The X-Files is back, complete with spooky opening titles and snappy Mulder-Scully action. On Sunday night, the Internet went absolutely wild for it, even with American football and Downton Abbey to go up against, and few have been so bold as to speak ill of the revival. That testifies, perhaps, to the enduring pop culture status of the show, which hasn’t aired since 2000 but is still powerful enough to draw an audience of loyal fans who want to relive the days of plopping around the telly to tune in—yes, children, on-demand wasn’t always an option, and if you missed it on the tube, you’d have to wait until the videos came out. (And then wait some more, because competition at the video store was fierce for new releases.)
Whether that legendary status can appeal to viewers who missed it on the first time ‘round is another question, and Fox must certainly be hoping that they’ll be getting some traction on re-runs and syndication after this. For the time being, it’s one among a host of shows attempting to capitalise on television nostalgia, banking that audiences who fell in love the first time will show up again, while also drawing from the pool of people who never saw the show while it aired, but constantly encountered (or encounter) pop culture references and feel a strange familiarity with it. The X-Files is a huge part of the US cultural landscape, and Fox really could have done (and is) worse when it comes to resuscitating dead shows.
What made the original X-Files such a classic was of course the soapy plot, with the push-pull between Mully and Sculder on a romantic level, but also a philosophical one, as they went back and forth on their beliefs about aliens. Their relationship was smart and sharply constructed, and it was a pleasure watching them interact. The show was also straight out creepy, even with the dubious special effects of the 1990s and early 2000s. It was mindbendingly eerie in an era when people were looking for something to supplant the uncomfortable oddity of Twin Peaks and offset the upbeat, goofy shows that characterized the 1990s, like the T.G.I.F. lineup.
In its revived form, they’ve definitely retained the creepy factor. They’ve also retained the sense of partnership, which was really quite unique in the 1990s. Commenting on the show’s early history, Anderson noted that Scully was originally pitched as a bit subservient, rather than an equal partner, and that dynamic changed quickly, with both leads sharing the limelight. It took her years, however, to push for that on-screen parity to equal off-screen parity in pay — and, shockingly, the network tried it again with the revival, offering her half of what they did David Duchovny for the reboot. This time, with considerably more clout, she made it crystal clear that she would not be returning to television without equal pay, echoing a conversation in film and television that’s exploded since the Sony hack, when the level of disparity became painfully apparent.
So the revival has managed to mimic its predecessor both on and off screen, but it needs to offer something fresh to new audiences, and I’m entirely convinced that it does — though I loved it in that way that one adores sugary sweets from childhood, as a die-hard X-Files fan who absolutely and most assuredly cleared my schedule on original airdates and watched it on video as well and was willing to overlook some issues. The pilot opened with a quick intro to bring viewers up to speed, and made sure to seed bits and pieces in to keep new viewers informed without being too dull for those who were old hands, with the result that it felt a bit choppy, but that’s a common problem in television pilots and one that doesn’t necessarily turn me off a show forever. In a sense, though, the larger problem was that it felt a bit too much like retreading old ground, the same thing we’re seeing with the proliferation of other remakes and reboots across television networks in the US. It would not be unreasonable, one thinks, to ask for a bit of creativity and original programming, but evidently not.
So and thus, we see an X-Files with a brand-new seasonal conspiracy, in accordance with ancient tradition, and Mulder and Scully have taken their respective skeptic and believer sides. The tech available to them is naturally much more advanced than it was in the 1990s, changing the game considerably when it comes to their investigative options, and allowing for all sorts of fancy plotwork, but that would turn out to be a weak point. What made the X-Files work so well in the 1990s was the need for on the ground research and dogged pursuit — when technology can replace this and facilitate the rapid evaluation of information, television can start to feel a bit stale. One gets the sense that characters can simply drop some cheek swabs in the DNA sequencer and amble away for a while, instead of needing to investigate — and question — what they’re encountering.
Fox made a smart move when they opted to introduce the revival as a miniseries. Creating a finite set of episodes generates pressure to write tight, contained, logical plot arcs that don’t sprawl across the screen, because everyone gets one shot to get this right. Sell-by dates can also appeal to audiences worried about getting entangled in television that goes on far too long before it’s put out of its misery. For X-Files, it’s worth taking a look at the next few episodes to see where they lead — if nothing else, I’m still waiting for the reappearance of some of my old favourites.