After more than a decade off the air, “The X-Files” is returning to a vastly different television landscape than when it left. While that may cause pause for many skeptics, Chris Carter’s ambitious and groundbreaking sci-fi series helped break ground on the land now lush with strong and unique voices. Many now-famous writers got their start working within the monsters-of-the-week and mythology structure of the Fox drama, including Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”) and Alex Gansa (“Homeland”), leading optimists to hope that the new season/miniseries/event series/revival of “The X-Files” would be able to slide right in among the elite television shows it helped create — or, at least, represent its past self respectably under modern light.
Instead, after just one episode of the upcoming six, “The X-Files” feels like a faded relic, barely clinging to what once made it great.
Premiering in the U.S. at the New York Comic Con, Chris Carter’s first broadcast television episode since his landmark series went off the air in 2002 couldn’t have been shown to an audience better-suited to receive it warmly. And, yes, excitement could be felt buzzing around the expansive conference hall as the MC warmed up the crowd, fans danced to the DJ’s blasting mix of hits and “X-Files” superfan Kumail Nanjiani introduced the first episode with unparalleled passion and vigor. Yet during the screening itself, the audience was largely quiet. Cheers burst out when Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) first appeared on screen, and the unaltered opening titles were met with rapturous applause. Otherwise, most of the episode — which could’ve passed for fan fiction if not for the main cast’s presence and big budget production moments — passed by without much stirring, laughter, cries or gasps.
Frankly, it’s hard to blame them. Though fans were appreciative for having finally been given the gift of more “X-Files,” the post-screening atmosphere was notably muted. (Also, many fans likely knew what Indiewire’s TV Editor Liz Miller has pointed out in the past: that the first episode, written by Chris Carter and dealing primarily with a complicated new conspiracy theory, will likely not be the best of the new season.) With the exception of one fan verbally berating Carter for a choice he made in the new season — a choice kept secret by this spoiler-wary reporter — most questions were geared more toward nostalgic blubbering and hero worship.
Which, perhaps, is an idea that’s worked against the revival from the beginning. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword that can make up for some superficial flaws or enhance them to the point of damaging what came before. The first episode is far from the latter, but it does verify concerns many viewers have had since the “I Want to Believe” movie debacle (a disaster as close as anything to come to tarnishing the sterling reputation of one of television’s best series to date): “The X-Files” is one complex beast. After years of various theories, monsters, abductions, aliens, proof and lies, reopening the cases, so to speak, is only advisable with a deft, focused touch.
Breaking news: Carter doesn’t have it. Opening with a long-winded voiceover (that even Duchovny psuedo-complained about during the post-screening Q&A) and awkwardly infusing old lines to new events, the first hour of the revival never really finds its stride.
“I think we’ve got to come out and punch them in the mouth,” Carter said after the screening. “I think we knew we needed to make a statement. We needed to be bold and show them that we’re back.”
Episode 1 doesn’t have all the ill-fated effects of being sucker-punched squarely in the face, but it does elicit a rather dizzying reaction. So much is said, so many pieces are put in motion, and so little of it actually holds the meaning for the audience that it appears to carry for the characters. Much of the plot itself was too convoluted to spell back for you if I wanted to (and, again, I do not. Indiewire maintains its spoiler-free review policy). What I can say is the motivation for these characters is grounded squarely in actions taking place off screen, and that, in and of itself, is a huge problem for the current show.
Any comeback worth making is brought about by demand. Not demand from the viewers, but through events taking place in the story. What Carter has chosen to bring his veteran stars off the bench feels as paper thin as Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster, unceremoniously ripped in half during the episode (and in the season’s trailer). New characters are treated as stereotypes, with a miscast Joel McHale proving the most distracting and the superb “Americans” supporting player Annet Mahendru being utterly wasted in a role that’s never properly developed.
Perhaps most aggravating, though, is a tendency played out to its breaking point in past episodes. Mulder and Scully always appeared, to the naked eye, to be partners first, friends second, and lovers a distant sixteenth. The undercurrent of sexual tension and assumed off-screen romance drove viewers batty; many would cling onto an exchanged look or brief touch of the hands as evidence of a deeper, stronger connection than is explicitly depicted onscreen. And really, it worked. By the time the series ended, Mulder and Scully were the dramatic equivalent of Sam and Diane or Ross and Rachel in that we desperately, desperately wanted to see them end up together.
While we do discover their relationship status in the premiere episode, that same tendency to trust in the audience’s understanding of the unsaid has been shifted to all the wrong moments and for entirely off-base reasons. Strange implications connect without any sense of justification, leading to repeated emotional fumbling. Be it person-to-person or work-related, it’s hard to say for sure why anyone acts and reacts as they do in the first hour.
Keeping in mind this is only one-sixth of the series set to debut this January, there’s plenty of time to recover. If the coming episodes — written by fan favorite “X-Files” veterans and focusing more on monsters than mythology — can hone, focus or somehow support the huge scope established all too quickly, Season 10 could still be a very welcome revival. But after one hour, I seem stuck in a strange place of wishing there were more episodes coming — giving them more time to work out the kinks — and wishing we would’ve never awoken this massive beast at all. While things could get better, they could also get a lot worse.