“Do you miss it at all? The X-Files?”
This question is posed to Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully midway through Sunday night’s long-awaited return of the classic sci-fi series. (It premieres at 10, or whenever Fox’s NFL postgame coverage finishes.) Scully endured a lot of pain and heartbreak through her association with the X-Files – an underdog FBI unit, consisting of only her and conspiracy theorist Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), tasked to investigate, and preferably debunk, cases that seem to have extraterrestrial or supernatural elements – but admits it was some of the most intense and challenging work she’s ever done.
Many of Dana Scully’s fans have a similarly complex relationship with The X-Files as a TV show. At its mid-’90s best, it was eminently worthy of its phenomenon status: an addictive and daring series that would become the new template for modern TV science fiction. (Lost and other series that leaned heavily on a complex “mythology” wouldn’t have existed without Mulder and Scully.) But it was an inconsistent show by design, toggling between Monster of the Week episodes, mythology stories, and the odd comedy outing. The mythology – which involved, among other elements, Mulder’s missing sister Samantha, a cabal of powerful men (represented by William B. Davis as the Cigarette-Smoking Man) plotting to enable an alien invasion, black oil, Scully’s abduction and ensuing miraculous pregnancy, and bees – was initially the series’ most powerful hook, but in time, it dissolved into gibberish, even though X-Files creator Chris Carter insists it all makes sense if you were paying attention. By the end of its run – including a feature film that only made the mythology problem worse, since Carter had to stretch out various revelations for the movie – Duchovny was barely appearing (after production had moved from Vancouver to L.A. to appease him, even though it fundamentally altered the distinctive look of the show), fans didn’t warm to newer characters, and cancellation felt like a mercy.
But this is the age of zombie television, when any show that was loved once upon a time is ripe to rise from the dead. It’s been 13 years since the last new X-Files episode – albeit only 8 since the underwhelming second film – and absence has the way of making the heart grow both fonder and more forgiving of past mistakes. With Carter bringing the band back together – not only Duchovny and Anderson, but classic X-Files writers Glen Morgan, James Wong, and Darin Morgan (others like Vince Gilligan, Howard Gordon, and Frank Spotnitz are busy running shows of their own these days) – for a miniseries, it was hard to blame fans for feeling giddy over the dream of the ’90s being alive again. With only six episodes to fill – and the clear beginning/middle/end structure of a miniseries – surely Carter would be able to keep the story under control long enough for us to appreciate the returns of Mulder, Scully, Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), and everyone else, the thinking went.
Instead, The X-Files returns with such a dire first episode that it almost feels designed to make fans question their love for the series to begin with. The next two installments are better, but the premiere, written and directed by Carter, digs a hole deep enough to run from Area 51 to the other side of the world.
The premiere’s a disaster on almost every level, other than maybe the obvious pleasure Anderson takes in stepping back into character as Scully. Duchovny seems as bored as he was for most of the later seasons, but it’s hard to blame him for not investing in a script this clunky. It does no favors for any of the actors (Annet Mahendru, so great as Nina on The Americans, all but drowns in all the exposition she’s asked to deliver here as an alleged abductee), and somehow turns Fox Mulder into Detective Linden from “The Killing,” a gullible idiot willing to throw away everything he believes at a moment’s notice based on whatever piece of information he’s most recently been given.
Things hit a nadir midway through, in a scene where Mulder and Scully utter variations on the show’s two main catchphrases in under a minute, as if Carter worried people wouldn’t recognize this pale imitation if he didn’t crank up the greatest hits as loudly as possible in the first episode. At press tour last week, Carter said he had to start out with a mythology episode just to catch people up on what had been happening in Mulder and Scully’s lives, but the Monster of the Week episodes have aged so much better that it might have been smarter to just treat the season as a collection of six short stories set in The X-Files universe, and deal with the missing years in a line or two of exposition.
Honestly, the premiere is so bad that I’d advise you to skip it altogether and jump straight to the second episode (airing, like the rest of the miniseries, Monday at 8). Written and directed by Wong, it suffers from many of the premiere’s problems, including too much of the story happening off-screen. But it’s self-contained, has some memorably graphic visuals (remember, Wong co-write the original series’ “Home,” about a family of in-bred killers, which is among the most disgusting things to air anywhere on television, let alone on a broadcast network), and finds an interesting way to revisit the matter of Scully’s son William.
The real gem is the third episode, “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” from the mind of the series’ resident (if non-prolific) genius, Darin Morgan. Morgan only penned a handful of episodes of the original show, but they – particularly “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” with Peter Boyle as a psychic whose only gift is predicting how and when people die; and the parody outing “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” – are among the most inventive hours not only of The X-Files, but of TV drama in general. Without giving away too many of the episode’s surprises, Morgan is in comedy mode again, and brings in Rhys Darby from “Flight of the Conchords” and Kumail Nanjiani from Silicon Valley (an X-Files superfan who hosts his own podcast dissecting all the old episodes) for a story where Scully tries to use reports of a new creature to get Mulder out of a funk.
It works wonders for both character and actor; as happened in his later years on the original show, Duchovny’s energy level perks up significantly when there are jokes to be delivered. At one point, Mulder gets so excited about the case that he winds up delivering both halves of the believer/skeptic arguments he used to have with Scully, and she’s understandably so charmed by it all that she just smiles and says, “Yeah, this is how I like my Mulder.”
You may like your Mulder more serious, angst-ridden, and conspiracy-obsessed, but the early episodes of the miniseries suggest that Carter doesn’t know how to write that version of the character anymore, and/or that Duchovny’s not especially interested in playing him. Doing six straight comedy episodes would have been a bad idea (especially with Gilligan unavailable to pitch in), but “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster” is the first time the revival comes close to matching the show’s peak years.
If the price of getting another Darin Morgan X-Files episode is sitting through a bunch of other hours that remind me of why I was so relieved when the show ended back in ’02, that may be worth it. But if any of the remaining three hours are of a piece with the first, I may need to spend a few days mainlining vintage episodes on Netflix to remind myself that this was once one of the best TV shows of all time.
Like Mulder, I so want to believe in The X-Files again. But like Scully, I’m enough of a realist to see the revival for what it is: a well-meaning but deeply flawed exercise in nostalgia.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org