Sean Wilson looks back at composer Mark Snow’s extraordinary contribution to one of the greatest TV shows of all time…
It was the pop culture sensation of the 1990s – and now it’s back to storm TV screens in the UK (well, Channel 5 anyway). The X-Files initially ran for 10 series’ (in addition to spawning two movies) and introduced us to two of television’s greatest heroes in the form of FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), both dedicated to exposing extraterrestrial and paranormal phenomena lurking amidst the fabric of everyday life.
However, the series wouldn’t have had half its impact without the input of composer Mark Snow, whose haunting music constantly had viewers anticipating what was around the next corner. Here are 19 memorable tracks exploring the rich yet underrated soundtrack history of this landmark show, ones confirming Snow as perhaps the unsung hero of The X-Files.
The X-Files Theme
One simply cannot have a list of music from this series without the instantly iconic theme tune, one as unmistakable as The A Team, Twin Peaks or any other TV classic. With its piercing, eerie tones, Snow’s score encapsulates all of the menace and wonder of the entire series in a nutshell, the famous whistling in fact a synth effect called ‘Whistling Joe’, one inspired by The Smiths’ track ‘How Soon is Now?’ Very often boiled down to its first 30 seconds, the full version of the theme in fact develops over the course of three and a half minutes, developing a unique blend of the melancholy and the unsettling in the process; a groundbreaking composition for any genre.
Toilet Tooms (from ‘Tooms’)
Given Snow has professed to being influenced by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith’s groundbreaking Planet of the Apes score, its little wonder such influence carries over into The X-Files music, a mixture of then cutting-edge electronics and avant-garde orchestration. The early seasons were much more astringent and uncomfortable in their use of music, perhaps best embodied by the skin-crawling mass of pizzicato (plucked) strings used to represent notorious, liver-eating mutant Eugene Victor Tooms. Even now, it’s hard to listen to without feeling, appropriately enough, consumed.
Uniforms (from ‘One Breath’)
Snow’s music on the show was more than just menacing; matching the multifaceted emotions of the characters, it could also be beautifully haunting and elegiac in the right moments. The critical series 2 crossroads where Scully is abducted and returned to Earth marks some of Snow’s most accomplished and gorgeous writing, electronic choir hovering on the divide between life and death, the real and the supernatural.
Guardian Angel (from ‘One Breath’)
Also from the One Breath episode is this captivating, minimalist track, one showcasing how Snow’s seamless electronic style could be applied to a host of different emotional contexts. It’s genuinely moving and is in fact repeated throughout several other episodes including season 2’s very own End Game and season 7’s The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, quietly reinforcing the faith and moral integrity that keeps our central characters going.
Facetus Malum (from ‘Humbug’)
The X-Files was often at its best when subverting its own formula and playing everything for dark laughs; satirical freak show episode Humbug is widely regarded as one of the very best, scripted by Darin Morgan who many regard as one of the series’ true champions. And Snow’s music brilliantly follows suit, sacrificing the scares in favour of dainty woodwind and strings that are quite palpably mischievous. It’s yet more proof this is a more musically varied franchise than it appears at the outset.
Exoptare Ex Veritas (from ‘Oubliette’)
There were a lot of cracking episodes in season 3 of The X-Files but the eighth, Oubliette, was one of the most personal for Mulder as he undertook a traumatic and devastating investigation into a possible psychic connection between two kidnapped young girls. Snow’s emotional music is right there alongside Mulder himself, the rolling piano tones fully capturing the darkness and sadness of this especially difficult case.
Closure – (From ‘Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”‘)
One of the most celebrated episodes in the entire run was also granted one of Snow’s most sophisticated musical accompaniments. Expertly mirroring the episode’s clever use of unreliable narrators (a crafty decision that caused it to lodge in the minds of viewers), Snow’s music grows from turbulent rhythms into something more cathartic, muddying the waters between truth and fiction. In other words, a classic musical summation of The X-Files itself.
Wonderful, Wonderful (from ‘Home’)
OK, so the legendary Johnny Mathis takes credit for this, rather than Snow. But it would be remiss not to include the most memorably twisted use of a pop song in the entire history of the series, a track that helped solidify already notorious episode Home in the minds of viewers. Playing as an inbred mutant family go to brutally murder a small town sheriff and his wife, it’s now impossible to listen to the tune without getting chills; in fact, Mathis wouldn’t allow the producers to use the original version of the song due to the episode’s graphic content. In the end, a cover was deployed.
Paper Hearts (from ‘Paper Hearts’)
In season 4, we were once again confronted by the darkness of Mulder’s past as he turned to face the troubling legacy of his sister Samantha’s disappearance. In a chilling twist, Mulder interrogates a serial killer (brilliantly played by Manhunter’s Tom Noonan) who claims to have murdered her, a seeming contradiction in the long-running extraterrestrial mythology. It’s an important entry in the series and Snow treats it with all the profundity it deserves, garnering an Emmy nomination in the process.
Spirit Wedding (from ‘The Field Where I Died’)
Perhaps not one of the more gripping episodes of The X-Files, this oddity did nevertheless allow Snow to amp up the spiritual aspects of his music, the composer reinforcing the themes of reincarnation and the beyond that were a mainstay throughout Mulder and Scully’s investigations. In fact, The Field Where I Died features some of the most outstanding choral writing in the entire series.
Post-Modern Posse (from ‘The Post-Modern Prometheus’)
As a fine example of how Snow’s music became more versatile, dynamic and intriguing as The X-Files went on, this sly Gothic pastiche amps up the doom-laden portent to distill the essence of one terrific episode. A black and white comic variant on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the episode provides Snow with ample opportunity to foreground his music and really show us what he’s capable of.
Mother Genes (from ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Emily’)
There are overtones of synth-meister Angelo Badalementi in this noble piece, one capturing the relative innocence of Scully’s life before she joined the FBI and became embroiled in the X-Files. There’s a nostalgic tone to the music that’s perfectly in-keeping with the nature of the episode itself, one focusing on the little girl grown from Scully’s own DNA, and it ably demonstrates Snow’s uncanny ability to expose the emotional heart of the drama.
Closure (from ‘The End)
Another of Snow’s ‘linking’ ideas, this critical theme develops from moody strings into something genuinely anguished, carrying both a sense of world-weariness yet defiance that’s perfectly matched to the tenacity of our central characters. It makes several important appearances throughout The X-Files mythology including abduction episode The Red and the Black, the resolution of season 5 climax The End and big screen movie Fight the Future.
Corn Copters (from ‘The X Files: Fight the Future’)
The arrival of The X-Files on the big screen allowed for Snow to flex his orchestral muscles like never before. And the full-throttle power of the Hollywood Studio Symphony becomes fully apparent in this terrifically propulsive track as Mulder and Scully are forced to flee into a cornfield by mysterious enemy helicopters. The influence of the great Jerry Goldsmith hangs over the punchy brass section, as well as the dynamic percussive effects that keep the piece driving along. Listen out too for the subtle interpretation of the main X-Files theme at the end.
Stung Kissing (from ‘The X Files: Fight the Future’)
It was the one question on everyone’s minds: would Mulder and Scully finally lock lips? This atypically luscious and romantic piece from Snow seems to anticipate that pivotal moment, building up to a gorgeous statement of orchestral beauty that’s abruptly cut off when Scully is stung by a genetically modified honey bee. And you thought Nicolas Cage had it bad in The Wicker Man.
House Organ/Irrational Fear (from ‘How the Ghosts Stole Christmas’)
Many would argue that season 6 is where The X-Files began to decline in quality, but if the show was at this point beginning to fluctuate, Snow’s music was becoming ever-more creative and engrossing. This witty, pipe organ-laden extravaganza is one of his most lavish episode accompaniments, amplifying the dark humour of this ghostly entry co-starring veterans Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin.
Scully’s Theme (from ‘Within’)
This dramatic season eight opener picks up after Mulder’s abduction by aliens at the end of season seven, and finds Scully all alone with new partner John Doggett (Robert Patrick). It’s a story development that allows Snow to usher in one of his most unexpectedly brilliant flourishes: a mysterious female voiceover palpably lamenting the loss of Scully’s soul-mate, it carries overtones of Lisa Gerrard’s work on Gladiator.
The Tip/Agent Doggett’s Theme (from ‘The Release’)
Robert Patrick’s no-nonsense depiction of Agent Doggett couldn’t hope to live up to fan-favourite Mulder, but at least he was granted a memorable theme courtesy of Snow in this season nine episode. Led by a florid, undulating piano, it conveys integrity and seriousness, eventually mixing with modernistic beats to capture Doggett’s role as one of the new torch bearers in the series.
Finale (from ‘The Truth: Part 2’)
The climax of the first TV incarnation of The X-Files was frustratingly inconclusive in most respects, but it did solidly reinforce that Mulder and Scully were two of the most compelling small-screen heroes we’d ever seen. It was their emotional journey that carried us through right from the start, and it’s on that note that Snow concludes his score with possibly his most emotional track, brilliantly manipulating his main title theme into something both melancholy and hopeful. As both characters looked ahead to an uncertain future, Snow’s music did the same.
Sean Wilson is a film reviewer, soundtrack enthusiast and avid tea drinker. If all three can be combined at the same time, all is good with the world.