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The X-Files Files (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

For anybody looking to chart the return of The X-Files to television, The X-Files Files is a hugely important milestone.

The podcast launched in June 2014, a little over half a year following the massive twentieth anniversary celebrations in October 2013 and at a point where everybody involved in the revival was talking seriously about the prospect of bringing The X-Files back in some official capacity. Hosted by comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani, the podcast offered in-depth discussions and explorations of the classic show with a wide variety of fans drawn from a wealth of different background digging into the show and its history.

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The podcast became a breakout hit. Not only did the caliber of guest speak to the enduring appeal of The X-Files, but the podcast’s immediate success also spoke to a hunger for more media connected to the show. Even before the revival was announced, the podcast generated a significant amount of media coverage from sources as diverse as The A.V. Club and The Globe and Mail. Part of this was a reaction to the quality of the podcast itself, with Nanjiani serving as phenomenal host, but part of it was down to the fact that it tapped into the cultural mood.

The X-Files Files speaks to the massive positive influence of fandom and as a testament to the role that this fandom played in bringing the show back to television.

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The twenty-first century media landscape is vastly different from that of the nineties.

The X-Files is notable for being one of the first shows to really engage with its on-line fandom, along with shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Babylon 5. The show had emerged at a point where the internet was breaking out of a niche nerdy industry and into the mainstream. Over the nine year run of the show, the public perception of internet transformed from a strange place where nerds went to complain about Star Trek into a basic utility akin to electricity or natural gas.

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Fans networked and connected on-line, and the film’s production staff would acknowledge and engage with them. In the early days of the show’s run, writers like Chris Carter would give exclusive online interviews. Writers like Glen Morgan would engage directly with fans on the message boards, first meeting writers Erin Maher and Kay Reindl through such forum. Fox would organise official webchats, inviting fans from around the world to take part in discussions and conversations about the show.

However, even towards the end of the show’s original run, there was still a firm divide between the audience and the production team. This was most obvious during the eighth season, when fans protested loudly and aggressively about the departure of David Duchovny and the arrival of Robert Patrick, building dedicated fan groups to rewrite the eighth season and to protest what they perceived to be the betrayal of Fox Mulder. However, the eighth season charted its own course and kept to Chris Carter’s vision.

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However, over the next couple of years, fans began to have a stronger impact on creative and commercial decisions. To be fair, there had always been stories about how studios and networks were influenced by fans; it has frequently been argued that a fan letter-writing campaign secured a third season for the original Star Trek. However, that was very much the exception rather than the rule. At least until the media landscape began to radically change in the early years of the new millennium.

Part of this was down to the shifting realities of commercial broadcasting. Towards the end of the nineties, television audiences began to erode. Some of this erosion was the result of simple diversification. When it came to media, there were more options than ever before. This afforded people more freedom to choose how they wanted to consume popular culture. Coupled with revolutions in home media technology and the emerging challenges of time-shifting viewing, television broadcasters no longer held a monopoly on the audience’s attention.

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As audiences dwindled, networks and studios made a conscious effort to recruit and cultivate fan bases. Demographics became even more important as overall viewing figures slipped, with networks aggressively courting loyal viewers with reliable spending power. Television shows like Lost demonstrated that a rapid fanbase could serve as an effective promotional tool, and that cult film and television attracted viewers with relatively high disposable income. As a result, media companies began to aggressively court those fans.

In hindsight, some of the business decisions made by major studios during these early years of fan engagement seem ridiculous. Not only did New Line Cinema greenlight Snakes on a Plane based primarily on the internet’s rapid response to the title (and premise) of the screenplay, but the studio actively tailored the movie to the internet crowd. Despite the fact that Firefly did not even run a full season, Universal Studios greenlit Serenity based in no small part based upon the sales figures of the DVD box set.

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This also became quite clear in the way that the major movie studios embraced and engaged with San Diego Comic Con over the first decade of the twenty-first century, to the point that it could be argued that the Comic Con became more of a mass media exhibition than an actual comic book convention. In fact, this level of engagement has become so expected that reports that major studios like Marvel or Twentieth-Century Fox may avoid San Diego Comic Con are considered to be major news stories.

All of this serves to demonstrate that internet fandom is a surprisingly powerful thing with a great deal of influence. Some of that influence is good, and some of it is bad. Sometimes that influence gets tied up in issues of fannish entitlement and fear of change, but sometimes that influence can demonstrate an eagerness or excitement. With the revival of The X-Files, it is possible to argue that both forces are at play, both the creative and the conservative; the celebratory and the cynical. Like any fandom, X-Files fandom is not a monolithic entity. It does not speak with a singular voice.

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The X-Files Files is a wonderful testament to fannish engagement. Host Kumail Nanjiani understands fandom, addressing the show from the perspective of a fan and with the keen insight of somebody who deeply cares about the show. This is quite clear in Nanjiani’s exhaustive research. Very astutely, The X-Files Files understands that the fandom is an essential part of the history of the show itself. A recurring segment of the show finds Nanjiani and his guests delving into the old message boards to gauge contemporary reaction and watching modern fandom evolve.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of the rotating guest format is the way that Nanjiani seems just as interested in how his guest engaged with the show as he is in the continuity and the minutiae itself. The X-Files Files welcomes and encourages a diverse array of perspectives, with guest who classify themselves as “shippers” or “no-romos” or “shipping agnostic.” Kevin Smith can talk about trying to make sense of The Blessing Way without any context and Claudia O’Doherty can talk about the experience of being an Australian fan. All perspectives are welcome and encouraged.

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By way of a disclaimer, Kumail has been extremely gracious to myself and to these reviews; both on and off the show, personally and professionally. These reviews (and the whole site) have benefited immensely from his repeated (and generous) acknowledgement of them on the podcast and off it. I know that a large number of readers first came through the site through his mentions. If these reviews are ever a footnote in any future discussion of The X-Files, that will largely down to Kumail Nanjiani and The X-Files Files.

Even leaving aside that generosity, there is the simple fact that The X-Files Files is simply very good. Quite selfishly, part of my rush to cover the entire run of the show before The X-Files Files was because I was quite worried that anything I had to say about a given episode would be rendered redundant and obsolete by the time that Kumail and The X-Files Files got there. A large part of that is down to Kumail’s skill hosting the podcast, an under-appreciated skill akin to moderating an interpersonal conversation. However, the care he takes setting the tone of the conversation helps.

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The X-Files Files is noteworthy for its willingness to engage with the more problematic and awkward elements of The X-Files. It is quite clear that Nanjiani and all of his guests deeply love the show, but they are not blind to its faults. The X-Files Files is mindful of the historical and social context of The X-Files, ready to engage with some of the unfortunate decisions made over the course of the production. Indeed, panelists like Devin Faraci, Emily Gordon and Rhea Butcher are eager to engage in feminist or political critiques of the episodes in question.

The X-Files Files rather skilfully navigates the ambiguous area between fan and professional spaces. Sometimes the show has had to be careful in doing so, with Nanjiani acknowledging his desire for the podcast to remain independent of Fox in spite of their enthusiastic support of it. Again, the care demonstrated in cultivating and developing the podcast is remarkable, with Nanjiani demonstrating a remarkable flexibility in his approach to the show without ever losing sight of what he wants it to be.

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This is perhaps most obvious in the talent pool for the podcast. Nanjiani has drawn a wide variety of voices to the podcast, from both inside and outside the production team. Nanjiani has recruited critics like Faraci and comedians like Butcher to discuss episodes in an informal and critical manner, but he has also recruited big-name fans like Max Landis and Kevin Smith to share their own experience of the series. At the same time, Nanjiani was able to discuss the show with those involved in its history, from producer Steve Asbell to writers Glen Morgan and Darin Morgan.

It is very much a tightrope, and The X-Files Files walks it with considerable grace. Nanjiani and his guests are not afraid to call the show out for its missteps and errors in judgment – with Nanjiani and Butcher pointing out the Gender Bender believes in shape-shifters more readily than bisexuals, or Nanjiani and Gordon acknowledging that Excelsis Dei probably shouldn’t have had Mulder identify the suspect as “the Asian orderly.” None of this is intended to diminish or belittle the show. A willingness to acknowledge the show’s faults does not diminish Nanjiani’s obvious affection for it.

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The X-Files Files played no small role in placing The X-Files back at the centre of public discourse and discussion, reflecting an eagerness to embrace the show and talk about it again. This is important, because The X-Files did not necessarily end on a high. The show peaked in the cultural consciousness around the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future and the broadcast of Two Fathers and One Son. It slipped quietly from the conversation, and was officially retired at the end of what was by all accounts a terrible season of television.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. The nature of network television production means that most shows will continue on at least a year past their peak, and that very few long-running series get to leave the stage at the height of their popular or creative success. After all, no network cancels a show after a great season if they can help it. Nevertheless, the last time that anybody had really talked meaningfully about The X-Files had been with the broadcast of The Truth and the release of The X-Files: I Want to Believe.

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Those were not happy memories, for both casual viewers and for long-term fans. As far as casual viewers were concerned, The X-Files had become short-hand for the kind of mythology-driven television show that never answered any of the questions that it raised. This was somewhat unfair, as the show had committed to providing answers in its final years; of course, it is entirely debatable as to whether the two-hour expository clip show of a finale provided satisfying answers to all the dangling questions and it could be argued that it worked too hard to explain the mythology.

However, the general consensus on The X-Files was that it had ended badly, to the point that one of the arguments made to justify the revival was that it afforded Fox and Chris Carter a “do over” of the ending and a chance to do right by the franchise in a way that would ensure its longevity on streaming services and for a new generation of fans. Of course, the somewhat polarised response to the revival notwithstanding, the decision to end My Struggle II on a pretty cataclysmic cliffhanger put paid to that particular theory.

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Those fans who had watched the show until the bitter end were not best pleased with the closure offered by The Truth and I Want to Believe. Neither had garnered good reviews, and fandom’s reaction to both had been divisive. These were not regarded as high points in the run of the franchise, and had arguably left something of an aftertaste that had hung over conversations about The X-Files in the years that followed. They cast a large shadow, to the point where almost any recommendation of the show had to be prefaced with a warning about the ending.

The X-Files Files signaled that people were willing to talk about The X-Files again without dwelling on the show’s disappointing final outings. It is perhaps too much to describe it as a rehabilitation of the series, given that the show informed and shaped an entire generation of television producers and critics, but it did make the relevant again in a way that looked beyond its troubled later years. It allowed people to grapple with what the show meant in the twenty-first century, the extent to which it was rooted in the nineties, and how the themes carried forward.

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Although by far the most high profile rewatch and discussion of the show, The X-Files Files emerged at a point where it seemed like everybody was willing to talk about the show again.  There are too many examples of this wider debate to list here, but highlights include Todd Van Der Werff and Zack Handlen finishing their reviews at The A.V. Club, Grace Duffy’s episode-by-episode recaps at The Mary Sue, Kelly Connolly’s series Times Mulder and Scully Should Have Made Out This Week. Such efforts included even this humble rewatch, last and perhaps least.

The X-Files Files demonstrated how elastic the bands between fandom and production could be, with Nanjiani even landing a small role in Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster as an acknowledgement his work on the podcast. While on set shooting the episode, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson would even suggest recording an impromptu podcast. As the show prepared to return, Nanjiani would work with Cinefamily to host an “Xthon” before the return of the show, a marathon including appearances from Chris Carter, Glen Morgan and Darin Morgan.

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The X-Files Files is in many ways a celebration of fandom, running in parallel with the development of the revival and demonstrating a renewed appetite for discussion and debate of the classic series. Under Nanjiani’s direction, The X-Files Files is in some ways the very best sort of fandom, a celebration of media as a shared experience that inspires debate and discourse, one that brings people together and allows for fascinating discussions of a show that everybody involved cares about deeply.

You might be interested in our reviews of IDW’s “season 10” of The X-Files:

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2 Responses

  1. I so appreciate the shout-out, Darren! What company. And what a time to be an X-Files fan.

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