Wednesday, 10 February 2016

THE X-FILES mini-series review


The X-Files is back and time has stood still. Sadly.

The band is back together. (Image Copyright: 20th Century Fox)

Ah, the 1990s: Britpop, The X-Files, New Labour, Ben Sherman shirts… Out of that short list, the last one I’d have expected to be revived fourteen years on is Chris Carter’s series about two FBI agents, the unlikely named Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), who investigated the paranormal phenomena concealed in the dossiers of the show’s title.

Not that The X-Files didn’t have its moments. It’s hard to imagine now, but prior to the year 2000, the sci-fi conspiracy thriller successfully tapped the zeitgeist of pre-millennium unease about what might be round the corner. By 1998, The X-Files was bloody huge, and that was the year the first X-Files movie, Fight the Future, became a box office hit. The two leads were by now international stars: Anderson was on the cover of every lad mag going and Duchovny was apparently a sex addict (nice problem if you can get it). At the same time, the duo’s appearance in The Simpsons and in the lyrics of a hit single – yup, you guessed it, ‘Mulder and Scully’ – showed how much of a pop culture phenomenon the series had become.

Interestingly, the film represented the show’s strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, the mixture of crime procedural and alien incursion was as gripping, and as original and witty, as it had been on television. On the other, Fight the Future – a direct continuation of the TV series – offered no resolution to the ‘alien conspiracy’ story which, by 1998, had been running for five years and had become ever more convoluted and complicated. Following this anti-climax, it wasn’t surprising that interest in The X-Files slowly began to wane after the movie’s release.

Here’s the paradox: The X-Files was excellent as a ‘monster of the week’ chiller or black comedy – remember Tooms? Luther Boggs? Jose Chung’s From Outer Space? Pusher? – but, after Series 3, was at its weakest with the clearly made-up-as-it-went-along ET conspiracy story arc. For some reason, head writer Chris Carter thought it was the main reason that people watched the show, and it didn’t help that this massively unwieldy mythology brought out the worst in his scripts, namely sledgehammer subtle info-dumps and unconvincing and frustrating story twists. When The X-Files finished in 2002 (Duchovny had bailed in 2000), it had run out of audience goodwill at least two years before.

So, here we are in 2016, with ‘My Struggle’, the first episode of a new mini-series. It was a strange experience watching it. Time had clearly passed for Mulder and Scully; they were no longer a couple, Scully had gone back to being a doctor and Mulder was depressed and hiding at home. It was great to see them again – and, happily, the publicity photos showed that the resumption of their FBI partnership wasn’t far away – as well as their reliably truculent (now trendily bearded) boss Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi).

Behind the camera, though, with Carter in the writer and director’s chairs, it felt like it was still the 1990s, as suggested by the use of the original title sequence. The show runner seems to take it for granted that as it’s The X-Files, an audience will show up and watch, a complacent attitude that also afflicted The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), the second feature film. Despite a gap of six years, that felt like watching an average stand-alone episode of the TV series, with an uninspired story and flat direction.

Lax direction was also the problem with ‘My Struggle’. However, what’s most noticeable about it is that Carter seems to have learnt nothing from all the innovative TV drama that built on the groundwork The X Files laid. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, Lost, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Colony, Boardwalk Empire, Mr Robot, among others, together with the seminal Breaking Bad – significantly, created by ex-X Files writer Vince Gilligan – have all refined the art of storytelling on television, and all of them have let the characters drive the story rather than the other way round.

Not so in The X-Files 2016. Last night, after everything he’d seen – numerous close encounters, a shape-shifting assassin and living oil, to name a few examples of alien life – Mulder was easily convinced that a secret organisation had been using plundered alien tech and no living ETs had been involved. As before, this cavalier plot-driven approach made a nonsense of the storytelling and had the protagonists acting out of character, which in turn tests the audience’s patience. You could sense that Duchovny felt that too, as his revisionist info-dump about the nature of the conspiracy wasn’t exactly delivered with enthusiasm. No wonder Gillian Anderson, used to better in the last few years at the BBC, looked uncomfortable.

Despite the sequences of a crashed UFO at Roswell in 1947 – the best thing about the episode, for me – a key plot point was given away in a casual aside: apparently the Roswell crash was a faked alien landing by Soviet Russia. How, exactly? That seemed to contradict everything we saw in the 1940s scenes. OK, we might learn more about this as we go along, but going on past experience, I rather doubt it.  

(Image Copyright:
20th Century Fox
What else was good about it? I really liked Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale, left), a paranoid but slick, PR savvy conspiracy theorist with his own internet show. McHale clearly relished the role, and there are plenty of story ideas to be mined in this new area for The X-Files. Despite all the drawbacks of the script, as a duo Duchovny and Anderson remain highly watchable, even when they’re up against clunky lines like ‘I’ve been led by the nose through a dark alley to a dead end.’

Next week, it looks like Mulder and Scully are back on their paranormal-phenomena-of-the-week beat. If this revival is going to work, that’s where they should stay.

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