“The X-Files” Revival Falls Short of Reclaiming Cult Classic Status

“The X-Files”  Revival Falls Short of Reclaiming Cult Classic Status

In recent years, “The X-Files” has become a paranormal figure in the world of television; the nine-season series pioneered the modern science fiction show and proved that intellectual, cinematic television could be produced for a mainstream audience. Amateur and professional screenwriters for the past 15 years have been vying to get a glimpse of the cult show’s surprising success. And like most supernatural mysteries, those attempts have yielded only fake and rubber-limbed reproductions. So with the newly released revival season, can “X-Files” creator Chris Carter capture his mythical beast on film once again?

It seems the answer is a middling “maybe.” The rather paltry selection of only six episodes manages to offer the Whitman Sampler variety of “X-Files” well, but struggles to consistently offer the highs that the show held in its heydays. That’s not to say the new episodes are unfaithful to the spirit of the show. If anything, they are just like the “X-Files” that went off air in 2002: uneventful, emotionally distant and far too hit and miss.

Two of the episodes are focused on the show’s greater lore, while the remaining episodes are “monsters of the week” — individual cases that have little connection to “The X-Files” background conspiracy. The standalone episodes are the real stars here; each is a solid foray into a topic that feels both modern and relevant to the show’s roots. Viewers may not be completely satisfied with the episodes, which mostly end without resolution, but they’re more than competent and quite enjoyable.

Unfortunately, the 14-year break between seasons has been unkind to both actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who struggle to rekindle the charisma and chemistry of their younger selves. Anderson finds her footing as agent Dana Scully by the second episode, but Duchovny’s performance as Fox Mulder struggles to meet even the baseline minimum of believability. It’s disheartening to see Anderson try so hard and have her foil contribute so little. Mitch Pileggi’s performance as FBI Director Walter Skinner is so flawless viewers will wonder if the man is immortal due to how easily he returns to this role.

“The X-Files” seems like the perfect show for the era of CGI television, but instead, it chooses to balance traditional effects with computer-generated graphics. The level of gore and horror is especially worth mentioning. The 90s risqué violence has been suitably updated to still be shocking in the modern day. Post-processing has taken a hit with modern techniques; the shots are overwhelmingly blue and blend into the ubiquity of other Fox crime dramas. It’s disappointing to see the show lose its iconic, foggy noir appearance; however it’s not a complete deal breaker. The show’s cinematic quality is still evident, although the artistic shots the show pushed in the 90s have since become the norm, leaving it attractive but not particularly notable.

Ironically, it is Carter who struggles to recapture the occult and alien on film. The strength of his former writers and cast harkens back to the glory days of UFOs, Conspiracy and episodes recorded on VHS tapes. A full-fledged new season, composed almost entirely of individual monster episodes, could reignite the passion for Fox’s hit. Yes, there is a seam on the rubber suit and the monster is looking pretty shrimpy, but most “X-Files” fans will be glad they have anything new at all.

Individual episode reviews:

My Struggle — Skip It
As the show began to decline in its later seasons, its writers seemed to become desperate to earn back its broad viewership. The massive twists and turns that defined the show’s early success became the biggest roadblock to its coherency and entertainment in the end. Constantly flip flopping on whether aliens were real, the overarching storyline became so bloated that even Anderson and Duchovny did not understand their lines. Unfortunately, the only aspect of the show that the premiere episode captures is this confusion.

The typical reunion-style episode, “My Struggle” rounds up Scully and Mulder, now teamed up with right-wing political pundit Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale). The show hastily recaps its nine seasons of shaky lore with moderate success. The “shocking revelation” that comes after might have been more effective had it never been used before. Any chance of redemption is ruined by McHale’s irritating performance, which distracts from what most fans really want, which is more Mulder and Scully.

Founder’s Mutation — Recommend Watching
Right from the brutal opener, viewers are assured that X-Files is back and that the prior episode was just a fluke. The FBI sends Mulder and Scully to investigate a scientist whose home remedy for intense tinnitus is a screwdriver to the head. In doing so, Mulder and Scully explore the future they never shared with their orphaned alien hybrid son William.

Penned by James Wong, a veteran of the original series known for his gruesome cases, Founder’s Mutation does enough right to seem like a classic X-File. While not an instant classic, the episode’s use of body horror and real life medical conditions perfectly encapsulates the fictional use of cutting edge science that the 90s version of the show did so well. The attempts to garner sympathy for William fall flat, not necessarily due to Wong’s writing but because of how irrelevant the character was in the classic series.

Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Creature — Must Watch
A comedy tour de force, the agents search for a werewolf in Oregon. The creature they find, however, is not exactly what they expect

Of all the classic “X-Files” writers, Darin Morgan may be the most talented and also least recognizable. He only wrote four episodes for the series, yet all four are heralded as classics. His writing style is itself the antithesis of “The X-Files” — Morgan always uses his paranormal element to explore the nature of humanity rather than the monster itself. His “were-creature” is no exception, an absurdist hour of laughs, phenomenally written dialogue and clever set pieces. Viewers will walk away entertained and possibly with a better understanding of what it means to be human. Morgan’s episode is reason enough for the revival alone. Not only is it the best episode of season 10, but arguably one of the greatest pieces in the series’ run.

Home Again — Recommend Watching
A series of brutal deaths call Mulder and Scully to Chicago, where a creature made of trash is terrorizing major players involved in local politics. In the middle of investigating, Scully rushes to her comatose mother, who has mysteries of her own.

Glen Morgan, another writer known for former X-Files’ fame, wrote a solid but ultimately rushed episode that harkens back well to the classic series. “The X-Files” already did a golem twice and a Tulpa once, the latter having already been made out of trash. Fortunately, Morgan distinguishes his graffiti-gone-wrong creature from prior attempts and creates a genuinely horrifying monster. The monster’s signature somber into a trash compactor is an image that viewers won’t forget, and a home invasion scene set to the tune of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” is nothing less than iconic. Sadly, Scully’s dying mother distracts from the ultimate plot. It would have been better split into two separate episodes, in which each thread could have its own satisfying ending.

Babylon — Skip It
An Islamic suicide bombing in a Texan art gallery attracts the attention of the federal government, who sends two up-and-coming agents, Miller (Robbie Amell) and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose), to do field work. It also catches the eye of Mulder, who reads reports that trumpet from the heavens hailed the coming explosion. Mulder, Scully and the greenhorns travel to the lone star state to interview a surviving bomber. Things get trippy along the way.

The show’s opener itself is an indicator of the wavering quality of this episode, which tries to explore Islamophobia without the delicate approach needed. The situation is made worse by a truly indescribably mushroom trip in the middle of the episode, which is both intensely fun and incredibly cheesy. The episode’s tone is wildly inconsistent, jumping from terrorism to racism to “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” to reverent in a matter of minutes. The new characters, clearly set up as material for a reboot, fail to offer anything new to the plot. Agent Miller is a bland, emotionless copy of Mulder’s character, and Einstein is an almost comical personification of Scully’s skepticism. It’s a confusing episode and a disappointment as the final monster of the week.

My Struggle II — Skip It
A (mostly) direct sequel to the season’s opener, the shadowy syndicate conspiracy group finally makes their move. Citizens are succumbing to every 20th-century disease thought to be extinct, a plot half a century in the making. Mulder and Scully race against the time, both in their world and the 42 minutes of the episode, to overturn a global conspiracy.

Start with a whimper, end with silence. Like the season’s opener, Carter’s new turn for the series attempts to make the “X-Files” relevant, tapping into the fears of the modern day: conservative propaganda, anti-vaccination and chemical trails. In today’s political climate, these topics are not stable enough to serve as inspirational material; they’re jokes and ruin the believability of the series’ premise. The show’s former conspiracy theory rooted itself in the reality of the past; viewers can believe the government is experimenting on citizens because there is historical evidence that it has.
The updated end goal of the ominous “Syndicate” is dissatisfying, uninteresting and far too obvious for 10 seasons of development. Pouring salt on the wound, Carter writes former agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) back into the plot, a character universally hated by the fandom and the icon of show’s declining quality in the 2000s. The saving grace is William B. Davis’ returning role as the Smoking Man, a fun, love-to-hate performance that, while incoherently written, is expertly delivered. “My Struggle” and “My Struggle II” are terrible bookends for an otherwise enjoyable revival.