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The X-Files – Season 10 (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 six episode revival miniseries is a strange beast.

It is hard to think of it as the tenth season of the show. In fact, the marketing of the DVD and blu ray sets describes it as “the event series”, perhaps a tact acknowledgement of that fact. There are a number reasons why it is difficult to think of these six episodes comprising a tenth season. Most obviously, the season is only six episodes. Even in the current context of truncated episode orders and split season, that is a short season. By modern standards, it would be a short half-season. Referring to it as the tenth season of The X-Files feels like false advertising.

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However, there are other reasons that it is difficult to think of these six episodes as constituting a season. Quite frankly, the six episodes are wildly variable in tone and quality, to the point that it is difficult to distill a singular unifying theme or meaning from. They are six random episodes of television, some good and some less good, with one masterpiece and one boldly ambitious mess. It is almost easier to talk about the episodes individually than it is to discuss them as a single season television.

Then again, that’s what makes them feel so much like The X-Files.

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Chris Carter is not necessarily the strongest writer on his own show. It seems fair to open with that concession, acknowledging that his three scripts for this tenth season are perhaps the weakest episodes of the year. My Struggle I, Babylon and My Struggle II are all deeply flawed pieces of television, albeit flawed in interesting and ambitious ways. While not the most robust or sturdy of the episodes, they are packed to the brim with ideas. Also, to be fair to Carter, he is a stronger director than he is generally acknowledged to be.

However, Chris Carter is a phenomenal executive producer. While modern television has trained critics and fans to think of the executive producer in terms of a single unifying vision for a television show, the tenth season is a reminder of how skilfully Carter bucks that trend. Carter’s strength as an executive producer is not in mapping out one singular version of The X-Files. Instead, Carter’s strength as an executive producer lies in cultivating creativity and ingenuity from his staff, empowering them to make their own decisions and tell their own stories.

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It is a strength that is easily overlooked in the era of David Simon, David Chase and Matthew Weiner. Even Vince Gilligan, who studied under Carter, fits much more comfortably within the modern model of television production that casts the executive producer as a gardener tasked with sculpting the television series so that it reflects his own conception of it. However, The X-Files was never really one single television show, no matter how much attention the mythology garnered for helping to re-popularise serialisation on prime-time television.

The X-Files was always multiple shows packaged within the same flexible framework of “two FBI agents investigate the paranormal.” It was Glen Morgan and James Wong’s exploration of weird Americana. It was Vince Gilligan’s meditations on modern masculinity and American identity. It was Howard Gordon’s fascination with the alien and other. It was David Amann’s engagement with the concept of “normal.” It was Darin Morgan’s reflections on the human experience. It was a vehicle for Chris Carter’s view of the universe.

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Mulder and Scully were always flexible archetypes, feeling like slightly bizarre versions of themselves, depending on the writer working on a given script. That much is evident even in the context of the miniseries. The version of Scully who lives through the death of her mother in Glen Morgan’s Home Again is markedly different from the version of Scully who talks about it in Babylon. The version of Mulder who goes through a midlife crisis in Darin Morgan’s Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster is different than manic depressive in Chris Carter’s My Struggle I.

This is quite jarring in the age of modern television, but it is certainly true to the spirit of The X-Files. In an age where audiences have been conditioned to treat high-profile big-budget television as novels, The X-Files instead positions its six episodes as individual novellas featuring the same characters and set in the same universe. In an era when audiences have come to treat television series as the work of a single auteur, the revival offers a miniseries that is the work of four auteurs. Each writer crafts their own hour, to the point that they even direct their own scripts.

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It is an approach that seems as alien in 2016 as any monster that Mulder and Scully ever chased. It also allows for each of the writers to engage with their own idea of what The X-Files means in 2016. For Chris Carter, it is an exploration of the breakdown of communication and sensory overload of sifting through information streams, as explored in the crazy conspiracy theories of My Struggle I, the communion of Babylon and the apocalypse of My Struggle II. However, for other writers it means other things.

For James Wong, it means updating the show’s trappings to reflect twenty-first century sensibilities in Founder’s Mutation. For Darin Morgan, it means remembering the show as a nostalgic construct of archetypal American landmarks like motels and truck stops and fields in Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. For Glen Morgan, it means marking the passage of time while evoking the series’ rich history in Home Again. Even within these six episodes, there seems to be a lot of different opinions about what reviving The X-Files actually means.

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The result is some clear dissonance between the various episodes. Most notably, the structure of the season seems bizarre. When the tenth season is described as a “miniseries”, the descriptor is applied in an overly literal sense; it is a series that is very small. It is not one single story. Sandwiching the middle four episodes between what is effectively an already disconnected two-parter underscores this disconnect. Audiences looking to the miniseries to wrap up the arcs of Mulder and Scully (and the mythology) were bound to be disappointed.

However, this variety offers its own strengths. It is impossible to imagine Darin Morgan tailoring Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster to a larger arc. The hacking and compromising that would have been required to maintain some semblance of modern television continuity would strip out a lot of what makes the episode so special. It is to the credit of Carter as an executive producer that he knows better than to ask Morgan to make those cuts, and that he refuses to step in and make those revisions himself like a more proactive executive producer might.

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Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster is effectively the strongest argument that the miniseries can make in favour of its format, and it is a convincing one. Easily one of the best television episodes of the year, Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster is the kind of story that stands perfectly well on its own two feet. It arguably feels more of a piece with Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” than it does with My Struggle I or My Struggle II. It is almost fun to imagine it as a standalone special, divorced from the context of the episodes around it.

Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster works because it speaks to concerns that resonate with writer Darin Morgan more than a sprawling mythology storyline or the fate of Baby William or the romantic relationship between Mulder and Scully. These are esoteric interests that are more intriguing to Morgan as a writer than to any of his colleagues, and the episode feels very much like Morgan is invested in exploring and developing them. It is a robust defense of the series’ disjointed nature, because it makes such stories possible.

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The same is true of the other episodes. Home Again is a deeply personal story from writer Glen Morgan, drawing upon the death of his own mother and the mysteries that were left in her wake. Again, it is a deeply esoteric and personal story that would not easily fit with the demands of a larger arc or more serialised narrative. While there are issues with Home Again, those issues are not rooted in the fact that Morgan took the opportunity of writing a script for The X-Files to write something with a deeply personal meaning to him.

Indeed, Home Again also draws from its own particular reading of the larger X-Files canon. Darin Morgan placed a heavy emphasis on his own work, including his Millennium scripts for Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” and Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me. Glen Morgan places a similar emphasis on his own contributions to the canon. The title of Home Again alludes to his earlier episodes Home and Never Again, while there are also a number of important flashbacks and references to One Breath.

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Although Home Again does integrate with My Struggle II through its exploration of Scully’s grief over the adoption of William, it is more closely tethered to Morgan’s own work. In fact, the final touching conversation between Mulder and Scully is carried over from a location that the producer employed during his time working on the BBC America series Intruders. There is a sense that these episodes are very much crafted by their writers and directors, effectively fashioning their own short stories within the framework of The X-Files.

This is also true of what is by far the most polarising episode of the six, Chris Carter’s Babylon. A weird adventurous mushroom trip of an episode that finds Mulder employing magic mushrooms in order to contact a would-be suicide bomber in order to foil a terrorist plot, Babylon is an episode that has an audacity matched by few shows on television. Perhaps for good reason. Babylon is an awkward and clumsy mess of an episode, but one that wears its earnestness on its sleeve and which remains true to the humanism that runs through so much of Carter’s work.

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Of course, Babylon is also an example of some of the more awkward aspects of the revival. In some ways, the revival felt like it was stranded in the late nineties. The racial and religious politics of Babylon were very ill-judged. In many ways, it played like an update of many of the classic foreigners-as-monsters stories from the original run of the show, like Teliko or El Mundo Gira or Badlaa. Those stories felt ill-advised in the context of the nineties. Using that framework to tell a story involving Islamic extremism and Islamophobia leads to uncomfortable results.

To be clear, the point is not that Carter is Islamophobic. Indeed, Babylon devotes considerable energy to critiquing and mocking Islamophobia, whether in the persona of government officials or “concerned” citizens. It could be argued that most of the revisions that Carter makes to the mythology in My Struggle I and My Struggle II are meant to prevent a xenophobic reading of the arc. The issue with Babylon is that the script is so casual in its portrayal of its Muslim characters as “other” that the script runs the risk of perpetuating the very ideas it criticises.

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This speaks to a recurring sense that The X-Files never really moved past the fifth season, running from 1997 to 1998. To be fair, this is a bigger issue in Chris Carter’s scripts for the season. In My Struggle I, the writer takes the show back to the fifth season premiere Redux I and Redux II. The basic premise of the revival’s opening episode – that everything Mulder ever believed was a lie – is borrowed from those two episodes. Tellingly, Scully’s slideshow in My Struggle II closes with two photos from Redux II.

Although it is too much to suggest that the original mythology was heavily retconned, it is worth noting that Carter places a greater emphasis on elements from the first five seasons. Scully is immune to the mysterious plague in My Struggle II because she was abducted in Duane Barry and Ascension. Mulder is not immune to the mysterious plague in My Struggle II, presumably because his own hybridisation in Biogenesis and abduction in Requiem occurred after the fifth season cut-off point.

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Indeed, the miniseries makes repeated reference to the fifth season as the point at which the continuity of the mythology becomes a bit hazy. As if pinpointing the moment that everything came off the rails, the Old Man openly mocks the events of Patient X and The Red and the Black. However, The End remains in continuity, with Sveta demonstrating some of Gibson Praise’s mind-reading abilities from her own hybridisation. More than that, My Struggle II suggests that we are all a little alien as The End did. My Struggle II‘s opening text evokes that of The End.

It is not just the fifth season of The X-Files. Carter borrows heavily from the second season of Millennium that ran concurrently, overseen directly by Glen Morgan and James Wong. My Struggle I adopts a postmodern “what if every conspiracy – including the contradictory ones – is true?” approach to the mythology, recalling the competing conspiracies of that second season. The explicitly biblical and viral apocalypse in My Struggle II seems like a lift from The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now.

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To be fair, the writers all acknowledge the passing of time in their own ways. My Struggle I and My Struggle II posit a very twenty-first century conspiracy. Founder’s Mutation teases out the idea of what a “monster of the week” might look like in the new millennium. Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster features an early scene in which Mulder acknowledges himself as “a middle-aged man.” Both Founder’s Mutation and Home Again paint the absence of William as a wound that left a deep scar. Babylon engages with the War on Terror.

However, there is also a sense that Chris Carter’s vision of the show is rooted in the mid-nineties. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that Mulder was largely absent from the final two years of the show’s run in his introductory monologue in My Struggle I. Doggett is never mentioned. Reyes is revealed to be a traitor in My Struggle II. In fact, Babylon openly mocks the idea of replacements for Mulder and Scully in a way that recalls Fight Club, a joke that was apparently so important that the characters stick around for My Struggle II.

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There is a definite tension there, between the elements of the revival that pull it into the twenty-first century and those that remain rooted in the nineties. It is a fine balance for the show to strike, between the need to saw something new and relevant with these characters while still acknowledging their history. There is also an issue with the variable tone and quality of the individual episodes. With only six episodes, three of which are written by Carter with the other three writers assigned one-a-piece, it is hard to get a proper sense of the season.

It could legitimately be argued that the quality of these six episodes is roughly in line with the first six episodes of the fourth or sixth seasons of the show, both points in the show’s run where the production team had undergone a jarring transition. At the start of the fourth season, Chris Carter’s attention was primarily focused on launching Millennium. At the start of the sixth season, the production had moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles. With these six episodes, the production team are facing a similar challenge, adapting the show for the twenty-first century.

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With writers like James Wong, Glen Morgan and Darin Morgan only afforded a single script a piece, there is not enough room for them to develop their themes beyond a particular episode. Looking at the original run of the show, writers were often able to carve out niches in the flow and structure of the season. Glen Morgan and James Wong did just that with their four scripts for the fourth season; Home, The Field Where I Died, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and Never Again form one of the most intriguing examinations of the show at the height of its popularity.

Within the miniseries, Chris Carter is the only writer afforded more than one episode in order to more clearly articulate his vision of what The X-Files is at this point in time. Between My Struggle I, Babylon and My Struggle II, Carter paints a picture of a society on the verge of collapse through to an overwhelming flow of information without corresponding communication. Carter suggests that the world has ceases to make any real sense, which arguably makes it the perfect time for Mulder and Scully to return to the basement.

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There are certain common themes that bubble through other episodes in the season. Glen Morgan and James Wong, for example, devote considerable time and energy to the question of William. It is interesting to see Morgan and Wong tasked with handling the legacy of the writers who succeeded them, given that William was written both into and out of the show long after Morgan and Wong had left. In both Founder’s Mutation and Home Again, the writers insist that William could no be brushed aside as easily as William seemed to suggest.

The six episode miniseries was not The X-Files at its finest. It was uneven in terms of tone and quality, messy and unfocused in places. However, it was still The X-Files. The show always varied in quality from week to week, and part of the thrill was that the series could bounce from Paper Hearts to El Mundo Gira to Leonard Betts. Although many fans would obviously desire six episodes on par with Paper Hearts, there is something surprisingly honest and candid about that shift in the revival miniseries.

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Indeed, restricting the season to six episodes only emphasises these tonal and qualitative shifts. There is no chance for the show to really find a groove, nor for the audience to get entirely comfortable with the show again. However, there are any number of six episode runs from the peak of the show’s original run that offer these sorts of ups and downs. Maybe End Game, Fearful Symmetry, Død Kalm, Humbug, The Calusari, F. Emasculata. Maybe Emily, Kitsunegari, Schizogeny, Chinga, Kill Switch, Bad Blood.

Consistency was never the show’s strength on an episode-to-episode basis. There were points where the series was staggeringly consistent (and consistently good) in the third and eighth seasons, but these were very much the exception rather than the rule. It was only when the audience pulled back to a large enough distance that these variable periods tended to even out. Perhaps the biggest flaw with the season is its brevity, in that it makes this long-standing feature all the more apparent because there can be no opportunity to average it all out.

"... I just don't think it'll understand..."

Indeed, there is a sense that the tenth season would be further improved by allowing its concepts to breath. My Struggle I essentially tackles the kind of material that the original show would have handled in a sprawling three-part epic split across the summer. My Struggle II condenses down a two-part season finale that was packed to the brim. Even Home Again feels like two separate stories condensed down to one single forty-three minute episode of television. A lot of the bigger issues of the season are structural.

Perhaps the biggest strength of these six episodes is that they show that The X-Files is still viable. There is nothing wrong with the fundamental principles. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson still have chemistry. The world is still a weird and wonderful place. The writers still have stories to tell. These stories still resonate with contemporary culture. These six episodes play almost like a proof of concept. To quote David Duchovny reflecting on the miniseries, “It doesn’t not work.”

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In pitching the show to his cast and crew, Chris Carter described the six episodes as an opportunity to get back to making television again on a regular basis. There is a sense that this is not what fans and critics were expecting from the show. It seemed as though this was meant to be the end, offering closure denied by The Truth or The X-Files: I Want to Believe. However, the truth is very much that this was intended as a pilot season, an opportunity to prove that the engine is still functional and the show is still viable.

When The X-Files returned to television, many wondered what the show would become. Indeed, watching the episodes, it seems like the producers had many of the same questions. However, the revival offers one clear and reassuring answer. No matter how much the world (and even the television landscape) might have changed, The X-Files is still The X-Files.

You might be interested in our reviews of the tenth season of The X-Files:

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4 Responses

  1. The X-Files was arguably the first show geared to the appetites of modern obsessive compulsive fans. But unlike some modern shows it was never beholden to them. It was the first show that allowed an immediate interaction, via the internet, between the producers and the fans. But it was still very much a show from a previous era; it was written with more than one specific vision. Even as much as they collaborated, Chris Carter’s The X-Files was not Frank Spotnitz’s The X-Files. Frank Spotnitz portrayed Mulder as an unequivocal hero and gave him attributes associated with James Bond. Howard Gordon seemed to want Mulder to protect us from modern technology and globalization. Darin Morgan desperately wanted to protect a fleeting romantic image of Americana and perceived Mulder’s interpretation of the world as a dangerous influence. Glen Morgan & James Wong had, in my view, a balanced view of Mulder and a tendency to follow through on Carter’s assertion that it was always Scully’s show – that she was more relatable to the audience, even though Carter himself rarely wrote her this way. Vince Gilligan sometimes borrowed Carter and Spotnitz’s Mulder but used Morgan’s Scully to tell stories often disguising cynicism with folksiness.

    You’ve pointed out before that conspiracy theory is really an extension of obsessive compulsive tendencies. The X-Files, I think, recognized this. It still does. My Struggle I plays out Mulder’s own tendencies toward obsessive compulsive behavior on screen, but also deliberately provokes those of the fans of the show. Modern shows do have a more singular vision, sometimes to a fault. On the whole, this has changed fans’ expectations of the power they think they have over art. Fans can have too much influence with online articles like “15 things we need to see in [latest superhero movie/current season of popular tv series]. The need to connect Rey to Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens is not something Lucas had to deal with in 1977. Modern fans obsess over connecting everything, pouring over details, not just looking for clues, but crafting ways to make sense of loose ends and lines of throwaway dialogue. LOST was maybe the first show to really suffer because of this. Now with the return of The X-Files, it is refreshing too see its continued reluctance to embrace this approach. The X-Files was the first show to be sold on DVD for fans to watch endlessly, mining for plot points, and it featured a mythology that was created for this very purpose – to tie seasons together and maintain ongoing interest. But it also might be the last show to embrace the television episode, rather than a season, as a medium for artistic expression.

    • I think that’s a fair point about the show’s approach to the episode as a unit of story, although I think shows like Doctor Who and Black Mirror still do a good job at maintaining the integrity of the episode, albeit in a pseudo-anthology style.

  2. “No matter how much the world (and even the television landscape) might have changed, The X-Files is still The X-Files.”

    Forgot to say, but great reviews as always.

    -Adam

    • Thanks Adam.

      I think the Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster review might be one of the best pieces I’ve written so far this year, if I can be bold enough to say such a thing.

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