Airtime: Mondays at 8PM on FOX
Tweetable Takeaway: Against all odds, the first installment of “The X-Files” revival is actually decent. Review by @DanaLeighBrand
First of all, Fox, no one likes you. You have to know this already. It is no longer the ’90s. Very few things are going to pull numbers the way X-Files used to. Fox continually picks up sci-fi shows, grooming them deliberately as “X-Files replacements,” and then discards them when (shock and awe) their meddling keeps the new stories from achieving their full potential. Firefly. Almost Human. I’m sure there are more, but if it’s weird and on Fox I don’t bother anymore. It’ll get cancelled after half a season. This X-Files revival was concocted explicitly for ratings which still has me on guard. The second thing that has me on guard? To be overdramatic about it: The X-Files is a foundational piece of my soul.
I wasn’t allowed to watch television as a kid, but I would sneak this show so much that eventually no one paid my transgression any attention. When your name is Dana, you’re gonna get called “Scully” a lot growing up in the ’90s. I had to see what that was about. It was about me, as it turned out. It helped form my little baby-subconscious. The X-Files was one of the pioneers of the modern cultish television storytelling—aka my favorite thing ever. By my (legitimately academically sourced, seriously) definition of cult TV, you need three things:
- Intentionally withholding pieces of the story to encourage audience engagement in narrative creation. Basically: you make big mysteries that rope the viewer in.
- Creating a cohesive, ongoing narrative that requires investment and is intertextually dense. It has lots of references not just to itself but to other works, genre markers, etc. etc. The viewing pleasure comes from being in on it.
- The traditional view of anything “cult” which is that it has a “cult following” or an unusually dedicated and vocal fanbase. This is what most people mean when they say something is a “cult classic.” That is: it’s weird as hell, but for some reason a ton of people like it. More kindly referred to as “fannish devotion” or a cultivation of fandom communities.
The X-Files was, if not quite the first television series to do this, it was the most masterful and the most successful. It codified the genre. The series even experimented in transmedia storytelling—continuing a narrative across traditional media boundaries—with the 1998 feature film that you had to see to understand what was going on. Just looking back on this now from the age of five-bajillion Star Wars films and my personal Marvel obsession, I could weep with joy. My old love paved the way for everything we have now way before the cool kids were doing it. Let’s not forget the massive and intense internet X-Files community while the internet itself was still a toddler. Raise your hand if you used to play on the X-F usenet groups.
Now, the problem with X-Files is the problem faced by almost every example of cult TV to date: you can make mysteries and keep piling on the intrigue, but if you don’t have answers for those mysteries you’re just going to end up with a complete mess that will never be untangled and will never actually satisfy the voracious intellect of your audience. That is what the X-Files mytharc became. I’ve argued here before that the only thing that saves season 8 and 9 is Doggett and Reyes (?, yup. Fight me.) So basically, when I was told that they were starting this highly suspect X-Files revival with an episode in the mytharc my only reaction was incredibly rude laughter. Color me surprise: it was actually decent.
The thing with X-Files’s particular brand of cultish narrative is that it’s very ’90s. The series existed almost 100% during a liberal political coalition. This is in contrast to something like Supernatural which reworks the same paranormal premise but for the manly, individualistic, hyper-macho conservative era in which it was created. Only the X-Files’s 9th season aired after 9/11 and it willfully ignored the fact that it happened. For a series so focused on government conspiracy and liberal wank X-Files, like pretty much every other media text of the early 2000s, was just not going to touch the subject so as not to offend. It was too risky. X-Files as a text of its time is allowed to question authority, to posit government secrecy as a morally repulsive act against citizens, and to insist on freedom of information all while sounding progressive instead of like white supremacist nutcases. It’s been fourteen years since this series was last on air. A whole lot has happened in fourteen years.
Which is why removing Mulder as the mouthpiece for all the conspiracy mumbo-jumbo and handing that role over to a right-wing pundit was the absolute best thing they could do to make The X-Files’ brand of crazy actually work outside of the ’90s. I could not be more delighted with Tad O’Malley. I was legit giggling with glee right when they introduced him because it immediately addressed one of my biggest reservations about revisiting this show.
Like every proper, old-school X-Phile, I have my fandom coalition. Our general consensus is that the mytharc past season 4’s finale “Gethsemane” is pointless rambling garbage. “Gethsemane” claims that all of the alien conspiracies Mulder is so obsessed with are an elaborate cover for the military-industrial complex and not really alien at all. Any conspiracy or explanation that comes after is absurdity. Compelling absurdity, but since it never goes anywhere it’s all a pointless circle-jerk. I will report that my entire cadre pointed at the television (from our various locations) and shouted “HA! TOLD YA!” when Mulder’s new conspiracy theory turned out to be a bunch of very human villains pulling the strings behind the scenes. How exactly all the alien biological experimentation figures into this invasion/colonization plot I don’t quite understand. But I’ll rewatch it later and figure it out.
If y’all read any of my other reviews you probably know I regularly go on screeds about the treatment of women and reproductive rights (and agency, autonomy, romance, etc.) in science fiction. This is where I’d usually sigh and rail about how absurd, clichéd, and reductionist it is that women are being abducted solely for their function as baby-makers. But this is X-Files and that element has been central to this plot for full-on twenty years, and I’m not going to rail against it now. Whatever, X-Files. Consider yourself lucky that you get a pass.
Now, whether this episode holds up on its own is irrelevant. If anyone out there is insane enough to be watching this without a previous addiction to the show, any confusion or annoyance they might be feeling is entirely on them. The only concern of “My Struggle” was to effectively address the convoluted, disastrous mytharc in a respectful manner. It does all the work it needs to. It contextualizes itself in the current political and cultural climate. It handwaves away all of the garbage that had accumulated over the nine seasons and two movies. It takes the most pressing social issues of our current time and plugs them into the evil master plot which is a shortcut for making the story relevant, but it’s an effective one. Conspiracy theories are very easy to backfill once you know the presumed outcome. Hindsight, after all, is 20/20. Where climate change, religious extremism, and police violence didn’t blip the radar of affluent ’’90s mainstream culture, couching all of our modern problems as the result of a decades long conspiracy (and the central X-Files conspiracy to boot!) is an easy pill to swallow. Conspiracy is a simple way for humans to apply order to our chaotic world. It helps us make sense of things. Although the main point of this is space colonization by the rich? That’s a little hilarious even for this show. Hang on a second—I’ll slip back into my twelve-year-old self for a second: it all makes sense!
Since I’m not even trying to judge it as a standalone piece, and since it absolutely floored me in its willingness to acknowledge that so much of what came before was drivel: I give “My Struggle” a solid A. I get the feeling Chris Carter has been sitting there for fourteen years going “well that was a disaster. How can I fix it?” As someone with a freakishly encyclopedic knowledge of X-Files mythology, alien crap, and conspiracy theories, I declare that he may have hit on a decent fix.
Aw, damn it. Now I just want to rewatch the entire series. Well. I’m about due for a rewatch anyway.
Dana Leigh Brand is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
Dana Leigh Brand | Contributor