Well, that’s the other, non-Star Wars, pop-cultural shoe I’ve been waiting for well and truly dropped, then. Last night, those of us here in Brit-land finally got to (legally) see the premiere of The X-Files‘ revival miniseries, a couple of weeks after its initial airing in the States. I’ve been kind of feverishly looking forward to this since the news of it first broke more than a year ago, and I’m pleased from a personal point of view to say that I actually really enjoyed it. Certainly a lot more than many of the reviewers who’ve given their two penn’orth over the last fourteen days or so, anyway.
I’m concerned, though, that this may be another example of my fanboyism overcoming my common sense, because while I can’t deny my own reaction and the similar feedback I’ve received from other hardcore X-philes I’ve discussed it with, I can also fully sympathise with all of those who seem thoroughly underwhelmed by the new episode.
I struggle to put myself in the shoes of anybody who watched this without having seen any X-Files before, or without already being a confirmed fan. Were their minds blown by the reckless conspiracy-theorising – complete with rather pleasingly JFK-esque stock footage montages – on the part of the erstwhile Agent Mulder (David Duchovny as cool as ever, while conveying a somewhat worrying suggestion of the character’s mental fragility all these years later) and new boy, Alex Jones-alike right-wing conspiracy pundit Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale)? Did they find it all somewhat baffling, wondering who these characters were and why they should care about them and their relationships when the actual story this week was so paper-thin? Did they wonder why that guy was smoking through a hole in his throat?
From some of the non-fannish (and even some fannish) responses I see online, I think the bafflement might outweigh the excitement among those who weren’t around to enjoy the original series in its pomp (for me, it peaked somewhere around Seasons 4-5, which I doubt is a very unconventional view).
The strong temptation, of course, is to compare the new Files to The Force Awakens. Both are revivals of much-loved properties with strong followings and are to a large extent trading on the nostalgia of existing fans, who hopefully, from the point of view of those turning profit, will in turn act as unwitting parts of the marketing machine in spreading the word to newcomers. I think that’s probably about as far as it goes, though. I think the thing about The Force Awakens is that it’s a really good film with a lot to recommend it to people who have never heard of Star Wars (although exactly how many people there are like that in the Western world, or indeed the world thirty-odd years on, I would honestly not like to guess). In fact, considering that as far as I can see the one serious legitimate criticism of the film is the way it rehashes various plot points from the original trilogy, in some cases previous familiarity or serious investment in the (spits) “franchise” might actually be more detrimental to one’s enjoyment than not.
The X-Files is different, I think. On the one hand, its pop-cultural footprint is nowhere near as long-standing or widespread as Star Wars. It was big, very big, in its mid-90s heyday, at least in the English-speaking world, but when I look back now it’s very interesting to realise just how short-lived that mass appeal was. In the UK, it probably only really lasted from late 1995/early 1996, when the series’ popularity was probably the reason for it being bumped up from BBC2 to BBC1, to late 1998 when Season 5 moved to a Saturday night slot, a sure sign of a waning audience. This was followed by unexplained months-long hiatuses in the ever-later-in-the-evening airings of Seasons 6 and 7 before an ignominious return to BBC2, Sunday nights this time, to see out its last couple of seasons. Certainly, by 1999/2000 it had gone back to being a cultish thing rather than the watercooler talking point it had been only a couple of years earlier. In my first two years of university, practically everybody, including the teaching staff, watched and talked about the series – by the third year, it was only us nerds who maintained an interest. From being referenced almost everywhere in popular culture, it very quickly became a matter of “The X-Files? Is that still on?”
The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, as a great man once said, shortly before having his eyeballs squished by Rutger Hauer.
When The X-Files gets mentioned now in mainstream culture, before the new series started anyway, it isn’t as a timeless thing like Star Wars or even Doctor Who. It seems almost always to be as a period artefact, as 1990s as Oasis vs Blur, or indeed Oasis vs Blair, or the famous Clinton being Bill. I think that that was in part due, as some have said, to the cultural moment passing, of UFOs and conspiracy theories losing their short-lived mainstream currency after a while (although I’m not sure it was due, as I have seen suggested, to 9/11 making conspiracy theories not only unpopular but borderline treasonous in the US, because I think the series’ limelight had already faded by then), but mainly I think it was down to the fact that the series just ran out of steam and direction after the first few seasons. Even when it was good after that, and it was more often than even some fans remember now, I think it was mainly going over ground it had explored more memorably before.
It was also a case of familiarity breeding contempt; not only was Files referenced everywhere, due to its breakout success it was also massively influential on other television series of its era, in terms of look and feel and format. There would be no CSI, for better or worse, had there been no X-Files – it’s only really with the rise within the past decade or so of “prestige” TV dramas on US cable channels, and their PG-rated clones on the main networks, that popular genre television has found a new, post flashlights-and-entrails, paradigm. And just as was the case with The Matrix and 2000s action cinema, the proliferation of imitators soon swamped the original and made it look considerably less special, especially when it turned out not to be able to make up for its loss of freshness with genuinely compelling later material. And then everything turned into superheroes. Before very long, even Game of Thrones will start to look quaint, mark my words.
To get to the actual point of the post by, y’know, actually discussing the actual episode, “My Struggle” (which, to hear Chris Carter in the making-of programme they showed before the premiere aired seems, reassuringly, not actually to be a reference, as I had rather disturbingly assumed, to Mein Kampf) seems rather cannily aware of that period-artefact factor I refer to above. In fact, a bit like Sherlock when it first started, it seemed almost hilariously eager to make it clear that it was set in the “present day” with numerous shots of characters’ smartphones (even CSM had one – in fact, let’s face it, his former buddies probably invented them using half-inched EBE tech), Mulder watching a knockoff version of YouTube (his laptop’s built-in webcam rather tellingly and amusingly taped over as an anti-surveillance measure) and mention of Uber all within the first five minutes.
I think that was probably the moment that first made the X-Files fanboy who dwells within me get a bit emotional and smile nostalgically, getting reacquainted with these familiar characters and finding out that in many ways they’re still just the same despite changes in circumstance. Of course, these years later, Scully (the incomparable Gillian Anderson, whose altar I have never ceased to worship at) is now doing good, valuable work in the medical field while of course Mulder is sitting in his underwear (I imagine) watching online conspiracy videos and getting angry because they don’t take it as seriously as he does. Mind you, considering the rather dubious VHS collection he was constantly suspected of having back in the original series, I’ll bet he watches more than that on’t’internet… Similarly, of course poor old Skinner (the man, the myth, the legend Mitch Pileggi, ladies and gentlemen, exuding unadulterated badassitude in his one scene) is still at the FBI, seemingly not having had a promotion in twenty-odd years. That’s how much good constantly covering for someone like Mulder does your career. I actually cheered when he showed up, just as I did when he unexpectedly appeared in the 2008 movie: Skin Man!
And of course CSM, that evil old so-and-so (William B. Davis, as drolly hammy as ever he was) is not only a) still alive, in spite of allegedly being at death’s door and also getting blown up by helicopter gunships 14 years ago, but also b) just as pleased with himself and his evildoing as he was back then, and c) still puffing away even with a hole in his neck. He even has an underling these days to hold his fag for him. And, as much as he may pretend to be irritated by the news, the X-Files have been reopened! Truly, of all the characters, even that slimeball O’Malley with his limo and helicopter and champagne on ice (all apparently paid for by railing against gun control online!) old Cancer Man seems to be living the dream.
There were, to be sure, other elements which attempted to acknowledge how the world has changed over the past decade and a half, and how The X-Files‘ relationship to that world has shifted. As mentioned above, the ideas about the paranormal and conspiracy theories that the original series dealt in became widespread in popular culture as a whole, almost certainly in large part due to the series’ own popularity rather than that popularity being due to the lore it appropriated to create its stories. The paranormal, in the form of “mysteries of the universe” type books and television documentaries, had of course enjoyed a certain popularity in the previous couple of decades, but some of the things The X-Files alluded to, especially in the field of conspiracy theories and the whole alien abduction mythos, arguably became common knowledge for the first time, as well as being endlessly rehashed for a time by its numerous competitors and imitators.
And of course, those ideas quickly faded once more from mainstream attention, just as The X-Files itself did, but then the whole notion of the mainstream changed along with the rise of new media and information technology around the turn of the millennium. “Pop culture” now is a fragmented multitude of demographics and niches where, thanks to the internet, one can readily find whatever piques one’s interest and easily share and discuss it with the likeminded. It’s the reason for the ascendancy of geek culture over recent years, and equally the reason why, as “1990s” as it may seem to some, conspiracy culture and UFO lore has never gone away, and is now resurgent, whether in the form of trash television “edutainment” like Ancient Aliens or the rantings of the would-be internet demagogues who provide the model for Tad O’Malley. Even as “real” UFO sightings have been on the decline for decades (and now, with the prevalence of camera phones, are further hampered by the fact that those claiming such encounters really have no excuse for not providing unambiguous photographic evidence), the stories about them continue to be told and to grow, becoming if anything ever more outlandish, paranoid and divorced from reality. And as has for a long time been the case with such modern-day folklore, a great many of those tale-tellers are either implicitly or explicitly pushing all kinds of dubious and disquieting worldviews and political agendas.
I saw some of the attempted innovations in the new premiere as an effort to react to and reflect these changes in the playing field, and to an extent to comment on them. I doubt that the original series would have so quickly and unambiguously confronted Mulder with the “Alien Replica Vehicle” or some of O’Malley’s more paranoid claims, but these choices were very reflective of the differences between the UFO field then and now. Modern internet theorisers routinely and with a straight face make allegations to which even the most believing authors of a previous decade would not have given house room.
Another development since the turn of the millennium, of course, which the new series cannot ignore and which it attempts to get to grips with, is the change in world politics, and especially US politics, since the 9/11 attacks. The original series, certainly, lost its conspiratorial zeal in their aftermath, as did much of the rest of popular culture, and it became commonplace to opine that in the face of new external enemies America no longer needed to invent shadowy internal ones. Of course, later events tended to suggest that in some respects the 1990s conspiracy theorists had thought too small – things that people like Fox Mulder had once feverishly imagined going on in secret were done semi-openly, with their perpetrators wrapping themselves in the Stars and Stripes and defying anyone to oppose them. This uncomfortable reality is most explicitly addressed in Skinner’s remark to Mulder about the country “taking a very big turn for the very strange,” but also in some of the images and talking points used when Mulder and O’Malley pitch their conspiracy theory to Scully – Snowden and Manning, missile-armed drones and “Mission Accomplished!”
When I first heard about the revived series, I was hoping it would tackle come of this stuff more directly with the alien element used more subtly as deep background to the all-too-human conspiracy. Arguably, this was done to an extent here but I had hoped for something more head-on, for something more genuinely subversive, with the “truthers,” Tea Partiers and internet ranters proving to be dupes of the shadowy elite rather than having any genuine insight into their machinations. Probably unrealistic expectations on my part, I admit, although it’s not completely impossible that some such revelation will emerge in one of the later episodes. There’s too much about the scenario presented here, and the way that O’Malley approaches Mulder with his revelations that smells decidedly fishy. The portrayal of a conspiracy of evil men, using stolen alien technology without actual alien input, might seem like a clarifying retcon of the old series lore for the benefit of new viewers coming in now – this being The X-Files, of course, it might just as easily turn out to be a pack of lies intended to confuse and obfuscate our hero. It was ever thus.
Even if this turns out not to be the case, I’m not sure, as some critics seem to think, that we the audience are meant to agree wholeheartedly with O’Malley and his poisonous ilk, even as Mulder seemed to buy his conspiracy tale completely despite voicing open contempt for his politics. If nothing else, the character was portrayed rather unambiguously as an extremist and a shifty-looking creep, with Scully, always the voice of reason even after accepting the existence of aliens, quickly forgetting his efforts to sleaze up to her once she realised the bad influence he was having upon her partner (in more ways than one). I found this one of the most effective and emotional character moments of the episode, with Scully’s evident despair and concern at Mulder’s almost unhinged desire to believe what he desperately wanted to be the truth about the dark forces he has spent much of his life battling. His hope and desperation and Scully’s love and compassion, tinged with the clear worry that he might actually be mentally unwell, were sold beautifully by both of the main actors and I guess for those of us who know and love these characters and their players it’s things like this that are the main selling points for this new series.
As I said at the top, I really enjoyed this, and there were some interesting elements to the opening episode. I also very much liked the oldschool alien crash-retrieval scenario (Roswell or not?) presented in flashback – with their period stylings and pithy action, these scenes strongly reminded me of my personal favourite out of the 1990s Files imitators, the all-too-short-lived Dark Skies. For the most part, however, I think it was that nostalgia, not just the story or even the characters and actors but the feel, the essential X-Files-ness that was on display throughout, that I was enjoying. The story, such as it was, was ultimately nothing more than a (re)introduction to the series and its universe with various disjointed plot elements we’ve seen before fitted together rather wonkily and, as always in the series’ heyday, more questions raised than answered.
Again, the same description could be levelled at The Force Awakens, except that the Star Wars film brought enough good new stuff to the table to not be reliant upon its audience’s nostalgic goodwill. If I’m very honest, I’m not sure I can really say the same about “My Struggle”. I liked it, but I can easily see how somebody less invested in this world and these characters might not. One for the fans, then, which may not be enough if the revived series hopes to achieve anything like the success of the original. However, there are five more episodes on their way, and with the introductory formalities out of the way hopefully the series will hit its stride in the coming weeks.