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The X-Files: Season 10 (IDW) (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.

The X-Files: Season 10 is something of a mixed bag.

A significant portion of that is down to changes that took place in the background over the comic’s life cycle. When IDW first announced the series, The X-Files was largely considered to be a dead franchise with no viable future. By the time that the first arc (Believers) had wrapped up in October 2013, there were already murmurings about bringing the series back in one form or another. By the time that the second mythology arc (Pilgrims) was kicking off in April 2014, Chris Carter was already meeting with Glen Morgan to hammer it out.

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By the time that the comic’s final arc (Elders) wrapped up in July 2015, the entire world had known for months that The X-Files would be coming back to television. This knowledge deflated the comic book relaunch somewhat. The X-Files: Season 10 had been launched with a “co-writer” credit for Chris Carter on the first five issues; he was afforded an “executive producer” credit on most of the rest of the line. What had been positioned as a semi-official continuation of the adventures of Mulder and Scully was swiftly reduced to a historical curiosity.

However, these developments affected more than just the perception of the series. When the comic launched, it was very much the only game in town. By the end of his first arc, Joe Harris was already forced to make concessions to the possible return of The X-Files in film and television. A lot of the mythology set up in Believers was hastily abandoned and brushed aside, with the characters even acknowledging as much in Monica & John. This put The X-Files: Season 10 at something of a disadvantage, with the sense the mythology was being rewritten on the fly.

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In a way, it felt like a lot of The X-Files: Season 10 was driven by a recurring conversation about its own validity and legitimacy. In More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, the eponymous character tries to piece together his own fractured continuity. In Pilgrims, a clone of Alex Krycek fought desperately to assert his individuality. In Monica & John, Monica Reyes lamented being abandoned and “forgotten.” In Elders, the clones of the conspirators lament the warping of their organisation into something grotesque.

While there was something suitably clever and postmodern to all of this, there was a sense that The X-Files: Season 10 was suffocating in nostalgia and continuity. Of the twenty-five issues published, only one (Chitter) was a completely original story that did not serve the return of a familiar premise or a meditation on some past point of continuity. The classic mythology dominated the series, but even many of the standalone stories played as continuity-filling “origin stories” for classic characters and concepts.

Missing in action...

Fluke Man got a very X-Files origin story in Hosts. Mister X got a very generic origin story in Being for the Benefit of Mister X. The Cigarette-Smoking Man explored his history in More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man. Even the classic “I Want to Believe” poster got an origin story in G-23. This is to say nothing of the fact that Hosts and More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man were explicitly sequels to The Host and Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man. At a macro story level, The X-Files: Season 10 often felt like an exercise in nostalgia.

Which is a shame, because it really feels like writer Joe Harris has a firm grip on The X-Files. The writer has a good handling on most his characters, particularly Mulder’s sarcastic and the tragedy of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. He understands the core themes underpinning the series and even finds a way to make those themes feel contemporary in stories like Chitter and Immaculate. However, the comic feels somewhat hobbled by its insistence on keeping the mythology running. The series has its eye on the past more than the future.

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To be fair, The X-Files was almost twenty years old when the first issue of Believers hit the stands. That is a lot of history, and it makes sense for the comic to build on that sense of history and continuity. After all, Mulder and Scully are characters inevitably shaped by their experiences, by what they have seen and what they have done. More than that, The X-Files is largely a story about history and memory, so it makes sense for any relaunch to incorporate that sense of history and memory into its own narrative.

After all, it is not as if the live action revival doesn’t come with its own baggage. Part of the reason that Joe Harris had to drop the plot thread focusing on William after Believers was because Chris Carter was very interested in incorporating William into the revival miniseries. More than that, a number of the decisions made in Believers resonate with decisions made in My Struggle I. Most obviously, the improbable resurrection of the Cigarette-Smoking Man following a sequence in which the flesh was literally stripped from his bones in The Truth.

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There are other similarities in how the comic book and the revival miniseries deal with continuity. In both cases, there is a strong emphasis on the mythology. Indeed, in both cases, it could be argued that this emphasis is misguided. After all, even the most ardent fan of The X-Files will admit that the wheels mostly came off the mythology following Two Fathers and One Son, if not earlier. Indeed, the eighth season could be said to be the only point after that two-parter in which it could be argued the mythology worked; even then, by stripping it down and pushing it back.

Nevertheless, both the comic book and the revival miniseries have decided that the mythology is very much the key to the future of The X-Files. In doing so, both series opted for a return to the aesthetic of “peak” mythology rather than a complete reinvention. There is a conscious effort in both the comics and the revival miniseries to capture the tone and mood of the show’s golden era. My Struggle I harks back to Redux I and Redux II, while The X-Files: Season 10 brings back a cavalcade of iconic conspirators from that era of the show.

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However, there are a number of crucial differences. My Struggle I was a hugely controversial episode of the show for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons relate to how Chris Carter approached the original mythology, with many commentators upset at what they perceived as a massive “retcon” and “rewrite” of the show’s mythology on a very fundamental level. Of course, the reality is a bit more complicated than those critics would suggest, and it is far from the first time the mythology has been revised, but there were big changes made.

There were lots of reasons why this decision was as necessary as it was it was inelegant, but those are perhaps best left for a larger discussion of My Struggle I. However, that decision to wipe the slate (relatively) clean served to make the the revival miniseries much more accessible than it would otherwise be and allowed Carter to update the mythology for the twenty-first century. For better or worse, the messy and ambiguous mythology suggested by My Struggle I and My Struggle II feels like a conspiracy for the new millennium.

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In contrast, the mythology of The X-Files: Season 10 is rooted firmly in the past. There is a sense that the series is unwilling to let go of beloved characters and beats, even when that means rolling back on progress and development. Believers rewrites the events of Jump the Shark to reveal the Lone Gunmen are alive and well with a secret headquarters in Arlington, even if that reveal requires that the Lone Gunmen go from opposing and subverting “the man” to freelancing for the National Security Agency.

A lot of this is blatantly unnecessary. Mister X was a fascinating and intriguing character, in large part because he was inscrutable and mysterious; as such, providing a tragic motivation for his support Mulder feels like it diminishes the character. More to the point, Mister X has been dead since Herrenvolk. It would seem that the window for exploring the character’s history has long passed. This is particularly frustrating because the clumsy character arc of Being for the Benefit of Mister X is wielded to a harrowing commentary on violence in schools.

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The X-Files: Season 10 is full of stories like this; clever core ideas that feel hemmed in by the need to tie everything back to the classic continuity. Pilgrims begins with a fantastic hook; the discovery of a well of black oil in Saudi Arabia, and an investigation that brings Mulder and Scully to the Middle East. However, the comic quickly becomes an excuse to incorporate Alex Krycek in what plays as an extended homage to Piper Maru and Apocrypha as the black oil tries to find its way home.

More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is a beautiful comic with a number of clever sequences, but it also feels a little bit too heavily anchored in the show’s continuity. There is a sense that Elders might flow better if it dropped the eponymous resurrected conspirators, given that their big moments seem to happen “off panel” anyway; their meetings with Skinner and Scully both occur between various pages and add little to the plot that could not be provided by the Cigarette-Smoking Man himself.

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Related to that point, it is worth noting how heavily the IDW line has marginalised the characters of Doggett and Reyes, as if quarantining them from the larger narrative. Doggett and Reyes are both abducted in Believers, and promptly forgotten as the comic book mythology bends to external demands. When they do reappear in the single-issue story Monica & John, it is to lament the fact that they have been forgotten about. Barring a small appearance in The X-Files Christmas Special 2014, this is all that IDW does with them.

Of course, the two characters fare even less impressively outside of Joe Harris’ work. IDW put the Lone Gunmen front-and-centre of their first X-Files spin-off, Conspiracy. The publisher then invented two new characters for the superb Year Zero miniseries. Finally, Frank Black got his moment in the sun in a five-issue Millennium spin-off. With all of that happening, Doggett and Reyes could not get a look-in. They were not associated with the perceived “golden age” of the show, so they were promptly forgotten.

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These elements are quite frustrating, particularly given that they distract from the great work done by Harris and his artistic collaborators. Harris has a clear understanding of the storytelling mechanics of The X-Files, and it is worth noting how skilfully his stories capture the feeling of those blockbuster stories. Believers constantly ramps up to an epic chase and confrontation in Yellowstone, recalling the spectacle of associated with the mythology; the submarine tower from End Game or the train jump from Nisei.

Similarly, Pilgrims cannily pivots its setting and story at the midway point as Mulder makes his return from the Middle East back to the United States, recalling the way that Carter and his team would frequently split their own two-part stories; from the run around of Nisei to the claustrophobic train car of 731, or from the international intrigue from Piper Maru to the more local conspiracy theorising of Apocrypha. These are clever storytelling touches that demonstrate that Harris understands the storytelling structure that made these stories so effective in the first place.

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Similarly, Harris even structures the season in such a way as to evoke the feeling of The X-Files. The season opens with a mythology story that sets the tone and agenda, like Redux I and Redux II or Within and Without. There is then a big mid-season two-parter with an impressive scale, akin to Tunguska and Terma or Patient X and The Red and the Black. Finally, the status quo is shaken up with a bombastic finale, like The Erlenmeyer Flask or The End. However, the structural similarities run deeper than that.

There are fairly standard “monster of the week” stories like Hosts or Chitter. There are goofy “off-format” adventures like More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and G-23. More than that, the positioning of G-23 before Elders recalls the show’s historical positioning of “trippy” psychedelic episodes before the season finale; Wetwired before Talitha Cumi, Demons before Gethsemane, Field Trip before Biogenesis, Babylon before My Struggle II. This care demonstrates an endearing awareness of the show from which the spin-off stemmed.

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At the same time, these nice touches are somewhat overshadowed by the sense that a lot of this has been seen before in one form or another. Comic book storytelling affords new potential and possibilities for The X-Files, as does the transition to the twenty-first century. However, it never feels like Harris seizes those opportunities within the mythology. Elders makes some very nice gestures, focusing on Camp X-Ray and hinting towards private contractors, but it never fully grapples with what it means to be Fox Mulder in the era of Edward Snowden.

Harris’ artistic collaborators are similarly hemmed in. Matthew Dow Smith is a great artist for an X-Files comic book, but he suffers from making his debut on the title with Pilgrims. As much as Harris understands the storytelling aesthetic of the show, Smith understands the visual aesthetic. Pilgrims has a rich cinematic style that grows increasingly claustrophobic. Unfortunately, due to the story’s similarities to Piper Maru and Apocrypha, it often looks like Smith is just emulating veteran X-Files director Rob Bowman.

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Both Harris and his artistic collaborators do a lot better when they step back from the nostalgia of the mythology. In particular, Harris does an excellent job of updating the classic “small town with a monster” story template for the twentieth century. While episodes like Humbug and Our Town and Detour and Roadrunners tended to focus on the impact of globalisation as it eroded the eccentric spaces lurking in the American heartland, stories like Chitter and Immaculate suggest that these small towns feel more isolated than ever.

It is a very clever way of bringing a recognisable and distinctive element of The X-Files into the twenty-first century, telling stories about tension bubbling beneath the surface. Indeed, from the perspective of 2016, these stories appear almost prescient. They speak to a simmering anger and rage that appears to have been festering in communities that are relatively isolated, a cultural old war that runs the risk of exploding with even the slightest of provocation. This is a great metaphor to play out through The X-Files in the twenty-first century.

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Unfortunately, these standalone stories are few and far between. Chitter is the only story that seems to stand completely on its own terms. Fifteen of the twenty-five issues are given over to the season’s three big blockbuster mythology arcs, while the Cigarette-Smoking Man appears in four of the remaining ten issues and the final fate of the Acolytes takes up another. That leaves only five remaining issues. Two of those are given over to a story focusing on Fluke Man, while the other two are devoted to reintroducing Frank Black.

Again, to be fair, some of this is defensible. The X-Files is largely a show about cultural memory and historical gaps; the main arc of the show has Mulder and Scully uncovering the horrors of sins past. It could be argued that it makes sense, after twenty years, for The X-Files to focus so keenly on its own past. After all, Mulder and Scully have two decades of their own history that exist beyond the history that they share with the real world. It could be argued that The X-Files: Season 10 is launching an investigation into itself.

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Certainly, the comic is incredibly self-aware and reflexive. In many ways, the anxieties that grip characters like Alex Krycek in Pilgrims, Monica Reyes in Monica & John and Gibson Praise in Elders reflect the comic book’s own anxiety about its awkward relationship with the source material. Alex finds himself trapped in a pattern of doing the same thing over and over again, without the freedom to determine his own identity; Monica and Gibson find themselves brushed aside and forgotten by narrative realities larger than themselves.

Sadly, this introspection is not deep enough to sustain an entire series. It would be something to explore, for example, the relationship between the show’s mythology and contemporary political discourse. It would be interesting to play with Mulder’s fascination with “truth” in an age where a fragmented media seems to have deconstructed the very concept and when people pushing nonsensical and harmful lies call themselves “truthers.” Indeed, it might be interesting to take the thwarted apocalypse promised in The Truth and treat it as a metaphor for millennial malaise.

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Instead, it often seems like The X-Files: Season 10 gets lost in the familiar rather than finding something new or exciting to do with it. The X-Files: Season 10 feels very much like nineties nostalgia, occasionally feeling like the “victory lap” that Chris Carter was talking about wanting to avoid in interviews about the revival miniseries. It is enjoyable for what it is, with Harris having a firm grasp on the characters and their world, but it feels somehow shallow and incomplete. it is as if Mulder and Scully are trapped in limbo between the show’s golden age and the modern world.

While the IDW comcis are quite fixated upon continuity and canon, there are some ways in which the publisher seems a lot more experimental than companies like Wildstorm and Topps when it comes to publishing comics the license. With earlier tie-in comic books, Ten Thirteen had been quite anxious about likenesses. When Topps held the license, Ten Thirteen objected to Charles Adlard’s work because it was not photo-realistic enough, preferring the art of pencilers like Gordon Purcell or Alex Saviuk.

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With The X-Files: Season 10 (and surrounding projects), IDW enjoys much greater artistic freedom. The X-Files: Season 10 features a rotating art team, but the majority of the art chores are handled by regular artists Michael Walsh and Matthew Dow Smith. While neither offer artwork that is particularly photo-realistic, both Walsh and Smith produce moody and atmospheric art. This darker and rougher quality strikes the perfect tone for The X-Files, with both Walsh and Dow paying a great deal of attention to things like framing, in keeping with the show’s aesthetic.

However, while Smith and Walsh do great work, the most exciting artwork to feature in The X-Files: Season 10 comes from guest artists. While Tom Mandrake’s style doesn’t work particularly well during the expository set-up sequences, Mandrake’s trippy horror artwork fits perfectly with Mulder’s hallucinatory roadtrip in G-23. Even more than that, menton3’s artwork in More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is just jaw-dropping. That single issue is probably the best looking comic that IDW has published as part of its X-Files line.

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There is a lot of potential here, and some good storytelling. The artwork is generally top notch and even occasionally spectacular. There is a lot to love about The X-Files: Season 10. It is just a shame that so much of it seems focused keenly on the past at a point when the future never looked better.

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

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