Tony Black looks back at The X-Files season 10…
Words can not begin to express how excited I was when The X-Files was confirmed to be returning for the first time since 2007, and on TV since 2002. It has been the piece of entertainment closest to my heart since I was a child. I have watched it countless times. I even do a podcast in which I’m talking all 200+ episodes over what will probably end up taking several years. There is no TV show I venerate, or will ever venerate more. Season 10 therefore was manna from heaven; almost a decade after convincing myself we’d never see a conclusion to Fox Mulder & Dana Scully’s story, having to make do with non-canon (if enjoyable) comics or even, in many case, writing my own fan fiction scripted conclusion (I’ll stop with the self promotion now, promise!), we at last had what every self-respecting X-Phile had dreamed of: our show, back on TV, where it belonged.
The biggest shock, ultimately, was how well the truncated, six-episode revival series did for the FOX network, blowing the roof off viewing ratings across the globe and proving a rabid fandom still existed, after all these years. Executives swiftly assured us this wasn’t the end but a new beginning and FOX CEO Dana Walden this week confirmed it’s just a matter of aligning the schedules of Chris Carter, the writers and principally stars David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson, with season 11 likely to be with us for the 2017/2018 season. Season 11. Read that again. SEASON 11. Who imagined we would be here?
Let’s be honest, The X-Files faded quite rapidly from the public consciousness in the early 2000’s; past it’s mid-90’s prime, with Duchovny having lost interest beyond his seven year contract (and thanks to the financial spats he had with Carter & the studio at the time), it tried to reinvent itself with new characters and a fresh approach to the alien mythology that ended up eating itself, which ultimately robbed people of why they watched the show: Mulder & Scully. By the time the writing staff truly realised it was those two, their chemistry and dynamic, that kept people coming back year on year, it was too late. Combine this with a decreased public interest in conspiracy, in believing their government were the bad guys in the wake of the 9/11 trauma and the ‘War on Terror’, and the show felt like an analogue watch in a digital age.
Chris Carter then tried to launch a movie franchise but his fundamental lack of understanding of what the fans wanted, how to execute it, and the serious lack of budget due to austerity, gave us the underwhelming I Want to Believe follow up to 1998’s mid-series movie Fight the Future, a sequel utterly trampled at the box office by The Dark Knight in a July release – utterly the wrong time of year for a chilly, bizarre story about a gay Frankenstein & a psychic Scottish paedophile. That seemed like the final nail in the coffin – Duchovny had reinvented himself as Hank Moody on Californication and was off shagging anything that moved, while Anderson was back on British shores making costume dramas, films with Danny Dyer & playing a tarty detective. The truth may have been out there, but no one was looking.
Two things happened almost a decade later which gave rise to the event series, or season 10. Edward Snowden was the first, and just as he inspired the return of truth-seeker Jason Bourne, he also left Chris Carter wondering – maybe we’ve come full circle. Maybe we now find ourselves in a world who saw the unjust Iraq War, who have seen drone strikes, increased surveillance laws, tighter controls on the Internet, the very real threat of a Republican, right-wing government ran by a corporate mogul – in short that inexorable slow march toward the Orwellian nightmare, and that same fuel that gave The X-Files life. Carter saw the cyclical nature of paranoia in the abuse of power and leapt on it, indeed making the first episode, ‘My Struggle’, principally about that new terror.
Mulder & Scully are not just reunited by alien abductions and weird events in the premiere but Joel McHale’s Tad O’Malley, a representation of the fringe conspiracy theory elements who have replaced the late, lamented Lone Gunmen writing underground magazines in their rabbit holes, and who now proliferate a YouTube only in its infancy when we last saw Mulder on his quest, Scully on his tail bearing the flashlight. Though too crammed full of plot for its own good, in order to swiftly write himself out of the corner he’d placed his heroes, Carter makes the point well in ‘My Struggle’ – a jaded Mulder now exists in a world that has raced beyond him; he must go back to move forward, and bring Scully with him, in a quest he imagined he’d left behind.
The other major trigger factor for the new season was more of an industry one – the power of the revival, primarily in TV rather than movies. The big screen is more prone to reboots, whereas the small screen has looked back on properties it can relaunch into the public consciousness. 2015 saw Heroes Reborn (to lacklustre reception), while the first trailer for 2017’s Prison Break revival just dropped and a first look at the upcoming, insanely cast Twin Peaks third season can’t be a million miles away. 2016 though will be the year of The X-Files, which launched in January to quite some fanfare and an excellent promotional campaign, even down to fake UFO crashes in Los Angeles streets.
The money and time FOX spent on reviving the show into the public consciousness no doubt helped the success it ultimately garnered, and from the creative perspective contributed arguably to bringing back comedy master Darin Morgan to write-direct the third episode, ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster’, which many have suggested is the mini-series at its peak; a frequently hilarious send up not just of the B-movie horror concept, but of Mulder & Scully grappling with conceits of the modern digital age – emerging when cell phones were a post-yuppie novelty, Mulder now struggles to fully figure out the camera on his smartphone and it’s indicative of the one thing Season 10, for the faults it does have, gets right: it never forgets Mulder & Scully have aged.
It’s easy to forget David Duchovny is 56 years old this year, though perhaps for the first time he’s starting to look middle-aged. Even though he did take a while to slip easily back into Mulder’s FBI shoes, Duchovny was criticised for playing Mulder with less verve, but that criticism missed the point; we haven’t seen this guy since 2007, he’s been alone given Scully attempted to move on with a normal life as a medical doctor – when he begins he’s jaded, he feels old. The truth he believed would come to a head in 2012 never happened, or at least happened differently to how he was sold, and in reflecting Mulder’s scepticism that a conspiracy ever existed not only allows Carter to build an entirely new (and controversial) conspiracy element reflecting the modern day, it allows Duchovny to portray a more pensive, cautious Mulder in his 50’s than the sprightly, fired up truth seeker in his 30’s. To have him fall back into that step would have been disingenuous, to the show and the character.
Anderson, now herself heading for 50, approaches Scully too with even more grace than she always did (plus a slight trace more of a British accent, admittedly); she ironically is quicker to believe in ‘My Struggle II’ that people are in danger from the virus that begins infecting the planet than she would have been in days of old, and while Scully is by no means the believer throughout she compliments Mulder with the kind of open-mindedness someone who has lived through and survived multiple abductions, cancers & losing children to a conspiracy she knows exists, would indeed do. Losing her mother Margaret (Sheila Larken) in ‘Home Again’ is another timely reminder of her own mortality and the pain of not being the mother she always wished to be. That’s the other strength of the mini-series – it might, to an extent, perform a system restore and fresh patch over the mythology, but it keeps the emotional character development of Scully and Mulder front and centre.
Take ‘Founders Mutation’, intended as the penultimate episode but reconfigured as the second. It front loads the pain Mulder & Scully feel at not being parents in different ways, using multiple fantasy devices to explore how they would have engaged with their son William, given up for adoption as a baby in a Season 9 by Scully after he displayed possible extra-terrestrial powers. These devices aren’t always successful, and it’s hard to argue the complaint that William was very much used as a teasing carrot on the stick right up until the end of ‘My Struggle II’, which suggests his involvement in the likely Season 11 is almost a given. Nonetheless, to ignore him would have been a spurious decision, and it allows Carter & his team of Glen and the aforementioned Darin Morgan, plus James Wong, to call back on the shows past without directly feeling beholden to it. Rebooting the very relationship between Mulder & Scully is also a boon, and a wise decision; rather than a step back, it course corrects the inevitable but questionable evolution of their dynamic from the intellectually into the physically sexual, and injects far more underlying UST back into their interplay.
Not that the writers make everything stick – the inclusion of Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) barely registers, while the return of the iconic Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis) falters thanks to the ludicrous treatment of a former series regular wrapped up in the mechanism of his reappearance; the manner of getting Mulder & Scully back into their FBI Agent positions is so threadbare & rushed it’s in many respects a retcon that–much like I Want To Believe–asks you to quietly forget most of previous series finale ‘The Truth’, and many have questioned certain narrative decisions when it comes to episodes chosen within the six. Both mythology parts had to cram what would historically have been two-parts of material into one each, leading to a frustratingly open-ended conclusion that Carter would have been mad to let stand had he not been almost certain of the shows renewal. Chances are, he knew or suspected something we didn’t. How very conspiratorial…
‘Home Again’ felt like a character story sandwiched awkwardly with an old monster tale (and disappointed legions by not being a sequel to ‘Home’, Season Four’s legendarily dark second episode), while the less said about ‘Babylon’ the better; a bizarre misfire that saw Carter attempt to combine hackneyed commentary on fundamentalism with Mulder tripping his balls off, and attempting to introduce the young M&S in Agents Miller (Robbie Amell) & Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) who made little impression after being much hyped in advance. The biggest complaint too is that we only got six episodes overall, which is also hard to argue, even though the simple reality is that nobody in front of or behind the camera would probably commit to many more these days, especially given how different a TV landscape we now live in.
Season 10, therefore, is by no means a perfect run of The X-Files, and with the benefit of hindsight and anticipation levels having tempered, even a die-hard X-Phile like myself can see where it goes wrong. If we are going to get a season 11 however, honestly… I don’t want much to change. Maybe ten episodes would be nice, giving the mythology more time to breathe, a little more character work, and a few more standalone classic monster stories in the making. Darin Morgan should return, as should Morgan & Wong, but who wouldn’t want to see Carter get back Vince Gilligan or Frank Spotnitz for an episode? They, along with Howard Gordon, were probably the most missed absentees from Season 10–busy being TV pioneers themselves these days–but getting them involved in the show they made their names on would give a satisfying sense of circularity to a story that very much remains unfinished.
Granted, should Season 11 do gangbusters there’s no reason why Fox wouldn’t put the band together for more, but something tells me next time could be it – the genuine last hurrah for Mulder & Scully. If it is, I just hope we get a season that, much like the last one, remains true to the show I grew up adoring. The truth I guess now is in 2017…
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.