Fourteen years have passed since ‘The X-Files’ closed on television, with one box office dud feature film in between. Riding the current wave of nostalgia for any property that used to be popular once upon a time, Fox has resurrected the supernatural drama for a new six-episode season, complete with stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson back in their iconic roles. As before, original creator Chris Carter is both the visionary guiding force behind the series and also its greatest weakness and liability.
Any fans who bothered to ride out the original show to its bitter end will remember what a mess it became in the later seasons. The core “mythology” story arc involving alien abductions and an impending invasion grew increasingly nonsensical and incomprehensible with every episode. Any of the fun from the earlier seasons was long gone by the end, and the clip-show series finale in 2002, which desperately attempted to tie together the morass of contradictory storylines, was one of the most unsatisfying episodes of television I’ve ever sat through.
Nonetheless, the fundamental premise of the series (FBI agents who investigate the paranormal and unexplainable), and the appeal of its lead characters Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, were so strong that fans have eagerly awaited the show’s revival, hoping for a return to greatness, even despite their disappointment with the ‘I Want to Believe‘ movie in 2008.
The new six-episode run is not a reboot in any sense of that term. This is very much Season 10. Important cast members are back, even some who were killed off previously. (Ret-conning away character deaths was an unfortunate hallmark of the old show.) The episodes even start with the old opening credits and theme music (which look and sound like crap in high definition). Chris Carter is back in the driver’s seat. He both wrote and directed the first episode, which aired on Sunday this week.
Sadly, the first episode is a reminder of how badly the show went downhill the first time around. Quite frankly, it’s terrible. A friend of mine asked on Facebook, “Am I watching ‘The X-Files’ or a bad ‘SNL’ parody of ‘The X-Files’?” I felt the exact same way. The premiere is an embarrassment all around.
First off, what exactly is Chris Carter trying to say with the episode title ‘My Struggle’? I have to assume he’s aware that, translated into German, that’s the title of Adolf Hitler’s autobiography and political manifesto. Is he trying to draw an intentional parallel here? If so, it’s not evident from anything on screen.
As we last saw them in the ‘I Want to Believe’ movie, Mulder and Scully were confirmed to be in a romantic relationship. They’ve apparently drifted apart in the years since. Mulder has retreated further into his hermit-like existence, and Scully works in a Christian hospital performing surgeries on children with birth defects. They’re both called back into service when their old boss, FBI Asst. Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), asks them to meet with billionaire conspiracy theory crackpot Tad O’Malley (comedian Joel McHale), host of the wildly popular ‘Truth Squad’ podcast. (The fact that Chris Carter believes anyone can get rich from podcasting just goes to show how out of touch with reality he is.)
O’Malley asks for their help busting the most evil conspiracy in the history of human existence. Scully rolls her eyes, but Mulder is intrigued. O’Malley brings them to meet a woman named Sveta (Annet Mahendru from ‘The Americans’), who claims to be the victim of multiple alien abductions and impregnations. She says that she can also read minds and has some telekinetic powers due to being experimented on with alien DNA, though conveniently she’s not able to demonstrate them on cue. Scully humors her by taking a blood sample to run some tests on.
O’Malley also brings Mulder alone to a secret warehouse housing an “ARV,” or Alien Replica Vehicle. His engineers say that it’s a reconstructed spaceship built from alien technology that has been in possession of the American government ever since the 1947 flying saucer crash in Roswell. (The episode is interspersed with flashbacks to that event, starting with an extremely cheesy depiction of the crash.) The ship supposedly runs on “free energy,” which has been kept secret from the public at the behest of the evil fossil fuel industry. Mulder is given a demo of the ship levitating and disappearing right before his eyes. He’s impressed, and fully on-board with helping O’Malley.
However, that attitude changes radically when Sveta privately tells him that she wasn’t actually abducted by aliens, but rather by humans who experimented on her. Suddenly, Mulder has a crisis of conscience. Apparently forgetting everything he’s seen or experienced in the past (which include meeting aliens and being abducted by them himself), he questions whether everything he’s ever believed has been a lie. “What if there is no alien conspiracy?” he asks Scully while laying out a brand new convoluted conspiracy theory about a secret cabal trying to take over the United States and then the whole world. What if all the alien abductions over the past 70 years were a smokescreen staged by humans all along?
Yes, in one episode, Chris Carter attempts to ret-con the entire nine previous seasons of the show, as if nothing that ever happened in them was true. Why, then, did we ever bother watching them?
In short order, Sveta publicly denounces Tad O’Malley and his podcast goes offline. (Would anyone really notice or care?) A black ops military squad storms the warehouse, destroys the ARV, and kills all the engineers working on it. Scully reveals to Mulder that Sveta’s blood test came back positive for alien DNA (how convenient she has a test for that!), and in fact so did her own blood test. Unfortunately, Sveta tries to skip town but gets blown up by a spaceship.
In a couple of wrap-up scenes, we learn that the nefarious Cigarette Smoking Man, who we last saw getting blown to smithereens when a rocket was fired directly into his face in the Season 9 finale, is of course still alive and behind the whole evil conspiracy. This is at least the third time his death has been ret-conned away. He’s very annoyed that the FBI has reopened the X-Files.
Everything about the premiere episode feels off. The writing and dialogue are awful. The production values are dodgy. The staging and direction are flat and lifeless. Even the performances are stiff. Say what you will about ‘I Want to Believe’, but at least Anderson and Duchovny were able to slide back into their old roles like a comfortable pair of slippers for that movie. Yet here, the Mulder/Scully relationship just doesn’t feel right at all.
If we were to judge based only on this episode, the big return of ‘The X-Files’ would appear to be a disaster. Lest we pass judgment too quickly, however, the second episode which aired the following day was a notable improvement. I’ll have a recap of that one shortly.