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The X-Files: Season 11 (IDW) #1 – Cantus (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 11 is a truncated season, in more than one way.

While The X-Files: Season 10 ran for twenty-five issues with two annuals, a Christmas special and three tie-in miniseries, The X-Files: Season 11 is a more modest affair. The monthly series runs for eight issues, although there is a single Christmas special thrown in for good measure. More than that, there is a very clear condensed quality to the narrative. It feels like writer Joe Harris, along with artist Matthew Dow Smith and colourist Jordie Bellaire, are racing frantically towards the finish line.

See no evil.

See no evil.

This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, The X-Files: Season 11 was not the only big news to hit the fandom in February or March 2015. The creative team had done good work reviving the nineties science-fiction franchise, but news of a fresh season of X-Files comic books was always going to pale in comparison to news that Fox had managed to bring back Chris Carter along with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny for a six-episode miniseries to air less than one year later.

The X-Files: Season 11 was always going to exist in the shadow of the louder and showier revival. In some respects, the entire eight-issue series feels like a frantic attempt to wrap up all the dangling threads set up in that initial run. It feels very much like the publisher getting its house in orders before that classic theme music plays on prime-time once again. The X-Files: Season 11 is a somewhat modest affair. Although that modesty is somewhat endearing.

On the road again.

On the road again.

On the surface, The X-Files: Season 11 is noticeably more ambitious than The X-Files: Season 10. After all, The X-Files: Season 10 had opened transitioning from the status quo of The X-Files: I Want to Believe to the set-up from the weekly television series. By the end of Believers, the series’ first big five-issue arc, Mulder and Scully were already back at work in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, as they had been for most of the first seven years of the show. The X-Files: Season 10 was about a return to the familiar.

In contrast, The X-Files: Season 11 is very much about pushing the characters outside of their comfort zone. As with so many classic season finales like The Erlenmeyer Flask or The End or Requiem, the events of Elders dramatically shook up the status quo in a way that ensured that the next season could not possibly begin with a familiar set-up. Cantus opens with Mulder desperately on the run as a wanted fugitive fleeing the United States government, recalling twists like the closure of the X-files or the abduction of Mulder.

The man who fell to Earth.

The man who fell to Earth.

In many ways, The X-Files: Season 11 could be seen as writer Joe Harris truly striking out on his own and doing his own thing. Harris even suggested that The X-Files: Season 10 was about allowing the author to feel comfortable with the characters so that he might take risks with The X-Files: Season 11:

Honestly, the most fun thing about kicking off Season 11 is that it’s an organic extension of things we’ve been working toward for the past couple of years, in the old series. When we launched Season 10, I knew we had to focus on the familiar. We had to reestablish these characters, find the right balance between catering to the diehards who live and breathe this stuff and the casual fans, or even newcomers, who might not recall every detail of a franchise that ran for nine long television seasons and two feature films. This time around, I feel a bit freer to take risks and make this my own. I’m pretty confident in my vision for these characters and where I want to take the entire concept of The X-Files in these pages.

Given that one of the biggest issues with The X-Files: Season 10 was that it felt overly-familiar, it is refreshing and exciting to see Joe Harris strike out in his own direction. Harris is telling a story that feels both timely in the era of Edward Snowden and perfectly in keeping with the paranoid aesthetic of The X-Files.

Doggett pursuit. Er, I mean Dogged pursuit.

Doggett pursuit.
Er, I mean Dogged pursuit.

In some respects, the central premise of The X-Files: Season 11 is just a new twist on a relatively old idea. Cantus does not mark the first time that Mulder has been forced on the run as a fugitive of the United States government. That was arguably the entire status quo set up in Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II, in which Mulder was forced to flee in order to protect Scully and William from the intentions of the nefarious colonists.

However, the ninth season was unable to tell that particular story for a number of reasons. The most obvious issue with the whole “Mulder is a fugitive” plot line is that it was plotted as a way to write David Duchovny out of the show. As such, David Duchovny was not going to make himself available to actually tell the fun side of that story, leading to cringe-inducing near-misses like Trust No 1 and awkward red herrings like William. In fact the only time the ninth season could really embrace the potential of that idea was in the opening teaser of The Truth.

Of course he can't get through to you. You logged into the wrong email extension.

Of course he can’t get through to you, Scully. You logged into the wrong email extension.

With a comic book, there are obviously fewer restrictions on the creative team’s ability to tell that kind of story. Cantus can put Mulder on the run without any concern about David Duchovny’s availability or the limitations with the production budget. There is something quite exciting about seeing that old idea refreshed and examined in a new light. Indeed, Joe Harris and Matthew Dow Smith make a sneaky nod to the fact that they are essentially revisiting an old premise with new energy; Scully is seen briefly checking the mailbox she used in Trust No 1.

In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of how Joe Harris approaches the continuity of The X-Files is in his willingness to tease out and play with ideas suggested by the (not unfairly) maligned ninth season. Believers seemed to position itself as a spiritual successor to the ninth season; there was an emphasis on William himself, on pseudo-religious cults obsessed with William, and even on magnetite and super soldiers. In the bleak alternate future of Endgames, Mulder returns to Mount Weather for his final confrontation with Gibson Praise.

Knife to see you.

Knife to see you.

This fascination with the ninth season was ultimately thwarted. William had to be dropped entirely, because Chris Carter wanted William to be a part of the live action continuation of the series. With that, the Acolytes had to be brushed aside. John Doggett and Monica Reyes were being held captive by the Acolytes, so they were all but forgotten. As the revival miniseries began to take shape, Joe Harris’ original plans had to be reshaped. Nevertheless, these late-series elements were the most interesting aspects of Harris’ original premise.

While The X-Files: Season 10 suffered from feeling a bit too much like a “greatest hits” composition, there is something appealing about exploring the lost potential of the show’s final season. The ninth season of The X-Files was terrible, but it had a number of interesting and under-explored ideas that might easily have been developed into something intriguing. While mythology elements like the conspirators and the black oil and the clones had been done to death, there is some interesting material to be mined from the final two seasons.

"Have we Jumped the Shark?"

“Have we Jumped the Shark?”

It probably helps that the revival miniseries was going to largely ignore the final two seasons of The X-Files. John Doggett would not even be mentioned. Monica Reyes would become a traitor. Super soldiers would be brushed aside. It would seem as though Fox Mulder (and David Duchovny) had never even left the X-files. William was just about the only element of continuity from the final two seasons that would be of interest to the production team working on the revival. As such, eighth and ninth season continuity seems fair game for Joe Harris in constructing his comic.

After all, The X-Files: Season 11 exists very much in the shadow of the revival miniseries. Whereas The X-Files: Season 10 had launched with bold claims about being the legitimate continuation of the adventures of Mulder and Scully, The X-Files: Season 11 came into existence as an “alternative” series of adventures. The television miniseries would not keep continuity with the comic books, which was the only sane and practical decision given the difference in the size of the audiences for those two formats.

"I tried to sign up under the name Tom Selleck, but nobody would believe me."

“I tried to sign up under the name Tom Selleck, but nobody would believe me.”

In interviews, Joe Harris downplayed the impact that the announcement had in mapping out and shaping his story. However, he did acknowledge that Season 11 was something of an interim measure, a stopgap before the continuities could be aligned:

Honestly, no. I’ve had a plan heading into the ‘finale’ of the Season 10 series that bears fruit over the long haul in Season 11. Once I know what the TV series is going to tackle, we’re going to try and bring things into some semblance of conformity. But these two developments — that of the Season 11 series and the new six-episode announcement from FOX — happened along parallel, but separate tracks.

There is a sense that IDW was very much holding its breath so that things could be sorted into “some semblance of conformity.” After all, Season 11 was structured so that it would wrap up immediately following the end of the six-episode miniseries to allow for a line-wide relaunch.

Nice (Felicia) Day to you, too...

Nice (Felicia) Day to you, too…

The announcement of the revival miniseries made IDW understandably sheepish. After all, for a company that had put such emphasis on the “canon”, there was a palpable anxiety about how much work would be erased or undermined by those six hours of television. IDW was no longer charged with creating and mapping the future of The X-Files; they could at best hope to coexist in the new status quo. After all, Joe Harris and his colleagues would relaunch the comic book series after My Struggle II, recalibrated to conform to the miniseries.

This sheepishness reflected itself in a number of ways. IDW became a lot less adventurous with the license. During the heady days of Season 10, the company had published a number of high-profile supplemental books designed to “build out” the franchise. Conspiracy integrated the Lone Gunmen into the wider IDW shared universe. Year Zero introduced two new characters in a historical setting. Millennium reintroduced the character of Frank Black. This was all very much “world building” for the franchise.

You can go Home... again.

You can go Home… again.

With the official announcement of the revival miniseries, that world building came to a halt. Joe Harris, Matthew Dow Smith and Jordie Bellaire had complete control of the X-Files licence between Cantus and the broadcast of My Struggle I. More than that, the only X-Files comic published during Season 11 to be written by somebody other than Joe Harris was the single-issue Deviations crossover, a comic book marketed around the concept of telling a single self-contained “out of continuity” tale. Discontinuity was the name of the game, and IDW was not invested in that.

Even within Season 11 itself, there is a sense that everything has been condensed. Season 10 opened with a sweeping five-issue story; Season 11 opens with a single-issue story designed to set up the new status quo. Season 10 featured three sweeping five-issue mythology stories; Season 11 can only offer two more modest three-part stories. Season 10 had enough space and luxury to position The X-Files Christmas Special 2014 as a goofy holiday special; storytelling real estate is so precious for Season 11 that The X-Files Christmas Special 2015 is an essential part of the arc.

Things could get hairy...

Things could get hairy…

This sort of frantic pace is quite apparent even in the context of Cantus itself. This is not so much a story as it is an extended introduction. Mulder is introduced reprising the persona of “Anthony Blake”, albeit with an entire new supporting cast. However, they are killed off incredibly quickly just to highlight the stakes of Season 11. In fact, space is such an issue that most of them are even killed off panel. Harris and Smith do an excellent job of keeping the plot moving, but it does feel a little rushed.

Still, this lean efficiency is not a bad thing. Season 11 moves with a clear sense of purpose. Reading Season 10, it constantly felt like Harris was readjusting his basic pitch based upon external factors; it is quite clear that Gibson Praise was a last-minute addition to the plot, and that he had other plans for characters like William or Doggett. It seemed like Season 10 only really figured out what it was trying to do towards the start of Elders, lending the series a somewhat disjointed feeling.

Mulder is very much a lone wolf.

Mulder is very much a lone wolf.

In contrast, Season 11 has a very clear sense of the narrative ground that it needs to cover. It simply does not have the room to procrastinate or ruminate. Season 11 does away with a lot of the fat or distractions that haunted Season 10. For example, Season 10 was populated with clones of deceased characters like Mister X or Krycek or the Well-Manicured Man. These felt like distracting fan service. Season 11 strips the cast right down, so that all of the major players involved in the series have a reason to be there.

To be fair, at least some of this seems governed by external concerns. The Cigarette-Smoking Man was a vitally important part of Season 10, and one of the characters that Harris wrote particularly well. However, he is entirely absent from the season, perhaps because William B. Davis would be reprising the role in My Struggle and My Struggle II. In contrast, the Lone Gunmen play a major role in Season 11, perhaps available to Harris because they would only be making silent cameos in Babylon.

Stroke of good luck.

Stroke of good luck.

Whatever the reason, the lean nature of Season 11 is appealing in its own way. It has a focus and drive that compensates somewhat for the rushed nature of certain storytelling developments. While there is a sense that IDW is just marking time until the revival miniseries arrives, Harris and his colleagues bring a much tighter focus to their work for this final lap.

2 Responses

  1. Great review. Thanks a lot.

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