“There are 10,000 sightings each year in North America alone, and so it’s been since the dawn of time – stone-age and even Biblical references, into our modern age.”
From this potted history of his own involvement in and his investigation of the UFO phenomenon, FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder laments that it is now only remembered by the general public for the “Roswell incident” of 1947, the supposed crash landing of a flying saucer which was at first confirmed by the military authorities then later dismissed as “a weather balloon.”
Once such a phenomenon itself, The X-Files ran for nine seasons between September 1993 and May 2002 with an international following, critical acclaim, awards both technical and artistic, a peak US domestic audience of 29.15 million (Leonard Betts, January 26th 1997) and two feature films which grossed over $250 million between them, it is now eight years since agents Mulder and Scully last investigated a case: can they still remain relevant and return to their glory of two decades past?
With original stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson returning alongside Mitch Pileggi as Assistant Director Walter Skinner, retaining his promotion to the main credits of the later seasons after Duchovny’s departure, and creator Chris Carter returning both on scripting and directorial duties, the six episode revival miniseries premiered at the New York Comic Con on October 10th last year.
With a history of Carter’s season openers having been notoriously cumbersome, weighed down by self-importance and pretentious abstraction, the appropriately titled My Struggle is no different but carries the added burden of not only picking up existing plot threads but entirely re-establishing the premise of a show which has been off the air for almost twelve years and whose later seasons suffered from diminished ratings, meaning that even those who once regarded themselves as fans may not have seen all of it, and certainly not recently.
While the later years were not looked upon so favourably, the diminished presence of Duchovny being a factor many could not forgive, in fact the quality of the production never dropped, but when Mulder states in his opening monologue that attempts were made to “impugn my work,” it could be interpreted as Carter addressing those who abandoned the show but primarily the choice of words reflects how Mulder himself has changed.
Where once he was an valued agent whose fringe interests “outside the bureau mainstream” were tolerated, a position which frustrated him but which he refused to let distract him from his calling and his quest to uncover the truth of the abduction of his sister which he believed was held within the unexplained cases of his basement office, he now drifts towards the border of paranoid zealotry, the crazy conspiracy theorist who has tape over his laptop webcam lest anyone hack him and track him.
While Roswell has often been referenced in the series it has never before been seen, but here it is presented as the culmination of a brilliant montage of archive footage manipulated with digital additions and new footage artificially aged to match in support of Mulder’s summation of his life’s work.
While The X-Files took many different approaches to storytelling and often used flashbacks they were usually discrete, and it is surprising that this has never been done this before, a parallel stories in two time frames, New Mexico 1947 and Washington in the present where Doctor Dana Scully receives a call from Assistant Director Skinner before entering surgery at Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital where she has been resident since I Want to Believe.
Skinner is seeking the reclusive Mulder with whom he has no way of getting in contact; while exonerated in I Want to Believe of the events of the final episode of the series, The Truth, he still has maintained a low profile but Scully is able to persuade him to meet with Internet news anchor Tad O’Malley (Community’s Joel McHale) who wishes to discuss his state-of-the-nation concerns and introduce the former agents to alleged multiple abductee Sveta (The Americans’ Annet Mahendru).
With Fox Network heavily invested in the revival and only forty four minutes to grab their audience, akin to the recent awakening of the Force much of this plays as a greatest hits package: the story O’Malley offers an updated variation on what Alvin Kurtzweil told Mulder in a back alley in 1998 when he was advised to Fight the Future, suddenly the formerly most paranoid agent on the block seems firmly grounded, O’Malley’s targets having expanded beyond secret government agendas to conspiracies of big business and the media in a reflection of current concerns of globalisation.
That retreading becomes more pronounced during the interview with Sveta who displays telepathic powers and may be part alien; optimistically described by Mulder as “the key” to all he has investigated, it is the exact phrase he used to describe the telepathic alien hybrid child Gibson Praise in the fifth season closer The End.
Similarly, neither Mulder’s opening question “Are we truly alone, or are we being lied to?” nor his sudden conviction that the alien presence and abductions which the government has attempted to deny and discredit are in fact deliberately spread disinformation to distract from an even more insidious home grown conspiracy are new, having provided the basis of Gethsemene and Redux, a theme which ran through the fourth and fifth seasons.
Beyond the often compelling narrative of the original it was the contrasting approaches and personalities of Mulder and Scully which drove the show it is upon David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson that the revival will ultimately rest, but unlike many soft-focused nostalgic revivals no attempt is made to hide that time has passed and that their lives have changed.
They’re both much older and tired, wary of each other and more reserved than when they first met over two decades before; they’ve seen it all and lived through it and they don’t want to be drawn back in.
Both gave everything to the FBI and the X-Files and they got burnt, the depression and subsequent medication having taken a heavy toll on Mulder, slurring his speech and only coming alive when he has a theory to espouse, Scully is worn out with worrying about him. Where once he protected her during her near-terminal illness it is now she who shields him: from Skinner, from the case, from his own consuming obsessions.
In the second of the two introductory episodes shown on consecutive nights, James Wong’s Founder’s Mutation, on two occasions Scully perceives a threat to Mulder and instantly unholsters her firearm.
A medical doctor by training and a healer by nature, in the past she has never hesitated to use force – even lethal force – without hesitation when she judged the circumstances warranted it in order to protect others, but she has never before pre-empted that threat by pulling a gun.
A departure from her self-aware actions towards Donnie Pfaster in Orison or the beggar of Badlaa, this could be seen as either a lapse on the part of the writers or an indication of a change in her character yet to be elucidated, though it is feasible that her concern for Mulder is overriding her natural instincts.
That both these episodes are rushed is clear, but with only six episodes to tell the entire story that is perhaps inevitable. All the hallmarks of the olden days are here, aircraft hangers, remote farmhouses, underground parking garages, clandestine meetings in bars (a hilarious miscommunication between Mulder and his contact, Chuck’s Vik Sahay), autopsies, but into the mix are thrown zero point energy and an alien replica vehicle. All this being handed to Mulder on a plate is too much to believe, and still he doesn’t carry a camera.
The original series having alternated between linked “mythology” stories regarding the Syndicate and the alien virus Purity and standalone “monster of the week” adventures, these two episodes apparently offer one of each strand, but like Eve and Red Museum, scratch the surface of Founder’s Mutation and that extra-terrestrial DNA is unmistakable although in a mark of how much has changed it is Scully who makes that leap and asks the question of Doctor Augustus Goldman (Firefly’s Doug Savant), a man who would rather avoid such awkward revelations.
With moments both graphic and shocking, it is a relief to for the agents to be back on the case though it unfolds as a generic investigation, insufficient to justify the hype and with aspects reminiscent of the extremely low frequency sounds which caused similar havoc in Drive.
A significant episode for Scully, a woman who has always been in control yet who was helpless in one of the most important aspects of her life, her son William having grown up without her knowing what has become of him, the dream sequences are over-egging the already cramped story and don’t flow naturally, neither aspect of the narrative given satisfactory development or resolution.
The casting of Christine Willes as Sister Mary is an oddity; while lovely to see her she’s playing a part too similar to the recurring character of FBI counsellor Karen Kosseff whom she played on the original, and while new to the show equally recognisable is Battlestar Galactica’s Chief Galen Tyrol, Aaron Douglas, appearing in just a single scene; why cast him if he is not going to be properly used?
Running in the shadows it’s easy to become lost; Mulder and Scully are back together but they need to light their torches to find their way because at this point stumbling would be too easy. By openly mocking some of the later developments in the long running mythology – the alien civil war, the faceless rebels burning their opponents – it seems the writers are trying to streamline the convoluted backbone of the series whose curvature made the show increasingly less attractive as it became more pronounced.
From a purely technical viewpoint, the show is flawless, the original titles reinstated with a new typeface matching what was put on the recent Blu-rays, and the whole looks magnificent in high definition, the bright colours matching the palette of the later episodes filmed around Los Angeles rather than the early Canadian seasons even though production has returned to Vancouver.
While not the triumphant return which might have been hoped for so far this is a necessarily compromised vehicle, though with further episodes to come from Darin Morgan (writer of the justly award-winning Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose), Glen Morgan (whose resume includes the classics Squeeze, Ice, Beyond the Sea and the unforgettable horror of Home) and two more episodes from Carter there is no reason not to believe that once the team have found their stride that every subsequent week should not be accompanied by a raise in quality.
Perhaps the only obstacle, rather than the formerly sceptical Scully, is the cynicism of Mulder. “I only want to believe. Actual evidence has been hard to come by.”
The X-Files returns to British screens on Monday 8th February at 9pm on Channel 5