Thursday 17 March 2016

REVIEW: The X-Files Season Ten

Now that this short return to the dark secrets of the FBI has finished airing on both sides of the pond, it's time to sit back and look at how The X-Files has changed in the fourteen years since the original run ended. The answer is... not very much. Mulder and Scully (and sometimes Skinner) return to their roles as if nothing much has happened. The world didn't end in 2012, there was no invasion, and everything you believed was wrong (probably). Immediately, it's clear that this is intended as a pure, direct continuation, with the twenty-year-old and now very cheesy looking titles playing. For a moment you wonder that they've broadcast an old episode in error.  The most (indeed, only) surprising thing is that, rather than embrace the more current, extended storyline style that a six-part miniseries would be so suited to, Chris Carter has decided to produce a mixture of mythology-focused and one-off episodes, just like in the nineties.


The problem, for me, is that I was never overly fond of the mythology episodes. The arc plot became tiresome long before the ninth season arrived and even the die-hards got bored with it. There's a lot to appreciate in My Struggle, most notably the still excellent chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson. They look older, especially Mulder, dragged down by life and the absence of mystery. My Struggle initiates Mulder's return to the life of a believer, reinvigorated. The clear theme of the series, that of family, is laid on heavily, with considerable time spent on the duo's long lost son. It's a series that looks inwards and backwards. It's a real shame, then, that the new elements are the most disappointing. Mulder falls head first into a world of conspiracy lunacy that makes his earlier obsessions seem quite reasonable, lapping up web-caster Tad O'Malley's populist ravings. There's some spectacular imagery, brought to life by effects work the originals could only dream of, but it's in the service of the most banal story. Carter's modern twist on the X-Files turns out to be the sort of contrived, absurdist ravings that clog up my news feed on Facebook.


This is straightforward, vintage X-Files. It ties in to the overarching plot and the family/children themes, but does so in a standalone, mystery-of-the-week episode. Genetic engineering, horrifying breaches of consent, disturbing make-ups (especially considering that they are designed to recreate genuine congenital deformities) all make for solid X-Files story. It's also extremely predictable, unfolding without a surprise or an unforeseen twist. Mulder and Scully both appear reinvigorated by being back on the X-Files, with Duchovny and Anderson somehow looking years younger than in the previous episode. (They look even younger in the next one, I'm convinced. For a time I thought this was meant to be part of the ongoing plot.)


This is an episode that separates the straights from those of us who who have a sense of humour. While I was never that into the mythology episodes, I always loved the funny ones - the ones that didn't take themselves so damned seriously. The best were, like this, written by Darin Morgan. Were-Monster is the pinnacle of comedy X-Files, gleefully taking the piss out of the series and its monster-of-the-week conventions. Rhys Darby is in it, for gawd's sake, basically just being Murray from Flight of the Conchords as a monster who turns into a man. Dressed as Kolchak. This is genuinely funny; the absolute highlight of this series. (Oh, and everyone kicked off over the "negative portrayal" of a trans character. But, you know, there are black trans hookers working the West Coast. They can't all be heroes.)


Again, this is by-the-numbers traditional X-Files. All quite enjoyable, if not remotely new or surprising. To be fair, the series was running out of steam long before it reached its original end; to continue it now would require something genuinely new to make it remarkable again. The family theme continues, with some truly affecting scenes between Scully and her dying mother (a return appearance by Sheila Larkin). For the most part, though, this tale of a murderous, stalking bogeyman feels old hat. It's conspicuously bloodier and more violent than anything they got away with back in the day, and the killing to the belting chorus of "Down Town" is kind of wonderful, but still, it feels like a cover version of an old show. Mulder and Scully continually referring to "back in the day" doesn't help. "This is back in the day!" Yes, yes it is. Nothing has changed. Also, they faced a tulpa already, I recall, so why Mulder finds it so dubious in this context confuses me.


Tackling Islamophobia and extremist religious movements is a brave route for the series to go in, and perhaps, a necessary one, being such an obsession for our current culture. Still, it's perhaps not a surprise that The X-Files isn't able to actually make such an episode work. I don't agree with any attacks on the episode for being Islamophobic; it clearly and expicitly attacks Islamophobia and parochial attitudes and treats the Muslim community seen in the episode as people. It just doesn't do it very well, so its message, whatever it's meant to be, gets hopelessly muddled. Throw in the indulgent and utterly boring Mulder hippy mushroom trip and you have an episode that's tough to watch. I'm still not certain what the point of Einstein and Miller though. Lauren Ambrose - whom I adore - almost saves the episode, and Robbie Amell is less boring than in The Flash, but quite why they felt the need to introduce Mulder and Scully's junior clones is anyone's guess. Perhaps they really are setting up to replace the leads, should they get that eleventh series on the back of this.


And then there's this crap, and any good will left goes out the window. An incoherent mess, this almost plays like a parody of the series at points, except for the not being in any way funny. At least with part one there was a sense of the show needing to get back into its stride. This is just insulting, making zero sense, painting Scully as a completely credulous idiot and failing to have any real sense of jeopardy. This, in spite of a plot which features the X-Files finally move out from the shadows and into the wide world, with death and disease spreading through America in what should be a terrifying vision of the apocalypse. Instead, the tired old ghost of the Cigarette-Smoking Man wheezes on to have a tiff with Mulder. And Reyes, why bring back Reyes? Nobody liked Reyes. It ends, not with a cliffhanger, so much as an unfinished shot. True, after this The X-Files can never be the same again, and frankly, that's a good thing.

The comparison to be made is with Star Wars. The last few years have been filled with nostalgia-bait, and while there is a thrill to see our favourites recreated, there has to be something else there too. The Force Awakens managed to be a virtual remake of Star Wars while at the same time feeling fresh and reinvigorated for a modern audience. The X-Files, on the other hand, feels like a show that never escaped the mid-nineties and isn't going anywhere. The solution seems clear: like Star Wars needed to lose George Lucas to stand a chance of surviving, so The X-Files needs to lose Chris Carter. Yes, and Darin Morgan, for as much as I enjoyed episode three, it still felt like the best track on a compilation album. This show needs someone new to reinvent it.

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