I love The X-Files. It ended just before I had any kind of platform on which to write about TV, so I haven’t really talked about it in any depth. I mean, I only had time to run one fansite in college, and nobody beats Homicide. But I go way back with Mulder and Scully – my earliest emails were about the show. I’ve got an account on a dating site where my user name is an X-Files reference. And yes, the fact that said account has been open since the original run of the show is either an indictment of the site or of me. Or maybe it’s a bad idea to name yourself after one of the Lone Gunmen. There are no easy answers.
I was, however, a little leery of this year’s relaunch. Let’s be honest, the show didn’t end on any kind of a high, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson both having exited the show before the final season and then coming back for a weird finale based around a trial. And the second movie, the last time we saw them, was not good. It didn’t even feel like an X-Files movie. It felt like characters we know passed through a script about organ thieves.
And the fact is, the original show is very much of its time, both in terms of production and the overall feel. I’ve talked a lot about how much better TV has gotten in the last fifteen years or so, and while Mulder and Scully were ahead of their time, it’s impossible to tell how much enjoyment I get from the old episodes is tied to nostalgia. Does it actually hold up in today’s television landscape? Could it even make sense in a world where smartphones exist? Watch Seinfeld again – it’s still funny, but the existence of cell phones would render the plot of just about every episode moot. Is there a point to X-Files when Google is a thing?
It’s hard to articulate, but there’s something about the original show that’s just intrinsically pre-9/11. Or maybe it’s that the feel of it was unique at the time, but now the fear of threats we cant see or anticipate is baked into everything in our lives now. We live in the X-Files now. And these days there are a million Sons of Mulder out there, doing shows about UFOs or ghost hunting or finding Bigfoot. Mulder was unique in the nineties, and now we see him in every dope who can afford a spectrometer.
But now, having seen the first two episodes of the new event series, I can put my worries aside. 2016 X-Files is reinvented for a new world, but also charmingly retro in a way that makes it feel like a natural continuation of the original series.
Wisely, the new series puts aside the mythology from the original. The whole thing with black oil and warring alien races just got too convoluted to be salvageable. Of course, at the time that was because it was unheard for a creator to end a hit show when the story had run its course. So there’s a very clear end point in the series, but the show just kept going and the writers have to scramble. But if it hadn’t been for that lesson, shows like LOST and Breaking Bad wouldn’t have been able to build to planned endings. Something good came of it at least.
The new episodes don’t dwell on how Mulder and Scully got from the second movie to this point or fretter about with why the world didn’t end in 2012. There are nods to that backstory, but everything you need to know is right there on the screen. There are multiple references to their child, and I’m fuzzy on that because the last two seasons of the series are just an absolute blur to me. I know that Dogget and Reyes existed, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. But the specifics aren’t important. They gave the kid up for adoption to protect him. OK. Got it. And the overarching conspiracy? Don’t worry about it because Joel McHale says it’s all a smokescreen. Cool. Let’s get to the weird stuff!
I will say, before getting into the episodes, that the transition from the first to the second episode is incredibly shaky. I know the idea is that the finale will follow directly from the premiere, with “monster of the week” episodes in between. But I can’t make any sense of it. Presumably Episode Six happens immediately after Episode One, followed by the other episodes? I’m guessing that’s the case, because some huge things happen in that premiere and it’s bizarre that nobody mentions any of them. It’s not even clear at the end of the premiere that Scully is back with the FBI. I’m sure it’ll all make sense in the end, but at this moment, it feels like they went from “We have to find Sveta and protect her at all costs” to “But forget her for now because there is a dude with a killing sound, and that’s way more interesting”. I’m putting aside because it may just be an issue of scheduling weirdness, but at the moment, it’s confusing.
That said, when we join Mulder and Scully in the first episode, everything about them makes sense. With the X-Files closed, Scully went back to being a doctor and doing humanitarian work, while Mulder just got more Mulder. The show addresses the fact that his character ha become an archetype, and he’s conscious of the fact that his “life’s work is a joke”. And I think that’s what’s brilliant about the idea that the government manufactured the entire alien mythology from the original series as a cover-up – having Mulder articulate that turns him into the worst guy on your Facebook feed. He has a lot of links to articles about GMOs and fluoride in the water supply and he could very well say “Wake up, sheeple” unironically. It’s great, because Mulder is supposed to be weird and off-putting. But we know and love him, so that’s a hard trick to pull off. Just a little tweak turns him into the guy you mute on social media.
To be honest, the first episode is more than a bit heavy-handed. Characters state the themes of the series over and over again, and I rolled my eyes from time to time, but I get it. This is a show that needs to appeal to new viewers and the old-time fans who maybe haven’t rewatched the series since 2002. The people who have the series on Blu Ray are just a small part of the audience. Just because I don’t need the expository dialogue doesn’t mean that nobody does. I can sit through a few minutes of things I already know.
And with all that, it’s an interesting idea to have Mulder’s worldview shaken. I’m glad the whole series isn’t one story about alien DNA and abducted fetuses, but it’s a great way to start things off. And how weird was it to see the saucer crash onscreen? The original series didn’t have that kind of budget, and it seems unlikely that they’d make such a big move without adding an unreliable narrator to make us question the specifics. 2016 X-Files needs us to get on board with Roswell from minute one so it can get weirder from there, and I love it.
Something else I love? Joel McHale as Tad O’Malley. All those years on Community have honed his ability to make people believe things. Every time they showed him broadcasting, I just thought “Classic Winger”.
As it turns out, I liked the second episode quite a bit more. In retrospect, it’s the case of the week episodes that hold up the best. If you’re going to pop in an episode, it’s going to be Clyde Bruckman or the one with Bryan Cranston, or the one where Bruce Campbell is a demon who just wants to have a baby. Or “Home”, or one of the Flukeman episodes. You’re not going to go back to the mythology episodes unless you have a lot of time on your hands. “Founders Mutation” felt like a classic episode with the killing sound and telekinesis and the higher-ups stonewalling. But then you have those great scenes where Scully and Mulder both imagine being a parent, and the specifics of what they imagine tell you everything you need to know about them. (Note also that neither pictures them as a couple. That breakup must have been rough.) It’s classic X-Files storytelling, and I loved seeing it.
–I love how the new show stays committed to the production values of the original. There’s the musical score – an increasing rarity these days when prestige shows use primarily ambient music or a score only for scene transitions. And there’s that moody lighting even in an operating room which should be just ridiculously well-lit. They’re committed to having the new show match the old one, and I admire that.
–I knew on some level that Cigarette Smoking Man was going to show up, but I was still shocked to see him. And when he smoked out of the hole in his throat? Fantastic. It was a good joke and also a nice character moment.
–Speaking of return appearances, Skinner is huge, right? Like, it looks like he could knock Mulder through a wall if he gets on his nerves. I feel like he’s one second away from tearing off that shirt and cutting a promo about his rivalry with Ric Flair.
–When Mulder returns to his old office, there are still pencils sticking out of the ceiling!
–How are Anderson and Duchovny not aging? It’s freaky.
–This is more of a story than an observation. In early 2002, when the series was ending, I had just fallen into a new friend group and they hosted a finale viewing party. They invited a friend named Seth, and he took charge of the remote to mute the commercials. But he was really bad at it, so at every commercial break, someone would have to yell “Seth!”. Now, I don’t think I saw Seth more than once or twice after that day, but I still watch TV with those people every week and fourteen years later, we still yell “Seth!” when we want somebody to mute the commercials. Dude became a catchphrase and then left us behind. And yes, I watched the new premiere at that same house and had to yell “Seth!”. Nice to know that some things never change.