After “a thirteen-year commercial break“, as per Chris Carter, The X-Files are back! — and with them the entire trio of creator Chris Carter and actors Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny.
Some history: The X-Files, 2002-2016
Writing these words does seem surreal. Things could have developed differently. A victim of its own success, the “original series” (a term we are going to have to get used to from now on!) exceeded its welcome on television and ended in 2002, going well beyond Chris Carter’s original ideas for about five seasons and continuing past the point where it would have made sense to make a clean break from the two main leads and focus on new leads entirely. By that point, the series was well past its peak popularity and Carter’s vision to transition into a feature film franchise was compromised; lawsuits with Fox involving Carter and Duchovny did not help either. With 2008’s I Want To Believe, Carter had stayed true to the idea he has expressed since 1998, of doing a stand-alone story for the second film, and enriched it with Mulder and Scully’s personal story. A very interesting enterprise but marred by many flaws (EatTheCorn review here), the second film did not generate enough momentum to lead into a third film, which Carter has teased as a return or one could hope a resolution (as far as resolutions go in The X-Files) of the mythology. The franchise was put on cold storage, being remembered only in anniversary events for an aging audience like any antiquated show before it.
If nothing else, The X-Files‘ feature films have showed that the franchise is too multifaceted for individual stories to satisfy everyone. If more films had closely followed, what was left unsaid in the second film would have a chance to develop and the whole would be elevated above its individual components; if the films were to focus on the mythology, there wouldn’t be the opportunity to verse into other paranormal themes, horror, comedy, experiment out of the norm. As much as it tried to bring feature film quality into the world of television, across the wide range of its fans and critics The X-Files is remembered fondly not for one of its aspects but for the sum of what it could do: for being a multi-episode series.
And so, a return to television. EatTheCorn has already argued that other avenues than a prestigious feature film could be a valid future for the franchise — see our recollections on the occasion of the passing of December 22, 2012, and at the 2013 20th anniversary panel at San Diego Comic Con, where key people still saw the feature film as the only option. Keep also in mind that FOX’s feature film branch and FOX’s television branch are two rather distinct entities, and this revival was certainly made possible in television thanks to the arrival at the top management of people with whom Chris Carter has had good relations with since the very beginning of the show in 1993 — namely, Dana Walden and Gary Newman, CEOs of Fox Television Group since July 2014. Conversely, the feature film industry is more wary of a franchise transitioning from television to film rather than the other way around, and Carter would still have a lot of people to convince were he to make that third film.
The return has been brewing for a couple of years. Carter and Walden attribute the fan excitement of the 20th anniversary as a catalyst. Frank Spotnitz has been mentioning that discussions were going on throughout 2014. IDW’s The X-Files comic series, expertly held by writer Joe Harris (and covered extensively at EatTheCorn), have brought novelty to the brand since their launch in June 2013. Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files podcast and of course fan activity online have also helped. The revival was put out there as an idea in January 2015, and a firm decision came in March; shooting took place between June and September; post-production lasted till December; and here we are barely a year later. Things went very quickly once the will was there.
But one has to make the obvious question: was a revival necessary? And one has to shed the knee-jerk reaction of the cliché of the unconditional fan, who will ask for more whatever might happen, or EatTheCorn’s obsession with seeing a continuation or closure of the show’s mytharc. With the passage of time and the endless cyclical urge of popular culture to eat itself, we live at a time of a revival/recycling/retooling/reneologismation of the landmarks of the 1980s and 1990s — the examples of that are everywhere. The X-Files was sure to come at some point, not because it has something more to say but because of the mere fact that its first incarnation had success, and thus presents an good case for easy return on investment (not to mention the opportunity of increasing the price of sales of Fox’s back catalog to streaming services like Netflix, which is a very important financial argument in the present days). What more does The X-Files has to say? This is the question that the revival needs to answer.
Behind the scenes of the revival
From the first declarations that Carter made on the revival, it came as a surprise that it was going to be a much more ambitious enterprise than “just” a matter of adapting his ideas of the continuation of the mythology, elements that he might have been keeping for a third X-Files feature film, to a multi-episodes television event. In fact it became something else entirely from that as well, but we will come back to that.
Carter wanted to revive the old show entirely: propose a series of episodes that would recreate the format of mythology, stand-alone scary stories and experimental; return to Vancouver to shoot, the place that defined the show’s identity and look in the first five seasons, same as for I Want To Believe; reunite with the band of writers that made its success; reunite with as many people as possible in the crew (just to name the most obvious that participated in this revival: composer Mark Snow and sound editor Thierry J. Couturier; visual effects supervisor Mat Beck; casting director Rick Millikan; production designer Mark S. Freeborn; production assistant Gabe Rotter; cinematographer Joel Ransom; editor Heather McDougall); and with the cast. Reunite the TenThirteen family. The project of the revival, what many would have expected to be a one-shot single-story event, including this fan, became something much more ambitious. A new season of the show, albeit with fewer episodes (initially 8, but trimmed to 6 for no other reasons than scheduling), and a season that could be, and has been conceived to be, the first of many!
Everything is made to channel the old show again. Its success, even, is measured by how close it is to the original: Dana Walden has said that “We are excited creatively by what we’ve seen. These episodes are incredibly consistent with the original series.”
Of course the revival makes use of current themes for the stories and of modern film-making technology, it certainly looks very fresh; but other than that, the “revival” could easily be modified to be a “reboot”, i.e. the recreation of the original starting from a blank slate, an X-Files for the 21st century. Yet story threads still dangle embarrassingly in the absent centre (William, anyone?) and characters do feel like they are defined by the weight of the past; this is a continuation, not a reboot. This mix of old and new defines this revival.
What can be discussed and argued then is the mixture of “old” and “new”. How far does the new show stray, or evolve, from the old one? How much does it want to? In the run-up to the revival, we explored different possibilities, different possible futures for The X-Files. Out of the wide range of possibilities, out of that fourteen-year playground of the imagination for armies of fans across the world, a choice has been made, a single path has been taken, and the other possibilities are no more.
The new writers’ room
The six-episode revival is shaped by Carter and the people he has surrounded himself with. He has referenced in interviews that he wanted the whole gang of the original 3-5 seasons back — Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan, Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa — however not everyone was available at such a short notice. Spotnitz’s absence is particularly notable since over the years he had become very much identified as the biggest creative force along with Carter and the two lead actors: they co-wrote both films, they co-wrote most of the mythology over seven seasons, he was imagining himself as participating in a future X-Files endeavour as well when asked in interviews over the long gap years of the past decade, as recently as 2014. Yet it so happened that success hit him at the same time and he was busy with launching his own series, The Man in the High Castle — both series were actually shot simultaneously in Vancouver in thesummer of 2015! Whether the revival series would have taken a different path with him is something to wonder at — particularly concerning the romance between Mulder and Scully, something he has always been an articulate proponent of.
The writers team for this revival ended up consisting in Chris Carter, Glen Morgan, James Wong and Darin Morgan. It already is a bit of a dream team, and a team that has not worked closely together since seasons 1-4 of the show! This sets the tone for what will follow.
Morgan and Wong (“the Wongs”) are of course responsible for some of the series’ best episodes, and to a great extent they are responsible for the identity of the show, being the writers of the show’s first non-alien, monster-focused episode (1X02: Squeeze and its sequel 1X20: Tooms); they developed the characters immensely, particularly Scully (1X12: Beyond the Sea, 4X13: Never Again); they created the characters of Skinner, the Lone Gunmen, Scully’s mother and father and sister Melissa; they injected a great sense of paranoia in the mythology (1X16: E.B.E.) and gave the show episodes where the supernatural could be something optimistic and not necessarily scary (2X08: One Breath) as well as some of its most horrific B-movie-guilty pleasures (2X14: Die Hand die Verletzt, 4X03: Home). After they left The X-Files and Millennium in 1998 and after some other projects, Morgan and Wong stopped being a creative duo after 2006 and went on their own ways; this is the first project in which they work together since a decade.
Darin Morgan is another celebrated writer, with only four-and-a-half episodes (4 + 3X22: Quagmire) but all of them in people’s “best of” lists. His unintentionally comic episodes expanded what the show could be and made fun of its codes and characters while managing to present a good X-file, mixing both cynicism and humanism.
Carter remains the main creative force since the show’s inception, however it will be interesting to ponder which story directions were his own and which came as a result of a back-and-forth with the rest of the writers. Each one writes the script and directs “their own” episodes, however the general story of the episodes and the arc they follow is a result of several interactions involving all of them — this time, not in the TenThirteen offices in Los Angeles, but in Glen Morgan’s garden!
Also, another important point is that Chris Carter is not the only on getting credit as an Executive Producer — the well-known last image of each episode — he is now joined by Glen Morgan. This puts Morgan on equal footing as Carter as the person who has the last word on any decision, from vision to script to film, and essentially makes this revival a Carter-Morgan project. What hadn’t happened in The X-Files and Millennium has happened now, almost two decades later!
On to the episodic reviews/first reactions.