Posted on Wednesday, January 27th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Once upon a time, The X-Files was my thing.
Years before Lost and Battlestar Galactica, I had FBI Agents Mulder and Scully and their increasingly bizarre caseload full of aliens and monsters and supernatural occurrences. This is one of the the great genre shows of my life, a vital cornerstone in my taste that sits right alongside the likes of Star Trek. And I have not been shy about my excitement for the new revival season, which began its six episode run with a two-night premiere this week.
And the results were… mixed. I have complicated feelings on these first two episodes, which run the gamut of quality in a pretty extreme way. My scattered thoughts, and my attempt to bandage a few wounds, follow.
The Nostalgia Element
When it comes to any beloved old show or movie getting a second chance, you have to face your nostalgia, grapple with it, and subdue it like the dangerous, poisonous foe that it is. Nostalgia is nice – it’s warm and it’s comforting and it feels real good around the brain space – but it is also the enemy of actually appreciating what you’re watching. Knowing when to shelve nostalgia allows you to know when these kinds of reboots are actually good and when they’re just leaning on the fact that you used to love something. It’s how you differentiate between Jurassic World and Creed.
If you’re an older fan, it’s impossible to not feel those nostalgic flare-ups when you watch the new episodes of The X-Files. It’s genuinely bizarre to see those original opening credits resurface essentially untouched, but it’s also a hoot to see them again at all. I was expecting updated credits, with slightly remixed theme music, but series creator Chris Carter and Fox and everyone else involved in making those decisions know exactly which buttons they’re pushing here. I have to wonder how a younger viewer, someone who is brand new to The X-Files, will react to these admittedly pandering elements. After the season premiere’s stinker of an opening scene (more on that in a bit), would these antiquated, bizarre credits cause a younger millennial viewer to turn and flee? I can’t help but think the answer is yes.
Interestingly, nostalgia stopped playing a factor awfully quick in the first episode. The thrill of seeing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson quickly dissipated when they stopped acting like the characters I used to love and started engaging in a stilted and dull plot that didn’t capture any of the flavor that made the original series such a delight. But before you accuse me of getting too negative, I did find myself grinning like a loon during the second episode, which is far better at capturing what made the series special. But we’ll get there.
The Mulder/Scully Dynamic
The true strength of The X-Files never lay in its labyrinthine plotting, creepy monsters, and confounding conspiracies. That was always just window dressing for the relationship between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, whose combative partnership blossomed into a friendship and, eventually, something a little more than that. Whether they were struggling through a mythology episode or tackling a “monster of the week,” these two had one of the best “buddy cop” dynamics in television history. Mulder, the nose-to-the-ground gumshoe who so desperately wants to believe in the fantastic, and Scully, the scientist who leads with reason and skepticism, were a compelling duo. Even when they fell into familiar patterns (Mulder says aliens did it! Scully looks for another explanation!), Duchovny and Anderson found ways to make their dynamic fascinating and often playful. They never represented an unstoppable force and an immovable object, as so many parodies painted them, but rather two human beings who operated under different but complementary world views.
And while the first new episode doesn’t quite capture this relationship, the second goes a long way toward recreating that old magic. You could argue that the icy distance separating Mulder and Scully when we first see them again is intentional, the result of years of pent-up, complicated feelings. But the show does nothing with that. These two are thrust together again and they end up standing around as things just happen around them. If you don’t have any nostalgia pre-installed in your mind, it would be difficult to discern what these two have in common, why they’re working together, and how they’re any different from one another. Scully eventually tells Mulder that his latest conspiracy theory is a load of crap and it’s one of the few stand-up-and-cheer moments in the entire episode – for once, she’s acting like her old self again. Mulder doesn’t even get an equivalent moment in the debut. TV’s great searcher for truth has become impossibly passive, which doesn’t make for particularly compelling television.
Once again: the second episode moves things in the right direction, but that first one still burns.