Includes some mild spoilers but no plot specifics.
Everything old is new again. Last year we had Heroes reborn, next year we’ll be able to return to Twin Peaks, and right now we get to reopen The X-Files for the first time since 2008.
I’ll admit right now that I was a huge X-Files fan and that for a lengthy spell in the mid-1990s it was unquestionably my favourite TV show. It coincided with the first time I got online, and a lot of friends and connections that I have to this day come from that period and fan community. Right from the moment I read the synopsis of the first episode I remember thinking “It’s like they’ve made a show just for me, from all my favourite things” and certainly for the first three seasons I pretty much adored each and every episode virtually without exception.
Created by Chris Carter, the series premise was the two-person FBI team tasked with investigating unsolved cases of the paranormal: Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) was the true believer, while Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) was the more rational scientist who kept him grounded. The series was one of the first network shows to mix a long-running continuity arc (consisting of stories of an alien abduction conspiracy) with standalone ‘monster of the week’ outings; later on the show would develop a third strand of more humorous stories to boost the variety and vitality of the series, including “Humbug”, “War of the Coprophages”, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” and “Bad Blood.”
The third year was probably the show’s peak, since while the fourth season contained arguably some of the best episodes the show produced, the overall quality was proving more variable. There was never a year that lacked outstanding moments but in general The X-Files’ subsequent run was one of slow decline and the conspiracy arc became increasingly tangled, confusing and unsatisfying. Duchovny left at the end of season 7, and while Anderson stayed to the bitter end her character stepped back to allow the spotlight to fall on replacement team Doggett and Reyes (Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish). However it was hard to rekindle the show’s original magic spark, and the series finally ended in 2002. Having had one surprisingly good conspiracy-themed feature film spin-off in 1998 while the show was still on air, a somewhat inferior monster-of-the-week second outing came six years after cancellation but didn’t do well at the box office. Ever since then there’s been vague talk of another film or revival, but it’s taken until 2016 for it to become a reality with a six-part ‘event’ mini-series.
Perhaps inevitably the new run of episodes begins with a return to where The X-Files itself originally began in 1993, with the alien conspiracy arc. Advance word from the US had been that this was a rather poor effort (and that the second and third episodes of the reboot are each incrementally better than the one preceding it) and so I came into “My Struggle” with suitably lowered expectations – which was good as it turned out, as the episode proved to be a totally decent recreation of what an ‘average’ episode of the original series tended to be like once you dispel the rose-tinted golden memories that the whole 206-episode run was wall-to-wall triumphs like “Squeeze,” “Beyond the Sea”, “Die Hand Die Verletzt,” “The Host”, “Duane Barry” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.”
This first new 2016 episode tries to do two tricky tasks at the same time: first of all it briefly recaps the entire conspiracy mythology from the original run (which it does through a sequence seemingly borrowed from Oliver Stone’s JFK, rapid-fire explanation over fast-paced clips of archive footage from both the show’s past and real life history) and then in the same breath it teases us with the idea that everything we thought we knew was just a tissue of lies and that a deeper threat lies beneath – something more suitable to today’s paranoid times of terrorism, electronic surveillance and drone warfare. It’s a way of binding in the show’s past but at the same time clearly stating that it’s not going to be beholden to it, and that large chunks will be jettisoned in order to free up the modern incarnation of the show. In a sense it’s not unlike the way that the Doctor Who reboot used the Time War to allow it to escape from its own past and become all shiny and new again. In the case of The X-Files it’s a risky strategy – the initial recap arguably confusing newcomers while at the same time the partial discrediting of the old conspiracy potentially annoying long-time fans – but for my money it’s largely successful in doing what it needs to, even if that means that the episode itself is more functional than enjoyable.
All this would be in vein without the presence of the original series stars, Duchovny and Anderson. Both of them return despite having had busy careers of late – Anderson is fresh off stints in Hannibal, The Fall and War & Peace in the last 12 months alone. It’s clear that both actors are a lot older than they were the last time they did this, and sensibly the show doesn’t try to hide this but instead makes it an intrinsic part of the story. Mulder is now the quintessential mad eccentric living in a cabin in the woods, and this episode plays out almost like a mid-life crisis for the character as he gets his mojo back and starts to believe – or at least, to want to believe – in the alien and the paranormal once more. Meanwhile, despite working at Our Lady of The Sorrows, Dr Scully comes across as someone disillusioned and lacking her old faith which gave her such resolute passion. Despite commendable work in pioneering children’s surgery, she is looking back wistfully at her partnership (in both senses of the word) with Mulder and it’s almost with relief when circumstances throw them back together again with a renewed sense of purpose after a long separation.
On top of this we have Mitch Pileggi returning to growl at Mulder and Scully as FBI Deputy Director Walter Skinner, and there’s a final-scene appearance for their long-running nicotine-addicted nemesis played by William B Davis despite the fact that he was seemingly emphatically killed off at the end of the original run. There will be a few more faces from the original show popping up over the remaining five episodes, while new faces in “My Struggle” include Community’s Joel McHale as a right-wing conspiracy show obsessive and Annet Mahendru as Sveta, an apparent victim of multiple alien abductions, plus Rance Howard taking up the role of a mysterious sharp-tongued shadowy informer very much in the same spirit as Deep Throat and X (Jerry Hardin and Steven Williams) in the original show.
Overall the first episode feels like a very solid mid-level example of old-school X-Files fare, executed with some heightened production values – there’s a stand-out scene recreating historical events at Roswell in 1947, and while the UFO crash is merely a perfectly decent example of current state-of-the-art CGI there’s rather spectacular practical set design for the resulting impact site and wreckage. Even so, and despite the undoubtedly higher budget and HD filming, it’s easy to see when a little green screen moment with the US Capitol is used to disguise the fact that we’re actually filming right back in the show’s original stomping ground of Vancouver.
Having got through the first episode without too much trouble I can now look forward to the next episodes which have been widely hailed by fans as being much stronger, and especially to “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” which is written by Darin Morgan who memorably contributed so many of the original show’s most outstanding and wittiest stories (after initially being hired as the extra to play a drain-dwelling parasitic monster in “The Host.”) His brother Glen Morgan also contributes an episode as does Morgan’s old writing partner James Wong, and then it’s back to Carter to write and direct the final two episodes.
After that it’s hard to know what the future holds for The X-Files. With Duchovny and Anderson so busy elsewhere, a permanent reboot of the show for a full season seems unlikely. There’s a suggestion that Carter might be dangling the idea of a new young team consisting of The Tomorrow People’s Robbie Amell as Agent Miller and Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose as Agent Einstein but as the fate of Doggett and Reyes has already demonstrated that’s a risky and ultimately probably unhappy way to go.
Carter’s problem is that The X-Files simply is Mulder and Scully and anything else is by definition just a cheap imitation. But if you agree with that, then you also have to accept that it means that this mini-series really is the genuine article and should be embraced as such, flaws and all, just the way that true X-Philes loved and celebrated the original show two decades ago as something very special and dear to our hearts.
It really is nice to have it back, even if just for a short visit. And I really do want to believe, even after all this time.
The X-Files continues in the UK on Channel 5 on Mondays at 9pm, and the full six-part mini-series will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 13 2016.