The X-Files premiere recap: My Struggle
Count me among the fans who wanted to see Fox Mulder and Dana Scully back in the freaky fields of Alien-Nation USA, scanning dark skies and probing shadowy woods for occult truth with flashlights beaming and chemistry blazing. And count me among those disappointed by the opening hour of The X-Files revival, a clunky hour so burdened by service to so many goals it could hardly entertain the way The X-Files used to. The title was right, though: Taken from a six-volume series of quasi-autobiographical novels by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgard, “My Struggle” launched Fox’s six-ep X-event with a labored effort to craft something meaningful from a chaotic past and shape a peculiar, personal work that could resonate with the audience. The result was pure struggle, for series creator Chris Carter, who wrote and directed the premiere, stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and for us.
Revivals, reboots, and retreads of pop phenoms rarely pulse with the magic of their original incarnation at their original moment. Still, The X-Files is a franchise wired with timeless themes, a premise that allows for eclectic, creative storytelling, and a pair of characters (and central relationship) worth exploring over time. I want to believe The X-Files can be the rare example of pop recycling that succeeds by being something other than blast-from-the-past nostalgia, producing punch-drunk love giddiness. With the right writing/writers, The X-Files can be relevant, no matter the era. A return to transcendence? Too much to ask. Above-average artfulness? That’s a reasonable expectation, and a necessary benchmark to hit in a moment glutted with Peak Geek thrillers and chillers that owe their existence in part to X-Files trailblazing, everything from Mr. Robot to Black Mirror to Orphan Black to Supernatural. C’mon, pops! Show ‘em how it’s done!
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It’s possible that four weeks from now, we might be saying that this miniseries succeeded more than it failed. But the first two installments are buggy affairs, the premiere arguably more so than tomorrow’s ep, an old school “monster of the week” outing entitled “Founder’s Mutation.” The problems with “My Struggle” begin with its massive scope of obligations. It was an attempt to lure newcomers and please true believers with a story that was really a series of housekeeping maneuvers, designed to de-clutter and re-frame the context and return Mulder and Scully to the Mulder and Scully we love best: respectful colleagues, philosophical complements, and platonic intimates, driven to investigate pernicious paranormal activity for deeply righteous and deeply personal reasons. All this, while also expressing Carter’s “Trust No One” obsessions and aiming to be zeitgeist-tapping pop! The episode was a mediocre pilot and a sad reunion special and a flawed reboot and a lunatic fringe soapbox rant, all at once.
Carter will write and direct two more episodes in the set, including the finale, which I’m told will bookend the premiere with the only other pure “mythology” outing in the bunch. I hope Carter’s offering in that stretch will allow him to either drill-down with a lighter touch on something simpler and stranger, as he did with the “monster of the week” classic “The Host” (a.k.a., the Flukeman ep, and the one that made me a fan), or cut loose aesthetically as he did with “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” a beautifully shot black and white Frankenstein riff, and “Triangle,” a high-concept homage to Hitchcock’s Rope. Whatever he does, I hope it won’t be as stiff as the premiere. “My Struggle” was all bland staging and blunt declarations, maybe out of necessity: spelling everything out does ensure everything that needed to be said and done gets said and done in the time available.* So we got thesis statement dialogue (Scully: “For better or worse, we have moved on with our lives.” Mulder: “Yes we have. For better, for worse.”) and stormy speeches (“It’s about controlling the past to control the future! It’s about fiction masquerading as fact!”). The result: static storytelling, inert drama, clichés.
*One device employed to accomplish the business of getting X-Files 2.0 up and going ASAP was opening with one of those “My name is…” premise-pitching preambles that all the cool kids on The CW use these days. As if The X-Files could be so tidily summarized! It was amusing to see them try. Narrated by Mulder at max laconic, with a tired drone that befit the current state of the character but also reminded me of Harrison Ford’s infamously phoned-in voiceover on Blade Runner, the precap was an oddly crafted, weirdly selective edit of X-the lore. We saw a hand (presumably Mulder’s) stacking a series of photos into a manila folder. Childhood pics of Mulder. (Dig Teen Fox rocking the Spock ears and blue tunic!) Frozen moments of Mulder and Scully in various clinches. Glossy headshots of signature mutants: The Flukeman; an inbred Peacock from the sensationalistic classic “Home”; stretchy, jaundice-eyed liver goblin Eugene Tooms; bald, black-eyed brain-muncher Rob Roberts. The images were goofy. Also: Who knew Mulder and Scully had a set photographer trailing them on their adventures? Using actual footage, as most precaps do, would have made the sequence too long. But it would have made for a more flattering pitch, as it would have better captured the show’s creepy atmosphere or chemistry of the leads. Worse was now the intro presented The X-Files as essentially Mulder’s story, that the saga was/is all about his struggle, not the shared odyssey of Mulder and Scully. A better approach might have the featuring joint or dueling Duchovny/Anderson narration.
NEXT: Mulder and Scully at middle-age: Portrait of a ‘Shipwreck
Duchovny and Anderson might have been able to charm their way through the clank and crank had they been able to quickly and easily slip into their X-personas after many years and many roles away from Mulder and Scully, but that was a struggle, too. Complicating the challenge of playing their way back into shape was the challenge of playing mid-life crisis and not looking and sounding like total drags. After the precap and a survey of UFO lore*, we met our hollowed-out heroes anew living alone and sad-sack. Spooky Mulder had become Droopy Mulder, a recluse in a small house in the boonies, removed from the work that gave his life meaning and with little to do but bemoan a culture that doesn’t take his obsessions seriously. As for Scully, she had distanced herself from sapped, life-sapping Mulder and had thrown herself into work and faith, assisting the surgeons at Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital in their ministry to kids suffering from microtia. (More on this in the next episode.) Once the model of the modern ‘ship, revival Mulder and Scully now present as the model of middle-age ‘shipwreck. They also stood for unions of all kinds ripped asunder by catastrophe: the trauma of past adventures hung heavily on both, most notably, the absence of their son, William.
*Mulder’s bitter Foo Fighter 101 lecture slyly foreshadowed the revival’s new gloss on the show’s mythology. We began with black helicopters (a staple of New World Order conspiracy theory) chasing a fleet of exotic aircraft in the skies over a blighted inner city. From there, Mulder walked us through the greatest hits: the Mr. Rainier and Roswell incidents of 1947; the White House fly-by of 1957; the buzzing of Malmstrom Air Force Base in 1967; scuttlebutt about experiments with alien DNA in the ‘70s. (Always on the sevens, these ETs!) Edgar Mitchell was name-dropped. Born and raised near Roswell, New Mexico, Mitchell was the moon-walking Apollo astronaut who reported a near-mystical experience while beholding the heavens in all their unpolluted glory. He subsequently became active in researching various aspects of paranormal and theoretical science, including ESP and zero point energy.
Bringing Mulder and Scully together again was a case that hit them where they hurt on multiple levels: the mystery of a Eastern European émigré (presumably Russian) who lived in the sticks of Low Moor, Virginia named Sveta (Annet Mahendru of The Americans), a victim of bizarre abuse (abduction; experimentation; fetal harvesting) that echoed Scully’s past ordeals. She initially insisted that ETs had probed her and poked her and even re-mixed her DNA with exotic genetic material that had yielded mild telepathic and telekinetic powers. In the premiere’s best scene, Sveta demonstrated her abilities by reading Scully and exposing her ache for Mulder and William. Scully didn’t appreciate the psychic violation. When Sveta wondered if she had been abducted, too, Scully leaned toward Sveta and peered into those allegedly psychic eyes and said coolly: “You tell me.” Sveta, you do NOT f— with Scully!
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Later, though, Sveta confessed that she’d only ever been manhandled by humans. Specifically: a new formulation of the conspiracy that controls Planet X-Files, a cabal of military industrial complex insiders who’ve been capturing and culling little gray men – and weaponizing their technology – since the ’40s. A subplot involving Mulder’s latest “deep throat” – a former Army doctor played by Rance Howard (Ron’s dad) who experimented on aliens decades earlier — provided the revival with a new ur-myth.* Per Carter’s ret-con, the visiting extra-terrestrial biological entities appear to be fewer, benevolent, and possibly all dead thanks to Man In Black agents of the sinister oligarchy. Yes, this does contradict swaths of original series storytelling, but the implication of “My Struggle” was that a significant portion of everything Mulder and Scully (and the audience) were shown or told about UFOs and EBEs back in the day was pure theater a smokescreen to hide some wholly human evil. All that mental energy I put into understanding The X-Files back in the ’90s? My friends were right: It really was a waste of time! But Carter’s clever twist is that Mulder and Scully — but especially Mulder — feel that burn as well. (How does all of this square with Mulder’s family history, i.e. Bill Mulder’s involvement with the conspiracy and his sister Samantha’s abduction? TBD… though I wouldn’t be surprised if the revival doesn’t concern itself with trying.)
*The backstory of The Mole Man was set in “the high desert” of “Northwestern New Mexico” in the year of Roswell, 1947. Most likely, Carter was riffing on an incident referenced by Mulder later in the episode with a single word: “Aztec.” The story goes that in 1948, the military downed a flying saucer near Aztec, New Mexico, located in Northwestern New Mexico, and in the process, killed the alien occupants inside. The incident gave rise to a classic of UFO lore, Behind the Flying Saucers, written by an entertainment journalist named… Frank Scully. Wikipedia tells me that the story was eventually revealed to be a hoax, and that Scully was duped by a pair of con artists.
NEXT: Mulder and Scully meet a real monster of the week: Tad the Scully-wooing Cad!
Recruiting Mulder and Scully to Sveta’s case was Tad O’Malley (Community’s Joel McHale), a Web-based pundit and peddler of paranoia presented as serious-journo muckraking — Alex Jones with a bigger, brassier tin foil hat. His show Truth Squad was on “mindQUAD” – a kind of YouTube service in the world of The X-Files, though I wonder if it was meant to be a wink at “Mind Quad!” on American Dad. (Does psychic Sveta = John Q. Mind, the soldier who gained the power to move objects with his mind after his arms and legs were blown into his brain?)
Tad’s optics suggested a variety of mainstream establishment archetypes — Anchorman, Politician, Businessman — but his rhetoric was pure That Facebook “Friend” Who Only Posts Virulent Political Crap. His rhetoric initially seemed conservative (“Us the mainstream liberal media lying to you about life, liberty, and your God-given right to bear firearms), but then he took a swing at Bill O’Reilly (“What Bill O’Reilly knows about the truth could fill an eyedropper”), and the more he talked, the more he showed himself to be a limousine Libertarian with an eclectic array of extreme positions. Anti-government. Anti-oil. Anti-Big Business. Anti-gun regulation. He was convinced he — everyone — is under constant surveillance. He was a conspiracy nut. Sample nuttery: 9/11 was a false flag operation and a “warm up” for World War III. And he believed in aliens. Go ahead. Just ask him about the Kelly Cahill Abduction of 1993.
Tad was also a cad. He tried to get into Scully’s skirt-suit, and while she wasn’t really into him, she appreciated his tender attention enough to go for a ride in his stretch and sip his champagne. (Scully’s emotional fragility: interesting or retrograde?) But it was Mulder who wound up in bed with Tad (so to speak) after the dapper truther showed him an alien replica vehicle built by Friends of Tad from alien super-science swiped from the conspiracy. Wanna get Mulder hot? Just bat your eyes and whisper “Ununpentium-fueled gravity warp drive.”
Mulder and O’Malley consummated their alliance by holding Scully (and the story) hostage with a long, dense theorysplanation of how the shadow elites manipulating human affairs planned to crash civilization and install a new operating system of martial law, limited freedoms, and no fun. Call their epic rap: “Fear of a Black Helicopter Planet.” Their patter spliced familiar sci-fi ideas (eco-conscious aliens, concerned citizen of the universe, were drawn to Earth after we started exploding hydrogen bombs; see: The Day the Earth Stood Still, among other texts) and more explicitly stated strident social critique. How is this conspiracy getting away with murder, manipulation, and grand-scale prep without anyone noticing? With “the corporate takeover of food, pharma, and health care” and dulling a populace “already consumed by consumerism” with “fast food, drugs, and entertainment.” Oh, and manipulating the world’s weather, too. (Hey, East Coast: your blizzard? IT’S THE BEGINNING OF THE END!) It was like a super-cut of Elliot’s rants on Mr. Robot, plus aliens, and minus Rami Malek’s mesmerizing oration and the framing of his cracked psychology or comprised character. Tad played hypeman to Mulder’s emcee:
Mulder: “A conspiracy bigger and more secret than The Manhattan Project!”
Tad: “More odious and far-reaching!”
And I’m suddenly reminded of a story about a pair of men with a yarn about UFOs, aliens, and conspiracy, snowing another Scully from long ago…
NEXT: Musings of an X-Files Fan Reconsidering His Interest In Conspiracy Theories.
Was I supposed to like Tad O’Malley? Because I didn’t. Was he truly interested in aligning Mulder and Scully to his stated cause of vetting Sveta and exposing the conspiracy? Or was he an agent of the conspiracy tasked with leading them astray? I’m going with the former. Was Carter using Tad to lampoon today’s hysterical and partisan media folk (what Scully said: “He’s a charming man full of charming BS, Mulder…”) or was he using him as a mouthpiece for his own views? I… don’t know! Maybe… a deliberately muddy blend of both? When I was on the set of this episode last June, Carter had this 2009 issue of Utne Reader with him. The cover story: “Post Pundit America: The End of Attack Politics.”
What I know for sure is that despite my affection for Joel McHale, I couldn’t get past that 9/11 false flag stuff to really enjoy his character. In general, this episode forced me to re-think my interest in conspiracy theories and my openness to be entertained by them — something The X-Files taught me. How I loved “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” back in the day, an episode that suggested that Mulder and Scully’s arch-nemesis, also known as Cancer Man, had assassinated JFK and MLK. I rationalized that story as an expression of lingering cultural grief over the ’60s and the subversion of progressive reform, central themes of Baby Boomer storytelling in the ’80s and ’90s. I was also greatly amused by the brazen outrageousness of the episode. Back then it was the ’90s (my 20s), when I was drunk on the irony and irreverence of the era. Having lived through more than a few national and personal tragedies since then, I find it harder to be amused by the appropriation of catastrophe and the troubling ways we make sense of life’s horror. I don’t think I’ve outgrown The X-Files, but I do think I’ve outgrown the part of the show — the mythology stuff — that once engaged me the most.
Everything queasy about “My Struggle” was mitigated by a clear streak of humanism: Scully’s heart for suffering, the feminist themes of Sveta and Scully’s subversion by powerful forces, the representation of extraterrestrials as feared and exploited outsiders. At best, “My Struggle” represented a clumsy way of saying that we should have a healthy suspicion of authority, from politicians to businessmen to the infotainment industrial complex. Remember Watergate. (The show’s old, righteous touchstone.) Remember Assange and Snowden. (The revival’s new, trickier touchstones.) In a welcome bit of ornate overwriting, Carter let Scully denounce Mulder and O’Malley cynicism with a brief flight of sanity: “It’s fear-mongering clap-trap isolationist techno-paranoia so bogus and dangerous and stupid, it borders on treason. Saying these things would be incredibly irresponsible.”
Yet her protest didn’t last long. By episode’s end, the conspiracy had unplugged O’Malley (who subsequently vanished), blew up that alien replica vehicle, forced Sveta to renounce O’Malley, then used an ARV of its own to incinerate her. Scully — converted to Mulder’s cause after confirming that she and Sveta were indeed tainted with alien DNA — was declaring war on “the sons of bitches.” And just like that, Mulder and Scully were back in business, and with badges, because old boss Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) — concerned about the “very strange direction” of the country since 9/11 — had officially re-opened the X-Files unit. This did not sit well with their old nemesis, the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). He was last seen getting blown to smithereens in the series finale, but here in the revival, he’s… well, revived! And still smoking, albeit through a tracheotomy hole in his throat. It was a lot to process, and much of it didn’t make sense, and man oh man is “melancholy hobo hitchhiker with cool sunglasses” a silly look on Mulder! “My Struggle” did just enough to invest me in the revival, and it wasn’t so bad that I’m reconsidering my X-Files fandom (I’m a lifer) or the greatness of the original series (it’s locked) or the capacity of the franchise for marvelous storytelling. I want to believe! But my expectations for what this miniseries can achieve have been greatly corrected.
“I’m always glad to see you, Mulder,” said Scully.
“And I’m always happy to find a reason,” said Mulder.
I’m glad to see you guys again, too, I guess. But did it have to be this reason?
Give me your thoughts below or on Twitter: @EWDocJensen.