Revisiting 'The X-Files': Despite the Reboot's Flaws, Its Message Still Resonates
It's clear that laziness and short memories hold some responsibility for the reboot's critical backlash.
The X-FilesAirtime: Mondays, 8pm
Cast: David Duchovney, Gillian Anderson, William B. Davis, Robbie Amell, Lauren Ambrose, Annabeth Gish, Joel McHale
Once upon a time, in a social universe far away, The X-Files was a defining cultural moment. Yet, for a long time, the TV-viewing masses, outside of a minority of hardcore X-Philes, had forgotten about it. This spring, 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, and the viewing numbers for some episodes beat those for the original series. But lo, the critics were displeased. Writing in Variety, Maureen Ryan claimed 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 finalé", and hoping that the series was buried for good this time.
The collective staff of Entertainment Weekly panned the finalé 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's in order.
Like a good fan, I bought the first three seasons of the original series on Blu-Ray, and was surprised at how sharp and tense were even the opening few episodes. This isn't 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 British Columbian woods. Watching these early episodes in HD was jarring when compared to my cathode-ray tube VHS experiences of the show’s early seasons.
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 '90s to '80s stylistics. Further, it was surprising to remember that all the paranoia generated in even the first season pre-dated the mega-paranoia in the United States after 9/11. The X-Files nicely foreshadowed this, pointing ahead to both global tension and to the 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 the ruins of its fans' memories.
So, was the Fox reboot an exercise in money-grabbing, pointless nostalgia? Absolutely not, although 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, even though it has less of the postmodern fragmentation of season three's "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 standing 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've 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" and "My Stuggle II" were good attempts to build a new mythology and introduce new characters within the series' limited time frame. 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 (Robbie Amell) and Miller (Lauren Ambrose) were clear doppelgangers of our heroes, minus about 20 years, pumping youthful energy into Mulder and Scully's investigations. "My Struggle" also features a nice turn by Annet Mahendru as the beautiful Sveta, an abductee ruthlessly zapped by death-from-above tech in a shocking finalé, reminiscent of William Gibson's season five "Kill Switch". Although flawed, I'd rate them as four out of five stars each.
Episode two, "Founder’s Mutation", was a hearkening back to the high-tech corporate paranoia of season one's "Ghost in the Machine"; both were 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, "Home Again", featuring the unbelievable and unstable Trashman (Tim Armstrong) avenging the plight of the homeless, and "Babylon", which introduces Einstein and Miller as part of a story where Mulder tries to enter the mind of a comatose Muslim man thought to be a suicide bomber, were mediocre fare, although in my view, still better than 90 percent of the drama on contemporary American television. Both read 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.
It's obvious that the critics have forgotten some vital facts. First, the original series pumped out 24 or 25 episodes per season; not all of them were gems. They may remember sparkling stories from season one like "Deep Throat" or "Ice", but have probably forgotten stinkers like "The Jersey Devil" or "Fire". Let’s do some math: if you multiply the 2016 mini-series times four, you get four excellent episodes, 12 fair-to-good ones, and right flops. No match for season three, perhaps, but certainly a match for seasons one or seven.
They also seem to have forgotten all those cliffhangers from the original series. The end of the 2016 series is, in fact, pure The X-Files: Mulder sick and dying, the road jammed with fleeing refugees, a UFO hovering 50 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 the final episode of season one, followed by Mulder's face-to-face encounter with an extra-terrestrial in the season two premiere, Mulder trapped in a train car full of "alien" bodies that the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) burns in the season two finalé, the death-dealing alien bounty hunter marching toward Mulder and Jeremiah Smith (Roy Thinnes) in season three, or Scully's announcement of Mulder's apparent death in the season four cliffhanger.
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-'90s, 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 21st century fit together into a 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's 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 "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 '90s. 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 20-somethings playing cops and superheroes. Notably other 20-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 US 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.
Doug Mann a contract professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, teaching in a variety of disciplines. He’s the author of five books and 110 articles, including his most recent release, Great Power and Great Responsibility: The Philosophical Politics of Comics.