Wednesday, 10 February 2016
Spoilers straight away, though really, how can I spoil a story Carter has told a half-dozen times already?
It it genuinely remarkable how little interest the season premier of the newly-returned X-Files is in recognising that almost a decade and a half has passed since last the show existed. The terrible dialogue. The confused jumble of ideas (some have argued the overload of conspiracy theory iconography and terminology nods to how such theories have multiplied since the show's heyday; I think Carter is shouting at whatever clouds he found easiest to Google). The inevitable destruction of anything resembling proof three minutes before the episode ends. Some arsehole that insists Mulder is close to the truth, despite the nature of that "truth" seemingly inverting itself every year or so. "My Struggle" could almost be taken as pastiche were it not just as leaden asevery other "mythology" episode the show cranked out after its first season.
Technically, then, I guess I can't call it a disappointment. It's too close to what I was expecting. after all, the briefest glance at the guilty parties for this reunion demonstrate just how content the new series is to drag out its long-dead laurels and sit on them. The writers for the mini-season comprise Carter himself, classic show workhorses James Wong and Glen Morgan, the actually-excellent-thank-Gods-he's-back Darin Morgan, and the previous iteration's science adviser. The only truly new name in the writing team is Margaret Fearon, someone I can't find online as a writer, only as a character from, you've guessed it, the classic X-Files.
Given this, there's a limit to how much I can shake my head, or my fists. This is clearly intended as resurrection, not rebirth. Plenty of people had much more time for Carter's endless dead ends and self-negations and monologues about humanity and evolution and who the hell cares than I did. And more power to them. They have their favourite toy back. The TL,DR here is probably simply "X-Files: still not for me".
That isn't the whole story, though. There's a tension here that didn't - that couldn't - exist before, because you can't miss what hasn't left yet. The original show first established itself as a cultural juggernaut and then rode out that momentum. The new iteration necessarily can't do that. Combine that with the insistence on reassembling the old gang (the director's pool is no more interested in new talent than that of the writer's pool, because the two are identical) and what you have is a show that is only equipped to run, and is only capable of running, on nostalgia.
Which, fine, I guess. If the band wants to get back together and tour one last time for the fans, then I hope everyone involved has fun. But there's a paradox here, which is that Carter's standard model for the show could almost be designed to negate nostalgia. His habit of spending each season insisting all previous seasons have been a pack of lies always grated, but the annoyance is greatly magnified by the distance between "The Truth" and "My Struggle". Setting aside the fact that the show has already done the "Mulder stops believing aliens are involved in the conspiracy" story AND the "Mulder realises Scully was abducted by humans" stories already (as I say, this is all about nostalgia), there's a big difference between negating the established mythology of a show in progress and doing so for a complete work that has stood untouched for fourteen years (the second X-Files film was almost pathological in avoiding discussing the wider story). Yes, the last episode of the original series was an absolutely Godsawful sprawl of stilted exposition, but it finally provided the answers people had been demanding. People could complain they didn't like where the journey they'd spent so much time had ended up, but they had to admit it had, in fact ended.
I'm not asking for slavish devotion to the show's past. I genuinely wouldn't be bothered about a decision to avoid going into much detail about what came before; that would be not only a savvy decision on its own terms but given how utterly snarled and po-faced the show's mythology had become, a welcome relief.
But let's be clear; that isn't what "My Struggle" is doing. As Jamie tweeted last night, the show's history isn't being ignored, it's being redacted. This new form of the show - one that runs entirely on nostalgia-juice, remember - stakes out its tent by taking a chainsaw to its primogenitor; savagely tearing into a story now fourteen years old for the sake of, what, exactly? Some kind of twist beginning? How are we supposed to believe this show was worth reviving if its revival necessitates the desecration of its own tomb?
What we're left with is a truly baffling object, a show that has no interest in changing its approach in order to attract new fans (seriously, the pitch to newcomers here seems no more advanced than the George Constanza model: they'll watch it because "it's on TV") which simultaneously seems determined to suggest that being a fan of the old show will be of no use at best, and a drag factor at worst.
Not everything here was terrible, at least. There are a few nice touches and interesting ideas floating around. Joel McHale is his usual charming self, answering the question no sane person would ever dare ask themselves: how much malignant would Bill O'Reilly's presence on this earth be if he were smarter and a hell of a looker? The fact that Mulder allies with the man originally seems like a major misfire, further evidence that Carter is simply gathering together every conspiracy theory he can and suggesting all of them might be true. Were this what is actually going on, it would be a disgraceful line for the show to take - conspiracy theories exist in the dark corners of pretty much every political group, but their net effect is overwhelmingly one that is useful to those who support regressive policies. Even the areas touched on in which I am in broad agreement - legislation like the Patriot Act is clearly more interested in tramping on the constitution for political expedience rather than actual security - gets framed by Mulder as a civil liberties issue, the obsession of white guys across the internet who fear the hypothetical truncation of their rights because they've never suffered any actual truncation of their rights. But as Mulder launches into his fevered speech about how he suddenly understands and then immediately undercuts himself by offering only the most half-baked quarter-plausible eighth-proved grand design amid ever more hyperbolic music and overblown imagery, we reach somewhere new. It suddenly begins to look distinctly as though the show has finally realised that Mulder's excesses are neither to be admired, or respected, or even gently mocked - the most common tacks taken by the old show. They are, in fact, to be pitied.
This is the one clear sign that the series understands its age. The once young and driven Fox Mulder is now, in his mid-fifties, so unmoored from reality he can't see land anymore. It's not that he can't process information, it's that he's stripped that information so totally of social context that the final result can't possibly be of any real use - and in fact might be horribly harmful. Never has Scully been so right in shooting him down. The idea of linking his insistence that there must be something appalling and just out of sight, and his resultant total retreat from society, to clinical depression is a very smart move. I wouldn't say I particularly trust the show not to fuck this angle up entirely, but for now it's pretty savvy. Mulder was never what you'd call a prime example of mental health, but it's clear now that all that was ever keeping him together was forward motion, like how you can keep water in an upside-down bucket if you swing it around fast enough. But he's stopped now, entrenched, without momentum, and everything is leaking away. That this cuts too close to the bone as a metaphor for the new series is probably not intentional, but it interests me all the same.
Either way, this new positioning of Mulder is pretty smart, especially since it allows Scully to move from the position of skeptic (which she would have a hard time maintaining after the last two years of the show, though I assume that too has been doused in Retroactive Narrative Tippex) into something new; the awareness that whether Mulder is right or wrong in any given instance is much less important than the damage done by his process. This has its own pitfalls, of course. I don't want a six-episode series in which it's Mulder's role to run around pissing about with the supernatural whilst Scully is relegated to nursemaid. But there's at least a little hope that what we get will be more interesting than that; there's an impressive implication here that it was Scully who ratted out the menfolk. That could generate some pretty cool material moving forward.
But the principle issue remains; the possibilities of the new revival are all hypothetical and hazy, whilst its problems are manifest and multiple. Something needs to happen, and it needs to happen quick. Lightning needs to strike a second time. After all, it should be perfectly clear to the man who wrote "The Post-Modern Prometheus" that if you can't find a way to generate enough voltage, just being able to dig up a corpse doesn't mean you have any chance of reviving it.