By Doug Mann, March 2016
Once upon a time in a social universe far away The X-Files was a defining cultural moment. For a long time the TV-viewing masses, outside of a minority of hardcore X-Philes, had forgotten about it. Then just this year Fox brought it back for a short run, to piggyback on the HD release of the original series on Blu-Ray and a new run on Netflix.
The masses watched again, viewing numbers for some episodes beating those for the original series. But lo, the critics were displeased. Writing in Variety, Maureen Ryan claims that “the scattered version of The X-Files viewers got this year had little vision, less grasp of subtlety and only small scraps of coherence. Almost everything that could go wrong with this reboot did go wrong,” slamming the “clanging, hollow finale”, hoping that the series is buried for good this time.
The collective staff of EW panned the finale as a “cliffhanger nobody wanted,” critiquing the reboot as a “slapdash production” interrupted by moments of “artful greatness.”
Yet to paraphrase Machiavelli, people are lazy and have short memories. Before taking on the critics, a flashback is in order.
Like a good fan, I bought the first three seasons of the original series on Blu-Ray, and was surprised how sharp and tense even the opening few episodes were, not to mention how much the widescreen high-def images brought out the cinematic aspirations of the series’ directors, right from the opening scene of the swirling lights and leaves engulfing an attractive young woman caught up in a close encounter in the B.C. woods. Watching these early episodes in HD was jarring when compared to the cathode-ray tube VHS experiences I remember having of the early seasons of the show.
I also noticed how young lead actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson looked, and how the puffed-up hair, long coats and wide collars assigned to Dana Scully reached back through the early nineties to eighties’ stylistics. Further, it was surprising to remember that all the paranoia generated in even the first season pre-dated the mega-paranoia in the USA after 9/11: this was all to come. The X-Files nicely foreshadowed this, pointing ahead to so much global tension and to so many fears of enemies without and within. Yet despite its prognosticative power, maybe the series was an artefact of another time best left buried in ruins of fan memories.
So was the Fox reboot an exercise in money-grabbing, pointless nostalgia? Absolutely not, though what was in the mind of Fox executives when they green-lit the new series I neither know nor care. Like Mulder and Scully, let’s examine the evidence carefully. Darin Morgan’s third episode “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was a classic meditation on mortality and the futility of the rat race, full of his quirky sense of humour (though it has less of the postmodern fragmentation of 3×20 “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”, his best writing stint on the show). New Zealand comedian Rhys Darby was great fun as Guy Mann (no relation), the monster-turned-man who philosophizes on the human condition in a graveyard with Mulder at his side in front of the gravestone of original series director Kim Manners. Also, there’s Mulder’s comical futzing about with this new cell phone photo app, which would have made all his solo monster sightings in the original series a lot more credible. A perfect five stars.
Chris Carter’s bookend episodes “My Struggle I & II” were good attempts to build a new mythology and introduce new characters within the limited time frame given him: Joel McHale’s charismatic right-wing conspiracy theorist and media pundit Tad O’Malley was an attempt to revive the young and vital Mulder of 1995, while Agents Einstein and Miller (Lauren Ambrose and Robbie Amell) were clear doppelgangers of our heroes minus about twenty years, pumping youthful energy into Mulder and Scully’s investigations. “My Struggle” also features a nice turn by the Annet Mahendru as the beautiful Sveta, an abductee ruthlessly zapped by death-from- above tech in a shocking finale, reminiscent of William Gibson’s 5×11 “Kill Switch.” Though flawed, four stars each.
Episode Two, “Founder’s Mutation,” was a hearkening back to the high-tech corporate paranoia of 1×07 “Ghost in the Machine,” both of them somewhat wonky but entertaining monster-of-the-week forays. “Mutation” also gave a nod to Heroes, not to mention the X-Men comics corpus. Three stars.
Admittedly, the other two episodes, 10×4 “Home Again,” featuring the unbelievable and unstable Trashman avenging the plight of the homeless, and 10×5 “Babylon,” which introduces Einstein and Miller as part of a story where Mulder tries to enter the mind of a comatose Muslim man we think is a suicide bomber, were mediocre fare, though still better than 90% of the drama on American television today. A bit too earnest, sliding over the paranormal precipice. One and two stars respectively.
It was also nice to see all those spooky dark forests and veteran Canadian sci-fi actors (e.g. Aaron Douglas, Alessandro Juliani, and Ryan Robbins of Battlestar Galactica) popping up in the background, like they did in the original series before it decamped to the vapid if warmer climes of Hollywood. The X-Files was always best when it was cold and dark. There’s even a flashlight joke in the reboot.
But the critics have forgotten some vital facts. First, that the original series pumped out 24 or 25 episodes per season, not all of them gems. They may remember sparkling stories from Season One like 1×02 “Deep Throat” or 1×08 “Ice,” but have probably forgotten stinkers like 1×05 “The Jersey Devil” or 1×12 “Fire.” Let’s do some math: if you multiply the 2016 mini-series times four, you get 4 excellent episodes, 12 fair-to-good ones, and 8 flops. No match for Season 3, but certainly a match for Seasons 1 or 7.
They’ve also forgotten all those cliffhangers from the original series. The end of the 2016 series is, in fact, pure X-Files: Mulder sick and dying, the road jammed with fleeing refugees, a UFO hovering fifty feet above our heroes that may or may not contain their long-lost son William, cut to black. This is exactly the feeling we got at the end of the first few original seasons: the threat to close the X-Files in 1×24 followed by Mulder’s face-to-face encounter with an extra-terrestrial in 2×01, Mulder trapped in a train car full of “alien” bodies that the Cigarette Smoking Man burns in 2×25, the death-dealing alien bounty hunter marching toward Mulder and Jeremiah Smith in 3×24, or Scully’s announcement of Mulder’s apparent death in 4×24.
My word to the critics: stop texting and tweeting and do your homework. You’re not in college any more: you don’t get full marks for just showing up and using a few clever adjectives in essays written the night before they were due.
What also happened was that Chris Carter and company took a firm grasp of the frayed old cord that once plugged into the cultural and political Zeitgeist of the mid-1990s and jammed it into the fussier socket of 2016. The key moment in the reboot was Tad O’Malley’s rapid-fire soliloquy to a tired-looking Mulder in “My Struggle” of how the real world events of the twenty-first century fit together into shaky but coherent conspiracy theory: Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Abu Graib, WikiLeaks, secret assassinations, Edward Snowden’s revelations, rampant and mindless consumerism. A rare moment in critical theory on an American broadcast network, even if some of it is absolutely bonkers. It makes us remember that whatever its merits, Breaking Bad was just fiction.
The critical reaction to the new series ironically highlights a message of the original series: people love to forget, both the most trivial events and the most horrific crimes. Yet as native codetalker Albert Hosteen (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman) says in 3×01 “The Blessing Way,” “nothing stays buried forever.”
Duchovny and Anderson are now much older than they were in their prime, no longer the hunk and sex symbol X-Philes adored in the 1990s. Since for most people the medium is the message, the message of the new series was lost for many viewers used to watching a world populated by beautiful twenty-somethings playing cops and superheroes. Notably other twenty-somethings.
Yet the putrid political stew of killer drones, secret prisons, massive NSA surveillance and an unending War on Terror served up over the last decade has proven one thing: The X-Files was right all along. Trust no one – certainly not the U.S. government. The evidence file proving this would fill several cabinets in Mulder’s basement office – and that would cover only the time since the original series ended in 2002.
Not many TV shows get to share two cultural moments. The truth, for a brief moment, was once again out there, warts and all.