned that as a result of her abduction in Season 2, she won't be able to have children. This is something she hadn't considered wanting until she was told it was no longer possible.
Absent family members make this all-too-familiar house layout unsettling, which is further compounded when Scully receives a call from beyond the grave. A voice that sounds an awful lot like her dead sister, Melissa (Melinda McGraw), implores Scully to “go to her.”
The “her” in question is a 3-year-old girl called Emily, a girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to Melissa when she was a toddler. The matter is made even more complicated, as her mother was lying dead in the bathtub (from seemingly self-inflicted wounds) when the call was made from that phone. This all sounds very X-Files and not particularly festive. Scully does call Mulder, but can’t bring herself to tell her partner what has transpired in San Diego. Instead, she puts up with her skeptical family, who believe she is transferring grief about her infertility onto this little girl. Bill has always been a bit of an a-hole, but this character trait is fully on display here. He's frustrated by Scully’s lack of seasonal jolliness, and he blames the influence of Mulder (who isn’t even here).
In a twist on Dickens' famous holiday story, Scully sees her past, present, and future woven together via dreams of past Christmases. In one, her brother Bill wants to kill the rabbit she has found (but Scully kept it so safe in a lunchbox that it died anyway), while another depicts the year her mother gave Scully and her sister the cross necklace loaded with meaning. The last portrays a Scully full of doubt about heading to Quantico. In this scene, her sister offers guidance and reassurance, combing ghosts of Christmas past and future. Because Melissa gave her confidence in the past, Scully gets the push she needs to confront the truth in front of her.
Dickens once wrote of a man who confronted himself in order not to die alone, and Scully must do the same — but ultimately, she is saving this little girl from an awful fate. “Christmas Carol” ends on Christmas morning with the Scully clan eagerly unwrapping presents. She receives a much more significant gift than any of the boxes sitting beneath the tree. DNA results reveal Emily isn’t Melissa’s child; this is Scully's biological daughter.
The second part, “Emily,” is less interested in the festive framing of the story, even if Christmas lights framing certain images are a reminder of this time of year. The religious connotations are somewhat heavy-handed: This child was essentially brought into this world to serve a purpose before dying. Executive producer and creator Chris Carter has made some pretty questionable choices regarding motherhood and Scully’s body, and while this isn’t as eyebrow-raising as the most recent season, it still reduces this character’s violation to some sort of miracle in the face of a horrifying experiment. The mythology storyline got so bogged down that it can make revisiting these episodes seem more arduous than when it first aired, something that doesn't typically happen with the "Monster of the Week" format.
Despite the running theme of despair, Season 6's “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” is far less melancholic even if it is predicated on Mulder and Scully’s inherent loneliness. Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin are the titular spirits attempting to pull a Grinch, but deadlier, as a couple who made a pact in 1917, killed themselves on Christmas Eve, and have been driving the residents of this gothic mansion to the same fate ever since. Business has been slow since the home was condemned, but Mulder is ripe for a haunting even if Scully would rather be anywhere else. She mentions she still has gifts to wrap and grumpily tells her partner she has "holiday cheer to spread.”
While “Christmas Carol” linked back to Scully’s abduction, her family, and her innate fears, Maurice and Lyda poke and prod at Scully and Mulder’s co-dependent relationship. Before the partners are separated, Scully lays out all the scientific reasons people are fascinated (and scared) by ghosts. “It actually ends up saying more about the living than the dead,” she opines, adding that a belief in spirits is fueled by an immortality desire. This way, we can be with our loved ones for eternity. She even draws a line between the feelings we have about ghosts and what draws us to Christmas: These powerful desires are the essence of what makes us human.
Matters go from unsettling, as a storm rages outside (you can’t visit a haunted house without the appropriate weather), to deeply disturbing. This is a house that seemingly has two identical libraries, brick walls where doorways should be, and disappearing ladders. Despite Mulder and Scully's continuing philosophy that these are “gimmicks and cheap tricks,” the ghosts put years of practice to good use on these two lonely souls.
Maurice accuses Mulder of being narcissistic, self-righteous, and an egomaniac, while Lydia accurately calls out Scully's enjoyment of proving Mulder wrong. At this point, there are a lot of unspoken words and unresolved feelings between the pair, but there are only so many illusions they will fall for. They have been through far more intense and dangerous ordeals.
Later, Mulder is watching the 1951 Scrooge adaptation on TV when Scully swings by his place. Gifts are exchanged (sadly, we don't see what they got for each other), and while the ghosts hit a few home truths, what they saw as weaknesses are also the reasons these two are perfect partners. Despite these flaws (and occasional manipulations), there is no one either would rather spend time with.
Ultimately, these two Christmas episodes represent the two X-Files narrative styles. Neither is a Top 10 contender in either category, but there is something to be gained from these festive outings. If nothing else, having Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin as mischievous (and murderous) spirits should be enough to add this to your holiday genre television watching line-up.