When FOX announced that The X-Files, Chris Carter’s science-fiction drama about the truth being… somewhere, was returning as a “special-event series,” the news was greeted with near-universal excitement. One of the most important shows of all-time in six tantalizing episodes! Mulder and Scully, together again! It would surely wash away the sins of the ignored The X-Files: I Want to Believe, and cover The Way We Live Now, in a paranoid post-9/11 world where drones are piloted through chemtrails by aliens, or something.
That “or something” is the problem.
The first episode was a confusing mess, but the next one was better, and the third episode, an all-time classic. Episodes four and five took our favorite FBI agents to Philadelphia and West Texas, and introduced us to the brash Agent Einstein and dull Agent Miller, a younger Mulder and Scully played by Six Feet Under‘s Lauren Ambrose and Robbie Amell. Their arrivals set the pieces in place for last night’s (series?) finale, “My Struggle II,” except that’s the only cohesion the show bothered with. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s first ask a simple question: After watching the aptly-titled “Struggle,” was The X-Files miniseries worth it? For FOX, yes; for everyone else, no.
1. The lack of coherence
The X-Files miniseries should have gone one of two ways: All “Monster of the Week” episodes, or all mythology episodes. Instead, it did both, and the tone was off throughout. The four episodes between the premiere and the finale barely mattered to the mythology, which is fine, except “My Struggle II” threw us right back into the action, as if nothing happened after the first part. There was a lot to digest, and it was all shoved down our throats too quickly. Scully has alien DNA, which protects her from the Cigarette Smoking Man and his cronies’ plans to kill everyone on Earth, except for a select few. Who are the few, besides CSM, Mulder, and Scully? Unclear. Also hazy: Why? Would CSM financially profit from the elimination of the human race? Who are the elite? Why would he bother saving Mulder, who’s been a thorn in his flaked butt? There never seemed to be a plan in place — the finale was a bunch of half-thought-out ideas thrown into a blender and served as a flavorless smoothie.
2. The acting
David Duchovny is not a great actor. This helps explain why his film career has never taken off, and why he was so perfect as the sleepy-eyed sleaze Hank Moody on Californication. But Gillian Anderson always brought out the best in him. Their chemistry, even in the later seasons, was palpable, and the stakes on The X-Files always felt real because the compassion Duchovny showed for Anderson, and vice versa, was honest. But man, where was that fan fiction-inspiring rapport in the miniseries? Duchovny might as well have still been on Aquarius, while Anderson, who’s typically so wonderful, mistook whispering for thoughtfulness. They care deeply for these characters, and I believe them when they say they didn’t sign up for an easy paycheck, like a band playing Coachella after a decade-long absence. But that passion never showed up on the screen. (Then again, I’m not sure there’s anything they could have done with clunky dialogue like, “He needs stem cells in him right now.” Natalie Portman in the Star Wars prequels knows your struggle.)
It also didn’t help that Mulder and Scully were kept apart until the final minutes of “Struggle,” which brings up another point.
3. The sloppy writing
The X-Files‘ best writers were Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan. One is behind the best episode of the miniseries, and the other wasn’t able to return because he’s a bit busy with this other show. They created standalone stories that rank among the best episodes for any show in the 1990s. The larger “truth is out there” stuff usually went to series creator Chris Carter, who might be the show’s weakest writer. It’s not that he doesn’t have ideas — it’s that, in the case of the bumbling “My Struggle II,” he has too many. The episode bizarrely separates Mulder and Scully, because he’s driving to South Carolina to confront Cigarette Smoking Man who shares his plan for world domination, and she’s in Washington, D.C., looking for a cure to the pandemic that threatens to end the world as we know it. (Monica Reyes’ deus ex machina of a reappearance somehow made less sense than the Lone Gunmen showing up in Mulder’s magic mushroom trip.) These plots easily could have been combined, but Carter doesn’t do cohesion. Everything has to be BIG.
Honestly, the “My Struggle” bookends would have worked better as a movie. Our immune systems being compromised isn’t a horrible idea, but budget restrictions kept the panic from ever seeming authentic — we see the effect Cigarette Smoking Man’s plan has on Tad O’Malley and a single hospital in Washington, D.C., but that’s it. Yes, Scully eventually travels outside, but I was too distracted by her breaking up a riot (!) and somehow finding a way to swerve through a traffic jam in the biggest car imaginable (!!) to take anything seriously. The aliens showing up was the “…the Aristocrats!” punchline.
Chris Carter is responsible for one of my favorite shows (and the underrated Millennium), but I hope he never writes another X-Files again.
4. The cliffhanger ending
FOX’s entertainment president, David Madden, recently said that the response to The X-Files has been “really encouraging,” and although “we haven’t talked to the talent yet about season two in any more definitive way than we had prior to airing the show… it seems like there’s an audience responding to the show that would love to see more episodes.” The audience certainly is responding — more than 50 million people worldwide watched the premiere — but that doesn’t mean everyone wants more episodes. I tuned in out of curiosity, for instance, and my interest is now satiated. Not even the ridiculous cliffhanger, which could be read as Carter demanding FOX pick up the show for another miniseries, “or else,” piqued my passion. It was sloppy, it was heavy on the exposition (the characters didn’t talk with each other; they talked at each other), and most of all, it was weirdly uninteresting.
Outside of “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” and Mulder line-dancing to “Achy Breaky Heart,” there was nothing truly memorable about The X-Files miniseries. No creatures I’d like to see again, no new characters worth exploring. There was so much the show could have said, about internet culture, about the government spying on us (#Obummer), about the War on Terror. Instead, we got the familiar alien shtick, with a little Trash Man. The X-Files was always a little clumsy — goofy anthology episode one week, back to the heavy mythology the next — and that’s one of the things I like about it. But that’s easier to pull off over 22 episodes, not a simple six.
The X-Files used to be ahead of its time (both in terms of the stories it told, and the way they were presented in season-long arcs), but in the 14 years since Mulder and Scully went on the run in “The Truth,” the rest of TV has passed it by. The miniseries felt like it was stuck in the late 1990s. Now The X-Files has to catch up, or better yet, put down the badge and gun for good.