Re-X-amining The X-Files

The_X-Files_2016_Poster

Television hasn’t been much prone to sequelism, because a series is, by definition, a thing that keeps coming back—recurrence is built in. So it’s pretty odd that the Fox network decided to revive its SF-and-conspiracy drama The X-Files for what amounts to a six-episode sequel, which starts tonight. The show began in 1993 and came to a fairly conclusive ending in 2002, after nine seasons and one movie (a much-derided second film was released in 2008), appearing to have nowhere left to go. At its peak, the series was well written, well produced, winningly wacky and engaging, both popular and influential. But it lost its way before time and consequently lost some of its admirers, as the show’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction points out; its departure was not entirely regretted. The X-Files is not so recent that it can just be restarted, as Netflix has done for a handful of shows. Nor does there seem to be much room for a fresh look, a new version for a new era, given that Fringe, which ran on the same network between 2008 and 2013, already regenerated the show in a sense. Replacing aliens with a parallel universe, Fringe could’ve been called The Altiverse Files.

It’s not clear what the X-Files mini-series can do or will do, but it seems to me it must do something other than just give us a few more tankards of the same brew. Unfortunately, the first episode, which I saw recently, looks very much like more of the same thing. Once again, we have Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, no longer working for the FBI but with all their expertise and complementary attitudes intact, along with Assistant Director Skinner and another figure who loomed large over the original series. Once again, Mulder and Scully encounter new evidence of a long-hidden truth; once again, it’s snatched away. (Tantalus was the genius loci of The X-Files, its guiding mythological figure.) There are pointed references to new concerns about conspiracy, surveillance, and government overreach—“We’ve never been more in danger,” Mulder exclaims at one point—but we learn next to nothing about how the intervening years have affected these characters.

There’ll be time for that, this episode seems to say; first, let’s get the game afoot again. How will this play out? What difference it will make?

Nothing the mini-series does will alter the chief accomplishment of the original show, which pursued, for almost the first time in a TV series, substantial narrative development across a long arc. The X-Files, along with Twin Peaks, did it before The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and all the rest. The original series also came up with many excellent standalone episodes (my picks are below); TXF2016 will be lucky if it can add another. And the original show knew things, which the mini-series will bank on but probably not build on. It knew that monsters stalk the land, sometimes as projections from the inchoate fears of our imagination (though the show never viewed them as such) but just as often in human form. Among the latter were the serial killer who manipulated Mulder in “Paper Hearts” (S04E10), the professedly clairvoyant prisoner who manipulated Scully in “Beyond the Sea” (S01E13), and perhaps most monstrous of all the Cigarette-Smoking Man. It knew to keep a sense of humor close at hand, buoyant enough to lighten if not entirely counterbalance the ever-growing weight of its mythology. It linked up with the paranoid style in American thought while broadening and blurring the political dimension explored by Richard Hofstadter in the mid-60s; it understood (as did Hofstadter) and was even fond of (as he was not) “the odd, the warped, the ‘zanies’ and the crazies of American life.” (The phrase comes from a commentator quoted in Wikipedia.) There were many of these in the sandbox in which The X-Files played; Mulder himself was chief among them, but the group also included three lovable loons who called themselves the Lone Gunmen and a memorably affecting character, who suffers in his quest but persists, named Max Fenig.

The mini-series does seem likely to affect the temporality of the original. The latter, since it went off the air, has existed in a kind of timeless state common to all completed works that have been preserved—it’s no longer current yet still available. (This retrievable lostness began before the show ended and doesn’t depend on DVDs or online streaming; remember videocassettes?) Now, for at least a while, the original X-Files seems old, a part of the past, because it has spawned a successor of sorts. This may prove not to matter, but we have a problem even in naming the new thing. It presents itself with exactly the same title and, unlike the movies, no subtitle.

On the case again

Gillian Anderson in the first episode of The Fall—one of my re-imagined images, from Flickr.

For me, the best reason to watch every minute of TXF2016 is Gillian Anderson. A few performers are lucky enough to get a breakout role in American TV that showcases their abilities and gives them an edge in further work. Not many of them pack up and leave the country, as she did, for the combined opportunities in theater, film, and TV that London provides. Anderson has a bright but dogged quality that suggests her characters may push and keep pushing past the point of reasonableness. It served her well as Lily Bart in the 2000 film version of The House of Mirth; it probably did the same (I haven’t seen this yet) when she played Miss Havisham for the BBC in 2011. She seemed ineluctable, something like Diana the huntress, as a detective in the BBC crime drama The Fall, which began in 2013; The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum contented herself with labeling Anderson’s performance in its first season “fantastic.” I’m eager to see what she does with the role of Blanche DuBois in a Young Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire that will be reprised at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York this spring.

I’m less eager to see David Duchovny in a play by Miller or Coward, though I doubt the question will come up. Not trained as an actor, on The X-Files he couldn’t at first conceal his limitations, but it never mattered much; he compensated with easygoing charm, presence, and a wry manner. Over time, the minimalism of his acting came to seem a natural part of the contrasts between the yin-and-yang characters of Scully and Mulder. Unexpectedly, in the first episode of the mini-series he seems to have acquired more flexibility, some new tones.

Personal considerations can affect one’s perception of such things. One of my mother’s friends, a well-educated art fancier with Rosicrucian leanings, seized on the show with glee when it began and recommended it to my mother, who, for reasons I never got around to asking her about, was always intrigued by science fiction—maybe it was the L. Frank Baum books she had read as a girl—and, for that matter, anything suggesting possibilities beyond the world as it existed. I’m not sure that she was happy, my mother, despite her customary optimism and good cheer. Regardless, she too liked The X-Files and introduced me to it; we sometimes watched it together and often talked about it. If I speak to her in my mind, as I sometimes do, about this sequel, what will I say? What will she say in return? I’m pretty sure we’ll both be pleased to revisit familiar characters, but more than that I cannot tell. She may welcome the show’s return more uncritically than I do; that was often her way, as this is mine. I think, though, that she might question why it should come back and quote me Ecclesiastes: to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

So, a few more adventures, another dash of weirdness, maybe a little more romantic yearning, and then back on the shelf? I’ll be watching, but I can’t say I’m X-cited.

Suggested viewing

Like the human-alien hybrids that it spoke of, the original series belonged to two worlds, sometimes offering independent episodes, as most TV shows had been doing for years, and sometimes furthering its overall narrative. Although it’s hard to recommend—or even to remember distinctly—individual episodes that developed the mythology, anyone can name standalone episodes they love. There’s no distinction in it—everybody’s been doing it lately—but allow me to play fan for a minute and rattle off a few of my favorite things from the original run of The X-Files. It’s not a best-of list, which might exclude some of these and would have to include “Home” (S04E02), which I admire but don’t much want to watch again.

  • “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (S03E04): Peter Boyle is an insurance salesman who can see how his clients are going to die. A swirl of comedy, pathos, and paranormal weirdness, which is entirely characteristic but more broadly appealing than anything else the show ever did.
  • “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” (S03E20): A mad send-up of aliens and those who are obsessed with them.
  • “Kaddish” (S04E15): A treatment of grief and a take on the legend of the Golem.
  • “The Post-Modern Prometheus” (S05E05): As the title (adapted from Mary Shelley’s subtitle) suggests, this is a takeoff on Frankenstein, shot in black and white, with a monster that favors peanut-butter sandwiches, and concluding with a Cher concert.
  • “Kill Switch” (S05E11): An artificial intelligence gets loose on the ‘net and goes rogue. Co-written by novelists William Gibson and Tom Maddox.
  • “Bad Blood” (S05E12): Vampires and a Rashomon-like clash of viewpoints.
  • “Drive” (S06E02): Bryan Cranston! Long before Breaking Bad, he displayed his compulsive intensity here, in an episode written by Vince Gilligan, who later created that show.
  • “Dreamland” (S06, Episodes 04 & 05): Mulder inadvertently switches bodies with a Man in Black who works at Area 51, played by Michael McKean. It includes a mirror dance inspired by the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup.
  • “The Unnatural” (S06E19): Draws a parallel between blacks and aliens, via the story of an outstanding baseball player on the Roswell minor-league team in the 40s.
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