[This is a review of The X-Files season 10, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
After nearly 15 years, agents Mulder and Scully are back on television investigating the strange, the paranormal, and the conspiratorial in FOX's revival of The X-Files. As with anything that was as influential as Chris Carter's series about FBI agents walking the fine line between stubborn skepticism and outright fanaticism, its return was almost inevitable in today's television landscape. After all, television is now a place where nothing with a once (and possibly future) valuable IP cannot be mined for the purpose of putting eyeballs in front of the TV once more – even if its just for six weeks at a time.
But beyond the cynicism of why it became possible for The X-Files to return, there's an uncertain excitement hovering in the air over its arrival, a cloud of suspicion that typically (and justifiably) lingers when once-loved properties return uninvited, carrying with them the baggage of the past while also bearing the gift of something new and of unverified quality. It's a little like an old friend stopping by unannounced: sure, you're happy to see him, a large part of you is even looking forward to spending time with him. But then there's another part of you that wonders what else you could be doing; it's the same part that quietly reminds you whatever is about to unfold will be unfairly measured against the greatness of past – and the good money is on it coming up short. The issue with The X-Files is compounded by the ready availability of the series on platforms like Netflix, which effectively becomes a streaming photo album you can just pull off the shelf at any time, relive the best (and only the best) memories, leaving the rest somewhere forgotten in the dark.
Needless to say, for many who will be tuning in to The X-Files revival for the next six weeks, the series' return is kind of complicated. Much of that complication comes from an emotional connection to a thing that once brought a great deal of joy and then, because it had to, came to an end. Viewers packed up their feelings about the series and compartmentalized them in a way that was specific to how it existed: 9 seasons and 202 episodes of sometimes great, sometimes zany, sometimes not-good-at-all television that made audiences fall in love with and be frustrated by a complex mythology about everything from little grey beings in flying saucers to shadow governments to Lord Kimbote hanging out at the center of the Earth.
As such, asking fans to rejigger those feelings after nearly 15 years is possibly the biggest challenge the revival faces. The second challenge being, of course, attracting an audience that has a less intimate relationship with the show (though, as things with legacy continuations go, those expectations are likely nominal at best). And so, with the perceptively titled premiere episode, 'My Struggle,' The X-Files finds itself grappling as much with its own byzantine mythology as it does the history of the series in the larger context of television itself. It's as though Chris Carter, Gillian Anderson, and David Duchovny are all working out how exactly to manipulate this immense narrative on the fly, questioning where a series like this and characters like these fit, while making it both contemporary and nostalgic at the same time. The task is nearly impossible, and the struggle of 'My Struggle' is present, on screen and accounted for, from the very first moment The X-Files are reopened.
The revival's premiere begins with a monologue by Duchovny, hastily recapping the previous 201 documented adventures of agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (movies notwithstanding). Then, 'My Struggle' juggles a jump back in time to a UFO crash site, and a present-day storyline involving Joel McHale's conspiracy-shouting talking head Tad O'Malley, a possible alien abductee Sveta (played by Annet Mahendru of The Americans), and the promise of a larger governmental conspiracy that theoretically bumps the world of The X-Files off its axis. The potential of having an "everything we know is wrong" thread woven into such an immense and familiar tapestry is both thrilling and perplexing, as it affords Mulder a reason to once again aggressively want to believe, while also obliquely stating: The truth may indeed out there, but the inscrutability of it remains the only real constant.
That's all to say, the episode is kind of a mess – but a lovely mess all the same. It's not a bad episode of The X-Files necessarily, but it is a slow one. It's like trying to run a marathon after being bed-ridden for weeks. The first hour is equal parts awkward, lurching movements and measured rehabilitation; it's an attempt to remind those watching what it is capable of, while at the same time a noticeable effort to coax memory from muscles that have ostensibly atrophied. In a sense, 'My Struggle' is burdened more by the nearly 15 years of inactivity than it is the dense 9-season narrative that came before.
Still, the hour manages to hit a lot of familiar beats, which is reassuring in a way – though maybe that falls more on the memory of the viewer than the show itself. While Mulder and Scully navigate the choppy waters of their lengthy, complicated relationship – both with one another and with the X-Files themselves – the premiere injects the proceedings with the inevitable arrival of Mitch Pileggi's Walter Skinner and even William B. Davis' Cigarette Smoking Man – who bears the telltale scars of his namesake habit. These familiar devices, welcome as they are, feel, like everything else, strangely unearthed, as though the premiere is less a continuation of the story and more an excavation of the series itself, where every little detail of what makes The X-Files The X-Files is consciously, painstakingly accounted for, either by onscreen appearance of the supporting cast or through bouts of lengthy, often stilted exposition.
Is the exposition and gathering of details absolutely necessary? Maybe. It's possible the benefit is more for the show than for the audience, a chance for it to find its legs again. Perhaps that's something that could have been done behind the scenes. And yet there's something charming about watching a show shake off the cobwebs in such an obvious way; the transparency of it all tends to encourage patience in those watching. The mere act of trying is confirmation of the show's intent to return to playing shape and an acknowledgement that yes, time has indeed passed. The world has changed dramatically since 1993 or even 2002, but the same boogeymen exist; they just come in a slightly different guise, attack from a slightly different vantage point. That is to say, the truth is still out there; The X-Files is just in the process of remembering where to start looking. For those of us who still want to believe, we will just have to keep watching.
The X-Files continues Monday, January 25 with 'Founder's Mutation' @8pm on FOX.
Photos: Ed Araquel/FOX