I’m a massive fan of The X-Files. I mean on a crazy level. It consumed my teenage years and never really left me. I made scrapbooks, wrote fanfiction and went to conventions. For my GCSE media studies project I forced fellow pupils and teachers to dress as the characters in various mise-en-scène from the show. I was obsessed.
So you can imagine my uncurtailed excitement when, 14 years after the original series ended, Fox announced season 10. We learned there would be six episodes – officially dubbed the ‘event series’. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and while my loyalty demanded I be as excited as Scully when she got those co-ordinates, I couldn’t help but wonder, would such a short stint be enough to get us back in the groove? As with many TV revivals, had too much time passed since the original series?
For me, The X-Files has always rested on four solid cornerstones – Mulder and Scully’s relationship; their relentless adversaries; a strong, ever-evolving core storyline; and some really good standalone episodes. The problem with trying to pack that into six episodes is… well, it just doesn’t work. Sure, hardcore fans probably remember the backstory from the previous nine series (some might have rewatched them all in preparation, cough), but to conjure that and really recreate the same world takes time.
The result is that the mythology of the show really suffers. Season 10 opens with the weak premise that Skinner wants Mulder to meet online personality Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale) who claims stories of an alien invasion are a cover-up for a government conspiracy. Sound familiar? Then suddenly, the X-Files are re-opened. Mulder and Scully investigate one case together (‘Founder’s Mutation’) then the show deviates to a standalone episode about a lizard man who turns into a human. Granted, it’s a great episode, but a sharp detour from the core story before it’s even begun. The next episode (‘Home Again’) centres on Scully’s mother, then ricochets to another standalone episode (‘Babylon’), before ending on a mythology episode again (‘My Struggle II’).
It’s this bouncing around that means viewers are never quite settled back into the series. This is indeed how the original series was structured – taking outings to quirky monster-of-the-week episodes and sometimes focusing on family-centric or other personal sub-plots for the main (and sometimes secondary) characters – but that works across a number of series, not six episodes.
That really comes through in the fact that the mythology episodes were poorly received, with the monster-of-the-week ones being more popular, even with long-term fans of the show. The highest rated episode, ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-monster’, was full of classic X-Files humour brought by veteran writer Darin Morgan (responsible for the Emmy award-winning ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’ from series three), and did a fantastic job of turning the werewolf legend on its head. Likewise I enjoyed the following season’s ‘Rm9sbG93ZXJz’ (I didn’t just accidentally paste a password there) and ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ for their humour and satire, even if the latter was positively bonkers. It seems it was easier to create episodes where Mulder and Scully’s familiar nuances feed the comedy, than trying to pull together all the complex backstory that forms a mythology story.
Season 11 as a whole didn’t fare much better, though it did produce higher and more consistent ratings than season 10. While slightly longer at ten episodes, it still felt patchy – beginning with a mythology episode, then hopscotching through standalone, comedy and off-beat storylines before delivering the big finale, which in itself was quite strong, but seemed to be more of a culmination of personal character storylines than the bigger themes of The X-Files. Sure, those two things have always been intertwined, but sometimes it borders on soap territory for me. And none of those closing moments are particularly fresh anymore, either – someone shapeshifts into Mulder, again; Scully’s mysteriously and inexplicably pregnant, again; the Smoking Man apparently dies, again; and all the original characters turn up to help make it happen. It’s fun, and it’s nostalgic, but it’s also a sign that there’s perhaps nothing left to explore.
The other sticking point is that there are so many elements of The X-Files that are trademarks of its era; for me it will always be a classic 90s show that doesn’t convert particularly well to today. It came about at a time when people were only just getting really paranoid about the government; sci-fi was the burgeoning genre and people were all over paranormal dramas; women needed strong female characters and viewers delighted in respectable but tension-filled character relationships.
At the beginning, our protagonists were nicely kept in check by restrictions of the age. Post-90s technology like smartphones and the ever-resourceful internet would likely threaten the credibility of tense moments where Mulder couldn’t reach Scully, no one knew where the smoking man was hiding, and Mulder had to explain various phenomena using dubious projector slides.
The problem with a cult hit like The X-Files is that a revival really leans on the success and nostalgia of the original series, and it’s never going to be the same. It was a nice treat for the fans, but ultimately like bumping into an old friend 14 years later – it’s never going to be quite like it was.