Sunday, January 24, 2016

REVIEW: 'The X-Files' - A New Conspiracy Forces Mulder and Scully to Reopen the X-Files in 'My Struggle'

FOX's The X-Files - Episode 1.01 "My Struggle"

Mulder and Scully are approached by Tad O'Malley, a popular conspiracy theorist web show host, who believes he has uncovered a significant government conspiracy. The former X-Files agents are introduced to Sveta, a possible alien abductee who shares shocking information with them that will challenge everything that Mulder has ever believed about the existence of aliens and the government's role in covering them up.

The entertainment industry has gotten so fragmented and expansive over the past few years that both TV and film are looking at iconic and well-beloved former titles in order to get audiences to sample their products again. This is an era where new movies debut every single week and 412 scripted shows air within one calendar year. It takes a lot to stand out and be successful right now. That's why the nostalgia trend is so popular. The familiarity with the project fuels interest and makes it easier to promote. On the TV side, The X-Files is just one of the beloved shows making a big return. Other projects include 24, Heroes, Prison Break, Full House, Gilmore Girls and Twin Peaks. Some of these are better than others. 24: Live Another Day was a solid season of that show while Heroes Reborn embraced all the horrible tendencies the former show experienced. But it's still understandable why network executives have turned to these brand names to prop up their schedules. And yet, it's equally important that these shows return with purpose. The new episodes have to be just as captivating and meaningful to watch as they used to be all those years ago - against even fiercer competition.

With all of these TV revivals, it has also become wildly popular to reassemble the original cast and creative team for the new episodes. It's been a huge selling point. Again, it makes a lot of sense. These are the people that made these shows so compelling to watch from the very beginning. It's fantastic and thrilling to watch David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson step back into their iconic roles as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully - with Mitch Pileggi and William B. Davis also back for these new episodes. But the creative team of the original series is back as well - for better and for worse. These six episodes will be penned by show veterans Chris Carter, James Wong, Glen Morgan and Darin Morgan. They all have written fantastic episodes of the show - though Carter is the only one to stick with the series for its entirety. That ensures that this event series will have the same feel to it as it did back in the 90s.

Is that a good thing though? The world has changed so much since The X-Files went off the air in 2002. The show's storytelling and narrative drive throughout its original nine seasons embraced the mentality of the time. It was a quintessential '90s show. How people view conspiracy theories has changed radically since the last time Mulder was talking about the government lying to the American people. In 2016, we live in a world that is more connected than ever before - with the potential for danger in many different ways. The Internet and social media have changed how we connect with other people. It also makes it possible for conspiracy theories to thrive online and change how people view the world. This is an era of government surveillance and police militarization. One where social injustices are still heavily present in society and one where every single citizen has an outlet for their voice. It's much more difficult to hide things. But that only exposes just how dark and covert such cover-ups actually are. It's an era of paranoia and distrust. One where citizens aren't just happy knowing that the government is doing whatever is necessary to keep them safe. This is a world where people want to be aware of the actions of elected officials and make sure that they are just as accountable as everyone else. With all that being said, how does that world mentality change the very foundation of The X-Files?

This first episode back is very dreadful. It takes itself way too seriously and the plot is driven solely by loud and over-the-top exposition. It's a mythology based episode that forces Mulder and Scully to come out of retirement and reopen the X-Files for the FBI once more. But it does so in the most serious and drab way possible. It's an hour that is entirely about these grand and grim proclamations by many of the characters. The world has changed. The show believes that the only way Mulder and Scully can be relevant in it is if they view these conspiracies and lies much more seriously than before. It's very heightened as Mulder realizes just how vast the lies that have been told to him actually are. This is an hour that wants to completely flip everything that Mulder and Scully thought they knew about the government's cover-up of extraterrestrial life in the universe. It just does so in a very boring way that largely amounts to characters talking over each other with these horrible and severe proclamations about the evil men in the government who are trying to take over the world with alien technology.

All of this happens because Mulder and Scully are brought back together by Joel McHale's conservative web host, Tad O'Malley. Tad is a character who can easily exist in today's society. His grand proclamations drive ratings through fear-mongering and being the loudest voice possible in the discussion. But that does not create a nuanced character. Tad reaches out to the former agents because he wants their help investigating what he believes will lead to the exposure of this big government conspiracy. It's just a lot of talk and not a whole lot of action. Talk that leads to a number of plot holes and contrivances to stretch it out to an hour. Mulder does get to see an alien spaceship up close that features technology that is unheard of in today's society. It can fly based on electromagnetic pulses from the Earth and it can also vanish in the bleak of an eye. It's a very effective image. But it doesn't amount to anything. It fuels Mulder getting back into his belief that aliens are out there and a mystery is at play that he doesn't fully understand. But he takes the information and just has discussions with other people. Discussions that eventually stir up into big proclamations about the nefarious mystery men at the center of this conspiracy since the end of World War II.

This is all essentially pointless. It doesn't amount to anything but a lot of talk between the four main characters - including Annet Mahendru as Sveta, a woman who has been abducted multiple times over the past 20 years. It's to make this episode as big as possible without wanting to do anything about it anytime in the future. It takes itself so seriously. This is an episode almost void of humor as Mulder and Scully investigate the claims by Tad and Sveta. But so much of that investigation happens offscreen. All Scully does is run tests on Sveta and flirt a little bit with Tad. She is way too sidelined by this case. Mulder is a little bit more active. He actually gets to see things that reinvigorate his beliefs again. But Duchovny seems so disinterested in the plot of this episode - especially whenever he's asked to spout about the conspiracy within the government. It's meaningful that Mulder and Scully are able to come together in the end and get the X-Files officially reopened. But even that isn't as thrilling as it should be because of the seriousness of the hour. Mulder and Scully are horrified over the fact that Tad and his show have been silenced and Sveta has changed her story and disappeared. The severity of the situation forces the main characters into action. But it's not really a tone or mood that this episode handles very well. Six episodes isn't a lot of time to work with. So Mulder and Scully needed to be awkwardly put back into the status quo early on. The show just does so in a way that is executed very sloppily. It's too big for the show to handle right now. Plus, the reopening of the X-Files doesn't even happen onscreen. It's something told to the audience with the final reveal that the Cigarette Smoking Man is still alive and up to nefarious things.

What's even more troubling about "My Struggle" is that the show doesn't seem to know how to define Mulder and Scully's current relationship. The show was able to work as well as it did because of the partnership between the two agents. They are the reason why the show was as successful as it was. It was fantastic watching as they experienced these incredible events together. They worked to protect each other. Their partnership was so strong. And now, it just seems like a lot of work in order to get them back together. The partnership is no longer easy. It's now fueled by the history of how destructive their work actually was. Plus, a romantic relationship that soured them from each other a little bit. Mulder and Scully do partner back up in the end to work for the FBI once more - under the charge of Skinner. But the show really doesn't have an interesting perspective with their relationship. In fact, most of their scenes together in this episode play as parody. When Mulder and Scully are talking on the porch about believing again, it feels so much like pandering to the fans with some key phrases that have become iconic. It's not genuine to their relationship. It's simply the show going for big moments that will play well to the longtime fans. It does nothing to establish what their new dynamic will be. Instead, it just forces them to have a battle of the wits to see who can use the most intelligent word to win their argument. The plot makes no sense in this episode. It's important that Sveta doesn't have alien DNA. That fuels character actions in the final act break. But later on, Scully mentions her own reservations with the test results which leads to an even grander proclamation of both Scully and Sveta having alien DNA. Too bad it happened after everything has been destroyed. It just doesn't work as a compelling narrative. Plus, the shaky ground on which Mulder and Scully are standing is too problematic. It makes this episode a whole lot of effort just to get through - and it doesn't leave me exciting to watch more (though I still will).

Some more thoughts:
  • "My Struggle" was written by Chris Carter and directed by Chris Carter.
  • The reveal that the Cigarette Smoking Man is once again the guy behind the big conspiracy Mulder and Scully are working against is very much nostalgia-fueled. It's a cool reveal - especially with him now needing to smoke through a hole in his neck. But it also feels like ground the show has already mined to death. What's something new the show can actually do with that character?
  • It's intriguing that Mulder and Scully will have to start from scratch with the X-Files after it's revealed that their old files have disappeared. I just hope that doesn't become some big mystery though.
  • Skinner largely functions as a plot device in this hour as well. He's a way to bring Mulder and Scully together in order to meet Tad while also being there when Mulder learns that his old office has been cleared out - except for the "I Want to Believe" poster.
  • Sveta also being able to read minds on occasion was a plot thread that literally went no where.
  • The crash landing of the alien spaceship was a very cool shot. It shows just how far special effects and production values have come since the show first started. But that story was also completely meaningless. It just introduces the latest person with inside information who will cryptically reveal just a little every once in awhile to Mulder.
  • It's also very frustrating that the show has decided to keep the same opening credits as before. The theme music is still fantastic. But the title sequence really needed some updating. It looks more dated than ever before - largely because of how much older Duchovny and Anderson are now.
  • The next episode airs tomorrow night at 8/7c. It's the first "monster-of-the-week" installment of the event series. Those always worked much more effectively than the mythology ones did. Both had their ups and downs. But this is a show that knows how to do a compelling story in an episodic format - an art form that is slowly disappearing in the medium. So I'm still looking forward to what concepts the show will do in these next few hours - while also dreading two more episodes written and directed by Chris Carter.