The X-Files revival, a six-episode miniseries, has just come and gone and the reaction seems clear enough. It was a mixed bag, with real highs and, er, not-so-highs. And it certainly proved popular enough for another run of the venerable show, a true pioneer and powerhouse of the '90s which, after nine full seasons, petered out the spring after 9/11. Which is fortunate, given what a complete cliffhanger the ending of this run turned out to be.
Some spoilers ensue.
Its melange of conspiracies and supernaturalism, bringing incisive and often elegant thinking in the midst of frequently crackpot scenarios is certainly a match for this era of American history. Perhaps too much so. When the real world is clearly weird, one needn't turn to fiction for one's fix of the outre.
Back when The X-Files premiered in September 1993, the consensus view of reality was that we lived in a well-ordered post-Cold War world. George Bush I and the Democrat who defeated him, Bill Clinton, both nonetheless subscribed to belief in a real and expanding "New World Order" typified by a benign big capitalism and rational technological progress. The end of messy history seemed at hand. To some. Others of us suspected that what was really emerging both beneath and far away from a bland corporatist surface was a "New World Chaos."
With some hiccups here and there, The X-Files made a successful return to the television universe with its recently concluded six-episode miniseries run. Its trademark conspiracism and embrace of the weird, once a "truth" that "is out there," may now be all too of our time.
What The X-Files rather brilliantly created was a metaphorical universe in which New World Order forces -- usually typified by Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully's FBI superiors -- both tamped down evidence of an encroaching chaos to maintain the consensus illusion and worked within that New World Order to further nefarious ends of a conspiracy between aliens (as in outer space, not illegal immigrants) and some global elites.
Today, with America ever more a surveillance state amidst the murk of the seemingly endless (and endlessly morphing) post-9/11 "Long War," a poor recovery from our near repeat Great Depression, massive and growing economic inequality, a corrupt political system, and a fragmentary ADD media culture, seeing the conspiratorial and weird around us doesn't take much of a leap.
Or, put another way, an America in which a know-nothing billionaire bully boy "reality" TV star -- of whom the only substantive question is whether he is a neo-fascist, a proto-fascist, or a flat-out fascist -- is on the verge of the Republican presidential nomination may just be an America for which The X-Files isn't quite weird enough.
The show, by the way, despite being somewhat uneven, proved to be damn good in its new iteration. What problems it had -- and the pluses far outweighed the minuses -- seem due to a structural problem, a programming mistake, and what I've noticed over the years is a Hollywood penchant for the avoidance of proper rehearsal.
The programming mistake was running one of the strongest episodes opposite the Grammy Awards.
On the substantive front, The X-Files miniseries just past, which the Fox network has now taken to calling Season 10, was too short, at six episodes. It should have been at least eight. Ironically, what suffered most was the show's overall conspiracy arc. Though each episode was at least tinged with the overarching conspiracy, the "mythology," as X-Files creator and showrunner Chris Carter dubbed it, is concentrated in the first and last episodes. Which, not coincidentally, were the two episodes most prone to garner critical brickbats.
I think that both the opener and the closer should have been two-parters. Things just happened too abruptly in each episode and as a result seemed a bit too by-the-numbers.
The episodes which fared the best were the four in between the miniseries premiere and finale. They were penned by X-Files veterans James Wong, Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan, and Carter himself.
Where Carter has updated the "mythology" scenario -- now it's apparently more authoritarian human elites using alien technology in pursuit of global domination -- to moderate effect, the so-called "standalone" episodes were reminiscent of some of the show's great moments of the past.
In the first, a benignly enigmatic super-rich technologist uses his defense contractor status to pursue human mutation. In another, this one deliciously comedic, a disgruntled were-monster reaffirms the faith of Mulder in the excitingly out-there. (One of the underlying jests of the show is that liberal atheist Mulder actually believes all manner of supernatural nonsense whereas it is the supposedly religious Scully who resolutely applies reason and science.)
In yet another outstanding standalone, a murderous avenger against oppressors of the homeless literally animates one of the show's key metaphorical notions, that ideas and feelings have weight in the material world.
In the final standalone, written and directed by Carter which introduces an amusing pair of youthful Mulder/Scully doppelgängers, Mulder tries with mysterious effect to communicate with a comatose jihadist suicide bomber. While doing nothing to deny the potential threat of terrorism, the episode clearly places the show in direct opposition to the demonization of Islam per se and the growing hatred on both sides of the religionist divide which increasingly frames much of world politics.
By the time the too-brief finale rolls around, it's as if Mulder and Scully had never left while the perception of the world caught up with their milieu. Where David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson seem rather off playing their iconic characters in the opener, they are very much on it in the finale. Indeed the second episode -- dealing with the tech billionaire manipulating the genome for the military -- showed them locked-in again to Mulder and Scully. The repetition of the first episode helped them recover their full take on the characters, just as they would have with proper British-style rehearsal.
It's good that they're back in form, for their portrayal of two of science fiction's most important characters should, to borrow a phrase from a rather more straightforward sort of trek, live long and prosper.
Though it's more than 20 years since they began, Duchovny and Anderson both look and act wonderfully as Mulder and Scully. They've had some losses since last we saw them, and Mulder, something of a recluse as the show begins again, is more deliberate-sounding than he used to be. But the old zest and vitality are, for the most part, definitely back.
That's especially so for Anderson's portrayal of Scully. As terrific and, in the specific case of the show itself, necessary a character as the brilliant and ever-questing Mulder is, Scully is still more important.
Still one of the most important female characters -- not least as a role model -- in television history, Anderson's portrayal of the steadfast yet soulful scientist and action-oriented FBI agent was especially ground-breaking two decades ago.
Anderson, decidedly attractive but not at all glamorous when the show began, was no studio executive's idea of a potential breakout female TV star. Chris Carter had to fight hard to get his casting choice through. And her serious manner, leavened always by a sly humor, provided an against-the-grain sort of gravitas that other female characters lacked.
Now the still dynamic duo is back, relaunched anew with another slate of shows seemingly assured for some future date.
The weirdness of our time -- the notion of President Donald Trump would only have been a slight throwaway joke during the first-run heyday of The X-Files -- does present a challenge for the show to stay at least a little ahead of the curve. But I suspect the crew is up to it.
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