Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Return of the X-Files

I have mentioned numerous times throughout this blog that I don't watch a lot of television programming, at least not compared with mainstream America.  But I do watch things that are of particular interest to me like documentaries on Frontline or sporting events. Last fall I must have watched over 100 college football games, some simultaneously, with all the ESPN coverage channeled via my Sling TV app.

But the recent six-episode continuation of the X-Files series was something I certainly watched, some of it I watched twice on my Fox Now app.  I was a huge X-Files fan in the 1990's and that interest continues into this century. I watched every episode of all nine seasons, some episodes as many as a half-dozen times.   Initially I had them on VHS, taped while the show originally aired, and now I have the complete DVD sets.


I was briefly obsessed by the series, hitting the plethora of Internet sites devoted to the show and participating in fan forums, constantly seeking new details about the rather sophisticated mythology that threads the show together. Almost 16-years has passed since the rather mediocre 9th season of the great television series ended and the short 10th season started.


When Avery was old enough, she and I took a tour through my favorite episodes of the series and the important episodes about the central narrative: Alien abduction and colonization of the earth, and the relationship of Dana Scully and Fox Mulder. We must have watched 60-70 episodes over a period of a few months.  She enjoyed watching TV so much at that age (still does today) and got into the overall narrative with me, occasionally asking me simple questions about it and comprehending the basics of the show's storyline.


So Avery was surprised when I told her that brand new X-Files episodes were coming back on TV. She, caught up in her college studies and work life, did a double-take and asked: "With Mulder and Scully?" "Same actors and everything." Soon she and I sat down and watched the first two episodes of season 10, the only ones that had aired at that point. (I had already watched both episodes but she had not seen them.) She said she liked them, though she is now more of The Walking Dead kind of TV fan so, while her interest was there, her enthusiasm was elsewhere.


The six have now aired to mostly negative reviews but with a solid audience.  16 million watched the season premiere with a staggering total of 20 million over a 3-day period.  But the majority of episodes clocked in between 7 - 8 million viewers (with another 800,000 of streaming viewers - like me - in the US).  Back in 1995-1996, when the X-Files peaked in mainstream TV popularity, it garnered about 15-20 million viewers every week. But the nature of TV since the 1990's has fragmented programming into hundreds of choices. So, an average of around 8-9 million viewers (counting the streaming service audience such as myself) today is a good share of the audience, especially if you score high in the 18-49 demographic, the target zone for major advertising dollars. So, naturally, there is a discussion of doing another short season in the future.  These six episodes definitely made money for FOX.


The critics might not have cared for the six episodes but I thought they were a worthy continuation of the series, if not as spectacular in execution as was their intent.  The critical reception was subdued compared, say, with how the press felt about how The Force Awakens captured the spirit of the original Star Wars movie.   Season 10 did not have the same Scully/Mulder dynamic as existed when the show was at its artistic height (seasons 3-6).


Back then, chemistry of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny on the TV screen was sometimes magical, they fit so well together.  Chris Carter capitalized on this dynamic and wrote a central narrative filled with underlying, unconsummated sexual tension between two complex, expert characters forced to team up against all manner of bizarre paranormal phenomenon and extraterrestrial angst.  This couple was dynamite to such an extent that adamant X-Files fans divided themselves into two camps.


The "Shippers" camp thought Mulder and Scully should act on the tension and have a sexual, romantic relationship (hence the "ship" part of shipper).  But I was of the "Noromo" camp. We believed that there should be no outright romance between Scully and Mulder, that their chemistry was great as it was and was best not messed with. Part of the late season downfall of the series (seasons 8 and 9) was every viewer's struggle, despite a handful of really fine episodes, with the fact Scully had Mulder's baby, which they ended up giving away for adoption to protect the child, a son, from the evil aspects of the mythology that threatened their lives at the time.


Fast forward to 2008, the show has been off the air for six years.  I Want To Believe comes out.  It is a one-off "monster of the week" type story, only marginally related to the mythology.  The movie was a financial bomb, coming nowhere close to breaking even.  No one saw it, the critics, once again, hated it.  The weekend after it opened, I took Avery to see a Saturday matinee of it and we were literally the only two people in the theater.  A private showing.  I thought it was decently episodic, but not reason enough to make a movie. Still, it wasn't as bad as the critics made it out to be and helped serve as the transition for these two characters as a couple.


In I Want To Believe there is still a sexual spark between them.  They sleep together even though their relationship status is officially "separated, never married."  Mulder is living in isolation in a house out the countryside in that film. He still lives there in season 10 and Scully drives out to see him on occasion.  But they don't sleep together anymore. And that is what, for me, was the most interesting aspect of this continuation of a story that started 23 years ago.


We are on the other side of the romance.  The sexual tension is gone from their acting chemistry. These are mainstream characters fumbling with their still strong relationship after the sex has gone (the romance part was mostly before the sex happened as it turned out - common for many couples actually). So that took some getting used to in season 10.  Yet, it is also something I think is very rare; mainstream television characters with the depth of shared experiences being seen many years after the show passed its prime.  They started together in their late 20's, early 30s.  Now they are both past 50.  I don't think many TV shows have enjoyed the opportunity to explore that perspective, at least not through the gaze of 200+ episodes.


Episode 1 was entitled "My Struggle" and was slightly Mulder-centric in what is now just a genuine partnership.  I did not feel any of the "hot" quality of David and Gillian on the screen, for reasons mentioned above.  But, as it turns out, that is what you get in this older, more evolved, connection between these two characters. Gradually, as the episodes progressed, their partnership was seen in its depth and humor and sincere empathy for each other.


Season 10 captured a more mature kind of magic between them and by the end of episode 6 their acting as a couple had its own special resonance with me.  I liked these six X-Files episodes, though some, particularly episode 6, were simply too big for their britches, underachieving in a context of overachievement.  Chris Carter simply tried to squeeze too much into a singular hour.  It would have been better served as a two-part episode, which used to be rather common for the mythology stuff in the series. While the episodes were not always riveting television, they nevertheless had a lot going for them and were well-worth doing in terms of the total story, the meta-narrative of the Carter's creation.


Episode 6 was "My Struggle II" and was the Scully-centric side of the perspective we saw in episode 1. Only this time Carter did not pull any punches as he did all too frequently in the first nine seasons. This episode was not about a "potential" or "planned" extraterrestrial threat to humankind. Oh no, this was the actual manifestation of the all too often convoluted mythology.  Humanity itself is dying of massive contagion (actually many contagions) engineered by secret groups in a grand alliance. To what end?  Well, that's the cliff hanger. Wait until next season, if there is one.


Episodes 1 and 6 served as matching bookends to this short season.  They were mythology related episodes and dealt with (and in many ways brought to fruition) a complex narrative that dates all the back to the very first episode in 1993.  The other four episodes were a mix of the "monster of the week" variety and humorous episodes.  This was fitting because they collectively represent the flexible style of the original nine seasons themselves.  The mythology episodes only comprised maybe a third of the total number of episodes in the series.


Most X-Files episodes were "monster of the week" shows featuring some strange, usually paranormal event or character that creates a crime case for our FBI agents.  The relationship between them continued to develop but the monster episodes themselves were, with a few noteworthy exceptions, one-offs, specific X-File cases assigned to them by the bureau. More often than not, these were of the horror genre, hence the phrase "monster of the week."


Outside of the mythology and the paranormal episodes there were a small number of funny X-Files episodes.  These were usually wonderful and rank among my favorite episodes.  The show got so confident it began to bravely imitate itself in early seasons.  See "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" as an example of these types of shows.


Of the two humorous episodes in season 10 one is wholly a parody of the show (Mulder's cell phone ringtone is the X-Files theme itself).  The other is mixed with the serious subject of Islamic extremism in America.  It was hilarious in its introduction of two younger versions of Mulder and Scully, their own FBI careers just starting. Agents Miller (male) and Einstein (redhead female) end up through various interesting and funny circumstances being paired with Scully and Mulder respectively.  That is, each older character gets to interact with a younger substitute version of their counterpart.


That is just one of many clever aspects to this dynamic episode and it makes episode 5 'Babylon' my favorite episode in season 10.  As for the critics, well they were swarming with disapproval the whole way through.  Variety, to site one example, particularly hated this episode and, really, the entire season. I'm not sure the critics understood the style of the episode let alone its brave mix of humor and terror.  But, despite being spot-on in some of their whining, the critics have been pretty much irrelevant in the X-Files equation since about 1999.  Given the ratings of season 10, I would say they remain irrelevant to fans of the show.


I hope there will be more new X-Files in my future. Another short season is possible, perhaps even likely given the audience share.  Mulder and Scully have been with me and Jennifer since my daughter was born.  I actually started watching it a bit late, entering in season 3.  But, as mentioned above, I quickly became obsessed and watched the rest of the series in the house I still live in today.  That was awhile back and yet it manages to continue.  While Season 10 cannot be called innovative or exceptional television, Carter is continuing the flesh out the story of the X-Files nicely. Mulder and Scully don't want to get it on anymore but they still sparkle together in a different light all these years later.

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