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Wednesday, February 24, 2016 

The X Files: my part in its downfall.

(This is long, and if you'd prefer not to read about my adolescent love of The X Files, you can skip to halfway through where I review the new series.  If that's your bag.  Oh, and spoilers.)

I honestly cannot recall how I first came to watch The X Files.  I've got a nagging feeling that it might well have been when it was repeated on BBC2 late on a Friday night, although I might be confusing that with how I'm fairly sure the BBC repeated the first season later in the 90s.  My failure of memory seems fitting for how the show itself always held itself in a sort of vagueness: you could never truly trust what it seemed to be telling you was happening, just as Mulder and Scully couldn't trust anyone except themselves.

It's become something of an obvious go to that The X Files is symbolic of the 90s.  A decade that began with the dissolution of an empire, the crumbling, apparent extinction of any ideology other than ones that regarded the market as sacrosanct and unquestionable, the turn away from certainty towards the conspiratorial and the cynical, why wouldn't a show that contended we were all being lied to on a grand scale by governments and corporations and yet eschewed politics almost entirely be a smash hit?

On a personal level, though, The X Files to me truly is the 90s.  Memories fade of your actual day to day life, but the television shows, the films and the music you love remain, available not just to remind you but for you to relive.  It was a time before life, before I, got serious.  Quite why I somewhat precociously loved the show, as I must have started watching it when I was around 11, I again can't put my finger on exactly.  That said, I definitely identified with Mulder: the heroic, brainiac outsider, laughed at by his colleagues, toiling away down in the basement, trying to find the evidence that would prove him to be right.  In the first year of secondary school I put "Mulder" as my middle name on exercise books, and drove the English teacher up the wall with my constant reviewing of the novelisations of episodes, as well as naming characters in stories Fox and Dana.

And of course, you can't be an almost teenager on the cusp of puberty and not also have more than a bit of a crush on Scully/Gillian Anderson, as I'm sure a whole generation of boys (and girls no doubt too) did.  Unlike with other characters in shows that are often there to be little more than eye candy, or the token gorgeous woman among the males, there's not really anything to be embarrassed about in retrospect either.  Scully is attractive most of all because she develops into by far the most rounded character on the show, thanks not just to the writing but to Anderson's remarkable acting ability; she plays a character originally not much more than a foil to Mulder with such nuance, bearing and determination that after the first season she truly is his partner, rather than the sceptical subordinate following in his wake.

As for how when you think The X Files you think aliens and the paranormal, which angered a few of the more literal minded critics who saw it as being part of the Mumbo Jumbo takeover, that was never the important part for me.  I didn't then and definitely don't now believe in the supernatural, at least not the supernatural phenomenon they investigated.  I was far more interested in the "mythology" of the show than the possibility there could be some truth to the conspiracies featured.  Why would I want to get involved in looking to see if there's something more to our very dull reality when the one depicted in the show needed such deciphering on its own?

Looking back now, what once was satisfying because it didn't end, because nothing was ever truly, fully explained, is the show's biggest flaw.  The mythology doesn't add up, and those episodes centred on Mulder's pursuit of the truth, regardless of the danger it puts him and Scully in, resulting in the murder of his father and Scully's sister Melissa, Scully's cancer and miracle recovery, start to drag after you reach the fifth season.  By contrast, grown exponentially in my estimation have been the "monster of the week" episodes, the self-contained shows, the best of which are very special indeed.  Vince Gilligan, who as any fule kno got his start proper on The X Files before he went on to create Breaking Bad, is easily the most consistent, capable of both the deadly serious, as in Pusher or the light-hearted, such as in Je Souhaite.  What Darin Morgan started with his comedic episodes Gilligan perfected with Bad Blood, the 5th's season magnum opus, a vampire tale told from Mulder and then Scully's very different perspectives, and where you can see just how much fun everyone was having without it impacting on the quality as it so easily can.

As with so much else in life, the difficulty is in knowing when to let go.  The X Files really should have ended with season 7, as it was thought for a time would be the case.  Accordingly, the loose ends were sort of tied up: the syndicate behind the conspiracy involving the alien takeover of the planet was destroyed by the rebel aliens; Mulder discovered "the truth" behind his sister's disappearance; and in the last episode, Mulder himself is abducted and Scully reveals she is pregnant, despite having been rendered barren by her own abduction in the second season.  As it turned out, the show went on with David Duchovny, who having clearly tired of his role as can be seen in his performances, only appearing in a few of the 8th season's episodes. Robert Patrick, aka the T-1000, took over, with Scully becoming the believer and Patrick's character Doggett the sceptic.

While season 8 was in fact a significant improvement on season 7, this was the point where the "mythology" ought to have been stopped by the Colonel from Monty Python for having gotten too silly.  Mulder is returned, dead, half way through the season.  Only he's not dead, and is dug up, alive, after Scully realises their mistake.  Scully's pregnancy progresses, only for her to discover that her pregnancy is clearly incredibly special, such are the people who want her unborn child either dead or alive.  The season finishes with Scully giving birth witnessed by "super soldiers", actually alien replacements of humans, whom are under the impression that her son will be the leader of the resistance to their rule once the invasion begins.  They leave having decided this is not the case, only for it to turn out come the 9th season that William is indeed a special baby, so special indeed that he can turn the mobile above his cot purely with his mind.  Unable to protect him, and with Mulder on the run due to Duchovny leaving the show proper, she gives this telekinetic child up for adoption.

The series concluded for what is now the first time with Mulder on trial before a military tribunal for the murder of one of the "unkillable" super soldiers; duly found guilty, he somewhat easily escapes their clutches, the Cigarette Smoking Man receives a hellfire missile right up him, and Mulder and Scully put their faith in God preventing the alien invasion from taking place, religion having increasingly become an influence on the series courtesy of creator Chris Carter.

With it always having been the intention for there to be a series of X Files films, 2008's I Want to Believe wasn't the greatest shock when it came about.  Despite its critical reception, it's also rather good: a self-contained story about a psychic paedophile priest and his connection with one of his victims, it ends with Mulder and Scully in bed, again, apparently together and happy as the "shippers" always wanted.

Why then a new "event" series in 2015, other than for ratings and the money?  Are there still stories to be told about these two characters, indefatigable and apparently immortal as they are?  Is the time right, this far removed from 9/11, which by itself seemed to cleave the the justification for The X Files still existing in two, even while the series itself struggled on for another year and a bit?

The answer is possibly, so long as Carter does a George Lucas and gives someone else full control of any follow on.  For sadly, the reboot/event/whatever just about worked so long as he wasn't the person doing the writing.  The three episodes written by James Wong, Darin Morgan, and Glen Morgan, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively are decent, brilliant and good.  James Wong's sort-of follow on from Carter's reintroduction episode is quick paced, features classic X Files motifs and themes with the genetic experimentation on children with rare diseases and syndromes plot, and has some satisfyingly nasty special effects.  Darin Morgan's Were-Monster episode is a complete joy, as though he and Mulder and Scully have never been away.  Filled with references to his past work, it's funny, makes fun of the show and the characters respectfully without for a moment mocking them, and is an answer in itself to the questions as to why all involved are still keeping on keeping on.  His brother's episode would have been a solid monster of the week back in the day: those familiar with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia might not be able to get by how the monster is known as the Trashman, a being willed into existence by a graffiti artist opposed to the displacement of the homeless and which takes revenge on those responsible, but otherwise it's as fine an entry into the canon as we had any reason to expect at this remove.

The same cannot be said for Carter's episodes.  The first show was always going to be partially about reminding of us how things were left off, and does have a few good lines.  Duchovny and Anderson are straight back into their roles, and well, that's about it.  As incomplete, contradictory and confusing as the "mythology" often was, why on earth would you suggest, yet again, that Mulder and by definition we also had been wrong all along?  Why would you make the deliverer of this truth a smarmy Alex Jones/Bill O'Reilly hybrid, and why would Skinner have ever taken him seriously enough to contact Mulder in the first place?  Why would Tad O'Malley have not just gone public with the alien replica vehicle he's constructed?  Surely the proof would have been enough regardless of the messenger?  Why would you apparently knock all this down again at the conclusion only to then reveal it was the truth all along in the event finale?

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  The penultimate episode sees Carter decide to introduce jihadism to The X Files, for reasons known only to himself.  A suicide bomber miraculously survives the blast, and the FBI wants to extract any information it possibly can from the comatose fundamentalist, by any means necessary.  In what can only be put down to Carter writing the episode while on something himself, Mulder's proposed method is to trip on magic mushrooms, get on the same astral plane as the bomber and converse with him there.  We also meet two young FBI agents, and wouldn't you know it, but one's female, a redhead, a scientist and a sceptic, and the other's male, handsome and wants to believe.  Oh, and in a you really can't get away with this Chris palm to the face moment, the female agent's name is Einstein.  No, honest, it is.  Their existence can only be ascribed to Carter holding out the hope of continuing the series with these two if either Duchovny or Anderson decide not to go on, despite neither showing anything to suggest they could equal Doggett and Reyes, let alone Mulder and Scully.  The conceit turns out that Mulder goes on a clich├ęd journey into his mind in spite of only being given a placebo by Einstein, and he naturally does talk to the bomber, preventing a much larger cell from carrying out their attacks.  Someone I respect described it as the worst episode of the show full stop.

That accolade really should go to the finale instead, so lacking was everything about it.  What seems like a good half of the episode we spend with Scully explaining what's happening, or rather what isn't to Einstein, as though the two actresses are trying to convince themselves that the plot makes sense.  We must act quickly, Scully says more than once, reminding of Mark Kermode's review of Revenge of the Sith and his escalating anger at Lucas's own reliance on exposition.  Tad O'Malley it turns out was right all along, and rather than an alien invasion, as we thought was meant to happen on the 21st of December 2012 as the mythology previously implied, instead the takeover is to be heralded by a mass extinction of human life via DNA implanted in everyone through the smallpox vaccination, achieved once activated by the collapse of the immune system.  This is meant to explain why the invasion didn't happen and we're here now but just doesn't work, not least because Scully we learn via the re-emergence of Agent Reyes is one of the "chosen few" to survive, her DNA having been altered during her abduction.  This makes absolutely no sense, as Scully's survival along with the rest of those abducted and subjected to tests by the military in an attempt to current an alien-human hybrid depended on the chip implanted in her neck, with most of those subject to multiple abductions having had them removed and succumbing to cancer as Scully so nearly did herself.

Thankfully, Scully realises that her alien DNA can be used to create a vaccine against the now activated part of the err, smallpox vaccination, activated we're told via Tad O'Malley's show by chemtrails and possibly microwaves also.  Mulder meanwhile has been for the umpteenth time in the lair of CSM, who somehow managed to survive the massive explosion that happened right in his face and is still apparently in control of events.  Each meeting and showdown between Mulder and CSM since he first confronted him proper way back when Scully was returned in season 2's One Breath has been less climactic, and the pattern remains here.  With Scully having apparently saved the world, she rushes to find Mulder, himself stricken despite having also been abducted and tested on, only for an alien ship (or is it?) to appear overhead and the event to end on a completely miserable cliffhanger.

Could it have been any different?  Would it have been possible to resurrect the series without discounting the old mythology to an extent?  Perhaps not, but it could have been so much cleaner, so much better executed, not so seemingly lazy while also feeling strained.  Carter, it's sad to say, just seems to have ran out of ideas.  The show previously didn't, couldn't rely on him as much, not least when the shortest season was the ninth and which still came in at 18 episodes, and it meant that if you didn't enjoy the mythology then other writers with different ideas would be along shortly.  Here, and constrained to just the six episodes, there was barely any escape.

The X Files event was then a failure, albeit a noble one.  Mulder and Scully might be as strong personalities as ever, played with the same skill as was the case for the majority of the original run by Duchovny and Anderson, and yet they don't feel right in the middle of the 2010s.  The world has changed, and where our cellphone and internet using heroes were once ahead of the curve back in the 90s, they feel out of time now.  I hope this really is the end as the title legend of the concluding episode said, that characters I and so many others grew up with are allowed to go out with some dignity remaining, only that lack of ending suggests they won't be allowed to do so.  We never want to say goodbye to our friends and loved ones, but as we ought to have learned, in the end we have to.

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