Count me among the fans who wanted to see Fox Mulder and Dana Scully back in the freaky fields of Alien-Nation USA, scanning dark skies and probing shadowy woods for occult truth with flashlights beaming and chemistry blazing. And count me among those disappointed by the opening hour of The X-Files revival, a clunky hour so burdened by service to so many goals it could hardly entertain the way The X-Files used to. The title was right, though: Taken from a six-volume series of quasi-autobiographical novels by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard, “My Struggle” launched Fox’s six-ep X-event with a labored effort to craft something meaningful from a chaotic past and shape a peculiar, personal work that could resonate with the audience. The result was pure struggle, for series creator Chris Carter, who wrote and directed the premiere, stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and for us.
Revivals, reboots, and retreads of pop phenoms rarely pulse with the magic of their original incarnation at their original moment. Still, The X-Files is a franchise wired with timeless themes, a premise that allows for eclectic, creative storytelling, and a pair of characters (and central relationship) worth exploring over time. I want to believe The X-Files can be the rare example of pop recycling that succeeds by being something other than blast-from-the-past nostalgia, producing punch-drunk love giddiness. With the right writing/writers, The X-Files can be relevant, no matter the era. A return to transcendence? Too much to ask. Above-average artfulness? That’s a reasonable expectation, and a necessary benchmark to hit in a moment glutted with Peak Geek thrillers and chillers that owe their existence in part to X-Files trailblazing, everything from Mr. Robot to Black Mirror to Orphan Black to Supernatural. C’mon, pops! Show ‘em how it’s done!
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It’s possible that four weeks from now, we might be saying that this miniseries succeeded more than it failed. But the first two installments are buggy affairs, the premiere arguably more so than tomorrow’s ep, an old school “monster of the week” outing entitled “Founder’s Mutation.” The problems with “My Struggle” begin with its massive scope of obligations. It was an attempt to lure newcomers and please true believers with a story that was really a series of housekeeping maneuvers, designed to de-clutter and re-frame the context and return Mulder and Scully to the Mulder and Scully we love best: respectful colleagues, philosophical complements, and platonic intimates, driven to investigate pernicious paranormal activity for deeply righteous and deeply personal reasons. All this, while also expressing Carter’s “Trust No One” obsessions and aiming to be zeitgeist-tapping pop! The episode was a mediocre pilot and a sad reunion special and a flawed reboot and a lunatic fringe soapbox rant, all at once.
Carter will write and direct two more episodes in the set, including the finale, which I’m told will bookend the premiere with the only other pure “mythology” outing in the bunch. I hope Carter’s offering in that stretch will allow him to either drill-down with a lighter touch on something simpler and stranger, as he did with the “monster of the week” classic “The Host” (a.k.a., the Flukeman ep, and the one that made me a fan), or cut loose aesthetically as he did with “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” a beautifully shot black and white Frankenstein riff, and “Triangle,” a high-concept homage to Hitchcock’s Rope. Whatever he does, I hope it won’t be as stiff as the premiere. “My Struggle” was all bland staging and blunt declarations, maybe out of necessity: spelling everything out does ensure everything that needed to be said and done gets said and done in the time available.* So we got thesis statement dialogue (Scully: “For better or worse, we have moved on with our lives.” Mulder: “Yes we have. For better, for worse.”) and stormy speeches (“It’s about controlling the past to control the future! It’s about fiction masquerading as fact!”). The result: static storytelling, inert drama, clichés.
*One device employed to accomplish the business of getting X-Files 2.0 up and going ASAP was opening with one of those “My name is…” premise-pitching preambles that all the cool kids on The CW use these days. As if The X-Files could be so tidily summarized! It was amusing to see them try. Narrated by Mulder at max laconic, with a tired drone that befit the current state of the character but also reminded me of Harrison Ford’s infamously phoned-in voiceover on Blade Runner, the precap was an oddly crafted, weirdly selective edit of X-the lore. We saw a hand (presumably Mulder’s) stacking a series of photos into a manila folder. Childhood pics of Mulder. (Dig Teen Fox rocking the Spock ears and blue tunic!) Frozen moments of Mulder and Scully in various clinches. Glossy headshots of signature mutants: The Flukeman; an inbred Peacock from the sensationalistic classic “Home”; stretchy, jaundice-eyed liver goblin Eugene Tooms; bald, black-eyed brain-muncher Rob Roberts. The images were goofy. Also: Who knew Mulder and Scully had a set photographer trailing them on their adventures? Using actual footage, as most precaps do, would have made the sequence too long. But it would have made for a more flattering pitch, as it would have better captured the show’s creepy atmosphere or chemistry of the leads. Worse was now the intro presented The X-Files as essentially Mulder’s story, that the saga was/is all about his struggle, not the shared odyssey of Mulder and Scully. A better approach might have the featuring joint or dueling Duchovny/Anderson narration.
NEXT: Mulder and Scully at middle-age: Portrait of a ‘Shipwreck