Last summer Fox shared around a minute of edited footage from The X-Files reboot with critics, a scene featuring a haggard Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) hysterically ranting to a slightly less hysterical Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) about a fresh conspiracy. The scene looked like an incredibly campy parody — so much, in fact, that a few of us expected Anderson and Duchovny to turn to the camera and break the fourth wall with a wink and a smile.
That unfortunate minute remains in the premiere. Fans will know it when they see it; just look for the part where Scully and Mulder quote a couple of X-Files bumper stickers. Thanks to that clip, and various earlier screenings of the pilot, the truth about The X-Files first new television episode since 2002 is already out there, and the news is not overwhelmingly positive.
Honestly, the quality of Sunday’s episode probably won’t matter to hardcore X-Philes. We’re talking about those folks who never stopped believing, never stopped pressing Fox to re-open Mulder and Scully’s case files, and probably paid to see the theatrical follow-ups. The X-Files’ return as a six-episode limited series is really for them.
It’s the rest of us who need a little more convincing.
The X-Files is a rarity among television properties in that it has a Twilight Zone timelessness while being very much of its time. When it premiered in 1993, it was Fox’s response to the rising success of procedurals, particularly NBC’s Law & Order. Mulder and Scully weren’t anything like TV’s other law enforcement duos, however. Their cases incorporated a genre anthology element, which quickly earned the show an enthusiastic following.
Duchovny and Anderson had an undeniable chemistry then. They still do, which is a major reason to watch the reboot, even when the viewing gets tough.
Similarly, the writers still have the ability to morph and adapt the overarching conspiracy to fit the era in which it takes place. The X-Files reflected our collective fears in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and was attuned the tension surrounding the turn of the 21st century. Aspects of latest episodes speak to our overwhelming distrust in government in an era when connectedness, wiretapping and fears about the monitoring of private citizens are founded in reality.
As it was true of the original series, the best episodes are the ones that eschew Mulder’s flirtations with tinfoil hat theory for twisty tales of the weird, the horrifying and the humorous – those wonderful “monster of the week” stories. Four out of these six new episodes fall into that category and recapture the spirit of best X-Files classics. Like those old episodes, the event series was shot in Vancouver, B.C. (The original lost a certain zest when production moved to Los Angeles in season six.)
But before we can get to the good stuff, X-Files creator Chris Carter forces us to wrestle with the show’s mythology.
Carter wrote the premiere’s script (titled “My Struggle,” the English translation of Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf), and it’s telling that it is the least successful of the three made available for preview. Carter is a man whose concepts can be stronger than their execution, and besides, prior to making his pilot for Amazon, The After, he’d been out of the game for some time.
Where other writers might have taken a subtler approach, leaving some secrets and developments up to the imagination, Carter jams everything he possibly can into several confusing scenes weighed down by ponderous exposition.
The first episode and the finale are mythology pieces, introducing the latest major development in Mulder’s lifelong investigation into the world of the unexplained.
Fourteen years have passed since the FBI closed the X-Files. Scully has moved on, working as a successful surgeon. Mulder, meanwhile, is a scruffy-faced hermit hiding out in a cabin so far off the grid that not even his own boss Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) can find him. But Scully can, and soon the pair meets with an online talk show host with a less-than-savory reputation, Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale, hamming it up as a smirking windbag). Given that the incredibly wealthy O’Malley’s worldview aligns with a Glenn Beck-style of puffery, his character and Mulder’s are strange bedfellows.
O’Malley nevertheless persuades Mulder that he is a true believer by giving him access to places and people the former agent had only theorized about, starting with a woman named Sveta (The Americans’ Annet Mahendru) who claims to be the victim of multiple abductions. Except…not by aliens.
Between meeting Sveta and witnessing a secret project that employs alien technology, the formerly disillusioned Mulder is restored to his old fired-up, paranoid self. But Scully isn’t particularly enthusiastic about abandoning stability to join Mulder’s renewed crusade. That is, until she makes a discovery that could threaten their son, whom they gave up for adoption years ago in order to keep him safe.
The truth is still out there — frustratingly so — but whether we’ll be closer to finding out what it is, is anyone’s guess.
The premiere is an overly chatty mess, clouded by Mulder’s frantic monologuing and McHale’s hard-to-endure portrayal of O’Malley. A few moments into Mulder and O’Malley engaging in a bro-babble about enslaving humanity via agricultural manipulation, the Fifth Extinction, weather control and the building of prison camps for no unknown purpose, blaming every significant world power but the Kardashians, a person can’t be blamed for wondering whether we really needed more of this show.
But the second and third hours reward us for our trouble.
All television episodes sail or sink on the success of their scripts, and that’s particularly true of The X-Files. Each of the show’s original writers brought his signature style to their respective hours, to the point that they’re as closely associated with the series as its stars. Aficionados will be delighted and relieved to know that James Wong wrote episode two, about a scientist involved with DNA tampering.
The hilarious third episode, written by Darin Morgan (the man who gave us “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and the haunting fan-favorite “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”), boasts a guest cast roster of tremendous comedians that includes Kumail Nanjiani, Tyler Labine, Rhys Darby and RuPaul’s Drag Race fan favorite Shangela.
That episode, titled “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-monster,” truly represents a return to the glory days of The X-Files while putting us into Mulder’s shoes as he is now: here, he’s a man having more of a midlife revelation than a crisis.
“It’s amazing, going through these archives with fresh, if not wiser eyes, how many of these cases, whether it’s the Amarillo Armadillo Man, or the Hairy-Whatsit of Walla Walla, can be explained away as fraternity pranks, practical jokes, or people making stuff up because they’re bored and/or crazy,” he says.
In the course of that episode, as Mulder and Scully lead us through one uproarious twist after another, he regains his faith. So does Scully, who may speak for the viewer when she smiles and admits, “I forgot how much fun these cases can be.”
We did too. And in spite of a bumpy start, we’re grateful for the reminder.
The X-Files six-episode event series premieres at 7pm Sunday, Jan. 24 on Fox, following the NFC championship game. The series moves to its regular 8 p.m. time slot beginning on Monday, Jan. 25.